The Past is Another Country by Fewthistle

Summary: Susan Ivanova is offered the chance to rewrite her past and save her future.
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.
Spoilers:
Set in 2262. Spoilers for "Divided Loyalties". If you don't know that the AP took over Talia's mind, then for heaven's sake don't read this...oops. Oh, well, the show's been over for how long? If you didn't know already, then you probably didn't care. *g* Btw, the dialogue and most of how the scene originally played out between Talia and Susan in DL will not be featured in tonight's performance. After all, this is a different story and as you will see, a slightly altered set of circumstances (no pun, intended *g*).
Rating
: Purely PG. After all, don't you want me to leave something to your imagination?? *g*. This is not intended to be overly technical, so my apologies if I have made any major errors regarding the world of Babylon 5.
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.
Comments and Kind Words:
fewthistle@aol.com

The Past Is Another Country


By Fewthistle

I.

Only a few of the vendors' booths and stores were still open in the Zocalo as Susan Ivanova absently made her way along the main passageway. A few other lonely souls lingered here and there, loitering in restaurants, hovering without purpose in doorways, none of them, including Ivanova, willing to brave another long night alone, not just yet. A handful of shopkeepers and restaurateurs kept their doors open for these nighttime wanderers, some out of greed for that extra credit, some out of pity for the haunted looks of despair and lost dreams that peered out of empty eyes.

Although her shift had ended hours ago, Susan hadn't been able to force herself to return to her quarters. The only things that awaited her there were an ice-cold bottle of vodka and an uneasy slumber, tempered as it always was with torturing images of a past she couldn't seem to erase or escape, images that even the vodka couldn't blot out. So, instead she wandered the station, her boots clanging harsh and comforting against the hard metal of the corridors. This at least was real, the station, the throngs of beings, many of whom lived lives as desperate and as barren as her own. It was 2262 and the universe reeled steadily towards disaster, free falling with no bottom in sight.

As she rounded a corner, heading towards no where in particular, a flash of color caught her eye. A new booth stood to her right, or at least she thought it was new. Perhaps the new owner had simply done a bit of redecorating, hanging the doorway with a curtain of rich purple silk, patterned in gold with symbols of moon, sun, and stars. A small sign hung discreetly to the side of the doorway, "Madame Olga, Seeker."

"Seeker? What the hell does that mean?" Ivanova muttered, her voice sounding unnaturally loud in the relative quiet of the near deserted Zocalo.

"It means that I seek that which you desire, that which you have lost," came a lilting voice from the shadows thrown by the booth, as a slight woman stepped forward, her attire reminiscent of pictures Ivanova had seen as a child of peasant women in old Russia. A long skirt of indeterminate color fell around her ankles, as did the heavy shawl of thick wool that dragged carelessly on the ground behind her as she walked.

Ivanova started, her mind registering suspicion and surprise at the caricature that the old woman presented, her gnarled hands covered in rings, her wrists clanking with a dozen or so bracelets, her head covered in a dark kerchief. In her ears, huge loops of gold, earrings carved with intricate markings, hung almost to her shoulders, gleaming dully in the dim light. A traditional gypsy fortuneteller, complete with the cadenced speech of ancient Europe.

Before Ivanova could respond, one of those gnarled hands slipped out of the folds of the thick shawl and seized her own hand with surprising strength, tugging none to gently as the woman pulled her towards the opening of the booth.

"Wait just a second!" Susan exclaimed, attempting to withdraw her hand from the woman's grasp, "I'm not interested in having my palm read or any other mumbo jumbo you have to peddle."

"Come inside, my dear Commander, and I will show you how to stop those nightmares that bedevil your dreams and wake you, sweating and shaken from your slumbers," the woman intoned temptingly.

"Everyone has nightmares. What makes you think that mine are so terrifying?" Ivanova demanded sharply, caught off guard by the knowing tone of the old hag's voice.

"Why else do you wander this station, night after night, if not to hold off the phantoms that trouble your sleep, specters of lost family, of lost friends, and cruelest of all, of your lost love, torn from you too soon?" The gypsy whispered conspiratorially, her hand still clutching Ivanova's.

Her breath catching in her throat at the woman's words, Susan managed to assert, though not as firmly as she would have normally, "Again, everyone on this station has lost family and friends and even lovers. You're going to have to think up some more original material if you're planning on selling this junk to anyone."

For a moment the old woman merely stared deeply into Ivanova's eyes, the black of her irises melding with her pupils, giving her gaze a mysterious intensity.

"I can help you regain that which you seek. I can return your Talia to you, but you must believe. Time is only an illusion. Past and present and future, they are all one. They live as one, and they may be interchanged if you know where to look, if you know how to find the point where they intertwine and mingle into a solitary thread. I know these things. I can help you, Susan Ivanova, but only if you truly desire and truly believe," the old gypsy exhorted her roughly, her bent and twisted fingers gripping Susan's painfully.

