Willow bit her lip and silently repeated the complex Tibetan phrase that Giles had taught her as a means of centering herself while she pursued her studies of magic. It was coming in handy right then—it almost completely stifled the urge she was having to smack Cordelia and shake some sense into Xander. –He's happy with her, and she's not as shallow and useless as you always thought—let him work it through on his own-- Willow nodded once to herself, reached out and squeezed Oz's hand to further aid her quest for serenity, and managed finally to look ahead to where Xander and Cordelia were still far too close to each other as they looked around for potential dangers.

Willow's problem was arising from the fact that—unlike most nights—the four of them were out together as a group, without Buffy as a more-or-less neutral party to keep some of the natural tensions from rising to the surface. The cause was a rather mundane one: Buffy had come down with the flu that had hit half the school—along with Jenny, who had gladly handed off her computer class to Willow—and she was in no condition to patrol, a fact which became obvious when she entered the library at three-thirty, gave everyone present a sickly smile, and promptly lost her lunch on top of the dreadfully rare fifteenth century folio on the hunting patterns of demons of the Seventh Pale that Giles had been translating painstakingly for the past three days. Giles had quietly counted to ten, then asked Cordelia and Xander to take Buffy home and make sure she retired to her room with plenty of fluids and aspirin.

They had gotten her there with little protest from the patient, but Buffy had belatedly remembered that she had patrol duty that night, and it was only after Xander had firmly promised that they would patrol in her place that Buffy had relaxed and dropped off into slumber. When they had returned to the library, Giles had offered to drop the research he was working on to accompany the Scoobies on patrol, but Willow—noting that Giles had grown a bit somber during Jenny's enforced absence—suggested that he stay in, and that a phone call to a certain sick colleague might not be such a bad idea.

So it was that the four Scoobies were on patrol alone, with Xander and Cordelia taking the lead and causing Willow's teeth to grind, while Oz—oblivious to his girlfriend's disgruntled mood—experimented with using his enhanced senses to detect dangers. As Willow began the Tibetan phrase for the eighth time, Oz stopped suddenly, looked around, then pointed off to the left as he called out: "Fighting sounds coming from over there."

The four Scoobies looked at each other, then started running in the direction that Oz had pointed. About a minute later, they burst into a clearing and saw four vampires surrounding a very familiar figure: Buffy. She was visibly bruised, though she was still fighting back: one of the vampires burst into dust as the others continued to attack, battering the Slayer and staggering her. Xander drew a stake and charged directly at the largest vampire, knocking it away from Buffy with a vicious flying tackle that audibly snapped bones on the demon as it and Xander tumbled away about ten feet. The other vampires were distracted by the abrupt move, and Buffy used the opening to stake another vampire. She looked ready to drop, and the remaining vampire was advancing with a grin when a vial of holy water shattered on his skull, causing him to shriek in pain and stop in his tracks. Two seconds later, Oz's stake had reduced him to dust.

Willow sighed in relief, then looked over to where Xander was—and gasped in shock. Xander was circling the remaining vampire with inhuman grace, and blocking blows from the still-dangerous demon with ease. She called out, "Xander!"

"He's not Xander any more, Willow." Cordelia's voice was grim: Buffy had passed out, and Oz was binding her wounds and checking her for more serious injuries. The cheerleader walked next to Willow and elaborated, "Look at his eyes."

Willow looked, and she immediately saw what Cordelia was talking about. Xander's eyes were calm—frighteningly so. She had seen how Xander looked when one of his friends had been hurt, and—in spite of Jack's influence—that wasn't it. She was about to call out to Jack when Cordelia beat her to it: "Damn it, Jack—quit dancing with the vampire! We need to get Buffy to the hospital!"

Jack blinked, and Willow and Cordelia both thought they saw a brief nod before they saw his hands move in a blur. . .and then there was only dust falling to the ground, and Jack putting away the stake he had drawn in the prior split second. He walked over to Willow and Cordelia and bowed slightly before looking directly at Cordelia and saying in an even tone: "My apologies, Miss Chase--Miss Rosenberg. I'm still learning the limits of Xander's body, and the opportunity to test the effects of the recent training against a live foe distracted me from the crisis at hand."

