Author: Jacks aka WiccanHandprintz
****Three Years Ago****
She was driving fast. Perhaps too fast. Probably too fast. But the fingers on the black leather steering wheel were white with stress, and the slim body was tense... this speed was necessary. Buffy Summers, her blond hair pulled into a tight ponytail at the nape of her neck, her hazel eyes shaded by dark, mirrored frames, turned off the main highway so sharply that the back of the car fishtailed to the left. Her cell phone, lying on the passenger seat beside her, hummed lowly. Periodically, it emitted a short, high sound. Buffy ignored it. Her eyes darted instead to the GPS screen set into the dashboard, and the glowing red dot that pulsated there, sending out radiating rings of light like a blip on a sonar screen.
The turn off the highway left the buildings and gas stations behind, and she found them replaced by trees and some paved, some unpaved streets leading off into the green. Buffy swallowed, her mind racing. The peaceful scenery seemed at odds with the sick, twisting fear that was growing in her belly, and suddenly she hated it all. The mailbox with the bright robin painted on the side was almost painful to pass, and she wanted to drag her hand through the twines of honeysuckle thick by the road, to tear it from the ground and make it feel the same jerking uncertainty that she felt.
When Willow hadn't answered the buzz to her office, when no one knew whether the Doc had gone out or not, when Buffy had finally huffed and clomped her way up the stairs to the redhead's home base, when she'd found the mess of papers and the broken lamp...
Buffy shuddered reflexively, flashing back to the shattered pieces of lamp that covered the floor and part of the desk. As if someone had grabbed it and hit something, hit something hard... Like a petite young woman who could no more throw a punch than walk on water. For some reason, this thought made the blond nearly choke on a low, anxious giggle. She fought back the laugh, coldly aware of its utter lack of humor.
Following the silent, ominously red blip that was Willow Rosenberg's GPS-equipped phone, which Buffy knew she always kept in the inside zip pocket of her jacket (and the jacket hadn't been there, hadn't been at the office, so she must have been wearing it, must be wearing it...), she took another turn, this time onto one of the pleasantly canopied smaller roads. It was paved, but the job looked- and felt- like an old one; the pavement was cracked and falling away at the edges. The wheels of Buffy's police issue car dipped violently, and she nearly bit the tip of her tongue off. In the rear-view mirror, the pothole gaped after her like an open mouth in that cool, sun-dappled strip of street.
One more turn, this one a right, and Buffy was on a gravel road that wound through the South Carolina countryside like a river. She could see smoke rising from somewhere, almost hidden by foliage. It was dark, thick, and filled her with dread.
Buffy pulled carefully off the road and parked, the pulsating sign of Willow's phone overlapping with her own dot on the map. Swallowing, she stepped out of the car and drew her gun. Procedure or no procedure, this was Willow.
Locking the car, she made her way along the side of the road, stepping over small piles of gravel spit from past cars. The smoke was more clearly visible now, and the smell of it pervaded the air. It was a fatty, rich stench, like that of very fine wood... or animal flesh. No sooner had that lovely thought entered her head then Buffy's nostrils flared with another odor, and this one far more recognizable.
She forced herself not to run, for fear of making too much noise, but her legs seemed to actually lengthen to make room for the long strides that were carrying her faster, faster, but maybe not fast enough, towards the smoke. She held the gun with both hands, pointed up, one thumb on the safety.
There were sounds now. Muffled, covered by the loud crackle and roar of fire, but sounds. Human sounds.
And then, Buffy came through the trees, and Buffy saw.
At first, see, there was just a house. A medium, nondescript white house. Windows closed. A red door.
And then, there was the stake that stood beside it to the left, pounded into the ground. 10 feet or so of thick, sturdy oak, with 5'5'' feet or so of bound, screaming Willow tied to it. Buffy took in the kindling piled around the base of the stake, with fire crawling and spreading across it. There was more kindling at the back of the stake, she saw, almost clinically, and the fire there had already reached Willow's twisting, rope-tangled hands. She saw it lighting on the sleeve of the redhead's denim jacket, hissing and catching at the long auburn hair.
There was a man standing in front of the burning woman, arms flung out with glee. He was saying something, but Buffy couldn't hear. Her heart was the loudest thing now, steady and cold and rhythmic. It calmed her shaking hands, and made her feet strong and sure as she strode forwards towards the stake and the man, leveled the gun, and fired twice.
Buffy didn't even glance down as she passed him, after he'd crumpled to the ground. She went to the side of the house, grabbed the hose that was coiled on the wall, and wrenched it on. The steady, cop-calm of her heartbeat was gone now, now that the gun had recoiled into her hand and the shots were hanging in the air, and she was whispering prayers she would never remember later as she tugged at the hose. Gurgling, spitting, and then rushing, the water sprayed onto the stake and the kindling and the woman. It hissed where it hit, like acid rain, and Buffy was crying as she watched the steam rise. She clapped a hand to her pocket, and felt a jolt of shock that seemed almost unfair in its intensity when her palm found only cloth. Her phone, of course, was in the car, humming away in the passenger seat.
"Fuck," Buffy whispered, and then dropped the hose and hurried to the stake. Willow was slumped against the rope that held her against the wood, her chin brushing her chest. The stench of burned skin hung around her like a cloud. "Oh, god," the blond said, gently reaching into the redhead's open jacket and pulling out her phone. "Oh, god." She looked down at the phone, and bit her lip. It was flashing a single, devastating message: Missed Call: Buffy Summers.
After the FBI came, and the ambulances, and the state police, Buffy was left in the hospital waiting room with her head in her hands. Cole Raimey had been taken into custody with a bullet in his right thigh and a hole in his side... but he would live. Willow Rosenberg, on the other hand...
It wasn't long before Xander showed up, bringing a box of donuts that neither of them touched. Buffy told him, quietly and calmly, what had happened at the Raimey house. Xander's eyes got hard, but she put a hand on his arm and he let his head fall back against the wall and did not move.
It took three hours for a doctor to come out and, in a low voice, inform them that Willow was alive. That she was stabilized. That two inches of hair had been burned off, along with the skin from both her hands up to the wrists. Severe burns continued to the elbows. Her feet had been mostly protected by the thick boots she'd been wearing, and the burns on her ankles and calves were minor, due to the uneven dispersion of kindling and the heavy jeans.
"We'll be able to graft skin from her back or thighs to replace what's beyond repair," the soft-spoken doctor added. "She'll have scarring, of course, but more importantly, she might have nerve damage. We haven't determined the full extent of the burns in that respect, but it's possible that she may never have full use of her hands again."
Months later, after surgery, therapy, all of it, Willow was a woman who would wear gloves for the rest of her life... but there was no lasting nerve damage. The skin grafting went well, with relatively little scarring, considering.
But beyond that, and below that, as both Buffy and Xander knew, their friend was a woman... shattered.
When Buffy hung up the phone, it wasn't loudly. It wasn't slammed down. Her hands were not shaking.
Alan Colbert, however, who was standing across the room at the communal fridge, looked up, saw the expression on her face, and dropped his soda.
Willow lay on her back, the fuzzy bathrobe untied, and smiled. She was holding a mug of hot tea on her stomach, warming the skin just below the ribcage through the robe. Through the door and down the hall, she could hear the quiet sounds of Tara moving around, closing a door. Their conversation earlier had been left at Jodie Foster, but Willow could still feel it in the air around her, as if their words had become real and tangible and weren't leaving. There was a warm, infant glow somewhere inside her, and it wasn't just from the tea.
Soothed by chamomile and a shower, her eyes not on her scars but on the smooth white ceiling, Willow allowed herself to contemplate the rare idea of falling in love.