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Equilibration

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Summary: A twenty-third century Starfleet officer named Willow Rosenberg finds herself on a starship ninety years after her time. Tara Maclay, assistant ship's counselor, is assigned to ease her transition.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Star Trek > Other/GeneralCaptMurdockFR151392,26852213,24922 May 047 Aug 04Yes

Chapter 12

CHAPTER TWELVE



Nearly a full day later, Willow was summoned to Captain Murdock's ready room.

She had spent the interval, after Tara had unceremoniously delivered her to her quarters, not speaking or even really looking at her, contemplating her future and, once her pragmatism reasserted itself, compiling her official report. She had submitted it to the captain, who had acknowledged receipt without comment.

Fortunately, she had a replicator in her quarters, so she didn't have to have somebody send her food. Still, it would have been nice to talk to somebody, but her confinement forbade her from initiating contact with anyone, nor was she allowed to receive communications, not involving official business. I'm being held incommunicado, she thought gloomily. "Where's Communicado?" "Oh, it's about twenty miles south of Cognito!" Yuk yuk yuk.

I wouldn't mind it so much, except... Tara. I think what I did... hurt her. I just wish I could explain why I went back, but I don't think she wants to hear it.

Walking from the turbolift to the ready room door, Willow could not help glancing around the bridge. Most of the damage, resulting from phaser or disruptor fire, had been repaired; a couple of technicians were touching up discolored areas and such. Kolrami and Thelvran were at their respective stations; Faraday was at the command station. The first officer glanced around when Willow exited the turbolift; the expression on the older woman's face was rather neutral, neither sympathetic nor contemptuous. Willow thought she might have seen a ghost of a smile as Faraday turned back after meeting her eyes briefly.

Taking a deep breath, feeling a phantom ache in her chest, Willow reached out and tentatively touched the door chime. At Murdock's sharp command, the doors parted. Steeling herself, Willow walked in.

The captain was seated behind his desk, reading his computer screen. He did not look in her direction as she walked in and stopped about two meters from the desk. Willow's knees suddenly went watery, but she dared not take a seat. She locked herself into a stance of Attention and prayed she would not faint.

Murdock continued to peruse the information on his screen, tapping through one page after another, for nearly a full minute after Willow arrived. She felt herself growing annoyed at his cavalier attitude; he could at least have the decency to acknowledge that she was there for him to yell at her.

On the other hand, he might have been engaging in a war of nerves with her. With an effort, Willow clamped down on her temper and vowed to wait him out.

Finally, he tapped his screen off and sat back in his chair. Still looking away from her, he intoned in a casual manner, "I have to say that, as your friend Tara pointed out, for the most part, this mission really qualifies as a success. We managed to find and apprehend most of a Maquis cell, including a member of the Cardassian Obsidian Order, with minimal casualties on our side; we provided medical aid to their victims in a speedy and efficient manner; and we managed to avert a potentially disastrous breach of Federation security. An above-average day, she said, and I would have to agree with that assessment." For the first time since she entered the ready room, Murdock turned to look at Willow. "And then, we come to you."

He stood, slowly making his way around the desk toward Willow, holding her eyes the entire time, the apparent nonchalant demeanor underscored by a tightness in his voice. Willow had to remind herself to breathe. "This is the part where I would usually ask you if you understood what you were doing. However, I feel in this case that would be redundant. I mean, not only are you one of the few people on this ship smart enough to instinctively grasp the temporal mechanics, but you and I had a discussion on this matter, some time ago, in this room." He strode behind her, crossing the room.

Willow had to resist turning to look at him. Nevertheless, she felt it necessary to interject. "Sir, permission to-"

"Yes, yes, go ahead."

Wondering if she was pushing the button to blow herself out of an airlock, Willow ploughed on. "Captain, you explained why I couldn't go back to the twenty-third century, to carry on with my life as it was. I accepted it then, and, and I still do. But Buffy... Lt. Summers..." She drew a breath, finding the calm within herself to continue. "She wasn't meant to die, sir, not at that time. I felt... I had a chance to save her, the way I would have saved her if I had been there originally." She saw Murdock walking forward on her left, towards the viewport where stars streaked by at warp speed. "Sir, I know that I have to live in this time. But... I owed Buffy a chance to live, too."

Murdock stopped. He was still facing the viewport, but he turned slightly and said, over his shoulder, "That still doesn't explain why you went back and changed the past, Lieutenant.. In preventing Elizabeth Summers' death, you could have radically undone ninety years of Federation history. People in this time, people who were born and even died since then, could have ceased to exist because of what you did. You and I, and Tara, could have beamed back up to ship and found out that Commander Faraday, or Dr. Devereaux, or Dr. Govarr or Lt. Thelvran had never been born. These are your shipmates, Willow. People who work with you, trust you and, in most cases, even like you. By what ethical principle could you undertake something that would endanger their very existences?"

Willow took a deep breath and took the plunge. "Because Buffy... she would have done the same for me."

"That's no excuse and you know it!" Murdock thundered, turning back at her with blazing eyes. Willow felt herself paling at his gaze.

Apparently, he saw the blood draining from her face, too. His anger apparently spent, he closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He walked back over to his desk and leaned against it. His demeanor shifted somewhat as well, taking on an almost scholarly manner. "I've been perusing the historical database for the past day. Quite frankly, I've been looking for any alteration of the timeline resulting from your little escapade. Exploration, planets joining the Federation, treaties with our allies, Starfleet vessels, the Cardassian and Tzenkethi Wars... Mind you, I only have my own memories to draw upon, because all records of the past ninety years would have been altered as soon as you stepped through the Guardian.

