Xander knew Buffy wasn't happy with his unexpected presence. Amnesia or not, she was still his best friend. He could still read her body language.
His hope was that she'd forgive him – and even be happy to see him – the moment her memories were restored. He was serious about being there for whatever Buffy needed. Or not, if that was what she decided. In the past few years, Xander had learned to accept that despite their long friendship, he could only be there for Buffy as much as she wanted him to be. Friendship was a two-way street, and while he'd never stop offering, he couldn't force her to reciprocate.
And, speaking of body language... When he opened the front door to go to his car, there Buffy stood, alone on the stoop, head bowed and shoulders hunched. Xander's first instinct was to close the door softly, and give her the space she seemed to need so much of these days, but then he caught the faint sound of a suppressed sniffle. He paused, torn.
"It's okay, you can come out," Buffy said quietly. "I know you're there." She turned to look at him. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears, luminous and full of so much pain, it made his chest ache. "I was just..." She glanced at the plastic surgeon's van parked in the street. "Psyching myself up. Or maybe out. But, whatever. I was just about to go back inside."
Xander moved to let her pass, but then reached out to touch her shoulder. "It's okay if you're scared. Or... if you don't want to go through with it. Nobody's making you."
Buffy stiffened. "Don't tell me you don't want the old Buffy back. The one who likes you."
He winced, but did his best to ignore her cutting words. It wasn't as though Buffy lashing out when she was hurt and confused was anything new, after all. He'd been subjected to plenty worse over the years, and Xander refused to let it deter him now. "See, you're looking at it all wrong. Whatever else that Lindsey guy took from you, he couldn't take your essential Buffyness. You're – you. No question. And he couldn't take away my love for you. Nobody can. But here's the thing. I don't think the old Buffy's in the cards any way you deal them."
She glared at him. "How do you figure?"
"Because... sure, who you are now is not exactly who you used to be. But it's not a bad thing. It's not even an amnesia thing." Buffy made a scoffing noise, and Xander shook his head. "No, really. I'm not the same guy you first met back in good old Sunnydale. I'm not even the same guy you met all over again, in London. I've changed and grown. Hopefully more mentally than from side to side," he said, holding his hands out to indicate his girth.
Buffy gave him a weak smile, but didn't stalk off. Xander took it as a good sign.
"Change is normal. It's good. And I know you feel like we expected you to be the same old Buffy, and maybe we did, but I'm over it. You would've changed and grown into somebody new, amnesia or not. I would've had to accept a new you no matter what. And I would've loved that version of you – just the way I love this version of you – because it's still you."
Buffy stared at him. She swallowed several times, then shook her head. "That's... geez. Probably the most insightful thing I've ever heard. You know, at least that I remember." Her forehead creased. "It never occurred to me to think of it that way."
"Ah, don't be hard on yourself. If I managed insight, it was pretty much a fluke. I open my big, stupid mouth so often, eventually something profound is bound to come out of it."
She snorted. "Still." Buffy took his hand. "Thank you."
"I try," he said, as modestly as he could, but he couldn't quite stop himself from standing a little taller. He'd once been Buffy's heart, and had also been labeled The One Who Sees, and, sure, it was a super-scary evil psycho who'd given him that particular epithet, but Xander sort of liked it just the same. Not to mention, he'd also stopped an apocalypse with nothing but his mouth. And not in a gross way, but by doing what he did best. Talking. And just being there. And loving his friends, even when he didn't so much love what they were doing.
Once upon a time, Xander had been all about But what can I do to help Buffy? Now he was more of a What can I do to help? guy, emphasis on the I – the eye, haha – and the help, and not on the Buffy. Not that he didn't want to help Buffy – of course he did – but it was more about the helping and doing what was right these days, and less about the who he was doing it for.
Still, being Buffy's heart again, if only for a minute, was a good feeling. "So, how 'bout it? Do you want to call the whole thing off? Want me to send Doctor I-have-a-laser-and-I'm-not-afraid-to-use-it packing?"
