The girls dorm room looked as though a miniature tornado had swept through it, spilling out the entire contents of both wardrobes all over the floor and the beds. While Faith, Abby and Anya were still applying unnecessary touch ups to their make-up, Willow had paced the floor like a caged tiger.
"Will, stop pacing, you'll wear a hole through the ceiling... and you're walking all over my cashmere sweater!" Abby snatched up an item of clothing just as Willow was about to step out it.
"You hate that sweater doll," Faith replied calmly as she admired her reflection, "If Will wants to pace she can pace... besides... she is... kind of late..."
Abby and Anya both gave Faith an intense glare as Willow looked up with something akin to panic. Her eyes bulged and her mouth worked soundlessly for a few moments before she looked at her watch. Tara was almost fifteen minutes late...
"One minute after the last time you looked!" Anya said in exasperation.
"Why don't you give her a call?" Abby asked softly.
"It's not too soon is it?" Willow asked anxiously.
Abby picked her way through the debris to put her hand on Willow's shoulder, "Will, Tara said she would be here at six... and we all know as well as you that Tara is never late for anything, especially not when it involves spending time with you."
Willow practically ran downstairs to the phone in the foyer. She tried the boarding house first and Miss Connelly politely informed her that Tara had not yet returned from work. She rang the bookstore but the phone just kept ringing as though no one were there.
"I'm going to take a cab, I know the way she walks home," Willow told the girls as she ran upstairs to grab her heavy coat.
"I hope nothing's happened," Abby looked worried.
"You want us to come with you?" Faith asked.
"No, I don't want to keep you girls from your fun... can you just wait for another fifteen minutes in case she turns up?"
"Sure," Abby nodded firmly, "We'll wait."
Willow instructed her cab drive the route between Tara's home and Mr Giles' bookstore. She walked the same route every single night. Despite Willow's insistence that she take a bus, Tara always said it was much too short to bother with public transport.
She sat the whole route with her small nose pressed to the window as she searched in the failing light. Tara would be wearing her familiar blue coat with the patch on one arm and her white woollen hat. As the cab pulled up outside Mr Giles' bookstore, Willow looked anxiously out the window to see it looked as though it had well and truly been closed up for the evening. The blinds were drawn and the sign was flipped over to read 'sorry, we're closed.' Willow gave the cab driver another dollar and asked him to wait for her as she went to look for herself. She tried the door handle, fully expecting it to be locked but it turned and she pushed it open.
The interior of the store was dark, only lit by slats of light from outside filtering in through gaps in the blinds. Willow peered around in the darkness for a light switch but could see none, she took a hesitant step into the store.
"Tara?" she called out into the darkness.
She was answered with nothing but silence. Willow stepped further into the store but even as she looked around she had a feeling she would find nothing out of the ordinary. Tara left everything in pristine condition... as she did with everything she came into contact with. Still, the door was unlocked and there was no way she would have forgotten...
Willow stopped in her tracks when he eyes came to rest on something lying behind the desk. She took a few more steps forward and gradually she saw an outstretched hand on the floor... lying on the floor... Willow took a few more steps to the right on her shaking legs.
Willow felt all the blood rush from her head and she fell heavily to her knees. She scrambled the few meters to the fallen form on all fours and found herself kneeling beside Tara. The blonde was lying on her back, eyes closed and unmoving. Her face was a bloody mess, so bloodied Willow could not tell where she was actually cut.
"T-T..." Willow started blubbering senselessly, her hand was trembling as she went to check Tara's pulse.
Before she pressed her fingers against the familiar throat, she saw the steady rise and fall of her chest. Sobs wracked her body as she reached out to lay her hand on Tara's head, running her hand ever so gently over the blood matted hair. Seconds later she jerked her hand away for fear she was hurting her. She knelt, staring numbly at the violence that had been inflicted on someone who would never raise a hand against anyone in her life.
Willow managed to snap herself out of her stupor and turned to find the phone on the desk. With trembling fingers she dialled for an ambulance.
"Please, you have to send an ambulance!" she said urgently as soon as she heard the click of someone picking up on the other end.
"Calm down miss," said a well-trained voice on the other line, "Where are you and what has happened?"
"Um... bookshop in Greenwich... Rupert's Rare Books on... um, on Johns... Tara... m-my... .my friend, someone has... b-beaten her," Willow broke into a fresh wave of sobbing, "Please hurry. There's a lot of... b-blood"
"Someone will be there as soon as possible. Do you know who did it? Are they still there miss?"
"Um, I don't know and no... at least I don't think so."
Willow had to put the phone down she was crying so, her eyes were burning and her nose was running something terrible as she bent to touch her forehead to Tara's chest ever so gently. The steady beat of Tara's heart was the only thing that gave her a small measure of comfort.
