Return to Equilibration Chapter Three


Author: CaptMurdock
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: The characters of Willow Rosenberg and Tara Maclay, as well as Buffy Summers, Xander Harris, Faith, Warren Mears, Jonathan Levinson and Charles Gunn, or the reasonable facsimiles that I employ in this story, are the property of Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy productions. The setting for the story is within the universe of Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry and owned by Paramount Pictures, Inc. No infringement of copyright is intended. The other characters are the creation of either myself or several colleagues who don't care what I do with them. In any case, I'm a firm believer in Kasden's Law. YMMV.

Willow lost track of how many days, or even weeks went by as she struggled to fit into her new life. On board a starship, where night and day were arbitrary distinctions unsullied by a rising or setting sun (at least while at warp), one was a little more dependent upon artificial devices of timekeeping. That, of course, was one of the reasons that stardates, a system based upon mathematical progressions of stellar positions and motions, was invented in the first place.

A century ago (Willow would muse bitterly to herself) she had prided herself on her ability to convert stardates to the Gregorian calendar still in use on many worlds populated by Earth-descended humans, at least with those with a sidereal cycle close enough to an Earth year. (On Centaurus, the fourth planet out from Alpha Centauri A, they dealt with the seven extra days in the Centaurus "year" by adding days to February, April, June, September and November.) Buffy or Xander could ask on stardate 7762 what day it was back on Earth, and she could reply "November 21st" before the echo of the question died.

However, since she had come to find herself not only in a new place but a new time, Willow had lost her orientation. Since, naturally, stardates still worked on the same system, she could retune her ability to convert to Earth dates (or Centaurus dates) with a little effort... except, for some reason, she could not find within her the desire to bother with it.

Besides that, she was far too busy to worry about it. She had been assigned quarters aboard ship by the quartermaster. She wondered whom her roommate was going to be when she was told that these quarters were hers alone. A small part of her mind had been amazed; the quarters she had shared with Buffy hadn't been nearly as large.

She was also measured for the current uniform and issued a commbadge. She had to admit, the new uniform was more comfortable, and more flattering to the figure. Of course, Willow thought, Starfleet just has to advertise to the galaxy at large that I have the figure of a twelve-year-old boy.

One of the qualifications that made Willow a perfect choice for the bridge science officer position was her all-encompassing grasp of the sciences. She had extensive knowledge of exobiology, astrophysics, geology, warp field dynamics and genetics, as well as a smattering of a dozen other disciplines. However, ninety years of advances in virtually all these fields compelled Willow to review a vast amount of material. Because she would be coordinating all of the shipboard science departments, she had to be current on all of them.

Besides the general knowledge, Willow had to meet with the department personnel herself. Some of the department heads, such as Lt. Commander Darrinbaldi who headed Stellar Cartography, outranked her; it made her a little uncomfortable bossing someone around who had more pips on his collar than she did. However, Darrinbaldi, like the other scientists, preferred the intellectual cloister of the science labs (given that Stellar Cartography was a massive, two-story complex where you could project star maps onto the very walls, Willow could see why Darrinbaldi would stay there) and had no interest in manning the bridge science station on a regular basis. Still, a blur of faces and names needed to be absorbed.

She also met with two of the senior officers, Lt. Commanders DaKar and Kolrami. The latter was a Zakdorn, a species she had never heard of before, who seemed to be born catalogers and cross-referencers. Kolrami was the Ops Manager, responsible for the coordination and allocation of all ship's resources. She seemed to know second by second how much power was available for any subsystem, down to the milli-erg.

Willow had to create a schedule for the science departments to utilize the ship's sensors, sharing them jointly with the navigational and tactical departments. She had to revise the schedule several times to fit Kolrami's exacting criteria, nearly driving Willow to breaking her promise never to bitch-slap a superior officer.

Commander DaKar, on the other hand, was a joy to work with, one of the few joys Willow had these days. Jovial, lively, patient, DaKar showed Willow around the Engineering section like a child showing his pristine collection of toys. An unexpected "bonus" presented itself when DaKar revealed that he, after a fashion, had served on the original Hannibal...

"You mean, you have... a... um, what do you call that?" Willow asked him, on uncertain ground.

"Symbiont," DaKar replied. "Actually, that part of me is nearly five hundred standard years old. Besides its own personality, it also carries the memories of my five previous hosts."

"And your last host was Kiera DaKar... former helmsman on the Hannibal - the old one, I mean?"

DaKar nodded. He reminded Willow faintly of Xander, with his dark hair and chocolate-brown eyes. However, he seemed to have a natural neatness to which perpetually-rumpled Xander could not hope to aspire. Plus, Xander never had the the lines of chestnut spots running symmetrically down the sides of his face. "Yes, and then later she became captain of the U.S.S. Hathaway. After retiring from Starfleet, she became one of the directors of the Trill Symbiosis Commission."

