"I'm not clear on all the details yet – and I couldn't tell you everything if I knew, of course – but it's sort of like…" Talia paused thoughtfully. "Well, it's like a child custody case, only about a pair of – dragons, I guess you'd call them." She smiled. "Isola sounds like a fascinating planet."
"Something out of a fantasy novel," Ivanova said, in a tone of voice that suggested 'fascinating' wasn't the word she'd have used, and also that the places in the fantasy novels she read weren't ones you wanted to visit.
Garibaldi, who still wasn't sure how he'd ended up attaching himself to Ivanova and Talia's working lunch, rolled Talia's explanation around in his head. Then, spotting an issue, he put in, "You said your clients are Derbas?"
"Derbas of Isola. They have that pair-bonding thing going on, right? Won't deal with anyone unless they're in a bonded pair, because it shows stability, or maturity, or whatever you wanna call it?"
"That's right," Talia said again, just as brightly as before. "The other party in this dispute is from another ethnic group on Isola – their name can't be pronounced with the human vocal tract, but telepathically it feels like breaking into a piece of fresh bread – so I've been calling them the Buns – "
Garibaldi and Ivanova snorted, exchanged glances, then looked hastily away.
Talia rolled her eyes and went on, still shaking her head. "They seem to like it. Anyway, children, the Buns have no pair-bonding, of course, but they have a religiously formalized business relationship in their culture that the Derbas decided a century or so ago to accept as good enough to allow dealings." With a slight wince – perfectly timed from a comedic standpoint, Garibaldi thought – she added, "They do keep insisting these business partners are secretly in love with each other, though."
Garibaldi watched Ivanova weigh the question in her mind – she was a cipher about some things, even most things, but Garibaldi knew a fellow information-hog when he saw one – and finally decide to dive in. "And are they right?" she asked.
Talia shrugged. "Telepaths pick up strong emotions unwillingly, as you know – but that would be telling."
"That all makes plenty of sense," Garibaldi said, leaping onto the conversational opening, "but speaking of telepaths: what about them?"
"What do you mean?" Talia asked.
"Do the Derbas have different standards for them?"
"Not at all! Actually, I've been looking into it since I was first offered the assignment. There's been some studies done: Isola's sentient species emits a low-level telepathic field, and the Derbas bonding is a trick you do with that field. With their own telepaths, they're usually encouraged to pair off, though it doesn't always happen. Just last year, a researcher…" Talia looked like she could have happily gone on about Isolan telepathy for the length of an average university lecture, but, catching Garibaldi's expression, she stopped. Realization came over her almost theatrically. "Oh!" she exclaimed. Then, off-handed: "Oh, I see what you mean: will they deal with a commercial telepath who isn't pair-bonded."
"You got it."
"No, they won't. I'll need someone to play the part." She tipped her head towards Ivanova. "I hope you won't mind that I've volunteered you, Susan?"
Ivanova looked a little spooked, as well she might. "Me? I don't know about that…"
"Come on," Talia said, smiling winsomely and leaning halfway over the table, until her elbow was all but touching Ivanova's hand. "It'll be fun."
"Do I get to meet the dragons?" Ivanova asked, layering the question with all the fatalistic determination of a soldier ordered onto a death march. In winter. Without any boots.
Talia beamed at her. "I'll see what I can arrange."
With a rueful laugh, Ivanova said, "Then sure, why not. As long as it doesn't interfere with my duties. And as long as they don't expect me to help with the negotiations. I get enough of that with the captain."
"I won't take up too much of your time, and I can handle the negotiations on my own. You just have to show up and mingle."
"Mingle," Ivanova repeated. "Mingle. I can mingle. You've seen me mingle, right, Garibaldi?"
Garibaldi pulled the ghastliest face he could. "Once," he said, ominously. "Never again."
Ivanova shoved at his shoulder. She probably thought of it as a light, playful shove, and Garibaldi stolidly pretended it didn't hurt.
"Then we're all set!" Talia said. "And I think that's all the time you have, Susan, if I've been keeping track?"
"You'll know my shifts better than I do, soon," Ivanova said, getting up and leaving the table with her tray.
