Much of what was hoped for by interstellar travel was achieved in one form or another, often in an unexpected manner. Perhaps the single most dispiriting failing of space flight and colonization was that it did not end human conflicts. There were many explanations offered for this, but in the end most of these efforts could be summed up by a line from Shakespeare:
It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.
The Coming Twilight-Understanding The Fall of the First Empire
Willow tossed in her bed and tried to sleep. She plumped the pillow a bit more, adjusted the blanket for the fourth time and closed her eyes.
Alex is snoring too much to get any sleep, she thought as a very faint noise came from the floor near the bed Giles was asleep on. How can anyone sleep with that racket?
She rolled again and pulled the pillow closely over her ears. She tried to relax. The long day's stress pulled her into a fitful almost slumber. She was back on the deck. The night was perfect and Tara's blue eyes were looking at her with happy surprise.
"W-would you like to find out?" Tara asked. Willow had felt a glorious burst of hope and rode it with just one word.
Then Buffy was there and she was pulling away. Looking anywhere but at her friend or the girl from a planet far away.
"Will, anything wrong?" Buffy had asked in a puzzled tone.
"No!" Willow had lied hastily. "Nothing's happening. Nothing important."
Then she saw Tara's face. She was looking down at first. When Tara looked up briefly Willow could see the hurt in her eyes.
The words echoed as she turned her back on Tara and hurried for her stateroom. The door closed on the perfect night and the perfect girl.
Willow opened her eyes in the dark room and sighed forlornly.
I wonder how she feels knowing her kiss isn't important to me, Willow thought in the dark. Necessary, desired and yearned for, but not, you know, important. Why? Because I'm too afraid to let it be important, at least important enough to kiss her in front of Buffy. Know she knows I'm a timid, sniveling lost cause. She'll help Dawn and Buffy because she's that kind of person and then she'll be gone, and I'll just have to watch because I don't deserve her. I wouldn't let her be important.
Willow rolled again and brushed tears out of her eyes. Then sleep finally claimed her.
Tara rolled and turned in her bed. Buffy snored very lightly, but Tara knew that wasn’t why she couldn’t sleep.
I nearly took advantage of Willow, she chided herself silently. It's obvious she's still trying to understand what she feels, and I'm ready to kiss her. It wasn't even a date, it was just a trusting girl reaching out. How could I have done that to her and in front of her friend no less? No wonder she said it wasn't important.
Tara rolled over and failed to find any comfort.
"She deserved better than that," Tara said very softly.
Tara was lightly asleep, and she saw herself approaching Willow with a blaze of stars overhead and the soft scent of the sea making everything smell so clean. Willow smiled at her and held out her slender hand. Just as she was reaching for Willow's offered hand a wail of frustration and pain cut through the night.
She opened her eyes and looked at the alarm clock. The twin bells were ringing in a tinny cacophony. Tara picked up the clock and slapped the tiny lever home to stop the noise. Buffy groaned and pulled the bedclothes over her head. Dawn blinked owlishly and looked around the stateroom. Tara pointed towards the small bathroom. The girl hurried to it. Tara glared at the alarm clock again. She was about to reset it when she remembered the working breakfast planned for this morning.
"Shit," she whispered harshly.
"Hurrmmph?" the bundle on Buffy's bed groaned.
"Working breakfast this morning," Tara sighed. "We promised."
"Noooo," Buffy whimpered.
"There's th-things we h-have to deal with," Tara insisted.
"I don't do politics before noon," Buffy insisted as she clutched the sheets over her head.
"I don't think this is going to be just p-politics," Tara said with a yawn.
"It is," Buffy replied finally sitting up with a frown. "It's the hard, nasty version."
"Then we should be in the perfect mood," Tara said.
"Oh yeah," Buffy groused.
Willow brushed her teeth in the same precise manner she did every morning. It was comforting to know that no matter what her feelings were or how far she traveled every morning there would be a toothbrush with just exactly three centimeters of StarBrite toothpaste waiting for her.
Not exactly what I really want to wake up for every morning, she thought as she rinsed.
Willow looked into the mirror for a long moment. She pulled her hair into a couple of different forms. None of them made her look older or sophisticated in her opinion. She looked down at her slender form in the soft flannel pajamas.
Why would she want me anyway? Willow wondered. I'll bet she's got a dozen girls waiting for a chance at her on some space station or exotic planet. She'll leave and one of them will get her.
For a second the redhead had an image of Tara sitting at a small table outside a bistro on a planet with pink clouds. A tall model like the ones in the ads in the off planet magazines she's seen would walk up to her and speak to the dark blonde girl in a sexy accent. Tara would smile at her.
Willow was startled to see her frown at the thought of Tara smiling at some strange woman. Willow brushed her hair but the frown remained. Finally she looked at herself in the mirror.
"You are going to explain what happened and then you're going to give her the best kiss in the history of kissing, right?" she said firmly.
"Damn right!" Willow answered her reflection with a confident nod.
"Miss Rosenberg, are you going to be in there much longer?" Alex asked with a hint of desperation.
