Title: Mars Rising

Author: Lizbeth Marcs

Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Rating: PG for mild language.

Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and related characters are owned by FOX, written and produced by Mutant Enemy. None of the character herein are owned by me.

Summary: Xander considers the astronomical event of Mars passing and its impact on his life. Takes place three months after 'Chosen.' Character study, slight AU, stand-alone story.

Pairing: None.

Warning: Spoilers for all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Slight AU in that all the Scoobs except Buffy stayed in Cleveland.

Mars Rising

By Lizbeth Marcs

Sixty thousand years.

This is a huge number. Intellectually— insofar as Xander allows that word to describe himself— he can see the concept. A single six followed by four zeros. Divisible by two, three, six, ten, a hundred, a thousand…

A thousand years.

Anya lived longer than that before death caught up with her. He remembers how hard 'a thousand' was for his mind to wrap around when he'd watch his ancient-young…Lover? Girlfriend? Fiancé? Ex? Friend?

No. Not friend. To his shame he can admit that now. Anya and he were never friends, and that may have been the core problem between them, the seed of rot that would have eventually driven them apart no matter how hard he tried, or worse, would have made those evil visions come true.

And the other words? They come close to the concept of what she meant to him, but they don't quite get there. There's something distinctly lacking, something inappropriate and inadequate about those words.

Inappropriate and inadequate, perfect descriptions of Anya and himself respectively.

But the point, the point, is that by choosing only one word from the above list means he's missing some important part, no matter how many times he hauls out the thesaurus or dictionary and studies the subtle meanings of each word to see if this word is the right word.

He supposes he could throw the words together, but then all he'd have is a jumbled mess; a mental alphabet soup that would cause him to stutter when he tries to explain the once-upon-a-time woman that shared his life, his apartment, and his bed.

Maybe if he hit upon the right combination, knew which words to leave out and which words to keep, he could straighten out the mess in his head which might, just might, keep his heart from dying. But he's afraid to leave something out, and he's pretty damn sure that he's not smart enough to hit on the right combination of words anyway.

Funny how he can always find the right words for other people, but never the right words for himself.

Sixty thousand years, divided by a thousand years, leaves you with…

This patch of roof in Cleveland where he's nursing a warming beer in the cooling ass-end-of-August evening and staring at this bright, reddish beacon in the sky.

He couldn't wrap his head around a thousand when applied to Anya, yet he seems to have no problem understanding the basic concept of sixty thousand when applied to Mars.

Mars in August will reach its closest point to earth in nearly sixty thousand years. Astronomers and astrologers, start your engines, fire up those telescopes, and let the fur fly over what it all means.

He figures that it all ultimately means nothing. Well, not nothing. Just that Mars's passing means exactly what it's supposed to mean: that earth's nearest neighbor and biggest target in science fiction from H.G. Wells to Ray Bradbury to Kim Stanley Robinson is passing close enough to fart in earth's general direction, astronomically speaking.

Mars, name of a dead red planet and the Greek God of War.

Amazing the trivia that manages to stick to his neurons courtesy of years of research. It makes him wonder if he should take a mental dump in the corner so he can clear the shit from his brain and start over with a fresh mind.

Maybe a fresh mind will eventually lead to a fresh heart. Or a healed one. He'll take either one. He's not picky on this score.

An explosion of giggles captures his attention and he listens, odd smile playing across his face. He's happy that otherpeople can be happy. God knows, someone shouldbe and he fights the urge to leave the roof and go join in the cheer happening in the apartments below.

He knows he'll be welcome. He knows he'll be included. That's not the issue.

The issue is that he doesn't want to admit that he needs as much as wants it. He isn't sure he'll be able to step over that line ever again.

The giggles die down and he can hear voices floating up to him through the open windows. Somewhere among the laughing female tones he hears Andrew scolding in a high-pitched tremor. He knows that any indignation Andrew shows is an act. He's pleased to be here and accepted.

Hell, the kid's just pleased he's alive when so many other people aren't.

He brutally squashes a surge of resentment, not for the first time and definitely not for the last, that Andrew was the one that got to walk away. He'll never admit it out loud— not to Willow, not to Buffy, not to Giles, not to Dawn, not to another living soul— that he often wishes that Andrew would simply disappear.

