Author: Chris Cook
Willow's eyes were closed when she materialised in the S-5 level laboratory in the Cycorp Complex. She took a deep breath automatically, and her mind registered the slight difference between real air and the system's analogue of it that she had been breathing for days now. She noted a slight pressure against the back of her leg, and recalled that she had just been standing up when the laser had digitised her - her chair was still right behind her. And in a testament to the confused job her mind had done of prioritising her thoughts, it was only then that she realised her arms were wrapped around someone.
She took a shallow breath, and another, and tried to open her eyes. Her first attempt failed due to her disorientation, and she was left with a handful of sensations as she struggled to sort out excitement from anxiety and gain proper control of herself. Arms were around her. A body was pressed against her. Lips were on hers. At that realisation, Willow opened her eyes.
"Oh goddess," she breathed, her voice slightly muffled as she hadn't moved back at all from the kiss. Drawing air into her lungs in short, shallow gasps, she leaned back just a fraction, enough for her eyes to focus and confirm what her lips had already told her.
"Willow," said Tara. It was Tara - blue eyes, subtle rather than the geometric precision of a program, soft, pale skin instead of the steely blue-grey, and a curtain of silky, perfect blond hair. She was Tara, and she was human.
"Tara," said Willow. "Oh goddess, Tara, you're here! You're- you're beautiful!" she interrupted herself. She hugged Tara tight, kissed her again and again. Finally her mind gathered itself, and drew her attention to something slightly strange. Willow leaned back a fraction, and glanced down.
"You're naked," she said, in a bemused kind of way. Tara looked down at herself, then inspected Willow's blouse. Willow kept her gaze rigidly locked on Tara's face, feeling a blush coming on and fighting the temptation to take another look. She remembered, a long time ago it seemed, imagining what the elegant curves of Tara's program form would look like as a human. Her imagination hadn't even come close.
"This isn't part of you," said Tara, running her hand somewhat dreamily down Willow's arm, feeling the material of her sleeve. "I think perhaps the beam interpreted our unity and generated an analogue of my form using yours as a template. Um... should I have some of these?" she asked. Willow's mind finally got up to speed.
"I've got some," she said, bending down to reach the bag she'd tossed carelessly beneath the desk when she had first arrived down here. "Sports clothes," she explained, "they'll do until we can get you something proper." She retrieved the bag and did her best not to be distracted by the thighs very close to her. She stood up, and allowed herself to look forward again.
"What do they do?" asked Tara, subjecting Willow's exercise gear and tracksuit to a cursory examination before making an educated guess to which limb went in which hole.
"Um, protection from cold or heat," said Willow, slightly weirded out by explaining clothing to a beautiful computer program standing in front of her, "and it's, I guess it's a custom, you could say. Being naked - without clothes, I mean - is kind of an intimate thing, and this is kind of not a private place."
Tara absorbed the new information with an interested expression, then got momentarily confused as she tried to put on a leotard backwards and sideways. Willow helped her get it sorted out, and realised she felt a lot more relaxed once Tara was fully clothed, looking sporty but otherwise normal. With everything Willow had been through, explaining to a security guard why she was in a restricted area with a naked woman was something she just didn't want to deal with.
"How did you know?" she asked, sitting in her chair as Tara knelt down and tackled the mysteries of the laces on her newly-acquired joggers, using Willow's own shoes as a guide. "About unity, and coming out of the system?"
"I'm not quite certain," said Tara, "I think I reached a conclusion based on an incomplete set of deductions. I, um, I guessed, I suppose." She looked up at Willow. "But I was absolutely sure," she said. She stood up and put her hands on her hips. "How do I look?"
Willow stood with her, looked nowhere but her eyes, and kissed her again, long and full of fire. Tara kissed her back, tentative at first, then growing in confidence, pressing forward into Willow's embrace. The kiss deepened, and a strange tingling feeling began to form on Willow's lips.
Then she and Tara both spun around as a sharp crack echoed through the laboratory. Tara fell into a combat stance, while Willow's eyes went to the stairwell door, just visible beyond the rows of complicated experiments crowding the floor.
