by Penumbra. Please see part 1 for disclaimers.

PART 3



"Another?"

"Please," Ivanova smiled and as the hand that retreated from her chest returned with another of the small, sweet plums, she opened her mouth to receive the offering. This time the fingers holding the fruit didn't retreat but kept a hold on the plum as the Commander nibbled away the flesh from around the stone. Soon enough, all that was left were the stone and two fingers. Letting her tongue twirl around the digits, Ivanova arched a mischievous eyebrow towards the woman reclining at her side.

"What?" Talia asked, a sensuous smile caressing her lips as she pulled out the now thoroughly cleaned stone.

"Oh, nothing," the Commander smiled and arched luxuriously, feeling the abused muscles groan in pleasure at the languid stretch. She could feel the stickiness of the sheets under her and of her own skin; the lingering scent of sweet sweat and the musk of passion. It had been a long time since she had felt this relaxed. Afterglow tends to do that to ya, her impish mind snickered to her. "Just feeling so... luxurious," Ivanova said, for lack of a better word.

It was past midnight. They had had a quick dinner after Ivanova had arrived, and all through the meal, starting in the middle of the soup, Talia's leg had touched hers under the small table the Commander's quarters had. When the main course was finished, Ivanova was clutching her fork with barely controlled urges racing through her mind. They had cleaned out the table together and as she had passed Talia in the kitchen, bringing the last of the dirty dishes, their shoulders had brushed. She had dropped the plates onto the table and grabbed the telepath, with the intent of ravishing her right there, on the kitchen table -- and so she had. She could still taste the woman on her tongue, the musky, heady nectar covering her taste buds.

"You really do bring out the nymphomaniac in me," Ivanova murmured, tracing the graceful curve of Talia's neck to one lovely breast.

The telepath just smiled, enjoying the casual, unconscious touch. She let her hand rest on Ivanova's stomach, gently following the muscle lines of the well-defined abdomen, up to the swell of her breasts and back down to almost touch the dark hair at the apex of her legs. The skin was warm under her touch, and so soft. She still couldn't believe where she was... after so much waiting, wishing, longing and aggravation, they had found a wavelength both understood, leading to some quite unexpected but far from unpleasant consequences. Far from unpleasant, Talia smiled and guided her hand to cup a breast, the delicious weight reminding her of the newfound reality. "You did that to me long ago."

The Commander was way too distracted for the words to register, her eyelids drooping closed as the gentle waves of pleasure heated up inside her. Having someone tease your nipple can do that to you. "Hm?"

"When I first met you."

That caught Ivanova's attention. "In C&C? But I was so impeccably rude to you."

"Well, I was no better," Talia laughed. "No half-assed, puny EarthForce bureaucrat was going to humiliate me, I thought."

"Half-assed?" Ivanova asked, both of her eyebrows shooting up as she turned towards the now openly smirking woman. "I beg your pardon!"

Talia's hands shot around and grabbed her said body part. Ivanova's stern look faltered as the telepath gently kneaded the smooth flesh, murmuring in delight. "Mmmm, I guess I was mistaken. Seems to be a perfectly good ass to me."

"Glad you approve," the Commander said wryly and yelped in surprise as the other woman flipped her on her stomach. "Hey!"

"Yes, I certainly approve," Talia growled as she licked a buttock. Settling on the Commander's back so that she was facing her lovely behind, she traced the round shape with her short fingernails, licking the thin sheen of sweat on the rounded sacrum. The body under hers twitched and instinctively, Ivanova thrust her hips up to meet the telepath's hot mouth. It traced the taut muscles in her lower back, the tongue moist and textured just so, before Talia parted her cheeks and licked the crack.

"Oh Christ!" Ivanova groaned as her hips bucked.

The tongue traced her downward, slowly, until it met the small, puckered hole and brushed the muscle there. She couldn't help it anymore, the passion flooded her. Grabbing the sheets tightly, the Commander heard a small plea, more a moan than anything, leave her throat. She prayed, and she was salvaged; Talia's tongue became bolder and it thrust inside her small opening. Oh, it felt so good, so tight and hot and moist--

She outright screamed when three fingers suddenly plunged into her. She was overflowing, the accumulated old and new lubrication mixing with the lube and the digits slid in and out smoothly. Hot and slick, the fingers came out and replaced the tongue in her ass. A pained groan exited Ivanova and she arched her back, despite Talia's weight that rested on it. The fingers wriggled inside her, coaxing out waves of intense pleasure and coiling tighter the spring in her abdomen, and as the telepath's other hand came around to slide over her clit, the Commander thought that she might just die here and be happy. "Oh, just there... right there. Harder... ohhh, there...," she growled, gritting her teeth, feeling herself spiral higher, the heat gathering.

She came with Talia's fingers inside her, the pleasure intense enough to make her scream out her lover's name, her voice hoarse from the strain and emotion. The white hot light took over and she climaxed, her body jerking violently under the assault of the primal force.

"Oh... ow! Cramp!"

Ivanova's voice turned from hazed-out and ethereal to painful in a flash. Talia registered with some alarm that the body under hers twitched as the Commander vainly attempted to reach the jumpy muscle the telepath could see on one beautiful thigh. Instead of allowing Ivanova to deal with the cramp herself, the telepath grabbed the jumpy muscle and kneaded it with force. Soon enough, it relented and relaxed.

"Thanks, Talia," Ivanova murmured and took a deep breath as the weight on her back rolled off. The telepath turned and came to recline next to her, turning her head so that the gray depths were towards her.

"You're welcome. You know... to prevent muscle cramps, you should consume plenty of fluids," Talia said, chiding her with a voice full of laughter.

"But I thought that was the whole point of the exercise, ma'am," answered Ivanova with an equally cheeky tone. The women stared at one another for a moment before erupting into a massive fit of laughter. It went on for minutes, subsiding now and then but only to return with a vengeance when their eyes met.

