Return to Equilibration Chapter Four


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.
In addition to the usual disclaimers: The lyrics to the song "That's Amore" are the property of the estate of Dean Martin. I own nothing, so don't even bother to sue.

"What diplomatic convention formed the basis of the Federation-Klingon Alliance?"

"The Khitomer Conference of 2293," Willow answered.

"Correct. Isolate the specific waveform used by the Borg Collective in this subspace domain, using multi-modal reflective sorting," the computer continued. Sitting at her access carrel in the "library," Willow tapped in the appropriate commands, watching the graphic image shift in the LCARS interface.

"Correct. Identify this quasi-stellar object from the E-band subspace emission."

"A collapsing protostar."

"Correct. Resequence these DNA base pairs to eliminate the activated intron which causes Barclay's Protomorphosis Syndrome."

"Mmm... tricky," Willow muttered, quietly so that the computer would not confuse it as an answer. She tapped instructions and watched the sticklike diagrams rearrange themselves according to her ministrations.

"Correct. Using inverse phasing, reconfigure this warp field to induce Cochrane deceleration."

"Easy!" Willow snarled. Tap beep be-de-beep.

"Correct. Identify this space vessel from its EM signature."

"Um, Cardassian warship, Galor-class."

"Please be more specific. There are five distinct configurations of the Galor-class vessel."

Willow was actually a bit stuck. "Uhhh, type five."

"Incorrect. Type three is the correct answer."

Willow huffed in disgust. "Phoey!"

"Please restate instruction."

"Continue, computer," Willow said, the sweet tone of her voice belied by her gritted teeth.

"Identify this object and its cultural significance," the computer intoned, flashing a greenish hourglass shape on the display.

Willow hissed in breath. "Oooh, I know this, I know this... Verteron-based artifacts known to the Bajorans as, uh, 'Obs of the Prophets?"

"Correct. Testing sequence completed." The computer flashed Willow's score, which was very high indeed.

"Eee-Yess! The winnah and still champeen!" Willow crowed, forgetting that she was not alone... until she heard DaKar quietly chuckling behind her. "Oh, uh, sorry, Commander. Commanders!" she amended for Commander Kolrami's benefit as she turned around.

DaKar stood up, his seemingly everpresent grin in place. "I'm very impressed. I wish some of my engineers scored this high on their requalifications."

Kolrami's expression was neutral. "I am not surprised by Lt. Rosenberg's grade. She put in well over the requisite hours in revision; why is it so amazing that she achieved such admirable results? Hard work is its own reward." She came over to Willow, allowing a hint of a smile to leaven her serious aspect. "You are very diligent, for a member of your particular species."

With as much a straight face as she could muster, Willow accepted the somewhat faint praise. "Thank you, ma'm."

"Coming from her, that's practically a marriage proposal," came the voice of the captain as he entered the room. Murdock strode over to his three subordinates. "I came to see how well you did on your requalification test."

"Flying colors, Captain," DaKar answered, handing him a PADD. Kolrami nodded in agreement. Willow tried not to look smug, but couldn't keep a smile off her face.

Murdock saw her barely contained pride and tipped her a quick wink. "Lieutenant, this is good work. And, I've gotten Lt. Thelvran's report, saying you've been requalified on your hand-to-hand and weapons."

"My bruises could've told you that, sir," Willow murmured. The three senior officers smiled, even Kolrami. Thelvran, a master of the Andorian martial art chekkah, was not as rough on science or command personnel in his workouts as he was on his security guards, but could still toss an unsuspecting ensign around the gymnasium pretty well.

"Actually," DaKar piped up, "Thel told me you had a pretty nice roundhouse kick he wasn't expecting. He was wondering where you might have picked that up."

A flash of Buffy, patiently trying to teach Willow a few moves back in the Academy gymnasium when she was in danger of flunking the self-defense course, rolled through Willow's mind. "Um, a, an old friend showed me a few tricks."

"Hmm. Well, I think we can safely say that you've passed all the necessary tests, and you're cleared for bridge duty." Murdock held out his hand. "Congratulations, Lt. Rosenberg."

Willow shook his hand, then DaKar's and Kolrami's. "Thank you, sir."

Murdock turned to DaKar and Kolrami. "Would the two of you excuse me and Lt. Rosenberg? We'll see you both tonight." The chief engineer and chief operations officer looked at one another, then nodded and left. Murdock turned back to his young officer. "The timing of this is rather fortuitous, y'know," Murdock said. "I also came to personally invite you to a dinner tonight with myself and the senior officers at Calavicci's. You do know Calavicci's, don't you?

"That's not a holodeck program-- Oh! That's one of the mess halls!"

"'Mess hall?'" Murdock grimaced theatrically. "Heavens to Mergatroid, don't let anybody hear you say that! Calavicci's is a restaurant, which serves authentic Italian food - or, as authentic as you can get outside of Italy. Or, off Earth."

Willow was amazed. "Um, not to be nosy or anything, but how do they do that? I'm assuming they don't just use the replicator?"

"Mostly not, although for things like knives, forks, spoons, tablecloths, napkins, glassware, they do stoop to using the replicator. But the food is actually cooked, in a real kitchen."

Willow was surprised to find herself nearly drooling. Although the replicators of the twenty-fourth century were a significant improvement over the food synthesizer on the old Hannibal, there was a certain blandness to the food, as if it all just came off an assembly line... which in a sense was true. You could order the replicator to produce eggs, over easy, every day for a month and it would produce them exactly the same way, make the taste exactly the same every day, even have them wiggle at you like little boobs in exactly the same fashion. It was like gambling, where every time you played Dabo or baccarat, you always won the same amount of money. No more, no less. After a while, the thrill was gone. So, just the thought of unreplicated food made Willow's stomach growl...

