As the plane taxied down the runway, Xander stretched out his bad leg as much as he could to get the kinks out. First class might have more leg room than economy class, but it had nothing on the fleet of private planes SWCI kept, as he was painfully reminded every time he went on vacation—company jets were for business only, even for the boss, and the last time he'd tried to take a vacation at home he'd ended up working the whole time. He hadn't minded, but everybody else got upset if he didn't take a vacation at least once a year.
If someone had told him, back when he was still just a kid, that one day he'd be a workaholic, unable and unwilling to let work out of his mind even when he was physically away from it, he would have laughed in their face. Xander Harris, a workaholic? The idea was ludicrous. But somewhere along the way, his work had become the most important thing in his life.
These reunions always made him think about the past. Sometimes he wondered how things would be different if he'd never gotten involved in Hunting, if he'd done like everybody else in Sunnydale and ignored everything out of the ordinary. Everything would be different, of course—he'd built his entire life around hunting—but could he ever have had the perfect, calm life, the wife and kids and house with a white picket fence? Had he ever even wanted that for himself?
A flight attendant came over as the plane settled into position. "If you'll wait just a few minutes, sir, we'll get a wheelchair for you."
Xander glared at her. "I don't need a wheelchair," he said, pointedly waving his cane a little bit.
"Sir, you're not supposed to have that on the plane."
The other flight attendant tried to get her attention, his eyes wide and making apologetic gestures at Xander, who rolled his eyes at the fears that had made even canes forbidden on planes and flashed his ID at her. "See? All legal." The cane, and the stake, and the knife, and the Desert Eagle, and the sword hidden in his cane.
"I am so sorry, sir," the male flight attendant said, and pulled the woman off to whisper urgently in her ear.
"Commander Harris?!" she exclaimed, loudly enough to be heard by more than just her coworker, and Xander sunk lower in his seat as everybody around craned their necks trying to get a good look at him. As soon as the door was opened, Xander got off the plane, his cell phone already plastered to his ear.
"Your flight's early," Jack said, not even bothering to pretend he was surprised that Xander had called the moment the short flight was complete.
"Must've gotten the right wind," Xander replied. "How many buildings have been burned down so far?"
"What! How did you hear about that?"
He closed his eye and counted to ten in his head. "I was joking. You let them play with fire already? I've only been gone for a few hours, Jack."
"Hey, it was necessary, and only took out one warehouse."
He considered it. All things considered, one warehouse wasn't too bad, and Jack knew the difference between necessary and fire pretty. "Fine. But you can explain it to the official-type people."
"Already have, boss-man," Jack told him. "Locals arrested Claire, so I had to call Homeworld and tell the story. I think they would have arrested Faith and me for impersonation of a federal agent if they believed SWCI was a real agency." Xander snorted at that. The last time he'd seen the two of them go out on a case together, Faith had been proving that some senior citizens could still look good while wearing leather, and Jack had looked even younger than the 21 his driver's license claimed he was. "I think Claire liked the fire, though."
Xander flinched, unable to keep himself from remembering the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh, the way the ashes had seemed to cling to his hands no matter how much he washed them...the trial and execution of the last Slayer who'd liked fire. "Liked it? Like pyromania, or like we should get her trained in demolitions and give her a rocket launcher for her birthday?" he forced out. If it wasn't pyromania, they could always use another person trained in demolitions. The two of them might be trained, but neither of them had time to either pass on their skills or use them in the field much anymore. There was always a crisis for them to deal with, and few of their crises were easy enough to be solved with explosions.
"Not pyromania," Jack said immediately. "We might want to see about putting her in Special Forces training. And by the way? There's a reason you've been forbidden from picking out gifts."
Xander paused, reluctant to place one of his people in the military, even temporarily—there might not have been any problems with the SRI, but the Initiative had left him with a lingering reflex of distrust towards the military—but Jack was right. If she had the skill and inclination, military training might be the best course of action for her. And Jack had been around the block, involved with the military his whole life, including some rather shady areas of it—he wasn't naive enough to make a suggestion like that without thinking it through. "If she doesn't have to serve, afterward," he said, meaning yes.
"Xander, I'm pretty sure we have enough pull with the government that we could assassinate Kinsey and get away with it, as long as we didn't do it on national television," Jack said, amusement in his voice. "Speaking of which, can we? We have new NID guests in the cells."
"Escalation first, then assassination," Xander told him. "When you run out of good pranks we'll talk. It's not like they've ever come close to succeeding, and pantsing him makes for good CSPAN."
"That it does," Jack said. "Oh, by the way, there was another portal."
"Another one? Who's making all these portals?"
"If I knew that, there wouldn't be any more portals. The geeks think they might have something that might get us answers, though."
"What is it?"
"I have no idea, other than something theoretical. You know how they get. It's going to take a few days to figure out if it's working, though."
"Well, some progress is better than no progress," Xander said, his short-lived happiness disappearing. "But do we even have a few days? We're running out of spelled emeralds—and you know those things take forever to make—and at the rate the portals have been opening, we're going to run out before they figure it out. And you know what the only other way of closing them is."
"Nobody's happy about it," Jack said grimly. "But the laws of magic are the laws of magic. We have to work with what we've got."
"I've lost enough people for a dozen lifetimes, and now I have to prepare for even more of my people to heroically sacrifice themselves to save the world. Haven't I earned a few violations of the laws of magic by now? Or even a lucky break?"
"Unfortunately, the universe doesn't work that way. Wish it did."
Xander sighed. "And on that cheerful note, I'd better get going. I'm sure my ride's waiting," he said. "Take care of my girls for me."
"Didn't we have this conversation when you left?"
"So? You've only been gone for a few hours, and you'll be back in a week. I think you can stop worrying; nothing bad's going to happen."
"Dammit, Jack!" Xander exclaimed at the same time as Jack let out his own curse.
"I'll put everybody on high alert," Jack said.
"I should —"
"No way, Xander. If you think a little thing like a possible apocalypse will get you out of your reunion, you've got another think coming."
"But it's an apocalypse!"
"What, afraid someone's going to beat your record of most apocalypses stopped? Because nobody's even close to it. Come on, let someone else stop one for a change."
"You know I don't care about the record," Xander said impatiently.
"Good, then you won't have a problem leaving this one to the amateurs."
Xander groaned; he'd fallen into that one. "Fine," he conceded dramatically. "But if the world ends, I'm saying I told you so."
"I'm pretty sure that the world means that you won't be able to say you told me so," Jack retorted.
"That's right, says me." Jack was interrupted by a sudden boom that Xander could hear through the phone.
"I can come back and help you with that," Xander said hopefully.
"No," Jack said firmly. "Mandatory vacation time is mandatory for everybody, including you. Have fun, come back in a week. Don't cause too much trouble."
"Save the innocent act for people who don't know you. It's never going to fool anybody you know."
Xander chuckled. "Well, it was worth a try. I'll try to avoid getting arrested."
