Return to Equilibration Chapter Five


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 Amoré" are the property of the estate of Dean Martin. I own nothing, so don't even bother to sue.

S.S. Admiral Byrd
-class transport (modified)
Approaching planetoid designated `Memory Alpha'

"There... we're in sensor range," said Jonathon, pointed to the navigation display on the console between himself and Warren. The other man, sitting in the ops position, nodded.

"What about the other ships?" the Maquis leader asked.

Jonathon shook his head. "We won't be able to detect the B'hala or the Peregrine till we drop out of warp. They're coming in from the far side of the system's primary."

Faith came into the cockpit area of the transport. "Are we there yet?" she mock-whined, sounding like a toddler on a family vacation.

"Almost, almost," Jonathon answered placatingly.

"Hope so," replied the female mercenary. "I'm gettin' all itchy." Her hips shifted back and forth, making her leather pants creak sensuously.

Warren quirked an eyebrow and turned his head slightly back towards her. "Faith, I'm surprised at you; I thought you used protection from that sort of ailment. Besides, there are creams available for you." Jonathon tittered at the witticism.

Faith smirked as she laid her hand on Warren's shoulder. "Well, buddy-boy, at least I -" she paused as her grip tightened excruciatingly, "get some. You couldn't catch a venereal disease if you mail-ordered it."

Warren's face reddened, more from the discomfort centered on his abused shoulder than Faith's nasty crack. Spinning the chair around, he suddenly brought his arm up and back, breaking Faith's grip - though not without effort. He stood up aggressively, prompting Faith to adopt - half-heartedly - a defensive posture.

Jonathon rolled his eyes. "Am I gonna have to separate you two?" he muttered, sneering at his erstwhile colleagues.

Warren and Faith both glanced at Jonathan disdainfully, then back at one another. He took a half-step forward, dangerously within her swinging range, and growled, "Just get your team ready." Faith stood still for a moment beyond obedience or even politeness, then pursed her lips and exited the cockpit, shaking her head. Warren blew out his breath, secretly glad that she had backed off, and dropped back into his seat. "ETA?" he asked.

"Three minutes."

"When the moon hits your eye... like you've had too much wine... that's amoré..." Willow sang, giggling, while she and Tara staggered down the corridor, thankfully deserted at this time of day/night. Gamma Shift was just coming on duty, Beta shift just coming off, and Alpha shift's day, like Willow's and Tara's, was drawing to a close.

"Shhhhhh," Tara admonished her, while trying to keep from slamming herself into a bulkhead. She held onto Willow's arm, ostensibly to support her but ultimately to keep her own balance. She really didn't have much experience being intoxicated; she felt as if her brain was being slowly pulled apart by a rude taffy machine.

"I think this is it," Willow announced, stopping by a set of double-pocket doors. She reached out with her index finger, none too steadily, towards the control pad next to the door. Her touch, at first unsteady and more insistent, failed to make the doors open. "What the hell is wrong with this thing?"

"Let me try." The blonde counselor touched the button, and was surprised when the doors parted in front of them. "Oh! There we are."

The two of them stumbled into the quarters, which automatically brightened as the computer sensed the new occupants. The doors slid shut as they cleared the threshold. Willow looked around the room, her brow scrunching in confusion. "I thought you were taking me to my quarters," she asked dazedly.

"I was," Tara answered. She then looked around at her surroundings and finding them awfully familiar. "So why are we in my quarters?" She lopsidedly smiled, apologetically. "Oops."

Willow waved it off. "Aww, that's alright. I know what my quarters look like. Not as cool as this, though. I mean, windows!" She indicated the viewports, through which long rainbow streaks of stars, distorted by warp speed, streamed past. "I don't have windows," Willow mock-pouted.

"Your quarters are, uh, on the inside of the ship. As, um, opposed to... the... outside," Tara finished, aware that she was not making terribly much sense. "I, uh, I think I-I'm drunk. God, am I going to pay for this in the morning!" she said, giggling.

Willow smiled. "I think I can fix that. I just have to go to my quarters to get something from my... repulcator," she finished uncertainly.

Tara nodded. "O-or, you could use my `repulcator.'"