...all too audibly, as it turned out. Murdock looked bemused as Willow turned red. "I'll take that as a 'yes'," he concluded.

Willow burst out laughing, which Murdock joined in a second later. When the two of them had recovered, Murdock went on. "Anyway, eighteen hundred hours. Casual dress, well, maybe semi-formal, but no dress uniforms. They clash with spaghetti sauce."

"Even the command ones?" Willow asked, indicating the cranberry shoulder pauldrons.

"Well, fettucine alfredo is still a danger, so..."

"That's true, sir. Anyway, so it's you, me, the other senior officers..."

"And Lt. Maclay, as well." Willow tried to keep her expression neutral, but she obviously failed as Murdock asked, "Is there a problem?"

"Oh, oh, no, sir. Captain. I mean, you are the captain, you can invite anybody you want, perks of the job, rank hath its privileges, and why do we say 'hath', is that old English?"

"Ahem!" Murdock cleared his throat, cutting off Willow's trademark babble even as he fought to keep the smile off his face. "Lieutenant, I do know that you and Lt. Maclay spent some time together last night, only she abruptly left the holodeck before you."

"How the hell-uh, I mean, where did you hear this, sir?"

Murdock smiled. "When they make you a captain, Lieutenant, they install this wonderful subsystem in your cerebral cortex that lets you see everything onboard a starship." He was startled to see an expression of astonishment on her face, and realized that she was taking him seriously. "That was a joke!"

"Oh!" Willow nearly collapsed in relief. After all the new innovations of the last ninety years, she could hardly be surprised at anything. "Well, sir, it's like this... um, I kinda said something, uh, dumb, and she..." Briefly, Willow explained the whole thing about the arranged marriages and her ill-timed opinion of them.

Murdock sighed. "Lieutenant, I should not have to remind you that one of the fundamental tenets of Starfleet protocol is tolerance of other cultures' customs and traditions."

"I know, sir!" Willow exclaimed, exasperated. "I wasn't thinking when I said... what I said. I wanted to apologize to her but, she kinda skedaddled before I could remove my foot from my mouth."

"Mmmm," Murdock said, nodding. "Granted, I happen to think arranged marriages fell out of fashion with slavery and buying stock on margin. But, some cultures have very good reasons for it. I suggest, before you see Tara at dinner tonight, that you research the Betazoid cultural database on marital customs."

"Research," Willow. "I'm good at that."

"So I've suspected. I'll see you tonight; I've got to pretend I still run this ship."

"Upon follow-up interviews," Tara recited, reading from the notes on the PADD in her hand, "Crewman Steinbeck's problems seemed to stem from issues of intimacy due to alienation of affection. He believes these are caused by outside influences."

Doctor Devereux nodded as he listened to Tara's report. He sat in one of his armchairs, while she reclined on one of his comfortable couches. "So, in simpler language," he said, affecting a scholarly tone that was belied by the twinkle in his eye, "his anxiety is due to his fear that someone is shtupping his wife."

Tara couldn't quite repress her giggle. "Um, uh, yes."

Devereux abruptly turned serious again. "We'll schedule some counseling sessions with Steinbeck and his wife. It's probably more a problem of miscommunication than anything else. Is that your last?"

"Yes, for today." Tara set the PADD on the nearby sidetable, but made no move to get up from the couch. Devereux made note of the lack of her usual everpresent drive and figured that this was as good a time as any...

"I hear you and Willow spent some time together last night," Devereux said, getting up to ostensibly get his collection of PADDs organized.

"Um, yeah, w-we did, we went to the holodeck, no, f-first we got Willow some clothes, y'know, off-duty stuff, and then the holodeck." She was amazed how oddly tiring she found getting that sentence out.

"How'd that go?" Devereux pressed, shattering Tara's hopes that the older man would leave well enough alone.

Fine. She didn't feel like fencing today. "Well, you obviously know what happened. O-or think you know," she added with a hint of defiance.

Devereux smiled while he had his back turned, pleased that she wasn't going to let him get away with it. "Why don't you tell me why you abruptly left?" He turned back to her, assuming his professional demeanor.

Fighting the urge to hang her head down, Tara related to Devereux the altercation regarding her parents' marriage. "I totally overreacted," she concluded with a rueful expression. "I feel terrible about running out on her."

"Why do you think you overreacted?"

Tara blinked. She hadn't really expected the question. "Huh-I mean, excuse me?" Devereux merely folded his arms, his expression prompting her to continue. "Um, I guess I'm kinda thin-skinned on that subject."

"Uh huh." Devereux shifted his arms, placing elbows on knees, interlacing fingers. "We know that, when dealing with a patient, you have to do a little back-and-forth with them, draw upon your own life experience, empathize with them... but you don't let them push your buttons. When you are dealing with a fellow crewmember in a therapeutic setting, you do not lose your temper. Not ever."

"But I-- I didn't-" Tara started to protest.

"You weren't dealing with Willow in a therapeutic setting? Maybe not. But from Willow's point of view, you might as well have been. She's in a very vulnerable state of mind at the moment. She's come to trust you, maybe even depend upon you. In all your dealings with her, you're going to have to take that into consideration.

"Especially if you're attracted to her."

Tara bolted to her feet so fast that her vision momentarily swam. "Wh-wh-what? I-I-"

"If you're about to tell me that you are not attracted to Willow Rosenberg, I'm going to set my phaser on 'Kick Your Ass'," Devereux said calmly, as if he was discussing the best way to mix a vodka martini. He watched as Tara visibly deflating, and mentally counted seconds as he watched her expression cycle from terror to resignation to defiant indignation. "And do not tell me that it's none of my business, either. Anything that might possibly affect your job is my business."

