DISCLAIMER: Did I mention that I don't own Babylon 5 or the characters created by JMS? No copyright infringement is implied/meant/deliberate in anyway, shape or form and, no money is changing hands/no profit is being made, etc. It's all just good Christmas-time fun.
CHALLENGE RESPONSE: Submitted for the Passion & Perfection Xmas Challenge 2005
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

It's a Not-So-Wonderful Life
By Del Robertson


"Damn Sheridan and his bright ideas! A Christmas party - " Commander Ivanova grumbled, her barely audible murmuring growing by decibels as her long strides carried her from C & C.

Crew members, fearing the wrath of the scowling Commander, quickly stepped to one side of the long corridor. Too many of them had been on the receiving end of the Babylon 5/Commander Ivanova is always right mantra to be foolish enough to stand in her way. The station was still reeling from the effects caused by the fallout of the Lumati Ambassador being shoved out an airlock. Curiously enough, that had been after the Lumati Ambassador had been foolish enough to proposition the fair Commander. Of course, no one could prove anything - and no one would dare say anything even if they could.

Commander Ivanova continued unchecked on her rampage down the corridors of B5, lost in her own tirade, her cursing growing in frequency. She stalked the corridor by rote, her body instinctively carrying her to the nearest transport tube without her mind even consciously realizing it.

As the door slid open, she stormed inside, moving to stand at the back of the car. She stood there, hands clutched behind her back, staring at the control panel. Closing her eyes, she let out an exasperated sigh.

"Do you have a particular destination in mind, Lt. Commander?" asked a disturbingly familiar smoky voice.

"Excuse me?" asked Susan, forcing her eyes to open.

Talia Winters, the station's current resident licensed commercial telepath and constant reminder of the ever-present big brother of Psi Corps was leaning against the opposite wall. Blonde hair flowed freely, cascading over the shoulders of her gold and black dress. Gloved hands folded across her chest, blue eyes watched the Commander intently, almost as if she meant to devour her with her gaze.

"You haven't specified a destination."

"Ah, that seems to be the root of the problem, now doesn't it? I'm sure of where I'd like to go, but I'm afraid the transport tubes aren't programmed to deliver me to some cold, forsaken glacier in Northern Siberia."

That earned a small snigger from the transport tube's only other rider. A young man in a security uniform. His hair was long, past his shoulders. He stood with one hand resting on his PPG. His smirk made it clear he was obviously enjoying the exchange between the Commander and the telepath. Commander Ivanova noticed he wasn't wearing the standard Earthforce nameplate on his chest. She frowned, attempting to recall his name. She couldn't remember seeing him around C & C before. Before she could comment on his being out of uniform, the transport tube slid to a halt and the man stepped from the car.

"I'm assuming you've had a rough day, Lt. Commander?"

The Commander started to step off the transport tube in pursuit of the out-of-uniform security guard, but decided to drop it. Hesitantly, she stepped back inside the transport, resumed her position. Hands folded comfortably behind her back, she directed her attention once again to the telepath.

"Actually, Ms. Winters, I've had the Mt. Everest of rough days. A Centauri cruiser decided to open fire upon a Narn vessel because I gave it clearance to dock before said Centauri cruiser. Never mind that the Narn vessel carried critically ill patients, most of them children, from a hospital that was decimated on one of the Narn outposts. The Narn are still up in arms over what they call an act of terror upon its citizens." Talia started to murmur her sympathies when Ivanova continued. "The Drazi have a miniature civil war going on, something about factions of green and purple. And, Delenn and Lennier are protesting the use of the Station's Chapel for a sex-orgy by Londo Mollari and his wives."

"Pardon me for saying so, but those all sound like diplomatic issues, Lt. Commander."

"Actually, it's Commander, now." Ivanova pointed at the bars on her uniform. "Part of my new duties that come along with my new rank make diplomatic issues my priority." Susan caught the sympathetic wince from Talia. "Oh, and Captain Sheridan in his infinite wisdom has decided to throw a Christmas party. A mandatory, bring-a-date Christmas party!"

The transport tube was a confined space. And, being in such close proximity, Talia was easily able to feel the anger rise inside the Commander. Not that she had to scan her to do so. Or, even be a telepath. The Commander's increasing frown and irritation were blatantly obvious. She stared intently at the tall, powerful Russian, lost in thought. With her dark, brooding looks, long brown hair and striking blue-grey eyes, she haunted Talia's dreams.

She had often fantasized about asking the elusive Commander out. But, her immediate rebuffal in C & C that first day always gave her pause. The Commander had been nothing short of rude, and subsequent attempts to mend fences had been met with similar resistance. Despite the chance that she was about to be rejected yet again, Talia turned to Susan, ready to invite her to join her in a drink in the Zocalo.

"Commander, I - "

A resounding boom overshadowed the rest of Talia's unanswered question. A sharp jolt knocked her off her feet. A screeching sound, like nails on a chalkboard magnified a thousand times, echoed off the metal walls. The transport tube tilted, seeming to turn on end. She landed hard, a teeth-shattering sensation jolting itself up her left elbow as she slammed into the floor. The air rushed out of her lungs in one long, unabashed whoof!

"Talia! Look out!"

She looked up in time to see what was once part of the metal wall come flying at her. Then, before she could move, Susan's body was hurtling at her, covering her, shielding her. She felt the bone-jarring impact, softened by Susan's body.

Eyes wide open, she turned her head, craning her neck at an odd angle. Susan lay atop her, unmoving. Her eyes were closed, her breathing ragged. A jagged shard of metal protruded from the side of the Commander's neck, blood flowing freely from the wound.

Struggling, she found herself unable to move the Commander's weight from her body. At last, she was able to extricate her left arm from the tangled mass of confusing limbs. She located the Commander's hand, activated her link.

A wave of vertigo overtook Talia. She heard the channel open, then nothing. She tried to control her breathing, forcing herself to take deep breaths. Dimly, she heard someone on the other end of the link. Her mouth worked; she tried to form the words to call for help. It seemed as if her vocal cords refused to obey that simple command sent by her mind. Slowly, the blackness overtook her and her eyes slid closed.

A severe pounding interrupted her peaceful slumber. And, with the realization that comes with waking, also came the sudden shock of every muscle screaming out in protest. With a low moan, she forced matted eyelids slowly open against an intensely painful light.

"Well, now, welcome back to the world of the living."

Talia blinked, focusing on a blurry image of Dr. Franklin. He stood by her bed, hovering over her, a concerned look on his face. "You know, you had us worried there for a minute or two."

The transport tube. Sounds of an explosion, then the walls coming down. Memories flashed at light-speed through the telepath's mind. "The Commander - "

" - Will be relieved to hear that you're okay," finished Stephen, turning back to his readouts.

"Then, she's okay?" asked Talia hesitantly, silently thanking the powers that be.

"Of course, aside from being worried about you, that is." He handed Talia a hypospray and several tiny vials. Included with the medication, was a list of instructions. "Now, inject this every four hours. It'll help heal you faster and keep the pain at bay. If you have any complications, come see me immediately."

Numbly, Talia took the hypospray and vials, staring at them. "You're releasing me?" she asked in a tiny voice.

"Sure, why not? You're a big girl; you can inject your own meds. Unless, of course, you want me to do it," he volunteered, flashing what seemed to Talia suspiciously like a leer directed towards her backside.

"No, Dr. Franklin, that won't be necessary."

She managed to find her gold and black outfit and get dressed, discreetly turning away from Dr. Franklin as she did so. She couldn't help but feel like she was being watched, but every time she turned around, he was intently staring at his paperwork. She grabbed the medkit containing the hypospray off the bed and bolted for the door as he started humming a hauntingly off-key version of The Little Drummer Boy.

Talia tried the code again. Still, the door wouldn't open. In frustration, she kicked the bottom of the door with her foot. Folding her arms across her chest, she stared at the offending door, as if willing it to open.

"Is there a problem, Ms. Winters?"

I should have known he'd be lurking about. Putting on her most pleasant smile, Talia forced herself to slowly turn around. As expected, Chief Garibaldi was standing there, intently watching her. She straightened herself up to her full height, met his gaze calmly.

"Yes, Mr. Garibaldi. The door to my quarters doesn't seem to want to open."