Her shoulders tightened, and Xander figured he'd pushed too hard and ruined his tiny moment of being a good, supportive friend. But then she sagged against the doorframe. "Yes? No? I don't know. It's scary not remembering your past. But from what I've heard about my past, I'm just as scared to remember it. And who says it'll even work? What if it doesn't Humpty Dumpty me back together again?"
"Then we'll make with the research. You've got something all the King's horses and all the King's men didn't have: us."
For a long moment, Buffy didn't say anything. Then she nodded. "You're right." Before Xander knew what was happening, she was hugging him tightly. "I picked good friends, didn't I?" she said to his chest.
Refusing to panic over his sudden inability to breathe, Xander hugged her back. "I like to think so," he gasped out.
She looked up. "What...?"
Buffy relaxed her hold, but didn't pull away, and Xander dropped his chin to her head. God, he'd missed this... missed their friendship. Before a less-than-manly sniffle could escape, he said, "But, seriously. Do you want to call it off? Take some time to think it through?"
"I don't know." She pulled back to look up at his face. "I've survived two years without my memories. Do I really need them? Whatever I need to know, I've got you guys to ask, right?"
Oh boy. There was a loaded question if he'd ever heard one. "I figure it's like the blind men and the elephant, which is a somewhat fitting analogy," Xander said, indicating his eye patch. "We're all the blind men, who each know our own little part of you, and you're the elephant – the very strong, but very petite, and cute, I might add, elephant –" He'd traced her contours in the space between them as he spoke, and now he snatched his hands to his shoulders in horror as he realized what he was doing. "Let's stop that analogy right there."
"Good idea," Buffy said dryly.
"The point being, each of us only knows the little part we know. We can only give you pieces of yourself. And maybe between the bunch of us, we can create a pretty good picture of who you were, but..."
"It's never going to be the full picture."
"Not really," Xander agreed. "Nobody else knows your deepest Buffy-thoughts. Or your secret hopes and fears. Only you know – knew – those."
Buffy leaned back against the doorframe again, and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she said, "That's exactly why I'd decided to go ahead with the laser removal. Y'know, before I almost changed my mind again."
"Well, great minds do think alike."
"So they say." She grinned at him. "I'll let you know when I find some."
"Where do you keep the snacks of cheesy goodness?" Xander said to Dawn, rifling through the kitchen cabinets. "I know you've got them hidden somewhere in here."
"Xander, sit down," Willow said. "You're making me nervous with all your wandering around."
"Got my own case of nerves, hence the need for cheesy snacks. Stress makes me hungry."
"What do you have to be nervous about?" Spike said. "You're not the one whose whole life is about to be upended."
Xander came to a halt in front of Spike. "It's empathetic nerves. Buffy's worried, ergo I'm worried. Ergo, cheesy –"
Dawn shoved a bag in his hand. "Sit down and shut up." She took her own chair. "How long do you think it'll take?"
"Dr. McNamara suggested he expected to be finished by six o'clock." Giles glanced at the clock. "Which means it should be over soon. One way or another…"
"If this doesn't work, I'm gonna resurrect Lindsey and kill him all over again," Spike said.
"I'll help!" Willow said brightly. "Done it before, so not a problem." She quailed under Giles' look of reproof.
Angel shifted in his chair. "I think you'll have a lot of help."
"If you hadn't let the tosser off himself –" Spike tensed, head cocked. "They're done."
There was a round of exchanged glances, everybody wondering the same thing: did it work?
"We should give her time to adjust," Giles said. "All of us at once may be overwhelming."
"I'll go," Dawn said. No one argued otherwise. She stepped into the hallway, and Xander heard, "Buffy? Are you okay?"
"I'm –" Buffy began, and then gasped. "No!"
Xander jumped to his feet along with everybody else, his heart tearing in two at the agony in his friend's exclamation. His every instinct was to rush to Buffy's side, but he forced himself to hold back. Spike and Angel leapt into action, less circumspect. When Buffy cried out again, he and Willow shared an anguished look, and Xander gave in to the need to help his friend.
