She was drifting in and out of consciousness, that much Willow knew for sure, somewhere in the back of her mind. It was like knowing you were asleep as the veil of the dream world faded in and out.
“. . . .we’ll have to tell her. . . .”
“. . . .irreversible. . . .”
“. . . I want her found and brought back for justice. . . .”
She could hear the voices, speaking in the ‘real world’. They were nearby. By her bed, maybe. Somewhere close, that was for sure. None of them really sounded that familiar. A brief spark of recognition deep in her mind, but that was it. Nothing that made her want to leave this half-conscious state.
Because she was dreadfully certain that waking would be the end to something. Not that she knew what. Or even that she knew for sure that that was the truth. It was just something she felt, as her mind continued to churn amidst the fog of unconsciousness.
She wasn’t ready to wake up yet, that much she knew for sure.
It could have been forever until she began to come back to consciousness. There was no way to say for sure without just opening her eyes and asking what day it was, what time it was. She knew why she was where she was even before she opened her eyes. She could remember the attack with every ounce of her soul. That awful ripping feeling as the skin of her back was shredded by claws that could have killed her.
Well, that was something to hold tight to. At least she wasn’t dead.
Willow moaned involuntarily as the stark white hospital lights hit her eyes. She shut them again almost immediately, vowing that she’d try that more slowly next time.
“Uh?” She muttered, cracking one eye open. She turned her head slowly, aware all too keenly of the stiff feel of bandages on her back. It took her a moment to realize who she was looking at, before breaking into a thin smile. “Sorry I missed our appointment.”
Richard’s eyes widened. “I’m not worried about our meeting.”
“Ah,” she nodded. It had been a joke, but apparently he wasn’t in the mood for joking. Oh well. Poor guy was probably torn up over her getting shredded on his turf. It was all good, though. Not like it was the first time she’d been attacked by a big bad.
“Do you want me to get the nurse? Some water? Painkillers?”
Willow shook her head. “I’m fine, really. I mean, except for not knowing exactly how bad it is. Have the doctors said anything? Am I going to be all scar-y for the rest of my life?”
He paled, and she got the first dreadful sense that maybe something was more wrong than she’d thought.
“Goddess, the scratches went deep and damaged something internally, didn’t they?” she whispered. “Am I dying? Because I don’t feel like I’m dying.”
“You’re not dying,” he whispered so softly that she could scarcely hear him above the pounding of her heart. Her breath came out in a soft whoosh of air.
“So. . .,” she paused, frowning. Maybe she was a little drugged up still. He’d mentioned painkillers and, since she couldn’t feel anything coming from her back, she had to already be on some. Otherwise she had to believe that his concern would have more meaning to her.
As it was, though; all she was getting was confusion.
“You were attacked, do you remember?”
Willow nodded, her forehead not losing its crease of utter confusion.
“By a werewolf,” he added slowly, hands moving in a prompting gesture.
Her frown deepened and she shook her head. “I’m not getting you.
Richard sighed loudly, closing his eyes. When he opened them again they were wet. Was he crying for her?
“You’ve been infected.”
Willow felt her heart stop in a painful lurch for one brief second before starting back up again, rapidly. She felt her hands grasp at the edge of the bed, clutching tightly at the thin hospital blankets.
“I didn’t get bitten,” she shook her head. “It was all claws – no teeth.”
“Oh, God,” Richard looked pained. “Willow. . .only one version of werewolf, the kind that’s made on the Hellmouth, spreads their infection only through bite. The rest of us are contagious through claws, too.”
She shook her head; panic rising up from the pit of her stomach to lodge almost chokingly in her throat. “No. Not possible. I can’t hear this.”
“Not possible!” She near-shouted, closing her eyes. “This can’t be happening.”
It couldn’t be, she told herself again silently, tuning out Richard’s soft protests in the background. There was no way that she’d been infected with lycanthropy. That meant she was a werewolf. Or a soon to be werewolf, that was. Not until the full moon, of course. That’s when it would happen. The Change. The same Change she’d seen Oz go through a couple nights a month for over a year. That pain, that uncontrollable beast. . . .
That was what she had to look forward to?
“Willow, you need to listen to me,” Richard was saying more insistently now. “This is real. I’m not lying to you.”
“No,” she shook her head again, this time with a different meaning. “You’re not, are you? Oh, Goddess. . . . Why me?”
“One of the alpha females in my pack thought that you and I –“
Her eyes flew open and she glared at the man sitting next to her hospital bed. “That we were what? Together? As in dating?”
“Yes,” Richard nodded. “She thought that you and I were. . .together. That you were to be the pack’s new Lupa.”
“And she didn’t want what happened with Anita to happen again,” Willow muttered softly, in dawning realization as she pulled from stories she’d heard about this pack and all the drama that went on in their city. “She didn’t want another human Lupa in the pack?”
“That’s what we’ve been told, by some of the friends she left behind.”
She didn’t think that those ‘friends’ had just ratted the attacker out so easily. Something in Richard’s face gave it away, she thought. A bit of sadness at the edge of his eyes, with hardness in the center. He’d had to do something pretty unpleasant to find out what happened.
“And the girl that attacked me?” Willow whispered.
“Left the city. Possibly the state. We have feelers out, looking for her, but that could take some time.”
Or possibly never happen at all, Willow told herself. She bit her lip, choking back a sob. “Are you sure. . . I mean, maybe I’m immune? That’s possible, right? I don’t feel any different.”
“You won’t. Not this soon.” He was shaking his head as he spoke, an answer to the question she’d asked, even if he didn’t verbalize it. “The closer we get to your first full moon, the more you’ll start to feel it.”
She closed her eyes. “So that’s it, huh? I come here for a week to do this favor and *bam* I’m going back to Sunnydale a werewolf.”
The silence that followed her last statement caused her to open her eyes again. She met Richard’s worried eyes head on.
“What?” She demanded.
“Going back to Sunnydale right away might not be the best thing. . . “
Willow’s eyes narrowed. “Why? If there’s any time I need my friends, I think this could possibly be it, you know.”
Even as she was saying that, though; she began to wonder if she even wanted to face her friends. How would they react to this? It was different with Oz, she told herself. He was still relatively new to their group when he’d been infected. They hadn’t had a chance to label him in any specific position. But her? She was the group’s witch and research girl. They’d known her for years, carefully boxed her up in their minds and placed her in the roles that she best fitted. This would change all that – and she had no way of knowing if it would be for the worse.
“I won’t deny that this is a time when you need some support,” Richard was nodding as she tossed herself out of her thoughts. “But the support you need is from a pack. If you don’t want to stay here, I’ll understand. But please don’t go back to the Hellmouth and think you can take care of this by yourself. Things are harder there, not easier. No packs even try to make that place home. We can’t. And. . .it’ll slowly drive the beast in you to the surface. You’ll be less and less human with every Change. It’ll get harder for you to want to pull back. If you don’t want to be here. . .if this place reminds you too much of what happened and its that painful – fine. I have some friends in other cities and they’d take as good of care of you as we could. But –“
Willow held up a hand, cutting him off. She was starting to get tired, and his little speech was making more and more sense with every rambling line.
“Fine. I’ll stay for a couple months.”
“Until you’re ready,” he argued firmly. “For your safety and others’.”
She nodded, sighing. The part of her that wanted to sob was being pushed back by the portion of her that was exhausted and filled with painkillers. Later she would pay for that, she was sure. This wouldn’t look better when she woke up – it could only look worse.
“Get some rest,” she heard Richard murmur, and fought the urge to tell him she’d been planning on doing just that, permission or not. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”
For some reason that made her feel comforted, even as her heart was slowly breaking.