Willow knocked on the door of Tara's stateroom as she tried to recapture the confidence she’d felt earlier in the morning. Tara opened the door cautiously.
"Good morning," Tara said more politely than she felt.
"Good morning, Miss Maclay," Giles answered. "Are the others here yet?"
"No, you’re the first," Tara said as she let them in.
As Tara showed them in she met Willow’s eyes. She smiled shyly at the redhead.
That was for me! Willow thought happily. That smile was all mine!
Tara felt her heart lighten when Willow smiled back at her. Green eyes seemed to dance for a moment that Tara knew she would remember forever. Then more knocking at the door revealed a steward and Tara was busy for a few minutes as she arranged the food and beverages with Dawn’s help. William and his party arrived just a few minutes later and the working part of the breakfast began. Neither Willow nor Tara could spare much attention for the other as the group reviewed the planetary situation and what all of them had learned.
Even as she listened to the stories that she only half understood and tried to understand the flashes of memories that were maddeningly incomplete Dawn was aware something was happening between Willow and Tara.
They smile when they look at each other, even if they don't see the other looking, she thought. Why is that?
The breakfast had caught everyone up with the story, but nothing new deigned to be wrestled out of the facts they had. Giles looked through the half dozen newspapers he had brought with him in front of them. All of the papers' editorials were trumpeting nationalistic pride and urging 'action'.
"It doesn't make any sense," Giles said despondently. "We can't afford... a crisis."
"Can't afford..." Tara said distantly. "I think I've s-seen this before."
The room grew silent as the rest of the people looked at her. Tara couldn’t find her voice and looked down.
"Take your time," Willow said with a gentle smile. Tara looked up and smiled shyly back.
"It w-w-was different," Tara explained haltingly. "It wasn't politics. It was shoes. All of a sudden they were everywhere. There weren't any ads, just an article in a trendy magazine, a couple of pictures, and then and then they were in 'short supply'. Suddenly you had to have them. Later I found out some off-planet liquidator had dumped over a ton of shoes no other system wanted. He charged about a hundred Imperial crowns more than he'd paid for each pair."
"This isn't fashion," Buffy pointed out. "I should know."
"We know Cordelia," Willow said with a roll of her eyes.
"But the article that s-started it all, the o-o-one in the trends magazine?" Tara said softly. "It was the same magazine that said they were in short supply, but it turned out that the magazine was bought out by the liquidator. The old owners were broke. There wasn't a lot of, you know, fashion on Milton."
"The bloody nationalist rags," Liam said quickly. "When did they show up?"
"We started getting them into the library about eighteen months ago," Giles said in a thoughtful tone.
"The Oldenberg National Alliance was a fading bunch of brawlers about then," the prince said tensely. "Then they had an expensive newspaper selling for a loss with each issue trumpeting their idiot ideas."
"That's what happened at home," Liam said frowning with thought. "About the same time."
"Nationalism, calls for action, yellow journalism puffing up a story of murder most foul..." Giles' words stopped.
Buffy looked at William and then at Giles. Both had the same mix of anger and fright in their eyes. The young noblewoman looked at the map they'd been using to try to figure out what was happening. Riley's face was almost unreadable, but the mercenary's stance and his body language spoke volumes. The handsome Irishman was pale, looking at the map like it was a snake.
They know, she realized. We're being herded into something no one can win, and my mother and sister are just sacrificial pawns.
She looked at the off-world girl who had been Dawn's rescuer. Blue eyes were looking at the map, and Buffy knew Tara was trying to understand what things were leading up to. Buffy looked at Willow, and saw the same look of concentration. Then she saw her best friend's green eyes open in shock. The red head looked at Buffy then at Tara. That drew Buffy's attention back to the blonde.
Tara was shaking.
"Um, d-d-does this mean w-what I think it means?" Tara asked Willow.
"If you think this means we're, I mean everybody on the Peninsula, and maybe everyone on Europa too except for a couple of countries that really mean it when they say neutral, are being herded along like sheep to a really big bunch of knives, only this time instead of a shearing its going to be mutton for breakfast," Willow said tightly. "Then yes."
"War," Tara whispered.
"It doesn't make sense," Dawn said worriedly. "Momma is-my mother isn't guilty of anything and-and..."
"She's being used Dawn," Giles said gently. "And so are you."
"Why?" Dawn whispered.
The girl seemed to curl in on herself. Buffy sat next to her and pulled her into an embrace.
They look so small, Willow thought sadly.
"I need some air," Tara said suddenly.
She hurried out of the room. As the door closed Alex looked at Giles.
"Is she all right?" the young man asked unsurely.
"No," Giles answered tautly.
Tara took deep breaths as she leaned hard on the rail of the first class section. She wanted to push a memory back. She couldn't find her focus as she tried to use the techniques she'd been taught. She suddenly wasn't on Europa anymore.
