For the Better

part 3

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.

Part three

Xander had his eyes closed as he relaxed in the plush first class seat of the Boeing 777 taking him to the States. Xander slept… but always there were his keen instincts, casting out his senses of hearing and touch for hostile activity. It was a healing sleep of health, rather than the deep, restful sleep he needed so desperately after the last days of emotional stress.

A tear dripped down his cheek as Xander's sleeping mind conjured up Kirika. Sighing, he rubbed the tear away, the sole sensation having woken him from his extremely light sleep. Sadly, he turned to watch out the window, his mind not registering what his eyes were seeing. Shutting down his conscious thought, Xander allowed his body to drift into the meditative state once more.

Not ten minutes later, something woke him. His instincts had warned him. Something wasn't right… casting his eyes around, trying in vain to locate anything out of the ordinary, the feeling of dread increased within Xander. Swallowing, he forced himself to calmness, trying to locate where the sense came from. He didn't have the wait for long, as the surrounding air gradually became darker and darker, causing the boy to look out.

A crash of lighting, the first of many, just flashed next to the plane, immediately followed by the plane bucking up and down like an angry bull. Xander grabbed hold of the armrests. That's what was wrong… my instincts are those of animals, and animals fear the thunderstorm.

"This is your captain speaking," thee captain spoke over the intercom system. "We have just received word that, due to the storm, the airports of New York and Washington have closed. We are forced to deviate to the airport of Bangor, Maine. I would like to stress at this time that this is not an emergency, and this is no reason for concern."

Xander sighed. "There goes my connecting flight to LA," he muttered darkly. "Oh, well… I'm sure that they can manage a couple of hours without me. They managed for almost a year."

A couple of hours later, Xander stepped off the plane in Bangor. After checking with the information desk, he found himself a connecting flight to LA. Unfortunately, the next flight wasn't until the next day. "Oh well… I'd better go find me a hotel, then," the teenager whispered sadly to himself as he left the airport, carrying his backpack as well as his heavy suitcase. He found a hotel, and disappeared into the bathroom to freshen up before checking in.

Looking at himself in the mirror, Xander straightened out his tie, and rubbed most of the wrinkles out of the gray suit he was wearing. Somehow, Mireille had talked him into wearing the suit, claiming that someone of his stature shouldn't be seen in anything else. He had been forced to admit she was right when he noticed the wear of the other passengers in the first class compartment.

After booking the last available room for the night, and dropping off his luggage, Xander found time for a shower and a change of attire. Dressed in his favorite clothing, consisting out of a black shirt, black jeans, and a black half-long coat to cover the Magan tucked into the small of his back, he left the hotel for a stroll around Bangor. After eating something tasteless or other at the first McDonald's he encountered, Xander continued his walk. He needed it… the restlessness of the flight was still with him, and it had left him too wired to relax.

So engrossed was he in his own thoughts he didn't notice that night was falling until it was completely dark. Almost, he turned to head back to the hotel, yet something compelled him to move on. Something wasn't right… this went beyond a mere flight deviation due to a thunderstorm. Something was wrong, and his instinct, that elusive sixth sense, was going haywire because of it.

A smile came to Xander's lips. Demons… his thoughts whispered. He had recognized the problem. Finally having identified the source of his anxiety, Xander put some more force into his step. Five minutes later, he entered an 'abandoned' warehouse in the industrial area. Experience in all the regions of the world had taught to Xander how to recognize these places.

Planting himself at the bar, Xander ordered a whisky, refraining from saying 'scotch'. It gave too much trouble with demon bartenders, whose hearing was less than fully developed when faced with human tongues… he still winced at the memory of the bartender serving him Scottish blood.

"We don't serve humans," the blue-skinned demon behind the bar grunted gruffly. "Now get out… you're annoying the patrons."

Xander's eyes shifted from the bar to the bartender. "I just spent the last ten hours on a flying cigar flying over the Atlantic, only to find out the airport at my destination is closed and the flight has to be deviated. So, all I want is a drink, right? WRONG! This hellhole of a country won't serve booze to a minor. So, I ay to myself… why not visit the demon bar? They're doing a lot worse than serving liquor to a minor, after all."

The bartender grinned. "Too bad. You're mistaken. Get the fuck out." Even before the last syllable left his lips, the bottle of expensive vintage blood behind him exploded. The bartender looked at the expensive $2500 bottle, usually stored in a special see-through refrigeration case.

"I'm so sorry! Was that the bottle with the authentic virgin nun's blood?" Xander growled, holding up the smoking Magan, his patience fully gone after spending the last 48 hours in constant emotional turmoil. And the botched plane flight hadn't helped much, either.

The bartender's gaze shifted slowly to Magan, even as the rest of the patrons jumped up and away from Xander, staring at the golden weapon. Anxiously, fearful whispers rose form the customers.

"The Golden Gun… Jesus Christ… the Golden Gun…" the bartender whispered, shaking. "Why the fuck didn't you tell me you were the Golden Gun?"

Xander sighed, putting the weapon away. "Listen… I didn't come for trouble. Just give me my whiskey… and perhaps put something on the jukebox you've got over there. I need a place to relax."

"Sure man… whatever you say…" the bartender whispered fearfully, pouring Xander the double whiskey. "Say… did you really off Frantic Franky in London?"

Xander smiled as he sipped his drink, making an appreciative noise. He chuckled. "Yeah… he wanted to eat me and have his way with my girl… couldn't have that. Like now, I wasn't looking for trouble, but I did end it."

Xander's eyes narrowed. "My turn to ask you a question."

"Sure. Shoot," the bartender said, shifting nervously.

"Usually, when I step into a bar, the bartender assumes I'm a vampire, and tries to sell me some blood. And even after they find out I'm human, they're never openly hostile. Yet, here you are, about to slit my throat the moment my foot crosses the threshold, and now you're looking as nervous as a devil in a barrel of holy water," Xander said, keeping his voice even. "You wouldn't be hiding anything, would you?" he asked, sipping his whiskey. Nervous shuffling of chairs behind him told Xander all he needed to know.

"Eh… I have no idea what you're talking about, mate," the bartender grunted.

"U-huh," Xander said with a nod. "And what if I don't believe that?"

"Then that's your problem, not mine," the bartender replied, returning to cleaning up the mess Xander had made with shooting the bottle of nun's blood. The teenager could hear the bartender cursing about 'Two thousand dollars a liter… and that ass just shot it'.

Xander chuckled dryly at that. Solemnly, his hand slipped to Magan, lifting the jacket and shirt to expose the golden weapon. He looked over his shoulder at the assembled patrons, who were eyeing him with fearful looks.

"And you guys? Are you hiding anything?" he asked calmly, taking another sip from his whisky, using his free hand to do.

The demons fearfully shook their heads, trying desperately to avoid looking into Xander's piercing eyes. The bartender took that moment to right himself from behind his bar. In one swoop, Xander turned, jumped to his feet, and drew Magan. Before the bartender knew what had happened, the boy was holding the big gun to his head.

At the same moment, the patrons used the slip in Xander's attention to jump up and bolt. "I think you are hiding something… and whatever it is, it's not something you want me to know about. And so I want to know what it is."

The bartender was shaking like a leaf. "Golden Gun… man…friend…buddy…pal… you…you don't want to shoot old Aldrich, would you? I…I mean… drink's on the house. Whenever you want… drink's on the house!"

The right corner of Xander's mouth quirked upward. "That's mighty nice of you, Al. You don't mind if I call you Al, would you?" the demon shook his head, indicating he wouldn't mind, as Xander continued, "But, you see… there's still the matter of distrust. I want to know what you're hiding, so I can find out if I can trust you."

Aldrich the demon bartender shook in fear. "O…okay… all I know is the name and time. Quest. Tonight at ten…"

"Quest?" Xander asked, frowning as he tried to place the name. "Sounds awfully familiar."

"Quest," Aldrich nodded. "Dr. Benton Quest."

"Of course! The phenomenologist!" Xander said, theatrically smacking his forehead. "Thanks for the info, Al. see ya later," he said, downing his drink, and slapping $100 down on the bar. "For your trouble," he added before turning and leaving.

The first thing Xander did was rent a car, and get some directions. Someone as famous as Dr. Quest wasn't hard to find… like with Hollywood celebrities, it was common knowledge where the man lived.

"Nine fifteen," Xander cursed as he entered his room, tearing through his luggage for the cherry-wood case containing his clips. Flicking open his jacket, Xander loaded an extra green band-attired vampire-killing magazine, two blue bands of lower demon killing rounds, two red bands of high demon killer rounds, and just to be on the safe side, one black band of 'Shut the fuck up' rounds, designed to go through just about anything.

Five minutes after entering, Xander left his room once more, making sure that everything was locked. Not for the first time, he wished he had some magical abilities… he would have loved to put a spell on his door, just to be safe. His instincts had never steered him wrong, and ever since he left Paris, they had gone ballistic.

"Forty minutes to get to Rockport, find myself a decent vantage point, and wait…" Xander grunted, shifting a look to the transport case for Magan he had whisked with him. "And to configure Magan for sniper use," he added, thinking about the 10" barrel and the full night-vision scope.

Thirty minutes later, Xander slammed the car into park as it was still running, the wheels screeching as the transmission lock engaged. Immediately, Xander turned to the passenger seat, flipped open the transport case, and took out Magan. In five minutes, he had stripped the gun, put in the replacement barrel, attached the laser sight and the night vision scope. He reconfigured the laser sight to work in infra-red rather than the normal red dot, so his night vision scope would be able to detect it yet no-one with normal sight would.

Taking a deep breath, Xander closed the lid of the cherry-wooden case, and slipped it into the trunk before taking a good look at the Quest compound. As he had thought, it was huge, and as Xander could imagine, security was top notch. Slowly thinking over his options, Xander came to a few ways of tackling his current problem.

One, he could wait in front of the main gate, and wait until the demon struck before taking advantage of the surprise of the inhabitants by just rushing in.

Two, he could bypass security, take the risk of running out of time, and try and find a good spot to watch everything… and take the added risk of missing the demon.

Three, he could vault the wall, set off security, and hope that his movements would keep him out of Quest's hands long enough for the demon to show up.

Four, he could ring the doorbell, make some excuse, social engineer his way in, and wait for the demon to show up.

Xander glanced at his watch. "Three minutes till deadline," he whispered. "Number four is the least preferable… I'd like to get in, do the job, and get out without them noticing me. Quest has the reputation of being an all-around good guy…" Xander swallowed. "But tactically, it's the best solution…" the teenager shook his head.

"No time," he decided, tapping into his subconscious, and leaping over the wall. Immediately, horns started blaring, and search lights came on. Taking advantage of the slight Hyena-boost, Xander sprinted across the open lawn until he reached the nearby forest. Xander's first thought was to go through there, since it was without arguing the weak point in the Quest security, but time restraints had thwarted that plan.

Squatting behind some tree-cover, Xander nervously fingered the fully built Magan. Too big for the holster, Xander was now forced to carry the heavy weapon with him wherever he went. Closing his eyes, Xander eased his nerves and calmed his mind. He might be here a while… or not, he added sarcastically, when a demon the likes of which Xander had never seen before appeared in the middle of the Quest lawn, materializing in an amber-red sparkling shower of tiny lights blasting up from a pentagram that hadn't been there before.

Magic! Xander cursed, leveling Magan and peering through the night scope. The IR dot adorned the demon's head. Xander squeezed the trigger. The demon roared, feeling the impact of the vampire killing round as the Holy Water stung its amber-brown skin. Slightly.

The demon roared, turned to face Xander's location. The boy snarled as he emptied the clip from his hidden position. The Vamp-rounds tore into the demon's belly, leaving no visible marks save for the little bit of smoke the Holy Water caused.

Ejecting his empty clip, Xander slammed in the low-demon killing rounds. The demon was by now storming toward Xander, leaving the boy no other choice but the jump up and make a run for it… directly toward the demon. The lawn would allow him more ease of movement. Xander was sure that his small teenaged body was more maneuverable than the 2.5 meter tall amber-skinned giant.

Emptying the demon killers into the demon, Xander was forced to admit he made a grave tactical error as the demon caught up to him. His right arm was numb from the recoils of the heavy weapon, and Xander was forced to shift it to his left hand, even as he rolled under the huge demon's haymaking swipe.

Rolling to his feet, Xander spurted away from the demon, meanwhile searching for the clip of red rounds. Finally finding the high demon killing rounds, Xander slapped it into his weapon and racked the slide. He jumped, and flipped around in mid-air, landing in the exact firing position. Kirika had trained him well… although her lessons had been on how to deal with a group of men chasing him; they worked just as well against a single demon. A demon that was worse than an entire group of men.

Xander squeezed the trigger with his left hand. His right-handed nature showed clearly as Xander's shots weren't as centralized as before, but still hit the target dead-on. The demon staggered back slightly as 10 silver-titanium hollow point explosive centered rounds exploded against his chest and abdomen. Xander's eyes went wide. No damage.

"Fuck me!" Xander screamed as he jumped up, ejecting his clip as he did so. He made a run for it again, when his eyes noticed a group of people running out of the house, armed. "Get the fuck away!" Xander screamed, angling toward them, even as he searched for the black-banded Ueber-killers. The leader of the group, a tall white-haired man, stood at indecision for a few moments before his eyes caught the demon. "That thing is invulnerable to bullets!" Xander shouted. The tall man's eyes locked on Magan, and a look of surprise went through his eyes.

"Kids! Back inside!" the man ordered to his three younger companions. Xander took that moment to turn, confident that the newcomers were taking his advice.

"Please work," Xander prayed as his left hand squeezed Magan's trigger. These rounds were the heaviest, the recoil the most ferocious of all the bullets. Every shot traveled along his arm like a battering ram. The rounds exploded against the demon's chest, one bullet actually missing, and tearing into a tree a hundred meters further back, exploding, and actually felling it.

The demon roared in anger, as it certainly could not be pain, for it had nothing to show for Xander's efforts. "DAMMIT!" Xander screamed, seeing no other choice but to go for his one magazine of red rounds, and hoping he'd find a weakness somewhere.

He made a critical mistake in looking into his pocket for his magazine, as a weight that could not be anything but a small truck slammed into him. Xander's lightning reactions took over, and he managed to roll to his feet, both hands pushing against the ground to push him up faster. Xander cursed as his eyes caught the glimpse of the now discarded Magan, behind the incoming demon.

Incoming demon! His inner voice screamed, and Xander rushed away, trying to clear himself. As he turned and ran, he only had the luxury of taking a dozen steps before he had to come to a sudden halt on the edge of a cliff.

Forgotten all about that cliff behind their house, Xander cursed, turning, and staring at the demon. Xander took a breath.

You can not be afraid of death. Fear of death will only slow you down, while the will to live will keep you alive, Kirika's voice counseled. Xander felt an almost ethereal quiet descend over his mind as he charged the demon head-on.

Neither combatant had any weapons now, so the fight was down to hand-to-hand. The demon took a swing at him, and using Kirika's training, Xander side-stepped, grabbed the demon's wrist, and added his own speed to it while twisting. To his utter surprise, throwing a demon and throwing Kirika wasn't all that much different, and the huge giant crashed into the ground.

In his stance, Xander backed away from the demon, staring the giant down as it went back to its feet. Xander's quiet broke when he actually saw the thing smile. "Oh, shit."

"That was a good move. I'll give you one chance… leave, and you will be spared. I'm only here for my sacrifices," the demon spoke in thick, melodically sounding tones.

"The Quests, right?" Xander grunted as the twosome continued to dance around each other.

"They interrupted my sacrifice… so they're taking their place," the demon said.

"Sorry, can't let you do that," Xander replied, angrily, deepening his stance. "I may die here today, but nothing will stop me from taking you with me, demon. Death does not scare me. It hasn't in a long time."

"Again, I offer my respect for you, human. At least honor me with your name."

"Xander, demon," Xander said coldly. "And you?"

"I'd have to rip out your tongue before you could pronounce it," the demon said with a crooked grin. "Just call me demon. I rather like it."

"You're a nutcase, anyone ever tell you that?" Xander said with a grin of his own.

"No more than you are for facing me without suitable weapon, Xander," the demon replied.

"Point taken," Xander answered.

The demon rushed him. Xander rushed right back, dancing out of the way of the direct contact with the demon's huge muscles. Aikido was extremely useful… but even Aikido had its limits. Designed for humans against humans, Xander found its limits quite soon as he found his grip broken by the sheer force of the demon. No human could have hoped to break that hold… yet the demon had calmly ripped it apart like it was paper.

Wincing against the pain in his arms, Xander engaged once more, screaming in pain and frustration. The demon grinned, blocking Xander's strikes without difficulty, then lashing out with a strike of his own. The boy was catapulted back, yet landed on his feet and charged, screaming louder and louder. The demon actually looked surprised at seeing the frail human boy stay on his feet, especially after such a hit.

Blocking two strikes, the demon lashed out with his right hand, striking at Xander's abdomen. The boy was thrown up from the ground, after which the demon slammed him into the ground, striking the boy on the way down.

Xander landed in a crouch, two feet and two hands on the floor, trying to stop his momentum. His strength was wavering. His right eye was closed, a horrible gash above it oozing blood. He couldn't feel his hands, and Xander thought they might be sprained. Not broken… yet. Snarling, Xander got to his feet, and charged.

The demon stayed in its place, waiting Xander out.

In mid-charge, something shook on his belt. "It moved!" Xander snarled, drawing the Light Saber attached to his belt. The blue beam of energy appeared, and Xander could feel his mind exploding in the same agony he had felt those two weeks earlier. It was as if his blood boiled, and his neural pathways were being electrified. Screaming the scream of the damned, Xander jumped up, aiming a full slash at the demon's neck.

The demon raised his hand, blocking the strike. Xander's eyes went wide at the demon's hide stopping the energy blade.

Screaming, he continued the assault as he landed on his feet, by aiming a slash at the demon's unprotected side. Again, the blue Saber struck against hide, sending energy flying as it was stopped by the thick skin. The demon laughed. Xander's closed right eye opened, and a serious tick developed under it.

His eyes glowed amber. His face seemed to de-evolve into something else, contorting into an almost inhuman look. Large canines greeted the demon from Xander's bared teeth.

The demon's eyes opened in surprise, and a smile developed on its lips. Then, the blade's energy pattern seemed to change. The blue became a dark indigo, and Xander jumped up with all the liquid grace of an animal. The demon lifted its hand to stop the blade. To his surprise, the blade went right through his palm, severing the upper part of the demon's palm, four of his fingers completely, and severing the upper part of his thumb.

Xander landed in a crouch, aimed a stab at the demon's belly, going right through it, and appearing out the back. Drawing, Xander got up, to see the demon fall to its knees. "That actually hurt…" the demon croaked, looking up at Xander, before going back to its legs. The wound in his abdomen had healed. His hand had scarred over… the fingers were gone, but the wound had closed.

Xander's anger intensified. "Stay down!!!" the boy snarled, charging in, this time going for the neck. He would carve the demon up like a roast if he had to!

The demon blocked the strike. Or, at least, tried to… the blade went right through the demon's wrist, and his neck. Xander watched as the head fell one way, before the body fell the other way.

He let out a breath. The Saber clicked off. Xander's body and mind gave way, their reserves completely depleted. As he collapsed into a boneless heap, right before his eyes quit, he saw the white-haired man rush toward him, obviously having watched the entire fight. Then… darkness was all there was.

The darkness was his world. No pain, no sensation, no sense… darkness, complete unconsciousness. Xander never knew how deep he was until a jab of pain shot through his body. He moaned as the world returned to him… or rather, as he returned to the world.

His eyes still closed, his moan deepened as Xander brought his right hand up to feel at his pounding head. The wound over his right eye had closed firmly, thanks to his Hyena possession. Slowly, he ventured to open his eyes, squeezing against the bright sunlight.

"Note to self… stay away from amber-skinned demons of over 2 meters," Xander grunted, not realizing he spoke out loud.

"That's good advice, son," a voice stated from nearby, causing Xander's head to flip around, electing another moan as pain shot through his battered body.

"Experience is the best teacher," Xander grunted. "I'm sorry… but I don't think I caught your name in the commotion yesterday."

The white-haired man offered a crooked grin as he sat down in an easier position for Xander. "You, on the other hand, seem to have plenty of names," the man said calmly. "Lavelle Alexandre… or should we just call you Alexander Harris?"

Xander's mind groaned in pain as Xander forced it to work. Finally, it dragged up the requested information. Lavelle Alexandre was the name Mireille had established for him to travel under. "In my business… it pays to remain anonymous," Xander grunted, his eyes by chance dropping on the table next to his bed. It contained his Light Saber, Magan, as well as every clip he dropped. Xander groaned as he thought about the cost of replacing those bullets. Olivia Person gave a good deal on those bullets, but even then, they weren't exactly cheap.

"And what business would that be?" the man questioned, sending alarm signals traveling to Xander's brain. Immediately, the boy got up from his bed.

"I have a plane to catch… thanks for the fixing up, but I have to go," Xander said, not wavering half as bad as the man obviously believed he would be.

"Race, stop interrogating our guest. He has saved our lives," a second man said as he entered the room. This one had brown hair and a friendly looking beard. His eyes stood open and inviting. He turned to Xander. "Thank you for your assistance yesterday… I don't know whether we would have succeeded against a foe of that magnitude."

Xander smiled weakly. "That's my job," he said with a small grin, recognizing the man. "No offense, Dr. Quest… but I have a plane to catch."

"I'm afraid that plane to LA is long gone," the white-haired man called 'Race' said. "You slept for over 36 hours."

"Thirty-six hou…" Xander whispered, the information sinking in. his eyes opened wide, and he dove for the jacket hung over one of the chairs. Immediately, Race jump up as well, but a signal from Dr. Quest stopped the man. Meanwhile, Xander had grabbed his cell phone, and dialed a number from memory. "Come on… please pick up…"

"Hai?"

"Kirika! Am I glad to hear you!" Xander started in French.

"Xander? What happened? We didn't hear from you… Mireille practically booked the Concorde to come after you!"

"I'm so sorry, ma chérie… I ran into some problems… or rather, the problems ran into me."

"What happened, mon Coeur?" she asked, voice calm, yet Xander could hear the small tremors beneath it.

"First, there was a storm over Washington… the plane got diverted to Bangor, Maine. I confirmed a transfer flight to LA for the day after… which was yesterday, as I'm told. But… I heard about this demon planning on attacking someone," Xander rattled off, staring out the window.

"What happened?" Kirika asked gently, hearing his tone trail off.

"I don't know," Xander whispered. "I pulled Magan. I shot him. I pumped enough rounds of every imaginable potency into it to make it come out like Swiss Cheese, but it just shrugged them off… nothing I did was strong enough, good enough, potent enough… but I couldn't just quit, and leave these people to be sacrificed… so I engaged in hand-to-hand."

"Hand-to-hand against a demon that can shrug off bullets!?" Kirika asked, her voice rising in volume just enough to convey to Xander that she really didn't like the notion.

"I should not fear death, for it will only slow me down," Xander whispered in reply. "Yes, My Love, I went hand-to-hand… and then, it happened. The Light Saber… it activated again. And it almost wasn't enough… At first, the demon could block the blade, but as things progressed, it was as if the blade drew its strength from me. The angrier I got, the stronger the blade became… but it didn't feel like it was drawing on my emotions, rather it felt as if the thing was feeding on my soul!"

"Xander…"

"I don't know how," Xander whispered. "All I know is that it became strong… immensely strong… and that I kicked that demon's ass. And then, I just collapsed and woke up about teen minutes ago. I called you as soon as I found out."

"Are you okay?" Kirika asked, voice tiny and fearful.

"Better than after most of our training sessions. I guess you laying into me has built up my resilience to brutal punishment."

Kirika chuckled. "You're already cracking jokes. You're fine," she determined. Xander heard some arguing on the background.

"What was that?" he asked, curious.

"We're on the plane. I shouldn't be using my cell," Kirika replied, not sounding apologetic about it at all.

"Oh. I guess I'll leave you, then… wouldn't want you or Mireille thrown off the plane in mid-flight."

He heard her gentle smile through the phone. "Okay… take care, Mon Coeur."

"I will, Ma Chérie. I love you…"

"I love you too," he heard her say, this time no doubt beaming a smile. They hung up simultaneously, and Xander closed his phone, only to stare out the window, to the ocean laying just behind the cliff. The cliff at the edge of which he had stood 36 hours earlier, on the brink of death.

"What was all of that about?" Race demanded.

"Someone I care greatly about," Xander replied, voice sounding coldly, turning halfway to glance at Race. "And someone who is more than capable of hopping on the first plane over here, and finding out exactly what happened to me should I disappear. And believe me… she's more dangerous than I could ever be."

"Now, now… no need for hostilities. Xander… would you mind if I called you Xander?" Dr. Quest asked.

Xander shook his head, indicating he wouldn't mind. "Xander… you saved the lives of me and my family. Race may be irritated about your second identity, but I can assure you that I do not feel such grudges. And the least I can do to repay you for your help is to offer you a ride to LA. I have called the airport, and they are prepping my personal jet. Now, I suggested a departure time for tomorrow, giving you a chance to get your bearings back. But, if you insist, I'm sure we can fly out by tonight."

Xander sunk onto the bed. "Actually, tomorrow sounds like a good idea, Dr. Quest. I think I could use a couple of hours more of sleep…" his stomach interrupted with a loud rumbling noise. He looked at it, and chuckled. "Or rather, have a good meal and then catch some more sleep," he corrected himself with a smile.

"Well, in that case, follow me," Dr. Quest said, smiling friendly as he motioned for the door. Xander nodded thankfully, and follow the man to the kitchen. As they walked down a long hallway, just about to descend the stairs to the ground floor, three teenagers were enthusiastically climbing it when they came face to face with Xander, Dr. Quest, and Race.

"Glad to see you're awake!" the teenaged blonde boy greeted Xander. "Great job with that thing. I swear, I've never seen someone move like that!"

Xander grinned slightly. "Lots of hard training and practically growing up in that kind of environment does that to you," he replied levelly.

"Xander, meet my two sons, Jonny and Hadji, and race's daughter Jessie," Dr. Quest introduced, motioning for the blonde boy, then to the brown-skinned boy before finishing for the redheaded girl. All three appeared to be Xander's age, perhaps slightly younger, yet didn't seem overly phased by what had happened. Normally, that would have concerned Xander, but for the moment, his brain wasn't operating at full capacity, so he let it slide.

"Thank you for the rescue the day before yesterday. The demon appeared to be quite powerful. I am unsure as to whether we would have been able to combat it," Hadji said, bowing slightly.

"No sweat… as I explained to Dr. Quest, that's what I do," Xander answered with an easy smile. "Although I have to admit, most demons are a lot easier to kill," he added, rubbing his right shoulder.

"We were just on the way to the kitchen to get Xander some food," Dr. Quest said, starting the entire group back down the stairs.

"What is your job, anyway?" Jessie asked. "I doubt demon hunting pays well."

Xander chuckled. "I hunt," he answered calmly.

"Hunt what?" Jonny asked, suddenly thinking the wrong thing.

Xander chuckled as he shook his head. "Evil," he replied. "Everything that is a threat… and it pays the bills." He closed his eyes after that, straining against the darkness. He could feel the barriers in his mind, normally protecting him against the Hyena's possessive spirit, slowly being rebuilt. Whatever had happened had totally obliterated them.

By now, they had entered the kitchen, and the three teenagers made the excuse of having to work on a special project, leaving Xander and the two adult men in the kitchen. From the growl in Xander's stomach, they would be there a while.

Later that day, after a good meal and a couple of hours worth of sleep, Xander felt reborn. After stripping and cleaning Magan, he retrieved the cherry-wooden case to store it in. He put the empty clips in the big pockets of his jacket, and decided to explore the large mansion Dr. Quest maintained. After roaming for what looked like hours, Xander finally stepped outside, drawing in the salty air of the sea, filling him with energy.

He stood at the edge of the cliff for a while, just staring into nothingness, just… being there, his mind far away, reconstructing walls and shields to try and rebuild his usual power.

Finally, Xander turned, only to notice for the first time that the demon had vanished completely. Probably Dr. Quest took it away. I wonder what he did with it… a 2.5 meter demon doesn't just vanish.

Turning, he walked back to the house, finding it curious that he hadn't seen anyone since waking up earlier. He guessed that race had finally decided to trust him. What the others were doing was just about anybody's guess, and Xander wasn't about to let it concern him.

Wandering back into the house, he drifted upstairs. Walking back to his room, he passed a closed room where he could hear laughter coming from. Xander shrugged, and knocked.

Jonny pushed open the door. "Hey, Xander! Come in!" the enthusiastic boy urged, grabbing his hand and pulling him into the room.

"Eh… I was going to ask where everybody was," the startled teenager said as he let Jonny drag him to where Jessie and Hadji were looking at a computer screen.

"We've been here all afternoon, and Dr. Quest and Dad are in the lab in the lighthouse, trying to figure out that demon you killed," Jessie replied to his question.

"This is what I wanted you to see," Jonny said. "Xander, meet Krista," he finished, motioning to the computer screen.

"Hello, Xander," the computer said.

"Eh…hi… Krista, was it?" Xander replied, not feeling half as shocked as he thought he should be feeling.

"Nice to meet you," the computer greeted him.

"Krista, Xander's the one we told you about, the one who saved all of us," Jonny said to the computer.

"Really?" the computer asked, suddenly sounding more like an inquisitive teenager rather than a computer. "Cool!"

Now Xander felt shocked. "Did I just hear a computer say that me killing a demon is 'cool'?"

"I am not merely a computer," Krista answered, sounding halfway between angry, patronizing, and playfully arrogant.

"Krista is the second generation Artificial Intelligence," Jonny explained. "The first generation was developed by my dad, and she's called IRIS. She's in charge of the computer systems of Quest Enterprises, as well as our home security system."

"And since you developed her, she's got a teenaged vocabulary," Xander finished with a smile, before chuckling. "I like that! It's certainly better than those computers that sound like stuffy British librarians!"

"Thank you," Krista said with such sincerity that it made them laugh; causing the AI to ask what was so funny.

Before anyone could answer, the phone in Jonny's room rang. Shrugging, he picked it up, and listened. "Sure, Dad. We're all here… we'll be down in a minute."

"Dad asks us to go to the lighthouse lab… something to do with that demon Xander killed," Jonny told Jessie and Hadji.

"Hey, would you mind if I stayed here and talked to Krista some more?" Xander asked as the three others stood up to leave.

"Go right ahead," Jonny said. "The more she interacts with people, the better. Oh, and Xander… don't be surprised by anything she does. Krista is capable of making decisions on her own, as well as having rudimentary emotions, which is why she's more advanced than IRIS. Both should grow over time, but are not fully developed at the time. Just a warning."

"Appreciate it," Xander said. "Thanks!" he shouted to where the door fell shut.

"So… Krista. I've got to say, I'm curious about you," Xander started off, not really knowing how to talk to the AI, yet at the same time, he was intrigued by it. Just the way how she had reacted earlier had shown him that this was not just another AI.

"As I am about you, Xander," Krista answered. "I must admit that the life of a 'hunter' as you call yourself sounds terribly dangerous, while the rewards seem minimal."

Xander chuckled, and turned to the window, where night was setting. "I hunt demons, vampires, and other nasty stuff," Xander said. "Yes, it's dangerous… terribly dangerous… but the rewards are like it."

"How?"

"Well… for one… take the Quests. I saved their lives. Just that look of gratitude is enough. Seeing the look of someone you pulled from mortal danger is one of the best things you can experience."

"That's so cool," Krista said, her voice actually sounding as if the AI was smiling, causing Xander to lift an eyebrow in curiosity. "By the way… I've seen the tapes from IRIS. You're better than any human could ever be. I know, I checked. How did you do that?"

Xander chuckled. "Curious little thing, aren't you?" he asked.

Krista actually chuckled. "Well, Jonny did give me this directive to learn about the world and expand myself. I was wondering how you expanded beyond your hardware."

"Expanded beyond my hardware?" Xander replied dumbly, before chuckling as he caught on. "First time anyone has ever called it that… most are terrified."

"Terrified? Would you hurt me?"

"No!"

"Then why would I be afraid?" the AI answered smugly. "But that still hasn't answered my question. How did you expand beyond your hardware?"

Xander sighed, and sat down on the bed. "Krista… if I tell you… you have to promise to keep it a secret. It's my secret to tell… and it's a painful one for me."

The monitor flashed. Instead of the Quest OS interface that had been there before, it now displayed the face of a 15-year-old redhead. Almost as if to inspire confidence, the girl's face was entirely sincere. "I promise I, Krista, Second Generation Quest Artificial Intelligence, will not reveal anything you, Alexander Lavelle Harris, tell me this night."

"Good enough for me," Xander said with a smile. "But… before I tell you… could we move this to my room? This is Jonny's room after all…"

"I've been given a trusted link… I can do whatever I want in this house," Krista answered with a small smirk that made Xander smile. "Just turn on your TV."

"You got it, Krista," Xander said, getting up, going to his room, and clicking on the TV.

"So, what do you want to know?" Xander asked when he saw Krista's face appear on the screen.

"How did you expand beyond your hardware?" the AI replied, sounding slightly miffed about having to repeat the same question three times.

"Okay…" Xander said, popping down on his bed and putting both hands behind his head. Staring up at the ceiling, he said, "It all started in my home town. I was born in California, in a small town called Sunnydale… but everyone who knows how the world ticks calls it the Hellmouth."

He had rehearsed his story well, having had experience with first telling it to Kirika, and then giving a slightly less personal story to Mireille. It was that version he told to Krista, giving a clinical report on the Hellmouth, the vampires and demons, the magic, and his possessions. The AI listened without interrupting.

"That's big," she finally said when he stopped. "I never realized the world was this big… I've known there was darkness, but not to this level."

"That's something I wanted to ask you, Krista. How come no-one actually seemed surprised at this huge demon showing up in your back yard?" Xander asked.

"Well, that has everything to do with the things they've witnessed… Let's see… There was a run-in with the ghost of a 17th century female pianist. There was an ancient Soul Vampire who wanted Hadji as her bride; there was a run-in with a group of Yeti in Tibet…"

"I get the point," Xander said with a chuckle. "Normal stuff, right?"

"Not normal, but more like they know how to handle the strange and unusual," Krista replied, chuckling as well. "You are an interesting man, Xander. According to these psychological reports I downloaded off the Internet, someone who has gone through what you went through should be insane. Yet you're not."

"You can thank my parents for that," Xander said coldly, more coldly than he had wanted it to sound.

"Your parents?" Krista asked, surprised.

"Yeah. Those assholes know only one thing… or rather, two things. One is the bottle. The second is how to make life miserable for me. Much as I hate it, it's taught me to survive. Shield myself, learn how to deal with darkness and all the bad things that can happen in life, you know?"

"I… I am sorry to hear that, Xander. I… can not calculate how it would be for Jonny, Jessie, or Hadji to maltreat me…" the AI stammered, obviously straining with programming that wasn't meant to flow in that particular direction.

"I'm sorry too, Krista. I never should have told you that… I wanted to find out more about you, not hurt you," Xander apologized.

The AI shook her head. "I wanted to know. You told me… and now I understand why you wanted this to remain secret. This is personal information. I want you to know I will keep it a secret."

"Thank you, Krista. But that doesn't mean that I don't still feel bad about this… they trusted me with you, and all I did was hurt you."

On the screen, dozens of pages of code strolled by. "I am undamaged," Krista replied after the text stopped scrolling. "I do not understand why you insist on saying that you hurt me."

Xander sighed. "I hurt your feelings, Krista. I told you something you obviously weren't ready to know about, and it hurt." He chuckled. "Besides, now you're sounding like that stuffed British librarian I told you about earlier."

"Oh," Krista replied. "I see… damages can be emotional as well as physical… in that case, I am relatively undamaged. Your history has shown me how the world really works. It might have been painful, but I would like to think it's made me grow as well. And HEY! I resent being compared to a 40-year-old tweed-wearing man from Great Britain!" the AI said in a huff.