The redheaded science officer smacked herself in the forehead, the impact sounding like a pistol shot. "Well, of course! And, ow." Wincing and rubbing her forehead, she walked over to the replicator terminal on the bulkhead. "Computer, give me some aspirin, please."

"That item is not in the database," the computer voice replied.

"Oh, what is with this century? Uh, computer, see if, uh, aceto-... uh, acetocycli-... acetometacyl-... Aaaargh!"

Tara crossed over to her. "Are you looking for some kind of painkiller?" At Willow's weary nod, she addressed the terminal. "Computer, isometiphan, eight hundred milligrams... and two glasses of water."

"Please specify temperature," the computer asked, a note of smugness sneaking in somehow or other.

Willow huffed, and even the eternally patient Tara rolled her eyes. "Five degrees Celsius," the counselor replied, slightly testy. The terminal lit up, and with a bright swirling pattern of light, two clear glasses and a small cup with two tablets materialized. She handed one glass to Willow, took one herself and passed out the painkiller. After knocking the glasses together in a brief toast, the two women downed the pills with a swig of water.

Willow set her glass back in the replicator terminal. "One thing I learned on shore leave on Argelius: during an encounter with the Demon Alcohol, take some aspirin to forestall the inevitable hangover."

Tara dimpled, impressed. "You're, like, Cool Revelry Expert."

Willow shook her head, and immediately regretted doing so, as it gave her double vision. "Uh, no, not really. Mostly I learned this from Buffy. That time on Argelius, I spent most of the last night in the bathroom, uh..."

"Praying to the Porcelian Goddess?"

Willow wrinkled her nose at the rather gross image. "And on that note..." she said, heading toward the vanity/divider, and beyond, the head.

"Oh, I'm s-sorry!" Tara said, blanching. "I didn't mean, um, to make you-"

"No no no," Willow cut her off. "I just gotta, y'know, do the normal thing you do in there." Tara sighed in relief, then moved off to sit on the couch lining the bulkhead next to the viewport. She tried to look at the streaks of light flying past, but in her inebriated state they tended to give her motion sickness, so she had to stop. She then lay back, closing her eyes. The hour was getting late; although she was somewhat of a natural night-owl, she knew she should get to sleep soon.

A minute later, Willow's voice came out of the head. "How did you rate a bathtub?"

Tara smiled, a little guiltily, and walked across her room to the head. She peeked in carefully, to make sure Willow was decent; seeing that she was dressed and standing by the tub, hands on hips, Tara went in.

"Do you know how-- I'd'a killed for a bathtub on the old Hannibal! Not literally," she added unnecessarily.

"It kinda came with the quarters. You can requisition a cabin refit, but I think you have to wait about six months after you've been assigned to a ship, and then there's the inevitable red tape..." Tara shrugged.

Willow deflated. "Well, I'm jealous of you. Jealous, jealous..." She straightened up and brightened. "Okay, I'm back. Maybe I can borrow your tub sometime."

A thought came through the alcohol-twisted synapses of Tara's mind before she could think to suppress it. "Would you like to try it out?"

Willow's jaw dropped in amazement. "What - you mean, like, now?" Before Tara could demure and say that Willow could do so at her convenience (such as, when Tara was elsewhere), Willow continued with, "Well, why the hell not? I'm not doing anything else right now... am I?"

Tara shook her head (carefully!). "N-not that I know of. I mean, no p-pressure or anything. But, um, I can tell you from experience... it's great." She moved past Willow to work the bath controls; very soon a jet of steamy water was rushing to fill the tub. Tara added some fragrant liquids from a couple of bottles on a small shelf. "This will make it smell really nice. Alright, I'll get out of your w-w-w-"

While Tara had made the bath preparations, Willow had, naturally, quietly removed her clothes. Tara had turned from the tub to find her standing there completely naked, completely unselfconscious, mainly due to being completely buzzed.

Oh, so that's the program, Tara thought, while a strained smile answered Willow's. Warm bath for her, cold shower for me... and my big mouth.

Elsewhere on the Hannibal, the senior officers prepared to retire for the night.

