A/N: Glad to see you're still reading! I think I scared a few people off with that last chapter.
This time, he dreamed of Africa. He was with Grace and Edith, two of the Slayers from Kenya, and in an aging Land Rover. There had been a report of a dangerous river deity some miles outside the city, so they had gone out toward that water. Grace drove, threading down dirt roads that were little more than animal tracks in growing night and darkness. He rode shotgun, sipping from the glass bottle of Coke that was far safer to drink than the local water was. As they got further away from the slums of Dar es Salaam, they slid into wilderness, bright stars replacing the flicker of cooking fire, and the noises of man replaced by the sound of creatures that would be a biologist's dream to study. The breeze picked up, sweeping the way that everything smelled down there toward him. It wasn't a bad smell once you got away from the places with too many people and too few sewers; it simply smelled like too much of everything.
"Do you feel it?" Edith asked from the back seat.
"Feel it in my bones," Grace confirmed.
And Xander woke up again in Narcissus' guest room. He glanced toward a sleek modern clock on a bedside table, noting that it was just after eight in the morning. He hadn't shut the blinds the night before, and the sun now cheerfully came through the bedroom window. He could tell that Narcissus and Pindar were already up and about, but no one had told him that there was supposed to be a schedule for the day, so he took his time showering and dressing. For all that there were things that sucked right now, he had been around long enough to know that it could have been so much worse. He had ended up in a dimension that, for all its quirks, didn't seem to be on the hell side of things, and had fallen with a group of people who seemed to believe him even if they didn't know how to fix his problems. And for all that he hated being somewhere around fourteen again, he couldn't help but smile and hum a cheerful little tune over the return of his eye as he followed noise and nose to the kitchen.
"And happy birthday, Mister President!" he noted as he saw Pindar and Narcissus sitting at the breakfast bar over pancakes and sausage. Pindar was back in jeans. Narcissus wore a white halter dress that was pure Marilyn Monroe in 'The Seven Year Itch'.
"What's that?" Pindar asked as Xander leaned his elbows on the bar.
"President Kennedy, rumored affair with Marilyn, all that stuff?" A thought crossed his mind. "Was John F. Kennedy president in the sixties in this dimension? From what I remember, it was a point in history where things could have happened very differently than they did, and that's the kind of stuff that causes an alternate time line to veer off into alternate dimension land."
"He was president until he was killed in Texas under mysterious circumstances in 1963. But nothing with Marilyn Monroe from any of the biographies that came out after his death. The one Hollywood name he was really associated with in that way was Hedy Lamarr. Turns out he was interested in smart and beautiful women a little bit older than he was."
"Who's Hedy Lamarr?" he asked as Pindar got up and started to make him a plate of breakfast.
"If she did exist where you came from, then all I can say is that kids these days have no appreciation for classic Hollywood stars," Narcissus said as he reached over to ruffle Xander's hair with one hand. The hyena wanted to lean forward into the touch, but the human part of him had a very good idea of what had happened between Narcissus and Pindar the night before, and classified what he had heard as rather out there, even if he applied Anya's old standards in that regard. Fortunately, before he could mention the odd mix of comfort and unease from the touch, Pindar put food in front of him. It gave him an excuse to ignore that and focus on the pancakes.
"Let me know how much more you want," Pindar said. "Put a shifter's metabolism with someone who looks like he's just about to hit a growth spurt, and you're probably going to want seconds or thirds."
"Thanks," he said as he drowned the plate in what the label said was real Vermont maple syrup. "So is anything happening after breakfast? If there isn't, it would be nice to continue to get my bearings in this world, and figure out just where things got different in major ways. Like do Twinkies have the old school banana filling here or the more modern cream?" He'd gotten the big picture, strange as it was, talking with Pindar the night before. But the demon was always in those pesky little details that didn't seem to matter until they suddenly became crucial.
"Twinkies, they switched internal core formulas around World War II," Pindar said.
"And is that foul temptress Little Debbie here to push Zebra Cakes, Boston Creme Rolls, and Star Crunches?"
"I'm not sure who Debbie is, but that sounds like Aunt Annie's snack cakes product line."