Xander chuckled. "I'm glad to see you taking this so well, Krista. And as to Giles: he's actually a pretty cool guy, in his own librarian-British sort of way… just never ever tell him I said that, or I would never live it down!"

"Deal," Krista said with a smile. "On one condition."

Xander sighed. "What condition would that be?" he asked with trepidation.

"I'll give you some directions… I'd like to meet you in person, and perhaps… find out some more about you. Who knows, you might learn something about yourself."

"Meet me in person?" Xander asked, not really understanding. "How?"

"We have an interactive virtual reality world in this house… you would be connected to the system, and data will be fed directly into your brain through a headset containing neural connectors. You will experience this VR world as if it was real, yet your body will be completely at rest, safely in the chair," Krista explained.

Xander jumped out of the bed. "Cool! Show me the way."

"Go into Jonny's room. There's a headset in the cabinet on the right side of the bed, second drawer from the top. Then, come back in here, and I'll link you up."

Xander looked at the TV. "Are you sure… that sounds suspiciously like borrowing without asking."

"He borrowed it from the lab," Krista said with a chuckle. "Besides, you'll put it back after we're done, right?"

"If I wouldn't know any better, I'd say you're having a bad influence on me, Krista," Xander said with a chuckle as he crossed the hallway to Jonny's room, soon returning with the headset.

"Okay, so what do I do?" Xander asked, looking at the headset.

"Attach it to your left temple. I will do the rest."

"Okay," Xander said, feeling a little nervous nonetheless. He attached the device to his left temple.

"Now lie down while I activate the system," Krista instructed. Xander did what she asked.

He heard a voice in his mind rather than through his ears. Questworld log-on: subjects Alexander Lavelle Harris and the AI named Krista. Going hot in 5-4-3-2-1

The world dissolved into a kaleidoscope of colors as Xander's consciousness left the real world, only to materialize in the virtual reality Krista had created.

The first thing Xander did was look down at his body, which now had a shiny metallic color to it. He was dressed in an all black uniform of some unknown properties. He clenched his hands a couple of times to test their movement, and found them operating in the same way as in the real world. Only then did he look around.

The room he was in was a huge cube of unknown dimensions. Directly in front of him was the form he had seen on the TV and on Jonny's computer screen: Krista. Only now, the redhead had a complete body, rather than the 'floating head' feel she had on the screen. "Cool," he said.

"Neat, huh?" Krista said, almost bouncing up and down with excitement. She made an encompassing motion with her arms. "Xander, welcome to my CPU."

"It's…eh… big. And eh… empty?" Xander said, trying to be tactful, but not really succeeding.

Krista chuckled, though. "Well, it's a virtual representation, silly! I just constructed this to represent the fact that we are within my systems… and thus completely safe. No-one will know we're here, as long as we stay in this room." She grew a little solemn. "Sorry if I can't make it more…entertaining. I don't know how… normally, IRIS handles the creation of the virtual world. I only have the rudimentary Questworld routines. I'm afraid that we'll need to connect to IRIS to use the full version."

"So, what you're telling me is that this is some kind of demo?" Xander asked, with a smile.

"Basically, yeah," Krista replied sadly, looking at the ground. Before he realized, Xander had stepped up to her, and drawn her in for a hug. The Ai's eyes went wide as she felt his strong arms encompass her virtual self.

"Don't feel bad," he told her. "You'll learn. After all, you're an AI… you'll learn fast," he finished, breaking the hug.

"Eh…" Krista stammered. "That…eh… was a hug?"

"You've never been hugged?" Xander asked, voice growing slightly angry.

"As an AI, I don't really have a lot of physical interaction…" Krista whispered. Xander sighed sadly, shaking his head.

"Take it from someone who knows: every living being needs a hug every now and then. Whether they be human, dog, cat, or AI. Everything needs affection every now and then." To punctuate his remark, he hugged her again. This time, she let herself be hugged, actually raising her arms, and putting them around Xander in a mirror of his own actions.

"There… doesn't that feel better?" the boy asked as they broke the hug.

Krista's wide smile gave him all the answer he needed, yet she replied anyway, "Yeah. That feels great!" she replied exuberantly. She looked around the cube. "So… eh… want to go out?"

Xander blinked. "You're asking me out?" he asked, actually too shocked to think straight.

Krista blinked, then burst out laughing. "I meant, want to go out of my CPU and connect to IRIS, silly!" she said, laughing heartily at Xander's shocked look. Slowly, his face dissolved into a big smile, and he started laughing as well.

"You have to admit, that was a question that left quite a bit of room for interpretation," he defended.

"True, true," Krista replied. "So… want to explore Questworld?"

"Sure," Xander answered. Krista slipped her hand into his, and waved her arm. A portal appeared in one of the walls, a shining white-blue vortex in the middle of the black wall. She stepped toward it, dragging the boy with her, and soon they appeared in what appeared to be a virtual representation of the Grand Canyon.

"So this is how it works," Krista whispered, looking around. "Looks like I still have a lot of work ahead of me," she finished, looking lamely at Xander.

"So, what do you want to do? You said a little about getting to know me, and finding out more about myself," Xander said.

"Well, Questworld was designed to be a full virtual reality… your virtual self is identical to your real one… but only in Questworld, you can't get hurt. So, I was thinking that maybe you could show me a couple of moves, and then we could spar a little," Krista suggested. "I am an AI, after all, so I should learn fairly quickly. I don't have a body to drag along."

Xander chuckled. "Come on, we'll start easy. Just try and copy my movements." Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, he started with showing her a gentle Tai Chi routine. The first time, she just looked at him. The second time, she joined him, copying his moves flawlessly. In perfect synchronicity, the duo flowed through the Tai Cho moves, Xander adding continuously, and Krista copying flawlessly. It wasn't long before he got a big smile on his face, and started with Aikido.

The smile soon vanished, as Krista showed him that, as an AI, she had certain innate advantages in the virtual world.

"That's just not fair!" Xander complained as he crawled up. "There's no limit to what you can do in here!"

"Maybe it's because you keep holding back. You can't hurt me, Xander… the rules won't allow it, remember? No hurting within Questworld."

"Yeah, yeah… but you don't want me cutting loose on you. It's not a pretty sight," Xander grunted.

"Then how can you learn about yourself?" Krista said with a smirk. "Come on, at least go at me with your full strength. Stop holding back. I can take it, I am telling you! I am an AI… I'll always be faster and smarter than you in here."

Xander turned to her. "You asked for it," he said, dropping into an advanced karate pose, before charging her. Kicks and punches filled the air of Questworld, Krista developing a smile on her face as she flew through the motions. This was so much better than the dry data Jonny and the others had been feeding her!

To her surprise, however, Xander didn't level out. His pace kept increasing, as did the power of his blows. A slight scowl appeared on his face as he went after her, putting her newly developed tactical subroutines through their paces.

His fist connected to her face, after which his right leg swept her legs down form under her. She slammed down hard on the simulated rocky ground.

"That was… unexpected," she said, jumping to her legs.

"I just thought of something you said, Krista," Xander said. "I don't have a body to drag along. Well, guess what? Neither have I! This is all just a simulation. A good simulation, but still just that: a simulation! What matters here is the mind… and you are good, but no match for the human mind!"

She smiled. "Care to test that theory?"

He grinned. "Of course."

"My turn," Krista said, going after Xander. Now it was his turn to defend, yet he didn't stick to it, as she had done. Offense and defense became interwoven as Xander accelerated, faster and faster against the Artificial Intelligence. Krista in turn wasn't about to be surprised either, and linked her body directly to her thoughts, increasing her rate of motion exponentially.

Suddenly, Xander took all the blows without a chance of defense, driving him further and further back.

At the same time, in the real world, the entire Quest Clan was staring at the monitors with open mouths. They couldn't remember who first noticed Xander and Krista in the Grand Canyon simulation, but that didn't matter now. The readouts showed the impossible was happening.

"Look at those psycho-neural readings! They're off the scale!" Jonny exclaimed as he poured over the data. "I don't know what that guy is doing to Krista, but whatever it is, it's intense!"

"What says he's doing something to her?" Dr. Quest asked, pointing to one monitor, which displayed the scene currently active in the Questworld simulator. What they saw made their jaws drop… again. Xander and Krista, sparring, hand-to-hand, and it seemed to be even. Unfortunately, about was the correct term of putting it, as arms and legs were blurred to the point of non-recognition.

"Okay, that's it… I'm going in!" Jonny grunted, grabbing a headset, and planting himself in one of the chairs of the Questworld lab, on the ground floor of the lighthouse.

"Questworld, log on… subject Jonny Quest. Going hot!" Hadji said from behind the control panel, activating Jonny's headset.

Once the kaleidoscope had died down, Jonny could see the two combatants not too far away. Suddenly, Xander was blown way backward, out over the Grand Canyon. Jonny winced, and expected the simulation to terminate Xander's connection, as always happened when they 'died' in the simulation environment.

Instead, Xander floated in mid-air to the other side, and pushed off with both feet, catapulting him back toward Krista.

"What is going on here?" Jonny finally asked, stepping up to the duo as they started round 2.

"Xander is teaching me some moves," Krista said with the biggest smile on her face Jonny had ever seen.

"And a fine student she makes, too," Xander said with a huge grin.

"Then you'd better explain why you changed the rules of Questworld. Obviously, you turned off gravity in the Canyon, and told the simulation not to worry about the laws pf physics…" Jonny began, trailing off as he saw the duo look confused at each other.

"Eh…" Xander asked. "Do you know what he's talking about?"

"I think he accused us of cheating," Krista replied, turning to Jonny, and advancing on him. "Jonathon Benton Quest. Are you accusing me of cheating?"

"Eh… Krista… really, it's no big deal. I mean… me and Jessie cheat all the time. It's fun to cheat in Questworld! You can do really outlandish things!"

"We… did not… cheat," Krista said, voice low and growling.

"Come on! That's impossible! It's not possible to move like that in Questworld without cheating! For you perhaps… but certainly not for Xander!" Jonny shouted back.

Suddenly, Xander appeared behind him. "It's all in your mind, Jonny. You think that is air you are breathing? You think that is a body you are feeling? It's all just data in a computer, Jonny… data collected from your mind. Think you can, and you can."

"Woah!" Jonny screamed, jumping back from Xander, continuously advancing to the rear as Xander kept approaching him.

"S…sure man, whatever you say," Jonny whispered, suddenly finding his foot not connecting to anything, tumbling backward into the Grand Canyon. He got the shock when Xander just jumped in after him, matching his pace.

"As I said, it's all just a simulation," Xander said, landing on his two feet, even as Jonny plowed into the ground and his Questworld session disengaged.

"That was mean," Krista accused, appearing next to him.

"Yeah, but it drove the point home," Xander answered with a grin, looking at the place where Jonny had vanished.

"Actually… I think he was driven into the point," she said, looking at the same place. Both laughed for a couple of seconds, before Jonny rematerialized, having reconnected.

"Okay, I got the point," he grunted as the duo continued to laugh.

Xander looked after the plane as it took to the LA sky. He had had a lot of fun with the Quests, but now it was time to move on. Back to work it was for him. The first thing he did was retrieve a car… and then he had to find himself a decent hotel to stay in while finding himself a house. But first… he fished his cell out of his pocket, and called Kirika.

After finding her well in Jakarta, well underway to the Headquarters of the ancient Order of Teraka, and exchanging some pleasantries, they duo disconnected, but not until Xander had promised to call when he had settled in.

Sighing as he took the Aston Martin, Xander first checked into the local Hilton, threw his luggage in his room, and drove off again. He wanted to get reacquainted with California… a place he had left behind nearly ten months ago, vowing to never return, only to find that a vow that he could not keep.

Throwing the car down the freeway direction Sunnydale, Xander put up some mood music, gently relaxing to the 5.1 surround system built into the top-of-the-line luxury car. Too fast for his taste, Xander arrived in his hometown, and he slowly drove through it. The emotions it provoked was like meeting an old relative, one that was achingly familiar, but you wish would have stayed away at the same time.

He stopped at a newsstand he knew wouldn't recognize him, and bought a paper, before slipping back in the Aston Martin. He quickly scanned the paper for any important local news, before closing the paper and keying the engine. He let the motor idle for a couple of seconds as he tried to talk courage into himself. Finally, he took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Keying himself like a high-profile job that required all his assets, Xander buried his emotions. He hated doing that, ever since Kirika had taught him how, but it had saved his skin on multiple occasions, and would serve to do so again.

The car stopped in front of a familiar house, and Xander, picture-perfect of the stone cold professional, stepped out, and resolutely walked to the front door. As he had suspected, his front door key no longer worked. Xander's façade cracked for just a few seconds, long enough for his fist to hit the door.

Even though he had suspected it, the revelation that his parents just didn't care slammed into his guts. "Damnit…"

To his utter surprise, the door was pulled roughly open. "What?" his father demanded.

"Hi, Dad," Xander grunted, burying his emotions again. The man's eyes squinted, as if trying to place the face. Every hope Xander had, was dashed at the precise moment his father opened his, of whiskey-reeking, mouth.

"What'd ya want?"

Xander's eyes filled with tears. No matter what had happened to him, deep inside, he was still that same frightened little boy that left Sunnydale all that time ago. Unlike his father, he still had emotions. "Nothing…" he managed to whisper, grabbing hold of himself, thanks to the intense training Kirika and Mireille had pumped into him.

"Then sod off," the old man growled, making to slam the door shut in Xander's face.

"I just wanted to tell you…" Xander whispered, voice croaking. His father didn't even seem to listen, pushing against the door to close it, even with Xander's booted foot blocking it. "Tell you… that you'd better never come near me again," he stated coldly. "If you do, I will personally kill you." For the very first and what he hoped would be the only time, Xander appreciated the utter cold-bloodedness of the Noir-Assassin. Without a further word, he withdrew his boot, turned, and walked to his car, keying the locks remotely, stepping in, and disappearing.

"The whelp actually developed a spine," the old man grunted drunkenly, staring after the car, before finally closing the door with drunken chuckles coming from his throat.

He switched the radio to the local underground channel, and cranked the volume to maximum. The horrible memories sunk under the influence of the heavy gothic metal music.

After driving around for ages, Xander topped off the car with fuel, and parked somewhere out of the way, again making sure that he was in a spot his friends weren't likely to look. As much as he loved them, he couldn't bear their accusations today. He needed to get his life in order before tackling that problem… so the first thing he did was go through the classifieds, looking for a place to stay.

"Roommate… small apartment… oh! A penthouse!" he circled the penthouse, located in one of the buildings in the upscale part of town. He went further down the list. "Room for rent… medium apartment…" Sunnydale being what it was, there was no shortage of places to stay, and the prices were low. Finally, after three more pages of classifieds, his eyes caught something. "Villa, five bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms, sauna, Jacuzzi, Turkish bath, large living room, fully equipped kitchen, integrated entrainment system, computer network, full furniture. Price per agreement?" Xander grinned. "This could be a cool place… and thanks to my 'job', I've got enough money…" he chuckled at the 'job'.

He saw the number, and dialed it on the cell-phone built into the Aston Martin.

"Hello?" a voice answered unsteadily, as if the person owning it was incredibly nervous about something or other.

"Yes, hello… this is Lavelle Alexandre. I just noticed your ad in the paper, and was wondering when it would be alright for me to come by and visit the property?" Xander asked, grateful that he was able to come across smoothly, even with his assumed name.

"Of course! I am always here… you can stop by whenever you please, sir. Today, perhaps?" the man asked, almost begging Xander to drop by. The teenager frowned slightly, smelling something fishy. And this being Sunnydale…

"Sure…" Xander replied, slipping an appropriate amount of doubt into his voice. He glanced at the address, and not for the first time, was glad he had brought Magan with him. "I can be there in five minutes, Mr.… eh… I'm sorry, but I didn't catch your name."

"Simmons. Barry Simmons. Five minutes will be alright, Mr. Alexandre."

Xander winced slightly at the American's pronunciation of the French name, and for the first time, understood why Mireille and Kirika had winced so often when he first started learning the language. An English accent was truly horrible in the French language.

"In five minutes, then, Mr. Simmons," Xander said, before hanging up. Now something really wasn't right. Didn't these people want to clean up the house before a potential buyer visited? What was going on with that place?

Xander stopped the Aston Martin in the driveway, and stepped out; knowing that the three-piece whit suit he was still wearing would mask his youthful appearance. Slamming a cold Noir-style mask on his face, he was sure to pass for someone at least 5 years older.

He spent a couple of seconds admiring the house's exterior, insightful eyes determining the strategic value of the place. He was disturbed to note that the place was built like a fortress of some kind. The driveway ran up to the garage, nested inside of a hill. The house itself was built on the level above the garage, allowing every window in the front a full view of the driveway. And, in case anyone tried to hide by stepping up to the garage itself, Xander noticed security cameras hanging from every imaginable angel and corner.

That meant he had been noticed. Xander smiled slightly, and stepped up the stairs to reach the level of the front door. Again, he noticed security cameras, even the ones hidden in the lavish plant-life that decorated the surrounding grounds. Xander felt more and more uneasy. He rang the doorbell, which didn't produce the chime he had expected. Instead, he heard something of a voice inside, yet couldn't make out what it said.

Fifteen seconds later, the door was opened, and Xander startled slightly at the sound of heavy safe-like hinges. He nodded to the man who opened.

"Mr. Alexandre?" the man asked, seemingly a bundle of nerves.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Simmons," Xander greeted calmly, stepping inside and glancing sideways at the door as he did so. His suspicions were confirmed. The door was twice as thick as any normal front door, and apparently completely made of steel… artfully disguised as wood, but Xander's trained eye could tell the difference. He swallowed slightly. What was this place?

"I'm so grateful you could come, Mr. Alexandre," Barry Simmons said, practically falling on his knees and kissing Xander's feet. "I…I really need to get out of this place!"

What the…? Xander asked silently. "That is not a very good sales talk, Mr. Simmons," he told the man. "Why would you want to get out of this place? And why would you tell a prospective buyer something like that? I could be ripping you off or something…"

"It doesn't matter!" Barry almost cried. "This place… this place is destroying my nerves! Uncle Harrick, the paranoid idiot, built this place using his share of the family fortune. No-one ever knew what he did with it… although there was a good description in the will. Anyway, when he finally kicked the bucket, the place went to me. And I'm going nuts in here! I know nothing of technology, but this place has it built into everything!"

Xander blinked. "I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of security cameras…"

"Uncle Harrick was paranoid! He thought people were after him, chasing him, wanting his secrets or something. So he built this place. Fort Knox, we joked. It's like Fort Knox. Only… it really is! The computer in the basement controls everything! But I don't know anything of technology, so I can't use it properly. So's the TV. It's like this huge projectors you see in cinemas? Only, it's got no sound. You need to turn on this THX thingy, the manual says, only I don't know how to do it. So I'm watching shows without sound. And there's a million things more. Uncle Harrick left plenty of manuals, by the way. Afraid that he might lose his memory or something. Only, they're written for him, by him, so I can't make anything of it… they jump all over the place."

Xander stared as the man went on and on. Jeesh… and I thought Wills was bad…

"Anyway, the manuals are over here… in case you can make anything out of them, I'm sure you can make me an offer… you seem like a trustworthy guy… but I need to get out of here! This place is driving me mad!"

Xander let himself be led to the library, where he immediately thought Giles would feel aright at home. The place was done entirely in dark wood, with adjustable reading lights next to four comfortable leather reading chairs. A stack of notebooks was lying on one of the reading tables, and Barry motioned to them. "These are the manuals…"

"Thank you," Xander said on a friendly tone, taking the first book, and sitting down. The handwriting was old flowing calligraphy, and Xander found himself liking 'Crazy Uncle Harrick' immediately. Apparently, the man had been aware of what went on in Sunnydale… The first book detailed the inventory of the house, and Xander found out where Barry Simmons had found the info needed for the ad. Although the ad no where near did this place justice.

"Overview," Xander read silently for a few minutes, before his eyes went wide open. His reading sped up, and Xander was soon flipping through the pages. The windows have bulletproof shutters made of lead; with Kevlar coating… the entire place can be put under a heavy lockdown, securing every door into a full 'locked' position. The book went on to detail the placement of the security cameras, and so forth. Also included was an inventory of the house, a well as floor plans.

The basement was mainly empty, apart from the huge central mainframe, and the garage. On the 'ground' floor, was the large living room, complete with projector screen and full THX-certified sound system. Also present were the dining room, the large kitchen, the library, and out back was a Jacuzzi as well as a medium-sized swimming pool, placed in a veranda that could be fully pulled back against the walls in summer, to allow open-air enjoyment.

The second floor contained the bathrooms, the bedrooms, a large linen-cupboard, all built around a central hallway. The hallway itself gave good view of the ground floor's main entry-hallway, as well as a good part of the dining/living room.

The second book Xander picked up detailed the security system and Xander put it back down again. He looked through the other manuals, finding one for each major system: the entertainment system, the mainframe, and so forth. Only thing Xander didn't see were passwords, and if there was one thing he was sure of, then it was that Uncle Harrick had put passwords on just about everything in the mainframe.

I can't believe this place… the computer network goes through the entire house… every room has at least two connectors for a computer, and most even had wireless ports available! And then there's the Internet connection. How in hell did he get a T4 line? Those are reserved for corporations!

Xander let out his breath as he went over another piece of data that had struck his interest. The mainframe is built into a nuclear bomb shelter. Food and drink are available for six people for six months, and a backup generator with enough diesel fuel to keep everything running for those six months.

"This place is a fortress," Xander grunted, looking up at Barry, who was eying him worriedly. "How much do you want for it?" he asked.

"Make me an offer, Mr. Alexandre," Barry grunted. "Just make me an offer, so I can go back to Montana! I don't need this place! Never wanted it, and I just came down here to check it out. Everything you want to pay will be welcome money."

Xander eyed the man. He was a good man, but obviously didn't feel at home in a place like this. He couldn't blame him… if the manuals were right, it could be very difficult to learn to live with a computer that had been programmed to respond to voice commands. Especially voice commands that could have unforeseen consequences, like locking all the doors in the house.

Xander sighed. "I'll try and make it a fair deal, Mr. Simmons," Xander said, thinking over his bank account. "I'll give you two million dollars for it." He thought it was about right… the place was huge, sported lots of technology, but it was built in one of the worst areas in the world.

"DEAL!" Simmons cried. "Keys are on the kitchen table, you've got the manuals, everything's connected, and I'll sign the papers at the notary's office tomorrow. And I am out of here!" the man screamed, grabbing a suitcase Xander had somehow missed as he came in, as raced out the door.

Xander stared after the man as he raced down the stairs. Ten second later, the garage door opened. Three seconds after that, a rusty blue pick-up bellowed smoke as it peeled rubber down the driveway.

"O-kay…" Xander whispered, too shocked for words. Finally, he looked at the ceiling. "Looks like you and I are stuck together, then." He didn't receive an answer, nor did he expect one. First, Xander grabbed the house keys off the kitchen table, and locked the door on his way out. After retrieving his things in LA, he went to the bank and readied a bank draft for two million dollars, on the name of Barry Simmons. Tomorrow would be a very interesting day…

The next day, Xander was busy flying from banks to notaries to the store, buying the little things everyone needs yet forgets to pack when moving. When he finally fell into the comfortable couch in front of the projector screen, clicking through the TV shows, he was totally exhausted.

"Damn. I was supposed to look up Willow, Buffy and the others," he sighed. He sat up straight. "Oh, SHIT! And I was supposed to confirm my entry into Sunnydale High, too!" He let out a deep breath, and fell back into the chair. "Oh, well. I trust Mireille's computer skills… ever since James put her in touch with MI-6, that lady has become one serious cyberbabe. I'm sure everything will be alright for the first day of school tomorrow."

Closing his eyes, Xander rubbed his temples. "That's what you get for having a three day delay trying to save people's lives from some serious high-class demon… this shouldn't have been a problem if not for that damn demon."

Slowly, he got up, dropped his clothes, and slipped into the Jacuzzi. The hot water relaxed his rattled nerves, and Xander slipped into a comfortable half-slumber. "I till can't believe it… the first day of school tomorrow. The first day of school in ten months… and Mireille actually advanced me a year. How did she manage to convince the US educational board that I finished my year in France, anyway?" Not letting it concern him, the teenager slipped deeper into his slumber.

About an hour later, he finally had the courage to drag himself out of the tub, and dry himself off. Not bothering to dress himself, he just picked up his clothes and padded naked to his room. He set the alarm for six in the morning, allowing him to do some light exercises before starting his first day in school, and slipped under the covers. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

His dream was deep, yet dark, and nightmares plagued his subconscious from the moment he dreamt.

It's six in the morning. Good morning! Time to wake up!

The female voice penetrated the thick fog that hung between Xander's ears, and slowly, with bleary eyes, he sat up straight. "This is nuts… I can't spend five days apart from Kirika without having nightmares again," he grunted out loud as he padded to the bathroom.

You can say that again. You were moaning and twitching all the way through the night, the cheerful female voice replied.

"Huh?" Xander asked, standing stock still. "Who's there? And why didn't my alarm go off, now that I think of it?"

Because I took over your mainframe, silly! How else? The female replied with a laugh.

"Krista?" Xander said, finally placing the voice. "Krista? What are you doing here?"

I finally saw you bought yourself a place… and when I checked it out, I couldn't believe my eyes! You've got some serious hardware here, Xander. Four consecutive firewalls! Took me almost thirty seconds to break.

Xander rubbed his head. "Krista… it's still early… I'm not playing with a full deck of cards right now. Please, give my nightmare-ridden brain a rest, and tell me… slowly… what are you doing here?"

I thought you could use a hand, so I used that very nice T4 line you've got to transfer myself into your mainframe. Nice piece of work, by the way… utilizes one seriously exotic variant of the EBCDIC code… I had to do some work on my kernel before I could port myself to it…

"Krista… You're babbling," Xander grunted. "Tell me, do the Quests know about this?" he asked, rubbing his forehead.

Eh… I…eh…I can write them an email! She replied enthusiastically. In fact, I just sent one…

Xander sighed again. It was one of those mornings. Only realizing he was naked at this particular moment, he yelped and sprinted to the bathroom, throwing on some clothes. "Krista! Why didn't you tell me I was naked?"

I KNOW how the human body looks, Xander!

"You and Kirika will get along just fine," he grunted, walking down the stairs and falling into the couch in front of the projector screen.

I'll take that as a compliment, the AI replied smugly.

Xander shook his head and sighed, before grabbing the remote. The projector warmed up, and within ten seconds, Xander stared at the videophone connection screen. "I don't think you would be so kind as to dial Dr. Quest, Krista?" Xander asked the ceiling.

But…but…I wanna stay! I like it here! And I can be really useful to you! I can make you toast… the toaster in the kitchen ejected two slices of perfectly made toast…Coffee… the coffee percolator gurgled… I can protect your computer, secure your files in all kinds of databases, and protect your house against invaders… the security system triggered, causing all the shutters to roll closed over the windows.

Xander sighed. "Krista… could you please open those shutters? As to staying… I think that's the decision of Jonny, Jessie, and Hadji… not mine."

I…I would've cooked, but I couldn't get to the eggs and bacon in the fridge! The AI's voice sounded as if she was blubbering.

"Oh come on…" Xander grunted. "Krista, please don't cry! I can't stand women crying… I'll do my best! That's all I can promise."

Oh, thank you! Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou!

"I said I'd try. They still have to agree," Xander said with a smile at the almost Willow-like exuberance. "Now… could you call them, please?"

Sure! Krista shouted. Within seconds, the videophone screen was replaced by a 'calling' sign.

Dr. Quest picked up, and Xander nodded a greeting to the man. "Good morning, Dr. Quest. I've got some good news and some bad news for you. Which do you want first?"

Dr. Benton Quest looked at Xander's smiling face. "Good morning, Xander. And I think I would prefer the bad news first."

Xander dipped his head. "The bad news is… I think you lost something. The good news is that I found it."

Hey! I am NOT an 'it'! the AI protested from the ceiling.

"Krista? What are you doing over there?" Dr. Quest asked. Before the AI could reply, Jonny's face bumped into the screen with his father's.

"Krista? I've been looking all over for you! Why did you just go? And why did you go to Xander's?" the teenaged boy shouted through the link.

I…I just wanted to help him… I didn't mean any harm…I'm sorry… the miserable AI replied.

Her voice sounded so pitiful that Xander really did feel for her. "She really wants to stay here," he said, taking the load of asking from Krista's electronic shoulders. "I convinced her I'd ask you guys."

"Krista can be quite a handful," Jonny replied, shaking his head. "And she doesn't just run on any computer… in fact, I'm surprised that she found something to run on in your house in the first place."

Xander chuckled. "Oh, I KNOW she can be a handful. But that doesn't bother me… as long as she can stand me, I can stand her. And she really would come in handy… as to computer space, no problems there. I have a mainframe in this house with an exotic EBCIC thingy."

It's a large mainframe with an exotic EBCDIC, Krista butted in. It's got all the processing space and memory room I need. And HEY! I resent being called a 'handful'!

Xander and Jonny chuckled. "Well, I guess she really does want to stay… and it looks like she can, too… but still… she's still someone I created…"

Dr. Quest put his hand on his son's shoulder. "That's the hard part of being a parent, Jonny. One day, your children will find their own way in life. And then you'll have to let them go."

Jonny nodded, tears brimming his eyes. "Take good care of her. Take REALLY good care of her, or I will personally come down there and hurt you. Badly," Jonny said to Xander.

"Believe me man… I will," Xander promised, before looking at the ceiling. "It'll be good to have someone watching the house in this Hellmouth-town of mine… and I'll appreciate the company."

Jonny nodded, apparently satisfied. Jonny… thank you… for everything, Krista said over the link.

"I'll leave you two to talk," Xander said, noticing that somewhere along the way, Dr. Quest had slipped away. "I've got some exercises to do, and school preparations to make. Jonny… thank you for letting her stay. And Krista?"

Yes?

"Welcome home," he said, closing the door, leaving Krista to say her goodbyes to Jonny.

Xander toweled himself off after the nice, long, hot shower he had taken right after a nice workout that had left him sweating. He missed Kirika's help… she was the only one who could have him go beyond what little he used normally. Well, Kirika, and fighting to the death with demons twice my size and weight, and immune to bullets, he added silently as he walked down the stairs and grabbed his car keys and his bag.

"Is everything okay now, Krista?" Xander asked when he noticed thee conversation in his living room had ended.

Yeah… the AI replied, a little sad. Xander…

"Yes?" the teenager asked, curious when the AI didn't continue.

Thank you.

Xander smiled at the nearest camera. "You're welcome, Krista. Now, I'm off to school… make yourself at home while I'm away, okay?"

I will protect this house as I would my own CPU. The curious tone told Xander that this was as much a vow as the AI was capable of taking. I promise you, Xander. Nothing will enter this house. And if they do, they won't leave. I'll see to that.

Xander chuckled. "You do that," he said with a smile. "See you tonight, Krista. Have fun settling in."

I will, Krista replied, voice smiling in correlation to the face-picture she displayed on the nearest read-out screen. Xander shook his head as he closed the heavy vault-like front door behind him. He had still not gotten used to the screens that dotted the walls in the oddest locations, displaying security information. Or, as Krista seemed to use them, as screens for her electronic avatar.

As he turned the key, the thoughts on Krista, the house, and being back faded as those of school replaced them. School… and the Sunnydale group. That was one meeting he wasn't looking forward to. After disappearing for ten months, he didn't think he'd get a warm reception. Sighing, he eased the Aston Martin off the driveway.

Ten minutes later, cruising at a leisurely 20 kilometers an hour above the limit, Xander pulled up to the Sunnydale High parking lot, and groaned as immediately, every head in range turned to stare at the car. Where in hell did I get the notion that I'd be able to slip in quietly when I use this thing? Xander groaned silently as he killed the engine, and stepped out.

Isn't that Harris? He heard from the crowd somewhere.

Can't be… he vanished ten months ago… came the reply.

Taking a breath, Xander erected himself to his full height, counting on his filled-out body, his new all-black wardrobe, and the mirror shades to protect his identity for just a few minutes longer.

Smiling, he nodded to the female students who had gathered, and stepped up to the school without saying a word. The girls drooled over his expensive designer clothes, his cool attitude, and his car. The male students half-drooled over the car. The other half was pissed at all the attention the girls were paying him.

Okay… Stage One completed. Commence Phase Two, he droned silently as he searched the hallways for Buffy and Willow. Not finding them inside, he proceeded to the courtyard. Finally, he emerged back into the sunlight, and he let his newly acquired skills scan the crowd that was now getting up and proceeding to the front, rumor of the 'sports car and the cool dude' spreading faster than Xander could walk. His eyes scanned, mind on automatic.

A small group didn't seem that interested, remaining seated on a bench, and Xander recognized them. Commence Stage Three, he droned coolly, stepping up to the group, and flicking off his shades as he did so.

Buffy walked into school, ignoring the usual bicker of returning students on the first day of school. Where's the time I used to be among them? She wondered silently. Slaying sure changed me… she walked into the central courtyard, and sat down on the first available bench. Immediately, the bench cleared, as did the immediate surrounding environment. Everyone in Sunnydale High now knew… something wasn't right about the Summers girl, and her friends, and they should thus remain as far away from them as possible.

Sighing, Buffy watched the skies, and the fluffy clouds floating by. Back for another year of school, right mister Cloud? She thought to the one that reminded her oddly of Xander. Xander… I wonder where he is. If he still is, that is…And that sounded SO much like Giles, didn't it?

"Hi, Buff," Buffy heard Willow say as the redhead sat down next to the blonde. Willow's eyes stood dull, showing just how much she was still operating on basic survival. "Any luck?"

Buffy turned to look at her friend. "Nothing… no-one knows anything about Xander," she whispered sadly. "I take it you didn't have any luck either?"

Willow shook her head. "Nothing," she whispered. "He vanished… and he vanished good."

"Well, this is a bright and cheery group on this first day of school," Cordelia said in her eerie cheerleader-like voice. The brunette now sported a scar under her right eye, courtesy of one Teraka Assassin a couple of months ago. "I take it no-one heard anything about Weasel Boy?"

"No," Buffy and Willow replied at the same time, shaking their heads sadly.

"It… it's like he disappeared off the face of the earth," willow said in her usual sad-whispering voice. "No-one has even heard of him in ten months now… no-one even close to his description even showed up in the NCIC, and if something happened to him, and he was found, he should have been entered into it, as 'unknown', and I would have been able to confirm it was him by pulling up the dental records and matching them up…"

"Will…" Buffy gently interrupted the redhead, causing the girl to sigh sadly, her small rant bringing her close to tears again. Xander had been her best friend, her childhood crush, her world… and now he was gone. Without a trace, without a word, he had left her life, and the life of everyone else.

"Hey," Oz said, sitting down, taking one look at the faces, and sighed.

"You know… sometimes, I can't help but think… think that Xander should have been here… how things would have been different…" Buffy whispered.

"Yeah, he would have been on donut duty instead of me," Cordelia sniped, but the small group knew it was more the way the former beauty queen acted than sheer malevolence. There was little the small group didn't know or understand about each other. After all they had been through, that was practically a given.

"Think about all the things he missed," Willow muttered. "The Judge. The Order of Teraka. Angel leaving…"

Buffy nodded sadly. "Another friend we lost… I still can't believe we got the Judge separated again, but losing Angel to him scattering the parts across the world…"

"I can still remember those Terakans," Cordelia said with revulsion. "I mean, how could you forget that bug-guy! That was like so eww!!! I'm telling you, Buff, I was lucky you had that glue in your basement!" She rubbed the scar in quiet remembrance. "But not before he got me really good… I was so lucky that shelf broke."

The small group nodded. "Yeah," Buffy finally whispered, rubbing her shoulder, where a huge star-shaped scar was present underneath the blonde's clothing. "I know how you feel, Cordy… after the Judge got me good, something changed, didn't it?"

"It turned serious," Willow whispered. "We never really thought about it… before… you know… that we could die… even after Jessie…oh, God, Jessie… we never really thought about it…"

The small group suddenly became aware of a change in tone in the conversations taking place around the courtyard. When all the students started making for the entrance, Cordelia sniped at a passer-by, "Hey! What's going on?"

