He is not magical.
He never has been.
Sometimes he sees that as a curse. It means that all he's got is him, and sometimes he isn't enough. Sometimes it means that he gets left behind, while his friends gain powers and abilities he can barely understand. Sometimes it means he gets shunted aside and relegated to the fray-adjacent brigade while people around him do the heavy lifting.
Then there are days he sees it as a big blessing. All his temptations, faults, failures, and problems tend toward the human-sized side of the scale. If he goes off the deep end, chances are he won't take the world out with him. He might kamikaze into his friends and loved ones and cause hurt feelings, maybe even get them angry. But causing world-endage will thankfully always be out of his reach.
Right now, he's not sure whether his lack of magic-having is a blessing or curse. On the one hand, he's safe and still capable of taking care of the others. Right now, he's the only one in the entire house who can even stand upright, let alone rush from room to room to make sure people are as comfortable as they can be.
Yet, he feels like he's being left behind. Again.
Given what's happening to the others, he feels selfish and small for feeling that way. It's stupid beyond the telling of it, even for him. But he's only human, with all the human pettiness that implies, and he can't help it.
So he pushes thought and feeling aside and concentrates on the physical. He does the best he can with his feeble human hands, even though he knows he's bailing water out of the Titanic with a rusty bucket. There isn't a damn thing he can do to stop what's happening and he feels angry and helpless because in the end all he can do is watch.
Merry Christmas, he thinks bitterly. And God bless us, every one.
No, Xander doesn't have a magic cell in his body, but even he can feel that the magic is leaving his world.
He hates Christmas. He doesn't care if it makes him a Scroogey McScrooger. He can't think of a single year when he had a Merry Christmas or a Happy New Year and whenever anyone wishes him either, he has to squelch the urge to punch that person in the face.
They mean well, he has to keep telling himself. They don't know, he has to keep reminding himself.
So he smiles and forces himself to accept their well wishes with something that looks like good grace.
Except here he is at the age of 25 without a single good Christmas or New Year's to his name.
His childhood is littered with the memories of drunken family gatherings when presents under the tree would be wielded as weapons as bottled holiday cheer turned into the traditional holiday screaming match.
Eventually he started his own holiday tradition: escaping to the backyard with his sleeping bag and camping out under the stars. He'd drift off to sleep to a lullaby of yelling and breaking glass and dream of a world where magic was real and he was someone important in the battle between good and evil. He always liked those dreams. He always woke up feeling happy and content, secure in the knowledge that somewhere out there, somewhere beyond the Sunnydale town line, his life was waiting to begin.
The feeling always evaporated when reality would seep through the sleepy mental post-dream cracks, leaving him blinking up at the southern California winter sun. Once or twice he might've shed a few tears when he remembered that magic wasn't real and that battles between good and evil only happened in fairytales. Even if his dream world was real, he really doubted he'd be doing something important anyway. Knowing him, he'd be hiding under the bed.
The only difference between Christmas now and Christmas then is that now he doesn't keep in touch with his monstrous family. It is, however, still a very solitary affair for him.
On Christmas Eve, he opens his one card. It's always a picture of Willow and Oz and their two kids, along with a scribbled note from Willow letting him know when she'll call for their annual catch-up later in the week. On Christmas morning, he opens his one present under tree. Okay, so he bought it and had it wrapped and put it there, but damn it, everyone should have at least one present at Christmas and this is his.
Once he unwraps the gift and thanks his invisible audience for picking out the perfect present, he heads out to a local Chinese restaurant. Then, like that family in A Christmas Story, he orders "Chinese turkey" for lunch. There's always enough left over to feed him a couple of days, so it's worth paying the money for it.
It sounds so pathetic that he doesn't think too deeply about it. Instead he mechanically goes through the motions every year, and tells himself that if he can make through this Christmas, next Christmas will be very different. However, his personal Christmas story never changes because he always manages to sabotage himself. He always breaks up with whatever girl he's been dating just before Thanksgiving, or he has falling out just before December 1 with a maybe-friend who'd invite him over for the holidays.
He's afraid that one of these Christmases he's going to make the front-page news. He'll be the guy who sticks his head in the oven on Christmas Eve and isn't found until two weeks later because he didn't show up for work.
That's why Christmas is going to be different next year, he vows, just like he vows every year. Next Christmas, he's going to break tradition and allow some magic into his life.
Some part of him rolls its eyes at this, because no matter how much he wants to believe, Xander knows that there's no such thing as magic.
Willow's muttering is interspersed with hoarse screams. The words and screams were louder yesterday when the world's magic was still strong. As the magic flows away, Willow gets quieter and quieter.
As unbelievable as it might've been to the him that existed 12 hours ago, Xander would be a lot happier if Willow's screams still echoed through the house.
He reaches out and grasps her hand. He gasps at how cold it feels and pushes away the memory of the freezing dust that flew into his face when Jesse exploded into ash.
For a crazy moment, he thinks that maybe he should try to build a dam to prevent the last of the magic from draining away. He's always been good at building things and it was a talent he put to good use while he tooled around Africa tracking down stories about girls with supernatural powers. Helping with a thatched roof or putting up the walls of a mud hut were skills that were always in demand and he could always count on a few meals and a bed for a few days when he pitched in.
The problem with his otherwise fine plan is that the hole in the world is mystical and he doesn't have the tools to wall it closed. Besides, he's pretty sure mud and straw, or bricks and mortar, aren't going to do the job.
Willow mutters something that sounds like a plea. All he can do is brush her disheveled, sticky hair from her forehead and promise he'll do something. The vague promise brings him right to the edge of tears because he knows there isn't a damn thing he can do to stop this.
The magic is leaving the world and taking his whole world with it.
He's afraid of what will happen next.
Xander's afraid there won't be a next.
Xander bends over the blueprints and scans it with practiced eyes. This is McMansion Style #3 with optional kitchen customization #7 and first floor bath customization #5. The latest homeowners to buy a lot in the Happy Hunting Grounds development are still debating whether they want customization #2 or #8 for the attached garage.
