DISCLAIMER: I don't own Babylon 5 or any of the characters represented in the show. They're owned by someone else who isn't me. I'm doing this for fun - I'm not making a profit, any kind of money or anything else off of this. No copyright infringement is implied/meant/deliberate in any way, shape or form. If I've forgotten something, insert the usual disclaimer stuff here.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Saving Talia
By Del Robertson


Commander Ivanova strolled through the corridors of Blue Sector, hands clasped loosely behind her back in a relaxed manner. On a rare occasion, everything had run smoothly during her shift. No disputes between the Narn and Centauri ships looking to dock at the station. No strike pending with the dock workers. No raiders marauding ships in the sector. And, no boom. In her book, no boom today meant a good day, indeed.

As a matter of fact, it had been such a good day that she had decided to take advantage of some comp time she had stacking up and knocked off for the rest of the day. Her stomach grumbled. Glancing at her chronometer, Ivanova realized it was creeping up on her usual lunch time. A quick bite to eat in the Zocalo, maybe pick up a new vid, a bottle of Vodka. Sounds like a plan to me.

She stood in the corridor, hands still loosely clasped behind her back in standard Ivanova-fashion, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet as she patiently awaited the arrival of the transport tube. The tube seemed to be running insufferably slow, and she was just contemplating on skipping lunch altogether when she heard it approaching. The doors opened and she briskly stepped inside.

As she crossed through the open door into the transport tube, her peripheral vision caught the flash of chrome. Reflexively, her right arm shot up, her hand clasping about the metal pipe a split second before it would have impacted with her nose. A sharp shriek echoed from her would-be assailant as she caught the weapon, smoothly wrenched it free from her attacker's grip. Agitated, she jerked her head to the right, her attention drawn to the direction the attack had come from.

"Commander Ivanova!" Talia Winters stood no more than six inches away, one hand covering her mouth that had dropped open in shock. "I am so sorry! I thought you were Garibaldi."

Ivanova glanced at the metal pipe held firmly in her grasp, looked back at Ms. Winters. She arched an eyebrow in surprise. "And, tell me, Ms. Winters," she struggled to keep her voice at an even keel. "How could you possibly mistake me for Mr. Garibaldi? And, why exactly are you lying in wait in a transport tube, ready to beat the chief of security in the head with a potentially deadly weapon?"

"I didn't think it would severely injure him, Commander." She caught the slight quirk of the Commander's eyebrow. "It's a fairly thin pipe. And, he's pretty hard headed."

Ivanova hefted the pipe, bouncing its weight up and down in her hand. Ms. Winters was right; it was pretty lightweight. Unlikely that it would cause any real damage to anyone.

"Still," pressed the Russian Commander, "Why would you want to hit him in the head in the first place, Ms. Winters?"

"Garibaldi's been – He's a – I mean – ." A deep sigh of frustration emanated from Talia at her inability to articulate the reasoning behind her actions. "I'm attempting to dissuade Garibaldi from pursuing me."

"I know Michael's always been a pest," A deep frown marred the lovely Russian's features, "But don't you think bashing him with a conduit pipe is a bit extreme?"

"Under normal circumstances, I'd tend to agree with you, Commander. But, Mr. Garibaldi's been – How can I put this delicately? - progressively more determined in his efforts as of late." Talia caught the look of disbelief that flitted across Ivanova's face before her neutral command mask slipped back into place. "I'm sorry; it's a long story, and not one that I should be bothering you with." She clasped her gloved hands tightly together, resuming her position near the back of the lift. Bowing her head demurely, a curtain of blonde hair fell around her face, effectively hiding her pained expression from the other woman.

Ivanova cocked her head to one side, noting the emotional frailty of Ms. Winters at this particular moment. In the past, she may have carelessly, albeit not maliciously, added salt to her wounds with a callous, off-hand remark. Their relationship had matured somewhat since their first meeting, though. She no longer regarded Ms. Winters with the same animosity that she held for the rest of Psi Corps. It had taken time, and dogged persistence from the blonde telepath, but she had finally managed to get Ivanova to see her as a person, rather than a cog in a military machine. Indeed, she had even eventually formed a somewhat tedious friendship with the beautiful, enigmatic blonde.

Perhaps that's why she suddenly found herself by the telepath's side, reaching out a hand, hesitantly touching her arm. "Why don't you let me be the one to decide what you should and should not be bothering me with, Ms. Winters?" Her tones were rich, soothing, reassuring.

Talia looked up, slowly meeting the Commander's piercing gaze. "Are you sure, Commander? You seemed to be in a hurry, and I wouldn't want to inconvenience you – "

"- I'll have you know that was my usual, proud long-legged Russian stride that you saw." Susan cut her off with a flick of her hand, a brilliant smile. "I was just on my way for lunch." Before she had time to consider the ramifications of her invitation, the words were out of her mouth. "Join me. We'll discuss your problem over a nice meal."

"Thank you." Talia smiled, not believing her good fortune. She had expected the Commander to scoff at her, even be offended that she was attempting to assault one of her fellow officers. She never dreamed that the lovely Russian Commander would invite her to lunch!

She accepted the invitation, then refrained from further conversation during the remainder of the ride in the transport tube, fearing that one wrong word, one misstep on her part, and the daunting officer would find a reason to cancel their lunch engagement. Instead, she stood near the back of the tube, head bowed, sneaking occasional glimpses of the Commander's profile. She was standing slightly in front of and to the right of Talia, her back to the telepath. Her hands were clasped behind her back in what she had come to recognize as Ivanova's at-ease stance. Her spine remained rigidly stiff, her proud carriage intact at all times. Her hair was worn in a tight braid, falling midway down her back, between her shoulder blades.

Talia stared at that severe braid, imagining herself stepping in place behind the tall brunette. Reaching up, loosening the braid. Running her fingers through long, luxurious locks as she freed Susan's hair from its tight confines. She longed to peel away the layers that restricted Ivanova, confined her. She had always sensed an animalistic intensity simmering just beneath the Commander's surface. She'd caught it on several occasions, barely restrained, on those instances she'd argued with Ivanova. The intense, piercing gaze, the firm set of her jaw, the rigid muscles tightening, ready to lash out.