Willow nodded, impressed. She had heard of the Trill race back in the twenty-third century; although not members of the Federation, a few had served in Starfleet and in the Diplomatic Corps. Apparently, few if any non-Trill had known about the symbionts, the slug-like creatures who were also native to the Trill homeworld, and who long ago had begun a symbiotic relationship with their humanoid counterparts; in a way, this was understandable, as only a small percentage of Trills were "joined."

"So did you, um, inherit...?"

DaKar chuckled. "No, she and I weren't related, not in the way you mean. When I was an initiate, she was my evaluator. Usually, the evaluator tends to be harsh on the initiates, looking for reasons to flunk them out of the program, but she seemed to take a shine to me. Maybe because I expressed my desire to be in Starfleet. In any case, she asked that when... her time came, that I would be the new host."

"Wow," was all Willow could say.

Beyond the purely scientific requirements, there were also bridge protocols, emergency procedures, reviews of the current spatiopolitical makeup of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants, a quick precis of the newly-explored Gamma Quadrant (thanks to a stable wormhole that had opened up three years ago in the Bajor system) and nine decades' worth of Starfleet minutiae. An alliance with the Klingons? Willow thought incredulously at one point. Did pigs grow wings while I was in the Twilight Zone? she wondered, using one of her grandfather's obscure little references.

It was a backbreaking load, but Willow tackled the job with her characteristic vigor, working in the ship's "library" (as the general computer access compartment was called) twelve, sometimes eighteen hours a day. Keeping her mind busy was the only defense she had against the memories. But that only worked while she was awake.

Most every night, asleep in her quarters, an exhausted Willow was treated to a variation on two themes: an aged, decrepit Xander, dragging himself by desiccated limbs toward her, gasping his last breath... or a desperate Buffy, crying out to Willow for help that never came. Each time, Willow would bolt upright, a scream or a retch barely contained in her throat, while her shattered heart would pound in her sobbing chest and tears would sting her tired eyes.

"She's killing herself," Tara said plaintively to Dr. Devereux. The two were not in his office, but in the Tart 'n' Drum, the ship's lounge decorated like a turn-of-the-millennium British pub, complete with dartboard, brass rails, mirrored signs advertising alcoholic beverages (authentic? Tara wondered) and salty snacks in baskets on the bar. Devereux enjoyed being a relief bartender during his offshift; he claimed to Tara that he often got some of his best "business" listening to people talk about their problems.

Tara wondered if he got off on the ambience, but said nothing.

"Really putting her nose to the grindstone, huh?" Devereux replied sympathetically as he mixed a Roy Rogers and slid it over to the blonde. She smiled lopsidedly, picked up the drink and took a quick sip. Not a hint of booze. He reached over and picked up his oft-neglected oranges-and-lemons drink and raised it to her.

She knocked her glass against his in a silent toast, then got back to the subject. Tara had been checking in with Willow periodically, to see how she was progressing with her subjects as well as her emotional wellbeing. "She really is working too hard. The captain, he didn't set any kind of deadline for her to catch up on all this...?"

"No, not that I'm aware of," the counselor replied thoughtfully. "Last time I checked with him, he seemed pleased with the progress she had been making." A crewman came up to the bar then; Devereux excused himself to make the requested synthehol-based screwdriver, leaving Tara to sip her drink. A minute later, he came back over. "So tell me: why do you think she's pushing herself so hard?"

Tara had thought a lot about this; actually, it surprised her how much thought she had devoted to Willow in the last few days. "I-I think she's t-trying to avoid dealing with... well, just dealing in general. If she keeps herself busy, she-she won't have to think about her friends. Buffy. Xander." She looked down, as if the answer, or her own confidence, were on the bar next to the drink coasters and the pretzels. "It's 'survivor's guilt.' "

Devereux's face retained its professional mask, but Tara felt in her mind a wave of emotion, long-suppressed from the feel, somehow dank and musty as if it had come...

From the grave, was Tara's first anxious thought. What the hell is he remembering that makes him feel this bad?

Devereux blinked a couple of times, then smiled, neatly cutting off the emotional stream that he suspected Tara's empathic senses had tapped into. Clearing his throat, sounding as if was discussing a monograph on the bicameral mind, he said, "I think what's needed here is an emphasis on Ms. Rosenberg's present, not her past. She's indulging in these feelings of guilt because she feels no connection to the people around here... present company excluded, I should think." He didn't quite wink at Tara, but the tone of his voice at that last phrase was, inappropriately, a little jovial. Tara looked away, slightly chagrined. "So... if we accept this as our premise, our diagnosis, if you will, what can be done to correct this?"