That sometimes he fantasizes about making Andrew disappear, complete with forged note, carefully selected items of missing clothing, and perhaps a few hundred dollars purloined from the household accounts.

But he won't do it, because everyone expects Xander to be better than that. Hell, even he expects Xander to be better than that, so that has to tell you something.

He focuses his one living eye on Mars again, leaving his dead replacement eye to stare into the void.

Mars's passing probably means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but he can't help but think there's something appropriate about the fact that Mars chose this very year to borrow a cup of sugar before going on its merry way for another 285 years.

It almost makes him wonder if there's something intelligent out there in the big old universe that suffers under the delusion that it's got a sense of humor, or at least a sense of finely tuned irony.

Frankly, he feels like he's been brained by a falling anvil, so he's not willing to give God, a Universal Intelligence, or some other Cosmic Clockmaker points for subtlety. And as for humor, he'll take the late, great Bill Hicks any day of the week: "Does that trouble anyone here? The idea that God might be fuckin' with our heads?"

Mr. Hicks? Consider me troubled, and my head well and truly fucked.

And there is Mars, earth's permanent shadow, focus of so many fantasies, hopes, and dreams. Canals? Water? Ice caps? The possibility of life? No? Then by god we'll colonize it one day. If life on Mars won't come to us, then we'll bring life to Mars.

We just need to find the money to do it in the federal budget, savvy?

Mars is good. Mars is safe. It's the last neutral ground he has in a life that's fast running out of safe topics. His biggest fear is that once the hoopla about Mars fades into a distant memory, he'll be left with only the weather to talk about. Considering he now lives in a place that actually has weather, he's not even sure even the weather will remain safe once the snow flies and he's confronted with the reality of shoveling the walks.

What else can he talk about? His new job managing a contracting firm? The one that gave him a promotion and a raise from his last hardhat boss position? Well, the fake eye was a blessing in that regard. He wasn't going to get anything in construction— the one thing he can point to and say, "Mine!" with anything resembling pride— with the eye patch since the last thing people need to confront is that the guy in the driver's seat is half-blind.

Yet, give people the illusion that you're perfectly normal, even if they know that the illusion is fake, they'll go with illusion every single time. Funny how everyone in his life at one point of another has said that was one of his most irritating faults and rubbed it in his face like it was a personal failure on his part. Seems to him that everyone does it and continues to do it while he struggles to come to grips with reality.

Take Willow, for example. She's buried in her new relationship with Kennedy, or is that buried in Kennedy's thighs? Either way, everyone in the house can see the nasty breakup coming like a freight train. The girls whisper the gossip in giggles whenever Kennedy and Willow have one of their 'debates.'

'Debates.' Heh. He never lets on that he hears the whispers and very much stays out of it whenever Willow and Kennedy try to drag him into the middle when he's unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. He finds it funny that no one, not even the witnesses to the approaching train wreck, are willing to call these 'discussions' what they are. Everyone is tiptoeing around the fact that the foundation of Kennedy-and-Willow was hastily forged in the heat of the moment and set on quicksand.

Anya would. Hell, she'd probably even correct the girls, in public, and in front of Kennedy and Willow both, and call the 'debates' Friday Night at the Fights.

And he knows if Anya were still here, he'd be sputtering and trying to make excuses for Anya's rampaging, inappropriate-but-actually-very-appropriate honesty. He'd be apologizing to Willow and Kennedy because Anya had the temerity to state the vicious truth.

Frankly, he's almost tempted to step into Anya's role on this score. Ladies? Think you can get the big scene over with already? The suspense is killing me. Because I just know who'll be left sweeping up pieces of shattered hearts off the floor when it's all over but the shouting.

Give Faith and Wood credit. At least they ended with a minimum of drama. Faith, as usual, pushed someone away when confronted with the hard part of maintaining a relationship. Wood patched his wounded pride by falling in with another Slayer. This one a 24-year-old Virginian that showed up on their doorstep because Slayer dreams led her to them.