Those were the times when Ivanova seemed close to losing control. When they were arguing; when she was passionate about her opinions. It seemed that Talia had the ability to bring out the beast within. She stared at Ivanova longingly, wondering what the mysterious Russian was like in bed. I wonder if I can make her growl? A shiver ran down Talia's spine as she thought about that; being pinned beneath the stronger woman, unable to wriggle from beneath her, Susan's mouth at her ear, growling low before she sunk her canines deep into her neck.

A sharp gasp escaped Talia's lips. Ivanova turned around, a look of concern flickering across her face. Talia smiled demurely, lowering her head, not daring to look at the Commander for the rest of the ride.

Ivanova took another big bite from her sandwich, chewed heartily. She'd chosen a plain ham and cheese, slathered in mayo and mustard. She'd lost considerable time walking at Ms. Winters' slower pace, and her appetite was suddenly voracious. I shouldn't have put lunch off until so late, she thought, taking another healthy bite. She swallowed, chased her sandwich with a big gulp from her drink.

"You know, if you weren't hungry, you could've just said so," she advised her lunch companion.

"I'm sorry; what?" Talia shook her head in confusion as she was drawn out of her reverie.

"Your salad," clarified Ivanova, gesturing at the nearly full plate sitting in front of the blonde. "You've prodded it with your fork, swirled it around a bit, but you've only actually taken a total of three bites."

"I'm sorry," apologized the blonde, offering a weak smile. "I thought I was hungry."

"But ham salad just doesn't cut it?" Ivanova guessed.

"The salad's delicious," Talia amended. "You chose a nice restaurant."

She looked around, taking in her surroundings. She'd had her initial misgivings when the Commander had directed her to a tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurant located in the far recesses of the Zocalo. The marketplace was huge, and although Talia was a shopper at heart, she'd never ventured as far back as the Commander led her today. Partially because she was able to find everything she'd ever needed in the shops displayed on the main promenade. And, partly because she'd overheard the tales of the cutthroats from down below sneaking up through hidden passages, mugging patrons, even kidnapping unsuspecting victims, then disappearing into the sanctuary of down below, secure in the knowledge that even Garibaldi's security teams would think twice about pursuit.

So, she'd been moderately surprised when under the Commander's escort, she found herself seated at a glass and wrought-iron table on the balcony, with an unsurpassed view of the exotic gardens below. She had often been in the gardens and had looked up, wondering about the occasional couple she spotted dining on the balcony. But, try as she might, she had never figured out which particular restaurant offered such a view of the gardens. And, after a time, she felt foolish, a party of one asking for a table for two with a balcony view, only to be repeatedly informed by multiple establishments that they offered no such service.

"I can't believe you brought me to such a nice place, Commander." She caught the arched eyebrow, quickly amended her sentence. "I wasn't aware that you knew about a place on the station with such a delightful view."

Ivanova glanced around at her surroundings, as if noticing them for the first time. She leaned over the balcony railing, taking in the view of the gardens below. With a nonchalant shrug, she met Talia's gaze. "They've got the best ham and cheese sandwiches, Ms. Winters. The view's just aesthetics."

"The surroundings, the beauty are important, Commander. You could have the best meal in the universe, but what good is it if you don't have a good view, someone to share the experience with?"

"I'd still have a good sandwich." A smirk. "That's what's important, not the scenery."

"Spoken like a true officer. What's the old saying about an army travels on its stomach?" Talia smiled, noting that the Commander had only said the view was unimportant, not her companionship.

"I think the phrase you're looking for is an army travels on its stomach because it's too tired to travel on its feet." Ivanova grinned at the chuckle that elicited from Talia. Then, she turned suddenly serious, her smile fading, her tone losing all trace of its previous mirth. "I think it's time you told me why you're so intent on smashing in Garibaldi's skull."

Talia frowned, lowered her fork to her plate. She folded both hands in her lap, looking the Commander dead in the eyes as she began her explanation. "As you know, Commander Ivanova, Mr. Garibaldi's always been intent in his pursuit of me."

Ivanova nodded. "I don't think he's ever tried to hide his infatuation for you, Ms. Winters."

"True. From my very first week on Babylon 5, he's always been there. Laying in wait around every corner, lurking in every corridor. I used to think he purposefully rode up and down in the transport tubes all day waiting to corner me." A rueful smile. "That was before I learned he didn't have to lay in wait. He somehow seemed to know where I was at all times and was able to coordinate his schedule to 'bump' into me everywhere I went, no matter how many times I rearranged my own schedule."

"Michael's always made a nuisance of himself, Ms. Winters."

"I'm well aware of that, Commander Ivanova," Talia stiffened slightly. "This isn't about him staking out the transport tubes and suddenly appearing out of nowhere at the most inopportune times. This is about him stalking me."

"You think Mr. Garibaldi's . . . interest . . . in you has escalated to an obsession?" Susan struggled to remain calm, keep her voice even.

"I know how this sounds, Commander." Her voice wavered a little, she bit her bottom lip in hesitation. "And, I know the two of you are colleagues. That's why I struggled with this for a long time without saying anything."

"Rest assured, Ms. Winters," Susan met, held her gaze, "Regardless of my own relationship with Mr. Garibaldi, I'll look into any inappropriate conduct on his part."

"At first, I thought I was just imagining things. I'd been working long hours on the Drazi negotiations. And, I must admit that my defenses were lowered. I was able to pick up on some aggressiveness emanating from Michael." She noted the subtle rigidity that came over Ivanova when she made mention of her psi abilities. "I passed it off as just my being tired and an overactive imagination." A slight pause as she sipped her hot tea. "But, I was running late from a meeting yesterday and had another client waiting for my services. I suggested we meet in the gardens as it was halfway between my previous meeting and my current meeting. He knew I hadn't eaten and was thoughtful enough to bring takeout from one of the local restaurants with him. When Mr. Garibaldi saw us together in the garden, he went ballistic."

"He confronted your client?" asked Susan.

"He ended up costing me a client, Commander. He scared that poor man off the station." She saw the eyebrow arch in surprise. "And, that's not the first time, either. I've had four clients mysteriously decide they no longer require my services and cancel the contract with no notice."

"You suspect Garibaldi was to blame in all these instances?"

Talia nodded. "And, I shudder to think of what he might do if I was actually on a date, Commander."

