[I apologize to everybody who complained about the way this story was originally presented. I
don't know what happened; the document I uploaded was properly formatted. I hope it works
better this time.]
You sit, like a lady, in your A-line housedress. You are perched on the living room couch, ankles
properly crossed. You might be waiting for something. Suddenly something catches your eye,
through the blinds. It's the fierce glare of the sun coming off her bright red hair; it hurts, and you
wish for a pair of sunglasses. You wish for a whiskey, but your hand knows there's only a glass
of ice water already there, waiting patiently for you on the end table. You watch her come in but
you don't answer any of her attempts to ascertain who is in your house. "Hello?" she calls, and
her voice is as strong and bright as her hair was, even though you can tell from it that she's been
crying. You close your eyes. You did your crying yesterday, when your beautiful boy slunk out
of his own wedding, leaving his jilted bride with meaningless presents and a heart of sorrow. Oh,
yes, you did your crying. And you decided he needed to know the truth. Maybe then he would
find his way back to you.
* * *
Willow goes to the Harris house knowing she won't find Xander there; his parents have never
been his refuge. But she knows he's left things in the basement – things he hadn't thought were
appropriate to his 'grown-up' apartment – and it is all she can think of to comfort him. She sorts
through the odds and ends scattered in the basement. She stops short when she sees the sealed
envelope on the chair, Xander's name written across it. Tucked over it is a note addressed to her.
The copperplate script is betrayed by alcohol. *"Willow, please see that he gets this. Stay with
him as he reads it. Help him. You have always been his friend. I thank you for that."* She
abandons any further search. She leaves the basement and tries to think where Xander could be.
* * *
You see her go back into the sunlight, hair shining like a weapon. You squint, and she softens,
and you can see why she has always been Xander's comfort. You remember that you had your
own comfort once.

You remember being five years old when a huge bundle of blankets was put in front of you.
"How do you like your new baby brother?" someone asked, and you couldn't figure out what you
were looking at. And suddenly there was a snuffling sound and the blankets parted to reveal a
tiny face that seemed to be weighed down by its huge dark eyes. And you knew you loved him,
your new baby brother, Alexander.
* * *
Willow couldn't get her brain to work. She had to figure out where Xander could be, assuming,
of course, that he hadn't simply left town. *But I would know, wouldn't I? I'd feel it.* She tried
to think of when he had last seemed happy. She thought of him at Halloween, announcing his
engagement. She remembered him kissing Anya over the Magic Box counter. She thought back
to . . . she stopped suddenly, aware of the ache in her legs. She'd never been aware of how much
his happiness was wrapped up in Anya. *And now he's blown it. What in the world could have
made him walk away from her?* She shook her head. There was no possibility whatsoever that
he was with Anya right now. Quite apart from wanting to stay away from the girl he'd humiliated
and abandoned, his return to the apartment or the Magic Box would have set off one of the
magical alarms she'd set after the whole debacle.

She cast her mind further back. Okay, when else had Xander been happy? With Faith? She
snorted derisively. There hadn't been *time* for Xander to be happy with her; she'd used and
discarded him like a tissue. Cordelia? No, thinking about it as objectively as she could, she
couldn't say that happiness had emanated from him during that relationship. He'd seemed giddy
and fearful, and frankly, more than a little confused, but he hadn't seemed truly happy.

This was starting to get sad. Had it been so long since her best friend was happy? How had she
not known? *Do I even have the right to call myself his best friend? I suck at this best man
thing.* And then it hit her, where he would be, and she took off running, so that her legs and
lungs burned.
* * *
You are happy, and you know you are happy, that's the magic of it. You spin stories by the hour
that leave you drained and yet seem so natural, so untouched by anything you know in the real
world. You look down and see him lying on his stomach, sprawled so that his quick-moving
fingers are in danger of hitting your knee as you sit cross-legged, and you watch him draw the
tales you are telling. His dark hair is the color of rust in shadow, but mossy soft.

