A safe place is invaluable to any writer, Willow thought. What good was inspiration if the surroundings weren't comfortable? That was the purpose of her personal Fortress of Solitude, as Xander had dubbed it, more commonly known as her office.

It was dark, as usual, which was exactly how she liked it. The subterranean room branched off from the basement's main room along the south wall—directly below the front door—into an area that could have served as a lounge or nuclear shelter if the purpose served.

The walls were a dark blue shade, not quite navy but not quite royal either, and the carpet was a soft, light blue affair. A mini-fridge sat behind the desk and directly beside the filing cabinets Xander used for his work. Soft music constantly played in the background as the writer commonly hailed as the Savior of Modern Horror went to work.

She looked around at the movie posters for her previous two films. Dead Man Walking, the first one, had been particularly difficult in the beginning due to her unfamiliarity with the genre as a whole. Willow was a fast learner, fortunately, and her own intimate knowledge of what went bump in the night proved invaluable to her efforts. Dead Man's Hand had been no problem at all.

Central to both was the innocently sinister Dr. Emmanuel Death. Not that she'd ever visit an M.D. with such a name (superstition wasn't exactly her thing, but Willow felt that she had to draw the line somewhere), but for the purposes of weaving morally ambiguous tales around the sometimes gray areas of modern medicine... Dr. Death worked perfectly.

The last night's dinner had held several surprises, as it turned out. Besides the expected announcement of Oz and Cordelia's impending matrimony, a whole new world opened up when Buff and Spike announced that they were moving back to Sunnydale in a month's time.

And then, to cap off an evening of surprises for Giles... Anya had unexpectedly announced that the two of them would be having a child in a few month's time. Giles had been enraged that he wasn't the first to know ("You never asked," Anya had explained), then ecstatic at the news, then comatose as he fainted from the shock. Xander had summed the night up by commenting wryly that he hadn't even been hit lately. To which Cordelia, to the embarrassment of both Willow and Xander, suggested that they jump on the bandwagon and take another step in their relationship.

Even Anya had privately summed up the feelings of what she had termed "everyone else": "You're already pretty much married, Willow, except for the sex. Might as well make it official. And include the sex."

In the corner of the room, sprawled in a plush armchair with a book ("Romeo and Juliet," Willow noted idly), Xander chuckled quietly. Willow looked from her writing to her best friend. "What's so funny?"

Xander shook his head in the small amount of light. "These characters are stupid."

Willow's brow creased in an annoyed frown. "How so?"

He shrugged. "If they wanted to be together, to hell with everything else. Run away. Elope." He smiled. "Go to Vegas for all I care. Why do the people in these things always kill themselves?"

"That's why it's a tragedy, Xander. No one likes a happy ending." she thought with a twinge of bitterness. The trouble was that they were hard to come by.

Xander grinned. "I do."

Willow covered the sharp intake of breath she felt at his words with a laugh. "Well, you're a weird archeologist guy. No one likes you."

A hurt look appeared across his face. "Aww. Not even my Willow?"

It was a good thing he couldn't see her face, Willow thought, silently thanking her own taste for low light. If he'd been able to, the lie wouldn't hold for even a second. Willow chuckled. "Nah. But I love you anyways."

A neutral poker face appeared across her friends features, she noted, although for a split second she saw—or maybe wanted to see—a very lonely, almost desperate look flash in his dark eyes.

Xander had lived several places during college, including hotels, dorms, and, once, his parents basement. He'd held many jobs and enjoyed the company of many friends—and girlfriends—during his tenure at the University of Sunnydale. But he hadn't been anywhere near her.

Willow had felt hurt for a long while as the various people in her life walked in and out of it with impunity. They were their own persons and it was a free country, or so she'd thought in an effort at rationalizing their abandoning her. But in her heart... she was lonely.

It was just after their college graduation that Xander had re-established contact with his oldest friend. She'd seen him a few times in the four year interim, although those had mostly been in the context of the Scooby gang reunions Buff had periodically held. When they had finally touched base that weekend in June of 2003, Willow had been amazed at the changes separation had wrought in her friend.