"I'm not worried about the times you do get arrested, so much as I'm worried about the times that they don't catch you. I mean, why did you think it was a good idea to make a life-size statue of Godzilla, and how did you get it into Tokyo without anybody seeing you?" There was shouting in the background. "Whoops, gotta go. They need my help." Not wasting time on goodbyes, he hung up.
Maria was waiting at the curb in one of SWCI's standard black SUVs, only a small bumper sticker betraying its ownership to those who didn't know the driver. Technically speaking, the bumper sticker was against the rules—they tried to be as subtle as possible, and advertising their affiliation was not subtle to those in the know—but Xander didn't say anything about it as he climbed into the SUV. Hey, he might be the boss, but he refused to go around forcing everybody to follow every little rule.
"Hey, Maria," he said.
"Hey, sir. No luggage?"
Xander rolled his eye at her, provoking a giggle. "Andrew Wells invented the Bag of Holding for a reason. And how many times do I have to tell you? It's Xander, not sir."
"That's not what the Queen says," she teased.
"Hey! We're not in the Land of Tweed now, you can't speak Tweedish."
"Tweedish isn't a word."
"Sure it is."
"Whatever, sir. How was your flight?"
"Same old, same old." She had his opinion of flying commercial memorized by now, since she'd heard it once a year for a decade. "How's the Slaying?"
She snorted. "You read the reports. You know that we only have the usual demon problems, and magic users trying to cheat at the casinos."
"And a few portals lately."
"Yeah, well, everybody's been having problems with portals lately. Still no leads on it?"
"Swear jar," Xander reminded.
"Yeah, yeah," she waved him off. "Like I'd forget. It's not like I don't have to put money in every day."
"Doesn't everybody?""The fact that it all goes towards our parties doesn't really act as a deterrent, you realize."
He shrugged. " The only person who ever thought it would act as a deterrent was Giles. The rest of us just needed a way to fund the parties."
"Huh, I never knew that."
"Really? I thought everybody knew that."
"We're not all you." They sat in comfortable silence for a few moments before she spoke again. "Hey, by the way, do you have an ETA on the next batch of spelled emeralds? That run of portals has cleared us out."
"Everybody's out," Xander said. "And MagiTech's working on making more as quickly as possible, but we have some supply problems, and you remember what a pain in the ass they are to make."
"God, yes. I almost flunked because of those things. The emerald has to be perfect, and everything has to be done perfectly. Takes months, but if you're even five minutes off in the timing it fails horribly, usually with a chain reaction that destroys the rest of them."
"If they weren't so important I don't know that we'd ever make them."
"If they weren't so important, we wouldn't have any reason to make them."
"I dunno about that. I mean, as an exercise to demonstrate the importance of precision in certain kinds of magic it's pretty good."
She shuddered. "Are you determined to make me relive those horrible magic classes? I still have nightmares about them, and I wasn't stupid enough to take any Practice of Magic, just Magical Theory."
He grinned. "Just making sure you're keeping the lessons fresh in your head. Aren't you due for your next continuing ed magic class soon?"
Maria whined. "Whoever decided to put you in charge of SWCI was a sadist who wanted us poor Slayers to suffer."
"And here I thought they were sadists who wanted me to suffer."
She thought about it for a second. "Nope, definitely us."
"Gee, thanks, it's nice to know you have such a high opinion of me."
They pulled into a parking space in front of what had at one time been a church, and was currently the Las Vegas headquarters of the SWCI, with living space for the Agents stationed there.
"You know the drill," Maria told him. "You're in the usual hotel. Get in contact if you need to, and only if you need to. I'm not going to let anybody bite my head off because I let you work during your vacation."
He grumbled a little, but didn't object too loudly; he didn't want to be forced to take even more time off. It'd be hard enough to find enough to do to occupy a whole week, much less two.
"Hey, you don't let incompetents stay in SWCI," she said sharply. "Trust us to do the jobs that you trained us to do, okay? We can manage without you for a week."
"Hey, I trust you!" he protested without having to think twice about it.
"Good. Then trust us." Maria hugged him goodbye. "See you in a week, and don't forget to use the remote car starter."
"After six car bombs? I don't think I'm ever going to forget to use it." He walked around the car and got in on the driver's side.
"After six car bombs, I'd rather make certain you remember than have to write up the report for your death."
"Bunch of mother hens, the lot of you," he muttered loud enough for her to hear. "See you in a week."
Holding the reunion in Las Vegas was a tradition that had been adhered to strictly since the first one after Sunnydale's destruction, when the 'Dalers had all been young and in shock that there was no more Sunnydale. Nobody had wanted to hold the reunion at the crater (not yet a lake, then) even if the area hadn't been cordoned off, and not only was Vegas cheaper than most of the other options, but it had plenty of entertainment—hey, just because they were older, didn't mean they wanted to spend all their time talking to each other.
Sunnydale had been a town that didn't let people go. Most of the students who had died under Xander's command during graduation had been his classmates since kindergarten. Barring unexpected windfalls or mysterious disappearances, most of them had expected to live in Sunnydale until the day they died, whether they wanted to or not. But every person who was now alive had left Sunnydale before its destruction, had walked or ridden or driven out of town and moved elsewhere. It had been the right move for all of them, but regardless of their feelings towards each other, the Sunnydale class of 1999 had been through too much together to allow themselves to be scattered to the winds.
Xander didn't know what normal high school reunions were like, although he had a vague idea that it wasn't normal to have one every year, or for nearly everybody to attend them. He didn't have any idea about anything involving normal people, people who hadn't been touched by Sunnydale or the supernatural. He'd been in this life since he was fifteen, and the closest he got to spending significant amounts of time with normal people these days were newbies and government bigwigs who had usually already been let in on the secret. Sure, they weren't in the Hunting mindset (yet), but they already knew by the time he ever met them, which was more than enough to make them not precisely normal.
Oh, and, of course, the people at the reunion. But he didn't understand them either. Their lives were completely foreign to him, so bland and normal. A lot of them were clinging to normalcy after facing off with Mayor Snake at graduation, whether they'd had it before then or not—having seen Buffy try and fail to do the same thing, he understood that much —but other than that, he didn't understand them at all. The only difference between them and all of the other normal people in the world was that they knew that he didn't understand them and accepted it. They stayed on the fringe of things, but their eyes were open.
The rest of them, the muggles who didn't even have a clue, freaked him out. How could they not see? It was all around them. To not see it was like not seeing the effects of gravity. They thought he was the weird one, the crazy one, but they were the ones who paid so little attention to the world around them that they might as well have not had the use of any of their senses.
The air moved, little enough to be passed off as a draft or air conditioning, its scent scarcely different from the air he had been breathing. "Hello Marcie," he said.
"How do you do that?" She demanded. "This carpet isn't deep enough for me to leave footprints."
"I told you, Marcie, you're good but I'm better. You're still good enough that nobody unenhanced would have caught it, though." Xander tapped his nose in explanation. The hyena hadn't left many effects behind when she'd been exorcised, but he'd learned a long time ago to use his abilities to the greatest extent possible.
