Taking your Slayers out for fish tacos on a Friday night isn't supposed to change your life, especially when you don't really like fish tacos. Thankfully, they've moved far enough away from the restaurant and people so Xander can voice this disbelief out loud. His words earn him amused snorts from the Slayers and glares from the seven tallest men Xander has ever met.
Xander's not sure why he's surprised this has happened. In actual fact, this should be something that he shouldn't even bat an eye at. He's been a demon magnet, Dracula's butt monkey, and a million and one other things. Why can't he be a...
"What am I again?" Xander asks. His mind is simply refusing to understand the words. Either he's in shock or the mercury in the fish did something to his brain.
The man at the front of the group of giants, Sam, sighs. "You're an Imprint. Leah imprinted on you. "
His eyes immediately go to Leah, the twenty-something woman, at least he prays she's twenty-something, who has spent the last hour either looking nauseous or madly in love. Xander knows what he'd be feeling if he was in her shoes.
"Okay, Leah imprinted on me." He takes a deep breath because he hasn't gotten to his favourite part yet. "Which is love at first sight and that means I'm her soul-mate, right?"
"You're half right," Sam tells him. "You're her soul-mate but it's not necessarily love at first sight. It depends on the circumstances."
"Okay." He nods though he doesn't really see the distinction. "I'm her soul-mate and the reason she imprinted on me is because she's a shape-shifter, a werewolf." And apparently they're not the 'Oz' kind of werewolf. Nope, these guys shape-shift into giant horse-sized wolves at will. Which would be pretty cool in any other circumstances.
"Yes," Sam growls which in turn makes his Slayers and his, er... Leah growl as well.
Sam, the Alpha of the Quileute wolf pack, is angry and Xander takes a little bit of perverse pleasure out of this. Sam's pissed because they're having this conversation in the parking lot of a restaurant instead of away from prying eyes and ears. Sam's also pissed because when he tried to stop Xander from leaving he was thrown across the parking lot by Shannon.
Now it's like one big old fashion Mexican stand-off. On one side are his three Slayers, Shannon, Caridad and Beth, and on the other side are Sam and his pack. Xander and his Slayers are insanely outnumbered but Xander's still got his money on his Slayers kicking ass because Slayers always kick ass. Plus, apparently none of the wolves can touch him because he's Leah's, um, soul-mate.
"We shouldn't be discussing this in public," Sam reiterates for the millionth time.
Xander agrees, but he doesn't tell that to Sam because he doesn't want to be discussing this at all.
"Maybe we should do this tomorrow," one of the werewolves suggests. He's younger than most of the others, friendlier too. He gives Xander a big smile. He looks almost excited. "That way Xander can take some time to, ah, think about everything."
Leah freezes at the suggestion, her eyes full of fear as she shoots the younger wolf a look. "Seth..."
Xander sighs. He knows what she's thinking. When it became apparent that Xander wasn't going to stay and talk to them – and that he intended to leave town – Sam had no choice but to fill him in on the ugly truth about imprinting in the quickest and most brutal way possible. So, while he doesn't understand everything, he understands enough – more than enough. He understands that the second Leah's eyes met his, she became irrevocably bound to him. He became the center of her world, the love of her life, her reason for eating, breathing – existing. Xander became all of these things against her will. He was chosen by whatever higher power makes these decisions for the Quileute tribe.
"I won't skip town," he assures her. He has no doubt the thought of him leaving is what's put the fear in her eyes. "If you tell me where you live, the girls and I will come and see you tomorrow." After he's talked to Giles and Dawn. Hopefully they'll be able to find something about this in their books within the next twelve hours. Maybe they'll even find a cure.
Leah doesn't look convinced and Xander wants to reassure her, but he doesn't know how. When she imprinted on him she seemed overjoyed at first. After a few minutes, she freaked. Xander doesn't blame her for freaking.