Mr. Garibaldi eyed her quizzically. "Your stuff was moved out of your quarters, Ms. Winters."

Talia pretended not to notice Michael fingering the strap at the side-holster of his PPG. "Really, Mr. Garibaldi; And, why is that?"

"Because the Commander ordered your things put in her quarters." It was a statement, but it sounded more like a question coming from the Security Chief.

"Oh. Her quarters." Talia tried not to sound too shocked. "I see."

"Are you alright, Ms. Winters?" asked Garibaldi, stepping in closer to Talia. "You don't seem right."

"Um - I'm fine. Just a little shaken from the blast, I think."

"Oh." Garibaldi nodded at her, backed off a few feet. "Well, I won't keep you, then."

"You're not going to offer to escort me?" she couldn't keep the surprise from her voice.

"I'm sure you can find it on your own." Michael backed even farther away. "Besides, I have rounds to make."

Talia was left standing in the corridor, staring at a retreating Michael Garibaldi. Never before had she seen him pass up an opportunity to escort her somewhere on the station. To the contrary, she was usually trying to avoid his repeated attempts to corner her in the transport tubes. It's like he couldn't wait to get away from me, Talia thought. And, since when did he change his uniform to solid black?

She spent the rest of the afternoon in Commander Ivanova's quarters. She was surprised when her access code worked on the door lock. She was even more surprised to find that all of her possessions had been moved into Ivanova's quarters. She had spent an hour familiarizing herself with the layout of the quarters. And, another hour using the real shower with real water.

Stepping out of the shower, Talia realized she hadn't taken her hypospray that Stephen had prepared. Taking it out of the case, she carefully read the instructions. She had been set to insert the spray into the artery at her neck, the way she'd seen Dr. Franklin do to countless patients. She was shocked to discover that the instructions specifically called for the hypospray to be administered into the buttock area.

"You've got to be kidding me!" With a sigh of frustration, Talia loaded the hypospray. Turning around, she tried repeatedly to reach the specified area. Finally, she settled on propping one foot on the short coffee table in the living room. With one hand, she hiked her robe up to her waist, bunching the silk material on her hips. In her other hand, she carefully balanced the hypospray. With a satisfied hiss, the injection went into her soft flesh. Wincing, Talia dropped the hypospray, tenderly rubbed the tender flesh with her fingers.

"Now, that's a sight worth coming home for."

Talia's heart leapt into her throat at the sound of the deep voice. She froze momentarily, unable to move. Then, her sense of modesty and adrenaline jumped into hyper-drive. Hurriedly, she removed her hand, yanking down the hem of her silk robe. Taking her foot off the coffee table, biting her bottom lip, she hesitantly turned around.

Commander Ivanova was standing there, leaning against the doorway, hands shoved in her pants pockets. The front of her uniform was undone, revealing the starched white shirt beneath. In the dim lighting, the royal blue of her standard Earthforce uniform looked shades darker, resembling a midnight blue. The darker color made her blue eyes look darker, as well. Almost a steel-blue in color, with a predatory stare to her gaze. Her brown hair was loose, falling over her shoulders in luxurious locks. Talia longed to run her fingers through those tresses.

She saw the Commander's eyebrow arch beneath her scrutiny. She felt the heat rush to her cheeks, saw the Commander smirk at her obvious blush. Pushing herself off the wall, Ivanova made her way towards Talia. Her steps were slow, methodical, as if she were a lioness stalking her prey. She moved languidly enough that Talia could retreat if she wished. But, she found her eyes locked with the Commander's. Her limbs were frozen beneath the Russian's feral gaze. The sound of her own, erratic breathing echoed in her ears as she released the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.

The Commander released her gaze momentarily, and Talia blinked. When she opened her eyes again, Ivanova was suddenly there, leaning into her. She wasn't touching her, but she was close enough Talia could feel her hot breath upon her supple neck. Soft lips moved in; Talia closed her eyes in anticipation. A tongue licked along her upper lip. Just one taste, then it was gone. With a frustrated groan, Talia forced heavy-lidded eyes open.

The Commander was staring at her, eyes shifting from steel-blue to almost black, darkening with need. One hand closed about a slender wrist. Talia's eyes widened, momentarily stunned that Ivanova would risk flesh-to-flesh contact with a member of Psi-Corps. Dark eyes narrowed slightly, silently daring Talia to protest – to demand she stop. Talia merely watched as the Commander's free hand clutched at the ties of her silk robe, fingers deftly loosening the knot.

Nostrils flared, breathing increased rapidly as the front of Talia's robe fell open. Eyes eagerly devoured the sight of the naked blonde standing before her. Talia's mind swirled with conflicting emotions. She had never felt so desired, so wanted. And, looking at Commander Ivanova, there was no doubt in her mind that the Commander wanted her. She knew it was absurd that she was still referring to her as the Commander when she was standing before her, her body bared to the Russian's feral gaze. But, a part of her mind refused to call her Susan while she was still wearing her uniform.

And, truth be told, she'd always had fantasies about Ivanova in that uniform. Long, drawn out, graphic fantasies. Even though her mind was protesting the Neanderthal-like behavior of the Commander, her vocal cords refused to vocalize her objections. All because her mind couldn't get past the images of that uniform. Half of her wanted nothing more than to offer herself up, expose the pulse point of her throat to Ivanova's sharp teeth. The other half of her demanded she slap the Commander's face.

Strong hands abruptly shot out, grabbing the blonde's upper arms, squeezing tightly. Talia yelped as stabbing pain shot down her arm to her bruised elbow. With a ferocious growl, Ivanova leaned in, capturing Talia's lips with her own. Her tongue forcefully plunged into Talia's mouth, brooking no resistance. Not that there was significant resistance, anyway. Talia's mouth worked beneath hers, her tongue coming out to meet Susan's. Both dueled, fighting for dominance in the hot wetness.

Talia retreated slightly. She captured Susan's bottom lip between her teeth, sharply bit. Susan stepped back, hand reflexively reaching for her mouth. Fingers tentatively slid across her lips. Eyes narrowed at the crimson blood coating the tips of her fingers. With a deep laugh, she leaned in, pursuing another kiss.

She sighed, snuggling deeper into the warmth beside her. Instinctively, arms folded about her, holding her tightly. Smiling, Talia blinked her eyes opened, focusing. She was in Ivanova's bed, held firmly in the Commander's embrace as she slept. Susan, she reminded herself – She's Susan when she's not in uniform. And, she's definitely not in uniform, now. Talia couldn't hide the giddy smile if her life depended on it. She'd waited so long for this – and now it was happening.

I never dreamed it would be like this, though. She looked down her body, surveying the damage. The Commander had been savage, taking her, claiming her, branding her as her own. Her breasts were tender, the white alabaster skin marred by love bites. The deepest of those bites clearly showed the outline of Susan's teeth. If I needed a dental impression of Susan's mouth, we could use my breasts for a mold. Tentatively, she reached out a hand, fingering one of her nipples. Never before had she had a lover who paid so much attention to her cleavage. She still couldn't believe she had her first orgasm of the evening by Susan simply suckling at her breasts.

The first of many in an evening full of firsts. Memories came rushing back unbidden, causing Talia's skin to flush with remembrance. The softness of Susan's hair tangled beneath her fingertips while Susan's mouth worked at that spot between her legs. The smoothness of Susan's shoulders as the Commander lifted Talia's legs up and over, opening herself up even wider beneath her tongue. Talia on all fours on the bed, face buried in a pillow, teeth biting at the fabric as Susan forcefully plunged three powerful fingers in and out. Pain shooting through her hind quarters as teeth closed on her left buttock, sharply biting. And then another unfamiliar sensation, that of a finger burrowing its way between tightly clenched buttocks, insinuating itself into virginal territory.

Experimentally, Talia's hand moved lower, dipping into the cleft between her legs. Her fingers searched for, then found that tiny little bundle of nerves. A hissing sound escaped between clenched teeth as fingers barely grazed the overly-sensitive flesh. I won't walk straight for a week! And, for some reason, that thought brought a broad smile to the blonde's face.

