"So you can open it." It wasn't a question, merely a statement of the elderly man's faith in Xander.

"I believe so. There is... an artifact in my possession."

Renneaux's eyes narrowed. "Did you steal it?"

"Not directly, no. Inherited it."

"What is 'it?'"

"A black glass disc."

Xander studied his mentor carefully. It was difficult to gauge the Renneaux's reaction to anything, due mostly to the older man's short attention span and violent mood swings. This time, though, it wasn't hard to recognize the symptoms of shock in the person of Dr. Gabriel Renneaux.

The diminutive scientist's eyebrows raised as his eyes widened. Renneaux sat down slowly atop his cot, steadying himself against the tent's main support. Wiping a sleeve across his forehead, Xander's mentor smiled apologetically. "Could you describe it?"

Xander's eyes narrowed slightly at Renneaux's obvious alarm, but he measured out a distance between two fingers for his teacher's benefit. "Uh... about this wide, black obsidian. Skull on the back."

Renneaux sighed in defeat, muttering a curse in his native tongue. "Thirteen jewels forming a concentric circle in the middle?"

"Yes. Recognize the description?" Renneaux laughed bitterly.

"I've held it in my hand. I suppose you received it along with that hat?" Xander nodded. "Damn that man's soul! He was supposed to destroy it!"

His apprentice frowned but kept silent. "How did you come by this... artifact?"

"Apparently, 'that man' was my grandfather." Another curse from Renneaux. "He left it, and a chest full of other things, with my grandmother. Who just died."

Renneaux chuckled. "Fate is a cruel bitch, Alexander, and please pardon my French. There's too much coincidence around this city to be anything else."

"You knew... him?"

Renneaux looked at him in surprise. "Toltec Black taught me everything. He helped me infinitely more than I've ever helped you. Were you aware of his existence?"

Xander shook his head. "My grandmother wrote me a letter saying he died unexpectedly..." Renneaux snorted "and that she'd never told my father about him."

"He expected his death, at least. He sentenced himself, actually, when he refused to hand over the disc." Renneaux shook his head. "Your grandmother must be Sarah Harris—that was Alex's girlfriend when he died, and you do look very similar—and he must've given the chest to her."

"Didn't I just say tha—"

"And," he continued unfazed "she probably told you he was worthless."

"She said he was a failure."

He snorted. "In the literal sense of the word, yes. But," he added, "in the other sense of the word—that is, Alexander, that he didn't have to be a failure—a wholehearted no. Dr. Black discovered more—and gave up more—than any other man I know."

"Huh? Request permission to be confused."

"Granted. The key you've so kindly summoned is the only device capable of unlocking the door. You know the one I mean, Alexander... the way to Miccaotli. Dr. Black used it over sixty years ago to open the Way of the Gods for the first time in millennia."

"So he opened it... and then closed it again." Xander cocked his head. "Why?"

Renneaux chuckled. "It was no supernatural curse or undead army that forced our decision. It was other humans. "Beneath that road lies a set of tombs rivaling that of the Egyptian Valley of the Kings. Dozens of chambers, Xander—dozens and maybe more. Set in thirteen groups beneath the streets of Teotihuacan, the lords of the city date back much farther than the traditionally assumed founding date of the city—I mean, the first century C.E. Over 100 separate rulers are interred beneath the rock.

"Most of these kings appeared to be Native American Indians, people not so different from the Mayas today. But as the dynasties go back, back to what Black called Ruling Dynasty One, the characteristics of the possessions, artwork and even skeletons seemed to resemble the Egyptian Pharaohs."

"Thirteen Dynasties," echoed a dumbfounded Xander. "With over a hundred kings between them. Even if the average span of rule was just a decade that's still over a millennium."

Renneaux nodded, smiling. "The chamber appears to have been closed—closed but not pressurized, as in the Qin burial mound in China—sometime around the beginning of the second century C.E."
"When the major construction works were thought to have begun," interjected Xander as comprehension began to flood his mind.