The telepath rolled over on her back as the last chuckles left her. Taking a deep breath, she turned her head to the side and her eyes met Ivanova's. For one aching, sweet eternal moment, time slowed down and all she could sense was the joy and, dare she say it, love in the soft, brown eyes that stared back. The eyes had held a shard of panic in the morning but now... there was just peace. No hesitation. Talia's heart was pregnant with the emotion she felt reflected in her; it was as if the muscle had been imbued with adrenaline, threatening to tear open any moment. She closed her eyes, memorising that look.

"All barriers come down," the Commander whispered, unconsciously voicing out her thoughts.

"Come again?" Talia's eyes flew open, just in time to see a little devil invade those soft, dark eyes.

"Yes, please," Ivanova drawled, managing the words just barely before another fit of laughter overcame her. The telepath rolled her eyes and inched closer to the twitching woman. When the last chuckles wound down, she caught Ivanova's eyes again.

"I meant, I didn't catch your words," she enunciated carefully.

"Ah," the Commander uttered and wrapped her arms around Talia. "I just said I know now what you meant when you said that all barriers come down."

"Mmm," the telepath hummed. "It's the only moment in a telepath's life when you hear no voices. The calm of a storm, Jason used to say," she said, shifting her head so that her cheek lay against the Commander's collarbone. She could feel the steady expanding and contracting of the ribcage under her weight, and the smooth stretches of muscle that enveloped her in a warm, safe embrace. The arms around her tightened momentarily and Ivanova let out a small, content sigh. Will wonders never cease, Talia smiled to herself. Commander Ivanova, the cuddler.

They lay in a companionable silence for a long time, neither wishing to break the one quiet moment neither of their days had offered. The intimacy between them was still new and in Ivanova's case, an alien form of it -- though she is a quick study, Talia admitted, remembering the patient, instinctive skill the woman had showed when she had made her lose herself in the passion, screaming until her throat was hoarse.

"Lights, off," Ivanova said, her voice sleepy. "Good night... my love."

Talia jerked at the last word. The darkness echoed it, the syllable refusing to die down. Instead, it lingered, stretching into eternity as she tried to relax. But she couldn't; her mind was willing, needing the quiet to process what had just transpired, but her heart wouldn't let go. She could feel the woman next to her stiffen as she realised her slip.

"Susan," she whispered. It was all that was needed; the word said it all. It was warm, low. The balm of understanding and reciprocating.

For once, in the forever night, they were with the angels.

 


 

The ground under Garibaldi's feet disappeared suddenly but unfortunately, gravity did not. So, he found himself airborne, falling towards the floor a metre below him. He fell on the metal with a huge clang, his hip impacting sharply with a power outlet low in the wall. His yell of pain was drowned by the overall commotion in the hallway as other passers-by were thrown around. The station auto-corrected itself with an agonising roar of stressed metal, but soon, the floor became its rock-steady self again and things calmed down.

"Well, frag's ass," the Chief muttered and rubbed his sore hip as he clambered on his feet and rushed to see to the other victims. As he was helping a paunchy human back on her feet, his comlink chirped. "Garibaldi."

"Another disruption," Ensign Boltzmann said, a bit breathless. "The med teams are ready... Chief, there's been some major damage to the power systems at Blue sectors 7 and 8. Everyone has reported in, except for Commander Ivanova. Her comm is shut off."

Garibaldi's brows knitted. "Shut off? Could it because of the fluctuations?"

"Well, every other comm in the sector is working. C&C say she has the day off and at this hour she should be still fast asleep... but still, it's very unlike her to switch all comm channels off."

"I'll better check. I'm now in Blue 1; send four men to meet me at the emergency stairwell in Blue 3. Three minutes."

"Will do, Chief," the Ensign's tinny voice confirmed and the link closed. Aw hell, Susan, Garibaldi cursed as he broke into a languid jog. Hope nothing's wrong.

He reached the stated meeting point in exactly two minutes and a brief moment after he entered the stairwell, four men in full crowd containment gear came running towards him, Duraplast shields, helmets, and all. "Sergeant Menendez, what's with the gear?"

"Morning, sir. Sorry, sir," Menendez uttered and saluted snappily. He was fresh out of EarthForce training, the formal speech rituals still ingrained into his central nervous system. "We were pulled of patrol in Zocalo. Natives are getting restless there."

"I see," the Chief grunted and rolled his eyes. If the situation didn't reach a closure soon, all hell would break loose. "Follow me then."

They reached Ivanova's quarters in no time but despite many attempts with the doorbell, nothing could rouse the Commander, or the door bell wasn't working. The lights were flickering on and off in the hallway, one power outlet in the wall showering sparks through its blackened, bent casing. A major overload had short-circuited almost all systems in the sector and Garibaldi judged that the doorbell had suffered the same fate. Even his security override codes refused to make the panel move.

"The hard way then," he sighed and rolled up his sleeves. "Private, give me a boost here." The young soldier got on his knee and offered the Chief a step to reach the low ceiling. Garibaldi opened the maintenance access panel and groped inside, first switching on the emergency lights in the hallway and then turning the manual door release. The door beeped a quiet warning and opened halfway, only to halt with a jarring noise. The men pushed it all the way to the side and filed in, Garibaldi the last of them, only to stop dead in their tracks.

The emergency light switch was the master control, so it had thrown on the feeble, yellow lights in the Commander's quarters as well. The Chief's eyes registered automatically the unusual disarray: on the coffee table stood a wine bottle, the remains of a light dinner and an old, bound book. A stream of clothes trailed from the sofa towards the equally disarrayed bed and Garibaldi suddenly got an urge to kick himself. Oy vey ismier, she had a date--

That was as far as he got in his musings before someone in the bed stirred and rose to a sitting position. It was the Commander, her mussed hair a wild halo around her face. She was holding a sheet up against her chest and it was more than obvious she was naked under the dark blue covers.

"Michael... what the hell?" Ivanova's voice was rough from sleep and she blinked to clear the fog in her head.

"Oh, er... sorry. There was another disturbance and, well, you didn't answer to your comm and so we were worried," he babbled, instinctively backing a step towards the door. Though, what he was really wishing for was a local spatial anomaly to appear under his feet. Black hole or something.

