Chapter Fifteen

Scars

Tara awoke softly, deliciously, her body buzzing with feeling, the exquisite feeling of Willow's lips branded on her own. She kept her eyes closed as she returned to an awareness of the room, hearing the machines with their beeping, smelling the faint brackish potion she had dabbed on herself, feeling Willow's hair beneath her fingers. Where on earth did Willow learn to kiss like that? Straight indeed. Tara opened her eyes as her cheeks flushed, and she saw Ethan jump to his feet.

"Thank God," he breathed. "You're out." He came up to her, but waited on the other side of the blue line for her to push her stool away. The moment Tara exited the line he was gently pulling her and her machines to the nearby chair. She looked at the tray beside the hospital bed and noticed that two of the syringes were empty.

"What happened?" she said, as Ethan began to remove the hep-lock on the back of her hand. "How long have I been under?"

"You were only gone thirty minutes. About five minutes in you began suffering tachycardia. Your blood pressure began to climb, and when your beats per minute hit 130 I administered Ephedrine. This was just after you bit your cheek hard enough to draw blood."

Tara lifted her free hand to her cheek and felt it's swollenness, it's pain. She listened as Ethan continued, "I wiped off the blood I could without actually entering the circle. But then Willow's beats per minute also began to rise, and she suffered tachycardia only a few minutes after you did. I had to enter the circle, then, to give her the Ephedrine. I hope I didn't mess anything up." He finished with Tara's hand and before he could turn away, Tara caught his hand and gently squeezed.

"I couldn't have done it without you," she said softly. Ethan smiled, and then turned his back so Tara could remove the heart monitor pads from her shoulders and rib. As she got up, a white haze passed over her mind

(what did you just do?)

and for a moment she swayed, about to pass out. Ethan caught her and steered her over to the brown couch.

Instead, Tara removed her shoes and sat in a half-lotus on the floor by the window. "I just need to meditate," she said softly, settling her butt on the floor and closing her eyes, her mind suddenly whirling with fear. She could feel the blood drain from her face, and desperately hoped that Ethan wouldn't notice.

"Can I clean up the spell, or will that bother you?" Ethan asked softly.

Tara opened her eyes, smiled and said, "No, it won't bother me. I would appreciate your help. I just need…" and she closed her eyes again and sighed softly. Taking slow and deep breaths, Tara managed to blank out the sound of Ethan moving around, sweeping the floor and stowing the candles as she withdrew into the whiteness of her breath.

And into the cacophony of her mind.

She had no right to kiss Willow. She shouldn't have done it. She should have pulled away. The hug was nice, the hug was necessary, but Tara should have known it would lead to something nicer, something more necessary

(essential)

and should have stopped it. And though her romantic, love-stricken mind protested, and wallowed in the sensations that Willow gifted her with, her practical mind resisted. The truth was plain: Willow was going to have to kill her. Decapitate her. With the scythe. And Tara had no right to allow Willow to fall in love with her, knowing what her fate would be. Willow had just lost everyone she cared for, save her parents; how would she react when she realised she must turn murderer to save the world? It would be far easier (comparatively) to chop the head off a random person than a lover.

Could Tara do it? Be only a nurse? Could she deliberately keep from loving Willow, in order to spare her more heartache? She must. Oh, gods, she must!

For her love was so deep, so vast, so

(essential)

that she would hide it, and profess to nothing more than friendship. No, not even friendship. Duty. Be a nurse, Tara.

Heal her, Tara.

Heal her fast. Heal her so fast she will have no time to fall in love with you. Heal her so fast she will not even know she was healed. Heal her so immensely fast that she can finally just do the necessary chopping of the neck and spare Tara her life of agony and pain.

Could she take so much, so fast? She'd never tried it before. She could. She could take it all, and be in agony, and give it to an animal, no, two animals by the end of the day. She could do it. She must do it.

Because she was in love. Surely that knowledge, that small measure of warmth would buffer her, protect her somewhat from the agonies to ensue? Even if that knowledge was hidden from everyone else?

Tara finally altered the course of her meditation, her mind grim. Love Willow by pretending she didn't love Willow. Heal Willow, and do it fast. And when Willow would come at her with the scythe, it wouldn't be all that bad. What better place to die than in the presence of your only, your true, your love?

