Communications in any star-faring society are a weak point. With the speed of travel being the speed of communication decisions and plans become decentralized with the Empire trusting its satellites to follow the spirit if not the letter of those decisions and plans. Writing took on more importance, and that was always a stumbling block to those used to instant electronic "face to face" communications. Some tried messengers, holograms, and expert systems that mimicked a "conversation" with the recipient of a message sent a month before. All those attempts added more confusion to the foibles of human communication.
The Coming Twilight-Understanding The Fall of the First Empire
The stateroom was crowded. Tara was in a corner next to Dawn who sat at the head of a narrow bed. On the bed at the foot was Buffy and next to her was Willow. The four men were uncomfortably eyeing each other as they tried to make themselves fit. Riley glared at Giles who had taken a chair and placed it with his back to the wall in the best tactical position the small cabin had.
Buffy and Dawn stared at each other for a long moment. Finally the blonde found her voice.
"Are you all right?" she asked worriedly. "Sorry. Stupid question."
"I'm... okay, it's just kind of scary," Dawn said hesitantly. "I know you, but I don't really, but I should. I'm sorry..."
"It's okay," Buffy said gently as the dark haired youngster looked down. "It'll come back when it's ready, or we'll just have to make new memories. You know, ones where we're not yelling at each other."
"You were all sarcastic when I fell into the little river," Dawn said looking up. "I ran home crying because I'd lost a compass. You got it off the bottom of the river for me. Why is that so important?"
"It..." Buffy swallowed and seemed to run out of breath for a moment. She rallied but Willow could see her confidence was all for show. "It was a present from our father."
"Daddy?" Dawn asked in a much younger girl's voice. Buffy's answer was to reach for her, hesitating as doubt clouded Dawn's face. Almost as one Tara touched Dawn on the shoulder and Willow echoed the touch on Buffy's back. Dawn leaned forward and Buffy wrapped her in her arms as both started to cry. Finally Buffy let Dawn go and looked at her hopefully.
"I'm sorry, it's all, I don't know, jumbled like somebody dropped a puzzle and I'm trying to put it together again," Dawn said tiredly. "I know Willow and you and... the handsome older man read to me in a room full of books." She turned to look at Alexander. "You helped me groom Silky and... the kitchen, we stole a pie!"
"Alex, are you leading my sister into a life of crime?" Buffy asked only half jokingly.
"It was a pie, Beth," Dawn said rolling her eyes. "I was ten. Alex and I had been... cleaning? Sorry, it's gone."
"Probably for the b-best," the young man said with a shy smile. "We might have m-moved on up to cakes. Then I'd be in real trouble."
"You called me Beth," Buffy said with a real smile. "And I recognize that 'I'm a grown up thirteen' tone."
Dawn just looked at Buffy with first a shocked and then a sullen frown.
"They're sisters," Riley said with a tight grin. "Sorry to ask, but what condition did you find her in, citizen?"
"H-hungry," Tara replied. "It was late morning. She h-had a five-centimeter laceration just above the hairline on the right. She was shivering a little. I used a broadband and stitch tape after I got her cleaned up a little."
"Was that in Breton, near the border?" William asked quickly.
"Yes," Tara answered. "We stayed that night at a little farm."
"There was that creepy guy on the road," Dawn interjected. "Tara got us off the road and he rode right by us."
"Creepy guy?" Buffy asked tightly.
"I think he was looking for us," Tara said. Willow could hear the reserve in the blonde's voice.
You know he was looking for Dawn, Willow thought. How did you know? What other secrets are behind those pretty blue eyes? And how do I find them out?
Willow had a sudden image of questioning the blonde in bed. Tara was naked under silk sheets, her hair tousled and those blue eyes unfocused...
"We need to talk about a lot of things," William said evenly as Willow looked at him with a start. "I'm sorry, Lady Elizabeth, but Dawn's safety is important to too many people right now. We need to plan."
Buffy looked daggers at him but Dawn seemed to straighten up a bit as she nodded.