"I know there was another power outage. I switched my link off last night," she said, a bit icily, and adjusted the sheet around her. Someone else -- She's got a guy in there?! Oh Christ... talk about embarrassing, Garibaldi groaned in his head -- moved next to her and mumbled quietly. All Garibaldi could see was a glimpse of fair hair. "S'okay. Just a little disturbance," Ivanova said quietly to the figure. One could have heard a pin drop in the room; the Security men were still frozen to place, their guns pointing towards the floor in unusually slag hands.

"Disturbance?" The voice was painfully familiar to Garibaldi but before he could place it, the other person shifted and sat up next to and slightly behind Ivanova. "Ah. I see," Talia Winters said and brushed the hair off her eyes before resting her chin on Ivanova's shoulder. It was clear she was equally naked; the graceful curve of a shoulder and a hint of a breast were exposed as she wrapped an arm around the Commander. The Chief could almost hear the collective blik, blik of his squad's eyes as they fell out of their sockets, along with his own.

"Well, I'm just peachy, as you can see," Ivanova said pointedly and lifted an impatient eyebrow. Instinctively, her fingers entwined with Talia's.

Yeah, I can see that, all right, he thought and shelved his bewilderment for the moment, to be processed later. "Um, I'm glad... we'll get going here," he mumbled instead and yanked Menendez's sleeve. The man closed his gaping mouth with a click and shouldered his gun with automated, jerky moves. Mercifully, the door decided to work when they exited, sliding shut behind them. Even through the thick metal alloy, they could hear a burst of definitely feminine laughter erupt.

 


"Oh, gods... did you see the Sergeant's eyes?"

"Big as plates," Ivanova agreed and slumped back on the mattress, wiping away tears of laughter. Hysterical chuckles still racked her frame as she turned towards Talia. "I guess the cat is out of the bag then."

"Yeah, and with a bang," the telepath said, lifting a humored eyebrow. "Pun not intended."

"Oh man, I have some serious explaining to do to Michael today," Ivanova growled and put a hand over her eyes.

"How so?"

"He, mmm, he sort of...," the Commander began and took the hand off her eyes to look at Talia. "He has the hots for you."

Sudden understanding glittered in Talia's eyes. "So that's why he's been... I mean, damn. Some mess, huh?"

"Especially since I told him yesterday that I, um, you might be dating someone but I had no idea who the guy is."

"You did not!" Talia said and rose on one elbow, her eyebrows racing towards hairline. There was a definite humoured undertone in her exclamation and Ivanova's fears were somewhat alleviated. So she just shrugged and mock-polished her diplomatic nails on her chest. "Sneaky," the telepath accused.

"Hey... cloak and dagger is my art," the Commander shrugged and pulled the woman to her. For the moment, she just wanted to forget the tangled web and enjoy Talia's scent, the feel of skin on hers, before the day would start for both of them.

 


"Good morning, Mr Garibaldi... again," Talia Winters intoned, her voice calm and warm, not showing a hint of the sense of absurdity and trepidation she felt. Actually, she was borderline hysterical from lack of sleep -- which is entirely Susan's fault, she grinned -- and she bit the inside of her cheek to stop a hilarious grin when she saw the tall man's back flinch at her voice.

"Uh, Ms. Winters," Garibaldi managed and swayed a bit before his mind got control over his legs again and forced him to turn.

The woman was, as always, impeccable. Sighing in exasperation, the Chief tugged down the crumpled front of his uniform jacket and put on his brightest smile, trying very hard not to see the mental flashbacks his subconsciousness was flashing onto his retinas: the telepath, naked under deep, dark blue sheets; the telepath, rising, all disheveled, sitting next to Ivanova; her arm around the Commander. Blinking, he squeezed his hands into fists and swallowed his pride.

"I'm sorry about this morning."

One of the telepath's perfectly shaped eyebrows rose, but the gesture was not mocking as Garibaldi had feared. Instead, it mirrored the small smile that caressed Talia's lips. "Apology accepted. Thank you for caring about... Susan."

Garibaldi's throat turned parchment dry on the name. Somehow, that simple, unconscious gesture of using the Commander's name, something even he rarely did, was the last killer blow for his hopes. He couldn't tell if he was deadly envious of Ivanova or relieved that the matter had reached a closure, one that he had no power over. But Susan, you sneak... you're going to pay for your smoke and mirrors, he thought with happy glee.

"Don't be too harsh on her."

The words shook him out of the revenge plotting and his head shot up, his eyes meeting the cool gray ones a few paces away. The telepath seemed to have read his mind, and he knew his suddenly suspicious countenance said as much to Talia. The blonde woman just smiled and shook her head.

"She told me. No magic," Talia said and indicated her gloved hands.

"Subterfuge among friends is very no-no," he said dryly and gestured for her to walk with him towards the Zocalo.

"She had no choice, Mr Garibaldi. And... I do apologize for misleading you, as unintentional as it was," Talia said and glanced at the Chief. "You know, you could have just asked and I would have told you."

"My courage falls into my knees sometimes," he said, a small smile on his lips. "Told me what?"

"That we are batting for the same team."

"Ah. I see." Well, that settles it. And you're not going to have that operation, his impish mind told him. He chuckled quietly. Nope. If there's ever going to be a Ms Garibaldi, it's going to be your wife, not you. Your legs are not exactly suitable for dresses, the imp continued before fading away.

"What is the plan then?" Talia asked when they stepped into the Zocalo. It was unusually quiet, along with groups of EarthForce soldiers only a few people were milling about. The grapevine had told its tales again; the area was the centre of it all. The main reactor conduits towards the aft batteries and the arboretum ran near it, and with its huge, mismatched collection of shops, restaurants and shady stores, it was the hubbub of rumours, tales and strange things.

"Simple: we try to talk to this One," Garibaldi answered and steered their course towards a small group of his men and the unmistakable, tall figure of the Caparriel leader. The Chief exchanged a few quiet words with his people and then they were guided to the nearest main power outlet that tapped into the main conduit running inside the wall. Usually, the plug serviced the eastern corner of the Zocalo but now, all the dozen connections lay severed or unplugged on the floor in a haphazard pile of wire and cable. The outlet was bare, a mere hole on a bulge in the bulkhead that offered a view of the plasma containment field that kept the power at bay.

