Chapter Twenty Four

Confusion

How much did Tara know?

The thought was driving Willow insane with confusion. Her plain, brown-haired nurse was obviously conflicted, she was recovering from her own terrible wounds, and she knew so much. Willow could scarcely comprehend just how much Tara knew, and the wall behind Tara's eyes spoke larger than any words that Tara knew far more than she was letting on. There was another secret there, and every attribute that made Willow a demon-hunter was employed in getting to the bottom of this truth. Yet as Tara spoke of Willow's war with the First, a single memory knifed into Willow's mind with inconceivable, terrifying force.

A scalpel. Gleaming in lamplight. She was pinned underneath the preacher's body, sharp stones cutting into her back. He was chuckling, he was insane, he was popping the buttons from her jacket before taking considerable pleasure in making long and slow cuts down her sternum, a mocking parody of Tara's own demon-ravaged chest.

Willow choked, and her eyes rolled back.

"Willow?" she heard Tara call, as if from a distance, from beyond a veil. "Willow!"

But Willow was mesmerized by this unfamiliar scene, by the pain she felt in her chest, and she felt transported to this eerie Sunnydale of hell. There was a great amount of information here, all of it familiar in a déjà vu kind of way, and Willow choked on it all. But as fast as the scene came it also fled, leaving her in dizzying amounts of confusion and disarray. What was that? It was Caleb, and he had her on the ground on a street in Sunnydale. Willow didn't remember that ever actually happening, Caleb was dead! Buffy killed him with the scythe, split him completely down the middle! "Willow, talk to me, please," Tara was pleading, and Willow looked at her with dazed eyes.

One word. "Caleb," she said.

Tara's eyes widened. "It's too soon," she whispered.

"What's too soon? Tara?" Willow asked.

Tara got up from her bed and Willow wished she could follow her, hold her back somehow. It was obvious that Tara knew of Caleb, and Willow was beginning to wonder if Tara wasn't some sort of omnipotent goddess who somehow knew every facet of Willow's life. The horror in Tara's eyes made Willow believe that Tara somehow knew how evil Caleb was. How was that possible?

Tara stood at the gleaming counter, her hands firmly planted, her head bowed. "It's too soon," she repeated, then finally looked softly over at Willow, who was squirming in anxiety.

"I just wanted to protect you," said her nurse. "I just wanted you to have a few days, just a few freaking days when the world wasn't in peril!" She raised her voice and clenched her hands and shook with feeling, and Willow was enthralled by it. Had anyone ever felt this strongly about her before? "A few days for you to be yourself," Tara concluded meekly.

However Tara knew all this and as improbable as this knowledge was, her words struck Willow to the core. She didn't regret her fight against evil; she had saved countless lives and averted disaster time and again. But Tara's words reminded her of the world that most people lived in, a world of ice cream and movie dates and studying for exams and not worrying about getting eviscerated every weekend, or not worrying about going out after dark without a stake. It was a world of danger and demons, of violence and vampires, and Willow found herself horrified at the thought of gentle Tara being involved in that world. She didn't know where that feeling came from exactly, just that a strong surge of compassion had overcome her at Tara's words. She barely knew this woman, yet she had somehow burrowed close to Willow's heart. She didn't know what Tara's favourite colour was, how she liked her steak, whether she listened to Bing Crosby during the holidays, but she found a ravenous desire within herself to discover those things.

Tara could not have known how deeply those words hurt. A few days to be herself. And with this memory, Caleb had once again foiled her plans. Like Tara said, it was too soon. But Willow was too much a professional to mourn the lost days of innocence for long. Trouble keeps its own timetable.

So Willow let Tara stand, since she couldn't quite put all her feelings into words. But Tara quickly returned, grabbing a bottle of body cream she sat down again by Willow's side. Pouring some on her hands, Tara started to rub it into the dry skin of Willow's hands.