Sighing, Xander reaches into his wallet and pulls out his driver's licence. He's not sure why he's doing this, the only thing he's sure of is that he can't stand the look in her eye. He can't stand the fact that he was chosen as her perfect match, her soul-mate. She should get a refund.
He hands her his licence. "I'll be back to pick this up tomorrow." There's a part of him that thinks that maybe this is a trick of some sort, but if so... it's a pretty lame trick. He's human, mortal. Why someone would pretend to be bound to him is beyond him.
Leah takes the licence but doesn't look like she believes he's not going to leave town as soon as she's out of sight. There's not a lot he can do, short of going back to La Push with her, that is likely to convince her otherwise. She doesn't know him. She doesn't know that even though he's just met her he can't abandon her.
If there's one thing Xander understands it's girls – women – who have had their choices stolen from them.
Her name is Leah Clearwater. She first changed into a shape-shifter at the age of nineteen. She has one brother Seth, the friendly wolf. Her mom, Sue Clearwater, is an Elder of the Quileute Tribe and her father, Harry Clearwater, died not long after she first started phasing into a werewolf. She once dated Alpha Sam, as Xander and his Slayers like to call him, mainly because it annoys the shit out of him, but they broke up when he imprinted on her cousin Emily. She hates being a werewolf, she hates Alpha Sam, she is scarier than Faith when she's pissed and she hates vampires with more ferocity than any Slayer Xander has met. She hates vampires because they're the reason she's a werewolf. Their presence triggered the magic that brought about her change. So it's because of vampires that she's a wolf... and that she'll love no one else but him until the day she dies.
Xander feels sick.
"I'm sorry, you're a what?" Leah asks, looking more and more freaked as the seconds tick by. Sam warns her quietly to calm down when he sees her shaking. He waits until her tremors subside before focusing his attention back to Xander and his Slayers. The other wolves in the room haven't made a sound.
Xander loves this whole 'getting to know you' game he's currently engaged in. Thanks to Seth, he's learned quite a bit about Leah, and now it's his turn to spill his guts. He actually thought it would be easy, considering he's sitting in a room with a bunch of teenagers who shift into werewolves, but as usual he's wrong. He didn't think he'd get this kind of reaction. The second he mentioned that he fought vampires Leah went so pale he almost called 911. He's more than a little confused by her reaction, but he decides to answer the question anyway.
"I'm a Watcher," he explains with more confidence than he feels. Sometimes, he doesn't feel like a Watcher at all, but that's a discussion for another time. "Beth, Shannon and Caridad are Vampire Slayers." His Slayers.
"We're the Slayer Recon Unit," Shannon explains, shooting Xander an amused look. The title of their 'unit' came from Andrew, who was still probably sulking because they refused to wear the uniforms he made. "We usually go to towns where there's suspicious activity, like a sudden increase in missing persons or dead people. We check it out. Xander's our team leader. He handles the logistics, we handle the Slaying. Mostly." Wisely, she downplays Xander's participation.
"Depending on what we find and how big it is, we either handle it ourselves or we call in more Slayers," Xander says.
"Why were you in Port Angeles?" Leah asks, still pale.
"The Seattle Serial Killer," Xander replies. He doesn't miss the sudden change in tension in the room. All the wolves react to his words this time. "From what we read in the paper, it had all the telltale signs of a nest of vampires. By the time we got there it looked like the vamps had moved on."
"We tracked them to Port Angeles but it doesn't look like they stayed long," Shannon continues. "We were going to head out to Forks when we met you guys."
Leah stares at him. "You were tracking vampires."
Xander nods. "It's what we do."
"You're human," Alpha Sam points out.
He's a genius, this one. "Yeah, so?"
As he listens to Alpha Sam's reply, Xander finds himself feeling sick once again.
"Are you sure about this?" Shannon asks, looking to Alpha Sam uneasily. "We should stay."