He looked taller than high school, Willow noticed, and stronger as well. That, he'd explained, was the desirable side effect of holding down several jobs at a time (including construction worker and carpenter's apprentice). More than physical, Willow had noticed the changes in his personality as well. He was still her Xander—nothing could change that, he'd once said—but he carried himself with a poise and confidence that one can only gain through trials and, ultimately, a strong sense of accomplishment. He was quieter now and joked less (which wasn't an entirely bad thing—his old jokes had occasionally gotten on her nerves), but the affectionate caring and love in his dark eyes was the same as always. And it was that, more than anything else, that made him Xander.

Though Xander held a doctorate in both general archeology and Meso-American studies, it was ironically a talent that couldn't entirely be learned that had paid for his college. Xander had a natural gift for woodworking. He loved the smell of it, the feel of it. He loved cutting it up and putting it back together as an ornate chest or a bookshelf or—well, with Xander, the possibilities was literally endless.

Willow envied him that; though her scripts were the talk of Hollywood today, she carried deep inside her heart the nagging fear intrinsic to writers that tomorrow, maybe, the quality of her work wouldn't be as high. With Xander, skill seemed to flow from some place in his hands as much as in his heart. Willow's work was all in the mind. And although it was an exceptionally brilliant and creative mind... it was still vulnerable to sickness or moodiness or anything else under the sun.

She'd once felt certain that she belonged with Oz. Now, her one solid romantic relationship was marrying her best friends ex. Very, very messy. But they would be alright. Oz and Cordelia would be faithful, after their own fashion, and Willow envied their almost storybook love. Unbidden, a lyric from The Princess Bride echoed inside her head:

Now he said, "Don't you know I love you oh so much And lay my heart at the foot of your dress?" She said, "Don't you know that these storybook loves Always have a happy ending?"

Storybook love was possible, she thought, but as the movie had said before, not one couple in a century has that chance. Could it possibly exist between the dark haired man in the corner and herself, Willow wondered? Could she have the chance at perfect, unrestrained and above all true love with the man who haunted not only her every day life, but her dreams as well?

Willow doubted it. Since their decision to live as house-mates three years ago, they had, to all extents and purposes, stopped dating. That didn't necessarily mean that they could move successfully from close friendship to a romantic and, possibly, permanent relationship. Willow wanted more, but she still carried the terror at losing everything they had. The Fluke of their senior high school year had taught her that, if you took the risk you did, indeed, stand to loose it all. And although it broke her heart to admit it, Willow would rather take the safe way than risk it all. Fortune favors the bold, it was said. But that didn't necessarily mean that the allure of happiness could turn the naturally un-bold around to seek it.

But was that flicker of powerful and deep emotion she though she'd seen seconds before enough to take the chance? Xander was lonely; she was lonely. Xander had, except for a few purely physical relationships, stopped dating after they moved in together; she had done basically the same thing. She loved him, and for all she knew, he might feel the same...

If there was only some way to be sure that the revelation of her true feelings wouldn't damage everything. I wish I could read minds the redhead thought ruefully.

***********************************************************************************************************************

I wish I could read her mind.

Xander didn't need to examine her words too closely to notice the powerful thought raging through his mind that said "Let it be true." Despite the desire for something more with his best friend, Xander carefully hid his thoughts behind the face he'd crafted, originally, to beat his excavation team in poker.

His relationship with Willow was the one thing he refused to gamble. The words of the unknown baseball fan—"You can't steal second with your foot on first"—came unbidden into his mind and forced the young man to wonder. What if? he thought.

But from another, less optimistic portion of his mind came a darker question. Xander shook his head and smiled.

"Anyways, the sword-fighting's always cool in these things."

Willow rolled her eyes. Typical Xander reaction, right there.

"Let's watch a movie." The words were out of her mouth before she realized she'd said them. She had work to do! And Xander probably wouldn't want to watch some girlie movie with her anyways, and besides...