Tara rolled her eyes. "God, are you some kind of mindreader?" she said, annoyed especially as he made such a big deal about her empathic abilities. She sat back down with a huff.

Devereux chuckled, which infuriated Tara even further. "Oh, no. Unlike you, kiddo, I have to work at being omniscient!" He cleared his throat, then continued in as serious a tone as he could manage. "Tara, you definitely have a problem. Usually it's the patient who falls for the therapist, not the other way around. Still, I can see why you're so interested in her: she's alone, forcibly transplanted in a strange time and place, grieving, needing a shoulder to cry on, attractive..."

Tara smiled shyly. "She's beautiful. And brilliant, and funny... and so sad, and so lost..."

"Mmm-hmm," Devereux replied, "And therein lies the danger."

Tara looked into his eyes, her own almost swimming. "Doctor, are-are you telling me n-not to, uh, g-get involved with W-W-Willow?"

"Whoa!" Devereux shot back, holding his hands up. "I didn't say that. Advice to the lovelorn is something I avoid in this job as much as possible. Get involved with her, don't get involved with her, marry her... that's your business, as long as it doesn't interfere with your work, and you're not using your position as counselor to unduly influence her."

Tara stood up, a little piqued as to where this conversation was heading. "Oh, gee, I-I was planning on using my vast mental powers to hypnotize Willow into being my l-love slave, but you've convinced me otherwise. Thank you, Doctor," she concluded curtly, turning to head out the door.

"Hold it right there, Lieutenant," Devereux barked in his best command tone. Tara stopped as reflex and training taking over to turn her around to face her superior officer. Devereux stood up and crossed over to her. "Three things. One: I will not have the work we do here on this ship compromised in any way. Is that clear?"

Chastened, Tara answered. "Yes, sir."

"Two... if you ever need advice, or just to talk about this, my door's always open. Okay?"

"Okay. And thanks. What's number three?"

"Number three is, if you skip out on dinner at Calavicci's tonight, you'd better have a drastic case of Rigellian fever."

Tara dimpled. "Or it's back to Phasers on Kick-My-Ass?"

Devereux shook his head. "More like Phasers-on-Three-Spanks-and-A-Knuckle-Rub. Now get outta here."

"Welcome to Calavicci's, Miss," the host, Luigi Calavicci himself, greeted Willow as she stepped through the wood-panelled doors. He affected an Old World ambience with a red vest over a long-sleeved shirt, dark pants and calf-high boots. His voice was lightly accented, something Mediterranean from Earth - Gee, maybe Italian? This is supposed to an Italian restaurant... She hoped her outfit, a dark-green crushed-velour dress, was formal enough for this setting.

"Um, thank you. I'm, uh, with, that is, I'm part of Captain Murdock's party?"

"Yes, Miss, right this way." Luigi led past various tables, where parties of two to four people sat, to a long rectangular table with Murdock at its head. To his right was Devereux, then two empty chairs, then finally the Andorian, Thelvran. On the left side was, respectively, empty chair, DaKar, empty chair, Dr. Govarr.

Officers and gentleman all, they rose as Willow was led over (even Govarr, albeit rather belatedly, finally getting to his feet with an exasperated sigh). Thelvran pulled out a chair for her, next to his; Willow gave him a cheeky smile and thanked him as she sat down.

"Ah, our first guest of honor," Murdock said with a smile. He brushed down his semi-formal dinner jacket, which seemed somewhat old-fashioned in cut, at least to Willow's limited fashion sense. The captain sat down and indicated to her the array of dishes in the middle of the table. "Help yourself to some of the appetizers, Lieutenant."

"Thank you, sir." There were sticks of fried mozzarella cheese, artichokes cellini, stuffed clams, calamari, a full antipasto tray and baked mushrooms. Willow took the small plate in front of her and selected a conservative amount of mozzarella and clams. She had deliberately skipped lunch so she could enjoy this dinner to the fullest extent. After biting into her appetizer, she was wholeheartedly glad she waited.

To her right, Thelvran had resumed his seat and was continuing to munch on something resembling dried beetles in plum sauce. He silently offered one to Willow, who declined politely. The Andorian was wearing an outfit somewhat traditional to his people: a ribbed grey tunic with a green inverted-triangle tabard, with black trousers and boots.

The others were similarly casual, from Devereux and DaKar each in nondescript generic "civvies" to Govarr in his muted silver cool-suit (when not required to wear his duty uniform, the Tellarite preferred to wear the specialized outfit that lowered his body temperature).

A couple of minutes later, the men stood up again. Willow craned herself around, wondering if it was Tara who was arriving. Instead, she saw the first officer, Faraday, dressed in an old-fashioned sari, in tones of orange and light brown, gold hoops in her ears, strappy sandals on her feet. It was almost an effort to reconcile this dusky jewel to the image of the efficient executive officer that Faraday usually projected. Just behind her, Gelfa Kolrami strode in wearing a casual suit made of some shimmering black fabric that caught the light and reflected it with star-like sparkles. She wore her dark brown hair down, though it was still somehow very regimented in style.

Murdock pulled the chair out for Faraday, while DaKar did the honors for Kolrami. That left one empty seat: the one to Willow's left, obviously meant for Tara.

Devereux obviously caught the slightly stricken expression on Willow's face, because he turned to her as he sat back down. "I figured putting you two together would save time. You two would probably be trying to talk to each other all through dinner, over everybody's heads or under the table. So, now you two can gab." He gave her the smug smile of the chess master who has maneuvered his opponent into a classic trap. "Isn't that right, Tara?"

