Author: Chris Cook
Deep in the largely-unexplored Charybdis Sector, a system of three suns exists in a sedate Newtonian dance that belies the hideous gravitational forces the stellar triplets exert on their poor satellite worlds. A belt of debris describes an erratic orbit around the largest of the three stars; today, this is where USS Palomino, one of Starfleet's new generation of science vessels, goes about her work.
"The time is now oh-six-hundred."
Willow - visible only as a shape beneath a blanket - stirred, rolled over, and mumbled something unintelligible.
"The time is now oh-six-hundred and ten seconds."
The blanket raised its head, gave a weary sigh, and produced a slim hand which slapped the bedside control panel harder than strictly necessary.
"Okay, okay, I'm up," Willow grumbled as she threw off the blanket. She sat on the edge of the bed, stretched, then got to her feet and stretched again.
"Windows to- computer," she interrupted herself, glancing down at her lack of clothing, "any scheduled EVA at present?"
"Windows to transparent," Willow nodded. "And replicate the usual."
The window panels in the wall above the bed - which had been a neutral slate grey, like the rest of the walls - faded to reveal the view beyond, a vast starfield dotted with slow-moving chunks of purple and blue rocks, glittering as their sedate tumbling reflected the light of the system's far-off star. Willow watched them for a moment, then strolled into her quarters' living room and picked a pair of jelly beans from the container which had obediently materialised in the food replicator a moment earlier.
"Access bridge logs, replay summaries of anything flagged for attention," she said, popping the sweets into her mouth as she passed back through the bedroom and into the bathroom. The computer spoke over the low hum of the sonic shower.
"Proposed alternate flight plan for planetary debris study."
"Proposed by who?" Willow asked, turning this way and that, suppressing a giggle as the sonic pulses lightly tickled her skin.
"Time to think up another polite way to say 'no near-warp meteor tagging'," Willow mused to herself.
"Preliminary report from Lieutenant T'Jem regarding gravitational anomalies in debris field."
"Sciencey," Willow grinned, switching the shower to aqua and biting her lip as jets of hot water massaged her from all angles. "Put it in active memory on my ready room console."
"Acknowledged," the computer replied, raising its voice slightly over the hiss of the water. "Report from Lieutenant Commander Nite regarding festivities. Query attached."
"Urgent?" Willow asked, turning off the water.
"I'll see him on the bridge," Willow shrugged. "Uniform please." By the time she had towelled herself off, a fresh uniform was waiting for her in the bedroom clothes replicator. Collecting it, her eyes fell on the fresh wrapping paper and ribbon resting on a clear space on the bookshelves, and she sighed.
"And, there's that..."
A short while later, Willow Rosenberg - neatly dressed in command uniform, with three shining gold pips on her collar - approached a turbolift on her way to the bridge, having completed her regular morning walk-around of the various science departments on her ship. Her mind wasn't on science, though: she was mulling over thoughts of a certain blonde, when said blonde slid through the turbolift doors just as they were closing.
"Oh! Um... Lieutenant! Hi!" Willow said, her surprise making her greeting more enthusiastic than her companion was probably expecting.
"Captain," Lieutenant Tara Maclay nodded, smiling involuntarily at her captain's exuberance. Tara was Willow's ops officer, tasked with keeping all the departments of the ship running smoothly, allocating the vessel's resources among them, and providing a single voice for them on the bridge. It was a demanding role, requiring the touch of an artist combined with a deep understanding of the workings of a starship and her crew - Tara, who exemplified finesse and balance, and had been born and raised aboard Federation vessels, had both.
"Sorry, I..." she gestured vaguely at the closed doors. "I got a little delayed, earlier, and... sorry." Willow dismissed her apology with a wave.
"You caught up with me, so you must be early," she grinned. Tara smiled in relief, and nodded.
"Um... we're going to the bridge?" she prompted after a moment. Willow had been entirely distracted trying to think of something to continue the conversation with.
"Bridge- oh! Yes. Um, bridge," she said to the lift, which gave a quiet hum as it began to move.
"So, uh... are you, coming to the party tonight?" Willow asked.
"Yes Ma'am," Tara nodded.
"Me too," Willow smiled. "Well obviously, Captain and all, plus I decided to have the party, it'd be rude if I didn't show up. Not that I'd just show up, for form's sake... I'm looking forward to it." She was saved from the verbal tsunami building up inside her as the 'lift doors opened onto the main bridge of Palomino.
"Captain on the bridge," Jacqueline Christie announced primly from her tactical station as Willow emerged from the 'lift, with Tara a step behind. Christie - 'Jack' in her informal moments, which were as rare as pacifist Klingons - was a decorated veteran of the Dominon War, and as much a soldier as a Starfleet officer could be. Willow had on occasion wondered whether she was truly happy as tactical and security officer aboard Palomino, where her duties were largely routine, but Jack was an intensely private person; she gave no indication of dissatisfaction with her role, and Willow was appreciative of the intense dedication she showed to safeguarding her vessel and crew on those occasions when, unexpectedly, they had been endangered in the past.
Willow nodded acknowledgement at her, and she and the rest of the bridge crew resumed their duties. Tara rounded the wooden railing separating the rear of the bridge from the command deck, and relieved the gamma-shift ensign manning her Ops station, while Willow took her place at the centre of the bridge, beside her first officer Nite who, as usual, had arrived even earlier than Willow herself.
"Good morning Captain," he said as she sat down, handing her a PADD containing the previous shift's reports.
"Morning," Willow replied, glancing at it and, seeing nothing demanding immediate attention, putting it aside for the moment. Taking a brief look around, she frowned upon noticing strings of glittering tinsel adorning the bridge ceiling.
"Lieutenant T'Jem suggested it," Nite explained, seeing Willow's confusion. They heard the turbolift doors swoosh open again, and both looked up to see the Vulcan Lieutenant herself emerge and take her place at the science stations. As always, her appearance was impeccable; as usual, she gave a brief smile to her fellow officers before taking her seat. Despite having no emotions, T'Jem cultivated the ability to display such 'emotional' signs as a way of conveying her logical views, thus easing her integration into a multi-species crew. If the sight of a smiling Vulcan was unsettling to visitors, Willow's crew had grown accustomed to Jem, as she liked to be called off-duty, and affectionately used to her sincere, if occasionally haphazard, methods of interacting with her crewmates.
"Where's Avria?" Willow wondered quietly, noting the gamma-shift crewman still manning the ship's helm. Her regular alpha-shift pilot, an adventurous Medasi who, in spite of her taste for daredevil manoeuvres, was one of the most qualified in the fleet, was curiously absent. Nite, whose gaze had lingered on the science officer for a moment, looked quickly back at her.
"We've got a series of local scans on the debris field planned in a couple of hours," he explained. "Nothing dangerous, but close flying in the runabout, and I thought Ensign Avria would prefer that to watching the helm on station-keeping. I assigned Santos from astrometrics to cover helm, he's applied for helm duties, and he's logged enough simulator hours on his own time. Leonov from beta shift is on stand-by to step in, if we have a situation."