"You're right, sir," Dawn said in a voice that she hoped sounded mature. "You are Prince William of Oldenberg, if I'm not mistaken."
"My apologies," William said with a wince. "And this is my adviser, when I'm smart enough to listen, Mr. Riley Finn."
Dawn nodded gravely to the mercenary. He returned it, matching her gravity until he winked very quickly at her. Dawn felt a grin creep onto her face before she could stop it.
"What we need to do is get her to a hospital," Buffy insisted. "She's been hurt, her memories are uncertain, and she's been attacked by bandits."
"That's one of the things we have to talk about," William said grimly.
"I'm alright," Dawn said as she seemed to wilt slightly. Buffy turned to face the prince, her back to her sister. William felt Riley stiffen slightly.
"Not now," Buffy said warningly. Willow saw Tara put her hand on Dawn's shoulder again and then the blonde met William's gaze as well. For some reason Willow disliked the tall Imperial citizen next to the prince who was watching both women carefully. She thought he was looking at Tara with the same appreciation a wolf would look at a tasty sheep.
"Tomorrow, after breakfast," Giles said firmly. "I believe there's a dinner you need to been seen at, your highness."
"Yes," William said relieved to look away from Buffy and the quiet blue-eyed girl.
"Oh," Tara said with a glance at the pretty red head next to Buffy. "I have to go to that too."
"And I promised you expert help," Willow said with a smile. "Buffy?"
"Yes, fine, fashion girl to the rescue," Buffy sighed. "What table are you at?"
"Captain's," Willow said quickly with what to Buffy sounded like a hint of pride.
"If Dawn's okay staying here," Tara said looking at the girl. Dawn smiled.
"Only if I get to help," she said with a grin.
"All right," Tara said with a smile.
"You are brave, aren't you?" Buffy quipped as Dawn frowned at her older sister. Tara's smile grew lopsided but this time Willow was able not to stare as the dark blonde's smile made her blue eyes dance.
There was a knock at Tara's stateroom door a little while later. Buffy opened it carefully and looked at the three young men there in dinner jackets. She sighed.
"I suppose you're here to escort a lady to dinner?" she asked with a critical tone in her voice.
"If we could be so bold," William replied lightly.
"Just a moment," Buffy sniffed.
She closed the door and turned to the three other females in the room. She smiled like a cat in a creamery and shook her finger at Tara.
"I don't know how you did it but you've got three yummy guys out there dressed up like gentlemen," Buffy said with her tone turning stern. "Don't keep all of them."
"Is the prince out there?" Dawn asked with a studied nonchalance. "And the tall guy with the cute smile?"
"Yeah, the tall guy," Willow said tersely as she turned to make sure Tara's hair was perfect. "The one Tara clobbered."
"She didn't know any better," Dawn, replied quickly.
"Both of them and a tall dark haired dreamboat," Buffy said with a small sigh.
"Dreamboat?" Dawn asked with raised eyebrows and started for the door. Buffy put out an arm and headed back towards the small bathroom.
"Until we find out he's clear you're not getting seen by him," Buffy insisted.
"He's that pretty?" Dawn groused as she slumped into the bathroom.
"Yes," Buffy confided as she closed the door. She decided not to hear what Dawn said on the other side of the door.
"Its just d-dinner," Tara said with a worried look first at Buffy then Willow. "Isn't it?"
"Yes, its just dinner," Willow insisted.
"Just wait until you see the appetizers though," Buffy winked. "Ready?"
"Do I look all right?" Tara asked as she stood. Between Buffy and Dawn her meager dress up wardrobe had become more sophisticated. The scarf she wore around her waist made her jeans look more respectable and set off the white shirt blouse even more. She hadn't told them it was the McHeath tartan, the `hunting' version. Both girls had despaired over her insistence on her only other pair of shoes, carefully made low-heeled flats with all the support a high tech cobbler who still made a pair at a time could build into them. Willow thought they were perfect for her quiet strength.
"You look great," Willow said softly as she looked into Tara's eyes. The taller girl looked down briefly and then met Willow's green eyes.
"Thanks," she said just as softly.