"Was that such a good idea?" Garibaldi asked. He felt more than a little like the conversation had just turned into a dinosaur – or, hey, why not, a dragon – and whooshed right over his head in a cloud of fiery confusion. Sure, Talia and Ivanova had gotten over their differences lately, with the Psi-Corps showing its scaly underbelly at last, but there was a ways to go from that to pretending to be someone's soulmate.
Talia said, "I wouldn't worry about it, if I were you, Mr. Garibaldi."
"And you'll know if I do, so I'd better listen, huh?"
"You've got it."
Well, she probably knew what she was doing. And it was going to be good for a laugh either way.
Minbari did not eavesdrop, and thus, however the circumstances may have appeared, Delenn could not have been eavesdropping. It was her habit to visit the gardens at this time of day, if her schedule permitted, and it had been through no interference of hers that Miss Winters' clients had chosen just this place and time to meet Miss Winters and her alleged bondmate. True, Delenn was drifting closer to the meeting than strict propriety might have dictated, but it was not because she was curious. No: Captain Sheridan had mentioned Commander Ivanova's agreeing to this deception with wonder and apprehension at least once every time she had seen him since Mr. Garibaldi had first made him aware of it. For Captain Sheridan's peace of mind, it would not be wrong to keep an eye on things, especially when the parties had chosen a public spot for their meeting.
She was just a touch curious, perhaps, to see how Commander Ivanova would carry herself. She paused on a path parallel to where the meeting was being held, coming close enough to observe.
The two Isolans were tall and narrow and looked almost translucent when the light hit them at a certain angle. Delenn, and indeed all the Minbari, had had few dealings with Isola, so she had relished the excuse to do some background reading about them. She was not sure she could tell Derbas from any other ethnic group on the planet, and she did not even attempt to decipher their gender system.
Commander Ivanova was in uniform, but she had her hair down and had applied some makeup. She was smiling in a fixed way, standing close enough to Miss Winters to be noteworthy. Miss Winters, by contrast, seemed almost entirely at ease. One of the Derbas asked the two of them how long their bond had existed.
"Well, we – " Commander Ivanova began.
At the same time, Miss Winters started, "It's kind of a funny – "
They both stopped and laughed. Commander Ivanova looked down at the ground, while Miss Winters watched Commander Ivanova, her expression turning suddenly thoughtful and even stern. "Go on. You tell it," she said.
Commander Ivanova gave herself a little shake, then said, "It is a funny story. We've known each other for two years, but there were – misunderstandings, at first. It's been much better for both of us since we got over ourselves, this past year."
Delenn admired this apparent commitment to accuracy, which she would not have expected of Commander Ivanova. Nothing she had said was less than strictly true, though the interpretation would be colored by the Derbas' pre-existing ideas about their relationship.
The Derbas who had asked found the answer satisfying, mentioned that bonds arising out of initial conflict were the strongest, and opined that the tradition that held this was to be revered for its universal applicability. The other half of the pair appeared flustered by these remarks.
"Um, why don't you tell me about your dragons?" Commander Ivanova said.
The Derbas responded with utter blankness.
Miss Winters interposed: "She means the – " and carefully pronounced a word that sounded like a crackle of flame heard over a shaky connection.
Comprehension dawned, and one Derbas asked a question.
"Dragons are an Earth mythological species," Miss Winters explained. "They're winged reptiles that breathe fire and usually – "
The Derbas, having taken the point, were now more interested in telling their story than in hearing about Earth myths. (Delenn made a note to ask Captain Sheridan about them later: there was something not dissimilar in Minbari lore, and she wanted more details.) The two creatures in question had been born on land belonging to the other party in the negotiation but which, for many years, the Derbas had been granted the use of. The Derbas were insistent that this meant, for reasons of spiritual as well as temporal law, that the dragons were theirs. They had raised them from egg-sacs; they had nurtured and cherished them; they deserved the social benefits that ownership of dragons evidently conferred. The owners of the land were being tremendously unreasonable for insisting on any share of the rights.
"They just let you sit there for years doing all that work raising these things, and now they're swooping in to get in on it?" Commander Ivanova said. "Wow, that's some nerve."