"Baby, you're going to be fine... please be fine because I don't know if I can go on without you, I mean I can't go on without you. I need you. T-Tara please..."
"W-W..." it was barely a whisper.
Willow's head snapped up to see Tara looking up at her from the one eye that was not closed shut. She choked on yet another sob and reached out to cup Tara's cheek tenderly.
"Oh god... Tara," Willow whispered, wiping her nose with the back of her hand, "Someone's on their way... I just called and they'll be here soon..."
Tara tried to manage a nod, she winced in pain.
"Oh god baby," Willow whispered fiercely, "Who on earth did this to you? Just tell me and I'll... I'll..." Do what Willow... turn them into a toad? Hit them yourself? Willow balled up her small fist and looked down at it with scorn... there was nothing she could do... absolutely nothing. Willow burst into a fresh wave of tears, pressing the balled up fist to her mouth in a vain effort to curb them.
"Stop crying Will," Tara whispered through swollen lips, her voice sounded laboured, "You're ruining your dress... and it's so pretty too..."
"It's new... I was going to surprise you..." Willow began before her face fell even further, "My dress! Tara what are you doing talking about my dress! Look at... oh my god... Tara... baby, I'm so sorry."
"Why are you sorry?"
"I should've been here... I could've done something!"
"I don't know... anything!"
"Will, he would have done the same to you... I'm so grateful you weren't here."
"Who Tara? Who was it?"
Tara's eye closed shut slowly even as a single tear leaked from the corner, "It's alright Will..."
"Goddamn it Tara... what about this is alright?" Willow burst out angrily in between sobs.
"Tired," Tara mumbled.
Willow saw that she was slipping back into unconsciousness and was not sure whether that was a good thing or not. What if she couldn't wake up again?
"Tara?" Willow said urgently, wanting desperately to reach out and shake her awake, "Come on baby..."
Tara was still unconscious a few minutes later when the ambulance arrived and strange men came to help Tara. Willow was leaning over her, sobs shaking her tired shoulders and she refused to be moved.
"Stand back miss... let us help her," a strange voice spoke to her in soft tones.
Willow felt someone help her to her feet, she stood on shaky legs and watched from far away as they worked on the still form of the girl she loved. Her vision slowly became murky, fading to black at the corners and gradually spreading to envelope her whole consciousness.
"I can't believe you fainted." Tara said softly, "I thought you called the ambulance for me."
Willow managed a weak attempt at a smile, "Sorry..."
"No... I was stupid..."
"Tara Maclay... don't you dare say what I know you have on your mind," Willow fought to the urge to start crying all over again, "This was in no way your fault!"
"Please don't cry again Will..." Tara whispered, turning her head to look out the window, it was snowing outside.
Willow looked at the stitches on Tara's face, her swollen eye and the cast on her wrist, it was all too painful to see and yet at the same time she wouldn't turn away.
"What happened Tara, why on earth would this be your fault. Why won't you tell me who did this to you?"
Tara drew in a deep breath, not wanting to go through it all over again, "I was just about to lock the door..."
Tara stood in the middle of the store as he closed the door before turning to regard her with a calm that was frightening. Her lip was trembling uncontrollably and she bit it to keep herself from blubbering.
"Well?" he said walking across the floor to stand a few feet in front of her, "This is not much of a welcome for you to give your father?"
"What do you want?" Tara asked quietly, forcing herself to keep her voice even and sound as though she were not absolutely terrified.
"What do I want? You walk out on your family without a word and you ask me what do I want? I want you to come home of course, back where you belong with your brother and father."
"I don't belong there, you're not my family."
"Sometimes I wish to god that we were not," his tone took on an even darker edge as his eyes narrowed, "You have brought shame and disgrace to the Maclay name Tara!"
Tara bristled, as if she really cared what other people thought of her family, "I'm not living for you! I'm living my life! Mine! It's not yours or anyone else's, it's mine!"
"You call the perverted and sinful lifestyle you live a life?" he was almost yelling.
"What?" Tara frowned, how could he know..."Perverted? Sinful?"
"You walked out on us and I was ready to cut you off completely despite the fact that it was against my better judgment. A woman's place is with her family after all... but Donnie saw you..." he drew in a deep breath as though he were struggling with something difficult, "He saw you... and a... girl dancing at a bar! Another girl Tara!" he spat it out as though it were a foul taste in his mouth, "And then he said you... that you kissed her! In full view of everyone!"
"I-I..." Tara ducked her head, taking a small step backwards.
"Are you trying to deny it?"
"No sir," Tara whispered defiantly.
He came at her in a fury, his hand closing painfully around her wrist and twisting it up behind her back. Tara let out a small cry.
"Have you been cavorting all over town with this dyke of yours? Allowing yourself to be drawn into that sinful world?"