Commander Oliva Faraday finished the message that she prepared twice a week for her children, as well as the private, more intimate one for her husband, and sent them off. She regretted that real-time communication was not always available.

Lt. Thelvran finished a similar communiqué to his parents and his twenty-two siblings before going to bed.

Dr. Govarr was already asleep, the stentorian quality of his snores having long ago necessitating extra soundproofing around his quarters for the benefits of his neighbors.

Jodell DaKar and Gelfa Kolrami had spent a couple enjoyable hours conversing before retiring to their respective quarters.

Dr. Charles Devereux reposed on his reclining armchair, made in Trenton, North America, still dressed in his civilian tunic and trousers, a half-empty glass resting next to the picture of his long-departed wife.

Captain Ulysses Samuel Murdock listened to one of his favorite ancient composers, Elton John, before swallowing several isometiphan tablets (he, too, knew of that hangover preventative) and resigning himself to sleep. Please, he silently entreated, as if someone could listen and grant his wish. No dreams, no nightmares, no memories. Let me be for the night.

Sighing, he lay down upon his bed; but unlike Alexander, knowing that he had more worlds to conquer, that he should not die.

Tara excused herself briefly from the head, ostensibly to place her formal outfit (and Willow’s discarded clothes) in the autovalet to be cleaned, but mainly to regain her composure after seeing Willow stark naked. Ohhhhhhh my God omigodomigodomigod. The impromptu strip-tease that Willow had given Tara (yesterday? she wondered) was only, as it turned out, the matinee preview to the main attraction this evening. Tara discovered to her delight that Willow Rosenberg was indeed freckled all over. As to the question of her being a natural redhead... suffice it to say, that too was no longer in doubt.

Stripping down to her underwear allowed some of the heat that Tara felt was radiating from her to escape. Probably set off the fire alarm. Gee, I've always wanted to entertain a large group in my quarters...

A few meters away, Willow reclined in the bathtub surrounded by a billion bubbles that nearly topped her chin. The warm water, combined with her already alchohol-impaired state, threatened to be a better sleep-inducer than phaser-stun. She stretched her legs across the tub, feeling more relaxed than she had in, well, a century. Being trapped ninety years out of my own time is rough, she thought, with far more good humor than she would have thought possible mere days ago, but I'll just have to survive somehow, she concluded, reaching for a handy bath-sponge.

Had her faculties been fully hers, she would have been astonished at herself for undressing in front of Tara. Most of the rationale, if one could call it that, was buried in psychic places that her conscious mind usually feared to tread. She knew only that she had wanted to shock her shy new friend, prod Tara out of the bubble of isolation that she kept around herself like a deflector shield. Willow found it interesting that a woman whose job it was to interact with people on a personal level was so secluded.

She wondered what Captain Cumberland would have made of her. He had an uncanny knack for judging people, claiming that he could read body language as easily as the printed word. Willow had seen nothing to dispute this; at least where most humanoids were concerned, Cumberland could almost always tell if someone was telling him the truth, or if they were about to make an aggressive move. Hell, even Buffy, trained from childhood in martial arts, could barely lay a hand on him during informal workouts in the Hannibal's gym. Rumor had it that he had actually dodged phaser beams at close range.

Willow had not had the stomach to find out what had had to her old captain or any of her other shipmates. The past was the past, she decided. Tomorrow presented enough problems...

...and possibilities, she mused as Tara came back in, checking on her, no doubt. Willow noted with raised eyebrows that the counselor was wearing only a bra and panties, non-Starfleet issue at that. My my, she thought. Hers was not the blatant attractiveness that Buffy possessed, that drew men around her like moons around a gas giant, but a calmer beauty that one would often overlook at first glance. Even so, she must have had to beat guys off with Klingon painsticks... and I wish I could have thought of a better mental phrasing than "beat off"...

Tara smiled and sat on the edge of the bathtub, looking at the mass of bubbles topped by a head of red hair. "How do you feel?" she asked.

"Decadent. Sinful, even."

Tara leaned over, unmindful of exactly where she was. "How sinful?" she inquired with a lopsided leer.

Willow looked up at her, and a naughty notion crashed through her brain. Reaching upwards, taking advantage of her being slightly off-balance (and more than slightly intoxicated) she pulled Tara into the tub, with an impressive cascade of soapy water.