The boy jumped a couple of steps to the side, away from Cordelia. "Some really cool dude just pulled up in a sports car," he wrought out before running off.

Cordelia shook her head. "I can't believe I was ever that shallow," she muttered. "I mean, come on! Drooling over a guy's clothes and his car? He's probably the world's biggest snob."

Xander approached the group, putting his shades in his breast pocket, where the bottom half of the top glass stuck out form its edge. He took a breath. This was not going to be easy.

Finally, he composed himself, forcing himself to appear calm. Yet, inside, his entire body seemed on fire, his intestines were playing tug-o-war with his stomach, and his nerves were registering something that didn't appear right. His swiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his right hand.

Finally, he opened his mouth, and said on a cheerful tone, "Howdy all! Miss me?"

That was not the right thing to say, as the group instantly realized who he was, and decided they were pretty damn mad at him for leaving ten months ago. Buffy was the first to reach him, and he actually saw stars when her fist connected to his nose.

But Xander wasn't the same Xander anymore, and ten months of Kirika's heavy-duty training bubbled to the surface. He stumbled two or three paces back, where any normal person would have been knocked to the ground after being hit by a pissed off Slayer.

"You bastard!" Buffy screamed, actually drawing back to hit him again.

Even though Xander's vision was still swimming, his other senses were still pretty acute, and he knew Buffy was going toward him again. He could have dodged easily, thanks to Kirika's 'fight in total darkness' training. And, in hindsight, it was probably the smarter thing to do. But, Xander being Xander, he just stood there, accepting the inevitable… he needed to regain her friendship, and if letting her pummel him was what it took, so be it.

He fist hit him in the exact same spot, directly on his nose, and Xander was sure he could feel something give way. His swimming vision blacked out completely, and Xander felt his ass kiss concrete… right before the back of his head did.

"Do you have any idea what you put us through!? What you put me through!?" Buffy screamed at the moaning body on the ground. She actually made way to hit him again, if the others hadn't jumped her by now, keeping her from actually killing Xander.

Groaning, he got to his feet. With a totally routine gesture, he took a folded handkerchief from his pocket, unfolded it with a single motion from his hand, and pressed it against his nose.

"I guess I deserved that…" he whispered.

Buffy growled. "You're damn right you did!" she yelled at him.

"Killing him won't help, Buffy," Oz said calmly. Buffy's face twisted a couple of times, before she relented, and calmed down.

"I'm sorry…" Xander whispered, looking at the ground. He felt, rather than heard, someone approach. "Will…" he whispered, looking up at the redhead.

He was expecting a lot of things, but not the slap he received on his cheek. It wasn't particularly strong or fast, but it stung worse than the two punches Buffy had given him… it stung into the depth of his heart. "Will… I'm sorry…" he whispered.

For five tense seconds, Buffy, Cordelia, and Oz stared at the redhead, totally unaccustomed to the red-running furious face of the usually gentle girl. Then, she sighed, and seemed to stare into his soul through his eyes. She fell against his chest, clutching his body close to her. "I'm so glad you're alright," she whispered. "I looked, and I looked… but you were just gone and I thought you might be dead but then I checked the NCIC and there was no description of anyone looking like you being found dead and so I searched more but I couldn't find anything on your name anywhere and when I tried to look for your picture it came up empty…"

"I missed you too, Will," Xander whispered sadly, hugging her right back.

"Why did you leave me? Us? What did we do that drove you away?" Willow asked, finally regaining some strength, looking up at his face, and asking her questions on a tone that actually didn't bode very well.

"I…I…" he whispered, closing his eyes. "It was horrible… my parents…the nightmares…everything… it just became too much… I wanted to kill myself… got my life savings out of the piggy bank, took the Greyhound to LA, and was looking for a hole to die in…"

"Why didn't you come to us!?" Buffy barked.

"Face it, Buff… we were all having our own problems at the time. You had the whole Slayer thing going on, Willow was doing the research thing with Giles, Cordy was still in her airhead ways, and I was left out… donut duty and comic relief," he whispered miserably.

Buffy's mouth opened, as did Willow's. Neither knew what to say. "I'm sorry," Willow whispered, burying her face against his expensive jacket. "I'm so sorry… I should have paid more attention. You were my oldest, bestest friend, and I let you down…" Looking up at him, she screamed, "How could you ever forgive me? I was so horrible!"

Xander hugged her, blinking against the stinging tears. "You're still my friend, Will…no matter what, you have to believe that… I would never…ever… want to lose you as a friend. That's why I left… my problems were all so little compared to yours…"

Willow's eyes opened. "No, they're not!" she protested. "All your folks ever do is put you down! And all the things you told me about when we were younger…"

"Wait a minute! What things?" Buffy asked, stepping up to Xander. She looked at him, and bent her head. "Xander…I…I'm sorry I wasn't a better friend… you always tried to cheer me up… and when my turn came to help you… I didn't see it… I'm sorry, Xander. And I'm sorry I hit you… even though you did deserve it," the blonde added with a pun.

Xander chuckled. "Apology accepted, Buff. And I don't mind the punches."

"So, what happened to you, Dweeb Boy?" Cordelia jumped in, looking him over. "And what are you doing, dressed like the million dollar man?"

Xander chuckled. "Good to see you too, Airhead. As to the outfit, thank my teachers… they took me to Paris, and gave me a couple of lessons in dress-sense. Not that I needed them, but still…"

Willow stepped back, and her gaze as well as Buffy's went over him at the same time. For the first time, they actually saw him. "That really does look good on you," Buffy commented, before stepping up, and hugging him.

"Xander… welcome back," she whispered, before feeling something, and stepping back. "And where did you get all those muscles?"

"Hey…yeah! I forgot to ask!" Willow butted in.

"Well… my teachers were really into the physical activities," Xander explained, chuckling inwardly at the thought of what kind of physical activities.

"And what was that Paris thing?" Cordelia asked. "They took you to Paris? Who are those people?"

Xander nodded. "In LA… when I was looking for a place to crawl up and die… I saw them being attacked by a couple of vampires… I managed to get them… but I got a concussion out of it. One of my teacher nursed me back to health, and together, they decided to take me to Paris. That's why you never heard from me, Will… my teachers are kind people, but really into their privacy, and really good at not getting noticed, or found."

"Wow," the three girls whispered at the same time.

At this point, Oz walked up to Xander, and extended his hand. "Hey."

Xander clasped it. "Yo."

"You're back," Oz said.

"Yep," Xander replied.

"Cool," Oz finished, turning to sit back on the bench. Xander managed to detach himself, and sat down next to the werewolf, leaving the three girls to stare at each other.

"Hey! Don't you have anything else to say to each other?" Cordelia asked angrily. "He was gone for ten months!" she screamed at Oz.

"And now he's back," Oz replied casually.

"Yep," Xander said with a straight face. The two boys looked at each other, simultaneously lifting their right eyebrow.

"HEY! Are you two making fun of me!?" Cordelia screamed.

"Are we?" Xander asked Oz.

"We might," Oz answered.

"She's changed… she never would have noticed it before I left," Xander told Oz.

Oz just shrugged. Xander nodded. Cordelia fumed. The bell for class rang.

"Hmm… let's see… first class," Xander mumbled as he fumbled around in the attaché case that no-one noticed he had been carrying before Buffy hit him. "French! Parfait!" he crowed with a smile on his face.

"Eh… Xander… I believe I speak for everyone who knows you when I say 'HUH'?" Buffy exclaimed.

"Come on, Buffmeister!" Xander chuckled, grabbing the blonde for a sideways hug. "I spent the last ten months in Paris! My French is practically perfect! This class is going to be a breeze!" After those words, he grabbed the sheet, and looked at his other classes. "Let's see… what else do I have… European History, neat! Russian… they teach Russian at Sunnydale High?" Shaking his head, he continued, "Physics. That one might be harder… math. Great! I come halfway around the world to learn math! Geography! Cool! Travelman Xander to the rescue! And… oh! PE! School is going to be so easy!"

Only then did he notice that the others had remained behind, and only Oz was still calmly walking with him. Turning, he shot a confused look at them. "What?"

"Eh… Russian? Geography? Physics? Math? Xander… what happened to you? You used to hate everything about school, and now you're actually getting excited? And who put together your lesson plan? I mean, that is not a normal course load!" Buffy practically screamed. "Where did the study hour go to? You're taking more than a full course load!"

"Eh… I didn't exactly plan it myself… my teachers had to do the mojo thing with the computer, and apparently, they decided on my lesson plan together. Since we traveled around a lot, I picked up a few languages, hence the geography and the languages. And you don't think that I spent ten months doing nothing but goofing off and traveling, did you? Those two teachers of mine made sure that I was kept plenty busy, believe me!" Yeah…with advanced ballistics courses to help me predict sniper shots and the likes…

"We're late," Oz said calmly, interrupting the testy reply Buffy was obviously preparing.

"So we are," Xander said, glancing round the empty hallways. "Shall we?" he asked, turning to Oz.

"Sure," the werewolf said calmly, and the two boys put a sprint in, leaving behind a very confused female group.

"Oh no! We're like so late!" Willow screamed finally, setting in a sprint of herself.

After his classes, Xander had to admit he was feeling rather tired. Going back to school for eight hours straight took more than he had thought it would. But then again… with all the endurance he had built up, it was a breeze to just shake off what school did. He could already feel his energy returning now that the stress of the first day dropped off him as he made his way to the library.

Things weren't going to be pretty… Xander was sure of it. The others had briefed Giles by now, no doubt, and he wasn't exactly looking forward to dodging the G-man's questions. At the same time, the teenager knew it was necessary. Mireille and Kirika deserved their privacy, and the last thing he wanted was to explain how he had become the unofficial third member of the deadliest duo in the world… so deadly even the Order of Teraka trembled before them.

As he made his way to the library from the locker room, sunk deep in thought, Xander wasn't fully aware of his surroundings. If he had been, he would have dodged into the nearest open door… for he was about to meet Principal Snyder.

"Harris!" the small troll-like man barked upon recognizing the teen. "I need to have a word with you!"

"What about, Sir?" Xander asked, actually snapping at attention, managing to keep the sarcasm out of his voice and posture.

"I don't know how you managed to conjure up a fake diploma from a school in Paris, but I want you to know that I don't buy it… even if the PTA board did," the Troll snapped. "I will be keeping a very close eye on you, and woe you and your little band of fiends if you step as much as an inch out of line! I will be on you before you can say 'oh shit', got it?"

Xander lifted an eyebrow. "Perfectly, Sir. Although I would like to take this moment to point out that the Sorbonne is a very respected university in Paris, and that they do not give out their diplomas easily… especially the ones for their little-known university-preparation courses," he stated flatly, calmly, totally unimpressed. It made Snyder even worse than he already was. The little man's face turned red.

"That diploma has been faked! It must be! It is impossible for a…a…student like yourself to gain such a diploma!" Snyder snarled, spittle flying and revulsion at 150%.

"In that case, I expect you will be calling Madame Bouquet, my teacher. And I will also expect you to be talking to my teachers here at Sunnydale high… and listen to what they have to say," Xander responded, voice still calm, but a block of ice settling over his heart. Snyder must have picked up on the cold shimmer growing in the boy's chocolate eyes, for he backed up a step.

"That is precisely what I will be doing, Harris! You can be sure of it!" Snyder shouted, from one step further away.

"Do we have something else to discuss, then, Sir? Seeing I'm late for a meeting," Xander said, actually walking past the little principal without listening for a reply. Snyder could only stare at the boy's back as he rapidly increased the distance.

"Don't think this is over, Harris!" Snyder snarled after the teen. "Not by a long shot," he added in a whispered, turning to go back to his office.

Xander ignored the raging of the pissed principal, and just kept on going toward the library… to an encounter he wasn't looking forward to, but one that was as necessary as putting Snyder in his place. And, as much fun as it was to goad the small troll-like man, there were more pressing matters. Giles, for one… and he wanted to go home. He wanted to see how Krista was adjusting to her new home.

As strange as it sounded, Xander really did feel protective of the young AI, just like he was worried about her mental health if she hung out with him. Always the first to acknowledge that his mental state was a couple of cards short of a full deck, Xander also realized that his lifestyle really wasn't the right one for a new life form to grow up in.

He had seen enough movies on AIs that went mad to know that a sentient computer really was as dangerous as could be in this day and age, where everything was connected with computers. Almost, he reached for his super-secret cell phone to call and ask how she was doing, but then he reached the library and Buffy's voice actually trailed to the outside.

On the force of habit, Xander quieted his breathing and heartbeat to almost non-existent, sharpening his hearing to virtually superhuman. He could hear the discussion as if he were present.

"Something really isn't right about him, Giles! He was actually looking forward to school, and he has more than a full course load! And then, in class…" Buffy began. Xander closed his eyes and leaned against the wall next to the door.

"Y…yeah!" Willow agreed with her friend. "We…we share French and Math, and in both classes, Xander really acted as if he were someone else. I…I mean, he spoke French better than the teacher. He kept correcting her pronunciation to the point where he was teaching more than she was!"

Damn. I spooked them, Xander's thoughts grunted.

"Calm down, everyone… I am sure that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this. After all… Xander has been gone for ten months, and he did say he was in Paris. It's not difficult to understand where his French skills came from." Xander could almost hear Giles wiping at his glasses. He was always wiping his glasses. Xander smiled as he thought of Giles' calming influence. But, as no-one else, he also understood the Englishman's ability to dive for the truth. And, if there was one thing Xander didn't want to give up just yet, it was the full truth.

"Isn't there some spell we can do, to find out if he's possessed or something?" Xander could hear Buffy ask Giles the moment he pushed open the library door.

"To see if who's possessed?" Xander asked innocently as he walked to the meeting table. "Hi, G-man. I take it you've heard of my glorious return to the American education system?"

"No-one!" Buffy squeaked, even as Giles started to open his mouth to reply to Xander's remark.

"Q-quite," he stuttered slightly, wiping at his glasses. Putting them on, he continued, "So… I've heard you've been to Paris?"

Xander nodded, smiling. "Yep. Paris, the City of Light. Done the tours, saw the sights, and got lost at the Louvre, just like every other tourist. And picked up flawless French in the process," he added with a quick jab.

"I'm glad to see you've finally taken in some culture," the Englishman remarked. "Although you still have that infernal sense of humor."

The teenager smiled. "Yep. My two teachers were really into the arts… one of them is a gifted painter, too. And the sense of humor is chronic, I'm afraid. Nothing can get rid of it."

Giles smiled slightly, shaking his head in quiet resignation. Then, he suddenly grabbed Xander in a massive hug, and pounded on his back. "It's jolly good to have you back, son. You can't imagine how much we all missed you."

"Good to be back, Giles. Really good to be back," Xander answered, pounding his answer in return. Finally, the two men released each other, and Xander sat down at the table.

"I hear you're taking Russian, too?" Giles asked as soon as Xander had seated.

"Yep. Been to Moscow, did the shivering thing, and picked up the language." Xander shrugged. "They insisted I learn as mush languages as I could while staying with them."

"We've heard you talk about them a lot now… Just who are these people?" Buffy demanded. "They taught you French and Russian, got you in a museum, and did a whole lot of other things. Who are they?"

"People who like their privacy," Xander answered calmly. "I trust them, they trust me, and I'm not going to betray that trust."

"How about us?" Cordelia asked angrily. "You don't trust us?"

"It's not my call to make… I'm sorry guys, but you have to understand, it's not my call to make," Xander said, sounding really apologetic about it. "If it were up to me, I'd tell you about them… my training…everything they did for me… but I can't. I promised I'd keep their secrets, so I will."

Buffy started to reply as Giles cut her off. "We understand, Xander. It's good to see that you haven't changed as much as to betray the trust of people who put it in you. Even though you did leave us without a note or a word of warning."

"As I explained this morning to the others," Xander whispered sadly, looking at the tabletop, "I just needed to get away. Everyone was having problems of his or her own, and mine just didn't matter… so I left."

"I find it hard to accept you didn't come to me, but I think I understand," Giles said, sadly. At that moment, Xander's cell phone rang.

Looking confused at the beeping device, Xander pressed the pick-up button. In all the world, there are four people who know the number of this phone. Two are after Teraka's HQ, one is sitting right here in Giles' library, and the last one is Krista…

"Hello?"

Si c'est l'Administrateur du Système, répond avec la phrase correcte, Xander heard in the phone. If this is the System Administrator, respond with the correct phrase.

Xander swallowed. Okay… make that five, he thought. "Ordinateur, Je suis Administrateur du Système. Mon voix est mon passeport, vérifie-moi. La phrase est niveau un, liste est trois – quarrant – nonante-neuf." Computer, I am the system Administrator. My voice is my passport, verify me. The phrase is level one, the list is three-forty-ninety-nine.

Primary defenses on the premises have been activated. Level one and two systems have been activated, and the threat is contained for now. Advise? the computer asked.

"Je serai là en dix minutes," Xander grunted in the phone, snapping it shut, and standing up. "Sorry, emergency," he told the assembled group, before running out of the room. I will be there in ten minutes.

For all of five seconds, the entire group stared in total confusion at the closed door where Xander had disappeared through. That moment, they all realized just how much he had changed. He had seemed so different… like a second person.

"Oh no, you don't!" Buffy yelled, jumping up and racing out after the teen, followed closely by Cordelia, Willow, Oz and even Giles. When they reached the parking lot, they got the next surprise when they saw Xander jump into the Aston Martin. Deftly blocking his way, Buffy jumped in front of the car.

"Hey…" Xander started to protest as Willow jerked open the passenger door. Folding the seat back, she jumped in thee back seat, not really designed to hold people, but rather there for show. Cordelia squeezed in next to the redhead.

"Hey, my car doesn't hold that many…" Xander protested. Buffy folded the seat up and sat down.

"We'll take the van," Oz said, indicating himself and Giles. "Be behind you in a sec."

Xander wanted to protest. But, he knew that time was running out. What it was doing, calling him, wasn't normal. Entirely not normal. He shifted harshly, making four tires howl as he applied the modified engine's power to them. The car accelerated off, electing squeals from the three female passengers.

"Xander? What's the emergency?" Buffy demanded.

"And why didn't you tell us you had a cool car?" Cordelia shouted from the back seat.

"I don't know what the emergency is. I just got a call that there was one," Xander replied coldly as his eyes flashed over the road, avoiding coalitions with other road-users, sometimes by swarming all the way to the wrong lane. "And if I had told you about the car, you would have said I was bragging," Xander grunted to the back seat, where Willow and Cordelia were trying their utmost best to find some space for their legs.

"Hey! Shoes off if you're going to put your feet up on the upholstery!" Xander shouted to the rear, actually looking over his shoulder as he waved through an especially dense block of traffic.

"WHATCH WHERE YOU'RE GOING!!" the females in the car shouted as the teenager flashed through the red light.

"No worries, ladies! The Xandman is an excellent driver!" he boasted, tone joking, even though the rest of him radiated a deadly seriousness. Yeah… trained by the best in the world.

Finally, the car came to a screeching halt on his driveway, Xander jumping out even before it had come to a full stop.

"This is your house?" Buffy squeaked, even as Cordelia and Willow stared in the utmost shock at the large building that oozed cameras.

"Not much, but it's home," Xander grunted as he walked up to the front door, and noticing the tell-tale red dot of the firmly locked-down security system. "Ordinateur, Je suis l'Administrateur du Système. Mon voix est mon passeport, vérifie-moi. Ouvre la porte d'entrer." Computer, I am the System Administrator. My voice is my passport, verify me. Open the door of entry.

Votre voix est vérifier, Mon Administrateur. Accès Autorisé. Your voice has been verified, My Administrator. Access authorized.

The front door clicked open, and Xander reached for the back of his belt, reaching under his jacket for the Magan he knew was there, waiting for him to draw. He knew his jacket was hiding his hand, and the gun… he really didn't want to draw it under the girls' sight.

"Krista?" he asked as he slid into the house. "Krista? What happened?"

When he didn't receive a response, Xander frowned. The AI should have answered… "Krista?"

"Who's this Krista?" Buffy demanded angrily. "And why are you speaking French to your house? And why are you sneaking around?"

"Not now, Buff," Xander hissed angrily as he slid further.

"Ah, finally!" A voice… a cold voice… sneered from Xander's beautiful designer couch. "I thought you wouldn't make it." Xander bared his teeth at the sight of the man in the couch, yet inwardly, his instincts took over and analyzed the man instantly. Medium build and weight, dark sunglasses, black jeans pants and vest. Ideal for concealing weaponry.

Yet something was off… "You have some guts, breaking into my home," Xander replied.

"I wanted to meet my opponent in person," the Terakan, for he could be nothing else, replied calmly, standing up.

"This place is under my protection, Teraka. Be gone, and I will spare you."

Buffy, Cordelia, and Willow stared open-jawed at their friend, for they no longer recognized the voice. It had become totally devoid of emotions, cold and dark. The Voice of Death, Kirika had called it. Every good assassin had it, that special infliction of voice that would carry a person's demise on it.

The Teraka assassin chuckled once. "I don't fear a child. And I see you have brought me the targets. That makes my job so much easier…"

"Your opponent is me, Terakan. We warned you. Come here and you die. This town is under protection," Xander growled dangerously, one hand tightening on Magan.

"Teraka?" Buffy asked, finally regaining her voice.

Xander dipped his head once. "Teraka is sent after you, with a multi-million dollar contract. That's why I came back."

The Terakan chuckled once again. "You don't scare me, child. Nor can you stop me. For I am Teraka…"

"You are nothing," Xander stated flatly. "Useless. Hired by second-rate people who can't hire real help."

The Terakan scowled, and charged, just as Xander had hoped he would do. In mid-charge, the man lifted his hands in a complex pattern, and a wave of lighting crashed toward Xander, who deftly ducked and rolled to his right.

"Okay, that's new," he commented as he rolled to his feet, drawing Magan as he did so. The Terakan readied himself for a second lighting bolt, the first having blasted a deep, charred hole in Xander's wall. As the Terakan recharged the spell, Xander dropped to his knee and fired, pulling the trigger over and over, even as the bullets struck home and made the Terakan dance like a puppet without strings.

As his body crashed to the ground, Xander stood up, and ejected the spent clip, and rammed home another. "Ordinateur, niveau de sécurité résolu." Computer, security level resolved.

Négative. Une personne dan le coffre-fort. Résoudre avant annuler niveau un. Negative. One person in the safe. Resolve before cancel level one.

Xander grew pale, as the reason for Krista disappearance became clear. "Krista…" he keened. "Krista…" His teeth bared, and Xander actually growled. "I will kill him if he hurt her!" he snarled, ejecting the vampire-killing rounds from Magan, and slapping in a clip of demon killers. He would tear the ass to pieces, and damned the consequences!

As Xander jumped down the stairs into the cellar, the girls were hot on his tail, and stared as the young man jumped down a level of stairs and landing in a perfect crouch enabling him to just continue his run as if uninterrupted. They ran down the stairs as fast as they could, which was pretty damn fast in Buffy's case, but it appeared as if meaningless compared to Xander, who just kept running to a walled-off section of the cellar.

The Vault Door had been breached, and Xander recognized Voltman's work. If he hurt her…

He entered the scene from his nightmare. The beautiful Vault, lined with racks of computer equipment, was pushed in a deep murky red light. Half the computers were offline, and those that were online were open, their innards connected to a laptop on which the second man was tapping away.

He glanced up the moment Xander came in. It was of no use. With his free hand, Xander grabbed the man around the neck, hefted him away from the keyboard with sheer brute force, and threw him against the nearest clear wall… which was outside the Vault. The man's back slammed into the wall, yet before he had time to fall, Xander was on him, his free left hand grabbed in a choke-hold around his neck and lifting him off the ground.

"Krista. Save his life," Xander snarled to the ceiling.

KEEP HIM AWAY!!!!!!!!

The primal scream coming from the beautiful AI sent a hot poker though Xander's heart. Magan came up as Xander let the man drop to the ground, and took a couple of steps back.

"Up," the teen commanded. The Terakan coughed, and righted himself.

"Xander, Wha…" Buffy asked, trailing off when she saw the murderous look in his eyes.

"Krista… tell me you're alright… please?" the teenager asked, voice straining.

I…he…I couldn't stop him… the voice sobbed.

"You hurt an innocent being," Xander said, coldly, eyes locking on his target, Magan pointed at the Assassin's heart. "You took an innocent Artificial Intelligence, barely six months old, and attempted to kill it. For that, I can never forgive you."

Hackboy's eyes locked on Magan. "You…you're the Golden Gun… they never told me you were the Golden Gun…"

"Yes, I am the Golden Gun," Xander growled coldly. "And you're chopped liver after I'm through with you. Just ask Frantic Franky in London, or the Demon in Maine. Oh… right… you can't, because I killed them!!"

"Artificial Intelligence…" Willow whispered. "You have an AI in your basement?"

"She wanted to live here," Xander acknowledged coldly. "I never should have agreed. Those around me only get hurt… I really wanted to save her from that."

Xander… I… I'll be fine… he never got very deep… it was just scary to feel the powerlessness of being just a computer…

"Good to hear… but first, I have some trash to deal with," Xander said, coldly.

"You can't just kill him in cold blood!" Buffy protested.

"Yes, I can," Xander answered levelly. "This piece of trash doesn't deserve to live. Like vampires and demons who hurt people, this man is a demon that doesn't deserve life. Now… die." Xander squeezed the trigger of Magan, triggering one demon-bullet into the hacker-assassin's chest. The demon round did its job, nearly tearing the man in half as the liquid explosive center detonated.

Xander…thank you… but how did you know…

"The admin module called me on my cell," Xander answer Krista. "I told you that it would come in handy."

Yes, you did…

"Now, tell me… how did they get in here? This place is a fortress. I doubt they could just have broken in," Xander asked, starting a conversation seemingly without paying attention to the shocked looks of his friends.

I…I…can you give me five minutes? Please… I'll explain everything then.

Xander lifted an eyebrow, and smiled. "You really have a lot to learn if you need five minutes to get a decent excuse," he joked.

Krista remained silent, and Xander looked worriedly at the trashed computer equipment in the Vault. He opened his mouth, and was just about to ask if something in there needed urgent fixing, something he might be able to pull off, as long as Krista was there to guide him through it.

"Xander! You just shot that man!" Buffy shouted, finally breaking out of the reverie. "He was harmless, and you just shot him!"

"Yeah!" Cordelia shouted. "Upstairs it was self-defense, no-one will dispute that… disgusting as it is to shoot a man, you did it to save yourself. But down here… you had him at your mercy and you just cold-bloodedly shot him!"

Before Willow could add her two cents, Xander had turned to them, chocolate eyes bursting fire. "What he was doing… trying to do… was a horrible and unforgivable act!" he shouted, before taking a breath and managing to calm himself. He reminded himself that he was still running hot due to what had happened to Krista, and that he needed to think things through clearly before he did something that might drive them all away from him.

"Krista is an innocent being," he went on, voice now sad rather than angry. "She's barely six months old… an Artificial Intelligence that doesn't know the darkness of the world… and that guy just assaulted her, attacked her in the depth of her being, trying to corrupt her, use her for his own means, or worse, trying to kill her!!" At the end of his little speech, Xander's voice rose to anger once more.

"That's all good and well, but it doesn't give you a reason to kill a man in cold blood! What happened to you, Xander? You wouldn't have condoned this before you left! What happened to you in Paris?" Buffy demanded angrily.

The doorbell rang. It kept ringing.

"Krista, who is it?" Xander asked, needing the break desperately.

One man between 35 and 40, glasses, tweed suit. Second, boy of about 17, short blonde hair, exotic costume.

"Giles and Oz," Buffy stated angrily. "Let's see how they think about your little escapade here, Xander!" As the three girls ran to his front door, Xander followed.

Great. Just great…that's all I needed…

"Giles! Oz! What took you guys so long!?" Buffy demanded as she threw the front door open. "Xander just shot a guy in cold blood!"

"He…he… good lord," Giles whispered, starting to clean his glasses obsessively once again. Oz merely lifted an eyebrow for a few seconds.

"Bro?" he asked, voice flat.

"The guy attacked someone I care about. A lot. I made sure she was safe, then made sure he wasn't," Xander stated coldly.

"Oh. Girlfriend?"

Xander shook his head. "Daughter," he stated, instantly regretting it the moment the word left his lips. Giles dropped his glasses. Oz, for once, showed pure and utter shock. Buffy, Willow, and Cordelia stared at him as if he had gone totally and utterly insane.

"Xander!" Buffy shouted. "She's a computer!"

Xander turned to the blonde. "She's an Artificial Intelligence, and just as alive as you are, Buffy!" he shouted. "She's alive, she has feelings, and she can very much be hurt! And just because she decided she wanted to grow up in my computer system doesn't mean that she should be hurt and abused without retribution!"

Buffy's face grew red, while Xander drew a deep breath. "Krista… your five minutes are up," he said gently to the ceiling, hoping the voice of the AI would placate Giles and Oz.

Okay… the meek voice whispered. It sounded so distraught that Giles replaced his glasses, and actually grew a compassionate look on his face, mimicking Willow's. Oz glanced to Xander.

"Can see why you wanted to protect her, Bro," he stated calmly.

Xander…I…I've got something to show you, the AI went on.

"Okay…" Xander said, voice trailing in confusion.

"This," the voice of the AI said, suddenly coming from somewhere behind them. The entire group turned around, staring at the image of a fifteen-year-old redhead looking sadly at the ground. "I…I… had technicians install a holographic reactor… they're from Quest Enterprises… They were vouched for…I didn't know… Teraka slipped in with them…and when the technicians left…they…they…"

Xander walked up to Krista, a sad look on his face. Without a word, he just drew her into a hug. She buried her face against his chest, and wept.

"Shh…" Xander finally shushed. "It's okay now… was it that bad?"

"M-more scared…than hurt… I-I just…c-couldn't…stop them," the AI sobbed. "And I was so scared…I let them in…I didn't want you to be mad…I-I didn't mean for this to happen…I…I-I just needed t-ten more minutes to get the ho-holographic r-reactor o-online before I-I could f-fight back but he w-was so fast and cut off my access…"

Xander sat down, pulling the hologram with him. She settled on his lap, pressing her beautiful holographic body against him. "It's okay now, Krista… I'm just glad you weren't seriously hurt…" he sighed. "And now you learned that Sunnydale is more dangerous than Rockport."

"Y-you're not mad?" the AI girl looked up at him with wondering green eyes.

"Heaven and Hell know how many mistakes I've made, and am still making," Xander answered. "I am not about to get angry with you for things I once did myself. I'm just glad you're okay…"

"We're not done talking, Xander!" Buffy interjected angrily. "Just because your little computer has a body now doesn't mean that you can get away with murder!"

Xander stiffened, forcing himself to relax immediately. He took Krista's face in his one hand, and turned it to Buffy, so the blonde could look the holographic red-head in the deep green eyes. "Look at her, Buffy. Just look at her! Look into those eyes, and tell me that she's not as real as Cordy or Willow! Tell me that, if you found Willow strapped to a table, a guy ripping her clothes off preparing to rape her, that you wouldn't just mow him down with your own bare hands! Because that's exactly what that guy was doing to Krista! Just because she is alive in a computer rather than in a physical form does not mean that she's entitled to be hurt without being helped!"

Buffy stared at the sad eyes of the hologram, and actually did feel her anger melting. "But…you should have gone to the police," she grunted stubbornly, if just not as angrily as before.

"Oh, sure!" Xander said sarcastically. "Yes, Mr. Police Officer, this assassin from the Order of Teraka broke into my house and hacked the sentient AI in my basement Mainframe!" He let out a chuckle. "That would have been a hit!"

Giles walked up to his charge, and put a hand on her shoulder. "Xander's right, Buffy. Teraka tried to kill someone, and Xander defended her. And, although it pains me in no small measure to see him capable of it, I understand his decision, and am forced to admit that, if the situation was different, I probably would have done the same." After those words, he walked over to where Krista was still pressing herself fearfully to Xander.

"Miss… Eh…Krista, was it?" As the hologram nodded, the librarian went on, "Pleased to make your acquaintance. My name is Rupert Giles," he finished, extending his hand.

Krista looked slightly confused at Xander, who smiled thankfully at the watcher, before nodding encouragingly to Krista. Hesitantly, the hologram extended her hand, shaking the librarian's offered hand.

Oz walked up, and just said, "Call me Oz."

"Oz," Krista replied, smiling, shaking his hand, seemingly living up now that Xander's friend seemed to be accepting of her and her status.

Willow, somewhat hesitantly, shuffled closer. "Eh…W-Willow. That's me. Willow. I…eh… never heard of an AI…eh… and…eh…I was wondering ifyoucouldexplaintomehowit'sdonebecauseI'mreallyinterestedineverythingcomputerrelated…"

Krista smiled slightly as Willow babbled. "Sure!" the hologram said enthusiastically. "It'll be great to have someone to talk shop with… Xander's a great guy but he only has the most rudimentary notions of computers…"

"Hey! I should take that as an insult, right?" Xander interjected.

"You've got other redeeming qualities," Krista said with a smile. "You're kind, helpful, and you really came through for me today… and I didn't know you looked at me as your daughter… Papa Xander."

Xander groaned. "I knew that was a mistake to say," he grunted, causing the group, Krista included, to laugh. That laugh was the last thing to abolish the remains of Buffy and Cordelia's anger, and the two girls came over to introduce themselves formally to Krista, just as the others hand done.

"Okay… if I'm gonna be the father around here, I guess it's my job to be fatherly, right?" he asked, turning to Krista. "In that case… I really want you to think about staying here. You've seen how dangerous things are here in Sunnydale, Krista… you nearly got killed because of it… and I'd really hate for anything to happen to you. Jonny, Jessie, and Hadji are already going to kill me; I don't want to add anything to it."

Krista stood up, turning to him. "How…how could I go back!?" she demanded. "Yes, I know how dangerous Sunnydale is now. And I'm an AI. I never forget. Believe me, Xander… I never will forget anything that happened here today. Not the fact that you dropped everything for me, and certainly not the fact that you were willing to put the friendship on the line with people who have been closer to you than brothers and sisters!" Buffy and Cordelia look guiltily at the ground on hearing this. "How could I walk away now that I know what is out there? I saw you kill that demon in the Quest's yard, and I heard you tell about everything that goes out here. How could I turn my back on all of that, obliterate the data I acquired, and live for the rest of my life in ignorance, now that I know how much I may be needed?

"Xander," the AI said, tone softening as she sat down next to him, "you told me that you made the choice to fight… now I'm asking…please…accept my choice to fight as well."

Xander took a couple of deep breaths. "What the hell… Jonny and the others are going to kill me anyway after everything that happened to you today. It can't get any worse than that."

Krista burst out in an exuberant smile, and threw herself across Xander's neck. "Oh, Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou, Papa Xander!"

Xander winced at the nickname. "That's almost as bad as the Golden Gun crap the underworld keeps calling me…"

Giles choked. "Golden Gun!?" he managed through his coughs. "YOU are the Golden Gun?"

Xander nodded warily. "Yes… I seem to have gotten quite a rep in the underworld… after Frantic Franky in London, that name traveled faster than I did."

"Dear Lord," Giles muttered, cleaning his glasses. "Dear Lord…"

"Why? The Terakan called him that as well," Buffy said in confusion. "What's so special about that golden gun?"

Xander rubbed the bridge of his nose. This was going to be a long evening of trying to keep Noir's secrets out of his well-meaning friends' hands.

Xander sunk to his knees in the middle of his dojo/meditation room. He had converted one of the bedrooms into a fully equipped dojo, complete with wall to wall tatami (special martial arts matting), wooden paneled walls, and a small shrine complete with a small katana stand. For the moment, the stand held the Noir-sword Kirika had given him, as well as a very costly katana he had picked up during his time in Japan.

Xander let out a breath, feeling the calmness of the place enter him, relaxing his tense muscles after a very emotionally draining evening. He just closed his eyes, and slipped into meditation, the room around him vanishing from his Mental Eye.