For a second Willow felt the same feelings she had a year ago looking at the book of illustrations she had found in the academy's library. They were replaced swiftly by doubt. Imperial citizens who got invitations to the Captain's table probably weren't looking for anything more on Europa than a dalliance. Willow knew at that moment she would take whatever Tara would offer her before she left but feared that there would never be an offer.
"Ready?" Buffy said again. Tara just nodded and picked up the small handbag Willow had lent her. Buffy opened the door with a grave look on her face.
"The lady consents to your escort, gentlemen," Buffy said haughtily. "Have her back at a reasonable hour."
"Yes, mother," William said offering Tara his arm. Riley stepped in front of them to lead the way to the dining room. Buffy noticed the tall dark-haired stranger's smile at her protective routine was very charming. She found herself smiling back. The small blonde girl closed the door and sighed. Then she frowned as Willow sat on the bed with sigh.
"Wish you were going?" Buffy asked as she sat next to her friend and took the redhead's slender hand in hers.
Willow had a soft vision of dancing with Tara to a slow song. She smiled sadly.
"Yes," was all she said.
"There'll be other dinners and dances," Buffy reassured her.
"I hope so," Willow said more fervently than she knew.
Captain Basil Huntington considered his position carefully. The objective was in sight and the situation was, for the moment, stable but his approach had to be one of finesse if his gambit was to work. The Wessex cavalry officer looked across at his objective and made his decision.
"Pass," he said as his partner for the evening, the Countess Summers, smiled in a predatory way.
The Aquitaine ensign beside him looked nervously at his partner for the evening, an Oldenberg lieutenant of light cavalry, and at the countess. He shook his head.
"No, my lady," he said a touch nervously. "Not again. Pass."
Huntington smiled as his efforts paid off in the last hand of the bridge game. It was not hard to stack a deck against social players who would never consider cheating. His only regret was that his partner had laid down a most annoying rule about gambling for the tiniest of stakes. Less than a pound had actually changed hands. The ensign was a royalist from an old and proud Aquitaine family with considerable monetary difficulties. Huntington would have liked to rope the young fool into handing over some information in exchange for a gambling debt. As the game broke up and the officers stood Joyce collected their winnings Basil smiled at the attractive older woman.
"As the victor I claim the right of escorting our hostess," he said with a toss of his head. "You lot must accompany us, I suppose."
"Ah, we have truly lost," the ensign said with a sigh that was not entirely faked. Joyce smiled at the young Aquitaine officer as she took Basil's arm. The two other officers followed the pair out of the library and to the stairs. As the two junior officers behind them recounted their efforts in the card game Basil looked at Joyce and gave her arm a gentle squeeze.
"Dawn and Elizabeth may be safe soon," he said sotto voce.
Joyce returned the squeeze and looked at him hopefully.
"Consider escape to our friends, and soon," he said with concern in his softest voice as they reached the top of the stairs. "Sore losers. I'll come for you."
"Thank you, my partner," she said to him as she let go of his hand with reluctance. The captain gently traced a path along her palm with a finger without seeming to do so. Then he opened the door. The soldiers in her drawing room stood to attention.
"The countess is returned to your care, sergeant," the ensign said to the Aquitaine sergeant who had been there since the start of the crisis. The noncom saluted and the officers closed the doors. Huntington could not imagine how the situation had evolved that the Countess of Sussex was being guarded by commoners but it was too late to change things now.
After the door closed Joyce turned to the sergeant and handed him the few winnings of the night.
"Do get some nice cocoa for the men, Andre," she said in what her daughters would have called her `mom' voice. "Have you heard from your wife? How is your little boy?"
"Very well, Madame, thank you," the sergeant said with a smile. Joyce took only a few minutes but she spoke with each group of soldiers, asking questions, listening to the answers like the speaker was the most important guest she had. At last she came to the candle in the window. She lit it amid silence. In the glass she could see several men crossing themselves or praying silently. She turned back to them after her own short earnest prayer into the night.
"Good night, gentlemen," she said gently.
"Good night, milady," the senior noncom of each nationality said with a small bow. Behind them their men did the same.
