To describe Willow as frantic was like calling the Mona Lisa a small oil painting. Ten minutes after entreating Tara to be careful and come home early, her phone rang again. The caller displayed showed Tara's cellphone number but when she answered, there was only static and faraway sounds of labored breathing.
Gradually other voices grew nearer but she was only able to make out some of the words.
"... terrible ..."
"... was mugged ..."
"Is her neck secure?"
"Did anyone call 911?"
Her shouts went unanswered as she listened to the commotion over the phone. Either Tara was helping someone who was hurt or ... please god no ... Tara was hurt.
Sirens grew nearer and she heard the screeching of brakes. Banging and the rustling of plastic materials was swiftly followed by several metallic clangs. An authoritative voice seemed to be taking charge.
"Give us some space to work, please."
"Can you hear me, miss? Miss? Trevor, she's out but breathing. Pass me the C-collar."
"Easy does it."
"Dispatch, 16-Echo-Charlie on scene. One victim, female, early-twenties. Victim unconscious and unresponsive. BP 170 over 100, pulse 140, breaths 30. Pupils equal and reactive. GCS is seven. Open lacerations on left forehead, multiple fractures on lower left arm. Possible rib fracture. I'm immobilizing the c-spine and the arm."
Willow listened to the one-sided conversation with mounting apprehension. She wanted to shout out to get their attention, but didn't want to cause a distraction.
"Roger that, Dispatch. IVs in and wide open."
"Hey Trevor, she's holding a cellphone. Can you check it while I assess for head trauma and report in?"
Willow heard a more strange noises and then someone was talking into Tara's phone. The authoritative man's voice faded into the background.
"Hello?" another man asked tentatively.
"Hello. What's going on? What happened to Tara? Are you the paramedics?" she blurted.
"Yes, I'm Trevor Lopez from the Fire Department. Are you, er, Willow? Do you know the owner of this phone?" he asked cautiously, obviously having looked at the caller display to see her name.
Willow realized they had to be clear they were talking about the same person. "Yes, yes. Blonde, blue eyes, 24 years old. Wearing a brown corduroy jacket and black jeans. Is that her?" she said surprisingly calmly.
"Right," Trevor responded, clearly grateful for the identification. "What's her name?"
"Tara Maclay. Is she okay?" Willow asked anxiously.
"A little banged up, but she'll be fine. We're taking her to the hospital now," he explained.
"I'm on my way."
"Okay, Willow. Go straight to the ER, I'll alert them that family is on the way."
"Is she conscious? Can I talk to her?" she pleaded.
"She's still unconscious, but breathing and pulse are strong. Listen, I have to hang up now. We'll take care of her. Don't worry, okay?"
Please, let her be alright.
Tara didn't need surgery, and after being sutured and her arm encased in a plaster cast she was admitted for observation. The good news was no broken ribs, no skull fracture and no internal organ damage. The duty ER doctor told Willow that with a head injury, it's standard procedure to admit her for 48 hours.
Willow wept when she saw Tara, so small and fragile; but not weak. The doctor said she had fought back, and apart from the broken arm, mainly sustained cuts and bruises. Her face was swollen on one side and covered with a large head bandage. Her left arm was in a sling and every breath was accompanied by a wheeze and a wince. She was sedated, and drifted in and out of sleep. Willow kept a worried vigil at her bedside.
The police came and went but she couldn't tell them anything useful. They didn't ask why Tara was on her own on the streets at that hour and she didn't volunteer the information. For the time being, they would stick to the story that Tara was working late in the office. It was close enough to the truth to make Willow feel like she wasn't lying. Tara was too drugged up to give them any more clues other than it was a single attacker, likely to be female, unarmed and masked.
The doctors came at 8am, then a CT scan mid-morning. The initial results showed no swelling or abnormalities. The radiologist informed that the neurologist would examine her later and explain the results in further detail. She would need another scan in 48 hours. If that came back normal as well, she could be discharged as soon as possible.
They didn't expect any visitors, but several came.
Lily came by with a small bunch of flowers, knocking hesitantly on the door before poking her head in.
"Am I disturbing?" she asked.
Tara was glad to see the girl. Not only was she considerate, she also didn't look worse for wear after what could have been an ordeal in the Suite the night before. "No, come in please. Have you met Willow?"
"I've seen you around, but I don't think we've been introduced. I'm Lily," Lily shook Willow's outstretched hand firmly.
Willow returned the handshake, impressed at the girl's friendly and confident attitude. "Nice to meet you, Lily. Thanks for coming."
Lily's attention had turned to Tara. "How are you feeling? What happened? I saw you upstairs, next thing I know, an ambulance was making a racket outside and you were being stretchered off."
Tara squirmed and tried to get into a comfortable sitting position. "I feel like Godzilla had tap danced on me, but I'll live. Um, when you left, after-- after last night, did you see suspicious people in the club or outside?"