"Okay."

"Okay?"

"Okay. I'll get the snacks, you get the movie."

A thrilled feeling came over Willow as she trotted over to their DVD collection.

***********************************************************************************************************************

"A wave of love swept over them. And as they reached for each other..."

Xander smirked as the redhead's voice echoed softly over the rich, grating voice of Peter Falk.

"Willow?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you know that you're saying all the lines?"

"Shush." Well, what was wrong with knowing the movie by heart?

"Since the invention of the kiss, there have been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one... left them all behind. The end."

"Aww."

"We really, really need to get lives."

She turned to face him. "We really, really do."

Lost in the longing expression set across her face, Xander shook his head. "So why is it that I don't want to?"

He was looking at her with an expression not so dissimilar to those that Wesley and Buttercup had. Then the magic fell away as the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it."

"No, no... I'll get it." Willow shook her head and stood.

*********************************************************************************************************************

"Willow."

The doorbell had sounded only two times before the redhead answered. Oddly enough, it was Xander's father Jack on the other side. His presence surprised her. The father and his son had reached an understanding a few years before (Jack had reconsidered his position on his son as Xander worked his three-job way through college and became a respected archeologist) and were, as far as she knew, on the best terms of either of their lives. Willow was startled by the fact that he appeared to be completely sober Apparently old dogs can learn new tricks, she thought with amusement as she ushered him inside.

Willow studied Xander's father briefly, wondering at the man's lineage. He didn't resemble his son at all, except maybe in the way he occasionally smiled. His eyes were cold and blue, like a snake's, and his thinning brown hair seemed perennially cut short. Willow knew he was strong (she'd once seen him lift a massive steel beam singlehandedly as it trapped a co-worker), but Jack Harris had a taller, more stretched out appearance than his son. He was handsome, even as he approached retirement, but the unusually distinct lines around his mouth payed their humble testament to the man's suffering.

Willow stepped back downstairs and into her office as Xander embraced his father.

*********************************************************************************************************************

"What's happening dad?" Xander smiled as he pulled a pair of Cokes from the fridge. "Did you get lost? And why are you here at eleven at night?"

The older man chuckled richly, a rough, unfinished sound that left listeners with the impression that it was a recently re-discovered talent. Whatever had changed inside his father's head, Xander thanked God for it every day. Life was much easier when your old man was on your side.

"Is it so wrong for a father to be proud of his boy?" Jack smiled with paternal affection, twisting his lips into a not-yet-perfected-expression. "I saw the dig on the news. Believe me, the other guys are still impressed." He winked. "And so am I, son."

Xander smiled at his father. "But that's not why you're here."

Jack sipped his coke thoughtfully. "No, no it's not."

Xander waited for his father to collect whatever thoughts he was thinking. Sighing, Jack went on after a pause of a minute or so.

"Your grandmother's sick."

The three words slowly sank into Xander's conscious mind. "How bad is it?"

Jack grimaced. "She's got a little time left. Maybe a day, two at the most." Jack patted his son's shoulder affectionately. "Thanks for the drink, son." He smiled sadly. "Room 228. She's asleep and probably won't wake up... but if you want to see her..." He trailed off. " Tell Willow I said goodbye. Congratulations again on your find."

Xander's father hugged his son gently, surprising both of them. His eyes watered as he left the house. "I love you, son."

Xander watched after him for a long time before whispering "You too, dad."

********************************************************************************************************************

The worst thing about hospitals, Xander reflected, was the smell. Or, more accurately, the lack of any kind of scent in the stale air. Giles had once remarked, although not to him, that smell was a powerful stimuli for the recollection of memories. This one was too familiar to him.

The last time he'd been here, it was Buff lying comatose on the perfectly cleaned hospital beds, an IV needle in her arm slowly resuscitating the blonde with donated blood. It was always Buff in here, he thought. Always. She was the one who took the hits, took the worst life could send her way and laughed at it. And, afterwards, she was always the one who paid the price.

Still, after all her struggles... Buffy at least had happiness.

