"Spring makes everything young again, save man."
When Xander finally set foot on British soil again on a windy, cold-bright day in April, it was a year to the day since he'd dropped everything and run for Africa. Eighteen months since Sunnydale—since Anya—well. Felt like more. Not long enough to get over it, or anything.
Most of Africa was a blur; a bright, loud, stifling, green-and-orange streak. Xander felt dusty and pretty worn around the edges. He felt older, too. He barely noticed the missing eye any more-no, that was a lie, he noticed it all the time, but he could tell himself that he didn't notice it, and that was pretty good-but his left shoulder ached from where he'd yanked it out of its socket last month, and his ribs were still bruised from a run-in with a Kafrit demon in Zimbabwe.
He'd been sleeping on a makeshift cot in a relief center in Bulawayo when it happened.
Xander, Willow's voice whispered in his head, and he'd felt a tug in the middle of his chest, and he'd gotten up and left. He was pretty sure it wasn't a summoning or whatever—more like some freaky cosmic, Are you still there? It was only then that he realized that he hadn't actually filed an official report at the Council in about three months. He'd just been sending Slayers back when he could, and he hadn't bothered with the rest.
So, yeah, legitimate cause for worry. There were probably like a thousand carefully repressed freaking-out messages from Giles sitting in his in-box back in the Council station in Nairobi, and way more than a thousand seriously-freaking-out emails from Willow.
Still, remembering the Slayers he'd met and the friends he'd made (good thing he was friendly, because it turned out that having trustworthy translators was kind of a big deal) gave him a sense of...well. Not peace. Xander wasn't sure peace was on the menu any more. Satisfaction, maybe? That was pretty close. Anyway, he could sorta sleep at night now, for the most part, and somewhere along the way he'd worked out some of the guilt and some of the pain. Not much, but some.
Xander shifted his one bag on his shoulder and looked around. Crowds didn't bother him, but it was weird to be in England again. The light was more gray, and it felt closer around his head, cooler. Africa had been brighter, more colorful, hotter, louder. Looking back on it now, it seemed like a weird dream.
Time to come home, Willow's voice had told him in a dream two weeks ago, and he listened. Not so much because it was her voice saying it, but because he'd been thinking it too. He wasn't really sure where home was, exactly, but he figured that wherever Willow and Buffy and Dawn and Giles were, it was probably close. Now that Anya was gone, that was all he had.
He'd been half-expecting Willow or someone he knew to be standing here waiting for him. Now that they weren't, he realized he was going to have to figure something out on his own.
He could always go to Council headquarters (he knew where that was, at least), but the idea of getting bombarded by a bunch of strangers hunting him down about his missing paperwork made him wince at thin air. Giles would probably be there, even if it was Sunday afternoon. But Giles was running the Council now, and he was probably on some list of the top ten most super-secret influential guys in the world. "Old friends" didn't seem to hold as much weight as it used to, as access passes went.
Besides, he was pretty sure that Buffy wouldn't spend much time at the Council, even if she was in England and not off doing her world-tour deal with Dawn. He didn't doubt that Willow was here, because she was the one that had told him to come in the first place, but he didn't think she'd be at the Council either. Or would she be there because that's where she figured he'd come to find her?
"Great," he muttered to himself in frustration. A passing woman gave him a weird look over the strap of her huge red purse. Xander flashed her something like a smile and kept moving out into the sunlight. He stopped at the curb, but he didn't try to flag down a cab, because he had no idea where he was going. He found an empty bench to sit on instead.
It hadn't occurred to him to feel nervous until just now. He hadn't seen anyone in a year—he hadn't even written for ages. Giles was probably furious at him; he'd been so all-business-all-the-time when Xander left, he had probably barely noticed the younger man was gone, except when the reports stopped coming in. Or maybe he wasn't angry at all—maybe he was just that same kind of focused tired that he'd been near the end back in Sunnydale, and he'd just give Xander that half-smile and then forget he existed again. Xander wasn't sure which one he'd hate more.