"Frankly, Lieutenant, if I had found one world that should have been in the Federation but never joined, one starship captain who never made it through the Academy, one minor battle that we won but now lost, even so much as one... Third-Class Spittoon Polisher on this ship, missing... we would be having this conversation in the brig, and you would be staring down the barrel of a general court-martial." Murdock had to take a breath after his peroration. "For better or worse, however, you actually managed to not alter the timeline in any significant way."

"Really?" Willow piped up, then remembered herself. "Uh, I mean, that's, um, interesting, sir."

"'Interesting' is a word-and-a-half word, Lieutenant," Murdock replied, a slight smile on his face. "I don't suppose you have an explanation for this?"

Willow's brain, in the usual overdrive that it perpetually functioned in, had come up with an answer. "Well, actually, sir, it could be that my going back to save Buffy was already a part of the timeline. I mean, the Guardian, when I spoke to it, it knew my name, and I knew that I hadn't introduced myself previously, and when I asked it how it knew my name, it said that it had been waiting for me, apparently for billions of years, whew, I mean, talk about hanging around a while, but, anyway, maybe I was supposed to go back. Sir."

Murdock blinked a couple of times as he absorbed her account. "Are you telling me that this was some kind of... predestination paradox?"

Willow had to restrain herself from shouting Yes! Or worse, Good! "Well... I guess you could call it that, sir." She noticed Murdock closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. "Headache, sir?"

"Naw. My head usually explodes right around this time of day." Taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes again. "Given that history doesn't seem to have been altered, and the possibility that perhaps you were meant to go back to save Lt. Summers... I can hardly believe I'm saying this... I may have to give you a pass on this."

Barely able to keep from squealing for joy, Willow managed to answer. "Um, very well, sir." A streak of masochism, however, prompted her to ask, "Don't you have to discuss this with the Department of Temporal Investigations?"

"Oh, God, not that," Murdock replied, deadpan. "I'd rather stick my head in the warp core than deal with those jokers. They've been after my ass sin - " He abruptly cut himself off.

"Since what, sir?"

"Never mind." Modifying his tone, Murdock continued. "On a, well, related matter, the fact that you and I, plus Commander Farady, Dr. Devereaux and Lt. Maclay, all know about the Guardian's existence, is definitely something Starfleet Command is not going to be crazy about. However, as I have reported that in my official log, we're all going to have be debriefed about the Guardian by Starfleet Security. When we stop at Starbase 257 in a couple of weeks, they are going to ask us all a lot of questions. I want you to be prepared for that." He leaned in to look directly into Willow's eyes. "However, I think we should keep your, uh, little field trip between you, me and Lt. Maclay."

Willow grinned. "Sounds good to me, sir."

Murdock, however, did not return her smile. He came a step closer. "That leaves you and me, or more to the point, the question of how much I can trust you, predestination paradox or not." He paused as he noted Willow's cheerful demeanor vanishing. "It wasn't that long ago what we discussed your need to trust me as your commanding officer. Well, I need to trust my junior officers as well, and your going off half-cocked like you did really isn't conducive to that kind of trust!"

Willow was unsure what to say to that. The knowledge that he was right, that he had little reason to trust her, especially after all he had done for her since arriving in this time, stung. She found herself unable to meet Murdock's eyes, and felt her own start to water.

After a moment, the captain continued. "I like to be able to give my people one chance, within reason, within certain paramenters, one chance to really screw up. I think we can consider this your one chance, come and gone." Pause. "I also realize that the circumstances in this case are unique and highly unlikely to occur again." Willow clamped down on her jaws to keep from chuckling at that one. "I think we can go on as before, you and I..." He stepped even closer, staring down at her, every inch the authority figure. "...on the proviso that nothing even remotely like this ever happens again. Is that clear, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, sir," Willow breathed, looking back at him with all the resolve she could muster.

After a moment, Murdock nodded, crossing back to his desk and picking up a PADD. Entering in a command, he said, "Consider yourself restored to active duty, Lieutenant." Glancing at the screen, he added, "Since you are off restriction, I should tell you that there's a private subspace communication for you. I think you ought to take it; I'm fairly sure that the lady on the other end has been waiting a long time to talk to you."

Willow was momentarily confused about who might be calling in. In a flash, she knew, and palpable joy ran through her like hot oil. "Oh! Oh, my... um, sir, I think I should, I mean, with your permission..."

"Go, go," Murdock said, waving her off. Willow turned and started for the ready room door, when a sudden thought stopped her in her tracks. She slowly turned back to Murdock, who seeing that she had not left yet, came back around the desk. "I thought you were anxious to go. Haven't you had enough of me for one day, Lieutenant?" he joked.

Willow, however, had adopted as serious a mien as he had ever seen on her. "Captain, um, when I was watching the images in the Guardian, you know, when I was trying to get back to when Buffy... anyway, I saw someone, back in, well, several times, at least several centuries ago, someone who looked just like-" She looked him in the eyes questioningly. "Somehow, it was you. I don't know-" She stepped towards him, her voice dropping to barely above a whisper. "Captain... who are you?"