"I'm no brand snob. Believe me, I've spent enough time living in the beyond the beyond woods to appreciate sugarey goodness under just about any label."
Narcissus laughed at that, ruffing his hair as he did.
"Why does it seem like I now have to double my grocery list while you're here?"
"I don't want to be a problem. I really do appreciate the hospitality, and when it comes to food, the last couple of years have taught me to pretty much eat anything put in front of me. I only draw the line at warthog anus. Because the eating of anus is just not acceptable. I mean, like in a food sort of way, and not with whatever other things you might mean when you talk about that kind of thing," he said as he started to turn red. From what he had heard of the night before, the other two men didn't seem to be into rimming, but he didn't want to insult his hosts too badly. Time to change the subject. "Anyways, trying to get back to the reason why I ended up here, any thoughts on where a demon might be hiding in these parts?"
"I'm already one step ahead of you in that regard," Narcissus said. "Your Tersha demon is a concern to more than just the hyenas in this town. It is a concern to all the preternatural creatures in St. Louis. The last thing we need right now is for a creature not even native to our dimension to come here and disrupt what fragile peace there is between us and the humans. If your Tersha does start to behave as you've said it can, the entire community here will be blamed."
"So what's the plan then?" Xander asked as he crunched down on the bacon that had appeared on his plate. He didn't know enough about the hyenas to feel like he could let them lead a fight, but he was more than glad to let the natives run recon in this strange place.
"As you were still sleeping, I was talking with a few of my contacts. We've got a meeting in an hour with not only one of the biggest players in the preternatural community but also a couple of the police officers from the unit that handles preternatural crimes."
"A whole group of cops that would actually call a vampire kill a vampire kill, and not a barbecue fork incident?"
"That would be RPIT for you. They handle all of those kinds of crimes in the area," Pindar said.
"Excuse me for a moment while I wrap my head around the idea. Because from where I come from, that's even weirder than the whole idea of werehyenas."
So why not just go to the police station to talk to these guys instead of going across state lines and what seems to nearly be Kansas in order to talk to them at someone's house?" Xander asked as Pindar drove down country roads that ran over gentle hills.
"Because the police station isn't a good place for lycanthropes to spend too much time at. For any of us, there's always a concern that some bigot would try to find a reason to get you sent to shifter jail, excuse me, court-supervised halfway house if you even looked at them funny. And once you're there, it's darn near impossible to get out," Narcissus said.
There was an obvious joke about Narcissus and looking funny there, but it didn't seem to be the right time for Xander to make it.
"Pindar was saying that the vampires have the same legal rights as the living, so how can the cops treat the werewolves, I mean the were everythings like that?"
"The vampires have had a lot more time to earn a lot of money. So they could hire better lawyers to force the issue for them in the courts. We've pooled resources now, and have a couple of good cases right now at the appeals court level that will hopefully improve the lycanthrope rights situation. But it's still going to take some time," Narcissus said, turning from his position in the passenger seat in order to reach back and pat Xander on the knee. "Now the other reason we didn't want to go to the police station is that you're effectively a new shifter. And it's not good to put a new shifter in the middle of a group of humans. It would be easier for you to lose it there and let the hyena have free reign, than it would in an environment where there are fewer distractions."
"I think I'm okay. It's like everything smells different than it used to, and I can feel something inside me that's making me way jumpier than I had been, but I've had a lot of experience in managing the weird in my life."
"Don't get cocky on us though. So far, you're had pretty limited experience in being around people or creatures who give off a prey vibe, and you did try to take down the neighbor's dogs when you had the chance."
"Okay, point taken," he said, remembering how out of control he had briefly felt before Pindar had pulled him away from the huskies. "Any advice?"
"Keep your own emotions under control; if someone else smells scared enough to get the hyena interested in playing chase, then try to shut it down and focus on something else, and if all else fails, think about sex. It's less likely to lead to someone else's death than violence is."
"Not that I can really stop that right now," he grumbled. "I'm back at the stage in my life where staring at a toaster makes me think of sex. And it's not a lot of fun. I mean, one of the reasons being fifteen is survivable is because you're supposed to only have to do that once."