She retired to her room. The cards were brought out and again over a dozen soldiers tried to fit into a lady's drawing room for a night of sleep. But tonight the card game seemed to be friendlier. They did not realize it but something was different tonight.
There were no muffled tears on the other side of the door.
The Prince sat and considered the young woman across from him at the table. Tara had said little, and yet everyone at the table would no doubt consider her a gifted conversationalist. She had the ability to listen attentively and ask the questions the speaker seemed to want to answer. He'd learned nothing from her besides she had good manners, her shyness was not an affectation, and Tara seemed to always be aware of what was going on around her. Beyond that he was finding it no chore to observe her. He did wonder about her brief exchange with captain when they had been introduced.
"Thank you for your note, sir," Tara had said in a voice that had sounded relieved.
"I didn't want you to feel pressured into wearing it, Miss Maclay," the Captain had explained. "It can be... heavy to wear."
"Yes," Tara had replied with a sad smile that had made him feel oddly protective.
William sighed. Women were a mystery at best sometimes. And this mystery had come along at a time when he had no time to spare in finding answers beyond the looming crisis in Sussex. A crisis that threatened to spin out of control every day Dawn Summers was considered missing. The prince looked at Tara again and wondered how much luck had been involved in her finding the key to the answers his country needed.
Riley Finn was seated at the far end of the table, a concession to the importance of his patron. He had been given a seat that provided a good view of the prince and where he could watch William's back. He was glad of that, for there were too many questions about the quiet girl who had hit him just an hour before. Was she single? That was the first one, and the one that troubled him. He was on contract, and he had to do a good job. Pretty girls were a distraction he could not afford. He couldn't go back to the Imperial Marines.
Where had he read the name before? That was the other question nagging at him now. He was sure he had seen her name, and recently. For some reason the thought that she was too young flashed through his mind. Too young for what? He didn't know. Then he heard her laugh gently and knew at the very least that she was too young for him.
When did I get old? he thought, and pushed away the answer he knew too well. He had a job to do. He concentrated on watching the prince's back.
Liam sighed as he leaned back in his chair. The Engineer and a coffee trader were arguing about the finer points of Mercia's chances in the Cup next year. The dining room was not large, and he could see all the first and second class passengers on board. Two caught his eye. The first was the blue-eyed girl (no, he told himself, those were a woman's curves) that the prince was watching so intently. The other was a slinky female that almost exuded sexuality. The demimonde was sitting next to a man with the taste in clothes of a color-blind weasel. He put her into the column of `rental property'. The two most interesting dishes seemed to be off the menu. Then he saw a figure being shown to one of the tiny tables set up for the second class passengers not worthy of an officer's table. Julia had not seen him. He smiled as the steward took away the second place setting.
The tall Irishman made his apologies and headed towards Julia's table. He came up behind her, out of her view. He waited until the steward had taken her order and left before he leaned forward.
"Excuse me, miss," he said with a lazy smile. "Is this seat taken?"
"No... Liam?" Julia gasped. "Oh my, it is you! And all dressed up and tasty looking. Oh..."
"I'll take tasty," he assured her. "But only if you let me see you back to your cabin later."
"I'd like that," Julia said with a wistful smile. "Liam, I know this may frighten you off, but, well, I still can't make a commitment. You know that, don't you?"
"Julia, I understand," Liam said, not quite believing his luck. "What can you make?"
"You, I hope," she said in a voice suddenly husky. Then she gave him a smile that was part embarrassment and part desire.
"Sometimes wishes come true," he replied as he sat down.
Julia just smiled.
Dawn paused in her questions about Sussex and her mother long enough to yawn hugely. She looked down at the remains of the dinner the steward had brought them and yawned again. This time Buffy joined her.
"Gotcha," Dawn said lazily.
"A full tummy after a long day equals a tired girl," Buffy said with a theatrically defensive tone.
"That sounded familiar," Dawn said around a third yawn.
"Grandma used to say that," Buffy said with a gentle smile.
"I don't remember her," Dawn said sadly.