Murdock came closer to her, looking directly at her with a resolute expression. Willow suddenly felt numb, filled with a dead certainty that he was going to tell her, as the air in the ready room seemed to decay, like the air in an ancient tomb...

"Good night, Willow," he said, his tone casual, even pleasant beneath the unleavened expression.

"Good night, Captain," she managed to force out, before escaping through the parting doors.

****

"So, you're still sore at Willow?"

Tara looked up in surprise. She was seated across from Dr. Devereux in his office, undergoing an informal "debriefing" - basically his asking for juicy details about her misadventure on the planet of the Guardian of Forever. She had, however, skipped over Willow's trip through time. Not only had Captain Murdock asked her to keep it under wraps, but...

"Wh-wh-why do you say that?" she said, then rolled her eyes as her stammer made the prickliness of the subject self-evident. "God. Someday Dr. Govarr is going to have to give me neural shocks to make me stop doing that!" Devereux chuckled. Damn him.

"I don't know, really... it's just after your little escapade with her down on the planet, I would have thought you'd be chomping at the bit to talk to her. Especially after the captain confined her to quarters afterward, and no, he did not tell me about this, I had to alert my spies." Devereux paused to gaze thoughtfully at his young assistant. "I don't suppose you care to tell me why?" Tara's silent shake of her head was his only answer. "Yeah, I figured."

"It's just..." She wasn't sure why she was opening the door even a crack like this. "Sometimes, I... I get the idea that if she really could go back, to the twenty-third century, and not affect anybody or anything..." She trailed off.

"And this surprises you, why?" Devereux's clinical tone was only slightly leavened by compassion. "Of course she would like to go back! Anybody in her situation would. All the things she didn't get a chance to do, all the people she's never going to see again... it's all unfinished business. What do you think she really wants, in regards to that time?"

For a moment, Tara was silent as she pondered the question. All at once, the answer came to her. "Closure." Her expression lightened as she said it, like the sun emerging from behind storm clouds.

"Exactly." Devereux noted the change in her demeanor, pondered briefly the deeper meaning behind it, but said nothing. Instead he commented, "So, as long as we have that cleared up..." He reached for the everpresent bottle on his desk and poured a finger of rust-colored liquid into a handy shot glass. "As my Andorian friend said-"

Tara reached across the desk and gently, but firmly, put a hand over the glass. Devereux regarded her with raised eyebrows. "Well, if you wanted some, all you had to do was ask," he said lightly.

She gently tugged the shotglass out of his hand; however, rather than partaking herself, she set the drink on the desk. She regarded him with a set, professional air. "Charlie, what are you doing?"

"Having a drink?" he quipped half-heartedly, noticing the no-nonsense demeanor but playing dense.

"I think you've been having a few too many. A lot of people think you've been having a few too many."

"Actually, I would have thought everybody would have said I've been having a lot too many," Devereux shot back.

Tara didn't react to the snap. "No... everybody else is being too polite. But they are noticing your little habits. Maybe because you're being so ostentatious about it." She crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. "So, um, are you going to tell me why you feel the need to self-medicate to such extremes, or am I going to have to drag it out of you?"

Devereux did not answer, turning away from her. Tara leaned forward and plunged on. "It's something to do with your wife. Rachel."

The older man did a credible job of hiding any physical reaction to the query, keeping his relaxed posture in the chair. However, Tara's empathic sense picked up a wave of emotions, dark currents that he struggled to control, usually through his usual regimen of booze.

Not allowing herself the slightest particle of triumph, Tara stood and slowly began to walk around the desk, placing herself in his field of vision. "I can understand the grief and sadness, Charlie. Even the anger..." Now she had to dredge up a memory of her own, one that still had some raw edges for her. "M-my mother died, when I was seventeen..."

Charlie stood to look her in the eyes for the first time. "I know. I mean, it's in your service record." He paused sympathetically. "Sakuro's Disease, if I recall correctly."

She nodded, not trusting her voice for a few moments. "After she d-d-d... was gone," she took a deep breath, trying to still the tears that threatened to spill out and completely obliterate her professional demeanor, "besides all the usual stuff... I was so angry with her. Part of me couldn't believe that she w-w-would just... go and leave me alone, with a father and a brother who never really l-loved me..." She had to stop then, choking back a sob as long-buried resentment came to the surface.

Devereux reached behind him and produced an old-style handkerchief, handed it to her with a touch on the shoulder. She nodded her thanks and wiped her eyes. Taking a few deep breaths, she looked at him again. "And then there's the guilt, Charlie." She noticed he drew back slightly from her then, his sympathetic demeanor becoming more guarded. "At first, I thought it was just survivor's guilt, like with Willow, y'know, when she felt guilty about her friends being dead and all. But it's more than that with you, isn't it?" Devereux nodded numbly. "According to your service record, you took a medical leave of absence when you returned from a mission... actually, the record was a little vague about-"

"Yeah, it was, uh, classified," Devereux replied offhandedly. "Back then, I did a few little errands for Starfleet Intelligence. Real cloak-and-dagger stuff."

"It's kinda hard, thinking of you as the skulking-in-the-shadows type."

"Yeah, I was the poster boy for Living on The Razor's Edge and Laughing in the Face of Death. 'Course, I was a different person, then." His eyes clouded as the memories came to the surface. "The mission I was on... required me to be out of touch for a few months. Almost a year. When I got back in contact with Starfleet, I found out... she'd been killed in an airtram accident..." Now it was Devereux's turn to have trouble getting the words out. "I, I couldn't handle it. It was like someone took a phaser and... shot it through me, and left this... huge hole right in me." He turned from Tara and strode across the room. "She was... my everything. And then she was... gone. I couldn't deal with it.