He wasn't sure what kind of welcome back he'd get from Buffy, either. The Slayer in her'd been itching to get out of Dodge, out of England, and probably out of her own skin. Xander hadn't blamed her at the time, but he hadn't been able to talk about Spike or Anya or the crap that Sunnydale had made of their friendship, either. They hadn't really talked much after...after, both too wrapped up in their own stuff to be able to do the best-bud thing. He'd barely said goodbye when she left with Dawn.
Oh, holy crap. Dawn. She was probably in school somewhere by now; he realized with a pang that he'd completely missed her turning seventeen. He wondered if she and Buffy were still trotting around as Council-funded tourists, or if they'd settled down. Maybe Buffy had left her sister with the G-man to get a proper English education. Dawn would be pissed at him for running off for a year, no doubt about it. Still, Xander was pretty sure that she'd at least be happy to see him.
It never once occurred to him that Willow wouldn't be wherever he ended up going, waiting for him. She'd been the one leaving the insane telepathic trans-continental voicemail, after all. Willow was Willow, and even though she'd probably spent the last year doing crazy magic and sunbathing on weird foreign beaches with Kennedy, they'd be fine eventually. She's probably kick his butt for going incommunicado, but he deserved it.
You'll know the way, her message-thing had reassured him. He'd woken up thinking about Willow and the fire truck when they were six, and the sound of Giles' voice in the library stacks, and the light on Buffy's face when she'd stood on the ragged edge of the hole that used to be Sunnydale.
Alright, so he did know where to go. Giles had sent him the address to the house he'd bought last year, and it was still in the bottom of the suitcase somewhere.
You can't hide forever. Xander knew this to be true, and he was tired of trying. He stood up and went to hail a cab.
The house wasn't what Xander expected. The cab dropped him off at the end of the driveway and he took his time walking up, observing the wide front porch and the comfortable, homey look the whole thing exuded. It looked more like something the old Giles would have picked out, but maybe that wasn't so surprising, considering. There were no cars anywhere; Xander wasn't sure if he was grateful for the chance to ease in, or worried that Giles only came home once a month. He could probably sleep on the porch.
The door was locked—that surprised him more than anything else. At some point he'd just figured Giles was incapable of locking doors as long as one of them was outside. Xander stopped there on the porch, something a lot like fear building in his chest. His fingers clenched white around the strap of his bag. No one was home. He could get out of here and they'd never have to know.
"You're an idiot," he told himself firmly. "It's just the people you've been ignoring for a year." He missed them. He decided to try around the back; his cellphone was dead, but maybe Giles left the back door open.
He left his bag on the porch and rounded the far corner of the house. He had a brief impression of a garden and a bench and lots of green, but then there was Giles.
The Watcher was levering to his feet from where he'd been kneeling in a row of flowers Xander didn't recognize. He was wearing mud-smeared jeans and a t-shirt, his hair longer than before. When he glanced up and caught sight of the long-lost Scooby he froze; Xander noticed abstractly that he wasn't wearing glasses and there was a long line of dirt across his forehead, probably from wiping it with his hand.
"Good Lord," Giles breathed.
Xander cleared his throat awkwardly. "Yeah. Sorry I didn't call. Nice place you-"
There was a blur on his blind side that made him flinch, and then Giles had his arms around him in the biggest, warmest, most unselfconscious hug Xander had ever received. There was a moment when his senses screamed run fight run move! But the urge was drowned out immediately by the smell of old books and warm earth and Giles' hand firm on the back of his neck. Xander gave in and let his head rest against the other man's shoulder. The world began to resettle into something like home and safe and about dang time.
"You're here," Giles laughed. "Thank heaven. We thought-"
It was only then he realized what exactly those months of nothing had done—to his family, to Giles of all people.
"Sorry," he whispered. "I'm really sorry."
Giles cleared his throat and stepped back. It was a little late to be embarrassed by the emotional stuff, considering Mr. Repressable had just given him a bear hug. Xander offered a weak little smile. "Miss me?"
Something darkened in Giles' green eyes, an unfamiliar expression. "If you ever," he enunciated slowly, pointing a dirty finger at Xander's chest, "Do that again, I will not be responsible for what Buffy does to you. Not to mention you will be quite fired. Are we clear?"
"Clear," Xander gulped. He squeezed his eye shut in anticipation for the coming lecture. When it didn't come, he opened it again to find Giles smiling at him: a real smile. There was no head of the Council here, just a friend.
