Willow couldn't breathe. Couldn't grasp what she'd just heard. With one hand to her mouth, the other clutching the phone to her breast, she stood frozen in the kitchen, eyes shut tight. Her head began to spin. She forced herself to draw a breath. Then another.
She set the phone down on the kitchen counter. Giles' voice continued, echoing up off the tiles, but she ignored it. She needed to make sure the world was still there with her own two eyes, needed to make sure it was still the same one she'd inhabited only seconds earlier. Her footsteps echoed hollowly as she crossed to the front door and opened it to the mid-morning sun. Outside, the birds chirped their merry song. Down the block, the Esperoza twins were skipping rope, brightly colored dresses flouncing in time with their jumps. An old rust bucket of a Chevy rattled up the street, dogs yipping after it.
Same world. Same day.
But something fundamental had changed.
Willow drifted back inside, and brought the phone to her ear.
"Hello? Hello? Willow?" Giles was saying.
"Er – good. I don't know how soon you can get away, but –"
"Give me twenty minutes," she said, and hung up. In spite of her self-imposed deadline, Willow remained leaning against the counter, her mind blank. She stared out the window, thoughts scattering every which direction, until Kennedy came barging into the kitchen.
"Hey, chica, time to hit the town. You ready?"
Willow turned toward the sound of her girlfriend's voice, her head float-y and light and not quite there. Kennedy loomed, but distantly. Willow closed her eyes, trying to find her center.
"Come on, babe. Time's a-wasting."
The gossamer balloon of unreality popped, and everything went from slow and muddled to over-bright and clear. "No. I've got to go to England."
Kennedy frowned. "What? Why?"
"Buffy." Willow started, surprised to hear the name she hadn't been able to say for months echoing out of her own mouth, the shape of it hard and real. Time went fuzzy again. She shook her head, brow furrowed, and answered the question on Kennedy's face. "Buffy's alive." She turned away, heading to their bedroom to pack.
"So, do you think Angel's right? This Lindsey guy botched a resurrection?"
Lips pressed tight, Willow dropped her paintbrush back in the pot and stood up, hands on her hips. She considered zapping Xander, who was lounging on the small bed on the opposite side of the room, fingers interlaced behind his head, but settled for a glare in place of electrocution. With the zero sleep and the huge fight she'd had with Kennedy before she'd left Rio, the nonstop worrying she'd been engaged in thanks to the lack of answers she'd gotten from Wesley, and the disturbing results of Andrew's personal quest, she was done in. As in long past the point where deep breaths or counting to a gazillion were going to do any good. Xander's repeated – and pointless – questions were the final straw. "I have no idea, Xander. I won't know anything until they get here. Meanwhile..." She gestured around the room they'd decided to give to Buffy. "Things to do. Help, or go away."
Xander held his hands up in conciliation. "Best I leave the hoodoo to you-do." He squinted at the wall, watching the latest ward fade until it was invisible. "You sure this is necessary?"
"I'm not sure of anything!" Willow snapped. "You know what I know, which is bupkis. And until we figure it out, there's no point in taking any chances."
"Right. It's just... I can't find the bad. It's Buffy."
"Maybe," she said, picking up her brush once more. Obviously Xander wasn't going anywhere, so she was going to have to settle for ignoring him as best she could. She had limited time to get the wards in place before Buffy arrived, and tempting though it was, a silencing spell probably wouldn't do their friendship any favors. She'd already alienated Kennedy, possibly for good. Willow wasn't up for permanently damaging any more relationships today.
As she worked, Xander threw out thought after thought, each one more ramble-y than the last. He was somewhere in the middle of analyzing the likelihood that the woman headed their way was really somebody with Mystique-like powers, pretending to be Buffy in order to infiltrate Slayer HQ, when Giles entered and cut him off with a sharp, "Enough, Xander."
Willow looked up, nerves jangling. "Is it time?"
"It is. Are you ready?"
"Her room is done. I still have to do the hallway."
"It can wait." Giles turned to Xander. "Will you be accompanying us to the airport?"
"I'm offended you even have to ask," Xander said. "It's Buffy."
"Perhaps," Giles said, his smile tight.
The sight of Buffy, manacled and curled up asleep on a cot inside a barred cage, was too much for Willow. While Xander greeted Dawn, and Giles and Faith listened to Andrew's report, Willow sat on the rollaway steps to the jet and tried to get herself under control.
Breathe, she told herself, stretching her senses downward through the tarmac to connect with the slow, steady pulse of the Earth. Breathe.
The stairs rattled. Willow looked up to see Giles hovering in the doorway. "If you're ready to begin? We won't have long before the sleeping potion Andrew gave her wears off. I'd like to complete as much of our testing as possible while she remains unaware."
