Author: Jacks aka WiccanHandprintz
Willow sat in her office, fingers resting numbly on her keyboard. She felt small, and closed-in, and taut. She closed her eyes, listening to the rapid flutter of her heartbeat. There was something, resting just beneath the surface of her consciousness, that felt disturbingly like panic.
She's not a schoolgirl, her mind told her. She's your age, don't you think? A woman. A woman with hair like gold at twilight, and eyes softer than blue cashmere. Willow's eyes snapped open, and the thought vanished, crushed by the weight of the fear she could already feel building behind her ribcage.
People can't be trusted. Especially the pretty ones.
Her fingers began to move on the keyboard, but no words were typed. With a short exhalation of breath, Willow flexed her hands. They were aching again today. She knew that it was because of the temperature; the doctors had warned her that cold would bring out the old pain. Still, she kept her office chilly, maybe out of sheer stubbornness.
Willow glanced at the door, just to make sure it was closed and locked, and then pulled her gloves off and laid them carefully on her desk. She massaged the roughened skin of her hands, the pads of her fingers brushing across the burns.
Looking at them, Willow cringed. Disgusting. Both her hands, the fingers so slender and tapering, ruined forever. They were shaking, she noticed, holding them in front of her face. Not because of the cold, and not because of the old scars. It was her own insecurity that made her tremble, and Willow despised that.
"I hate you," she whispered, eyes fixed on the ugly network of whitish lines that spiderwebbed up each of her wrists.
"No! Oh god, what are you doing?! Stop!"
Pain. Pain like-
"Help me! Make it- MAKE IT STOP!"
Hands behind her oh god and it hurt it hurt and there was- were- there- the tears and the screaming, and it was all in the dark because there was pain so much
"Hurts! It hurts, it hurts, ithurtsit-" And just a blend, a meld, a mold, a veritable smoothie of sound, an animal screaming as it burns, burns-
"Stop it!" Willow's fists clenched, and she shut off the memory, breathing hard. Her face hovered in the reflective surface of her computer screen, white and ghostlike. Her nostrils flared, and Willow swallowed. She shoved her gloves back on, crossing her arms across her breasts.
"Stop it," she said again, her voice low and commanding. "It was three years ago, Willow. Three years ago. Get over it, already."
Three years, yeah, but all that time, all that therapy... It just disappears at night, doesn't it? Close your eyes and you're there again, aren't you, sweetie?
Willow stood forcibly, her entire body shaking. Before she even knew what she was doing, she was crouched in the corner of the room, knees up against her chest, arms wrapped around them, forehead pressed against her forearms. Her teeth chattered, the trembles wracking her tight frame in waves. Willow squeezed her eyes shut, imagining a flame.
Focus on the flame. Be the flame. Send all your fears, all your anger, all your hate, into the flame. Let it burn, be cleansed.
Let it burn like you burned.
The shaking was getting worse, and it was getting hard to breathe. Willow tried not to sob, knowing that would only make her lungs clamp closed.
"Oh goddess," she murmured. "Oh my goddess please help me." The plea was a quiet, stammering rush that barely escaped her lips, but hearing the words seemed to ground Willow in a way that the metaphysical exercise of focusing on a point of light hadn't. The words were rational, real, solid. They hung in the air like invisible balloons, waiting for her to grab their strings and lift away.
Slowly, excruciatingly, the shaking eased. Willow's breath slowed, the shuddering gasps turning into weighted, measured inhalations.
Finally, Willow uncurled her body and stood, leaning for a moment against the wall. She hadn't had a panic attack like that in... well, in a long time. She'd gotten so much better!
Or so she'd thought.
No. She had gotten better. Was better. It was that- that girl, Tara Maclay. Something about her slipped through Willow's defenses, a needle finding the one crack in the redhead's cold shield. Willow gave a shaky laugh. Well, duh, Rosenberg. She's the first woman you've invited into your home in years. She's certainly the most attractive girl you've seen in a while, and she stared at your hands. Of course you're freaking out about this!
"My hands. My stupid hands," Willow muttered, going to her door. But she knew perfectly well that it wasn't just her hands. A beautiful woman, the first one Willow had seen in ages. A stranger inside her home, touching her things, making the air move in a way it hadn't in all the years Willow had lived alone in this house. Someone new, someone ignorant, staring at the crazy lady who wore gloves in the middle of the summer and lived inside a wreck that called itself a Victorian.
All these things made Willow's gut tighten, but what scared her most of all was what lay beneath those obvious insecurities.
