Author: Jacks aka WiccanHandprintz
The scream should have been a word. It should have been a name, maybe, or at least a plea. Instead, it was a short, brutal, choppy sort of thing that sucked the air from somewhere deep in her chest and curled her into a small, protective ball. Willow Rosenberg woke with the scream, her arms wrapping around her waist as if, if she held on tightly enough, she could simply squeeze the pain away. Tears coursed down her pale, elfin cheeks, and her eyes clenched shut in a futile attempt to stop them.
Stop this, Willow, she told herself, forcing herself to take a deep breath. It doesn't help. It was true; she knew it was true. Still, every year at around this time, the nightmares came back. Just like clockwork, they cycled back from whatever inner hell they slept in for the rest of the year, and Willow was treated to another night of waking to the heavenly chorus of her own screams.
Finally, after several minutes of meditative breathing to calm the shaking that wouldn't quite be beaten down, Willow's limbs relaxed back into sleep.
She did not dream.
"I don't care, Xand, I'm not doing it."
"Willow, come on. This is ridiculous. I mean, look at the place!" Willow flapped a hand dismissively, scooping another chunk of banana and cereal into her spoon. She eyed the young man leaning against the doorframe of her kitchen, face softening at his worried expression.
"Xander, please, just sit down already. You make me feel short."
"You are short. You're not listening to me, Will; you can't keep doing this to yourself!" He entered the room fully, walking around behind her chair and rubbing his hands along her shoulders in a pathetic attempt at a massage. She craned her neck around to give him a look, and he rolled his eyes. "I'm trying to be supportive here, ok? Cut me some slack." She shrugged his hands away, and Xander winced a little, knowing that he was lucky she'd allowed him to touch her at all. He was one of the only ones the slender redhead permitted to break her bubble of personal space, and even he could only go so far. Willow smiled at him apologetically, and he hunkered down to her level.
"I know you're just trying to help, Xand," she said quietly, pushing her bowl of cereal away. "I'm just not comfortable... letting some stranger into my house, you know? Letting someone else poke around and move stuff and- and- clean." Xander laughed.
"God, listen to yourself! Your dorm room at college was, like, Spotty McSpotless, and now you're hyperventilating over the idea of-"
"I don't have time to clean up around here, and you know it. I just don't want some random psycho to come inside my home, ok? You know me," she added, and Xander ached at the helpless sort of acceptance he heard in her voice.
"She's not some random psycho, Will," he said softly, taking one of her hands. She tensed automatically, but then twisted her fingers to twine with his. "I've met this girl. She's about as far from a nutcase as you are from... someone really far away." Willow snorted, and he smiled encouragingly. "Just give her a trial run, ok? Let her come in tomorrow, and see how you like her."
"It doesn't matter if I like her or not," Willow sniffed, "as long as she stays out of my way." Xander whistled.
"Tough mama, coming through."
"Shut up." He patted her hand, and then stood.
"I'm gonna give the cleaning lady a call and tell her to come at eight tomorrow morning. That fine?"
"Yeah, I guess," Willow said grudgingly. "But if this doesn't work out, you are so dead." He clapped a hand to his chest.
"And a willing sacrifice I'd be, if it meant this house would start looking more like a home and less like a garbage dump. Honestly, Will, when's the last time you picked up a vacuum cleaner?" She blinked at him. "Don't answer that, on second thought." He paused at the door, turning back to face the young woman sitting at the mahogany kitchen table. "Thank you for letting me do this," Xander said, more seriously. "I worry about you, all alone in this big old house with all this junk lying around. It's like you're entombing yourself in some kind of mausoleum."
"Big words, Xand-man," she teased lightly. "I'm impressed." He coughed, made a rude hand gesture, and left.
Alone, Willow's smile fell, and she stared down at her hands where they lay flat on the surface of the table. She wasn't wearing her gloves yet, as she hadn't been planning on leaving the house, and the scars were painfully obvious against the wood. A complicated web of white lines marring the skin of the backs of her hands up to her wrists, with a few more ropey marks running up the forearms to her elbows. She bit her lip, her hands sliding from the table to her lap, hidden from sight.
Someone else coming. Tomorrow at eight. Someone else, entering her world, seeing... seeing...
"Oh, don't be stupid," she said aloud. "It's probably some mousy little high school dropout who needs a couple bucks for the summer. I can scare her on the first day, and if she sticks around, well, at least she won't be bothering me." Feeling a little better, Willow got up and put her bowl in the sink to wash at some point in the intangible future. As she walked from the kitchen to her office, stepping over a knocked-over trashcan (empty, thankfully) on the way, Willow kneaded her belly absently, not recognizing the hollow aching there for what it really was: loneliness.