"Is that likely?" Willow asked. Nite shook his head.
"Long-range scans and intelligence broadcasts all indicate a quiet day," he said. "Simply, no harm in being prepared." Willow nodded approvingly, impressed, as she had been before, at her first officer's delicate handling of his duties. It was customary of Nite to be so thorough - as an adolescent he had fled his homeworld, where those like him who identified themselves as gendered were ruthlessly persecuted by the androgynous majority, and since then his only 'home' had been the 'fleet. Whatever his duties demanded of him, he gave his all to perform.
"Lieutenant?" Willow called, turning in her seat to look at T'Jem. "I have your report on the debris gravity field, anything you want to add before I read it?"
"Not at this time Captain," T'Jem said politely. Willow gave her a smile, which she returned with only a slight hint that it was an entirely conscious act, and turned back to Nite.
"Now, what's this about the party?" she asked. Nite grinned slightly and glanced away, his way of showing vague embarrassment.
"When I undertook to prepare for this 'Christmas party', I confess I wasn't aware of the complexities involved," he said quietly.
"Which complexities?" Willow asked, perplexed.
"The popular folklore and surrounding practices are quite varied depending on the historical period, and the prevailing cultural ethos in which the celebration takes place," Nite explained, obviously taking the subject as seriously as an Academy training simulation. "For example, according to the cultural database I studied, lumps of coal may be called for, which I understand were at the times used for heating. Obviously replicating fossil fuels is a simple matter, but the by-products of burning them would place a strain on the environmental systems-"
"Nite," Willow interrupted.
"-and it seems that the fathers of the participants, or at least the hosting individual, should don a 'Father Christmas' costume and distribute gifts, but there are an awful lot of differing interpretations of the Father Christmas figure, some bearing no apparent relation whatsoever to the others-"
"Nite?" Willow tried again, getting his attention. "It's just a party... snack food, decorations, that kind of thing."
"Ah," the first officer nodded. "The level of historical accuracy is unimportant?"
"It's not really what we're aiming for," Willow shrugged. "Commendable attention to detail, of course, but as you say, the complexity..."
"May I consult with Lieutenant T'Jem?" Nite asked, looking hopeful. "I understand her preparatory studies for the Academy included parameters for deciphering human rituals and social practices."
"We need deciphering," Willow chuckled. "Probably a good idea, sure. It looks like it's going to be a quiet day. Oh! Make sure there's mistletoe. There has to be mistletoe."
"A herb?" Nite asked.
"Hung from the ceiling," Willow nodded. "If you stand under it, people get to kiss you." Nite mulled this over, looking slightly alarmed.
"Positioning oneself beneath the herb indicates sexual consent?" he asked. "Similar to displaying a Risian Horga'hn?"
"No!" Willow shook her head quickly. "No, just a kiss... a chaste kiss. Um, unless both people are happy to... you know what, talk to T'Jem, I'm sure she'll have a Vulcan primer on human party rituals." Nite nodded thoughtfully.
"And no Horga'hns," Willow added vehemently. At Nite's curious look, she reluctantly continued: "My Academy roommate had one, and whenever anyone visited our room I had to explain it was purely for display, not because of its cultural meaning, and this one time a Bolian got down to his underwear before I got it through to him... never mind. No Horga'hns... and I'll just pretend none of the rest of you were listening to that," she finished, leaning back in her seat and putting on her 'Captain face'. The remainder of the bridge crew nonchalantly studied their consoles. Willow felt Tara's eyes on her, and gave her a glance, sharing the hint of a smile.
"Captain," Christie announced from tactical, "multiple long-range contacts, on an intercept course, warp four and decelerating."
"Threat?" Willow asked, all business. The crew's casual air became one of alert professionalism in the space of a heartbeat.
"Plasma-based weapons detected, unpowered," Tara noted. "Navigational deflectors up, but shields also unpowered."
"Hail them when they're in range," Willow ordered, relaxing somewhat.
"Visual," T'Jem said from behind them. "Seven swans a-swimming off the port bow."
"On screen," Willow said, unnecessarily as it turned out, as T'Jem was already switching the viewscreen from its forward view to show the newcomers.
"'Seven swans a-swimming'?" Willow asked quietly, over her shoulder.
"Culturally-based metaphor," T'Jem replied evenly. "Appropriate given the coincidental similarities, and time of Earth year..."
Willow grinned to herself and waved a hand at the Vulcan, quelling her explanation. She had to admit, the label wasn't a bad one. The seven vessels falling smoothly into formation with Palomino did indeed resemble swans, with their gleaming white hulls, long, outstretched necks, and wing-like aft sections spreading on either side of their central cores.
"Negative weapons locks or tactical scans," Christie reported dutifully.
"Are those Ferengi ships?" Willow wondered. She had only experienced a Ferengi encounter once before, as ops officer on the USS Ulysses, but the memory of their ceaseless profit-hunting was quite fresh.
"Warp cores match Ferengi profiles," T'Jem replied after checking her console's readings.
"Never seen that class before," Willow shrugged at Nite. "Alright, hail-"
"Lead vessel hailing us," Christie said before Willow finished.
"Okay, on screen."
"Greetings," said the expensively-dressed Ferengi who appeared on the viewscreen, displaying his jagged teeth in a thoroughly fake smile. "I'm DaiMon Prag, hailing you on behalf of the Ferengi Charitable Association, I hope you and your crew are well?"
"Yes, thank-" Willow began.
"I'm so pleased to hear that," Prag replied automatically, displaying a jagged set of teeth. "Congratulations, you have been personally selected by the FCA to be a part of our ongoing fundraising efforts, aimed at alleviating the suffering of the poor Cardassian orphans."
"Wait, personally selected how?" Willow asked, confused. She shot a glance at T'Jem, who gave a decent approximation of a shrug.
"As you know, the recent war devastated a great deal of Cardassia Prime," Prag continued, apparently oblivious to anything that was said to him. "We at the Ferengi Charitable Association are mounting an extensive relief effort, and for that, we need your help."
"Could I just get a word in?" Willow asked desperately. Resting her hand casually on the console beside her seat, she tapped a few commands in. A message appeared on Tara's console: 'Contact Starfleet, re: what the heck is the Ferengi Charitable Association?' Tara stifled a chuckle, and set about sending the inquiry.
"This one-time offer is for a limited time only," Prag steamrollered on through his sales pitch. "You pay nothing up-front, and further participation makes you eligible for," his vacant eyes lit up, as if he was suddenly interested in what he was saying, "an all-expenses-paid holiday to Risa..."
"What one-time offer is this?" Willow asked, looking around to see if any of the bridge crew knew what was going on.
"They have many fe-males on Risa," Prag continued lasciviously, before collecting himself and continuing: "In addition, a free set of culinary utensils-"
"Is there someone else I could talk to there?" Willow asked loudly.
"I can arrange for our Acquisitor to meet with you personally, to discuss your contribution to the FCA," Prag offered.
"What contri- never mind," Willow shook her head. "Yes, please, I'd like to meet with your Acquisitor."