"Yes. It would seem that the last foreign-blood king was overthrown and never interred. The tomb reserved for that unfortunate potentate was still empty when Black opened it."

"The amount of time would place the appearance of the foreigners at anywhere from eighth to the fourteenth centuries B.C.E. That's about the time of the Dark Ages, Doctor."

"Your grandfather said that to me as well—sixty years ago. He believed that a sect of Mediterranean nobility—probably Egyptian, based on the way the tombs were filled—had emigrated across the Atlantic in an effort to escape the enemy known as the Sea Peoples."

"Then perhaps the influx of pyramids across Meso-America isn't a coincidence," Xander thought out loud. "Why did Bla—my grandfather re-seal the tombs?"

"Dr. Black had the find of a century. More than that, the find of the millennium. He gave it up, just as I would ask you to, because he knew that too many of the artifacts inside would be stolen, or, worse yet, taken over by an unstable government and sold to treasure hunters around the world.

"Please, Alexander. Your grandfather was killed for his refusal to hand over the key. I would ask you not to make its existence known... I would ask you to make the ultimate sacrifice of a student of history. Do not allow the treasures of a thousand-plus years to become the playthings of the world's elite."

Xander nodded, feeling the lump rising in his throat. "My friend Willow and I were... theorizing about the possibility of dynastic burial. And about my grandfather not wanting to open it. But... who killed him?"

Renneaux bit down on his lip and grimaced. "We never knew who it was, exactly. The whole thing was a perfectly set up 'accident' back stateside. However, I believed that it was one of us, one of Black's students, who did him in."

"You have a guess."

"Yes. I believe that one of his... more ambitious students who ran him down. A Russian fellow I didn't really like all that much. Dr. Ivan Mihalsky."

"The name sounds familiar."

"He's a powerful man in the circles he runs. Actually, he's the man our benefactors are sending to appraise the dig... and tell us if we can continue."

"Definitely the man to hide my... ancestry from."

"And your inheritance," Renneaux nodded. "It pains me to ask that sacrifice of you, Alexander... but remember that I made it as well, once."

"So it's either protect the past and give up a prestigious future... or do the right thing and live in the shadows."

"I've lived in the shadow's for sixty years, Alexander. They get comfortable, after awhile."

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

"So?"

"So we were right."

"You mean, you were right."

"Well, yeah, but you helped me get there."

"So why so depressed?"

Xander's shoulders were slumped in an uncharacteristically sad manner. He shrugged, trying to form a smile. "Who's depressed?"

"You are. What's wrong?" She moved beside her friend, favoring him with the most concerned look she had.

Xander shook his head. "We can't open Miccaotli."

Her worried features instantly became indignant. "What! Why not?"

"Same reasons Black closed it again. Protection of the past from an unstable world."

"What gives Renneaux the gall to tell you that you can't... I'm so mad... I'll... I'll..."

Xander leaned heavily against the tent's main pole. "There's nothing we can do. Renneaux's right... and I can find my fame somewhere else."

"I can still be mad about it, right?"

"By all means. God knows I am," sighed a dejected Alexander Harris.

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

"Hey, guys!" The perennially glowing young woman grasped her friends in a surprisingly powerful hug.

"How did finals go?"

She scowled at her friend. "Since when are you all business, Xander?"

"Since I didn't want to face your relatives if you failed on our account." The dark haired man smiled. "Did you like our chopper?"

"I thought you said it was your chopper," Dawn observed accusingly.

"It is," defended Xander "in the sense that America is my country or California is my state."

Willow winked at Dawn and spoke. "So am I yours too?"

He smiled weakly at the redhead. "No, because slavery, although once popular among our Southern brethren, is still illegal." He leaned in conspiratorially. "Unless it's voluntary."

Dawn giggled. "Sick, Xander."

"Yeah... yeah sick," Willow agreed weakly.

"Can we get back to the question?"

"The chopper was fun, guys. A little loud, though."