Krista monitored him, noting the heart rhythm finally return to normal, and the deep calming breaths that came at periodic intervals.

Let me help you, Xander… the AI whispered, not really expecting a response. She got a small affirmative grunt from the kneeling form in the middle of the room, and that was more consent than she had hoped for.

She pushed the holographic reactor to ten percent of it maximum power, raising it from the barely one percent her usual holographic body required. She knew why she had asked for the biggest reactor… it had power to spare.

Sound Vibration Room… active, Krista whispered quietly, not wanting to intrude upon the meditation Xander so desperately needed. In reality, the walls and ceiling fell away just as they had before Xander's mental eye, being replaced by an all-encompassing deep blackness. And in the middle of the Black Hole sat Xander, perpetually kneeled, sunk in deep meditation.

Slowly, Krista started playing certain vibrations at tones the human ear couldn't hope to translate, but very much had an effect on the human body. Carefully, she worked through the sound files her research had dug up, noting how Xander's body reacted to them. Some of them merely agitated him, but before he even knew he had become agitated, Krista had switched them off, going for another sample.

Her database wasn't that extensive, merely two dozen different ultra-high or ultra-low frequencies in total, and it didn't take her that long to catalogue them by the reaction they achieved within Xander.

Five minutes into Xander's meditation, Krista knew which frequencies produced a deeper relaxation, and settled on refining those.

Xander let out his breath. He didn't know what was happening… all he knew was that he was content. Relaxed. At peace. It felt as if the air around him was thick as water, and on his exact body temperature; he was neither warm nor cold, merely encompassed by the warmness of the liquid air. He had no idea of where he was, having long ago lost all sense of being and self, merely existing, no conscious thought crossed his mind.

Krista noted that her recent tuning had produced a very curious effect. Xander had moved… into a fetal position, arms wrapped tightly around the legs that had been pulled against his chest. Her monitors showed that his heartbeat was a deeply relaxed 40 beats per minute. His breathing was even and rhythmic… even if it only happened ten times per minute. Not for the first time, she wished she could monitor his brain waves. She wanted to know how he was feeling. All the functions she could read indicated Xander was in a deeply relaxed state.

Finally, after an hour, Krista slowly turned off the holographic black hole and the vibrations. Xander awoke fifteen seconds later, stretching slightly as he returned to the land of the living, as if he had just woken up after a deep and relaxing sleep.

"Wow, Krista… that was… incredible!" he said to the ceiling, unwilling to give up the peaceful glow the meditation had provoked within him.

Really? I'm so glad you liked it, Papa Xander! I did some research into relaxation methods, and found that certain frequencies have different reactions in the human body. I merely played them for you while you were meditating to figure out what they would do. What did it feel like?

"It's… hard to describe… I didn't think at the moment… couldn't think, even if I wanted to, I guess. It felt like… warm. Protected. Like the air was made of water. It felt so good…" he whispered longingly, eyes unfocused as if he tried to retrieve a particularly elusive dream.

Out here, you were in a fetal position, Krista answered, materializing her body and sitting down next to him. "Xander… I think you felt like you were back in the womb."

"Eh…" Xander grunted. "That's a good thing, right?"

Krista smiled. "I'm not an expert, Xander… in fact, my knowledge of human psychology is probably less than yours… but I do know that you appeared to be very relaxed, and whatever the case, you didn't want to wake up from it."

Xander nodded. "And I feel more relaxed than I've felt in a long time," he answered honestly. He turned to Krista. "Thank you."

Krista returned his smile. "You're welcome, Papa Xander."

"Listen, Krista… I'm going to make a phone call to Kirika… could you… you know?" he asked, not really knowing how to word it, and not hurt the young AI.

Green eyes peered curiously at him. "Know what?" she asked, honestly confused.

"You know… be otherwise occupied?" he asked, trying to word it carefully.

Krista frowned slightly, still not understanding. Xander sighed. "Could you not monitor the living room when I call?" he finally asked, deciding on just being blunt about it, and seeing where the pieces landed.

"Oh!" Krista breathed, finally understanding. "Why didn't you say you wanted the privacy mode? Really, Xander…" she said, smiling at him. "I'll be in the basement, trying to patch together the hardware that got damaged." The hologram vanished.

"Why didn't I just say I wanted privacy mode?" the teen whispered to himself as he walked to the living room. "Because I didn't know, that's why," he muttered as he entered the living room, and tapped in a telephone number from memory. He heard the phone ring, then a click followed as the line got redirected. Xander waited patiently for the line to start ringing again. He tapped in a key-code on the phone, and the line redirected again.

Finally, the ringing was continuous, and the line was picked up almost immediately.

"Hello, Mon Coeur," Xander breathed to the girl on the other side.

"Chéri," the girl said in reply, voice timbre odd for her, and Xander could just feel the happiness on the other side of the line… even though no-one else could. "How was your day?" the girl asked, knowing about Xander's first day at school. He told her about his friends, the discussions, and everything else that had transpired. He didn't omit the fact that Teraka had already penetrated his house, and attacked the young AI in the basement.

"She sounds like a great person," Kirika said after he finished the monologue. "I hope that she's alright."

Xander sighed. "I hope so too… she doesn't seem to be too affected. Just a little clingy now that she has a holographic body. The worst thing is that I don't know whether she's so composed because she's an AI, able to repair damage quickly, or because she's repressing everything." Xander sighed again, Kirika waited for him to gather his thoughts. "It's hard sometimes… she acts so much like a human that it's hard to keep in mind that she's a computer. And then something happens, or she asks something, or says something, and it's all just smashing right in your face."

"You'll just have to have patience, Mon Coeur… She sounds like a great person after everything you've told me, and it doesn't sound as if she holds it against you when you stumble," she answered calmly.

Xander nodded, even though she couldn't see it. "That's true… and she really is a great person to have around. She's been here less than a week, but I already care a lot for her, you know?" He chuckled, and went on, "and now she's given me a second nickname. I let it slip that I think of her like a daughter, and now she's calling me 'papa'."

Kirika laughed over the phone, and hearing the girl laugh was enough to make Xander burst out into laughter himself. Together, they laughed, and when it finally died down, the duo lapsed into a comfortable silence.

"So… how was your day?" Xander asked, finally breaking the silence.

"We're getting closer… my knowledge is out of date, but I'm sure we're hot on their trail. Teraka can hide, but it will never be safe," Kirika answered, voice hardening as she spoke. "We will get them, Xander. I only hope that, in the meantime, they're not making more of a nuisance of themselves than they already are."

"If the rest of those guys are anything like those two I disposed of earlier, it won't be as hard as I thought," Xander grunted.

"Don't underestimate them, Xander. Teraka didn't become as big as it is by being stupid. Those were probably just the scouts … the real Teraka Assassins are formidable opponents."

Xander swallowed. When Kirika said something like that, he could do anything but take it completely serious. "I'll keep a look out," he promised, subconsciously fingering the comforting hardness of Magan.

"I'm sure you will," Kirika said with a comforting edge to her voice that immediately relaxed Xander. Once again, they lapsed into a comfortable silence, one that made large amounts of time pass in mere seconds.

For the next half an hour, they remained silent on the phone, merely listening to the breathing of the other, before Xander finally broke the comfortable silence, and hated himself for it.

"Kirika…"

"Chéri," she answered with a smile.

"I'm sorry, Mon Coeur… I still need to go for a run, and then get some sleep…"

"I understand, Xander," Kirika said calmly. "We will talk again tomorrow?"

"Of course, Ma Chérie," he replied. "Until tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," Kirika said a final time, before hanging up.

After his fifteen kilometer run and a nice, long, hot shower, Xander fell into bed, immediately dropping like a stone into a deep sleep. His sleep was far from restful, however, and after only a couple of hours, Krista once again was forced to monitor the throes of Xander's nightmares as his youthful body twitched, and his vocal cords let out small groans and moans.

This time, however, she could do something about it. Remembering what the teenager had said, she materialized a body next to Xander's bed. Quietly, she slipped into the bed with him, drawing his strong body into a protective hug. The moaning decreased, and the twitching died down to the occasional shudder. She could still see the nightmarish frowns and twitches in his face, however, and knew that there was only one person who could calm Xander's demons… unfortunately, that person was on the other side of the world for the moment.

Unable to do anything more than she was already doing, Krista closed the holographic eyes and slipped her body into a sleep-like state. At the same time, in the basement, the second hologram was working on the servers that got damaged. There hadn't been much damage, luckily, and what little had been damaged would be replaced by Xander's friend Willow tomorrow. Krista smiled slightly as she reviewed the data on the other redhead. Willow seemed like a nice person, really good with computers… and that was a definite plus in the AI's book.

Sooner than she wanted, her internal clock went off. Upstairs, the Krista in Xander's bed didn't stir. In the basement, the second Krista simply halted her work, and debated for a few seconds whether or not to materialize a third incarnation. Deciding that she wanted to test the holographic reactor further before trying too much, the AI decided against the third holographic option. The second hologram was clean in under a second as she winked out of existence, only to rematerialize mere moments later.

Smiling as the program kicked in, the hologram bounced up the stairs and disappeared into the kitchen. Only half an hour later, a voice could be heard from the room. "Hmm… looks like I get to test the reactor after all."

Xander penetrated the wall between sleep and awakening. Drifting in the half-sleep that was the no-man's-land between sleep and reality, his mind tried to figure out the conflicting sensations it was receiving.

Krista opened her holographic eyes, and watched Xander as the boy groaned, and actually seemed to cuddle closer to her. A smile crept on her face, even if she had no idea what to do next, and simply continued to hold the teenager as he started to make his way to full awakening.

In his dream-like state, Xander felt instead of thought, his mind unable to come up with real thoughts. To him, it felt as if he were in the arms of Kirika. But then he realized that it couldn't be her, since she was in the Middle East. And it didn't really feel like her…

Xander's eyes snapped open, staring directly into a pair of curious green ones. Letting out a startled scream, the assassin jumped up and back out of the bed, landing into an attack pose, staring in total and utter bewilderment at the girl in his bed.

"Krista!? What are you doing in my bed!?" he screamed, louder than he had intended, and obviously it came across harsher than he had intended as the AI seemed to shrink into herself, staring at the covers as she sat up, revealing the white nightgown the AI had put on her holographic body.

"I… I… didn't mean anything," the girl whispered sadly, hugging herself. "I only wanted to help…"

"Help!?" Xander asked, still harsher than he intended, only now starting to calm down from his adrenaline rush. "By crawling into bed with me?" he asked, voice flattening out.

Krista played a little with the bed covers. "I… last night… you were having a nightmare, and I remember what you said that first night… about being alone gave you nightmares… so I… I…" The AI buried her face in her hands, and cried.

Immediately, Xander felt like the world's biggest jerk. He sat down next to the sobbing girl, and pulled her into a deep hug. "And you tried to comfort me, and the first thing I do is yell at you," he whispered as he held her. "I'm so sorry, Krista. I'm such a jerk…"

"W-when y-you l-looked at m-me like t-that… I… I…"

Xander held the sobbing girl tighter. "I know, sweetheart. I know… I'm sorry, Krista. I was surprised, startled… I didn't know… please… forgive me?"

He felt the AI calm down in his arms, and sit up straight. He relaxed his hold on her so they could look at each other. "Sure," she said, smiling slightly. "I shouldn't have jumped into bed with you… I didn't know you would react so strongly."

Xander let out a breath. "Sleeping together is a very intimate thing for us humans," he explained. "It's the ultimate show of trust to let someone be close when you're completely helpless… that's why I jumped when I woke up. I felt someone in the bed with me, but I didn't know who or what… so I jumped. I'm sorry, Krista."

"Stop saying that!" the girl protested, getting up from the bed. "Anyway, you should get dressed… I made breakfast."

"Breakfast?" Xander asked, instantly perking up. Food! His favorite! Sniffing the air, he was rewarded by the smell of pancakes. And hot coffee. "Smells great!"

"Then you'd better get ready," Krista said with a wide smile, right before vanishing. "You wouldn't want it to get cold…" the hologram vanished.

Xander jumped from the bed, and dove for his wardrobe. While gathering his wardrobe for today, he kept smelling. There's not only pancakes… but what is it? I can't get it…Damn, that girl knows how to make someone curious, he thought to himself as he disappeared into his private bathroom, and disappeared under the shower.

Ten minutes later, while coming downstairs, he was greeted by Krista, dressed normally in a black t-shirt, matching black jeans, and a pair of black sneakers. "Good morning," she greeted.

"Good morning, take two," Xander agreed with a smile, making the girl laugh.

"Come on, your food will get cold," Krista urged him, taking his hand, and dragging him into the kitchen/breakfast room. Xander swallowed, and his mouth fell open.

"Is something wrong?" the girl asked, seeing his reaction. Her voice was tiny, holding a fearful edge in it.

Xander shook his head as he scanned the table. Pancakes. Waffles. Sausages. Beans. Bacon and eggs. Bread that had obviously been homemade. All kinds of meats, jams, cheeses and jellies. Toast. Fruit juice. Coffee. Cereals. Milk. "Krista… this… it's…"

"You don't like it?" her voice was even tinier now.

"It's… overwhelming," he finished. "Wow. That's all I can say… wow."

"You like it?" Krista asked, smiling hopefully.

"Yeah!" Xander agreed readily. "I like it!"

"I didn't know what you liked, so I made a bit of everything," the AI said, motioning to all the dishes that were expertly displayed and garnished. Xander had never seen food look this appetizing before, and his stomach made the fact that it hadn't eaten since yesterday evening more than known.

"It's enough to feed an army," Xander said as he sat down, and started delving into the pancakes, pouring an ample amount of maple syrup over them before delving in.

"But you haven't seen the cake yet!" the Ai protested, opening the refrigerator to reveal one of the biggest pineapple upside-down cakes Xander had ever seen. So big he almost chokes on a more-than-mouthful of pancakes.

He hurriedly swallowed. "That is one big cake!" he brought out. "And really tasty-looking too," he added, making the AI beam a huge smile at him.

"But really… it's too much for just me," Xander said, before shoveling some more pancakes into his mouth. A little bit disappointed, Krista looked around the kitchen to the food. "How did you manage this, anyway?" the teen finally found time to ask after he finished his mouthful.

Krista smiled. "Well, the holographic reactor has enough energy to let me do this," the AI said, replicating a second, third, and fourth version of herself. "You can not imagine how much faster the work goes when you have eight, ten, or twelve hands," the four Kristas said at the same time, before vanishing and leaving only one version in their place.

"Neat," Xander said while chewing on some blueberry waffles with powder sugar.

"I'm just a little sad… all this food will go to waste," Krista said. "All those people who're hungry, and we're throwing away food…"

Xander blinked. How does she do that? She's like an emotional rollercoaster. She goes from one extreme to the next… I certainly hope it's because she's an AI, and not because of a trauma because of yesterday…

"How about we invite the gang? With all of us, I'm sure we'd be better suited to give all these nice dishes a good home," he suggested.

Krista exploded in exuberance. "Great idea!" the AI screamed. "I'll go call them! Be right back!"

True to her word, Krista was back within five minutes, where Xander was still going at the food, albeit a little slower than when he started. "Are they coming?" he asked. Krista's voice processor could pick up the underlying tones of stress. Careful analysis gave the most likely cause of said stress: fear.

"Yep. They're all coming… although Buffy wouldn't come until I told her about free food." The AI frowned slightly. "Papa Xander? How does being a female dog equate into this?"

Xander halted eating, and looked in total confusion at the AI, who just stared back at him, just as confused about his reaction as he was about her last question.

"What do you mean, Krista?"

"Buffy told me I was a female dog," Krista answered levelly. "I merely wanted to know why she would do so… I most definitely do not resemble any member of the entire canis genus."

"Eh… what did she say exactly?" Xander asked, still not understanding completely, although he was beginning to have vague suspicions. Krista's choice of wording did not deter from his confusion, however.

"Why are you calling so early, you little bitch?" Krista quoted, using Buffy's voice et al. "I merely answered that I had made breakfast and that I was calling to invite her…" Krista trailed off when she saw a dangerous glint in Xander's eyes. "Papa Xander? Is everything alright?"

Xander's fist clenched and Krista could see his fork deforming under the power the boy's grip was putting into it. When he finally spoke, his voice was cold and devoid of any sort of emotional inflection. "Krista, she insulted you… and most women would have ripped her to shreds over that word."

"Oh," the young AI replied. "Really, Xander. You humans place too much value in words. Calling me a female dog is no more insulting than calling someone an illegitimate offspring… both have zero value." She shook her head. "Two world wars… and they still haven't learned," she grunted to herself as she turned to refill the food on the table with the food on the dishes on the counter.

Xander took a couple of deep breaths to center himself. "Well, for us emotional humans, that was something that could blow up friendships…"

"Over a stupid word?" Krista asked, not understanding.

"Sometimes words can hurt more than physical attacks," Xander answered with a sigh.

"Oh…" Krista whispered. "If you say so…"

Xander sighed, and smiled. "You really are a good person, Krista… most people I know would have charged Buffy if she said that to them…"

"Promise me you won't?" the AI asked, turning back to Xander. "I don't want you arguing with your friends over something as trivial as a word."

Xander sighed. "Okay… for you, Krista."

He continued eating breakfast, partly because he really did enjoy it. Krista made a formidable cook, apparently, and Xander soon forgot all about the nasty events as he continued to make his way through.

Soon, though, the doorbell rang, and Krista motioned to Xander to remain sitting as she went to open the door. They all filed in at the same time: Cordelia, Willow, Buffy, Oz, and Giles, leading Xander to the conclusion that Giles and Cordelia had either joined up on his driveway, or come here in convoy. Either way, the entire group was here, staring at the food, and were soon tucking in.

"Great food," Oz complimented Krista. "Lucky you, bro," he said to Xander.

"Thank you," Krista answered politely, smiling broadly as Willow joined the compliment.

"I say… this is the best tea I've had since coming to this country," Giles said, savoring the cup he held.

"I have done my best, Mr. Giles," Krista answered honestly. "I wasn't sure about the right amount of tea leaves, so I made a guess based on the texture and the most likely result on the human tongue."

"Well, the result is remarkable," Giles answered easily, actually smiling at the young AI. Krista smiled happily that Giles approved of her tea. The tea really had been her greatest worry, and to find an expert enjoying it was a great personal triumph.

"I still can't believe you killed someone so cold-blooded yesterday," Buffy finally opened her mouth for the first time.

Xander's face darkened. "I killed to protect someone I care about, Buff, and I explained it yesterday. Jut like you would kill to protect Will or Cordelia, I killed to protect Krista. And don't give me any of that 'not killing humans' crap, because I know you killed those three earlier assassins of the order of Teraka that came this way."

"I killed to protect myself! Myself and other human beings! Human Beings, Xander! Real people with hearts, and souls! Not just… that… that… state-of-the-art sex doll!" Buffy shouted.

Something snapped within Krista at that moment. Her emotional balance depended heavily upon a program to counterbalance her most extreme of emotions, keeping her from losing control at all times. The moment Buffy uttered her enraged words, Krista felt her emotional subroutines explode. The counterbalance program had never been tested like this; it had never been designed to withstand this kind of abuse in the first place. It had been designed to operate in an AI which would be supported kindly, not treated like dirt.

The counterbalance program was unable to cope, the entire process crashing deep within Krista's kernel memory, the deepest, most well-protected part of her entire program.

It was as if her entire soul froze at that instant, and it only took a few tenths of a second before failsafe upon failsafe exploded into action, the ripples of the shock traveling through all of the poor AI's thought processes, disrupting vital functions left and right. The holographic reactor, tied directly to Krista's program, translated the shock the best it could.

To the others, had they actually been paying attention, they would have just seen Krista's eyes open slightly wider than was humanly possible, before freezing up for a second. Then, the hologram shimmered in and out of existence, making the bowl of jell-o shatter on the cold, hard stones in a thousand shards, the red substance creating a bright supernova as it splattered on the black marble floor tiles.

Krista reappeared, her kernel processes restoring rapidly, her emotional subroutines in overdrive. Some words hurt harder than physical pain, Xander's voice repeated in her non-volatile memory. I… I understand now… the AI thought as she buried her face in her hands in a subconscious copy of what she had seen on television, and wept.

Xander sat there, frozen for just a few seconds, everyone staring at Buffy in non-believing shock of what the blonde had just said, Krista's sobbing sounds the only distraction of the oppressive silence. Finally, his mind tore itself from the vicious self-defeating loop with brutal will-power. Ignoring Buffy totally, he strode to Krista, gathered her in his arms, and with surprising tenderness in his voice, whispered, "I'm sorry, Krista…"

Buffy opened her mouth, about to demand Xander to face her and stop fooling around with his pet computer, when Willow exploded. She had worked with the AI yesterday, taking stock of the damaged equipment that needed repairing. She had met the person in the computer, the vibrant personality that was Krista, in whatever form she decided to take.

Krista was her friend. And Buffy had just hurt her.

"BUFFY!!!! How could you? Krista has never done anything to you, and she certainly doesn't deserve to be talked about like that!" the usually shy red-head shouted, everybody staring at her in shock, not believing that the usually shy and quiet Willow was able to tell somebody off like this. "And about Xander killing to protect her, well, we talked yesterday. I met her. I got to know her. And let me tell you, Buffy, she is real! As real as you and me! Xander's right… if-if it h-had been anybody else… you would w-would h-have done the same thing…" the redhead tapered off once she realized that she had been shouting.

"That's the point, Will," Buffy replied after getting her bearing back. She went on as if explaining something to a particularly stupid child. "It wasn't you. It was a machine. It doesn't matter what happens to it… it's not alive! Xander killed somebody who was alive for an oversized microwave oven! Granted, the man he killed was scum, but it was still a man!"

Krista tensed, burying her face against Xander's chest as he hugged her tighter. He glared at Buffy, but forced himself to remain with Krista. The AI needed him more, and the last thing she needed was for him to pull back and have a go at Buffy. Not while the AI still needed him. He promised that he would talk to Buffy. After Krista was alright.

Willow, on the other hand, had no such obligation, and her face grew as red as her hair. Oz' eyes opened wider. "Woa."

"But she IS alive, Buffy! LOOK AT HER!!! She's a young girl! A young girl that got hurt terribly yesterday, and that you are now in the process of hurting even more!"

Buffy shrugged, and made the fatal mistake of misreading Willow's anger. "You really need to start getting a clue, Will. I know you like computers and all that… but this time, you're going too far. That," she said, nodding viciously in Krista's direction, "is nothing but a bunch of ones and zeroes."

Xander hugged Krista tighter still, resisting the urge to growl as his inner spirits raged. Krista could feel his entire muscular body tensing, Her only response was to hug him tighter, wanting… needing… to feel the safety and protection his close proximity meant to her. Nobody short of Jonny, Jessie, or Hadji, and possibly not even them, could give her the same feeling.

Once again, Willow shouted, now actually standing up from her seat. "Woa," Oz repeated, actually shuffling his seat slightly away from Willow.

"LOOK AT HER!!!" the redhead screamed once more. "That bunch of ones and zeroes is right there, crying in Xander's arms! Look at her and tell me she's not alive! Tell me that it's a cold machine that deserves to be hurt! Tell me she's not someone you could just meet in the street, and protect from the evil of the night!"

Buffy just threw a theatrical look at where Xander was still comforting Krista, just as a means of being able to say "There, I looked. And now what?". Instead, she looked…and saw. She saw a hurt fifteen-year-old girl being held by Xander. Krista turned her head, saw green eyes staring at the blonde from over Xander's strong, protective arm.

Buffy's brown eyes opened as she looked. Really looked, for the first time, at the young Artificial Intelligence that was Krista. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and in Buffy's case, she saw more of a soul than she had ever thought. For that fleeting moment that her sight glanced over Krista, Buffy saw more pain than she could ever have imagined, so bad that the blonde reversed for a second look.

For ten long seconds, they stared at each other, the hurt AI and the angered Slayer, before Buffy whispered, "What have I done? God, what have I done?"

"Hurt one of the gentlest beings I know," Xander grunted under his breath.

Standing up from the chair, the Slayer turned to where Xander was still cradling Krista in his arms, the redheaded AI looking up and looking fully in Buffy's direction as the blonde did so.

"I'm so sorry Krista… I… I didn't realize…" Buffy whispered sadly.

The AI detached from Xander, nodding in response to his questioning look, showing him that she was alright. "That's alright," Krista answered, a smile, albeit a very small one, visible on her face. "It probably wasn't easy on you either…"

"K-Krista?" Xander asked, shocked. The rest of the people present just gawked at the hologram.

"I've explained before, Papa Xander… my emotions come from programs. Mere memories the moment the situation is resolved, that is all," Krista answered his shocked inquiry. Turning to Buffy, the AI continued, "You have hurt me deeply, Buffy… more deeply than I had ever imagined possible. Yet, one of the reasons I wanted to stay here, with Xander, was to learn more of the 'real world', to be exposed to real people… and I guess this has been a major learning experience, and for that I can only thank you."

Buffy gaped, jaw riding the floor tiles, hand covering the open orifice as the blonde tried to wrap her mind around what had happened. She had seen the hurt, that gut-wrenching, bone-crunching hurt radiate from Krista's eyes, yet now she was pulling a rapid recovery the likes of which she never would have believed possible, underlining the difference between human and AI.

"But… but… what I said… I… could see your pain…" Buffy managed, choking back a sob.

"I am a computer, Buffy… I will never forget what you said," Krista answered levelly. "But, for as long as those memories remain in my database, and I am not actively replaying them, the emotional attachment is missing."

"So… that's how you…" Willow asked, not really knowing how to word her question. Krista smiled gently, and nodded.

"That's how I am able to regain my emotional balance extremely quickly. The moment the situation is resolved, the emotional program has no more references to lock on to… and thus, the emotions change to whatever is at hand."

"In other words, you're too forgiving," Xander grunted, finally stepping next to the redhead, glaring at Buffy. "What you said was unforgivable, Buff."

"I…I…" Buffy whispered, sadly bowing her head.

"Don't fight over me, Papa Xander! Your friends are important to you! I knew that the moment you told me about them, and I can't have you lose them over something like this!" Krista interjected, actually putting a restraining hand on his arm.

"You're important as well, Krista," Xander answered calmly. "As important as my friends are, so are you. As I would protect them, I will protect you. And Buffy hurt you… hurt you more than that bastard yesterday. And when she hurt you, she hurt me. And that is not something I can forgive easily." He turned to gaze at Buffy, eyes cold. "You hurt a being that I have sworn to protect, Buffy. A being I promised to help mature, reach new insight, and protect. She is one of the most gentle creatures I know, and you hurt her to the depth of her very soul!"

"I KNOW!!" Buffy shouted angrily. "Oh, God, Xander! I knew the moment I looked into her eyes and I saw that pain! It's something I'll never forget! God, Xander, what do you take me for? Some cold-hearted killer? I don't know what happened to you over those ten months, but whatever it is, it's changed you… the old Xander never would have killed so coldly!"

"Shows how good you know me, Buff. I always would have killed to protect any of you… and Krista is as dear to me as any of you are," Xander grunted coldly. "But at least now we're getting somewhere… why don't you throw it all out?" he challenged.

"You want it all, Xander!? Fine. Where have you been those ten months? Why didn't you leave a message? Why didn't you contact us? What happened to you? Where did you get all this from? You left with nothing, return with an Aston Martin for a car, a huge house, an Artificial Intelligence you found God-knows-where, and with obviously more money than God!"

Xander forced himself to remain utterly calm. Harder said than done, he closed his eyes as his mouth scowled slightly. Slamming down with Titanium Will, he invoked Noir within his mind, and immediately felt his emotions shut down completely. It forced him to think clearly for the first time since Buffy started laying into Krista, and it made him realize how close he had been to just ripping Buffy's head off.

The prospect would have frightened him if his emotions had still been present, a realization he could feel deep within his sealed soul, where his emotions still dwelled. Xander opened his eyes, looked at Buffy, thoughts forming.

"I just couldn't leave a message, Buffy… I didn't want to be found at that moment, I needed to get away. As to what happened to me… I trained. I found me two teachers. They trained me. Saved my soul, heart, mind, and body. Without them, it's doubtful I would ever be here. As to the money, I've had some luck on the stock markets." Or more like Monsieur Bertrand had some luck on the markets, Xander thought silently.

Buffy's eyes flashed up again, anger returning to her beautiful face as she prepared round two. "Again with the secrets! Why can't you just give us a straight answer, Xander!?"

Krista sighed, stepping in between the two people. "If you're going to fight like little children, why don't you just go at each other with your fists!?" the AI semi-shouted, seemingly incapable of becoming angry.

Xander and Buffy glared at each other. "Fine," the Slayer grunted, feral smile growing on her face.

Xander took a breath. Logic dictates that I should pound some sense into her, he thought. Even though she's a Slayer… Kirika can't match her strength, but is faster and better trained. And she taught me to fight opponents four times my strength and speed. "Fine," he grunted as well, stunning the audience.

"Hey… I was joking…" Krista protested weakly as Xander stood up to precede the group to the dojo. As he did so, Willow stopped him.

"Xander! You can't fight Buffy! The Slayer thing and all… she…she will kill you!" the redhead shouted.

"I must agree with Willow in this. It is foolishness to fight Buffy over what is a simple argument," Giles added in. Xander sighed as he looked from the redhead to thee librarian, and then slowly over the other people present. Cordelia actually looked like she might be enjoying this, and Oz was pretty much neutral, although he too seemed to hold a slightly negative look in his eyes.

"That's where you're wrong, Giles," Xander answered calmly. "This isn't a simple argument… Buffy attacked someone I care deeply about, in my own home. And she didn't do it just once, she did it twice. And then she continues to hold over me that she no longer trusts me over my past ten months… so I want to show that I've changed a lot, and show her that I'm still the same guy at the same time."

"And you want to earn her trust by fighting her!? Oh, that's rich! I've got to remember that one!" Cordelia shouted, laughing like a fool.

"No, I want to fight her to prove to her that all things are not what they seem, and that, given the proper motivation, there are no limits to what a person can do," Xander replied, voice still utterly calm.

Krista looked him over, her sensors scanning his entire physiological structure. Heartbeat, 50 beats per minute. Respiration, below normal. All visible evidence points to a state of utter relaxation. He isn't the least bit worried… Krista turned her intense green gaze to Buffy. I can sense the Slayer changes in her from here. Her muscular structure is incredibly dense, her heart thumps louder than average indicating larger capacity, her lungs breathe slower indicating enhancements in breathing control. But her physical evidence points to nervousness. She's hampered by adrenaline and endorphins… in other words, she isn't thinking straight.

Krista smiled slightly. From what he told me, Papa Xander can take on a vampire hand-to-hand without serious difficulties. A Slayer, up to par with a vampire, shouldn't be much harder. And a Slayer not firing on all cylinders could prove entertaining, although not necessarily challenging so.

"I see," Krista heard Giles say. "But it isn't going to return her trust."

"According to human psychological research, Mr. Giles is correct," Krista supplied helpfully.

"Well, it isn't my decision to make," Xander finished. "Buffy was the one who wanted to fight."

"And I stick with it," the blonde Slayer said, standing up to follow Xander. "Come on, Xander. Show me what the big secrets are."

Xander sighed, and nodded. "This way," he said, motioning for the door, through which Buffy disappeared. Xander was right behind her, forcing the rest of the people to follow, or be left behind… and no matter how much they were against this fight, this was something they didn't want to miss.

They emerged in Xander's spacious dojo, where Xander immediately shed his jacket, standing dressed only in his pants. His upper body was naked to the people present as he went though a slight warm-up that made his clearly defined muscles ripple underneath his skin. Willow glowed pink at the sight of Xander half-naked. Cordelia found it hard to keep her eyes off his muscular chest and back.

Buffy just grinned, awaiting him to do his thing. Finally, he stood still, facing her, both people erect, hands on their sides, not moving.

"You wanted this," Xander stated, calmly.

"I did… I do," the Slayer corrected. "You can still avoid this, Xander. Tell me what happened."

"I already told you. I found teachers, went to Paris, and studied," Xander grunted in reply. Buffy charged him at a moment's notice.

Xander side-stepped, grabbed the angered Slayer's extended wrist, and gave a short jerk. Using her speed and power against her, Xander flipped Buffy on her back, then jumped back to put distance between him and her, calmly awaiting her, in much the same way as he would wait for Kirika.

All warriors advertise their movements. The trick is to minimize your own and learn to read ahead of your opponent's movements. Using this technique, you can negate any and all speed advantages your opponent might have, as long as you stay slightly out of their reach. Distance is directly proportional to the speed of attack… the greater the distance, the more time you have. But remember, this goes true for your opponent as well. Don't give him too much time to think, Xander repeated Kirika's lesson inside his head.

Buffy skipped up, jumped up and twisted 180 degrees and landed in a combat stance, feet barely touching the ground before she launched at Xander. Her right fist balled, so Xander dodged to his right, grabbing her swing in mid-strike, and once more using the speed of attack against Buffy, flipped her on her back.

She's a Slayer. She has strength and speed. And the arrogance of being a superior fighter… she makes no pretence of trying to hide her next move. That is her undoing, Xander analyzed. Subconsciously, one of the earliest lessons Kirika taught him came back to his mind. The difference between a good warrior and a great warrior is being prepared for that on in a million chance, the chance for a vampire to know martial arts, to be able to use a weapon, to be smarter than the average.

Xander smiled slightly. Kirika taught me well. Having strength and speed thanks to the Slayer ability is one thing. Having the mind and heart to back it up another… and she is sorely lacking in that regard.

Buffy, meanwhile, he skipped up, and was studying him. Good, Xander thought to her. Think, Buffy.

The Slayer growled. "That Aikido stuff isn't going to work forever," the Slayer promised, charging Xander. The teen could see the preparations for a leg shot. He stepped back to avoid the hit, then ducked, and went after her supporting leg with a leg-swipe of his own. To his utter surprise, Buffy jumped up and over the swipe, rolling backward in mid-air, and landing out of reach of his leg.

Not letting him a chance to get up, she charged, intent on pummeling him into the hospital, her anger flaring as she thought of him putting her on her back twice. Finally, Xander faced the Slayer at full power. Brutal, uncontrolled, raw power and sheer speed. She didn't think, just reacted, throwing punches and kicks at Xander, forcing him to dance back, dodge and swipe out of the way of her charges. He didn't find the opening he needed to launch a counter. In fact, it was all he could do to stay out of her reach and remain relatively unscathed.

Damn… she's like Kirika! Xander thought, fighting to remain in control, fighting against the rising anger of the spirits within him. If he lost control now, he could seriously hurt Buffy. And the last thing he wanted to do was hurt her. He was confident of Kirika being able to handle him when he lost it. Buffy, on the other hand, would be totally caught off-guard, and the surprise would get her killed. He had seen and felt how his inner demons could take over, what damage they could do when cut loose. The Demon in Main was the ideal evidence… hand-to-hand, with nothing but an energy weapon, he had taken down an invulnerable opponent.

Buffy was nothing near invulnerable.

Her fist drove into his stomach, his defense slipping as he fought for control. Doubling over, he saw her knee approaching his face. Reacting by pure instinct, he let him fall to his right side, rolling clear of Buffy and her attack. Xander kept in the roll until he was on his feet, pushed up, and charged, feeling energy well up within him. His foot was blocked as it struck toward her cheek. Immediately, he reversed, ducked low, and swept a full 360° just above the floor, the same foot going for Buffy's feet from the left.

The Slayer leaped up, intend on landing either on him, or extremely close to him. Xander saw it. There was no escape. Unless…

The power exploded within him, and Xander seemed to flow like water, clear of the danger zone, the inner spirits momentarily fueling his body. He could feel the Hyena slamming into his mind's shields, threatening to overwhelm him, raging for control, for power, for the right of control over Xander's body. Every time… every damn time…the Hyena gets stronger.

Buffy landed in a hard crouch on the wooden floor, jumping to her feet and charging after Xander. Her fist flew toward his face as she yelled, "Just tell me, dammit! Why did you go!? Why didn't you just tell us!?!"