At the sound of Talia's name, Ivanova's heart paused briefly in its exertions, her breath expelled in a single gasp. She had only told one person of her feelings for the former resident telepath and Susan doubted Ambassador Delenn was in the habit of revealing confidences to scam artists and charlatans. No one else knew of her involvement with Talia Winters, for Ivanova had simply found it too painful and too hopeless to share with anyone else.

To have finally realized that the one person that she was meant to love, the one person with whom she could share herself and her life, was the one person she had spent two years pushing away had been a difficult admission for the stoic and stubborn Russian. To then have that person brutally ripped away from her a few short months later had seemed the ultimate unmerciful punishment.

Now this old harridan stood here claiming that she could arrange for Talia to be returned to her? An unyielding rage rose up in Ivanova, threatening to overwhelm her mind, clouding her vision and choking the words that begged to be released from her tightening throat.

Too many words, too many questions clamored to be heard, and most frustrating of all was that, above the din of anger and pain that arose in her mind, the small, imperious voice of hope sounded loudly above all the others. The chance to see Talia, her Talia again, not the empty and heartless automaton that Psi Corps had left in her place, but her Talia, sweet and loving and incapable of harming anyone was something that, even in moments of drowning despair, Susan had never allowed herself to imagine.

Trying mightily to shove that slender figure of hope aside, Ivanova opened her mouth to rail against the gypsy, to have Security arrest her, to toss her out of the nearest airlock. As her lips parted to speak, that solitary wraith of hope prevailed.

"How? How do you know about Talia? How could you bring her back? She's gone, they killed her, the bastards," Susan implored, her voice dripping with pain and bitterness.

"You must believe," the old witch said, "Come inside and I will tell you." Pulling Ivanova along, the woman parted the heavy curtain, and drew the unresisting Commander into the dimly lit room within.

As the curtain fell behind her, Susan had the strangest sensation of the floor shifting beneath her feet. The air inside seemed different, thicker and filled with the cloying scent of jasmine and bergamot. Even the familiar low hum of the station generators grew silent, the ever-present tremor no longer filtering through the soles of her boots. If she hadn't known better, Ivanova would have sworn she was no longer on Babylon 5.

********************

"Sit down, Susan Ivanova and we will begin your journey to create a new past, altering forever your present and your future," the old gypsy said, gesturing towards one of the two chairs that sat facing one another across a small round table.

At the center of the table, a black cloth of velvet covered a lone object. With a flourish, the old woman threw off the covering, revealing the round ball of glass that rested below.

"A crystal ball?" Ivanova exclaimed incredulously, rising to her feet and moving towards the curtained doorway. "You must have mistaken me for either an idiot or a fool if you imagine for one minute that I am going to sit here and gaze into your 'magic' ball and believe a lot of hocus pocus."

"Nothing is ever quite as it appears," Madame Olga murmured softly, "You are Russian, Commander. Surely, you of all people know that it is dangerous to allow oneself to be ruled by misconceptions and premature judgements. Isn't that what kept you from your Talia for so long? You judged her without knowing her, you allowed your fears and misapprehensions about telepaths to control your actions. As a result, you lost precious time, years that you might have spent with her, if only your prejudices had not blinded you to the truth. Blinded you, just as they are now.

"What you see is not necessarily what is real. Time is not the only thing that is an illusion. Rise above your own fear and permit yourself to experience something new and mystifying. After all, my dear Commander Ivanova, what harm could it cause? You have already lost your Talia. Could anything be worse?"

With the old woman's words, waves of pain washed anew over Ivanova's battered heart. No, there was nothing that could ever be more gutwrenching, more excruciating than watching as the AP took over Talia's mind, destroying the woman she loved and leaving behind a creature grotesque and obscene.

Sighing deeply, Susan resumed her seat, her eyes glazed and unfocused as Madame Olga took her chair opposite.

"Give me both of your hands," the old gypsy ordered.

Resignedly, Ivanova extended her hands, her mind registering slight surprise when the woman placed them not in her own, but around the glass ball that lay between them. The crystal felt amazingly warm beneath her palms, the glass not hard, as she had thought it would be, but malleable and pliant, almost alive.

"Now, Susan Ivanova, gaze deeply into the ball and think of the time before Talia was taken from you. Not the moment it happened, but hours before. You must listen carefully, Susan, very carefully. You must do whatever it takes to change the outcome of these events. You have had two years to contemplate it, two years to play the scenes out over and over in your mind. This is your only opportunity to rewrite the past. You are bound for another country, Commander. You have the map in your mind, all the memories, all the missed chances. Follow the map and do what you must," Madame Olga ordered sternly.

Tearing her eyes away from the gypsy's dark orbs, Susan stared down into the glass ball. At first, all the she saw was her own distorted reflection, her image rounded and pulled outward, the only true point, her own eyes of indigo, two pinpricks of blue against the opaque crystal.

As Ivanova continued to stare, the fortuneteller began to murmur words, phrases that Susan could not understand, in a language she did not recognize. Inside the ball of glass, the Commander thought she could see a small glow, a minute point of light. As she watched it grew larger, expanding outward to fill the globe.

