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For the Better


Xander is ran out of town by abusive parents and neglectful friends. Takes place one week after 'Halloween', and finds Xander in LA with a mystery duo!

Action / Adventure
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part 1

For the better A Buffy the Vampire Slayer crossover by Enterprise1701_d

Yes, this will be a crossover… but I'm not telling with who or what. I'll let you know at the end of the fic. :)

So, yeah, I'm an evil bastard. Heheh. :) I'm also telling you there will be a relationship in this fic, between Xander and someone else. But, once again, I'm not telling. Most people hate these spoilers, anyway.

Time-line: Buffy is in season 2, right after Halloween.

Xander moved through the thick and misty jungle, his body moving from the cover of one tree to the next, his weapon moving in conjunction to cover as much area as possible. He heard gunfire, followed by screams of wounded men.

He winced, and ducked to cover himself, flat on his stomach, weapon ready to fire, waiting.

That was the hardest. The waiting. Waiting for an invisible enemy to shoot that one bullet that would change your life. Wait for the inevitability.

Xander was scared to death.

The gunfire sounded closer now, and Xander made a decision. He jumped up, and started running. Running for his life.

The gunfire chased him, inspiring more adrenaline-induced speed from his exhausted legs.

Xander emerged in a clearing, the gunfire hot on his trail. He looked over his shoulder to see if he could distinguish any of the shapes following him from the thick dark-green of the jungle. Of course, he couldn't. His head turned to look forward again, yet immediately, it seemed to explode.

"Got him," he heard someone say in what Xander thought was Vietnamese. He opened his eyes, blinking furiously against the pain caused by the knock of the rifle against his head. Finally, his blurry vision focused, and a dozen Vietcong soldiers were bent over him, obviously taunting him in their native language. He only understood a couple of words. They dragged him uptight, their strong hands gripping at his fatigues, dragging his half-unconscious body along the ground to their camp.

All the while, they taunted him. He may not have understood the words, but he sure understood the tone. He had heard it plenty of times before. They knifed through him.

As they re-emerged from the deep forest, the Vietcong soldiers tied him to a post, and left him to stand there in the burning Vietnamese sun. Xander's lips were dry. His throat felt like a desert.

A bulky officer approached him, and Xander's voice sounded like cardboard when he asked for something to drink. The officer slammed a bulky fist in Xander's stomach. He would have bent forward, if not for the fact that he had been tied securely to the post.

"Shut up, you American pig!" the man shouted in broken English. "Me ask question here. Who you?"

Xander refused to answer. The man hit him again. And again. "You not want to help friends?" the man resumed as he slammed into Xander again. "Friends hurt, and you not help. You not good friend?"

Xander groaned, looked up through the only eye that was still open. And stared into the face of a vampire. Night had fallen, and he was held against a tree by the monster in front of him. Behind the vampire, he could see Buffy, on the floor, being beaten by a dozen vampires.

"You're a useless guy, aren't you?" the vampire taunted. "Look at you! Look at her! She's dying, and you can't do anything to help her!"

Xander tried to move. He really did. But his body had no effect against a vampire who was four times stronger and five times faster than him. The vampire hit him again. "Stop hitting yourself," the vampire said.

Xander groaned, sinking to the ground. He found that he could do so, unrestrained by the vampire. A stinging pain crashed over his back, electing the first cry from the boy as he sunk to all fours. He looked up to see the broomstick come down again.

"You useless brat! Parasite! Loser! Deadbeat!" a drunken voice rasped out as the broom crashed into his shoulder. "You're a disappointment!" the voice added as Xander fell sideways, his left arm giving up under the blinding pain in his shoulder.

"Dad…" the boy whispered.

"I should charge you RENT!" the man growled, the broomstick coming down again.

Xander bolted upright in his bed, drenched in sweat. "What a nightmare," he grunted, rubbing a non-existing wound on his left shoulder. Casting a look at the clock, he knew it was futile to try and get some more sleep before he had to get ready. He flopped back, his hands under his head, staring at the ceiling. He could feel his t-shirt and his boxers stick to his body. His fear-sweat was like glue.

Taking deep breaths, Xander finally managed to get his raging heart to settle. He remained, laying there, his mind too shocked to think, for the next half hour until the alarm finally went off. Shaking his head and letting out a sad breath, Xander forced himself out of his bed. He shut off the alarm, grabbed something from his closet, and went to the bathroom.

Fifteen minutes later, Xander emerged, dressed in a red-blue Hawaiian shirt over a pair of blue jeans. The moment his foot hit the first step of the stairs, his instincts warned him that something was off. He took it as a leftover from his nightmare, shook the feeling off, and walked downstairs. Seeing no-one in the kitchen, Xander grabbed a couple of sandwiches. Once again, the nagging doubt of his instincts popped up. Instead of putting something on the bread, Xander decided to eat underway to school, and prepared to make a getaway form the house of his nightmares.

Xander turned to leave the kitchen. A big man with a beer-gut and a face that hadn't seen a razor in weeks entered. Immediately, Xander knew what was wrong.

His father was drunk again.

Only, this time, he was drunk in the morning.

"Can't ya say morning to yer dear old dad, son?" his father grumbled, advancing on the teenaged boy. Xander swallowed, his brain noting the smell of cheap whiskey on his father's breath.

"Morning dad…" Xander said, but apparently, it was not fast enough to his father's liking. Before Xander knew what had happened, He was looking in a whole different direction, and his cheek stung like a whole nest of bees. Xander's hand automatically went up, caressing the cheek his father had just hit.

"Ya c'n take me food and live in me house but some respect is too much, huh, you son of a whore?" the man shouted, slapping Xander a second time. The boy grunted out in pain, again, and ducked under his father's next swing. "Have to get to school, dad," Xander shouted as he ran down the hall and out the front door, grabbing his book bag under way. He was glad that his father hadn't hidden it, like he sometimes did… and Xander hoped furiously that the man would be out cold by the time school was out later.

"Xander! What happened?" Buffy shouted the moment she saw him. Willow was by his side in a second, backing up Buffy's sentiments.

"Eh… a vamp," Xander lied. "You see… my dad… yesterday; he wanted something from the store after dark, so he sent me. I managed to get from under the vamp, though."

"A VAMPIRE?" Buffy hissed angrily. "What did it look like? I am so going to tear into it when I find it!"

Xander forced a smile to his face. "Thanks, Buff. Appreciate it."

"What did it look like?" Buffy asked, already going over her list of 'Giles-not-approved-because-they-hurt-too-much' attacks.

Xander rubbed the back of his neck. "Let's see. It was dark, so I didn't see much of its face. But it was about this high, this wide, could hit like a freight train and ran the hundred meters in no time," he answered, hands making the necessary movements to give a general idea.

Buffy sighed. "I'll do my best," the Slayer promised. "Tonight, after dark, I am going to tear through this town." She placed a hand on Xander's shoulder. "Don't worry, Xan. I'll get him for ya."

Outwardly, Xander was smiling. How could he not with Buffy touching him? But inwardly, his soul screamed in pain. It's my father! Help me! Please… help me… Xander forced it down. This wasn't anything Buffy needed to concern herself with… she had problems enough of her own.

The rest of the day wasn't any better for Xander. His mind constantly slipped back to the nightmare he had gotten that night. Teacher after teacher caught him. By the end of the day, Xander felt sick. Sick, emotionally and physically. His usually vibrant brown eyes stood dark and empty. He walked home with about half a lifetime's worth of detention. He knew that he'd be in even bigger trouble tomorrow. After all, he had left the school while he technically had to be in the detention hall. And he had skipped out on a Scooby meeting with his friends.

Xander just couldn't care. All he wanted was to fall in his bed, and sleep the rest of this horrible day away.

It can't get any worse than this… Detention, extra assignments, skipped detention, have no intention of doing homework or assignments, skipped Scooby meeting, and, oh, yeah, let's not forget that dad keeps hitting me. I hope the deadbeat drunk's in his bed by now.

Xander pushed open the door. The moment he did so, a plate hit his head. Followed by a cup of some kind, and a second plate. Xander had lived all his life on the Hellmouth. He had been out with Buffy after dark. As such, Xander had progressed. The first plate had struck, breaking into four pieces as it hit him. Xander had immediately dropped to the floor so that the cup and the second plate went right out the door.

Xander managed to get up on his feet, yet kept low. He snuck against the wall to the kitchen, where a couple empty bottles on the table told Xander more than he had ever wanted to know. Xander flipped around. He wanted to run to his room, lock it, and disappear.

No such luck.

As he spun, he came face to face with his father… who was literally swaying form left to right, holding a half-empty bottle of cheap whiskey. The bottle had been closed, and he was holding it by the neck, as if he was going to hit Xander with it.

Xander's eyes went wide. The bottle came down. Xander dodged to one side. The bottle slipped from the drunk's hands, and shattered on the floor.

Xander and his father both stared at the amber liquid that flowed on the white-tiled floor. Xander was thinking of only one thing. This can't be good. Xander's father, on the other hand, was just staring in shock at the floor that now held his precious alcohol.

"Ye stupid brat!" the man slurred, taking a swing at the boy. Xander, however, as standing just a little further than the drunk's mind could calculate, so his swing met only empty air. The man staggered, lost his balance, slipped on the alcohol-laden floor, and was soon staring at the nasty brown ceiling. Xander gave him no time to recover. He bolted from the kitchen, up the stairs, and to his room.

He locked the door, and fell flat on his back on top of the bed. Only now did he feel something wet on his forehead. He swiped at it. Blood.

That plate hit harder than I thought. Xander fell out of bed, and stumbled to his only dresser. He dredged a first aid kit form under the cover of his clothes. Looking into a hand-held mirror, Xander applied rubbing alcohol to his wound, causing him to wince at the pain before he put a band-aid over the wound.

I'm lucky… the cut's not that big. It'll be a scar, though… Xander stared at himself in that small hand-held mirror for a long time. You're in it for a lifetime, pal. He thought to his mirror image. Your friends don't care enough to see what's really happening. Your father and mother love the bottle more than you. Your school thinks of their stupid, boring lectures before you. Snyder is the principal from hell. You're on your own…always have been… your entire life.

Xander took a breath, and with a fit of rage, threw the mirror against the far wall. "Damnit!" he growled. "Why is it always me??"

There was a rattle of his door. "Open the door, bastard!" his father's drunken voice slurred through the door as a meaty fist started pounding it. Xander had no delusions about it holding out for long.

The story of my life, the boy thought miserably. A second thump against the door seemed to cut through his very soul. I've got to get out of here! Xander's mind shouted, and he grabbed his backpack, and turned it upside down to empty it of school-related materials. He grabbed a couple of sweaters from his dresser, and threw a concerned look at the door, where the pounding had increased significantly. He grabbed as many t-shirts as he could, grabbed his raincoat, and stuffed it all in his pack.

When the door finally broke down, the room was empty.

Xander looked up at his bedroom window, where he could hear his father cursing and yelling. Swallowing against the fear he felt rising, Xander turned, and ran. As he ran, he fingered a small metal container in his jeans pocket. All 52 dollars and 16 cents of my life savings, he thought as his legs continued to thump on the pavement.

He ran to just about the only safe house he could think of, the house of his best friend since childhood, Willow. As he ran, his shattered mind realized something. The one thing Xander had never thought he would realize. They can't help me… why would they? They've never been able to help me…I need to get away. I can't…I just can't take this anymore… With those words in his mind, Xander turned, and ran.

Night had fallen over the City of Angels, and along one of the darkened streets a solitary figure dragged his feet. Xander had his hands deep in his pockets, his head bent toward the ground, his eyes sad. He had paid too much for the bus ticket, yet his shattered mind hadn't, and still hadn't, realized that fact. He didn't want to pay for a sleazy motel. He probably wouldn't be able to sleep anyway. Instead, he opted to keep walking. He had no idea whereto, and it no longer mattered.

As his mind sunk deeper into the swamps, to the point where almost nothing of the outside world registered anymore, something happened. A scream. A scream by a female throat. Xander's head lifted, his eyes scanning the vicinity. He heard nothing. His dull brown eyes narrowed as his ears focused. He had heard that scream, hadn't he?

Xander sighed, his shoulders sagged, and his head bent once more. He was starting to lose his mind. Not only had he lost his home, his parents, and his friends, now he was losing his sanity as well. Xander felt miserable. His feet started walking again, out of their own accord. He wanted nothing better than to die, right here.

He passed an ally. Or rather, he started to pass it, as his progress was halted when a big man fell right in front of his feet. Xander halted, and stared at the man, his eyes looking but not seeing, his mind unable to register what was happening.

The man turned around, looking up at the boy. Something snapped within Xander as he jumped back three paces, face twisted in shock and horror. The man was a vampire.

Xander dropped his pack as the vampire rushed him. Moments earlier he had wanted to die. Now, with the vampire rushing him, Xander's survival instincts seemed to take over. Honed by years of living on the Hellmouth, Xander's instincts were more powerful than most. He ducked under the horizontal swipe the vampire took at him. The vampire growled, and tried to grab him.

Xander twisted out of the way, and actually managed to presence of mind to jam his knee in the vampire's unprotected side. The vampire overbalanced, and stumbled against the side of the building. Xander dove for his pack, threw it open, and started rummaging through it. He found what he was looking for.

The vampire recovered, and grinned evilly as he saw the boy standing over an open backpack. He rushed the boy's unprotected back, fangs fully extended. Just as he jumped, the boy turned around, holding something sharp in his direction.