Tara turned back to face him. "I-I'm not sure. That's wh-why I came to you, sir."

Devereux nodded. "Tell you what. I'll suggest to the captain a special dinner at Calavicci's. Have you been there?"

Tara shook her head. Calavicci's was an anomaly as far as Starfleet vessels go: an actual Italian restaurant, preparing food without a replicator, using protein resequencing and synthesizing techniques refined from those used in the late twenty-first century. Given the limited resources and space allotted to the restaurant, advance reservations were often required before one could dine there.

"I'll ask Captain Murdock to make a reservation for the senior officers, and have him invite Ms. Rosenberg... and you, too," he added.

"Oh, uh, th-that's not necessary, Doctor," Tara protested. "This should just be for Willow, uh, Lt. R-Rosenberg."

"Oh, drop the 'orphan child' act, will ya?" Devereux growled good-naturedly. "I think it might be a nice welcome-aboard for you, too."

Tara dimpled. "Thank you, Doctor."

"Don't mention it." He looked over her shoulder at one of the waiters bringing a brace of empty glasses back to the bar. "Oh, geez. Look, go be a social butterfly someplace else. Some of us got work to do." He waggled his eyebrows at her as he took some of the glasses from the waiter and began to refill them.

"Dammit!" Willow slammed the tricorder she was trying to work on onto the table and picked up the PADD containing the operations manual for the fourth time in as many minutes, trying to see where she was going wrong. The current model of tricorders were not only smaller and more powerful than the ones in her time period (my former time period, she thought ruefully) but they also had the ability to send and receive information to and from a variety of sources. Figuring out all the functions and protocols was driving Willow up the bulkhead.

Mind you, none of this was beyond Willow's capability. But too many long self-driven days and bad dream-ridden nights had shredded her faculties far below her normal standards.

Sighing, leaning back in the chair in her quarters, she read the test procedure again:

Set the tricorder to accept data from a one-way source, process the scan and set up a secure link with another tricorder.

She set down the PADD, picked up the tricorder and began to key it. "Alright. Uh, F1, ACCEPT, GEO, MET, BIO, TRICORDER -"


"Aggggh! Darn you, you... filthy thing!" Willow slammed the "clamshell" closed and, in a burst of anger and frustration, stood up and threw the tricorder as hard as she could...

...right at one of the acrylic spacescapes hanging on the bulkheads, standard issue decorations for officer quarters. The hurtling tricorder shattered the glass covering before dropping the carpeted deck. Willow winced as shards of glass tinkled down out of the frame.

"Ohhhh, no," she muttered. Right then, a perfect example of bad timing, the door chime sounded. Collapsing back into her chair, Willow let the air out of her lungs like a deflating balloon, then shouted, "Come in!"

The door opened. Tara. The sight of the blonde assistant counselor was nearly enough to put something resembling a smile on Willow's face. Nearly.

Involuntarily, Willow glanced at the result of her destructive ire. Tara, picking up on Willow's chagrin and following the gaze, saw the tricorder and the broken glass on the carpet. She knelt down and, carefully, picked up the sensing instrument.

Looking mock-sternly at the tricorder laying in the palm of her hand, Tara shook a scolding finger at it and said, "Bad tricorder. Baaaad tricorder."

Willow surprised herself by almost laughing at the quip. Rolling her eyes, she muttered, "Don't do that, okay? I'm in a bad mood. I want to enjoy it."

Tara crossed over to the little table next to Willow and set the tricorder down. "Well, we can indulge you, but first, let me take you someplace where your, uh, bad mood won't damage the ship." She tagged a small chuckle and a smile at the end of her sentence as she sat down in the other chair.

Willow noticed that Tara was wearing something other than her uniform for the first time since Willow had known her: baggy white sweater, long cream-and-tan skirt, buckskin boots. Her commbadge was affixed to the sweater in its usual place, rather incongruously. "You look very nice," she commented, watching Tara duck her head shyly, thinking how cute that looked and why was she thinking that?

Tara's head snapped up suddenly, as if she had heard something disturbing. Before Willow could ask her what was wrong, Tara blurted out, "Y-your uniform. I mean, you're not on duty now. Don't you have any, y'know, civvies?"

A somewhat dark expression clouded Willow's face. "Gee, I left most of my casual stuff back in the twenty-third century. Do ya think they'll let me go back and get 'em?"

Tara involuntarily recoiled from the bitterness in Willow's psyche. Between Devereux's subconscious cesspool of guilt and Willow's raging depression, Tara's little brain was taking a beating this evening. Taking in a deep breath through her nose, she reconstituted the mental barriers she kept up from the emotional "background radiation" that she lived in day to day. She felt herself automatically recentering.