Talia took off her gloves and after chatting quietly with the Caparriel for a moment, turned towards the opening and lay her hand on to of the uneven socket, the metal warm from the containment field. Her fingers twitched under the static electricity the wall bled off at the contact and the small hairs at the nape of her neck lifted up. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and opened her mind to the being that hovered at the edge of her consciousness.

 


 

Her sixth sense had spared her of many more and less lethal situations. Whenever a routine patrol flight became something completely more eccentric and dangerous, or when the world, at peace, was about to roll into mayhem, it was there to warn her, to give her the crucial three second edge on the Universum's evil plan.

This time, the reason behind the familiar tingle in her spine was quite obvious. She could feel the eyes on her back, burning holes into the thick fabric of her uniform and making sweat bead at the nape of her neck. Drumming her fingers against the console table, Commander Ivanova lifted a wry eyebrow at the dark universe outside, as if saying willya give it a rest? before whirling around.

"All right. Out with it."

Save for a few, all eyeballs skittered back to monitors and screens, the people in C&C's crew pit pretending to work with optimal efficiency and trying to suppress smiles with varying degrees of success. Lt. Corwin had found something utterly fascinating in his cargo bay status screen; he was bent close enough to leave nose prints on the screen.

"We're just happy for you," Ensign Mbele, manning the auxiliary tactical station as usual, said and smiled a flashy smile. His white teeth shone almost painfully bright in contrast to his smooth ebony skin. He rotated in his chair, to come to face the Commander fully.

"Pardon me?" Ivanova said, folding her arms across her chest and leaning against her now forgotten display.

"Ms. Winters," Mbele clarified. If possible, his smile intensified a few candelas. The crewmember next to him bit her lower lip to stifle a giggle, a futile exercise when the Commander groaned and buried her face in her hands.

"Great," Ivanova growled and rubbed her eye, partially to conceal her rapidly rising blush. It didn't help. "I think this community just set a new record in gossip mongering."

"Yes, ma'am," the fearless Ensign said and rocked back and forth in his chair, refusing to react to the Commander's icy glare.

"And, let me guess..." Ivanova said, having regained her composure. "We are the topic du jour in the mess hall?" We. Not me. Out with a bang, she thought wryly.

"Yes, ma'am," Mbele said and winked before turning towards his displays again.

Most of the staff had followed the quiet dialogue with straining ears and smiling lips. The rumour seemed to have flesh around bare bones, after all; when Menendez's men had sprang the story in mess hall over morning coffee, most had just catalogued it under the bawdy hot air the macho men tend to spew all the time. The squad, barging in to find the Commander in bed with the station's resident telepath, really...

Mbele's display flashed red and he leaned in, adjusting his earpiece. "Targ vessel Pride of Ta-p'en-k'eng reports engine failure and is adrift, blocking Docking Bay entrance," he rattled, all business now. Picking up his light pen, he traced a vector with it, frowning at the green and red glow of the display. "There is also a Narn cargo ship approaching. They seem to be taking evasive action to avoid collision with Pride."

"Jump gate alert," Lt Corwin announced and turned to tap the screen for details. "The Caparriel vessel Leonore di Vargas entering normal space and coming about to circle around to port side."

Lenonore di Vargas?! What next -- EarthForce battleship Lucia di Lammermoor? "All right, possible cluster fuck. Back to business," Ivanova barked and thankfully, all heads bent to work. I really need to take Talia to the opera, was her last, gentle thought before the day got rolling in its usual hectic pace.

 


"Excuse me. 'Scuse...," Ivanova breathed as she dodged around swaying bodies and slow walkers. She was already in a massive hurry, borderline late, and the rush hour pedestrian traffic was at its worst. She bumped into a Drazi and mumbled an apology before dashing into a jog again. Taking a sharp right turn to a shortcut through a maintenance tunnel, she loped along the thankfully empty, narrow corridor.

As she rounded a corner, a door whooshed open and Kosh stepped out. The mountain of encounter suit and flowing fabric turned in the corridor to face her fully and she slowed down, pushing down the unease she always felt when the Vorlon was scrutinising her.

"Ambassador, is there something I can do for you?" the Commander huffed, trying to catch her breath.

The Vorlon's ululating, euphonous language floated down the harsh corridor before the translator caught up with it. "She is the key and will be the lock."

"Pardon me?" Ivanova asked, instinctively, although she knew Kosh was about as straightforward as Vorlons came. Kosh's sentences always seemed to resemble randomly picked words from a very strange game of Scrabble. Wish the translator had the simile generator switched off...

"Your palm is the pocket," Kosh hissed before the music died down and the door parted to admit him. Before Ivanova could take half a step towards the enigmatic ambassador, the corridor was empty again.

Talia? was her only fleeting thought, before she glanced at her chrono and a litany of curses flowed out. The Captain had called a meeting at 1630 hours but Gamma squadron had been delayed in their docking procedures when their commander had wanted to search for... something. Filing away the curious conversation for later study, she dashed towards Sheridan's office again, curious of what the day had brought about.

"Sorry I'm late," she huffed as she jogged into the spacious room at 1636. "The Gammas got stuck at Sector 14 while investigating a phenomenon."

"A phenomenon?"

Ivanova turned towards the Minbari ambassador, curious of the interest and apprehension she heard in her voice. "Yeah. The commander said he saw something."

"What something?" Delenn persisted, her eyes flashing in a way Ivanova couldn't quite feel comfortable with.

"Something that swallowed the stars, was his description," the Commander said, grabbing a chair and sitting heavily into it. Her uniform collar felt suffocating and again, she wondered how, with all the centuries of uniform development and the need for them, the designers had not managed to make the damn thing comfortable. With a curious eye, she followed the flicker of thoughts in Delenn's eyes.