"She died when you were four," Buffy explained as she fought off another yawn and tried to look awake.
Dawn thought about that for a moment. In the growing silence Willow's sudden yawn seemed loud. The sisters looked at her with grins as she blushed. Giles stood up slowly.
"Time for bed, Dawn," he said firmly.
"Tara's not back yet," Dawn almost whined. Buffy and Willow smiled as they looked at each other. That tone they recognized from vacations spent at the Summers home. Buffy stopped smiling as she remembered her father lifting a sleepy Dawn up to his shoulder and carrying her to bed. She remembered how proud she had been that she wasn't a little girl like Dawn anymore. It was her clearest memory of the driven man that was her father, the one she always saw when she caught the scent of pipe smoke on the seashore.
"She'll be back," Willow said with a nod. "And I'll stay until she gets back."
"What about you?" Dawn asked her sister hesitantly.
Buffy shifted out of her chair and sat on the bed next to Dawn. She slipped her hand through Dawn's long brown hair and let the dark locks fall softly. She repeated the motion as she realized now Dawn's hair was short enough to do this again.
"You look more grown up without the braids," Buffy said as she spoke her thoughts softly. "It hasn't been this short since..."
"She was eleven," Giles said in a controlled voice. He pulled off his glasses and cleaned them, looking away from the girls. It took a little while.
"I'll be here all night," Buffy promised.
Dawn gave her a grateful smile.
Tara was afraid. It wasn't terror, but rather the insidious worry that she would make a fool out of herself. She was a miner's daughter from a planet that considered more than two forks to be a sinful display of pride. She was grateful for the months traveling with the McHeath sponsored musicians and their patience in teaching her of life beyond Milton. Tara fell back to listening rather than speaking as well. She heard what wasn't being discussed as well.
No one was speaking of the planetary crisis she's stumbled into. That meant it was too inflammatory a subject for a room full of people of mixed nationalities. She worried about Dawn, and wondered if her sister would be able to help her. She was sure that Willow could reach the girl.
Because she's nice, Tara thought. And nice to look at. Especially those eyes. Then there's her red hair. I'd bet its soft like-snap out of it, Tara! She is nice, so don't get involved with her. She can do better.
Suddenly her own thoughts took on a depth of despair Tara could barely control. As she tried to use the mental exercise she'd learned from Deidre McHeath-Holland the voice of Elder Johnson thundering about the evil of witches echoed in her core. She took a deep breath and pushed the gaunt memory aside and remembered Deidre's gentle voice. The despair eased until she could tell it came from a young woman whose dress and body language sent a message that wasn't in her heart.
Tara shuddered inwardly. Whatever her problems, she wasn't sitting next to a male that made her feel horrible. When the loudly dressed man draped an arm around the girl and without subtlety copped a feel of the attractive girl's breast Tara felt a spike in her unease. Tara used the shield method she'd learned in the brief time she'd been young and free at the McHeaths. She felt nothing more from the girl or any one else for the rest of the meal.
As the diners finished the pianist at the upright grand against the dining room's wall started a gentle dance tune. Tara excused herself and eased over to the distraught woman. As Tara got closer the man the girl was escorting pulled out a deck of cards. He dropped one, but it traveled less than a handbreadth before the girl with highlights in her hair caught it. Tara froze.
The highlights in the unhappy female's hair were wonderfully woven into her natural color. That spoke of an expensive high tech salon. Her outfit was made of cloth the looms of Europa could never make and a style that she had not seen on planet. And lastly the speed the girl had just moved at meant she wasn't human, or rather, naturally human.
"Construct," Riley said softly. "Probably a pleasure model off of Xanadu."
Tara gave a start. She hadn't heard him come up behind her. She turned quickly.
"So?" Tara asked shortly.
"She's a skin," Riley said with a shrug.
"It's not illegal to be a constructed human," Tara pointed out crossly. "It's illegal to make them."
"It's not illegal to bind them to an all but unbreakable contract, either," Riley said with a touch of heat. "The black choker is a kind of signal she's... taken. I don't like it either, but there's nothing you can do."