Cordelia's lips thinned, but she nodded, and Jack moved over to Buffy and Oz. He placed his hands on Buffy's forehead and seemed to concentrate for a moment before turning to Oz and ordering, "Oz—give me the keys to your van—I'll drive it over here. She's got a concussion and we shouldn't try to carry her to the hospital."

Oz nodded and handed Jack the keys. Jack nodded back at Oz and immediately sprinted out of sight. Willow turned to Cordelia and shook her head as she said, "I wonder if he's ever going to be able to do that jumping thing that he was doing when he beat Aku—that was amazing." Cordelia seemed to freeze for a moment, and Willow hesitated for a moment before amending, "Of course, none of us want to see Xander's body doing disturbingly superhuman things any time soon."

Cordelia glanced over at Willow with an ambivalent expression for a moment before sighing and replying, "I guess I had it coming—I actually kissed Jack when he told me what his plans were for getting Xander in shape. I mean—who wouldn't want their boyfriend to suddenly develop a body that would make an Olympic athlete look like a couch potato? But. . .Jack's going to be pushing Xander's body to the limits, and if he makes a mistake—"

"He won't, Cordelia." Willow saw the worry on Cordelia's face, and the residual irritation she was feeling about the whole Xander/Cordelia thing ebbed away—at least for that moment. She reached out and squeezed Cordelia's arm reassuringly, and Cordelia didn't pull away. Willow smiled softly and added, "Jack's been trying to protect Xander all along—he knows that Xander is going to throw himself into these fights whether he's ready for them or not. You've seen how he is when he thinks one of us is in trouble." Cordelia nodded reluctantly, and Willow concluded, "Cordelia—Jack beat Aku twice: I'm pretty sure he's up to keeping Xander safe."

Cordelia looked over in the direction that Jack had departed in and whispered menacingly, "He had better be."

Willow had no answer to that, and they waited for a few more moments until Jack returned with the van.

Buffy stirred, then opened her eyes gradually. She ached all over, and the fever she was experiencing was causing her view of the world to shimmer. She tried to focus on her surroundings, and was rewarded with the sight of a small room that was not her own—and a familiar face. She forced herself to sit up slightly and whispered, "Xander?"

Xander nodded, and leaned in so Buffy would not have to strain her voice. Buffy looked around and her eyes widened in fear. Xander leaned in and touched her shoulder as he explained, "Buffy—you went out after we left you and you got attacked by vampires. We found you in time and brought you to the hospital. You've got a concussion and a couple of fractures—the doctor's going to be back in to take a look at you in a few minutes."

Buffy flushed in embarrassment. Giles must be furious with me: it was really stupid to go out as sick as I was. Xander noted Buffy's expression and commented, "Giles called your house, but your mom wasn't home."

"In San Diego. . .arranging a shipment to the gallery." Buffy's head was spinning, but she knew that Giles and the others would want to know about her mom so they could cover correctly. "She's staying at the Hilton in La Jolla."

Xander nodded. "I'll tell Giles." He watched her squirm under his quiet gaze for a moment, then broke the silence again: "It was a close call, Buffy: if we had gotten there a minute later—"

"I know." Buffy whispered, looking mortified. Xander gave her a small smile to let her know he wasn't mad at her, and after a moment the Slayer added, "Obviously, my brain wasn't exactly in 'Mr. Einstein' mode—and I just kept thinking that I couldn't leave you guys out there alone—"

"I get it, Buffy." Xander sighed, and was about to add something when the doctor walked in. Xander stepped back to give them some privacy, but he could hear Buffy protesting, and the doctor replying in calm tones. After a moment, the doctor left—giving Xander a 'maybe she'll listen to reason from you' look before heading down the hallway—and Xander went back over to Buffy, who was looking very uncomfortable. Xander smiled at her and asked, "What's wrong? The idea of all the Jell-O you can eat for the next couple of days doesn't sound fun?"

Buffy was drifting off; apparently, the doctor had given her some medication to relax her. "I just don't like hospitals very much. . ." Her eyes closed, and Xander frowned and pulled the covers up for her.