He had to sit on his mouth for that one. Frankly, he thinks he should get a Nobel Peace Prize for not practicing a little Anya-like honesty, especially since he was the one who found out by tripping over Wood and his new obsession in the laundry room. His shout of surprise immediately attracted the attention of everyone in the house.

Faith took one look at the hastily dressing couple and clamped her jaw shut, understanding and hurt lurking behind her eyes. He had to hand it to her for not pulling the patented grab-an-axe-and-go-after-the-bastard-doing-your-ex Harris Maneuver, but some dark corner of his mind rejoiced in the fact that Faith got a taste of her own medicine in the use-'em-and-lose-'em department.

Hey, Faith, how does it feel knowing that when Wood was sticking it to you, he wasn't even in the same bed? Seems to me that the wrong guy got his eye poked out.

He deserves extra special credit for not voicing that thought out loud.

What surprised him was that Wood and his newest decided to leave and Faith ended up sticking around, although he has no idea how long Faith-as-part-of-the-household will last. She's not shown any sign of really settling down, but then again, she's not shown any sign that she plans to leave.

Maybe she's trapped by exhaustion and inertia, sort of in the same way he's trapped by the orbit of Mars. More likely they'll wake up one day and she'll simply be gone.

The older new Slayer wanted to go back to Virginia and Wood figured she'd need a 'Watcher.' Heh. He was getting used to the double-speak. Giles put up a protest using the words 'inappropriate' and 'relationship' and 'entanglements' and 'mixed loyalties,' an argument that the actual experienced Watcher lost.

He remembers watching the 'discussion' when Wood pointed out that he was the only 'real' candidate. To his surprise, Giles puffed himself up to twice his size and informed Wood that he was so very, very wrong, that, in fact, Xander was a better candidate, especially considering Wood's emotional issues with Slayers.

He wasn't sure what surprised him more: the fact that Giles was going for the Anya, or that Giles thought he had anything resembling a Watcher bone in his body.

He remembers verbally tackling Giles in the older man's room after that, peppering him with questions: What are you talking about? Me? Are you out of your mind?

Giles rubbed his glasses in a manner indicating that he'd been caught out and caught by surprise. I meant to discuss it with you, once you were feeling more comfortable, once you got…got…better. It slipped out. I didn't mean to surprise you like that.

How about now? Now good? Because I'm standing here right now and I would like, just once, for someone to come out and state what's on their mind.

Giles looked down then, studying his feet. Everyone can see that you're in pain. You're pulling back emotionally. You're pushing people who care about you away and you won't let any new people close. I should have said something sooner, but I wasn't sure how to approach you. I'm worried. You've been leaving the house at night, taking walks. You know it's dangerous here at night with the—

He wanted to yell at Giles then. Millions of nice, normal people in Cleveland brave the nights and the vast majority of them get home without any problems. The difference between him and them is he knows the truth and walks armed with a bottle of holy water, a stake, and a cross. Not Giles's business if he's managed to take down a vampire here or there when he stumbled across one.

—I'm left to believe that you're trying to die.

Xander had missed a significant portion of Giles's talk, since he was fighting too hard to keep his temper in check to pay attention. Yo! Wrong guy! No slit wrists here.

Then Giles really launched into it: the 'You Have Everything to Live For' speech. You're important, more important than you realize. You're wanted, you're needed, the new Slayers need your experiences and example, I need your help. This would be so much harder without you. Have you ever considered why fate brought you here? Pulled back the curtain and let you see the truth? Have you ever considered you might have a higher purpose?

Christ. It sounded like Giles was sputtering through 'The One Girl in All the World' speech, minus the part about him being a Slayer or having a 'sacred calling.'

Not right now. Not now. Not ever. I can't watch someone else I care about die. I can't go to another funeral where we don't have a casket because there is no body to put in it.

And there it was, the truth let out in a moment of temper. He wanted to call those words back, shove him in his mouth, and pretend he never said them.