"Please hold," Prag nodded. His image was replaced by a graphical logo for the Ferengi Charitable Association - 'The Galaxy's Friendly Helping Hand', according to itself - and a synthesised tune that was somehow mellow and irritating at the same time.
"What's an 'Acquisitor'?" Nite asked aloud.
"Never heard of it," Willow shrugged, "but it sounded important, and we weren't getting anywhere with Mister Prag. Lieutenant?" she added to Tara.
"Sociological and political downloads coming through," Tara replied. "There's... a lot of data. At a glance, the FCA seems to be an agency connected to the current Grand Nagus of the Ferengi Alliance... There's contradictory reports: according to the Ferengi the FCA is now in the business of collecting funds and resources for charitable causes. But there seem to be hard-liners within the organization who still adhere to the old ways, and are out for as much profit as they can get their hands on."
"Great," Willow sighed. "I wonder which variety we've got."
"Data transmission," Christie announced. "The lead vessel has launched a shuttlecraft, and requested permission to come aboard... not so much requested as demanded, that is." At Willow's curious look, she elaborated: "They say they're now willing to accept your offer to host their acquisition delegation, and will take it as a diplomatic insult if you 'change your mind'."
"That would seem to answer that question," Willow grinned mirthlessly. "Number One, we'll need our diplomatic wits about us, you're with me. Lieutenant Christie, you too - I want you watching our backs. Lieutenant Maclay, you have the bridge."
"Aye Captain," Tara replied, smiling broadly at Willow's faith in her.
"...incidents of mislaid funds, arbitrarily-appropriated resources, self-serving business practices both within the reformed FCA and the Ferengi economy at large..." The voice of Lieutenant T'Jem, relayed from the bridge, took a studied pause, and drew breath in a vaguely exasperated manner. "To summarise the summary," the Vulcan went on, "the Ferengi, despite the best efforts of their Nagus, are having trouble adapting to benevolence. Even when well-intentioned, it seems many centuries of capitalistic behaviour have a strong tendency to reassert themselves."
"Thank you Lieutenant," Willow said soberly. She glanced at Christie, who was regarding the approaching Ferengi shuttlepod through the forcefield-protected shuttlebay doors, with definite suspicion. "We'd better be on our guard."
"I always am Sir," the tactical officer replied without breaking her gaze. Willow, long-used to Christie's Academy-bred habit of referring to her as 'Sir', turned her gaze too on the approaching pod.
"Good sigh, by the way, Jem," she noted as it passed through the forcefield and settled onto the vacant central pad.
"Thank you Captain," T'Jem said, her voice taking on the slightly sing-song quality it always did when she translated her intellectual satisfaction into an appearance of pleasure. "Was 'summarise the summary' humourous? I judged that it would be appropriate to indicate levity at that point." Willow glanced at Nite, who nodded, stifling a grin.
"We're rolling in the aisles down here," she grinned.
"Excuse me Captain?"
"Later, the Acquisitor has arrived."
Willow stood to attention, as diplomatic niceties demanded, in spite of her suspicion that the situation was going to become one long headache. Nite and Christie stood on either side of her, likewise formal, as the Ferengi pod opened its doors to reveal the FCA Acquisitor, resplendent in a tastelessly-coloured long-tailed coat, closed at the chest with what appeared to be a clasp made of a bar of gold-pressed latinum.
"Classy," Christie murmured, her tone of voice agreeing with Willow and Nite's assessment.
The Acquisitor strode out of his transport in a thoroughly regal manner, with a pair of crouching attendants in his wake, ignored Nite completely, favoured Christie with a lascivious smile, and gave Willow an indecent down-and-up look before drawing himself up to his full height, almost matching Willow, and thrusting out his hand.
"Brunt," he declared with gusto, "FCA."
"Captain Willow Rosenberg, of the USS Palomino," Willow replied by rote, taking the offered hand and shaking it quickly.
"A pleasure," Brunt nodded, apparently taking the handshake as permission to take another step forward, well into Willow's personal space. "Always a pleasure, to meet a hew-mon as lovely as you... and with such exquisite taste in underlings," he added, shooting another glance at Christie, albeit not at her face.
"That's... thank you," Willow said quickly. Her quick glance at her tactical officer had reminded her of an Academy simulation, in which she had had to use the console directly in front of a destabilising warp core to prevent it breaching. She looked to Nite for support, and found him looking similarly worried.
"My first officer, Lieutenant Commander Nite," she said, resorting to protocol, "and Lieutenant Jacqueline Christie."
"Acquisitor," Nite nodded politely, at which Brunt spared him the merest glance.
"Lieutenant Christie," he salivated instead.
"Acquisitor," Christie replied, in a voice slightly more icy than a Breen winter.
"Perverse as the notion is, there is definitely something admirably titillating about the sight of a clothed female," Brunt unwisely persisted.
"Acquisitor Brunt!" Willow broke in, before a diplomatic incident could result. "I believe you were going to talk to me about the FCA's business? Something to do with a donation?"
"Of course," Brunt nodded eagerly, swinging back around to face Willow as lust for profit overrode lust for Lieutenant Christie. "Tell me, how much antimatter does this vessel consume in a single day's operation?"
"Well, it depends," Willow shrugged, discreetly gesturing to Nite and Christie that they could take their leave. "If we're at warp, naturally the expenditure is higher, though the F-Type core is actually very efficient in this spaceframe, and-"
"Did you know," Brunt interrupted, after a moment in which his eyes began to glaze over at the technical details, "that a single day's worth of antimatter can provide power for over seventy industrial-grade replicators, of the kind used in disaster relief operations?"
"Is that so?" Willow asked weakly, seeing where the conversation was heading and mentally skipping ahead to try to find a way out of it.
"Not to mention," Brunt added, "the trilithium resin by-product, which is worth a considerable amount - why, the profits of a sale of resin could feed and clothe tens of thousands-"
"Trilithium's an explosive," Willow frowned.
"Weapons-grade trilithium is a very valuable commodity," Brunt said in a low, conspiratorial tone.
"You can't seriously be suggesting-"
"Of course not," Brunt said quickly, holding his hands up in surrender. "Of course not, I was simply making an observation, to draw your attention to the many and varied resources a starship may not necessarily need, which can be put to better use. Now, let me explain what just one standard kiloquad of ODN chips can be used for..."
"Argh!" Willow let out a frustrated growl as she entered sickbay. The ship's holographic medic sparkled into existence beside her.
"Good morning Captain," the young brunette smiled.
"No, Nurse, it's not shaping up to be anything of the sort," Willow moaned, sitting on a diagnostic bed and slumping onto her back. Nurse nodded sympathetically and sat on the edge of the bed. As one of the forerunners of her type, Nurse - speaking properly, Medical Assistant Program, as 'Nurse' was a name she had adopted for herself - provided round-the-clock medical care for the ship's crew. There was, of course, a qualified surgeon on board, with a trained staff, but except in emergencies they, like many others on the science ship, remained engrossed in their particular lines of research. Nurse, with her instant access to the ship's entire medical database, and programming based on input from dozens of the Federation's most experienced practitioners, was quite capable of handling sickbay on her own in all but the most dire of circumstances. While some Captains still had reservations about holographic personnel, Willow was quite at ease with the concept, and in fact had found herself thinking of the artificial medic as a friend.