She'll be all right. She just needs rest and an attentive guard. Jack's mental voice intruded into Xander's worried musing. Those meditative techniques I've been teaching you will put off the need for sleep for a few days, though it'll catch up with us later.

"I've got no problem with that." Xander whispered, as he continued to watch Buffy as the night dragged on.

Xander—alone with his thoughts for the moment--was pondering a quiet lesson that Jack had given him earlier about tracking when he realized that Buffy's eyes were open and that she was staring at the open door with a disbelieving expression as she tried to sit up in bed. He reached out and restrained her and whispered, "Hey—none of that. You need to rest and get better. What's wrong?"

"There's a monster out there—tall, ugly face, wearing a coat. He's following a little boy who just peeked in here. I've got to stop it—" Buffy raised a finger and pointed and rasped, "I just saw it, Xander—you've got to let me get it."

Xander—who had been keeping one eye on the doorway and had seen nothing after the boy left--opened his mouth to start to reassure her that it was just a fever. . .but he saw the look in her eyes and something clicked in his mind. He stood up and whispered, "I'll take care of it, Buffy—just rest."

Buffy's eyes showed doubt for a moment, but she saw the absolute trust and determination in Xander's eyes and relaxed, dropping back into sleep.

Xander bit his lip, then dropped the conscious separation he was keeping between his personality and Jack's: I think we've got a problem, Jack.

Xander heard a note in Jack's mental voice that always had him believing that the ancient samurai was nodding as he replied: Indeed, Xander: I sense a presence of evil in this immediate area that goes beyond what can be explained by the Hellmouth, and I do not believe it is vampires. We should summon help to guard Buffy and investigate this.

Xander reached for the phone immediately, but stopped when Jack added quietly: Your faith in Buffy is to be commended, Xander: you didn't have decades of training to tell you that Buffy wasn't delusional

"Didn't need it," Xander replied, reaching for the phone again and punching in Giles' number. "Buffy's wrong sometimes, but I'm still way ahead betting on her being right."

Jack was silent, but Xander sensed that his friend was in complete agreement on that subject. He frowned, and waited for Giles to pick up his line.

Giles arrived fifteen minutes later, and Xander only hesitated long enough to nod to him before getting up and heading out into the hallway. For the moment, he and Jack had decided to both stay conscious, to give them the benefit of both Jack's ability to sense evil and Xander's knowledge of the local world. The decision to seek out the children's ward had been an obvious one, and Xander moved quietly to that doorway—only to have Jack whisper in his mind: I sense great evil behind this door, Xander. I may need to--

I understand—Xander replied. We don't have Slayer or Scooby backup this time. Just let me know how it went down when it's over.

With that decided, Xander opened the door and saw a number of beds containing kids who were sitting up in them and pointing at one bed with terrified expressions on their faces. Xander saw that the kid on that bed was struggling with something, and clearly losing. At that moment, Xander thought: Take over, Jack!—and knew no more.

Jack immediately broke into a dead run and leapt at the bed, aiming a tackle at what appeared to be thin air. He hit something solid and knocked it off the bed as he rolled to one side and landed on his feet, and was about to summon his katana when he felt a change in the air currents and reacted instinctively by performing a block. The incoming attack was deflected, but the defensive move was not without cost—three claw marks appeared on Xander's right arm, and the wounds bled freely. Jack glared at the air in front of him and performed a complex maneuver that combined a palm strike, a boxing cross, and a sweep, and was rewarded with a loud grunt, a thump, and the sound of running footsteps heading towards the back door of the ward. Jack prepared to follow, but the cry of one of the children stopped him in his tracks: "Mister, that monster is really bad—you should call the police!"

Jack turned and saw the child looking at him with fever-bright eyes. He smiled and replied, "I'm sorry, young man—but there's no time. That monster must be stopped." The back door opened, then began to close, but Jack caught it before it clicked closed and pulled it open again before stepping in and letting it close behind him. He saw a nearby door that was marked "BASEMENT ACCESS" click closed, and he ran for it, knowing from both the closing door and his own instincts that the creature would try to draw him into an isolated area to slay him without interference.

