Author: Chris Cook
Tara stared at Willow in disbelief.
"Willow," she said at last, "what's wrong? Tell me. I thought you- no, I know you don't want me gone. So tell me why you're doing this." Willow looked up at Tara, stared at her for a long time, and then slumped down onto the deck, defeated.
"The Establishment has ships out here," she said without looking up, "they'll find us eventually. So I have to go home."
"And I can't come with you?" asked Tara. She was fighting down the urge to plead for Willow to take her, and it was a difficult fight, but she needed to know what was going on. She needed to be calm.
"Your people told you the Establishment don't get along with outsiders," said Willow flatly. "If they found you here... if they decided not to kill you, they'd take you and- they call it cleansing. They take away your independence, your loyalty to anything other than the Establishment, your-" Willow glared at the deck, and her voice rose. "I won't let them do that to you!"
Tara sat beside Willow and put her arms around her. Willow put up a token resistance, and instantly gave in and leaned into Tara's embrace.
"You should have just gone," she whispered, "I wanted- I was ready to do it, take you to the pod and let you go. And now I don't know if I can do it, and you're in danger here because of me, and they'll find you, and do the cleansing, and then-"
"Shhh," Tara soothed her, "I'm alive because of you. Willow, listen to me, they told us - on the Carrier, they told us about cleansing, in case we were captured, they said it doesn't always work on Sebaceans. Is that true?"
"What?" said Willow. "I don't... there was one time, there were rumours that a Peacekeeper captain broke his cleansing, the Establishment denied it, but - no, Tara, no, it won't work, I've seen Nebari who were cleansed, they let the cleansed go free to show people what happens, they're just- they're not even people anymore. I can't let that happen to you, you don't know you can break out of it, you don't know what it's like!"
"I know," said Tara, "but I can try. I'll find a way back to you, I promise." Willow sniffed back a sob, then turned to Tara.
"That's the worst plan I've ever heard," she said, trying not to cry.
"Me too," answered Tara, "but it's all I've got. I can't just leave, Willow, I don't know where to go. I've never been off my ship before, I don't know anything about what it's like out there, and... I'm afraid. If there's a chance I could be with you-"
"Why?" asked Willow. "They could kill you, or you might never break the cleansing, why would you do that for me? What's so special about me?"
"That's why I need to be with you," said Tara softly, "so I can show you."
Willow pulled back from Tara just enough to look into her eyes. They held each other's gaze for a long time, looking for answers. Abruptly Willow stood up, hauling Tara up with her.
"Come on," she said firmly, pulling her towards the Red Witch. Tara let herself be led across the bay. Willow helped her up the side of the ship and hauled open the canopy.
"Get in," she instructed. Tara clambered inside and fit herself in the space behind the pilot's seat. Willow followed her in and closed the canopy over them.
"I'm not letting you take the risk," Willow said.
"But-" Tara began.
"No buts," interrupted Willow, "you're leaving this system and getting as far away from the Establishment as you can. And if you won't do it without me, then I'll come with you."
"What about your home? Your family-" Willow spun around in her seat, fixing Tara with a determined gaze.
"See this face? This is my resolve face. This face says I'm not leaving you, ever, and I'm not going to let you have your mind frelled around with by the Establishment just because I'm afraid of leaving home. So, do you want to argue with resolve face?"
Tara grinned. Willow made a very concerted effort to maintain resolve face and not smile back. She almost succeeded, until Tara leaned forward and kissed her.
"No ma'am," Tara said, "no arguing with resolve face."
"Darn tootin'," answered Willow, kicking the ship's hetch drive into action. She tapped a comms command, and they both watched in silence as the docking bay doors rumbled slowly open in front of them, revealing a widening view of open space.
"How did you know I wouldn't agree to your plan?" said Willow after a moment. Tara shrugged.
"Well, it was a pretty dumb plan, and you're not a dumb girl," joked Tara. "But if there was no other way, I would have done it. And it would have worked, too," she added sincerely. Willow turned back to her.
"What happened to not being a soldier," she asked, "when did you get all big with the bravery?"
"When I fell in love," said Tara simply. Willow grinned from ear to ear.
When the bay doors finally finished opening, the Red Witch roared into life and shot away from the old station. Willow did a couple of barrel-rolls before finally settling down and looking out at the infinite array of stars she had to choose from.
"So," she said, turning back to Tara, "where do we go from here?"
"I don't know," Tara answered, "it's all new to me. How about over there? That constellation that looks like a Luxan looking uncomfortable."
"Wha... oh, yeah, it does too," said Willow, peering at the group of stars, "I never noticed that before. She steered the ship around and let the hetch drive out to full power. "Luxan looking uncomfortable," she repeated to herself.
"Over there, Hynerian donkey having a sponge bath," said Tara, pointing. Willow giggled.
"Small stack of dried food squares," she went on, as Willow took hold of her pointing hand and kissed her palm. "Shouldn't you be holding the controls?" Tara asked.
"Autopilot," said Willow with a wink.