And when he looks up to hear the rest of your story, your heart turns over at how much you love
him, everything about him, your baby brother, from the wide dark eyes to the golden shower of
freckles that lies across his cheeks. You love the lashes that block out the world and let him see
you as he wants to see you; not the awkward girl who sits alone at every dance, but the brave
bard, the loving sister, the one who sees him as extraordinary too. And you open your mouth and
the story continues.
* * *
She runs like a madwoman, runs until she gets to Star Park, to where he had dabbed ice cream on
her nose once, only a few years ago. Her nose feels cold just at the thought. She pants as she
scans each bench. And there he is, away from the jungle gym and swing set, on a perfectly
ordinary bench that's a little too close to some trash cans to be a desirable seat. He's not
wringing his hands or cradling his head in his arms or even crying. He's so still she thinks for a
scary moment that he's gone catatonic. But when she moves to stand directly in front of him, he
knows. And he looks up to face her.

She blocks the sun, and it illuminates her from behind, and he has to shake his head to rid himself
of the vision of a superhuman avenger; he knows very well that an active vengeance demon
wouldn't look so beautiful. He blinks and tries again, and this time it's just Willow.

He doesn't try to speak, and there is silence as she sits beside him, half-turned toward him. His
head is on her chest, the ribbed fabric of her shirt soothing him with its faint prickliness. His eyes
are leaking tears as her arms go around him, and they sit that way for long minutes. When he
pulls away, he tries to joke: "Absorbent."

She looks down at her shirt and agrees: "Yeah." She slides her hand into his, and says, "Xander,
I've got a letter for you." He starts to shake his head even as he reaches for it. "It's not from
Anya." His hand drops but there's still pleading in his eyes. "It's from your mother."
* * *
You only want a quiet place to study French, away from all the jabbering girls and the ludicrous
boys with their pencil-thin mustaches in your class, so you go to the fields and spread out your
books. You don't hear the whistles in the distance, you aren't aware that not far away the
football team is scrimmaging. You are with Roland and his men on the top of the hill, until a
football lands on top of your bag. You look up, startled, your eyes weak from reading such fine
print, and you see . . . a hero, strong and wide-shouldered, his hair a golden halo in the sun, a
pleased smile on his face. Your heart is thumping strangely as he retrieves the errant ball and says
in a voice straight from a dream, "I'll have to be sure to throw the ball out of bounds again if
there are such pretty girls hidden all around. Or are you the only one?" You feel your face flush,
and you are saved from stammering only by going completely mute. "I'm Tony," he says, as if
there is no reason you should know the name of the quarterback, the boy to whom every
cheerleader gives her brightest smile. "And you are?"

"I'm Jessica," you say tremulously, gasping when he takes your hand, to shake or caress, you
can't tell which.

"It's very nice to meet you, Jess," he grins, and then trots away as the coach bellows, "Harris!"
* * *
His face hardens, and she can almost see him putting up a wall between them. "I don't want to
hear anything she has to say," he says with finality.

"You don't have to hear her," she replies, her mouth quirking up into a half-smile; "she wrote it
all out. You just have to read it." But it's too soon for jokes and he refuses to smile or answer.
He plucks the letter from her hand and turns it over a few times. He's about to rip it in half when
she snatches it back from him. "No, don't!" she cries.

"Why should I read it? She's probably just disowning me anyway." He laughs bitterly. "And,
really, who could blame them? Yesterday I let everybody down. Again."

"Xander, listen to me. You have *never* let me down. I promise." He wants so desperately to
believe her. She raises a hand to his face to brush back a wing of his dark hair, or maybe to rest
her palm on his cheek, like a benediction. Her thumb finds and soothes away the fine lines of
strain at the corner of his eye. "Please read this letter. It would mean a lot to her."

He ducks instead of nodding, but she knows he has agreed. His hand catches at hers as it leaves
his face. "You'll . . . you'll . . .?" is all he can say.

"Yes," she nods, "I'll stay."
* * *
You can't quite believe this is happening, but Tony Harris, of all people, has asked you to go out
with him tonight. You pull on a blue dress first, and then a green one, and then you're standing in
your slip in front of your closet, as if waiting for a spotlight to fall on exactly the right dress to
charm him. You have no experience at this sort of thing; it's a mark of shame to you that it took
three semesters at college for someone to ask you out, and now that he has, you're in a complete
tizzy. Your eye falls on the pink dress you bought last year, just as your mother comes in with
her best shoes.