The basement was as dark as Jack would have expected it to be, and he took a moment to summon his katana before moving inward—the creature was invisible to him, and his blindfighting skills were woefully rusty, as he had discovered in the children's ward. He needed the edge that a one-shot kill would give him, and there were no inconvenient witnesses to prevent him from using the weapon. He carefully concentrated, hoping to pick up the stench of evil in time to finish the battle.

So, it is you, samurai. I did not know for certain until you drew that blade.

Jack's eyes widened, and he called out, "Who are you—and why are you trying to harm those children?"

They are my prey, samurai: I draw their lifeforces away to sustain me. The mental voice sounded amused, and Jack gritted his teeth as the voice continued: I was at Aku's court when you slew him a thousand years ago, and I heard rumors that it was you who slew him again when he managed to return.

"So you want to avenge your dead master, foul creature?" Jack continued to search, knowing that the creature was trying to distract him enough to strike a killing blow.

Jack heard a low chuckle before the creature replied, Don't be a fool. Aku's death freed me to serve my own ends. I should thank you. . .but the fact that you're trying to kill me causes me to conclude that my honor only demands this offer: leave this place now, and never interfere with me again, and I shall spare your life. Otherwise, you will not leave this place alive.

Jack raised his blade and replied evenly: "Do your worst, monster. No murderer of children will walk free in this place as long as I breathe."

As you wish. The attack followed immediately after the final words, and it came in low, as four claw marks appeared across Xander's stomach. Jack immediately tried to bring the hilt of the katana down to stun the creature, but the attack came down on empty air, and Jack frowned in annoyance as he looked down at the wounds. They were relatively shallow, but he was losing blood quickly, and with a deadly attacker in the immediate area, he knew that stopping to bind the wounds was not an option. He considered withdrawing, but he knew what the young man whose body he shared would say about that—the creature had to be stopped, no matter the cost. He gathered his will against the growing sense of light-headedness he was experiencing from blood loss, and resumed his search.

It was only due to his hard-won discipline that he managed to avoid shouting when he saw the faint outline twenty feet away from him, slowly creeping in his direction. The outline became more solid by the second, and by the time it was twelve feet away, Jack could see it clearly: a tall, cloaked figure with a terribly ugly face full of teeth, and long clawed hands that dripped with Xander's blood. Jack carefully kept his expression neutral and turned slightly away from the creature as he wondered why he could see it. . .then it hit him: the children in the ward were feverish, and that allowed them to see the creature. He was suffering from enough blood loss to make him dizzier by the moment, and that was giving him similar insight. The cost had been great, though: he was swaying on his feet, and he doubted that he could chase down the creature if it chose to flee long enough for him to expire from blood loss. After a moment, he assumed an angry expression, turned away from the creature, and bellowed "You hide in the shadows like a dung beetle! Even invisible and unwounded, you are too cowardly to face me! Aku must have been scraping the bottom of the barrel when he recruited you!" He heard the soft steps coming up behind him, and he glared directly in front of him as he shouted, "Oh ho! You dare to confront me then? Have at it!" He swung the great blade in front of him in slow, exaggerated arcs that a well-trained child could have avoided, and Jack could hear the low chuckles in his mind as the creature moved behind him for the kill. . .

. . .only to have Jack turn on his heel and deliver a single blow that made the air scream as if in pain. The creature stayed perfectly still for a moment, before its head tumbled from its shoulders and its body crumpled to the ground. Jack stared at the corpse, dismissed the katana, and staggered back towards the stairs upward, leaving a wide crimson trail in his wake. His head spun, and he went through the next two doors without thinking much about it. He found himself back in the children's ward, and saw the children staring at him in horror—along with Willow and Cordelia. The former May Queen shook her head in mixed affection and anger and muttered: "You idiot."

Jack opened his mouth to protest, but decided to crumple to the floor instead, unconscious before he hit the ground. Willow was already running, shouting for the nearest doctor, while Cordelia tore the sheet from a nearby bed to try to stop the alarming flow of blood from Xander's stomach, as the children watched in silent fascination.