"Aww," Xander regarded her sympathetically. "Did poor baby's ears hurt? Could poor baby not listen to ultra-bouncy pop music on the ultra-bouncy ride?"

The younger woman hit him playfully. "You're the one who steals my CDs and makes them his own!"

"Yes, and we must never speak of that outside this group," agreed a shamefaced Xander. "Now shall we discuss my music-piracy habits or would you prefer a tour?"

"Tour. Please."

"Then let us step into the Xander-mobi—"

Willow hand had darted into his pocket, coming out with Xander's set of keys. She winked. "Xander doesn't drive with any living person."

"Personal space violation, Wills."

"Oh, go pout about it," grinned Dawn. "Somehow I doubt it bothered you very much."

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

"So... we're not opening it?" Dawn's disappointment was clearly manifested across her youthful features. "That's stupid."

"That's life, Dawn." Xander shook his head. It had taken all his and Willow's power to keep the younger woman from cartwheeling across the stone road. "And I'm not happy either."

"Xander, this is your chance! More important, this is my chance to tell my friends 'I know a celebrity!'"

"Great priorities," laughed Willow. Dawn glowered.

"You'd be more famous than anyone... if you didn't do everything you can to stay secluded."

"I'm not much for fame, Dawnie. It's overrated." laughed Xander silently.

Dawn waved a hand in frustration. "C'mon, Xander... can't we just open it for a peek?"

Her friend sighed, looking to Willow for support. The sun had almost disappeared beneath the Moon Pyramid to the west, its dying rays casting peculiar and ominous shadows throughout the encampment. A single beam of light fell upon Willow, illuminating her fiery hair in a way that, to Xander, could only be described as beautiful.

She looked sympathetically at her reluctantly-noble friend, laying a hand on his slumped shoulder.

"What do you love about the past, Dawn?" Xander's question was unusually sad, defeated almost.

The beautiful woman shrugged. "It's mystery."

"Is that why you chose this field above, say, modeling?"

"Wait... you think Dawn could be a model?" A distinct note of jealousy punctuated the indignant redhead's question.

"Hypothetically, Willow. I could list a half-dozen of the women I know who could be." He leaned close to her ear. "Please don't be offended, though, that you happen to be at the top of that list."

Dawn scowled. "Honestly?"

"Honestly."

"I thought—and still think—it's cool."

"But you know that 99% of our profession die ambiguously and dirt poor."

Again, Dawn shrugged. "You seem to be doing fine."

"For now." He looked intently at his younger friend. "Could your decision have had anything o do with the fact that I chose this profession?"

"It could have," Dawn answered suspiciously. "But, then again, I do love the mystery."

"Mysteries can be solved. And then what?"

"Are you trying to convince me to learn another trade, Xander? It won't work."

"If I was any kind of friend, Dawnie, I should have tried to change your mind from the outset." He shook his head. "My...ego prevented me from doing so. But, no, I want you to complete your studies and make a name in this business."

"So why the down-talk?"

"Because I want to make a point. We give up quite a bit to do what we love. But the fact that we love the mysteries, the hidden facts and secret chambers, the lives of people long dead... the fact that we love it all, God help us, makes it worthwhile.

"But loving the world of the past means that we have a certain obligation to protect it. You are correct... by opening Miccaotli I would give my rising star a boost to the top. In doing so, however, some of the things I love—ancient treasures, secret passages, mysteries—would be irreversibly violated.

"You know me, Dawn. You know that I tell something like it is. You know that I don't baby-talk anyone on anything, unless I'm trying for a laugh. And you know that, when I say something, I always mean it. Always." He let out a long breath. "Even if I don't like what I'm saying."

During the course of Xander's speech, Willow had felt herself captivated. Listening to Xander talk passionately on something he cared about... the experience was, well, surreal.

"On the other hand, Xander," the redhead sighed "you've always got a place as a motivational speaker."

Her friend's mood broke instantly. "My name's Matt Foley," he said in a cracking, falsetto voice. "And I live in a van DOWN BY THE RIVER!"