"Eventually, I was sent to a Starfleet medical facility. The counselors there... I worked with them, getting me past the whole thing." Devereux recovered some of his clinical detachment, describing his past as if it were a case file. "The funny thing was, they all told me I had a real gift for psychotherapy. I took a real interest in what they did. After a while, I decided the best thing for me to do was to see if I could do this full-time."

Tara nodded. "You wanted to change your life after your wife's death. What better way than to... change careers?"

Devereux smiled. "I figured I'd be really good at helping Starfleet officers deal with personal loss, 'cause, hey, I've been there, right? I went back to school, earned my degree, and eventually, I applied to Starfleet to reactivate my commission."

Tara stepped closer to him. "But that's... that's not the end of the story, is it? You're still in nine kinds of pain, and you don't know how to get past it." She peered into his eyes, electric-blue orbs piercing into his very brain. "Why? She's been gone, how many years now? Isn't it time you got on with your life?"

"It's not that simple, Tara!" he snarled back at her. "You just don't forget the love of your life and what you promi-"

"Promised... what?" Tara prompted when he didn't continue. "What promise did you make to her?"

Devereux did not answer right away. When he did, his voice was barely above a whisper. "I was... young then. We both were. I was dedicated to my career, to eventually getting my own command. Rachel knew that. I mean, hell, I proposed to her in uniform... she knew that I would be gone a lot.

"I said, 'No kids, Rachel. No kids, at least not right now. Someday, I promise.' I promised her, Tara, and I swear to God, I meant it. I just didn't want... I, my career, I just..." He broke down, leaning on his hands on his desk, his shoulders shaking heavily. For nearly a minute, nothing coherent came from the older man. "D'ya know, sometimes I have these dreams," he was finally able to choke out, seeing Tara's understanding and sympathetic nod, "Rachel's there, and we have these kids, only sometimes, they're grown up, having kids of their own, hey, look, I'm a grandpa, and then I wake up and I'm alone, alone with nothing but a chestful of medals and a sheepskin on my wall!" He covered his eyes with his hand. "God, all I've done is, is trade one career that was taking over my life, for another career that's taking over my life!"

Tara reached over and gently removed his hand. As he turned wet eyes in her direction, she said, "Just because she d-died doesn't mean you broke your promise to her. Things fall apart, they can fall apart so hard, and when we blame ourselves for the pieces falling, we're trying to find some control over our lives that we don't really have. When you decided to become a counselor, that was your way of trying, well, two things: you were trying to get control, and you were, um, trying to do penance for what you perceived as... breaking faith with your wife." She touched his shoulder. "But, you still haven't dealt with the guilt. You need to forgive yourself, Charlie. And, unfortunately, the person we find hardest to forgive is ourselves."

Devereux nodded slowly, then raised his eyes, to look at her with naked pleading so different from his usual assurance. "Think you can help me with that?" he asked, trying to keep his tone light.

Tara smiled her trademarked lopsided grin. "Thought you'd never ask." She drew him close, to let him rest her head on his shoulder, letting him wrap his arms around her, feeling him shudder and sigh and, finally, release his pain. She returned the embrace, feeling wounds both old and new close within herself.

****

Willow entered her quarters, having to consciously resist the urge to bounce with giddiness. "Computer... any messages?"

"One message requesting real-time communication through the Federation civil network is awaiting your authorization. Do you wish to establish..."

"Yes, yes! Put it through!" The computer, indifferent to Willow's impatience, linked the Hannibal's communications system through the Starfleet network of relay stations, then patched it through the Federation civil network, and finally to the party on the other end. Willow sat in the chair before her desk terminal, struggling to catch her breath.

The face that appeared on the screen wasn't quite the ancient countenance Willow expected. To be sure, the woman was well past her prime, the once-golden strands now mostly replaced by silver, the smooth skin now lined and creased. But she seemed to be in her sixties at most, rather than over a century and a quarter old. And yet, Willow knew her to be...

"Buffy..."

The lady once known more formally as Elizabeth Summers chuckled, and shed decades as she flashed a familiar ten-gigawatt smile. "God, Willow. You know how long it's been since anybody's called me that."

Willow cringed; she had not really thought about that. "Oh. Sorry. My bad. Then I'll just make it..."

"No, no. To you, I'm Buffy." The image on Willow's viewscreen shifted in her chair and straightened her peach-colored silk blouse, then folded her arms back on the table. Behind her, Willow could see the inside of what looked like a rather elegant dwelling. The windows let in a fading golden light; Willow guess that it was near sunset where Buffy was.

"Okay. So, how've you been?" Willow nearly cringed at the lameness of the question.

Buffy, on the other hand, didn't seem to mind. She shrugged. "Can't really complain, you know. Ohhh, I see. You just back from your time trip, didn't you?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess." Willow decided not to bring up the details thereof.

"All right then, let's see... I decided to take your advice, about leaving Starfleet and marrying my fella." Willow's expression encouraged her to continue. "We settled down her on Gault... I know, I know, me on Farm World. Who'd have thought I'd fall in love with the place, a city girl like me? We, uh, polluted the gene pool six times... what can I say, he wanted to have a real brood, and I kept agreeing, and agreeing, and agreeing...