Susan mumbled something in her sleep, rolled away from Talia, settling on her stomach. Talia pursued her, draping her naked body partly atop the Commander's. Fingers traced patterns up and down the Commander's spine, over powerful muscles. Nails left a fiery trail in their wake as she stroked over hips and buttocks. Firm, thought Talia, gripping Susan's left buttock in her grasp. Fingers shifted, nails grazing heated flesh as Talia's fingertips explored between Susan's legs. Susan moaned, wriggling beneath Talia's touch.

With a tiny smile, she leaned in, placing a feather-light kiss on Susan's shoulder blade. Lips moved to her shoulder, planting another kiss. Licking her lips, she pulled Susan's hair back, seeking her neck. She paused, eyes narrowing as she studied the exposed flesh. A fiery red scar, in a shape resembling a lightning bolt marred the otherwise smooth flesh. Unbidden, memories of the transport tube came rushing back. The explosion – landing on the floor – Susan covering her body with her own – the piece of mangled metal protruding from Susan's neck.

Salty tears fell upon the scar, wetting Susan's skin. The Russian mumbled something in her sleep, squirmed beneath Talia. Her brow furrowed, her face winced in pain as she burrowed deeper into the mattress. Talia snuggled deeper against Susan, attempting to soothe her fevered flesh. Susan moaned deeply.

Maybe I can touch her just enough to ease her pain. Talia concentrated, trying to connect with Susan. She felt nothing. Undaunted, she tried again. Slowly, the telepath expanded her search. I can't read her! I can't read anybody – anything on the station! I hadn't noticed earlier because I'm used to having my blocks in place – But I'm - telepathically blind! Overwhelming feelings of confusion, pain, a sense of loss, and oddly, relief rushed through Talia at the realization. Okay, stay calm. Maybe it's just temporary. Something brought on by the trauma experienced in the explosion. Just relax – stay calm – and focus.

Wordlessly, Talia slipped out of the bed, making her way to the living room. She bent down, retrieving her silk robe from the floor. Tying it firmly about herself, she made her way to the couch. Sitting down on the edge of the cushions, she reached into her pocket, extracting a small, copper coin. Placing the penny on the table, she took a deep breath, concentrating. When nothing happened, she cleared her mind, forcing herself to relax. Unbidden, tears began to form. She tried and tried again until hot tears blurred her vision to the point she was no longer able to clearly see the penny. Sinking back into the cushions, she buried her face in a throw pillow, attempting to muffle the sound of her sobs.

"Susan! Hurry or we'll be late!"

Talia smiled as she heard what sounded like Susan stumbling, landing against the wall. Then, a muffled curse in her native tongue. "I'm coming!" was shouted from the other room.

It was unbelievable to Talia. After all the things they had done to each other over the course of the past twenty-four hours, all the ways they had been intimate with each other - and Susan still refused to dress in front of her. Who would have believed the strong Commander would be so modest, preferring to dress in the privacy of her bathroom while Talia dressed in the bedroom?

She hooked one earring into place as she studied her reflection in the mirror. Blonde hair framed her face, draping about her bare shoulders. She had opted for a form fitting, full-length evening gown. A silky, red sleeveless number that was sure to turn heads. A slit in her dress revealed the curve of long legs. A pair of three-inch stilettos completed the ensemble.

A set of arms encircled her from behind, hugging her tightly. Susan leaned in, dropping a kiss on her cheek. "Wow. You look gorgeous."

Talia smiled, studying their reflections in the mirror. She had never seen Susan look so calm, so peaceful - so happy. Brown locks mingled with blonde as Susan rested her chin on Talia's shoulder. Dark blue eyes met, held Talia's gaze.

She turned in Susan's embrace, leaned in, kissed the Commander. Susan's tongue darted out, tracing the outline of Talia's full lips. Hands snaked out, slipping down, over Talia's hips, cupping her derriere. Talia gave a startled yelp as Susan's tongue dipped into her mouth at the same time her hands squeezed her buttocks.

"Susan - " She leaned back, ending the kiss. Susan followed, attempting to pursue her. Talia held her amorous suitor back with a well placed hand to her chest. "No. We can't."

"Yes, we can." Susan leered at her, attempted another kiss.

"Okay, you've proven repeatedly we can." Talia extended both hands, placing them on Susan's chest, effectively blocking her passionate advances. "A fact that my missing panties will readily attest to. However, we're already late because of you."

"Because of you," corrected Susan. At the look of disbelief, she expounded on her theory. "Everyone knows that it's not proper etiquette to wear panties and a garter belt."

"I see. So, it was out of a perverted sense of duty to fashion that you felt the need to remove my panties - with your teeth."

"My duties as Commander of Babylon 5 are to protect and serve, Ms. Winters. I was merely protecting you from committing an embarrassing faux-pas." The Commander arched her eyebrow suggestively. "I think I should be commended for performing my duties. Rewarded, even."

"Ah, but you've already been rewarded, Commander. Twice." Talia eyed her lover appraisingly. "And, you still have my panties in your possession."

Susan reflexively placed her hand in her pocket, feeling the red silk beneath her fingertips. A suggestive leer came over her face. "And, they'll stay in my possession, thank you very much. Evidence."

Talia reached for the Commander, attempting to slip her fingers into Susan's pocket. Ivanova easily sidestepped her, slipping out of the blonde's embrace. Talia tried again. Again, the Commander easily avoided her.

"You're incorrigible," she said, finally giving up, settling for kissing Susan instead.

Susan pulled back, eyeing Talia appraisingly. "Did you take your hypo?"

"I'll take it later." Talia edged away, slipping her other earring on. She caught Susan's disapproving look. "I'm already dressed, Susan. It can wait until we get home."

"That's two injections you've missed now."

"Dr. Franklin prescribed it for the pain. The only pain I'm in right now is the shooting pain in my buttocks from the hypo."

"What did Stephen say?" Ivanova pressed.

"To be patient." She sat down on the edge of the bed, facing Susan. "He thinks the loss of my - abilities - may be attributed to the explosion. A sort of psychological shock manifesting itself as a loss of my telepathic abilities."

"So your talents will come back, then." Susan knelt on the floor in front of Talia, taking her hands in both her own. "Did he say when?"

"A day. Maybe two." Talia shrugged. "Maybe never."

"Talia, I'm - " Tears formed in Susan's eyes. She dropped her head into Talia's lap, the silk dress muffling her words, " - sorry. I'm so sorry."

Talia's fingers reflexively stroked through Susan's hair. Gently, she lifted Susan's head, looking into blue grey eyes rimmed with red. "Shush, baby. It's okay." She wiped at Susan's tears with her fingers. "Why are you crying, Susan? You've never cared for telepaths or Psi Corps."

"Because - " Susan looked at Talia as if she'd been slapped. "Because you're more to me than just Psi Corps, Talia. I know what it means to you to be a telepath. The gifts that you've given others because of your abilities. It must feel like a part of you is gone without those talents. And, I can only imagine what you've lost."

"True. I've had my abilities since a very young age. All my childhood memories are of Psi Corps. If my talents don't return, I won't be of any use to them, anymore. I won't have a job, anymore. Quite frankly, I don't know what else I'm qualified to do. I've lost so much, Susan." Talia reached out, cupping Ivanova's cheek, feeling the moist flesh against the palm of her hand. "But, what I've gained - being able to touch you - to touch others - freely, without gloves - " Talia's voice cracked, her words broke off as tears sprang to her own eyes.

Silently, they held each other, comforting each other. Susan sat on the edge of the bed, wiping at Talia's eyes with a handkerchief. "So, losing your abilities isn't all bad, then?" Talia nodded, wiping at her nose. "And, you're okay, otherwise? No other effects of the explosion?"

Talia shook her head. "My elbow's still sore. I seem to recall it colliding with the deck." She frowned, pulling back, tilting her head, looking quizzically at Susan. "And, I think I may need to have Dr. Franklin examine my eyesight. It's odd, but ever since the explosion, things have looked - darker."

"Darker?" Panic rose in Susan's voice. "As in you're losing your vision?"

"No. Not darker as in going blind," Talia waved off Susan's concern. "Darker as in shades." She caught the puzzled expression on Ivanova's face. "Like your uniform, for example. I've always thought of it as being a royal blue. But, now, it's a midnight blue, almost a blue-black. And, your dress uniform - " Talia reached out, fingering the fabric at the Commander's collar. " - It's always been a dark grey, now it's black. And, Garibaldi's normally green suit has also turned black."