He's bored beyond the telling of it building these cookie-cutter specialty jobs for people with too much money and not enough sense. The customers throw around cash like it's water for something that looks nice on the surface, but has shoddy construction behind the drywall.
He's being a brat and he knows it. His small crew is only doing what every other subcontracting crew in southern California is doing: cashing in on the housing boom and John Q. CEO's stupidity. He pockets a hefty paycheck every time he shows up on a worksite, so it really shouldn't matter to him one way or the other.
Yet, the older he gets, the more it does matter. He feels like he's missed his calling somewhere along the way.
He straightens up in a stretch and listens to the vertebrae in his back snap into place. He's being stupid. Carpentry is his calling and he knows it. Sure, he wishes he could do something more creative with it, but with the market being what it is you either do something useful or you starve.
He starved plenty when he was younger, thanks. He has less-than-zero desire to do that again.
He figures his mood is a direct result of the Christmas season and the fact that he'll have nothing to do between the holiday and New Year's Day. He's really dreading the traditional week off this year. He's got a list of chores that's as long as his arm that needs to get done, but he knows he won't tackle any of it.
Maybe this year he'll do something different. Maybe this year he'll travel up to San Francisco and see the sights. Maybe this year, he'll actually manage to leave California. Vegas isn't too far away. It's practically driving distance, and yet he's never been. He'll miss Willow's call, but he's pretty sure he has her new phone number somewhere around. He can always call her back.
It's hard for him to believe that he and Jesse had planned to see the country after they graduated, considering he's never left southern California.
He kills that ghost before it starts haunting him.
The self-flagellation is starting early this year. He doesn't get this blue until after his Chinese turkey feast. This is not a good sign. Maybe this year is the year he tests his oven.
Stop it! He's too damn young to be having a midlife crisis.
Before walking out into the sunshine to get cracking on the interior living room walls, he pauses to take a leak in the trailer's bathroom. As he washes his hands, he looks up into the mirror and for a second freezes because his own reflection seems unfamiliar to him.
Close-cropped hair, two eyes, two ears, one nose with two nostrils, and one mouth. Nope. Everything's still the same.
Xander makes a dorky face at his reflection just because he can and the feeling of strangeness fades away.
Willow has fallen into a shallow sleep. Even though Xander doesn't like it one bit and thinks he should probably stay put until he's sure she's okay, he knows that he should go check on the others.
He leaves the bedroom and pads around Giles's immense house. When he showed up earlier this week, he'd been so nervous and excited that he couldn't think straight. He'd packed his luggage with all sorts of gifts that he'd picked up around Africa. There were carvings and masks from the across West Africa, wall hangings from Morocco, silver and gold jewelry from the outdoor markets in the Lakes Region, dyed cotton skirts and scarves from everywhere else on the continent, and even an uncut diamond from South Africa for Andrew because he knew the guy would completely geek out about it.
It's hard to believe this home had been bustling with life and holiday preparations when he showed up. Hard to believe that Willow and Dawn tackled him when he got out of the cab. Harder to believe that Buffy made jokes about him needing better sunscreen. Hardest of all to believe that Giles grasped his hand so tightly that he thought his bones would break and that Giles grinned at him in a way that made him feel like he'd finally become a man in the Watcher's eyes.
Now he feels like the last man alive on earth and that he's walking through a tomb.
The Slayers, every single one of them students at the training facility who were unable to make it home for the holidays, have fallen into a comatose state. Their breathing is shallow, and their eyes are wide and staring. He enters room after room and checks to make sure they're still alive.
He leaves Buffy and Dawn for last. Both girls are stiff, cold, and unresponsive. Buffy's condition he can see, given she's a Slayer and is reacting like the other Slayers. Dawn's condition is a little bit more of mystery and even more unsettling. Okay, yeah. He always knew that Dawn was really a mystical key, but he'd gotten so used to thinking of her as "normal," that this reminder feels like a slap across the face. It doesn't help that even when he's looking at her, he's not even sure she's really there. She seems more insubstantial than the others, like she's fading away with the magic instead of just falling ill or comatose.
Even more disturbing, it feels like there's a memory war going on his head. One set of memories involve a Dawn-filled world, the others involve a Dawn-free world. The Dawn-free world has been gaining the upper hand in the last hour and he has to fight to hold on to the fake memories that make Dawn who she is.
He watches the sisters to make sure they're still breathing and resists the urge to arrange their bodies so they're holding hands or at least touching. Both of them are on their backs, lying parallel to each other, and staring glassy-eyed at the ceiling. It seems cold and wrong to him. They're sisters, for god's sake. Maybe the urge is stupid, just like all of his other urges lately, but the physical separation of a few inches has to be doing harm. At least if they were touching he could pretend they were taking some physical comfort in each other.
He forces himself not to do it by checking their pulses. They're still there, steady and strong.
He leaves Buffy's and Dawn's room and gently closes the door behind him, just like he's done for every other occupied room. He doesn't know why he's bothering. He's the only one walking around, so this strange compulsion to allow every unaware houseguest a measure of privacy makes absolutely no sense.
Voldemort. The name hisses in his head, like a snake has whispered it in his ear. The world is losing magic because of some big, bad wizard called Voldemort.
Voldemort. What kind of name is that? he wonders. All he knows is that it's stupid name. If he ever gets his hands on the fucker that name belongs to, he will kill the son of a bitch.
He leans against a hallway wall, and slides down until he's crouched on the floor. He's not sure he's strong enough to bear this situation for one more second.
Xander knows he'll have to. He doesn't have a choice. Right now, he's the only one who can.
The phone starts ringing when Xander emerges from the shower. He freezes and stares at it through a second ring. A third ring prompts him to drop the towel he was using to dry his hair and lunge for the receiver before voicemail picks it up.
"Happy holidays, you Santa worshipper you!" Willow chirps.
He's so stunned by the unexpected Christmas Eve call that he gapes.
"Hello? Hello? Xander? Are you there?"
He snaps out of it. "I'm here!" he shouts as he ties his bathrobe closed. "I'm here. Sorry. You caught me by surprise."
