Disclaimer: All characters and institutions are the property of whomever owns Robin McKinley's Sunshine and BtVS. I just borrowed them, and make no profit from their use.
Six o'clock in the morning and there'd better be a cinnamon roll as big as his damn head on his desk when he hits work or Xander Harris is going to be one very, very unhappy SOF officer.
He hadn't planned on joining the Special Other Forces, but then, he hadn't planned on landing in the middle of this freaky-ass alternate universe, either. Thanks, Willow.
Okay, so not entirely her fault. She'd been performing some basic transportation spell, difficulty about equal to the hokey pokey, when some cataclysmic hoodoo-voodoo booga booga from another world had gotten his freak on, and poof
! No more Xan-man. He and his Slayer team - four girls and Dawn, who took on the icky bits of the Watcher mantle - had been scattered to the four corners of the multi-verse.
Mostly the girls turned out okay. Dawn didn't go anywhere, the magic that constituted the Key kept her exactly where she wanted to be - although she did have the unfortunate experience of landing next to a hysterical Willow and realizing that her entire team had vanished in transit. The four Slayers got tossed about a bit, but they all landed in relatively low-magic worlds, so Willow just had to find them and whisk them back.
Xander, however, being the king of the wonky magic, ended up plugging the hole that the idiotic warlock had torn between universes. The freaky after-effects of the Voodoo Wars had rendered this particular reality so incredibly bizarre that, first: Willow could communicate with Xander but couldn't bring him home, and second: his own magical peculiarities were just bizarre enough that he was completely sympatico with the way this world worked; for this, read: he was a mage on this world, a mage with an affinity for the spark
. That's how magic worked, here. No calling on gods or goddesses, no ritual incantations, just an affinity, an ability to manipulate energies associated with a particular element.
Because Xander just couldn't be normal, his element was life. Really. Life. The spark that differentiates a corpse from a man, a tree from a table, the spark that lingers longer in certain types of wood and makes them more effective for staking vampires.
And every mage with an aptitude for one element was generally exemplary at dealing with its opposite. Water mages were excellent firefighters, for example. Well, the opposite of life is… go figure.
Of course, with his magic so closely tied to life, he wasn't aging. Which was a major reason he was working in the SOF.
The Voodoo Wars were the first time humanity really
had to pay attention to the world around them, to realize that people were disappearing because the vampires were eating them, that the funny little man who liked to stand in the rain and who drowned that werewolf that came after you was really a magic-user. People knew, before, it wasn't like Sunnydale, but they talked about the Others, wrote romance novels about them, horror novels, and never really thought about it. They were like starvation in Ethiopia, like lightning strikes and plane crashes: they weren't happening to you
But now they were.
That was at least fifteen years ago. Xander'd pulled himself out of the crater the bastard Blaise had made, slammed his well-worn acacia-wood stake - he'd whittled it while his first Slayer was screaming through her labor; she'd named the baby Alex - into the heart of the sluggish vampire that had only been shocked by the confluence of spells that had essentially ruined Xander's life, started to yell at the mage, and fainted.
The Blaise clan - there were about a dozen, all told, magic workers who were heavy into the business, with an excellent reputation - dragged him back to a safehouse, because what the hell was a random normal doing stumbling out of a hole in the ground when Grandfather Eduard had just blasted it with a couple bajillion different spells? He woke up, yelled at Eduard some more, and finally managed to get some food and a shower. Of course, Willow tracked him down and started talking to him while he was naked and wet, but it wasn't the first time.
Unfortunately, she couldn't come visit. Xander's new world was super-saturated with magic that, just like Xander, drove Willow's magic wonky. She could send Dawn, with her Key-based interdimensional superpowers, who popped through with clothes, cards and letters from his Slayers and the Scoobies, a backpack full of snacks, and a mini-arsenal in a trunk.
The Blaises found out about Xander's weird life-affinity magic and tried to tie him to them; lucky Xander was well-versed in getting the hell out of too-friendly places, and soon he and his weaponry were on the run. He bought a nifty new Roc motorcycle, strapped his trunk to the back, loaded the saddlebags with goodies, and hit the road for the American road tour he'd never managed.
