It's not especially good, but it's filler! Mmmm, filler.
When Xander and Spike came back through the portal, no one was there, and it made Willow feel achey-breaky around the heart to think about it, like the time she came back from England and no one was at the airport to greet her, except they were, just invisible. That wasn't the case this time. They'd been gone three weeks; long enough for everyone to give in and agree that it would no longer be useful to sit shifts at the clearing in the woods where they'd vanished, even Willow herself, who'd held out as long as she could before giving into mourning. They were all the walking wounded. Giles had stopped speculating about the possibilty of their survival and was drinking too much. Buffy had turned quieter than quiet. And Willow thought of the years ahead, an existence without Tara and Xander and Oz, and she wondered what the point would be after Buffy inevitably fell and gave it up for the next slayer in line, and Willow wondered how she'd kill herself--quickly? slowly? By carelessness, with deliberation? She pictured her vampire alter ego, shuddered, and told herself that no matter what, she wouldn't let it end *that* way.
Nearly a year after insurance company agents had suspiciously inspected the shattered magic shop, Anya finally wrested her money from their bloodsucking grip and left town with teary good-byes. Faith and Robin took off in his car for Cleveland. Sheepish, anxious locals returned in waves to resume their homes and their lives. Shellshocked potentials blinked and called their parents and blew away like tumbleweeds, including Kennedy, who, when the purse strings were tugged, folded like a cheap lawn chair. Dawn chopped off all her hair, went back to school. Andrew kept house and worked on a comic book. The Hellmouth was closed again, for now, and this was the part where the survivors were supposed to pick up the threads of their lives and go on, reknit, but the survivors should have included Xander. Because frankly, Andrew was not an acceptable Xander substitute, not even the margarine of Xanders, not even Xander Lite, and if he didn't stop offering her bundt cake, she was going to slap him silly.
Which was what she was thinking the night that Xander and Spike came back. She was sitting in the living room, Buffy out, Dawn out, Andrew bundting, Giles next to her on the couch, drinking with her. They were hanging together. She was hanging with Giles. She'd done some of that in England, but now they were here, reinforcing her awareness that they were behaving almost like peers. They had peerage going on, a kind of wavelength even. Soon they'd probably start sleeping together, one of those May-December, lesbian-watcher relationships you hear about.
"I'm kind of drunk," she was noticing aloud, at just about the time that Xander and Spike came back.
Giles stared ahead at the screen where Katherine Hepburn was teasing a leopard, lifted his glass to his mouth, then lowered it and turned to her on a five-second delay. "Pardon?"
"You're kind of drunk," Willow said kindly.
"Oh." He glanced at his glass. "Yes. I suppose I am, rather. I have this painful knocking in my head."
"That's the door."
"Oh, fine. Thank god." At once he took a long swallow from his drink.
"We should answer it," Willow said from her slumped position, gaze back on the TV.
A moment of shared immobility passed before Willow called, "Andrew! Door!"
"I've got it," their housemaid trilled.
So it was Andrew who answered the door, saying, "Hola, and welcome to Casa Sum--" And then his voice broke off into silence. Onscreen, the leopard roared; Willow took another sip of her drink.
Andrew slammed the front door and appeared in the living room entrance, pale-faced, wringing his hands. "There're ghosts at the door," he said, sounding uncertain. "Should I let them in?"
"Sure," Willow said, watching the commercial of dancing Chex Mix. "Why not? Are they friendly?"
"They bear the visage of our fallen comrades."
After two ticks of a melted, eternal clock, Willow and Giles turned their heads and looked at one another, then hied for the door and opened it, and there they were, Xander with his hand raised to knock again, Spike half turned away, gazing around the neighborhood as if to orient himself--a fleeting impression as the door swept them into view, and then he was turning back to face them, and then they were all facing each other.
Willow found a croak of a whisper to say, "Xander?"
It was funny how she knew already what had happened, right then, but they'd talked about the possibilities, so maybe intuition and evidence and supposition just converged like they do sometimes, because she knew. He was older, enough that she could see it around his eyes, with the longest hair he'd ever worn and a beard that made him another person entirely, like a blues guitarist or one of those bad-ass guys who played bar pool like they were married to the table. It was like seeing a cousin you haven't met in five years and finding out he's this complete *man*, and kind of crushworthy.
"Will," he said, and it was his voice, or maybe lower. Raspy. As if he'd screamed a lot sometime, somewhere--
She flew into his arms, a crazy drunken bird hitting a tree--he was like wood, it was like hugging a tree, hard and strong. He hugged back, and she pressed her wet face into his shoulder and inhaled leather, sweat, and intense woodsy things, like maybe he'd slept in pine needles and sap and crushed greenery until their scents had blended into the fabric of him, not just clothes but skin. They were bizarre, not-Xander smells, and she knew he'd been gone for a long, long time.
There was a chaos of greetings, a hug between Giles and Xander when she stepped back and swiped tears off her face, Andrew burbling meaninglessly in the background, and then Giles pulled away and she noticed Spike, always an afterthought, barely missed by them all this time, overshadowed by the huge absence of Xander.
Willow knew she was looking at Spike because he was with Xander; ergo, he was Spike. If he'd been on his own, come to their door, she wasn't sure she'd have recognized him. She remembered Spike as a dark scowl, an unkind mouth, a series of head tilts and suspicious gazes and postures and mockeries. Thumbs hooked in belt, entire body a slump, cigarette smoke shrouding him in bitter fumes and boredom. He'd looked his age, a hundred years of apathy and evil, and those few months of soul hadn't changed her impression of him. But now he looked weirdly fresh-faced and wide-eyed and young, as if he'd just stepped off the plane or wandered off from prep school for the first time. His hair stuck up everywhere in tiny licks, a yellowy-white mess as if someone had rubbed his head vigorously with both hands after washing. His face was whiter than white, clean as snow, but he didn't look at all sick or hungry. When she caught his eye, he smiled at her with eyes and mouth.
His voice made a melody of her name, and for some reason when he spoke she finally took in the rest of him and realized he was wearing simple clothing with complicated trappings--belt and sword and boots--and a cloak over it all, and Xander was too. They hadn't just been gone a while. They'd been gone an elsewhere.