"Good to know I haven't lost my edge," she said, her voice happier than it had been a second before. Her hand settled invisibly in the crook of his elbow as she walked with him. "So what have you been up to this year?"
"Same old, same old," Xander said. "We've been having some trouble with some assholes called the NID, if you know anything about them that isn't in the files." It went without saying that his news was the same as SWCI's news; when was the last time that he'd done anything that wasn't related to it in some way or another?
"The NID? Figures they'd come after you," Marcie said. "I've never run into them directly myself, but I know some people."
"We have somebody who used to be with Project Bluebook, so we know about what they've been doing in that area."
"That's about all I've heard so far, so I don't know how much I can get other than that," Marcie said.
"Every bit helps. I mean, they're pretty far down on our list of worries, but we want to make sure they don't have any tricks up their sleeve that we haven't anticipated."
"I know how you feel. I practically got killed last December because somebody had a dog I didn't know about. I could handle it either way, but I went in not expecting a dog. Maybe I'm getting old. I should have planned for a dog anyway."
"We're all getting old. Gonna find a successor, someone to teach everything you know, and retire to a nice house in the suburbs with a white picket fence?" Xander teased.
"Ugh, no," Marcie said. "That would be a nightmare. I did find somebody, though."
"Oh yeah? Like you?"
"He can switch when he wants to," she said. "I am so jealous except for the health and sanity risks if he goes invisible too much."
"Really? He can switch?"
"Yeah, there's some sort of artificial organ in his brain. Don't ask me, I don't understand it."
"I think you're confusing me for somebody else. I wouldn't understand it even if you did."
She snorted. "Yeah right. You're not the same guy you were in high school."
"Neither are you."
"I was never the guy you were in high school," she retorted. "I still have to convince him, though. The government keeps him on a short leash, and I don't even know what agency. And he's one of those no-killing kinds of guys. Used to do second story work before he got into this all, and you know how a lot of them are."
"Gotta draw the moral line somewhere, and that's what they chose," Xander agreed.
"But he'd be so perfect. He has invisibility, a moral code, and a good start on the basics. It's obvious that he hasn't known anybody else invisible, much less anybody who could or would teach him, so he makes the usual errors beginners make until they're taught by somebody who knows, but he's smart enough to have figured out a lot on his own—he'd be the perfect student."
"Are you in contact, or do you need to find a way?" Xander asked. "If he's good enough for you to consider him as your—successor, apprentice? —I'll help you find him."
"Really?" she squealed, almost knocking him down as she hugged him tightly. "Oops, sorry. I mean, I hoped, but that's using company resources for personal reasons. I mean, you're not the government or anything, and you're the Man, but isn't that kind of thing still against the rules?"
"In SWCI? We're not the government. We don't restrict ourselves to helping only the people in our jurisdiction. Besides, a guy who can turn invisible? Who cares about how he does it, that's practically in our jurisdiction anyway. And Homeworld's not so desperate for cases that they'd care about jurisdiction."
"How sad is it that I've worked for the government for most of my life and you're still the only person I trust? I mean, I've worked with good people, but I can't imagine asking any of them for help with this."
"Hey, I know you've worked with good people. And you'd probably go to them with things that were just as important. But they can't defend themselves from the kind of people who go after this sort of thing, and we can."
"I wis —fuck, sorry, I forgot."
"Just don't say it," Xander said tensely. "We might make more attractive targets than you, but vengeance demons don't only grant wishes to people who are involved with the supernatural."
"Yeah, well, I might even count as supernatural," she said. "Sorry. Normally I don't use the W-word—not much to wish about. You just throw me off balance."
"Thanks, I think."
"It's just a good thing I don't see you more often, I guess," she said. "So! Change of subject to something that won't tempt me. Tell me about your boyfriend."
"What? How'd you hear about that?"
"I have my sources," she said mysteriously.
"I'm not sure if I should be afraid or horrified," he said lightly. "But what do you want to know?"
"Neither—my source isn't that good. All I was able to learn is that you have a boyfriend."
"Ah. I can live with that, I guess."
"Well, how much have you been following the news at SWCI?"
"Not too much, just the big events—wait, your new second in command? Jailbait?"
"He's not jailbait," Xander said in exasperation. "Why does everybody keep saying that? He's legal, for crying out loud, and mentally he's a lot older than he is physically."
"Immortal jailbait? He must really be something."
"Clone, actually," Xander corrected. "And yeah, he really is." A sappy grin spread across his face.
"Oh god! You're in love with him, aren't you?" she asked. "I thought he was just, you know, a boyfriend, not a boyfriend."
"See, you're lucky I've spent decades surrounded by women, because that would make no sense to any other man in the world."
"That's not an answer, but I know I'm right."
"Well, I haven't…said anything, but…yeah. It's serious. I want to spend however long I have left with him."
"Good for you," she said. "It's been a long time, hasn't it?"
"Kinda hard to get attached to people when the only ones you spend time with keep dying," he said morosely. "It just hit me out of left field."
"Baseball metaphors? Really? I get enough of that from the alphabet soup."
"Hey, as long as it's understandable…"
"But nobody watches baseball anymore. It's ridiculous."
"So? Doesn't mean the phrase doesn't work. How about you? Anybody new in your life other than your new friend?"
"Not so much," she said. "It's not exactly easy to meet a guy when you're invisible 24/7, and even guys I meet on the internet want to meet in person eventually." He opened his mouth to say something, but she cut him off. "And don't even think about offering to introduce me to somebody at SWCI. They might be able to handle me and my life, but your people die too often and I don't want to rob the cradle, however well it might have turned out for you. Aren't you and Faith the only ones left who are anywhere near our age?"
"Technically? Yes," Xander said. "And yeah, most of my people are young, but trust me, I'm not the oldest one there. Some of them are just…well-preserved."
"What? Demons? You know I don't want to get involved in that kind of thing. Invisibility doesn't help much when they can smell you."
"Yeah, but I was thinking about our resident Immortal. I'm sure he has friends outside of SWCI: hard to kill, older than you, and probably not very easy to shock."
She paused before speaking, considering the idea. "…Let me think about it. If I end up taking on an apprentice, I might not even have time to date anymore."
"It's up to you. I just wanted to let you know that it's an option."
"Thanks, Xander." They walked in silence for a few seconds.
"So, how are things going at work?" Xander asked.
"Oh, god, you just had to ask that," she moaned.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Well, somebody finally noticed my age, so they've been on this kick of encouraging me to retire or at least switch to a desk job. Do I look old to you?"
He eyed the space she occupied as if he could see her if he just looked hard enough. "I can honestly say you don't."
"Thanks. Apparently I look old to them, because it sure as hell isn't my job performance that's making them think it's time for me to retire. I've had to fight to get any of the good jobs lately—seriously! Me! A desk job would be terrible. Everybody would just forget about me, like I was some little mouse who just never ventured out of her office but always did her paperwork. I'd die of boredom like that. And retirement to what? Some house in the suburbs where I'll be labeled the recluse who doesn't even open the door for Girl Scout cookies and gets all her groceries delivered? I just don't understand that. If I wanted that kind of a life I would have retired twenty or thirty years ago."