The vampire growled as he felt the sharp object penetrate his heart.

Xander stared at the settling dust, and his stake. Why did I bring this? He asked himself. I am no Slayer… Giles and Buffy keep telling me that. I'm the nothing… Willow's the smart one, Buffy's the strong one, and Giles the wise one. I'm just good for pizza or donut duty. Gunshots penetrated the fog around Xander's mind, and he shook his head to clear his vision.

He rushed back to the ally, to see two young women, shooting bullet after bullet at a trio of nastily grinning vampires.

Xander looked at the scene, unable to comprehend. The first woman was about 20, had blonde hair, and her stance screamed 'aristocracy'. She appeared, in every sense of the word, a Lady. The second one was about his age, about 16, had dark brown hair that seemed black in the night's lighting, and her eyes were a reddish-brown, a taint he had never seen in eyes before. The girl's stance appeared brutal and efficient. The first one was only deadly. The second one was beyond that.

Xander was transfixed.

Until the vampires decided that the game was no longer fun, and they rushed the two women. Xander saw the girl drop her gun, do a rush of her own, and tear into the vampires. Broken bones sounded in Xander's ears. Xander knew that, no matter how good these two women were, they were no match for vampires. They had no idea how to kill them.

Xander grabbed a firm hold of his stake, rushed into the fight, and roughly stabbed it through the back of the nearest vampire. The demon howled, and turned to dust. The two others, seeing their comrade die, discontinued their engagement to the two girls, and charged Xander, the only one to pose a threat. Xander was still staring blankly at the dust settling around his feet. This was more than he had ever dusted in a single night. Two vampires. And he wasn't even on the Hellmouth.

As he stood there, he heard a scream from the brown-haired girl, causing him to look up. At that time, the two vampires were on top of him. Xander was catapulted against a wall, head-first, and his vision blurred and his legs turned to mush. At the same time he started to sag, the nearest vampire grabbed him, and tilted his head. Xander closed his eyes. This was the end. He knew it.

A throbbing pain stabbed into his neck, radiating through his entire body instantly. He vaguely hard a female scream. His mind ignored it. He could feel his blood draining in a symphony of pain and pleasure. An image flashed before his eyes. Him and Willow in kindergarten. Him and Willow. Him and Buffy. His father and mother, before they got to the bottle.

Buffy, rejecting his feelings for her. Willow, not seeing the bottomless pain in his soul. His father, beating him. His mother, ignoring it happening. Xander felt a rage sweep over him. The jungle. Death around him, accompanying the cries and moans of the wounded, mutilated, men. Xander growled.

He raised his foot backward, right in between the legs of the vampire draining him. The vampire groaned, backed away slowly. Xander turned around, a feral look on his face. He screamed, slamming his hand in the vampire's face, a hit that broke the nose of his opponent. The vampire growled, and stumbled back a few paces. Xander ran forward, and threw his leg up, this time placing a solid kick in the vampire's family jewels.

The two girls winced at the sickening sound, followed by the terrible whine of the vampire. The second vampire, recovered from the shock by now, rushed Xander, who dodged, and rolled over the ground, away from the vampire's grip. As he rolled, Xander's hand instinctively grabbed the stake he had dropped earlier. As he came out of the roll, Xander threw it. The second vampire dusted.

The first vampire was still on the floor, curled into a fetal position. Xander walked towards him, scowling. "You vicious kick mother-fucking kick sadistic KICK son of a BITCH KICK-KICK" Each kick only served to increase the wail of the vampire. Xander hefted his stake, and planted it. The vampire dusted.

Xander breathed deeply, both to replenish his energy and to fight the sudden wave of dizziness that overcame him. He made a grab for the wall, which seemed to dance away from him. Xander fell.

"What the…?" he whispered, his voice slurring. He blinked, trying desperately to focus on something, anything, that could serve as a focal point. A concerned, sad-looking face appeared in his swimming field of vision. It was the brunette girl.

"Are you alright?" she asked, her voice slightly accented.

"I'm fine," he slurred in reply, trying to sit up straight. After he managed so, he felt the dizziness overcome him again, and he would have hit the ground once more if the girl hadn't supported him, and lowered him gently to the ground.

"You don't look fine," the girl stated. Xander grunted something under his breath. "You hit that wall pretty hard when that…thing… threw you into it. You're bleeding." He felt her press something to his forehead. It stung a little, but Xander bit it down.

"Vampire," Xander whispered.

"Sorry?" the girl asked, red-brown eyes wide open in confusion.

"Those were…vampires…" Xander replied tiredly. "Don't die… unless you…stake them…or chop off…their heads."

The girl stared in silence at the boy, then looked over her shoulder to where the dust was scattering in the wind now. She looked at her companion, who was string in equal shock at the girl, before shrugging, and chuckling slightly.

"Where do you live?" the girl asked Xander, turning back to face him.

He managed a shrug. "Just… arrived. Don't have anywhere to go," he whispered the latter sadly. The girl looked sadly at him.

"You've lost a lot of blood," she whispered. "Maybe we should get you to a hospital," she added, now that she saw the full extent of his condition.

Xander shook his head, fighting down the rising bile. "No insurance," he whispered. "No hospital… they'll find me…" The red-brown eyes opened again, and the girl looked over her shoulder at her companion.

"Mireille…" the brunette whispered.

Mireille, the blonde woman of 20, let out an angered sigh, and closed her eyes as she turned her head away angrily. "You're really into this picking up strays thing, Kirika," she said. After a few seconds, she added somewhat testily, "Just for tonight. You can fix him up, if you want, but after that, he has got to go."

"Thank you," Kirika whispered to her companion, helping Xander to his feet, his taller body leaning on her narrow yet powerful frame. Mireille sighed, went to the other side, and put Xander's second arm over her own shoulders.

"We'll take you with us," Mireille told Xander in a slightly more accented English than her companion. "But only for tonight, and only because you saved us from these… vampires."

"Thank you…" Xander slurred, wishing desperately that he could remember some of the French he took in school, so he could thank her in her own language.

Kirika watched Xander as he slept on the couch, her head bent slightly, her red-brown eyes almost fully closed, the eternal sad look etched on her features. Suddenly, a hand held up a cup of coffee in front of her nose.

"It's not as good as the tea you make, but it'll get the job done," Mireille said gently as Kirika took the cup, and gave her companion a grateful look.

"Thank you," the girl answered, blowing gently in the hot liquid and resuming her pensive stare at Xander.

"How is he?" the blonde woman asked.

"He's asleep," Kirika answered. "I dressed his wounds, and he's finally resting…" The girl switched her look from the boy to her companion for over a year now. "Mireille… those wounds he got tonight… they weren't his only ones."

Mireille sat down in a second chair, and looked at the girl, prodding her to continue.

"I found… cuts… and bruises…" Kirika closed her eyes, and turned her head away against the negative emotions that welled up. "I know the type… Mireille… he's been hit."

"He's been in fights?" Mireille asked, voice rising involuntarily as her mind pictured the young man in a fist fight. "That's hard to believe, Kirika."

"You don't understand, Mireille," the girl said sadly, getting up from the chair, and sitting down on the couch, next to Xander. She checked the bandage on his head. "I know the wounds… the type of wounds… because Althena used to inflict the same ones on me and Chloe."

"What are you saying?" the blonde woman asked.

"Mireille! He comes from an abusive environment!" the girl grunted out, voice climbing. Immediately, she blushed at the rise in her tone, and looked back at Xander, making sure he was still asleep.

Mireille was silent as she looked from her companion to the boy. It was true, she had a cold personality. She held no emotions for her fellow human beings. Indeed, it took her quite a while to develop those feelings for Kirika. But it was one thing not to feel one way or the other. But this… no. Mireille looked at the boy, who had risked his life, literally, for them yesterday. How anyone could hurt him was beyond her.

"Kirika… do you think that is what he meant when he said 'they'll find me', when you suggested the hospital?"

Kirika nodded. "I think he ran away… he meant it when he said he had nowhere to go." The girl sighed sadly, got up, and walked to one of the windows. "I know… I felt it…the same way when Soldats took my memory, and I woke up with nothing but the name 'noir' and my gun… no home… no friends… nowhere to go… I was lucky to be able to piece together enough to find you, Mireille."

Mireille snorted dryly. "You found me, and practically blackmailed me into helping you." She got up, throwing one last look at Xander. "You're going to stay with him tonight?"

Kirika was still looking out the window when she nodded. "He might need something… it's the least I can do."

"Good night, then," Mireille wished her smaller companion before disappearing in her suite, leaving Kirika behind.

The brunette girl looked over her shoulder to the couch where Xander slept. She sighed, and returned to the scenery outside the window. She knew that, with the brightly lit room and no covers, she was an open target. One she had taken herself many times. But, at this time, Kirika didn't care. Her thoughts were elsewhere.

Her childhood, raised as 'Noir' by a woman named Althena. Kirika thought of the things she did… had to do… for the woman who was her adoptive mother. Trained to kill from the tender age of three. First confirmed kill at age four… Mireille's parents… for disobeying Soldats…Kirika shook off the memories. I grew up without emotions. I was the Black Hand of Noir. And then… then they took my memories, dumped me in the real world, and I had to take care of myself. I found Mireille… and my heart.

She sat down in her earlier chair, watching Xander. "I learned how to care, Stranger," Kirika whispered. "And I learned that not all targets are good targets." Like Chloe…I killed the girl I grew up with to protect Mireille…

Kirika pulled up her legs into the chair, and settled in. When she saw Xander twitch, and a moan escape his lips, she looked up concerned. Seeing that he was having a nightmare of some sort, she did about the only thing she could do… she sat down next to him in the couch, and debated whether or not to wake him. The dream subsided when she grabbed his hand. Relieved that his nightmare ended without her having to wake him, Kirika returned to her chair.

Xander's head was pounding, and he let out a small moan when he cranked open one eye. He blinked against the sunlight streaming in through the windows, before his vision cleared. As Xander was getting his bearings, he felt rather than saw someone sit down on the narrow piece of couch next to him.

"Are you alright?" a gentle voice asked. The sad tone in it immediately sent Xander into full 'Xander' mode… the same thing he used with Buffy and Willow to help their sad moods lift.

He cracked a smile, even though it pulled on his head wound and made him wince immediately afterwards. "Yeah, I'm just fine," he said light-heartedly. "Takes more than a brick wall to keep me down, you know?"

The girl smiled weakly, but the sadness etched in her eyes didn't lift. "You don't have to pretend…" she whispered, gingerly removing the dress on his wound, causing him to wince as she did so.

"Pretend what?" Xander asked as the girl started to redress his wound.

"That you're okay," she answered. "I don't know where you're from… or how you got here… and I don't care. But you don't have to pretend to be strong. Your wound must hurt. I've had similar… they hurt really bad. I hope you don't have a… a… concussion?"

Xander smiled slightly. "Hard head," he answered, tapping his fist against his skull, and wincing as he obviously tapped the wrong spot. He groaned. The girl smiled slightly at his antics.

She pushed him down gently. "Lay still… I have to apply this bandage," the girl said sincerely, a neutrality entered her features as she concentrated. It was a type of concentration Xander had only seen on Giles' face, a type that indicated that nothing mattered but the immediate task.

After she finished with the dress on his wound, he held out his hand. "By the way, we haven't been properly introduced. I'm Xander."

Kirika smiled, taking his offered hand in her own, surprising him slightly with the strength in her grip. He was used to Buffy's Slayer strength, so it didn't show. "I'm Kirika," she replied, blushing slightly as Xander took her hand, and brought it to his lips, kissing it lightly.

"Always pleased to meet a beautiful lady," he answered, causing her to look away. He cursed himself. Damnit, Xan! Smooth!

The girl got up, the easy mood they had built since Xander's awakening gone. She sat down in her chair again, taking the large cup from a nearby table. She drank from it.

"Is that coffee?" Xander asked tentatively, not wanting to upset his hostess any more than he already had.

"Tea," she answered levelly. "Would you like some?" she asked, the timbre in her voice changing again. It was obvious that the girl was willing to put the awkwardness behind them, and Xander wholeheartedly agreed.

"Sure," he answered, not really feeling much for the beverage, but willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

As the girl got up and walked to the small kitchen, she said, "Mireille says that I make really good tea. I hope you'll like it."

"I'm sure I will," Xander answered, smiling as the girl disappeared.

About ten minutes later, Kirika returned with two big, steaming mugs of hot tea. As he sat up to accept his mug, the covers had slid away, revealing his naked upper torso, and he had jumped to cover himself.

"Uh…did you…" he stammered, looking from the covers at Kirika, and back at the covers.

"There were blood stains on your clothes," Kirika apologized. "Mireille is having them cleaned. We didn't look through your pack, so we didn't know if you brought any spare clothes."

"Right… well… I did…" Xander stammered.

"Don't worry," Kirika answered, setting his mug down on a table so he could reach it easily. "I only looked for other wounds… I didn't look through anything… other…"

Xander blushed. "That's…good to know…" he grunted, looking everywhere but at Kirika.

"Maybe I should get your pack," the girl whispered, jumping up and disappearing really fast. Xander stared at her retreating back. He swore he had never seen anyone move so fast… and that included Buffy. He didn't have long to contemplate, however, as Kirika returned within seconds, carrying his pack. Xander dug out a pink Hawaiian shirt and a pair of black jeans. He started to fidget under the covers, while Kirika sat down and took her mug.

"Eh…maybe you could… you know?" Xander begged, indicating with his head what he would like her to do.