A blonde head suddenly surfaced, shaking from side to side, and a pair of blue eyes blazed into green ones as Tara coughed up some water. As soon as she got a full breath, she huffed mightily. "Well, thanks!" she cried, splashing a handful in Willow's direction.

"I'm sorry," Willow managed between chuckles. "I, uh, just couldn't resist."

"Um, s'okay." Tara could not find it within her to be really mad about the prank, given that it gave her an excuse to be close to Willow in such clothing-deprived circumstances. Not to mention, even the score a little... She tugged at her soaking-wet underclothes. "Not much sense keeping these on, huh?" Standing up (very carefully), letting soapy bubbles dribble down her body, Tara reached around and undid the clasp on her brassiere; slowly pulling down the shoulder straps. Music, professor, if you please? Watching Willow's reaction, she pulled the bra off, revealing her full breasts. Sitting on the other side of the tub, Willow was frantically trying to locate her lower jaw, which had dropped straight down into the water. At first her amazement was simply due to Tara's brazenness, but...

Breasts. Wet. Soapy. Undulating side to side. Constricting slightly upward as arm and shoulder muscles wrung out the bra and tossed it onto the towel rack. Willow found herself mesmerized, and amazed at her mesmerism. Her dazed mind scrambled for a scrap of memory...

"C'mon, Will, we'll be late for Astrophysics!" Cadet Second Class Elizabeth Summers called out as she entered the bathroom attached to the dormitory quarters that she and Willow shared. Through the translucent stall door she glimpsed Willow's nude form hastily scrubbing her head under the sonic shower's field, then straighten to reach out an arm to the control panel.

The pleasant thrum of the shower ceased as Willow cut the power and stepped out of the stall. "Sorry, Buff, but experimentation in hair-care products doesn’t always conform to expected timetables." She grabbed a towel and vigorously wiped herself dry.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, just get your butt outta there so I can get my butt in," Buffy muttered, shucking off her Academy-issue robe and hanging in on a hook next to the towel rack. She turned towards the stall, passing near her equally-nude roommate, glancing in mirror as Willow prepared to brush her teeth... and stopped. She turned fully to face her reflection in the vanity mirror, frowning.

Willow spit out her toothpaste and shut off the water. "What? I thought you were Hurry Cadet."

Buffy's eyes narrowed, as they always did when considered a complex problem. "Will, you know everything..."

I'm working on it, but yeah...?"

"Why do men like boobs?" At Willow's raised eyebrows, she elaborated, indicating back and forth between her reflected breasts and Willow's next to her, "I mean, they don’t do anything... at least, not for the men. They just... hang there."

Willow looked down at herself, then over to Buffy's chest. "Actually, yours just hang there. You've at least got enough there to hang... unlike me." While it was true that Willow wasn't exactly flat-chested, her natural skinniness tended to make her seem almost boylike in figure.

Buffy sighed. Sometimes, shoring up Willow's self-esteem was a full-time career in itself. "Willow, trust me. Someday, someone's gonna lust after your boobs, and you know why? 'Cause they're attached to the most wonderful person in the galaxy." She put an arm around the shoulder of her good friend and drew her close.

"Aw, c'mon, don't make me blush..."

"Like anyone could tell, with your complexion, anyway..."

Willow raspberried her back for that one. Then, a thought occurred to her just as Buffy was preparing to take her shower. "I know why guys like boobs!" At Buffy's inquiring look, she concluded, "'Cause they don’t got 'em."

Buffy flashed a smile, reached out with a finger and tapped Willow's nose in a gesture of shrewdness; then, as Willow turned to put her own robe on, Buffy smacked her bare buttocks and laughed at Willow's goodnaturedly-outraged howl...

Willow's mind grabbed onto that vignette and tried to analyze it. See, Buffy and I, naked in front of each other, didn't mean a thing. Perfectly natural. Just because Tara is right here, topless, in front of me, and I can't take my eyes off her, her, my God, they move! And they're so round! Okay, not perfectly round, there is a standard one-gee field on this ship, per Starfleet protocol, but, but, where am I going with this? I don't know. Do I care? Don't know that, either. Ohhh, now what is she doing?