Ivanova tossed her half-eaten ham and cheese back on her plate, her appetite suddenly quelled. She resolutely pushed the plate away. "I'll speak with him, Ms. Winters." Her jaw was clenched so tight, the words rumbled out between grinding teeth.

"No! That'll just make things worse!" Talia glanced around quickly; seeing a handful of other patrons staring at her sudden outburst. She leaned across the table, lowering her voice to a more respectable decibel. "I asked someone for help before you," she confided. "Zack Allen was suddenly taken off his regular shift and reassigned to perimeter duty near Brown Sector."

"I take it you confided in Zack Allen prior to his reassignment?"

A curt nod. "He'd been escorting me to and from my meetings, running interference so I didn't have any more 'incidents' with Michael. He spotted us talking together in the Zocalo. I was afraid he was going to do something insane. But, he just looked at the two of us together, this odd expression on his face, and walked away. The next day, I found out Zack had been reassigned." She furtively glanced around, as if expecting Garibaldi to suddenly materialize from thin air. "I went to Zack's quarters after his shift. He didn't want to let me in. I finally convinced him to open the door." A slight pause. "Susan, his face was a mess."

"Michael beat him up?" Ivanova pressed, leaning across the table in rapt attention.

"Zack wouldn't admit to it; But, I'm certain that's what happened."

If it was possible, Ivanova's jaw tightened even more. She struggled to bite out her words between tightly clenched teeth. "Don't worry, Ms. Winters." She reached forward, patted Talia's arm reassuringly. "I won't let anything happen to you."

Commander Ivanova paced back and forth, quickly eating up the deck of C&C. She slept fitfully, unable to get Talia's narration out of her head. She'd heard the tremor in Talia's voice, sensed her anxiety. Images, memories of their late lunch in the Zocalo haunted her dreams. A myriad of complex images, some real, others imaginary fantasies of how her subconscious wished the afternoon had gone.

In her dreams, lunch had shifted from a formal, business encounter to something far more - personal - and enjoyable. Conversation had shifted from the threat of stalking security chiefs to favorite restaurants to favorite vids - to far more intimate arenas. Then, her dreams had shifted again, taking on nightmarish proportions. Images of them together, laughing, happy; then, the dream distorting, turning brackish as Garibaldi invaded their tranquility. Angry, screaming obscenities at them, threatening them, pulling his PPG -

Her mind rebelled at the possibility, the chance that Garibaldi was capable of the things that Talia had accused him of. Even as she reassured Talia that she would protect her, she was already preparing a mental checklist of steps she needed to take to prove Michael's innocence. She hated this; this position she'd been put in, not knowing if she should trust Talia - or Michael.

Garibaldi may be the chief of security, but Ivanova wasn't without her own detective skills. She'd done some research, starting with Zack Allen. It was fairly simple to verify that part of Talia's narration. She'd found him guarding the perimeter separating the area between Brown Sector and the rest of the station. That little traveled area commonly referred to as No Man's Land. It was a dark part of the station that was like the tower gate leading to the worst part of Babylon 5. The underbelly that no one liked to talk about. The area of desert before Hell.

She ostensibly told Zack that she'd been looking for a pick-pocket that surfaced in the Zocalo that afternoon. He wisely advised her to let it go, steer clear of Brown Sector. He assured her that whatever the pickpocket may have absconded with, it wasn't worth anyone's life. She wryly agreed with his wisdom in an attempt to gain his confidence.

That opened up the line of questioning; gave her the opportunity she needed to nonchalantly ask him who he'd tangled with. He blanched at the initial question, hesitated before confessing to a run-in with a few lurkers. She'd pressed, but he never would change his story, no matter how much she badgered him. She could tell he wasn't telling the whole truth, but he wouldn't come out and say that it was Garibaldi's handiwork that left his face in the shape it was.

She'd thought it was mere coincidence yesterday when she had spotted Garibaldi patrolling the perimeter of the Zocalo as she and Ms. Winters were leaving the cafe after lunch. She'd began to grow suspicious, however, when she turned to look over her shoulder several times during the walk back to Ms. Winters' quarters and managed to catch an occasional glimpse of the security chief seemingly tailing them. Her suspicions quickly heightened past the point of mere coincidence when she left Talia's quarters later that evening, almost running into Michael as she was stepping into the corridor. He mumbled an apology, stating he had received a report of suspicious activity in the area, before quickly darting off to some other emergency.

She'd spent the morning tracking down Talia's claims that Mr. Garibaldi had gotten a little rough with some of her clients. The results of her inquiries were disturbing, to say the least. There were several complaints lodged within the course of the past six months against the chief of security for harassment. A reference cross-check revealed half of the complainants were clients of Ms. Winters.

And, she'd managed to locate the client that had most recently cancelled his contract negotiations with the station's resident commercial telepath. He was on a shuttle back to Minbar, but he'd been willing to answer a few questions over a subspace channel. He admitted to a run-in with the security chief. And, he confirmed that he had, indeed, decided to withdraw his contract negotiations due in part to that confrontation. However, he refused to discuss the matter any farther, stating that it would be a direct violation of his rights.

A deep grumble worked its way up her throat. She repeatedly punched her open palm with her fist as she stalked the length of C&C. Wisely, her subordinates steered a clear path, actively avoided any direct eye contact with the Commander. Lt. Corwin had made the mistake of asking her if everything was alright when she first arrived on deck. That question had been met with a look that could have incinerated a hundred Starfuries.

A shrill beep echoed in Corwin's ear. He adjusted his headset, listened to the incoming call. Taking a deep breath, exhaling slowly, he swiveled in his chair. Watching the brooding Russian pacing back and forth, he timed her strides; then, screwing his eyes shut, he stepped directly into her path.

The collision jarred him, almost knocking him off his feet. When he finally gathered up the nerve to open his eyes, he found himself staring directly into a set of dark-rimmed, deeply annoyed blue-grey eyes. C & C had grown deathly quiet, and he could feel the stare of every set of eyes in the room on him and the Commander.

"Sir, you have an incoming message."

"What part of hold all my calls do you not comprehend, Lt. Corwin?" asked with an arch of an eyebrow, a feral snarl.

"It's priority, Commander." A half-heartbeat. "From Ms. Winters."