"Checking duty logs... oh." Nurse's face fell. "I see."
"I want them off my ship," Willow said flatly, closing her eyes. "I don't care if it takes every officer I have, I want them off my ship!"
"And yet, a flat refusal would be problematic in terms of Starfleet's public image," Nurse noted. "Starfleet Command would doubtless prefer a less... adversarial solution."
"I know," Willow groaned. "And if I could think of a way to get the Ferengi out of here, without insulting them, and without giving away the warp core and a nacelle as 'donations', believe me I'd do it." She gave an exasperated sigh, then sat up.
"The worst thing is the emotional blackmail," she complained. "I thought my mother was good at guilt trips, but this Brunt guy could go toe-to-toe with her, and I'm honestly not sure who'd end up feeling like a Denebian slime devil for the rest of the week. I mean, he'll ask something ludicrous - like, can they please have all our antimatter, as if we can do without faster-than-light capability - and when I think of a polite way to say no, there's another lecture on how much it'd benefit all the poor Cardassian orphans, and a stare like, like I've kicked his favourite puppy. Or, whatever Ferengi have for puppies."
"The prevalent climate on Ferenginar favours amphibian life-forms over mammaloids," Nurse noted.
"I've stalled them for a while," she went on, giving Nurse a glance. "Jem's giving them a tour of the ship - at least they won't be able to make her feel miserable every time she has to politely refuse them." She gave a bitter laugh.
"A temporary solution," Nurse noted.
"But, I'm hoping it'll buy us enough time for someone to think of a permanent one," Willow agreed. She sighed again, then looked at Nurse.
"How's your day been?" she asked.
"Busy," the hologram replied. "Twenty-two visitors so far."
"Twenty-two?" Willow asked in shock, surprising Nurse. "Are we having an epidemic of something?"
"Ah," Nurse smiled, nodding to herself. "Not for medical purposes. With the holodecks under repair, my emitters are the most accessible means of creating solid holo-images. I've been assisting the crew in selecting their gifts for one another."
"Oh god," Willow put a hand over her eyes. "That, too..."
"I've... Tara," Willow explained. "I have no idea what to give Tara." She glanced at Nurse, concerned. "You don't mind, do you? The crew using your emitters, I mean."
"Not at all," Nurse shook her head. "I'm programmed to experience satisfaction at serving my crew - the manner is not limited to medical service. And I am in an ideal position to appreciate that a three-dimensional, solid-seeming holographic construct is far more desirable - 'realistic' - than simply viewing an object on a monitor prior to physical replication. Books are popular," she went on, with authority. "Nineteen of the crew who've visited me so far have reviewed options for presenting literary works outside those available from the standard cultural database. I understand First Officer Nite went to some lengths to procure the text of Banik's thesis on the teachings of Surak as they apply to interspecies cultural exchange." She lifted a hand, and a faux-leather-bound volume appeared in mid-air, its cover inscribed with flowing Vulcan script.
"He did?" Willow smiled faintly. "For Jem, right?"
"He was not forthcoming in that respect," Nurse said gravely, then allowed a hint of humour into her voice. "But, I believe so." Willow grinned.
"Who'd have thought an androgyne would make such a gentleman?" she mused. "Just between you and me, I suspect he's a sweetie beneath that level-headed exterior. When he's around Jem, anyway."
"As you are, around Lieutenant Maclay," Nurse added innocently.
"I am not!" Willow protested. "Alright I am," she amended almost without pause. "Is it that obvious?"
"On a starship with fewer than sixty crew, everyone knows everything," Nurse said sagely. "I don't need the personality profiles of two dozen career medical officers to know that."
"Oh great," Willow said, flopping onto her back again.
"It's nothing to be upset about," Nurse assured her. "No-one's going to stop respecting you as Captain, simply because they can see you're a person too."
"There's a reason relationships between a captain and a crew member are discouraged," Willow countered wearily.
"Have you considered there's also a reason why they're not forbidden?" Nurse asked.
"I thought you were a doctor, not a counsellor," Willow frowned.
"I'm whatever my patient requires me to be," Nurse replied primly.
"Since when am I your patient?"
"You're on a bed in sickbay," Nurse shrugged. "As conclusions go, it's not a difficult one to leap to."
Willow sat up, glanced at the hologram, and nodded.
"Okay," she sighed. "I don't want to be just friends with her... not that I don't want to be her friend, of course. In fact, of all the friends I have, Nite, you, Jem, Tara's the one I most... oh, you know what I mean."
"You're half a micron from letting your mouth run away," Nurse pointed out.
"At warp speed," Willow nodded.
"You only do that about matters you care deeply about," Nurse went on. "In fact, since my activation, I can recall only one instance when you've appeared to care so deeply about anything, outside of your responsibilities as Captain."
"Just now," Nurse smiled.
"That still doesn't help me decide what to give Tara," Willow said, sitting up once more. "I don't have any texts outside the library that she's interested in, I can't paint, sculpt, I don't want to just give her some replicated something-or-other... Kobayashi Maru."
"Out of options," Willow explained with a sigh.
"Perhaps... yes," Nurse thought out loud. "What do you truly want to give her?"
"I don't know... well... this is between us?"
"I'll consider it doctor-patient privileged information," Nurse nodded.
"Myself, with a big bow wrapped around me," Willow smiled sheepishly.
"At this stage of your relationship, inadvisable," Nurse said. "And impractical, if you intend to present your gift to the Lieutenant at tonight's party. Though it would make quite an impression."
"I'll bet," Willow grumbled. "Will you be there?"
"Commander Nite contacted me to assure me the venue would be the mess hall," the hologram nodded. "The emitters there are in full working order at present."
"Good," Willow nodded, getting to her feet. "Well, back to the grind... I really should check in on Jem with the Ferengi, make sure she's doing okay. Thanks for your help."
"Did I help?" Nurse asked, puzzled.
"I like to talk," Willow smiled. "It helps having someone listening - otherwise, I'd worry that I'm going crazy. And this whole gift dilemma is pretty much my own fault anyway, leaving it 'til the last moment, so, I guess it's up to me to figure it out."
"Small furry animals are often considered a meaningful gift in such circumstances," Nurse suggested as the Captain headed out of sickbay.
"See you later," Willow laughed.
Tara heard the gym doors whoosh open, and paused her holographic Mok'bara tutor, turning to see who it was. She gave a smile as she saw Lieutenant Christie come in and head straight for the weight sets.
"Jack," she called to her. Christie's head snapped around, alert, then she relaxed as she spied Tara in the otherwise-empty gym.
"Afternoon," she nodded, moving to set closest to Tara's mat. "How long have you been here?"
"Just since shift change," Tara replied, nodding to the hologram that she was ready to continue. Following its lead, she resumed her ritualised tai chi-like motions. "The Captain left me in the centre seat all shift - she stayed in her ready room."