The blonde woman had turned partially away from her companion; then, smiling at her provocatively over her shoulder, she hooked her thumbs through the waistband of her panties and slid them down her hips, past the curve of her ass, the sudsy bubbles on her lower back now glistening down the downy cheeks and filling The Great Divide. Balancing carefully, one hand on the edge of the tub, Tara stepped out of the wet undergarment, tossing it over to the towel rack. She sat back down, although the last third of the journey went all at once, resulting in her heavily splashing down. "Ooof!"

"Careful there, Graceful!" Willow giggled.

They took turns washing each others' hair, using the fragrant shampoos Tara had already stocked her bath, rinsing with the small sprayer-hose attachment. Willow marveled at the thick suppleness of Tara's dark-gold locks, as Tara leaned back under her ministrations. "You have wonderful hands," Tara said in an exaggerated drawl, "so warrrrrm." Returning the favor a minute later, Tara luxuriated in the feel of her hands in Willow's scarlet silken tresses.

Rinsed and done, the two sat next to one another, stretching out in the warm water, surrounded by bubbles. The shape of the tub could almost but not quite accommodate them sitting side-by side; by putting an arm around each other, they were able to sit together, in a companionable silence.

Tara kept trying to gauge Willow's emotional state, mainly to see (and she hated to admit this to herself) if Willow was attracted to her. Unfortunately, the twin assaults of wine and fatigue had taken their toll on Tara's empathic abilities. That particular window, not to put too fine a point on it, was closed until further notice.

Fortunately, Willow’s readiness to maintain such close physical proximity was a good sign in itself...

Tara's musings were interrupted by Willow querying her. "Umm, what?"

"I just wanted to say," said Willow, "that I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. I mean, I know, Assistant Counselor and all that, part of the job description..." forestalling the self-deprecating protest about to come from Tara's mouth. "But, I really do think it was more than that for you, which I think was good for me, because, y'know, I don't think I would have made it this far without you being here, but not only being here... being my friend, when I really needed a friend."

"W-Well, you’re ri-right. Um, it is my job, b-but I really wanted to help you- I-I mean, I felt that you really needed my help, not that I wouldn't have helped you, of course I would have. God, I'm saying this all wrong..."

Willow shook her head. "No, you're not. I know what you mean, what you're trying to say. Tara, you always speak from the heart, and that comes through regardless of, well, misaligned vocal subprocessor." She grinned at her geeky joke. "It's okay. Thank you."

Tara smiled and looked down, unable to quite meet Willow's eyes. "I am, you know."


"Your-your friend." Tara looked back up, capturing Willow's gaze. Once again, an impulse came to Tara... and this time, she gave into it. Leaning forward, she gave Willow a quick, affectionate kiss. As soon as she did, of course, she feared that it was going to turn out to be the biggest mistake of her life.

However, Willow’s expression after the kiss didn’t seem to be one of revulsion. If anything, she seemed pleased as well as surprised... which, indeed, she was. She cocked her head, gazing at Tara as if for the first time. She pulled her closer, felt Tara's arm behind her hesitantly do the same. Willow's other hand came up, brushing a stray hair from Tara's face.

Time seemed to slow as the two drew nearer, as their eyes closed, their breath coalescing about their faces, each head dipping slightly to the right by unspoken mutual consent, each feeling the other's rapidly-beating heart against her breast, their mouths opening, wide, wider... they both let loose with jaw-cracking yawns. Tara could swear that stars exploded behind her eyes as the lids squeezed tightly. Willow blinked rapidly to re-focus her vision

They both smiled, to cover the awkwardness they both felt and were fairly sure the other felt as well. The moment had passed.

Tara drew in breath, surprised at how much she needed the oxygen. "M-Maybe we should get out."

Willow nodded. Carefully, they stepped out of the tub, shivering slightly. Tara handed Willow one of the towels hanging nearby and took one for herself. She thought about using the sonic-shower's drying subroutine, decided against it. Some other time.