"Damn!" Commander Ivanova snatched his headset off, pushed Corwin out of her way, stormed to her station. She accessed her panel, adjusted the confiscated headset as the image of Talia Winters flickered on her screen.

"Ms. Winters." Her voice sounded remarkably calm, professional. "Is everything okay?"

"I-I'm sorry," apologized the image of Talia. Susan noticed she didn't make direct eye contact; her attention was focused on something out of vid range. "I shouldn't be disturbing you - "

"You marked your transmission as a priority message, Ms. Winters." Ivanova attempted to keep her voice soothing, despite being on the edge of losing what little patience she possessed. "What can I do for you?"

"I'm in the Zocalo."

"You had a meeting there - " Ivanova nodded, remembering the commercial telepath's itinerary for the day. She discreetly checked the time. " - four hours ago," her brow furrowed.

"The meeting ended over two hours ago," confided Talia. "I haven't been able to leave the restaurant."

"Why?" asked Ivanova, a sinking feeling settling deep in her gut.

"Mr. Garibaldi's here." A slight pause as the image of Talia looked at something to her left. Michael, assumed Susan. "He followed me to the restaurant. And, he's been hanging around outside ever since." There was a moment of silence. Susan could almost swear she saw Talia's lower lip tremble. "I'm - reluctant - to leave the restaurant with him - " her words trailed off.

"I'll be right there."

"You don't have to - "

" - What did I just say?" barked Ivanova. Then, softer, she added, "I'll be there in a flash. Just sit tight and don't go anywhere."

The image of Talia flashed a weak smile at the Commander. Ivanova ended the transmission, yanked the headset off, throwing it at Lt. Corwin. She snapped off a litany of orders, including "You have C & C" before rushing out the doors towards the nearest transport tube.

Commander Ivanova nearly ran the whole way to the Zocalo. She certainly would have if the transport tube had been any slower. The station was only five miles long, but today, it may have well been a hundred. She relentlessly pushed past slower moving personnel at an escalating pace. Rounding the corridor that led to the main marketplace, she slid, going down on one knee. She hurriedly pushed herself up, scanning the crowd for any sign of Garibaldi.

She slowed her pace to a leisurely stroll, forcing herself to clasp her hands behind her back in her at-ease position. She looked the very model of another shopper meandering through the Zocalo shops. The only thing that gave her away were the beads of perspiration trickling down the side of her face.

Taking a deep breath, Ivanova entered the dimly lit restaurant. She spotted Ms. Winters right away, seated at a table in the corner. From her vantage point, she was able to see the main Zocalo, without passersby being able to discern her from the shadows. She clutched a tumbler of water tightly in her grasp, her grip so tight Ivanova was worried she might actually break the glass. Her other hand rubbed at her temple in tiny circles, as if attempting to ward off a migraine. A deep-set frown marred her otherwise flawless features.

As she drew near, Talia glanced up, somehow sensing her presence. The haunted expression left her eyes, replaced by a flicker of relief as she recognized the military blue, the statuesque carriage, the long, brunette hair and steel blue eyes. An almost audible sigh escaped her lips as Ivanova came to stand beside her, strong hands gripping the back of the nearest wooden chair.

"I'm so sorry for dragging you away from your duties - " she began the apology in earnest.

"It's okay," Ivanova held up one hand, as if to shush the request for forgiveness. "You sounded very - " What's a suitably diplomatic term? " - distraught when you called earlier."

"He showed up shortly after I did. The client was already here, seated at a table nearer the window. Of course, I couldn't very well ask the client to relocate to another table."

"Of course not," agreed Ivanova, amicably.

"I spotted him immediately. At first I tried to ignore him, but I kept feeling him watching me. And, every time I looked up, there he was, staring back at me."

"Did he try to make contact with you?" pressed Ivanova, pulling out the chair, seating herself next to Talia.

"No." A slight pause. "Unless you count subtle nods, winks, smirks and waves in my direction every time he caught me looking."

"Sounds like typical Garibaldi antics," shrugged Ivanova. "Did he make contact with your client?"

Talia shook her head. "No."

"What about when the client left?"

Talia thought for a moment. "No, I don't think so. When Mr. Garibaldi wasn't standing directly across from the restaurant, he was strolling up and down the Zocalo, hands clutched behind his back, whistling and pretending to shop."

"Like he was waiting for something to happen?" Ivanova tapped her fingers on the tabletop, drumming a tune as she thought about the scenario. "Did he follow your client when he left?"

"For a bit. I was going to take advantage and slip out the other direction while Garibaldi was occupied," admitted Talia. "But, he was back before I could even pay my bill."

"And you've been here ever since?"

Talia nodded. "Every time I think he's gone, I try to leave, and he's back before I make it three steps to the door." A hint of pink tinged the blonde's fair complexion. "I guess I got a little panicky and called you." Another deep sigh. "I'm so sorry."

Susan reached out, taking Talia's gloved hand that rested on the tabletop in her own. She gripped the hand reassuringly, gave it a gentle squeeze. "It's okay, Talia." The Commander looked down, staring at their intertwined hands, as if just realizing what she was doing. She released Talia's hand, retreating to her own side of the table. She abruptly stood, her chair loudly scraping along the floor. "Listen, I didn't see any sign of Garibaldi out there when I came in. But, what say I walk you to your quarters, just in case?"

"Thank you, Commander." Ms. Winters smiled demurely, keeping her head bowed, refusing to make eye contact.

She didn't want the other woman to see what sort of effect she had on her - by first holding her hand tenderly, then letting it suddenly drop from her limp fingers. What would the Commander say if she knew she'd unwittingly caused the very same reaction in Talia's heart? It had soared on wings with the Commander's touch, then dropped - fell and crashed as the touch had been unceremoniously revoked. She just prayed they would arrive safely back at her quarters without further humiliation so she could climb into bed alone and drown her misery in a bottle of wine and a sad movie.

Ivanova shifted on uncertain feet, paced back and forth in front of the closed door. She reached out, extending trembling fingers to activate the door chime. Frowning, she yanked her hand back a split second before she touched it. She resumed her pacing, boots echoing loudly on the metal deck. She paused, leaning against the opposite wall. Clasping her hands behind her back, she stood there, staring at the door. She rubbed a hand over her weary face, leveling her gaze once again at the offending door.