"Nearly a whole shift," Jack smiled, stripping off her uniform. "What's that, six times you've had the bridge?"
"Six it is," Tara confirmed. "Not that there's ever been anything unusual happening-"
"-but it's still a good feeling," Jack finished knowingly, donning exercise shorts and a tank top. "You'll get used to it, probably around about the dozen. Computer, local gravity to Vulcan standard. Activate spotter." She settled back on the weight bench and gripped the bar.
"You could just set the weights higher," Tara smiled.
"Where's the fun in that?" the brunette replied with a straight face. "Besides, I like feeling the gravity. If nothing else, it makes the end of the set a lot more refreshing." Tara gave a quick laugh.
"Were the Ferengi any trouble?" she asked. Jack shook her head.
"Not yet, which worries me," she said tensely, putting her efforts into lifting the gravity-enhanced weight bar. "They're not stupid, and I doubt they seriously expect to be able to guilt a Starfleet Captain into giving them valuable equipment - they must know Starfleet has reports of the FCA's questionable practices. There doesn't seem to be an angle in this for them... so I worry what the angle I'm not seeing is."
"Always the tactical officer?" Tara teased.
"Always," Jack grinned. "At least there's only the Acquisitor to worry about now. Jem scared the others away, they're hiding in their shuttle."
"Jem scared them away?" Tara asked, incredulous. Jack chuckled.
"You know all her 'uncanny valley' mannerisms, that she normally avoids? The ones where she gets a bit too close to the appearance of emotion, without actually having anything behind them?" She smiled.
"She did them?" Tara guessed.
"She did all of them," Jack laughed. "Even Brunt was looking nervous - after half an hour, he was practically hiding behind me. I'll give that he's got determination though, he stuck with it. I think it may have been the Captain's idea... I may have underestimated her."
"Really?" Tara probed. Jack shook her head.
"Don't get me wrong, I respect her," she said. "She's a fine officer... I have no problem serving under her. It's just... well, I suppose it's a soldier thing. Until I've seen a commander in battle..."
"I understand," Tara nodded.
"It sounds Klingon, when I say it like that," Jack mused. "Of course my grandmother had quite the reputation as a seductress... maybe I do have Klingon blood," she added, smiling.
"It would explain a great deal," Tara joked.
"Do I have lumps on my forehead?"
"No, they're not on your forehead..."
"Brunt was staring at those all day," Jack said with a chuckle. "When he wasn't hiding."
"Maybe he was only hiding behind you to get a look at your butt?" Tara chuckled.
"That's a thought that's going to fester," Jack complained. They shared a grin, and continued working out in silence for a moment, Tara smoothly performing the Mok'bara moves, Jack sweating with the effort of lifting the bar at substantially more than Earth gravity.
"Are you going to the party?" Tara finally asked, slightly nervously. Jack shook her head.
"Not my kind of occasion," she said. "Why, have you decided you need backup for your big move?"
"It's not a 'big move'!" Tara blustered. "And no, I'm perfectly capable of giving the Captain her present on my own..." She bit her tongue in thought, then sighed. "I wouldn't mind if you told me how easy it'll be, though," she admitted.
"Hah!" Jack barked. "You want to date a Captain, that's never easy."
"You have," Tara countered.
"That was different," Jack said quickly. "For one thing, there was a war on, we both knew - all the people I 'dated'," the ironic inverted commas dropped in audibly as she spoke the word, "knew the risks. Here today, could very well be gone tomorrow. We never got involved. For want of a better word, it was... recreation."
"Like working out together?" Tara asked carefully. Jack paused, and gave Tara a deliberate, serious look.
"I'd miss you," she said quietly. "If anything happened. I consider you a friend."
"I do too," Tara replied.
"You never saw the worst of it," Jack said slowly, then quickly added: "I don't mean that to imply anything negative." Tara nodded her understanding.
"Not every ship had front line duty," she agreed.
"I know what your ships did was important," Jack continued. "Bellerophon especially, all the diplomatic work - that saved lives, no question. But on a fighting ship, it's... different. You don't have friends, you have colleagues. Comrades. Like friends, closer sometimes, except... you can replace them, when they die. Because they will. On the Drake, nobody forgot that. We got daily reminders, most days, whenever we were on assignment." She shook her head, returned the weight bar to its brackets, and sat up to face Tara.
"This isn't one of those ships," she said, "and you and Captain Rosenberg won't be like that. It won't be 'recreation'... and I know you've heard it before, but it will be difficult. You'll have to share her with the ship, there'll be times when you'll have to be her subordinate."
"I can deal with that," Tara said calmly.
"I believe you," Jack nodded. "But it'll still hurt, when she has to look at you and just see an officer, not a lover. The only comfort I can offer there is that I'm sure it'll hurt her just as much."
"I know," Tara replied soberly. "But, she's the Captain. If she was the kind of person who'd ignore her duty for personal reasons... I probably wouldn't want to be with her."
"I hope it works out for you," Jack said. "Just go in with your eyes open. That's the best anyone can do."
"This is all hideously premature," Tara pointed out. "I don't even know if she's interested in me, let alone... what?" she asked, as Jack laughed to herself.
"That suggestion about keeping your eyes open?" the tactical officer said. "Evidently you haven't been doing so up until now. I'd stake a bar of gold-pressed latinum that the Captain is very interested in you."
"You really think so?"
"Are you calling me a liar?" Jack teased.
"I wouldn't dare," Tara grinned.
"Good girl," Jack said archly. Her communicator beeped, interrupting whatever she had been about to say.
"Engineering to Lieutenant Christie," came the distinctly clipped, staccato tones of the ship's Chief Engineer. Jack sighed and picked up her combadge from atop her crumpled uniform.
"Christie, go ahead One," she replied.
"There is a situation in main engineering that we believe requires your attention," One said succinctly.
"I'm on my way," Jack said, switching off the badge and reaching for her uniform. She glanced at Tara, who had deactivated her tutor hologram. "Going now?"
"It's as good a time as any," she said, forcing a confident smile.
"Relax. It's a good gift."
"Good luck... eyes open," Jack grinned as Tara picked up her shoulder bag and left.
"What's up?" Christie asked, emerging from the turbolift into Palomino main engineering facility, a four-storey complex surrounding the tower-like warp core, which pulsed with the energies within it as matter and antimatter annihilated in controlled bursts.
One, the diminutive Chief Engineer, turned from a seemingly-idle contemplation of the core and fixed Christie with a serious gaze. On the side of his head a slim, flat cybernetic unit flickered its lights momentarily as he redirected his thoughts to her. He was at once typical of his people - the Bynar race having universally embraced cybernetic enhancements of their minds - and unique - unlike other Bynars, who were born and lived their whole lives in the company of a binary partner, One's cyber-neural link was not to another Bynar, but to Palomino itself.
"Lieutenant," the Bynar greeted Christoe. "We are experiencing minor fluctuations in our tertiary field coils. Having correlated and analysed the relevant data, we believe this to be the result of external tampering with the subspace generators located throughout decks four and five."