Xander shakes his head. "I need you three to go back to Faith. You have to tell her everything Sam told us about the Cold Ones." The different breed of vampires none of them even knew existed. Vampires with skin tougher than stone and could move faster than the human eye could see. Vamps that weren't harmed by holy water, crosses, stakes, or even sunlight. The only things that could harm the Cold Ones were other Cold Ones, fire and the Quileute pack. To make things worse, they were more potent and more powerful than the vamps Xander has come to know and love. The Cold Ones didn't need to drain a victim in order to turn them. They could do it with a single bite... and then of course there was yet another aspect to the Cold Ones that truly horrified Xander. Not only were they faster, stronger and harder to kill, but some of them had 'talents'. Talents of the Willow kind – they had telepaths, empaths, seers, trackers – and that was in addition to the natural abilities they had to draw their prey to them. They were almost like the Uber-Vamps – only stronger and more sparkly.
Was it any wonder his Slayers were reluctant to leave? Xander's vamp kill tally has risen over the years, especially since Sunnydale became a hole in the ground, but, according to Sam, whatever skills he'd learned hanging out with Slayers won't help him with the Cold Ones. It is impossible for a human to take on a Cold One and live. Sam even doubts a Slayer would be able to take one out.
"Xander, I don't like this," she says for what feels like the millionth time. "At least one of us should stay."
Xander shakes his head. "The wolves fought an army of Cold Ones without any losses. Besides the Cold Ones who live in Forks are good guys, like Angel and Spike. I'm safe." He doesn't quite believe that. Xander doubts he'll ever be able to completely trust a vampire of any kind. But, he needs his Slayers to spread the message because these Cold Ones aren't exactly rare. There's more than a few of them out there and they're exceptionally good at not only keeping their existence hidden from humans – but keeping themselves hidden from Slayers. Words can't express how much he doesn't like that fact. "I also want you to tell Faith that under no circumstances is a Vampire Slayer to set foot in La Push or Forks unless I give the okay."
This last stipulation has nothing to do with the Cold Ones. While he's more than a little worry about them, he has no doubts that Buffy and Giles will come up with a way to kill them. It's what they do.
No, the real reason he wants the Slayers away from here is because there are ten shape-shifting wolves here and four out of the ten have imprinted. Since the rest of the, er, unattached wolves are male there's no way in hell he's going to allow a Slayer to meet any of the wolves. Xander's not going to tempt fate and have another wolf's free will stolen from them, especially not when a Slayer's involved.
The imprint magic only goes one way. It's only the wolf who is bound by it and while it's not always love at first sight when the two people involved are adults, or mature enough, more than likely the imprinting is romantically inclined. Still, in spite of whether or not the wolf is in love with their imprint it doesn't automatically means the human feels the same way. In fact, Xander's felt no compulsion at all to be with Leah. The human has a choice to decide exactly what kind of relationship they want to have with the wolf and the wolf will be whoever or whatever their imprint needs, even if it kills them. If the human only wants to be friends, then the wolf will be the best friend their imprint will ever want.
Although, it's different when the imprint is younger. In that situation, the wolf's feelings are either familial or platonic and never anything more until the imprint is of age and makes that choice. The wolf has no choice but to do everything in his, or her, power to make their imprint happy regardless of the cost to their own happiness. They can't intentionally hurt their imprint. Christ, it's next to impossible to tell them no! Making their imprint happy and safe is pretty much the wolf's biggest concerns. The whole thing is so messed up that Xander still has to fight the urge to throw up every time he thinks about it.
It's no wonder Leah's hardly spoken to him in the three days since fish tacos changed his world. He can only imagine what she's thinking right now... or at least what she should be thinking if she wasn't under the imprint whammy. It's because of this Xander doesn't want a Slayer near a wolf. He's scared what imprinting on a Slayer would do to a wolf... or to the Slayer for that matter. Slayers have a short lifespan, even now, and the death of an imprint will generally lead to the death of a wolf.