The frail woman before him, on the other hand, had never received the break she'd rightfully earned. Which only went to show, Xander thought, that more often than not things didn't work out.

Sarah Harris. The family had made the similarities between his ancestor and himself painfully clear to him as a child. He'd inherited her love of easy joking, her mannerisms, even some of her facial features. If it wasn't for his increased height and more powerful frame, and if she'd been about seventy years younger, they almost would have passed for twins.

She'd had a hard life.

Born during the First World War, Sarah had lost her father before she could crawl. She was an only child and developed the closed off toughness that such a position tended to breed. Her mother died sometime in the thirties and left her alone in the world of the Great Depression.

The details of the next decade were unclear, although Xander did know that she met someone during the Second World War—someone who'd left her shortly before her only son, Jack, was born. She'd married a friend later who'd raised Jack as his own son. But by the '60s, he was dead as well.

Sarah had held dozens of jobs in her life. Everything from a telephone operator to an Army Nurse to a high school teacher, Sarah had never been able to find a job that interested her enough to make a career out of. The only thing she'd ever really cared about, as far as Xander knew, was her son.

She'd contracted the cancer a decade ago as the product of a lifetime of smoking. A rough cough occasionally wracked her frail body as the life slowly drained away. Sarah knew she was dead; she had felt almost instinctively years before that the day her life ended was not far off.

Xander studied his dying grandmother sadly, wondering at the reason why two people like them, although so similar in temperament and appearance, had never been close. They'd never really talked about anything of importance or anything that mattered. They'd never even spent that much time together—an odd relationship for an only grandchild and his grandparent.

Xander held his sleeping ancestor's hand for a moment, then moved in to kiss her forehead. "Goodbye, Grandma."

********************************************************************************************************************

It was three days after the funeral, and the phone was ringing. It was times like this Willow really wished her house-mate wasn't didn't practice carpentry—in his external workshop full of sawdust and power tools, Xander couldn't ever hear (or get to) the phone. It made her feel like his personal secretary... which, despite herself, was not an entirely bad feeling, if only as a fantasy to be occasionally played out in her mind.

Fantasy and disgruntled feelings aside, Willow lifted the phone to her ear. "Hold on, I'll get him." She muted the mobile instrument with a palm and moved out through the back doors of their house and into their spacious backyard..

Much like her own happy place in the basement, the simple, elegant barn at the rear of the yard served as an anchor for Xander's mind. The transfiguration of wood into beautiful pieces of furniture wasn't even challenging for her friend; he did it to think. In his workshop, Xander was the master of his fate. Willow knew that he needed that sometimes.

Although extremely promising to his mentor, the famed archeologist Dr. Gabriel Renneaux, Xander was still a junior member of the team. Before he'd unexpectedly announced the change of his major in their sophomore college year, Xander had been more or less stumbling along in search of a passion. In the obscure volumes and mysterious pyramids of Central America, he'd found that passion.

Xander was not book smart in any sense of the phrase. His lack of discipline, combined with a sometimes extreme case of boredom had nearly crippled his high school career. The young man had turned himself around in college, picking his goal and sticking to it with all the tenacity of a pit bull. Before college, Willow couldn't remember her friend ever willingly reading, let alone studying, when there hadn't been some reward in it for him. On the UC Sunnydale campus, he'd nearly worked and studied himself into an early grave.

Xander had forced the details of every linguistic pattern and codex into his long term memory over a period of time he collectively referred to as "hell." In the end, though, it had been more than worth the tremendous effort: Renneaux had hand-picked the young man to be the heir-apparent to his legacy.

Willow didn't know much about Renneaux except that the old man had earned her friend's unquestioned loyalty and respect. And with Xander, when a person made it that far they might as well have been family. It was Renneaux's rough, European-accented voice on the line, and Renneaux's call she now took to Xander.

Willow knocked on the door. Xander had constructed the little building as well as it's considerable furnishings inside, and Willow had to admit (as she did so often) that it was well done. Always smelling like sawdust and heartwood, the workshop was a too bit earthy for her to ever feel truly comfortable inside. For Xander, though, it was heaven.