He might have continued on the rant about how being fifteen and wanting sex could have indeed led to death. But before he could, they pulled next to a house somewhere in the hundred acre woods. Since the driveway already seemed full of civilian SUVs and barely disguised undercover cop cars, Pindar parked on the road.
They got out of the car and walked toward the front door. As they made it to the front porch, Xander realized not only that he was actually getting kind of nervous about the meeting, but also that his response to the nervousness was to push himself closer to Pindar and Narcissus. By the time someone started to open the door, he was leaning into Narcissus' arm on one side and putting his own arm around Pindar on the other side.
"Nathaniel," Narcissus said, greeting the man who didn't smell the way Narcissus' human neighbor did that answered the door. "Nathaniel is a wereleopard, and a companion of Anita Blake."
"Good to meet you. I'm Xander, and yes, that's the name my parents gave me," Xander said as he politely nodded at the other man. He didn't give off a vibe of someone who would make the first aggressive move on you, but there was a sense of power to him that made Xander want to keep hold of the other hyenas just in case. There was also some sort of past between him and Narcissus. Darned if he knew what it was, but there was just something about the body language between them.
Nathaniel led them down a short hallway, showing off a braid of impossibly long hair down his back. It marked him as someone who didn't fight much. The hair was far too easy to grab and use against him. A medium-sized mirror was hung on one wall. It was angled so that it appeared you could see what was coming down the hallway from some other point in the house. Or at least it was probably supposed to work that way. Instead, when you looked through it, there was some sort of mist or clouds swirling through the frame. They began to move in a different pattern, almost like someone was trying to push their way through the white.
"Xander?" Narcissus said. Xander suddenly realized that he had come to a dead stop to look at the mirror.
"Sorry. There. Just got a little distracted." A bad thought hit him. If the hyena deal had turned literal in this dimension, then the one who sees deal might have as well. And if that was the truth, then he was so going to locate and kick the asses of the Powers That Be once he got home because he so didn't need more shit like that in his life.
"You can keep it focused. Lean on me if you have to," Pindar said as he grabbed him by the elbow and nudged him forward again. As he breathed, he inhaled the comfortable scent of the other hyena, and somehow it helped.
"Xander's a new shifter. And it can take some time for new shifters to learn how to process how different their senses are after they've been infected," Narcissus told a group that was gathered in the kitchen around a large table.
In addition to Nathaniel, who was now fussing around in the food preparation part kitchen just on the edge of his gloriously restored peripheral vision, there were two women and two men already at the table. The first was probably shortish and had long dark hair and smelled of sex. The second was a brown-haired woman sitting as far from the first woman. She smelled of magic and guns. For whatever reason, it seemed like they were the important ones in the room. The others were a man with long hair that was a wereleopard like Nathaniel, and another man with graying hair and a gun. The two that smelled of gun, Xander assumed they were the cops, were giving Narcissus a careful look like they couldn't quite figure out what to make of him.
"I'm Anita Blake," the dark-haired woman introduced herself. "This is Micah Callahan of the Shifter Coalition," she said, indicating the long-haired wereleopard. "And Sergeant Zebrowski and Detective Reynolds of RPIT. Narcissus called me and said he had information on a possible preternatural threat to the St. Louis area."
"Xander does," Narcissus said. "And I'm here today because I want to show you that I am serious about improving relations between the hyenas and the rest of the shifters in St. Louis. What he has to say may sound incredible even by our standards, but I believe him, and I'm not playing games by coming here."
"Barely a teenager, and you've renamed him already?" Anita said, skepticism clear in her voice.
"Believe it or not, he showed up at my door as he is," Narcissus said, the tone of his voice suggesting that for all that he was willing to work with Anita, he didn't always get along with her.
"And Xander Harris really is my name. Okay, technically it's Alexander Harris, but there are only about three people in various states of aliveness that will call me anything other than Xander. And I'll have you know that my teenage years have come and gone once already," he said, starting to draw puzzled looks from the other people at the table.
"Back it up there, and tell it like you told us last night," Pindar said as he nudged Xander to an open seat at the table. He took that seat, and Narcissus and Pindar bookended him in other chairs.