The women chuckled at Xander's uncanny Chris Farley imitation. "So I suppose your mind is made up about this?" Dawn couldn't resist asking.

"For now, the Street of the Dead will remain sealed. For now."

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

"Gabriel, my friend, I am sorry. Unless some new bit of intrigue comes up, this expedition is finished." Mihalsky held out his hands apologetically. "My hands are tied."

"Yes, I'm sure they are, Ivan. I believe you've represented us as best you can... but I know how our benefactors love results."

Mihalsky snorted. "May we get to the real issue?"

Renneaux looked confused. "And that is... what?"

"Miccaotli." Mihalsky's hoarse voice and lined, aristocratic face betrayed no emotion as the single word escaped his cracked lips. "The Way of the Gods."

Renneaux shrugged. "The main road to the Sun Pyramid. What of it."

The other man laughed. "Please do not act stupid, Gabriel. You know what I'm talking about."

Renneaux scratched his bearded chin. "I do not have to act stupid, Ivan, to not comprehend your meaning."

"The last time we were here, our teacher opened the Way of the Gods. You went inside it. Then, out of his stupidity and arrogance, he sealed the chamber again."

"Ivan," Renneaux asked in a concerned voice "are you certain this is not something you have dreamed? My memories tell me nothing of this."

"And now, sixty years later, Gabriel, now you have the ability to open Miccaotli again. You have the power to reveal it's secrets."

Renneaux laughed sadly and shook his head. "Once again you are mistaken. How can I open something that is not there?"

The shorter man's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You mistake me for a fool..."

"And you are."

"...But do not believe that I will leave the chamber unopened. I have not come to cancel your team's funding. I have come to dismiss you." Mihalsky grinned triumphantly. "And then who will open the Way of the Gods?"

Renneaux shrugged. "Very well. This climate aggravates my arthritis." He smiled at the other man. "Goodbye, Ivan."

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

"I'm coming with you." Xander's desperate statement drew a chuckle from his mentor.

"I thought you would say that."

Most of Renneaux's things had been shipped back to Sunnydale the previous day, leaving the old archeologist with a small duffel bag. Mihalsky was already revamping the methods of the dig, changing Renneaux's careful excavation into a major blast zone.

"You owe me no loyalty, Alexander, although I did not believe that you would work for Mihalsky. Not that you would wish to stick around," the old man winked slyly. "Government forces are already on the way to halt Ivan's... more destructive methods."

"Should we warn Gladstone?" Xander was fond of the enthusiastic young genius. He was a good kid, really, and Xander didn't want his younger friend's reputation to be damaged any more than his own.

"By all means. Warn him that Ivan is a corrupt fraud. Warn him that the authorities are going to act against him very soon. Do not advise him of what to do, Alexander. It is his decision."

"I'll see you on campus, Dr. Renneaux."

"Goodbye, Alexander." They shook hands before Xander's teacher left in the helicopter.

"Now to get the hell outta dodge," grumbled Xander as he replaced his hat.

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

"We need to talk." Belongings packed and key safely tucked in his vest, Xander turned to face Dawn.

"Anything specific?" Dawn could be either a scatterbrain or a genius, depending on the situation and Xander intuitively knew that this discussion would showcase the latter quality.

"Your love life."

Xander frowned; this wasn't something he enjoyed talking about with with anyone, much less the girl who'd harbored a crush on him for several years. "That's a tricky subject."

"No, it's really not." Dawn's t-shirt/shorts ensemble neatly showcased her mature figure, a figure that would have sent most men drooling. To Xander, however, Dawn was as much a sister as a friend.

Her features changed into a provocative stare. "Do you find me attractive?"

"Not to dash any hopes, Dawn, but you're like my..."

"Yes or no. Do you find me attractive?"

Xander swallowed. "Yes."

"Are you available?"

"I really don't like where this is..."

"Xander..."

"Yes. And no."

She nodded sagely. "I thought so. Why no?"

"That's... personal."