He - and Dawn, whenever she popped in - traveled for upwards of five years, gradually coming to terms with his magic, with his distance from his girls, with the freaky post-War world he was in.
Of course, the War wasn't really over. It took him a while to see it, another five years riding with a group of motorcycle boys helping with the clean-up, but the Others were winning; it was just a waiting game, now.
He called his bike Mama Fisi - mother of the hyena, in Swahili - and Mel, a tattooed, warded, wild-boy biker with a tendency to take over the cooking whenever they camped, helped him deck Mama out with a stylized paintjob that hinted at teeth, claws, and desolation. Xander loved it, but when Mel settled down at a coffee shop, trading his sorcery and aging Griffin for a twelve-burner industrial stove at a coffee shop with a Champagne menu, he figured that the crunch time was coming.
He and Mama Fisi picked up a low-rent apartment in the bad part of town, a morass of abandoned industrial works that hosted never-ending parties, flash-in-the-pan nightclubs, weres out the wazoo, and a creeping invasion of low-key vampires. He decked out the ground floor with a training room, a woodshop, and a place for his bike. Upstairs was a single empty room, bed in the middle, kitchen all electrical appliances that shared a sink with the open-air bathroom, one wall lined with books, the others plastered with the pictures, cards and letters that Dawn brought him every few months.
He spent a few weeks settling in, getting to know his new city, loitering at the coffee shop where Mel worked, running a few patrols around his home. Unfortunately the vamps he could find were all attached to a nest, and while he might have the power to pull off a full-scale assault, he wasn't willing to risk it without someone to pull his ass out of trouble if it all went FUBAR.
He thought of asking Mel, rustling up a few of the locals, some of the weres that weren't looking to eat anyone, even picking out a few demons, when he noticed something about some of the regulars at Charlie's Coffehouse.
He was coming in at noon or so, in plenty of time to snag a sandwich and a muffin, then out for a walk until dinner time when it was back to Charlie's for whatever genius Mel was perpetrating in the kitchen, then hang around for an hour or so, read a bit, drink a few coffees, hit the streets to help roll the junkies out of the gutter and direct them towards the shelters. And there were six or so men who were always represented by at least two.
It took a while for him to figure out what they were there for; he knew they were SOFs, they talked business often enough to make that obvious, and sometimes they all popped in for a snack after or before a shift, all prettied up in uniform. But eventually he noticed that, though they did a decent job of hiding it, they watched the baker.
Okay, she was an absolute goddess in the kitchen, but still. Stalker much?
He hinted at it to Mel, one night, while the two of them were working over the engine on Mel's Griffin - try what they could, the damn thing practically sprayed oil. Mel just nodded, almost Oz-like in his weird sorcerer Zen.
Baker - Rae Seddon, called Sunshine, step-daughter of Charlie Seddon, owner of the eponymous coffeehouse - was a damned Blaise.
Her mother might be part demon.
The SOFs were watching to see if she went whack-job.
That part was a bit disturbing: demon-witch hybrids had a tendency to go completely nutso.
So Xander watched, too.
And nothing happened.
All demons and witches were required to register.
No demons or witches were allowed to work with SOF except under extreme limitations.
Two of the six men cycling through the shop were at least part demon.
So he asked around, found out that SOFs protected their own. If a man - admittedly a man without an identity, but Willow and Dawn had conspired with Mel and a few others to create a background that almost made sense, if he came from one of the cities completely eradicated during the Voodoo Wars - happened to be a witch who was inordinately good at whacking the Dark Others, well, the SOFs might see their way clear to welcoming him into the fold.
So one day, apropos of nothing, he plopped down at their table.
"So, fellas. What kind of demons are you?" He'd been reasonably careful, of course, only approaching on a day when just the two officers with demon heritage were present.
One's hand went to his waistband, presumably - hopefully - a taser or something. The other went very, very still.
"What are you talking about?" The jumpy one asked.
"Well, I was sure, but that reaction? Totally just verified it. You guys gotta work on your incognito-ness."
"Who are you?" Quiet one, that time.
"Name's Xander, Xander Harris. I want in."
There was a prolonged bout of blinking.