Willow, meanwhile, took Tara's second or two of silence as disapproval or discomfort. Chagrined, she realized that this woman was here as a friend, or at least as someone whose job it was to help Willow during this period of adjustment. Throwing it back in her face wasn't going to accomplish anything but alienate Willow even further.

"Starship Self-Pity, one to beam up," Willow quipped. Tara burst out laughing; Willow surprised them both by joining in. When they were done, she reached out a hand to the counselor. "I'm sorry."

Tara smiled in acceptance of the apology. "Willow, you're working too hard. You need a break. You also need to get out of that uniform... a-a-and into some off-duty clothes." She stood up and, taking Willow's hand, half-pulled up out of her chair. "I've come to rescue you," she added, mock-seriously. "Now, let's go shopping."

The quartermaster, having already taken Willow's body measurements, was able to provide the proper sizes when the two went to the large-scale replicators to get Willow some off-duty clothes. Willow found Tara's fashion sense tended towards the eclectic, mixing bright, cheery colors with earthy tones, weaves, "home-made" looking outfits... Willow decided to let Tara pick out outfits she would like to see Willow in.

"Are-are you sure? I mean, it's your clothes."

"I trust you."

Minutes later, Willow had a small but serviceable wardrobe, including a couple of off-duty outfits, a fairly nice formal dress, and some very comfy-looking sleepwear. Willow was somewhat amazed that Tara had picked out that last, and that Willow was so looking forward to trying it on.

They returned to Willow's quarters, looking like two kids on Christmas morning, to stow away the clothes. Willow hung up the formal while Tara stowed the blouses and slacks in the vanity drawers. However, she left out a purple blouse and knee-length skirt, with black flat shoes. "Here; we still have stuff on the schedule tonight," Tara said, handing the ensemble to Willow. "Hurry and change." She turned to go out the door, to give Willow privacy.

"Where you goin'?" Willow asked, already undoing the closures on her uniform, then remembered to take off her commbadge for later use.

Tara stopped and turned back towards Willow, feeling obligated out of politeness to not just fly out the door. "W-well, I was j-just going outs-side for a minute,"

Willow, by this time down to her undertunic and stepping out of the uniform legs, pursed her lips. "Buffy and I always used to change in front of each other all the time. No big."

"R-really?" Tara replied, trying to sound casual.

"Oh, yeah. Believe me, seeing Buffy without clothes, and me being similarly 'buffo'... definitely a humbling experience. Here she is, all curvy and athletic," Willow's voice was muffled when she pulled her undertunic over her head, leaving her now just in the bra and underpants. Tara stopped just short of gasping as the Starfleet-issue gray covering came into view, supporting a pair of small but perky breasts... "And here I am, built like two sticks," Willow concluded ruefully.

Tara half-turned, pretending to example another of the spacescapes on the bulkhead, not quite turning her back on Willow's near-naked form but definitely keeping it in the corner of her eye. Yeah, but those are two of the best-looking sticks I've ever seen! Tara thought, feeling her temperature and blood pressure rise unbidden.

"Of course, when I first knew her," Willow was adding as she stepped into her slacks, while Tara, discreetly fanning herself with her hands, was checking out Willow's slim behind, "she still had a little, uh, baby fat on her. Not that she was really, whatyacall, chunky, but she definitely had a good bit of it up front." Her hands formed melon shapes at chest-level. She grinned at Tara, who smiled back while hoping the beads of sweat on her forehead weren't noticeable. "After a couple of years of Academy training, she worked off the excess weight... and most of it came from her chest. She's all," Willow assumed a pouting expression, no doubt in imitation of her friend, "'Not fair!'

"Now, me, kind of a late bloomer, if you know what I mean." Willow chuckled, then pulled the front of her bra away from her chest, looking down at herself. "Gosh, look at those!" she said in mock-incredulity, as if she had found the Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Tara felt faint.

Willow pulled on the blouse, then stepped into the shoes. Finished, she did a quick twirl for effect, then glanced at Tara. She noticed that the counselor seemed pleased with the outfit, but there was something else, a feeling Willow had trouble articulating. She gave a mental shrug and dismissed it. Whatever it was, no doubt Tara would tell her in her own good time.

"Little warm in here, isn't it?" Willow asked, noticing that Tara seemed to be perspiring a little.

"You look very n-nice," Tara said, practically biting her tongue in an effort to keep her voice level and un-stuttery. "Let's go see if we can find an interesting place to visit..." Antarctica, she thought, tugging at her sweater as discreetly as possible, as the two of them left Willow's quarters.