Without warning a blinding flash, a brilliant burst of light exploded forth from the ball, leaving Ivanova dazed and unable to see anything clearly. As her vision cleared, Susan realized that she was no longer in the old gypsy's tent, but in the Captain's office, as Sheridan and Garibaldi listened to Lyta Alexander as she explained that she had come to Babylon 5 to unearth a plant, a traitor programmed by Psi Corps to betray the staff of the station. It was exactly as she remembered, the same conversations, the same questions, and the same concerns being voiced. Exactly the same, except for one thing. This time, Susan Ivanova sat in dazed silence as her past played out anew before her eyes.

********************

Talia. She was going to see Talia again. Two years of misery, two years of regrets and recriminations, of longing and shattered dreams and she was actually going to see Talia again. The thought became a mantra that repeated over and over again in her head as she tried to finish her shift.

Susan couldn't really remember how she had made it through the meeting with Sheridan and Lyta Alexander. She must have just gone on rote, her memories of that fateful conversation embossed on her mind after months of replaying those last few days, the images like one of Garabaldi's old movies, the film lined and cracked, the color faded, but the horror and the fear sharp and crystal clear.

As she turned the C&C over to her replacement, Susan felt an incredible tug at her consciousness, her mind, and her body pulling her towards her quarters. She moved determinedly through the crowds, threading between people, coming just short of shoving them all aside in her rush to get to her cabin. Everything was so familiar and yet, there was such a quality of the surreal to it all.

All of the rational thoughts, all of the questions of how this had happened, of whether any of it was real, or just the desperate hallucinations of her tortured mind and heart, all of that flew out the airlocks, leaving only that one thought, that one idea, that one desire that had kept Ivanova living since the inhumane moment that the AP had been revealed.

She was going to see Talia again.

Her quarters looked just the same. She had never really been one for decorating and for the past few years, rearranging meaningless knick-knacks had simply never crossed her mind. This night, this had been the night, the memory of which always reached in and grasped her heart, leaving her weeping despondently, sobs wracking her body as she lay on her couch, an empty bottle of vodka on the table beside her.

Somehow, she had been given the opportunity to relive it, to try and make right what Psi Corps had made so horribly, horribly wrong. She was going to see Talia again, going to be able to hold her, to touch her, to make love to her one more time.

Maybe, just maybe, in the vast and unknowable workings of the Universe, in the petty play of Fate, in the unfathomable plans of God, all of this was real. Maybe, just maybe, she, Susan Ivanova, had been given the inestimable gift of a second chance. Delusion or not, she was determined not to waste it.

As the chime to her quarters sounded, Susan swore that this time she would not fail, she would not allow her own fears and the maniacal manipulations of sociopaths to stop her from saving the only person she had ever truly loved.

Her heart pounding frighteningly fast in her chest, her hand shaking, Susan pressed the door release. Talia looked up at her as the door slid open, a shy smile gracing those full red lips that Susan adored, her grey-blue eyes full of warmth, the trace of sadness that usually shadowed her face gone. Stepping easily into the room, Talia set her carrybag down by the door.

Before Talia could speak, Susan reached out and pulled her to her, crushing her closely, a sob just catching in her throat as the soft curves of Talia's body melded into her own. Susan buried her face in the silken length of golden hair, inhaling the fragrance of Talia's perfume, a scent that had come to be for Susan the essence of all that she had lost, ethereal, sweet, and lingering.

Talia's arms came up to circle Susan's back, returning the somewhat frantic embrace, a slight frown of concern marring the smooth skin of her forehead. Pulling back slightly, Talia gazed with worried eyes into Ivanova's own, trying to read the expression on the Russian's lovely face. Even a non-telepath could tell that Susan was extremely emotional, although the range of feelings that Talia was sensing from her made little sense. Intense happiness, overwhelming fear, an almost frantic anxiety, and stronger than all the rest, radiating waves of abiding love.

"Susan, are you alright? What's wrong, has something happened?" Talia asked, that rich alto tinged with worry.

Gazing into the eyes that had haunted the recesses of her mind, awake and asleep, for the past two years, Susan could see the immense concern her behavior was causing. If this was to be her only chance, if she did not succeed in her holy crusade to undo the past, then this night would be the sole opportunity to simply be with Talia. Pushing aside her fear and anxiety, Susan smiled soothingly.

"I'm fine, Talia," Ivanova calmly reassured, a plausible lie slipping from her tongue without effort, "Nothing is wrong. I promise. I didn't mean to scare you. I was tired when I got off my shift, so I took a nap. I had a nightmare, stupid really, but it was so real. I guess it affected me more than I thought. Really, everything is fine. I'm just glad that you're here."

Susan felt the muscles in Talia's back relax under her hands as the telepath accepted her explanation. A pleased smile took the place of concern on her face, as the true extent of Susan's feelings for her became a little clearer.

"What did you dream that upset you so much?" She asked Susan tenderly.

The two women were still standing just inside the doorway, bodies pressed gently together, arms encircling. Ivanova hesitated for just a moment, before deciding what to say in response. The first rule of lying is to stick as close to the truth as possible. It makes things easier to remember later.