The Derbas' silence in response to this was palpable. Then, at last, one of them icily pointed out that it was a difficult situation to be in.
Miss Winters nudged Commander Ivanova with an elbow and jerked her head ever so slightly towards the path where Delenn was taking in the garden. Commander Ivanova froze for a moment, then deployed her fixed smile. "Would you two mind giving us a moment alone?" she said.
Without waiting for an answer, she and Miss Winters parted from the other two. It would have been difficult to say which of them was dragging the other. Delenn withdrew a little as they approached, but stayed close enough to be seen: there was nowhere else to go without calling attention to herself. Neither of them took any notice of her.
"Well?" Commander Ivanova said.
"Careful. They can still see us."
Commander Ivanova rolled her eyes. "So what? You weren't being subtle there."
Miss Winters said, "They didn't notify the Buns that the dragons were on their property. It's a major point of contention."
"They were hiding them?"
"No. They say they weren't deliberately concealing them, at least. The point is, that cuts too close to the subject of the negotiation. We shouldn't talk about it without the Buns present."
"You mean you shouldn't – "
"For all the Isolans' purposes, we are a single unit," Miss Winters said.
"Oh. Right," Commander Ivanova said, eyes flashing mutinously. "And you couldn't have given me a hint about what was off limits?"
"We haven't really had a chance to sit down and talk it over since all this came up. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd say you've been avoiding me."
"Yeah, I've had so much time to spare with those pirates running around and me practically living in my Starfury – "
"Yes, you've been very busy, and I appreciate all your hard work keeping the station safe." Miss Winters' expression softened. "I should have warned you. You're right. Just don't mention it again."
For a tense few seconds Commander Ivanova was thinking it over. Then she said, "So what am I supposed to talk about?"
"I'm sure you'll think of something." Miss Winters leaned in close to Commander Ivanova, about to add something else.
Commander Ivanova's head swung around. Her eyes met Delenn's. "Ambassador!" she yelped. Then, more collected: "I had no idea you were there."
Miss Winters stepped back and stared at her, too.
"I was taking my usual walk," Delenn said with dignity.
"It's remarkable how disciplined Minbari minds are," Miss Winters said smoothly. "I didn't sense a single stray thought from you."
"We'd better get back to it," Commander Ivanova said. "Nice seeing you, ambassador." Her hand closed over Miss Winters' wrist, and together they returned to the Derbas, leaving Delenn to make her way out of the gardens in consternation.
Minbari did not eavesdrop, for the simple reason that it was embarrassing and not at all spiritually beneficial to be caught at it.
The first formal negotiation session had barely begun, and already Afalvari was enjoying a comfortable sense of satisfaction: Kirja had been skeptical about using a human telepath – humans were, after all, not precisely famed throughout the galaxy for their ability to cooperate – but Afalvari had always prided itself on its intuition, and it had had a good feeling about Talia Winters.
She had patience, to be sure. She had compassion and a deep-seated sense of fairness.
And she had Susan Ivanova.
Commander Ivanova sat at the end of the table, listening intently and saying nothing, as was the proper role of a silent bondmate in such a setting. Afalvari was almost more focused on watching her and Miss Winters trade eloquent looks, full of secret humor and solid reassurance.
"It isn't our responsibility to determine what they know or don't know," Kirja was saying, trembling with earnestness as he often did when discussing this delicate topic. "We did everything out in the open – when the twins had their Naming, we announced it in the temple, in the normal way. Anyone could have told them." And he looked accusingly at Ffstad.
Ffstad said, "Perhaps you are right, but what does that mean, in practice?"
Everyone, Ffstad's partner included, stared at her. She had been the most steadfast in implying Afalvari and Kirja had committed, if not an outright crime, something bordering on sacrilege. That she was willing to relent far enough to talk terms…
Miss Winters took this development in stride, confirming Ffstad's sincerity and throwing in a hint of praise for her commitment to advancing the negotiations.
Oh, why not, Afalvari thought? There was no point in holding out and making itself the unreasonable one. "The twins liked you very much. There is absolutely no reason you shouldn't be allowed to meet with them regularly… I am sure our schedules can be made to align."