After dropping down a deck, the two of them came to a larger door than was usual aboard the Hannibal. It was semi-circular, two large metal doors fitting together zigzag fashion. The identifying label said HOLODECK 4.

"What have we here?" Willow asked, curious. She actually had heard of holographic recreation suites back in "the day," only on larger starships and starbases, though. Basically, you could program a static environment, like a forest or a beach, and walk through it, at least to the limit of the space within the room. The old Hannibal couldn't support anything that computer-intensive, but Willow had visited the second Intrepid, which could and did. Frankly, she wasn't that impressed; it was one of those things that sound great on paper, but due to technical limitations was less than satisfactory. "Kinda like Sea Monkeys," Captain Cumberland had said; as usual, Willow had no idea what he was talking about.

Tara had gone to the access panel adjacent to the doors and tapped an inquiry. She noted that the holodeck was unoccupied and still reserved to her for an hour. She turned back to Willow and beckoned her to come over. "Where would you like to go?"

Willow raised her eyebrows. "Huh? You mean, anyplace, even real places?"

"Uh huh."

Willow considered this for a second, finally selecting a place that she had gone on shore leave a year ago... a year on her personal timeline. "Rirhath, Rigel III."

Tara tapped in the vocal selection that Willow had just given. After a moment, the computer voiced replied, "Program complete. You may enter when ready."

Taking Willow by the hand, feeling a little self-conscious a second later but a glance at Willow stilled her doubts, Tara led her to the doors, which parted in front of them, leading to... elsewhere.

It was, to Willow's stunned brain, as if someone had taken the entire city of Rirhath and somehow connected it to the side of the starship. It was just like being there, exactly how she remembered the alien metropolis. Well, not quite. There were a few buildings that she did not remember, and a walkway soared above the two of them, standing on the Avenue of the Far Suns (as it translated into English) that Willow did not recall being there. Still, it was Rirhath, in all its ancient Rigellian architecture. Buildings flared outward from their base, almost inverted-pyramid style, which looked flimsy as hell but apparently worked for the Rigellians. The magenta sky, set off by the blue-white jewel of Rigel A almost a half-billion kilometers away, made Willow laugh giddily. Even the slight tang in the air, something that was a close cousin of cinnamon, was exactly the same.

"Omigod! This is incredible! It's just like being there! Oh, God, look!" Willow walked a few meters ahead of Tara, not even noticing as the holodeck doors and the interior arch vanished, replaced by more Rigellian landscape. "There's that noodle bar we tried last year!" she exclaimed, pointing to a storefront food vendor down one slidewalk level from the avenue. "Have you ever had Rigellian pasta? Don't; it's gross. These people have never heard of tomatoes, and they put this stuff on their noodles, I think it's derived from some native slug-"

"I get it," Tara interjected, simultaneously amused and grossed-out. "Maybe there's something more to your taste a little further on. Or-or we can change the program to someplace else..."

Willow was struggling to recall the layout of Rirhath. "No, hang on; I think there's a good place for ribs, down this avenue and just across the Courtyard of the High Kings. This way." Willow started walking in the direction indicated, while Tara followed with a grin, content to watch her charge enjoy herself for the first time in... ninety years?

Suddenly Willow stopped, putting her hands in front of her as if looking for an invisible obstruction. "Whoa! Hold on, we're gonna hit the wall if we keep going."

Tara giggled. "No, we're not." To illustrate, she walked past Willow, chuckling at the expression on her face as she anticipated Tara bumping into the holodeck bulkhead. Willow watched as, seemingly in defiance of the laws of physics, Tara continued walking, far past the volume that Willow mentally calculated to be the confines of the holodeck.

Finally, when Tara looked to be nearly fifty meters away, Willow started running after her. "Wait!" She caught up with Tara, who had stopped walking and turned around smiling. "I don't get this! How is it doing this, I mean, you were twice as far away as the holodeck is big... I think..."

"Was I? Was I really?" Tara scrunched her face up in an effort to seem mysterious, but Willow just thought it was adorable. "Willow, you're in a holographic environment. Everything you see in here, including to a certain extent me, is an illusion. You can simulate perspective in here as easy as everything else. I'm only a few meters away from you, even if I look like I'm a mile away."

"I get it! Then there must be some sort of sliding mechanism, or a forcefield, that enables us to keep walking along the deck, while the false-perspective system keeps moving our images, you know what kind of computer memory you need for that- Hey!"

"What?" Tara blurted, caught off-guard.

"Can it make us look different? I mean, could it make me look to you, like, the captain? Or make you, y'know, look like Jodell DaKar?"

Tara blinked. "I-I-I don't know. I've never thought about that before." Tara chewed her lip. "Why don't we take a look around some more? Maybe there's someplace else you want to see..."

