Xander wasn't sure whether he wished the drive from the Summers house to the Sunnydale airport was longer, or shorter. He supposed it depended on whether he thought about the person whose plane they were meeting, or
the person in the seat beside him.
Dawn stared out the window, not sure how she felt about Willow coming back so soon. "Must be quite a rehab. From evil to normal in six months or less." Maybe if Willow went bad again, they could get their money back from the coven. Or a buy two, get one free deal.
So maybe she was still bitter.
"I'm not sure it was supposed to be quite this short," Xander admitted. "Giles told Buffy they were sending her back early." And Buffy, ironically, couldn't afford to ditch the class she'd be missing if she were here right now.
"And we're not worried about this at all?" Dawn peeked at him, "Because I'm feeling a little worried about this."
"Worried about Willow, yeah, but not about us." Xander changed lanes and tried not to examine how true that statement might be. "Giles wouldn't send her home if she wasn't ready."
Dawn sighed and started drawing little feet on the window. "No, I guess he wouldn't. I just...how do we know something won't upset her again?"
"I don't think 'upset' is quite the right--" Xander stopped, remembering who he was talking to. "What happened this spring was way beyond that," he said finally. "For everybody."
Dawn nodded. "I know we can't.....I know what happened last spring was the ultimate in badness, but it seems like our badness keeps getting worse, and less ultimate." She sniffled a little, still missing her mom horribly. "It would be bad to have badness to deal with, and then Willow get all...y'know, on top of it, y'know?"
"You keep thinking it can't get worse," Xander answered. "Like at some point the emo-level in our lives should just get silly and somebody steps out from behind a post and tells us we're all on Candid Camera." Which was maybe a little more honest and a bit less Up With People than he'd meant it to come out.
"I know," Dawn was back to looking out the window. Oh, hey. Trees. "We got lucky with...with mom. For a while. And I thought it couldn't get worse, after...after Buffy, even though I kind of expected it, way, way, way down deep. It's not like she picks flowers as a hobby. But this...you always fight the bad stuff together. You're not supposed to be the bad stuff."
"I know." Xander really wished he had a comforting answer for that. It wasn't even that he felt depressed or gloomy about it himself; there was a crazy kind of...hope, really, that he couldn't shake, since those moments up there on the bluff. He just couldn't put it into words that he thought would make sense to anybody else. "I guess... all we can do is try to make sure it doesn't happen again? To any of us."
She looked over at Xander and studied him carefully, trusting him to tell her the truth. "How do we do that?"
"Be there? I guess. Don't lose track of each other." Xander pulled up to a stoplight and looked over at her. "Honestly... you want to know the big Adult Conspiracy secret? I think you're old enough now."
She'd known there was a big Grown Up Conspiracy! "Yes! Of course I want to know what you guys haven't been telling me." She restrained herself from bouncing in her seat--this wasn't that kind of conversation.
"There isn't any secret. We're all just making it up as we go along." Xander turned off down the access road to the airport, tires kicking up a little dust. "Doing the best we can."
"That's...really discouraging," Dawn decided.
Xander shook his head and smiled. "It's really not. If you think about it, yeah, bad stuff's happened. It happens to everybody, and maybe we get more than our share, but... the best we can is pretty damn good, overall."
She smiled at Xander and was reminded of a poem she'd heard in school. "You're the center."
"See, I would've said swingman, or maybe power forward." The nice thing about the back way into the airport aside from less traffic was that there were places along the side where you could actually pull off and blink at somebody and say, "Also huh?"
Maybe poetry wasn't Dawn's best subject. "Okay, the poem doesn't say anything like that, but there's a line that stuck in my head: Things fall apart; The center cannot hold. You're our center. As long as you're here, we have hope, and we come out okay in the end. Without you...well, I don't like to think about it. Not that you being away for the year wasn't tough, but you were still kind of around, you know?"
"Well, you were in Pine Valley for most of it," Xander answered smoothly, the words floating up from the stock of backstory he'd amassed in his head, memorized backwards and forwards until he could spit it out without thinking. "Not like you were here to see me not be around, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then I was around to see. I missed you guys, though."
Well, he would've missed her, if she'd existed to miss. The rest of what she'd said, he ducked, not knowing how to accept the compliment, even if at some level he'd long ago accepted the responsibility that went with it.
"Yeah, that was hardcore boring," Dawn admitted, "and I missed you tons."
As if that hadn't been obvious. There were many, many, many entries in the Dawn Chronicles devoted to the subject. Well, until she'd torched them.
"Buffy said it had better malls, at least." Xander pulled the car back onto the airport drive. "Not that it takes much to be competition there. Fandom almost had better malls than Sunnydale, and we're talking a general store with a smelly guy who really really liked turnips."
"Turnips?" Dawn made a face. "Yuck."
"Yeeeee-ah, not a big fan myself. Especially the funny-shaped ones."
"How funny-shaped?" Dawn asked, and even she was aware that they were discussing a mutual disgust of a perfectly innocent vegetable to avoid talking about the person they were on their way to pick up at the airport. Or maybe this was a standard Scooby conversation. "I mean, are we talking ha ha, weird, or obscene?"
"All of the above. Though the ha ha was less ha ha when the weird and obscene came from the little smelly guy. He was like..." Xander reached for a comparison and missed by a few thousand baths, but at least the size was right. "You remember Willy the Snitch?"
She rolled her eyes, but she was looking out the window, so Xander might not have seen. "Oh, yeah, sure. Buffy took me with her all the time when she went to see Willy."