"Welcome back," he said instead. "The girls should be back soon, and in the meantime we can get you settled."
There were a few too many new things in that sentence for Xander to process all of them. He started with the most obvious. "I don't want to put you out. I can stay at a hotel."
Giles led him over to a door at the back of the house that led into a cool, airy kitchen. He sent Xander a speaking look over his shoulder, and that ended that discussion.
Xander noticed the pile of textbooks on the table that looked pretty high school, and the pink apron hanging on one of the hooks by the doorway that looked like it led into the front hall. That seemed a good opening to ask, "Girls?"
"Buffy and Dawn, naturally. Dawn's in school down the road and doing very well. Buffy has been consulting at the Council."
"What, like an apocalypse expert?
"Something like it, yes. She's also been writing the new Slayer handbook."
"Wow." Somehow, that kind of worked. He'd have to read it. "How long's this been going on?"
Giles paused at the sink, water running over his hands, as if he really had to think about it. "Oh...last summer. Amazing how the time flies, really."
Xander felt his eyebrows hike. He settled onto one of the stools at the island and reached for a book. He was amazed at how easy this was, like he'd never left. Giles handed him a glass of water without asking if he wanted it and yeah, he'd been living with rude American girls for a year. Xander accepted it gratefully and took a long gulp. "Where's the Willster? Thought she'd be here."
This time Giles raised an eyebrow, and the expression was deeply familiar. Xander felt a little giddy. "Did you? She's been in Pilau. She did mention she might stop in soon."
Xander blinked. "What? No, she-"
The front door banged open.
"Since when do we lock this?" Buffy's voice called out. "Did someone break in again?"
Dawn's voice rode right over her sister's as she shouted, "I got an A on that test! Buffy owes me money!"
Xander didn't have even a little control over himself; he was tearing up by the time they appeared in the kitchen door and stopped dead, just like Giles had.
Dawn was a good three inches taller and her hair was shorter, and she was dressed like a preppy English chick, which kinda worked for her. Buffy was...Buffy was herself. But older, and healthier, and Xander knew just from looking in her eyes that Sunnydale didn't stalk her footsteps quite as much these days.
"Where have you been?" Dawn demanded. She marched straight up to him, glared, and smacked him in the chest. "You jerk!"
Dawn started crying and he reached out. There was a couple minutes of confusion after that, while Buffy and Dawn both tried to hug him at once. Elbows and ribs and a knee got in the way, but then he was settled with one in either arm, theirs passed firmly around his waist. He clenched his eye shut against the tears and buried his face in Buffy's hair, and all was right in the world.
"You are a jerk," Buffy told him as she withdrew. Dawn stayed tucked firmly into his side and he didn't try to move her. "If you ever do that again-"
"You'll slay me," he finished with a grin he'd forgotten he had. "G-man made that clear." He looked her square in the eyes and there was an understanding there he'd missed a whole lot, the last couple years. "I'm sorry."
"Did it help?"
"Yeah. A little. I think."
She put a hand on his arm and smiled, that sad one they'd all gotten so good at. He caught Giles' eye over her shoulder. "That room still open?"
"Oh!" Dawn grabbed his hand and yanked him towards the stairs. "We have a room made up for you! It's got your favorite colors and everything!"
"Have a bag?" Buffy called after them.
"On the porch."
She turned to Giles. "See? This is what happens when we lock the door!"
"Well, I'm terribly sorry that in the midst of threatening apocalypse and multiple threats on both our lives, I thought to ensure a little safety!"
"You lost your key again, didn't you."
"Wow," he muttered.
Dawn grimaced. "I know. It's like having parents."
Xander laughed and let himself be dragged into his room.
There was a lot to catch up on. Xander heard about Dawn's driving lessons ("Seriously, Xander, I can't take it any more, and she put Giles' car in the shop. You have to take her.") and the work at the Council ("We could use someone here, that is if you're...well, I mean to say that-" "If you don't stay here for a while I'll never talk to you again, and neither will he." "Yes, thank you Buffy, that's not quite what I meant."), and then around the second day, Dawn mentioned that Kennedy was dead.