Giles looked at him then, a mix of understanding, sympathy, and— he wasn't sure— agreement. If you choose to stay, that'll be the reality. You already know that. It's much to ask. The decision is up to you. But I hope…

He left after Giles finished his talk, essentially placing the whole business at the feet of the ex-Scooby least likely to make this a lifetime's work. He was pretty sure he was going to tell Giles to stuff it and yet, here he is. Still in Cleveland. Still living under the shadow of Mars. Still taking those walks with stake in hand at night. And still pumping up on the Advil the next morning.

Sometimes I think that Willow's activation spell retroactively affected me. How the hell did I get chosen for this? Because I'm pretty damn sure I didn't choose it.

Except, if he was going to be the new-and-nothing-but-honest Xander, he did choose it. True, he was fifteen. True, he thought no one would get hurt, least of all him. True, he thought it would end with a sunset and a happy ending. True, he thought he'd wind up with his arm around a certain Slayer while the romantic music swelled and 'The End' played across the big screen. True, he was stupid enough to believe there was an ending.

And also true, Giles did sort of try to warn him off.

The bigger question: If he had to do it all over again, would he? Would he become what he'd become if he knew he'd end up permanently living under Mars?

Yikes. He's beginning to think like a Watcher. Maybe he should hop online and start looking for construction jobs in a less Hellmouth-y part of the world. Except he knows, just knows, that the second he moves into a new town, one will open right up, probably right under his feet.

Screw it. He's getting on that job hunt tomorrow.

No.

Wait.

Tomorrow's Saturday and he's tied up in training all day.

Sunday? No. He has to meet his contact to buy some more weapons for the household. Monday? He never has any energy on Monday. Tuesday was traditionally stake-carving-and-more-training day with the Slayers, so that was out. Wednesday was training with the longbow and crossbow and he didn't want to blow that off because he was doing amazingly well— as in Robin-Hood-can-hit-an-apple-off-the-head-of-a-moving-target amazingly well— despite only having one eye. Thursday was a field trip to the local Cineplex with a group from the house to get a jump on the Labor Day movie watching, so no go on that day.

Friday the latest, then.

Definitely next week if this week turned out to be crammed.

Yeah, time to up and walk away. For the first time in a long time, he thinks he should emulate Buffy, who decided it was time for some quality aloneness, time to do the upper-class backpack across Europe thing, and maybe time to land an urbane non-American or two for some Faith-like, one-night-only fun.

Although he definitely won't give a speech when he leaves. He'll go for the cake, ice cream, and impersonal good luck card. He saw the reaction to Buffy's speech and the last thing he wants is to be remembered with an eye roll.

Oh, everyone was intent when Buffy gave her 'fare-thee-well' and 'I-Shall-Return' talk. After all, it's not politeto dis the woman responsible for handing you power on a silver platter, complete with the promise of endless pain, fighting, violence, and bloodshed, capped by a very early death. Buffy is now E.F. Hutton of the Slayer World: she talks and everybody listens.

Even when she talks out of her ass.

Frankly, she lost him right about the time she started talking about cookie dough. What the hell was that? Did she actually practice that in the mirror? With a straight face? It had to be a spur-of-the-moment thing because as much as hismouth tended to misfire, he sure as hell wouldn't be going on and on about the need to bake until he was Tollhouse goodness itself. It invites too many snickering bad jokes about licking the dough and how hot cookies melt in your mouth andin your hands.

He wasn't the only one glazing over. A quick look around the room was enough to show him the new Slayers were trying to be polite, but were wondering why they couldn't just shove her damn imaginary cookies in her mouth to shut her up. The Sunnydale veterans in the baby Slayer set exchanged looks and quickly looked at the ceiling, as if trying not to laugh.

Dawn seemed to be the only one taking the whole cookie business seriously.

Could be Dawn was so attentive because Buffy arranged to get her emancipated minor status so she could stay in Cleveland and finish high school, which Dawn took as a sign that big sis had recognized her as a capable adult.

Personally, he suspected that all the legal maneuvering was designed to accommodate shake-'n-bake Buffy's self-help campaign.

Dawn. Now there's a puzzle. Once he thought he had her pegged. She was kind of like him— eliminating the fact that she actually isn't real no matter what memory told him, technically is only four, and is a mystical Key lusted after by evil Hell goddesses everywhere— a normal kid trying to make her mark in the big, bad world.