He crowded into the hallway behind Dawn and the others, desperate to comfort Buffy but no clue how. She'd curled in on herself, hands over her ears and eyes shut tight, shuddering in horror.
"Oh, god," Xander said. "What's wrong? Did something go wrong?"
Nobody answered him.
"No, no, no!" Buffy wailed. Dawn and Willow reached for her, begging her to tell them what was wrong, but she shook them off and fled down the hallway and out the back door before anybody could stop her.
Xander stared at the swinging door, in shock.
"I'll get her," Spike said.
"We'll get her," Angel corrected.
"No, guys…" Xander reached out to grab each vampire by an arm, trying not to think about how they could tear him limb from limb with one good pull. "I think… I think…"
"Good job thinking, little blue engine," Spike said. "Meanwhile, we'll be doing."
Xander tightened his grip and spun Spike to face him. "Remember when Willow erased all our memories? I don't know about you, but when I got mine back, it hurt." Willow hissed, and he shot her an apologetic look. "All the bad things, all the painful things came back first, all at once. It was…" He waved his hand, unable to explain just how overwhelming it had been.
"Imagine Buffy," Xander continued. "All the horrible things she's gone through. She's got to be –"
"In so much pain," Dawn said.
"All the more reason to go after her," Spike said testily.
Xander shook his head. "This is how Buffy deals. It might not be the best way, but it's her way. We need to give her a little time to sort herself out."
"Give her time to remember the good things, too," Willow said. "Put it all into perspective."
Dr. McNamara stepped into the hallway, gently rapping on the wall to get their attention. "If you'll pardon me," he said. "Is Miss Summers quite all right?"
"Yes, she's fine," Giles said, hurrying to guide the man back to his equipment. "She – er – was quite nervous about the procedure. Nothing more than a stress reaction, I assure you. May I help you gather up your things?"
"I don't like this," Spike said when they'd disappeared back around the corner. "State of mind the Slayer's in, she'd make an easy target for some nasty."
Dawn laid a hand on his forearm. "Good thing there aren't many nasties in Oxford."
Angel went to stand by the still-open back door and stared out into the night. "It can't hurt for Spike and I to tail her. Just to be sure…"
"Be easy enough to track her," Spike said, joining him in the doorway. "Now that her scent's back to normal."
Xander made a face. "Can I have a side of 'ew' with that 'hello, stalker much'? I'm telling you, space not a bad thing right now. Buffy'll come back when she's ready."
Dawn bit her lip. "And if she doesn't? Again?"
"Even if she does run, she'll be back." They were her friends, and family, and no longer just in the past tense sense. She wouldn't leave them again. Xander hoped. "Eventually."
"Presuming she was going all bats in the belfry because she's getting her memories back, not because something else went wrong," Spike said.
Xander didn't have an answer to that. If Spike was right, they couldn't count on leaving everything to work itself out.
"Oh!" Willow's face lit up. "I could try a locator spell. You know, just to see. Since we haven't tried that yet, and we wouldn't really be intruding on Buffy, just testing to make sure everything's back to normal. Before she gets too far away."
In case we do have to search for her later, Willow didn't say.
"I think it's a good idea," Dawn said. "I'll go grab something of hers to use."
Willow nodded. "I'm out of tumbleweed powder. If somebody can run to the store and get some, while I get everything else set up?"
"On it," Xander said. That was why he was there – moral support and errand boy, the two things he did best. Well, he was a damn fine carpenter too, but that particular skill set wasn't currently required. This crisis hadn't resulted in a trashed house.
Spike followed him to the door. "Best I tag along, keep you safe."
Xander figured Spike wanted to come along out of a need to feel like he was doing something useful rather than out of any concern for him, but he didn't call him on it. He understood.
They walked in silence, Spike swiveling his head from side to side and taking surreptitious sniffs. "Anything?" Xander said.
Spike shook his head. "She didn't come this way."
"Buffy'll be fine."
"'Cause she's been so fine these last few years? How can you be so infuriatingly optimistic, Harris?"