"It was a foolish dream," Susan answered, a slight flush coming to her cheeks, "I dreamed that something terrible had happened to you, that you had been taken away from me and I never saw you again. The worst part was that I never had the chance to tell you how I felt," she paused for a moment, her eyes softening as she stared into Talia's storm-colored eyes, "I never got the chance to tell you that I love you, Talia."

At her words, Susan watched in astonishment as tears welled up in the shimmering depths of Talia's eyes, a tremulous, incredulous smile lighting that beautiful face.

"Oh, Susan," Talia's hand came up to cup the curved slope of Susan's cheek, "I love you. I have for a long time now. It wasn't until recently that I ever imagined that you might return my feelings. I promise you, nothing will ever take me away from you. I won't allow it," Talia told her, her voice thick with emotion.

Ivanova's eyes searched the face before her, memorizing every line and curve, sealing in tightly the sound of that lovely voice saying those words she had desired so much to hear. A deep and frightening determination planted itself firmly inside of her. She would do whatever was necessary in order to make certain that this time, those monsters would not succeed in destroying this amazing creature. This time, she would not let Psi Corps win. They would not take this woman from her, not again.

"Neither will I, Talia. I'll die first."

********************

The faint, diluted light from the single lamp near the couch filtered into the bedroom, leaving most of the room in shades of sepia and murky grey. Susan lay quietly on her side, her head propped up on one hand as she gazed at the slumbering vision beside her. The gold of Talia's hair, blanched to platinum in the semi-darkness, was spread out on the pillow.

Sleeping, those bright, perceptive eyes shuttered, the lovely telepath resembled a wounded angel, her lips pouted slightly, a frown tugging down her brows, as if, in her slumber, the sadness that normally shadowed her face once again held court, as yet unimpressed and disbelieving of the love and joy that Talia had experienced tonight. It was a look that Susan earnestly wished to erase forever.

She wanted only to witness the expressions of love, of happiness, of laughter, and of desire that she had watched dance across Talia's beautiful features tonight. They had shared a quiet dinner, talking of things outside the spinning cylinder of metal in which they existed, both intentionally avoiding any subject that allowed the turmoil of that world into the confines of their shared, cloistered cell.

Unlike the first time Susan had lived this chain of events, there was no worry of anyone discovering her latent telepathic skills, no concern over who to trust, nothing but the fear of failure to distract her attention away from Talia Winters. She managed to push aside the fear, concentrating solely on the lovely telepath.

The sight of Talia, skin warm and flushed from the shower, her hair damp and smelling of shampoo, had overwhelmed Ivanova's senses. Walking purposefully across the room, Susan had slowly slipped her arms around her exquisite companion, drawing her slender form close. Lowering her head, she had claimed Talia's lips with her own.

Lying next to her now, Susan yearned for the words to describe, even to herself, the wonder of their lovemaking. Yet, some small part of her knew that trying to utilize mere words, empty, meaningless methods of expression, to convey all that had passed between them was not only useless, but vaguely demeaning, somehow belittling the perfection of their joining.

Talia, ever caring and considerate, had made no effort to enter Susan's mind, knowing that it would be some time still before Susan felt comfortable enough and trusted her enough to allow that kind of intrusion. Ivanova was grateful beyond words for this, aware that Talia would have picked up immediately on her fears and anxiety, as well as learning the awful truth that Susan held, volatile as nitroglycerin in her mind.

Talia had fallen asleep in her arms, her breathing slow and deep. Susan had lain awake, as all of the fears that she had forced herself to ignore came rushing over her. During her shift today she had wracked her brain, trying to come up with a plan, some way to stop Lyta from transmitting the password to Talia. Ivanova realized that simply keeping Talia away from Sheridan's office wouldn't be enough. There was too much of a chance that Lyta and Talia would encounter one another somewhere else on the station.

Now that Susan didn't have to be concerned about a potential spy among the station's senior staff, she could focus completely on making certain that Lyta never saw Talia Winters. Loathe though she was to admit it, the pragmatic Russian finally conceded to herself that there was only one way to accomplish that feat.

Glancing over at the time display beside the bed, Susan saw that the hour had nearly arrived, the hour when an unknown assassin would try to kill Lyta Alexander. Slipping silently out of bed, Ivanova dressed quickly and quietly, making certain not to wake her slumbering angel. In the first timeline, the killer had failed, hitting one of Garabaldi's security team, but missing the telepath. This time, unbeknownst to all, the sniper would have a little help.

II.

The lights in the corridors of Babylon 5 had never been of the highest quality, leaving most of the passageways ill-lit and subject to shadowy recesses, perfectly suited to nefarious purposes. It was in one of these pockets of darkness that Susan Ivanova secreted herself, the weapon in her hand heavy as she waited for the guards to lead Lyta Alexander to another holding room. This was the corridor in which the attempt had been made. As she stood, silent and unmoving in the murky corner, Ivanova peered intently into the other shadows, attempting to see who the mysterious, never identified assassin really was.