"Sabotage?" Christie asked, quickly preparing a mental checklist of procedures for all possible outcomes.
"We are not sure," One admitted. "Our internal sensors do not detect any life-forms or artificial constructs in the vicinity of the generators that we have not been able to account for."
"I'll take care of it," Christie promised. "Does the Captain know?"
"I have informed her," One nodded. "She is attending to the Ferengi guests. I thought it prudent not to give exact details of the situation in a setting in which our conversation may have been overheard; I gathered from the Captain's responses that she understood what I was deliberately not saying. She agreed that security should investigate, and will wait for your findings."
"Thanks," Christie said. "Smart move, I wouldn't be surprised if the timing of this isn't a coincidence."
"Lieutenant?" One asked.
"Being suspicious is part of my job. Keep monitoring those decks around the generators, if you pick up anything let me know."
Willow was again deep in thought when she ended up face to face with Tara. This time, however, the Lieutenant was standing outside the Captain's quarters, waiting for her with a square box in her hands, wrapped in silver paper and tied with a red ribbon.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Sorry, I didn't... hi?"
"Captain," Tara smiled.
"Lieutenant," Willow nodded. "You're waiting for me? Well obviously, outside my quarters... come in," she offered, tapping the control to swoosh the doors open.
"Thank you Captain."
"'Willow' is fine," Willow said, following Tara into her living room. "If you want... we're off-duty after all, well, insofar as a Captain is ever off-duty. We've used first names before and the universe didn't come to an end, so I'm taking that as a good sign." She gave Tara a hopeful grin, and relaxed when the blonde chuckled.
"Willow," she nodded.
"Better," Willow smiled. "So... Tara... what brings you here? Oh, it's not official, is it? Cause then we'd be back to ranks, and... okay good," she sighed in relief as Tara shook her head.
"I, uh," Tara hesitated. "I wanted... that is, I... Merry Christmas!" she finished in a rush, as if trying to get the words out before they could escape her, and held out the present.
"You... for me?" Willow asked. "You didn't have to, I... thank you." She took the box, and, glancing frequently at Tara, pulled the ribbon loose and peeled back the wrapping. On opening the box inside, she found herself peering at a richly red-brown mass, contained in stasis wrapping.
"It's..." she began, lifting the odd dome-shaped thing free of its box. "...it's a cake?" she guessed. She noticed a second stasis-wrapped package in the box, and drew it out, finding it to be a formless lump of snow-white.
"Christmas pudding," Tara explained, smiling at Willow's confused yet pleased expression. "It'll be hot when you unwrap it, and the ice cream goes with it."
"Hot and cold?" Willow asked. Tara nodded.
"It looks delicious," the Captain smiled, turning her attention back to her ops officer full-time. "Thank you Tara, this is so sweet."
"You're welcome," Tara said bashfully. "Commander Nite should get some of the credit, he authorised me to construct an oven in my quarters to prepare it."
"An oven," Willow said, confused. Then: "You cooked this? I mean, actually made it, from raw materials?" Tara nodded, and grinned as Willow's face lit up.
"It's something I've always been interested in," she explained, basking in Willow's admiration. "Preparing food the old way... When I went to the Academy my roommate was from a traditionalist community in Europe, she'd replicate raw foodstuffs and cook with them all the time, it was... so amazing. My father's very talented at replicator programming, he can make really amazing dishes, but actually creating it with your own hands, it's... I suppose, in a way, it seems almost intimate. Which probably sounds pretty strange, to anyone who wasn't raised on a ship," she finished with a self-effacing smirk.
"No," Willow shook her head, "no, it doesn't... Thank you Tara, this is really wonderful, I... I don't know what to say, except thank you, and just repeating it again and again doesn't really seem like it's enough."
"Thank you," Tara smiled. "It was my pleasure." She and Willow faced each other, in a silence that managed somehow to be awkward and comfortable all at the same time.
"I, should go," Tara said at last, taking a step back. "I promised I'd help set up the mess hall, with T'Jem busy..."
"Will I see you at the party?" Willow asked quickly, taking a half-step forwards herself, then restraining herself from too obviously pursuing Tara as she moved towards the door.
"Yes," the blonde replied.
"I'll give you your present then," Willow said before she could stop herself. Tara blinked in surprise.
"My...?" she asked.
"I know, technically," Willow waved a hand, "the party is, more or less, my present to the crew, but I get to enjoy it myself, so anyway... and you're a friend, and I... I wanted to give you something, so you'd know that... I care." She bit her lip, acutely aware of the pile of wrapping paper in her bedroom, yet to find something to be wrapped around.
"I do know," Tara said softly. Then her slow move towards the doors entered their sensitive space, and they swooshed open, breaking the moment.
"I'll see you there, Captain," Tara said, with a last smile for Willow.
"Right!" Willow replied. The doors swooshed closed, and she let out a huge breath, as if she had just surfaced from an undersea swim.
"Christie to Captain," her combadge accounced.
In the corridor outside, Tara surprised a passing ensign by executing a pirouette, then pumping her fist triumphantly in the air. Then she straightened up, blushed, and went on her way just in time to miss Willow emerge from her quarters, looking grim, and head off in the other direction.
A moment later Willow arrived in the mess hall, to find a team of off-duty crew putting up decorations under the watchful eye of T'Jem, who was wearing an emerald green, pointed pixie cap.
"Jack said to what in the heck is that?" Willow said all in one breath. T'Jem, who was used to Willow's habit of switching topic mid-sentence with no warning when she was surprised, was unfazed.
"I am a Christmas Pixie, or Elf, depending on interpretation," the Vulcan explained. "Lieutenant Christie commed a moment ago to say she would be here shortly, and to ensure that the Ferengi were not present. Commander Nite is continuing Acquisitor Brunt's tour. He wished for me to have a 'first-hand' role in assisting him with the preparations for tonight's festivities."
"That's nice of him," Willow smiled, remembering Brunt's annoyingly precise application of emotional blackmail. She shrugged it off, reasoning that Nite was too professional an officer to be swayed.
"So, Christmas Pixie?" she asked. T'Jem nodded.
"An appropriate analogue for my position, as assistant to the Commander's Father Christmas. Also, I have the necessary ears."
Christie appeared at that moment, covered in sweat and not a little grime, and with her uniform jacket tied around her waist by its sleeves, leaving her in her sleeveless undershirt. She had a phaser rifle in one hand, and a Cardassian vole in the other.
"Lieutenant," Willow greeted her, privately thinking that Nite's development as a male would have taken significant strides had he been around to see Christie at this point.
"Captain," Christie nodded. "Voles."
"Indeed," T'Jem said, peering at the stunned, six-legged creature in Jack's hand.
"We have a vole problem?" Willow asked. "How? And... are those cybernetics on its head?" The vole did indeed appear to have an implant covering its face, including miniature optics and an ODN data port.
"One is analysing another of these things now," Christie said. "The alloys are Ferengi in origin. These things are crawling around the Jeffreys Tubes between decks four and five, getting into the generators, and if you can believe this, unscrewing the nodal regulators and swallowing them."