"I don't think y-your clothes are out of the autovalet yet," Tara said, grabbing her robe from the hook. There was a wrap stored in the drawer of the vanity; Willow accepted it from Tara and wrapped it around her torso just over her breasts. The silvery fabric, extending almost to Willow's knees, had a adhesion patch at one end that enabled her to leave it in place around her body, obviating the need for the usual "boob-tuck" that women the galaxy over used to wrap towels around their bodies. Willow had never really mastered the technique, so she was glad not to have to concern herself.

She followed Tara out of the head and into the sleep area of the cabin, yawning again. Tara looked at her askance. "You look really tired."

Willow nodded. "Long day. I think I'm just realizing how long."

"Me, too." The blonde's shoulders sagged, and she couldn't help glancing longingly at her bed.

Willow caught the look. "Oh, I’m sorry. Look, I’ll get out of your way. Just let me get my-" Pause for huge yawn and shaking of head. "My clothes, and go home. To my quarters. That is, if I can find them this time..."

"Why don't you lay down?" Tara said, a part of her disbelieving her audacity this evening; between the invitation to the bath and this, she was being practically shameless.

Willow might have demurred, but did not have the strength. "Maybe for just a minute," she said after a pause. She went over to one side of Tara’s bed and sat, then laid her head on one of the pillows and drew her legs up. Tara counted about thirty seconds before Willow's breathing deepened and slowed.

Her eyelids felt as if the artificial gravity had been turned up by some madman from a multi-gee planet. She strode to Willow's side of the bed, turned down the blankets, trying to dislodge Willow as little as possible (not that anything short of a red alert could have awakened her) then walked to the other side and did the same. She was about to shrug out of her robe, then reconsidered, leaving it loosely about her.

Before her head hit the pillow, Tara leaned over and kissed Willow on the cheek. 'Good night, sweetie,' she whispered, before shutting off the lights and initiating emergency transport to Dreamland.

He could hear the yells of the pirates over the waves as their ship drew near the Leonora, and tightened his grip on the Toledo salamanca in his hand. He shouted orders to his crew, Blake and Tetsuo and Ratbag and Nathaniel and the others, as the pirates drew near. Damnation, he thought. Another day and they could have made port in Samoa. Hardly a paradise, but enough of a safe haven that they would not have worry - too much - about having their throats slit and thrown overboard to provide a free lunch for the sharks.

Then the ship was close enough, and the pirates swung or jumped aboard the Leonora, some of them mistiming their leaps and ending up trapped between hulls of English oak and Ceylonese teak, smashed to jelly by the force of the sea. Thankfully, he had drilled his ragtag crew until they performed with almost military precision, an enormous advantage against these undisciplined scum of the sea... but there were so many of them! He hefted his sword and commanded his crew to repel the boarders. He sliced and stabbed and punched and kicked his attackers, punching a hole through them that his crew wasted no time in widening. They were used to his almost inhuman strength and skill, and knew to watch his back while he unfailingly took the brunt...

Then the leader of the pirates bellowed a challenge, slicing the throat of the young boatswain's mate, and leaping towards him. He spared a glance at the mate, hardly more than a boy, and spat a curse at the pirate... a Maori, by the look of him. With a toothed club in one hand and a wicked-looking knife in the other, the pirate charged...

The brick wall behind him threatened to suck the heat from his body. He'd had to leave his cape and frock coat behind, and the night's chill was biting him through his shirt. A few yards from him, in a Whitechapel alleyway, the anarchists threatening the Crown were planning their great masterstroke to bring the Empire to its knees. He pondering going for Scotland Yard, then dismissed the idea; by the time he brought them here, at most they would simply be gone, and at worst on their way through the secret underground to Buckingham Palace. He was outnumbered, but the odds were not so ridiculous that the element of surprise might not work for him...

Then, the strange one, the recent arrival with the oddly yellow cast to his features (although this man looked like no Oriental he had ever seen, with his upswept eyebrows... and were his ears pointed a little?) had looked up - must have heard him! The man's hearing was obviously quite acute. The man brought something from under his coat, and pointed it towards the alleyway entrance where he hid, something that was shaped like a gun... and spat green fire which shattered brick...

