Author: Amber Lee
Tara couldn't stop staring.
She didn't know what it was, but she couldn't tear her eyes away from the beautiful Puppy who had rescued her from certain death. Tara couldn't help but notice how red her hair was, and she felt an urge to reach forward and tuck a strand that had been yanked free from the tight braid behind Willow's ear - a death wish, surely. Tara put her hand behind her to keep it from misbehaving, and saw the question in the breathtaking emerald eyes that watched her quietly.
Tara bit her lip, and looked away, feeling her cheeks grow hot. Stupid, Tara. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Don't even bother!
"Tara? Are you alright?" Willow's eyes were anxious as she studied her, and she seemed to lean forward subconsciously, her hands hovering uselessly at her side, unsure if she should attempt to help or not.
"M'fine..." Tara mumbled to her hands. Were they trembling? Tara couldn't be sure. Everything seemed to be shaking.
"You don't look very good there, T," Faith pointed out, rather unhelpfully. Tara half-smiled to herself at the nickname; no one had ever given her a nickname before.
Willow shot her a withering glance, and then turned her attention back to Tara. "Must be the blood loss..." She muttered to herself, biting her lower lip as she watched Tara carefully. "Tara?" She raised her voice, as if she was sure Tara couldn't hear her; Tara made herself focus on her, which wasn't all that hard, as she had been gazing dreamily at her. "Tara, you need to come with us. We're going to get you back to the Kennel for healing."
"But m'fine..." Tara protested weakly, but a sudden wave of dizziness belayed her claim. "Or maybe not..." She swayed uncertainly on the spot, and nearly tipped over until firm, supporting hands seized her arms and pulled her upwards.
"Yeah, okay, that's a sign to me that you're not so fine. We need to get you to a Healer...." Willow's voice seemed too close, right by her ear; Tara felt warm breath tickle her ear, and shivered at the strange sensations that tingled down her spine. "It's the blood loss," She added quietly to the other girl, Faith.
"I'm..." Tara sighed, deciding not to even bother. "Please..." She said instead, leaning gratefully into the grasp that kept her upright. "T-thank-you...W-Willow..." It felt so nice to say the name, so right.
"It's no problem, really. We never get to do anything, anyway." Willow sounded strangely distant to Tara, something that unexpectedly pained her greatly. She twisted in the grip, trying to reassure herself that Willow was still there, and found herself staring into those beautiful green eyes. She sighed with relief, unexplainably content to let the redheaded Puppy support her, her work-roughened hands surprisingly gentle, soothing.
So it was in a half-sleep that she heard Willow mutter words that sounded acutely like a string of profanities. She frowned sleepily to herself; Willow didn't seem like the type to swear.
"What is it?" She heard Faith ask. She sounded a little surprised as well.
"It's later than we thought. Evelyn's going to whoop our miserable butts for being gone so long. We have to get moving."
"You know, we could stay a little later. Annoy her just a bit more-"
"Alright, alright. Let's go."
A warm arm encircled Tara's waist, drawing her carefully in to lean against an even warmer body. It made Tara prickle with a strange anticipation."Come on, Tara. Let's get you to a Healer."
"Thank-you," Tara breathed, letting Willow support her. It felt all too right to let her head drop to rest on Willow's shoulder, nestled in the crook of her neck.
"It's no problem," Tara heard Willow murmur, though she sounded a little surprised. Tara couldn't quite understand why.
Tara didn't remember much of the walk to the Kennel, only vague recollections of warm arms that supported her, and helped her hobble forward. Each step of the way, Willow was there, quietly encouraging her when she was sure she was going to collapse. It was only Willow that kept her going, one foot in front of the other.
After that, it was cool air wafting on her flushed skin, and cold arms replaced the warm ones. These arms were uncaring; they only supported her because it was their job. She found herself sorely missing Willow's warm arms, a physical stab in her heart and a painful ache in her head. She wanted to find Willow, but everything was too blurry, rendering it impossible for her to see coherently enough for her to even begin to search.
"No," She mumbled uselessly as the arms dragged her further away. "No..."
But she could do nothing more. The crippling exhaustion that had merely dragged on her limbs before now tugged her down mercilessly into the black waters of unconsciousness, and, before she could fight it, she was submerged and drifting.
"She's quite a catch, eh?"
Willow looked up from the tea she was brewing. She had been told by the Healers that it would help with exhaustion, and she was making two cups - one for her, and one for Tara when she awoke. Willow was in a half-daze - the past four hours that she had stayed after muster out had been a blur of anxiety, confusion, and dull fear - and she had almost fallen asleep while waiting for the water to boil. Jerked out of her reverie, she jumped to attention, and wiped at her chin.
"Hm? Who?" She pretended indifference as she added some herbs to the steaming water.
Buffy grinned as she came in, resting her hip against the wall. "The blond mot. What's-her-name."
"Tara," Willow corrected automatically, and then bit her tongue, cursing herself silently.
"I knew it!" Buffy squealed, nearly tackling her friend in her excitement. "I knew something was up between you two!"