Speaking of death...
"You better tell her to keep Dawn and Willow away too."
Xander doesn't think the wolves would survive the pissed Buffy or Kennedy that would follow if any of them imprinted on Dawn or Willow.
He's renting a bedroom from one of the Quileute Elders, Billy Black. His son Jacob is off in Canada or something, so Xander's renting his room until he returns. He's been in La Push for a week now and he's surprised that it doesn't completely suck. It's almost like a holiday, except for the fact that the only reason he's here is because they're not sure what him being away from Leah will do to her. So, he's spent the last couple of days making Giles proud by speaking individually with the Quileute Elders about their tribe, their magic and the vampires. It's been awkward, but bearable.
He hasn't seen Leah much since he moved into the Black household. The only Clearwater Xander sees on a regular basis is Seth, who keeps him updated on his sister. She's fighting the imprint and making all the wolves lives a misery as a result. It hurts to fight it. Thanks to the fact that the wolves share the one pack mind in wolf form, all the wolves hurt. Apparently it's difficult for her to stay away from Xander. In fact, she's been watching his bedroom window in wolf form at night to make staying away easier. It's even more difficult – next to impossible – to resist the pull of the imprint, the feelings. Seth doesn't think she'll be able to fight it for long, that soon she'll just have to give in.
It makes Xander want to scream.
Love shouldn't be like this. Xander can't reconcile himself to truly accept that he is Leah's soul-mate, her perfect match. It makes him uneasy because if he is Leah's perfect match, then his relationship with Anya was never really meant to be. It means that every woman he's ever loved, all his relationships, were doomed to fail. Was that why he had been so easily fooled before his wedding? Was that why he left Anya standing at the altar? Did his subconscious know that Anya wasn't his other true half, his real mate?
He hates this. Hates that imprinting has made him question everything.
He knows Leah was with Sam before he became a wolf, and that he imprinted on her cousin – destroying her relationship with both of them. So now he wonders what would have happened if he had gone through with his wedding to Anya or if Anya had survived the battle with The First. Would he have chosen Leah over Anya like Emily chose Sam over her cousin and best friend?
Xander hasn't met any of the other imprints yet, and he's not sure he wants to. He doesn't want to have any of his questions answered.
It's another three weeks before he receives the call he's been dreading. Dawn, Giles and Willow have been working around the clock looking everywhere for a cure. He talks to all his Sunnydale friends – Dawn, Giles, Buffy, Willow and, strangely enough, Faith once a week. He knows everyone has been trying to find a way to help Leah. To help him.
It's Giles who makes the call, his voice sombre and remorseful.
There's nothing they can do. At least, nothing that wouldn't risk one or both of their lives. Not enough is understood about imprinting and there's no guarantee that whatever they tried would work anyway. Willow's not willing to mess with Quileute magic and Xander can't blame her for not wanting to try. He wouldn't let her try anyway. Leah's attempt to fight the imprint hurt her more than it helped her and she's had no choice but to accept it or endure a life of misery. She's accepted the imprint and stopped fighting. Because of that Xander can't risk any remedy or cure that isn't one hundred percent safe.
Xander thanks Giles and then hangs up the phone. He stares at it for a full hour before he finally stands up and heads to the kitchen to make dinner for himself and Billy. While he cooks the same two words are reverberating through his head.
"So how are you liking La Push?"
Xander looks up at the question to see Emily Young smiling across the dining room table at him. He returns her smile, albeit a little awkwardly. Strangely, or maybe not so strangely, he feels drawn to Alpha Sam's fiancée. The entire right side of her face has been scarred by a wolf claw. While Xander only lost an eye, he still feels an affinity with her. They both know what it's like to be scarred by supernatural creatures. "It's nice," he replies, deliberately keeping his eye on the left side of her face. It's a little obvious, but that's okay. Emily's doing her best not to look at his eye-patch.
"I'm sure it's a little different than what you're used to."