"Really?" Susan eyed her skeptically.

"I know; it's silly. But, unless the entire station has dramatically altered their wardrobe while I was unconscious, it has to be an effect of the explosion. Either that, or I'm slowly going color blind." She half-smiled at her own poor attempt at a joke. "It may be psychosomatic, caused by trauma after the explosion. I spoke with Lennier; He said Delenn would be pleased to help."

"You asked the Minbari for help?" Commander Ivanova's tone was incredulous.

"Well, if my problem is psychological rather than physical, who better to help than a spiritually enlightened ambassador?"

"But, you're okay otherwise?" pressed Susan.

"I'm fine, you worrywart. I swear, are you always so pessimistic?"

"It's not pessimism." Susan frowned. "I'm Russian; it's realism."

Talia laughed. "Well, my realistic friend, what say we put our worries to a rest and go to a Christmas party?"

"After you," Susan said, motioning towards the door. "But remember, I better not catch you kissing anyone else beneath the mistletoe." She slapped Talia on the rear, followed her into the corridor. She locked the door to her quarters, securing it as they set off arm-in-arm for Red Sector.

Lifting her glass to her lips, Talia took another sip of vodka. She didn't usually imbibe at social gatherings, preferring to indulge in an occasional glass of white wine in the privacy of her own quarters. By herself, there was no fear of a potentially embarrassing incident caused by a mind-grope by an intoxicated telepath. Although, given the Commander's recent behavior, she doubted if Susan would mind any type of groping that they indulged in.

She gingerly took another sip. I can't believe Susan actually enjoys this stuff! Her gaze searched the room, looking for the elusive Commander. The maintenance crew had gone all out, decorating for the holidays. There were several areas sectioned off, offering a sample of Christmas culture from different planets. It seemed that although they had different cultures and celebrated in different ways, most races still believed in the universal significance of Christmas.

Of course, the Earth traditions dominated the festivities. Red bows and artificial green wreaths decorated the walls. A table was set up near the front entrance, overloaded with gifts for the Secret Santa exchange to take place near the close of the festivities. Mistletoe was strategically placed above each doorway, making it impossible to come or go without being potentially smooched.

As expected, Captain Sheridan was the exuberant host, flitting about from guest to guest, inquiring about the enjoyment of each person. She had been surprised when one of the Pak'ma'ra had complained about the selection of food. Being carrion eaters, she hadn't expected Sheridan to offer the Pak'ma'ra something more suitable; taking him by the arm, leading him off towards the kitchen. Sheridan had reappeared moments later, straightening his uniform, smile firmly fixed in place as he approached the next guest. I wonder what he found for the Pak'ma'ra? Then again, maybe it's for the best that I don't know.

Talia eyed the brown meat on her plate. Sheridan had assured her it was perfectly edible, calling it "reindeer" meat. Suspiciously, she prodded it with her fork. A waiter approached, tray held high, balanced on his wrist. Talia discreetly slipped her plate onto the passing tray.

Pleased with her quick action, she turned back around, surveying the crowd. Dr. Franklin was off to the side, engaged in conversation with his nurse. His date hung on his arm, not bothering to hide her obvious boredom at his inattention. Zack Allen was involved in a little game of dice with the Drazi Ambassador. She frowned, certain that Mr. Garibaldi wouldn't approve of such gambling from one of his security officers.

Then again, Mr. Garibaldi was busy. Dressed as Santa, he'd been sitting on his chair all evening, listening to Christmas wish after Christmas wish. Amusing, considering that this was a party without children. Mostly, it was Ambassadors that climbed onto his lap. She couldn't help but laugh as the Vorlon Ambassador sat down - and the obvious look of discomfort on Michael's face as he struggled beneath the Vorlon's weight.

She finally spotted her, near the Christmas tree, talking with Londo Mollari and G'Kar. Who would have thought those three could get along? She could understand Susan's presence if she thought there was going to be an incident between the Narn and Centauri. As the Commander, it was part of her diplomatic duties to ensure things ran smoothly. But, this went beyond simple peacekeeping. They actually seemed to be - well, enjoying each other's company.

Susan must be better at her diplomatic duties than I gave her credit for. G'Kar passed something to Susan, whispering in her ear as he patted her on the back. She laughed loudly as she accepted the gift. Not to be outdone, Londo gave Susan a gift, as well.

She was looking exceptional tonight. She always looked smart in her uniform, but Commander Ivanova was downright handsome tonight. Perhaps it was because she had forgone her usually severe braid and opted to wear her hair down. Susan looked up, her gaze meeting, holding Talia's. She raised an eyebrow beneath Talia's scrutiny. Her dress uniform looked as if it had been tailor-made to fit only the Commander. The sharp creases, the medals and decorations, even the customary Earthforce pin all fell into place, emphasizing the image of the officer and gentleman.

Or, not so "gentle", as the case may be. Talia's eyes clouded as she remembered what happened when Ivanova came home from work. She had been in the shower and hadn't heard Susan come in. Hadn't known she was there at all until she climbed into the shower with her, fully clothed. Talia had protested, not wanting Susan's uniform to be soaked. Susan never uttered a word. Merely kissed her into silent submission, then turned her around, pressing her up against the cold tile wall. One hand worked its way over her hips, fingers found, then manipulated her folds, fondling her still-sore bundle of nerves. Another hand moved over her wet buttocks as teeth bit at her neck. And, with her face and breasts pressed up against the cold shower stall, Susan took her from behind, mercilessly plunging two fingers into her repeatedly, until she sank to the shower floor in exhaustion.

An arm slipped about her waist, lips lightly caressed hers. Talia blinked, the kiss serving to break her reverie. She leaned into Susan's embrace, smiling. "I trust you found an errant sprig of mistletoe?" At the questioning glance from Ivanova, she elaborated, "It wouldn't do for the other women to witness the dashing Commander of Babylon 5 adorn me with affection without the benefit of mistletoe, now would it? It might remove you from the list of 'most-eligible' at all the social functions."

"Let's hope." Ivanova leaned in, capturing Talia's lips in another kiss. "I've always hated the way Franklin and Garibaldi feel the need to compete with me at every event. Truth be told, I could care less about being most eligible."

Talia reached up, brushing a stray lock of hair from Ivanova's face. "And, it's that very brooding indifference that makes you so desirable, my dear Commander."

"Speaking of wanting," Susan took Talia's nearly full glass of vodka, heartily drinking from it, "Did you want me for something?"

Talia shrugged. "I've always wanted you, Susan."

"The only reason I ask is that while I was with Londo and G'Kar, I looked up and saw you watching me. And, I got the distinct impression that you wanted me."

"Ah, was I that obvious?" Talia reached out, taking the glass from Susan. She made sure Ivanova was watching as she brought the glass to her lips, licking the rim, before taking a sip of vodka. "I was just remembering our tryst in the shower. Perhaps I was looking at you a bit too lustily, Commander Ivanova."

Susan reached out, taking the glass from Talia. She raised it to her own lips, and throwing her head back, engulfed the entire contents in one swallow. She leaned in, soundly kissing Talia again. Her tongue slid into Talia's mouth, seeking the warmth of Talia's tongue to chase down the cold vodka. As the kiss ended, she leaned back, feeling decidedly warmer than she had a moment before. She glanced down, to see Talia's red fingernails toying with the belt of her dress uniform.

"I can't leave until after the official ceremonies are over," Susan breathed in Talia's ear. "But, what say we find an unoccupied conference room? I have a candy cane from G'Kar that I'd like to show you."

Talia arched an eyebrow, eyeing Ivanova speculatively. "My dear Commander, in the state I'm in, it's going to take much more than a candy cane to - satisfy me."

Susan playfully nipped at Talia's ear. "Did I mention that on Narn, candy canes are approximately ten inches long by one-and-a-half inches wide?"

"Why, Commander," Talia giggled, snuggling closer into Ivanova's arms. "I think that might be enough to satisfy even the most voracious of sweet-tooths."