"Buffy, keep your voice down!" Willow hissed, shooting a furtive glance around the empty room to assure herself that it was indeed vacant, and then throwing Buffy a dark look. "There isn't anything up between us! I just met her!"
"Yet you still want to canoodle with her." It wasn't Buffy who answered, and both girls looked up - Buffy amused while Willow glowered - as Faith sauntered in, idly toying with her baton. "Have plans tonight, Will?"
"Shut up, Faith," Willow growled. "She's practically in a coma!"
"Yet you're still thinking about it." Faith held up a hand when Willow opened her mouth to vehemently protest. "Don't deny it, Willow. I may be a cracknob, but I'm not dumb; I saw the way you two were eyeing each other like two bitches in heat."
Willow flushed a dark red, and spun on her heel, nearly upsetting the two cracked tea cups. "You wanna go, Faith? Because I'm not afraid to take you!"
Faith grinned cockily, and twitched to fingers invitingly. "Come on. Bring it, puppy."
"That's it!" Willow, using the counter behind her as a launch board, flung herself at Faith, but something jerked her back. Yanked by her braid, Willow sprawled backwards into Buffy's arms.
"Enough outta you two. We've got one in a coma already; we don't need another." Her arms constricted painfully around Willow, pinning her arms down. Faith, free of any restraint, merely smirked.
Willow gritted her teeth. Her arms useless, she sighed through her nose, and, instead of struggling, she did as she had been taught in training.
She slammed her foot into Buffy's instep.
Buffy yelped, and her arms loosened enough for Willow to free her arms, and throw her elbow back into the blonde's ribs, effectively freeing herself. Buffy doubled over, wheezing, and Willow turned on Faith. Her fingers curled into claws, ready and waiting.
"You wanna say that one more time, Faith? I am really not in the mood, okay? Can we play pick-on-Willow-and-make-fun-of-her-gayness later, please?
Faith grinned. "Will there be time later, or are you busy tonight with a certain blue-eyed blonde?"
Willow moved so quickly she was a blur, her baton flashing out to give Faith a solid whack in the stomach. Faith's momentum carried her over, slumping on the wooden floor. Willow loomed over her, momentarily triumphant.
"Listen to me, you stupid doxie," She snarled. "That girl needs our help, and you will not - and that is will not - make jokes, embarrass her, or make her uncomfortable. Do you hear me?"
Faith glared up at her from the floor, still too winded to speak. Willow stared back defiantly until Faith finally looked away, turning her glower to the floor. Finally, ignoring both her and Buffy - still doubled over, but grinning in defeat - picked up the tea from the counter, and calmly made her way to the doorway, stepping over Faith as she did.
Tara didn't know where she was.
It was a strange place, wherever she was. Sometimes it was warm, but it was mostly cold, and dark. As Tara wandered the endless plain, she could only wonder. She didn't know what she was doing there- it wasn't with a purpose that her feet moved, but rather an aimless wandering.
At other times, the scenery changed. The sky would lighten, the clouds drifting away to reveal the sun. The warmth of the sun filled her with an abnormal energy, the exhaustion lifting from her limbs so she could walk without dragging her feet, even swing her arms idly with the rhythm of her gait with weightless joy.
There was something else that filled her with a strange happiness - the gentle pressure of another palm against her's. Tara curled her fingers more tightly around the hand, and turned to smile at the person who occasionally joined her in her endless meandering.
Willow always smiled back.
Willow Rosenberg had never been a patient person.
The past five hours had been a torture for her. As she sat at Tara's bedside, staring into the face of the woman she had saved, she felt only doubt. Sometimes, she would take Tara's hand in her own, squeeze it, as if her hand could pull Tara back into the world of the living.
The Healers hadn't specifically told Willow why Tara hadn't woken up. The injuries that Tara had sustained in the brawl had been more severe than any of them had guessed, and the Healers had agreed that it was normal for Tara to be under for a few hours.
By the third hour, they had begun to look a little worried.
Even now, as they quietly entered the room to monitor Tara's heartbeat, they murmured anxiously to each other, too low for Willow's keen ears to pick up.
Finally, she cleared her throat, too loud in the strained silence. "She's going to be okay...right?"
The Healers didn't look at her.
Willow swallowed hard. "She...she's going to be okay, isn't she?" Her stomach knotted with fear even as she spoke the words.
The Healers glanced at each other- worriedly, Willow noted with another twist of fear in her stomach- and then sighed.
"We're not sure," One said carefully. "Her condition really depends on Tara herself. If she has reason enough to come back, she will. If not..." She trailed off.
Willow couldn't breathe; panic was squeezing her lungs, suffocating her. She shot a terrified glance at Tara - something seemed wrong, but Willow couldn't place it - then back at the Healers. An agonizingly slow ten seconds passed before the problem registered. She twisted toward the blonde, a scream building in her throat.
"Tara!" She cried as she leapt desperately to her feet, and towards Tara's unmoving form. "Tara!"
Tara wasn't breathing.