"Ha! Yeah, I know how you feel. I mean, do they think we're being held prisoner or something, and that's why we're still working? It's a choice, every day, to keep doing what we do. With the shit we get into, we would have been killed a long time ago if we weren't doing something we believed in."
"And you don't just give up on something you believe in because you're over the hill. I don't think they've ever had anything they believe in to that extent."
"Maybe they haven't. I mean, I don't exactly hang around with typical examples of humanity so I don't know firsthand, but isn't that what most people are like? Just doing whatever jobs they happen to fall into and not really believing in them?" he asks, doubtful as always of any information he only knows secondhand and that seems so illogical.
"Judging from my experience, yes. And at least the agencies have people who believe in their work—can you imagine how many office workers are like that? Nobody believes in office work."
"Hey, if it gets too annoying for you, you know we always have a spot for somebody with your talents and we only judge you based on your current ability to get things done right. I know, I know, you don't want to, but it's an option. And HWS wouldn't mind you working for them, either."
"It's not that I don't think you guys do good work, because you do. It's just not what I live for, you know?"
"I feel the same way about your job and Project Bluebook."
"Yeah, deep space radar telemetry's really not my kind of thing," she said blandly. "It just sounds so boring."
Xander snickered. "Can you imagine the reactions if you started telling people you were working on deep space radar telemetry?"
"Oh god," she said, cracking up. "That would be…oh, man. It might almost be worth it."
"Maybe as a second career," Xander said.
"Yeah, it's either that, retirement, or the Australians, and I just don't like Australia that much."
"Ugh, yes, I hate having to deal with Australia. I mean, yeah, all the world powers and most of the minor countries think they should be given special treatment, but Australia tries to clamp down on its people more than any other country. It's always a struggle to get things done there."
"I told you that little prank was a bad idea."
"That wasn't my idea," he said immediately. "I didn't know anything about it until it had been done."
"You expect me to believe there's anything that goes on in SWCI that you don't know about? Seriously? I'm not a politician or lawyer here. I know you. You don't have to pretend with me."
"No, really, I was a bit tied up at the time. It was right before—you got caught up in the fringes of the Brazil Incident, right?"
"The Brazil-?" She stopped, realizing what he was referring to. "You call that the Brazil Incident? Isn't an incident usually something, I don't know, small? I was nearly killed! On the fringes! Brazil doesn't even exist anymore! I miss good coffee," she said wistfully.
"We have a finely developed sense of irony? Besides, it was either that or the Juan Valdez Massacre, and there was surprisingly little death."
"200 million people!"
"Like I said, surprisingly little death," Xander said seriously, looking her straight in the general region of her face.
"Shit," she breathed.
"You really don't want to know how bad that one could have gotten. Really."
"No, I don't think I do." She tugged on his arm. "Come on, I need a drink and you need to get off that leg of yours."
"You too, Marcie? I get enough of that at home."
"You've just been in a plane seat without enough leg room for anybody, much less you. Nobody's gonna think you're less macho because you take it easy for a bit. And hey, what if I wanted to sit down, huh? Ever think about that?"
"You're freaking out about the Brazil Incident? Really?"
"Think what you want. My job's nothing like that."
"You wouldn't switch places with me if you were given the option."
"Well, no, but still. That is my job. Not exactly all rainbows and kittens."
"Yeah, I don't know what job you think I work, but it's not all rainbows and kittens either. Except that once, and that's all I'm going to say about it. I'm trying to repress."
"Sounds…horrifying. Like what some of the youngest Slayers get up to." He shuddered. "If you thought the Brazil Incident was bad, you haven't spent enough time around them."
"I am not volunteering to babysit your Slayers," she said sharply. "Don't even think about it."
"Oh please, like you could even handle them. You like to play tough, but we both know you'd fold like a cheap suit under pressure."
"Yes!" she agreed immediately and desperately. "That's exactly it! They're too much for me…oh god, don't tell anybody I said that."
Snickering, he dropped her arm to make the boy scout salute. "Scout's honor. Wouldn't want to let it get out that big bad Marcie Ross—sorry, I mean Agent Kodiak—couldn't handle a few preteens."
She took his arm again. "Nobody who knew about your girls would laugh."
"No, they wouldn't let you leave until they gave you your last rites. Poor girls, such a bad reputation."
"You encourage them! They come in all sweet and innocent, but a few months under your influence and they're uncontrollable."
"I've never had any problems."
"Yeah, because you brainwash them into following your orders," Marcie grumbled. "They'll obey you, and they'll mostly obey the rest of the department heads, but they don't listen to anybody else even when they're supposed to."
"They're not that bad."
"Xander, trust me, you're the only one who thinks that. But…you're obviously doing something right, even if your girls are terrifying."
"I hope so," Xander said with a weak smile. "I mean, they've been my girls since Africa, so I keep waiting for the worry that I'm doing a bad job to go away, but it hasn't yet."
"You're just too responsible for your own good, taking responsibility for SWCI and your girls. One of them would be enough for anybody else."
"Yeah, well, if you want something done right…"
"There is a limit to how much one person can do, you know."
"Hey, I haven't hit it yet!"
"I think hanging around with people with superpowers has rubbed off on you," she told him. "And I didn't even know superpowers were contagious."
"Most of them aren't. There's a couple of magical STDs that give powers, but the drawbacks are more than the benefits."
"Ew, I so didn't want to know that."
"Yeah, neither did I. Fortunately I wasn't the one who found that out firsthand."
"Let me guess—they'll never live it down."
"That would have been true if they'd survived. We caught it too late to cure it."
Their wandering finally came to an end at the hotel's restaurant, nearly deserted at this time of day. A waiter hurried over almost before they had sat down—not one of the employees that they recognized from previous years, so he must be new.
"Can I take your order?" he asked Xander.
"Lemonade, please. Marcie?"
"Whiskey, on the rocks," Marcie said. The waiter jumped. Obviously his coworkers hadn't warned him about the class of '99 yet.
"Are you a ventriloquist or something?" he asked.
"…Or something, yeah," Xander said. Talking to his invisible friend was something like ventriloquism, wasn't it?
Marcie stopped trying to muffle her laughter as the waiter walked off. "Did you see his face? If you were anybody else, I wouldn't be able to believe you just did that."
"Oh, I don't know, acted like it was perfectly normal to have an invisible person with you? There's a reason I never eat out, even with people who know me. There's always this dance about getting me a seat and food without acknowledging that I'm there to the waiter."
"If you're asking that, it's been too long since you've been around people who don't spend all day every day around weird shit," Marcie told him. "I mean, most people barely even accept it themselves, much less want to be seen in public with weird shit. Especially when it makes them look insane to talk to me."
"It's not like it's the first time people have thought I was crazy," Xander said. "Even if I wasn't used to weird shit, that's no excuse for acting like you don't exist."
"Most people care what other people think, though."
"What, they never got over that?"
"Nope. I know, weird, isn't it?"