He smiles again and wishes like hell things didn't feel so awkward all the time. It's been six weeks since Leah imprinted on him and things aren't getting any better. Leah's still staying away from him, when in human form, but the wolf sightings are more frequent now. Meanwhile, he's still making next to no effort to seek her out. He's not sure if the reason Leah's staying away from him is because she's still upset about being unable to break the imprint or because he's oh so very freaked about everything. Either way, he's not sure if it matters, because sooner or later someone is going to intervene if neither one of them makes a move. Leah is still making the entire Quileute pack miserable and they're about at the end of their tether.
He suspect that his fear is founded in the likelihood of an intervention happening sooner rather than later. In fact, if Xander's suspicions about his impromptu, yet mandatory, lunch date with Emily are correct, then perhaps this is the beginning of the pack taking action. Emily's the first imprint he's met. The other are staying away until he's, er, a little more used to the situation. At least that's what Alpha Sam told him.
Xander can see why Sam insisted he meet Emily. She's instantly likeable and she understands. That is why he decides to answer her question as truthfully as he can.
"Actually, I kind of like it here," he confesses, "I miss my friends, but... I'm not really sure if I miss the slaying." Although, that's not technically true. He does miss the slaying, the action. What he doesn't miss is the fact that he endangers Slayers just by fighting alongside them. Even though his girls deny it, Xander knows that he's a major liability to them. "What about you?" he asks. "Do you miss your family and friends?" He remembers Seth telling him that Emily moved here from the Makah Reservation to be with Alpha Sam.
Emily's smile falters at the question and the sadness he noticed lurking in her eyes becomes more pronounced. "Actually, the person I miss most is Leah."
Xander winces. "Have you talked to her since she, ah, imprinted on me?"
She shakes her head. "I thought... I guess we all thought that when she imprinted on you everything would go back to the way things were. I thought she'd finally understand imprinting, about how impossible it is to resist, and she'd forgive me – forgive us. I know she's said she's forgiven me, but I don't think she has. Not really."
Xander feels sorry for her, but he's not sure that Leah's wrong to withhold her forgiveness from Emily. After all, Sam didn't have a choice, but Emily did. Emily chose to betray Leah. It was a shitty choice.
"Do you find it difficult?" Emily asks.
"Do I find what difficult?"
"Staying away from Leah," she explains. "One... One of the hardest things I found with Sam was telling him no."
"I'm not... I mean... I don't... I'm not sure," he finishes finally. "I know it's wrong and I know I'm hurting her, but I guess..."
"You're in denial?" she supplies gently. "You think that by staying away she'll end up forgetting you or that the imprint will fade or maybe you think this is all a bad dream, like I did."
His lips curl up in the first genuine smile for days. "All of the above."
"I actually hated Sam when he first told me how he felt. I couldn't understand how he could hurt Leah like that. I wanted nothing to do with him."
She gestures to the right side of her face. "When he hurt me it almost killed him. I couldn't stand seeing another human being in so much pain so I forgave him and started to get to know him." She hesitates for a moment. "But that's not the only reason why I forgave him and ultimately chose him over Leah."
"Billy Black told me it was my choice whether or not I wanted to be with Sam romantically. I know Billy told you something similar."
"But I'm not really sure we do have a choice, not in situations like ours at least."
Even though she hasn't said everything she needs to say, Xander understands. "You wouldn't have been able to live with yourself knowing Sam would never be truly happy because of a choice you made. That's why you gave him a chance." That's why Xander's still here, why he sent his Slayers away.
She nods. "I honestly didn't think I'd fall in love with him, but I knew there was a chance. I mean, how do you not fall in love with the person who was made for you? I knew Leah would get over him eventually, but I knew Sam would never get over me. I was made for him and he knew it. He would never recover, never truly be happy, if I fell in love with someone else and let them become the centre of my world. I couldn't live with that on my conscience."
