Author: Chris Cook
Willow rushed to Tara as the security guards, a little slower to react, dragged Warren's hands behind his back and cuffed him. One of them took the gun that Tara held out to him, side-on.
"Oh goddess Tara," babbled Willow, "you scared the hell out of me! How did you know he wouldn't hit you? How did you-" she silenced herself by pressing her lips against Tara's in a desperate, relieved kiss.
"I was never in any danger," said Tara mildly when Willow finally released her lips.
"He had a gun!" protested Willow.
"I saw him fire it, up there," said Tara, glancing up at the bullet-hole in the marble pillar, "he had to move the weapon's trigger to fire it. It was quite slow."
"Oh Tara," breathed Willow. She pressed tiny kisses all over Tara's face, giving joyful thanks for everything in the world, but most important for the woman in her arms. Then she became aware of someone standing next to her, and turned just as Giles was about to clear his throat in an embarrassed, British kind of way.
"Willow," he said by way of greeting, then he turned his attention to Tara. "I rather think you may have just saved my life," he said. Tara smiled shyly.
"Giles, what happened?" asked Willow.
"I got stuck in a lift," said Giles, rather enjoying Willow's confused look before he continued. "I was half a minute away from overriding the door controls when they opened anyway. I checked a terminal, and the whole building's security system had just vanished. From what I could tell, the Echelon system completely imploded and stopped relaying control commands to all the network's programs. Including document security, apparently, because some very incriminating material concerning Mr Meers was left in plain view of anyone who wanted to read it."
"Incriminating?" asked Willow.
"It seems he's been making some rather underhanded deals with some very disreputable groups. Corporate fraud is the least of it, there's evidence of dozens of cases of industrial espionage, and some rather disturbing financial records detailing payments to groups that... well, as you Americans would say, 'the mob'."
"Goddess," whispered Willow.
"Mob?" said Tara to herself.
"I can only assume the same material showed up on the terminal in Warren's office," went on Giles, "judging by the way he turned up with a gun and escorted me down here. I think he was heading for your desk," he said to Willow, "but then the security guards got involved, and that poor fellow got shot." All three of them cast a sad glance over at the fallen guard, who was receiving first aid from one of his colleagues, as the other kept an eye on Warren and relayed instructions from his mobile phone. The guard tending his fallen comrade happened to glance up as they looked, and gave a grim smile and a thumbs up before returning to his work.
"I must say, you were most impressive," said Giles to Tara. "You've trained in martial arts, I take it?"
"Um, it's my function," said Tara. "One of my functions," she corrected herself, smiling at Willow.
"Ah, I see," said Giles, slightly puzzled. He too turned his attention to Willow. "How did you do it?" he asked. "I thought you were hours away from cracking Echelon's database, let alone dismantling the blasted thing. And what happened to your Tara program? I did a search while I was checking the network, before Warren showed up, and I couldn't find a trace of it anywhere."
"Oh," said Willow, "Um..." 'Oh, what the hell,' she thought. "Giles, this is Tara."
"Tara," said Giles warmly, "a pleasure, of course. I'm very grateful."
"Greetings," said Tara, taking Giles' offered hand and shaking it inexpertly.
"But Willow," said Giles, "what about the Ta-"
He stopped. He blinked at Willow. He looked at Tara, then at Willow again, then at some random spot on the wall across the lobby for a moment. When he finally spoke, it was with a faint air of distance, as if his words were arriving from somewhere else, and he couldn't quite credit he was saying them.
"That's not a coincidence, is it?" he said.
Willow shook her head, trying not to smile.
"Um," said Giles. "If I didn't know you to be completely trustworthy," he resumed, "would I believe a word of the explanation?"
"Probably not," said Willow.
"I see," said Giles levelly.
"Well," hazarded Willow, "you know that quantum cannon thingy down in S-5?"
"The laser contraption," said Giles, "yes, I remember reading one of the... with the... oh good Lord," he finished, staring at Willow as if she had grown two more heads.
"Yeah, pretty much," Willow said. Tara's hand slipped into hers.
"Do you mean to say that she... you... she came out of...?" Giles attempted.
"Um, sort of," explained Willow, "first I kind of got pulled in, and then we both got out..."
"Oh good Lord," said Giles again.
"Would you give us a moment?" said Willow brightly. Giles nodded and sank down to one of the expensive leather couches lining the lobby. Willow walked with Tara to the front of the building, where they both stared out through the glass, out at the city. An ambulance was just screeching to a halt in the parking lot outside, and Willow and Tara stood aside as the paramedics hurried in through the open after-hours door. Tara returned to gazing at the bright lights of the city, and Willow returned to gazing at Tara.
"This is your world," Tara said after a moment.
"This is it," said Willow. "Well, not all of it, obviously, just a tiny little bit. There's a lot of it, really. All sorts of things."
"I'd like to see all of it," said Tara. "With you," she added, turning to face Willow, who smiled uncontrollably.
"Done," said Willow. Tara smiled too, and leant down to kiss Willow, softly, unhurried and unconcerned about anything. Willow's legs felt weak, and she held Tara tightly and kissed her back.
And then the tingling in her lips started again, and spread out over her face, down her chest, along her arms and down her legs. Tara moaned into the kiss, and Willow drew back in shock, her eyes darting between Tara and her own hands. She couldn't see anything, but she could feel it - they were beginning to merge.
"What?" asked Tara, confused but smiling.
"That's impossible," said Willow, "people, users... we don't merge like that..."
"We were never apart," said Tara simply. Willow stared into her eyes, and suddenly realised she was right - the connection between them, that had been there since they first merged completely, was still there, had been all along. Willow had become so used to it that she hadn't realised it was still there when she and Tara had emerged into reality.
"Oh goddess," said Willow softly, not knowing if she was just saying it or if she meant Tara herself. Tara's smile turned decidedly sexy, and she leaned closer to whisper in Willow's ear.
"So, how do users merge?" she asked. Willow took a deep breath. "No," breathed Tara before she could speak, "show me."
What with Tara's body pressed against her, the connection now seeping between them wherever their skin touched, and Willow's general euphoria at everything, it was touch and go for a moment whether she complied with Tara's request right there. Mustering her self-control, she turned to where Giles was sitting a little way away, pretending not to watch the couple out of the corner of his eye.
"We'll b-be at my apartment," she stammered, "I'll call you later." She glanced at Tara, and went weak-kneed again at the expression on her face. "Much later," she murmured to herself.