"Yeah, you were always agreeable about stuff like that," Willow quipped, grinning.

"Hey!" The mock indignation was so like that of the girl she had once been, and that Willow had known so well. "Anyway, we both became involved in running this place, so the people here basically had him and me take turns being governor. Heh, actually, we were at that so long that we finally said, Okay, enough, instead of kicking us out of the governor's mansion, they just built a new one."

"They probably didn't want to move your enormous wardrobe."

"Yeah, I managed to get a few shopping complexes built here. I mean, you can take a girl out of the boutique..."

"Betcha-by-golly-wow. Hey, got any grandkids?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "Half the population of this planet, it seems these days. What can I say, my kids, they're always... busy." She abruptly turned serious. "I guess I owe you for their lives, too. If you hadn't saved me way back when..."

The thought had occurred to Willow that Buffy's children had not existed in the other timeline, and therefore were a potential for massive alteration of the future history of the Federation. Willow decided she didn't care. If they're Buffy's kids, that she raised, the galaxy will be a better place because of them.

"Ah, what are friends for?" she answered lightly. Then, another thought intruded her mind, sobering her. She pursed her lips, then asked in a hesitant voice, "Xander?"

Buffy's lips tightened. "I was there at the end, Will." She saw her friend close her eyes tightly in pain. "Hey, don't. Even you can't save everybody." That got the rueful smile she was hoping for. "He had a pretty long life, wife, kids... I think he even had a dog. So don't feel bad for him."

"I know. I just... did you ever, uh..."

"Yes. After your little fly-by visit, I contacted him. He said, 'I'm not surprised; Willow always was disgustingly punctual.'" The two friends shared a laugh. "He did give me a message to give to you, on the off-chance that I ever saw you again." At Willow's raised eyebrows, Buffy continued: "He said, 'Don't sweat the broken crayons.'"

Buffy waited with a polite smile as Willow, after a second of absorbing the significance, burst into a paroxysm of laughter. After nearly a minute, the young redhead finally wiped her eyes (the tears there of deeper emotions) and regained her composure. "Um, long and dirty story there."

"Uh huh. Speaking of long and dirty stories... tell me about... Her. This is one story I've been waiting ninety years to hear."

Willow smiled guiltily.

****

Murdock has a fairly good idea of who was sounding his ready-room door chime even as he answered. Truth be told, he had expected this particular visitor some time before. Probably busy with status reports and such. He glanced significantly towards the overhead in rueful supplication. For my sins...

Olivia Faraday strode through the door, slowly, a neutral expression on her tan features. Her long legs took her to within a meter of Murdock's desk, then halted as her arms crossed. Her expression still did not leaven.

Murdock looked up with a cocky air. "So, what's on the playlist tonight, Number One? 'The Captain Shouldn't Place Himself In Danger'? 'You Stuck Me On The Bench Again'? 'I Can't Work This Way'... 'You Ever Do This Again, I'll Request A Transfer'... please, stop me when I'm getting warm." He stood up and headed for the small alcove that housed his replicator and the entrance to his private head. "Want some coffee?"

Faraday shook her head silently, crossing the ready room until she was less than a meter from him, watching him get his mug of dark-roast-with-cream-and-insane-amounts-of-sugar. She waited for him to take a sip and safely swallow it before saying, "Sam... do you have a death wish?"

"Well, that's at least new..."

"Stop." Her no-nonsense tone contrasted sharply with the concerned look that came into her eyes then, the worry that one friend has for another. Murdock saw this, decided to put his trademark smart-ass cynicism in the drawer for the moment. "Someday, Sam," she continued, "I plan to be sitting in a comfortable chair in a nice home on Earth or Rigel or Deneva, head full of gray hair, hopefully most of my limbs and organs in working order or replaced with parts under warranty, surrounded by bratty grandkids. I accept the possibility that one day, all that's going to be off the menu. That's life in Starfleet. Like the man said, risk is our business.

"But what I also want is to have you visit me at my home every once in a while, having dinner and spoiling my grandkids rotten. I don't want you to be an old snapshot and some nice memories and a gravestone that I sure as hell will not visit..." A tremor ran through her voice then, and she had to stop while she regained her composure. Murdock set his mug down and reached for her shoulder. The slim hand that clasped his wrist was not entirely unfriendly, but it did stop his gesture. Swallowing the tears that she refused to shed, Faraday went on. "Sometimes it seems to deliberately put yourself in hazardous situations. Are you that afraid of... the future?"

Murdock managed to restrain the urge to roll his eyes; he did not want to risk finding out how hard Faraday could punch. "C'mon, Olivia. I live one day at a time, just like everyone else." Faraday did not say "Bull cookies!" at that, but the reaction on her face conveyed the thought well enough. "Look, I had to be up on the bridge, just in case they needed a visual. I thought I had more than enough security personnel with me; who knew Faith was such a tornado? And I needed you in CIC to handle things in case something went wrong... which, considering I got myself captured, seems to have been the case." Murdock lowered his voice a little. "I can't hide from my life, Olivia. Maybe other captains can order other people into dangerous situations while sitting back and munching on a croissant... I can't. But I swear to you, I'm not looking to punch the Big Clock any earlier than you are. Hey, somebody had to be those grandkids favorite 'uncle.' Y'know, buy them their first contraceptives and racy magazines..."