That changed things a little. After Dawn had gone to bed on his second night, he sat down with Buffy at the kitchen island and learned all the bad stuff. Kennedy, Angel's whole gang, a few apocalypses he'd barely noticed in Africa, a round of the flu that had sent all of them to sickbeds for a month. They talked about life and memories and even a little about Spike and Anya. Giles occasionally wandered in from work in his study, quietly interjecting before moving out again. He and Buffy had apparently gotten over that whole secrets thing this last year.
Finally, Xander thought to ask something that had been bugging him since he showed up at the airport. "Hey, where's Will? I thought she'd be here, with the whole psychic message thing."
"What psychic message thing?" Willow's voice asked from the door.
They both spun around to see her standing there smiling, a laptop case on her shoulder and a suitcase on her feet. "Hi!" She said brightly. "I came as soon as you called."
He stood up and walked over and hugged her. They just stayed that way for what seemed like forever, until eventually Buff came over and joined them and they all just stood there in a comfortable tangle of arms and heads and hearts. "Wait!" he looked down at them. "Who called you? You called me!"
"We called her when you got here, doofus. Giles!" Buffy shouted. "Look who showed up!"
The four of them ended up out on the porch. Giles handed out mugs of cider that eased off the cool night. They all crowded into each other, with Willow's legs pressed into his where they sat side by side, Buffy and Giles seated across the bottom two steps like a human gate.
Willow was the same as ever pressed up against him, but there was a stillness to her now, an extra layer of shadows around her smile that must come from losing two lovers in the same amount of years. He didn't know her perfectly anymore, but he still knew her best. The thought relieved him. Life was wrong without her, after all this time. They'd be alright.
Buffy stretched out on the step below their feet, mug balanced on one raised knee. She was different too, more grown-up and centered. She was like...like the picture of her he'd always had in his head, just now come to life, now that most of the dying and the losing and the dark seemed to be over with. It looked good on her, this settling down to the never-quite-normal life they'd talked about way back when they thought they'd have a future.
Giles sat with his head facing Buffy, one knee raised and the other planted on the ground. Buffy was half-leaning against his leg and he seemed at ease here, glancing out into the yard occasionally but mostly watching the three of them above him. He caught Xander's eyes and there was a peace there that made the world seem safe. Giles was better now—he'd been not right for that last stretch in Sunnydale, they all had, but it was fixed for him, now.
Maybe, someday, it would be fixed for all of them. Sitting here, he could believe it.
So Xander took a deep breath, and he talked. He talked about Africa, about finding translators and Slayers, about feeling angry and then empty. And then he talked about the message that had gotten him out of Kenya, out of Africa, and back here.
They all processed it for a bit. Finally Willow shook her head. "Well it definitely wasn't me, though if you'd stayed gone any longer I probably would have." She hit him on the shoulder, and he deserved far worse so he feigned pain.
"Well who the heck was it then? Because that's a pretty freaky mind trick, and it definitely sounded like-"
It smacked him upside the head, then, and for a second the world went white and he wanted to cry. When his vision cleared they were all staring at him with concern.
"Anya," he choked out. "It sounded a lot like Anya."
"Ah," Giles said with a soft little smile on his face. When they all turned to look, he shook his head. "I wondered," he admitted. "Story for another time."
Willow was looking at Xander sideways. "You're staying, aren't you?"
In the end, he didn't even have to think about it. "Yeah. I mean, where else would I be?"
"Here here," Buffy smiled. They clicked their mugs together in a toast.
Welcome home, Xander thought, and this time it was his voice alone.
Author's Note: Well, there we have it. This took a very long time to post-real life and a novel got in the way. I have loved this little series; it fulfilled a need to see these dear characters that we loved for so long in more or less the places we wanted them to be when the show ended. It also gave me a chance (one I fear I will take less and less, but that I will always cherish) to write and relate to the Scoobies that I've been friends with for years. I never grow tired of them. Feel free to tell me what you thought of this-comments are always appreciated, especially the intelligent ones I get in this fandom. An epilogue may be coming out (Dawn deserves her own chapter, doesn't she?), but we'll have to see. Thank you as always for your reading time and thoughts. Cheers!