Willow giggles and he's transported back to high school when he, Willow, and Jesse would pass notes to each other in study hall.
"I know. You probably have plans, so I'll make it quick," Willow says warmly.
"Plans? Me? On Christmas Eve? Pfffffft," he says. "I just got news. I made the naughty list this year, so only coal for me. You're saving me from an evening of writing a letter contesting Santa's decision and demanding a re-hearing on my naughty-ness. I think I might squeak by, since I'm pretty sure he's confused me with some other Harris. I plan to blame my parents."
"Good move. Let me know if you need character references. I'm pretty sure I can get my statement notarized and off to the North Pole before we leave."
He flops onto the couch. "Leave?"
"Oz decided to take us by surprise and paid for a trip to Vail," Willow says excitedly. "We're leaving early tomorrow morning, so if I didn't call tonight I wouldn't be able to call you at all."
His heart unhappily thuds in his chest at the threat of nearly missing his annual talk with Willow, especially since her card said she'd call him later this week. He had always dreaded and looked forward to her annual calls in equal measure, but it was something he could at least hold on to that helped get him through the holiday vacation.
"Well, in that case, I'm glad you called now." He hauls himself off the couch and turns on the lights on his fake Christmas tree. "Going by the trip, I'm guessing someone was a good girl this year."
"You better believe it, buster," Willow says.
"And just how good are we talking? Nice good or naughty good?"
He grins at the reminder that he has at least one sort-of-friend in the world. "Sorry. You know me. I'll always be 16."
"More like 12," Willow snorts.
"So, I take it the band's doing well, since you're all Vail-going."
There's a silence on the other end that tells him that he's stepped on a sore spot.
"Willow?" he prompts.
"Band's doing well," Willow finally says. "Oz bought the tickets before he found out that he'd have to go to L.A."
He has no idea what to say to that. "Ah."
"Yeah. All that touring's finally paid off and they've got a meeting with someone from Sony. Well, not Sony, but one of the smaller labels that Sony owns so it's good. It's really good. Devon's pretty sure they're going to sign."
"What does Oz think?" he asks despite himself. He feels a sick sense of satisfaction that Willow's perfect holiday plans aren't panning out to her liking. It's a dickish thing to feel, he knows, but he's sick of being the only miserable one whenever he hears 'Deck the Halls.'
"Oz is less sure, but…" Willow sighs through the line. "We've been through this before."
"You have?" He's surprised. Willow tends to keep Oz and Oz-related things in general terms. In high school, he and Oz were okay with each other, mostly because Oz knew that he posed zero threat. After high school and after Jesse, Oz was understanding-guy when he turned up in Willow's dorm room and begged for a temporary place to stay. He couldn't go back to his parents and desperately needed a safe place to screw his head on straight. When the night on Willow's floor turned into more than two months on Willow's floor, Oz had enough and there was a huge fight.
Needless to say, he slinked away after that. Once he got a bed in an L.A. homeless shelter and found some construction work, he let Willow know he was okay.
Xander always suspected that Oz thought Willow and he had a little thing going on the side while he was crashing in Willow's dorm room. Why Oz would think that, he has no idea. Although looking back, he can see why Oz finally snapped. At least Oz and Willow were able to work it out. Oz and him, not so much.
"If this doesn't happen, Oz is thinking about quitting," Willow says, intruding on his mental wandering.
"Quitting?" he echoes.
Willow sighs again. "It's been coming for awhile now, I think. I don't know. He's been restless lately. Me, too, to be honest. I don't know. You ever feel like you've missed the boat?"
The sentiment is so surprising coming from Willow that he almost falls off the couch. While other computer programmers in Silicon Valley have found themselves out of jobs and on food stamps, Willow not only managed to hold on to her job, but thrive. Last he knew she was raking in the big bucks as head of a QA department.
"I mean," Willow continues, "I love my job and my family, don't get me wrong. But sometimes I feel like something important's missing and that I'm supposed to be doing something else. It's like I've got the wrong life."
"So whose life do you have?" he asks.
"I'm being serious."
"So am I."
There's a long silence. "I don't know," Willow finally admits.
He stares at the blinking lights on his pathetic tree with its pathetic single present that he bought last week and had the store clerk wrap in garish red paper. "You're just nervous about Oz and his band," he says. "I'm pretty sure that you'll feel different once the contract's signed."
"You'd think that, but…" Willow's voice trails off.
"C'mon. You're starting to sound like me," he jokes.
"So you feel it, too!" Willow sounds excited.
"No, I don't. It's my annual, 'I need a life' list affecting my usual good cheer and sunny disposition," he says.
"Willow," Xander knows he sounds far surer than he feels, "I'm happy. Really. I've got a good job with good pay. You know me and Christmas. Not mix-y things, and that's even when I believed in magic."
Xander steels himself before he trudges in to Giles's study. Dealing with Giles and Andrew is strangely worse than dealing with the Slayers, but it's really not the worst thing he has to deal with right now.
When he enters, both Giles and Andrew look worse than when he last saw them two hours ago. Giles is still awake and aware and enthroned behind his desk. He's surrounded by books and scraps of paper crowded with his scribbled notes. That's normal, at least as far as normal ever gets around here. What's not normal is that Giles looks old, wizened, and frail. Giles is a Watcher by blood, so it only makes sense that the loss of magic affects him.
Andrew is crouched in the corner. Two hours ago he was babbling nonsense and wandering around. Now Andrew's turned into a drooling catatonic mute. The smell of piss and shit hits Xander's nose when he gets close to enough check his vitals. The bile that rises in Xander's throat isn't because of the smell.
You son of a bitch, Xander thinks. You. You get affected. You're important enough to lose it when the magic goes away, but I'm not. You son of a bitch.
"We should get him cleaned up," he says to Giles. It's a fight to keep the fury out of his voice.
Giles looks over at him and he's struck by the idea that Giles is losing the battle against staying upright. He feels a surge of panic. Giles is the only other person in the house capable of seeing him let alone communicating with him. If Giles joins the others in the big goodnight, he really will be alone.