"Hum-hum." The sound of a throat being cleared drew the attention of Talia and Susan. "Pardon me, Ms. Winters," Lennier bowed low, fingertips pressed together, forming a triangle as he did so, "Ambassador Delenn requests your presence."

Reluctantly, Ivanova allowed Talia to extricate herself from their embrace. As Lennier began to lead the way, Talia turned back to Susan. "I have to stay," Susan explained. She leaned in, kissing Talia reassuringly on the cheek. "Be careful. If you need me, I'll be right here." Ivanova looked up, meeting Lennier's gaze. "Don't let anything happen to her. Remind Delenn that she belongs to me." Susan's gaze never left Lennier's as she tilted her head in Talia's direction, indicating that she was the 'she' in question.

Lennier merely bowed low, repeating the gesture of respect. With an enigmatic smile, he gestured for Talia to lead the way out of the banquet hall.

There was no artificial lighting allowed in the Minbari Temple. All the lighting was provided by candles. And, although, there were a great number of candles in use, it was still a mysterious place, shrouded in darkness and shadow. Wordlessly, Lennier led the way, never turning around, trusting Talia to follow him deeper and deeper into the recesses of the Temple.

They passed a group of Minbari monks, cloaked in grey shrouds, surrounding an altar. Their heads were bowed, hands hidden beneath the sleeves of their robes. The monk at the head of the altar stared up at the ceiling, hand clasped reverently about the hilt of a ceremonial sword as he balanced the blade on his fingertips. They chanted as one, never pausing, not even acknowledging Lennier and Talia as they passed.

Lennier led Talia past the altar, down a dimly lit corridor. Black fabric hung across the hall at the end of the corridor, a sword and heart embroidered on the cloth in red and gold thread. Lennier pushed the fabric curtain aside, stepping through the doorway that was revealed. Taking a deep breath, Talia followed.

A vast array of candles placed upon shelves lining the perimeter of this room provided significantly more light to this room than to the rest of the temple. Coffers sat on a table to the right of the entrance, filled to overflowing with gold coins. To the left of the entrance were assorted boxes of various sizes, their open lids revealing diamonds and pearls. A mound of credits rested on a desk in the center of the room.

Clad in solid black robes, Talia hadn't registered Ambassador Delenn's presence until she moved. Seated behind the desk, she was removing credits from the disorganized mound and restacking them into rows of ten. The desk was nearly full of rows, and there was still an overwhelming mound before her.

Lennier bowed low as they approached. Silently, Delenn held up a hand, never taking her eyes from the desk. Obediently, Lennier silently awaited his Ambassador's attention. Wordlessly, Delenn scraped twelve rows of credits off the table, into a waiting coffer. A servant emerged from the shadows, securing the coffer lid. "Personally see that it reaches my palace on Minbar." The servant bowed, removing the coffer from Delenn's desk. Talia watched as he left, disappearing behind the curtain Lennier had led them through. From the shadows, two other servants appeared, bowed before Delenn, and also followed their fellow Minbari down the corridor.

"Ms. Winters." Delenn rose from her chair, catching Talia in an informal hug. "It's so good to see you." She returned to her seat behind her desk, leaving a speechless Talia standing before her. "To what do I owe the honor?"

"Ambassador," Talia smoothed imaginary wrinkles from her dress, attempting to stall while her mind processed her current situation. "I believe Lennier mentioned the recent - accident - I was involved in."

"Yes, I believe he did." Delenn nodded for Talia to elaborate.

"It seems that after the accident," Talia paused, taking a deep breath, "I no longer possess certain talents. And now, my eyesight is proving to be somewhat problematic. Dr. Franklin suggested it's a psychosomatic phenomenon brought on by the explosion."

"I see." Delenn's eyes narrowed. "Lennier, see that Dr. Franklin's eyes are removed. And, make it look like an accident."

Lennier bowed low, forming the sign of respect with his fingertips. Wordlessly, he rose, pulling a knife from his robes. He fingered the tip of the blade experimentally. A droplet of blood appeared on his fingertip. Seemingly satisfied, he returned the knife to his robes.

"What?" Talia couldn't keep the shock from her voice. Her eyes darted from Delenn to Lennier.

"The Minbari value your services, Ms. Winters. Remember, what makes us rich also makes you rich. When someone steals from you, they also steal from us. And, I believe you'll find that we'll do anything to protect our investments." Delenn turned her attention to Lennier. "Escort Ms. Winters back to the party. The Captain may become suspicious if she's gone for too long. And, after you've taken care of the issue with Dr. Franklin, pay a visit to Vir Cotto. Seems he's overlooked a gambling debt that he owes."

"Yes, most magnificent leader." Lennier bowed low again, then straightened. He saluted Delenn before taking Talia by the arm, escorting her from the Inner Sanctum.

Unable to comprehend what had just occurred, Talia allowed herself to be led down the long corridor and back to the Temple. The altar was clearly visibly upon their return trip. Her mind dimly registered that the monks were no longer present. The altar was bare, bereft of ornamental or religious artifacts. The sword she had seen earlier was no longer present. A crimson red substance stained the alabaster stone. Candlelight reflected off a metal object resting in the center of the crimson pool. A cold shudder crept over Talia as she realized it was an Earthforce insignia.

Lennier led Talia back the way they had come. She hadn't noticed before, but now she did. Whenever they approached, people would step to the other side of the corridor, offering them plenty of space. And, oddly enough, there were no Earthforce personnel in the corridors Lennier led her through. As they reached the end of the corridor that intersected with the path to the banquet hall, Lennier paused, bowing low before Talia.

"I must attend to other pressing matters, Ms. Winters. I trust you can find your way?"

Talia numbly nodded. She watched Lennier move to retreat the way he had come. Instinctively, she called after him.

"Lennier, about the Commander - "

A slow smile played over Lennier's lips. He returned to Talia's side, speaking low. "Don't worry, Ms. Winters. The Minbari know she meant no disrespect. She merely sought to - remind us of what is hers by right."

Talia's eyes narrowed at the sound of that. "I see." Her lips pressed tightly together.

"No offense is meant, Ms. Winters." Lennier hastily added, noting Talia's look of displeasure. "Ambassador Delenn and the Minbari hold nothing but respect and admiration for the Commander. The - example - she made of The Grey Council has ensured her our continued support."

"Thank you, Lennier." As her mind tried to sort through all of the conflicting data she'd been given, she struggled to maintain her composure before the Minbari representative. "I'll be certain to pass your regards along to the Commander."

"Thank you, Ms. Winters. I'll relay your blessings to Ambassador Delenn." Lennier bowed low, then swiftly rose, retreating down the corridor. Halfway down the corridor, he paused. Talia watched him activate a device beneath the sleeve of his grey robe. With only the slightest hesitation, he stepped forward, passing through the solid bulkhead of the corridor.

Talia slipped into the banquet hall unnoticed. The celebration was still in full swing, she noted. The wrapped presents were still on the table near the door, not yet having been distributed. That means Garibaldi is still here somewhere. As Santa, it was part of his duties to pass out the presents come the end of the night. I need to find him and tell him what's happening!

She scanned the room, thinking it was somehow ironic that the one person she always tried to avoid was the one person she was desperately searching for now. She noticed Ivanova in the center of the room, a cluster of Centauri women surrounding her, reveling in her tales of leading the Starfury pilots. One of the women giggled, leaned in closer to the Commander, blatantly rubbing her abundant cleavage against the sleeve of Ivanova's uniform. To her relief, Susan moved away, putting some distance between herself and her not-so-secret admirer.

She had been worried that Susan was only with her out of a sense of obligation. Perhaps she felt guilty about the explosion. Then, she reminded herself that Susan wasn't aware she'd lost her abilities until after they'd made love. And, she got the impression from Susan that her feelings were not something new. Was it possible that Susan had wanted her all along?

She briefly considered pulling Susan to the side, informing her as to what was happening on the station. But then, she remembered the cryptic phrases that Lennier had spoken earlier. Just like the Minbari to be vague and elusive. I just wish for once if it was an apple, they'd call it an apple! Lennier hadn't given specific details, but he had alluded to the fact that for some reason Ambassador Delenn and the Minbari feared Commander Ivanova. But is that fear because she opposes them - or because she controls their organization?