"You were being held hostage," Tara finally said, and she just wouldn't look at Willow. Willow's skin drank in the lotion, just as Willow's soul drank in the devotion of Tara, and Willow wouldn't say a word, wouldn't dare interrupt if Tara was finally getting to something interesting. She found this silence within her to be puzzling; she had been cursed her whole life with a mouth that opened far too often and various vowel sounds emerging all willy-nilly. But with this mysterious woman, this girl who knew far too much, who was so graceful and beautiful, Willow felt awkward and gauche. She wanted to stem the flood of words that threatened to cascade over them both, for she instinctively knew that Tara wouldn't speak unless there was silence. Tara would have to be coaxed, cajoled, gently prodded even, for Willow to get her story.

But Willow was so enchanted by her, by the maddening glint of familiarity, that she found she would do almost anything for this unknown and strange woman. Even keep quiet.

So eventually Tara continued. "You used the power of the scythe to activate all the Potential Slayers."

Long pause. "Yes," Willow finally agreed, hoping to pull more out of Tara while simultaneously amazed at all this woman knew.

"Caleb's spirit was trapped in the scythe," Tara said. Her eyes flickered up to Willow, then went down again, now rubbing lotion into Willow's arms. "Once you lost consciousness, once your skull was broken, he moved into your mind and imprisoned you within a great black wall."

Willow closed her eyes, trying to envision what Tara was saying, her heart pounding in fear. She should have known it was too easy to kill Caleb. They should have known he would have another trick up his sleeve. But though the words rang with truth, Willow still couldn't see the memories behind them. There was still a fog in her way, a veil.

"If he kept you there, imprisoned in your own mind, you would have died," Tara softly continued. "He would have trapped you in the coma forever, until your body eventually shut down, and then he would have been free once again. You were his prison, he couldn't be free until you were dead."

Willow was trembling. She could barely concentrate on Tara's words. Tara's warm fingers were methodically working their way up to Willow's shoulders, and her muscles melted under her tender ministrations. Every word Tara spoke was in a near-whisper, and she knew, oh she knew how much it hurt Tara to say it.

"I had to get you out," Tara continued. "You are the most powerful witch in the world, and the only one capable of taking him on, of finally sealing the rift the First made in the world."

Willow blushed a little as Tara called her the most powerful witch, and she couldn't help it, she just had to say, "Oh, I don't know about that. Surely Althanea and the coven are much more powerful than I."

Tara looked up and smiled. "It was Althanea who told me that," she said. Willow was aghast, her mind was whirling. "We needed you awake, but with Caleb holding you prisoner, we didn't know how," Tara said, pulling down the top of Willow's robe so she could rub lotion in her neck and the top of her chest. Willow started to breathe shallowly, her stomach in a tight knot as the beautiful woman drew closer and closer to her. Tara didn't seem to notice, or she was merely caught up in her story. "Until I had a visitation from the goddess Aranaea, who told me what I needed to do to save you."

Tara's fingers dipped only so far before returning to Willow's neck and throat and she gently rubbed lotion behind Willow's ears and neck. Willow gulped; Tara was incredibly close to her, and she could see a tiny way under Tara's shirt, to the gauze and taped portion of her chest and the thick chain of the amulet. Strange that she should feel this way; she could feel her heart pounding, and her mouth was dry, and there was a surge of painful joy in her stomach. Tara finally moved away, shuffling to the other side of Willow's bed to take her other arm and start there.

Only then did Willow remember what Tara had just said. "You wanted to save me?" Quickly Willow's mind whirled through the possibilities. What a perfect opportunity to discover something that had been troubling her. Was Tara only acting on orders? Was Willow just another assignment? "Why did you want to save me? You didn't even know me. I'm just some girl." Willow almost held her breath, wondering if she had just pushed too far.

Tara stared at Willow's knuckles, and Willow saw her swallow. "Well, Aranaea did tell me that the world would cease to exist if I didn't save you." Willow's heart fell. So she was just an assignment, a little blip in Tara's life.

But then Tara squeezed her hand and Willow looked at her again. "Even if she hadn't told me to, I would have saved you, Willow." Willow's heart soared again, and she pondered that elation. She was puzzled by it, and puzzled by this enigmatic woman. Willow wanted to pursue this line of questioning, wanted to ask 'why', to force an answer out of her, but Tara was clearly uncomfortable, and Willow decided to veer to a safer topic.

"What did you need to do?" Willow asked.

"I needed the amulet of Thespia, and the only person I knew who had one was..."

"Angel," Willow finished.