Another victory celebrated in Harry's office in Langley, Virginia, brandy and cigars (although only Harry partook of the latter) behind the locked doors of the Deputy Director of Operations, just he, Harry and the cat, Hatshepsut, whom he knew was much more than a cat, maybe even one of Harry's mysterious alien employers. However, he knew he could trust Harry, and in turn he was all Harry could rely on... besides the cat, that is. Against such foes as Khan and the Eugenics Warriors, Harry needed all the help he could get...

And again, Harry's warning: "If you ever come here and I'm not here, and I don't get in touch with you within one hour, whatever the reason... run. Don't look back."

Then the day came, and he hung around maybe a few more minutes, making discreet inquiries as to the whereabouts of Deputy Director Steen. Of course, none of the Agency drones knew jack. He knew it was time to leave...

Downstairs in the car park, the two agents, male and female, who said they were sent by Harry but failed to give the correct phrase that would tip him off that Harry had really sent them. The man had almost drawn his servo when he kicked it out the guy's hand; the female had counterattacked with a nerve strike that he had seen Harry use. They were definitely trained by the same people; his only advantage was being a lot stronger and more resilient than he looked. Too long, they decided, breaking off the fight and vanishing into a cloud of blue fog.

He woke up in what had to be the sickbay of the Federation starship that had come to his rescue. He knew they would figure out what he was; people did not spontaneously recover this quickly from explosive decompression, which he would have suffered when the Dalgoda ship blew a hole in the Edmund Fitzgerald's hull. The man now coming in, with a interesting mix of European and Asian features (and since when do they allow beards in Starfleet?), wearing a gold tunic and wearing command insignia, was even now sizing him up. "You the honcho here, sport?" he had asked the captain, appreciating the lazy smile in return.

Again, the same guy, now holding a katana, next to the severe-looking Vulcan holding a lirpa at port-arms, and the Tizarn noblewoman with her powerstaff, the four of them standing with backs against each other, facing down a tavern full of warp-trash on one of the Hegemony's fringe-worlds. Resigning himself to a major brawl, he picked up one of the nearby chairs, shrugged and said, "Rock and roll."

Then, back to the face of his father, classic Roman profile and sad basset-hound eyes, his father who stood in his house. He could hear his wife in the kitchen while his father tried to convince him that leaving her would be the best option for all. He was having none of it. He had never forgiven his father for leaving his mother, so long ago, and he couldn't do that to the woman he loved. His father shook his head. "You must leave her, my son."

Many years later, the words would come back to haunt him as he stood over her grave.

Worst of all was the image that finally came before him, the image of the man that time should have taken long ago, kept alive by cybernetics and stolen DNA and arcane substances from all over the galaxy. The man who had carved out a ruthless empire out of the ashes of the Federation, had crushed out virtually every civilization in known space, all to keep himself from persecution. The man who wore a bizarre parody of his face... because they were the same, separated only by time.

"They'll all get taken away from you. They'll all betray you," this mockery said, even as he (himself) pointed a phaser directly at this nightmare. "People you trust. People you love. You'll have nobody left, kid. Killing me won't change that. I did the same thing, when I was you, and it still happened to me. Go on, kid. Do it!"

He pressed the firing button. And the world exploded.

Murdock came awake sitting bolt upright in his bed. He did not scream; he had long since kicked that particular habit. He just wished that he could keep from sweating profusely, or just stopping the dreams altogether.

He threw back the covers and swung his legs out to the deck, taking several deep breaths to calm himself. Fortunately, the dreams (memories, really) did not come every night, or he would have gone stark raving bonkers long ago. Still...

"Bridge to Captain Murdock" came the voice of the Gamma Shift bridge watch officer, Lieutenant Monroe. "Captain Murdock, please respond."

Realizing that Monroe had probably been trying to reach him for half a minute or more (and that the intercom was what had awoken him in the first place), Murdock reached over to the bedside control panel and pushed the open-intercom button. "Murdock; talk to me." His tone, as moderate as he could make it, still carried a dangerous undertone: This better be good. One of the quirks of his otherwise outstanding metabolism was that he was a bear for sleep.

"We've picked up a distress call from Memory Alpha. They've been attacked."

That drove any remaining cobwebs from Murdock's mind. "By whom?"