The door swung open. "Hey, Willow." He'd been quiet since his grandmother died, quiet and secluded. It was natural, Willow knew, to grieve for the loss and miss his grandmother, however distant they'd been. Xander had thrown himself into his carpentry, utilizing the work as a method for putting his grief off to one side. It wasn't dealing with the problem, but as far as Xander was concerned it was the next best thing. He took the phone, gestured for the redhead to come inside.

Willow heard Xander exchange pleasantries with his mentor, but really wasn't that interested. More than likely the doctor had run into a snag in the excavation and needed Xander to solve some ancient puzzle. That was his specialty, why he was so highly valued on the digs. Xander had the type of mind that, while not overly analytical, was grounded enough in the physical world as to work out even the most complex problems—given time.

He was also good at finding things. Wether that was luck or an offshoot of his other skill, nobody really knew—Xander included. He didn't really know why the science of dead cultures intrigued him the way it did. All he knew was that it awoke a sense of mystery in him and s longing to solve that mystery. And that he happened to be very good at it.

He was really quite good at a lot of things, Willow thought. Be it carpentry, cooking, digging up ancient ruins or making her feel like the luckiest girl on Earth (even if this last one hadn't been exercised as often as she'd like), Xander could do it all with the ease of a jack-of-all-trades.

"Thanks Doctor. Two days? Thanks. I'll see you in Mexico." Xander pushed the end button and looked at Willow. "Looks like the vacation's cut short, Wills. Gabriel's run into a snag. A really, really big one." Xander rubbed his forehead. "And he's absolutely convinced that I can work it out."

"That's probably because you can." Willow rubbed his shoulder. "You're really good at that sort of thing. Remember how you disarmed that trap two summers ago—"

The loud hum of a truck at the front of the house startled the two and they walked out in perfect synchronization. "Who's that?"

Willow shrugged. "I didn't do anything. Did you order something naughty?" She raised her voice at the end of the sentence, accentuating the faux-shocked face she currently wore.

"Yes Wills. Something dirty and not for human eyes. I'm bad. To the bone." Xander rolled his eyes. "So, the answer you're looking for is a no."

"Too bad." They decided to walk around the house rather than through. Xander was covered in sawdust and sweat, Willow noticed. Not a bad combination...

A man in the brown shirt/shorts uniform of a UPS employee stood at the front door. Coming up from behind him, Xander spoke first. "Can we help you?"

The man coughed. "Package for Dr. A. Harris?"

"That's me."

"Sign here." The man shoved a package and clipboard into Xander's surprised arms.

"Maybe I did order something," he quipped.

The delivery man rolled his eyes. "Maybe, sir. I gotta run, so if you could just John Hancock..." The clipboard was suddenly back in his hands with a ten-dollar bill attached.

"My hands are quicker than your eyes, my man. And if it helps, I did that once, too." Xander smiled. The man grunted some assent and moved speedily to his truck as the others headed back to Xander's shed.

"Who's it from?" Willow peeked over her friends shoulder, trying to make out the letters on the brown package.

"A law firm. But not Dewy, Cheatem and Howe, I see."

"Such a fine legal practice ruined by incompetence."

"It's a shame," agreed Xander. "God bless all Stooges, in whatever states of employment they may be."

"So open it."

"I was gonna wait till we got back to the..." Willow grabbed the package and was pulling off the outer layer of coarse paper. "It's only a file," she pouted.

"Have you always opened my mail before me?" Xander asked.

"No, but this is the first time it's been interesting."

"Again, Wills, you give so much comfort." He reached inside. "There's some pieces of paper and a circular object. Feels like glass. Some bumps too."

"Why not just look at it?"

"Dramatic build-up?"

Willow held out her palm expectantly. Xander slapped it with his own, then pulled out the object from inside the folder. "Good call, Xander."