"But..." Tara said and then stopped. She turned to the girl whose patron was sitting down to a table. Tara held out her hand and spoke in her most calm voice. "I'm Tara. What's your name?"
"Anya, Miss Tara," the girl said bowing slightly.
"Hey, babe, get over here and give Louie some luck," the gambler said heartily.
"Sorry," Anya said as she walked to the man with a gait that left no doubt she was female.
"We promised to get you back," Riley said in a placating tone. Tara kept watching the girl. Riley cleared his throat, "There's nothing you can do."
"Yet," Tara said very softly as she turned to face him. "S-s-sorry."
"Don't mention it," Riley said in a relieved voice as he gave her a reassuring smile. "Not being able to help makes you upset, doesn't it? I bet you wanted to rescue orphan kittens and puppies too."
"They can't survive on Milton w-without help from a human who's-" Tara stopped and grimaced as she remembered the underlying tension she'd felt earlier, a tension tied to a girl below in her cabin. "Other problems come first."
"Yeah," Riley answered resignedly. "We need to get some answers."
"Where's my other escort?" Tara asked as William came up to them.
"Chasing a girl, I'm afraid," William answered quickly, glad for some reason to report on Liam's activity in front of Tara. "Just a shipboard romance I'm sure. Shall we go? Unless of course you'd like to dance."
Tara looked over at Anya and Louie. The cards flew from his hand in the practiced cadence of a professional card player. Anya lifted her head slightly and turned, giving the other players a tantalizing view. The crafted female, grown with the best DNA to spec in a lab and raised to be something marketable, looked very briefly at Tara. She didn't need the talent that frightened her to see the very human hopeless resignation in Anya's eyes. For an instant Tara wondered what it would be like to be the stakes in a card game, to have no say in her future as a piece of paper that tied her to it was used to back three of kind.
"Marriage might be a more merciful route for our poor sister," Elder Johnson intoned in her memory. "My youngest son has lost his dear wife recently. Perhaps they can heal each other."
Tara saw that future briefly, Johnson's drunken son, the hard remote poverty of the washed out claim he was exiled to, and herself being "chastised" until she submitted to him as a wife should.
"Miss Maclay?" William asked in a concerned voice.
"No, thank you, your highness," Tara said looking back to her handsome escort. "We should make it an early night."
Tara took William's arm and walked out of the dining room into a night filled with stars and a breeze that carried the tang of the sea. Tara took a deep breath of air that had none of the astringent reek of mining or smelting she'd known for the first sixteen years of her life.
"Thank you, poppa," she whispered softly.
Liam groaned softly. Julia's lips were hot against his chest in the cool air of her small stateroom. Then unexpectedly she leaned her head against him and just hugged him tight. He felt a warm wetness as she pulled away and in the light of the room he could see the track of a tear.
"I'm sorry," she said softly. "It's just all this war talk. It won't stop."
"It will, soon enough," Liam assured her. Julia looked up at him with what he knew was wonder and hope.
"How do you know?" she asked in a small voice. "You do know, don't you?"
"Things will be sorted out quick enough," the Irishman assured her. "I know that, believe me."
"You make me feel safe," Julia said with a sad smile. "You know this can't be more than now?"
"I know that too," Liam assured her.
There were no more words after that.
When Tara and her remaining escorts arrived back at her stateroom they found Dawn asleep. Giles opened the door carefully. Buffy was sitting on the other bed just watching her sister. Willow looked at William and before he could say a word she held a finger to her lips and motioned for the three to follow her. Giles nodded his agreement just as silently. Willow led them to the stateroom she was sharing and let them all in, closing and locking the door. Alex stood up, Giles' bag in his hands.
"It's okay, Alex," she said evenly. Tara noticed the boy relaxed at her words but did not let go of the bag. From their tenseness Tara knew Riley and William noticed it too.
"Yes," Tara said gently. "We're all on the same side."
Alexander looked past Tara to the men behind her then he met her eyes.