"Right," Willow said, climbing to her feet. "With the not wanting Buffy to think we don't trust her and all."
Giles grimaced. "Until we know who or what we're dealing with..."
Willow only nodded. They'd analyzed the situation from all angles, repeatedly, ever since she'd arrived in London earlier in the week. There was nothing left but to collect the data and eliminate possibilities.
An hour later, she wasn't any closer to answers than before. Except now the woman in the cage was stirring, and they were out of time. Buffy's eyes flew open, and her body went rigid. The green shield surrounding her flared incandescent as she fought the magic holding her prisoner.
Dawn leapt to her feet, hands clenched into fists. "Release the spell!"
Willow already had. The green bubble sparked and fizzled, leaving after-spots in her vision. She kept her magic at the ready, though. On the other side of her, Giles slipped his hand into his jacket, no doubt reaching for the taser he'd brought.
"Buffy?" Dawn said. "Hey, it's okay. You're safe."
Buffy remained prone, chest heaving, muscles coiled with tension. Dawn reached through the bars to squeeze Buffy's shoulder, continuing to murmur assurances all the while, until she had her sister's attention. As Buffy visibly relaxed, Dawn said, "We're here. In London. You ready to go?"
"What...?" Brow wrinkled, Buffy stared at the people watching her warily from the other side of the bars. She sat up slowly, legs taut, poised to fight. Or flee.
Willow's brain, ever helpful, provided an image of an animal in a cage. A shivering, terrified animal in a cage.
"Hey, Buffy," she said, swallowing down both guilt and memories of the time she'd been transported to England under less than pleasant circumstances, post-attempted-world-endage. "Welcome home. Well, not home, since this is London, not Sunnydale, but it's where we all are, and they say home is where your heart is, which means this is home now. Right? So..." She gave Buffy a little finger waggle. "Hi."
Buffy frowned at her. She looked at Faith, then Dawn, then back at Willow. Her frown deepened.
"I'm Willow. Your friend?" She winced as she unwittingly turned the last into a question.
The lack of recognition in Buffy's eyes hit Willow like a slap to the face. Breathe...
Xander pushed in beside her. "And I'm Xander, also known as the Xan-man. You've met Dawn and Andrew, and Willow. That there's Faith. She's a Slayer, too. And this is Giles," he said, gesturing to each in turn.
"Giles..." Buffy studied him for a long time, her acceptance of his handshake and greeting tentative and reserved.
Then she turned to Faith, openly appraising her. "I don't understand. I'm the Slayer."
Faith scowled, but remained uncharacteristically silent.
"Yes, ah, I believe we have much to discuss," Giles said. He turned to Willow, shooting her a look full of hidden meaning, before turning back to Buffy.
Right. Time to get cracking.
Willow pulled Andrew aside. "Got that blood sample?" When he nodded, she said, "Let's head back to HQ now, so you can start analyzing it, and I can finish painting the wards." Without waiting for an answer, she grabbed Andrew's arm and teleported back to the dormitory.
With Buffy safely installed in her room, the rest of them had gathered in the War Room, as Andrew called it, to chart out a course of action. They had another two days' worth of testing and observation under their belts, but not much in the way of new information.
"Physically, as far as we can tell, she's Buffy," Willow said. "It seems to be her body, at least. If you ignore the part about her scent being off. Except, that's like a fingerprint to a vampire. Their version of a DNA test. Which she failed, according to Angel."
"But her DNA is a match," Andrew said.
"A match to my DNA," said Dawn as she passed the coffee Xander had handed her on to Faith. "Which was taken from Buffy. Maybe somebody took my DNA to make a Buffy?"
Andrew cleaned his glasses. "Your theory has merit, little one. The All Seeing said her body doesn't exist anymore. She could be a clone. A clone of a clone."
"Who says this demon you went to is telling the truth?" Xander said. "Or maybe he's mistaken. Locator spells still don't work on Buffy, right Wil? So, maybe that's why the demon couldn't locate her."
Willow nodded. "I used some of Buffy's hair – or whoever she is-es hair. Point being, nada. Couldn't locate her, even though she was right there in front of me."
"See? Your demon is blinder than me, and I've only got one eye."
Andrew sulked, and made to retort, but Giles cut him off. "It's clear she's human, or of human origin, at any rate. Perhaps a resurrection after all –"
"She says she wasn't dead," Dawn reminded him.
Andrew leaned in. "Shapeshifter –"
"Body swap –" Faith countered.
"Soul sucker –"
"Alternate universe doppelganger –"
"Or, and here's an idea." Xander slammed his hands on the table, silencing the rising voices. "Maybe it's just Buffy. With amnesia."
Willow sighed. "After all this time? Permanent amnesia is incredibly rare..."