Xander opened his eyes slowly, and took a moment to appreciate the sensation: given that his last memory was of diving at an invisible monster and ordering Jack to take control, the fact that he retained the ability to draw breath—much less open his eyes—was a matter of no small joy to him. As he lay there, Jack shared the memories of what had happened, and how it had concluded. Xander winced: he was not in pain, but the hazy feeling of painkillers was definitely intruding on his consciousness, and he felt bandages over the places where Jack indicated he had been wounded. He also heard soft breathing to his left, and realized that his physical wounds might be the least of his problems, given Cordelia's last words to Jack before he lost consciousness. He moved his head to view his visitor, and was mildly surprised to see it was Buffy. She looked much better than she had when he last saw her, though her eyes were red and sunken, and she looked as if she had not slept in some time. He grinned at her and commented, "Hey, Buff—looks like a little downtime in the hospital got rid of that flu."

Buffy stared at him in silence for a moment before leaning down and giving him a gentle hug as she whispered, "They had to take you to the emergency room and give you transfusions. . .they said if it had taken two minutes longer—"

"Holy role reversal, Batman!" Xander's voice was a bit ragged, but it had the desired result. Buffy looked up, and after a moment of visible irritation she started laughing through her tears. Xander waited for her to compose herself before he added, "I'll be fine, Buffy. A hospital is a really good place to get mauled by a vicious child-killing demon that's been around since Aku was ruling Jack's homeland." Buffy's eyes widened, and Xander nodded in confirmation. "It got a little talkative before Jack did the Duncan MacLeod thing. He didn't spill his whole backstory, though—did you guys find out what it was after my leaks got plugged?"

Buffy nodded, and explained what they had learned about Der Kindestod. Xander nodded when she was done and commented, "Yeah—that sounds like our boy. That ward full of sick kids was like an all-you-can-eat night at the steakhouse for it." Buffy looked away, and Xander sighed and asked, "What's wrong? I'll be fine, you're over the flu, and those kids are safe—seems like a pretty good week's work to me."

Buffy turned back to Xander, and her expression was twisted with guilt as she replied, "You shouldn't have had to risk your life like that—Jack managed to beat that thing even with a fatal wound and human strength. I should have—"

"You were sick as hell and doped up on painkillers, Buffy—and you didn't have a divine katana to even up the odds. It would have killed you and gone on to eat those kids." Xander's tone was gentle, and Buffy looked down in shame. Xander saw her expression and shook his head as he added, "Buffy—if you hadn't spotted that thing, those kids would have died without ever having had a chance. You did your part, and Jack and I did ours. It's all good."

Buffy frowned, then looked up and nodded once before quietly asking, "Xander—could I speak to--?"

"Jack? Yeah, he's on the way." Xander had grown accustomed to this particular request from his friends, accepting it as a price of allowing his new companion to develop his relationships with his friends on his own.

Buffy watched as Xander's eyes lost focus, then went calm. She didn't wait for Jack to announce his presence before blurting out: "Jack—thank you for what you did. If you hadn't been there, I'm sure that Xander would have gone after that thing on his own. . ."

Jack nodded—there was no point in denying what Buffy knew about the character of her friend. "He is a very determined young man, and I am endeavoring to teach him the value of patience and restraint—but in situations like this I doubt I will ever be able to restrain him. He has the spirit of a great warrior, Buffy, and if we are fortunate I will have managed to pass on to him skills to match before I leave this place for the afterlife once again."

Buffy was silent for a moment, and Jack was about to attempt to comfort her when Buffy looked over at him with all of the intensity that was her birthright as a Slayer and commented quietly, "You know—Xander's not the only one we're glad is still with us, Jack."

Jack blinked, startled by the abrupt heartfelt comment, and looked back into Buffy's eyes as he replied, "Thank you—I derive much comfort from your friendship."

Neither of them saw Cordelia standing in the doorway, watching them with a completely blank expression. By the time that Jack released the barriers that separated his consciousness from Xander's, Cordelia had departed without any of the other occupants of the room being the wiser.

As always, comments are welcomed and desired.