He doesn't think he'll be able to take it if he's alone.
"There's no point," Giles finally says. It sounds like he's making an effort to speak.
Xander throws himself onto a chair and for the millionth time today fights against the urge to put his head in his hands and let himself cry. The whole overemotional thing is embarrassing as all hell. He managed to keep it together when Buffy dove off the tower in the battle against Glory. He managed to keep it together when he lost his eye. He managed to keep it barely together when he stood on the edge of what used to be Sunnydale knowing that Anya was dead and his past had been obliterated. But he's cracking up over this. He thinks it's because it's the first Christmas in a long time where it feels like Christmas. The last time he felt this good about any major holiday, Joyce was still alive, Anya was telling them the truth about Santa Claus, and Sunnydale still existed as more than a crater on a map.
"The smell's not pleasant." Xander's own words sound like he's making an effort to speak. "That can't be good for you."
"The sensory overload is keeping me focused," Giles assures him.
He can't stop himself from fixing a glare on Andrew. Andrew may be turning into a rutabaga, but he's still managing to be more useful than Xander is.
"Xander," Giles softly says.
He turns and focuses his overtired eye on Giles.
"Xander," Giles repeats. He clears his throat and continues, "Andrew's messing about with demonic magic is the cause of his current condition. In a world without magic, he'd be considered quite mad."
Xander can feel his cheeks coloring with embarrassment. Giles has picked up on the fact that he feels like a useless Xander.
"I don't know what we'd do if you weren't here," Giles says. "Thank you. For everything."
"Don't say that," he says sharply.
"Don't thank you?" Giles mildly asks.
"Fine. Don't say it like," he insists. "This isn't over."
Giles leans back in his chair and closes his eyes. "I'm afraid it might be. No one is answering at the Council. I can't get in touch with the Ministry of Magic."
"Ministry of Magic," he sarcastically repeats. "Lovely. Just lovely. The bureaucrats handled everything so well."
"Xander, as I explained before, we are not allowed to—"
"Interfere, yada, yada, yada." Xander hops to his feet and begins pacing. "There are treaties-cakes and there are co-existence-cakes and everyone does their own thing-cakes, except for the part where everything one side does affects the other." He turns on Giles and angrily hisses. "Now it's killing us! So that was not such a great plan."
"It's worked for centuries," Giles argues.
"Except for the times when it didn't!" He's shouting now. "C'mon. In their last big war against this Voldemort guy, how many people ended up dead? And how many people had their memories altered, hunh? Now we've got this, whatever the hell this is. So, no, I'm thinking it didn't work, but everyone convinced themselves it did because it was easier!"
Giles closes his eyes and passes a shaky hand across his forehead. "It was once necessary."
"It stopped being necessary a long time ago," he says. "I'm thinking it started being unnecessary right about the time us muggers—"
"Muggles," Giles corrects.
"Whatever! When we figured out how to play with magic, those other witches and wizards should've started knocking on doors," he says. "Hell, they should've been offering Willow a full scholarship for Christ's sake. But she doesn't even get to hear about this Hoggy Wart—"
"Hogwarts," Giles corrects again.
"—because she doesn't play with their particular kind of magic!" He's on a roll now. All the frustration of the past few days are coming to head.
"What do you expect from me?" Giles asks.
"I don't know, I don't know." Xander collapses onto a chair. "Tell me how to stop this. Tell me there's a way to stop this and I'll do it. I'll do anything, just tell me what to do. I don't care what it is. A permanent vacation in a hell dimension. Slitting my wrists. Killing someone. I don't care. If it'll stop this…please, Giles. Please, don't give up. Keep looking and then tell me what I need to do."
Giles looks like he's shrinking right in front of his single eye. Giles may be fighting like hell, but the moment's coming when even Giles won't be able to stay with him. "I'll keep trying," he finally promises.
Xander hopes that Giles will manage to pull one out of his ass. However, the last of the magic is slipping away and Xander suspects that Giles won't be able to find the solution in time.
Willow's call was so disturbing that Xander's forced to depart from his usual script. He pulls on a coat, escapes from his apartment, and walks several blocks. He's disappointed to see that the restaurants are all closed. The only thing left open is a convenience store-gas station combo and a bar.
He hesitates a moment in front of the bar. He's never been much of a drinker, probably because of the fine example his parents presented. He's always been afraid trying anything more than pot, thanks to what happened with Jesse. But it's Christmas Eve, he's alone, and Willow's given voice to the ideas in his head that has haunted him for far too long.
He ducks into the bar. What the hell, a beer wouldn't hurt. It's practically medicinal given his state-of-mind.
Once he gets a look inside, he almost turns around and walks out. There are a few desultory souls at the bar, mostly old men who can't do without their alcohol for one day, and one very bitter-looking bartender. It looks like a dive, it smells like a dive, therefore it is a dive.
He stands at the entrance and is torn. He could always go back to his apartment and unwrap his present, the fourth season of Babylon 5. Then he could pop the DVDs in the player one after the other and lose himself in a world with aliens and high tech populated with normal schmoes like him fighting the good fight against all the odds. It's not exactly magic, but it's as close as anyone in this world is ever going to get.
But if he opens his present tonight, he'll have nothing to open tomorrow and he'll be left presentless on Christmas day.
That's what finally convinces him to step up to the bar and order a beer. The bartender grunts at him when he takes his order and places the foaming glass of Budweiser on the surface with another grunt.
Xander stares at his drink for a long time. This is not how it was supposed to turn out, he thinks. This isn't my life either.
The life in his head involved lots of travel. He and Jesse were supposed to take the year after graduation and work their way across the country and see all the big cities and the crazy little towns. Then, when they reached the Atlantic Ocean, they were going to pick the best place, go back there, and look for jobs. They were going to score big salaries doing nothing, have lots and lots of girlfriends, and then they were going to take a lot of vacations and do the adventure travel thing. They talked about trekking through Mexico, and safaris in Africa, and motorcycling through Southeast Asia, and camping in the Outback.