"You're rotten, you know that?" Faraday's snap was nonetheless accompanied by a smile as Murdock laughed. When he reached out to clasp her shoulder, she did not stop him this time. "Are you calling it a day?"

"Pretty much. I think we're well in Beta Shift. I'll take a look at the logs in the morning." He returned his coffee cup to the replicator to be recycled. "How about you?"

"Dinner, then I'm sending a note off to Mark and the kids." The captain and the first officer left the ready room, nodding at the Beta Shift bridge officer, and headed for the turbolift.

"Give them my best. You still seeing them next month?"

"All things being equal. Oh, and Indira said thank you for the..." The rest was lost as the turbolift doors closed.

****

Tara sat at the head of her bed, leaning her back against the support strut that framed the viewport out of which she gazed, watching the stars streak by at warp. She wore a nightgown made of Tholian silk she had purchased on Aldebaran, but she knew she was far from sleep.

Her talk with Charlie had helped her deal with the resentment she had felt towards Willow, over her trip through the Guardian. Still, her mind was in turmoil about what to do regarding their... relationship. Tara knew from experience not to press for friendship, and she felt gratified that in Willow's case she had not the need. It was only on the deeper levels, where mind and heart commingle and yet can oppose one another, that Tara felt uncertain.

She wondered if Willow truly was attracted to her, as Tara had sensed obliquely, or if it was all just wishful thinking on Tara's part. The inner enemy, the one that spoke with either her father's or her brother's voice, agreed with any accusation Tara might make against herself, and told her that she was being selfish. With an effortlessness that her teenage self would have been astonished by, Tara slammed the door of her self-esteem on the voice and told it with an inner snarl to find other living arrangements.

If all she wants is to be my friend, then that's enough. I should be grateful for that, and ask for nothing more. Even as she came to her decision, she felt the trembling of her lip and the hitching in her chest, saw her vision becoming blurred with the tears that she knew would spill out.

The doorchime nearly made her bonk her head on the strut behind her. Gasping in surprise, swallowing unshed tears, she got off the bed and made her way into the main room, as the chime sounded again. "Come in!" she called out, even as her empathic sense told her who was outside her door.

Willow stepped into the doorway hesitantly as the doors opened on Tara's command. Her eyes took a second to adjust from the brightness of the corridor to the gloom of Tara's quarters. "Hi."

"Willow... hi," Tara replied, swallowing again, resisting the urge to wipe her eyes. She didn't want Willow to see her crying; it might prompt her to do something that they would both regret later, and Tara could not stand that thought. Besides, I do have some pride... I guess. Maybe... depending on which outfit she's wearing... or not wearing, oh don't even go there, Maclay!

"Kinda dark in here, isn't it?" Willow asked. Then she took notice of the nightgown, and her chagrin was palpable. "Oh, it's, it's late. I'm sorry, I should have come earlier, no, I was busy, and you, well, look, maybe I should..."

"N-no, it's okay, I wasn't asleep..."

"But, you were about to, I mean, unless you wear that nightie all the time, which is fine, because it looks very nice and all..."

"And you standing in the door gives anybody passing by in the corridor a free peepshow," Tara cut in, crossing her arms. Willow caught the hint and scooted into the room as if afraid the doors would chop her butt off if she didn't move fast enough. Tara chuckled quietly as the doors closed.

"Um, anyway," Willow said, stopping a nice tête-à-tête distance from the blonde counselor, "I need to ask you something." Taking Tara's silence as assent, she plunged on. "Were you-Are you mad at me for what I did? I mean, leaping through the Guardian and all?"

"N-no," came the diffident reply.

"Is that 'no, spelled y-e-s'?"

Tara's expression was so mortified that she might as well have had the word BUSTED stamped on her forehead. "Spelled 's-o-r-t of.' I-I mean, okay, I was angry that you took such an awful risk, not just with the timeline or whatever, but you personally. And you did kinda lie to m-me about staying behind with the whole dizziness business." She saw Willow's face fall, and she could stand no more. "But, I understand. If I had a best f-friend, I think I would endanger the whole human race to save her, too. Wait, that didn't come out right..."

"No, that's okay, got it..."

"B-But, my point is, I'm not mad. It's fine."

Willow smiled, the sickle-sharp curve of her lips illuminating the semi-gloom. "Okay. Thank you. That's probably more than I deserve. Oh! By the way," she added, changing directions like an excited positron, "I talked to Buffy!"

"She's still-I-I mean, you did? That's great, Will!" Tara replied, then added. "-ow. Willow. Your n-name is Will-ow."

"Tara, it's okay. You can call me Will. I mean, if you want, no obligation, no purchase necessary, um, never mind." Willow then launched into a brief précis of her talk with Buffy (excluding one certain subject), ending with their agreement to meet when it was possible.

"Probably on my next leave," Willow concluded. "Oh, that reminds me: in case you were interested, I'm, um, still on the payroll and all."

"Really? Oh, that's wonderful! What, um, what did the captain..." She waved her hands around in lieu of articulating the question.

"Well, he spanked me a little... not literally," she added at Tara's raised eyebrows. "But since my little trip didn't turn the Federation all evil or something, he reduced my death sentence down to 'no seconds on dessert for a month.'"

"I'm happy about that. Well, both really," Tara added, looking around her quarters as if looking for Nazi flags. "I don't think I can pull off the 'evil' thing. Black really isn't my color."