"Could…what?" Kirika asked, looking directly at him.

"Eh…leave me while I change?" Xander asked hopefully.

Kirika smiled smugly. "Why? I mean…I've seen you already…"

Xander groaned, and decided to just get it over with. He dropped the covers, and managed to get into his clothes without too much trouble. He was grateful Kirika didn't stare, instead dividing her attention between him and the cup of tea, casting concerned looks at him every time he let out a small groan when yet another sore muscle came into play.

He sat down, and took the tea. He had to agree, Kirika's tea was a lot better than that camel piss that Giles called 'tea'.

Ten minutes later Xander was telling Kirika all he knew about vampires. He was just about to break into the subject of the Slayer when the door to the suite was opened and closed angrily.

"C'est pas été une partie de bonheur pour trouver des croissants dans ce pays de sauvages," Mireille grunted as she entered the room. It's not easy to find croissants in this country of barbarians.

"Je sais," Kirika answered. I know.

At the sight of Xander sipping tea, Mireille's eyes narrowed slightly. "Kirika, can we have a word?" she asked in French. The girl let out a sigh, nodded, and got up. Xander watched the two women leave the room.

"How is he?" Mireille asked the moment they were alone.

"He'll be fine," Kirika replied in her usual precise manner. "Physically."

Mireille's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?" she asked rather short.

Kirika shrugged. "He's hurting inside," the brunette replied. Looking away, at the closed door to the living room, she added, "I really wish you'd allow me to help him."

Mireille chuckled amusedly. "You know that's not possible, Kirika. Tonight, we have to scout for the job tomorrow night. We can't run the risk of him finding out. Besides, who says he's not from Soldats? Even though we dealt them a big blow, they're not destroyed. He could be an agent." The blonde beauty shook her head. "No, he can't stay."

"But he saved our lives!" Kirika protested, surprising herself along with Mireille. Normally, she never protested. "We owe him, Mireille!"

"We owe him nothing!" Mireille grunted. "For all we know, those…vampires could be brought in by him. Besides, I don't think I buy the whole vampire deal. It's just too strange. It's got to be some trick."

"Mireille, we fought them! I felt their strength! No human could have such strength! Mireille… we talked. He told me about these things. They're even worse than we can imagine…"

"It's a clever trick, Kirika!" the blonde woman grunted angrily. "And my mind is made up! He does not stay!"

"Can we at least give him breakfast?" Kirika asked, eyeing the bag her companion had deposited on the kitchen counter.

Mireille squinted, glancing sideways at the same bag. "Fine. But then he goes, got it?"

Kirika looked sadly at the ground, and nodded her head.

"You really shouldn't bother on my account," Xander said in English as he pushed open the door.

"Xander? Tu parles le Français?" Kirika asked, shocked.

"Huh? Sorry, I don't speak French," Xander answered, unwittingly answering her question. "But I understood the tone… you guys were fighting about me, weren't you? Well, don't bother… I'll be fine… I'll always be fine," he said, plastering a smile on his face. Xander turned to leave, and said, "Thanks for the fix, Kirika. It was good meeting you." Xander took two steps. And then he faltered, a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea overcoming his drive to keep going. His head pounded, and Xander actually thought he could see his vision dimming.

Before darkness claimed him.

When he woke up, he was on the couch again, and the drapes had been closed to submerge the living room in a twilight. Xander's head pounded, and he was glad for the gloomy atmosphere. He lifted hand to his head, and felt a fresh bandage.

"Oh, God…" Xander groaned. He tried to sit up, but he had hardly lifted his head off the pillow when a new wave of dizziness overcame him.

"I think you really do have a concussion," Kirika said with a concerned tone in her voice as she appeared from somewhere.

"Damn," Xander groaned in answer. "So… what's the verdict, Doc?"

"Doc?" Kirika asked, not understanding.

Xander cracked a weak smile. "I asked whether or not I would live, doctor."

Kirika smiled slightly, and sat down next to him, allowing him to see her easier. "We should get you to a hospital, Xander."

"No… no hospital. They'll find me…"

"Your parents?" Kirika asked gently.

Xander stared at her in blind shock for at least ten seconds. "How did you…?"

Kirika's eternal sadness increased slightly. "I know… what it's like," she answered calmly, and Xander failed to understand how her voice could have its normal timbre, totally contrary to the sadness on her face.

"I'm sorry," Xander whispered, feeling sleepy all of a sudden. "For what it's worth… I'm sorry you had to live through a hell like mine…"

Kirika smiled gently at him, the sadness in her eyes not leaving. She brushed some of his hair away from his forehead. "Get some more sleep," she urged. "You'll need it…" Xander never heard her last words, darkness claiming him in its embrace once more.

"What do we do now?" Mireille asked, stepping out of the kitchen, and stopping at the couch to look down at the patient. Kirika stood up form her position on the couch, and sat down in her chair again. She looked plaintively at Mireille.

"Don't look at me like that, Kirika," the 20-year-old woman grunted. "This isn't some street cat you picked up. And a concussion requires a lot of treatment… you know he'll need help with pretty much everything for the next few days. And with the job tomorrow evening…"

"I'll do it," Kirika said. "I'll take care of him."

Mireille sighed, and sat down next to the girl. "Kirika… I know you feel you owe him… but we can't run the risk. I warned you before. Remember Milosh?" The same time the words left her mouth, Mireille knew she had gone too far. The wince on Kirika's face deepened that knowledge. Immediately, she turned to the younger girl. "I'm sorry Kirika… that was low."

Kirika shook her head. "You're right," the girl whispered. "He got killed because we became friends…" she hung her head, her deep-brown locks hiding most of her features. Mireille knew her friend better than that by now, though… after what they went through, how could she not?

"I'm sorry, Kirika…"

The girl shook her head. "Even though it hurts… I still remember the time we spent together with fondness. And that… that makes it worthwhile."

Mireille stared with open mouth at her companion. "When did you become so deep?" she asked, now smiling slightly.

"When the faces were no longer nameless," the girl whispered in reply. She raised her hands, and looked sadly at them. "Yuri…Chloe…I killed them."

"I thought you didn't feel regret?" Mireille asked.

Kirika shook her head, and dropped her hands again. "I don't." She turned to look at Mireille. "But Xander needs our help. He saved our lives."

Mireille sighed. "This will give problems, Kirika. Do you think he'll stay once he finds out who we are? Or worse, what if he's killed?"

"I don't care," Kirika whispered, effectively shutting up Mireille. Both settled for watching the sleeping boy on the couch.

That evening, the starlight found two girls, dressed fully in black, sneaking around in a lush garden somewhere in the Beverly Hills region. Quick like ghosts and fluidly like water, the two forms moved through the shadows. Finally, they reached the huge mansion, erected out of white stone. Consisting out of two stories, the mansion was as big as any they had ever seen.

As if by some silent agreement, Kirika went one way, and Mireille the other. Quietly, they circled the house, to meet at the other side. Kirika looked up, to a balcony. Mireille nodded, went down to one knee, and linked her hands together. Kirika took the step, and aided by Mireille's boost, she lifted herself up on the balcony above them. As soon as she was comfortably over the balustrade, Kirika dropped flat on her stomach, put both her arms through the pillars of the balustrade, and waited for Mireille.

The blonde woman took a jump, clasping firmly around her companion's wrists, after which the brunette lifted her larger companion up to the point where she could grip the balustrade and lift herself higher.

Finally, both women were up on the large balcony, which contained multiple French doors. Most of those doors showed no light, all save for one, at the very end. Sprinting silently as ghosts, both women raced to the lit doorway, only to frame it, one girl on each side.

Both peeked from behind the corners, throwing one eye on the scene inside. What they saw made their eyes grow wide.

The room they looked into was large, richly decorated, and well lit. Looking at the side of the scene, the girls had a good view of everything that happened without being seen themselves. Both Kirika and Mireille held their breaths, listening in on the conversation through the double-glass doors.

The man who was speaking was a short Japanese man of slightly above middle age. His hair was starting to gray on the sides, yet his voice still hadn't lost its strength as he yelled at the large Caucasian man who was staring at the ground. The larger man was nodding silently, obviously terribly distressed. His posture oozed it.

Finally, the Japanese man yelled at the three men who had remained silent so far. "Nobody keeps back money from the Yakuza! Show him, and dump his carcass somewhere where people are bound to notice!"

The three bodyguard-types threw themselves at the Caucasian man, and both Kirika and Mireille were sure that they were going to rip him apart. They didn't expect them to change into vampires and do it literally.

"This is going to be a hard mission," Mireille grunted as the duo walked along LA's darkened streets. "Those vampires make this a very dangerous mission."

"How can someone employ vampires?" Kirika asked silently. "And how will we get to him? We can't stab them, we can't kill them…"

"We'll have to avoid them," Mireille said. "Maybe get him while he's alone?"

Kirika sighed, and looked at the pavement as it slid by her walking feet. "Maybe we should ask Xander for help."

Mireille snorted. "Xander? How could he help? He's passed out on our couch, remember? He's got a concussion. At least a week of rest, and then slowly ease him back into life. There's no way we can postpone this. It has to be done tomorrow."

"Who knows how many vampires he has?" Kirika asked. "We only saw three. It's safe to assume he has more. We need to know how to detect them. How to kill them. Tactics. Strategy. We need plans, Mireille. And Xander has experience."

Mireille sighed. "And then what? We ask him how to take care of vampires. What if he asks why we want to know? What then? We tell him we're Noir, the best in the business? Tell him we take any job that pays our fee?"

"Any job that involves crime," Kirika added.

Mireille snorted again. "Every job involves crime. One mob boss wants to kill another. Same thing with the Yakuza. The mob wants the Yakuza. The Yakuza wants the mob. Interpol wants a drug lord. We take any job that pays our fee, Kirika."

"We need Xander's help," Kirika whispered, actually hugging herself. "Mireille…" the young girl looked plaintively at her companion. "I've seen…done…some of the worst things a human can do… but these things… they scare me."

Mireille actually stopped. "WHAT?"

Kirika looked sadly at the ground. "I can't kill them… I'm scared of what I can't kill," the girl whispered. "And what they can do… what Xander told me they do… they're not human."

"Like what?" Mireille asked, colder than she intended. Kirika's eyes narrowed slightly, her face growing sadder still.

"They drink blood… they torture for fun…drive people insane… they do the worst things anyone can do…" Kirika looked up. "They are four times stronger and five times faster than an ordinary human. They can't be killed… unless you chop off their heads, or throw a stake through their hearts."

"Then you do know how to kill them," Mireille said with a small smile. "See? There's nothing to worry about."

"We have no stakes. And I left my sword in Paris," Kirika added the last part sarcastically, looking up darkly at Mireille, causing the aristocrat to look abashed at her younger companion.


"I am going to talk to Xander," Kirika said, not taking her friend's bait. "We will see after that." As she started to walk, she felt an iron grip on her wrist.

"Kirika…" Mireille tried again.

"He can help, Mireille," the girl said darkly. "I know he can," she added sadly.

"Fine. But don't come crying to me when he goes insane on us."

Kirika didn't answer that, and together, the two women walked to their hotel suite, where Xander was still fast asleep.

Well, he was, until the girls pushed open the door, and closed it a little loudly.

"Hey," he welcomed them, still feeling his head throb.

"Xander," Kirika said, sitting down next to him on the couch. "Xander, we need your help."

"That sounded ominous," he said jokingly, smiling slightly. When neither Kirika's nor Mireille's faces changed, he lost his smile. "What can I do for you?" he asked, his voice losing its joking tone.

"Vampires," Kirika answered. "How do we kill them? You've got experience… we need you to tell us any ways you know to either get rid of a vampire, or how to kill it."

Xander's eyes went wide. "You're not…going to do what I think you're going to do, are you?" Silence was his answer. "It's not as easy as you think, you know," he added, head dropping back on the pillow so he was now looking straight up at the ceiling. It was white… he liked this a whole lot more than the brown specked ceiling in his parent's house.

"It is easy," Mireille interrupted his thoughts. "You tell us how to kill the vampires. And we don't throw you out right now."

"Mireille!" Kirika shouted.

Xander sighed sadly. "If I leave, you're still going to go after them, aren't you?"

"Yep," Mireille said with a smile.

"Fine…" the boy whispered, closing his eyes. He forced a breath deep into his lungs. "First, a vampire is a demon inhabiting a human body. When the soul has departed, the demon sets up shop. When you destroy the demon, the host body disintegrates into ashes. There are several ways a vampire is created, but the most common is through a bite. The vampire drains your blood. You drink the vampire's blood. You become a vampire. Simple.

"Now, a vampire requires blood to live. Any kind will do, but the vicious bastards prefer human blood over cow, pig, sheep, or other blood. They claim it tastes better. Anyway, they can smell it a mile away, and a hungry vampire will go after that smell like a bloodhound. And believe me; the vamp will catch up to you. Four times your strength and five times your speed and all that. You know… demon stuff.

"Weaknesses… holy symbols like crosses, stars of David, and so forth repel vampires. Hits too close to home for the demons. It will also force a vampire to reveal its vampiric face. So, when in doubt, shove a cross in a person's face. If they don't vamp out, they're not a vampire. Second, a vampire reacts to holy water. It's like acid, making a vampire's skin steam and bubble. That's also a way to find out whether or not a person is human or not.

"Ways to kill them… sunlight, stake through the heart, decapitation. I guess if you dropped one in a barrel of holy water it would do the trick too. I wouldn't know. Holy water doesn't come in barrels. Oh, another weakness is blessed objects. If you've got something blessed by a priest, works like a charm.