It wasn't until she saw Security escorting Lyta, glimpsed a flash of red hair in the poorly lit passageway, that Ivanova began to doubt her own resolve. Suddenly the lights went out, the crimson emergency lighting kicking in as the power was cut. A blinding flash shot out not far from her own position, aimed at Lyta. As the guards reacted, Susan realized that she couldn't do this. She couldn't take an innocent life, not even to save the life of the woman she loved. The tableau played out before her, as one of the guards fell, wounded, to the floor and the sound of running footsteps flew by her, leaving her standing, weapon in hand, in the blood colored corridor.

Without thinking, Ivanova stepped from the shadows, grabbing Lyta by the wrist and pulling her forcefully into one of the empty holding cells. As Lyta realized who had dragged her unceremoniously into the room, and noticed the PPG that Susan still clutched in her hand, she began backing up slowly towards the door, her eyes never leaving the weapon.

"Stay away from me," Lyta warned, fear evident in her face, "You tried to kill me, didn't you, Commander? I should have known, you were so adamant about not being subjected to the password. Still, I didn't think that you would do something like this."

"Shut up, Lyta. I didn't try to kill you. I promise, if it had been me shooting at you, you'd be dead now. Stay away from the door. I need you to listen to me," Susan replied harshly, moving towards the terrified and defiant telepath.

"I'm not going to listen to anything you have to say, Ivanova. I'm going to get out of this room and let Captain Sheridan know what happened," Lyta said, again beginning to edge closer to the door.

"Security has already been alerted. They'll be here any minute now. That's why I need you to shut up and listen, before they arrive," Ivanova told her, her voice flat and cold in the semi-darkness of the room, "I know who Control is. But before I tell you, you have to promise me that you will help me."

"I don't have to promise you anything, Commander. I can simply walk out of here and inform Sheridan that you know the identity of the spy. I have no doubt that he will be able to 'convince' you to divulge the name," the telepath spat back at her, her eyes going wide at Ivanova's revelation.

"If you don't promise to help me, you won't be walking out of this room at all," Susan said quietly, the stillness of her body and the tone of her voice all that Lyta needed to convince her of the Russian's sincerity.

"Help you what?" Lyta asked, her eyes again drifting down to the weapon Ivanova held in her hand.

"Save this person."

"To begin with, once the AP takes over, the original personality is gone, so there is no way to save anyone. If the password isn't sent by me, it will eventually be sent by Psi Corps. Are you so willing to let a traitor live in your midst, a spy that will one day betray you all? I don't see that you have any options, Commander. Besides, why would you, of all people on this station, want to save a Psi Corps plant?" Lyta finished, her expression cautious but now curious as well.

Susan stepped a little closer to Lyta, causing the light from the doorway to fall across her face. As the Commander's visage came into relief, Lyta felt the breath catch in her throat. Ravaging Susan's beautiful features was a look of such immense pain, of deep and inconsolable sorrow.

"Because, I love her," Susan's voice came out as barely a whisper.

"Her?" Lyta asked gently.

"Promise me that you will help me," Ivanova demanded loudly, the weapon in her hand seeming to rise of its own volition to point at Lyta's chest.

It wasn't the sight of a PPG pointing at her that made the telepath decide, but the agony that gazed, mutely accusing, from Ivanova's blue eyes.

"All right, I'll do whatever I can. You have my word. Now tell me, who is Control?" Lyta replied, her voice calm and soothing.

Susan drew in a couple ragged breaths, the knowledge that only by betraying Talia could she hope to save her an ever-present pain, deep in her heart.

"It's Talia," Susan whispered, her voice hoarse and low.

"Talia Winters?! How do you know?" It was Lyta's turn to demand.

"I can't tell you. You'll just have to believe me," Susan answered, certain that Garibaldi and his security team would appear at any second.

"I'm just supposed to take it on faith that this is true? You could be Control, trying to get me off track, or even working for Psi Corps as an accomplice. Why should I believe you?"

"Why would I tell you this, why would I put Talia in danger, risk losing her forever if it wasn't true? I could have just shot you and then no one would have known. What I am telling you is the truth. Now please, we don't have much time. They'll be here any minute. Please, Lyta," Susan implored.

The sense of Ivanova's words struck a cord in Lyta. Susan hadn't killed her, so chances were good that what she was saying was true.

"Very well, Commander, I guess I will have to trust you. What do you want me to do?"

"I need you to go and visit Ambassador Kosh. Explain the situation and ask him if he will be willing to help us," Susan began, interrupted by Lyta's question.

"What does Kosh have to do with this?"

"He made a recording of some sort of Talia's personality. I think that he must know what is going to happen. If I can get Talia to Kosh's chambers, then you can send the password. I'll be there to restrain the new personality, and then Kosh can do what ever it is that Vorlons do and kill this Control, restoring Talia's real self in the meantime," Susan explained rapidly, her face pressed sideways against the small pane of glass in the door, watching for Garibaldi and his troops to arrive.

"How do you know all this?" The telepath asked again. She above all people knew what Kosh was capable of, but she was unaware that anyone else on the station had been that close to the Vorlon ambassador.