Except she really isn't like him at all.

She's a hell of a lot smarter than him for a start.

Funny how Dawn was the first one to 'go normal.' He was pretty sure if anyone was taking bets— and he was willing to bet there was a pool along this line— the smart money was on him to slide seamlessly into the normal life out of the reach of everyone in the house buthim.

And Dawn, apparently, if one is to judge by the swirl of her social life and intense focus on getting into an Ivy League school and away from this rust belt town. She's going for the gold and he just knows that when she's gone, Sunnydale, demons, Slayage, and Keyness will drop away from her as if the Scoobies and all they stood for— all they sacrificed to keep her alive and in one piece— were a very bad dream.

Already forgotten are the long, terrifying days of Sunnydale; forgotten is her ability to easily puzzle out and translate languages both dead and alive; forgotten is the 'junior Watcher' plan; forgotten is the fact that this 17-year-old girl is actually an ancient ball of energy.

Forgotten most especially by Dawn.

And yes, he resents her for it. He's envious of her ability to forget while he can't help but always remember.

Maybe he shouldn't emulate Buffy's run-don't-walk-into-that-good-night approach to leaving, especially since he truly believed that Buffy won't really be able to stay away from the Slayer scheme of things for too long. Maybe he should emulate Dawn instead. Fade away. Disappear. Blend in. Don't even try to be extraordinary. Put on the illusion of normal, even if you know normal doesn't suit you, even if you know normal is a lie.

Even if you know normal isn't normal and that normal, by circumstance or fate, isn't really in the cards.

He pulls on the beer and makes a face. Maybe Mars is getting to him by reminding him that some things will always be out of his reach. A left eye. Sleep without nightmares. The ability to start over fresh. True love.

And, yes, maybe even a normal life.

Because, really, how long would he be able to handle bouncing off the walls of his own place, with no one to talk to, nothing to fix, and knowing that somewhere out there a vampire was killing his neighbors.

That maybe, just maybe, the next vampire will have his name on it.

And that somewhere out there, Mars is shining like a beacon.

Gah! I sound like a goddamn astrologer.

It doesn't help that Willow is excitedly going on and on about the fact that Mars will be at its height just as Mercury goes retrograde in Venus. Supposedly, this is a Mercury Retrograde of the good kind, as opposed to Mercury Retrograde of the bad kind when they resurrected a dead Slayer and murdered their friendships.

It's going to be so cool, Xander. This retrograde is going to be marked by re-evaluation, life-changing decisions, and new directions. This is the retrograde where the most unbelievable things are going to happen and nothing will be the same. Look at this chart right here…

The fact that he actually is able to follow Willow's train of thought? The fact he can remember this conversation? Definitely not a good omen for his plans to shake the dust of vampires from his feet and walk into his own Xander-made happy ending where he gets to live in peace while everyone elsecan go back to keeping the evil quotient down in the world.

Now, there's something else no one has considered: if they won, if the First is no more, and the Sunnydale Hellmouth is closed, why the hell are they in Cleveland? Why the hell is there an active Hellmouth here that's nearly as bad as its Sunnydale cousin? Why the hell are there still evil things walking the world?

And why the hell does the world still need Slayers?

Because if he really thinks about it, and he really doesn't want to, it seems to him that the big battle in Sunnydale was a fight to the pain and the only reason they got out alive is because evil blinked.

Oh yeah, most of them got to live one more day, but how many diedin the process? Annabelle, Eve, Chloe, Molly, Amanda, some Slayers whose names he never did learn, thirteen people Spike vamped and Buffy staked, Anya, Spike, and stubborn people who refused to leave town even when the town collapsed in on itself.

All of those people died and all of the people still alive are left holding the bag on the whole fighting evil gig.

Victory my ass. If that's victory, I sure as hell don't want to survive a defeat.

He wants to ask Willow about this. He wants to confront Giles with this. Hell, he wants to track down Buffy in her European trekking glory and shove this in her face. I'm not smart enough to figure this out. Tell me again why you think we've won?