It's only a door, for crying out loud! Ivanova's rational voice screamed inside her head. But, she's in there! Screamed her irrational voice, the one that had her pacing around in circles in a corridor, afraid to ring a single door chime. Of course she's in there. That's why we're here, prodded the rational voice again, ring the chime. If I ring the chime, she might answer! There was a long pause, as if Ivanova's psyche was trying to come up with a logical argument to dissuade her irrational fears. It's your duty.

Ivanova sighed heavily. Her duty. That argument always won out. She was the perfect officer, always putting her duty first. Before everything else. Even her own fears. Taking a deep breath, she resolutely pushed off from the wall, crossing the corridor. She reached for the chime –

The door opened, Ms. Winters coming out, nearly barreling into Ivanova. "Ah, Commander. I thought perhaps you were called to C & C." She stepped into the hallway, adjusting the gold earring in her left ear.

"No," shrugged Ivanova, smiling sheepishly. "Just running a little late."

Talia flashed a smile of her own. She didn't tell the Commander that she had known she was outside for a full ten minutes before she opened the door. She had heard the distinctive sound of her military boots echoing on the deck outside her door. And, even though she was a close proximity telepath and couldn't read the Commander's turbulent thoughts through the bulkhead, she somehow sensed it was Ivanova in the corridor.

The same way she sensed that she should wear her gold and black outfit today. Ivanova had never actually voiced her opinion, but Talia was able to sense that it was the dress the Commander preferred. And, she also knew that the tall Russian didn't care at all for her olive green dress. That's why it had remained hanging in the back of the closet for weeks now. Not that she would ever deliberately change her own preferences to mirror the Commander's. But, she had discovered there were certain things that made the brooding Russian uncomfortable. And, for some reason, that olive green dress was one of those things.

She wasn't positive why. Perhaps the olive drab color reminded her of her brother, Ganya, lost during the war. Perhaps that was the color of his uniform – and the shade brought back painful memories. They had never really discussed the issue, but Susan had broached it over lunch one day when Talia asked her why she wore only the one earring, a diamond stud in her left ear. Susan had confided in her that it was in honor of her brother. And, even without Susan telling her, she could sense they were very close.

She had always been acutely aware of every move the Commander made, conscious or otherwise. The ingrained sense of duty and military decorum present at all times, even when she was off-duty. She had always been attracted to the uniform, the officer. But, as they were beginning to spend more and more time together, she was learning more about the woman beneath the uniform. And, she was every bit as magnificent as Talia had imagined.

Now, she was beginning to understand the idiosyncrasies that made up Susan Ivanova. The little arch of her brow when Talia said something she hadn't considered before. The quirk that appeared at the corner of her mouth when Talia did something klutzy in her presence. The bright smile that greeted her every time she met her, ready to escort her somewhere. The growing amount of uncertainty that was reflected in the Commander's eyes every night as she escorted her to her quarters. Every night, Talia invited her in. And, every night, the Commander hesitated before acquiescing, taking a determined step into the commercial telepath's quarters. And, every night before Susan left her quarters, standing beside the door, she saw that same hesitant look in her eyes again.

A self-indulgent smile formed on Talia's lips as she walked beside the Commander, listening to her ramblings about the latest Narn-Centauri struggle over who would be first into the docking bay and the Commander's subsequent threat to not allow either party to dock if they couldn't act civilized for two minutes. Yes, there were many advantages to being a telepath, but she didn't even have to be a P-1 to sense what was already painfully obvious: Commander Ivanova was beginning to fall for her. Whether she was aware of it or not.

Talia smelled the scent of fresh roses, glanced up, surprised to find that they had wandered into the garden. She had been so caught up in her musings, she hadn't realized the Commander had steered them through the corridors with this destination in mind. Such a romantic! Her smile brightened. Over the course of the past week, the Commander had gone out of her way to make Talia feel like she was more than just a bodyguard. By taking her on strolls through the garden, rather than just through the corridors to and from meetings.

She paused, stopping to smell a deep burgundy rose. Ivanova stopped, standing beside her, hands clasped in their customary position behind her back. She watched Talia with a soft expression. "Do you have any appointments scheduled for today?" she asked. Of course, she already knew the answer to that question. Ever since she'd started pulling guard duty, she'd been privy to Ms. Winter's entire itinerary.

"No," Talia smiled coyly into the flower. "Did you have something planned for today, Commander?" Susan. She still didn't dare vocalize the Commander's first name; was afraid her escort wouldn't be comfortable with that level of intimacy, yet. So, she continued to address her as Commander or Commander Ivanova.

"No." Susan visibly shivered. No one else was able to elicit the sort of reaction Talia did just by addressing her by her title. The tones were smooth, rich in cadence, almost like a lover's caress. How she could make a military rank sound like such a term of endearment, she had no idea. "I thought maybe we could pick up an early lunch and eat in the garden," a slight pause, "perhaps in the glade beneath the wisteria trees?"

A delighted smile flitted across Talia's face. This was an unexpected development. "I'd be delighted, Commander." She reached out, linking her arm through Ivanova's, hand closing about the material at the crook of her elbow. To her further delight, Susan didn't wriggle out of her grasp.

Progress, she thought, as they continued their leisurely meandering. Even the presence of Mr. Garibaldi, seated on a bench farther up the path wasn't enough to completely dispel her good mood. She knew he was there, that he was watching her. And, admittedly, she missed a half-step when she initially spotted him, her grip on Ivanova's arm tightening. She sensed even Ivanova tensing slightly, before recovering, increasing their stride as she purposefully steered them past Michael. Out of her peripheral vision, she caught the glare Garibaldi shot the Commander, before turning her eyes, staring straight ahead as they continued down the path. As they passed a bend in the path, she let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding.

Ivanova steered them off the path, to a glen of trees. Using the trees as cover, she bent back the branches, just far enough to enable her to look back the direction they'd come. Michael was still seated on the bench, surreptitiously reading his paper. Letting loose the supple branch, it sprang back into place. Only then, did she turn to Talia, looking down at her, steel-blue eyes seeking stormy-grey.

"You okay?" she asked, her voice low and husky.

"I – " a slight pause as her lip visibly trembled. She nodded. "Every time I see him, I – " her voice cracked, broke off.