Tara nodded. "I didn't know he was a vampire. We met in a cemetery and I told him that you were my patient. He didn't believe me at first; the Watcher's Council evidently lied about you, had put your name on the list of the dead. But Aranaea had told me a lot about you, and I was able to overcome his suspicions. He gave me the amulet, and then..."

Tara bit her lower lip and touched her face. "That's when I was attacked."

"You were attacked because of me?" Willow asked, despairing. Oh, no. What have I done to this girl?

"No," Tara replied firmly. "It was my choice, Willow. With the amulet, I could now perform the spell that would..." her voice trailed off again.

"That would what? Tara, what did you do?" Willow asked; she could see that Tara's face was anguished. "Wait," she said. Immediately several things clicked in her mind. Caleb was holding her hostage in a coma, but she was awake now. Thespia was the jailer of demons. Tara was wearing the amulet of Thespia, and hadn't taken it off a single moment since Willow met her. And there was a wall. "You didn't," she breathed.

"I had to, Willow," Tara said, her voice firm, but she still wouldn't look at Willow, she concentrated on rubbing lotion into her upper arm.

Willow had to be certain that they were both talking about the same thing. If they were, she would be in debt to this woman until the day she died, and she would do anything, absolutely anything for her. "Tara, did you take Caleb? Is he imprisoned in your mind now?"

Quiet.

"Yes," Tara breathed.

Willow was rocked back in wonder. "Why? Tara, why?" she finally asked, grabbing Tara's hands and mentally forcing Tara to look at her. Tara finally looked at her, and the sunlight was behind Tara's head, and the glow made it seem as if her nurse was afire with celestial delight. Willow could almost see the halo over her head, and upon her dazed eyes a vision was superimposed: it was her nurse, but it wasn't only her nurse, for angel wings thrust from her shoulders, glimmering in gold fire, a gown of shimmering starlight hung from her delicious curves, and ancient wisdom and beauty was inscribed on her face.

"Who are you?" Willow asked, her eyes feasting.

Her nurse tried to look away, but Willow lifted her hand and stroked the ravaged skin of her cheek, holding her gently. "Tara, who are you?" she repeated.

"I'm only your nurse," Tara stammered. "Just a nurse."

There was a knock on the door, and the vision crumbled beneath Willow's eyes and a great disappointment filled her. She was so close to something, she could sense the edges of the idea, vast and soft like butterfly wings, and gone just as easily. Tara pulled her hands out of Willow's and quickly wiped her face as Willow recognized the heavy step of Dr. Daniels. He paused just beyond the curtain and called, "May I come in?"

Tara smiled wistfully and pulled a light sheet over Willow's legs, then stood by the end of Willow's bed and grasped her foot. Willow wasn't sure which one of them needed that physical connection, but the simple act of Tara's hands on her toes filled her with reassurance. "Come in, Ethan," Tara responded lightly.

Dr. Daniels was nervous, and Willow couldn't understand why. He glanced over at Willow and then at Tara, who was still standing by Willow's feet, and his face held the oddest expression. It was almost as if he was expecting to see something else, and his hesitation in entering the room astounded her.

(He loves her, but she doesn't love him.)

Willow had no idea where the flash of insight came from, but the truth of it settled over her like a cloak. "Tara, I hear that Willow is having a visitor this afternoon?"

"Yes," Tara replied, and Willow looked back and forth between them.

"Would you mind visiting with me in my office when she comes? We'll take our lunch break together. There's something we need to discuss."

"Of course," Tara replied. After inquiring about Willow, Dr. Daniels left. The magical mood between them had quite vanished, and Willow could see that Tara had retreated again behind the wall in her eyes. Willow wanted to ask more questions, to pull the rest of this fascinating story from the nurse with the reluctant lips, but she knew she could only push so far.

So Willow gladly answered Tara's questions about her friends, and when lunch came she found herself hungrier than she imagined and was able to eat it all without Tara's help. Precisely at one o'clock there came another knock at the door and Tara quickly rose to escort Willow's visitor inside.

Willow couldn't help but smile. Althanea looked nothing like she expected her to. She wasn't sure where she got the idea that the First Priestess of Hecate was stodgy or old, but the woman that strode confidently through the door was neither. She was as willowy and graceful as Tara with bouncy caramel coloured hair that was graying near the roots. She seemed to sparkle with coruscating light, and as she walked into the room she drew with her a scent of fresh air.