Afalvari was surprised by how rewarding it was to feel Miss Winters' warm approval turn on it.
It snuck a look – it grasped the range of human perception very imperfectly, so perhaps sneaking was unnecessary – at Commander Ivanova, who radiated a wistful, almost angry pride.
Kirja's main objection to Talia Winters had, of course, been the questionable state of human pair-bonding. They had all heard the stories about human pairs behaving in quite abhorrent ways, ways that spoke of a total inability to cooperate, ways that spoke of utter disharmony. Kirja had expected that, or he had expected an outright lie.
True, Afalvari was not entirely sure there wasn't a lie somewhere in here; something did not feel quite right. But it saw no reason to pry into Miss Winters' personal affairs: the lie was not in her bond with Commander Ivanova.
"Are you kidding me? You didn't think it would matter?"
"I told you about the Isolans' telepathic field. It's hardly the same thing as human telepathy, or Isola's more standard telepaths. It's just – "
"I thought they just had really good universal translators or something!"
"You never noticed that you were getting ideas from them instead of words?"
"How was I supposed to tell? It's not like they have mouths! You know how I feel about having anyone in my head, Talia!"
"If it didn't feel like telepathy, that's because it wasn't, in the sense you're used to it. It doesn't get into your head. It's external: the field takes ideas in, from your speech, from your deliberate gestures and expressions, and it puts ideas out, almost on the same wavelength as sound. Actually, the way it interacts with true telepathy – "
"You still should have told me! Were you ever going to tell me if they hadn't brought it up?"
"All this because Ffstad liked your mind-voice! Remarkably precise and well-organized, she said. And mine sounded like it had static in the way – I wonder – "
"I get it, it's fascinating, you just love all this stuff. You wish you could run back to your Psi-Corps nannies and tell them all about it, and – "
"Ladies," said Londo, placing his fingertips theatrically to his temples, "I know my comfort is of no interest to you, but it's becoming impossible for me to pretend we are not in this Maker-foresaken elevator together. Have you considered saving your discussion for – "
"No!" Miss Winters and Ivanova said at once, rounding on Londo as though he were the true villain of the piece. As usual, this style of reception made him tired. Everything seemed to be making him tired: it was that kind of day. They'd been furtively arguing already when he'd walked up to wait for the elevator beside them; why couldn't he have just respected his gut and waited for the next one?
"Do you mind?" Ivanova followed up.
"Yes, I mind very very much. That's what I am trying to tell you!" Londo heaved a sigh. "This is the best version of your act I've seen so far: you argue just like married people! If your clients could only see you now, Miss Winters!"
Ivanova flushed and looked confused, as though she'd somehow missed becoming one of the prime objects of gossip among the upper echelons of Babylon 5 society over the past few days. No one cared that much about pirates, however tenacious, and people needed something to gossip about. Miss Winters merely looked embarrassed and a little haughty.
"You don't need to take your bad mood out on us, Ambassador Mollari," she said. "I recommend therapy for all those strong negative emotions you're carrying around."
"My dear lady, it is much too late. But since you've brought up therapy – "
The elevator came to a halt. The doors opened. Londo did, momentarily, feel a thrill of villainy tempered with satisfaction: two Isolans – one from either party, if Londo's memory of Isolan fashions served – got in with them. Ivanova and Miss Winters exchanged a speaking look, relaxed their postures, crowded against the back of the elevator, and made painful small talk
The Derbas of the mismatched pair expressed its satisfaction with the progress of the negotiations and attributed this success to the steady foundation that was Miss Winters and Ivanova's bond. Londo almost felt sorry for the two of them. On the whole, Ivanova did the better job of gracefully accepting the compliment, perhaps because she was also the angriest. Anger, Londo had observed, trampled social discomforts like a heavy cruiser meeting a swarm of paper airplanes.
Miss Winters thanked them for their continued faith in her skill and professionalism. "I trust everything will be worked out by the end of our next session," she said. "You've all been wonderful."