"What was that?" asked Tara quietly.
"I don't know," said Willow, worried, "but I think, maybe a gunshot."
"A what?" asked Tara, following Willow as she crept between the girders supporting the laboratory's catwalks, towards the door.
"A weapon," Willow whispered, "be very careful. Stay behind me." She reached the door, still wedged open by a box of printer paper, as she had left it- how long ago? She checked her watch and grinned despite herself - twenty minutes. She cautiously poked her head into the stairwell and looked up, finding it empty.
"What's going on?" asked Tara quietly as Willow crept up the stairs. There was light up there, more than was provided by the tiny neon tubes on each landing - one of the doors was open.
"I don't know," she said, glancing back at Tara. She considered, for a moment, asking her to stay down in the laboratory, but dismissed the notion - this was Willow's world, and the last thing Tara needed was to be left alone in it before she could even get her bearings. 'Besides,' Willow thought, 'if she's with me, that means no-one hurts her without going through me first.' The potential danger ahead was worrying, but she had faced down armies and demon-programs. Damned if she would run and hide.
The door to the ground level was open, with a man in a security uniform lying across its threshold, groaning faintly. He coughed, and Willow ran to him without thinking, kneeling by his side. The concrete floor beneath him was stained with blood.
"Oh, it's you," said a sneering voice from the lobby beyond the door. Willow looked up to see Giles, looking very pale. Behind him, holding him with one arm around his neck and with a gun in his other hand, was Warren Meers.
"Come on," said Warren, waving the gun at Willow, "come out and join the party."
"You shot him," said Willow. She held a hand out flat behind her, just out of Warren's line of sight, keeping Tara back.
"He got in my way," Warren said. Willow slowly walked out into the lobby, where Warren waved her over to where two more security guards were standing, their backs against one of the lobby's thick marble pillars, their holsters empty. Warren turned to keep them all in sight. Willow saw Tara peer around the edge of the stairwell door. She wanted to tell her to stay away, stay safe, but there was no way for her to do that without Warren seeing.
"It's your fault," he said, his voice breaking slightly, "I don't know how you did it, but I know it was you. You and your damned hacker programs! It's all your fault!"
"Sir, please," said one of the guards, raising his hands to try to calm Warren down. Warren snarled and raised his gun, firing a shot into the pillar, high above their heads. Both guards jumped, and Willow shrank back as a trail of stone dust drifted down from above.
"You two stay quiet," Warren barked, "this doesn't concern you! Now, Willow, you and me are going to go on a little walk, and we'll take Mister Giles with us, just to make sure you co-operate, right?"
"Where are we going?" said Willow evenly. She had no idea what was keeping her calm.
"We're going up to my office," Warren said, "where you're going to recover the Echelon system and re-encrypt my personal files. And then you're going to write out and sign a confession admitting how you created false documents implicating me and engineered a security failure in order to get rid of me so you could get at my job!"
"Excuse me?" said Tara. 'Oh no,' thought Willow, 'don't do this, you're not a superhero here, he could kill you, just go, just run!' She couldn't make a sound as Warren spun around, keeping his gun pressed against Giles' head.
"Get out here!" he snapped, as Tara stepped into full view in the doorway. She walked slowly towards him. "Stop!" he barked, "no closer!" Tara stopped, just two metres away from him.
"You're prioritising poorly," she said, "you don't know whether or not I value your hostage's life. You should be pointing your weapon at me to be sure I won't attack you."
"Well," said Warren with a gruesome smile, "whatever you say!"
He straightened his arm, aiming right at Tara. She lunged forwards, and Willow's heart leapt into her throat as the gun fired. But Tara wasn't in front of it anymore, she was down low, and her leg was swinging up, kicking Warren's hand, hard. The gun sailed up into the air, and Giles elbowed Warren in the stomach and leapt away from him. Tara straightened up slightly, looking at Warren, then she kicked him squarely in the chest. She caught the gun as he collapsed, wheezing and rolled up in a ball.