"At last we meet, Willow Rosenberg," Althanea said, walking right up to Willow's bedside and stretching out her hand. Willow raised her non-IV pierced hand and Althanea smothered it in both of hers in a firm handshake. Willow looked up and could see Tara chuckling, a large smile cracking her face, making the thin scabs on her cheeks pull.

"I'm pleased to meet you," Willow replied. Tara pulled up a comfortable chair for Althanea, who spun it around to sit backwards on it, plying her arms on the top and staring at Willow.

"Can I get anything for either of you?" Tara quietly asked. Both witches shook their heads. Tara came up to Willow and pulled out the call cord with the red button on the end. "If anything happens, if you need me for anything, you just call me, all right?" she said, pressing the cord into Willow's hand. She then bent and swiftly kissed Willow on the cheek. Before Willow could even respond to the warm touch, Tara had fled, closing the door behind her, leaving Willow alone with Althanea. She looked sideways at her visitor, wondering what Althanea thought of Tara's kiss, then she just as suddenly decided that she didn't care what Althanea thought. Willow lodged the feathery touch of that kiss securely in her memory bank and blushed.

"I'm sure you're bursting with questions," Althanea said wryly.

"Isn't that the honest truth?" Willow agreed. "I barely know what's going on. Tara started to tell me a little bit this morning, but she's having a hard time confiding in me. There's a whole lot going on here that I just don't understand, and she's not being very forthcoming. It still shocks me that she knows anything at all – I've lived the last seven years of my life trying to keep all this secret, and she seems to know absolutely everything. How is that?"

Great, Rosenberg. Good to know you haven't completely lost your ability to babble like a goon.

"Your abrupt appearance in her life has turned everything upside down," Althanea revealed. "I doubt she's the same person she was merely a week ago."

"She said you could help me heal, and that you might be able to help me remember what happened in my coma. She, she said..." and Willow's voice trailed off. She thought of the scalpel, of the rivulets of blood running down her chest as she was reaved by Caleb. "She said I was a prisoner."

"That's true," Althanea admitted, though she had a funny expression on her face. "I suggest we do some healing first, your legs look particularly painful."

Willow uncovered her legs by drawing back the sheet across them and Althanea clucked in disapproval at seeing the ropy mess of stitches, scrapes, and gashes. "I don't remember this happening," Willow said. "I remember the sword, and my head, but I don't remember this."

"Faith got you out of the school," Althanea began. "She took you to the bus with several other potentials and you tried to race the implosion. But you weren't fast enough, and the bus plunged back into the new ravine. Your legs got caught under the seats."

"I wonder why Tara stopped healing them," Willow wondered aloud. "I mean, I know she worked on my abdomen and my neck, why did she stop?" There was a strange indecipherable expression on Althanea's face and Willow suddenly felt stupid. "What am I missing?" she asked.

"Tara's healing power is far different from the powers we use," Althanea replied. "We use the power of earth to pull energy to the hurt area, we form new skin and cells from the earth, and then ply those cells into the affected areas, yes?" Willow nodded. She remembered all this. "Tara's power is more elementary than our own. She doesn't use the power of earth. She simply uses her own cells. It's vastly quicker than our methods because she doesn't have to expend any energy changing the weaves of earth into human chemical bonds of amino acids and such stuff."

Willow was trying to wrap her mind about the unfamiliar concept. "You mean to say that she takes cells out of her own body to replace the ones I lose?" she asked, trying to boil it down.

"Precisely," Althanea agreed. "But it's even more involved than that. While she sends her own cells, she simultaneously draws out the pain and infection in the wound."

"You mean she takes it in both directions?" Willow asked, appalled. "She rips out her own healthy cells to give me and takes my pain in the same instant?"

"Yes," Althanea simply said.

And the reason for Tara's shuffling walk became crystal clear, and shocked Willow to the bone. "Is it equal?" she asked.

"I don't understand?"

"You're saying that if I cut my arm with a knife and she decided to heal it, she would feel the cut instead? Equally bad?"

"Yes."