Truthfully, Xander was never crazy about the adventure travel part. That was more Jesse's big dream with Xander just going along for the ride. Hell, for all he knew, he might even like world trekking on a shoestring. He wouldn't know until he tried. Besides, he and Jesse were best buds, the Two Musketeers. Where one went, the other one was sure to follow. It only made sense that they'd hang together forever and take the world by storm.
All it took to kill the dream was the engine falling out of their junk car in Oxnard.
No. That's not true. It wasn't the dead car, or the fact that Xander got stuck working at the Fabulous Ladies Nightclub, first as a dishwasher and later as a stripper.
He should put the blame where it belongs: Jesse. Jesse got a taste for a needle. How the hell that happened, Xander had no idea. When they left Sunnydale, the most either one of them ever did was the occasional pot they scored through Oz's band. How anyone jumps from a once-a-month toke straight to a heroin habit is simply beyond Xander's ability to comprehend.
It took him a month to catch on that something was up with Jesse. It took him another month to catch on what that something was. When Xander found out how much money was going into Jesse's arm, he blew a gasket. The fight was ugly, and it was nasty, and it lasted all day.
It ended when Jesse looked him right in the eye and said: So I'm a junkie, hunh? Beats being a whore.
He didn't lose it then. He pointed out that the most he ever did was strip and that was it. The other guys were more than willing to get the cash for private sessions, but he stayed out of it because he just wanted enough money to get out of town. He was as unwhore-like as any stripper could possibly get.
Then Jesse took the step too far and threw Miss. French and her taste for 16-year-old virgins in his face. There was no getting around the fact that Xander traded his ass for a B in biology. It didn't matter that Xander eventually got scared enough to break away after she introduced the kinky games and toys. It didn't matter that Miss. French shrugged off Xander's stammered request for it to just stop and moved on to the next kid.
It didn't matter that Xander still had nightmares about Miss. French chaining him up in her basement and eating him alive.
Jesse was the only one he had trusted enough to spill the details and in the end, Jesse used that knowledge to stab him in the gut.
Xander walked out of their shared motel shithole right then and he hitchhiked his way back to Sunnydale and Willow. The most he ever told her was that Jesse had gone all user on them and that he and Jesse had a fight about it. He never got into details, never told her he tried stripping, and he sure as hell never mentioned Miss. French. Thank god his vague sob story was enough to win him a spot on Willow's dorm room floor.
He has no idea what happened to Jesse. He wonders if he's still in Oxnard. He wonders if he cleaned up his act. Hell, he wonders if Jesse is even still alive. Xander thinks he should find out for sure, except he doesn't even know where to begin. He doesn't know the first thing about computers, so that option's out. He supposes he could always hire a private detective to find out the score.
Maybe he'll do that after the first of the year when he's thinking a little more clearly.
Xander's been putting off this part of his rounds because this is the part that creeps him out the most. He picks his way down to the root cellar and the flashlight in his hand shakes so hard that the light is bouncing everywhere.
The smell of dead bodies reaches his nose long before he hits bottom. After almost two years in Africa, he's way too familiar with eau de rotting corpse. He's also learned to suppress the urge to run when he smells it. He's had to look at more than one bloated body to determine if the unidentified person in question was a victim of just another demon or monsters of a more human variety.
He forces himself to go to the shelves and the involuntary shudder takes over when he sees the three bodies stashed there. For a moment he hates Illyria, Angel, and Spike with all of his being. He was never crazy about the three of them on his best of days. He'll never forgive them for making him feel bad for them like this.
All three look like the shriveled corpses they would be if they hadn't been taken over by demons, as in the case of Angel and Spike, or by a god-king, in the case of Illyria. Yet, as corpse-y as they look and smell, they mutter their memories in incomprehensible languages and accents. Their hands make weak, fluttering movements as they talk with people who were dead long before Xander's grandparents were born.
He's very grateful that Anya didn't live to experience this, since she was part of the crowd that should've been dead a long time ago. She'd be down here like the others speaking in tongues and seeing a world that stopped existing a long time ago. He knows his nerves would've failed him completely if he ever saw Anya like that.
Xander gets as close as he dares and shines a light on them. Illyria first, then Angel, and finally Spike.
It's Spike who turns out to be the straw that broke Xander's back.
When the light shines in Spike's face, the vampire turns his darkened, sunken-in face to Xander and stares at him with his shriveled eyes. For a moment, Xander thinks that Spike is aware of him and he feels an unexpected surge of hope.
"Mother, you are not well," Spike slurs and rasps. "You should rest yourself. The physician will be here soon with a draught. You should not worry yourself so on my account."
Even through the horror of shattered illusions, Xander can grasp the essential humanity in Spike's voice. He can hear the care, concern, and love for the long-dead mother of the boy Spike was when he was alive.
He turns and flees up the stairs, through the halls, and bursts out of the front door of Giles's manse. He collapses to his hands in knees on the front lawn and throws up.
Given everything that's going on, it's the first sensible thing he's done in days.
It's a little hard to get a hangover when you don't actually drink the beer you bought, but Xander has somehow still managed to do it. He wakes up feeling headache-y and dry-mouthed. His stomach feels too unsteady to even think about eating.
The only thing more pathetic than his planned Christmas is to spend Christmas in bed, he decides. He forces himself into the shower and makes himself feel better by sheer force-of-will. Strangely enough, the trick works. By the time he's dressed, he not only feels a whole lot better, he's restless to get out.
He thinks about opening his present and decides he should just throw caution to the winds and open it later. It'll be there when he gets back.
Even though it's a little early, he jumps in his car and heads for the Chinese restaurant. Since it won't be open yet if he gets there by his usual route, he drives around town. He flips the radio on and quickly shuts it off when he's assaulted by yet another Christmas carol. He goes for the CDs instead, but his music of pain selection disturbs him instead of comforts him and he eventually shuts that off as well.
Despite his best efforts, he lands in the parking lot a half-hour before the restaurant opens. Left with nothing to do, he grips the steering wheel and wishes with all his heart.