It was almost twenty to two before Talia Winters arrived, conversing quietly with the Caparriel leader. He was much taller than the image the interrogation video had given, and slightly thinner. His eyes were warm and gentle, with keen intellect, his brow marred by heavy wrinkles that distorted the Caparriel's trademark tattoo. His nervousness was betrayed only by the way he repeatedly smoothed the padding of his cloak at the left shoulder with his right hand. After them in trailed the familiar figure of Mr Garibaldi.

"Apologies for being late," the telepath pronounced in her sonorous alto. It made Ivanova's toes curl in delight and she blew a loose strand of hair off her forehead, exasperated with herself.

"Ms. Winters," Sheridan smiled and leaned against his desk, entwining his fingers. "You established a... contact?"

"Yes, with the help of Follower," Talia said and indicated the monk who bowed slightly to the Captain. "May I?" she asked, gesturing towards the nearest wall power outlet. Sheridan lifted an eyebrow but nodded for her to continue. The room followed, holding a collective breath, as the telepath took off one of her gloves and rested her fingers gently on the power jack. For Ivanova, the gesture seemed ridiculously out of place but that thought soon vanished as the Durasteel plug started to glow in a golden yellow, a bubble of the colour extending out like a bead of honey. The drop fell on Talia's hand and stayed there, pulsating with an uneven beat.

"It was and is wounded; this is its blood," Talia said, her voice suddenly quiet, reverent. The drop did one last expansion and then the glow dissipated, leaving behind only a faint shine before even that disappeared. "What it is, I can't tell you because I don't know."

"It is the One," the Caparriel monk joined in, straightening his back. "It is a soul so ancient it is just not another soul. It is the Creator."

Well, that helped a lot, the Commander thought wryly before focusing on Talia again. "Regardless of what or who it -- he, she -- is, it was wounded and this station," Talia continued, gesturing towards the arboretum outside the office's window, "was the closest source of energy. It needed that to be able to repair itself. The power depletion is the result of it healing itself, and the screams... pain."

"Yes, pain. We heard the One in us as it bled off the energy, the toll the repair process took. The disruptions were necessary, however unfortunate. It had no choice," the monk said, in an apologetic tone. "We could not help It; speed was imperative or all would have been lost."

"Let me get this straight... something, this One, got a booboo out there in the bad space and is using the station's power as a band aid?" Garibaldi's voice was fairly dripping with sarcasm, but it wasn't malicious. He was, after all, an intelligent man.

"In a nutshell, yes," Talia smiled to the Chief and a personal stone rolled off Ivanova's chest. If the telepath was at ease with Garibaldi, there shouldn't be anything overtly nasty and ugly in store for her either.

"Well, how long is this going to take?"

"It is healed." The monk's simple words were tinged with joy and the Chief's face lit up as well. Apparently he couldn't get rid of the Caparriel soon enough. "And It is sorry about the pain it has caused to the people here," the Follower continued, flicking his gaze to Talia before letting it graze Ivanova. Fleetingly, yes, but it brought another problem to the top of her mind. "It is leaving."

Everyone followed the monk's outstretched hand to the view of the cavernous space of gardens and green outside, trying to find anything out of place. "The plasma cooling conduit," Franklin breathed, pointing at the thick gray piping near the axis.

True enough, part of it glowed in the now familiar honeyed shade of gold and as they watched, the piping seemed to bulge outward, giving birth to a trickle of gold, viscous liquid that blew into a transparent cloud. Ivanova exhaled and squinted her eyes, trying to distinguish shapes in the cloud but it was as if there was a layer of fog between the shapes inside and the outside world. The narrow cloud flicked to flight and sped towards the outer hull. It penetrated the gardens and durasteel soundlessly. The green barley field glowed golden for a moment but then, it was gone.

"We will be departing within a Standard hour," the monk said, bowed and departed with Talia. The Chief made a tired hand pumping gesture of victory and sat back into his chair.

"I'm not even going to ask what that was."

"Same here," Franklin said to Garibaldi and leaned against the window frame. "I'm just glad it's over." A round of mutters agreed with him before a tired silence permeated the room's occupants. Eyes were fixed on targets beyond the space-time continuum, vacant looks testifying to the toll the days had taken on the people.

The Captain's computer beeped. "Ah... damn," he muttered and pushed himself up with two hands braced against the desk. "I have the final meeting with the Alkaians."

The command staff meeting dispersed quickly after that. Ivanova knew Talia had one last appointment before she could call it a day, so she decided to get some work done herself. The crew reports she had been pushing around all month were due in three days and the stack was thicker than a span. When the transport tube deposited her at C&C, Lt. Kreyszig straightened and turned from the main tactical station, saluting. He lifted an eyebrow in query.

"At ease, Lieutenant. I'm just here for some paper work," Ivanova grunted and with a heavy sigh, sat behind the Captain�s desk and pulled out the crew evaluation flimsies from their folder. Fumbling with the slippery sheets, she put her pen between her teeth and tried to find a clear spot on the gray surface on where to deposit the stack. The Captain, so much like her, was hopeless when it came to keeping flat surfaces tidy. Finally, she managed to push aside a mountain of engineering status reports with the help of an elbow and set the reports there. "And Garibaldi asks why I would want to be PFC again," she grumbled to herself and picked up the first transparent sheet.

 


She was two thirds through the outer hull surveillance camera vids when her doorbell chimed. Touching the pause symbol on the remote, Ivanova half-turned on the sofa towards the door. Frozen on the screen was the image from maintenance bot Theta-34/65B5, showing a mushroom-shaped massive cloud of the honey-coloured mist, speeding away from the station with nigh impossible speeds. It left behind a trail of the haze, as if it were a gigantic elf, sprinkling the space with gold dust.

"Enter." The door slid aside quietly; the maintenance men had done good job on it. Everything else was in right order now, except for one power outlet that still showed signs of the mystery creature's struggle and pain. "Y'know, I should give you the access code," she said and smiled to Talia.

"Would that be sensible? I could walk right in and find you, say, naked," the telepath answered, returning the smile before walking to the sofa and setting her gracious frame next to Ivanova.