"I'm gonna feel insulted if you're making someone up, Xander."

He looked at her pleadingly. "You know who."

"Yes, I do know who." She regarded him with a sympathetic, if impatient, look. "I also know why you can still answer 'yes' to the last question as well."

Xander shook his head. "When did you get so smart?"

"When you weren't looking." The sing-song voice was back; she'd already cracked him. "When you were busy looking at Willow."

He winced, holding a finger to his lips. "Are you trying to ruin my life?"

"I'm 'trying' to make it better. You don't want to lose her. You think that, as long as you're living together platonically, your relationship is safe." She shook her head. "If you want more, you're gonna have to take the risk."

"Dawn... Willow is the one person I know who's remained constantly in my life. I think... I think we're too close to take the next step."

"All I'm saying, Xander, is that if you saw how she looks at you... well, how I used to look at you... you wouldn't hesitate to sweep her off her feet."

He snorted incredulously while studying at a spot somewhere between his feet. "I will not put the closest relationship in my life in harm's way. I can't, Dawn." He looked up suddenly with watering eyes. "If I lose Willow, Dawn, I lose everything."

"You can't lose this time. She's known you for... what? 20-something years? And she's still in love with you after all that time?" Dawn smiled helpfully. "It doesn't take a genius like you—like both of you—to see that you're supposed to be together."

"In the past I never believed that anything was meant to be. Living in Sunnydale gave me more than my share of disappointments and... I became kinda cynical." She snickered. "Can you imagine? Me? Cynical?" She shook her head sadly. "The point is, whenever I see you guys together, whenever I see how much you love each other (and refuse to diagnose the same symptoms in each other)... it makes me believe again." A tear slipped down the younger woman's face. "And I refuse to let insecurities and worrying mess up the one relationship that could involve true happiness."

Xander nodded dumbly. Again, Dawn smiled sympathetically before kissing her formerly-oblivious friend on the cheek. Then, rising silently, Dawn walked out of his tent.

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

"You're crazy."

Inwardly the young woman groaned. What was meant to be was taking a lot of effort on her part.

"You're too close to this one, Willow. Trust me?"

The redhead sighed in defeat. "With my life. Or, in this case, with my heart."

"Then here is the plan..."

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

"In other news, several high-ranking members of the Teotihuacan expedition have resigned in the last few days, among them project leaders Dr. Gabriel Renneaux and Dr. Alexander Harris. The reason for their resignations is unclear as of now, but sources on the inside suggest that changes in the excavation methods were at least mostly responsible for their departure. In the aftermath of the hierarchy shift, officials have professed an interest in monitoring the privately-funded expedition more carefully. Stocks rose higher on Wall Street as the..."

"Two times on NPR, Xander!" enthused Willow. "You could become famous if you're not careful."

"Yes, Xander Harris. Celebrity," the dark-haired man scoffed. "It does have a ring to it."

the screenwriter smiled. "As long as it doesn't go to your head."

"It won't have a chance to, Wills. Obscurity is the only way to go."

The redhead laughed. "Now he tells me."

"Renneaux and myself will probably be blacklisted, Willow. Our... sponsors were powerful people. Even if Mihalsky gets nailed by the Mexican police, we'll be the ones who get the fall."

"How?"

"Well, they can try. I believe that the testimony of the majority of workers would clear us... but Mihalsky's people will still try to bring us down."

"So you spend your life as a carpenter. It's not so bad."

Xander laughed. "Do you know what the worst part is, Willow? I'm a very good carpenter. But I love archeology."

Willow shrugged. "Que sera, sera."

He smiled. "What will be, will be." Xander shook his head. "Let it be."

"Let it be?"

"Let it be."

"Oh, let it be."

"Speaking words of wisdom..."

"Let it beeee." The redhead finished their musical interlude with a falsetto note and laughed. Leaning against Xander's shoulders, Willow whispered to herself.

"You don't know how appropriate that is."

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

"When Harry Met Sally, huh?"