Swinging her head back around, Susan answered impatiently, "I told you, I can't tell you. You're just going to have to trust me. Now, I'm going to sneak out of here. When Garibaldi gets here, tell him what happened, that someone shot at you, that you ran in here to hide. Don't mention me. Tomorrow, I will make sure that Sheridan lets you see Kosh. I'll explain that it might make me trust you more if I knew that Kosh trusted you. Once you've seen him, wait for me and I will bring Talia. Got it? If you're thinking of betraying me on this Alexander, just remember that Russians basically invented revenge and retribution."

"I've got it. I won't betray you or Talia," Lyta swore.

Nodding her thanks, Ivanova slipped out the door, disappearing into the shadows just moments before Garibaldi and his team arrived. Ten minutes later, stealthily slipping into bed beside Talia, Susan felt a slim sliver of hope begin to take hold in her heart.

********************

Talia Winters looked up from her cup of tea to meet Susan's eyes. A spike of electricity seemed to arch between them, from grayish-blue pole to indigo, barely grounded, sending a tingling wave the length of Susan's body. They had lain in bed long after Susan's alarm had sounded, not speaking, not moving, limbs languid, skin warm and smooth and silken everywhere they touched. It was only when the shift commander in the C&C had contacted Ivanova, inquiring into her health that morning that they arose, showering separately, well aware that that was the only way that either of them would make it to work at all.

Now Susan stood in her uniform, long chestnut hair pulled back to fall in rippling cascades down over her shoulders.

"Talia?"

"Susan?" The blonde answered sweetly, her full lips red and curving gently against honeyed skin.

"Would you do something for me?"

"You know I'd do anything for you," Talia replied, her husky alto dropping a bit in subtle intimation, "What'd you have in mind, my darling Commander?"

"Enough of that, Ms. Winters, or they will have to send in a search party for us," Susan smiled back, "I need for you to meet me at Ambassador Kosh's quarters around 1400 hrs today."

"Why? Is the ambassador in need of a telepath for reasons as yet unrevealed?" Talia joked, rising from the table to rinse her teacup in the sink.

"No. It's something important, something that requires your help, and your reticence. You can't tell anyone. Can you meet me there?" Susan said, trying earnestly to keep her tone casual but convincing.

"Of course, Susan," Talia promised, coming up to slip her arms around Ivanova's slender waist, "When I said that I would do anything for you, I meant it. I love you, Susan Ivanova. I think I am beginning to understand Tolstoy's Anna now. If I lost you, throwing myself in front of a train would probably seem like a good idea."

"Everyone has always said that she was weak, a coward. She wasn't. Anna was brave. It takes courage to recognize the fact that nothing in life is ever going to have meaning again and have the strength to say, 'I'm not going to go on anymore', rather than believing all the lies that say that time heals all wounds. It doesn't. Some of them simply fester, spreading slowly through the body, through the mind, killing you, one relentless, tortuous day after another," Susan murmured softly, her eyes distant, fixed on memories that might yet be rendered merely unrealized nightmares.

"Hey, where are you?" Talia asked, reaching up to tenderly brush Susan's lips with her fingers, "I didn't mean to bring back terrible memories."

"I'm sorry," Ivanova apologized, shaking her head to clear away all of the spectral images that had emerged, new born, in her mind, "That's what you get for falling in love with a Russian. Morose, cynical, and inclined to fits of melancholy. And those are our good points," she finished, a self-deprecating smile gracing her lips.

"Don't sell yourself short, Commander," Talia teased, lightening the mood, "Although my survey last night wasn't as extensive or as thorough as I would have liked, I would have to say that you have several, other very nice points. Very, very nice.

"In fact," she continued, "I am particularly fond of this."

With that, she covered Susan's mouth with her own, lightly running the tip of her tongue along Ivanova's generous bottom lip, eliciting a rather guttural moan from the lovely Commander.

"Talia," Susan managed finally, pulling back slightly to meet Talia's somewhat unfocused gaze, "I really have to get to work. Promise me that you will meet me at Kosh's at 1400?"

"I promise," Talia groaned disappointedly.

"I'll see you then, Ms. Winters," Ivanova said formally as she stepped out the door, her tone belied by the look of bemused adoration that covered her face.

"Commander," Talia intoned, the corners of her mouth touched by an answering smile.

********************

So far, so good

, Susan thought, as she made her way down the corridors of the alien sector to Ambassador Kosh's quarters. Convincing Sheridan to let Lyta see Kosh had been relatively easy, especially after she told him how much more confident she would feel in the telepath if Kosh gave her the okay. The Vorlon kept quarters for professional uses, not living purposes, so no one would think it strange to see Susan or Talia entering the rooms.

Ivanova knew that Talia would be there at the designated time. She was also quite certain that both Kosh and Lyta would do all that they could to help Talia. Only one question remained. Would her brilliant plan work, or was it merely a pipe dream, a fantastical delusion of a mind almost destroyed by grief and loss?

Rounding the corner, Ivanova came to a stop before the Vorlon's quarters, taking a deep breath before signaling her arrival. The door slid open to reveal Lyta Alexander, her face a blank mask.