So Tara thought of all that she had to accomplish before Willow's parents arrived tomorrow and, using one of her family's oldest mind techniques, she began to create little boxes to put the pain into. She delicately shied away from the mental prison she had created to house Caleb, a prison made of adamant, without doors or windows or cracks of any kind. She knew that the heaviness of the amulet of Thespia was about her neck, and she was comforted. She then fed her soul on the heaven-threads, though they were remarkably thinner than they had been earlier in the day, and she wondered if the heavenly magic of this place was being slowly depleted by her steady use of them.

She cast her mind back to the spell she had performed, her terrible fight with Caleb, and the presence of the triumvirate goddesses. Sensing she was still sore at Aranaea, and knowing Thespia had her plate full keeping Caleb out of her mind, Tara called out to Maia.

Am I doing the right thing?

Yes, oh yes.

When Tara finally emerged from her agonising meditation twenty minutes later, she noticed that Ethan had almost finished the clean up. He was placing the last of the candlesticks into the duffel bag as she carefully got to her feet; she heard little pops as her joints cracked.

"Well, the spell didn't take as long as I expected," Ethan said, pulling the zipper shut and hefting the bag to the closet near the front of the room.

Tara sat down on the edge of the couch and pulled on her shoes, her favourite bright red converse sneakers, tying them carefully in the rabbit ears as she was taught. "No, it didn't," she agreed.

"What are your plans for the rest of the day?" Ethan asked.

"Primarily wound work," Tara replied. "Plus some touch, physical, and music therapy and maybe some body work."

"Wound work," Ethan repeated. "You mean healing, right?"

Tara stood up and grasped Willow's clipboard. "Yes," she replied simply. How to explain her desperate plan to him? "Willow's parents are arriving tomorrow. I wanted to do as much healing today as possible, as much as I can stand. Lessen the suspicion, you know? Hopefully her parents will think that the initial doctor's reports were exaggerated. They don't have to know how bad it really was." Tara pulled out the x-ray of Willow's skull, which showed the hairline fracture. "Especially this."

Ethan surprised her then, by coming up to her and touching her face with his hand, lightly and swiftly tracing the three harsh gouges down her cheek. "Just… be careful, all right?" he said quietly. "Don't take too much, okay?"

"I plan on taking an animal very soon," Tara replied, looking at him, but her eyes were veiled. She understood his concern, but there would be no encouragement, no hope for him. And none for her. "In fact, would you have time today to run to the pet store and buy two rabbits?"

"Rabbits?" he said, his face constricting in distaste, and Tara wished she could take back her request.

"Never mind, I'll do it," she said, returning her attention to the clipboard.

"No, no, you won't have time. And it's necessary," Ethan responded, trying to smile. "I'll take care of it."

"I have a cage on the porch that you can put them in," Tara replied.

Ethan nodded, and exited the room. She looked around, seeing if he had missed any trace of the magic spell, but he had done a thorough job of cleaning up. She cleared away the sharps in the disposable container, and then returned to Willow's bedside. Tara wondered how long it would take for Willow to find her way out. And would she be shocked to find a disinterested nurse instead of an angel?

Willow's bed was still pulled out from the wall from the spell, so Tara pulled over her favourite stool and sat behind Willow's head. Tara planned on working on the worst injury first, her skull fracture. As she extended her fingers, they began to tingle with anticipation even before Tara touched Willow's hair. Tara merely smiled at her body's response to the gorgeous redhead

(who can't know you exist)

and quite happily plunged her fingers back into Willow's hair. Tara could feel the painful thudding of her chest; the persistent ache behind her blackened eye

(it's not blackened, it's cajun. Cajun eye.)

and wistfully wondered what she would feel like twenty minutes from now. She cast her memory back to the day she had healed Willow's abdomen wound, and promised herself that she would just have to go slower. She just couldn't bear the thought of taking all that pain, not all at once. Not until she could find little rooms for it in her mind.

With a certain measure of confidence in her mind, Tara tiptoed into Willow's skull, her consciousness finding the hairline fracture that had landed her girl into a coma. She calmly began to line up a procession of her own healthy cells, then sent them across the barrier, flowing along Willow's bones, rebuilding the wall. Tara didn't let them flood out as they were so clearly desperate to do

(every part of me wants to heal her)

but rather plied them gently, almost like tetris blocks, taking her time, feeling the reciprocating pain seep into her like the cool touch of frost on a window pane. Tara filled all the little boxes that she had prepared in her meditation, then slowly stopped the parade of happy little cells, pulling her fingers away from Willow's head.