Ivanova reached out, pulling Talia to her, wrapping her arms protectively about her. She held her, fingers stroking reassuringly through blonde locks. "Easy," Ivanova murmured, feeling Talia trembling in her arms. She pulled back, holding the other woman at arm's length. Fingers reached out, touching, tenderly caressing Talia's cheek. Talia blinked, closing her eyes beneath the touch. "It's okay. I won't let anything happen to you." Moist grey eyes opened, meeting Ivanova's. "Promise."

Seconds stretched into moments as they remained rooted to the spot, much like the sheltering trees of the glen. Ivanova's fingers tenderly stroked along the smooth flesh of Talia's skin. Over her cheek, tracing the pattern of her ear, down her jaw, to that little space on her chin just beneath her bottom lip. Her breathing was husky, her eyes heavy lidded as she studied every centimeter of Talia's face. She leaned in, noticed Talia's hooded gaze waiting for, anticipating her kiss.

Talia's eyes flew open as she realized she'd been waiting entirely too long for a kiss that hadn't come. Ivanova was still staring at her, her normal predatory gaze a mask of swirling confusion. The hand fell away from her face. Giving the hem of her uniform jacket a severe tug, she took several determined steps backwards.

"Lunch," uttered in a ragged breath.

"But - " protested Talia.

Ivanova swallowed harshly. "I don't think Garibaldi means to follow us." She took several more determined steps away from Talia. "I think you're quite safe now - " she turned her back to Talia, intending to walk ahead of her to the path.

The initial blow sent her stumbling backwards, head colliding firmly with the trunk of a nearby tree. She lashed out blindly, connecting with her assailant. She was hit from behind, knocked to the ground on her hands and knees. A follow-up kick to her ribs flipped her onto her back. She attempted to get up, saw the toe of the black, leather boot a second before it impacted with her jaw.

She fell to the ground, laying there, tasting the blood in her mouth. She could hear her heartbeat pounded rapidly in her ears. And, an incessant screaming in her head. She blinked, trying to focus; her mind attempting to process the image of three figures dressed in brown, hooded robes running away across the grass and down the path.

She felt someone at her side, touching her hand, running fingers over her chin, begging her to look at them. She slowly turned her head, somehow feeling disassociated from the rest of her body. A beautiful blonde with shoulder length hair was leaning over her, talking to her, telling her to hold on. Ivanova blinked, her vision beginning to cloud as she tried to remain focused on Talia hovering over her. Finally, she forgot why she was trying so hard to stay awake and simply let her eyes slip shut.

"Did anyone get the license number of the freighter that hit me?" groaned Ivanova, gingerly rubbing the back of her head.

"Oh, Susan – "

Susan? She called me by my first name?

Commander Ivanova sat on the edge of the exam table in Med Lab 1, legs dangling a good foot above the floor. Talia Winters stood beside her, hands clasped tightly, holding Ivanova's uniform jacket folded, draped over her arms. The top three buttons of Ivanova's starched white shirt were undone, revealing the expanse of flesh beneath. And, despite Talia's obvious concern for the Commander, her gaze was torn between watching the doctor and ogling Ivanova's supple flesh. Dr. Franklin hovered nearby, consulting his readings. Zack Allen lingered in the background, no doubt waiting for her statement.

"I'm so sorry," apologized an almost-teary-eyed Talia.

"Why?" Ivanova flashed a slight smile, grimaced at the pain that simple action caused. "Did you kick me while I wasn't looking, too?"

That earned a sharp gasp from Talia, a smirk from Zack.

"Glad to see you're cognizant enough to make jokes, Commander. Bad jokes, mind you, but jokes nonetheless." Dr. Franklin stepped beside the bed, taking a penlight from his coat pocket, shining it into one of Ivanova's eyes, then the other, watching for responsiveness. He clicked the light off, returning it to his pocket. "Well, nothing's broken. But, you may have a slight concussion. And, the bruising hasn't set in, yet. I'm sure by morning, you'll be too stiff to move." He shot a stern look at Ivanova. "I'm prescribing plenty of bed rest and something for the pain. Come back tomorrow for a follow-up. I want to make sure nothing develops overnight."

"You're releasing me?" an eyebrow arched in surprise.

"It's easier than keeping you here, making my life and my staffs' lives miserable trying to deal with a big Russian bear for a patient. So, yes, to make my life a little easier, I'm releasing you." He flicked a glance at the commercial telepath patiently waiting beside the bed. "With proper adult supervision, of course."

That earned a chortle from the security guard hovering in the background. "Something humorous, Mr. Allen?" growled Ivanova.

Dr. Franklin wisely moved away from the exam table, motioning for Ms. Winters to join him. He kept her distracted, away from Ivanova while she questioned the security officer. He handed her the pain meds, went over the directions with her. Even as he was explaining the procedure to the commercial telepath, he couldn't help but shake his head in wonder. He thought Commander Ivanova hated telepaths. Rumor was she'd thrown one out a third story window on Io. Apparently, that dislike didn't extend to all telepaths.

"Um – no, sir." Zack Allen stepped forward, sharply saluting. "Ms. Winters gave us a description of your assailants. We canvassed the area, but weren't able to find them. No doubt, they were lurkers looking for an easy mark." He caught the tightening of the Commander's jaw at the term 'easy'. He swallowed, quickly amending his sentence. "They probably thought you wouldn't put much of a fight in front of the lady." He stopped, started again, praying the right words would come tumbling out of his mouth. "Anyway, Ms. Winters said you got in some good punches, scared them off. My guess is they high-tailed it to Down Below and are licking their wounds."

"They weren't lurkers."

"Frayed, brown hooded robes, attacking from the shadows without warning. Sounds like lurkers to me, Commander."

"They weren't lurkers," Ivanova repeated, leveling her gaze at Zack Allen. "Lurkers don't usually hang around in the gardens, Mr. Allen. Besides, at least one of them was wearing brand new black, leather boots."

Zack shrugged, noncommittally. "Maybe he mugged someone before you."

"These were brand new; they still had that new leather smell." Eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Where's Garibaldi?"

"He's on assignment. But, he asked me to make sure you were okay; head up the investigation myself."

"What sort of assignment?" pressed Ivanova.