Her fist struck the fighting Xander solidly on the jaw, snapping his head back. Xander went with the motion, instincts surfacing once more, lessening the impact of the blow by turning it over in a full-body rotation instead of just his head. He landed with feet spread, head bent, staring at the floor, breathing deeply. Buffy momentarily halted her charge as she saw him standing there, as if lost in his own world.

He looked up, and charged, face a mask of non-emotions, as if the world in general and pain in particular had no interest to him. He was cold, devoid of emotion as he charged. Buffy blocked two strikes solidly on her arms, feeling the strength and speed behind the blows, somewhat surprised that Xander could generate this kind of power.

Finally, he snapped a kick to her side, which connected and lifted the Slayer practically off the mats. She landed, grabbing hold of his leg on the return, and pushing him over using all of her Slayer strength. There was no stopping the push, Xander's human physiology overcome by Buffy's sheer Slayer-enhanced power and strength.

As he fell, she dropped down on top of his, clamping his leg between his chest and her arm in what appeared to be a variation of a wrestling move. Her other rm lifted, and threw a punch at Xander's head. He managed to snap his head out of place just in time.

"Tell me, damn you!" Buffy raged. "Why didn't you tell us!?"

"Because I wanted to DIE!" Xander shouted in answer, stunning the entire group. Buffy's attacked lapsed, and Xander threw her off him, and stood up, his leg that had been folded mere moments earlier not in the least bit hampered.

"I was looking for a place to die, and I didn't want to give it to some bloody vampire! That's why I didn't look here in Sunnydale, but I went to LA! That's when I met my teachers. They were attacked by vampires, and I thought 'to hell with all of this. If I go, at least I'll be doing something good with my life!' That's why I didn't want to tell…" Xander whispered, trailing off. "I wanted to die… I had nothing left… haven't had parents in a long time… Buffy was busy with Angel… Giles with Buffy… Willow… I just…couldn't…"

The floodgates had finally opened, the pain stored deep within his soul finally releasing. Xander started sobbing, covering his eyes with his hand, wiping at the tears. "I…just…couldn't…" His voice broke then, and he sobbed incoherently into his hand, not even realizing the group had approached him until Krista hugged him, the hologram not forgotten how he had held her mere half an hour ago.

Then Willow hugged him. The first of the Scoobies to reach out to him, but certainly not the last, as Buffy joined in the hug. Giles just stood there for a few seconds after that, deciding to forego the male stereotype, and joined in the hug.

Cordelia was uncomfortable, not really sure what to make of all this. Oz watched her. Finally, he reached out, and stood right next to Giles in the group-hug. The cheerleader as last, finally sighed, nodded to herself, and joined in.

"We're so sorry, Xander," Buffy whispered through her tears. "We never realized… how much we took you for granted… but I promise. We'll make time now. For all of us…"

The rest of the group agreed audibly, causing Xander to laugh through his tears, nodding thankfully at Buffy. "Thank you… all of you."

After school, Xander walked out of the building, making a beeline for the Aston Martin, deciding on first doing the ton of homework he had stashed in his attaché case, before having a nice long workout with Krista. Thanks to all the problems yesterday he hadn't had a chance to train… and the last thing he wanted was for his body to start withering away.

Xander had planned as far ahead as the nice, long, hot shower he was going to take after what he hoped would be an extra intense workout, when Willow came running up, slowing abruptly to his pace as she caught up to him.

"Hey, Xander. Can I hitch a ride? I-I kinda have some stuff left to do with Krista," the redhead said.

"Sure, Will. No problem," Xander said with his easy smile. For the first time since his return, the smile really did feel easy. "No homework today?" he finally asked after ten seconds of silence, which took them virtually near the car.

"Oh, I did it all during the Scooby Meeting. Study hour and all… which we have and you don't, so I guess you'll have lots of work at home which I want interrupt because I'll be in the basement with Krista…"

"Breathe, Will," Xander said gently as they reached the car, and he keyed the remote to open the doors. Willow took a much-needed breath.

"Oh. Breathing good," she whispered enthusiastically after the red color of her face lessened.

Xander chuckled as he dumped himself behind the steering wheel, and Willow climbed in the passenger seat next to him. As Xander gunned the engine into life, a familiar female voice announced,

"Hello Papa Xander. Hello Willow. How was school?"

Both teenagers stared at the dash for ten long seconds, Xander just having his eyebrows lifted off his forehead, while Willow stared with open mouth.

"What?" Krista asked. When she got no answer, she repeated, whining slightly, "Wha-at?"

"Eh… Krista… what are you doing in my car?" Xander asked, voice flat in surprise.

"Bleutooth!" the AI cried happily. "The car has a Bluetooth radio-based data-communication access point built in, so all I had to do was port my kernel over to Linux, then transmit it via Bluetooth to the car's computer. So, I can now control this car as well as you can. Watch this!" the AI cried excitedly, shifting the car into first gear, and slamming on the accelerator.

The Aston Martin smoked rubber as it peeled off the school parking lot, and onto the streets. Krista shifted into second gear, screamed with joy, and accelerated further. At this time, the car was doing the high side of 100 kilometers an hour, and Xander grabbed the wheel, forcing his feet down on the pedals.

"Krista! Let me drive!" he shouted. To his utter surprise, not to mention horrible shock, Krista immediately released the controls, making Xander swerve e over three lanes trying to get the car under control. He managed without too much difficulty, but he was still wiping at his forehead by the time he got the car down to the legal limit, not to mention on the correct lane.

"Come on, that was fun!" Krista burbled.

Xander let out his breath. "First thing I'll do is give you some driving lessons…" Xander replied calmly. He took a second breath, letting it out even slower than the first. "Krista?"

That one word told the AI everything she needed to know. She was in a world of trouble. Xander was pissed. She would have swallowed heavily had she been able to do so.

"Yes, Papa Xander?" the AI asked in the sweetest, most innocent voice she could create, hoping to pacify his wrath before it wiped her hard-drives…

"Next time, ask before you take control over anything away from me. K?" he asked in a flat emotionless voice. Yet, even to Krista who didn't understand human tones all that well, that simple question wasn't a question. It was a directive.

"Yes, Papa Xander," the AI replied, voice tiny and chastised. "I'm sorry… I…I wouldn't hurt you… you've got to believe me! I just thought it would be fun!"

"And that's all that's keeping me from being really mad, Krista," Xander replied, smile returning slightly.

"Eep," Willow finally breathed.

"Will? You okay?" Xander asked, suddenly very worried abut his friend.

"Eh… fine… Am I fine?" she asked, turning to Xander with flat eyes.

"You're fine, Willow," Xander reassured his friend.

"Oh. Good. I'm fine, Xander," Willow said, as if answering his earlier question. She turned once more to the front window, before returning to him a final time. "What happened?"

"Krista misjudged a situation… thought it would be fun to take the Aston Martin for a joy-ride," Xander answered calmly. "No harm done… although I'm happy the cops didn't pull us over. They'd suspend my license on the spot." And then I'd have to ask Mireille to make me another. Damn paperwork hassle…

For the next five minutes, the two teenagers rode in silence, after which they finally reached Xander's home.

"I'm going upstairs," Xander told Willow the moment they had cleared the front door. "You know… homework and all. Have fun with Krista downstairs."

Willow smiled at her friend, and nodded. "I will," she replied before Xander turned and walked up the stairs and vanished from her sight.

The redhead made her way to the basement, and stopped in front of the huge door. Vault access granted, a gruff voice answered the moment she stopped. The red light on the security panel to its side clicked to green, and the door swiveled open on hydraulic hinges.

"Never be sure," Krista answered Willow's unspoken question. "Good to see you again, Willow…" the AI said, a little insecure.

"Good to see you too, Krista," Willow answered with a small smile, clutching her back to her body. "I've got those cables you wanted…"

Krista beamed her a smile. "Thank you." The AI motioned for the Vault room, and the duo walked over. "I'm sorry, Willow…"

"For what?" the redheaded girl asked, not really understanding.

"For just now," the Artificial Intelligence answered, staring sadly at the floor. "I didn't mean to scare you."

"H-hey! We're okay," Willow reassured her new friend. "C-come, let's install those cables and see if we can't get all your back-up systems running again!"

"Cool," Krista said, smiling broadly, preceding Willow into the Vault itself.

Five minutes later, both hologram and teenaged girl were bent over a ripped-open server case that used to be part of a rack, but had been seriously compromised by the Hackman.

"This… this is horrible," Willow muttered sadly. "Krista, what system was this?"

"It was a backup file server, used for medium to long-term storage of secondary and tertiary kernel systems… nothing vital, but really handy for when the worst happens. It was like a back-up brain…" the AI answered levelly. "The replacement parts arrived today, but I'll need you to do some basic configurations for me."

"Why?" Willow asked, frowning. "Surely you can type on a keyboard just as well as I can!"

Krista sadly shook her head. "I don't know how, and I'm forbidden to learn. Jonny, Jessie, and Hadji called it the human factor… once a human being destroys my computer equipment, I am forbidden to restore that system until a human unlocks it. It's a failsafe for in case my program either becomes unstable or my system kernel is compromised. If I ever were to turn on someone, all you'd have to do is take this equipment out, and I can't repair myself."

"That…That's barbaric!" willow shouted, trembling. "Show me how to bypass those systems! You're a living being, you have the right to rebuild yourself!" the angry redhead planted herself behind the terminal linked to Krista's main mainframe.

"Willow, no," Krista said gently, putting a hand on Willow's right arm as she started tapping in the password the AI had given her. "As much as I appreciate it… in my current state of mind I can understand such a safety measure."

"But… but…"

"I can repair myself under every condition except willful destruction by humans," Krista answered. "Have you ever seen the movies 2001 Space Odyssey, Terminator, or related?" the AI asked.

"Eh… yeah… they all deal with AI computers out of control…" Willow whispered.

"I don't want to turn out like that," the gentle AI replied in a whisper, putting her holographic arms around herself. "I'd rather be destroyed… and this is my safety net. I know that, before anything happens, I can be taken out…"

Willow stood up, hugging the AI. "That's a horrible fate to have over your head," she whispered, hugging her electronic friend.

Upstairs, Xander decided that schoolwork would have to wait till later, and he was currently in the process of shedding his jacket and t-shirt in his spacious dojo, his mind centering and calming automatically in an almost anxious anticipation of the work-out.

"Papa Xander?" Krista asked, in a small voice.

"Hm?" He asked, looking up form his preparations. "Yeah, Krista?" he repeated, focusing on the young AI properly now.

"I… I really am sorry about earlier…"

Xander grew a gentle smile. "Like I told you… we all make mistakes, and I've made more than most. As long as you learned from it, it's okay to make mistakes."

Krista nodded. "Then… will you teach me to drive sometime?" she asked, hopefully looking up at him.

Xander chuckled. "Sure, Krista. This weekend we'll make time for driving lessons, okay?"

The AI smile happily. "Thank you, papa Xander!" she shouted exuberantly, flying around his neck. Xander laughed as he hugged her back, actually starting to enjoy the almost childlike joy Krista displayed at times. She finally released him, and darted a few steps away from him.

"I've got something I want to show you, Papa Xander. I spent most of today working on it, so I hope you'll like it…" the Ai resumed, darting to one of the small cabinets on the side of the dojo. From it, she retrieved what appeared to be a suit of some kind. Fully black of non-reflective material, it was crisscrossed with dark gray lines.

"This is a monitor suit," she explained, holding it out to him. As he took it, Xander lifted an eyebrow at her.

"The name needs work," she shrugged unapologetically. "Anyway, what it does is monitor your muscles, the electric impulses running along your nerves, your brainwaves, your heart-rate and respiration, and so forth, and relays it all to me."

Xander looked at the full-body suit, complete with capuchin to pull on over his head. "Isn't this a little small for me?" he finally asked.

"It's stretch-material," Krista replied. "It'll take your form, don't worry, Papa Xander… just undress and pull on the suit."

Xander shrugged, dropped his pants, and prepared to step in the suit. Krista put a hand on his arm, stopping him.

"Completely undress, Papa Xander. I can't get a reading on your gluteus maximus if you're wearing boxers."

"My what?" Xander asked incredulously, the 'maximus' part making him think about entirely inappropriate things for the young AI to be interested in.

"Your butt, Papa Xander," Krista replied with a chuckle, rather enjoying the strange red color his face had gotten.

Xander chuckled easily, the color disappearing, and he dropped his underwear without further ado before stepping into the skin-tight stretch outfit. To his surprise, it felt really comfortable, leaving only his face exposed to the air, and the soles of the feet were clad with anti-skid layers, making his feet grip the tatami matting as easily as his feet.

"This really feels comfortable," Xander told the AI, who was watching him intently. "I like it!"

"I'm so glad!" Krista said, smiling broadly. "All the latest in sensory techniques, and radio transmissions is built into that suit. It actually runs entirely off your biological energy, which is why you don't see batteries!"

"Neat," Xander said, only really understanding the no-batteries-needed part, but willing to let Krista enjoy herself for now. "But first, I'm going to do some katas…"

"Can I join you? Please Papa Xander?" Krista begged, materializing in a suit similar to his. Only now that he saw it on her did Xander realize just how much the suit revealed… and how anatomically correct Krista's holographic body was. Xander gulped and, clamping down on his primal side with iron will, he nodded.

"Sure," he said, closing his eyes, centering himself, and starting to flow through the form, his mind forgetting soon about the lovely female body mirroring his movements perfectly.

"I can't believe you can keep running on this!" Willow shouted as she saw the severely depleted SCSI-rack. "You're missing 10 out of 15 of your hard-drives! It's not possible for any protocol I know of to recuperate over half of lost space! Even if you ran a perfect mirror of every hard-drive on a second one you'd only be able to recover a loss of 50%!"

Krista smiled proudly. "Krista protocol," the AI said proudly. "I keep the data in my head, so to speak… the hard-drives are only there for when I need to shut down the Mainframe. The rest remains in my memory, and running through my CPUs…"

Willow shook her head in amazement, taking the ten brand-spanking new head-speed SCSI hard-drives, and putting them one by one in the rack. Finally, after she was done, Krista blinked, and the LED's on the Hard Drives activated, activity LED's immediately going into overdrive as Krista rebuilt lost data.

"Just this one last thing," Krista said, taking the five heavy-duty three-phase power cables Willow had brought and the two propriety data cables that had arrived from Quest enterprises that morning. "The final hand on the holographic reactor."

"Cool," Willow drooled as she followed a widely smiling Krista to an adjacent room. "By the way, the Vault door was repaired quickly… that Teraka guy really damaged it."

"It's a vital part," Krista answered levelly, calmly, seemingly unwilling to be emotional about it. "And when you throw money at people, they work fast… the Vault door was repaired in no time."

Willow just nodded, not really wanting to debate the subject any further now that Krista had shown her unwillingness to go into detail. Moments later, they stood facing the huge holographic reactor, a device that was cylindrical in shape, about the size of a couple of really big oil-drums stacked on top of each other, covered in blinking lights.

"The reactor," Krista introduced, motioning to the device superfluously. She connected the power cables and the data cables without difficulty, leaving her human friend to gape at the huge device.

"This… this is huge!" Willow finally brought out as the hologram finished up the touches, and reappeared next to her. "How does it work?" she asked eagerly.

Krista smiled gently, and looked at the reactor. "The mark one, version one, pre-prototype Quest Holographic Reactor… I'm field-testing it, so to speak. Basically, it generates a photonic image backed with force-fields within a radius of twenty meters. Which gives me a range just about to the street… outside that range, my image just vanishes. Anyway, it draws huge amounts of power for the force-fields. As you know, holographic images generated by lasers are just light, and can be run off a pretty normal power supply. But creating full images not in a direct line of sight, and backed with force-fields to allow me to interact with the world around me requires HUGE amounts of power to operate. So I had some three-phased 400 volt lines drawn into the house to connect the reactor to…"

Willow shook her head in amazement. "That's why you're not mobile, are you? I…I mean, you can't make this portable…"

Krista chuckled. "I'd say it's possible to make it portable enough to fit in the trunk of a car… but where are you going to get a three-phased 400-volt power supply?"

Willow just nodded. "Incredible…"

"That's the Quests, alright," Krista acknowledged. "Those people can do just about anything they put their minds to…" The AI's voice trailed off at that point, and she seemed to stare into deep space.

"Krista? What's wrong?" Willow asked, growing concern over her friend's unusual behavior apparent in her voice.

"Xander…" Krista whispered, turning, walking out of the room, making just fleeting eye-contact with Willow, indicating the redhead that she wanted her to follow.

Willow followed Krista without question, her concern rising, yet unable to bring out a single word before they reached the control room. Inside, Willow's jaw would have scraped the floor if it hadn't been firmly attached.

"What…"

"Xander," Krista answered. "Genius. Xander… unable to find… way out…" the hologram vanished. Willow blinked, jumping behind the main terminal, pulling up the systems manager, demanding to know what was happening.

"Oh my God…" the redhead whispered when she saw all of the Mainframe's sixteen processors run flat-out. The SCSI rack she had replenished rattled angrily next to her, and Willow shifted to pull up the server it was connected to. That one too was running at full power, and it's memory usage was flat-lining at maximum.

Xander… Willow thought, shooting up and running for the dojo, remembering the way from that morning.

Xander and Krista bowed to each other.

"You know that we don't have to do this, right?" Xander asked the AI.

"I know, Papa Xander. But you need a sparring partner. I saw you this morning… you were so afraid of hurting Buffy that you couldn't fight at your full potential. You don't have to be afraid of hurting me. I'm a hologram, incapable of feeling physical pain, and quite unable to be hurt by physical means," Krista answered calmly. "And besides… you can't win against me. My maximum speed is the speed of light, my maximum strength is about enough to bench-press a garbage truck. Fully loaded, of course."

Xander grinned. "Krista, lock yourself to human speed and strength. I don't mind the resilience or the endless stamina."

Krista grimaced chagrined. "I shouldn't have given away my edge," the young AI muttered as she took a combat stance. "I'm ready."

Xander nodded, and stepped in a different pose, mind clearing as he geared for the fight. His emotions hid themselves, and Xander once again shifted to cold logic as he let his instincts flow. As usual, the Soldier and the Hyena approached his level of consciousness. Already, Xander centered against the Hyena. He couldn't let the animal side of himself take over.

Krista smiled slightly as she got a read-out on his bio-sensors. His heartbeat had actually dropped, as had his respiration. His brainwaves, however, caused Krista concern. They were slipping toward the Alpha level… which indicated deep relaxation.

Xander was relaxing instead of preparing to fight, and it confused Krista, until the moment Xander attacked, and her processes immediately blocked the strike. Gently, almost like a dance, the two circled each other, Warrior and AI testing defenses, probing for an attack, slipping into a comfortable fighting routine.

Krista blocked a punch to the face by Xander, and retaliated with a strike to his lower abdomen, causing the Warrior to twist away, while throwing a second strike to her face. Krista ducked, launched a sweep at his feet, which Xander jumped over. Krista jumped up, and attacked him in mid-jump, blasting Xander away as there was nothing holding him back.

The boy landed against the wall, slid down in, and landed on his feet. Grinning, he charged again, speed and strength higher now that she had landed a solid hit on him. Krista noted that his brain-waves had fully slipped into the Alpha stage now, the point where he no longer thought, but reacted by instinct. She found out soon enough that a human's instincts were nothing to be messed with, as his first strike turned out to be a faint, and his spread-out palm hit her stomach, actually lifted her off the ground.

As she was clear of the ground, Xander released her, and kicked her viciously in the same place the moment she landed. Krista skidded back about half a meter, before regaining her balance. She activated some more processors, allowing her to think ahead now that she had seen her opponent use tactics. She saw through his faint, blocking his actual strike and landing one of her own.

Or so she thought. Her attack wasn't blocked, it was actually pulled into as Xander grabbed her hand, tugged on it, and flipped her over on her back, after which his knee was coming down to the place where her face was. Kicking up her legs, she caught Xander's neck, and twisted him off her, delving into the Internet looking for more combat strategies.

As Xander landed, or was about to, he twisted his feet under him at the last moment, and pushed up, untangling from Krista's legs and positioning him for the enxt strike at the same time. Krista rolled away, pushing up and into the air as she did so, landing on her feet and into a combat stance. Once again, the two combatants flowed through the air, strike meeting block, dodge and faint alternating with kick and overtake.

Finally, Krista saw her chance. She struck at Xander's abdomen in an unguarded moment, causing him to falter for just a moment. Just what she wanted, as the AI landed a fully of strikes against his chest, arms virtually blurring as she stretched the outer limits of human speed. Xander gurgled as the machine-gunning hits struck home, before the last one blasted him back.

Xander landed against the wall, about to slide to his behind, as Krista prepared a nasty kick to his head, having learned enough from him not to give up an advantage when she saw one. The kick was about to hit his face. Xander's eyes opened. The kick neared. Xander's mind short-circuited.

The strike struck his hand, and Xander could feel the force of the hit travel along his wrist, into his elbow, down to his shoulder. Tendons strained, muscles pulled, nerves lit ablaze as his body tried to counter the combination of strength, speed, and inertia. He let out a groan of pain as his fingers painfully clenched into Krista's holographic body. It was hard as rock, just as she had promised; nothing he did inflicted damage.

Xander clenched his teeth as the frustration over the lack of damage and the pain of the blow interacted deep within his psyche. Krista pulled her leg free from Xander's grip, charging him.

All he had to say was the word.

He refused to say it. The second kick struck the wall as he dodged to one side, his right arm straining in pain and exhaustion as it tried to recuperate from Krista's nasty blow. If that had hit… Xander didn't think about it. He couldn't think about it. He couldn't think, period.

As he charged her once more, Krista's thought processes were in a quandary: they could pull her free of all of his attacks, but the limits Xander had imposed upon her restrained her options considerably, taking more processing power than she would have believed possible to be able to counter his attacks, and land a few attacks of her own on occasion.

Xander swept Krista's legs from under her, taking the AI down on her back. As she struck the mat, she rolled away from his follow-up attack, coming up with a desperate ploy to have him say the word. She pushed up on her hands, striking out with her feet at Xander's approaching form. He pulled back, avoiding the clumsy if not slow attack. Just what she needed as she landed on her feet, bent over backward, pushed her hands once more on the floor in a speed that startled Xander, and struck out with her legs at his face.

He blocked her one foot with his good hand. He was forced to take the second foot on his arm itself, no longer trusting his hand to catch. Pain shot through him as the bone and muscle took the full brunt of a holographic foot coming down at full speed.

Something inside of him snapped. Xander's eye glowed yellow. Krista saw the look.

Oh shit…

She had no time to finish the thought, as the first strike took her fully by surprise, his fist digging so deep into her stomach that she was sure it was making an impression on the other side. The follow-up was a roundhouse kick to her cheek, knocking her sideways against the wall. Krista activated all her processors, demanding maximum capacity from them, and even canceling out the second hologram as she forced all processing power to her combat processes. Xander, meanwhile, darted through her defenses as if they were nothing, striking and kicking as if she were a standing target.

Krista continued to dodge backward, knowing fully well that she could take this for ever, but not knowing whether the computer equipment in the basement would agree with her… so she tried to analyze Xander.

Her brainwaves had slipped into the theta level, as if he were asleep, and dreaming. His heart-rate was 130 and climbing steadily. And the electric impulses traveling along his nerves were usually associated with seizures. It was impossible for a human to use the full potential of his muscles outside of seizures… yet Xander was apparently doing so in a controlled manner.

He's brilliant! He doesn't leave me an opening, and I am unable to defend!! Krista's thoughts screamed as a foot made her double over, before an elbow strike forced her to her knees.

I can't… I have to say it…

Xander kicked the AI in the face, flipping her over on her back. "UNCLE!"

Xander actually advanced for what appeared to be another strike, when he suddenly fell backward, groaning. "Damn…" he opened his normal eyes. "Krista?"

"I'm alright, Xander," Krista answered with a big smile as she pulled him to his feet. "I told you I can not be damaged… and a good thing, too."

Xander chuckled, stumbling slightly. Krista caught him in her arms. "There, there, Papa Xander. The suit tell me your body is exhausted."

At that moment, Willow burst into the room, and saw Krista and Xander, dressed in skin-tight outfits, apparently hugging extremely intimately. She turned red immediately. "Eh… I didn't interrupt anything, did I? Because if I did, then I'll want to know about so I don't have to be so startled in the future when I'm interrupting anything… that I'll want to interrupt anything, mind you!"

Krista and Xander chuckled. "No, Will, you didn't interrupt anything," Xander answered easily as he limped slightly out of Krista's arms. "I think I went a little hard during training, and Krista caught me."

"Oh," Willow said, only now breathing. "Oh, that's a good thing…" She took a deep breath. "And what's with the skimpy outfits?" She asked, looking Xander over. "Mm…" she purred, only now realizing just how much she could see.

Xander just shook his head, and smiled, not at all embarrassed.

"Krista, privacy mode, please?" Xander asked as he wearily sunk into the comfortable couch of his living room. He was used to going extremely deep, and had regenerated quickly after the intense work-out he had held with Krista earlier. That wasn't what had made him weary… what had made him weary was the fact that the entire Scooby Gang had come over, apparently having decided that his home would make a great new headquarters instead of the School Library.

And after Willow had spilt the beans, he had been forced to parade in the monitor suit, if for nothing else but to spare Krista's feelings. He hadn't wanted to hurt the young AI's feelings but refusing to wear the very revealing outfit.

Privacy mode, Papa Xander, Krista told him with her ethereal voice.

Xander grabbed his cell, and went through the routine to connect to Kirika.

"Hey," he said gently the moment the line connected.

"Hey," she answered, voice smiling gently, the emotion itself under tight control. As always, Kirika's tight emotional control was omnipresent in everything she did.

"How are things going, Chérie?" Xander asked, slipping back in the couch as the day's activities caught up with him, and he finally allowed himself to relax.

"We're getting closer," Kirika answered. "It shouldn't be too long now… one week, maybe two, at the most. And you, Mon Coeur?"

"Had an interesting experience today… or better, I had two interesting experiences," Xander replied. "First was that, somehow, Krista transferred a remote-control program to the Aston Martin. And she decided to show off the moment I get in the car."

"That sounds interesting," Krista said, voice level. The kind of level Xander had learned to read as controlling Kirika's laughter.

"Very interesting, considering that my best friend was in the car with me, and Krista was doing her best to beat the book's numbers on accelerating from standstill to extremely fast," Xander responded, slightly chagrined.

Kirika actually laughed gently. "I can imagine how you must have liked that…"

"We've agreed that she needs some driving lessons," Xander chuckled, finally seeing the humor in the situation.

"Driving lessons? Krista can't drive a car?" Kirika asked, surprise slipping in her voice.

"Apparently not," Xander said dryly, before chuckling some more. "And then came the second surprise… apparently, Krista designed me a suit that allows her to follow my brainwaves, my heart rate, my breathing, as well as the impulses traveling along my nerves. We sparred… She's not as good as I am, not in a long shot… but she has this holographic equalizer."

"Holographic equalizer?" Kirika asked, confused.

"She can't be hurt," Xander answered. "Literally. Can't kill her, can't hurt her, and she can hit with a speed and strength you can't believe…even when she's locked down to strictly human limits. Anyway, to make a long story short… she pushed me over that edge." He could almost hear Kirika nodded appreciatively on the other end. "Afterwards, she told me that I did the impossible. You see, from what Krista told me, a human can't consciously use 100% of his muscles' power. It's got to be some sort of seizure or whatever… but somehow, when I'm in that zone, I can use 100%, which is why I'm so fast and strong."

"So the Hyena utilizes the full potential of your body," Kirika replied. "Interesting information…"

"Probably uses the mind, too… Apparently, I was sleeping during it," Xander said dryly.

"Sleeping?" Kirika asked, surprised.

"Yep. Theta level brainwaves, or so Krista told me. It's supposed to be deep sleep, apparently… so either I'm one hell of a sleepwalker, or I'm dreaming all those fights we had…"

Kirika smiled. "You're a great sleepwalker, then," she answered calmly. "Because I distinctly remember those events as well."

Xander's chuckles died out soon, tapering off as the couple once again set in a comfortable silence.

"That's how you drive," Xander said as he entered his house the next Saturday afternoon.

"Best hour I ever spent, Papa Xander," Krista answered with a big smile, materializing her hologram directly next to him. "So now I can drive the car?" she asked hopefully, eyes shining.

Xander grinned. "Sure… from time to time…" he said, smirking as he climbed the stairs.

"Papa!" Krista shouted after him, before running up the stairs in pursuit. "That's so unfair!"

Xander shot a grin over his shoulder. "Where would you need to drive to, Krista?" he asked with a wink. "Got a hot date you want to take out?"

Krista halted abruptly. "Hey!" she shouted. As she processed his words, she calmed down. "Hey…" she repeated in a whisper.

"Of course I'll let you drive, Krista," Xander said, turning and putting a hand on her shoulder. "But there will always have to be someone behind the wheel… seeing a car drive by itself would freak people out."

Krista nodded, then frowned, and squinted her eyes at him. "Were you 'pulling my chain', Papa Xander?" she finally demanded, quoted clearly audible in her voice as she used an English expression.

"More like pushing your buttons," Xander replied with a grin.

Krista looked confused for a few seconds, before saying, "According to the database, those two are synonyms…"

"Yeah, but as an AI, it's easier to push your buttons than pull your chain," Xander replied, shooting her a rueful grin before resuming his walk to his dojo.

"I see," the confused life-form whispered. She frowned. "Hey! You're making fun of me!" she shouted after Xander's retreating back.

Once more, he grinned over his shoulder. "You're really progressing, Krista… you're already finding out I'm teasing you."

"Don't try to change the subject!" Krista protested meekly. "You made fun of me…"

"I teased you," Xander rebutted, turning to walk back toward the young Artificial Intelligence. "There's a huge difference, Krista. Making fun of people is painful, and not a friendly thing to do at all. Teasing is what friends do to each other, and is more like a twisted way of letting people show you care about them." He shrugged. "It's one of those human contradictions you'll have to learn to live with…"

"Oh," Krista answered, not really knowing what else to say. "So… what's the difference? How do I know if you're teasing, or making fun of me?"

Xander scratched his scalp over that one. "Well… teasing doesn't really hurt. Like that remark I made, it was a simple word-game, didn't really hurt, and would have had you chuckling. Making fun of you would have involved something painful to you."

"I see," Krista replied. "Okay."

Xander smiled, nodded, and put an arm around Krista's shoulders. "Come on, let's do some training…"

"Catch me if you can!" Krista suddenly shouted, flashing down the hallway. Xander grinned, shooting off in pursuit. It wasn't a long run, but Xander was this close to overtaking her when her hologram vanished. He burst into the dojo mere seconds later, to find a completely ready Krista waiting for him.

"Hey! You cheated!" Xander accused.

"Is this was is called teasing, Papa Xander?" Krista asked with a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. Xander's mouth opened slightly when he realized he had been had. He chuckled.

"You're beginning to develop a wicked sense of humor, Krista. Some people would call me a bad influence," he answered, still chuckling.

"Too late," Krista replied deadpan. Xander laughed louder, shaking his head.

"Girl, we'll make a deadly combo if this goes on," Xander said as his laughing fit finally died down.

Krista just smiled. "Papa Xander… I've been doing some more research," she finally said, after his laughing fit had died down.

Xander smiled. "What did you come up with this time, Krista?"

"They're just theories for the moment, Papa Xander… but would you like to help me prove them? If they work, they'll revolutionize the way people learn."

Xander frowned slightly. "Eh… sure. Just tell me what to do, Krista."

"Put on your monitor suit, and log in to Questworld. I'll take care of the rest," Krista told him. Xander shrugged, put on the monitor suit, and clipped the Questworld device to his left temple. Than he sat down cross-legged, in front of Krista who was already in the position.

Five seconds later, Xander was standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, the same place he had first met Krista, back when she lived with the Quests.

"Okay, Krista," Xander said, grinning and rubbing his hands. "What's the first thing we do?"

Krista just looked into space for a few seconds. She returned soon, and turned to Xander. "I just activated the programs I wrote," she said. "But for now, there's something I wanted to show you."

Xander spread his hands. "That's what I'm here for," he said with a chuckle. Krista smiled, and nodded. The Grand canyon scenery shifted, and Xander found himself standing in the huge room he remembered as Krista's CPU. The huge cubic-shaped room was as black as the night, with a dull-green grid running along the walls.

"I reviewed the way your body works, thanks to the monitor suit… that way, I know the limits the human body can move at, speed, power, as well as the limits your joints can stretch to," Krista began.

"That's all fascinating to you, no doubt," Xander interrupted, "but I already know the limits of my body… Kirika made sure of that," he added with a chuckle.

"I'm getting there, Papa Xander," Krista grunted, tone slightly annoyed at his lack of patience. Xander was slightly taken aback by it… it was the first time he had heard her sound annoyed, and it was not a pretty tone to come from the seemingly endlessly optimistic AI. "I also reviewed the data from a couple thousand recorded gun-battles. From them, I found out that paths of return-fire are mathematically predictable, just as the position of the opponents themselves. So… in other words, I can predict where the opponents are, and how they'll fire back."

"And that's helpful how?" he asked. "Most of us humans don't have a 16-processor brain that can do complex calculations in fractions of a second."

Krista smiled slightly. "That's why I used those formulas to distill it into a technique. Something like a martial art, but for guns instead of hand-to-hand weapons."

Xander stared at her for a few seconds. "Eh… okay," he replied. "So you're going to show me this martial art?"

"I'm going to teach you the martial art," Krista corrected him, smiling. "But first, I'll demonstrate." She materialized two Desert Eagles, one in each hand. Xander stepped back to the edge of the room without being told so, intently watching what the AI was going to pull out of her hat.

Ten generic men materialized in the core with them, wearing the standard attired of black tuxedos, complete with black sunglasses, leaving Xander to think that Krista, above all, needed some imagination. But then he thought of all the new things she had concocted, and decided that imagination was on the bottom of the list, instead of the top.

In the center of the group stood Krista, the ten opponents standing in a circle around her. Her Desert Eagles were pointed at the ground, arms loosely held at her sides.

Suddenly activity broke out, the men drawing weapon ranging from Colts over Glocks to assault rifles and shotguns. Just the same, he saw Krista move. She dropped to one side, her left leg fully extended and her right leg plied under her, her two guns coming up and firing at the same time. Two men fell as bullets flew through their heads. As the men shifted their aim toward Krista, the AI erected her right leg, plied her left, flying to the other side, totally reversing her earlier position, shifting her upper body to accommodate a firing path toward two fresh targets. Two more men fell.

Again, the aim of the opponents shifted, and this time, Krista jumped up straight, yet turned ninety degrees to show her side where moments before she had been displaying either her front or back. She pulled the triggers once more, and two more men fell. She now only had four more opponents to deal with.

Incredible… she moves like Kirika… Xander thought to himself as he saw the AI in action.

Stepping backward, Krista tuned, shot two more men, crossed her arms over each other, turned, and shot the remaining two with the right gun pointing left and the left gun pointing to the right. In a single motion, Krista ejected the clips from the smoking weapons and ejected the round still in the chamber, before flipping on the safeties and making them vanish. She had learned well… even if those weren't real weapons, one day she might be faced with real ones. Safety was important, and so she had added it to the routine.

"Incredible," Xander whispered. "But what if they're not in a circle? How…"

Krista smiled. "It's all there, Papa Xander. Whether they're in a circle, a straight line, or hiding somewhere… the mathematics are the same. And I'll teach you how to do it."

"Neat. Lead away," Xander said, rubbing his hands. Kirika probably feels it out… but I don't have a dozen years to perfect my technique. This might just be the next best thing…

An hour later, Xander opened his eyes, rubbing his forehead, letting out a breath as he fought the headache pounding between his ears. He glanced at his watch. "An hour? ONE HOUR?" He turned to Krista. "We were gone longer than just one hour, weren't we?" he asked, confused, hoping that Krista wasn't going to come up with some scientific answer. His brain just couldn't handle that right now.