The last time he wished for anything was right after Willow and Oz had the fight that sent him running to L.A. Back then, he wished he could find someone who could help him get right with the world and his life. He wished he had a life to get right with. He wished…
Well, he wished to be rescued, didn't he?
In the shelter he grew up and realized that no matter how he wished or what he wished, the rescuing bit was pretty much up to him. His life finally fell into place after that.
Funny how that happens.
The problem is he's so given up on the idea of anyone throwing him a lifeline that he's become content to drift along. It was enough when he was 20. He started cluing in that it wasn't enough when he was 23. Now, at 25, he just feels lost and abandoned by the rest of humanity. He's just some faceless construction guy who goes to work, occasionally drinks beer with the guys, and then goes home. He's got plenty of cash in the bank, since he isn't big on the long-term relationships and doesn't have expensive taste. He's got too much unused vacation time sitting idle on his books. He supposes he could do something, like travel or buy a house, but he's too comfortable right where he is to take chances with his life like that.
He's come full circle. It's Christmas and he's wishing for a miracle that he knows won't come. He's reaching for a lifeline that doesn't exist. He's looking for magic where there's none to be found.
He wishes anyway, holds his breath, and waits.
Xander doesn't give up until the Chinese restaurant opens its doors.
Xander can't bring himself to go back in the house. His courage has completely failed him and his sanity is following very closely behind. He can't face all those people, knowing that there isn't a damn thing he can do to bring the magic back and save them.
He looks up to the sky and takes comfort in the fact that, whatever else is going on, the stars are still there. They're not as bright or as close as they are in Africa, but they're bright enough and close enough for now.
He hears a distant sound and looks down with a frown. It takes a little bit for his eye to adjust, but he can see dim figures staggering across Giles's property. He hesitates a moment. He can tell by the way these bedraggled people are stumbling that they're affected by the magic draining away.
He should offer help, but he's not sure he has the energy to handle the additional refugees. He curses at himself as he forces himself to run after the group. Much as he really can't handle it, he also can't just turn away from them. He'll offer and if they refuse shelter, he won't press them to change their minds. Everyone wins that way.
As he gets closer, he realizes that the sorry group is dressed in colorful robes and wearing tattered hats. They're carrying wands at the ready and looking suspiciously around. They've also seen him and they've stopped to stare as he gets closer.
Witches and wizards, his mind angrily spits. Giles had given him the whole rundown of the parallel wizarding world, enough that he can recognize these assholes for what they are.
He comes to a halt just in front of the group. He's pretty sure the fury is coming off him waves as he glares at them. "What the fuck did you do?" he shouts at them.
An older woman with a pointed hat and glasses steps forward. Xander just knows she's about to feed him a bullshit excuse because he practically screams mugger or mugged or whatever these superior jerks call normal people like him. He feels grim satisfaction when the woman proves him right.
"I apologize for trespassing. My students and I were at a fancy dress party and a riot broke up the proceedings. If you'll just let us—"
Xander interrupts her with a harsh laugh. "Lady, please. Just stop right there. I know you're witches and wizards and I know you've been fighting this Voldemort guy and you just got your asses handed to you."
Everyone in the crowd stiffens at the name 'Voldemort,' except for one kid with glasses and a scar on his forehead. His eyes narrow as he gives Xander with a considering look while a redheaded kid next to him says, "Oi! And what do you know about it?"
"Are you a squibb?" asks a girl with wild, long hair. She sounds strangely hopeful as she asks this.
"Thought you called people like me muggeds," Xander spits.
There's a collective sharp in-drawing of breath. "I believe he means muggle," says one skinny guy with a mustache who's not wearing a hat.
"Yeah, the muggle thing," Xander fiercely nods.
The group strangely relaxes at this statement.
"What do you know?" the kid with the scar and glasses asks. He and the wild-haired girl are the only two who don't seem thrown off by the confrontation.
"What I know is that your precious Voldemort was winning so you went nuclear on us. You decided to banish the magic, all of it." He waves helplessly at the house. "Great idea, by the way. Fabulous idea. Except you're dragging the rest of us with you. So, from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of a house full of dying people, thanks a whole fucking lot, assholes."
The older people in the group stiffen while the kids look at each other in confusion. "I didn't think—" the kid with glasses and the scar begins.
"No, you didn't. And that's the problem," Xander interrupts. "Did you honestly think you were the only people on the planet who used magic? Or needed it to exist? Wrong-o! I've got Slayers, and Watchers, and vampires, and god-kings, and mystical keys, and magic users in that house right now who are just fading away and all I can do is watch!"
The older woman with glasses draws in a breath. "The Council."
"Yeah, the Council," Xander nastily echoes. "Remember them? Did you even think to consult Giles before you pulled your stunt?"
"The Council?" the wild-haired girl asks.
"A rather—it's a long—" the older woman stumbles. She clears her throat and adds, "There are others who—they use magic in a different manner."
The boy with glasses and the scar laughs. It sounds brittle and angry and it's music to Xander's ears. The kid had no idea and he's pissed as all hell that no one told him this information before.
"So," the kid says as his hysterical laughter dies down, "a muggle is just a muggle until he isn't? You mean we could've gotten help and we didn't?"
"It's not their fight," the older woman with glasses says.
"Wrong!" Xander shouts. "It's our world, too!"
"The treaty of—" older woman begins.
"Shove your treaty!" Xander shouts. "We could have helped. Not saying we can take on another fight but, Jesus Christ! I've fought vampires since I was 16! I've faced off against a hell goddess and the First Evil and I'm still here. Do you honestly think that some crazy wizard with a shitty name and little wand even rates as a problem?"
The kid with the scar and glasses is staring at him now, not in disbelief, but with something resembling wonder. It's like the kid didn't know that magic existed outside of the boundaries of his little wizard world.
"A little wand, eh?" a gruff guy steps forward and Xander takes an involuntary step back. He looks, well, rough is so understating the reality. He's a one-eyed dude like Xander is, except instead of a patch he's got a crazy rolling eye that darts this way and that. He holds out his wand and says, "Imper—"
Before the guy can even finish the word, Xander is moving. Giles had said something about the fact these guys could make things happen with a wand and a word, so he knows to get out of the line of fire before the guy can finish his spell. A beam of weak magic light shoots over his head while the group begins shouting. Xander keeps ducking and moving forward until he tackles the guy full on.