Willow had to steel herself to keep from jumping out of her seat in fright. She gulped, hopefully not audibly, and turned as the male officers once again stood.

Tara, having been guided over to the table by Luigi, strode over the last few feet to be seated in her chair by Devereux. Her dress was muted orange, with swirly patterns of gold embedded within, covering her shoulders but plunging with a V-neck that ended within three centimeters above respectability. She could not help but notice as she came over that the only vacant chair at the table was right next to Willow, which filled her with a feeling not quite strong enough to call dread, but not nearly bright enough to call hope. She nodded at the senior officers and exchanged wan smiles with Willow as she sat in the proffered chair.

Still, she was here. She could feel the general emotional atmosphere of the table as she helped herself to the antipasto and mushrooms, and judged it positive. Tara was not sure if she was amused or not by the fact that Willow's mixed feelings on seeing Tara mirrored her own. She decided to let it go for the moment, especially as the quality of the appetizers overrode any small unpleasantness.

"Now that we're all here," Devereux piped up, "let's order the vino." He summoned over Roberto, Luigi's cousin and the wine steward. "Got any Chateau Picard in the back, 'Berto?"

"I have a case of Picard '51 that I'm rather fond of," the steward replied. "Shall I send out a bottle or two now, or just bring the whole case and be done with it?"

Devereux was about to answer that when the captain cut across him. "Just two bottles for now, please. We'll play this one by ear. Except for Mr. Thelvran, there," he added, indicated the blue-skinned security officer.

Roberto nodded. "Of course, sir. I have a nice half-and-half for our Andorian friend."

"That will be fine, thank you," Thelvran replied.

A few minutes later, the vintage had been decanted and poured, while menus - real, non-electronic-media menus - were handed out to the dinner guests. As promised, Thelvran received his own decanter of "half-and-half." Alcohol had no effect upon Andorians, they having a very different blood chemistry and method of oxygen transport from the other species at the table. Intoxication, to them, came in from certain combinations of Lactobacillus and long-chain hydrocarbons, found mostly in fermented lactose products.

Willow's curiosity led her to inquire politely about that to Thelvran, who passed his glass over. The sour-milk smell of the concoction drove her to hand it back as fast as propriety allowed. He smiled as he sipped it generously, giving himself a bit of milk-mustache. "It's a good week," he announced with relish.

"Great!" she replied as kindly as she could, picking up her wineglass and taking a good whiff and a swig to drive the sour-milk smell out. The wine's bouquet accomplished all that, and more.

Looking to her other side, Willow could see that Tara had heard this exchange and was trying to hide her amusement - and her face - behind her menu. Willow surprised herself by, rather than taking offense, thinking it was cute. "Gee, Tara," she said cheekily, "the print on my menu isn't that small. Maybe you should get a shot of Retinax if need to hold something that close just to read it."

Tara lowered the menu, still giggling. "I-I'm s-s-sorry," she managed to choke out. "I really d-didn't mean to, um, listen in."

"Small table." Willow figured she wasn't going to get a better opening. "Y'know, Tara, I'm the one who should be saying she's sorry... or, I'm sorry."

"Oh, no... Will, I totally overreacted-"

"But, I shouldn't have even said what I said in the first place to make you overreact... I mean, react, 'cause, uh, I don't think you overreacted at all, but anyway, I didn't mean to make you, y'now, react..."

"Wh-why don't we just forget it, okay?" Tara said, a hopeful smile on her face.

"Okay," Willow replied, sticking out her hand. Tara looked at it for a second, a little bemused, then took it. The two of them assumed mock-manly expressions as they vigorously (ostentatiously so) shook hands, ending up looking as if they were both receiving an electromagnetic shock. They broke apart chuckling. Tara felt a knot of tension that had been in her stomach for the last day dissolving. She could a similar feeling of relief not only from Willow, but also from Devereux and (Well well!) from Captain Murdock.

"Now, here is something I've never understood about humans," Thelvran piped up, unintentionally distracting Tara from the question of why two senior officers were so concerned with her friendship with Willow. "Whenever one gives offense and then apologizes, the other says either 'That's okaaaay,' or," (in an exaggerated eastern North American accent), "'Fuggedaboudit!.' Now, if the offense is 'okaaaay,' doesn't that mean that it was not an offense and there was no need for an apology in the first place? And if the one is supposed to 'forget about it,' would not that lead to a probable recurrence of the offense?"

Willow was set to automatically debate the Andorian when the truth of what he said sank it. He had a point, there.

"It has to do with the general imprecision that humans, well, many humanoids have, with language," Kolrami said, in Lecture Mode even at the dinner table. "They inadvertently give offense to one another so often that they need to keep their apologies as simplified as possible. Any formalized asking of forgiveness would take so long and have to performed so often, they would never get anything else done."

Devereux rolled his eyes, while Faraday chuckled quietly. Tara and Willow looked blankly at Kolrami, while DaKar looked amused. Govarr let out his characteristic snuffling laugh.

"Thanks, Gelfa," Murdock remarked, in a voice you could dry out a martini with, "really cleared that up for us." Kolrami, either missing the sarcasm entirely or merely ignoring it, nodded in return.

Luigi came by to personally take their order, along with an older woman who walked with an almost regal air, offset somewhat by the toothy smile she flashed at all her customers. The captain immediately got up and took her hands. "Hello, Mama," he said, kissing her on the cheek.

She returned the kiss, saying, "Sammy, you're a bad boy, avoiding coming in here all this time!" She spoke with a soft accent like Luigi's, and there was enough of a family resemblance to confirm her matronage of both the family Calavicci and the restaurant. "I was starting to think you found yourself another favorite place to eat on this overgrown cruise ship!"