Two girls, both planetary natives, were waiting in line just outside the Imperial compound's fence. Tara saw them as she was running an errand for Kami, her senior clerk. She could feel their mutual worry. Tara was glad they were near the front of the line. They'd be safe. Then there was a faint whirr in the air. She felt a spike of fear from the girls. The older one pulled the smaller girl close to her, trying to shield her younger sister. The next thing Tara knew she was being shoved down by a Marine in an AMP suit. There as a sharp bang and something screamed over her head. When she looked up there was a cloud of dust where the girls had been and what looked like an untidy pile of rags.
Tara took another desperate deep breath. The scent of the sea brought back the memory of Willow's hand on hers on this very rail. Tara tried to push back the darker memory and felt it start to retreat.
Willow saw Tara looking out over the sea as the ship pushed along at a stately pace. A gull slipped through the air above. The white of the bird complimented the blues of the sky and the ocean. The blonde turned at the sounds of footsteps behind her. Tara didn’t let go of her tight hold on the railing.
"S-sorry," Tara said looking down.
"Hey, it's no big," Willow said with a shrug. "Except that it is, for you I mean. I'm guessing you've seen..."
Tara lifted her eyes to meet Willow's. The slim girl felt herself swallow unconsciously at the pain she was sure she could see there. For a fleeting moment Willow could swear she felt the other girl's struggle. The moment passed as Tara took a deep breath and seemed to grow calmer.
"Too much." Willow finished as she stepped to the rail beside Tara.
Willow closed her hands over Tara's on the rail. Her heart thudded in her chest as Tara smiled at her.
"I'm s-s-sorry about, umm, last night too," Tara said haltingly.
"No!" Willow said quickly. "I mean don't be sorry, 'cause I should be the one who's all with the sorry."
"They don’t know," Tara said gently.
"No," Willow said as her shoulders slumped a bit. "And I can't tell them now, with all this..."
"Are you sure?" Tara asked after a moment. "I mean about... girls."
Not really, Willow thought to herself in an almost panic. I'm mostly sure about one girl.
"I wasn't sure until I saw you," Willow said before she realized it. Her blush stopped as Tara looked at her with a lopsided grin and then looked down. Willow's mouth felt dry as she cupped the taller girl's chin gently in her hand and lifted it. Trembling the redhead leaned in and kissed Tara's lips. Tara gently returned her kiss. They broke just as gently and Willow knew somehow Tara was worried about her, just as Willow knew she didn’t want to kiss anyone else for a very long time.
"That wasn't a crisis kiss, or a looking for a thrill kiss, but it was, you know, wow," Willow said breathlessly. "That was an I want to kiss you, Miss Maclay kiss. Just so you know."
"It was wonderful," Tara said a touch roughly.
"It was?" Willow said with a bright smile. "I mean it was great for me but I didn't press too hard or get sloppy-"
"It was perfect," Tara said as she put a slim finger to Willow's lips. "No one ever kissed better on a ship in the sea with sunlight all around. But we need to get back to the others."
"The others?" Willow said distantly with a smile. "Oh! The others, in the cabin. Crisis. Right."
Willow turned back to the stateroom with her hand holding Tara's. Tara stopped and gently moved Willow's hand. Willow looked at her, then at the stateroom door.
"Later," Tara said easily.
"There'll be a later?" Willow asked wistfully.
"If you, you know, want a later," Tara promised.
Willow just smiled.
Giles looked out the porthole as Willow and Tara met. He frowned briefly, then Buffy saw an almost sad smile.
"What?" Buffy asked. "Is something wrong? I'll go help."
The young woman strode for the door only to have Giles close his hand on the handle before she could open it.
"Give Willow a moment," Giles said firmly.
"Yeah," Liam said as he looked out the porthole. Giles turned and looked at him. Buffy couldn't see Giles' face but she could see the young Irish noble blanch slightly. "I mean, she's... I'll just sit for a moment."
"That would be best," Giles said with a small smile that never quite reached his eyes.
As the two young women were about to enter the stateroom their hands brushed. At that moment Tara felt a distant wave of despair. It wasn't coming from inside the room, but the person was nearby. She turned to Willow and saw the redhead’s eyes were wide.
"What was that?" Willow whispered with a touch of fright in her voice.
"I'm not s-sure," Tara said. "Close your eyes and, um, l-listen."
Tentatively Tara reached for Willow's hand. Suddenly Tara could feel the hopelessness and knew it was the construct she'd seen last night.
Just a thing to be used...
Willow jerked and opened her eyes. The feeling dropped away. Willow looked at Tara.
"I haven't felt anything that clear since my grandfather died," she said in a shocked tone.
"You felt..." Tara said matching Willow's tone.
"You too?" Willow asked quickly.
"All my life," Tara replied with a soft nod. "Um, at least as far as I can remember at least. My mother said it was a gift. My f-f-father... h-he didn’t. But it was never this clear for me before-"
The door to the stateroom opened. Giles looked at the two girls who turned to him as one. He could see that he had interrupted something.
"I'm sorry," he said carefully. "We need to get back to work. Perhaps later we'll take lunch in small groups to give everyone a chance to... think and talk about things."
"That sounds like a good idea," Willow answered with a wan smile. "We'll have lots to talk about."