Tara. Tara Maclay.
I want her.
And that was it, pure and simple. No matter that she hadn't seen a pretty girl in ages. No matter that her privacy was being invaded. No matter that her social skills had taken a drastic plunge since her college days. The fact was, that one glance from the blond's meltedbluegray eyes had made Willow's belly twist in a way entirely different from the fear and pain she was so used to.
And that, friends and neighbors, was unacceptable, wasn't it? After all, people are not to be trusted. Was that really a lesson that Willow needed to learn yet again?
But what about Xander? You trust him.
He doesn't count; he's Xander.
So, walking quietly towards the kitchen, Willow made up her mind.
Miss Maclay had to go.
Tara wasn't sure where to start. Every room was worse than the one before it, or so it seemed. She wasn't exactly the world's best cleaner, either. Still, she valiantly decided on what she reckoned, after a bit of confusion, was probably once a living room. Now, it was a carpeted waste containment chamber, or at least was doing an excellent impression of one.
Tara unrolled several double strength garbage bags from her supplies, and began putting the more obvious trash inside them. Once she was finished with that, she started picking through the various items of clothing, books, magazines, boxes, hair supplies and file folders that littered the rest of the room. In about an hour, she had made a few loosely organized stacks in the middle of the room, and had successfully cleared off a couch, a coffee table and a small footstool.
"Sheesh," Tara said, surveying the rest of the room. "What kind of-"
And that's when the door swung loudly open and the slim, upright figure of Willow Rosenberg stepped lightly in. Tara looked at her employer with slight wariness, noting the way the redhead's mouth had opened upon entering, as if she was preparing to say something, and then just stayed open as she stared at the room.
"I haven't seen that couch since last year," she said, almost as if she were unaware that she was speaking aloud.
"I-it's a very comfy one," Tara commented. The stutter was back, naturally, but she was rather proud of the calm steadiness she managed the rest of the time.
"Yeah, my cat liked to sleep on it," Willow continued, still staring from the couch to the newly visible wooden table, to the cushy footstool.
"You have a cat?" Tara's face brightened, and then fell again as Miss Rosenberg seemed to snap out of whatever daze the sudden anomaly that was cleanliness had put her in.
"We need to talk," she said quickly. Tara blinked at her, unsure whether or not she was supposed to nod or say something or... But the redhead took up the silence after only a brief pause. "This isn't working. You need to go."
"W-what? I j-just started! D-d-did I do something wrong?" Tara heard the accusation as well as the meekness in her own voice, and wasn't sure if she was proud or not. While it was nice to hear herself standing up for something for a change, she wasn't positive that this was the best time to be assertive. Willow, however, looked a bit taken aback, as well as a bit ashamed.
"No, no, it's not that." She bit her lip, and Tara's thoughts took a sudden leap towards the impolite. Do not think about those things, Tara Maclay. The redhead went on. "I just... I'm not used to..."
"Please don't fire me," Tara said quietly, the accusation gone. She couldn't afford to lose this job, whether it meant being subservient or not. "I n-need the- Just please don't." Miss Rosenberg sighed, looking adorably guilty.
"I'm sorry. It's not you." Tara studied her face for a moment, and then set down the pile of junk she was holding and held her hands out to the other woman in a gesture of both honesty and plea.
"I have n-nowhere to go, if I c-can't pay my rent," she admitted, not taking any pleasure in either the lie or the way the redhead's face fell. "This i-is my only ch-chance, Miss Rosenberg. Nobody hires cleaners in this city a-anymore, and I can't afford t-to move."
"You have nothing else? What about your family?"
"I d-don't have a family," Tara replied, dropping her eyes. And that was true, wasn't it? As far as she was concerned, it was, and that was all that mattered now.
"Oh," the redhead said, and Tara looked up. She sounded sympathetic, but still with that edge of distance that had so struck Tara when they first met. "I'm sorry." Tara nodded.
"Please," she said again. The other woman rubbed her face with her gloved hands, and gave a drawn out sigh.
"All right," she said finally. "All right." She sounded defeated, and Tara felt a pang, and not only for the guilt of having manipulated her into giving in. The pretty Willow Rosenberg looked more than just defeated, Tara saw, meeting her gaze. She looked haunted.
"Thank you, Miss."
"Just... just call me Willow," she said, and turned to walk silently out of the room.
Tara had no idea if that was a good thing or not. Still, in the secrecy of the empty room, she couldn't help but try it out against her tongue, feeling it slide between her lips.