Tara was gasping, and her whole body shuddered, but not in pain; just the mental workout of holding herself back. She cracked a wide grin. She did it. She did exactly as much as she wanted to; her power didn't take over her, no rushing freight train of intensity, it was just enough. At long last, she was in control.

Tara sank down onto the ground again to complete another session of breathing and meditation, then arose carefully and began a session of touch therapy. She had always enjoyed touch therapy, and her exhausted mind was a little giddy at the thought of touching Willow.

(Be a nurse, Tara.)

She moved to Willow's blanketed feet, then grasped Willow's big toes and held them gently for five minutes. As she did so, her eyes cast over Willow's battered body; her scraped and scratched face, the bite on her neck. She then fixated on the slow expanding and contracting of Willow's breath, her blanketed chest endlessly rising and falling. After five minutes at Willow's toes, Tara lifted Willow's legs slightly and put her palms under Willow's thighs, taking great care not to disturb the myriad of bandages covering the deep cuts and scrapes; testaments to Willow's entrapment in the overturned school bus.

Next Tara moved to the belly, and as tempted as Tara was to do this exercise on bare skin, she resisted, and laid one of her hands very softly on Willow's blanketed flat stomach and kept it there. She knew what lay underneath, the one thin pale scar, topped by a broken rib and collapsed lung, sword puncture wound, and the horrific scrape across her breast. How much could she take today?

Despite knowing how severely battered her girl was, the longer Tara left her hand on Willow's stomach, the greater a heat Tara felt rising within her, a slow flush, a ripple of goosebumps, and her earlier pain was forgotten as she concentrated harder and harder on thinking of Willow as her patient. Her patient. Her patient. Did it work?

(not really)

Tara then took Willow's index fingers and held them, cooing softly over the scrapes on Willow's knuckles, and after five minutes she finally moved back to Willow's head. She cradled Willow's head in her hands, being mindful of the laceration on the one side, and then gently grasped her earlobes between thumb and finger. It was there, so dizzyingly close to Willow's perfect lips, that Tara began again to lose her objectivity. It didn't matter that Willow's face was as battle-scarred as her own, with her own laceration from temple to jawline and a scrape on her forehead. There was nothing she desired more than sweeping that slender body into her arms, and smothering that face with kisses, and…

Willow opened her eyes.

Tara recoiled a little in shock, but forced herself to remember that Willow's eyes had been open before. It didn't mean… and Tara rose from her stool so she could look into those eyes, not letting go of Willow's earlobes. When she looked, would there be something there?

And for a fleeting moment, there was. Tara could see the awareness behind Willow's eyes, a faint dawning of comprehension, as the shadow-curtain of coma was faintly lifted. Tara smiled, and then recoiled in shock, finally pulling her fingers away from Willow's ears. What would Willow be seeing when she looked at Tara? Not the clear-faced angel from her mind, but a nurse with bedraggled hair and a black eye and three hideous scars running down her face. Willow would be terrified!

But before Tara could back away, Willow's eyes closed again. Tara traced the outline of the scratches on her own face and desperately wished she could trust herself with another human, to take just enough of human life-force to fix her broken face. But after her disastrous encounter with Donny, that probably wasn't likely.

When Tara finally calmed herself, another hour passed as she meditated, worked on Willow's broken skull, and meditated again. Her body reeling with suppressed agony, Tara lurched to the supply closet to put on some music. She chose 'The Phantom of the Opera', and as the stirrings of the Overture filled the room Tara pulled a chair close to Willow's bed and sat down. She took Willow's non-IV'd hand in her own and lightly traced the lines of her palm before simply grasping it, shying away from the bruised knuckles. For the entire hour of the CD, Tara merely sat, holding Willow's hand, gaining more courage and strength to do a final session in Willow's mind. As the final sounds of the strings faded from the room, Tara felt she had regained enough energy to go back in.

Tara looked at the floor and grimaced, imagining her tired bones against the floor, and went to the supply closet and drew out another pillow. She fluffed it up a little before dropping it to the ground and pulled herself into her half-lotus. Ah, much better. Not quite a zafu, but close enough. For ten minutes she assembled more little rooms, more little boxes, more little prisons for Willow's pain, always skirting around Caleb's mental prison. Rising from her feet, Tara wobbled over to Willow's head and once again sunk into Willow's skull.

As always, Tara's giddy cells were not merely some random hick-town rodeo parade with cruddy candy and too many politicians, it was Mardi Gras, with people dancing and singing and playing jazz, whole streets swept up in the excitement and furor, and Tara had to hold herself mentally in check before she went all nuts with the healing and ended up vomiting on the floor like last time. Her happy conga line of cells didn't exactly embrace this censure, and Tara gasped as Willow's skull pain flooded into her head.