"Well, that would only speed up things," the Commander drawled and leaned in to place her mouth on Talia's. The touch was brief but she felt her lips tingle long after the contact broke, in a way that made gently rolling waves spring to life in her abdomen and blood rush to her ears. Leaning in, she closed her eyes and gently inhaled the scent of Talia's perfume. "Mmmmm."

"Speed up what?"

Ivanova knew the telepath was being obtuse on purpose so she just came closer, tracing a tendon in Talia's neck with her nose before capturing an earlobe between her teeth. Growling in satisfaction as she felt a slight tremor course through the other woman, the Commander dropped the view screen remote and placed that hand on Talia's neck, gently, feeling the smooth skin with sensitised fingers.

"Ah, I see what you mean," was Talia's reply, her voice humoured but somewhat unsteady, the last syllable cracking as Ivanova traced the outer edge of her ear with her tongue. Ducking her head, she captured the torturing mouth, sucking in Ivanova's velvety tongue. A small sound purred deep in her throat as she grabbed the Commander's uniform jacket with both hands, starting to undo the fastenings.

With great difficulty, Ivanova tore her mouth away from Talia's, pulling slightly back to offer her better access. The jacket was pushed over her shoulders and she shrugged it off. "You are so beautiful," the Commander said, tracing a perfect cheekbone with the back of her hand. She felt the crispy, white cotton of her shirt slide off her body and leaned back, taking the telepath with her. The soft fabric of the mauve and black uniform was warm on her bare skin. "Do you always take off your Psi badge before you come here?"

The telepath smiled and pulled off her left glove. "Yes. This way, it doesn't get lost," she said and waggled her eyebrows.

Ivanova bit the inside of her mouth to stop an impending guffaw. Talia was referring to a mishap that had occurred just the other day, when the Commander's jacket had been extracted from her rather urgently and when retrieved from under the sofa the next morning, it had been missing a shoulder bar. Frantic searches had recovered the missing piece of metal from between the sofa cushions. Smiling in deference to Talia's comment, Ivanova started on the buttons of her jacket, craving the feel of bare flesh on hers.

"Oh, hon," Ivanova growled when the contact came. It was as if she was covered in satin, the intoxicating scent that was Talia enveloping her. Squeezing the woman to her, the Commander nuzzled into the fair hair, listening to Talia's breathing; erratic, soft sighs. "You feel so good."

"Mmmm," was the reply, a throaty purr that made goose bumps rise on Ivanova's arms and legs. Suddenly, the uniform trousers were all too hot and constricting for her taste. "This feels good," Talia said and slid her hands down Ivanova's sides, feeling the skin burn under her fingers, the fire she was gently stoking. The Commander inhaled shakily and grabbed the torturing limbs.

"Ah, there's something I need to say to you, Talia."

"You can just think it while I..." The telepath trailed off and bent down to wrap her lips around one taut nipple. The body under her jerked in response and the Commander uttered a low growl. With great effort on her part, she managed to open her eyes and gently guide the fair head off her breast. The abandoned flesh anguished over the loss. Lifting an eyebrow, Talia took in Ivanova's semi-serious face and deduced she had something difficult to say. Her heart lurched painfully and she started to pull away. "Susan... what is it?"

"No, please, stay there," Ivanova said and wrapped her arms around Talia's waist again. "I just... I have these feelings I need to tell you. Emotions."

"Yes?" Talia's voice was a quiet whisper. Time slowed down; every second of the silence was a century of agonising uncertainty.

Ivanova took a deep breath and wrung her hands behind the telepath's back. "I think I'm falling for you, Talia," she blurted out. "Hard. And I'm afraid." She felt the woman in her arms relax and hot breath blew over her cheek as Talia exhaled a breath she had been holding and sought out the Commander's eyes with hers.

"Well, if it's any consolation, I can say the same," Talia whispered and smiled a crooked yet gentle smile. "God, Susan. You scared the hell out of me."

"Scared?" Ivanova's brow scrunched. The answer hadn't been quite what she had expected.

"I thought you were going to say you couldn't take this or something. That you were leaving me." The telepath averted her eyes, the ghost of a smile still on her lips.

Ivanova traced the shadows of long eyelashes on Talia's cheeks, her heart suddenly full of love when she saw the gentle tremor of the lashes. Cupping the woman's cheek, she kissed her forehead, the taut skin smooth and cool under her hot lips. "Oh, Talia... It's me I'm afraid of. This head of mine, and what it is capable of."

~~I'll help you.~~

The voice was quiet, unobtrusive. The words just seemed to be an echo growing louder in her head, until the silky syllables stretched out to fill every nook of her mind. The feeling didn't make her flinch any more, because the thought was not forced into her head; it arrived on its own volition, through the open gates of her mind.

~~Thank you... my love.~~

Now the silent word, spoken only in her mind, was something her mind had no trouble wrapping over. She didn't feel afraid to lift the barrier on her mind to let Talia in. They were smooth and light, the presence and the thoughts that added themselves to her distinctiveness. Irresistibly, a smile rose onto her lips.

~~Thank you.~~

After a quiet moment, when their emotions and heartbeats had calmed somewhat, Ivanova stirred. "So, what do you want to do tonight?" The question earned her a wicked grin from Talia.

"I thought you had something in mind. Something including you, naked, and me, naked." As a reminder, the telepath tickled a nipple that immediately perked up.

"Oh, I just thought on this night of mutual confessions, you deserve something more than a game of slap and tickle," Ivanova replied, trying to ignore the wave of heat that shot from her breast all the way to her toenails. "Dancing p'haps, milady?"

"Absolutely!" Talia said as her eyes lit up. "But for that, we need to warm up the ol' dancing muscles."

"Huh?" Ivanova's brain tried to process the sentence but it was too damn hard when she was distracted by the hand brushing over her nipple. When the telepath's hand strayed downward and started on her belt buckle, the light of comprehension blinked to life in her eyes. "Oh... those muscles, you mean."

Talia's smile was brighter than a thousand watt lamp. "Yeah. Those muscles," she growled and got to work.