"The signal didn't give much in the way of identification, sir. The attackers apparently arrived in several small ships, of varying types. That's all the information we got before the signal was cut off."

The captain mulled this fact over quickly. That tended to eliminate most of the Federation's main adversaries, such as the Romulans and the Cardassians, at least operating in a direct fashion. It did leave open the possibility of intermediaries, or putting it more bluntly, henchmen. Leaving that aside for the moment, who else could it be? Acamarian Gatherers... Ferengi privateers, operating outside the official sanction of the Alliance... Maquis? Why would any of the above want to hit Memory Alpha? Granted, there is some sensitive material archived there, but it's rather far inside the Federation perimeter. Somebody wants something bad... or wants us to think that...

"Shall I set a course for Memory Alpha, sir?" the patient voice of Lt. Monroe called over the intercom.

"Ye-No, not yet. First attempt to contact Memory Alpha; the distress call could be a fake. Then send a encoded message to all Neutral Zone and Demilitarized Zone monitoring stations, and Deep Space Nine, about the distress call, but advise that even if there was an attack on Memory Alpha, that it could be some kind of diversion and they should keep their eyes peeled."

"Aye, sir. Anything else?"

"Ummm... if you don't hear an all-clear from Memory Alpha, call the senior officers to the bridge. I'll be up there in ten minutes. Murdock out." Closing the commline, he walked over to the vanity and filled the sink with cold water. He regarded his tired reflection in the mirror above the sink. "Y'know, I just wish these bozos would keep office hours."

Willow awoke with the disorientation that comes from not knowing where you are. She blinked as she lay on her side; she was not that familiar with her quarters, having occupied them for mere weeks, but she was fairly sure that she was somewhere else. Then more parts of her cerebral cortex came online, and she remembered the events of the last few hours.

Her brain screaming like an intruder-alert siren, Willow slowly turned over to face the other way, where Tara lay on her back, softly snoring. Willow's eyes bulged as she hooked the events of last night to "now."

Slow down, she thought, trying to control her breathing. I don't think we did anything, really. She threw off the covers to reveal that her wrap had become undone during the night; she didn't see or feel any signs of... well, undue familiarity, for lack of a better term. Similarly, Tara's robe had become undone from her unconscious shifting; revealing the creamy skin of her torso, particularly...

Willow found herself captivated by the pointed cap of flesh peeking out from underneath the fabric. Her mouth, feeling desert-dry only a moment ago, now felt as if it was flooding with saliva. She swallowed carefully, careful of any lingering nausea from last night's debauche. She leaned forward, towards the opening in the robe, the creamy mound there so enticing...

Out of bed, no bothering with the wrap, heading toward the autovalet to pull out her clothes. Fortunately, they were there, returned from being reduced to chemical fibers and spandy clean. With shaking fingers, Willow dressed.

She crossed back to the bed, drawing the covers back over Tara, who then shifted in her sleep to lay on her side. Willow shook her head, amazed at the sight before her. God, she's beautiful. Leaning down carefully, she kissed Tara near the corner of her mouth. A moment's further contemplation, then Willow was gone.

Back in her quarters, Willow sat on her bed, hugging her knees to her chest, trying to control her breathing as her thoughts spiraled out of control. What is happening to me? I've never been attracted to a woman in my life! I mean, I've known gay people, never had anything against them, but when did I become gay? Did that temporal anomaly... do something to me? Maybe there's something in the replicated food on this ship. Maybe Tara has some weird telepathic thing, even something unconscious, of course unconscious, 'cause she would never do something like that to me! I know her, at least well enough, I'm pretty sure. She's a wonderful person, she's so kind, and smart, and beautiful, I can talk to her like I could talk to Buffy, and I feel like...

Feel like... what? I feel attracted to her?

Her deep breaths turned to sobs, as tears cascaded from her eyes, tears of deep confusion and stress. Oh, God, Buffy... I wish you were here. I so need to talk to you, and I can't, and the only person here I feel I can talk to is the last person I can talk about this to, God, I don't know what to do!

Laying back on her pillow, Willow cried herself to an uneasy sleep.

Continue to Equilibration Chapter Seven

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