Just at the edge of his hearing, he picks up on a silent noise. Christ, he's an idiot. He's out after dark, basking in the glow of Mars, and he didn't even think to bring a stake. He has to be insidethe house to be safe. Near as he can tell, rooftops are fair game for the pointy teeth set.

Whatever it is realizes that it's been heard and all pretense of stealth is gone.

He's shocked to hear a female voice. "S'up?"

He pulls on his beer, a silent order for Faith to just Go. Away.

She pulls up a patch of roof nearby, giving the beer in his hand an evil eye. "Drinking outside. Not too smart."

"Want one?" He holds up the six-pack, minus the single beer in his hand. Maybe if he shakes it hard enough at her, she'll hiss and back away like a vampire confronted with a cross.

She studies the six-pack before rendering a judgment. "That's some cheap shit you've got there, Harris."

"Don't you have an elsewhere to be? Patrol? Slayage? Vamp nest on the other side of town?"

She squirms uncomfortably, like she's been caught eating her own baked cookies. "Not taking your walk?"

He pats the six-pack. "Star-gazing. Fresh air without the actual exercise."

Faith makes a derisive sound. "Unless you've already downed a keg, you can't see the stars for shit. Light pollution. Kills stars dead, but not bright enough to kill the undead."

He takes another deliberate pull on the beer. He'll have to pace himself because Faith is right. Getting drunk is on the far side of stupid. If a vampire is going to kill him, he wants to put it in some serious hurt for the privilege, not give the bumpy ugly a contact buzz from drinking his blood.

"Mars," he finally says.

"Hunh?"

He nods in the direction of the too-near planet. "Right there. Mars."

Faith squints, eyes scanning the sky. It's a bit before she spots it. "Never paid attention before," she comments. "Is it always this big?"

"Biggest anyone's ever seen in sixty thousand years."

Faith regards him through narrowed eyes, probably wondering if he really isdrunk.

"All over the news. This is the closest Mars has been in sixty thousand years." And sixty thousand divided by one thousand is…

"No shit," Faith says in a distracted tone. "Figured you were sulking."

Sulking? Now whywould I have reason to sulk? Let me think…oh, I don't know…let me think about the past year. Nothing springs to mind. "Sulking?" He somehow manages not to laugh in her face. Faith is digging around the corners of something. The game is to figure out what she's after.

"Sulking's cool. It's a sulking kind of night."

Xander lifts a beer out of the cardboard box and overhand tosses it to her. Maybe she'll miss, the bottle will break, and the beer will burn her like vampire dropped in holy water. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is!

He feels the slap of flesh hitting glass and the subtle hiss of twist off top. No such fucking luck.

"So no walk tonight."

Christ, back to that again. "No."

"Oh."

Xander sees her tip the bottle to her mouth, an echo of his own move. He wonders which one will break first.

No surprise that he does. "What's with the obsession?"

"Obsession?"

"About me taking a walk." He's getting an inkling as to where this is going and he doesn't like it one bit.

"You're a creature of habit. You've got this whole schedule thing going on. It's like you're autistic or something. You don't break routine unless something big's going down."

He's surprised she's noticed. Then again, Faith has managed to surprise him with what she does notice since they moved to Cleveland. Except for Wood. She didn't see thatone coming. Probably because the Woodster meant a little more to her than a wham-bam-thank-you-Xan than she cared to admit.

"Yeah, well, special occasion. Mars-watching is involved." He pulls on his beer to make a point.

"Yeah. Big sound and light show." She sounds less than impressed. The whole sixty thousand business is too big for her. It's okay. It's too big for most people, sort of in the same way one thousand was once too big for him.

Truth to tell, one thousand is still too big for him. It's too close too home, too easy to wrap his mind around if he'd let it because a thousand, or a little over a thousand, can encompass one lifetime.

But sixty thousand is so big that it's a comfortable thought. Last time Mars was this close, he wasn't here; next time Mars comes this close, he won't be here. But for the whole of his life, however long it lasts, he always has and always will live in sight of Mars.

"Could do the stargazing after your walk," she comments. "Don't see why it throws you off."

Because I want to take a good, long look at the thing that's fucked up my life. He wants to say it, but he isn't really sure what it means. Worse, some part of him is convinced that it all ultimately means nothing.