"And you say I deal with weird shit. SWCI's got nothing on these normal people."
"There's something wrong with you, isn't there?"
"I prefer to think that there's something right with me."
"You just go right on thinking that. I know the truth."
"The lie, you mean."
"Lie—oh. Thank you," Xander said as the waiter set his lemonade down in front of him. "The whiskey's hers," he corrected as the waiter started to set it down in front of him as well. But the waiter didn't correct its placement, just retreated back behind the bar as quickly as possible, shooting strange looks their way. Xander slid the whiskey over to Marcie. "That kid needs to go back to waiter school."
"Be nice, he can't even see me."
"So? That's no excuse."
"Yes it is, and you know it. He just thinks you're a crazy ventriloquist who got two drinks instead of one."
Xander snorted. "Not if he wants to get a halfway-decent tip, it isn't. I mean, there's bad service, and then there's this. I think the only way it could be worse is if they attacked us."
"No way, the next level down's spitting in the drinks. There's a whole ladder of bad service and we're still relatively high on it."
"How do you know they didn't?"
"True. But still."
"Okay, fine. Could be worse. But it's still really bad service."
"Yeah, well, what do you expect?"
"Nothing this bad, that's for sure."
"At least we got service," Marcie said philosophically. "Good enough for me. Being invisible has killed off any pickiness I ever had about service, since I usually don't get any unless I'm with somebody."
"Usually? Let me guess, demonic waiters?"
"Or part-demonic, or werewolves," she agreed. "It'd almost be enough to make me go to demon hangouts, if I didn't know I'd be easy prey in them."
"A lot of them have anti-violence spells, so you'd be safe while you were actually in them, but you really don't want to get caught in their parking lots."
"I prefer to stick firmly to the 'predator' side of the predator/prey divide, thank you very much," she said firmly. "Figuring out the places with people who notice me is good enough. And it's not like I haven't already built my life around my 'disability'. It's just that some days it gets to me more than others."
"No matter how long you live with it, you never stop wanting to be able to do everything you used to be able to do," Xander agreed.
"Or the things I never got a chance to do while I was still visible. But even with the drawbacks, I don't think I'd choose to stay visible if I had the choice. I wouldn't be the same person I am now, and honestly? I don't think I like the person I used to be."
"Isn't that part of growing up, though? You learn how to be better than you used to be."
"Maybe. Or maybe I'm just getting introspective in my old age, calming down. Next thing you know I'll be playing shuffleboard in a nursing home."
"Somehow I don't think that's it. I heard about Mauritania."
"What? How did you hear about Mauritania?"
"I have my sources," Xander said smugly. "See? Not calming down."
"Okay, maybe you're right."
"Of course I'm right, I'm always right."
"Being The Man has really gone to your head, hasn't it?"
Xander snorted. "With the way everybody argues with my orders? Are you kidding me?"
"And yet you say you're always right."
"Fine, maybe not always always. Goddess knows I've had my share of fuck-ups. But it's not like it's all dumb luck."
"Of course it isn't. And by the way, a little sarcasm isn't the same thing as arguing with your orders. It's not like they flat-out disobey you."
"I should have known it was a bad idea to start pronouncing SWCI as Saucy, but I wasn't The Man then…"
"Just how much from back then has come back to bite you on the ass?"
"I don't know, everything?"
Marcie snickered. "Shoulda thought of that back then."
"I never expected to survive, much less become The Man. I mean, seriously, who in their right mind would put me in charge of SWCI?"
"A lot of people," she said. "I mean, most of us weren't in a position to, but you kick ass at being The Man. Even after knowing you growing up, everybody knew you were the one to listen to at Graduation. It's like you were born to be The Man."
"What? Even back then? That's insane! I was in so far over my head I'm surprised any of us survived."
"When you became SWCI's leader, you already had more experience Hunting than anybody else. You knew everybody in SWCI and they knew you. You could handle yourself around the bigwigs. You've always done what had to be done. Yeah, you might not have been experienced with that level of leadership, but who was, in SWCI? You'd mastered every challenge—or at least every important challenge—that came your way before then, and they weren't exactly trivial challenges. None of those people knew you in school, Xander. The first time I saw you after Sunnydale, I barely recognized you, and it wasn't because of your appearance. It was because of your attitude. I mean, it's not like we were best friends in Sunnydale or anything, but I still knew who you were and how to expect you to act, and you were just so…I don't know, confident? Sure of yourself? And you really weren't back in Sunnydale. That first reunion, you were already a leader."
"Did you drink before you came here or something? I'm not a leader, I'm just the guy in charge, and I wasn't even in charge of myself back then."
"Deny it all you want, it's the truth."
"It is not!"
"We're going to have to agree to disagree, because you're not going to change my mind. Or anybody else's."
"Hah! Like anybody else agrees with you. I was just the only option."
"I'm rolling my eyes right now. You know perfectly well that they had options, and good ones. It's not like it was a choice between you and a baby Slayer. Seriously, where's your confidence in yourself? That kind of attitude sets a bad example."
"Sorry to be dumping my issues on you like this. Things have been going badly lately—cases we can't solve, deaths we can't prevent—and it seems like for every death, there's something that, looking back, I could have picked up on and kept them from getting killed. And I've got to set a good example, so I can't talk to the kids about any of it."
"So it kept just festering at the back of your brain. I've had missions like that, minus the setting a good example part. Sounds like this vacation was perfectly timed."
"Much as I hate to admit it, it was, except for the usual worry that something's going to happen while I'm not there," Xander said.
"What about Jack? Can't you talk to him?"
"Yeah, but we haven't been in the same place for more than a few hours in weeks, and we were working then. And it's not the kind of conversation I want to have over the phone."
"Who'd you talk to before Jack?"
"Mostly Adam, but he's taking a vacation of his own. It's not easy for him to be around so much death."
"That's not easy for most people."
"Adam's seen a lot of death in his life. Sometimes he needs to get away from it."
"So you've got nobody to talk to?"
"I've got you, don't I?"
"Of course you do, but I only see you once a year."
"This year it was at the right time. I feel better already."
"You're remarkably low-maintenance, for somebody who saves the world on a regular basis."
"We can't all be broody all the time. The world couldn't withstand all that brooding at one time."
"So, what, you have a schedule or something? Adam gets Monday, and Jack gets Tuesday, and you get Wednesday?"
"It's a first come, first served kind of thing. All those ridiculously cheerful people you see? They're just really slow to get in the line for broodiness."
"I didn't know it was such a commodity."
"Oh, it is. There's only so much to go around, and the teenagers jack up the demand. You know how angsty they like to be."
"Unlike you, I don't spend much time around teenagers."
"You don't completely ignore them, though."
"Kind of hard to, isn't it? They're everywhere on the internet. Like cockroaches."
"And just which sites have you been going to lately?" Xander asked, amused.
"Oh, please, don't try to pretend you spend all your time on news sites and boring stuff like that," Marcie shot back. "Hello, Pot, it's me, Kettle."
"You say that like you think I have time to go online for anything other than work anymore," Xander said. "I can't even do my hobbies anymore, much less goof off online."