Talia picked her way through the crowd of partygoers, noticing for the first time that there was no Minbari presence at the celebration. There wasn't even a section devoted to the Minbari's belief of the First One. Odd, considering every other culture was represented. As a matter of fact, the only Minbari Talia could recall seeing at the party all night was Lennier. And, he had appeared from seemingly nowhere. She also recalled that he didn't escort her the entire way, opting to leave her at the end of the main corridor.

Talia circled the banquet hall, continuing her search for the elusive Mr. Garibaldi. Everyone she had asked hadn't seen Santa for nearly half an hour. However, they assured her he would be back before time to pass out the presents. I hope he hasn't slipped off to have a drink somewhere. Briefly, Talia contemplated the possible ramifications of inviting a recovering alcoholic to a party where the alcohol was so readily accessible.

Near the back of the room, Talia noticed several doors. Each one was unobtrusively decorated with wreaths and bows, designed to blend in with the rest of the walls. She recalled what Susan had said earlier about finding an unoccupied conference room. What better place to sneak a drink?

After finding nothing in the first three rooms, Talia was beginning to lose hope. She was at the last door, hand upon the panel. If Michael wasn't in this room, she wasn't sure where he was. Maybe another emergency pulled him away for a while? Taking a deep, calming breath, she entered the room.

The door closed behind her with a whoosh. "Lights," commanded Talia, stepping farther into the darkened room. Instantly, the room was awash in light.

"Michael!" Talia gasped, hand covering her open mouth.

Mr. Garibaldi was indeed there, no more than three feet in front of her. His Santa hat was laying on a conference table. One hand clutched at the edge of the table, knuckles turning white beneath the pressure. His red pants were pushed down to the tops of his black boots. His other hand held Zack Allen's face firmly in place.

"Talia!" Garibaldi gasped. "What are you doing here?"

"I - uh - " She eyed Zack Allen nervously as he stared at her. "I was - uh - looking for you?"

Michael noted her discomfort, glanced down at Zack. "Did I tell you to stop?" He grabbed Zack's head forcefully in his grip. "I'm sorry, Ms. Winters. Now, what can I do for you?" he asked, calmly returning his attention back to Talia.

"Well, you see, Mr. Garibaldi," Talia wrung her hands nervously. "I've just come from a meeting with Ambassador Delenn."

"Uh-huh." Michael's voice sounded huskier than usual.

"And, well, I'm not certain if you're aware of this. Although, as head of the station's security, I would hope you'd have some knowledge - "

"Just spit it out, Ms. Winters." He looked down sharply. "Not you."

She half-turned, forcing her attention to some point on the wall just past Michael's left ear. She found that so long as she didn't have to look at him directly, she was able to speak. "From what I was able to gather, it seems that Ambassador Delenn is," she paused, forcing herself to look Michael in the eyes, "Well, she's apparently the - the leader of an organized crime syndicate operating out of Babylon 5!"

"Uh-huh." Michael leaned back farther, using both hands to clutch at the edge of the table. "Tell you what, Ms. Winters, I've seen no evidence of that, but I'll certainly investigate the matter." He glanced at a clock on the wall. "As soon as the party's over. I've got about another ten minutes before I have to pass out the gifts."

"But - "

Michael rolled his eyes, sighing loudly. "Was there something else, Ms. Winters?"

"Uh, no; I suppose not." Talia backed towards the door. "Lights," she commanded, before exiting completely.

Talia spotted Susan near the bar, still surrounded by a bevy of Centauri women. Mr. Garibaldi is obviously too busy to take me seriously. But, the question is, can I trust Susan? Confused, Talia circled the banquet hall, mindlessly watching those around her. She bit her thumbnail in apprehension.

A waiter approached. Absently, Talia reached out, taking a glass of vodka from the tray. Odd; Susan's favorite drink seems to be making a dominating appearance at the celebration. Glancing about, Talia noticed that most of the partygoers were nursing glasses of vodka. Occasionally, she spotted a waiter sporting a tray of wine or bourbon. But, the prevalent choice of the evening was unmistakably that of vodka.

As she lifted the glass to her lips, gingerly sipping, she felt the first searing pain cut sharply into her skull. Another wave of pain quickly followed on its heels, sending her staggering into the wall. Bracing herself, she placed her hand to her head, rubbing her temples with the pads of her fingers.

Is everything going according to plan? Talia's eyes narrowed. She realized the thoughts she heard weren't her own. Yes. With her telepathic watchdog effectively crippled, there's no way she'll sense our attack.

She couldn't distinguish whose thoughts she was picking up on. But, obviously, they were referring to her. Anxiously, she searched the faces of the partygoers. Londo and G'Kar were standing some ten feet distant, drinks in hand. They both stared at the bar, intently watching Commander Ivanova. They raised their glasses in a toast, clinking them in unison.

Eyes narrowing, she concentrated, attempting to pick up the conversation again. With that damned Russian out of the way, we'll control everything on Babylon 5. Talia frowned, the words in her mind didn't match what either Londo or G'Kar seemed to be saying.

She scanned the crowd again, searching for potential conspirators. She settled upon a pair of Drazi, then immediately dismissed them as a potential threat. They were so focused on in-house disputes, they couldn't be bothered with station-wide issues. She briefly thought of Garibaldi. As chief of security, he had access to every aspect of the station. And, he hadn't seemed all that surprised when she mentioned Ambassador Delenn's extracurricular activities.

Soon - it'll be all ours soon.

Talia redoubled her efforts, concentrating. The voices in her head were muffled. Nervously, she edged towards Susan. The tall Russian hadn't moved from the bar. However, her escorts had begun to thin out somewhat. Although, to her credit, she still commanded the attention of at least four Centauri women - and two Narn, noted Talia, seeing the women at the other end of the bar eyeing the Commander speculatively.

The bartender approached, placing another drink in front of the Commander. She fingered the glass, circling the rim with her index finger. A Centauri woman dressed in harem pants and a tight fitting bra leaned into Susan, placing her hand over the Commander's. She spoke softly, causing a blush to tint the tips of Susan's ears.

Come on!

Talia bit her bottom lip, making her decision. She still didn't know if she could fully trust the Commander, but it was obvious that someone - two someones, possibly more - meant to harm Ivanova. Even with her talents still being hindered, she knew she had to help Susan. As nonchalantly as possible, she made her way across the room.

Drink it, damn it!

She pushed her way through the crowd at the bar, elbowing several persistent Centauri women out of her way. She reached Susan just as she picked up her glass. As she lifted the glass to her lips, Talia whispered in her ear, "Put the drink down and come with me. Someone's attempting to poison you."

Wordlessly, with hardly a sidelong glance at Talia, Susan placed her drink back upon the bar. She turned, facing the blonde woman at her side. She pulled Talia into an embrace, kissing her deeply. "Who?"

"I don't know," Talia whispered in Susan's ear. "But, I know what I heard."

Susan leaned in, passionately kissing her again. As she pulled away, Talia got the distinct impression Susan was using her as a diversion while she scanned the room. Hands sliding down Talia's back, pulling her in closely, she hissed in Talia's ear. "Act like you're enjoying this. Pretend we're leaving early to go back to our quarters."

Smiling, Talia leaned into Susan. She made a deliberate showing of running her tongue along Susan's lips before delving into her hot mouth. Her fingers worked their way down Susan's strong back, blatantly cupping her buttocks in both hands, squeezing as she deepened the kiss.

Maintaining eye contact with Susan, she broke the kiss. Grabbing the Commander by the hand, she pulled her along behind her, making their way towards the exit. Behind them, she heard laughter. And silent curses. Some were upset because she was leading the Commander to her bed. Others were upset because she was taking the Commander away before she'd ingested the poisoned vodka.

They rushed through the corridors. Talia had been afraid of arousing suspicion by running, so they opted to walk at a brisk pace. Susan leaned into Talia, keeping her voice low as they passed several security personnel in the corridors.

"Who poisoned my drink?" she asked again.

"I don't know. My abilities are coming back; but it's slow. It's like a radio trying to tune in a station. I hear nothing but static, then occasionally, I'll hit upon the right frequency."