Out of the corner of his right eye, he sees Faith's mouth tick. She's about to break. With a start he realizes something: she's deliberately sat in a spot where he can see her without turning his head to actually look at her. At least she's not trying to blindside me, he thinks. He chuckles at the idea. When Faith's eyebrows crunch in an unasked question, he shakes his head and takes a drink.

His amusement apparently gives her that extra push. "What she said was uncalled for."

Well, that's confusing. What the hell is Faith talking about? What whosaid? And when? Because, really, he's had a lot of uncalled for things said to him over the years, including a few choice comments from Faith P.I. Then again, he's issued a few not-so-wonderful pronouncements in his time, so he really shouldn't talk.

"You save her stupid ass and she calls you a freak of nature."

Wait. What's Faith talking about? What's her name? Back in Sunnydale? How the hell does Faith know about that? And what was her name? She was cute, he remembers that. Her boyfriend's name was Ronnie and…oh, yeah. Nancy, as in Nancy-and-Ronnie Reagan.

"That was just cold. I mean, she was the one that got hopped up and then decided to do a quickie in the alley with some guy she didn't even fucking know."

The hell! That happened last night! He'd forgotten. How could he forget?

He was getting the vibe off a couple heading for the alley and thought he'd take a quick peek to check it out. If it was nothing, he'd walk away without being noticed, no harm no foul.

Except his gut told him it was something.

Vampy was already tucking into the woman's neck when he gave the bastard the shock of his unlife by dusting him, courtesy of a hard staking through the back.

His reward for a job well done was a profanity-fueled rant from a future member of the United Vampire Victims of America. He could barely understand what she was saying in her incoherent rage, although he wasable to figure out that she thought he'd somehow kicked her 'date' out of the alley while vamp face was sucking on her neck and she wasn't paying attention.

Then there was a coup de grace: He was a perv and was probably getting off on the fun and decided that watching wasn't good enough. Well she was fucking well not going to spread her legs for him. Freak.

Then she stomped out of the alley.

It was a big scene, and actually kind of funny to his mind that this woman thought he'd even give her a passing glance. He was amused in that annoyed sort of manner, and the annoyance wasn't even on his behalf. He just knew she was going to get herself in a similar jam in the very near future.

And next time, the freaks like Slayers and himself might not be around to stop it.

If things went really bad, she'd be staked in a week if some vamp was stupid enough to turn her. Frankly, he didn't give a vampire version this particular woman longer than that. She lacked anything resembling a survival instinct.

The fact that he forgot it almost right after it happened, the fact the 'freak' label didn't bother him when it once cut deep, that was a big ol' sign that maybe Giles had a point about him.

He veers away from the thought, and focuses on something else, something that would get him angry and get Faith to back off. She was following him, probably because Giles told her too. He could picture it now: Xander's trying to commit suicide by vampire. See that he doesn't screw up and hurt someone.

"Like you haven't just grabbed a guy and done the same thing." Anya has clearly possessed his mouth because he sure as hell didn't see that comment coming. He actually wants to deal with the whole issue of Faith playing guardian angel when he doesn't wanta guardian angel.

Faith shrugs and drinks her beer. "Don't do the sniff-needle-pill deal. That shit messes you up. Plus, Slayer. Can pretty much kick the ass of anything that smells fishy."

Like water off the back of a duck. Had hebeen at the other end, he'd be sputtering a defense or at least getting defensive. Not Faith, boy. Toss a vicious truth in her direction, and she'll say it's different for her.

He's beginning to notice a pattern in his life: it's always different for certain people, but he's not allowed to live down to the same standards.

"Besides," she adds, "I don't do alleys unless I want to get my Slay on. Last thing I need is a rat biting my ass."

He fights a smile. That sure as hell sounded like a defensive comment to him. Yeah, I'll screw anything that's handy, but I don't get high and I at least require a rat-free environment. That's what makes me special.

"For all you know, I do my Batman routine so I can get off with grateful damsels-in-distress. Maybe I'm sulking because I didn't get my regular piece of ass last night." Push-push-push-push…go away Faith, you ignorant slut. I don't want you here. I'm trying to commune with Mars in peace.