"Geez, how much work do you have?"
"It's not exactly an easy job. Supplies and preparation and classes and random administrative things like making sure everybody gets paid, and on top of that I'm the one who has to talk to all the government people to make sure we're allowed to do our jobs in their countries without interference. And some of those countries have a coup every few years! Do you realize how hard it is to talk them into it when SWCI had an agreement with the previous government, which the new government hated?"
"There's this thing called delegation, I'm not sure you've ever heard of it…?"
"Hey, that's the list after delegating what could be delegated. A lot of it's just checking over reports and signing off on them because the rest of it's delegated, but that still takes time if you're doing it correctly. Trust me, we've been trying to cut down on it for years."
"Yeah, your successor might not be superhuman like you," Marcie snorted. "Better get that sorted out before you 'retire' or they'll quit in the first week."
"The rest of the Heads do just as much work as I do, and they're the only logical choices for my replacement."
"Seriously, you are such a bad example. How many people at SWCI die from overwork?"
"According to the medical examiners, none. Overwork isn't a cause of death."
"You know what I mean! Heart attack or stroke or whatever."
"That would be…one. You're forgetting the kind of steep age drop-off. People in their 20s and 30s who get lots of exercise don't tend to have heart attacks, and even if you can never really leave Hunting behind, it's a young person's game. Death or retirement are the only real possibilities, and people who crack under the pressure either retire if they're smart or die trying to prove something to themselves if they're stupid. Trust me, by the time people get promoted high enough that there would be problems, they're surprised they're still alive. Dying of a stress or old age is kind of like becoming a rock star to us: some people do it, obviously, but the thought that we will is laughable."
"How can you stand it? My job's not exactly a safe one, but it's nothing like that. I don't think anything is."
Xander shrugged. "You get used to it. You've run into that in your line of work, even if it's safer than mine. And everything, every day's a gift you never expected to receive. Some gifts you might not be too thrilled over—because who wants to get socks for Christmas?—but still, they're gifts. Yeah, if you were expecting a new car or something you'd be disappointed, but these gifts don't come because it's a holiday, but just because you're still alive, completely unexpected. Coping methods, right?"
"You make it sound so…nice," Marcie said.
"If you love what you do…"
"Yeah, I guess. It's just kind of weird to hear Hunting talked about like that. Or life, for that matter."
"You spend too much time around people whose only contact with the community is you," Xander said. "They're warping your viewpoint."
"Outside of Homeworld Security, it's not like the government puts the people who are part of the community together more than they have to," Marcie said. "And besides, most of them are assholes anyway. Fringe people at least tend to be less assholish, even if they're freaked out."
"Don't get to meet a lot of people who have mellowed with age?"
"Not many? Try not any! I'm starting to think I'm the only one who's grown up. I mean, some of them are just kids so I expect it, but even the older ones let their issues get the best of them."
"It's not really a great formula for meeting people who have gotten over their issues," Xander said. "You were all pissed off when you started, and you guys are more likely to get screwed over than the muggles."
"That's been the terminology since the beginning. How could you not know this?"
"Despite what you might think, my world doesn't actually overlap with yours a lot."
"Do you guys even get any therapy or anything? I know they treat you like shit, but I don't know how much like shit."
"Eh, it gets better the longer you've been there. But they didn't get me any until I forced the issue after a few missions that went way, way south—and I was already pretty well established there already. I don't think anybody else is getting any therapy unless they did the same as I did. On the other hand, I don't think it would have worked as well if I hadn't been demanding help with my issues. And in the beginning—you remember what I was like right after. I wouldn't have wanted to see a therapist or deal with my issues. They would have been risking their lives just to try. And a lot of people never get past that point."
"True," Xander said. "But how many people have gotten past that point, and haven't had the option? Most people aren't as willing to speak up as you are, especially with that training you guys get."
"I'm not saying I don't have problems with the way they treat us—and trust me, that's not the only issue—but I'm just one person in a field position. They don't listen to me about anything other than myself and my missions, and even that's hit or miss. I'd do something if I could, but I'm not The Man, here. I don't have the power to change things."
"And if you get your apprentice? Are you going to bring him into that system with you?"
"He's already in that system, or something similar." She fell silent, and he couldn't think of anything to say, either. "Fuck. I can't do that to an apprentice, even if he's already used to it."
"So what will you do?"
"If you can find him…I'll quit. Retire, whatever. I've got enough contacts to find enough clean freelance jobs for the two of us."
"That job is your life."
"So what, I should just let the kid get screwed over? He's something special. I've met how many people who could benefit from being taught? He's only the second one I've ever wanted to teach. And Parker wasn't really apprentice-type material."
"Why did you teach her?"
"This is going to sound ridiculous, but because she was interesting. And because, in her own way, she was doing what she loved. Most thieves, they steal because they want or need the money or art. You don't see a lot of thieves who steal because it's what they love to do rather than for the benefits they get at the end. It just hit kind of close to home, then. And because she was doing things that would get her caught or killed, of course. I wouldn't have run into her if she hadn't."
"That doesn't sound ridiculous," Xander said. "Trust me, I know ridiculous reasons, and that's nowhere near the most ridiculous reason I've ever heard. Or even the most ridiculous sincere reason."
"That's just because when somebody tells you that they had a vision telling them to, you have to actually check to make sure. In the real world, it's a ridiculous reason."
"Not everything we do in life is logical. We're not Vulcans, for crying out loud. Sometimes it's just…instinct, or something we can't put into words without it sounding stupid, which I think is pretty much the same thing. You going to just ignore that because of other people's opinions?"
"You know I don't, or I wouldn't have taught Parker—or be alive, for that matter. I just spend too much time justifying myself to the idiots in charge."
"Good thing they didn't know about Parker, then, right?"
"Aside from the whole going-to-jail thing, they'd still be asking me questions, and it's been twenty or thirty years. I don't think prison would be boring enough to make their questions a reasonable alternative."
"You don't know your friends as well as you think, if you think you'd be in jail for long. You think I'd leave you there? You think Parker would?"
"Somehow I always manage to forget about you."
"Well, that gives me the warm and fuzzies."
"I didn't mean it that way and you know it. Other than these reunions, when do I ever see you? And Parker…when I knew her, I would have sworn she would have left me in there. But she's changed since she hooked up with that team of hers. If she found out I was in prison because of her…I don't know. I'm not exactly the kind of person Leverage takes jobs for."
"But if Parker had asked…they were pretty tight-knit when I saw them. They might do it for her."
"Yeah, maybe. It's all hypothetical, though. Because I'm just that good."
"I knew that rep of yours couldn't all be made up."
"All? How about none of it?"
"Even the part about Peru?"
"What? I don't think I've even been to Peru, or if I was nothing happened."
Xander nodded firmly. "Like I said, made up. But at least some of it's real."
"How could I have not heard the Peru rumor? I hear all the good rumors."