"They're what?" Willow exclaimed. "Why? The Ferengi?"
"I caught this one heading towards the junction to the shuttlebay deck," Christie nodded. "I've got a security detail sealing the tubes and clearing them one section by section, but you know what Cardassian voles are like at dodging scan beams - it could be a while before we get them all."
"Fascinating," T'Jem murmured, poking the limp vole's limbs.
"So," Willow frowned, "the Ferengi, what... Released a bunch of voles into the ship, with cranial implants that make them go after nodal regulators, swallow them, and bring them back to their shuttle?"
"The regulators are precision technology," T'Jem put in. "I believe their current value, in full working order, is approximately five bars, four strips of gold-pressed latinum per unit."
"This is ridiculous!" Willow protested. "I'm not having remote-controlled ferrets dismantling my ship! Christie, go find Brunt - he's with Commander Nite - and... no, he'd protest innocence, and hang around while we went over all the details, there's no way the Ferengi would try something like this without a failsafe plan..."
"If we were to withhold the fact of our discovery," T'Jem suggested, "but make it seem immanent, their failsafe plan for that eventuality may be to withdraw the evidence as soon as possible."
"Right," Willow nodded. "I'll handle Brunt. Christie, keep rounding up voles, I don't want them getting any of our equipment... and frankly, I'm pretty sure this is an animal rights issue too, so I don't want them getting their voles back. Jem, talk to One - this implant is too small to have much of a memory capacity, they must be using a low-level signal to control their critters, see what you can do about jamming it. I'm authorising full covert scanning of their shuttlepod. You've got fifteen minutes."
"Yes Captain," the two officers replied.
"We've got the Jeffreys Tubes locked down," Christie added. "They won't get through."
"Good," Willow smiled grimly. "On your way. Oh, Jem?" Willow called after them, as the pair moved towards the door. "The hat?"
"Of course," T'Jem nodded, removing her pixie cap.
"Was she blushing?" Christie asked once they had left the mess hall.
"Your attire is somewhat revealing," T'Jem responded calmly.
"My- oh," Christie glanced down at herself, noticing how the sweat she had worked up was making her singlet top somewhat clingy in certain prominent areas. "She... the Captain isn't... 'interested', in me, is she?"
"I do not believe so," T'Jem shook her head. "But she is homosexual, thus liable to be affected by aesthetically-pleasing displays from humanoid women in general, and you are both attractive in general, and visually arousing at present."
"Uh... thank you," Christie smiled slightly, turning her head to hide a blush of her own.
Willow found Brunt and Nite in the ship's computer core twenty minutes later, Brunt delivering a withering lecture on what he evidently perceived as the sheer waste of Starfleet lavishing such equipment on their own ships when there were Cardassian orphans in need, and Nite withstanding it.
"Acquisitor Brunt," Willow announced herself with an entirely false smile.
"Ah, Captain," the Ferengi leered at her. "I was just telling your subordinate here-"
"I'm afraid a situation has arisen," Willow interrupted him, flashing an innocuous stare at Nite which he correctly interpreted as 'I'm up to something, play along.' "We've had a problem in one of our biometrics labs, a batch of Calandian carnivore bats has gotten out of its cage."
"Most unfortunate," Brunt commiserated insincerely. "I'm not sure I know the species, are they valuable?"
"Not really," Willow frowned. "In fact, they're considered a bit of a pest on their homeworld. They have a very adaptable metabolism, you see - they can digest practically any organic matter, meaning they prey on any small animals they can find, although luckily they're no danger to humanoids."
"But something like a vole," Brunt said, suddenly looking worried, "they would be..."
"Bat food," Willow confirmed.
"If you'll excuse me for just a moment!" Brunt said desperately. "I need to talk to my shuttlepod..." He retreated into the corner and spoke quietly on a communicator, while Nite moved next to Willow.
"Calandian carnivore bats," he said quietly.
"Made 'em up," Willow nodded, keeping her expression carefully neutral.
"What course of action should I take?" Nite asked.
"Just follow my lead."
"Captain," Brunt announced, all smiles as he returned, "my shuttlepod crew has informed me that there aren't any of your bats aboard the pod, and to assist in keeping this unfortunate outbreak contained, they'll be returning to our solicitation cruisers now."
"I'm so sorry we won't have more time together," Willow said, keeping herself from smiling.
"Oh, not at all," the Ferengi gave a snaggle-toothed grin. "With your gracious permission, I'll remain aboard to continue enlightening you and your crew on the generous contributions you can make. I can always transport back later, once we've finalised arrangements for your donations."
"Uh, transporting is sadly impossible," Willow improvised. "There's an inverse chronoton field present in the asteroid belt here, and sadly we don't have the necessary isodynamic field capacitors to transport safely through it."
"Isodynamic field capacitors... nor do we," Brunt frowned. "But of course, surely a ship of this size has its own shuttlepods? It would be only a minor inconvenience for me to be returned to my ship, along with your donations, on board one of your shuttlecraft."
"Uh, actually-" Willow began.
"Captain, if I may," Nite broke in quickly. "Acquisitor, of course that would be no trouble at all. We'll have one of our shuttles standing by whenever you're ready."
"No problem at all," Willow smiled when Brunt peered suspiciously at her. Seemingly mollified, he nodded to himself, and fixed his attention on Lieutenant T'Jem as the Vulcan emerged from the nearest turbolift.
"Captain, Commander," she said politely.
"Would you take over Acquisitor Brunt's tour for a moment?" Willow asked. T'Jem nodded, and Willow hustled Nite into the corridor.
"Tell me you've got a plan?" she said.
"The Acquisitor confided in me that he and his fleet have no immediate plans. If we continue to refuse his solicitations, he will in all likelihood persist in seeking 'donations' for the next week, if not longer. It would be preferable to have him on his way sooner than that."
"Definitely," Willow agreed. "How?"
"Brunt is very conscious of his own comfort," Nite said. "So far he has complained no less than seventeen times regarding the ship's 'inadequate' environmental settings, mainly to do with the lack of humidity, the excess heat, and various minor sonic disturbances which he seems sensitive to."
"Well I'm not turning my ship into a swamp just so he can feel like he's at home."
"Ferengi are also sensitive to motion-induced nausea," Nite went on. "If we were to promise a substantial enough 'donation' to satisfy him, place the least profitable 'portion' of said donation in the Waverider, and allow Ensign Avria to pilot it, and Brunt, back to his ship... what are the odds he'd be willing to make the return trip to get the rest?"
"He has to be personally present to collect donations?" Willow asked.
"He does," Nite nodded. "Part of his duties as Acquisitor. He tends to ramble when he believes I am agreeing with him. At one point, he offered to sell me a copy of his personal journal. I made an effort to seem less interested at that point."
Willow thought it over, then began to grin.
"Nite, you're a genius," she said.
"I am?" he asked. "Uh... thank you Captain."
"Make it so," Willow smiled.