"For now," he replied and sat down. He glanced at Willow who gave an almost imperceptible nod. The dark haired teenager put the bag down, but within easy reach. William and Riley relaxed just a bit. Tara sighed quietly.
"Giles said more questions for Dawn in the morning," Willow said to William. "He means it. She just got to sleep and she's not going to be disturbed."
"Quite understandable," William said in his most diplomatic tone. "Shall we make it a working breakfast?"
"I'll let you know in the morning," Willow said evenly. "That sounds like a good choice."
"Very well," William said with a bow. "Good night ladies."
"Good night," Tara and Willow said together. Alex just watched them until the door closed. Then the youngster let out a long breath and flopped backward onto the bed. The lock sounded loud when Willow threw the bolt. Alex looked up at the noise and gave her a sheepish smile.
"S-sorry," he said.
"Did you get a good look at Liam's little friend?" William asked as the two men made their way back to the stateroom.
"No," Riley answered with a frown. "Just a bit too convenient even for the `Irish cob'"?
"Perhaps," William replied as they opened their door. Both men entered the room carefully, hands of concealed pistol butts. Only after the room had been looked over for an intruder did they relax. Riley shrugged off his coat to reveal a small arsenal.
"You need hazard pay for being near deep water with that much iron," the prince quipped.
Riley chuckled as the prince divested himself of a large and a small revolver along with an off planet collapsible baton Riley had taught him to use.
"You should be glad Tara didn't want to dance," he replied.
The prince smiled, but it was just to be polite. He regretted not dancing with the blue-eyed girl.
"I should probably get back to Dawn," Tara said reluctantly to Willow.
"It's a nice night out," Willow said with a tremor in her voice. "Want to take in the stars before you go back? I mean, I know you know more about the stars and space and things because you come from there, I mean not stars or space exactly but a planet somewhere and..."
"I'd love to," Tara said with a shy smile.
"Oh," Willow said nervously.
"Should I come along?" Alexander asked.
"No!" Willow said quickly. "I mean, ah, you need to guard the room."
"Okay," Alex said a bit confused by her outburst.
"I know, how about listening for the new broadcasts on the radio?" Willow suggested hurriedly.
"Right," the boy said with a nod. "I'll take notes."
"Good," Willow said more evenly. "Use a pencil and the ship's stationary. Print, don't use cursive, oh and note the time of the broadcast..."
"If you want to stay..." Tara started.
"No, it wouldn't be polite," Willow answered hastily. "I'll just grab my jacket."
A moment later Willow watched Tara lean against the railing and look out across the water. The off-world girl seemed to be enjoying the night air as if it were a fine wine. Tara turned back to Willow and smiled.
"Go ahead and ask," she said.
"Where are you from?" Willow asked hesitantly. "Can we see it from here? Why are you here now, on this planet I mean."
"I'm from Milton," Tara relied. "It's a s-small planet, a moon really, of a gas giant in a G class star system. I don't think you can see it from here. I don't look for it anymore."
"Why not?" Willow asked, hearing the hurt in her voice.
"I don't w-want to be that Tara anymore," she said after a second. "I can't be the Tara who was a clerk's assistant in General Services. I suppose I could become Tara Maclay who lived with the McHeaths. I don't know which Tara I want to be."
"This one's pretty... nice," Willow said brightly. "Even if I don't know why she came here."
Tara looked at the elfin face of the redhead and felt a sense of longing to just look into the green eyes under the wind tossed red locks. She pushed away that hope.
Tell her the truth, a voice inside her said. Let her get away from you. Don't ruin her.
"I suppose it started when I kissed a girl," Tara said levelly. "I wasn't supposed to like it but I did, very much."
Tara waited for the gasp and the sound of Willow hurrying away. Instead she felt a slender hand on hers where she'd grabbed the railing to steady herself when Willow walked away.
"What was it like?" Willow said as she leaned closer to Tara.
"W-would you like to find out?" Tara managed to get out before the pounding in heart made her incoherent with hope.
"Yes," Willow said with a similar tremor in her voice.
"Oh, there you two are!" Buffy said brightly. "I was-Giles was worried about you."