"I'm not sure I'm at liberty to – " He gulped when he caught the full-on glare. " – He's been receiving threats from some nutjob all week, saying he's going to blow up the station."

"Where is he now?"

"He's been running all over the station all week – "

'WHERE is Mr. Garibaldi?"

Zack visibly flinched at the Commander's raised voice. Dr. Franklin and Ms. Winters broke off their conversation, looking up in shock. Talia started towards the exam bed, but Dr. Franklin held her back with a well-placed hand on her elbow. Across the med lab, several techs gawked, trying to discern what all the yelling was about. Seeing Commander Ivanova, they quickly averted their gaze, suddenly deeply engrossed in their assignments.

"Z – Zocalo," stammered Zack Allen, eyes wide.

She pushed off the table, boots hitting the deck in tandem. Her eyes slammed shut, she swayed, reaching for the edge of the table to steady herself. Resolutely fighting down the waves of vertigo, she breathed deeply, let loose the table. Spine rigid, she snatched her jacket off the table, roughly thrusting her arms in the sleeves. She pushed by a still-shaken Zack Allen, striding towards the exit.

"Commander, wait!" protested Talia. Ivanova turned on her heel, spinning around, looking sharply at Talia. Her normally penetrating glare was slightly distorted, beads of perspiration visible around her hairline. "What are you going to do?" she pressed.

"What I should have done from the start." Her words were resolute, her mouth tightened into a thin line. "Confront Garibaldi head on!"

"Commander - Ivanova, wait!" objected Talia, starting after her. The Commander missed a half-step, her strong stride wavering for a split second before she resolutely pushed through the med lab doors, storming into the corridor. "Now, what?" sighed Talia, looking at Dr. Franklin for support.

"You signed the paperwork consenting to take full responsibility for her actions," advised Dr. Franklin, "I suggest you go after her."

With a very loud, frustrated humph!, Ms. Winters gathered up the paperwork and pain meds Dr. Franklin had prescribed, bolted for the door, high heels tapping out a frantic rhythm on the deck as she hurried in her pursuit of the errant Commander.

Chuckling to himself, he sat down at his desk, going over Ivanova's chart. Boy, am I glad someone else has to keep up with her this time, he thought, relieved that he'd pawned the responsibility for her care off on some poor, unsuspecting person. Of course, if there was anyone on the station that the Commander might listen to, he sincerely thought it might be Talia Winters. He chuckled again at the image of a harried Ms. Winters fleeing Med Lab 1 in pursuit of the Commander.

"Garibaldi!" shouted Ivanova, stalking the length of the Zocalo.

Shoppers and vendors alike bolted, clearing her path as she determinedly stormed the marketplace. She spotted the chief of security across the quad, leaning against a wall, hands tucked leisurely into his front pockets. He whistled nonchalantly as he watched the passersby, occasionally nodding his head in greeting at someone as they strolled past.

He looked up sharply as he heard someone shouting his name. Commander Ivanova, second-in-command of the station, looking for all the world like she was on a tear. He nodded once in acknowledgement. She bellowed his name again.

Wonder if she's ever heard of the term undercover? Perturbed, he rolled his eyes. So much for discreet observation. May as well chuck this investigation. Pulling a hand from one pocket, running fingers through his receding hairline, he forced a smile. Whoa! Someone really did a number on her face! Garibaldi openly stared at the split lip, the rapidly darkening area along her cheekbone. Great! I'll bet she's going to be a real bi -

Garibaldi's train of thought immediately derailed as soon as Ivanova reached out, grabbed him by the lapels of his uniform and jerked him upwards. He felt the fabric of his uniform tighten around his backside, his heels come up off the deck, forcing him to balance awkwardly on the balls of his feet. Ivanova's face was mere inches from his; so close, he could feel her hot breath upon him.

He ventured a glance around the Zocalo. Great! Everyone's watching. He caught a flash of gold and black somewhere over the Commander's shoulder. And, right on cue, here comes Ms. Winters to witness my humiliation! Inwardly, he cringed at the thought of the lovely telepath seeing him in any position of weakness. Especially when it came to Ivanova. He had seen them together in the garden that morning. Had thought about speaking, but decided against it. He had already learned from experience that where the Commander was involved, he had no chance at turning the lady's head. Especially this particular lady, he thought.

A swift upward jerk from Ivanova brought Garibaldi's attention back to the situation at hand. "I want to make something perfectly clear, Garibaldi," she spoke in low tones, her voice little more than a growl. "Leave Ms. Winters alone."

"What?!?" Michael looked at her as if she'd just sprouted a third eye in the center of her forehead.

Talia cautiously strode across the Zocalo, edging her way past gawking spectators. The last thing she wanted to do was startle the Commander and end up with a black eye for her troubles. She hesitantly stood behind and to the right of the two officers. She caught her breath as she saw Ivanova's hands flex, the muscles in her arms visibly bulging beneath her jacket as she held Michael Garibaldi suspended off the floor.

Ivanova snarled, tightened her grip on Garibaldi's jacket. "Leave Ms. Winters alone. She's not available." Jaw flexed, corded neck muscles tensed, her words came out in a distinctively even, crisp tone. "I trust I won't have to repeat myself again."

"Oh, come on, Ivanova!" Garibaldi laughed. "You've gotta be kidding me, right? I mean, you and Ms. Winters?" He laughed harder, his face turning redder by the second. "I'd sooner believe Londo and G'kar - " His laughter abruptly died in his throat at the look of murderous rage quickly spreading across Ivanova's face.

Michael glanced down as Ms. Winters suddenly appeared by their side. Jeez, Talia - Don't! His mind raced as he caught the flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, saw her reaching a hand up to touch the fabric of the Commander's uniform. Manicured nails found purchase on Ivanova's forearm, gently applying the minutest of pressure. Ivanova's eyebrow arched, her gaze shifted, taking in the diminutive figure of the commercial telepath.

"Ivanova - " Talia kept her voice low, unobtrusive. She wanted her presence to be calming, soothing. She didn't want to risk further agitating the Commander, for fear of what she might do to the security chief. " - Susan. Don't."

Ivanova blinked at the usage of her first name. It sounded so odd coming off Talia's lips. She'd almost convinced herself she was hallucinating earlier in the Med Lab when she'd heard Talia call her that for the first time.