Faith snorts. "Yeah. Right. I don't think you know what the fuck a one-night stand is."

"And this judgment is based on, what? Keeping tabs on me since webumped uglies? You don't fucking know me."

"I know people," Faith says mildly. "You ain't built like that and I should know."

This is getting him nowhere. Faith is blocking everything he's throwing at her like it's nothing and she stilllooks like she's settled on the roof for the long haul. What does a man have to do to earn one night of the Big Alone?

"I don't want you following me." There. He said it. He showed her his, now it's time for Faith to show him hers.

"Tough."

"Giles has you under orders, hunh? What are you getting out of this?"

"Giles didn't order me to do shit," Faith corrects. "Been following you since I noticed aspirin disappearing from medicine cabinet, which was long before Jeeves grabbed me. Jesus, you've got him terrified that he's gonna have to attend your funeral. Fucking selfish of you to pull this crap if you ask me."

"Not asking you."

"Too bad. You're going to fucking hear it anyway." She tilts her head then. "Gotta admit, not too keen about the idea of staking your ass if you sprout fangs."

He opens his mouth and closes it. He didn't consider the idea that he just might get turned instead of killed. He can't think of a single vampire that would be dumb enough to take the chance.

"Oh, yeah," Faith says, clearly satisfied that something struck home, "didn't think of that, didjya?"

"How close?" For the first time since Sunnydale, he feels a familiar curl of fear along his spine. A vampiric version of him. Doesn't get any worse than that image. "How close have I…"

"Not sure." Faith shrugs. "You do pretty good one-on-one and decent enough in two-on-one. I've had to stake a couple sneaking up on you while you were busy. No big." She grins then. "You're a demon magnet, know that? I follow you, I'm guaranteed a fun night."

Great. He's Xander-bait. This is not how he pictured his future. "So you're telling me I should leave the Slayage to the professionals."

She seems surprised by this statement. "You areone of the professionals, last I checked. Moves are pretty good, so all the training's doing right by you. Sometimes you telegraph what you're gonna do ahead of time, but you can work on that. Oh, and sometimes you try to use strength moves when maybe you should be going for the Tai Chi."

She's oblivious when he swivels his gaze away from Mars to look at her. She's giving him constructive feedback, as if she takes him at all seriously. She's using that tone she gets when she's giving the new Slayers pointers.

Why did he never notice that tone before? And why did he never notice how involvedFaith was in training?

Maybe Faith issettling in for the long haul.

She continues, not noticing his reaction. "Your biggest thing is that you're not a Slayer and you're trying to move like one, so I'm thinking you should tweak the training a little, you know, take advantage of what you got instead of trying to use what you don't got."

"Anything else?" He meant it to sound sarcastic. He's surprised to realize that he's serious.

Faith fixes him with a glare then. "Patrol buddy."

"Just to go for a walk."

"Walk my ass. You're fucking patrolling and you know it. You leave with a stake, you leave with someone to watch your goddamn back."

"You volunteering to permanently baby-sit me?" There. He's done it. Carved the line of want and need right in the rooftop tar. He's staying put and he knows Faith won't brave this particular emotional dare.

She shrugs. "You could do worse."

And with four little words, she plants a work-booted foot over the line, into his personal space, and right into the Mars-powered spotlight.

He's not sure what to do with this, mostly because his mind can't make sense of it. Should he shove back? Should he pull her all the way in?

In the end he decides the issue by not deciding it at all. He leaves the line intact, but lets Faith stay where she is. "That I could," he agrees.

She rewards him with a dimpled smile. "Training?"

"Promise to work on it. Tomorrow. I'll follow your lead on that one." Okay, maybe he can take a tiny step closer, but that's all she's getting out of him.

She nods as if sensing the shift, and her eyes return to the sky. "So Mars, hunh?"

"Mars." He holds his beer bottle in a salute to the Red Planet and finishes the final mouthful.

He thinks, Sixty thousand years divided by a thousand years equals…

An ending? A beginning?

…a lifetime, he decides.

END