"Kosh has said that he will try to do as you have asked. He did make a copy of Talia's personality. He thinks that perhaps it is possible to destroy the AP and restore Talia's mind, but he can't make any guarantees. I am going to stay and help him, if I can. I have to warn you, it may take a long time, and it isn't going to be pleasant or pretty for anyone. You need to be prepared to accept the fact that it might not work. If it doesn't, then you have to be ready to turn the AP over to Security before she is able to hurt anyone. Do you understand, Commander?"

"Yes, I understand. What do you need me to do?" Susan asked, her voice tight.

"Is Talia going to be here?"

"I told her that I need her to be here at 1400 hrs. She promised that she would."

"Once she gets here, ask her to come in. When she enters the room I will send the password. I am assuming that you brought a weapon of some sort to knock her unconscious?" At Susan's nod she continued, "Once she is out you should leave the room and position yourself outside the door. No matter what you hear, no matter what happens, don't let anyone in. No one can come in while Kosh is attempting the restore Talia's personality. That includes you, Commander."

"I'll take care of it. Just save her, please," Susan asked, her tone subdued.

The sound of approaching footsteps echoed down the corridor. With a final word of warning, Lyta disappeared inside Kosh's quarters, just as Talia came around the corner.

"Commander Ivanova," Talia greeted her, her eyes glowing with a warmth and happiness that Susan still couldn't quite get used to seeing.

"Ms. Winters. It was good of you to come. Ambassador Kosh is waiting for you," Ivanova stated, her tone businesslike for any prying ears.

However, as Talia moved close to her, preparing to enter the Vorlon's quarters, Susan gently grasped her hand, whispering one last, 'I love you, Talia', before stepping aside to allow the blonde telepath to enter.

"I love you too, Susan. You might want to add sappy, hopeless romantics to that list of Russian traits," Talia grinned, turning her head at the sound of the door sliding open.

As the two women stepped into the room, the door slipping quietly shut behind them, Susan sent a silent prayer to whatever or whoever would listen, pleading with them to allow this to work.

Talia seemed startled to see Lyta there, turning to give Susan a curious look. As she turned back to greet the other telepath, Lyta sent the password.

'My God, I don't know if I can stand to watch this happen again

,' Susan thought, as Talia's face changed, all of the light, all of the warmth fleeing in the relentless advance of darkness, hatred, and rage.

"You Bitch!" The AP screamed at Lyta, "I'm going to kill you for this. You've ruined everything."

The AP began to move towards Lyta, her face murderous.

"Talia."

The thing that turned to face her wasn't Talia. It had her body, her appearance, but inside it wasn't the woman she loved. Susan reminded herself of this as the creature grinned maniacally at her. It glanced down at the weapon that had appeared in Ivanova's hand.

"Why, Susan, my dear, sweet, lovely Susan. You wouldn't shoot me. You love me, remember?"

"No, I don't love you. I love Talia and you aren't Talia," Susan answered grimly, pulling the trigger just as the AP lunged forward, attempting to grab it from her hands.

Ivanova caught the limp body as it sagged to the floor, lifting her gently to lay her on a hard bench. Brushing that platinum hair back from her face, Susan bent and ever so tenderly touched her lips to Talia's.

"You have to leave now, Commander," Lyta ordered, eyeing the blonde woman lying unconscious on the palette.

"All right. Ambassador, thank you for doing this, for trying to save her," Susan told the Vorlon.

The only response was an odd whooshing of air and a slight incline of what she supposed was Kosh's head.

"Go, Commander, now," Lyta demanded.

As Susan Ivanova stepped out the door into the corridor, a brilliant flash of light burst forth, blinding her as the passageway dissolved into a field of white. For a brief, ephemeral instant, the voice in Susan's head screamed its outrage and its grief.

"NO!! I didn't finish! No, please, no,"

she sobbed, before the light enveloped her.

********************

Commander Susan Ivanova stepped into her quarters, wearily unbuttoning her jacket and loosing the collar of her starched white shirt. It had been a tiresome day on Babylon 5, just one more in a series of tiresome days, filled to overflowing with contentious aliens, quarrelsome ambassadors, and more than a fair share of the universe's malicious little pranks.

It was 2262, two years since President Clark had been assassinated, and things just seemed to go from bad to worse. Sighing deeply, and rubbing the stiff muscles in her neck, Ivanova crossed to the kitchen area, removing an icy bottle of vodka from her freezer compartment and taking down a glass.

Settling wearily on the couch, she poured a generous amount of the silvery liquid into the glass. The first taste of it, like frozen fire on her tongue, brought a slight moan of relief and contentment. Finishing the shot in one swift turn of her wrist, she poured another equally generous portion. Leaning back against the cushions, the glass cradled to her chest, she closed her eyes, giving in to the warm lassitude that the liquor provided.

She didn't open her eyes at the sound of the door sliding open. The familiar sounds of movement simply melded into her consciousness, causing nary a ripple in her state of relaxation.

"Long day, huh?" The rich alto voice caressed her ears, as lovely as the sonorous sound of a cello.