"I'm actually twenty-five years old, currently a resident of Houston, Texas, mostly because they've got an airport there where you can get a lot of flights to anywhere, and I hunt vampires and other things that go bump in the night for a living. Where I come from, it's still perfectly legal to do that." Or at least there wasn't an actual law against it like there was here.
He went on to tell his story of demons, dimensional travel, and how he wasn't really supposed to be a werehyena except now that he was one. Despite some serious skepticism, the cops seemed to come close enough to believing him that they were willing to check out what he said. Then in the end, the problem came from Detective Reynolds, or more precisely from Detective Reynolds chest. She had a nice chest, a very nice chest.
"Xander?" Narcissus asked as Pindar gave him a kick to his shin. It actually helped distract him from Detective Reynolds.
"Sorry there," he managed. "Where were we?"
"Ways of identifying Tersha demons," the other cop said.
"That's the hard part of it," he said. "The Tershas are one of those demon groups that can look exactly like humans. So we'd have to use magical charms to get a bead on them, and then once you used on of those charms, they'd pretty much confirm it by freaking out when you confronted them. Except for the eating brains part, it's like they're replicants."
"How do you make a charm to find one of your demons?" Reynolds asked. He let himself enjoy another look at her as he tried to answer the question as best he could.
"There are two big problems there. The first is that I'm not the magic guy in our group. I can manage a couple simple things like a protective ward or two, but that's not my specialty, and if I attempted anything more than that, magic starts to go weird around me. So instead, I'm the mechanic. Tell me that you need to come up with a better mousetrap to take down the Rat Goddess of Traxthashakass, then I'm the guy you want to talk to. But when it comes to magic, well my contribution to making the charm that finds Tershas was going out for pizza when our friendly witchy crew was feeling a bit peckish from low blood sugar."
"And the other reason?"
"As I've said, magic works differently here than it does back home. Even if I did know how to make the right finding charm, or if the one I had had somehow made it through the portal with me and you could take it apart to see what it was, there's no guarantee it would work here," he said as he tried to focus on Reynolds' face, but looking in her eyes was a challenge to her, so his eyes began to go southward again.
"Assuming we believe you, we've got an unknown supernatural that there's no way we can effectively identify?" Zebrowski said. Xander started to picture what Reynolds would look like without all the clothing and still with the shoulder harness.
"Do they smell different than human?" Callahan asked.
"Xander?" Pindar gave him another kick.
"What's that?" he managed.
"We're all the way over here, and the kid who's supposed to be our star witness can't even pay attention?" Reynolds said. There was something that suggested she hadn't liked the way he had been looking at her.
"Sorry about that. It's just that, hell you try going back to being fourteen again, and surfing the giant Hawaii-like tide of hormones all over again, and getting swept up in that particular wave where everything turn into a wet t-shirt contest in your mind. Believe me, I hate not being able to concentrate on the problems at hand, and right now I'm being reminded that I was lucky to survive high school with the whole crushing on girls while we were on vampire hunts and all." Girls. One nice thing about how he felt about Reynolds was that at least it meant that turning into a werehyena didn't mean he had suddenly gone gay on top of it all in the middle of being far from home and the wrong age. It he was going to go gay, he really, really needed Willow there for support. "What was the question?"
"If you could identify Tershas by smell like you can identify vampires or weres by smell?"
"I dunno," he said, reviewing the fight and flee with the Tershas in his mind. "There was something kind of mountain fresh about them, but it might have been their laundry soap."
"I could have some of my people go back over the area by Guilty Pleasures and see if anything doesn't smell right," Micah offered to the cops.
"I can't officially ask you to do that, but if you happen to have people in the area," Zebrowski started.
"I know, on the QT," Micah said. "We could go now, if you want." The invitation was clearly extended to Xander and Narcissus.
"I'm not sure how much good Xander would be right now. He's too new here to have experience in sorting out scents, and it wouldn't be ideal to put him in the middle of a crowd of humans right now either. Call Ari at my office, and he'll be able to recommend some of my people who can best aid yours."