On a mercury-grey morning on a planet so small it had a number instead of a name, Susan Ivanova found a woman sitting on the rocky side of a hill. She was delicately-built, and so short that when she stood she only came up to Susan’s chin, but her eyes looked into the distance in a way that reminded Susan eerily of the stories her grandfather had told of ancient warrior queens and arcane sorceresses.
“Civilians shouldn’t be here alone,” Susan told her, because they’d had some lingering trouble with the Drakh in that area - that was what she was there for, scouting even though technically the Rangers would have preferred that their leader not take the risks on herself. It made her feel useful to go out on missions, less like an old woman who’d just been given the job of Entil’zha because of her connections.
“I’m not a civilian,” the woman answered without smiling.
“I still can’t let you--”
“You can, and you will,” the woman told her. “I’ve fought wars you can’t imagine.”
The woman turned to her, squinting against the sun and pursing her lips thoughtfully for a moment before she shrugged. “Perhaps. One way or another, yes.”
If she’d been anyone else, Susan would have snorted and corrected her, insisted that the Shadows and the Vorlons and all of that was nothing like anything else, but she found it hard to argue this time - there was something in the stranger’s eyes that hinted at violent tragedy equivalent or greater to all that Susan had known. Then the other woman stood up, and brushed some dust off her trousers, and asked her name.
“General Susan Ivanova.”
“Susan.” The woman smiled a little. “I... knew a Susan, once.”
“What happened to her?”
“She died.” Romana picked up a slightly worn red frock coat off the rocks beside her and threw it over her shoulder. “You can call me Romana.”
* * *
Romana never gives any name but the one, and Susan never asks. She knows what it’s like to want to live without a past - she wishes she was brave enough, selfish enough, to do the same. Or, really, to do anything purely for herself. That is a habit she fell out of long ago, about the last time she fell in love. She hates to fall in love because it makes her feel stupidly vulnerable (vulnerably stupid), but she also feels old, and haunted by the soft, teasing voice of a man with an accent of which Romana’s reminds her eerily, and by another pair of hazel eyes smiling fondly in a much younger, much pointier face framed in blonde hair. Caught between her two familiar ghosts and the real, flesh and blood woman who walks at her side, she begins to feel herself falling. She’s older, now, and wiser, and it shouldn’t be this easy, but then Romana slips a small, dry, calloused hand into hers, and squeezes her fingers, and says, “Come on - let’s run.”
There’s something so compelling about her smile and her eyes and the eagerness in her voice that they run down the hill like children and collapse, laughing, at the bottom, all before Susan remembers that she’s over fifty, and that this is not the kind of thing done by retired EarthForce generals. It probably isn’t the kind of thing done by whatever the hell Romana is, either, but she doesn’t seem to care about that, and Susan finds that she has just enough rebellion left in her to like that.
They wander all day, watching the sky turn from mercury to silver to slate as it slides toward nightfall, all without talking about anything important, anything serious, and then Romana follows her back to the ship without asking, or Susan feeling as if it’s a question that needs to be asked. It’s been a long time since she brought someone home, particularly someone she knew nothing about. She can imagine her friends shaking their heads, smiling, saying “It’s not like you,” and she smiles a little at the thought. Romana smiles, too, although for what reason, Susan isn’t sure. She doesn’t ask.
“Do you have a ship around here somewhere?” she does ask, while Romana busies herself with examining the ship’s consoles and engine read-outs.
“No,” Romana answers, as if it’s the most perfectly normal thing in the world to just be on a planet like this without any obvious transportation.
“Did you crash?”
Romana shrugs and opens a panel in the wall and starts poking around in the circuitry. “Not exactly.”
“Is someone going to be picking you up?” Susan asks, thinking Is someone looking for you?, even though Romana doesn’t have anything approaching the hunted look she would expect from an outlaw or renegade.
“No,” Romana tells her, and then - “You could get much better output from this engine if you routed the filters through the secondary drive and left the tertiary field unassisted.” She then pulled some kind of rod-like tool lout of her pocket, toggled something, and after it whirred for a moment, stepped back with an accomplished smile.
“You’re an engineer?” Susan hazards. “Or mechanic?”
Romana smiles. “Not exactly. But I’ve picked up a few things.” Without knowing how, exactly, Susan is sure this is the most she’s going to get out of her, and gives up on the questioning.
They eat reconstituted scrambled eggs, vacuum-packed green beans and dry crackers, with press-dried fruit bars for dessert, and Romana treats each item like a novelty. Susan takes this as proof that, if nothing else, she never served in EarthForce.
Whoever she is, whatever brought her to this place in the middle of nowhere, and why she’d got up and went with Susan as if she’d been waiting for her... Susan doubts she would get a straight answer to any of these questions even if she asked, and some sixth sense tells her not to try. Delenn would say this is a sacred moment between them, one that should not be sullied by questions. Susan, infinitely more practical than her old friend, just figures she doesn’t really want to know the answers, because they would only complicate things, and she’s too old now for complications. She’s good enough at complicating things for herself, thank you, and she’s just going to enjoy this, just this - just for a moment, just this once.