"You could say that. You could also say it was a frustrating, irritating, annoying, downright horrible day, but that might sound like a massive understatement, and we wouldn't want that," Susan answered dryly, her eyes still firmly shut, head resting on the back of the couch.

Chuckling softly, her companion gracefully sank onto the cushion next to her. Reaching over and running cool, smooth fingers over Ivanova's brow, the woman took Susan's glass in her other hand, placing it carefully on the table.

"Don't lose that, I wasn't finished with it," Susan murmured, the feel of those wonderful fingers tracing patterns along her forehead and cheekbones causing the protest to be rather weak.

"If you need something to relax you after a hard day, I think I can probably be of service," the voice enticed, breath warm against Susan's ear and throat, "Let's get you out of this jacket and see what we can do."

At the invitation, Ivanova's indigo eyes opened, taking in the glorious site of Talia Winters, blonde hair falling gracefully around her perfect features, grey-blue eyes dancing with a somewhat licentious twinkle, her full lips turned up in a promising smile.

"Why, Ms. Winters, are you trying to seduce me?" Susan cajoled, her hand slipping out to slide under the edge of Talia's own jacket, feeling the silk of her blouse, the skin warm underneath.

"Clearly not too successfully, since you're still wearing all those clothes," Talia replied laughingly.

"Well, I would hate to be the cause of any damage to your ego, so let me see what I can do to remedy this situation," Susan responded, rising suddenly from the couch to slip off her jacket, smiling down at Talia with an inveigling grin.

As the jacket slid off and was tossed carelessly onto the chair, a small tinkle of metal could be heard falling to the uncarpeted floor. Neither occupant of the room noticed the sound, engrossed as they were in the removal of certain items of clothing, their laughter and soft moans covering the minor 'ping' as the object landed. Nor did they see the flash of color as a large hoop of gold wobbled slowly across the floor to lodge against the frame of the door.

Moving to the bed, Susan continued to slip clothing off, finally standing naked before Talia, who lounged on the navy sheets, her hair and skin pale and shimmering against the dark background. Reaching out her hand, Talia guided Susan onto the bed, pushing her back against the pillows, her eyes deep and unreadable in the dim light. Susan felt, as always, the fierce and astonishingly tender waves of Talia's love for her, that burnished voice slipping, unresisted, into Susan's mind, just as her hand moved, unchecked along the smooth skin of Susan's body.

The first time it had happened, so long ago it seemed, Susan had felt a brief moment of utter terror. Talia now knew Susan's secret, the one her mother had warned her to never reveal to anyone. As their bodies had come together and mingled, so too had their minds. The feeling of Talia inside her body, the sound of Talia's honeyed voice inside her mind, had been a moment of transcendence for Susan, as the depths of Talia's love for her enveloped her very soul. For the first time in her existence, Susan Ivanova knew the meaning of grace. It was a feeling that had become a part of her over the past two years.

It wasn't until the next morning that Susan Ivanova saw the faint gleam of metal as she prepared a cup of tea. Bending to retrieve it, she stared, perplexed, at the object, trying without success to decipher the unusual markings engraved around its circumference.

"Talia, is this one of yours?" Susan asked, walking into the bedroom, regarding Talia as she pulled on a silk blouse of the palest cream.

"One of my what?" She inquired, not looking up from her task , as she buttoned and tucked the shirt into her long skirt.

"Earrings. I found this by the door," Susan answered, holding out her hand, where the hoop of gold nestled against her palm, "It isn't mine, and I never noticed you wearing anything this...well, enormous," she laughed.

"Nor will you," Talia assured her, reaching out to pick up the earring, studying, as Susan had, the odd markings, "I've never seen it before myself. You said it was by the door? Maybe it fell off someone in the corridor and one of us accidentally kicked it in here? Or maybe it belongs to someone who visited here? I don't know," she mused.

"I will say this though. If it belongs to some paramour of yours, then I will have to leave you, Susan. Not necessarily for cheating on me, but for having such amazingly bad taste. I mean, it would be insulting enough to have you take up with another woman, but to pick one with such atrocious taste in jewelry? That, I don't think I could take," Talia informed her, her serious tone and expression belied by the wicked gleam in her eyes.

"Oh, so it would be alright for me to make love to another woman, so long as she had decent taste in earrings?" Susan teased, coming up behind Talia, who stood in front of the mirror, adjusting her collar.

Turning to face Ivanova, the gorgeous blonde snaked out a hand, grabbing Susan by the waist and pulling her somewhat unceremoniously against her.

"Certainly," she answered, her voice silken and dangerous, "After all, we would want her to have something nice to be buried in, now wouldn't we, darling?"

Laughing, Susan quickly bent her head to capture Talia's lips, assuring her without words that she had no fear of Susan ever noticing any other woman. Talia's hands rose, slipping into the rich fall of Susan's chestnut hair, pulling that delicious mouth closer. Without raising her head, Susan blindly reached out with one hand, tossing the hoop into an old cracked bowl that she used for odds and ends. In the subdued lighting of the bedroom, the gold seemed to glow with an inner fire. In its gleaming surface, the image of the two woman distorted to reflect a single figure, complete and absolute.

THE END

 

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