In the course of the fight, they roll around on the ground. Even though the other guy is bigger, Xander is a hell of a lot better as a hand-to-hand fighter. He manages to snatch the wand away, and backs up a few steps. While the group stares at him in shock, he snaps the wand in half and throws the pieces in their faces.
"I've had it!" he screams at them. "Bring the magic back, now!"
They stare stupidly at the broken pieces of wand on the ground and then they stare at him. The way they're acting, he'd think they'd never dealt with a mugger or mugged or whatever they call him that could fight back before. Then again, he remembers the bad old days when Willow would command things with a simple word. It made her powerful in one sense, but weakened her in a lot of others. He suspects he's dealing with the same kind of situation on a massive scale.
The thin man with the mustache and without a hat pushes himself forward. "If we bring the magic back, people will die," he says in a reasonable tone.
"I don't know if you noticed, but people die all the time," Xander points out. "If some spell doesn't get them, then a runaway bus will. If they don't get killed by vampires, who's to say they won't OD later? Some people get taken out by demons, but some people get taken out by brain aneurisms."
"You're a bloody cold one," the red-haired kid mutters.
"I'm watching my friends die, so excuse me for being an asshole right now," Xander snarls.
"They're not dying," the wild-haired girl protests. "When the magic's gone, this world will just merge with another. We'll just have different lives, only without magic."
Xander's one eye twitches. "Are you sure about that?"
The girl puffs up her chest. "Very sure."
She reminds him so much of Willow when she's sure she's right that it hurts. The one problem with it is that when Willow's wrong, she tends to be catastrophically wrong. He can't afford to take the chance. His friends can't afford to take the chance.
"But you're not absolutely sure," Xander stresses.
"We're as sure as we can be," the older woman with glasses says.
"Great. Terrific." Xander throws up his hands in frustration. "That's a comfort. Even if it does happen the way you said, can you tell me that the other world would be even worth having?"
The kid with the scar and glasses finally speaks up. "There'll be no more nightmares." He says that like it's the best reason in the world for doing what they did.
"Yeah, but there'll no be no more fairytales either," Xander says.
This statement earns him a round of derision from the tattered group.
"Fine. Laugh." Xander's shoulders slump. "You're not the kind of people who get the fairytales. Well, if you want to know, not that I think you care, neither am I. Fairytales? For other people. But me and those people in that house? We may not get them, but we've fought too damn hard and too damn long to make sure that other people get the chance. I can't stop you from doing whatever it is you're doing, but I want you to know that you're killing the good with the bad. That never works out well for anyone. Trust me on that."
The kid with the glasses and the scar steps forward. He looks Xander up and down, like he's almost convinced, but he just needs that one more argument to win him over. "What do you want us to do?" the kid asks.
"Stop this," Xander desperately says. "Just whatever is happening, stop this. Let us take care of the rest. Let us help you. At least, let's try to work something out before you pull this trigger again."
The kid still doesn't look convinced. The people behind him look outright hostile. The one-eyed guy with the crazy eye looks like he'd cheerfully murder Xander.
Xander knows there's no point in arguing. He's lost the fight and there's nothing left for him to do but gracefully retreat.
"Merry Christmas," he says dully. "And have a happy new world. I hope you enjoy it, because I know I'm going to miss this one like hell."
Xander turns away and heads for the house to wait for the end with his friends.
Xander sits on the hood of his car with his still-wrapped present in his lap. He usually opens it in his apartment, if only so no one will hear him thank an invisible person for his gift, but this Christmas hasn't followed the script yet. There's no point in starting now.
He looks out over the cliff and watches the twinkling lights of the city below. It's beautiful and distant and cold. He shivers in his coat and hugs his present.
This has to stop, he thinks. I can't do this any more.
The problem is, he doesn't no how to make it stop, short of stepping off the cliff.
He's suddenly aware that there's someone sitting on the hood next to him. He freezes and tries to get a look at who or what it is out of the corner of his left eye.
"It's a nice night," the guy says. "If the world's going to end, it might as well end on a night like this."
Xander slowly and carefully gets to his feet before turning around. When he gets a load of the guy, he draws in a sharp breath. The stranger could be his twin, that is if his hair was longer, he was 20 pounds lighter, and wore an eyepatch over his left eye.
The stranger stares back at him with a frown. "So this is the world without magic," he remarks.
"There's no such thing as magic," Xander insists.
The stranger takes in a harsh breath and looks out over the twinkling lights. "I bet there's magic somewhere," he insists quietly. "I'm not going to believe that they managed to send it all away. I won't. It's still out there somewhere. Maybe you just have to look for it."
"And maybe fairytales are real," Xander sarcastically says as he takes another step back.
"Don't know until you look," the stranger grimly responds.
Xander blinks and the stranger is gone. He looks wildly around, but he can't see any evidence that anyone is even nearby. Despite the goosepimpling along his skin, he slowly resettles himself on the hood of his car. It's a crazy response, he knows. He should get in the car and take off for the safety of his apartment before the nutjob comes back.
Yet, he can't leave. Not just yet. He can't really explain the compulsion.
So he shivers and waits for something to happen. He knows something will, he just doesn't know how or why.
Xander's not sure what wakes him up. He lies on the couch and watches the fading embers in the fireplace and just listens.
There's nothing but silence.
He sits up and the blanket falls away. For a moment, he thinks the end has come and he missed it because he was too tired to keep going. The world changed on him while he dreamed that his friends were well and whole and that the world was spinning like it always had.
The first thing he notices is that the room feels warmer.
He slowly gets to his feet and looks around.
Xander's not magic.
He never has been.
But even he can feel that the magic is coming back.
He collapses back onto the couch and breathes through his open mouth.
They did it. They really did it. They changed their minds!