Willow step a mental step back. "Oh. Sorry. Didn't mean to get all excited there."

"No, it's fine. I wanted to show you this, so you could relax a little."

Willow smiled. "I am relaxed. I was relaxed before I came in here." She reached out and clasped Tara's arm gently above the elbow. "You've made me feel better, better than I've felt in a long time. Thank you."

At Tara's suggestion, they tried several other holoprograms. New Berlin on Luna, looking up at Earth at half-phase through the viewports at the colony's botanical gardens. Helium on Mars, overlooking the "Grand Canal" formed by millions of years of erosion and not by Martians, only within the last twenty-four years filled with water. ShiKahr on Vulcan, home of the Science Academy where Willow once visited as a ensign. The floating city of Stratos on Ardana. Andor. Tellara.

"Wanna see Sunnydale?" Tara asked after their eighth stop on the Federation Express.

Willow winced. "Um, I don't think I'm ready for the whole voyage home thing. Maybe some other part of Centaurus... although, not right now."

Tara nodded her assent. "That's okay. I mean, you have to take this at a pace you can live with." She sighed, then smiled. "Can I show you something, I mean, s-someplace?"

Willow grinned. "Sure. Fire when ready, Gridley!"

Tara started to access the holodeck interface, then stopped. "Um, who's 'Gridley'?"

Willow shrugged. "See, that's the thing. Nobody knows!"

Tara nodded again, then raised her voice slightly. "Computer: access program Maclay-4." At her command, the view around them blurred, then reformed into a completely different scene.

They were standing outdoors, on the shore of a large body of water whose far shores were lost in the distance. Their side of the lake was heavily forested with trees that resembled pine. Ahead of them, about a kilometer away by Willow's estimation, was a large pavilion made out of some substance resembling terra cotta. Off in the distance to their left, snow-capped mountains reached up to almost touch two slivers of moon. The sky was blue, even deeper azure than the skies of Earth or Centaurus, offset with pale silver wisps of cloud.

Willow didn't recognize this setting, only that this planet was not Earth (the two moons were a dead giveaway, natch). However, the stark beauty of this natural vista took her breath away, city girl though she was. "Wow! This is gorgeous. Is this a real place or some fantasy reconstruction... thingy?"

Tara giggled. For all her genius, Willow had a knack for odd metasyntactic variables like "thingy." Another endearing trait that, frankly, threatened to knock Tara's figurative legs right out from under her. "No, it's real. It's Lake Katarria on Betazed, near my grandmother's house."

Willow struggled to recall what she knew about Betazed. It was one of the planets that joined the Federation during her 'hiatus,' home to a race of spiritual people... with telepathic abilities...

"So, you're Betazed... ian?" she asked uncertainly. "I kinda assumed you were human, not that it's not okay, to be non-human, some of my best friends are, well my best friends were Buffy and Xander, who were human, but I can think of a couple of people that I liked pretty well, and you know, get along pretty well with Commander DaKar, and, and, digging myself a hole here, help me out?"



"Betazoid. And I'm not fully, I'm, well, three-quarters human. My mother was half-Betazoid."

They walked along the lakeshore, discussing what each of them knew of interspecies breeding, then Willow recalled something Tara had said. "You said your mother was half-Betazoid... I mean, past tense. I take she's, ah..."

Tara nodded, looking away from Willow across the lake. "Yeah, um, when I w-was seventeen."

Willow reached out to grasp Tara's arm, wanting to return some of the support that this woman had given her these past weeks. "I'm so sorry." She wished she knew what to say in these situations; her "gift" for words, imprecise at the best of times, really ran into foul territory during expressions of sympathy.

Tara turned and gave a small smile, placing her other hand over Willow's. "Thanks. This was one of her favorite places; we used to go here every so often, just the two of us."

Willow smiled, realizing the honor of being allowed in one of Tara's private places. "Did anyone of else from your family come here?" She was disturbed when a frown creased Tara's face. "What? I said something wrong?"

"N-no. I just," she sighed, then plunged on, "my dad wouldn't come here. He didn't really like my grandmother or, well, or Betazed, or anything about Betazoid culture. He-He really wasn't comfortable even t-talking about it. Dad did everything he could to influence Donny... that's my brother... he and Donny never really... we really haven't talked much. At all, I guess."

Willow shook her head in amazement. And I thought my family put the fun in dysfunctional! She thought. One question puzzled her. "Uh, now I don't get something." At Tara's quizzical stare, which she might have recognized as indication that she was in delicate territory had she not been too busy being (in her grandmother's idiom) a yenta, she continued. "Why did your mother marry him if he was so, I don't know, anti-Betazoid?"