"And before I forget… a vampire can't enter a residence unless invited. So never invite someone in. you can motion, but never actually say 'Come in.'. Those words can kill you."

"I see," Mireille said. "Thank you."

"If you're really going hunting… get a couple of water pistols and fill them with holy water… and get a couple of bags of pig's blood from the butcher. You can throw a vial of blood to distract vampires. The nose, remember? And the pistols can repel vampires just as well as crosses."

"And stakes?" Kirika asked.

"A sharp stick," Xander replied. "Pull a branch from a tree, sharpen one end. A vampire's not picky… wood is wood. Pointy end goes in the heart." With those words, he sunk into his couch again, his eyes closing painfully against the throbbing pain that permeated his head. Xander lapsed back into the blissful darkness of sleep. He was unaware of most of what went on for the next hours. While Xander slept, Kirika and Mireille were in the kitchen, the door closed, plans spread out on the kitchen table. The two were planning their 'job' for tomorrow.

"Tomorrow, I'll go to the park, and see if I can't pick us up some branches," Mireille said. "Once we get back to Paris, we'll see to getting some wooden knives made… now that we know these things exist, there's no reason not to be prepared."

Kirika nodded in agreement. "Yeah," she answered dully. For the umpteenth time, her red-brown eyes went to the kitchen door.

"Kirika…" Mireille grunted. "We can't keep him. Tomorrow we take the hit… you know we have to move fast after that. The day after tomorrow at the very latest, we're back in Paris."

Kirika sighed. "Even after all the help he gave?" she asked slowly, focusing her sad eyes on her blonde companion.

"Help? What help?" Mireille asked, sounding exasperated.

Kirika's eyes narrowed. "He saved our lives. And he told us the best ways to destroy vampires. He told us diversionary tactics, weaknesses, and testing methods. Even without knowing what we're about to do… he practically planned the mission for us. Test, divert, weakness."

Mireille gasped as sudden realization came over her. "How… you're right, Kirika… I didn't notice. How did he do that?"

Kirika shrugged sadly, looking once more at the door. "He must have a lot of experience…" she whispered, her voice trailing off. She closed her eyes. "Experience fighting vampires… I wonder how long he has been doing this, at the risk of his own life…"

"Come now, aren't you reading too much into this? Sure, the information was helpful, but it's not like he gave us a sure-way ticket to victory," Mireille said callously. He probably just got lucky."

Kirika drew in a sharp breath, and stood up. Her eyes were dangerously narrow. "Mireille… that is NOT information you come across easily. Those are tactics, designed through experience. In combat."

Mireille looked past her friend, to the door after which Xander slept. "So… how long has he been doing this, according to you?" she asked flatly.

"A long time," the brunette whispered, sitting down again. "Too long. He's running… whatever happened… it was too much for him."

"Doesn't matter," Mireille grunted. "We still can't keep him. What would you do? Take him with us? Show him Paris? No-one knows about Noir's secret residence, and I want to keep it that way. We're not taking him with us, and that's final!"

Xander awoke barely during the next day, just enough to get some food into him. He awoke finally when he heard urgent whispers coming from his two hostesses. Xander sat up, ignoring the slight floating motion of the room, just as the front door fell closed. "They're going to…" Xander grunted, getting out of the sofa, almost falling down again as the room's swimming motion became worse. Clenching his teeth, Xander poised his mind against the dizziness and the nausea. They didn't know what they were getting themselves into. He needed to help them.

He grabbed his backpack, still located next to the couch, slung it over one shoulder, and stepped to the front door of the suite. Once outside, Xander rested his back against the heavy wood, trying to catch his thoughts, breath, and equilibrium. Gritting his teeth so hard it was audible, Xander forced himself to run. The pounding in his head had settled into a dull throb, the waves of adrenaline forcing a clamp on the pain and dizziness. They helped him. He was not about to abandon them to something they didn't know how to handle.

Xander bit back a curse when Buffy's image floated in front of his mind's eye. What about her? You left her… why not leave them as well? Xander shook his head against the unwanted thought. No. Buffy's the Slayer. She made it more than clear. She doesn't need me. Wills prefers her company over mine. They don't need me. They don't want me.

Xander made it outside, just in time to catch a glimpse of the two women disappearing around a corner. Xander raced after them. Neither do they, the voice continued. They don't want you either. Xander grunted as he forced his weakened body to cross a street in pursuit of the two girls. She does! Xander answered his inner voice, thinking of Kirika, how her voice had sounded while defending him.

He was just in time to see them disappear into a taxi. Xander cursed loudly. DAMN! He hailed a second cab, and instructed it to follow the one the girls were in. When the first taxi stopped, Xander instructed his taxi to stop a little further down the road. He spent some of his last money on the cab before setting off in pursuit of the two mysterious girls.

What's with them? He asked silently. Taking a cab to the rich part of LA? Where are they going? He crept after them, biting down another wave of nausea. Now that the first adrenaline had settled, his concussion made its presence known once again, and Xander was forced to stop and lean against a wall to gather his bearings. Finally, the attack subsided, and Xander was forced to run, hoping that he hadn't lost them. He didn't find them after the first corner. Nor the second. At the third corner, he saw a glimpse of blonde hair disappear, and Xander raced after it.

He was just in time to see them pull dark caps over their head, hiding their hair color, and disappearing over a hedge. Xander drew a breath, took a stake from one of the pouches of his backpack, and slipped it into his belt. He jumped the hedge, and groaned as the landing sent a jar of pain through his head.

He blinked almost continuously as he followed the girls to the large mansion, his head feeling worse and worse by the moment. There was only so much he could force his body through. He knew he was running on empty. He also knew he couldn't leave them. Something inside of him propelled him on, forcing him to draw strengths from hidden reserves. His teeth were bared as he gritted them to keep up to the two girls.

How do they do this? his tired mind asked. They behave like professionals… how do they know to sneak around like this? Just who are they? His tired mind flashed him an image of Kirika tearing into a vampire, breaking bones in moves that would have killed any ordinary human within seconds. Only… vampires didn't die from things like broken bones.

Finally, the two seemed to enter the house. Xander followed.

Kirika and Mireille had entered the house unnoticed. They made their way through the darkened mansion, coming to the target's bedroom. They knew where it was. The blueprints had made sure of that, and last night's scouting mission had confirmed it. They slipped into the bedroom, both drawing their guns. Kirika drew her Beretta M1934 Commercial, as Mireille brought her Walther P99 to bear. Both screwed on silencers.

Without hesitation, they brought up the guns, and fired at the figure in the large bed, obscured by the darkness and the covers. At the same moment, all the lights flashed on, and an even dozen vampires flew into the room, surrounding the duo.

They heard a chuckling voice. 'Target' walked into the room. "I never once imagined that the infamous 'Noir' was composed of two girls," he chuckled, causing Mireille to tense dangerously. Kirika, as always when on a mission, remained totally cold and impassive. "As you can see, I am well equipped… and I have my sources to warn me of danger. Such as Noir being sent after me."

"Most targets do," Mireille whispered dangerously. "They all said that same thing… and they all died."

The Japanese man laughed heartily. Slowly, he composed himself. "Kill them," he ordered flatly, causing a dozen vampires to run towards their targets. Both immediately dropped their guns, and raised improvised stakes in their right hands. In their left, they suddenly held crosses, repelling the vampires.

Back-to-back, the girls were unable to do more than watch the circling predators. "This is a stalemate," Mireille grunted. Kirika tensed, her mind calculating her break-out assault. She was going to destroy these fiends, one way or the other. Her eyes were narrow. Her posture had changed. She was becoming Noir.

Grabbing the stake in a reversed hold, the brunette charged. At the same time, she heard a hissing sound, followed by screams and the smell of burning flesh. Kirika ignored the signs. Screaming vampires is good.

She reached the first vampire, who was staring in shock at something behind her. Kirika planted her stake into the creature's heart, and found it disintegrating into dust. Landing through the dust cloud in a crouch, the girl smiled, holding up her weapon. Her face totally devoid of emotion, her technique silent as the shadow, Kirika charged the remaining vampires, her eyes scanning for the target after the one she engaged, swiping her stake left and right.

Snarling, the remaining fiends recomposed and charged. Only seven of them remained after Kirika's first assault, and two of those had taken a load of the holy water that had torn into their ranks earlier.

"Mireille… take the shot," Kirika said on her flat tone, and she awaited the vampires' charge. Mireille didn't think twice, dove for her gun, and rolled, her gun sweeping the room. The target was slowly edging his way to the door he had entered through. The blonde assassin wasn't prone to missing moving targets while moving herself. She wasn't about to miss this time. Four nine millimeter 'parabellum' bullets tore through his torso. Two exploded into his head. Only then did the man sink to his knees, before falling sideways, unseeing eyes staring at her.

At the same time, Kirika had simply stood there, awaiting the charge of seven vampires. The girl rolled Mireille's dropped stake onto her foot, kicked it up, and caught it, putting her cross back in her pocket in the same motion. Wielding two stakes, Kirika stood erect, calmly awaiting the arrival of her targets.

The seven vampires were still predators, unable to share. Pushing and shoving, the mass of demons rushed the seemingly helpless girl. The moment they got into her range, Kirika charged forward. She planted her two stakes. Two vampires dusted. She dodged under the horizontal swipe one vampire took at her with his fist. While she was down, she put her stake through his foot, causing the creature to scream as his foot was pinned to the floor. Jumping up, the girl used her left stake to dispose of the vampire charging next to his howling companion. Using the force of the hit on the dusting vampire, Kirika changed her motion, rotating back the way she had come.

The young assassin landed in a crouch, pulled her stake, causing another scream from the vampire, and swiping his legs from under him. The 90-kilogram vampire hit the floor with all the grace and force of a ton of bricks. Jumping over him, she pushed her stake into his heart in mid-flight. However, the moment it took the vampire to dust was enough to wrest the stake from her hand in mid-flight. With liquid grace, she shifted her stake form her left hand into her right. Being ambidextrous had its advantages, and Kirika pulled her earlier cross from her left pocket.

She stood up. Only three of the seven vampires remained, among which were the two who had been dosed with holy water earlier. Slowly, she walked toward them. The moment the three fiends looked at each other, Kirika got her wish, and she charged with the speed of lightning and the force of thunder. She exploded into the nearest vampire's chest, pushing her stake in, and using the force of the hit to catapulting her into a circular motion toward the second one. She pushed the stake into its chest, and was about to withdraw it when the last vampire suddenly made a move she hadn't expected.

The last vampire was a turned martial arts instructor. A vampire who knew karate was a deadly foe, and Kirika found that out the hard way when her rotational motion was interrupted by a high-kick to her midsection. Four times human strength exploded into her ribcage, pushing the ejecting the girl against the wall behind her. With an 'oomph' she hit the ground. Kirika pushed herself up, and saw Mireille start to circle the demon on the other side.

It was at the time that Kirika noticed that something else was moving in the room.

Xander had followed the two girls silently throughout the house, still unable to understand what it was they were looking for. He thought they would go after vampires… he hadn't expected them to come to Beverly Hills out of all places, and burglarize a mansion. Not that they weren't good at it, no… Xander had seen them take out a multi-million dollar security system in no time.

So, he followed, the throbbing and pulsing in his head requiring more and more effort to ignore. Right now, it was a chore to breathe, and keep to his feet, let alone sneak after two girls who obviously knew what they were doing.

They had reached their destination, obviously… Xander could see them drawing guns before entering a certain room. He wanted to call out to them, warn them that bullets had no effect on vampires… but his voice refused service. He drew a second breath, feeling his vocal cords opening up again, and he was about to call. But then, their cover would be blown… they would lose the advantage of surprise.

They screwed on silencers, taking aim at something. Xander's mind revolted. That's not a vampire! The moment the guns discharged, the room was bathed in light, and a dozen vampires surrounded the girls. Real vampires. Xander knew it. So did Kirika and Mireille, obviously, as they dropped their guns and raised stakes. Xander listed flabbergasted to the speech of the one human, a Japanese man. Xander pulled a small bottle of holy water from his pack. It was a glass bottle, one he had selected so it could break easily on impact with a hard surface. Like a vampire's body. He opened the cap.

Noir? Targets? What is going on here? And what is this guy doing, using vampires for bodyguards? He could see the indecision of the girls as they were thinking over their options. Then, he could see something inside Kirika. The girl was planning something… the moment she moved, Xander saw his chance. He hefted his bottle, and threw it towards the nearest vampires. The bottle wasn't thrown very hard. It didn't break, yet the rotating motion Xander had given it caused the contents to be thrown over a wide area. He could see four vampires steaming and screaming as the holy water burned their skin.

Confusion reigned, and Xander leaned heavily against a wall, out of sight, just listening. His eyes were closed. He could hear the puffs as the vampires started falling. And then he heard the popping sound of a silenced Walther, and the falling of a human body. Xander's eyes were forced open, and as if guided by some inner strength he had no idea he possessed, he walked into the room.

He surveyed the scene. One last vampire was being circled by two combat-ready women. Mireille looked calm, except for a hint of murderousness in her eyes. Kirika scared him, however. Her eyes were dangerously narrow, yet for the rest, not a hint of emotion could be read from her posture. She was neutral, in every sense of the word.

The vampire in the middle of the two girls was standing in a Karate-pose. Xander didn't know martial arts, yet he did know enough from movies to recognize a dangerous stance when he saw one. He could see that the creature was distracted, looking at Kirika, while glancing at Mireille every now and then. Xander had entered from the door, coming in behind the creature's back.