Xander turned to look at Spike. "Because if I stop, I'll just… stop. I have to believe everything will be okay in the end, otherwise…" He shrugged. "Most of the battles we've won over the years, I swear it was only from the sheer power of faith – faith as in belief, not Faith as in my girlfriend. Which means that if I stop believing, the consequences are going to be so much worse than a fairy losing her wings."
Outside the shop now, Xander paused, hand on the doorknob. "And if you ever tell Faith I suggested she isn't the reason the world's still spinning, I'll tell Buffy about that godawful poetry I used to find next to her grave."
"I have no idea what you're talking about!"
"Oh, I've got your number, William Wordsworth." Xander ignored Spike's spluttering glower, and entered the shop.
It was a good half hour later before they were all assembled around the kitchen table, Dawn's map of Oxfordshire spread out before them.
"Anybody experiencing major déjà vu?" Xander said, a little creeped out by the whole thing. Sure, they were in a different setting, in a different country, in a different year, and with a somewhat different set of people, but… The dangly blue earring Dawn had produced wasn't helping the creepy déjà vu factor much either.
"Here we go," Willow said. She puffed the tumbleweed dust across the map. "Invenio."
A bright light blazed at the edge of the map. Xander let out the breath he'd been holding. "Nice one, Wils."
Beside him, Dawn wiped her eyes.
"I was so afraid it wouldn't work," she said.
"I don't think you were the only one. But it did. And Buffy is…" Xander leaned closer to peer at the map, shoving his head in amongst all the other heads crowded over it. "Not even in Oxford? She's on the M40, halfway to London."
"But… why?" Dawn said.
Spike straightened, his eyes glinting yellow. "More important, how'd she get so far so fast?"
"You think somebody kidnapped her?" Angel said.
"I think I'd rather not wait to find out. Let's go," Spike said to Angel. "I'm driving."
"I don't think so. I'd like to live long enough to save Buffy."
"And I'd like to get there in time, grandpa." Pausing in the doorway, Spike looked back over his shoulder. "Keep us updated, Red."
Xander could hear the two of them bickering all the way outside and down the front walk, until two car doors slammed and an engine roared to life.
"And they claim they're not a couple," Dawn said. "You think somebody really kidnapped Buffy?"
"No," Xander said. "But I think getting those two out of our hair is not a bad thing, especially with all that simmering testosterone just waiting to explode. Let them run off on their knight errant mission."
Willow gestured to the glowing dot on the map. "Spike's got a point. How'd Buffy get so far so fast?"
"She can drive. Just… not well," Dawn said. "Maybe we should hope she's been kidnapped after all. She'd be safer."
"Or maybe she hitched a ride," Xander said.
"Okay, but again. Where? Why?"
Xander shrugged. Buffy's mind had always been a bit of a mystery to him, more so of late. Whatever her reasons, he was sure they made sense to her. "Keep doing the locator spell, and I guess we'll find out."
"I'm gonna need a bigger map," Willow said. "She's almost off of it."
"That's the only map I… oh. Duh. Hold on." Dawn ran off. She came back a few minutes later, printouts in hand. "Online maps to the rescue."
Every few minutes, Willow repeated the spell, allowing them to track Buffy's progress across the country. After a short time, Buffy turned south.
"Oh," Willow said. "Oh, oh! I think I know where she's going!"
Giles, who'd rejoined them, squinted at the map. "Where?"
Dawn slumped backwards in her chair. "If she gets on a plane, she could go anywhere."
"Nah," Xander said slowly, staring at the map. "I know exactly where Buffy's going."
"Well don't keep it to yourself!"
He looked up. "Isn't it obvious? Sunnydale."
The rest of them stared at him. "How can you be so sure?" Willow said.
Xander thought about his childhood home, his family, his school. His entire life had been buried in that crater. So had the grave of his one-time best friend, and the body of the woman he'd loved. Almost all of his memories, good and bad, centered on Sunnydale.
For Buffy, it was also the last place she'd been before she'd lost hers. He'd gotten to say his goodbyes, and make peace with it all.
But Buffy hadn't.
"Because if I'd just woken up after two and half years… that's where I would go."