"As I was just telling my good friends here," Londo said, blithely ignoring a dagger-sharp glance (Miss Winters) and a discreet bootheel to the toe (Ivanova, who hadn't counted on generations of Centauri shoemakers preparing against such eventualities and worse), "I'm old-fashioned. You disagree with someone? You want to tear their head off? Beautiful! What you do is, you get very, very drunk with them – and then you see what happens! That's how you solve your problems."
It was as if he'd filled up the elevator with freezing water. Everything stopped. He could've sworn even the elevator itself slowed. One of the Isolans, the one from the group with the unpronounceable name, asked whether Miss Winters considered this Centauri a friend. (There were a few choice adjectives attached to 'Centauri'; Londo politely chose not to hear them.)
Londo hadn't been counting on this: had he forgotten about some ancient perceived slight the Isolans held against the great Centauri Republic? Fortunately, that was the moment when all the gods smiled upon him, the elevator reached his destination at last, and he passed in triumph through the now tense assembly and onward towards freedom.
Behind him, before the doors slid shut, he heard Ivanova mutter, "There's such a thing as diplomacy, unfortunately…"
"Was it worth it, just a little?" Talia asked.
Susan stopped gaping for a moment. Then her self-restraint slipped and the uncharacteristic look of wonder crept back over her face. "It's worth it. You know it's worth it. You said dragons, but I had no idea – "
"No, I didn't really understand myself." She'd had her suspicions, though, which had quieted the whisper of guilt over volunteering Susan so casually.
"They're beautiful. I mean... Look at them!"
Beyond the observation panel, the two dragons – two living, sentient spaceships the size of passenger liners, with sleek wings and opalescent skins – glided through space like enormous shimmering albatrosses crossing an endless ocean. Susan's eyes glowed, and she was still breathing a little quickly. She'd been out there in her Starfury just minutes before, moving among the dragon ships to bid them and the Isolans farewell.
"I had no idea…" Susan trailed off. "Talia – I had my doubts about you dragging me into this, but that was – I won't forget that."
"Well, I'm glad. I'd hate to think I'd ruined our relationship over a business deal."
"No, you haven't ruined anything. I'm not giving up that easy, and neither are you." Susan paused and took Talia's hand with her still-suited hand – they were alone, and Talia had removed one of her own gloves. Even through the glove of Susan's suit, the contact still gave Talia a thrill of transgression. "But let's not do this again in a hurry, all right? Garibaldi's been like a dog with a bone – a very helpful dog with a bone – and Captain Sheridan wants me to write up my latest reflections on diplomacy. I feel like... I feel like everyone's been watching us wherever we go. I don't like having everyone in my business like that."
Talia gave her a sly smile. "I'm sure they would have noticed eventually."
"Yeah, but broadcasting it all over the station like that? Ugh." An exaggerated shudder, and Susan was scanning the docking bay as if trying to see around its corners and through its walls. "No one should be bothering us for another ten minutes here," she said, oh so casually tugging her hair out of its bun.
"Oh?" said Talia.
Talia still felt a moment's shock when Susan kissed her – shock so quiet and obvious that it was hardly the right word for it. It had been weeks, and they were both still adjusting to the latest twist in their relationship. Susan trailed scraps of irrepressible emotion that surrounded them both like a halo: lingering surprise, sparks of panic and attraction, and a deep strain of fear. Talia wondered if that fear would ever go away. They probably looked a little silly, Susan still in her bulky flight suit, Talia with her one bare hand tracing Susan's cheek. It was a luxury to know that no one was observing them to see that silliness.
"I'm sorry," Talia murmured into the small space between them.
"All this. Not being clear about the telepathic field – "
"Please don't," Susan said. "You've apologized already. We're both going to do plenty of apologizing before we get this right, so let's not overdo it. Hell, I probably shouldn't have lost my temper in front of Londo of all people…"
Talia laughed. "A minor offense, at worst. Under the circumstances, no one could blame you."
"You're just saying that."
"Maybe I am. Maybe I'm saying it because I like saying it." Talia paused. "I know you'd prefer some privacy right now, but I've got this reservation at Fresh Air…"
Susan gave her a searching look, then picked up the joke and grinned. "A quiet night in, then?"
"A quiet night. Before your next shift."