He hefted the stake he had jammed into his belt. "Hey shitface."

The vampire startled, jumped up and around, spinning in mid-air to face Xander. The moment his feet touched the ground, the creature's face contorted into surprise, then pain, before falling into dust.

Kirika and Mireille stared at Xander as he looked at the settling ashes of the last vampire. Slowly, he looked up. "What is this…" he asking, closing his eyes, and taking a breath. "Noir?" he asked, voice wavering. When he looked up at them, his eyes radiated the pain he was trying to control.

"Xander!" Kirika grunted out when she noticed his skin paling, sweat forming over his face. When he stumbled, she was with him in a second. The assassin of mere seconds ago was replaced with the girl that had helped him, nursed him, for the last day. She supported him, settling him down on the floor. "We'll talk about that… when we get to the room," she whispered, ignoring Mireille's pointed look. When Kirika had helped Xander to his feet, and they were shuffling out the door, Mireille couldn't help but look worriedly after the duo.

"Stupid boy…" she whispered.

By the time they got back to the suite, Xander had to be carried. While Kirika tugged him in, Mireille settled for a nearby chair, one hand in front of her mouth, her posture hunched forward, looking worriedly at the boy who had helped them out… again. Inwardly, she was berating herself for not finding out they were being chased, immediately followed by herself kicking herself for not knowing who had helped them out until he had walked into the room.

A distraction which had no doubt saved them quite a bit of trouble. Mireille remembered the way the last vampire acted. The blonde's blue eyes drifted to Kirika's smaller form, hunched over Xander, putting a cold compress to their rescuer's forehead. Mireille had seen the brunette do things that looked impossible… but tonight, for one of the few times since she had met the younger girl, Kirika had seemed scared.

With vividness, she remembered Kirika's exclamation. I fear that which I can not kill.

Kirika fell into the chair next to the blonde.

"We should take him to a hospital," Mireille whispered to her beaten-looking companion.

"He didn't want to be taken," Kirika answered dully. Her usually toneless voice was even flatter than normal, and it sent shivers down Mireille's spine. In the time they had known each other, Mireille and Kirika had gone through hell and beyond, and nothing had ever fazed the younger girl. And now… in these two days they had known Xander… Kirika seemed totally and utterly beaten.

"What do you want, Kirika? We need to run… the Yakuza will trace us."

Kirika shrugged. "So?"

"I know it's nothing new, but…"

"We were traced by Soldats. We fought Yakuza, the mafia, Intocabile… the poison woman. I do not fear them," the brunette grunted coldly, her finger sliding over the comforting firmness of the Beretta.

Mireille sighed. "I'll pack our clothes," she announced while getting up. Kirika immediately threw her companion an angry look, and opened her mouth to start her protest. "We'll take him with us… for now, we'll just change hotels. I'll make arrangements, and rent a car. Too bad it'll increase us being traceable, but for the moment, it'll have to do."

Kirika looked at her friend's retreating back. "Mireille." The taller woman stopped. "Thank you," Kirika whispered, looking away, down at Xander's body. Mireille just smiled, and disappeared in the bedroom.

"Who are you, Xander Harris?" Kirika whispered. "How were you able to follow us, where so many have failed? In your condition?" the girl sighed, slid from her chair onto her knees next to the couch. She put her hands over his. "It must have been horrible," the girl said, remaining that way until long after Mireille had returned, and reclaimed her seat.

Xander winced, and held his throbbing head as the small car shot over a bump, somewhere in the center of Paris.

"We're nearly there," Kirika said comfortingly from the backseat. Mireille remained quiet, and deftly took another turn, causing Xander to wince again. He didn't blame the blonde… everyone in Paris seemed to drive like this. Like they were possessed. For someone who had grown up in a small town in sunny California, and whose only big-city experience was the relative easiness of an American city, Paris seemed like a maze of small roads and smaller road, over-populated with people who ran through each other like hyper-energetic ants.

The boy closed his eyes, and not for the first time wished he were back in his comfortable first-class seat on the airplane. He grunted as his head suddenly snapped forward when Mireille pushed on the brakes, cussing loudly in Parisian French, shaking her fist at the driver in front of her. A big male pushed his head through the side window, and shouted back at the little blue car they were in.

Mireille rolled down her window, put out her arm, and made the universal 'fuck-you' sign. The man turned red, and Xander was sure the direct descendant of the mountain gorillas was going to step out of the car and cause them serious bodily harm. Instead, he retracted his head when Mireille thumped the horn, shifted into first, and kicked on the accelerator.

The Gorilla's car accelerated away just in time to avoid a collision.

"Asshole," Mireille grunted in her trademarked French-accented English. Xander looked at her, before looking at Kirika for confirmation. The brunette shrugged.

Guess it's an everyday occurrence, Xander thought. He held his head and winced when the little car shot around yet another bend. Doesn't this country know the meaning of 'straight'? he asked himself.

Finally, five minutes later, Mireille threw the car into an empty parking spot. Xander took his backpack, and followed the two girls up the stairs of the building they had stopped in front of.

Two minutes later, Xander approached a door on the top level, still following his two hostesses. He emerged into a spacious penthouse, the large center room arranged around a pool table, around which chairs had been arranged. Off to the left stood a living room arrangement. In front, behind the snooker table, Xander could see a set of French Doors leading to a small, yet tastefully arranged balcony. When he stepped further into the room, he could see a bathroom and a kitchen off to his right.

Next to the door was a small stairway leading to a raised platform separated with a small wall that was a spacious bedroom. Xander immediately felt comfortable, and out of place at the same time. This was the room of the women Kirika and Mireille, not the duo Noir… which he still didn't know anything about, but knew enough tat it was something that daylight didn't tolerate.

That, and the room seemed to be laid out for two… in true western European fashion, Xander didn't see a guest room. Xander felt like an intruder, and suddenly regretted taking the girls up on their offer to come with them to Paris. It had sounded like a good idea at the time, but now that he saw their home, he didn't feel so sure anymore.

Mireille put her laptop down on the snooker table, and immediately connected it. The machine started downloading emails.

"We've got some closet space over here," Kirika said as her older companion started clicking on emails. She led him to the raised platform, where Xander deposited his backpack in an empty closet shoved against the far wall.

"Thanks," he said again, after he closed the door to what he now realized would be his closet. He winced when his throbbing head picked up again. He started to grow dizzy again, and Kirika helpfully guided him to the salon, where he sunk into the large three-seat couch, automatically moving to lay down. The throbbing lessened now that he closed his eyes, and allowed himself to relax. It had been a long flight… one had wasn't sure he had been ready for. His concussion was healing nicely, but the flight seemed to have worsened it again.

"Now…" he whispered, knowing well that Kirika had taken one of the single couched nearby. "What is Noir?" There. He had finally asked it. Too late, he knew it, but the last week had been so terrible on his constitution he just hadn't had the energy to bring up the subject again. A subject the two girls had seemed more than willing to let rest.

He could hear Kirika sigh. "Noir… Noir is hard to explain. Xander…"

Xander sighed. "Start from the top… I've heard some strange things. I can keep an open mind. Hellmouth-boy, remember?" he asked with a chuckle that turned into a pained wince.

"Noir is…are…the best in the 'business'. We take the 'jobs' no-one else wants… or can."

"What business?" Xander asked, looking at her with a pained expression in his eyes. "Please don't use difficult words… my scrambled brain isn't up to it."

Kirika sighed. Quietly, very quietly, she continued, "we're killers…assassins…for hire."

Xander had immediately forgotten all about the pain. The next moment, he was sitting upright. Another instant later, he was standing on his feet, backing away from the girl who was looking hurtfully up at him as he stared at her with an expression of mixed pain, shock, anger, and revulsion. "You…you… what?" he stammered.

"We're assassins, Xander… we kill…for money…" Xander's legs gave, and he sunk to the floor.

When Kirika got up with a concerned look, he managed to bark, "Stay away!"

"We would never hurt you, Xander!" the girl whispered forcefully.

"How would I know?" the boy grunted, backing away until he had reach the corner and couldn't back away any further. "If someone paid you, would you kill me, too? Killing is wrong! Destroying demons and vampires is one thing, but human beings??"

Kirika sighed, sinking into her couch once again. "We're picky, Xander… we don't take just any job… we take those jobs involving crime. Mob bosses, Yakuza leaders, other assassins, drug barons, big criminals… people who are as bad as the demons you hunt."

"Says who?" Xander grunted, vision dimming as his concussion acted up again under the stress. "Who gave you the right to be judge, jury, and executioner?"

"Those people remain out the hands of the law," Kirika said. "They would never be punished for their crimes… so we do it."

"And get paid for it," Xander said flatly.

"So are prison wardens who execute the death sentence in your country," Kirika answered. "Xander… I won't justify what we do. We're assassins. We kill. That's what we do… but know that we only take those jobs that we're sure of…" She looked at him. "How is it different from what you do?" she asked. "When a demon or vampire kills a human, you would hunt it, right?"

"Of course," Xander replied.

"How about a human? If a human killed another human, and the police were helpless, wouldn't you like to see justice happen?"

"A human has a soul! A human can redeem himself!" Xander replied forcibly. "It's not up to me to dispense justice!"

"How about if that human was responsible for dozens of deaths? Hundreds? Or, what if it wasn't murder, but torture? I've seen what drugs can do to a person, Xander. We're not going after innocents… we go after people who have blood on their hands. Liters of it. Their souls, if they still have them, are black as coal and will go straight to hell. We're only helping them along."

Xander's mouth opened. It closed. He seemed to consider something, opened it again, and closed it again when another thought struck his head. "Damn…" he whispered, rubbing his temples. When he opened his eyes once again, he found Kirika sitting next to him, her hand on his shoulder.

"Come, Xander," she whispered calmly. "You need some more rest."

Meekly, he let himself be guided to the couch, where he promptly fell into, sinking into blissful sleep. Kirika sat down in the single couch opposite the couch Xander occupied.

"I tried to warn you that he would go berserk," the blonde whispered as she sat down in the couch next to Kirika's. "We should have held this conversation in Los Angeles."

"I know… but he's accepted it now," Kirika said, causing Mireille to look at her companion.

"How…?" she whispered.

"I saw it… in his heart, and in his mind… he realized it," Kirika said. "He knows… realizes… that humanity has monsters just as bad as the demons he hunts at night."

"What are you saying, Kirika? You're not suggesting what I think you're suggesting, are you?"

Xander was standing in the gloomy atmosphere of the Paris Sewer System, pointing the Walther P99 he could borrow from Mireille at the wall that was hidden in the shadows. His arms ached, even as he held the gun in both hands, trying to aim straight. He swallowed with a dry mouth; his system long since adapted to the continuous putrid smell in the sewer. How did I get involved in this? Xander asked himself again as he closed one eye, and took aim along his outstretched arms and over the gun's sight.

How did I let them convince me? Why? Xander asked as his finger twitched on the trigger. The gun bucked in his hands, and Xander let out a groan as the recoil traveled through his exhausted arms. I'm not a murderer… I shouldn't be doing this. Why did I let them convince me to teach me? The gun bucked again, and Xander shifted his stance slightly, spreading his legs wider apart to increase his balance.

You had this conversation with them already! Sometimes it's necessary! Xander groaned against the small inner voice that tried to reason with him. Xander squeezed another round form the gun. You need to be prepared for anything… you never know, the voice finished.

Xander wiped some sweat off his forehead, and retook his stance. How did they talk me into this? Xander groaned silently as he brought his leaden arms up, retaking his double-handed hold on the gun.

Behind him, Mireille and Kirika were looking at the shooter. They were standing far enough away to hold a conversation without Xander overhearing them.

"He's good," Mireille whispered.

Kirika simply nodded, a vague amused expression on her face.

"You knew this, didn't you?" Mireille asked curtly.

Kirika shrugged. "I had a feeling… but I didn't have a feeling about this," she added the latter shortly after, her eyes widening slightly.

Mireille looked at the boy, and glanced at the far wall, eyes wide open to capture as much light as possible in the shadows of the sewers.

Xander, meanwhile, was really tired. He could barely keep his eyes open, and his arms were blocks of sheer pain. Yet as he squinted his eyes to make out the faint circles painted on the wall, his finger twitched. Growling, he emptied the semi-automatic gun's clip into the wall.

"The more tired he is, the better he gets," Mireille whispered as she walked towards the boy with Kirika at her side. He dropped the gun into Mireille's hands as she stood next to him.

"Very good," Mireille praised in French. For five seconds, Xander just stared at her, his mind blown to bits after hours of gun drills and countless rounds pumped into the wall. Then, his mind connected the dots. From now on, only French, he remembered. They only speak French to me… and I'd better respond in kind, or I'll end up doing punishment drills.

"Merci," Xander answered in heavily accented French. Thank you.

"You're getting better every time," Kirika said from his other side. "Today, you actually managed to put most of your shots inside the outer circle." Xander glanced at the wall, squinting to make out the two circles drawn on it, creating an improvised bull's eye.

"J'essaye mon best," Xander grunted out. I try my best.

"And you're improving because of it," Mireille said. "Come, Xander. It's time for a shower, and then we'll have dinner."