"Why did you let her?" Willow demanded, close to tears. Her hands scrambled frantically over her body as she pulled aside the robe to look at her smooth stomach, with the long pale scar. She looked at her shoulder, where the ubervamp had been dining on her jugular. She remembered striking her head, and her mother's words floated back to her...(broken skull).

Althanea said something so strange then that it halted Willow in her tracks. "What do you care?" she asked.

Willow looked at her, incredulous. What was Althanea asking?

"Why should you care if Tara was hurt? You barely know her."

There was some purpose of Althanea's, some reason she was asking Willow that unfathomable question, but Willow couldn't discern what it was. "Of course I care," she replied, her voice breaking.

"She's just a nurse," Althanea maddeningly continued. "It's what she does."

"What are you doing?" Willow asked, near tears. "Why are you doing this?"

Althanea was almost stern. "Just what does Tara mean to you, Willow?"

"I don't know!" Willow responded automatically. Tears began to roll down her cheeks and she lifted her pierced hand to wipe them away. Althanea's question had unerringly echoed Willow's own question yesterday when her mother had visited. Ever since, Willow had been wondering the exact same thing. She realized now that Althanea was being quiet, watching her carefully, waiting for her response.

Willow recalled the strange double vision she had experienced only this morning, when her nurse had appeared in the guise of an angel. This girl, this unknown girl, had taken Willow in, had pleaded to the gods, had been attacked by demons, had somehow pulled Caleb into her own mind, and had healed Willow of many of her pains in the bargain. What was Tara's motivation for all this? Was she merely acting as any nurse would, or was Willow special in some way? If she had been told to do it, by Aranaea or others, of course she would follow instructions. Was Willow nothing more than a pet project?

No. Because there was a wall, and a flicker of emotion, and that glint of memory. Had she really heard Tara say, "Oh, my love," this morning? What was the meaning behind the endearments, the soft caresses, the familiarity? Why did Tara make her so nervous, and so confused?

Breadcrumbs.

So just what did Tara mean to her?

"I don't even know her," Willow started. She brought Tara's face to the front of her memory, and gazed upon it in frank admiration. She recalled Tara's laugh, her smile, her warm and supple fingers, her unspoken devotion to her patient that screamed of its existence in a million tiny ways. "But I can't imagine my life without her," Willow continued. "I would weather an apocalypse for her. I would go to the ends of the earth if I had to, in order to save her. I think," and Willow got quiet, amazed that she was saying these kinds of things aloud to a complete stranger. "I think that I would die for her."

Willow looked at Althanea then, and was pleased to see a smile break on her face. "As would we, Willow," Althanea agreed. "She's very special."

"There's more, though, isn't there?" Willow asked.

"There always is," the witch replied cryptically. "But for now we better get to work. We need to have you ship-shape in no time."

Of course. "Tara said that there is still another battle coming," Willow tentatively said. "I guess my fighting days are far from over."

"You and I, our fight will never be over," Althanea agreed. "This is just a lull. Peace before the storm. I've been asked to request that, once you are discharged from the hospice, you come to England to report to the Watcher's Council and get updated on all the recent activity. Buffy and the potentials may be dead, but there are hundreds of Slayers out there now, and the Council has been devastated by the First. We need you yet, Willow."

Willow sighed. The money. Of course they would use the money as a strangle-hold on her. By paying for her care, they would ensure her cooperation. "I would get to come back, though, right?" she asked.

There was a strange expression on Althanea's face, a small note of triumph that seemed out of place in their conversation. "Of course," she replied. "Your life will still be yours."

Willow barked a short laugh. It seemed that her life was anything but hers. She had been reeling from crisis to crisis for the past seven years of her life. But she realized long ago that she would have it no other way. (It's a good fight, Buffy, and I want in.) Nothing had changed since then. Her friends were gone, but their memories would live in her. As long as she remembered them, they wouldn't really be dead. And as long as she kept fighting, kept pushing back the forces of evil and darkness, she would honour their lives, and their deaths. It was one big circle, and she wouldn't have it any other way, not for ice cream or movie dates.