 


 

It was one of those nights when Talia was sure the Universe had, in its infinite wisdom, realised it wasn�t entropic enough, and decided to speed up the process. This time, the great stellar mind had set a Minbari wedding, the Alkaian negotiations� end celebrations and Lt. Commander Kahn�s 30th birthday bash to the same night.

While the Minbari were not known as a race keen on partying, a few of the distinctive bone crowns were to be seen amidst the gaggles of EarthForce personnel and the Alkaians, who resembled bipedal antelopes, sans horns and with thin, pale gray fur. The Casino was filled to the brim, the chaos of alcohol-enhanced emotional states washing over her in never-ending waves. Taking a large swig of her vodka, Talia grimaced. Egads... I can�t understand how Susan manages to down a shot all at once, she thought and coughed discreetly.

They hadn�t gotten a chance to dance yet. Having just arrived fifteen minutes before, the Commander had immediately been whisked away by a pair of enthusiastic and decidedly drunk friends of hers from Internal Affairs. Ivanova had managed to shoot a helpless, pleading look towards Talia before she had disappeared. The telepath had smiled and waved at her, before ordering a drink and settling at a table near the bar. With her formidable powers of persuasion, the Commander would extract herself sooner or later, and Talia was in no hurry.

~~Susan...~~

The past few days had been a roller coaster ride, to put it mildly. For so long, since she had arrived on Babylon 5 in fact, the dark Commander had frequently inhabited her daydreams. While their first meeting had been less than successful, it had done nothing but strengthen her resolve. All the cold professionalism Ivanova carried herself with surely were there for a purpose, and now Talia knew why: it was a necessary shell, one that she had broken through. And how... owee, Talia smiled to herself and felt a small spot of warmth ignite inside her. She stoked it idly, reminiscing about the small, gentle moments and the hours of raw passion.

It had been all that she had dreamt of, yet different. She had imagined the spark of the physical contact correctly, but what was left out was the emotional equality they had. The Commander�s abilities in the art of telepathy were raw but Talia sensed great potential in her... she herself was still on the road to discovery concerning exactly what Jason Ironheart had given to her. It was going to be a rugged journey for both of them, since she was the only telepath on this station with the necessary knowledge to instruct Ivanova on how to handle all the new voices in her head. As her abilities became more active, the Commander would hear the thoughts louder and louder, and if she was not properly trained... the usual result was acute schizophrenia.

Feels so good it hurts physically, was what she had told Ivanova. For her, that had been one of the most profound of moments; seeing the comprehension in Susan�s eyes. Ivanova had felt it, seen the forever forest of mirrors that were there just for her, heard the pleasure, sensed the colours so vivid it was enough to melt two hearts into one. It was one of the vulnerabilities telepathy gave: one was so naked and so powerless against emotions, because the limitations of the five human senses no longer applied.

Swallowing the rest of her vodka with a determined grin, Talia let her eyes sweep around the noisy, crowded casino. The voices weren�t as bad when she had something to think about. Or someone, she added as she spotted Ivanova back across the casino. She was with Lt. Commander Kahn and two pilots, listening politely to one war story or another. Her body language, however, spoke in words loud and clear that she was itching to get away.

~~Susan... I love you.~~

The projected thought left her mind with a fleeting burst of warmth and she knew the simple words would be heard with that voice, warm and low, in Susan�s head. True to her knowledge, the Commander�s back straightened and she looked over her shoulder, smiling a small, dreamy smile. Her profile was a sharp relief against the sea of dark blue uniform behind her.

~~Same here.~~

The return thought was equally light. At first, Talia had been afraid to talk to Ivanova like this, mostly because she knew how much of an intrusion to one�s personal space it was. But it was nigh unto impossible to keep her mind quiet when the fever took over her, and so she suspected the Commander had gotten used to her voice in her head. Though Talia wished fervently there were no teeps around them for Ivanova was yet to learn the art of narrow broadcasting; her responses were the telepathic equivalent of bellowing through a loudspeaker across Zocalo. The Commander knew as much and thus, attempted to limit herself to neutral, short answers whenever they talked like this, even though the mental background noise was enough to disguise the sender from malicious monitors. Though, Talia didn�t want to dwell too much on the possibility that one of Ivanova�s neighbours might be telepathic. That would be entirely too embarrassing.

Talia�s drink arrived and she dipped her tongue into the acrid liquid, consciously avoiding the admiring stare a pilot at the next table was giving to her. She could sense the man�s hesitant interest plain and clear and she knew that if she would meet his eyes, there would be no stopping the man; she didn�t feel much like dancing with him right now. So, she focused on Ivanova�s back and her braid that bisected the white cotton of her shirt like a thick river. The shirt was, in turn, tucked into dark blue trousers.

~~Y�know, Susan, you have the greatest behind.~~

The thought slipped her mind half-accidentally and she almost snorted out her vodka when she saw the Commander�s back jerk. Thank god I didn�t say "tightest ass", she howled to herself and bit the inside of her mouth to stop an audible guffaw.

~~Don�t you dare.~~

Ivanova�s voice was slightly admonishing, bordering on laughter. Stubbornly, she still kept her back on Talia and the telepath smirked into her glass as she saw the Commander shift in her almost painfully erect stance, her thoughts projecting mild anxiety. Talia really felt like holding her and, well, if it took dirty tricks to get the woman come to her...

~~Do you know what I would like to do to it?~~

Ivanova rubbed her neck with one hand, the conversation on attack formations in nebulae around her fading into the background noise, as she focused on the low, throaty voice in her, the words wrapping around her with slow, sensuous insistence.

~~C�mon, Talia...~~

Now, the Commander's tone was more then a bit desperate, but Talia wouldn't be dissuaded from her task.

~~Mmm, I�m thinking... whipped cream.~~

She parted the veil on her mind slightly, a burst of passion flashing between them. Ivanova�s shoulders twitched and Talia could feel the returning echo of her carnal attachment to the words. She could feel the bolt of liquid desire that shot through the Commander, the red-hot intensity of that feeling, so open was the Commander.