Control, Tara, control!

Breathing quickly, Tara finally felt the edges of the break fuse together, the hairline fracture gone, and she frantically pulled her fingers away from Willow. Drenched in a cold sweat, Tara started to get up, but collapsed on the floor. She lay there for long minutes, willing herself not to vomit, hunched in the fetal position, trembling with cold, pain, and exhaustion. In a moment of weakness, Tara wished she could just help herself to some morphine from the pharmacy, but

bad, bad Sue

she knew it was wrong. She would be fired on the spot. As soon as she could get to her feet, extra-strength Tylenol would have to suffice.

Thus occupied on the floor, Tara didn't notice Willow's eyes open again, nor her fingers clench, nor her mouth move as if to say something before Willow fell back into the long sleep.

When Tara finally regained her wits, she noticed it was well past lunch time. Mentally berating herself for being so foolish, no healer could work on an empty stomach, she got up from the floor, dusted herself off, then checked Willow's vitals before heading out the door.

After a fortifying meal of tuna and spinach salad with a chocolate milkshake (very healthy, Tara), she returned to Willow's room, feeling much better. She still felt a great deal of pain, especially in her head, and her blackened eye felt like it was going to burst from her socket, but she still desperately wanted to take as much as she could, and count on the animals to fix her.

The next four hours were the most painful of Tara's life. She almost wished for the bone-searing pain of when she had healed the cut on Willow's abdomen, because she got a painkiller for it, but this slow seeping of agony was much worse. Before and after every bout of wound work she meditated, and her skin got grayer, and her eyes got duller, and her movements became slower.

She was killing herself.

(Ethan better buy three rabbits, will the shop owner suspect?)

After healing Willow's broken rib, Tara got authorisation from Ethan to perform an x-ray, and she did a shot of Willow's head and her torso. Both fractures were mended, perfectly, as if the trauma had never happened.

Ethan had been concerned. "Take it easy, Tara," he had said. "You've got plenty of time, you don't have to do it all today."

"Gotta do as much before the parents come," she had mumbled back. As she retreated back, she could hear him say he had bought the rabbits for her, and he had put them on her porch.

By now Tara was floating on her pain, moving grimly from one scrape to the next, finally reaching a state where movement alone was good and rest was bad. Nothing could calm the fever raging within her breast, no meditation could box up the pain she took, and her very muscles trembled as she now pulled her cells across, yanking them across the barrier against their will. Nothing mattered, not the bruises that began to form on her chest, arms, and legs, not the crackles of white-hot lightning along her bones, not the little beads of blood weeping from her face and chest.

Only Willow. Willow whom could not love her, or know the furious depths that Tara trawled in order to save her.

Willow whose face was now clear, with a thin pale scar etching the side of her face where the laceration had been. Willow whose head and rib fractures were mended. The scars on Willow's body were testaments for Tara. They were headstones in Tara's graveyard of blighted hopes, and as each dreadful wound became a scar, Tara lost another of her most cherished dreams. Heal her, Tara, so she can kill you. No thoughts of eating ice cream on the boardwalk in the blistering summer heat, no more daydreaming of braiding her daughter's hair in the morning, no more fantasies of cuddling in the garden under the tree by the sharp-smelling tomatoes.

At six in the evening, Ethan came into Willow's room and watched Tara for a moment as she tottered to the blood pressure machine to take Willow's vitals. Her skin was grey, the consistency of playdoh, and that, plus the deadness in her eyes, worried him.

"Haven't you learned by now how to take care of yourself?" he asked, quickly standing by her and putting his arm around her trembling shoulders.

"Always had Donny," Tara softly mumbled.

"You're laying down. Now," he said, pulling her to the brown couch. Thank goodness Tara staying in her patient's rooms overnight was a common enough occurrence. If she fell asleep here and slept the whole night through, the night nurse wouldn't be surprised. Wouldn't even bat an eye.

Tara felt herself get tucked in with a spare blanket, the pillow soft against her pounding head. Ethan was asking if she wanted something for the pain, and she managed to nod. She lay there, awaiting his return, despairing that all the heaven-threads were gone. There was nothing for her to feed on, nothing until the rabbit. Suddenly his face was back in her bleary vision, and he swabbed her arm and said something about Toradol. The pinprick was welcome, yet it was many minutes before she passed into a muzzy sleep.