But would Tara fit in that circle? Once she was discharged from the hospice would she never see her blue-eyed nurse again? The mere thought made Willow weak. But did she really want Tara to be a part of this life? The staggering loss of her friends was still so near, so awful, what would she do if Tara came to harm? Running amidst all these thoughts, Willow suddenly brought herself up short. Why was this girl so important to her?

She and Althanea bent to their task, invoking the energies of the universe. For the next few hours they sat, enraptured, pulling and weaving the energies into her abraded skin and muscles. Althanea seemed puzzled that Willow kept insisting on weaving in threads of spirit along with earth, but she soon realized that Willow had stumbled on an even more effective method of healing. By adding spirit to the mix, the new tissues knit together more perfectly, and it took less energy to convert them into the proper cells.

Willow was near exhaustion when they finally had to stop. Panting, she looked down at her legs. They were far from completely healed, but at least all the wounds had closed and scabbed over. As long as she didn't pick on them, they would heal faster than usual. Althanea stood and strode to the sink, wringing out a warm cloth and then laid it on Willow's forehead, wiping away the beads of sweat.

"Thank you for your help," Willow breathed. "I couldn't have done it without you."

"My pleasure," the British witch said warmly. She looked closely at Willow, at the dark circles under her eyes. "I need to go to Los Angeles for a few days and meet with Angel," Althanea said. "We need to locate the scythe, as you will need it for your final battle."

Willow was confused. Again. "Tara mentioned it earlier. Do you know what this battle will be?"

"Not exactly," the witch demurred. "It should come as no surprise that we're relying on you to reason it out."

Willow huffed. "Can I at least have a few days to prepare for the apocalypse this time?"

Althanea laughed. "This is one instance where you can take your time, Willow. Caleb is chained, for now. See if you can't uncover your lost memories on your own. Tara, she is the one with the key to your memories, but it is a hard thing for her to disclose." She could see that Willow was about to barrage her with questions again, and merely continued, "Some of them aren't very pretty, Willow. She just wants to protect you. Give you some time?"

"I understand," Willow breathed. Ever since Tara told her that the battle wasn't over and that there were vital memories locked in her brain, Willow had been strangely conflicted. She didn't really want those memories, not just yet. Without them she could pretend, for a little while at least, that the world didn't need saving. She could just be Willow for a little while, not Willow the demon-fighter, or Willow the vampire-slayer-wannabe, or even Willow the witch. Just little Willow Rosenberg, Tara's patient. She knew that the minute she regained those memories, this fragile peace would end. Her life had been so chaotic up to this point that she sincerely just wanted a few days of rest. A few days to put everything back together again.

A few days to discover just what Tara meant to her.

(Ice cream and movie dates...)

Speaking of Tara... Willow hadn't seen her nurse all afternoon. She pressed the call button and heard a strident little beeping emerge from the nurse station down the hall. Althanea sat down, ostensibly to chat with Tara before going on to Los Angeles. But a minute passed, then another, before the call was answered, and not by Tara.

It was Dr. Daniels who strode in the room. "What can I get for you, Willow?" he asked companionably.

"Uh, is Tara around?" Willow asked, confused.

Dr. Daniels shuffled his feet a little. "No," he said. "She wasn't feeling well, so I drove her home. April will be looking after you for the rest of the shift, and then there is John tonight. So this is your guest?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject.

Willow could see her own confusion mirrored on Althanea's face. Willow's heart sank. No wonder Tara wasn't feeling well, she had taken a sword wound, a broken skull, a near-evisceration, and a vampire bite for crying out loud! "Yes, this is Althanea," Willow replied distantly.

"Could I have a word, Althanea?" Dr. Daniels asked. "Excuse us, Willow."

He drew Althanea from the room and Willow just couldn't help herself, she just had to know. She quickly recited a spell and released it. Even though they were talking in the hallway, she could hear every word of their conversation.

"You're staying with Tara, right?"

"Yes, has something happened?"

"She had a fainting spell. Do you know how ill she is?"

"Yes, do you?"

"More than you. We've got a big problem. She can't take the rabbits any more."

"I know."

"Can you find her a demon? It worked the last time on a demon."

"If I must."

"You must."

Her ears suddenly muffled, Willow realized that Althanea must have sensed her intrusion and woven a counter-spell. Rabbits? Demons? Fainting spell? What was going on?