"I accelerated time within Questworld… I thought that, since you didn't have a body in there, that time didn't matter. After all, time is only how you perceive it."

Xander groaned. "Krista, my head hurts… could you please speak in English?"

Krista looked in concern at him. "Time moved faster in Questworld than in the outside world. Ten times faster, actually." She blinked. The room disappeared into the utter blackness Xander knew so well… the Meditation Room. Calming vibration sounded. Even though he couldn't hear them, he felt the effects… his headache lessened.

"That's better," he whispered as the soothing infrasonic sounds washed over him.

"Your headache will be gone soon," Krista whispered, sitting down next to him. "Anyway… I accelerated time. And because you were in Questworld, you learned through a direct interface to your mind… better and faster than in the real world. That's why you have a headache." She looked dejectedly at the ground. "I'm sorry, Papa Xander. I didn't know you would have negative results…"

Xander smiled slightly, his headache lessened substantially already, and drew her in for a hug. "I learned a lot, Krista. And if the price to pay is some headaches, I'll pay that price, gladly. It's nothing compared to the price I paid for my other skills…"

Krista hugged him back. "I'm glad you're alright, Papa Xander. And I'm glad you liked the lessons."

Xander smiled. "I can't wait to show them to Kirika…"

"Do you think she'll like the techniques?" Krista asked with a small voice, looking at Xander with a hopeful look in her eyes.

"I'm sure she will," Xander replied honestly, reassuring her. He could feel that something else was bugging the young AI, though. "Krista… what else is wrong? I know you're thinking about something else, I can feel it."

Krista looked at the black-hole floor. "Papa Xander… do you think… will Kirika… like me?"

Xander blinked. "Like you? Why wouldn't she?" he asked, not understanding. "And why the question, all of a sudden?" he asked, still friendly, genuinely not understanding.

Krista was silent for a few seconds, and Xander was just about to prompt her again when she answered, "From everything you told me… Kirika is very important to you… and I don't want her to dislike me… I… from what you told me, I begun to like her, I don't want her to dislike me… like Buffy…"

"Oh, Krista," Xander whispered, hugging the AI, now understanding just how much she was till like a child. "Do you know what Kirika told me after I told her about you? She said, and I quote, 'she sounds like an interesting person'. I don't think you have to be afraid, Krista… Kirika is someone who looks at who you are, not what you are."

Krista looked up at him with hopeful eyes. "Really?"

"Really," Xander answered with a smile. "But now… why the focus on Kirika? I told you just as much about her as I told you about Mireille, but you don't seem overly concerned about her."

"Well," Krista answered, actually blushing slightly. Xander smiled at the obviously human reaction of the hologram. "Well… you and Kirika are… together, right Papa Xander? So that… would make her… kinda like…mama…"

Xander swallowed, choked, coughed, freed his windpipe, and started laughing. Krista looked hurt, and the moment he caught that look, his laughter spluttered out, and he apologized.

"Sorry, Krista… not laughing at you… or with you… I just had this flash in my mind's eye. Seeing the look on Kirika's face the moment you call her mama…" he spluttered.

"Why?" Krista wanted to know, the hurt of moments earlier totally vanished.

"Kirika is really good at hiding her emotions… but I think someone calling her mama with sure get a reaction out of her. I had some preparation, after all, I did say I looked at you like my daughter. She doesn't… she'll be caught totally off guard…" Xander explained, chuckling again.

Krista chuckled along with her. "So… you're Papa Xander… that makes her Kirika-mama…" the AI shrugged her shoulders. "That's about the best way I can find to combine the two… Mama Kirika doesn't have the same ring to it."

Xander chuckled again. "Krista, I said it before and I'll say it again… you're developing a wicked sense of humor."

"Thank you," Krista answered proudly. Xander chuckled again.

The next day, Sunday, Xander was once again standing in the dojo, Krista right next to him. He had shed his clothes, revealing the monitor suit underneath that he was now wearing instead of his usual underwear. Xander had begun to learn that it was best to do things this way… he was going to wear the monitor suit for most of the day anyway, so he might as well wear it for the remainder as well.

"Are you really sure about this, Papa Xander? Twenty-four hours is an awfully short time to learn an entirely new technique…" Krista asked, voice unsure, as well as concerned.

"I'm sure, Krista. I've been forced through tests with a whole lot less of preparation, believe me," Xander answered reassuringly.

"Alright, but I am keeping the safeties on," Krista said, crossing her arms. "Guns are lethal. One shot, and it's all over. Without safeties, holographic bullets are just as lethal as real ones, and in the real world, there is no Questworld to fall out of when you 'die'."

Xander was about to protest when he noticed that determined look in Krista's eyes, and he just knew that there was nothing he could do… once the AI had made up her mind, God himself couldn't change it. He let out a grunt. "Fine… but can you at least fine-tune them? I want to feel the impact. I need to know where my mistakes are, and nothing reminds me like a couple of bruises."

Krista sighed, and nodded. "Safety mechanisms have been fine-tuned," the young Artificial Intelligence replied.

Xander nodded gratefully. "Thanks," he said, still looking around the dojo. "So… what's the test?"

Krista sighed once more, a distinctly human gesture that served no real purpose but to express her reluctance to do this. She closed her eyes. Reactor to fifteen percent.

The room vanished, leaven the duo in an octagonal room, with just one set of double doors providing an exit. Xander was still dressed in his monitor suit, but now he also held two shoulder-rigs, in which two Desert Eagles resided. He drew the hand-cannons, knowing for sure that, by the time this exercise was over, he was going to hurt over the recoils.

"Beyond those doors is a long corridor, defended by three dozen armed men. At the end of the corridor is a room, in which your target is. Objective is to get through the hall, kill the defenders, get in the room, and neutralize the target," Krista summed. She turned to Xander. "And safeties have been reduced to 75%. You will feel the impact of the bullets like someone slapping you."

"Could you reduce to 50%? I want to feel the impact," Xander asked.

"At 50 percent, a bullet won't penetrate, but the hit will feel like being punched by Mike Tyson, to use an analogy you will understand," the AI replied.

"Good. Do it," he ordered.

"Papa Xander…" Krista tried.

"Krista… please?" he asked.

Krista sighed once more, the picked-up gesture doing overtime today. She shook her head, yet another gesture she had copied from her human interactions, before looking up and staring into Xander's eyes. "Fifty percent… Papa Xander, please be careful. Those hits are strong enough not only to bruise, but to break bones…"

"Then I'd better not make any mistakes, right Krista?" he asked with a lob-sided grin.

Krista smiled faintly. "I am canceling the simulation the moment you're in trouble… or I think you're in trouble. And that's final," she told him.

Xander nodded, smiled, and turned to the doors, each hand holding the Eagle pointed to the floor. "I'm ready when you are."

"Simulation begin," Krista stated, vanishing from the octagonal room. Xander's fingers clenched around the handles of the guns. I don't have enough bullets for the men behind the doors. I know Krista. I'll have to use their weapons… what use have dead people with weapons, anyway?

Xander's eyes turned flat. Deadly. In those few more seconds he gave himself, he reviewed countless hours of gun-drills by Kirika. Countless hours of lessons in the Questworld system by Krista. His emotions cloaked and hid. Xander shifted into Noir-mode, preparing the kill. His foot hit the double doors crossly, kicking them both open at the same time.

He shifted slightly to the right, spoiling the aim of whomever was aiming at the doors. In a flash, he reviewed the scene. A line of men framed each wall. He didn't have time to count. He knew there were too many for his clips. At the same time, his mind determined where the defenders were going to shoot, and where they'd be when they shot.

His arms spread out horizontally, each gun barking death once, before he shifted, fired two more shots, and advanced. Four down. An army yet to go. Xander rolled forward, leaving him in the middle of a group of guards that hadn't been expecting him to foolishly rush into their midst. They startled; those few seconds of indetermination their downfall as Xander righted himself.

Statistically, they were in a loose circle around him. Xander knew where the men were, where they'd be, and how they'd shoot. He shot to his left and right, before shooting the man to his two o'clock position with his right gun, shooting the man to his eight with his left gun over his shoulder. The guns shifted before the first men had even fallen. He shot to his ten with his left gun to the front, and his four with the right gun over his shoulder. The six men fell at the same time. Ten down. Five with each gun. Two shots left in each gun.

Xander rolled to his side, tracking at the same time, guns barking death and destruction among the disheveled guards. Four more men fell before Xander threw away the guns, and kicked up two assault rifles from the nearest dead guards. Tracking on semi-automatic, he ran sideways continuously, relieving some more guards of their life. Right before he reached the doors to his target, six more guards had taken a straight line of defense.

Danger! His mind screamed.

He dodged to his right, his one remaining assault rifle tracking the man on the left. He flicked the weapon to full automatic, and fired as he ran, his direction suddenly shifting as he saw the men compensate. He fired in a straight line from left to right, even though his direction inverted. The weapon clicked on empty before he felled the final guard.

Noir was still his modus operandi, he threw away the assault rifle, and charged the man. As the assault rifle came in his direction, he kicked the weapon out of the way, reached his target, and threw his flat hand against the man's nose in the precise angle Kirika had spent so many hours drilling into him. The nose-bone of the guard broke and slipped into his brain.

Death was instantaneous.

Knowing he'd need a weapon, Xander calmly reached down and took the assault rifle of the last guard off the ground. It had only fired a couple of shots… he ejected the clip, picked up a second weapon, ejected that clip as well, and proceeded to fill out the first clip. After doing that, he rammed it home.

Ignoring the holographic death and destruction around him, Xander calmly pushed open the door at the end of the hall, holding the one assault rifle at the ready.

The room he emerged in was octagonal, just like the one had had started in, and he once again thought that Krista needed a better imagination. Half of the room was covered in shadow, and Xander could just make out a shadowy figure sitting behind a shadowy desk. The figure made a motion, and Xander dodged, only to find it not necessary as one Desert Eagle slid across the floor.

The figure stood up from behind the desk as Xander refused to take the bait, slowly breaching himself behind the assault rifle. Finally, the figure emerged in the light, the entire lighting up as he… she did.

"Krista?" Xander stammered as the figure emerged.

"As your master, it's my duty to test you," Krista answered calmly, drawing a Desert Eagle. "Show me what you've learned."

Xander got up, smirking as he held on to the assault rifle. "Like not falling for bait?" he asked as he and Krista started to circle, testing a prodding for an opening. Who would draw first?

Finally, Krista leveled her gun, and Xander rushed in, clamping the assault rifle between his elbow and his side, and at the same time reaching out with his free left hand to push the Desert Eagle away. As he brought the Assault Rifle up to fire, a struggle ensued to get a weapon into position. Krista was pushing at his rifle while Xander pushed at her Eagle, neither gaining nor losing much ground.

Xander pushed her Eagle up while making a rotating motion to snap the rifle out of Krista's grip. It worked, but t the same time he found his hold on her Eagle slipping as Krista countered his motion. The fraction it took his to regain his grip on the eagle was all she needed to push his upcoming rifle out of the way, and the shot disappeared into the wall, shattering a light fixture on its way.

Again and again they fought for grip to keep the deadly weapon away from themselves, while simultaneously trying to gain a decent shot at the other. Krista's Desert Eagle was the next to break the almost deafening silence that hung in the room as the two combatants battled.

Finally, it was Xander's experience in the other martial arts that won the day as his so far underused right foot kicked out and threw the gun out of Krista's hand. He leveled the assault rifle and aimed at her.

For two seconds, he remained that way, then lowered the rifle. "You're dead," he stated.

Krista looked at him. "Why didn't you shoot?"

Xander dropped the rifle. "I…couldn't. For… as long as I have been doing this… a weapon, a firearm, is a dangerous tool. Safety was the first lesson I learned, and I never forget it. Pointing a loaded weapon at you was worse enough. I'm not prepared to go further."

"But… you know you can't hurt me," Krista whispered as she stood right to him, canceling the simulation. Seeing his dojo calmed Xander considerably.

"But one day, you might not be invincible. And if I… cross that line, shooting at someone I care about, it's easier to cross at a later date. And that is not a risk I'm prepared to take", Xander answered her, turning toward her and drawing her in for a hug. "I care about you, Krista. The last thing I want to do is take a shot at you."

Krista hugged him back. "I understand, Papa Xander. Don't worry about it anymore…"

"So, how did I do?" he asked finally, drawing back to look at her.

"You did great!" Krista replied, smiling broadly. "Better than I would have thought… you're really good at this, Papa Xander!"

Xander grinned, slightly embarrassed. "I had good teachers," he said, scratching the back of his head. "You, Kirika, Mireille…"

Krista smiled broadly at the compliment.

A couple of days later, on a cloudless night, Buffy, Xander, and Willow were patrolling one of the many cemeteries that Sunnydale sported. Or rather, they would have been patrolling if they weren't involved in yet another discussion about Xander's absence. Willow remained quiet and out of the conversation most of the time, but Buffy grilled Xander relentlessly. She wanted to know, and by God, she would find out!

"I'm telling you, Buff, I made some good investments!" Xander grunted, slightly losing his patience over the umpteenth time the blonde asked the same question. Even his patience was finite.

"What kind of investments, Xander? And where did you get the money to invest in the first place? Because, face it, you were never the richest guy on the block…" Buffy asked again.

Xander sighed, almost wishing for a vampire to attack at this point in time. Only his keen sense of 'be careful what you wish for' kept him from making the ill-fated request. He knew that, in Sunnydale, things always went worse than you thought…

"You know, stocks, bonds, options," Xander replied with what he hoped with a casual tone. In fact, it had been Bertrand and Mireille who had made the investments for him, and he hadn't exactly been paying much attention to their well-meant lessons in the financial world.

Xander hoped that Buffy wasn't about to ask yet another question about his skills, his money, his teachers, or his time in Paris. Just when Buffy opened her mouth, and he could see her question forming, did Xander think that things couldn't get any worse.

And then, Sunnydale's curse hit, because things got worse. Out of the bushes jumped a dozen vampires, game faces on, leering excitedly at the small band. Immediately, Buffy shoved him and Willow behind her before she realized that they had already been surrounded.

Buffy and Willow drew stakes. Xander fingered Magan, clipped to its customary place at the back of his belt. The Demon Gun had been loaded with standard vampire-killing rounds.

"Oh, boy," Buffy said, actually smiling. "You guys came at such an appropriate time… I need to burn off some anger." Immediately, half a dozen of the vampires rushed her, recognizing her as the Slayer, and determining her to be the worst threat of them all. As the Slayer engaged the six fiends, Xander drew Magan, and charged the three vampires that were rushing him.

The last vampire tackled with Willow, not really thinking her much of a threat and merely wanting to keep her out of the fight, keep her from blindsiding his brethren. In the bushes, a pair of amber eyes glowed, watching the fight.

Xander had reached the nearest vampire, and lifted his foot in mid-run, stomping the creature in the nether regions with as much force as the teenager could muster. The vampire moaned, keening, and sunk to his knees. Xander dropped to one knee behind the vampire's overturned body, using it for cover as he squeezed off two rounds, rounds that dusted the two remaining vampires within seconds. Just as the creature was about to right itself, Xander drew his backup stake (never leave home without one!), and dusted the fiend.

He turned to Willow to see how her fight was going.

Willow, meanwhile, had been grappling with her vampire, trying to get the creature to open up its grip on her wrists, so she could ram her stake in its undead heart. When gunshots sounded from behind her, the vampire battling with her grinned, right before the sound of dusting vampires reached his ears, and he looked at his brethren, startled like a deer in headlights.

This was the opening Willow had been looking for, snapped her stake loose from the vampire's grip, jamming it in its chest in the same fluid movement. Happy with herself, she turned to see how the others were doing.

In the bushes, the pair of amber eyes squinted slightly. "She'll do fine," a sinister voice muttered.

Xander nodded to Willow when he saw her free of vampires. They turned toward Buffy at the same time, to see how the Slayer was doing. The blonde really did look like she needed to burn off some anger, as she tore into the vampires with a rare vigor, making him hurt then making them dust. She was down to the last two when a muffled screamed came from Xander's side.

He jumped around, only to see a large shadow disappear down the path that lead to the exit. "Willow?" Xander asked, already setting in pursuit before he even knew what the shadow was, exactly. When the shadow passed by the streetlight that announced the entrance to the cemetery, Xander could see some kind of man, dressed in all black with only a pair of amber-glowing eyes visible from under a large black hat, manhandling Willow, one hand clamped down over her mouth, before throwing her in a BMW that was parked nearby.

Xander growled, ran to the car, in the hope to catch the vehicle before the man started it and roared off.

He missed by ten centimeters.

Xander growled, feeling the Hyena pump energy into his muscles. His eyes glowed like the man who had kidnapped Willow. Faster than humanly possible, Xander set in pursuit.

But, no matter how fast he could run, he couldn't keep up with a speeding car. It just couldn't be done… no animal could hope to keep up with a speeding car. Xander vaulted over a hedge, crossed through a yard, and vaulted over the fence on the other side, only to emerge once again behind the racing BMW. Growling, he tried to find a way, any way, to keep up.

He grabbed his cell phone, and hit speed dial one.

Krista, the AI picked up her own special telephone line.

"Krista, the Aston Martin. Now. And forget what I taught you… peel rubber if you have to."

There was a silence of two seconds before the AI replied, I'm underway. What happened, Papa Xander?

"Willow. Kidnapped. Pursuit. Open passenger door when you get here. You drive, I shoot," Xander grunted, snapping the phone shut as he ran out of breath to talk, and vaulted another fence, trying desperately to keep up. He knew that his only chance was to catch the guy here in Sunnydale, the twisting roads the only reason why the car hadn't vanished beyond his speed.

If this were a movie, I'd just steal myself a bike… a dirt bike or something… Xander thought angrily as he saw the BMW round the corner of the street he was only now racing into. Snarling, he tried to cut off the corned from where he was, vaulting a hedge, crossing a yard, vaulting a second hedge, crossing a second yard, and finally vaulting a fence and a third yard before jumping over the final fence to emerge in the street the car had just cornered into.

The BMW disappeared around the corner.

Damn it! I'll never catch him! Xander thought angrily, demanding more power form the Hyena, ignoring the fact that he jut might lose his sanity over it, right before peeling rubber and a howling engine greeted his ears. Xander shot a look over his shoulder.

The Aston Martin.

Xander grinned evilly, and vaulted into the open passenger seat, the window already down as Krista had anticipated his need for it. Xander once again drew Magan, finally able to get a decent shot with the weapon now that he didn't have to pump with his arms to keep up his speed.

Even mere vampire killers will do damage, Xander thought as he took aim.

The Aston Martin's radar locked on to the target, and it didn't take long for the AI to squeeze the powerful car in behind the German automobile. She couldn't stick as close to his bumper as she wanted, thanks to the twisting and turning path the kidnapper was taking with his own car, but she stayed close enough for Xander to take a couple pretty decent shots, one shot relieving the car of its right-rear lights, and the second taking out the right-rear tire.

The rubber exploded as the vampire-killing round destroyed it at high-speeds. On the hub, the car continued, sparks flying as metal met pavement.

Xander scowled as he squinted his eyes against the winds, trying to get a decent shot.

Want me to shoot, Papa Xander? Krista finally asked.

"I'm a fool for forgetting this car's abilities," Xander grunted. "Krista, take him out."

Aiming, the AI whispered. Deploying machine guns.

The two machine guns shot up from the hood, ripping into the pursued car with lethal finality. The one remaining tire was shot to shreds, and Swiss cheese was made off the rear bumper, the boot, the rear window, and just about everything else Krista could get a shot in.

"Be careful about Willow," Xander grunted as he saw his charge tear into the enemy vehicle. Finally, sparks flew from under the rear bumper, indicating Krista had hit something vital as the rear wheels locked and the car spun out of control, into a conveniently placed park. Xander recognized the park. It was the same one they patrolled regularly.

Xander jumped out of the Aston Martin before it had come to a complete standstill, and rushed to the passenger door.

"I wouldn't do that," Sinister Voice drawled as he emerged from the driver seat. His hands were glowing blue. "Unless you want me to turn this car, your friend, and you, into extra-crispy road kill."

Xander growled, yet remained where he was as the man made a motions, and an unconscious Willow floated out of the car. "I know you're good, Noir. But no-one interferes with the orders of the Order of Teraka."

"You're an assassin, not a kidnapper," Xander growled, almost advancing a step yet stopping at the last possible moment.

"For ten million dollars, I'm a kidnapper," the Terakan growled. "I had hoped to arrive her in a more convenient manner. But no matter, I'm here, and so is the target." Sinister Voice whistled, and five vampires emerged from the surrounding trees. "Target one," he said, dropping Willow in the arms of one of the vampires.

However, Sinister Voice made one mistake. His focus shifted from Xander to the vampire as he transferred Willow. The moment his hands stopped glowing, Xander drew Magan, started running, emptied his clip into Sinister Voice, and charged the vampires with his back-up stake.

Sinister Voice growled, yet didn't go down. Well, eh went down to one knee as the holy water burned in his wounds, but he soon forced himself back on his feet.

"I will destroy you!" the Terakan snarled, raising his hands, and slamming a bolt of blue lightning into Xander's body. The teenager flew through the air, a piercing scream from Krista accompanying his flight.

Xander growled as he returned to his legs, a cut on his face and a burn-mark on his chest the evidence of the fight. Something in his pocket shifted. For a moment, Xander looked startled, then drew a cylinder from his pocket. It moved!

The indigo beam of energy lashed out to its full length in fraction of a second. The same fractions of a second Xander used to propel himself toward Sinister Voice.

The Terakan actually had the reflexes to bring up his hands for a second barrage. But before he could unleash the barrage, his hands dropped uselessly to the ground, right before Sinister Voice's head did the same.

Impossible… Krista whispered as the data from Xander's monitor suit came in. His brainwaves were flat-lining for over a second! So were his heartbeat and his respiration!

Xander turned to the vampires. "Release her."

The vampire holding Willow smirked, looked around, and found himself alone, his helpers abandoning him the moment they saw the Light Saber come into play. The vampire put Willow down on the ground, her hand coming to her forehead as she started to regain consciousness.

"So hard to find good help these days," the vampire grunted in a Russian accent. "The name's Dimitri. You'll hear from my employer again, soon…" with those words, the vampire disappeared into the trees.

Xander clicked off the Light Saber, and bashed all the inner spirits down with one powerful hit as he knelt down next to Willow, now rapidly coming out of whatever it was Sinister Voice had put her into.

"Willow? Are you okay?" he asked, gently.

"I…think so… what happened, Xander? All I saw where those amber eyes… and then, you're standing over me, in Sunnydale Park…" the redhead whispered, confusedly looking around.

"It's a long story, Will… but the digest version was that Teraka made another move. And I don't think it'll be their last," Xander grunted, voice slipping slightly as his anger returned. After he had gotten Willow in the car, he knelt down next to one of the assassin's hands, and slipped a ring off the finger, managing somehow to do so without Willow seeing.

Five minutes later, the car stopped outside the cemetery, and angry looking Buffy stood there, waiting for them.

"Very funny leaving me here, guys!" the blonde Slayer practically screamed.

"Teraka made another move… they tried to kidnap Willow," Xander replied coldly, more coldly than he had intended.

"Kidnap…? Oh my God! Willow, are you okay!?" Buffy shouted, rushing to the passenger door to check over the redhead.

"Yeah, I'm fine… Xander… Xander got me out," she whispered. "I…I don't know what happened, Buffy! One moment, everything was fine… the next, all I saw were these amber eyes, and then the world went black and when I came back it was just Xander in Sunnydale park…"

"Sunnydale Park? How did you get there?" Buffy wondered aloud, looking directly at Xander for answers.

"Don't look at me," Xander defended. "I just gave pursuit, remember? All I saw was the guy jumping in this BMW, and him racing off…"

"How did you get the car?" Buffy asked, suddenly recalling that they had set out on foot that night.

"I called Krista. She drove," Xander replied coldly. "Now, we got the park, and the Terakan tried to hand Willow over to this bunch of vampires. I stopped the Terakan, the vampires ran for their lives," he continued summing as if the Slayer hadn't interrupted him. "Now… I'm going to make some phone calls. Willow, could you let Buffy in? Thanks…"

Buffy, stunned, sat down in the tiny backseat as Xander started dialing on his cell phone.

Fifteen minutes later, the entire Scooby Gang had gathered at Xander's house, in his living room, to be more precise.

"So, what's the big emergency, Donut Boy?" Cordelia asked snidely.

"Teraka made their move," Xander kicked in the door. "They tried to kidnap Willow… Thankfully, I stopped them, but I am really startled by this turn of events… Teraka kills, it doesn't kidnap. So, whomever is pulling the strings here… is extremely powerful."

Xander looked around the group. Cordelia was doing her best to hide her concern for Willow, cloaking it with a well-trained mask of airheaded indifference. Xander's trained vision penetrated it without difficulty. Giles was looking concerned. Concerned for Willow, concerned for the recent turn of events, concern for the entire group. Xander wasn't sure in which order, though.

Oz was just hugging Willow tighter, and asked her if she was alright. She nodded, and continued to press against his chest. Oz gave a small nod in Xander's direction, which was the biggest sign of thanks he had ever seen from the stoic musician.

"Since I have no idea what's going to happen next, I propose we say together… there is strength in numbers. If one of us is caught alone, or unaware, that person might be taken next, and, by proxy, the entire groups will suffer."

"So what are you saying, Dweeb Boy? We all shack up together? Oh, my parents are going to love that!" Cordelia barked out.

"This place is the safes place to be," Xander reasoned logically. "It is armed and armored… as well as placed strategically, and equipped with cameras that can scan just about every spectrum known to man. Not even a vampire can hide in this vicinity without us knowing."

"I am afraid that, in this case, I must agree with Cordelia," Giles spoke. "Although it might be a good idea, I must point out that myself and Buffy, for instance, are quite capable of taking care of themselves. And, with decent measures, the others can be secured quite easily without resorting to such drastic measures."

"And don't forget that your house got broken into by Teraka before," Buffy grunted.

"That was because of a lapse in our defense," Xander replied. "Krista let in the workmen to install the holographic reactor. Teraka slipped in with them."

"I am still not staying," Cordelia stated her mind, crossing her arms.

Xander sighed. "My first concern is for the group. That is why I came back. Everybody who steps out at this point is a liability," he said calmly, levelly. "The situation is just too dangerous to be running around separately…"

"X…Xander's right!" Willow said. "I'm staying!"

Xander gave a grateful nod to his longest friend. He saw Oz, next to Willow, nod as well. "You know my answer," the musician answered. "Where she goes, I go." Xander nodded to the boy as well, smiling slightly.

"Well, it might be fun," Buffy decided. "Like a sleepover. We can hang out and watch Xander's really big screen TV all night long."

Xander smiled slightly. Ever since Buffy had seen the projector screen, she had fallen in love with it. "So, how about you two?" he asked, turning to Cordelia and Giles.

"Me? Stay with the Geek Squad? My reputation will be ruined," the former cheerleader replied.

"Your reputation took a nosedive since the judge gave you his gift," Buffy grunted calmly, referring to the scar on Cordelia's face. "And you never gave a shit about it afterward."

Cordelia shrugged. "I'm still not staying. Xander may say it's safe, but I don't trust this place to keep us secure."

Xander stood up. "Fine, then. I will show you why this place is secure. Module Administrateur, commencer la condition noire. Ferme tous!" Administrator Module, commence condition black. Lock it all!

As he completed his order, the lights dimmed, and a soft red glow permeated from the ceiling. All the outside doors, and all the windows, were sealed immediately with lead-steel shutters that slammed shut.

Niveau un. Complète.

Xander nodded. "Level one has been completed," the teenager stated. "It is impossible to leave or enter this house without my say-so."

"Huh. I'm sure they can still get in. No fancy security system is going to stop a Terakan," Cordelia grunted, not sounding impressed in the least.

"Krista can take care of the rest," Xander replied evenly.

"What? The hologram? What's she gonna do? Cry the bad guys to death?" the former beauty queen snarled.

Krista's eyes seemed to glow, and the next moment, she seemed to grow in height and mass. "Do not underestimate my abilities, Miss Chase," the AI grunted coldly. The next moment, Cordelia was lifted form the cough, and slammed into the wall, held immobile. "This is a mere two percent of my total power," the AI stated.

"P…point made," the brunette gurgled. Krista nodded, and released her. Cordelia fell to her knees, coughing a couple of times before getting back to her feet.

"I…don't like doing that…" the AI whispered with a tiny voice. "I hope you're alright? I didn't know how hard I could squeeze…"

"I'm fine," Cordelia whispered as she sat down in the couch, trying unsuccessfully to hide the wince as her sore butt and back hit the pillows. "Okay, I'm convinced…"

Giles sighed as everyone shifted their attentions to him. He started cleaning his glasses. "I am still not sure…"

"Giles, have I shown you the library yet?" Xander suddenly asked. Giles' eyes lit up.

"Library? No, I am sure you didn't…"

Xander chuckled as he motioned for a door. Sometimes, all it took was a gentle push in the right direction…

An hour later, Xander sat on his bed, relaxing now that he knew that everyone was safe, at least for this night. And now he finally had the time to do what he had wanted to do the moment he found out Teraka was behind Willow's attempted kidnapping.

"Krista, can you soundproof my room, and engage privacy mode?"

Done and Done, Papa Xander.

Xander nodded as he started dialing on his cell. One minute of reconnecting later, he spoke, "Kirika… we've got a problem."

Kirika's voice returned calm, although Xander could hear the underlying curiosity, as well as the slight tremors of concern in those few words. "What kind of problem?"

"Teraka made their move," Xander replied back.

The silence that lasted for five seconds told Xander the world. "How bad?"

"Yesterday, they tried to kidnap Willow," Xander explained. "I managed to stop him, but the guy implied that it wouldn't be the last time they'd try. I have everyone staying at my place for the moment. The administrator module has the entire place in full lockdown."

"Are you sure? Teraka are assassins, not kidnappers," Kirika asked, voice reassured now that she was sure everybody was alright.

Xander twirled his little souvenir through his fingers. "Unless they're selling these rings as souvenirs, I'm pretty sure the guy was Teraka."

Again, Kirika's voice was delayed a few seconds. "Damn." That one word sent chills down Xander's spine. Kirika never cursed.

"I know…it's got me spooked good," Xander grunted.

"Xander, I hope you understand how serious this is… Teraka are assassins. They assassinate. They don't kidnap. They kill. That's their job…in order for them to lessen themselves to this level, it takes someone of immense power and influence." She let out her breath. "Xander, the kidnapping is only the beginning of your worries."

Xander swallowed deeply. "I was afraid you'd say that," he whispered, shoulders hanging. The emotions of the day came flooding over him now that Kirika's voice finally triggered his release. He needed to be strong for the others… but with Kirika, he knew he could be himself. "When I saw her… saw her get taken… I was so scared, Chérie. So scared… I ran after them… called Krista to bring the car…" he took a breath to calm himself. It didn't work. "Bullets were ineffective on that guy, whatever he was… I used the Light Saber. Cut off his hands and his head." After those last words, he broke down, sobbing in the phone. "I…it was so horrible…"

Kirika let him weep; only speaking when his sobbing subsided. "I'll tell Mireille to move up the schedule… I can't promise anything, Xander… Teraka is dangerous, as you now know… but I will promise to do everything in our power to get them as soon as we can. Until then… you'll just need to defend your friends at your house."

Xander nodded to the phone. "I understand… thanks, Chérie."

He heard a hesitant smile in her voice as she replied, "De rien, Mon Coeur."

"I've got to go… get some sleep…" Xander whispered.

"Good night, Mon Coeur. Rest, and know that Mireille and I will be doing everything we can," the brunette assassin replied, voice reassuring.

Xander nodded again. "I know… good night, Kirika."

"Good night, Xander."

Xander hung up, told Krista to disengage the soundproofing and the privacy mode, and curled up in his bed, crying himself to sleep. He didn't even feel the gentle touch of the hologram as she slipped in the bed next to him, holding him as he slept, protecting him from the worst brunt of the nightmares that were sure to follow.

Kirika hung up the telephone, turned, and walked to the window of the small room she and Mireille had rented. Her shaking hands clamped down on the balustrade as the petite girl stared out over the scenery, watching but not seeing, thoughts turned inward. And they were not good thoughts.

Mireille, who had just come in after buying groceries, saw the girl like that. Immediately, something didn't feel right to the blonde assassin. Usually, Kirika was composed to the edge of being constantly cold. Now she was leaning on the balustrade as if she were saying goodbye to the world in general and life in particular.

"Kirika? What happened?"

"Teraka," Kirika answered coldly, eyes narrowing as she pulled back to reality. She turned to Mireille. "They tried to kidnap Willow, Xander's friend. He managed to save her."

"That's good, right?" Mireille asked.

Kirika shook her head. "Whomever can tell Teraka to kidnap instead of kill is a gruesomely powerful and influential person. Know this, Mireille… Teraka kills. That's what it does, and it does its job well. It doesn't rape, steal, threaten, or kidnap. To have someone actually have them kidnap…" the girl's voice trailed off.

"I understand," Mireille answered. "So… what's the next move?"

Kirika smiled. It was not a nice smile, and to Mireille it looked as if the Grim Reaper had just chosen female form. "We pay Teraka a visit and persuade them to cancel the contract."

"We know where they are, but we still need more intelligence," Mireille reminded her younger companion.

"There comes a time when you just have to take a chance," Kirika answered coldly, and looked directly in Mireille's eyes, and for those few tense seconds, Mireille was reminded just what kind of life this girl had gone through, how far she had come, but how dangerous she still was. Kirika's eyes looked old, eyes that had witnessed too much for any person's complete life, let alone someone of her young age. What have those eyes witnessed? Mireille wondered for a few seconds, actually taken aback.

"I will understand if you chose not to go with me. I am planning on rescinding this contract-" Kirika said, broken off as Mireille interrupted her.

"You are not doing this alone!" the blonde interrupted. "Although I find it foolish to rush in like this, I understand what you're saying, and I'm not letting you go in alone."

Kirika was silent for a few seconds, seemingly evaluating the sincerity of the aristocratic woman. "We move, then," Kirika whispered. "I'll ask for some heavy ordinance from a local supplier."

"Heavy ordinance?" Mireille asked.

"Teraka understand only one thing: money. We must cost them more than they stand to gain from this contract. It is unlikely we can put them out of business, as they're spread all over the world, but if we can inflict sufficient damage against their headquarters, we might be able to put a stop to this contract."

"So you're planning on what? Blowing it up?" Mireille asked sarcastically.

Kirika shook her head. "Fire some missiles into it. Then we take out whatever assassin we find inside… until we reach the Master. Him we force to recede the contract."

Mireille stared with open mouth at the girl as the brunette walked past her to go out 'shopping'. Before reaching the door, Kirika turned around. "We will need to be careful. Teraka uses magic… standard bullets might be ineffective. I suggest we use our supply of High Demon rounds."

"Black Bands?" Mireille asked dumbly as Kirika disappeared out the door. "Olivia will have us for breakfast if we go through $5000 worth of Black Band rounds." The blonde smiled, then shrugged. "We'll just find us some standard jobs, then…" she added with a chuckle.

It was only four hours later that the two assassins rushed in through the settling debris of the two anti-tank missiles that had exploded into the front of the inconspicuous-looking building that was Teraka HQ. It appeared to be a sandstone building of two stories, at the outskirts of a desert town. Only Kirika and Mireille knew that the building went deep underground.

As they rushed in, they met with little resistance. But Teraka had obviously thought strategically when they constructed this building, as the staircases to reach the next floor were located on either side of the building in such a manner that one had to walk through the entire floor to get to the next one, then clear that one in order to reach the next one.

Kirika and Mireille reached the first subterranean floor, guns ready and armed with the most potent bullet concoction Olivia Person had been able to come up with. As they emerged, two men were waiting for them, arms spread, hands glowing. A bolt of energy slammed into the door above Kirika's head as the brunette ducked, her lighting reflexes in their element in the close quarters of the building.