"What can I say. Rob Reiner is my hero." Xander adopted his shame face and shrugged.

She laughed. "Can we start it already?"

"Well, I can." He pressed the remote's play button, leaning back on their couch. To Xander's surprise, the redhead nestled into his chest.

Unapologetically.

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

"I love you."

A blonde woman came into view, an indignant expression spread angrily across her face. "What?"

"I love you."

She made an incredulous noise. "How do you expect me to respond to this?"

He was pleading now. "How about you love me too?"

She shook her head. "How about I'm leaving."

Xander laughed, drawing a glare from the girl leaning against his shoulder. "What?"

"How did Billy Crystal end up with Meg Ryan in this? In what alternate universe is he any prize?"

She shook her head. "Men. It's not all about looks, Xander."

"Obviously."

"Shush. This is the best part."

The fast talking man on the screen spoke again. "Well, how about this way. I love that you get cold when it's seventy degrees outside. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend a day with you I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night." He swallowed. "And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Years Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible."

"Willow?"

She glared at him. "What, Xander?"

"You're saying the lines to yourself. You do know this, right?"

She didn't know, but it didn't matter. "Why is this relevant?"

"Because I love that about you."

"Don't make fun of my favorite movie."

"I was being serious."

The movie seemed to grow louder, despite the fact that neither turned the volume up. "Yeah, it only took three months."

"Twelve years and three months." It was Willow's turn to snicker.

"What?"

"Nothing." The hell it was nothing, she thought. With Xander, it was twenty years and three months. And counting. "I'll be right back."

Xander's eyes narrowed slightly as she rose.

She walked quickly out of the room with a nervous glance over her shoulder.

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

I love her.

Although not exactly a revelation, the words put together cast a whole new light on his thoughts. Xander smiled whimsically at his realization.

"I love her," he whispered aloud, mostly for himself.

Unbidden, music began playing from their surround-sound speaker system.

It's been a long year, Since you've been gone. I've been alone here I've grown old. I fall to pieces, I'm falling Fell to pieces, and I'm still falling...

Every time I'm falling down All alone I fall to pieces

I keep a journal of memories I'm feeling lonely, I can't breathe I fall to pieces, I'm falling Fell to pieces and I'm still... falling

All the years I've tried With more to go Will the memories die I'm waiting. Will I find you? Can I find you? We're falling down. I'm falling...

As the music entered a crescendo of guitar and drums, Xander noticed that Willow had returned.

With the dress.

The song slowly faded away as the redhead sensuously grinned at Xander. There was something different about her. Either something about the way she walked, or the black gown she now wore... or maybe it was just that, finally, everything clicked for the couple.

Xander opened and closed his mouth several times in a valiant effort to formulate some semblance of a coherent thought. She gracefully crossed the distance between them, moving a finger to his lips—a gesture at once familiar and delightfully new. She smiled again.

"Sometimes when you're falling to pieces, Alexander Harris..." And then she kissed him.

Although neither was a stranger to the art of the kiss, the great familiarity and understanding the two shared briefly entangled their effort in a bizarre feeling of discomfort. Passion won out quickly, though, as the kiss deepened, blossomed... and, ultimately, was broken.

"Your mouth does the sweetest thing."

Xander sat back, wide-eyed. "Look at me," the redhead commanded.

He turned his head. "You know how I feel, Xander. You've known for some time. And," she continued quickly "I know that you love me."

Xander nodded dumbly.

"Sometimes love needs a bit of a push, Xander. Or, in our case, a shove off a cliff."

"Taking the lovers' leap, huh Willow?"

"Are you coming?"

"Wouldn't miss it. I love you, Willow Rosenburg. You... you make my heart glad."

The redhead exhaled suddenly, drawing a smirk from Xander. "What was that?"

She shook her head. "Until just now, I really didn't know."

"Know what?"

"That you loved me."

He stared at her, blank-faced. "So..."

"So we owe Dawn big time."

He smiled. "Yeah."

"Now kiss me again, Dr. Harris.

Epilogue
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