Murdock spread his hands in supplication. "Celeste, honestly, I've been busy."

"'Busy'? Too busy to eat a good meal?" She reached up, nearly over her head, as she was not a tall woman, and clasped his chin. "Ah, don't you worry, Sam. Mama will fix you a good meal, fatten you up again." She patted his stomach affectionately. While he didn't quite roll his eyes or blush, his expression of benign suffering made both Willow and Tara take great pains to hide their smiles. Not a lot of people could get away with embarrassing the captain of a starship; obviously, Celeste and Luigi were very dear to Murdock.

Celeste went around the table, greeting each of the senior officers in turn, receiving gracious responses, even from Kolrami and Govarr. Finally, she stopped at her two newest customers. "And who are these two lovely young girls?"

Murdock introduced Willow and Tara to Celeste, who as it turned out was once one of the Federation's leading biochemists, before marrying Luigi's father and joining him in the business starting by his great-grandfather. Her knowledge of organic fabrication and protein resequencing proved invaluable to the business, reducing their need for natural sources of meat. When Murdock took command of the Hannibal, he had invited them to set up an annex of the original Calavicci's (still standing in its native Milan) on the ship. Over the past four years, it had proved a great success.

"We've sort of adopted Sam over the years," Celeste told the girls, as Murdock sat back down to have Luigi take his order.

"Yeah, but they used to make me sleep in the kitchen," the captain quipped.

Celeste mock-gasped. "Oh, go on with you! I run a clean kitchen," she informed Willow and Tara, nodding to them as she left. The two of them waved to Celeste, then smiled at one another. They were both sure a neat experience, and a wonderful meal was in store for them.

Tara ordered pasta primavera, while Willow decided to try chicken San Marino. After Luigi had taken everyone's orders and went off to place them, several people around the table began small conversations. Willow turned back to Tara.

"Y'know, I was reading the Betazoid cultural database on marital customs, finding out about the arrangements and how they were to promote genetic diversity - which is kinda cool, 'cause on Earth, it was just the opposite -"

"I know," Tara interjected, without a trace of smugness. "Most of my ancestry is from Earth."

"Oh, yeah, of course you'd know. But, anyway, I had a question, um, from reading about Betazoid weddings..."

Oh, here it comes, Tara thought ruefully. If I had a bar of gold-pressed latinum for every time someone asks me about this, I could buy Ferenginar!

" they really perform the ceremony in the nude?"

Tara was about to answer when she noticed, to her considerable chagrin, that all conversation at the table had stopped. All of the senior officers, including Captain Murdock, were listening with rapt attention. Devereux was resting his head on his hand, elbow on table, eyebrows nearly touching his hairline, the archetype of the Dirty Old Man and proud of it.

The young counselor decided that as long as she was on the high diving board, she may as well take the plunge. She grabbed her wineglass and downed a considerable portion of its contents, then had to wait until her eyeballs ceased their attempted mad exodus from her head. "Um, y-yes, w-we, I mean, B-Betazoids believe that, um, weddings are celebrations of life, and that everyone there should feel they have n-nothing to hide from one another," she said, finding the resolve within her to cast a defiant look around the table.

Thelvran blinked. "Would it not be simpler to merely frisk everyone before the ceremony?"

Tara turned to glare at the Andorian, then realized at the curious expression on his face that his question was not meant to be sarcastic, the snickers emanating Devereux and Govarr notwithstanding. "That's not the point, really. I mean, th-the body is a beautiful thing, no matter what shape it is."

"Hear, hear," Govarr put in, his appreciation for physiology coming to Tara's defense. "We build mighty starships and deadly weapons, but we have yet to improve upon Nature's handiwork."

"Well, we tried," Devereux added, "but all we got out of that was the Eugenics Wars, which really put a damper on the whole idea."

After the obligatory nods to history, DaKar turned back to Tara. "So have you ever had a Betazoid wedding?"

Tara tried to smile wanly; the result looked somewhere between a cringe and a wince. "I-I've never been married."

"That wasn't what I asked-"

"Oh, find a new theme, Jodell," Kolrami admonished, rolling her eyes before settling her gaze back on Tara. "He has this yen for cheap titillation-"

"'Cheap?' Whaddaya mean, cheap?"

"Knock it off," Murdock cut in lightly. He looked down the table at Tara. "You don't have to answer any questions you find too personal, Lieutenant."

"That's okay, sir," she replied, taking another drink from her wineglass. She had the impression that she was going to be doing that a lot this evening. "I don't mind.

"Actually, while I was at Starbase 134, I went on leave to Betazed, to see my grandmother. She was invited to this wedding, between these two great houses of Betazed. Gran insisted I come along. Now, I knew what this entailed, even though I had never been to a wedding before - they don't allow minors, for, well, obvious reasons. And, and I really didn't want to get n-naked in front of strangers.

"So, my clever idea: put on my dress uniform, look all spiffy and official. I'm thinking, they'd never ask me to take this off. Of course, here I am, trying to be Hidden Agenda Gal on a planet full of telepaths."

"Oops," Willow said.

"So," Tara continued, pausing to chuckle briefly, amazed how the passage of years made the story seem funnier, even to her. "Here I am in the chapel, in my dress uniform, and everybody - I mean, everybody is stripping down. Wedding party, families, guests, minister... in less than a minute, everybody in the chapel is stark naked... except m-me. And everybody's all `It's okay, we understand, don't worry, we don't want you doing anything you're not comfortable with,' which just makes me feel like a complete dork-" Willow laughed at the old slang; to Tara's surprise, so did Captain Murdock.