Xander simply nodded, allowing the two to guide him away through the maze that was the Paris sewers. Smart of them to use the sewers… no-one will hear them practicing in here. As he saw daylight for the first time in hours, Xander winced in pain. Dinner… his mind grunted. Food is good. Then he froze. "Mireille…"


"You give me lesson, in etiquette, yes?" he asked in horrible French. But, no matter how bad it was… Xander had to admit he had picked up enough to express himself, even though his 'classes' had started less than two days ago. No better way to learn a language then being forced to speak one.

"Of course, Xander," Mireille said with a smirk. "You never know when it comes in handy to act like a gentleman."

"But that not me!" Xander protested, his French clipping due to his emotional state. "I are hungry… you not let go for once?"

Mireille let out her breath. "We're not going to have this conversation, Xander. Remember, you agreed to let us teach you. It's all up to you… you can still walk out if you want to."

"But me alone then," the boy whispered. "In country I not speak language of."

Mireille smiled slightly. "I know you'd see it my way."

Xander groaned. "Yes. I see it your way," he echoed.

Kirika shot a worried glance at Xander as she walked past his couch on her way to the kitchen. The boy was twitching and moaning in his sleep again, caught in the grips of some horrible nightmare. The brunette sadly shook her head, and disappeared into the kitchen. Five minutes later, the smell of Kirika's tea woke up Xander, who dragged himself over to the kitchen.

"Morning," he grunted as he pushed open the door.

"Morning," Kirika greeted in her usual flat voice. "Tea?" she offered, taking a cup and extending it to him. Xander grabbed it as if it were his last line to sanity.

"I need some," he grunted as the girl filled the cup. "Thanks, Kirika."

She shot him a small smile. "No problem," she answered as he sipped the tea and let out a contented moan.

"Oh, yeah, I so needed that."

"The nightmare again?" Kirika asked sadly as she continued preparing breakfast.

"Yeah," Xander grunted, looking at his tea, suddenly having lost all appetite in it.

"You can talk about it, if you want to," Kirika offered, half-way expecting his response. It had been the same answer he had given her for the last week, ever since he had been well enough to train.

"Not really," Xander answered levelly, doing his best to keep his voice from trembling. Somehow Xander wanted to be as emotionally strong as his two teachers.

Kirika just looked sadly at him as he stared into his cup of tea. Finally, she looked away and continued breakfast. "Could you go tell Mireille that breakfast is ready?" Kirika finally asked after the silence had dragged on and on.

"Sure," Xander answered, draining his now cold tea in a single drink and disappearing through the door, already preparing himself for another day of grueling training he knew was to come.

"Two months already," Mireille said to her younger companion as they watched Xander do pull-ups from a thick tree branch. They were in a deserted area of a relatively unknown park in Paris, and Xander was hanging from the branch, his arms flexing as he pulled himself up along with the weights attached to his legs. Both females were dressed in thick winter coats, and Mireille constantly blew into her gloved hands. Kirika seemed unaffected by the winter weather, the cold wind, or the snow on the ground.

"It's incredible," Kirika said in her usual quiet and soft voice. "Xander's progress… he can shoot perfectly. He can strip, clean, repair, and assemble guns. His physical condition has improved tremendously… but the mystery remains."

Mireille nodded as Xander's ragged breath counted twenty-five. "That strange body of his… it grows stronger and faster the more exhausted he gets," she said, rubbing her hands, and stomping her booted feet on the ground.

The brunette dipped her head in response to Mireille's statement. "He needs a push in the right direction… he can become someone incredible. But Paris is limited." She looked at the blonde. "He needs experience."

Mireille snorted. "Good luck trying to get him to go along on a mission. First, I don't think he'll go for it, and second, I'm not so sure I'll go for it either. It's suicide trying to take an inexperienced boy with us on the types of missions we do."

Kirika sighed, and nodded. Xander fell from the branch, panting. Dressed only in a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt, sweat glistened on his exposed face and arms. He started putting on a sweater.

"Ten laps today," Mireille told the boy, who mindlessly snapped a salute, and jogged off in a certain direction. "And running, no jogging!" Mireille yelled after him. The rhythm changed, and Xander ran from view.

"And what's with the salutes?" Mireille grunted.

Kirika shrugged in response. "He doesn't want to tell," she whispered, looking from the direction Xander had disappeared in, shifting to her companion. "Mireille… I want to give Xander some experience."

Mireille snapped to Kirika, her face surprised. "How?" she asked, shocked.

"The Mansion… it still exists… and now that I remember…remember what Althena did…"

Mireille grabbed the girl by her arms and shook her. "Are you insane?" the aristocrat demanded. "That place still gives you nightmares! And now you want to take Xander there? Have you lost your mind?"

Kirika shook her head, breaking from the grip. "Xander… I know Xander can handle it. And it needs to be done."

Mireille snorted. "For what? Xander's never going to be an assassin. He leaves the room every time we bring it up. He's accepted what we are, but he has problems with it being in his face. There is no way he'll agree to come with you for training in the… whatever it is those assholes trained you in."

Kirika looked at the ground. "The arts of assassination… martial arts, weaponry, poisons, medicine, first aid, meditation… Xander will agree." The girl looked up. "He will agree once he learns that it is useful in his fight against vampires and demons. I think not even a vampire will be much of a threat with a knife jammed in its eyes, its neck snapped, it kneecaps shattered, its…"

"I get the point," Mireille grunted. "Fine. Suggest it to him, if you have to… but I'm not going with you. After last time I was there, I know that one visit was more than enough for me."

Kirika sighed sadly, and looked at the tree Xander had been using as gym apparatus. "It was my home for all those years," she whispered sadly. "Althena was my mother…" she shook her head, putting a plastic smile on her face as she turned to Mireille. "It will be good to see it used for something positive. Teaching Xander to fight the underworld… it feels right to me."

Mireille sighed once more. "He still has to agree," she said with a chuckle. "But, as I said, I won't be joining you. If you want to do this, I won't stop you, but I won't be coming."

"Thank you, Mireille," Kirika said, her smiling less forced with her companion's permission.

Xander refused to show his exhaustion as he walked next to Kirika along a deserted mountain road. To the best of his knowledge, they were somewhere on the Austrian-Italian border, way up in the mountains. With a half-jealous look, Xander's eyes shifted to Kirika, who effortlessly trekked further up the track with her backpack firmly on her shoulders.

While he was fingering the straps of his pack where they dug into his shoulders, going to considerable effort not to pant too much in the thinning air. They rounded a corner, and Xander forgot all about exhaustion, thin air, and the difference in physical condition between himself and Kirika.

They had entered a small village. A village to which Xander hadn't read a name plate, nor any references to. And, it was completely deserted. As the duo walked through the deserted town in total silence, Xander's eyes scanned from left to right, while Kirika just stared sadly at the ground moving beneath her feet. Suddenly, Xander jumped a couple of paces back.

"Is…that…?" he asked, motioning silently to something further along the road. Kirika's eyes grew sadder still, and the girl gave a quiet nod. Again in silence, the duo continued to walk, Xander feeling a growing apprehension rise within the pit of his stomach. The thing on the road grew larger, the shape roughly human. They passed the corpse in total silence, Xander's body shaking with emotions over what he saw. He wished they had the time to stop.

When they crossed into the town square, Xander stopped. Kirika or no Kirika, Xander couldn't hold out much longer as he dropped his pack, bent over, and vomited.

Kirika stared with sad eyes at the decomposing bodies in the town square. Finally, Xander's stomach was empty and the dry-heaving soon stopped. He righted himself, and stared in revulsion at the scene of carnage. "What…happened?" he asked, voice choking.

Kirika was silent for a few moments, and Xander practically thought she hadn't heard him when she finally answered, "Soldats."

"Soldats?" Xander asked.

Kirika nodded once. "We need to go…" she said, looking at the setting sun. "It's still a couple of hours to the mansion… and we need to be there before nightfall."

"But…" Xander started, motioning for the bodies.

"Soldats," Kirika repeated again, a colder edge to her voice. "We need to go Xander."

Xander swallowed, and nodded. He only knew Kirika's sweet, quiet, shy attitude and soft voice. To hear her tone contain a cold edge, to hear her speak with a cold, decisive manner was truly frightening for Xander, stunning him into silence and compliance. As they trekked further, Xander's mind had to force itself to keep going, his thoughts flashing to the nightmares of the Vietnam veteran he now had. It was the same senseless slaughter, the same waste of life, and it filled Xander's heart with revulsion.

He hadn't noticed that they had left the town until Kirika stopped them near a dozen bodies, scattered on and next to the road, shielded under some trees. Solemnly, Kirika bent her head, and Xander actually thought she was praying when he heard the soft words, "You once saved my life… thank you…" with those quiet words, Kirika looked up and resumed her walk, Xander following behind, his mind filled with puzzles. Puzzles he desperately wanted to ask answers to, answers he knew he had no right to have. As long as he kept his own secrets, he wasn't entitled to theirs.

"We're there," Kirika stated after an unidentifiable amount of time. Xander blinked; eyes focusing on the real world once more. He looked out over a straight earthen path, leading through a large vineyard to the ruin of what was without a doubt once a spacious mansion at the end of the path. Drawing in a breath of mountain air, Xander glanced around, taking in the secluded plateau in between the mountains. It was below the snowline, towering mountains framing the plateau like large granite guardians. The place was beautiful.

Only now did he realize that Kirika had already resumed her walk, and Xander jogged after her to catch up. As he neared, Xander could see ancient Roman columns rising to the sky, the roof they once supported long since gone. The mansion itself was nothing more than a ruin… built somewhere a long time ago, Xander figured. History was never his strong suit.

Kirika turned, and walked along the ruins, with Xander following her, staring in unbridled curiosity at the ruins. For the most part, it looked as if the ground floor was still intact… with only a minor interruption here and there. It even looked as if some of the second floor had survived as well. Finally, they entered the ruins through a non-descript door.

As the door slammed shut behind him, a stark darkness descended upon them, and Xander could faintly see Kirika reach out in a practiced manner, grabbed something from a second something that was nearby, but out of the reach of Xander's eyes. He saw her flick a lighter out of her pocket, and with a single motion of her hand, light the three candles in the three-sponged candlestick. She's done this before, Xander noted sarcastically, seeing her light three candles in one continuous motion.

The yellow-burning candles cast eerie shadows as they walk, and more than once Xander jumped away from one wall or another as they walked. Kirika descended a flight of ancient stairs, deeper into the bowels of Mother Earth. Xander followed, all his instincts on edge. Whatever this was, it was not a good place. Years of fighting vampires had instilled strong instincts of the supernatural, and this place sent them all ballistic.

They entered a cavernous hall, supported by columns similar to the ones he had seen outside. The room looked like the center hall of a cathedral, yet Kirika paid no attention to it. Xander followed, still gaping at this entire place. When he had first seen the ruins, he had never suspected that the real building was under the ground. Finally, they came to an elaborate set of metal double doors. Kirika halted in front of them, giving Xander a good chance to study the carvings on the doors. On each door, a woman was depicted, facing each other, kneeling to one knee, holding up swords in a ritualistic manner. Behind them, carved over the joining of the metal, a third woman was depicted, holding one hand over her heart, looking down at the kneeling figures in some saintly fashion.

"Xander… this is your last chance," the girl said, having resumed her normal mode of speech. "Say so, and we'll go back upstairs, have a good rest, and return tomorrow… but if you chose to stay, there's no going back."

Xander swallowed; something in her words set his instincts on edge. He squared his shoulders. "No. No, I chose to stay. I'm tired of being a nobody… I want to be able to contribute."

Kirika looked at him, her eyes filled with an odd mixture of pain, sadness, and pity, before she nodded. "Then this will be your first night. Enter this chapel, and spend the night here. It will give you insight into who and what you are, your motives, strengths, weaknesses, desires, and wishes."

Xander nodded, and reached for the doors of the chapel, already doubting his ability to push those huge things open. Kirika intercepted his arm. "It isn't pretty… actually… it's quite painful," she warned him, a strange sense of compassion in her oddly colored red eyes. "I can only leave you the words Althena left me… Accept. Do no fight, or it will drive you insane."

Xander took a breath, steeled himself, and smiled. "Thanks," he said, reaching for the doors, and throwing them open. They actually moved quite easily. Resolutely, he strode inside, refusing to look behind him where he could feel Kirika's gaze burning in his back. Only when he heard the door fall into the lock, and the subsequent locking of said lock, did Xander look up from the marble-tiled floor.

He was in a small chapel, able to hold fifty, maybe a hundred people, tops. At the front stood the white marble altar, complete with white cloth, gold cup and gold scale for the hosts. Xander's gaze traveled further, to the intricate marble carved far wall, depicting a scene from the Passion, or so Xander thought. His knowledge on the Christian faith not extending far past 'crosses repel vampires'.

Up his eyes traveled, to a colored window. Immediately, it grabbed Xander's attention, and held it there. Xander knew he should be expecting a scene from some Saint or other. Instead, he saw a glass version of the carvings on the door. Only, because of light shining through them, the entire scene seemed more alive to Xander. He briefly wondered on how light came through that window, since they were deep under ground, yet he soon dismissed it as his thoughts dwindled, focusing solely on the scene on the window.

He stared at it until the sun had long since set, and he couldn't avert his gaze until the first beams of moonlight penetrated through the vividly colored glass, casting red, blue, and green shadow throughout the chapel.

"This is crazy," Xander whispered, sitting down on the front row. "It's just a church." He looked around to the beautifully decorated Catholic chapel. "A nice church, but still a church."

Out of nowhere, music played, sounding like a dozen male voices singing Gregorian hymns to the sound of a growling organ. Xander jumped up. "Who's there?"