All at once he's laughing and crying with relief. It's over and things can go back to normal, well, as normal as it ever gets.
He forces himself to calm down and swipes the wetness from his face. When he gets to his feet again, there's a spring in his step and a song in his heart.
It's the difference between watching his world die and watching his world get better.
Sure, there are nightmares here, but there are dreams, too. And as bad and as dark as it gets at times, he'll take all of it, the good and bad.
In the week between Christmas and New Year's, something finally changes for Xander. He doesn't know if it's because of his mysterious Christmas stranger, or if it's because he's finally reached the tipping point.
The world has changed, he doesn't know why or how, he doesn't know what happened to make it so. All he knows is that he's not going to question it.
The day after Christmas, he walks into a bookstore and makes a beeline to the travel section. He closes his eyes and spins around a few times. When he stops, he's facing the section on Africa. He knows shit-all about Africa, but he's not going to change his mind. He empties the shelves and starts reading through the guidebooks. He decides that West Africa looks like an interesting place with a side benefit of being one of the safest places for him to go.
Two days after Christmas, he's in the library and researching the possibility of changing jobs. He figures there's a humanitarian group somewhere that would look at his construction expertise as a blessing. He could sign up and get paid to see the world.
He's not sure if he'll actually follow through, but it's good to finally have a goal. Maybe, just maybe, he'll take that step off the edge of the cliff and discover that he can fly.
No, Xander doesn't believe in magic. He knows there's no such thing.
But maybe, just maybe, he's dead wrong. Maybe magic is real and just waiting for him to find it. Or maybe he's been defining magic all wrong. Maybe magic is what you make of your life if only you can take chances.
He'll never know until he tries.
Two days after Christmas, everyone is at the table and digging into the delayed Christmas feast. The hired waitresses dance around the table delivering plate after plate of food while the Slayers wolf down everything they can get their hands on.
Everyone is still weak from the magic drain, but they're smiling and happy as they exchange barbs across the table. Giles and Andrew have made the best recovery, probably because they were the least affected by the magic loss, outside of Xander himself.
Angel, Spike, and Illyria are looking human, well, human-ish in Illyria's case, but they seem to be operating at a lower energy level. Xander figures he should be grateful for the respite on that front. Sooner or later Illyria will be back to full-on weird and Angel and Spike will be back to full-throttle annoying.
As for Xander, he's not particularly hungry and he's still too exhausted to really sit in the middle of the hubbub. He eventually pulls away from the table and sits by the fireplace and enjoys the warm glow of both fire and friends. All he wants to do is watch and study every little detail. He came too close to losing it all and he wants to imprint this moment in his mind. They tease him to come back to the table, but eventually they give up when he keeps waving them off.
One of the hired hands for the day scurries into the large dining room and scans the crowd. When she spots Xander, she nervously trips over to him. "There's some…ummm…I guess they're people at the front door looking for you," she quickly whispers.
"For me?" Xander asks with surprise.
"They said…they said…a man with dark hair and an eyepatch, so…" her voice trails off and she helplessly shrugs.
A sense of danger zings up Xander's spine. "Are you okay?" he asks.
"I'm…it's…sir, you best come see," she says nervously.
Xander strides out of the dining room to confront whatever is impinging on his happy time.
When he flings open the door, he's greeted by the kid with glasses and a scar. Behind him is the rest of his crew looking nervous, except for the one-eyed guy with the crazy fake eye who still looks like he'd love to murder Xander. Behind them are even more people dressed in outlandish robes and hats. Interspersed in the crowd are all sorts of creatures that Xander can only guess at. He thinks he sees a centaur and several giants. He's pretty sure he sees little grey-green people wearing cast-off clothes. There are other creatures that are completely unfamiliar to him.
And all of them, every single one, are standing silently and staring right at him.
He has no idea what the hell to think.
When his eye can take no more, he looks back down at the kid with the glasses and the scar.
The kid thrusts out his hand. "Harry Potter," he says.
Xander reaches out to shake his hand. "Xander Harris."
The wild-haired girl gives Harry Potter a nudge.
"You said—" Harry Potter begins. He clears his throat. "You said you could help."
Xander looks out at the crowd. These were the people and creatures that lived side-by-side with all of them and fought a war none of them knew about. They gave up their shot at total victory because he asked and now they've come to collect.
He's honor-bound now. He can't just shut the door on them and tell them to get lost. They all share the same world and, as recent events have proven, what happens in one will affect the other, whether any of them like it or not.
"I don't know about me," he says slowly. "But I think my friends can lend a hand, yeah."
"So, you going to invite us in to talk or what?" the redheaded kid demands.
"What's your name?" Xander asks.
"Ron. This here's Hermione," the kid, Ron, nods at the wild-haired girl.
"Ron, take it from me. Never, ever invite a stranger in," Xander dryly explains. This earns him a raised eyebrow from the one-eyed guy with the crazy fake eye. "But if you can come in without an invite…" Xander trails off and shrugs.
He then turns and walks back to the dining room. He doesn't need to turn around to know that the crowd is following him.
The magic is back in the world and he can feel the strength of it pushing him forward. It's terrifying and comforting all at the same time because it means that, for now, the world is here to stay.
When he walks into the dining room, everyone at the table is already on their feet. It appears one of the hired day help ran ahead to warn them about the mob standing in front of the house. The Slayers are studying the newcomers with calculating eyes, the vampires and Illyria and Andrew are frowning in confusion.
Of all of them, only Giles seems to recognize the moment for what it is. His gaze turns to Xander and a million unasked questions crosses the Watcher's face. The only reason none of them makes it to his lips is because Giles has no idea which question to ask first.
It's a strange moment, Xander realizes. He feels like he's stepping off 'and they lived happily ever after' right onto 'once upon a time.'
The world shifts, the spell is cast, and there's nothing left to do but follow this new story to its end. If he's lucky, the ending will be more sweet than bitter.
Xander clears his throat. He should say something important, but the important words really aren't there.
He instead goes for some ordinary, everyday magic.
"Merry Christmas, guys. I hope you don't mind, but I invited some new friends."