Tara sighed again and turned away. "It's not that simple, Willow."

Willow, however, would not let go of it. She crossed around to where Tara was facing. "Tara, two people are supposed to get married when they love one another and, feel that they're compatible and can live with one another without throwing the cutlery at each other. At least, that's how I always thought it should be, call me wacky..."

Tara rolled her eyes in acquiescence. "It was an arranged marriage. Back when they were children-"

"Arranged marriage?" Willow blurted, shocked. "God, how backward can you get?"

Tara's face flushed hot red, letting Willow know she'd said the wrong thing. "It's a B-Betazoid custom," she managed to stammer out, feeling as if she had been impaled with ice.

"Tara, I, I didn't mean..."

"Computer: exit!" Tara commanded. The doors appeared two meters to their left, opening as Tara, struggling not to shed the mortified tears filling her eyes, almost ran straight through them.

Willow was left on the shore of the holographic lake, staring after the departing counselor, feeling like the poster child for Foot-in-Mouth Disease.

"So are you going to make the reservations or not?" Dr. Devereux asked as he followed Captain Murdock around the arboretum. The other man was engaged in an informal inspection of the plants from various worlds, checking to see that the Vulcan succulents weren't getting too much water or the Kaferian apple trees were getting enough. Although horticulture was not one of his strong subjects, he had always admired nice gardens and wanted the Hannibal's arboretum to be a showpiece.

Devereux looked at his captain and friend with bemusement. Unlike many commanding officers who were rarely seen off the bridge or out of the ready room (unless it was some sort of shipboard emergency), Murdock often prowled around the various recesses of the ship: cargo bays, science labs, sickbay wards, classrooms for the school-age children. Several young engineering ensigns still murmured about the time when Murdock, apropos of nothing, showed up in the fuel storage bay, rolled up his sleeves, and started helping them rearrange the antimatter pods.

The counselor had long since divined the reason for these seemingly random diversions. It was Murdock's way of combating boredom, when one efficiency report blurred into another, when yet another Starfleet Intelligence précis crossed his desk and joined a pile of a hundred others. Ladies and gentleman, distinguished scientist, members of the Federation press, we present to you, the cure for interminable paperwork: busywork.

Of course, some of the more cynical members of the Hannibal's complement opined that this was the captain's way of keeping the crew on its collective toes, maintaining an edge of anxiety: Where's he going to pop in next? Devereux never bothered to correct this impression, the few times it had been voiced to him in confidence. If some people thought Murdock's greatest worry was keeping his crew off-balance, who was he to correct their paranoia?

The ship's counselor, that's who, his inner voice would answer, sounding a lot like his dad.

"Sure, Charlie, I'll do it. Sounds like a great idea," Murdock said, squatting down slightly to stare at one particular green shoot, slightly thicker around than a man's forearm, from which protruded a multi-tentacled growth with pink flowers sprouting from it. Satisfied that the exotic plant was in good health, he stood straight and placed his hand among the tentacles. "How you doin', Beauregard," Murdock quipped as the "hand" enclosed his in a friendly clasp, reluctantly letting go as he pulled away. He grinned as he saw Devereux roll his eyes at him. "What, don't you talk to your plants?"

Devereux shook his head. There were many times when Murdock's seemingly devil-may-care demeanor was refreshing, especially amongst the constant sobriety and decorum displayed by most Starfleet captains. However, at times when Devereux was trying to reach the Hannibal's captain on a more personal level, his flippancy really started to work his nerves. It had started when Devereux had tracked Murdock to the arboretum, near the end of beta shift; the captain had evinced surprise at seeing him here. When asked why, Murdock replied, "Well, for one thing, there isn't a bar in here."

Stepping around a planter of Crysaelian sun-blooms, Murdock relented in needling his friend. "Look, Luigi's been bugging me to drop in. Says I haven't had a decent meal in way too long. Personally, I think he and Mama want to clean out the fridge." He took a long sniff of the sun-blooms, savoring the pepperminty emanations. "Ahhh. Don't you love it here, Charlie?"

Devereux nodded. "It's nice. Lots of natural oxygen." He inhaled deeply. "Anything bothering you, Sam?"

"What makes you say that?"

"Usually, you haunt someplace more techno-oriented, like Stellar Cartography, or Engineering, when you take one of your strolls. Coming here usually means that you got some disturbing news."