Xander stared around him for a good thirty seconds during which no answer came, yet the music continued. "Kirika, this isn't funny!" Again, there was no change in the music or the performance of the Gregorian singers. Xander smiled slightly. "I come from a demon-infested, vampire-loaded town built on top of the Hellmouth. You don't scare me with some music, Kirika," he whispered to himself. "Let's see… where are your speakers?"

He walked to the altar, and looked down the center lane of the small chapel, getting his bearings straight on the layout. Still smiling slightly, Xander walked slowly through the church, examining every nook and cranny, revealing exactly nothing. No speakers, no wires, no nothing. Xander didn't even find any indication that the room even had electricity.

Then he remembered Kirika lighting candles on their way in, and a creepy feeling wormed its way up Xander's spine. The feeling of danger he had felt before entering the chapel returned, and Xander sat down on the front row again, the music continuing incessantly.

"It's just a church. I've been in churches before. I've heard music before. Nothing to be scared of," Xander said, unconsciously pulling up his legs and throwing his arms around them. "I grew up in Vamp Central. Some music doesn't scare me. It doesn't. It doesn't scare me."

The song seemed to approach, as if the singers were slowly coming toward him. Xander's head snapped up, and he jumped away from the bench, staring down the aisle. What he saw made his heart jump, do a summersault in mid-flight, and land in a perfect grade-A dismount. Half a dozen men in pitch black frocks were striding down the aisle toward him.

Xander froze on the spot when he saw thee hoods of the frocks were empty. Incessantly approaching, the ghost-monks didn't seem to take notice of him as they sang and shuffled toward the altar. Xander continued to stare as the ghostly music resounded in his ears, driving deep within him, touching, probing… confusing. The lead monk had nearly reached Xander by now, and the boy was sure he could reach out and touch the apparition.

Xander's body refused to move as the monks' song seemed to paralyze his very thought processes, and Xander's heart stopped when the lead monk reached him. Instead of stopping, the ghostly figure kept right on walking… through Xander's body. The moment the human boy and the ghost from beyond touched, Xander screamed.

Kirika had watched the door for a few moments, before turning and walking away. Her path illuminated by the three dancing candles, the brunette walked solemnly away from where Xander had now been locked in. I hope you survive, Xander… that is the most dangerous part of the training. You must accept who you are before you can push yourself to your very limits. She closed her eyes and drew a breath before continuing. It's also one of the most painful things you'll ever experience. I know.

With those thoughts, she walked up the stairs, leaving Xander to the underground church. Once she reached the ground level, Kirika made her way through the maze of the ruined mansion, to where her room was… or rather, had been. She opened the heavy oak door, and drew the first breath of the familiar air from her room: the scent of the wooden beams of the roof, the smell of her bed, her closet, and of the ancient stone. But above all, the permeating smell of death that hung like a thick fog throughout the entire building.

Kirika sighed a little sadly as she made her way to her closet. From it, she took a thick and heavy dark green robe. Shedding her clothes, the girl dressed in the green robe she had once received from the villagers. First I make my round… then I'll return to Xander, the girl's mind whispered as she turned and closed the massive door behind her.

Kirika left the ruins of the main mansion, and disappeared into its gardens. Taking a small mountain path, she soon reached a second plateau, hidden from the main one that held the mansion. The small path led to a wide road framed with ancient Roman columns and remains of what used to be supported by them. Kirika sighed, closed her eyes, and drew in a fresh breath of clean and untainted mountain air.

Finally, the girl opened her eyes. She walked slowly to the end of the gallery, emerging into the remains of a circular roman temple. In the exact center, on a huge slab of stone lay a body, just as badly decomposed as the bodies in the village. Kirika stood silent, sad dark-red eyes resting on the peaceful-looking deceased form.

"I'm back…" she whispered to the corpse. "I'm sorry… Chloe." With those sad words, Kirika left the circular enclosure through a different path than the one she had first taken to get there. The girl wandered through a maze of ancient stonework walls, eyes automatically locking onto small holes in the walls.

I fought Mireille… to the death… the girl's eyes grew suspiciously moist. How far they managed to drive me. I was actually ready to take the vows as Noir. She halted, and looked at the starry skies. Thank you, Mireille… For everything. She looked straight ahead. This is all in the past, and now someone depends on me as I used to depend on Mireille. She may not understand, but I do… Xander needs my help, and I will do the best job I can. Resolutely, she started walking through the maze. The walk became a trot, then a jog, which evolved into a run. Running as only she could, Kirika flashed through the maze and emerged next to the mansion.

Barely bothering to take a candle-stick near the entrance, the girl ran through total darkness until she reached the metal doors of Xander's confinement. She sat the candle stick down, the unlit white candles her only companions as she stood fully erect, watching the doors. "I am here, Xander. You have nothing to fear."

The girl heard a blood-curling scream from inside the chapel. "It's begun," she whispered. "Good luck, Xander. Only the strong survive… and something tells me that you're stronger than most."

Meanwhile, inside the chapel, Xander felt as if he were being eaten alive, and in some way, he was. When the psychic manifestation touched him, a part of himself that Xander had always kept contained, opened. Memory upon memory, pain upon pain, thought upon thought slammed into his mind, and Xander let out a second scream.

The next instant, a falling sensation overcame him, pulling Xander away from reality as he knew it and plunging him into a world of inky darkness. Even though he saw nothing, he was still aware… aware of motion, of people around him. He knew that there were others… and he knew that this couldn't be good when the hairs at the base of his neck stood up.

The darkness filled with silver-gray fog, and the transition was so fast that Xander had to blink three times before he realized it. The fog cleared as suddenly as it had appeared, and the boy now found himself in a thick jungle. A jungle he knew almost by heart by now… the jungle from his nightmares.

"You really are worthless, aren't you?" a figure asked, emerging from the thick brush, stepping toward him with a dark look on his face. "No worries… I'll show you how to be strong."

"Oh god…" Xander whispered as he recognized the figure.

The man he was facing was no-one but himself… dressed in combat fatigues.

Kirika remained outside those large double doors for hours, listening to the screams, wincing at the occasional scream that was worse than the others, hoping for the sanity of her friend. Finally, the crying, pleading, begging and screaming diminished before slowly dying out. Kirika remained there, waiting for those few extra minutes to be sure that things were over.

The girl drew a breath, and pushed open the doors. Her heart stopped when she saw a lone figure, curled into a fetal position in front of the altar. Xander wasn't moving.

Holding her breath, she hurled herself across the length of the chapel, skidding down on her knees to a stop next to him. She let out a breath of relief when she saw him breathing calmly.

"Asleep…" she whispered, sitting upright. "That's a good sign, Xander… have a good night's rest." Kirika stood up, and retrieved the candles. Putting the yellow dancing flames down next to the boy, Kirika shot him a relieved look before disappearing to get some blankets.

Xander pulled one eye open. The small chapel greeted his sleep-blurred vision. Slowly, Xander cranked his second eye open, and forced himself to sit upright. His entire body felt sore. Every muscle protested, every tendon pulled, and even his very joints and bones seemed to ache. Xander let out a low moan. Slowly, the events of the previous night returned to him, yet as painful as they had been previously, now he was able to look at them detachedly.

"That was some night," he groaned. He startled slightly when a smaller yet more powerful form sat down next to him, extending an authentic earthwork mug of steaming hot tea. Xander gratefully accepted the rough cup and drank greedily. The hot liquid seemed like an injection of energy to his worn out body and battered mind.

"You survived, Xander," Kirika whispered evenly, smiling slightly at seeing him drain the tea.

"Does that mean I get what's behind door number 2?" Xander asked with a slight grin as he pulled the mug from his starving lips. Kirika cocked her head, smiling in quiet acceptance.

"It's a good sign… your sense of humor… most people don't survive the night with their sanity," the girl said, standing up. "Come, Xander… it's time to begin your training."

Xander let out another groan as he forced himself to his legs, grabbing the sheets off the ground on his way up. "Could you first show me a shower? I think I'll need a long hot one," he said, shooting her a slight grin.

"We have a shower… but it's not what you're used to," Kirika answered quietly.

"A shower's a shower," Xander answered. "Lead the way, o teacher of mine."

Kirika smiled slightly, then motioned. "This way," she said, leading him through the maze of the ruined mansion. They emerged on an open clearing sporting an authentic medieval well, with the small brickwork circular wall, the heavy wooden buckets and the rope and pulley system to pull the buckets up. She dropped the bucket down into the crystal-clear water, then with precise and practiced movements reeled it up.

"The shower," Kirika said, motioning for the bucket. Xander stared.

"That's your shower?" Xander asked, eyes wide in surprise.

Kirika nodded. "This mansion stems from the medieval times… It is a place forgotten by time. We don't have electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, gas, or anything else. We cook on a simple woodstove, which doubles for heating, and candles are illumination at night."

Xander stared at the bucket. "Great. Oh, well… when in Rome…"

"Here's the soap," Kirika said, extending a cube of what looked like a pale white substance of something that smelled like soap. Xander accepted it.

"I'll go make some breakfast… then I'll show you around and we can begin our training," Kirika said, turning to leave. "I'll be back in about ten minutes. In case you want to hide again." With those words, she was gone.

Xander smiled sarcastically. "Nothing wrong with a good sense of modesty," he grunted as he started to disrobe. "I know she has none, but does she really have to rub it in that much?"

Later that day, after a breakfast of some meats and vegetables Xander didn't recognize, and a grand tour which took about three hours, Xander and Kirika entered a small non-descript room.

"Jesus!" Xander cursed, slamming his hand before his mouth and nose. "What is this place?"

"Many a life ended here…" Kirika whispered sadly. "This place reeks of death even worse than the rest of the mansion. Don't worry… we won't be spending any time here. I don't intend to train you for ever."

"Hey! I should be insulted by that, shouldn't I?" Xander protested.

"It's a simple necessity…" Kirika replied evenly. "It took me 12 years to be where I am now. I don't intend to give you more than the basics, which accounts to about a month… Mireille has done an equitable job in training you. Endurance, shooting, so forth… I intend to merely be teaching you how to survive psychologically and physically, and how to use your environment to its fullest. Mireille is good… very good… but she is limited to her gun. You, as someone who will be going up against opponents of unimaginable power, will need to learn how to use the environment. Sometimes, a gun isn't enough…"

"Like with vampires," Xander said.

"Exactly," Kirika answered. "But think beyond stakes… sometimes, disabling before you can win can be the only way. What if you stabbed your stake through the vampire's eye? Or a silver knife through its knee? A kick to the genitals?"

"Hey, I can do that," Xander said.

"Yes… everyone can do that. But can you fight?" Kirika asked. "If it came down to it, can you fight with a stake in your hand? Can you draw a knife and have a knife fight with it?"

Xander shrugged. "A vampire is dumb… they rely on their strength and speed to win."

Kirika drew a knife from somewhere, and engaged him. Before Xander knew what had happened, he was flat on his back, her knife at his throat, her body sitting on top of his chest, her legs pinning his arms to his sides. "If I can do it, then how easy wouldn't it be for a vampire to do the same? And, contrary to me, a vampire doesn't pull its punches."

"Hey… that's not fair!" Xander grunted. "I just told you that a vampire doesn't use knives!"

"But what if one did? At the house of the Yakuza that employed vampires, there was a martial arts master who had been turned. He was quite a challenging opponent," Kirika returned calmly, remaining in her position with her knife at Xander's throat. He was about ready to piss his pants from fear.

"A one in a million…" he whispered, before asking fearfully, "could you… remove that thing from my neck, please?"

"The difference between a good warrior and a great warrior is being prepared for that on in a million chance," the brunette assassin whispered, sitting up, before standing. "Now do you understand?"

Xander sat up from the ground, looking up at his young teacher. "I…I understand. I never thought I'd say this, but I actually get that."

Kirika nodded in satisfaction, and extended her hand. Xander grabbed it, and once again amazed himself at the strength with which she pulled him to his feet. "Are you ready for your first lesson?" she asked.

Xander shrugged, and grinned. "Sure. Bring it on!" Then, he grimaced, rubbed his sore butt where it had collided violently with the ground, and said, "I just hope that it doesn't hurt that much…"

Kirika shook her head in quiet amusement. It was hard not to be amused by someone like Xander. "The first lesson… and one of the hardest to learn… is the fear of death."

"Huh?" Xander asked stupidly.

"You'll need to get rid of it," Kirika said. "Fighting without a fear of death will keep you from being nervous about dying… as such; you'll be able to keep a level head when balancing on the tightrope of demise. Don't get me wrong… fear of death is different from desire to live. The desire to live will keep you alive. The fear of death will only slow you down."

Xander's chin must have scraped over the ground, or so he thought. "Eh… I don't think I get that."

"No-one does… at first," Kirika answered. "Xander, why do you fear death?"

"Eh… because I don't want it to happen to me soon?" he asked.

"And why is that?"

"I don't know!" Xander shouted. "Why does someone fear death?"

"Exactly," Kirika answered. "Ignorance. You fear that which you don't know… tell me, why do suicide-bombers strap bombs to their bodies, and detonate themselves without hesitation?"

Xander simply shrugged.

"Because they have convinced themselves that they know the afterlife," Kirika answered for him. "Either through religion, or through the notion 'this is for the greater good', they have convinced themselves that whatever happens afterward, is better. That is why such people are tremendously dangerous… they hold no fear of death. They hold the psychological advantage. What you must do is hold that same advantage. You must have a desire to keep on living, but not hold a fear to end it right here and now should the necessity arise."