"Not to mention the other issues. Her scent, locator spells," said Faith. "You said her aura is blank, too?"
"Could be something that lawyer she was with did," Willow said. "Wes told me about the tattoos he had. The ones that hid him from prying eyes."
Dawn shook her head. "But we checked for tattoos. While she was sleeping."
Giles cleared his throat. He removed his glasses, then noticing Andrew doing the same, grimaced and replaced them. "It's clear further research is necessary. Until we know more, I suggest we do our best to make Buffy feel comfortable and welcome, but not let our guard down. Perhaps Willow is right, and Buffy has been affected by something this McDonald character did. Perhaps other forces are at work. In the meantime, we have other business to attend to. Faith, do you have a progress report on the DeGlondass situation?"
"I'm going to go finish those wards," Willow said. Giles nodded his understanding, and she slipped out.
The grounds were quiet and peaceful, this time of day. Soothing. Forcing away the memory of Buffy's stricken expression yesterday morning when she'd learned about the locator spells, along with the guilt that accompanied it, Willow let the soft afternoon sun work its magic, relaxing under its benevolence as she etched glyphs into the building's foundation. They'd made the right choice not to tell her about the locator spells, Willow was certain of it. They'd only been trying to protect her. Help her. Buffy had understood.
Or, Buffy would've understood. If she were Buffy.
Willow shook off her misgivings, and set her brain to the question of why Buffy wasn't Buffy, hoping her grey cells were finally ready to provide an answer. Letting her mind drift, her thoughts returned to the lawyer. Lindsey. According to Wesley, McDonald was nothing more than an ambitious lawyer with a questionable conscience and a deep-seated grudge against Angel. Definitely not a powerful warlock, or a trained mystic, despite the tattoos he'd sported.
It vexed her to think this... this... bit player... might've managed magic too powerful for her to undo, too powerful for her to even recognize. With her skill level these days, Willow couldn't comprehend how she still hadn't figured out what was wrong with Buffy, or if it even was Buffy. Either way, Lindsey accomplishing magic of that level shouldn't have been possible, which made her think Lindsey couldn't have done it. Whatever it was.
A crack of electricity hummed across the backs of her hands, breaking her from her thoughts. She stared at her hand for a moment, surprised, before realizing what it meant. Looking up, Willow saw that, yup, Buffy had stepped outside. Good to get confirmation she could still work some magic.
"Thought I heard somebody out here," Buffy said. "Whatcha doing?"
"Oh, this and that. Strengthening the protection on this place. You know."
Buffy gazed at Willow, her expression inscrutable. "Strengthening the protection against what?"
"Whatever. Any threat."
"What?" Willow said, flustered. "No, no. Just... whatever. Threat. In general. Lots of demons. Out there." She waved her hand vaguely, cursing her lame explanation.
Buffy leaned against the wall, her gaze distant. "Maybe I should go. Somewhere else. Maybe this isn't the best place for –"
"Wait, what? Go? Why?"
"I can't be the only one feeling the awkward. Not to mention, you're going to all this trouble to figure out what's wrong with my memories, and it's clearly pointless."
Willow jumped to her feet. "Don't be silly, it's no trouble at all. You're our friend. Whatever's wrong, we'll fix it. That's what we do. And after all these years, trust me, we're really good at it. Plus, I don't know, maybe it's safer for you? To stay here? Until the amnesia's gone?"
Buffy shrugged, unconvinced. "Get any farther on that?"
"Not yet," Willow admitted. "We'll get there." She hesitated. "I do have one idea... Something we haven't tried yet."
"I could go in your head. See what's the what in there." Buffy frowned, and Willow said, quickly, "I've done it before."
"I don't think our relationship is ready for that yet, do you? You haven't even bought me dinner yet," Buffy said, her light tone belying the tightness at the corners of her eyes. "I mean, that's a big step, and we're just not that close."
"But we are! We used to be!"
"If you say so."
Buffy's casual dismissal of their friendship, friendship that had lived through serious ups and downs – if trying to kill each other wasn't a down, Willow didn't know what was – had her recoiling in dismay. She could feel her mouth beginning to wobble, and she bit down on her cheek, but not before Buffy noticed.
"I didn't mean to be – look. I get you're trying to help, and I guess it's a good idea, but I'm not up for it. Not today, anyway. Maybe later. I'm sorry, but I just don't know you." An unspoken or trust you hung in the air between them.
With an apologetic, "Think I've got another headache," Buffy turned and fled back inside, shutting the door behind her with a whump.
She really doesn't remember me, Willow thought, astonished. She'd understood the woman on the other side of the door wasn't the friend she knew and loved, but only on an abstract level. She hadn't felt it, hadn't known it in her gut, until now.
She really doesn't know me.
And I don't know her.