Tara's smile at her quip faded when she saw Willow's expression. At first, she thought her haphazard sense of humor had failed her again; it was not until her empathic sense told her otherwise that she became concerned. The feelings coming from Willow matched those from when Tara picked up that bizarre image from Willow's mind, the image of...

"Tara, I need to talk to you about something." Willow's voice broke into Tara's thoughts, gripping her heart suddenly like cold fingers. This is it, she thought, the Warp 10 expedition to Heartbreak Hotel. Her earlier vow to not cry seemed very far away; nonetheless, Tara resolved to be 'adult' about Willow not wanting to be anything more than friends.

"I think we need to sit down," Willow continued. Tara was about to indicate the chairs around the table in the living area, when Willow took her by the hand to the bedroom, to sit at the foot of the bed. "I want to tell you why I, um, sorta freaked out when you told me you were gay."

"Willow, you don't-" Tara's words were cut off by Willow's finger on her lips.

"Yeah, I do, so shush a minute, okay?" came the gentle rebuke. Swallowing nervously, the redhead went on. "About a year ago, well, a year ago on my personal timeline anyway, we encountered some people from an alternate universe, one where the Federation was all evil, even the Vulcans, which is, like, bizarre, but then we have those here and we call them Romulans, so anyway, I was there, too, I mean, there was a 'me' there, only it wasn't Me Me, it was Alternate Universe Me... and she was so evil, and skanky... and she was kinda gay."

Tara had to take a few seconds to absorb all this. "Um, how did you she w-was gay?"

"Well, um, she kinda wanted... me. Which, y'know, besides being gay, I think, it was, well, ewwww. I mean, isn't that, what do you call it, incest?"

"More like... narcissism. I think." Pause. "They might not have covered this in my psychology courses..."

"Really... gee, how did that miss the curriculum... anyway, the thing is, she, I mean, Other-Me, she did bad things, she hurt people, and she was smart, like me, only she just used that to hurt and destroy, and she was everything I always thought I could never be, but she was... I've always wondered ever since..." Willow found herself, for once, lost for words.

"You wondered if you had the capacity for evil and destruction that she did," Tara interjected. She took a deep breath and went on. "The answer is yes, Will. But you know, we all do. But it comes down to choices and how we're brought up-"

"I know, I know," Willow bumped in. "I got all that, I mean, I eventually figured all that out, well, Buffy helped me. But, I think, when you... when you told me you were gay, I flashed back on her. I think some of the wiring in my brain crossed the whole 'gay' thing with the 'evil and destructive' thing-"

"It's called association," Tara said, a slight tone of superiority creeping in her voice; getting one up on Science Gal was never easy. "Willow, it's okay..."

"No, it's not okay! Tara... look, as much as I might appreciate it, you shouldn't be cutting me slack all the time. I mean, if we're going to be together, you have to learn how to smack me down. Well, okay, not physically... although, maybe if you're into that stuff, we can try it..."

"W-w-wait a minute!" Tara cried, simultaneously flustered and on the verge of hysterical laughter. Oh, please let her mean... "Are you saying you want to b-b-be with-with..." Tara had to pause a moment, as her stammer threatened to spiral out of control. "...Me?"

Willow nodded. "If you want. I mean, I was Presumptive Gal there for a second, but... Tara, I've never been attracted to a woman before, ever, and I think I handled it badly. But you, you are the most beautiful, loving, patient woman I've ever met, and..." She paused as she felt tears come to her eyes. "I love you, Tara."

Tara felt her own eyes water. "Willow, I love you, too. I think I did from the moment we met. Only, I think that was, um, infatuation on my part. B-But, as I came to know you, and know the special person you are, I couldn't help..." Sniffing back a tear. "I love you."

Together, moving in accord, they drew each other near and kissed. At first, a welcoming peck; then, mouths opening and they tasted one another for the first time, feeling breath shorten, blood pumping faster, hands caressing.

Willow felt obligated to pull back. "Um, hold on. Maybe we should take this a little slower. I mean, I don't know, you might want to hold off doing anything really, uh, serious..."

"Sweetie," Tara said, her blue eyes flashing in the dark, "haven't we waited long enough?" Her usually diffident demeanor had vanished; in its place was a forceful, dominant figure that Willow would hereafter christen "Take-Charge Tara."

Willow smiled. "Darn straight we have," she said as she moved forward again, capturing Tara's lips with her own, then pulling back again. "So..." she said, standing up, pulling Tara up with her. After staring into blue eyes for a few seconds, Willow reached down and pulled up the silk nightdress.

Tara was momentarily startled, then put her arms as Willow drew the nightgown over her head. She had to resist the urge to cover her naked body with her hands. She was fairly sure that one could read fine print from the glow of her blushing face.

"Hey," Willow remarked as she noticed Tara's shyness return. "Nothing I haven't seen before." She took Tara's hand and placed them around her back.

Tara felt her timidity disappear as Willow kissed her again, and felt Willow's body press against her bare skin. Willow disengaged her lips, moving over her cheek, her neck, her collarbone, down her chest... Tara's knees suddenly felt weak, and she groaned as lights began to dance behind her eyes.

From somewhere, she found the strength to pull Willow up. "I think one of us," she said breathlessly, "is a little overdressed for this party." She saw Willow dimple momentarily and start to take off her clothes. "Let me," Tara said, holding Willow's hands for a second.