"It's not like that!" Tara replied, trying to wrench herself out of his grasp, feeling her anger rise at the way he saw her Willow, as some sort of evil temptress who had seduced her.
Her father twisted her arm even further and she let out a sob.
"Then what is it like? You keep it hidden? Enjoying sating your perverse lusts in privacy... have you given yourself to her?"
Tara set her lips, such questions did not even deserve an answer.
"Say you'll never see her again and come home Tara... and this will be the last we ever speak of this again."
"No," Tara replied calmly, like there was a chance that she would choose her family over Willow.
"You would defy me to go and be a whore to some dyke! It's unnatural Tara!"
Tara was angry enough to take a step forward, "No it's not, I love her!"
"You're nineteen, you don't know what you're saying."
"Of course I do, who are you to say I don't?"
He slapped her hard, "I'm you're father!"
"Yes, you are!" Tara choked back a sob, "But you've never done anything to prove it to me... you made Mom's life a living hell... she was the most wonderful woman in the world and you beat her into the ground!"
"Your mother knew her place," her father's voice was tight.
"You're a bastard of the worst kind."
Her father's hand crashed down across her cheek once more. Tara's eyes were watering as she clutched her cheek.
"I hate you," she hissed defiantly.
Another slap, this time almost driving Tara to her knees even though he father still held her by the wrist. It twisted painfully and Tara cried out as she heard the sickening sound of snapping bone as her wrist broke. He let her go and she fell to her knees, clutching at her wrist.
"You're a monster," she whispered, forcing herself to look up at him.
"And you're not my daughter," he replied, his fist crashed across her face.
Tara lost count of how many blows feel after the second or so. She tried to tuck herself up into a ball, cradling her broken wrist against her chest.
"You are no longer part of our family Tara!" he punctuated this with a fierce kick to her stomach, "I never want to see you again!"
Despite the situation, it was the best news Tara could hear from her father. Whatever he did to her with his fists, it did not matter because she was going to be free of him. She was free and Willow loved her. Tara cried out then as a fist lashed out against her face.
<Willow loves me...>
Another blow... followed by another... followed by a merciful darkness as Tara lost consciousness. She found refuge in her dreams of Willow even as the man who should have cared for her and loved her left her lying bruised and bloodied behind the counter...
"B-baby..." Willow whispered, trying to stop blubbering and be brave for Tara's sake, especially when she had not shed a single tear and Willow had cried more than enough for the both of them.
"I love you Willow... nothing is ever going to change that," Tara said determinedly.
Willow wiped her nose on her sleeve, "I love you too baby..."
"Even though my face is a mess?" Tara asked softly.
Willow reached out a gentle hand to Tara's brow, careful to avoid the stitches just about her left eyebrow. She smoothed back an errant strand of blonde hair from her beautiful girlfriend's face.
"I love you," Willow said again firmly.
"Your hand is cold," Tara said in a concerned voice, "Are you cold?"
"No baby," Willow lied smoothly.
Tara saw right through it and Willow ducked her head, biting her lip.
There was a light knock at the door and Willow spun around to see a nurse standing in the doorway. A kind look was settled on her face,
"Visiting hours were over an hour ago miss... do you want me to call you a cab?"
"Can she stay?" Tara asked pleadingly, it was an effort to raise her voice above a whisper, "Please."
The nurse smiled softly and nodded, closing the door behind her as she left them alone once more.
"Hop up here," Tara patted the bed beside her with her good arm.
"I don't want to hurt you..." Willow frowned concernedly.
"You won't... besides, I'll feel safer in your arms."
Willow prised off her shoes, dancing shoes that had not seen any dancing at all that evening. She tugged off her cardigan and then tugged the new dress up over her head. It was thrown on the floor without a further thought. Clad in her chemise and petticoat, Willow crawled beneath the covers next to Tara. She kept her distance, not wanting to touch any area of Tara for fear of putting pressure on a bruise.
"Will, you're miles away..."
"You won't hurt me... you never could."
Willow inched closer to Tara until their bodies were pressed together. With a small intake of breath, Tara lifted her head as Willow put an around beneath her and around her shoulders. Tara nestled against Willow's shoulder even as the red head moved her other arm over her stomach.
Willow kissed the top of Tara's head, "Sleep baby."
"You'll watch over me?"
"Like a hawk," Willow whispered, "like a hawk."
She listened to Tara's breathing slow until she was sure the blonde had fallen into a deep, exhausted sleep. Only then did she allow her tears to start falling again. Tears for the girl she held in her arms, cradled against her. Tears for the both of them because she knew in her heart that what they shared meant they would always be exposed to the hate and violence of others. She stroked Tara's hair even as she wished things were different. While Tara could be so amazingly brave... Willow knew that she herself could not... she was terrified.