It was beautiful in a sinister sort of way. A black glass disc, just as Xander had said, lay in the palm of his hand. A series of 13 jewels formed a perimeter about halfway to the center, and in the middle was a kind of one-sided hole. A single, sharp point stuck out from the top of the item... but it was the mournful-looking skull on the reverse face that gave Willow chills.

"Obsidian," Xander was muttering. "Toltec from the skull. Jewels include emerald, diamond and lapiz-lazuli. Interesting." Xander ran his hand over the pictographs around the skull. "'I open what should stay closed.' Roughly," he added ashamedly. "It's more like a 'Beware of freaky supernatural death.' Good advice to the Indiana Jones wannabe." Xander had seen this piece before, he felt certain of it. Even as he held it in his own hand, passing it to Willow, a powerful sense of deja vu hit him.

"Read the letter."

There were two, actually. Xander pulled first the one with the official letterhead of a law firm on top.

To Dr. Alexander Harris,

We at Wolfram and Hart would like to convey out sympathies with along with the contents of this package. In accordance with your grandmother's will, of which we are the executors, you now own this artifact as well as the chest it opens. The contents of said chest are yours as well.
Know that under the IRS regulation...

Xander stopped reading. Angel had experienced... difficulties with this law firm a few years before. Still, his grandmother had chosen them as her benefactors, and he had to trust that this wasn't some unusual trick from what Angel had called the Senior Partners. He handed the letter to Willow and pulled the other piece of paper from the manilla folder.

To my grandson Alexander Harris,

When you read this I'll be dead. No one lives forever, you know, despite our best efforts. So I've taken the precaution, knowing my condition ahead of time and still being of sound mind and body, to bequeath you a few important items concerning your lineage.
It startled me when I first heard of you taking up archeology a few years ago. The reason is not that I thought you incapable or stupid (I happen to have faith that whatever you want is easily in your reach, grandson), but that your grandfather, too, belonged to that vocation.
Neither you nor your father ever knew him. That's truly a shame. Your adopted grandfather John (although you never met him, either) was a good man, but it's not him your abilities come from. It's not me either, for that matter, although we do look and act extraordinarily similar. You inherited your skills, your brain, and your hunger for the unknown from your real grandfather... Dr. Alexander Black.
You've probably never heard of Toltec Black, and probably never will unless you meet some apprentice of his. I'm not going to lie, grandson. Alex was a failure in every sense of the word. Hell, he probably invented new meanings for the word. But he was a good man.
The rest of the family, although they don't number many, all seem to agree on this point: you and I are alike. Actually, it would be me who disagrees most with that statement. It surprised me that your parents decided to give you his name, seeing as how they never even knew his name. And it surprised me even more that you chose to follow after him.
I believe in coincidences, grandson. But I have never trusted them. And the ways you seem to think and act so alike make me distrust the parallels between you even more.
I also don't mean to frighten you (although from the rumors I've heard, that's not an easy thing to do), merely to draw to your attention this simple set of observations I have. There are many things Alex left unfinished when he (unexpectedly) died. There are many similarities between Alex and you. You are the heir to his unfinished legacy.
Make him proud, grandson. Make us both proud.
I've never opened the chest he left behind, but I'm sure you'll know how. And if you don't at first, I believe that you will figure out how.
One last thing, as I'm sure you've tired of reading the ramblings of a dead woman. I've never spent much time considering death or what happens next, if anything. There are things I've witnessed in my life to make me believe that I will be in a position to watch over you, as I'm sure your grandfather is already. We won't be able to physically wish you our love or support, grandson, but know that you have it, nonetheless. I love you, although I hardly know you.
Be safe, my grandson.
Loving you from Beyond,

Sarah Harris

Xander unconsciously exhaled a large breath. His grandmother had always carried the conventional wisdom he prided himself on, but her letter had opened new questions inside him. What had she meant by "unfinished business?" What "things" had she seen in her life? Why had his grandfather died unexpectedly?

And, most nagging at him of all... why did the obsidian disc in his closest friend's hand look so familiar to him?

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