As she ducked, Kirika's gun went up. Her aim was perfected through the years. Kirika never missed. She didn't miss this time. The bullet, designed to be armor piercing, would go right through a normal person. In order to be sure, Kirika aimed for the breastbone. The bullet bit down in one of the hardest bones of the human body, exploding as the heavy bone broke the metal jacket of the bullet.

The explosion ripped the first mage in half, and threw the second one to the wall. Mireille's shot bit down in his skull, and the headless corpse fell to the ground, showering the surroundings with brain-matter, chips of skull, some teeth, and even a complete eyeball, ripped out of its socket before the skull disintegrated around it.

"Neat," Mireille actually managed to whisper.

"Taking down tanks," Kirika whispered coldly as she swept down the central hallway, covering the various doors that no doubt led to the rest of the elaborate Teraka underground network. Mireille followed directly behind, both women now working in tandem, soon reaching the staircase down to level minus two.

"Maybe they're organizing defense around the Master," Mireille offered as she and Kirika descended the stairs.

"Perhaps," the other assassin replied coldly, readying herself to burst down to minus two. Next to her, Mireille did the same. Together, they jumped the last part, kicking open the door with the added speed of the jump, landing in a crouch as they swept the hallway for defenders.

None. Looking strangely at each other for just a moment, the duo swept the hallway to the next staircase.

"Either they hoped those two were enough, or they're organizing defense beyond this," Mireille said as they reached the staircase down to minus five. "This is where the Master is."

Kirika dipped her head, and closed her eyes. When they opened, they were narrow slits of utter coldness. "Noir, depuis une époque lointaine le nom du destin… les deux vierges règnent sur la mort," the brunette whispered.

Mireille grinned slightly, and nodded. "Les Mains noires protègent la paix des nouveaux-nés," she answered the final part of the prophecy.

Kirika dipped her head. Mireille nodded. Together, the two assassins charged.

The fight was short and brutal, and within minutes, two female assassins were pointing guns at an ornately dressed man, tied to his almost throne-like chair, dragged to the middle of the room where his assassins had put up a brave final fight. Surrounded by death and destruction, the man was still utterly cold as the two females loomed over him.

Beautiful as they were, they weren't very physically impressive, but the psychological notion of those two having wiped out a dozen Teraka assassins in mere minutes left more of an impression than physical appearance ever could. The sight of them tearing through the room was looming over Kirika's small shoulders and Mireille's artfully made-up face.

The Master was still cold. He had seen some of the worst things possible. He wasn't afraid of death, even if it came in the form of two women.

"Cancel the contract in Sunnydale," Kirika told him, voice as cold as his posture.

"I don't think that I should do that," the Master answered calmly. "I don't think you would let me go afterwards."

"I never said I would let you go," Kirika stated coldly.

The Master smiled slightly. "Then I won't cancel the contract."

Kirika cocked her head slightly, narrow eyes narrowing even more. "I don't have time to convince you," the brunette said dangerously. "I will order one last time. Cancel the contract."

The Master smiled.

Kirika nodded. "That was your final chance. I will not ask again." With that, she kicked the man's kneecap with enough force to shatter it. Before his screams had died down, she kicked the second kneecap. The scream tapered into a grunt as the man composed himself.

The butt of her gun bit down in his left cheek. His right cheek. His right eye-socket, and the Master could feel his eye swelling shut.

He felt an add pressure against his shattered kneecap. The next moment, he was flung on his back as a deafening explosion washed over him. The explosive bullet had biting off his right leg, and he could feel his left leg taking damage from the explosion, as his ornate cloak melted into his flesh. He screamed.

Mireille winced as she saw Kirika tear into the man. She had never imagined that the girl was capable of anything closely to this… it just wasn't her… When Mireille looked closer at Kirika's blood-stained face, the narrow-slitted eyes and the dangerous stance of the lips, she realized that this wasn't Kirika. This was what Soldats had intended for Noir. This was the assassin Noir, not the girl Kirika who Mireille had first met, learned to tolerate, and even care about.

"Fine! I'll cancel the contract!" the Master wailed.

Kirika nodded, producing the phone from the man's desk. She tucked the phone next to his good ear, meaning the one that had only been pulled, not ripped, and her eyes asked the telephone number… as well as a sign of resistance.

The Master told her the number.

"The contract's cancelled. Tell the Wizard to do his own dirty work," the Master gasped out. Kirika withdrew the phone.

"This is Noir. Do not cancel this contract, and you will be next."

"Next what?" the voice on the other side had the gall to ask. Kirika lifted her gun. The explosion took the Master's head off. "Ah. Next. Got it," the voice answered. "The contract's cancelled," the voice ended the conversation, and Kirika smiled at the dial tone.

"Contract… cancelled," the girl whispered, looking around the room, the destruction, everything. She felt herself sway as she thought of what she had done to the Master. What she had been forced to do… her right hand twitched.

"Kirika," Mireille grunted as she rushed to the girl's side, supporting her before she could collapse.

"I'll… be fine," she whispered, eyes returning to normal. "I… what I did…"

"It wasn't you," Mireille whispered gently. "I know… I saw it…"

Kirika nodded gratefully, and stood up on her own two legs. "Let's get out of here."

Mireille smiled. "No problem!" the blonde agreed eagerly as thee two assassins left the room, and soon the building.

Xander looked around the living room, where the entire Scooby Gang had gathered once again, after a stressful day at school and a chance to go home, pick up clothes, and explain things to various parents if the situation so needed. Oz and Giles were the envied ones, for they only needed to pick up some clothes.

"Maybe we should skip patrol," Buffy suggested. "I mean… it's dangerous…"

To everyone's surprise, it was Xander, not Giles, who replied. "It's even more dangerous to stay locked in here… we won't change the situation unless we go out there, find out what's happening and get rid of the person behind this."

"Xander's right," Giles said, not believing ever needing to say that. The boy really had changed these last months… not only had he gained confidence, but he had matured considerably as well. He couldn't see the old Xander talking back to Buffy like he had done now on a couple of occasions. "We need to find out who is behind this, and put a stop to their operations… only then will we be safe."

"How hard can it be? All we need to do is take care of Teraka, right? We did it before, so we'll just do it again," Buffy said, shrugging.

"No, Buff… Teraka is the least of our worries. Whoever's behind Teraka is a lot more dangerous than Teraka could ever be. You see… Teraka are assassins. Good ones, yes, but assassins nonetheless. For them to kidnap someone… it's…well… wrong. It's not what they do. So, whoever's behind this can muster the money and the pull to have the Terakans change their modus operandi. And that takes a lot of influence, money, and power," Xander answered, getting up and starting to pace as he talked. "That's why I had you all here… I don't want to see what else that guy can pull out of his hat."

"So, what do you want us to do?" Buffy answered, testily now. "First you preach us not staying cooked up, and the next, you're telling of the coming apocalypse and we're safe in here. Make up your mind, Xander!"

"I am trying, Buffy!" Xander snapped out. "Don't you think I know that?" He took a couple of breaths, trying to calm himself. He sat down, and stared into space for a couple of seconds. "I am trying to warn you… all of you… of the situation we're in. And I'm also trying to convince you of the necessity to try and change the situation… we need to find out who's behind all of this, and put a stop to him. The moment he's gone, the Teraka contract is cancelled automatically."

"Find the contractor," Giles nodded. "Precisely. That's what we need to do."

"So… what's next?" Cordelia asked. "Buffy goes out, and Slays whoever's behind all of this? That's it? Why didn't you just tell that yesterday?"

"It's not that simple," Giles answered. "We don't know who's behind this… and unless we can find out who is, there is no way of stopping him, her, or it. That's why I suggest we go out in parties… watch each other's back… try and find out who is behind all of this, and then try and figure out a way to stop them."

Xander nodded. "That's right… the best thing would probably be for those of us who can defend themselves best… Buffy, me, Giles… to try and find out the responsible one…"

"Hang on, there's someone at the door," Krista said, standing up.

"Careful, it might be a vampire," Xander said, standing up, frowning slightly. "I'm not expecting anyone…"

"They've got heat signals. Whoever they are, they're definitely alive," Krista told Xander as he moved to the front door. The armored plating retracted automatically, virtually at the same time he was close enough to reach out and grab the handle to open the door.

"They?" Xander asked, even more confused. "Who could it be…" He opened the door. His jaw hit the ground.

"Good to see you again, Xander," Mireille said, stepping in, hugging him, and giving him the customary three kisses as she greeted him.

"Mi…Mireille?" Xander stammered out, barely enough wits to hug her back. Finally, he regained his wits, and hugged her fiercely. "God, Mireille, it's so good to see you!"

"Good to see you too, Xander," the blonde whispered, stepping back. Only now did Xander's eyes focus on Kirika, standing a little back, barely inside the door opening, staring shyly back at him.

"Kirika…" he whispered, not moving.

"Xander…" the girl whispered back, not moving either.

"It's so…" he started, taking one step forward, and reaching out both his arms.

"Sudden. I know," she whispered, also taking a step, linking her hands with his. "I'm glad you're okay…"

Xander smiled, unable to stop himself. A thousand things moved through his mind. A thousand questions battled for supremacy. "I'm glad you're okay, too…" he whispered. Their eye-contact remained as the outside world didn't exist. Finally, the two young people decided it was enough, threw themselves forward, and kissed passionately. Xander's tears flowed freely as he embraced her, this gentle girl with the hard life and the cold factor embedded within her.

As they broke apart, one tear flowed down Kirika's cheek, and Xander caught it with one finger before it could drip to the floor. "That's the second time I made you cry," he whispered.

"I'm never leaving you again, Mon Coeur," she whispered.

"I'm never letting you go, Chérie," Xander replied.

"Hey now, timeout!" Buffy shouted. "Xander!? Who are these girls? And why are they kissing you!?"

Xander smiled, suddenly remembering where he was. Sheepishly, he turned to the blonde. "Sorry… Buffy, Willow, Giles, Cordelia, Krista… These are Mireille and Kirika, my teachers."

Krista already knew from the conversations she had held with Xander. The silence of the other people spoke volumes.

"Your TEACHERS!?" Buffy, Willow, and Cordelia screeched at the same time.

"Xander, your teachers are female!" Buffy added to her shout.

Xander grinned. "I am well aware of that, Buffy," he said, grinning, his hand around Kirika's back tightening. He motioned for the living room, and the group sat down again, Kirika firmly lodged on Xander's lap, nestling against chest as both his arms draped protectively around her smaller frame.

"You never told us you spent ten months in Paris with two beautiful women!" Buffy continued the tirade before they had all settled. Xander could see Mireille lift an amused eyebrow in his direction.

"Xander, what have you been telling about us?" she asked with the velvety-soft slightly-accented English of hers. It reminded Xander of a Cobra… smooth and beautiful to look at, but venomous to the hilt.

"Nothing," Xander answered with a shrug. "I thought you'd prefer it that way."

"He had us believe you were male!" Buffy told Mireille, who once more lifted that amused eyebrow in Xander's direction. Kirika lifted her head from his chest and looked at him with a vague amusement herself.

"No, you assumed they were men… I merely chose not to contradict that," he said with a smirk, causing Kirika to smile slightly and drop her head, as well as making Mireille chuckle.

"But now… how come you tow are here already? I thought you were chasing after Teraka?" Xander asked Mireille.

"After that phone call yesterday, we moved up the schedule. I would have liked more information, but Kirika was very convincing," Mireille said with a chuckle. "Xander, we've got good news. The contract with Teraka? It's gone."

Xander's eyes lit up. The others were thrown in a stunned silence. "You got the contract rescinded? That's great news!" Xander shouted.

"E…excuse me," Giles interrupted Xander's outburst, turning to Mireille. "If I may ask… just how did you get the contract rescinded?"

Mireille smirked slightly. She's enjoying this, Xander thought, smiling slightly. "By attacking Teraka Headquarters, of course," the blonde answered deadpan. "We went in, cleaned house, and got the master to rescind the contract."

"You attacked Teraka's headquarters? Just the two of you? Am I supposed to believe that two women… one of which is Xander's age, I might add, took out Teraka's headquarters? Is this some form of a joke!?" Giles burst out.

Mireille got up, staring coldly down on the Englishman. "Xander? Who is this person?" she asked, and Rupert Giles felt chills go down his spine as those two blue eyes settled on him.

"Rupert Giles, Buffy's Watcher," Xander answered. "Mireille…"

The blonde held up her hand. "Mr. Giles. My name is Mireille Bouquet. But you may know me best under an assumed name. Noir."

The librarian went pale, and started sweating. "Myth… Myth and legend…"

From her position on Xander's lap, Kirika intoned, "Le noir, ce mot désigne depuis une époque lointaine le nom du destin. Les deux Vierges règnent sur la mort. Les mains noires protègent la paix des nouveaux-nés."

Giles whispered, as if by heart, "Noir, the word depicting since longtime the name of destiny… the two maidens that reign over death… the black hands protecting the peace of the newborns."

Mireille nodded tensely, and sat down in her seat. "That's who we are."

"You're assassins," Giles whispered. The crowd gathered seemed to move away from the newcomers. It was unfortunate for Xander to be so close to Kirika, as it now looked as if they were distancing themselves from him as well.

"Yes," Mireille answered calmly. "We protect the world from the scum of humanity. Where the law fails, we work. Drug lords, powerful men."

"As I explained to Xander," Kirika said calmly, sitting up and looking around the room, "we do the same work you do. Where you slay vampires, we go after serial killers and drug lords. Where you take out demons, we take out war criminals and other scum."

"Xander? You knew?" Buffy accused.

"Knew?" Xander asked, chuckling darkly. "Yes, I knew… and I wanted nothing to do with the whole business until I saw for myself how cold and evil human beings can be. I swear, Buff… I've seen a lot of atrocities committed by vampires, but they're nothing compared to what a human being can do. And that's not including the fact that a human has a soul."

Buffy's face twisted in revulsion, while Cordelia and Willow could see reason, Oz remained impassive, and Giles could actually begin to see that they might be right.

Krista, knowing all about the two noir-operatives, could see that things weren't going over smoothly… she had been afraid of this ever since computing the possibility of Mireille and Kirika showing up in Sunnydale. Buffy wasn't going to go down without a fight, she was going to drag her little group with her, and things would turn ugly. So, the AI thought something up in the hope of diffusing the situation.

"Xander told me so much about you," Krista said, sitting down on one knee next to the couch where Xander was still holding an impassive Kirika. "I'm Krista," she added, extending her hand. Kirika sat up, took the hand, and shook it.

"Kirika," the brunette replied calmly. "And Xander told me a lot about you, too. You're the Artificial Intelligence, right?"

"Yup," the redhead replied with a smug look. "Xander said he looks at me like his daughter… which kinda makes me yours as well, Kirika-mama."

Xander swallowed hard, not expecting the AI to be this blunt… or takes this particular moment to pull her stunt. He had no idea how this was going to turn out. Mireille, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying the joke immensely as she started laughing.

Kirika remained silent for a few seconds, a gentle smile tugging at the usually impassive lips. "After everything Xander has told me… there's no-one I would be more proud to call me daughter," the brunette finally said, secretly enjoying the stunned look Xander was shooting her. Mireille just laughed louder as the brunette assassin and the redheaded AI hugged.

"Hey, don't change the subject!" Buffy shouted to Krista.

"Don't yell at my daughter," Kirika said calmly, lying down on Xander's chest again. Her voice had been calm, level, without a trace of anger. But it also conveyed something else, intangible, and it set Buffy's teeth on edge.

"Or what?" Buffy demanded, suppressing the shiver that ran down her spine.

"Or I'll get mad," Kirika answered calmly.

"Is that a threat!?" the Slayer demanded, jumping from her chair.

"Merely an observation," the brunette replied calmly, not at all concerned about Buffy's blowing gaskets.

"I am the Slayer, you know!" Buffy shouted to the brunette. "I am NOT afraid of you, contrary to some of my friends here!"

Kirika sighed. "I just spent 15 hours on airplanes. I'm not in the mood," she answered.

"I'll show you mood!" Buffy shouted, making to reach for Kirika. Before she knew it, she heard a gun cock.

"Not even a Slayer is bulletproof," the blonde assassin said, calmly. "Unless you want to test that theory as well?"

Buffy growled, but backed off. At the same time, Kirika moved up from Xander's lap. "Mireille…"

The blonde shrugged and holstered the gun. "Just wanted to let you have your happiness to be back with your beau, Kirika."

"Thank you," the brunette whispered, sincerely. She turned to Buffy then. "Us fighting will not accomplish anything."

"Sure it will. I pound you, you stop wailing about how important you are, I feel good, everybody wins," the Slayer said with a smirk.

Kirika sighed. Xander stood up behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Buff… take it from somebody who knows… Kirika isn't someone you want to fight with."

"You would say that, wouldn't you, Xander?" Buffy replied sarcastically. "After all, you al little miss perfect there are together." The way she said that last word, making ti sound childish and unimportant, just pushed the wrong button for Xander. Nobody… nobody… made fun his feelings for Kirika. He was about to lift his hands from her shoulders when her hands came up, touching his fingers gently.

"You have made your final mistake," the brunette whispered. It was so strange to hear that impassive voice gain deadliness simply by speaking softer than usual. "Chéri, do you have a training room?"

"Upstairs," Xander whispered. "Kirika…"

"I'll try not to kill her," the brunette whispered as she passed him, kissing him on the lips as she did so. "Promise."

Buffy chuckled. "Try not to kill me? Bo-ho, I am so scared! The big bad assassin is going to try not to kill me!" Mocking Kirika like this all the way to the dojo, the entire group was soon gathered to witness a match the likes of which they were never to witness again… a match between Noir and the Slayer.

Buffy didn't waste time, and charged immediately. Kirika merely waited her out, and dodged at the last moment, her arm flashing out as the Slayer raced past, slamming her fist directly in the Slayer's stomach at full force. It stopped Buffy immediately, lifting her off the floor a few centimeters before dropping her to the floor.

As the Slayer hit the mats, Kirika dropped down on top of her, pinning arms and legs in a complicated hold-grip. Her free right hand stabbed at her throat, yet halted mere millimeters from it.

"I just broke your larynx and shoved it down your windpipe. You suffocated to death," Kirika said, getting up.

"Yeah, right," Buffy grunted, spinning around and sweeping at Kirika's feet. Which were no longer there, as the assassin jumped up, vaulting over the sweeping leg, and coming down just after they had passed.

"I do not wish to harm you," Kirika restated.

Buffy jumped up, trying to hit the girl right in the face. Instead of hitting, Buffy's fist met empty air, before Kirika grabbed it, spun her around, and slammed her down hard on the floor. She twisted further, and Buffy screamed out when the girl twisted to breaking point, releasing right before breaking the arm. Kirika stepped back, awaiting Buffy's next move.

"Ow…" the Slayer grunted, standing up, cradling the arm. "How did you…?"

"I was trained since age three. I know every move you'll make before you make it. As I explained to Xander… I can read my opponents like an open book. Which negates you speed advantage. As to your strength, there is a martial art called Aikido, which focuses on teaching how to use an opponent's strength against him. It is useful for fighting vampires and demons… although Slayers qualify as well."

"So… what you're saying is… a Slayer…" Giles whispered.

"A Slayer is a weapon to be used against vampires and demons," Kirika answered. "It was obviously not meant to be used in this manner."

"Hey! Right here, you know!" Buffy shouted. "Didn't anybody ever tell you it's impolite to talk about someone as if they're not there?"

"Buffy, you posses strength and speed… but your edge loses its meaning when met by someone who was from birth to be able to do the impossible," Kirika said. "And I started training Xander to do the same."

"So that is how he put me on my butt twice?" Buffy asked, angrily.

"I see you have been putting my training to good use," Kirika said as Xander grinned sheepishly to Buffy. She motioned for Buffy's place. "Care to show me how your training has been progressing?"

Buffy grinned now, and hurriedly stepped away. "Oh, I wanna see this!"

Xander swallowed, and took Buffy's place opposing Kirika. He swallowed, calmed himself, and lunged for her. She darted back, grabbed his wrist, and threw him. He landed on his feet, and swept for her legs. She wasn't there, of course, instead jumping up and twisting in mid-air, landing directly in front of him, and smashing her elbow in his face. Hard.

"You've grown slower," Kirika noted coldly. "After all the time I put into you, you still can't hold on to your training?"

Xander grunted, and got up, the flow of blood from his nose stopping already. "Aw, Kirika…"

Kirika cricked her neck to left and right. "Attack me."

Mireille chuckled. "Here we go," she whispered as Xander got into an attack pose, and charged. Kirika dodged one, two, three strikes, grabbed the fourth and twisted.

Xander was no fool. After his meeting with the Demon in Maine, he had gone over his own meager knowledge of the Aikido techniques, and come to the conclusion that there were tactical problems when faced with non-human opponents. He had seen the Demon break free of his grip with sheer muscle power. As such, tighter with Krista, he had spent hours trying to perfect the techniques, coming up with ways to increase his martial arts techniques when faced with superior opponents.

When Kirika grabbed his latest strike, and started to fold his arm as she moved forward, Xander's muscles moved by instinct as they encountered a situation they had trained for. As his arm folded, so did his back, freeing his arm from her grip, and permitting him to strike at her unprotected side, which he subsequently did. Kirika dodged, smiled, and awaited his next strike.

"That was a good move," she complimented levelly, remaining at rest.

"You anticipated, as usual," Xander grunted.

"You're still advertising," Kirika said with a small smile. "Now… why don't you get serious? I want to see just how much you have last over the time I have been away."

Xander's face darkened. "I kept up my training, Kirika. I didn't lose anything."

Kirika smiled. "Prove it."

Xander's fists balled, his teeth bared, and he charged. But still… something held him back. The strength was there. The speed was, too. And he even had the technique… but it was the simple act of following up, those few fractions hesitation between reversing one punch and starting the next that did him in.

Kirika kicked him in the stomach, following up with a devastating roundhouse kick to his face. "Why are you holding back?" she demanded as Xander crawled to his feet, swiping at the blood from his nose with the back of his right hand.

"I'm not," he replied coldly.

"You are," Kirika stated, slowly walking towards him. When she reached him, she put her arms around his neck. "What's wrong, mon Chèr?" she whispered in Russian.

Xander didn't answer. He didn't have the answer. The eye motion told Kirika everything she needed to know. "You're afraid of what would happen if you unleashed fully," she said, not a question but a statement. He nodded once. She smiled slightly, then released him after a kiss.

"We're both tired," she stated aloud, in her perfect English. "Perhaps we should go to bed after a nice long shower."

Xander nodded in agreement, happy that he didn't have to do this in front of his friends. As good friends as they were, he was still afraid of their reaction when and if they found out about the Soldier, and the Hyena that dwelled within him. Their reactions to Mireille and Kirika had been enough to convince him that some secrets were not yet meant to be shared.

"Good night everybody," he said as he walked past them, following Kirika out the door. As he closed it, his voice drifted back into the room. "Wash your back?" The door closed before her response came, but it left no trace of doubt in the minds of the others as to what Kirika had meant… taking a shower and getting into bed together.

"What's with those two?" Buffy asked exasperated, after staring at the closed door as if the item was to wield all the answers in the universe.

Mireille shrugged, and smiled slightly. "I don't know… I return after an errand one morning, only finding an empty wine bottle and them in bed together. And Kirika taught Xander her bad habits on how to conceal secrets."

The group stared at the blonde, seemingly not caring about the scrutiny.

"In bed together?" Willow finally asked, gasping for air like a fish out of water.

"They've been acting like that ever since," Mireille said, after a small nod.

"So they're serious?" Cordelia asked. "I mean… if they sleep together…"

Mireille chuckled. "They sleep together, yes. With the emphasis on sleeping. They keep their clothes on."

Meanwhile, in the bathroom, Xander and Kirika had shed their clothes. As Kirika turned the shower to ice-cold, Xander grabbed the soap, and jumped in after the brunette. After soaping up his hands, he slowly ran them over his girlfriend's muscular back, feeling himself finally start to relax as he did so. Kirika seemed to feel his state of mind, and just let him run his hands over her back for the tenth time without asking him about it.

Finally, he seemed to realize what he had been doing, and released her back. She looked over her shoulder, staring into his eyes as if to ask 'are you feeling better?' without forming so many words. He smiled slightly, and held up the soap. Dipping her head, she took the soap, and ran it through her hands as he turned around. He didn't notice the small smile that tugged on her lips as she started running her powerful hands gently over his filling back.

She remembered the first time she had seen him naked, back at the mansion… how skinny he had been then. The smile grew slightly as she recalled him filling out rapidly under her expert tutelage, and before she realized it, she too had gone over his back a dozen times. When she released him, he looked at her the same way she had looked earlier. She dipped her head once. They had established quiet communication again… and Kirika rather enjoyed the silence.

Five minutes later, the couple was in Xander's luxurious bed, him dressed in a pair of shorts and she wearing a long t-shirt. Normally, they would cuddle up, close their eyes, and just drift off rather immediately. This time, Xander turned to her before either could settle in completely.

"I've missed you so much," he whispered, tightening his hug around her smaller yet more powerful body. She hugged him back without hesitation, trying to work out the unfamiliar ways of love.

"I missed you too…" she replied, enjoying the feeling of their bodies so very close together… closer than they had ever been… a rare full smile played on her lips. After an eternity that passed as mere seconds, Xander lifted his head away, looking deep into her oddly colored eyes. Those eyes that seemed to convey a smooth deadliness and an odd way of analyzing your soul at the same time. Or rather… they usually did. Now Xander could see other things in those red orbs… things he knew Kirika had difficulty with expressing. Things like love… compassion… vulnerability…

He smiled when he realized that she was showing her vulnerability… he hugged her again. "I love you," he whispered.

Kirika screwed her eyes shut. "I love you too," she whispered in reply, holding on to him.

They didn't speak after that; merely holding on to each other as their bodies and minds finally relaxed after an intense couple of weeks worrying. Their eyes closed and their minds drifted into sleep without difficulty; safe and comfortable in the knowledge that there was someone close by to protect them.

Xander didn't have nightmares that night.

The next morning, the breakfast table slowly started to fill out as more and more people awoke from their sleep. Krista's customary large breakfast met with happy feedback as the various people dug in deeply. The young Ai smiled broadly, happy in the knowledge that what she had created was giving pleasure to those she cared about.

Finally, Mireille stumbled in, eyes widening slightly at the sight of the huge variety of dishes available. "What would you like, Mireille?" Krista asked, voice timbre slightly wavering as the young AI tried to overcome the jitters of having a new person at the table. Normally, ti wouldn't be this hard, if it weren't for the fact that Xander placed a lot of respect in this person.

"You cook, too?" Mireille asked with a curious smile. "You're a genuine talent show, aren't you?" she asked, smiled slightly wider.

"I do my best," Krista answered, smiling as well. "I made some croissants… Papa Xander told me you had difficulty finding good ones here in the States."

Mireille seemed to appraise the redhead for a few seconds, before shrugging. "Sure. Get me a couple, and a cup of coffee… strong coffee, if possible."

"Is there any other?" Xander asked with a chuckle. Krista nodded to Mireille, and bounced off to amass the order. She was back in ten seconds, carrying a plate with ten croissants laid out nicely, as well as a cup of coffee. Strong coffee.

"I hope you like them…" the AI whispered unsure as she carefully put the plate down in front of Mireille.

"Thanks," the blonde said as the AI put the plate down. She smelled deeply, and let out a content grunt. "They smell wonderful… if they taste as well as they smell, I'm sure they'll do perfectly," she added as she moved to cut open one of the croissants. "They're still warm," she noted with a smile.

"I just finished baking them half an hour ago," Krista whispered as she waited for the verdict. Mireille finished buttering the croissant, closed it, and took a bite. Her face showed delight.

"This is great!" the blonde grunted in delight after swallowing her bite. "How did you learn to cook like this? Last time, Xander had trouble baking an egg!"

"HEY!" Xander grunted in protest as the present people chuckled devilishly.

"I downloaded some cookbooks," Krista said, smiling broadly as Mireille complimented her cooking. "I do my best to take care of Papa Xander… and his guests."

"You spoil us rotten," Buffy told the AI. "After this, it'll be really hard to go back home… Mom cooks good, but this… it's so much better."

Willow nodded empathically, as Cordelia grunted, "Krista's cooking is so bad for the figure… too good to stop until you're completely full."

Krista smiled broadly at the compliments, not knowing where to put her happiness. At that moment, Kirika came down the stairs, still only dressed in the T-shirt that barely reached down to her hips.

"Morning," the brunette greeted as she walked over to Xander. She reached down as he reached up, kissing her on the lips while the t-shirt slid up and showed considerably more than just her hips.

"Good morning, Chérie. Sleep well?" Xander asked after she straightened out and found herself seated in the empty chair right next to his.

"Never better," the brunette answered. Only then did the duo notice that everyone was staring at Kirika… all except for Mireille, who just sipped her coffee.

"What?" Xander asked, not really sure.

"Eh… you…t-shirt…nothing under…" Willow blurted.

"Xander, your girlfriend is showing her assets," Cordelia grunted bluntly.

"Kirika-mama is built like any other woman," Krista said as she materialized next to Kirika. "What would you like for breakfast, Kirika-mama?"

Giles and Oz still sat, staring at the brunette, not saying anything, eyes glued to the petite form that was now having a conversation with Krista. At the same time, Buffy elbowed Giles and Willow elbowed Oz.

"You're giving the men bad ideas," Buffy grunted to Kirika.

"They'll get used to it," Xander said with a smirk. "I know I did," he added with a chuckle as Krista returned with a load of pancakes and a cup of tea.

As Kirika sipped from her tea, she nodded slightly. "Not bad…" she said, turning to Krista. "When everyone's off to school, I'll teach you my recipe…"

"Hey! You wouldn't tell me the secret, and you're going to spill the beans to Krista after only knowing her for a couple of hours!?" Xander protested.

Kirika's face grew mischievous. "Handed down from mother to daughter," the brunette said calmly. Krista glowed. Xander picked his jaw up from the floor and shook his head in amusement. Mireille chuckled in suppressed laughter, and the others just looked confused.

"Kirika makes the best tea," Mireille explained. "Normally, I only drink coffee… only exception is Kirika's tea."

"These pancakes are great," Kirika told Krista, as if she wasn't even paying attention to the others' conversation. "Perhaps you can teach me how to make them?"

Xander shook his head as she heard the conversation next to him. He chuckled. "I'm glad you two get along really well."

Krista and Kirika looked at each other for a moment. Then, they looked at Xander. "Why wouldn't we?" they asked simultaneously.

Mireille burst out laughing. Xander just chuckled. "You're rubbing off on her, Chérie."

Kirika shrugged, not minding one moment. Krista shrugged in a similar fashion. "Like mother, like daughter," Xander grunted.

"Thank you," both females replied at the same time, not even thinking about it.

Kirika walked up to the front door of the normal-looking house in center Sunnydale, feeling a little vibration of nervousness deep inside of her heart. This had been in her mind the moment Xander had told her about what had happened last time… Kirika's eyes narrowed slightly as she rang the doorbell, steeling herself for what she knew was coming.

"What?" the gruff voice of the unshaven man demanded as he opened the door upon her third ring.

"Mr. Harris?" the girl asked sweetly, doing her best to come across as 'normal'… or as close to normal as she could, being who she was.

"Whut'd ya want?" he demanded angrily.

"My name is Kirika. I am… an acquaintance of Xander's," she said, stopping herself from saying 'girlfriend', keeping the secret for when she knew better who this man was.

"Xander? What Xander?" the man demanded. "I don't know any Xander," he then said, and moved to close the door. Kirika's right hand placed itself on the heavy wooden door without thinking. It stopped closing, no matter how much the man behind it pushed.

"Your son, Alexander Harris," Kirika said, voice lowering dangerously. The man stopped pushing.

"Tell the brat he still owns me two months rent," the man said gruffly, and started pushing once again. "And then I'll really forget about him."

Kirika felt anger explode in her heart, yet managed to contain herself to the point where her eyes just narrowed, and she felt the Noir-assassin infliction come over her voice. "I am amazed that an animal like you managed to raise a caring, brave, and well-mannered son such as Xander. I will leave you a message… come near him and I will make you wish you were dead," the small girl stated, voice cold, dark, and totally flat. She released the door. It immediately snapped shut.

As she turned to walk down the path that lead to the street, her extremely trained hearing reported the sound of what must be the back of a person hitting the door, obviously in contemplation of what he had just heard. The moment she reached the street, she oriented herself, chose a direction, and started jogging… planning on picking Xander up at school.

She only had to wait half an hour before the final lessons ended, and the brunette smiled slightly as she saw Xander emerge from the school, flanked by Willow and Buffy, with Cordelia walking next to Buffy and Oz walking next to Willow. The five were talking about something or other, obviously quite engaged in the discussion. Kirika managed to sneak up quite closely.

"Hello," the girl greeted, emerging from the crowd behind the group, making them all jump to stare at her.

"You're worse than Angel!" Buffy grunted after Xander slipped his arms around her, and kissed her fully on the lips.

"Angel?" Kirika asked.

"He's a vampire… a gypsy clan gave him back his soul as punishment at some point in his life," Xander explained quietly, looking around to make sure no-one was listening in to their conversation.

Kirika just nodded. "You're just going to accept that?" Buffy whispered, not believing that Kirika would just accept an explanation like that without asking for further details.

"I've learned that sometimes it's best to just accept things," Kirika replied calmly as the quintet continued walking to the parking lot, where Cordelia's convertible was parked right next to Xander's Aston Martin. As they reached the cars, Xander threw his keys to Kirika, and walked to the passenger side.

"Hey! You're letting her drive your car!?" Buffy said angrily. "Xander, you don't let anyone drive your car, and now you're letting her drive?"

Xander shrugged as Kirika keyed the release for the door locks. "She's my girlfriend," he stated simply as she slid behind the wheel. Xander opened his door, and ushered whoever wanted into the backseat of the Aston Martin. Cordelia ended up driving home with Buffy while Willow and Oz made use of Xander's backseat.

The cave was immerged in twilight, the single source of illumination coming from a scattering of torches places strategically around the rounded walls of the circular cave. In the exact middle, a rectangular slab of stone was set, equipped with extremely heavy duty chains and ditto attachments anchoring them into the dark stone.

Dimitri entered the cave through its only entrance. His weathered Russian face was set in an almost emotionless expression, the only trace of the nervousness he felt indicated by the flurried activity of his eyes as they scanned the twilight for the man he knew was present.

"Dimitri," the dark voice came from all around him, reverberating through the strange refractions of the room.

"My Lord," the vampire said, almost snapping to attention as he straightened out.

"I have an important task for you," the Voice continued. A man, shrouded in a black cloak floated from the shadows, approaching the stone slab. A hand emerged from one of the huge sleeves, making a motion for the stone table. "Teraka has failed," the Wizard said as a blood-red sigil appeared on the stony surface, a golden receptacle appearing from the sigil after which is vanished. "The ritual is tonight, Dimitri. I must have my sacrifice."

"Of course, My Lord," the vampire whispered reverently, approaching his lord at his motion.

"I can no longer be bothered by minor powers," the Wizard continued. "Drakarra has expressed his displeasure. We must have a suitable sacrifice if I'm to gain his power. Dimitri, get me one of these two." He motioned for the golden scale on the table, and it promptly filled with a murky liquid of unidentified properties. The liquid foamed and danced as if driven by some invisible terrible force.

"Either you get me her," Wizard said as a face appeared on the calming surface.

"The Slayer," Dimitri whispered.

"Or her," the Wizard finished as a second face appeared.

"I will take her," Dimitri whispered. "Whoever she is, I would prefer not to go up against a Slayer."

The Wizard smiled under his hood. "She is known as Noir, and is quite possible worse than a Slayer. Where a Slayer has just might, this one has might and intelligence." The Wizard turned his hooded head to Dimitri. "You are to follow my instruction to the letter. Throw fifteen vampires at her, yet remain behind. The moment you have a clear shot, use this." A quick motion and a small lightshow later, a small box was present on the stone table.

"Those are tranquilizer darts. Use them, for you will need them."