Murdock nodded. "Just a report from Starfleet Intelligence. Indications of some new Maquis activity. Nothing definite, just the usual unconfirmed rumors." One of the unfortunate consequences of the latest treaty between the United Federation of Planets and the Cardassian Union was the forced secession of several Federation colonies near Cardassian space (and vice versa). Some of the colonists, dissatisfied with Federation assurances that the Cardassian government would not bring arms into the "Demilitarized Zone," had formed the Maquis to wage their own war against enemy aggression, real or perceived. The instability of the situation was only exacerbated by the fact that some of the Maquis felt that the Federation, and Starfleet, in choosing not to be part of the solution, were therefore part of the problem...

"I can see how that can be worrisome, Sam," Devereux allowed, "but as we don't have any solid lead - if what you've told me is true - devoting too much thought to what the Maquis are planning to do, if they are, is somewhat counter-productive. We can't be everywhere at once, right?"

"I suppose not. Although... I've always thought it would be interesting to be everywhere at once. Then I never have to worry about where I'm going. I'll be there!" Murdock's good humor vanished suddenly, as if caught in a transporter beam. He sat down on a small bench placed for the benefit of botanical enthusiasts and glumly placed his elbows on his knees. "I was also reviewing the briefing I received about the Dominion - or rather, their fanatical militia."

Devereux struggled to recall the alien name. "Gem... something. Gem-Haters?"

"Jem'Hadar. I keep thinking about the Odyssey," he added, referring to the starship destroyed by the Jem'Hadar in the Gamma Quadrant. He could still see the sensor images from the runabouts accompanying the Galaxy-class vessel, depicting the Odyssey's fiery death.

"Do you know the captain - Keogh?" Devereux asked.

Murdock nodded. "He was good. Not the best, but solid, experienced. I don't know, Charlie, I keep thinking Keogh had just gotten cocky, underestimated his opponent, but then-"

"-then you think, 'There but for the grace of God go I," Devereux continued. "You worry that in a similar situation, you're going to come out second best."

"Not a good trophy to carry home, Charlie."

"Neither is 'Best Ulcer of the Year,' Sam. Worry about the things you can control and leave the rest up to the fates of life, the universe and everything."

Murdock smiled. He could always count on the counselor to wean him out of his funks. Of course, half the time the counselor's attempts to dig into his head caused his bad moods in the first place. "'Leave it up to fate.' Is that your secret?"

"No. I, unfortunately, don't have that luxury." He sat down on the bench next to Murdock. "Can we make it tomorrow evening?"

"Make wha-Oh. Right. I think Luigi will squeeze us in. Let's see, you, me, Liv, Gelfa, Jodell, Thelvran, Govarr... and our two guests-of-honor. Nine. Well, Mama always says there's room, we'll just have to take her word for it."

Devereux grinned. "Let's just hope the wine cellar is up to the challenge."

"Boozehound. By the way, I think something happened earlier tonight between Rosenberg and your young protégé."

"Tara? Whatever do you mean... and how do you know?"

"My spies are everywhere. All I know is, the two of them went to quartermaster and got some off-duty clothes for Willow, then they went to a holodeck where Tara had reserved some time... only she left well before the requisite interval, supposedly very upset, and went back to her quarters. Willow went back to her quarters a few minutes later."

Devereux nodded, impressed. "Mmmm. I think I'll have a talk with Tara tomorrow morning, at our usual briefing.

"Rosenberg has her qualification testing tomorrow. I'll give her the invite for the dinner then, maybe see if I can find out what's wrong."

"You're assuming something's wrong between them. Why, may I ask, are you so interested?"

Murdock shrugged. "Willow, well, I... feel for her." At Devereux's arched eyebrow he riposted. "Not like that. Don't get me wrong, she's cute-"


"-but she's a little young for me." Devereux chuckled derisively, prompting another dirty look for the counselor. "Oh, dry up. It's just, I know she feels, losing everything and everyone she loves... to time."

Devereux nodded abstractedly. "Yes. Although, when you think about it, it's true of all of us. Time is the barrier between life and death, for your wife..." Sigh. "And mine." He cleared his throat. "Y'know, Tara, she's a good kid. I mean, a helluva counselor... a heart as big as the Orion Nebula. I think she sees Willow as some kind of project, helping her reintegrate. 'Course, maybe she's just doing her job extremely well."

"Maybe. Might be something more than that."

"You think she's... interested in that way, in Willow?"

Murdock didn't quite smile, but his expression was a close cousin of it. "Let's just say that I have a good idea, uh, what setting her thrusters operate on."

Devereux laughed at the somewhat risqué slang. "Oh, that's not nice! And what makes you so sure?"

"Well, the way she hardly gave Jodell a second glance. You know how pretty he is..." Murdock rolled his eyes as he stood up, intent upon heading to his quarters and sleep.

"Jodell DaKar thinks he's God's gift to women, men and small blue fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri!"

"Well, he is..."

Continue to Equilibration Chapter Five

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