He gets that.
"Don't get me wrong, I love Sam," she continues, "I love Sam more than I thought possible, but I never would have loved him if he hadn't imprinted on me. "
"But how..." He hesitates, not knowing how to phrase his question.
"How..." Emily prompts.
"How did you know you were good enough for him?" Xander asks.
Emily's eyes widen and he just knows she knows what he's really asking. "I didn't at first. I used to constantly wonder why I was chosen as his mate."
"Did you ever find an answer?"
Emily nods. "I make him happy... and you'll make Leah happy."
"How do you know?"
"Because once you found out Leah was bound to you, you left your family, friends and your job for her."
Xander's not convinced and he tells her so.
"Think about it, Xander," she urges him gently. "Out of all the men on this planet, Leah imprinted on the one who has spent the last decade of his life surrounded by women stronger than he is; women who aren't fully human like slayers, witches, and former demons. Truthfully, there's not many men who would be able to handle Leah and there's even less men who would be able to handle being physically weaker than Leah, let alone the fact that she's not exactly human."
She has a point.
"It doesn't bother you that she's stronger than you, nor does it bother you that she can phase into a werewolf on a regular basis. You treat it like it's normal! The pack thinks you're staying away from Leah because you're freaked about Leah being your soul mate. But that's not it, is it?"
"You're freaked because Leah imprinted on you. You don't think you're worthy."
He doesn't say anything. He doesn't have to. In his eyes, Leah is a Slayer. She's had her life stolen from her to fight vampires, to protect the Quileute people, which makes her a hero to him. She's way too good for him.
"I think you are worthy," Emily continues, "I don't actually think there is anyone more worthy or more able to give Leah what she needs. Sam... Sam loved her, but he is a protector. Leah doesn't need someone to protect her; she needs someone to love her unconditionally, someone who will always be there for her, someone who can understand her. That is why she imprinted on you.
"There was never anyone else for her but you."
Xander silently curses Emily Young as he strolls through the reservation. He has a particular destination in mind and it's all Emily's fault that he's doing this. Since their chat two weeks ago, he's done a lot of thinking. Actually, he's thought of little else and now here he is, making the first step... and he wishes like hell he didn't feel so nervous. He's not even sure why he's nervous. It's not like Leah's not already in love with him.
Still, he has to take a deep breath before he makes his way up the front steps of the Clearwater house. He probably should have called ahead instead of just showing up like this, but this was a spur of the moment decision.
Imprinting still makes him sick. He still hates that Leah's been given no choice in who she loves, but... he hates even more the thought of denying her something that will make her happy. Xander's always hated sitting by and watching Buffy yearn for something normal in her life, for the kind of love she deserves. Slayers, like Leah, have to give up everything in order to fight evil. Xander would give Buffy – all of the Slayers – the world if he could.
And since he's Leah's world, he can give her that. Or at least he can try. So he takes another deep breath and knocks on the door.
After a minute Sue Clearwater opens the door. He's not at all surprised by the way Mrs Clearwater's eyes widen with shock. "Xander?"
He smiles and hopes like hell she can't tell how nervous he is. "Hello, Mrs Clearwater. I was wondering if Leah's in."
Her eyes get even wider at his questions and then a smile blooms on her face. She makes no move to call Leah but then there's no need to. Leah's preternatural hearing heard Xander the second he arrived. He knows this because she's standing behind her mother with an expression that's a cross between hopeful and wary.
Mrs Clearwater discretely moves herself from the doorway and walks further into the house. Xander's not sure where she went because his eye doesn't seem able to remove itself from Leah. The sight of her brings his nervousness to the fore once again.
"Is everything all right, Xander?" She looks worried.
He smiles in the hopes that she'll relax. It works. "Everything's fine. I just, ah, looked at the calendar and realised that it's Friday and I know wolves like to eat, so I was kind of wondering..."
"How do you feel about fish tacos?"