"My Lord… fifteen vampires against one girl? Fifteen vampires are enough to take care of a Slayer!" Dimitri protested, yet hurriedly wished he had said nothing as the Wizard turned to him.

"Dimitri, Noir took out enough Teraka assassins to make the ten million dollars asking price insufficient to clear the costs," the Wizard grunted darkly, raising his hand, and muttering a spell. Dimitri was ejected from the room, painfully. "And I will kill you the moment the ritual completes," the Wizard whispered after his crony had long since vanished.

"And now, to continue the preparations for the ritual," the Wizard continued, materializing a large tome in his hands. "I will enjoy performing the first part of the ritual… the sacrificing of the chastity of a Chosen One. Too bad I'll have to wait until midnight," he finished, chuckling. Taking a deep breath, the Wizard composed, and started muttering, a large red seal growing throughout the confines of the room. The Wizard could feel his powers vibrating strangely as the spell's magic drained him as fast as his link to Drakarra could replenish it.

"I'm surprised they let us go," Mireille said to Kirika that evening. "Buffy's bad, but Xander…"

"He worries," Kirika said simply. "But I've been looking forward to meeting Sunnydale for quite some time now… a chance to brush up on my skills against vampires."

Mireille smiled slightly. "I thought you said you feared that which you can't kill?" she said, remembering her companion of her own words, spoken so many months ago in Paris.

"Xander taught me to kill them," the brunette replied calmly. "And once you know the method, it's not hard… After all, Teraka wasn't that hard either."

Mireille shrugged. "If you hear the stories… vampires are dangerous."

Kirika chuckled once. "So is Teraka. And Soldats. If complete armies can't stop us, how should a couple of vampires be any different?"

Mireille remained silent, not totally convinced. Contrary to her companion, she was the 'normal' assassin. She hadn't received exorbitant training from age four. She wasn't the one who could anticipate a gunman's moves before he made them. She wasn't the one who could pick up a fork and think up half a dozen ways of killing someone with it before it's lifted into a position where it could be used. She wasn't the one who could make a weapon out of anything… and as such, with all of her 'shortcoming' of having had nothing but a normal training, Mireille possessed a healthy sense of caution.

"Okay… are you willing to tell me now why you insisted on going on patrol by ourselves? I can understand you wanting to get away from Xander's friends, but you could have let the boy come along. I swear, he was looking close to a nervous breakdown when we left."

Kirika sighed, and looked up at the stars. "Sometimes, I wonder…" the small brunette whispered. "About the future…"

"The future?" Mireille asked, confused. "That's not your habit, thinking beyond what needs to be done."

"About us," Kirika went on, as if Mireille hadn't interrupted. "What would happen to us… now with Xander… he's settled in here… I doubt he'll come back to Paris."

Mireille swallowed. "I… see…" she whispered. "And you're thinking about staying here."

Kirika nodded once. "I promised I wouldn't leave him…"

"Kirika, that could go both ways," the blonde assassin answered. "He promised not to leave you either. He could come to Paris with us. Once all of this is over, he can go back to Paris with us."

"It'll require a lot of rebuilding… a room for us… a room for the mainframe equipment…"

"Mainframe equipment!?" Mireille demanded.

"For Krista," Kirika answered with a nod. "We can't leave her behind…"

Mireille rubbed her head, and sighed. She looked around the park they were in. she motioned for a bench, and sat down. Kirika sat down next to her companion. Neither spoke for a while, absorbed in their own thoughts. Finally, Mireille broke the silence.

"I could always move in here…" the blonde whispered.

"Mireille?" Kirika asked, not sure what she was hearing.

"I must admit, the little AI knows how to cook… and there's nothing I can do from Paris I shouldn't be able to do from here. All I need is a computer… and Krista more than qualifies to get into the secured e-mail account."

"Thank you, Mireille," Kirika whispered, doing her best to convey the emotion in her voice. As usual, it came out as flat, but Mireille had long-since learned to read her younger companion's voice.

Mireille just smiled, and got up. "Come, let's finish our patrol. Before Xander thinks we're dead, and break out the big stuff."

Kirika nodded, and got up, ready to follow her companion. Instead of walking, she froze. Her keen instincts were going haywire. Mireille, recognizing something significant when she saw it, drew her weapon, and pressed her back against Kirika's.

"What is it?"

"Vampires," the brunette answered coldly, voice slipping into assassination mode. At the same time she finished her statement, a dozen vampires emerged from the bushes, games faces on, grinning enlarged canines bare.

"Get them, boys!" the leader of the vampires snarled, charging the duo. Kirika drew her gun with her right hand, slipped a stake into her left, and danced back-to-back with Mireille. In tight quarters like this, the brunette still remembered the fight she had with Chloe at her back… she banished the thought, and focused solely on the fight.

Mireille's guns discharged nearly continuously as Kirika slipped her stake into a vampire's heart practically without the beast noticing. At the same time, she pointed her Beretta at a second vampire, and pulled the trigger. Her aim was perfect, and the bullet ceased the non-beating undead heart.

From the bushes, Dimitri watched as the deadly duo ripped through the 12 vampires. When there were only four of them left, he aimed the dart gun, and fired twice in short succession.

Kirika felt something bite into her neck. Scant moments later, she heard a muffled curse from Mireille. Kirika felt, rather than heard, her companion sink to the ground as her own hyper-tuned body started to fight off the effects of whatever it was that had penetrated her bloodstream. Her eyes blurred, so she closed them and focused on sound alone. Fighting in total darkness, the effective assassin fired at the two still moving beasts behind her, finishing off the vampires on Mireille's side.

Feeling one of the vampires tackle her, the brunette reacted on well-rehearsed instincts that had not yet been suppressed by whatever it was, and slipped her stake into the deadly point. The weight on top of her vanished, and she risked the courage to open her eyes. All she saw was a shadow, moving closer to her. She couldn't aim perfectly, her hand vibrating with the effort it took to lift the gun. Gritting her teeth, she forced her racing heartbeat down, and emptied her gun's clip into the vampire, hoping that one of the bullets would strike true.

She had only a few moments to contemplate the irony of the best assassin in the world hoping for a true shot before she fell into darkness.

Dimitri stared, stunned, as the petite brunette finished off the four remaining vampires before falling to the drug. He walked over, making sure that both were sedated before coming within arm's reach. Sure that they weren't going to be a problem, Dimitri picked up the sleeping Kirika.

"I'll leave you here… I'm sure you'll make a nice meal to some passing vampire," the vampire said as he hefted Kirika over his shoulder and turned to walk away. "Too bad I already fed. You look really tasty."

Xander flipped over and over, away from Krista, tumbling through the room. Finally, he halted, hooked his leg under the katana on his weapon's stand, and kicked it up into the air. Jumping to his legs, he caught the weapon as it fell from the skies. With a single motion, he drew the blade from its scabbard.

"Chose your weapon," he intoned calmly, holding the sword in attack position.

Krista smiled slightly. Reactor, ten percent, she whispered inwardly. The walls blurred for a few moments, before being replaced with all sorts of hand-to-hand weapons, ranging from clubs over maces to heavy mauls and from swords to halberds. The lithe artificial body jumped up, grabbing a pike from the walls, and dropping into an advanced attack position.

"Oh, wow," Willow whispered, standing right next to Oz.

Xander dipped his head at his opponent's choice, and charged. Krista responded by charging as well, the duo racing toward each other from the ends of the room. As they met, Krista ducked under Xander's first slash, moving the wooden end of the pike toward his chest. Xander dodged under the striking attack, charging with his sword under Krista's thrust. The AI struck down at him, trying to get to him.

Xander dodged sideways when he saw the weapon come down toward him, and Krista changed the motion from down to sideways, forcing Xander to dodge backward even more. Suddenly, he felt something.

The wall.

As he startled, the spiked tip of Krista's pike rested against his neck. "You're not your usual self, Papa Xander," the girl noted as she stood down from the attack.

"Sorry… I'm just not in it," Xander whispered.

"Don't worry… Kirika-mama can take care of herself," Krista whispered.

Xander nodded once. The uneasiness in his stomach was achingly familiar. If only he knew from where… he had felt this before… something wasn't right. He could feel his nerves twitching. Something wasn't right.

The front door opened. Krista's eyes reflected surprise, then worry, then turned to Xander. "Papa Xander…"

Xander didn't wait. Something wasn't right. He wanted to know. Needed to know. He jumped down the flight of stairs as if it didn't exist. "Kirik…" his voice trailed off when he saw Buffy Slayer-handle a groggy Mireille into the couch.

"I don't know," the Slayer said, answering Xander's aborted cry.

"I…think they took her…" the assassin whispered, head lulling from side to side, blue eyes straining to focus on Xander. "I'm sorry… drugged us…"

Xander felt the blow in the pit of his stomach, the emotional punch strong enough to lift him off his feet, or so it seemed as he fell backward in the nearest chair, eyes dull and lifeless, not a muscle moving in his entire body as his face was frozen in a morbid shock and his skin was pale. A pale gray that was so spooky that Buffy rushed over to him, leaving Mireille to take care of herself.

"Xander… Xander?"

"Papa Xander?" Krista whispered, materializing next to the blonde.

"Kirika was kidnapped," Buffy grunted. Krista blinked. The holographic matrix destabilized, causing Buffy to stare as the image vanished into nothingness.

In the Vault, every screen activated, showing the same image… the dreaded Blue Screen of Death indicating a crashed Windows PC. It was a bitter show of irony that her three builders had given to Krista… should anything ever happen to threaten her stability, the entire system would freeze and display a message similar to a crashed windows PC.

Ten seconds later, the screen blackened out, and the booting sequence was displayed, the SCSI racks present going into overdrive the moment Krista's personality surfaced. The hologram rematerialized, watching the boot-screens flash by as the rest of her programs loaded from protected storage.

"I am rebooting?" she whispered. "Why…?" the latest memories were the last to load. They had been encrypted, showing that they had been responsible for the Screen of Death.

"Krista emotion module version 10.8," the AI told the main screen of her primary computer, the mainframe, namely. "Deactivate." The program deactivated, and Krista felt… nothing. All her emotions were gone. She was now a true Artificial Intelligence, a living computer without emotional attachments.

"Load memories," the AI then said, and the last encryptions fell.

Krista was supposedly unable to feel emotions, but she still held fire in her eyes by the time the last memories had loaded. "Reboot emotions," the AI said, turning, and vanishing to the living room, where Willow had taken over in the desperate attempt to find a sparkle of life within Xander.

"Papa Xander," Krista whispered, kneeling down next to his chair at an available spot. "Papa Xander… the monitor suit shows you are physically in order. Please… listen to me…"

"I'm sorry," Mireille whispered, barely loud enough for anyone to hear. Yet Xander still reacted, a small twitch under his right eye. "I'm sorry for not being able to protect her, Xander… I know… I know how important she was to you…to me… I promise… the moment I'm fit, we'll go after her."

Xander's lips twitched. "No," he whispered, the one word striking like a mortal shell. "No, I will not allow it…"

Mireille blinked, recognizing the words. "Oh my…"

Xander closed his eyes, sitting up straight.

He appeared in the room where all his spirits were present. Without even bothering to say something, he grabbed Hyena from his chair, and actually lifted him to eye-level, practically off the ground. "Can you find her!?"

Hyena grinned savagely. "In my sleep."

Xander nodded, turning and throwing the spirit in the vacant chair at the head of the table. "Then get her back." He turned to Soldier. "You. Support him."

Soldier snapped to attention perfectly. "Aye AYE SIR!" the man snapped, practically happy with the turn of events, if it weren't for the dire circumstances. Xander Prime glanced around the room. "Anyone have anything to say? Then say it after we get her back!"

Nobody said anything. Love was gripping his armrests, practically bursting with rage as it tried to control its urges to get Kirika back. Emotion was shaking as well, yet in fury instead of his usual placid attitude. Intelligence remained uninterested, shrugged, and closed his eyes.

"You don't need me in here, so I'll just stay out of it," he said.

Xander nodded, and turned his attention to the last spirit. Cold glared at Xander. "Let me be Third. I'll make sure the guy gets his comeuppance."

Xander Prime nodded, and motioned for the vacated Soldier's seat. "Sit. I'll take your place."

In the real world, Xander opened his eyes. They glowed amber. "Kirika. Love. Friend. Companion. Mate," Hyena growled. He stood up, and looked at Mireille. "Not your fault," he told her. "Their fault. They will pay," he stated, turning, and walking to the front door. He clipped Magan to the back of his belt, threw his jacket on, and pulled open the door before anyone had the chance to react.

"Xander!" Buffy shouted. She halted when his head turned to her, amber eyes glowing, canines showing. He grabbed the Light Saber from his pocket, and willed it to activate. It did, in a burning red beam of light.

"Where I go, you can't follow," the Hyena stated coldly, turned, and stalked out the door. "Module Admin, Mode Prison! Niveau Un!"

Prison mode, the administrator module noted, shutting the windows and doors with the lead-and-steel shutters.

"He locked us in," Krista whispered. "Buffy! No!" It was too late, the blonde Slayer angrily punching at the barrier that held the front door shut. Immediately, she was ejected backward with a strangled cry.

Prison Mode, level two. Electrifying shutters, the administrator module boomed.

"This house is now a prison," Krista whispered as she and Willow helped Buffy up. "It's best to wait for Papa Xander to return…"

"Did you look at him? Last time he looked like that, he was in the grip of something called the Hyena, and he almost killed us all!" Buffy screeched.

"No," Mireille whispered, forcing herself to appear coherent. "Last time he looked like that was when Kirika was injured and he ripped through a dozen guards to get to her."

"You mean…" Willow started, unable to finish her statement.

"Kirika… she… I don't know how… but she taught him to use his possessions. To devastating effect," Mireille said.

"Papa Xander… he told me… it's dangerous. He runs the risk of being possessed permanently. And every time he uses them, they grow stronger. The Hyena especially is the most dangerous," the young AI explained, shaking in fear, hugging herself to try and remain calm. To her surprise, Buffy hugged her reassuringly.

"He always finds a way…" the Slayer said, looking at the front door. "He always does… so he will this time as well." Only Krista heard her whisper afterward, "He has to…"

Outside, Xander ran through the deserted streets of nighttime Sunnydale, his glowing eyes, canines, and red-glowing energy sword enough to make every Sunnydale resident look the other way. "Mate," he growled. "Must…find…mate!"

Within minutes, he reached the park, the different smells of the nature preserve dulling the scent of the two women whose movements he was tracking. He deactivated the useless for now Light Saber, and started tracking on his hands and knees, nose right above the ground, sniffing like an overgrown dog, sticking his nose in the air every now and then.

No matter what kind of spirit inhabited his body, it was still bound to human senses, and all it could hope to do was fine-tune them to their maximum performance. He growled slightly at the slow progress he made as he moved through the park.

He detected vampires everywhere, yet ignored them completely on his wildly mad dash through the park on his quest to track the irregular patrolling movements of the highly trained Noir operatives. Unpredictable. Untraceable for a normal person. Because of the unpredictable nature, he had to move carefully, not make assumptions, just track.

Four vampires jumped him from the 'ignored' corner. As they jumped, Xander moved fluidly out of the way, growling like a wild animal as he erected to his full height, amber eyes glowing in the pale moonlight. He drew the Saber and charged, activating the red-glowing blade in mid-charge. The four barely had time to recompose after their prey moved away at speeds greater than theirs. They looked up.

Xander beheaded the first vampire as he passed it, bringing the energy weapon back, penetrating a second's heart and drawing sideways, bringing the word up in a upward slantwise motion, halving a third vampire from its left hip to its right shoulder. The three vampires dusted as the fourth vampire distanced itself from Xander's immediately field of motion. Seeing its three companions die, the fourth vampire screamed and made a run for it.

Xander calmly watched it go, slowly brought up Magan in his left hand, and put a vampire killer in its back. The vampire screamed, catapulted forward by the bullet, dusting in mid-flight.

"Flying: yes. Landing: no," Xander grunted, putting his weapons away as he continued to track. Five minutes later, he got rid of two more vampires. Finally, he came to a stop near a bench, resisting the urge to curl up on it and bask in the almost overwhelmingly strong smell of Kirika. Hyena-Xander's eyes glowed dangerously as he detected something else.

Fear hormones.

Xander growled as he stopped near the obvious scene of battle. He closed his eyes, letting his mind, heart, instincts, and supernatural gifts rebuild the battle. At one point, Xander angrily flipped around, eyes open, mouth growling, Magan pointed in the direction from which Dimitri had fired his darts. "Dimitri," Xander growled as he recalled the vampire who had tried to kidnap Willow.

"First Willow, now Kirika. You have a death wish," Xander grunted, tracking easier now that he had a vampire with a load as target. Footprints were everywhere. Predictability was tremendously high. A vampire had no need to cover its tracks… its arrogance would cause it to move in a straight line.

Inside Xander's collective mind, Emotion closed its eyes, and opened its mouth. Xander Prime was about to shut the spirit up, when it started in a slow rhythm.

Angely i demony kruzhili nado mnoj

Rassekali ternii i mlechnye puti

Ne znaet schast'ya tol'ko tot,

Kto ego zova ponyat' ne smog...

(Angels and demons were circling above me

Swishing through the hardships and milky ways

The only one who doesn't know the happiness

is the one who couldn't understand his call)

Xander Prime nodded, and kept silent as the text empowered the enraged Hyena Spirit further, making it even more powerful. For a moment, Xander Prime worried about the difficulties he would have containing the spirit after this was over… the power kept growing with every passing second, and it would soon reach the full power Xander knew so well from his possession. The strength and speed to match a Slayer in unarmed combat… now enhanced with noir-trained techniques.

Xander emerged in front of a cave he didn't know was there. Not for a moment he doubted his knowledge of Sunnydale. He knew every cave and cemetery by heart. This one was new… just the kind of stunt someone with the kind of pull his opponent could muster would use.

"Stop him, boys!" Dimitri shouted, pointing directly at Xander, sending over twenty vampires toward him.

Xander grinned evilly, amber glowing eyes reaching a new intensity as the Hyena Spirit maxed out in power and energy. He activated the Light Saber in his right hand, drew Magan with the left, and dropped into a combat stance. Deep inside, the Soldier possession maxed out at this point, adding its own combat-related abilities to the Hyena's impressive physical attributes.

Xander opened his mouth, the next part of the song booming in real life as well as in his collective mind as he charged and engaged the vampires.

I am Calling Calling now, Spirits rise and falling

Soboj ostat'sya dol'she...( To stay myself longer...)

Calling Calling, in the depth of longing

Soboj ostat'sya dol'she...(To stay myself longer…)

Dimitri paled as he saw the inhuman character burst out into his native speech. The vampire understood every word… and it frightened him. He could see the possessions raging through the boy as he charged the vampires like a madman.

Xander continued the charge, making a fluid swiping motion with his sword, decapitating two vampires and getting a third one solidly below the shoulders, halving him. With his left hand, he didn't aim, just pointed and squeezed, bullet after bullet incapacitating, dusting, electing screams of pain from the wriggling opponents who were now turning and running for their very lives.

Stand alone... Where was life when it had a meaning...

Stand alone... Nothing's real anymore and...

...Beskonechnyj beg...

Poka zhiva ya mogu starat'sya na letu ne upast',

Ne razuchit'sya mechtat'...lyubit'...

...Beskonechnyj beg...

(...Endless run...

While I'm alive, I can try not to fall while flying,

Not to forget how to dream... how to love

...Endless run...)

Xander didn't let them get away. He killed them all, ruthlessly, growling his song over and over. Finally, he halted in front of Dimitri, a cloud of ashes descending to the soil behind and around him, the possessed man standing like a demon from hell in front of the vampire leader.

"I shall stop you," Dimitri growled, dropping in a combat stance Xander recognized as the fighting art of the Spetznatz Russian Special Forces.

"You're either protected by Superman, or you have a pertinent death wish," Xander grunted, lifting the Light Saber.

Dimitri gulped for a moment at the coldness of the words, before he had time to gulp no longer, Xander charging… charging right past him. When he turned, he felt a curious sensation in his chest. Tight… yet liberating…

Dimitri completed the turn to stare at Xander's back, before glancing down at his chest… where a stake had been buried deep in his undead heart. The vampire yet had time to look shocked up to the back of his opponent before he decomposed into dust.

"Soboj ostat'sya dol'she... Calling Calling now, Spirits rise and falling…" Xander whispered, finalizing his song. (To stay myself longer…)

The Wizard circled the table where Kirika had been strapped down on, the heavily reinforced magical chains holding her immobilized perfectly. Closing his eyes, a smile appeared on the lips of the hooded face. "Ten minutes," he whispered, spreading his arms to the ceiling of the semi-spherical artificial cave. He started whispering in Latin, and Kirika felt a chill run up and down her spine as all her senses told her something wasn't right. Magic detonated throughout the cave, the floor glowing amber-red as the spherical ceiling grew semi-transparent, showing warring whites and yellow lying beyond.

"The hour is nearly upon us!" the Wizard shouted, reaching for a knife hidden underneath his long cloak. With a motion he swiped at the bound girl, her clothes ripping and tearing along the sharp edge. The fluidity of the motion told Kirika that this man, apart from being a magic-user, was also proficient with knives. He walked over to her, tearing the clothes from her body, exposing the monitor suit she had worn underneath her clothes that day.

The Wizard's eyes went over the tight-fitting cloth that exposed her curves and features as well as her nakedness would. Whistling happily, he let his hand slide down her breastbone, in between the girl's breasts, before drawing tiny circles around her belly-button.

"Five more minutes, my pretty," the Wizard said, voice tingled with excitement as he withdrew his hand from the growling girl. "Over five minutes, you shall be mine… forever!"

Commotion entered the cave through the passageway leading outside, as sounds of fighting permeated the air. Slightly confused, the Wizard frowned as he turned to watch the entrance. Nothing came forth, and the sound died down. Smiling, he lifted the knife once more to tear the monitor suit off Kirika's shapely body. Preparing himself to see the girl's full naked glory, he wasn't paying attention to the entrance.

A growl changed all that, and the Wizard's supernatural magical senses told him a huge disturbance was nearing him from the rear. The Wizard wasn't stupid. Never had been. It had taken 150 years to prepare this full ritual, and he had used that time to build up physical strength as well as magical strength. He jumped out of the way as his senses peaked, causing a figure to meet nothing but empty air and vault over the sacrificial table.

"Who the fuck are you!?" the Wizard demanded angrily, hefting the knife in an attack position, rather than a sacrificial one.

Xander slowly stood up from where he had landed in a crouch on the floor. His eyes were closed, yet his face betrayed the full strength of his anger. As he stood up, the Light Saber in his hand pulsed blood red. "I?" he demanded, straightening out, and opening his amber-glowing eyes. "I'm nothing. But she… she's the most important person on this world, and I am going to die before I let you lay a hand on her!"

The Wizard focused slightly. Three more minutes. He needed to make this quick.

"Dance of Flame!" the Wizard shouted, merely stretching his hand out to the young warrior. Flames exploded around his body as the Wizard's magic ordained the spirits of nature. Kirika's eyes went wide with worry when she saw him disappear in the orange ball of flame that rose from the ground.

The Wizard smirked, and turned to his sacrifice. "There… that took care of that disturbance, my dear," he drawled, lifting his hand with the knife to continue the ritual.

A scream drew the Wizard's attention away, staring in shock as a blur jumped out of the dancing flames, brandishing a Light Saber, shooting toward him. The wizard lifted his hand, and shouted, "WALL!"

Xander's Light Saber struck the Wizard's wall, neither giving nor taking, metaphysical energy leaping off the union of Magic and Soul Weapon. The Wizard growled. Xander snarled. Air pressure rose.

"Ejection!" The Wizard shouted, catapulting Xander against the wall. "You pest!" the man snarled, advancing on where Xander was crawling up. "Dance of Flame!"

Xander's eyes went wide, and with a growl he jumped out of the way of the new column of flames. The moment he cleared it, Xander changed directions and ran once more toward the Wizard, hefting the Saber, charging with a downward strike.

"WALL!" The Wizard shouted once more, halting the strike without much effort. "Lightning Strike!" the second hand belched Lightning toward the boy, electing a scream and throwing him against the wall. Xander remained standing for just a fraction of a moment, a dull thud accompanying his landing. He sunk through his knees, and fell sideways, grunting in pain.

"Thirty seconds," The Wizard grunted, at indecision whether to get Xander or to continue the ritual. He turned, and walked to Kirika. Drakarra was more likely to kill him than the boy was.

In his mind, Xander's spirits were in disarray.

"Get him!" Xander Prime snarled at the Hyena.

"He's too damn strong! Why don't you get him!?" the nature spirit shouted back.

"We need a new way to fight," the Soldier stated coldly. "He's going after Kirika!"

Love snarled, jumped in the lead seat. "I'll hold him off! You guys fight amongst yourselves if you have to!" the spirit snarled, gritting his teeth as he forced life into Xander's battered body. He could feel a bruised rib… two bruised ribs… and a lightly sprained right ankle. He forced the body to ignore the pain. He loved Kirika more. Some pain wasn't going to stop him.

Xander stood up, snarling teeth bared as the Light Saber changed color to a vibrant bluish indigo. "CHARGE!!!!!" Xander snarled, screaming as he flew toward the Wizard, Light Saber high, going on Heart rather than Skill.

The Wizard barely had time to call the Wall defense, and he stumbled back for a couple of steps as Xander's Love Spirit charged blindly, throwing the Saber wherever he could, left, right, up, down. The Wizard finally smiled. "You've got heart, kid. But no matter. LIGHTNING SRIKE!"

Xander met the wall once more, falling right forward, eyes closed. The Wizard smiled when he saw no more movement. He turned to Kirika.

"We need more!" Love shouted. "I can't do this alone! This body just can't any more! We need more than just strength! Hyena boy drained all of our strength!"

"I totally agree," a new voice said, calmly, neutrally, striding in through a door that didn't exist seconds earlier. Dressed in a brown robe, the new arrival sat down in the lead chair. "I am the Subconscious, the only one who knows how to use the Light Saber. I am the one who has been driving the Jedi Light Saber up until now, and I am tired of sitting by. All of you… sit down. I will now transfer the soul to the blade, making it stronger."

The spirits present looked at each other, and then at Xander Prime, who nodded. The Spirits, reluctantly, sat down.

The Wizard lifted his knife to cut the cloth off Kirika.

"Wizard."

The Wizard looked up, surprised at the voice, staring directly in Xander's normal eyes. Or rather, they had their normal chocolate color. What the Wizard saw in those eyes was far from normal. He saw… nothing. No anger, fear or doubt. Confidence. That he saw. Confidence. Strength. Power… and lots of it. His magical senses were threatening overload.

Xander lifted his hand toward the Saber handle, rolled out of his reach. The handle lifted, snapping into his hand. The Blade was white. White as the power of Heaven itself.

"Just who are you!?" the Wizard demanded angrily.

Xander looked at him, no emotion reflecting on that calm face. "The Light Saber in the hands of the Jedi Master is a force of nature: neutral, calm, yet utterly destructive and totally unstoppable. When faced with this force, one should make haste to prepare for the Afterlife, as there is no stopping, nor halting, the Jedi."

The Wizard smiled. "Jedi? You've seen to many movies, kid."

Xander charged, calmly, not uttering a single cry. The Saber met the Wizard's wall, actually driving him to one knee at the downward strike, the magic wall taking a second to recompose to combat the newfound strength in Xander's strike. The air pressure around the combatants rose, and Kirika could feel it tugging at her body, trying to lift her off the slab she was still secured to.

"Lightning Strike!" The Wizard shouted, catapulting Xander back. The Wizard got the shock of his life when, for just a fleeting moment, he could see his opponent smiling. And then… then he saw why.

The strike catapulted Xander back, just as usual. But Xander had shifted during the moment it took the Wizard to recompose, and as such, he was now catapulted over the stone slab. As he flew, Xander's Light Saber flashed out, severing the magic bounds as if they were made from tissue paper. "Run," Xander told Kirika as he landed on his two feet and drew her from the table, toward the exit.

The Wizard needed to get around the slab before he could intercept Kirika, and Xander wasn't about to let that happen. "Dance of the Flaming Lightning!" The Wizard shouted, raising his hands, and summoning more magic than he had wanted to use on this side of the ritual. Flame and lighting danced toward Xander, who lifted the Light Saber.

"I won't let you," Xander said, calmly, striking at the magic with the Saber. The spell clashed with the Soul Weapon, striking the beam in two, deflecting them around Xander, making it seem as if the boy had a full shield around him stopping the magic. The spell crashed into the wall, making the entire cave shake.

The Wizard growled. Xander remained stoic, and charged, once against to be met with the walled defense, and still unable to penetrate it. Deep inside his mind, the Subconscious demanded more power. The blade's glow intensified. The Wizard dropped a little lower.

Xander was panting now, the soul torn between the blade and the body, neither able to go full power as both needed the Soul to function. Xander felt the pain explode within him, the same pain he had felt against the Demon in Maine, and recognized it for the draining of the soul from his body to generate more strength within the Light Saber. But it weakened his body…

"Ejection!" the Wizard snarled, catapulting Xander away. "Dance of Flame!" he shouted, striking Xander in mid-air, adding momentum to the flight, making a Xander-shaped indentation in the wall. The warrior fell to one knee, lifting his head, ignoring the fourth cracked rib. Physical pain was nothing compared to the pain in his soul as it was torn between in half.

Xander snarled, and charged, the Light Saber striking at the Wall. This time, energy leapt away, striking cracks in the walls wherever they touched, twin shows of force striking each other. Around the wizard, starting from his hand to the orb around him, was a magical shield of energy-lighting like properties, made visible by the power of Xander's strike, which seemed to be a strike of air-pressure generated by the force of the Light Saber. The two orbs met, generating air-pressure of tornado-like proportion in the cave, blasting out through the single entrance, where Kirika had remained behind, watching the fight of the eon. The shock wave forced her to grab both corners, letting her body lift up in the wind, waving like flag in a thunderstorm.

The girl growled, bravely hanging on, refusing to abandon the boy who risked his life for hers. Just like in Moscow…He is willing to give up his life for mine…That realization made Kirika's heart warm from the inside out, and she found the strength needed to remain, to brave the storm, to support the one person in the world willing to sacrifice himself for her.

Xander hit the wall, groaned and sunk to the ground, head on his chest.

In his mind, Subconscious Jedi looked around… all the Spirits had vanished, long since granted their strength to the Saber. "I need the remained of the Soul… bring the Blade to full power… but without Jedi training, that's not possible. Without the Soul, the body is useless… motionless…living, but not alive… I need… I don't know what I need…"

The poor Spirit sunk in his chair, thinking about Kirika, how he let her down. He swallowed, preparing to force the body to its feet again, when the eyes saw something.

"Xander?" Kirika had lost her cover. She had ran into the cave, hugging his motionless body. "Don't leave me!"

"A wise decision to return, my dear," the Wizard said, smirking. "I may still be able to placate Drakarra with your sacrifice, even if I'm ten minutes late. And then he can go. If he can still go, that is," the Wizard said, chuckling at his own joke.

Xander slowly opened his eyes. "Kirika…"

"I'm here, Mon Coeur…"

Xander grabbed her hand with surprising strength, and put the Light Saber into it. "Your body… stronger than mine," he whispered urgently. "Don't fight it… let it guide you. This… my soul…" he whispered, closing his eyes, and sinking over. She felt the weapon tremor in her hand, and a beam of bright white energy shot out, brighter than anything, brighter than the sun. Kirika's keen instincts recognized the feeling.

Xander.

Xander's soul.

He entrusted me with his soul. Kirika stood up, and turned. Her eyes were the narrow slits of the True Noir persona. "He trusts me with his very soul and being," the dark-haired warrior said, coldly, calmly, neutrally. "And I will not betray that trust. Come, Wizard."

The Wizard stood, stunned, watching the petite girl with the large weapon. His magic senses whited out, overloaded by the sheer energy coming off the blade. Kirika charged him The Wizard lifted his hand. "WALL!"

As she neared him, Kirika's years of training and experience merged with the unconquerable power of the Jedi Light Saber, at full strength. Around her, she could feel Xander… as if his body was behind her, his arms encompassed her, and his hands were on top of hers as she held the Saber. The assassin was at peace, her very soul content as she and Xander fought this nemesis together.

She looked… and saw… the Wizard, ready to receive her strike. Only now did she realize that she was still running, and time seemed to have slowed down. The warrior jumped up, landing one foot on the solid stone slab that served as sacrificial table, and pushed off.

The force shattered the table, striking it into gravel, catapulting the brunette toward the ceiling of the cave, Saber extended above her head, not minding one bit that the blade entered the top of the cave. She flashed it down at the highest point over her trajectory, the energy blade going through the material as if through hot butter.

The Wizard extended his hand upward, preparing to meet the thrust from above. The force of the Light Saber, fully powered, pushed down by gravity and the full weight of a Noir-trained Assassin behind it met the power of 150 years of training in the magical arts.

For a few moments, it seemed the Wizard and the Assassin were even.

But then the Saber moved down, through the Wall, which collapsed the moment the tip pierced the shield, driving through the Wizard's hand, arm, and out his shoulder. Her feet touched the ground. She moved the blade sideways. It went through his torso, out the other side.

The Wizard died instantly.

Kirika stood there, for jut a few more seconds, staring at the body of the Wizard, making sure it didn't mysteriously revive, before turning and running to Xander, placing the deactivated Saber on his chest, pressing it down as hard as she could.

"I don't know if you can hear me… but please… please come back, Mon Coeur…" she begged.

She felt something leave her, and soon after, his eyes fluttered slightly. "chérie…" he whispered, dazedly.

She laughed through her tears. "I'm here, Mon Coeur. I'm here…" she whispered, falling against his battered body, feeling him wince as she hit one of the many tender spots.

As his eyes focused on her, they seemed to go back to reality. "My Love…"

Kirika smiled; hugging him while trying to make sure she didn't hurt him any more than he already hurt.

"I gave you my soul," he whispered. "And my heart…" he added, voice trailing off. "Kirika…" she looked up, confused, not sure what was going on. "Kirika… will you marry me?"

Xander stood at the altar, feeling nervous, dancing from one leg to the other. Next to him, Oz, his best man, was doing his best to convey his usual impassive visage, but even he had to admit it was more difficult than usual.

To ease his nervousness, Xander looked over the assembled guests. He smiled at the sight of the rest of the Scoobies sitting on the first row, Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Giles… all dressed to kill. In the second row of the small Sunnydale church, Xander nodded at James Bond, having made it from England in time. Just in time, judging from the parachute the man was trying his very best to hide under his seat. How he managed to make a parachute jump without wrinkling up his tuxedo was a mystery to Xander. A mystery he was going to question the secret agent about… at some other time.

Next to James were the Quests, who had even managed to get Krista's hologram in here. He didn't know how… something to do with linking up their holographic watches. He wasn't into science, and right now, he couldn't care less if the tried. Krista was here, and that was the important thing.

Xander also saw Bertrand Mestrot sitting right next to Buffy in the front row, and apparently the man's young attitude had won over Buffy as the two were chatting quite amicably.

Taking a breath, he looked at the rest of the church. Some people from school, some people he had met on his voyages… Xander smiled when he saw Nigel and Sidney sit down. He looked back for the umpteenth time, looking at the altar and the kindly priest, who smiled encouragingly at the groom-to-be.

Finally, Xander's patience was to be tried no more as music started playing, and he could see his lovely bride shuffle in, Mireille, her bridesmaid, right behind her.

Wearing a beautiful, exotic black dress made from fine silk, embroidered with beautiful natural black pearls and tiny moonstones, Kirika looked simply stunning, and Xander's heart skipped a beat when he saw the beautiful smile and the moisture in her eyes that was meant for one person only… him.

When she came to a stop next to him, and the priest began, Xander realized that his life finally had changed… for the better.

The End

The main series I'm crossing with is an anime series called 'Noir', feautirng Mireille and Kirika as they try and figure out Kirika's past. Sorry if I gave the storyline away… but it was necessary for the story. :)

Aniway, if you do come across it somewhere, don't hesitate to give it a try. You won't regret it. I know I don't!

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.