"Dork?" Thelvran inquired. "Is this animal indigenous to Betazed?"

"Look it up in the cultural database sometime, Thel," DaKar countered gently. "You were saying?" he prodded in Tara's direction.

"S-So I'm there, the only one with a stitch on, out of a hundred people in this chapel... and, did I mention, for the benefit of these naked people, they have the heat turned up. Way up. Hot-as-Vulcan up-okay, maybe not that much, but still warm enough to be comfortable in your skin..."

"And way too hot to be in a dress uniform," Willow concluded.

Tara turned and grinned at her. "I was dying. I think I lasted about five minutes before I... peeled down."

DaKar grinned. "That has to make for some interesting wedding photos."

Tara joined in the brief laughter that erupted from the group, then said, "Nope... everybody puts their clothes back on after the ceremony. Good thing, too, as the reception was outside, and it was not summer."

Murdock nodded. "Well, I don't know if I can top that story, but I do seem to recall being a guest at an Eastern Orthodox wedding; one of the tenets of that is, for whatever reason, the wedding guests are supposed to stand the entire ceremony. What's worse, they usually have Mass - a communal religious ceremony -" he explained for the nonhuman members of the party, "right before the wedding ceremony. I think I had to stand in one place for about four hours."

"Ouch!" Devereux said. "I don't think I was on my feet that long at my Academy graduation!"

"What was your wedding like?" Tara asked, taking the opportunity to shift the center of everyone's attention away from herself.

Devereux leaned back, seemingly contemplating the ceiling. "Nothing fancy, I'm afraid. Rachel and I were actually married by the captain of my ship, at that time, so it was a pretty simple wedding." He looked back down to his tablemates, a half-smile etching itself on his craggy features. "Now, our wedding night... that was spectacular!"

Around the table the conversation flowed. Faraday's husband and their three children currently lived at the Daystrom Institute Annex on Rigel III, where he was a director; they occasionally came to the Hannibal for a visit, and would do so two months' hence. DaKar volunteered that he had been married four times; more exactly, two of his hosts had been married ("not to each other, in case you were wondering," he added) and a third married twice. His previous hosts had (as far as Jodell could recall) seven children between them. Govarr admitted to his having fathered nine children on his native world, but Tellarite custom did not tend towards long pair-bonds.

Neither Kolrami nor Thelvran had ever been married; in her case, she volunteered, she had never met any man who could meet her standards. Willow conjured up in her own mind a staggering list of qualifications for Gelfa Kolrami's mate, covering every criterion from occupation to methodology of oral hygiene (Must brush teeth up-and-down. Not side to side). As for Thelvran, he shrugged and averred, "Just haven't met the right three people."

Tara turned back to the captain. "Have you ever been married, sir?"

Almost as soon as the words left her lips, Tara could pick up an increase in tension from, not Murdock, who was as unreadable as ever, but from Devereux and (strange!) DaKar. The latter seemed to be feeling not only sorrow and grief, but (stranger!) affection for Murdock. She steeled herself to not stare at the Trill, but could not help but wonder again about the nature of the bond between the two men.

"I was married, once, a long time ago," the captain answered evenly. He picked up his wineglass and swirled the contents around. To the unasked question in the young counselor's eyes, he added, "She's gone, now." He took a small sip of his wine, then looked over her head at someone approaching from her blind side. "Ah, food sign!" He grinned as he set his wineglass down.

Luigi and a couple of waiters floated their meals out to the table. The smell of basil and garlic wafted through everyone's noses as plates were set down and baskets of fresh, hot Italian bread were placed in the center. Willow stole a quick look at other people's selections. Captain Murdock's veal parmagiana looked fantastic, as did Dr. Devereux's manicotti. Faraday had vegetarian lasagna; Kolrami had some rather well-organized fettucine alfredo ("How many pasta strands are in here?" she asked Luigi as he set her plate down. "Exactly one hundred and fifty," he answered without missing a beat, "each strand exactly fifteen centimeters long." "Capital!"). DaKar was already tucking into an enormous plate of spaghetti & meatballs ("I'm eating for two, you know," he muttered when more than one person looked askance at the pile o' pasta on his plate).

She glanced over at Thelvran and Govarr... and wished she hadn't. Tellarites had something called "pizza," while Andorians favored a dish they referred to as "linguini," although neither really bore much resemblance to anything from Italy. She quickly turned back toward Tara, who was just receiving her dish. "What is that again?" Willow asked.

"Pasta primavera," Tara answered. "Yours looks yummy, too," she added, indicating Willow's chicken San Marino.

"Y'know," Murdock said, between bites of veal, "they used to feed pasta primavera to painters' models back in the Renaissance. Kept them, uh, healthy-looking."

Throughout dinner, conversation waned, hampered by people eating food, but did not diminish entirely. As the Chateau Picard kicked in a little, the topics tended to veer off the beaten path of Starfleet protocol. Devereux in particular revealed his fondness for slightly blue jokes, such as the one about the rabbi, the Bajoran vedek and the Ferengi in the gorilla suit. Even Faraday and Kolrami chuckled at that one, while Willow felt as if she were about to fall out of her chair. It might have been the wine more than the joke, as the bottles that were first brought out had been severely diminished and more had been brought out to back them up. The casual yet highly-charged atmosphere, along with the sweet vintage, made Tara far more relaxed than was her wont.

The bread-baskets, too, had been wounded grievously as dinner wore on. Willow managed to stuff the last bite of ham-and-cheese-covered chicken breast into her mouth, chewing slowly while closing her eyes to concentrate on the wonderful taste sensations. DaKar noticed that Willow seemed to be in a world of her own. "You think she's okay?" he asked the table at large.