"First of all, it wasn't that great of a rumor. And…circulated among a small audience; I only came across it while working. And you do not want to know what started that rumor. Some things are invisible for a reason. I thought I was going to lose my other eye from looking at it once it turned visible, that's how ugly it was."
"It's not like there's that large of an audience for hearing rumors about me, anyway," she grumbled.
"I meant small both ways—they were all really short. It was kind of weird. I kept checking to make sure there weren't any spells making me larger or them smaller."
She snickered. "That is such a you thing to do."
"I'm just glad I managed to avoid making any comments about their height. Later on, I learned that they're really sensitive about it and I scored major points for SWCI by not mentioning it. I'm just glad they didn't know magic and couldn't tell that I was verifying it magically."
"I feel so proud," Marcie said. "I taught you everything you know about subtlety."
"You did not! You don't even have to try to be subtle—nobody knows you're there even when you're goofing off."
"Hey! I never said I taught you everything you know about remaining on task, just about subtlety."
"What, that as long as they don't know about it it doesn't count? I knew that before you learned it."
"Oh yeah? What about when to keep your mouth shut?"
"Okay, you might have learned that before me, but you didn't teach me that. I just never needed to use it until after I got back from Africa."
"Didn't I hear something about you getting chased by a mob in Africa because you said the wrong thing?"
"Since when do you listen to SWCI gossip?"
"When I have a mission with Agents from SWCI, I usually don't get a choice, since somehow they all seem to know who I am."
"Welcome to my life," Xander said. "Being a celebrity is not all that it's cracked up to be. For one thing, there's significantly less partying than I was led to expect."
"You're not a rock star, you're more…like the President. Famous for the work you're doing, and forced to go to only the most boring of parties."
"Are people our age even allowed to have fun parties?" Xander wondered.
"Do you even care whether it's allowed or not?"
"…No, not really. I was just curious."
"We can ask one of the others. They should know the answer."
"How great is that? The two of us are more or less undisputed experts in our fields, and neither of us knows the answer to something everybody else our age does. It's pathetic."
"Can't be an expert in everything."
"Well, no, but I'm already not-an-expert in nuclear physics. Can't that be it?"
"The world doesn't work that way. Unfortunately."
"Dammit. I hate looking like an idiot in front of the civilians."
"Aren't you used to it yet?"
"A couple of days out of every year isn't enough exposure to civilians to make me get used to it, even if you add it up over my lifetime. Other than at these reunions, what do I have to talk to civilians about? Either it's either a really short conversation while buying something or it's about the job, and I can manage to not look like an idiot when I talk about those."
"Oh, I know what you mean. I could run one of those useless briefings with my eyes closed, but whenever the conversation switches to something 'normal' other than TV or movies they get all weird if you're clueless. Hello, not like I've got much opportunity to learn about that kind of thing. They don't write books about it, and the online crowd I hang out with is a lot younger. They have completely different issues and knowledge."
"If you retire, you should write a guide. We can find civilians to check it over for accuracy and if you're missing anything big, and ask other Centers for what they don't get about muggles, and print it at SWCI's press. We're not the only ones who need the help."
"Think we could get it made into one of those 'For Dummies' books?"
"I don’t think there's a big enough audience for them to pick it up, but it's worth a try."
As the day went on, the rest of the class of '99 stopped by Xander and Marcie's table to say hi.
Xander was still stunned by how, somewhere along the line, he had become almost a celebrity to the class. He'd been a nobody in high school, and while he might have some fame in the wider world now, that shouldn't have affected how he was treated by the people who'd known him before that was ever an issue. But it was impossible to deny: although they wanted nothing to do with his career, his former classmates gravitated around him at every reunion, coming to him and remaining gathered in the general vicinity rather than breaking off into smaller groups.
At one time, he would have expected them to do everything they could to avoid spending so much time around him—some of the animosity towards him could have been assumed to be because of Cordelia and Harmony, but not all of it, and people generally didn't change too greatly. At the most, as an unpopular person whose old friends were all dead now, he would have expected to be on the fringes of things, not at the center of them. It was just another example of how much he didn't understand civilians, he supposed.
They were even willing to listen to him go on about his kids, even though none of them was really his, by blood or adoption, as long as none of his stories wandered too far from what they considered normal: it was all right to talk about Elzbieta's new Ph.D. in demonology, but not about her performance during the last apocalypse. In return they talked about their families. It might be a bit boring, but still, it was good to hear that they were doing so well in their lives.
It was strange, but graduation had somehow managed to scare a good portion of the class of '99 into wanting the American dream sooner than most people did. Only a few years after that, most of the class had been settled into family life, clinging to what seemed like the complete opposite of their experience during the battle. Xander had known them during high school; they wouldn't have gotten serious so quickly if they hadn't fought at graduation. Maybe it had been traumatizing for them, but in the end it had worked out well. Despite the disruptions of the past centuries—the War, the Pulse, the economic depressions that seemed they would never end—nearly all of them were doing well. They'd suffered their setbacks over the years, but they'd managed to pick themselves up and get back on their feet.
And weren't they what Xander had been fighting for, in the abstract at least, for all these years? For the chance for people to live their lives in peace, if that's what they wanted? It might be a foreign viewpoint to him, but he could see the value in it. And, much as he hated being forced to take vacations, he could admit that it was good to be reminded of that fact.
"This is me," Xander said, getting out his keycard. "See you in the morning?"
Marcie pulled the card from his hand and stuck it in the reader herself. "Don't be an idiot. You know you sleep like shit when you're alone."
"Jack isn't here, so it's not like I've got much of a choice."
"Did you even ask, or did you just assume? I don't know Jack, but I doubt he wants you to be sleep deprived whenever he isn't around."
"'Can I sleep with somebody else?' tends to be a question that hurts a relationship, not help it."
"Oh, for-" Marcie lost her patience with him and stole his phone from his pocket.
"Don't you dare!"
"Quiet, you." Unwilling to risk actually hurting her, Xander could put up only a feeble struggle against the arm holding him back as he watched the phone cycle through his contacts and dial. "Hello, Jack? Marcie Ross. No, Xander's fine, just being an idiot. He sleeps like shit when he's alone, so he already looks like a zombie, and now he's refusing to sleep with me. No, I know you guys don't have an open relationship. Just sleep, I swear." The phone drifted down and over to Xander. "It's for you," she said sweetly.
He glared at her as he took it. "Jack?"
"Xander?" Jack mimicked. "Is this normal for you?"
"Not when I'm in a relationship," he said immediately. "But yeah, there's a few people who just sleep with me. Marcie, Faith, Adam sometimes..."
"But no sex?"
"Are you seriously considering saying yes?" When he was on his own it was one thing, but sleeping platonically with somebody when he was in a relationship with somebody else was a little weird, even by his standards.
"Marcie's right, you look like a zombie, or at least you did last time I saw you. If it'll get you to actually sleep, I don't see why I'd object."
"Because it's weird, maybe?"
"Xander, in the past week I've fought some sort of tentacled hellbeast, investigated the kidnapping of a genetically engineered supersoldier, and been arrested for public indecency. Oh, and found out that geriatric me's going to be the new head of Homeworld. My boyfriend sleeping platonically with one of his oldest friends doesn't really register on the weirdness scale anymore."