Unfastening the blouse, Tara trailed her lips over every new centimeter of skin that was revealed. She left the bra in place, concentrating on removing the pants and shoes, lifting Willow's legs in turn, planting a playful nip on each of her freckled thighs. Moving back up, she slowly undid the closures on the bra, drawing the straps down, then using only her lips pushed the cups off of the perky breasts.

"Oh, God, Tara," Willow murmured. She could feel sweat trickling down her body, as well as growing warmth in a certain place.

"Shhh." Tara knelt down again, kissing the slim hips even as she pulled down the panties, revealing Willow's glory. She had an overwhelming urge to grab the slim buttocks and press her face into the red curls.

"Um, as much as I'm, you know, liking this," Willow managed to say, and it was not easy, "like to get horizontal now."

"Oh... yeah." The two of them fell into bed, and renewed their fondling, which turned into several minutes of playful wrestling and tickling. Tara in particular was adept at finding the secret spots on Willow that reduced her to helpless laughter.

"I give, I give!" came the breathless acquiescence. The blonde smiled as she claimed victory, laying on top of Willow and taking another deep kiss. After it ended, in the sudden quiet, Willow felt it was an appropriate time to mention something. "Uh, at the risk of being Captain Obvious here... I should tell you that I've never, uh..."

"Kinda figured that. Me neither... I know, sometimes I come off as Big Knowledge Lesbian," she added at Willow's raised eyebrow, "but m-most of that comes from... books," she sighed.

"Books? Are we talking... sex manuals, here?"

"N-No! These were scholarly works, made for the serious discussion of... yeah, sex manuals."

Willow chuckled. "Well, we'll just see how well-read you are." She tucked a lock of blonde hair behind Tara's ear.

"Maybe we should... I-I think we should d-d-do, um, first, I-I m-mean, I should-"

"No." Willow's retort was gentle, but firm. "Our first time. Together. Okay?"

"Oh, yes."

It did not happen automatically. They both, unschooled as they were in this subject, had to figure out exactly what the other needed to make it happen. There was some shifting of position, and one instance where Tara made Willow gasp sharply...

"Wh-what?" Tara exclaimed, pulling her hand away from where it had been.

"No, no, it's okay," Willow answered. "It's just... Hands. In new places. It's all good." She took Tara's hand and placed it back where it was, sighing with pleasure.

The two finally found a position that afforded them maximum mutual pleasure and, after a couple of false starts, a rhythm that begat a delicious friction that made any further conversation impossible. As they moved together, they stared into one another's eyes, simultaneously unable to believe that the shared dream became reality, and yet feeling that warm and wet reality between their writhing bodies.

Each of their free hands stole together and interlaced fingers, locking together even as minds and souls started to merge, moving through excited nerve endings, rewriting synapses. Willow started feeling through Tara's senses, knowing what Tara was feeling, even as the counselor's empathic awareness of the science officer was heightened.

Finally, the climax came, as they both shuddered and cried out, as the new link between them forged white-hot, as their clenched fingers turned white and purple with the strength of two hearts coming together.

I love you.

It did not matter that neither one of them actually spoke, or even which of them had articulated the thought. They both knew it was the truth.

****

"I think they're in for the night," Murdock said, shutting down the screen on Devereux's desk in his office. It had read out that Willow's combadge, apparently discarded, was in Tara's quarters.

"That's a bit invasive, privacy-wise, don't you think?" Devereux remarked casually.

"Yeah," the captain replied. "Then again, it's not as if I have a scanner on them. Hell, for all I know, they could be playing Fizzbin."

"Strip Fizzbin," Devereux muttered, smirking.

"Yeah, yeah. Hey, you were the one who wanted me to find somebody to care about. Well, I did. I care about those two, and I'm happy to see that they're... together." He stood up from the chair across from the counselor, picked up the Saurian brandy that had been poured for him, and downed it in one gulp.

After his eyes had ceased burning and his liver felt back in shape, he looked back at Devereux. The counselor seemed more subdued than was his wont. His own drink, sitting on the desk in front of him, was untouched. "Aren't you going to have that?" Murdock asked.

Devereux shrugged. "Maybe later."

Murdock looked more closely. Now he was worried. "Are you all right, Charlie?"

"No," came the reply, but with a smile, "But I'm getting there. Tara's helping me."

There was a long pause as the captain digested. Then he nodded and said, "Fair enough. You need to talk, you've got my number." He waved a hand in farewell.

"Turning in?"

"Going to walk around for a while, actually." Murdock had reached the door, which opened at his approach, when Devereux's voice stopped him.

"Y'know, Sam, this really doesn't solve your main problem."

Murdock paused, as a female face appeared in his mind, framed with brown wavy hair, brown eyes and full lips. "No... but it'll do till something else comes along. G'night, Charlie."

"'Night, Sam."

****

Long into the ship's night, Murdock could be seen strolling through the corridors, a noncommittal, even gentle expression on his face.

At one point, he passed by a pair of doors in the officers' quarters that read: LT. TARA MACLAY. Standing before the doors, he reached out a hand, stopping just short of touching the metal, a smile on his face. He looked up, then back down the corridor, ensuring no one could see him. Then, listening to music that only he could hear, a sidestep, then a shimmy along the deck, he danced the Dance of Vicarious Smoochies.

On the other side of the doors, in a cabin darkened to everything but starlight, two young women, who had defied time, space and probability to fall in love, slept in one another's arms.



FINIS

The End

You have reached the end of "Equilibration". This story is complete.

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