~~With chocolate sprinkles.~~

The more humorous addendum was projected a moment later, injected with a more mellow variation of desire. A low, sensuous feeling, reminiscent of the steady flame of passion that was born of the anticipation in deep, intimate kisses and fed on caresses and the proximity.

Talia leaned back in her chair and suppressed a victorious smile when the Commander quickly extracted herself from the conversation and whirled around to stalk towards her. It took her but a moment to navigate the thick alien and human throngs, and soon, she was next to Talia, leaning in to catch the telepath�s eyes with hers. There was a slow fire burning in the Commander�s gaze.

"What are you trying to do?" Ivanova hissed and grabbed the hand rests of Talia�s chair. Her knuckles were white as bleached bone, her cheeks touched with a faint blush.

"Oh... drive you crazy, perhaps?" was Talia�s smiling response. Leaning towards the Commander�s arm, she adjusted her legs so that her calf brushed the inside of Ivanova�s ankle.

~~Me, licking all that cream off you.~~

She could both feel and see the tremor that threatened to make Ivanova�s knees give out on her. Unbridled, a mental picture of her, at the task, came from the Commander and Talia swallowed with some difficulty before she regained her composure.

~~Slowly.~~

It was all she managed, pronouncing each syllable with great care. It was somewhat unclear whether Ivanova�s reply moan was telepathic or not, but the difference was vague at best.

"Awright," the Commander growled and hissed out her breath. "Are you trying to get me lose my nut or make a public display of affection, right here?"

"I�ll settle for a kiss and a dance," Talia said and smiled radiantly.

"You got it," Ivanova said and tilting the telepath�s chin up with one hand, placed her mouth on her lips. The Commander pushed down the rolling desire with an act of will, because she knew that if she were to give it free rein, it would take her but a few desperate rips to render the telepath naked, right there. So, the kiss was almost chaste, until Ivanova felt Talia�s tongue trace her upper lip. The world around them dimmed as their respective mental walls became one. Ivanova could feel Talia�s powerful, smooth presence inside her, as if a shroud of silk was acting as a barrier between her mind and all others. It was one of the nicest and definitely the scariest feeling the Commander could think of, exciting and frightening at the same time.

When they parted for air, the barriers separated again, reluctantly, as if they had been a cell, divided with undue force. "I need a drink," the Commander breathed and when offered, gulped down the rest of Talia's shot before sitting down.

"How about the dance then?"

"I just need a sec here," the Commander replied to Talia's humoured question, lifting a reproaching eyebrow at the telepath. Actually, she was just trying to stop her hands from shaking. After a moment, she took a deep, shaky breath and rose. Coming across the table to stand in front of the other woman, she bowed slightly and smiled. "May I have this dance, madam?"

"Yes," the telepath smiled and rose. "Just don't 'madam' me." Slipping her hand around the offered elbow, they started towards the dance floor, trying to be oblivious to the gazes, both envious and wondering, they were getting.

"Paybacks are a bitch, Ms. Winters," Ivanova whispered when they reached the edge of the dance floor, already half filled with pairs. Turning the telepath to face her, she found herself echoing the radiant, wicked smile on Talia's face.

"I'm counting on it, Commander,"

 


 

"It's the scent I miss," Ivanova murmured to herself and folded her arms across her chest. The technician next to her, quite intimidated by the presence of the Second in Command, jerked nervously towards her.

"Excuse me?" the young woman asked and fumbled with her soldering iron, almost undoing the work she had been doing for the last half an hour on a StarFury maintenance slot's cabling. She had been on duty for 20 hours straight, anxious along with the rest of her crew to get the final repairs done on the damaged docking bays. The last bays had been a mess; most unshielded cabling had been fritzed by the power surges.

"About flying," Ivanova said, more to herself than to anyone else. Her gaze roaming across the cramped space of the aft area of Bay 35, she inhaled the scent of engine lubricant, heated metal and plasma injector coolant. Her nostrils flared at the heady mixture. It was a perfume she would always associate with flying, remembering the day she had pulled on the heavy flight suit for the first time, as if it were yesterday. Her palms had sweated profusely, to the point that she was afraid they would be so slippery inside her gloves that she wouldn't be able to hold on to the stick.

The technician stared at the Commander for a moment longer, fleetingly wondering at Ivanova's mental state, before shaking her head and returning to work. She had a deadline to keep and her boss would chew her ass for dinner if the wiring on this slot wasn't operational by the end of her shift, in four hours. And if her boss didn't do it, the stern-looking Commander would surely do so. Demands to get all repair bays back in rotation had become increasingly loud and urgent.

Ivanova's footsteps were silent on the metal alloy deck as she paced towards the small view ports in the outer hull wall. In respect to hundreds of years of ship design, they were called portholes and were, accordingly, shaped roughly circular, with heavy clamps keeping the transparent section anchored. The stars were slightly dimmed by the dirt on the porthole, the white specs moving slowly against the forever night as the station rotated. Leaning against the curved hull, the Commander peered outside, trying to trace familiar patterns in the stars, but of course, they were all wrong. The branching forks of the Andromeda constellation were distorted and Phoenix surely couldn't fly with its wings any more. But the star patterns from her childhood were clear in her mind, the silent, mystical figures she had found from the dark sky, back in the St. Petersburg of her childhood.

"God, I need to get out there soon," Ivanova said to the uncaring stars and rested her forehead against the porthole, not minding the slick sheen of lubricant that covered the transparent alloy. The scent was much heavier there, the fumes almost intoxicating. The Commander felt almost giddy, an insuppressible smile turning up the corners of her mouth.

For years, she had taken refuge to the vast desert of space. It had been the closest thing she could call a home, ever since her world had shattered when her mother had left her, by her own hand. And then Ganya had died in the war. At least there, with the stars, she was the master of her own fate, her focus necessarily on other things besides the forever night inside her. Now, for the first time since childhood, she felt like she had found a home, or at least a tentative seedling of one. There was a new light illuminating the dark void inside her, a light that had potential to make the empty space evolve into something far richer.

~~Talia...~~

-- The End --

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