"Hey, I didn't hear about you getting arrested for public indecency."
"Blame Faith. And that's all I'm going to say about it," Jack said darkly.
"I guess I'll have to call her next," Xander said gleefully, and Jack groaned at having given him that opening. "But seriously. Are you okay with this? Not just saying yes because Marcie's pressuring you into it or something? I don't want it to be something you'll regret."
"I'm okay with it. Honestly. I'll admit that it's a bit weird, but I couldn't live the life I do if I wasn't okay with a bit of weirdness."
"If you're sure..."
"Xander..." he growled.
"Just making sure! Oh, by the way, can you have somebody to check into a guy for Marcie?"
"What are we, a dating service? Yeah, sure. Name?"
Xander raised his eyebrows at Marcie in silent question. "Darien Fawkes, according to him—but he was on a mission, so who knows if that's his real name. And I lost the prints I got, unfortunately. But if he wasn't erased and he wasn't lying about his past, his criminal record should be in the system." Xander relayed that information as well as what she'd told him earlier.
"Right," Jack said. "I hope it's his real name, because otherwise it's going to be very needle in the haystack, but we'll see what we can find either way. She's in the address book, right?"
"Yeah, just get the info to her as soon as you've got something useful."
"Will do. And now, I think it's time for you to get to bed, isn't it?"
He rolled his eye even though Jack couldn't see it. "Night, Jack."
"See? It doesn't hurt to ask," Marcie said.
"Sure, this time. And only because Jack's getting a bit too used to being a SWCI Agent."
"Aren't you the one who was just telling me that you don't hang out with any civilians? Why do you keep thinking that people around you are going to start thinking like civilians all of a sudden?"
"Oh, so what, Jack's just a special case? Not able to adapt to the whacky new conditions in his life?"
"Jack's adapted just fine! I mean, there's people who can't adapt, but Jack's not one of them. But attitudes towards personal relationships are a bit harder to change than attitudes towards the job, you know?"
A hand ghosted onto his shoulder. "Sorry, I forgot about her."
He let out a bark of humorless laughter. "And him, and her, and another her. I haven't had the best of luck, you know? Don't want to mess things up with Jack."
"Sorry." She hugged him, then gave him a gentle push towards the bathroom. "But it all worked out this time. Go get ready for bed."
"But it's only one o'clock!"
"Normal people sleep at night. Besides, when's the last time you actually slept? I don't think you'll have a problem going to sleep, even if it is early for you."
He opened his mouth to argue, but undermined his own argument by yawning widely before he could say anything. "Well, I know when I'm outnumbered." A few minutes later, spooned up behind Marcie in what might be the best-armed bed currently in existence, Xander fell deep into the only nightmare-free sleep he'd had in four weeks.
Xander's vacations had a strange tendency to end up being not very restful—it seemed like there was always somebody trying to take the opportunity to kill him—but, for a change, this one was. Well, aside from the car bomb, but he didn't count that. Sure, it destroyed the SUV, but no credible threat to him would use a car bomb. Pacific Separatists were just lunatics with a grudge; if he'd been scared of them, he never would have led Cleveland through the War. It didn't even take long for the police to arrest the people responsible.
A car bomb? That didn't even register on his threat scale, so it was still a nice, restful vacation, except for the cops' urgings for protective custody, which were annoying in their repetition. They amused Marcie, though, so he didn't mind too much. He and Marcie embarked on their usual reunion activities—talking to the rest of the class, seeing the shows, taking in the sights. Okay, even he could acknowledge that maybe it wasn't as normal as he made it sound in his head—going to see some of those sights had involved breaking into highly secured areas—but they were hardly normal people. And it wasn't like they took anything—okay, it wasn't like they kept anything. Besides, it seemed like the best stuff in museums wasn't on display.
But the vacation couldn't last forever, and six days after he came to Las Vegas Xander bid farewell to Marcie, who had to head off to her latest job.
He waved goodbye as her rental car drove out of the hotel's parking lot (how did she manage to do half the things she did? How could she rent a car while invisible, anyway?), cheered up by the thought that tomorrow he'd be going home. But as he turned to go back into the hotel, something caught his eye. He took a couple of steps closer, close enough to see that it was a portal, and pulled out his phone and hit speed dial.
"Jack?" he said. "I think I've figured out our portal problem."
There was dead silence on the other end of the line. "It would be too much to hope for you to have had a random flash of insight, wouldn't it?"
"Okay, what do you think?"
"Check out Christopher Melonakos. Father Keril Melonakos, mother Dawn Summers—he should be in the files, under Dawn's name if nowhere else, but we don't have any information that's more recent than when he was a toddler so you're going to have to investigate."
"What makes you think it's him, then?"
"I know this type of portal. It might look a lot like a Type 17, but it's not one. And the only person who's been able to make them before was his mother, so chances are..."
"It couldn't be her?"
"She died a few decades ago from brain cancer, and…well, either it's her son or she's been reincarnated."
"Okay. Anything I should know that's not in the files?"
"Judging by what Dawn went through without causing this kind of damage...it's not going to be pretty. Either what's happened to him, or what has to be done to him. I doubt he's in a state where he can stop himself, and he might not even want to."
"Are you sure?"
"It's closer to a hunch, but it feels solid."
"If it's not a Type 17, is there another way to close it?"
"Not one that would help us."
"And of course we're not lucky enough for there to be a way back."
"You're half right—according to the theoretical mages I'll survive, with some sort of effect on me—nobody knows for sure what. And we're pretty sure that returning would open a new Hellmouth. "
"Damn it," Jack said. "Damn it!" He wouldn't beg Xander not to do it, because the world always came first, but that didn't mean Xander heard it any less clearly.
"Sorry, Jack," Xander almost whispered. "Love you." His vision blurred, and he blinked furiously to clear it, ignoring the tears running down his face.
"I love you too," Jack said.
"Take care of Marcie for me?" Xander asked. "I know I don't have to ask about SWCI."
"'Course I will, Xan. You didn't have to ask about that, either."
"Just wanted to make sure. She's alone in the world."
"We're here for her. I'm here for her."
"Thanks," Xander said. "It's time. Love you."
Xander hung up, pulled out one of his knives, and began cutting into his arm. The spell he was using was a slapdash thing, thrown together with blood and symbolism rather than with elegant calculations and an artistic flair like all the best spells were, but it would do the trick, and it wasn't like he had to worry about depleting his reserves in this case—death was a better prospect than another Hellmouth.
If he'd been somebody else, he probably would have carved the shape of a key—it was a Key portal, it only made sense to use a key to close it. But this kind of spell was all about symbolism, and his symol for key had always been the dawn.
He took a breath and one last look around, wishing that his last view of this world, and maybe his last view of anything, didn't have to be of a hotel parking lot in Las Vegas. But it wasn't his decision to make, not if he wanted to keep the world safe, so he stepped through the portal without hesitation.