Slowly, she relaxed her grip, lowering Michael to the deck. Garibaldi breathed a sigh of relief as he felt both his feet solidly on the floor once again. Astonished, he watched mutely as Talia's gloved hand slipped farther down the Commander's forearm, until her hand was clasping that of the brooding Russian's.

He was just about to tap his link for Zack when Ivanova spun around, invading his space. "I trust we've reached an understanding and this is settled?" she asked, cocking an eyebrow at the security chief.

Garibaldi sighed, lowered his hand with the link. "Yeah, sure. Whatever you say, Ivanova." He nodded amicably. I'd better swing by and see Franklin later. Ivanova and Ms. Winters? Either Ivanova's gone off her nut, or I have. Perplexed beyond words, he stood in the middle of the marketplace, watching the retreating figures of Commander Susan Ivanova and Ms. Talia Winters.

They were still holding hands, leaning into each other as they walked, talking in murmured tones. Garibaldi was almost positive he saw a smile on the Commander's lips, heard her snicker. That settles it; Ivanova laughing with Talia. I'm obviously hallucinating! The bomber can wait; I need help. Garibaldi shook his head, running his fingers through his thinning hair, resolutely marching in the direction of Med Lab.

In the gardens, beneath the wisteria trees, Susan and Talia slowed their walk to a leisurely stroll. Talia's arm was looped through the Commander's, her other hand resting comfortably on Ivanova's forearm.

"I still can't believe you yanked Garibaldi off his feet and told him I wasn't available!" Laughter roared through Talia's vocal chords. She wiped tears of joy from the corner of her eye at the memory. "I thought his eyes were going to bug out of his head!"

Ivanova smiled, stopped beneath one of the taller trees. There was an artificial breeze generated in this part of the garden, and she could feel it blow through her hair, slightly lifting the strands. Her hair was down today, loose from its customary severe braid. She rolled her shoulders; she had to admit she like the feeling of 'lightness'. She felt more relaxed with her hair down, in the sanctuary of the garden, with this woman.

She glanced up, briefly admiring the tree's beauty before returning her attention to the gorgeous woman beside her. She reached out, tenderly stroking Talia's cheek with the pad of her thumb. "I only spoke the truth."

Talia thought her heart would stop beating when Susan leaned in. Her mind flashed back to their last visit to the garden. This time, however, Ivanova followed through, her lips closing about Talia's.

She placed a feather-light kiss upon her lips first, as if testing the waters. Ivanova initially flinched at the contact, the stinging pressure on her split lip. Ignoring the pain, she leaned in again, increasing the pressure upon Talia's lips. Then, deciding the reward far outweighed the pain, she deepened her kisses. And, as Talia returned kiss for hungry kiss, she forgot about the pain altogether.

They stood there like that, arms encircling each other, holding each other as they each leaned into the other's caresses. Kisses lasted for ages, sharing smiles, intertwining tongues in wet heat. And, as soon as one kiss ended, another began. Ivanova pulled back slightly, nipping at Talia's bottom lip with her teeth. Talia laughed with joy, pushing the Commander up against a tree, pinning her to the bark with her body and her ever-increasing passionate kisses.

From a shaded glen off the beaten path, a figure in a white cloak stood, intently watching the second-in-command of Babylon 5 and the station's resident commercial telepath. Arms folded beneath her robes, she quietly watched the unfolding scene. Another figure cloaked in all-white rushed to join her.

"DeLenn," Lennier bowed, spoke in reverent, hushed tones. "Mr. Garibaldi has entered the gardens. Should we implement our alternative plan?"

DeLenn never took her eyes from the two women in the valley below her position. "No, Lennier. After the incident in the Zocalo, I doubt if Mr. Garibaldi still poses a threat."

Lennier agreed, bowed again. "I almost - pity - him, Ambassador." This time, DeLenn's gaze did waver. She turned, looking curiously at her attaché. "Setting up 'bomb scares' to convince Ms. Winters he was stalking her, knowing she'd turn to the Commander for help. Then, continuing with the ruse to convince the Commander that Mr. Garibaldi was indeed a threat to Ms. Winters. Knowing, if pushed, who the Commander would choose."

"It was necessary to speed along the process, Lennier. Like the tree, sometimes love needs help to grow. We couldn't risk having Mr. Garibaldi trample through the garden before love had a chance to take root, now could we?" She watched his face, waiting for the customary expression of contrition that usually followed when he questioned her methods. As soon as she saw it, she turned, studying the two figures intertwined beneath the wisteria trees once more. "I trust the priests are well?"

Lennier nodded. "Although, one had to be transported back to Minbar for treatment. Commander Ivanova broke his jaw during the attack. I felt it would raise too many questions should he seek medical assistance from the station's facilities."

"Excellent." DeLenn fairly blushed. She didn't expect to see the Commander's hands disappear beneath the hem of Ms. Winters' dress quite so quickly. "See that he's properly compensated for his suffering."

Lennier bowed low, excusing himself, backing away from his superior. He made a mental note to make sure he intercepted Mr. Garibaldi, distracted him, perhaps steer him away from the vicinity of the wisteria trees. It would be best for all parties involved if he wasn't privy to the happenings in the garden.

As Lennier left, DeLenn continued to watch the proceedings below. She didn't fear discovery, knowing she was well hidden in the dense grove of trees. And, she doubted if the two women would know she was there even if she appeared naked before them, singing the Minbari national anthem.

"And, so, it begins." She spoke in hushed, reverent tones. She frowned slightly, peering back over her shoulder. "Do you think Lennier was correct? Should we have not interfered? After all, if it is truly destiny, their hearts would have come together naturally in their own time."

A whirring sound answered DeLenn as the branches of the trees behind her rustled. Kosh appeared from the shadows, pushing random foliage away as he emerged. He silently watched the two women in the glen below for several moments. "Their bond needs to be strong if it is to survive what must come." A pause, a slight whirring sound as he turned to leave. He paused, turning back to DeLenn. "She is the key to the future." The red light on his faceplate whizzed back and forth rapidly. "She will save us all from the coming darkness."

DeLenn stood in silence in the garden, contemplating Kosh's words, her involvement in the success of their endeavor, and the coming destiny of the new lovers in the garden.

The End

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