"She's either relapsed into neural shock," Govarr ventured, "or she's in the midst of a religious experience."

Tara shook her head. "I think that's her yummy face."

Willow opened her eyes. "Darn straight. This has to be the best meal I've had in... well, over a century," she said with a giggle. She turned to Murdock, smiling admiringly. "Where did you get the idea to have an Italian restaurant on your ship, sir?" Willow asked.

Murdock sat back, a mild expression on his face. "Well, I've known the family for years. Luigi's brother Dante - Danny, as I called him - was my captain, when I was first officer on the Vladivostok."

All at once, a somewhat uncomfortable silence seemed to descend around the table. Tara's eyes widened. "You were on the Vladivostok?" she asked, receiving a couple of sharp stares.

Willow felt she was coming in a third of the way through the movie. "What happened?" The sharp looks swung like searchlights to cover her. Tara wished she had kept her mouth shut.

Murdock tried to project an air of equanimity, but even those without empathic abilities could see that this was an old and painful subject to him. "The Vladivostok was one of forty starships that were dispatched to Wolf 359 to engage the Borg."

Willow shivered. She had read about the monomaniacal cybernetic marauders during her revisions. Possessing technology far superior to the Federation and gifted with the uncanny ability to adapt quickly to almost any weapon or stratagem, the Borg made the Romulans look like pussycats. They tended to assimilate entire species and technologies into their collective, subverting the unfortunate individual into the hive-mind that constituted the entire Borg race. Definitely people that Willow did not wish to meet in a dark alley - or even a well-lit one, for that matter, in bright fluorescent, with big neon letters saying KEEP AWAY - MAJOR BAD GUYS LURKING ABOUT.

"The task force was headed by Admiral J.P. Hanson. All we were told, beyond what we had already been briefed on regarding the Borg, was that they had kidnapped Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise, and that he was probably dead. Actually, what we didn't know, is that Hanson had been told differently, but he didn't believe, or didn't want to believe the truth. That might have saved more lives, but I doubt that would have affected the outcome of the battle much.

"Anyway, the fleet had just assumed a standard formation when the Borg ship dropped out of warp to meet us. Then, this - thing - that had once been Jean-Luc Picard, only with a lot of cybernetic add-ons, appeared on the viewscreen. He told us to drop our defenses and prepare to be assimilated. Well, we basically called out `Hey, rube!' and went in swinging.

"You'd think that a ship that was basically a big cube wouldn't be able to move tactically against our formation. You'd also think that a race as powerful as the Borg would pretty much disdain anything as primitive as `strategy.' Well, you would be wrong. The Borg used their size to drive a wedge between our formation, dividing us into smaller and smaller elements. Some of the ships regrouped and tried to outflank the enemy. Only problem was, it was like outflanking God.

"Danny - Captain Calavicci - ordered us in after the first wave of the attack, when the Melbourne, the Gage, and the Saratoga were destroyed. The Vladivostok had these phaser cannons, and I figured they would chop that cube up like cheese. No such luck. After the first volley, the Borg ship learned how to absorb them."

Murdock leaned his elbows on the table, shaking his head, not seeing his senior officers but rather the past. "Phasers, photon torpedoes, everything we had was ineffective. Worse, it seemed that the Borg knew what we going to do almost before we ourselves did.

"That's when it hit me: Picard wasn't dead, or just transformed into a walking adding machine. He'd been assimilated into the collective's group-mind. They, or maybe it, knew what he knew: weapons, defenses, protocols, tactics. He knew the whole playbook; hell, he had written half of it. Picard was our best captain, and they were using him to beat. It was like having half our strategies being picked by the enemy. We had no chance.

"So, after about the twenty or twenty-five ship to be destroyed, I recommended to Captain Calavicci that we pull back, regroup, try to come up with a different strategy, or at least get our asses out of a losing situation. We were getting hammered; our side had already lost half its strength and the Borg didn't look worse for the wear."

Murdock took a deep breath, obviously having to steel himself to tell the next part. "I've seen Danny face off against Cardassians and Tzenkethi, seen him make split-second decisions while having phasers pointed in his face... but this time, he hesitated. I think he knew I was right... but he just couldn't face the fact that we were beaten. He just couldn't run from a fight, even when we were losing. I didn't like it either, and if it was just me, I would have stayed, but we had five hundred people on the Vladivostok. Were we supposed to throw their lives away, just because pride wouldn't let us fight another day?" He sighed. "'Death before dishonor' sounds great in the Academy, but it's a little less inspiring when you have to write a letter to someone's mother and father."

The air around the table felt heavier, thicker, almost reluctant to enter Willow's lungs. Having lost virtually everyone she had known in her life, she could definitely empathize with Murdock's grief.

"Danny and I go round and round with it for maybe half a minute before he says "That's enough, Number One!" As an aside, he said to Faraday, "See, that's where I picked it up. He opened his mouth to give an order... and to this day, I can't be entirely sure what he was going to do: stay and fight, and probably die, or retreat... when an EPS conduit overloaded behind us. I got slammed to the deck with a small plasma burn and fractured ribs. Danny wasn't so lucky.

"After that, I was in command. I contacted the remaining ships in the taskforce and recommended a 'strategic withdrawal.' None of them wanted to disengage. Said they'd fight to the death." He shook his head. "I took the Vladivostok out as three more ships were destroyed, trying to beat the Borg. I beamed aboard every escape pod I could find amongst the wreckage of the ships, and headed towards Alpha Centauri. I figured heading towards Earth was the fire to Wolf 359's frying pan."