"But you definitely heard that they had poisoned my drink?" Susan increased their pace. Talia nodded, noticing that Susan had reached for her side, unsnapping her holster that housed her PPG.

"The voices were filled with glee when the bartender brought your drink. Then, impatience while that Centauri whore was fawning all over you. Followed by uncontrollable rage when you put your untouched drink down." Psi-witch must have found a way to counter-act the hypospray! Talia's eyes went wide. "Dr. Franklin's involved."

"We have to hurry."

Susan grabbed Talia's hand, pulling her along. Long strides increased to a run. The Commander was no longer concerned about others noticing their odd behavior. As the signs for Blue Sector came into view, she realized that Susan was rushing them towards their quarters.

She punched in the access code, darted inside. Talia stood by the door, watching as Susan grabbed a bag from beneath her bag. She unzipped it, quickly ruffling through the contents. Grabbing a glass jar filled with credits from beneath the sink, she shook its contents into the bag. Zipping it closed, she grabbed Talia by the hand, rushing her out the door.

"If we can get to the Zen Gardens, the Minbari will protect us. For a price."

Talia slowed to a halt, refusing to budge as Susan yanked on her arm. "Susan, stop."

The Commander relented, coming to stand beside Talia. She pulled her PPG from its holster. Licking her lips, she glanced nervously up and down the corridors. "What is it? Are you getting a vision?"


"Then why did we stop?"

"I want some answers." She caught the eye-roll, the impatient growl. Undaunted, Talia folded her arms over her chest, tapped her foot on the deck. "We don't go anywhere until I get some."

"Fine!" Susan rubbed her face with her hand. Talia saw the veins in her neck popping, her jaw clenching. When the Commander spoke, it was barely more than a growl. "What answers do you want?"

"I want to know what the Hell is going on around here! Dr. Franklin is a psychopath, attempting to drug me and kill you! Garibaldi is acting like an incompetent security chief that couldn't find his butt with both hands! Londo and G'Kar are suddenly your best friends! Ambassador Delenn is running the Minbari Mafia!"

"Okay," Susan stated blankly, as if expecting Talia to actually ask a question.

"And you – you have me flat on my back every time I turn around! And, just what did you do to the Grey Council?"

Susan exhaled loudly, rubbed her neck. "I thought we went over this in your briefing. After Sinclair's assassination, I seized control of everything he had before his replacement could arrive. Delenn and her Minbari thought they would press the opportunity to move beyond their sectors." Susan paused, glancing down the corridor. Satisfied that it was all clear, she turned back to Talia. "I may have – shoved - the Grey Council out an airlock to make a point." At Talia's shocked look, she shrugged. "I merely reinforced the deal Sinclair had set up with Delenn. The Minbari control Brown Sector, the Alien Sector and the Religious Sector. I take care of everything else."

"See; that's exactly what I mean! Apparently, Delenn is a mafia boss, but you control the entire syndicate! NO ONE is acting the way they're supposed to!"

"Including you."

"Excuse me?"

"Including you." Commander Ivanova stared at Talia, eyeing her suspiciously. "You haven't been acting right ever since that explosion. Are you sure the drugs aren't affecting more than your telepathic abilities?"


"You act like you don't know me." The Commander's eyes narrowed. "How do I know I can still trust you?"

"Because I'm the one who saved you from drinking poison!" Talia screamed in dismay.

"How do I know that?" Talia's mouth dropped open. She stared at Susan in disbelief. "I only have your word that my drink was poisoned. How do I know you're not leading me into a trap?"

"Oh, please! If I wanted you dead, I could have killed you in your bed a hundred times over!" She shot an exasperated look at Susan. "If you're that paranoid, Commander, why did you ever trust me?"

"Because I was raised to trust in the Guardians of Psi Corps." Exasperated, she rolled her eyes at Talia's look of disbelief. "Are you sure you didn't hit your head in that explosion? Don't tell me you don't remember Psi Corps? Guardians dressed in white, assigned to protect souls in jeopardy, turn the wicked to the light, and all that?" Furtively, she glanced down the corridor. "Look, we really don't have time for this right now. I promise, I'll explain everything as soon as we're safe."

The Commander tugged on Talia's hand, managing to drag her three steps down the corridor before Talia had the presence of mind to resist. She yanked hard, jerking Susan back around. "But, I can't remember! I don't know if you're a soul in jeopardy! Or, maybe you're wicked! How do I know I'm safe with you?"

Susan ceased her pulling of Talia's arm, stopped to stare at her. Helplessly, her mouth worked, unable to say anything. A pained expression flittered across her face. And, for the briefest of moments, Talia sensed that she had cut the Commander's heart open with that simple question.

"Because – " Susan said, finding her voice at last. " – I'm in love with you."

An electrical discharge broke the moment of silence. Talia screamed as a spot on the wall near her left ear burst into flames. Susan turned, rapidly firing off a round of her own. The barrel of a PPG disappeared around a corner. After a half second, it reappeared, taking aim again. Susan jerked on her arm, pulling her in the opposite direction.

Susan yanked on Talia's hand, practically dragging her along as she raced down the corridors. As she rounded one corner, she slid to a halt. Talia skidded into her, bumping her from behind.

"Well, hello, Susan." Talia recognized the voice instantly. "I was disappointed when you left the party so early."

Talia peeked over Ivanova's shoulder. Captain Sheridan was standing several yards in front of them, a PPG pointed at Susan's midsection. And, despite the fact that Susan's gun was aimed at him also, a broad smile spread over his face. He leaned against the metal wall of the corridor, looking like the proverbial cat that had swallowed the canary.

Susan turned abruptly, ushering Talia back around the corner. Dr. Franklin was there, holding a PPG rifle firmly in his grasp. A blood-soaked bandage covered his left eye, a deep cut stretching down his cheek. "Surprised your Minbari puppy didn't finish the job?" He taunted, stalking a step closer with each word. His gaze shifted to Talia, his eyes narrowed. "If you would have just continued to take your hypospray, things wouldn't have had to happen this way." He fired a blast at the floor, mere inches in front of Talia's shoe. She screamed, clutching at Susan. "It really just annoys me when patients don't follow my advice."

"Go to Hell!" Susan shouted, face contorting with rage. She fired off a shot, hitting Stephen in the kneecap.

He swore, clutching at his leg in pain. Susan ducked back around the corner. Letting out a blood-curdling yell, she charged, running full speed at Sheridan. He fired, catching her in the shoulder. Undaunted, she rushed forward, using her momentum to send him hurtling backwards. With one hand she hit the access panel on the wall. Shoving him inside, she slammed him into the metal wall. Rushing out, she punched the access panel again. The door slid shut automatically. With a wild grin, she watched as Sheridan struggled to his feet. He beat at the metal door, yelling, cursing Susan as his enraged face stared at hers through the glass portal. His expression of rage abruptly turned to fear as he heard the alarm, metal scraping against metal, and the expulsion of excess air.

As Susan turned from the airlock, she swayed on her feet. Talia caught her, placing pressure against the Commander's wound. Blood seeped from between her fingers as Susan covered Talia's hand with her own.

"Freeze!" came the shout from the end of the corridor.

Talia turned to see Garibaldi rushing towards them. He was still wearing his Santa suit, his hat covering his receding hairline once again. Several security guards flanked him, pulling their PPG's from their holsters.

Talia grabbed Susan, yanking her around a corner, rushing them down a corridor. She heard a shot, saw the scorch mark on the alabaster wall. "We just want to talk to you!" came Garibaldi's booming voice.

Susan was slowing down. Talia looked back at her lover. Her face was ashen. Sweat covered her face, running down to her collar. Blood dripped liberally from her wound, leaving a trail along the floor. Susan paused, leaning against a wall. Talia rushed back to her side, draping Susan's arm over her shoulder. Supporting her weight as best she could, she hurried them through the maze of corridors.

The sound of running boots on metal decks echoed in her ears as she guided them through the Zocalo. The shops were locked up for the evening. Desperate, Talia steered them towards the bars. To her dismay, even Earhart's was padlocked shut. "Michael," she cursed between clenched teeth.

"Leave me. Get to the docks. They don't want you, anyway." Susan implored, sinking to the floor.

"No!" She caught, held Susan's feverish gaze. "If we go, we go together."