Two hours later, the mess hall was crowded and festive. A large Christmas tree, adorned with ornaments from dozens of cultures, stood between two long tables laden with snack foods. Nite, dressed as Father Christmas, was hauling a large sack of presents around, collecting presents from givers and distributing them to receivers, with the help of T'Jem in a rather skimpy pixie costume. Christie had made an appearance sometime after the start of the party, and was keeping to a relatively quiet corner, evidently enjoying the company even though she remained on the periphery of it. Nurse, by way of amplifying her voice, was leading a series of Christmas carols, made somewhat erratic by many of those present not knowing the words, being liable to alter then at the drop of a hat, or in the case of those without rostered duty shifts for the next twenty-four hours, because they had replaced their synthahol-based party drinks with Romulan ale.
"On the twelfth stardate of Christmas, my par'machkai gave to me..." she led, for the benefit of the crowd.
"Twelve Betazoids thinking," T'Jem sang.
"Eleven Klingons fighting," One continued in his soprano.
"Ten Prophets weeping," Tara contributed.
"Nine Romulans scheming," Avria's energetic voice drifted over the room's communications system.
"Eight targs a-hunting," Nite put in.
"Seven Vulcans prospering," T'Jem added, getting a laugh.
"Six sehlats sleeping," Jack sang, surprising a few people.
"Five holy rings," Willow continued.
"Four hailing combadges," Nurse added.
"Three Risan women," Nite sang, getting a decent imitation of a playful glare from T'Jem.
"Two Corvan gilvos," the Vulcan added.
"And a Marcosan sentient tree," everyone joined in for the last line, laughing.
"We'll have a ship's choir soon," Nite suggested, appearing at Willow's side as she stood by the tree.
"The general adherence to rhythm and meter requires work," T'Jem added thoughtfully.
"'Seven Vulcans prospering' wasn't exactly a smooth fit," Tara pointed out with a grin.
"Par'ma'kai" Nite mused.
"Klingon," T'Jem replied. "From the back of the throat... par'machkai. Possibly it is helpful to eat gagh beforehand, to capture the accent - digestive unrest may be beneficial." She displayed a smile at Willow, Nite and Tara's chuckles, evidently satisfied that her minor joke got the desired response.
"So, the Ferengi are gone for good?" Tara asked Willow.
"They will be," she nodded. "Avria's just ferrying the Acquisitor back to his ships, and I sincerely doubt he'll want to come back for more 'donations'."
"Really?" Tara asked, surprised. "Ferengi can be quite single-minded when it comes to profit."
"Let me see," Willow said, glancing out one of the panoramic forward windows. "They should be coming past... around about now..."
One and Nurse joined the group, and they watched as Palomino's 'Waverider' flyer appeared from beneath the ship's saucer section and shot at breakneck speed towards the nearest asteroid. It veered aside at the last moment, barrel-rolling violently, and vanished into a minute gap between two other rocks, emerging just in time to escape their collision.
"It's a pity Avria doesn't get more chances to stretch her flying muscles," Willow mused.
"I think she feels the opportunity to pilot Palomino regularly is worth the relative stability of our course," Nite said.
"The Nova-class propulsion system is one of the most finely-tuned in the current fleet," One said with a touch of pride. "Ensign Avria has frequently complimented my staff on the condition of the engines, and their responsiveness to her piloting."
"Palomino to Waverider," Willow said, touching her combadge. "Ensign, how's your passenger?"
"Foetal position, Captain," the Ensign replied, sounding quite cheerful. "I can't imagine why, but he doesn't seem to like flying."
"He won't be back," Willow said, smiling in satisfaction. Far off in the distance, Avria skimmed a tumbling asteroid close enough to kick up a dust cloud in her wake from its surface.
"What did we give them, anyway?" Willow asked Nite.
"Several crates of self-sealing stem bolts," he replied.
"Good luck to them turning a profit with those," Nurse chuckled.
"Captain," Nite said, "I was wondering... were 'isodynamic field capacitors' another invention of yours?"
"Guilty," Willow smiled. "The old 'one adjective and two nouns' naming system, it works every time for sophisticated equipment."
"True," One confirmed. "Seventy-eight percent of the discrete equipment packages recognised by the Starfleet Corps of Engineers follow that structure of nomenclature."
"What became of the voles?" T'Jem wondered.
"Lieutenant Christie's team were very efficient in capturing them all," One replied. "Our scans indicated that their compartment in the Ferengi shuttlepod was accessible only from the outside, and thus not visible from inside the craft. We simply beamed in a quantity of specimens which the biometrics lab provided, thereby causing the Ferengi sensors to read the compartment as full. They evidently mistakenly assumed it was full of voles."
"What was it full of?" Willow asked. "Nothing dangerous?"
"Oh, no," Nurse shook her head. "We made sure to feed the specimens before beaming them in. They'll be no tribble at all."
"They won't be back," Willow grinned.
"They won't dare," Tara added.
Willow smiled at her in return, then nodded towards a quiet corner.
"A moment?" she asked. Tara followed her, while Nurse and One mingled, and Nite and T'Jem sampled the snack foods, their index and middle fingers casually touching at their sides.
"I promised a gift," Willow said, smiling hopefully, "and a minimum of babble to go with it, so without further ado... merry Christmas." She revealed a slim gift-wrapped object from behind her back and presented it to Tara.
"Captain..." Tara said in quiet delight, carefully peeling back the wrapping paper and ribbon, "Willow... thank- oh, my..." She took a hushed breath as she saw what was in her hands: a slim volume, which when she gently opened it contained hundreds upon hundreds of hand-written, thin paper-film pages. She closed the compact book and traced her fingertips over the lettering on the cover: 'Willow Rosenberg - Personal Journal'.
"I don't know what to say," she admitted, glancing up at Willow with moist eyes.
"Age twelve through to my graduation," Willow smiled. "So don't worry, there's no restricted command information... just all the embarrassing details."
"This is so... personal," Tara murmured.
"I know," the redhead nodded. "Will... you accept it? It's your choice, totally." Tara took another, steadying, breath, then firmed her grip on the journal.
"Thank you," she whispered. "I..." A motion caught her eye, and she glanced upwards.
"Look," she smiled. Willow looked up, and noticed a sprig of mistletoe attached to the ceiling above them.
"I swear I didn't plan that," the Captain said sheepishly. "I didn't even see it was there."
"Me neither," Tara shook her head. "But... it is tradition."
"It is," Willow agreed, meeting the blonde's stare. Mesmerised, she took a tiny step forwards, and the two of them leaned forward, breathing the same air for a moment. Then they kissed - softly, slowly, with lips that parted only a fraction against each other, yet lingered together for a very long time.
Across the mess hall, Christie glanced at Nurse, who had appeared by her side, then returned her gaze covertly to her Captain and her friend as they slowly let their lips part, and smiled with new nervousness and new confidence at each other.
"Lucky that mistletoe was up there," the tactical officer grinned to the hologram.
"Luck had nothing to do with it," Nurse replied, with a surreptitious wink. As Willow and Tara rejoined the party, the mistletoe shimmered out of holographic existence.