Willow let out a breath that she did not even realize she was holding. "What happened after that? I mean, I know the Borg ship was destroyed in Earth orbit, but... Captain, you must have gotten some flack..." she trailed off uncertainly.

"There was a Board of Inquiry about my actions. I was cleared of any misconduct, although there was a rather vocal minority in Starfleet who wanted me court-martialed. 'Cowardice in the face of the enemy.' After a few months, they tapped me for command of the Hannibal.

"Luigi and Mama - Celeste - they had always treated me like family. Danny dragged me home on leave with him once; I swear Celeste stuffed me for four days straight with enough pasta and marinara sauce to make a Roman emperor swear off the stuff." He smiled, a sad expression for all its sincerity. "I guess after Danny was gone, we all wanted to look after each other."

The mood around the table had, understandably, become rather somber, which became bizarrely counterpointed by the sudden arrival of lilting music: violin, squeeze-box accordian and guitar. Murdock looked over in the general direction the music was coming from. "Oh, speak of the devil..."

Tara and Willow looked around. Luigi walked in front of the trio, singing an Italian aria to the people at the other tables, his tenor obviously practiced but heartfelt. Willow turned and grinned at Tara, who returned it with eyes shining for several reasons.

Devereux murmured sidelong to Murdock, "They're heading this way."

"I have eyes, Doctor."

Faraday leaned over. "Shall I call the bridge and request emergency beam-out, sir?" she asked teasingly.

"Oh, shut your biscuit-trap, Number One," the captain replied in a light tone. The Sikh woman smiled at the gentle rebuke.

The quartet drifted over to the captain's table, the scansion shifting neatly to a waltzing tune, then Luigi began to croon:

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie,
That's amore

Murdock rolled his eyes, threw down his napkin, pushed back his chair and joined in with a decent baritone:

When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine
That's amore

He and Luigi stood side-by-side and raised their voices to serenade the entire restaurant...

Bells will ring, ting-a-ling-a ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling
And you'll sing, "Vita bella."
Hearts will play tippy-tippy-tay, tippy-tippy-tay
Like a gay tarantella

The last line caught Tara in the midst of a swallow of wine, which she coughed up violently. Willow pounded her on the back. "Careful with that stuff!" she said, trying not to laugh and only partly succeeding. Her eyes watering furiously, Tara nodded while trying to get her breath back.

When you walk in a dream but you know you're not
Dreaming Signore
Scuzza me, but you see, back in old Napoli
That's amore!

Their big finish brought Luigi and Captain Murdock a solid ovation from all patrons. Luigi smiled and bowed; Murdock waved and said, "Thank you, thank you; I'll be here all month... try the veal, it's terrific!" More laughter and applause wafted over as he sat back down.

Willow had gotten Tara a napkin or two to dry her eyes and cough discreetly. She turned to Murdock admiringly. "Captain, you are, like, amazing, getting up in front of people, well, I guess, when you're a captain, you do that all the time, but still..." She shrugged.

Murdock smiled back at her. "I used up all my blushes before you were born." At Willow's amazed expression, he amended, rather hastily, "So to speak."

Dessert was tiramisu, previously selected by the captain. Willow and Tara both found out that it went with the wine exceptionally well; by the time they had finished their desserts, neither was feeling any pain.

In fact, Willow was having a little trouble sitting upright. "Did the gravity suddenly get turned up?" she wondered aloud.

Devereux chuckled. "It seems our new science officer is a little snoggered."

"Uh huh," Murdock answered. "Which reminds me... the reason we are all here tonight." He picked up his much-depleted wineglass. "The U.S.S. Hannibal has been extremely fortunate to have two new additionals to our crew. We can only hope that fortune is returned upon them." The captain raised his glass to the two young women. "Success and happiness, to you both."

"Cheers." "Happiness." "To the pure life!" "Aim se t!errata te vohts votsla" "G'HRRrrHrrar" "May your decimals never drop." "Gelfa, that's so sweet..."

Tara tried to clink her glass against some of the others' with only partial success. Willow didn't even try, settling for waving her glass in various directions. She then leaned over towards Tara, and whispered conspiratorially, "I think I'm a little drunk."

Tara nodded. "Well, I knew one of us was," she whispered back. "I don't know whether I'm glad it's not me or sad that it's you. I-I don't know if I said anything that made sense just now."

"Not to worry," Willow whispered, trying not to giggle. "You didn't."

Devereux looked over at the two of them whispering together, then back at Murdock. "You're right... they're about two-and-a-half sheets to the solar wind. I blame myself."

"So do I. Well, I think we need to send them off to bed-"

"Th-that's right!" Tara suddenly blurted out, a little too loudly. "I-I mean, excuse me, Captain..."

"Oh, and Commander," Willow added with a nod in Faraday's general direction (although her targeting scanners were way off-line) "Commanders, um, Doctor, uh..."

"Never mind, Lieutenant, you're covered," Murdock said. "Why don't you head off to your quarters? Lieutenant Maclay..."

"I-I-I think I should escort W-Willow to her quarters, shir... sir."

Thelvran, looking a little under the weather himself after two carafes of "half-and-half," blearily asked, "Would you like a security escort?"

"Um, no," Tara said, getting up from her chair, none too steadily, and somehow managing to guide Willow to her feet. "I think I can take good care of Willow from here. 'Night, everybody. Thanks for dinner, Captain." She tilted her head down, then looked out with upturned eyes. Murdock was struck by how attractive this made her look.

The two lieutenants staggered off, managing to exit the restaurant without bumping into any people, tables or walls.

Murdock watched them go with an almost paternal concern. Her turned back to the rest of the table with a smile. "Well, on that note, I declare this dinner adjourned."

Continue to Equilibration Chapter Six

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