Lily thought for a second. "Nooo. Let me think. After the commotion with the ambulance, I went back inside to get my coat. He, um, he asked if I, um ..." she trailed off, looking at Willow, not sure if she could continue.
"Willow knows," Tara said. And felt her lover's arm wrap securely around her shoulder and kiss her on the head.
"Oh, okay," Lily nodded. "So he asked me if I wanted to stay the night, but it was really late and I wanted to go home. Faith asked if I needed a --"
"-- Faith?" Tara interrupted. "Faith was there?"
"Yeah, she was in the kitchen getting a drink. Looked like she'd been in the gym, I remember her toweling her hair and I thought to myself, who works out at those ungodly hours. But it's Faith, you know," Lily shrugged.
Tara had a thoughtful expression on her face and exchanged a look with Willow. "Yeah, that's Faith. But you got home okay? Nothing weird?"
Tara sat up further and was grateful that Willow immediately reached around her back to help her with the pillows. "Keep an eye and ear out, okay? Anything out of the ordinary, however small. Report to me," she said, gratefully accepting a glass of water from Willow. How did she know I wanted it?
"You know who did it to you? What they were after?"
Tara sighed, and Willow's grip tightened. "I don't know. But we need to be very careful, trust no one."
Willow giggled out loud before slapping a hand over her mouth, mortified. "Sorry, baby. This is really inappropriate. But you sounded exactly like Agent Mulder just now."
Tara smiled. "Huh, I prefer Scully myself."
"Do you now."
"You know how I feel about redheads," Tara grinned suggestively, leaning back into her nest of pillows and handing the water glass back to Willow, allowing their fingers to linger when they touched.
Willow blushed and swatted Tara's good hand playfully. Her love was assaulted and injured, but they were still able to joke together, it made her feel better.
Lily looked back and forth between them with a wide grin on her face. "Wow, you guys are like, really sweet," she said in awe, a small look of longing in her eyes.
Which Tara, even with one eye almost closed because of swelling, spotted. "You'll find yours. Somewhere out there, there's a nice boy with your name written in his heart. Okay, that was corny, but don't give up looking."
"Yeah well, 'nice' doesn't normally describe the boys I meet. Or used to."
Tara's eyes narrowed. "Where?"
Lily gulped. The normally confident girl seemed embarrassed. "Um, I was with a religious cult for a while. Called myself Sister Sunshine. Then it was, uh, vampiregothclubs," she said under her breath.
"Vampires," Willow said, one eyebrow raised.
"Goths," Tara said at the same time.
"Yeah. I was into the whole, give me eternal life," Lily explained, shaking her arms in the air in the age-old gesture of cult worshippers.
"Vampires don't exist."
"But we all have our own demons, don't we?" Lily said, her chin jutting out. "Oh shit! I'm sorry, Tara. I shouldn't be talking about stuff like that, not when you've been hurt!"
Tara smiled thinly. "It's okay, but I'm getting tired. Why don't you two chat a little?"
Lily said she actually had to go, but wished Tara a speedy recovery.
The real surprise visitor was Mr Wilkins, who came alone with a dazzling bouquet. His display of concern, anxiety and outrage was perfectly executed. He said the right thing, promised any support Tara needed and even offered to speak with Willow's superiors if they had any problems about her taking time off. The earlier threats, suspicious activities and unpleasantries, all swept under the carpet as if they never existed.
The performance was so convincing that if Willow and Tara weren't already harboring doubts about his character and motives, they would be falling over themselves to give him thanks and praise.
His visit was fortunately short. Tara politely thanked him for the flowers and his taking time to visit in person, at which he huffed and extolled about his staff being as important to him as his flesh and blood.
Faith was nowhere to be seen.
"I saw your expression when Lily mentioned Faith, like a train hit you or something," Willow said, when finally the visitors had left and the nurses had done their rounds.
"Yep, the clue train. It was her," Tara said.
"I remember grabbing onto a boot, it's exactly like the ones she wears. And then Lily said she was coming out of a shower looking like she's been in the gym. That's because she just beat someone up on the street, that's why. The bitch," Tara spat vehemently.
Willow slammed her hand on the bed. "She's not getting away from this."
"If it was her, then we know who's behind it. It means he knows what we're up to. He must have been watching me last night, or tracking what I was doing in the system. Dammit, how could I have been so careless!" Tara shivered, first from anger and then as the gravity of the incident dawned on her. It was a warning.
"Sweetie, no. We're up against something bigger than we imagined. We have to be careful." Willow recovered from her outburst as her attention turned toward soothing Tara. She climbed on the bed and took the trembling blonde in her arm, gently stroking slow circles around her love's back.
They were like this for a comforting few minutes, as the mutual love and support calmed their nerves and brought some peace.
"I need to get out of here for a while. Let's go home, Will. Go back to Sunnydale."