Buh? He'd actually just meant that one of them had probably described the guy at one point, but given that the monks who came up with Dawn's backstory had also made them look like idiots who let her get kidnapped by Angelus back in the day because they hadn't bothered to tell her Angel was suddenly dangerous, Buffy taking Dawn to Willy's Alibi Bar was not...entirely outside the realm of possibility, Xander supposed.
"Which, uh, seemed weird at the time, but it made sense when she explained it." Totally. Really. He was sure it would, once he came up with a way to pry said explanation out of Buffy without having to claim he'd got hit on the head by a falling hammer. He'd used that excuse one too many times already.
Dawn shot Xander a look. Ooookay. As if Buffy let her walk within six blocks of that place. "Really. That must have been some explanation."
Xander was glancing in the rear-view mirror, and pulling aside once more to let a van with an airport logo on the side pass him.
"Something about wanting the creepycrawlies to think you had the same mad Slayer-jitzu skillz she does, so they'd stay away from you if they ever caught you alone?"
Wow, that almost vaguely sounded believable. He was starting to scare himself with this, after three years of it.
Yep, that would have been totally believeable, if it had ever happened. Dawn couldn't figure out why Xander was lying to her, but decided to chalk it up to Willow's-back-from-England-and-possibly-maybe-still-evil anxiety. Which didn't mean she wouldn't be talking to Buffy later.
"So, Willow at the airport. Think she's going to fly coach? I'd think evil, veiny Willow would totally fly first class."
"Evil veiny Willow would just teleport," Xander pointed out. "Or at least sit on top of the plane with her arms crossed and fly it with her brain."
"She can do that?" Dawn wasn't reassured by that idea. She watched the trees go by the window for a few minutes, then asked in a small voice, "Xander? Do you think she could do it? Unmake me?"
"She did it with a truck; plane's not that hard to picture." Then Xander registered what Dawn had really asked. "I don't know," he admitted. "She could've... I mean, she had the power to unmake us all. But she didn't."
"Because you stopped her." Dawn glanced at Xander a little worshipfully. Hey, some crushes died harder than others. "And you really think she's better?"
"I had help," Xander said. "From Giles, but from Willow, too. I couldn't have found her in there if there wasn't somebody left who wanted to be found." He pulled the car over again, but this time it was into the short-term parking lot. Reaching for a ticket and guiding the vehicle through the parking-gate took up enough fiddling time that he didn't have to look helpless as he tried to come up with a reply to Dawn's question.
"I don't know if she'll ever be exactly the way she was before." Which, though he didn't say it, would never say it, might be a good thing; it had sounded, both from Giles and from Willow, like whatever she was learning in this England was something she'd needed to know for a long time. "But she's not crazy or evil anymore."
"Not crazy or evil is good," Dawn admitted slowly, but didn't admit out loud that she wouldn't trust Willow the way she had before for quite a while. "And kind of unusual for us, these days."
"Seriously. That last principal lasted what, two weeks, before they found him chanting naked in a middle of a pentagram on the library floor? I could hear Giles cleaning his glasses over the phone when I told him he should be glad he doesn't work there anymore."
Xander pulled into an empty spot and didn't bother to glance up at the number over his head. Like enough people parked in the Sunnydale airport that he could lose his new-but-only-to-him car?
"Or possibly the glasses-cleaning happened when I pointed out that if it'd been the new guy doing the naked chanty thing it'd be a different story," Xander admitted.
"What would be a different story?" Dawn asked as she memorized the number and climbed out of the car, "Ohmigod, Xander!" She giggled. "Poor Giles."
"Well, come on." Yes, it was Dawn, but then again, she was the same age he'd been when he first met Buffy, more or less. "Tell me he's not hot." Xander frowned as he closed the car door. "Uh, Principal Diamond-Stud, not Giles. Because that would be wrong." There were levels of breakage his brain would never, never be ready for.
"Okay, not enough ew in the world for the Giles image," Dawn made a face as she started walking towards the terminal, "but yes, the new Principal is hot in an old guy way. There, happy?"
Ouch. The guy was maybe thirty. Then again, it was possibly a slight relief that Dawn was still thinking of somebody that age as an old guy, even if Xander was willing to talk about funny-looking turnips in front of her.
"Yup. Ecstatic." Xander pretended he was slowing his stride to let Dawn keep up with him, and not because he was glancing at the terminal doors almost as nervously as she was.
Had Xander asked, Dawn would have explained the difference between "Hot vampire," "Old teacher guy," "Almost a father," and "Really, really cute and heroic BFF of my sister's." But he didn't ask.
Dawn's legs weren't that much shorter than Xander's, but she wasn't in a big rush to get inside either. "Now or never," she said under her breath.
"Hey, if it makes this any less nervewracking, she's coming back early because there's some kind of apocalypse on its way. Yay apocalypse - we're good at those." Xander grinned a little fakily, then took a breath and tried on a softer one that fit more naturally on his face. He held his hand out for Dawn's. "Ready?"
"Yay, apocalypse?" Dawn took his hand and squeezed it. She smiled back, but it was small and hesitant. "As I'll ever be."
He squeezed back. "It'll get better," Xander said, unconsciously echoing things he hadn't been there to hear Buffy say while he was up on that bluff with Willow. "Can't promise when, but I know it will."
"Okay. That's enough for now." Dawn took Xander at his word.
Sometimes it has to be, Xander thought as they walked into the airport.