Ivanova reached out, blindly groping for the wall. Using Talia and the wall both to support her, she struggled to her feet. Placing most of her weight on Talia, she dragged her feet, attempting to continue their flight.

Her weight dragging them both down, Talia fought to support Ivanova as best she could. She had taken Susan's PPG from her grasp and was now firing it blindly over her shoulder in an attempt to slow Garibaldi's closing security force. They pursued her doggedly, led by a man in a Santa suit through the station, towards the Docking Bay.

As they rounded another corner, Talia grabbed Susan by the shirt collar, yanking her out of sight. A panel opened, and they landed inside a transport tube. She shouted their destination, feeling the car begin to start. As their momentum increased, she allowed herself to breathe a deep sigh of relief.

Turning, she focused her attention on Susan. The Commander was seated in a corner, leaning against the metal wall of the transport tube. Blood was smeared on the wall from where she had slowly sank to her knees, leaving a gruesome trail in her wake. Blood leaked from the corner of her mouth and she stared blankly at the floor.

"Susan!" She knelt before Ivanova, slapping her face. "Susan! Look at me!"

The Russian Commander barely turned her head, focusing on the blonde before her. "Talia?"

"Hang on, Susan." She kissed Ivanova's forehead. "We're safe now."

The lights of the transport tube flickered, then went out completely. The forward motion of the car abruptly halted, sending Talia flying into the floor. The emergency lighting kicked in as she picked herself up.

"Oh, Ivanova! We're coming to get you!" Michael's sing-song voice announced from over the speaker system, filling the interior of the car. "We've cut the power!" He laughed gleefully. "My men are in the tunnels, planting explosives! You might survive the explosion - if you're lucky." A long pause. Talia heard the distinctive sound of metal banging on metal, moved closer to Susan, attempting to shield her. "Or, is that if you're NOT lucky? Depends on your point of view, I guess. If you and your Psi Corps whore do survive, I have a new interrogation technique to show you!"

The pounding of metal on metal increased in force. Talia briefly had the impression they were trying to beat their way into the car, contrary to what Michael had said. "Of course, I could just wait you out. Let you pass out from lack of oxygen. Then, come in and collect the bodies. Of course, though, Franklin wants the Psi-bitch alive. He's never had the opportunity to cut one open. Rumor is the Guardians' hearts are line with gold alloy. Wonder what price one of those would fetch in the Zocalo?"

A grinding sound, then flashes of light came into focus. Hot sparks flew from the wall, landing on the floor of the transport tube. Dimly, Talia realized they were using blowtorches, cutting their way through the metal, into the car. She felt Susan reach for her, fingers closing about her hand. As she felt the PPG slide from her fingers, she pressed her lips to Susan's. She tasted copper upon her lips, then salt from Susan's sweat and blood combined. Pulling back, she looked into Susan's steel blue eyes as the trigger was pulled.

With a startled gasp, Talia reached out, fingers blindly groping for the wall of the transport tube. Pain clutched her chest as she clutched at her midsection. Her eyes went wide with fear.

"Talia? Are you okay?"

Dimly, she registered the concerned voice at her ear. Turning slowly, she saw Commander Ivanova, standing beside her, a worried expression etched plainly on her face. She slowly nodded, blinking several times.

They were in the transport tube. The Commander was standing at ease beside her, hands clutched firmly behind her back in standard pose. Her hair was tied back in its customary braid, falling midway down the back of her royal blue uniform. She looked down, taking in her own appearance. Gone was her bloodstained red evening dress, replaced by her usual gold and black outfit. Her Psi Corps pin rested firmly above her heart, her gloves securely on her hands.

"Are you sure you're okay, Ms. Winters?" Commander Ivanova persisted. "Because, quite frankly, you look as if a Pak'ma'ra just ate your cat."

That earned a small snigger from the transport tube's only other rider. Talia's gaze shifted, taking in the passenger's appearance. A young man in a security uniform. His hair was long, past his shoulders. He stood with one hand resting on his PPG. His smirk made it clear he was obviously enjoying the exchange between the Commander and the telepath.

"Commander! He's got a bomb!" Talia shouted.

The Commander's eyes went wide. So did the would-be bomber's. Ivanova pushed Talia, shoving her towards the entrance of the transport tube. The bomber jerked his PPG free at the same time Ivanova rushed him. Talia heard the discharge from the PPG, smelt the burning of fabric and flesh. Ivanova's momentum carried her forward, her fist connecting with the bomber's jaw.

As he fell to the floor unconscious, Ivanova's gaze zeroed in on the black box located in the corner of the transport tube. He had been standing in front of it, shielding it from their view. Her uniform stained with her blood, her left arm useless, she tapped her hand against the wall to activate her link. "Garibaldi, I think we have a situation!"

Nervously, she stared at the black box. It had all sorts of intimidating wires coming from it, connecting to a rather nasty looking compound of CO-2. Slowly, she edged away from the box. Speaking lowly, in what she hoped was a reassuring voice, she ordered Ms. Winters to crouch down in the corner farthest from the device and cover her head with her hands.

Struggling, Ivanova worked her way out of her uniform jacket. Carefully, she draped it over Ms. Winters' head and shoulders, covering her back. Not that she expected the jacket to do much to shield the woman from a bomb. Not the jacket by itself, anyway.

Sweat running down her face, blood soaking through her white shirt, she took up her position. Placing herself between Ms. Winters and the bomb, she waited. Nervously, she watched the destination display on the transporter tube's LED. She was unsure if the bomb was designed to go off on a timer - or at a specific location on the station. And, she had knocked out the one person who might possibly be able to tell her.

Several hours later, Talia Winters sauntered through the doors of Medlab. She did a half-pause, noticeably missing a step when she saw Dr. Franklin. He was standing beside Commander Ivanova's bed, taking readings. Hesitantly, she approached.

Susan turned to her, flashing a brilliant smile. "Ms. Winters. I believe I owe you a thank you."

"Pardon?" Talia looked at the Commander, quite baffled.

"For saving my life."

"But - you were shot."

"Yes, I was," confirmed the Russian. "And, it hurts like hell. But, I'd much rather be shot than blown up."

Dr. Franklin laughed, injected a hypospray into the Commander's neck. "You," he pointed at Ivanova, "Are relieved of duty until that shoulder heals." He caught the hopeful look on Ivanova's face. "Right after the Christmas party. Captain's orders."

Chuckling at Ivanova's crestfallen expression, Dr. Franklin scribbled something on his pad. Smiling at the blonde, he nodded, "Ms. Winters. If you'll excuse me, I need to get dressed for tonight's festivities. I'm taking Nurse Ratchet." Whistling to himself, he disappeared into his office, leaving Talia and Susan alone.

"Well, then." Susan shrugged. "As I said, seems I owe you a thank you for not letting my butt get blown off." She smiled at the endearing laugh that came from Talia. "Would you care to accompany me to the Christmas party?" She caught Talia's shocked expression. "I probably won't be up for much dancing, but I'm told I make one hell of a fine looking escort."

"You certainly do, Commander Ivanova." Talia smiled. Reaching out, she offered a hand to the Commander, helping her off the exam table. To her delight, Susan didn't shy away from her touch.

They left Medlab together, Susan's normally long stride reduced to a casual stroll as they walked the corridor. Perspiration broke out on her brow and she stopped to rest, leaning against the metal wall. She caught Talia's concerned expression, flashed what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "Just have to stop by my quarters and change into my dress uniform. It's formal, you know."

Talia reached out, touching the Commander's arm. Susan looked down, frowning. Still, she didn't remove Talia's hand. "We don't have to go if you don't feel up to it," Talia offered.

"I invited you. You said yes. We're going. End of story."

Talia immediately stiffened. One of her eyebrows arched at the Commander's authoritarian tone. She bit back her retort as she saw the mischievous look in Ivanova's eyes. "I'm taking you home. You're going to rest. Then, we'll discuss it," she countered.

Susan shrugged, draping her arm over Talia's shoulder. As they continued down the corridor, she leaned more of her weight on her willing escort. "Maybe just a short nap before we go," she acquiesced. "But, don't let me oversleep. G'Kar said he's bringing Narn candy canes."

The End

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