"Great… but that still doesn't tell me how we're going to get rid of it. Unless you're planning on dumping some religious brainwashing in my head?" Xander asked the latter with a cheerfully smiling tone to his voice.

"There are techniques," Kirika started, turning away from him to look at the sun. She took a breath. "That's why I first had you go through the church… that experience has unlocked your subconscious potential. Now all we have to do is drill into it that death is not something to be afraid of… and there may come a time when you need to use these same techniques to drill into your subconscious that your life means nothing, that you will use your life in exchange for your goals." She turned back to him. "But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The technique is a sort of meditation technique. Follow me, Xander."

"Sure," he whispered, following the girl into the bowels of the mansion. Soon, they emerged into a small and empty room. Kirika put the three-pronged chandelier down in the middle, and sat down at one side. She motioned for Xander to take the place on the other side. As he did so, she blew out the left and right candles, leaving only the middle one to cast its dancing shadow through the room.

"Look into the flame," she instructed. "You will see three parts: the golden flaming upper part, the blue middle part, and a spot of absolute darkness… stare into the dark center part, and envision that emptiness is your mind, and just let things come as they come. What you'll see will come from your subconscious mind. Don't try to force the images, don't try to understand or reason about them. Clear your mind and just let the images and thoughts form on their own."

Xander stared; not really believing anything would come but willing to go along with it anyway. After all, it obviously meant a lot to Kirika, so why shouldn't he try and see? Stranger things had happened then staring into a flame and seeing your subconscious. Like ghost monks who show you the real you. Xander shivered slightly at the memory. Six monks… six different sides to him. It wasn't pretty, like Kirika had warned him.

Xander blinked and refocused on the flame, forcing his mind to clear. He couldn't help but think about last night. It had hurt so much… Xander shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He heard Kirika say something on the background, but it sounded vague and unreal. Instead of breaking his mind on trying to figure out what she was saying, Xander focused on the flame, which seemed to grow with every passing moment.

Clear your mind. Focus on the darkness of the flame. Clear your mind. Focus on the darkness of the flame. Over and over Xander repeated his mantra, until he suddenly felt a falling sensation, and the darkness of the flame was all around him. His entire world, the entire reality around him was nothing but that darkness. And then the visions came.

"You left me, Xander," Buffy's voice cried from somewhere, forcing him to spin around in search of it.

"You left us," a second voice piped in, again from behind him. Willow's voice. Xander spun again, looking from left to right to up and down in this strange place that held no particular direction. Everywhere he looked it was the same all-encompassing darkness.

"To the vampires," Buffy picked up again. "Without you there, who would help me fight the vampires?"

"You didn't need me!" Xander screamed. "All I was to you was the clown who fetched donuts!"

"Your humor kept us going," Willow said sadly from somewhere. Xander had stopped spinning after a terrible vertigo had set in, and now he was just sitting on an invisible floor. "And everyone needs something to eat… we greatly appreciated you doing that."

"And then you left," Buffy grunted. "You left me, and Will, and Giles… what kind of friend are you?"

"I had to leave… I couldn't go on… not with the way they had been treating me," Xander whispered.

"You could have come to us!" Buffy screamed. "Talked to us! Told us what was happening, and we might have been able to help you!"

"You've slept at my house before! My parents wouldn't have objected!" Willow added in, her beautifully smooth voice showing a rise in tone for the first time since Xander had known her. It was not a good experience.

"And then what?" Xander growled, standing upright even though his vertigo still hadn't settled. He looked angrily at the darkness. "I would have become another burden? You, Buff, you claimed you want me around to help with the vampires, yet you never let me go on patrol with you. And you, Will, claim I was a help, yet you're the smart one. You're the hacker and the intelligent one. You do the research, and the computer mojo. I was of no help at all. Admit it. You miss having someone around who makes you laugh. Well, sorry for that, but that's not who I am! I wanted to help. Really help. And I couldn't. So I got off the Sunnydale Express Line to Hell, and decided not to board again until I was good and ready to be that help."

The two voices were quiet.

Kirika looked at Xander, who was staring intently at the flame, lost it seemed in a world of his own worst nightmares. His brown eyes were swimming in moisture, tears streaked down his face and his entire expression was as if he was seeing loved ones die. Then, he shook his head, and looked up, at her.

"Are you alright?" Kirika asked, her voice showing as much concern as she was comfortable expressing.

Xander smiled weakly. "I guess that night did help… I think I've just quieted down some demons of the past…"

"You don't have to tell me," Kirika said. "It's personal. But… it is a good thing to let go of the past. What has happened, has happened. There is no changing it. Feeling the weight of the past will only slow you down. It's a good step you've taken, Xander. Do you want to try again, or do you want to rest for a while?"

Xander looked at the small flame. "I made a promise to myself," he said. "I promised myself to return one day, and to continue my fight against darkness as someone who is actually capable of fighting." He looked at her with a small smile that was growing in sincerity. "I think I'll go in for another round."

Kirika nodded, and set in her own pose once more. She was faintly aware of Xander's mind phasing out again before the darkness encompassed her with the practiced manned of over a decade of training. Tomorrow, her last thoughts were. Tomorrow I'll teach him not to need the flame anymore… and then I'll show him how to program his subconscious.

After an intense day of deep subconscious meditation, Xander finally called it a day when the sun started to set. Kirika guided him back to the well, and started hauling up buckets of the nice, clean, ice-cold water.

Then, Xander got the shock of his life when she dropped the green robes she was wearing, folded the garment neatly, then removed her underwear, folded them, and dumped a bucket of cold water over her head, after which she started soaping up her body. Xander's mouth was on the floor for a good half a minute before he managed to speak.


She looked over her shoulder at him. "Hm?" she asked, having been thinking about something.

"I…eh…think I'll be next," he grunted, turning and starting to leave.

"Why," she asked, the tone of her voice clearly showing that she really had no idea why he would leave. "There is plenty of water, and I am almost done with the soap."

Xander turned to face her. Big mistake, as Kirika had turned by now and he was greeted by an unimpaired view of her beautiful body. Her beautiful naked body. His every male instinct was fighting his mind over keeping his eyes limited to her face. "Eh…eh… this isn't exactly… how things are done… men and women…bathing together… you know."

Kirika cocked her head slightly. "I don't know," she whispered sadly. "But, if it makes you feel better, you wait until after I'm done." She grabbed the second bucket, and dumped it over her head to wash the soap off. She grabbed a rough towel, and started toweling herself off. Xander's mind had long since forgotten about leaving, and he just stared as the brunette got back in her clothes. "There. Your turn," she said levelly.

He continued to stare at her. "Is something wrong, Xander?" she finally asked when she saw he made no moves to disrobe.

"Eh… aren't you leaving?" he asked.

"Why?" she asked in honest confusion once again. "You saw me wash… you didn't seem to mind that much."

Xander swallowed. "Maybe I should wash tomorrow," he muttered, starting to turn to the mansion. He felt an iron hand on his shoulder.

"You're not coming to dinner unless you're washed, Xander. Personal hygiene is very important," the girl admonished. Xander let out a groan, and, totally defeated, disrobed and washed as quickly as he could, intensely aware of the young brunette following his every move.

Xander ran through the maze of walls, his gun at the ready, sweeping left and right. He closed his eyes, and took a breath. His mind entered the place of darkness easily now. "The far end," he whispered into his subconscious. "Take me there, and avoid Kirika." He re-opened his eyes, and squinted slightly. His grip on the gun tightened. He looked to his right, jumped up from where he had squatted, and made a run for it.

His instincts were hyper-active, and Xander could feel the beginnings of a headache coming up. He always had a major headache after exercises like these… it came with the territory of having your senses and your instincts go into overdrive. The human mind wasn't built to handle this much data for extended periods of time.

Xander dodged to the left, just in time to feel a bullet strike the ground on the position he had just vacated. He lifted his gun, spun around, and rolled over the ground, firing bullets in the direction he had just come from. As usual, he saw nothing. She is so fast! Xander jumped up, and dove into an opening on his right, emerging in yet another long corridor. Xander took a turn left and started running again.

Bullets bit into the wall on his left, and Xander dove to the wall on the right. She's on the wall! He readied his gun, preparing to take a shot. He dove forward, and rolled on his back to aim for Kirika. He found nothing but empty air.

The young warrior jumped up, and bit off a curse as he started running again. He dove into an opening on his left. He heard something behind him, and Xander spun around, instinctively flattening his back again the wall to minimize the size of the target he formed. He saw nothing. Xander stepped away from the wall, now facing the direction he had heard something from.

Immediately, he felt something behind him. He started to spin around, only to feel a cold metallic object bite into his neck. Xander groaned, rolled over the floor, and looked with blurring vision up at Kirika, who was pointing her Beretta at him. A bullet struck the floor on the right and on the left of his head. "Twenty-five seconds. You're improving," Kirika said, putting her gun in its holster and extending her hand to help Xander up.

"I still haven't made it, though," the boy whispered miserably.

"It's unlikely you ever will," Kirika answered. "Twelve years of experience will do that to you…"

Xander just sighed sadly, and put the spare Beretta in the holster on his hip. Kirika looked at him as he sadly kicked up the dirt on their way back to the mansion.

"I know it hurts you, Xander… but that is how things are," the girl whispered. "I have not had a normal upbringing… I would trade all my advantages to grow up like any normal person. Yet, I can not, so I must use what I have been given, and hope something good comes from it."

Xander nodded absentmindedly, and the duo walked in silence until they had reached the well. Xander helped Kirika haul up the buckets of water. Soon, they had disrobed and were washing themselves. After a good three and a half weeks, Xander no longer had any problems with bathing together with Kirika.

After the bath, they went to the small kitchen, where, under the light of flickering candles, they cleaned their guns before starting dinner. Xander had learned to appreciate the strange medieval way of cooking Kirika used while in the mansion, and now he was actually looking forward to it. After dinner, they retreated to their rooms.

Yet Xander couldn't find sleep. After hours of fruitlessly trying to sleep, Xander was sitting upright in his bed, with legs crossed. He closed his eyes, and willed himself to enter the meditation trance.

"I want to win. If only for once, I want to win," he told his subconscious. The darkness thickened slightly, something it did not often do. Usually it meant that he was demanding something that was just that little bit too much. Yet, this time, the darkness continued to thicken, to the point where Xander was afraid he wouldn't be able to breathe anymore.

Two figures emerged from the darkness, which not started morphing into something else entirely. Xander found himself in a clearing in a jungle somewhere, along with his two new companions.

One was the Xander in the military fatigues he had met as the first figure during his night in the chapel. The second figure was also him, yet a him with amber eyes which were constantly scanning the vicinity.

"We have created a balance," the military Xander said.

"Must not upset," the amber-eyed Xander added coldly. "You don't want that to happen, don't you pretty boy?"

Xander Prime scowled. "You two. I should have known. And to what do I own this ambiguous pleasure of seeing you two again? Even though I see you every night in my nightmares," he grunted the last at military-Xander.

"You demanded it," Military-Xander said. "So here we are. You want to beat someone who clearly isn't normal. So, you'll need to upset the balance we built that night."

Xander grunted something.

Amber-eyed Xander nodded. "That's what I thought. You're a pansy. Scared to death of possession." He shrugged, and smiled evilly. "Fine. Then not. See ya later, pussy." With those words, he vanished.

"You've made the right choice, Xander. Things like these shouldn't be messed with unless the situation requires it. We've got a balance that works out. No need to upset it unless the world is coming to and end." He grinned at his own words, and vanished.

Xander opened his eyes in the real world. "Damn," he grunted. "I must be the only guy who gets scolded at by his own subconscious." He scowled slightly as he sunk back under the covers. This time, sleep came easy… and so did his nightmares.

The next morning was a usual one. He got up, washed himself, and dressed in the pair of ripped black jeans and the ripped black t-shirt he had brought, over three weeks ago. With all the training, his clothes had taken a turn for the worse… yet Xander didn't want to change his work-out outfit out of fear he'd rip those clothes too.

He appeared in the kitchen to see both his gun and Kirika's fully stripped and laid out on the table. "As usual," he said as he entered. "You're up way before me. Morning Kirika."

"Morning, Xander," the brunette replied, motioning for the table. "Two guns, fully stripped. Assemble them, please… and please don't mess up the parts to which gun."

Xander knew better then to state the obvious, namely that they were two identical weapons. He knew better. He gave her a wan smile as he sat down, and started slapping parts together. He liked these early morning challenges Kirika prepared for him… after all, it was something he loved doing. No matter how much it hurt physically, he knew deep down that it was the right thing to do.

"Well done," Kirika praised him as she took her gun, and let the hammer strike the empty chamber a couple of times to test the action. "You didn't miss the subtle differences between your training weapon and mine."

Xander dipped his head gratefully. If there was on thing he liked more than the challenges, it was the praise. It was the first time in his life that anyone had praised him after he had done something. Not for the first time Xander wished that his stay at this mansion with Kirika would never end.

"We'll be leaving tomorrow," Kirika dropped the bombshell. "Today will be the finishing of the training, so you'll be able to train yourself from now on… and we really should be getting back to Paris."

Xander sighed sadly. "I understand," he whispered. "I guess it doesn't do to beg to stay here, right?"

Kirika smiled slightly. "I have enjoyed my time here with you as well, Xander. But the real world doesn't wait… there comes a time when we must rejoin the reality."

Xander was silent; there were some times where any response was the wrong one.

End of Part One.

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