"Tough day, Commander?" Talia gave her a sympathetic smile. Susan looked at her bleary eyed but didn't immediately reply. It was late at night and Talia hadn't been able to sleep, so she was walking the gardens. Apparently she wasn't the only one. The gardens were deserted except for the two of them, but she kept her voice down anyway. "I heard that there was some commotion between the Narn and Centauri."
Susan sighed. "Yes. Tensions are escalating; it's getting harder to control and the joint antics of Londo and G'Kar's aren't helping." She shook her head. "Eventually we won't be able to keep a lid on it."
"I'm sure you'll manage," Talia said encouragingly. As she did more frequently now around the often-touchy Commander, she relaxed her mental shields. Immediately she could sense an additional undercurrent of distress beneath Susan's mood. Maybe she could help a little. "I couldn't sleep either, would you care to join me?"
Susan turned back they made a full circuit of the gardens in companionable silence. Talia paused when they were on one of the outer terraces. "One of the things I miss about gardens on Earth," she said, "is the smell of the plants and the soil."
"Well, technically the soil doesn't smell, it's the microbes in the soil," said Susan.
Talia laughed quietly. "Don't be so pedantic, Susan. Aren't Russians supposed to be poetic?"
Susan's smile was sad. "Sometimes I think that all the poetry has been beaten out of me."
"Now that's just maudlin," Talia chided. "I think I prefer pedantic."
Susan chuckled at that. "Come on then, I know a better place for it." Susan wound around to the back of the gardens to a security door partially hidden behind two massive planters. The door slid open silently at a swipe of her identicard and they entered. The short corridor was dimly lit by floor level diodes that led to another door.
"Mmm," Talia took a deep breath. "I had forgotten what humid air feels like."
Susan took Talia's gloved hand and led her into the pitch darkness of the interior. Talia followed trusting and unafraid. Susan stopped just inside to let their eyes adjust, then said, "Computer, execute program Ivanova Twilight 1."
Gradually the light levels increased as a handful of ceiling lights came on dimly, followed by another set, then another. "Watch," Susan whispered. Then random lights slowly began a faint flickering, each at its own tempo. Talia gasped out loud at the rippling star-field effect that softly lit row after row of plants of all sizes and descriptions in the huge room.
They stood and watched for a while, then Talia asked, "Are we alone in here?" At Susan's nod, she pulled off her psi-dampening gloves and walked down one of the narrow aisleways running her bare fingers delicately through the foliage.
Susan followed with a bemused smile, laughing at herself when she couldn't resist the urge to do the same. At the far end of the row she showed Talia the recirculating pumps and the aerators. "See? The nutrient fluid gets pumped in here and then when it's pumped out, it gets sterilized and recycled in this tank here."
Talia looked on with unfeigned interest as Susan explained all the workings that supplied the entire station with the majority of its fruit and vegetables as they walked up and down the rows. Finally Susan stopped at a grouping of plants at the far end of one row and gave her a quirky smile. "You can keep a secret, right?"
Talia gave her a mock frown. "You know that I'm essentially a professional secret-keeper, right?" She smiled to take the sting out of her words. "What's the secret?"
"Coffee." Susan gestured towards the plants they were standing next to. Talia examined the bushes closely, noting the small green nodules in clusters along the arching stems. "Those are coffee cherries. They'll be ripe in another month or so."
Talia raised her eyebrows with a smile. "You have an illicit coffee-growing operation? I would have never expected that of you."
Susan shrugged. "I inherited them actually; I'm not sure I would have ever gone through the effort even if I had thought of it." She grinned. "But I'm not averse to benefitting."
Talia gave her a coy look. "So, are you going to share with me?"
Susan gave her an arch look. "Well…" She softened to a smile. "All right. Although I had you pegged as a tea sort of person."
"Real tea is easier to come by out here. But back on Earth, I was something of a coffee aficionado."
A shadow passed over Susan's face.
Talia put a hand on her arm and said, "I can tell that something more is bothering you than just the Narn and Centauri. What is it?"
Susan was quiet for a moment. Finally she said, "This week is the one year anniversary of my father's death." She shook her head sadly. "I don't know why it's bothering me now, it's not like we'd had very much to do with one another for the fifteen years prior."
"Grief has its own timetable," Talia said gently.
Susan went on as if she hadn't heard. "He was a great coffee connoisseur. I remember once when I was a child we went to a coffee house. But he didn't like the coffee, so we left and walked to another one a few blocks away. But it didn't have good coffee either, so we walked to another one and another, until he found the perfect cup of coffee. For years I navigated my way around St. Petersburg by coffee houses."
Talia smiled. "So being a coffee fiend runs in the family. You two must have been very much alike."
"Too much in some ways."
Talia pursed her lips and studied Susan thoughtfully. "At a first guess, I'd say stubbornness." At the look on Susan's face she laughed. "Come on, you're not going to tell me that you're not stubborn."
Susan's face relaxed into a sheepish smile. "No, you're right. We both were. He taught me to always do the right thing, no matter the consequences." She grew sadder again. "He just couldn't accept that my definition of what was right was different from his." Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away. "Thinking about coffee reminded me of the Papa I adored as a child. I sat shiva; I shouldn't cry any more I suppose."
Talia tucked her hand into Susan's elbow and leaned against her in silent comfort. The fabric of Susan's uniform jacket was rough under her still-bare fingers and she enjoyed the solid comfort of Susan's body against hers, delighted that Susan allowed the contact.
Talia didn't bother to count how long they stood there, being with Susan was enough. Eventually though, Susan took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I have one more thing to show you, if you'd like," she said.
"Absolutely," Talia said without hesitation.
"Computer, activate mist at level 2."
Nothing seemed to happen at first, but then Talia could swear that she felt moisture on her face. More came down in near rain-sized droplets. Enchanted, Talia held her bare hands out and lifted her face to the falling water. She closed her eyes and laughed in delight.
When she opened them again, Susan was looking at her intently. Her face had relaxed, the stress and grief washed away, and she had a slight smile on her face. Talia was caught in the vibrancy of her eyes. Unhurriedly Susan reached out and settled one hand lightly on Talia's waist, drawing her closer with an almost imperceptible pressure. Talia obeyed the gentle summons, keeping her eyes locked with Susan's.
"You're beautiful," Susan whispered. "The lights make your eyes look like twin pools of stars," she ghosted her other hand over Talia's hair, "surrounded by a golden halo."
Talia smiled. "Sounds like you have a little poetry left after all," she said with a soft quaver.
"Only when I'm with you." Susan leaned in slowly, giving Talia a chance to pull away. She didn't and the kiss brushed across Talia's lips with a touch as light as the rain.