Xander grinned and nodded to the shoulder bag he'd dropped on the floor beside his chair. "Gonna grab something, k?"
The quiet one nodded while the jumpy one's fingers tightened on whatever was on his belt under his jacket.
Xander moved slowly, pulling the top flap up and slipping his hand underneath, and came back with his hand curled around his own weapon. Once it was clear of the table he spun it quickly through his fingers before letting it clatter to the table.
The jumpy SOF officer sneered. "You want to hunt, you join up like everyone else."
Xander shook his head, smiling slightly, and rested his fingertips on the stake. There was a low cracking noise, the wood under his fingers warmed, swelled - sap began to leak from the dry wood.
The quiet one nudged his partner silent and addressed Xander. "Water magic?"
Xander smirked. "Much more useful." He pumped a little power into the stake and it shifted slightly, regained the damp, reedy look of fresh-hewn pine. The scent of sap rose over the table.
"I've never heard of wood magic…" The jumpy one admitted reluctantly.
"Nor I," Xander offered, pulling his hand away. "You know anything about affinities?"
The quiet one nodded. "Magic users generally have an affinity for a single element. Earth, air, fire, water; a few others."
They both shook their heads.
"Say I work with water. I can't create or manipulate fire, at all. I can, however, survive ridiculously high temperatures, walk through fire and, if I prepare, won't even burn. If I'm an air mage, it's relatively easy for me to walk through walls. There're others."
Xander grinned wolfishly. "My affinity is for life."
"What, exactly, does that mean?" They both looked skeptical.
"Very little. If I had any practical talent at growing things, I could keep plants alive indefinitely. If a friend wipes out on his bike, I can keep him going until the doctors can take over..." That was in the early days with Mel and his gang. He hadn't known he could do it, and was near terrified to find that he could feel the fluttering spark as it waned and surged under his control. "If I make a stake, I can pull the memory of life into the wood. Slips into a vamp like a hot knife through butter."
"And your counter-affinity?"
Xander blinked. "Death." The 'duh' was unspoken, but obvious.
The quiet one shook his head. "No, what does that mean? Effectively."
Again that fierce grin. "When I don't have a stake handy, I can use my hands."
They jolted; the jumpy one looked sick.
"Look, I can put my hands on someone who's dying and stabilize them, maybe feed them up a bit. I can't heal - whatever's killing them will still be killing them when I let go, unless something or someone intervenes. Contrariwise, I can put my hands on a demon and feel what makes them, the weird death magic that keeps them going. If I put life into them, the death magic falters. It takes a while. If I shove my hand into a vampire's chest, it dissolves around me."
The jumpy one looked sicker, and the quiet one was twitching.
"I didn't ask for this. But I've been around; you need all the help you can get. I can do a lot on my own, but I've got nobody to watch my back. I want to join the SOF, like I said. But they'll find out I'm a witch and I'll get locked away - unless someone does for me what they obviously did for the two of you, and helps me out."
The quiet one shook his head, not in negation but in incredulity. "You never said; how'd you know what we are?"
Xander shrugged. "Different kinds of life. Like different flavors of ice cream."
it?" The jumpy one, looking even more disgusted now.
Xander rolled his eyes. "Bad example. But I don't know how I sense life, so you're stuck with the metaphor. All ice cream's cold, creamy, and awesome, right? But if you buy a carton of brown, sometimes it's peanut butter and sometimes it's caramel."
The quiet one nodded. "And vampires?"
Xander made a face. "Modeling clay. Looks kind of the same, but completely different."
Quiet one looked Xander over, shaggy brown hair, face too thin, two green eyes - Willow'd worked with a Shaman in Uganda to magic the lost one back, but it came back green. She hooked him up with a nifty little glamour to avoid attention, but when he'd dropped the glamour one night, his eyes stayed green. He figured it was something about the way he arrived, solidifying her magic or something. She didn't agree, but didn't have any other theories - broad shoulders, fit, well-worn but clean clothes, maybe a bit under thirty. He eventually nodded and stuck out his hand.
"I'm Pat, this is Zeke. We'll talk to some people and let you know, but tentatively? Welcome to the SOF."