At this exact moment, just as Susan is taking out the bottle of vodka that she keeps on the ship and the two (optimistic) glasses that are stowed with it, she notices a familiar, hated tickle in the back of her mind.
“You’re a telepath.”
Romana does not react to the statement like the dangerous accusation it is. She nods, stands up, and takes the glasses from one of Susan’s unresisting hands, and the bottle from the other.
“Are you Psy-Corps?” Susan continues.
“I’m not even Human.”
“Bullshit,” Susan informs her.
The corner of Romana’s lip quirks up. “Time Lord, actually.” She twists the cap off the vodka and pours two neat glasses, then hands one to Susan. She looks like the type to be a prissy drinker, nursing one glass all night, but instead she tosses it back in one gulp and sets the glass back on top of the cupboard.
Romana waves this off impatiently. “It’ll change in time,” she says, which makes no sense at all to Susan, so she downs her drink, too, in hopes that it might let her catch up. “It doesn’t matter,” Romana continues once Susan has set down her glass as well. “Here. I can prove it.” She holds out her hand, and Susan decides that she’s old enough to take a few chances, and takes it. Romana sets Susan’s hands on either side of her chest, with her own flat above, as if she is afraid Susan will pull away.
“One for casual, one for best.” Romana recites this as though any fool would know as much.
“Which one is which?” Susan asks, and is amused when Romana looks at her as though no one has ever asked this before.
“This one is best,” she answers after a moment’s thought, and taps the back of Susan’s left hand with one finger.
“Because it’s the one that brought me here,” Romana answers, and releases both of Susan’s hands to reach up and pull her head down into a kiss that tastes like vodka and thunderstorms in a grey summer sky.
After that it happens easily, and individual moments blend in Susan’s mind - hands slipping down shirts and unbuttoning trousers, sliding heavy wool off of soft skin, fingers tangling in hair, bronze-blonde and brown shot with silver falling together to make patterns like woodgrain on the pillows. Confident hands remember what to do, even if it has been a long time because, damn it, everything good seems like it’s been a long time since, at her age. At their age, Susan tells herself, because as young as she looks when she smiles, she can tell that Romana is older even than her, older to the point that she really doesn’t want to ask, doesn’t want to have the number as something solid in her hands when she could hold the curve of a small, soft breast or the point of a delicate chin instead. If they talk they will think, and if they think, something will go wrong.
The tickling at the back of her mind is back, stronger than ever, and Susan uses the little she knows about telepathy to push back and shove it away.
“Let me...” Romana says. It is almost, but not quite, a plea.
“I can’t. It’s too dangerous.”
Romana holds her still, one hand on either side of her face, and looks deep into her eyes. “I swear to you, I won’t tell anyone, and I won’t look at anything you don’t want me to see, but... I need this, Susan. Please. I’ve been alone for too long. Please.”
Thirty years ago, Susan said yes to another blonde female telepath, and nearly paid the price. A few years after that, telling herself she’d learned her lesson, she said no to a good man asking for something different but just as impossible for her to grant, and he died for it. In thirty years since, though, she has learned a few things, and come to regret the latter more than the former, and to tell herself she wouldn’t make that mistake again, if she could have a second chance. Now that it stands in front of her with hazel-coloured eyes pleading, she finds that she can’t resist the temptation to finally, belatedly, let someone in.
She can’t say the words, but she forces her shields down and almost hears them creak and crash as they fall. There is a moment of panic, an instant of feeling bare to the universe, and then Romana is kissing her again, and she’s feeling it from the other woman’s mind, too, and hearing the pounding of three hearts beating in her ears, warming to the rush of her own hands on skin that she feels at the same time, hot and smooth under her own fingers.
They trail clothes to the bunk at the back of the ship, and take turns touching and being touched until neither can thread it out any longer and both are burning in their minds as if they’re two branches in one flame. Susan falls asleep with Romana’s delicate weight curled cat-like against her side, her chin tucked over Susan’s shoulder and one ankle hooked over her shin, her hand centered over Susan’s heart as if to remind herself of the rhythm, of the difference between them. Susan drapes her arm around the smaller woman and sleeps, and tries not to wonder what will happen tomorrow. She’s fairly sure she knows.
She’s right, as always.
When she wakes, the weight and warmth at her side is gone from the bunk, and a quick look in the rest of the scoutship reveals no sign of Romana, except a note written in an oddly girlish, looping hand on a data-padd that she is sure she had encrypted. She reads it, shakes her head, but can’t resist a smile, and she doesn’t delete the file, but rather saves it away where only she can read it.
We’ll meet again someday. I promise.