You're waiting for him with knots in your stomach, and you're so nervous that even the stories
won't come. Alexander, meanwhile, is sitting beside you with his arms crossed, like a bodyguard.
Your father keeps his newspaper up, sitting on the easy chair like it is a throne, and your mother
twitches the drapes into place, straightening out the magazines on the coffee table, refilling the
crystal candy dish. You wish that they weren't here, that they weren't so obviously anxious about
your big chance. You don't want him to know this is your first date, and one look at your parents
would tell him the whole story. You wish it could just be you and Alexander waiting for Tony,
continuing your latest story, perhaps working a new hero into it, a big, bluff man with golden hair
and a winning smile. You close your eyes to picture his face, and the doorbell rings.

You've never appreciated how tall he is until he's shaking hands with your father, leaning down
to converse with him. He's talking easily with your father about business schools and football,
and then he's charming your mother too. He waves and winks at Alexander, and then your hand
is in his and you're out the door.

You sit next to him at the movie theater, unsure of what to do if he tries anything. But he simply
holds your hand and watches the screen. Your spine stiffens when his arm goes around your
shoulder, but it's only to put his jacket around you because the air-conditioning is too high.
You're so won over by his courtesy that when he mentions a party after the movie, you don't
demur. He takes you to his fraternity, and there is a blast of body heat and loud music when the
front door finally opens. "Hey! A. A.!" someone shouts in greeting, and the wide smile is back
on his face as he half-waves, half-salutes in return with a hand that somehow, improbably, is
already clutching a beer with a blue label.

"A. A.?" you say questioningly.

"My name is Anthony Alexander, so the guys call me A. A. They think it's a riot." You smile a
little unsurely. You are not in your element here. He offers to get you a beer, but you have never
had a drink, and you don't want to betray yourself tonight. "Would you like something fancier?"
he asks.

"No, I'd just like to enjoy the party," you answer stupidly, dimly aware that the only way to enjoy
a get-together such as this is with copious amounts of alcohol.

He grins and squeezes your hand. "I'm just going to say hi to a couple of people. We'll leave in
five minutes." He heads to the back of the room, already calling out to his fraternity brothers.
You are lost already, without him by your side, and you wander, almost on tiptoe, into a space
that has been decorated to look like a living room. You perch on the edge of the couch, ready to
spring up the moment he calls. After a moment you realize you are uncomfortable like that and
you move back a little and ease his jacket over the precipice of your shoulders, sinking back a
little more. You hear his voice, and you turn quickly, trying to catch sight of him, and you get a
glimpse of him, holding aloft a brown bottle with a pretty red label, and saying something about
"good girls." He looks around, and you duck your head just in time, and a little while later he
stands in front of you. "Ready to go?" he asks, looking amused.

It makes you a little nervous, the way he drives, one hand on the steering wheel, the other
restlessly fiddling with the radio or drumming along the back of your seat. But then he turns to
you and smiles and your fears are allayed. He walks up the porch steps with you and while you
are occupied with taking off his jacket and trying to thank him without having to look right at
him, he draws you close with a steady hand on your back and bends his head to kiss you. His lips
are firm, softer than you had imagined, and he tastes of beer. He lets you go after a moment,
unbearably watching you blush, and as you fumble for your key, he says, "Goodnight, Sugar. I'll
call you tomorrow."
* * *
She watches his eyes skim quickly down the page and go cold. "Sobriety's not big with her, is
it?" he sneers, as he holds out the letter so she can see the meandering writing.

"Come on, Xander. Please." She keeps her voice soft and winning. All the while, she's chanting
inside that this letter will magically heal him, but she knows it won't be so. What could his
mother have to say now that couldn't have been said before?

She tracks his progress by the steady movement of his eyelashes, moving steadily from left to
right and then cutting abruptly back again, just like the old typewriter she used to play with when
she was little. She sees him shake his head slightly, and she's on him in an instant. "What? What
is it?"

"I . . . I have an Uncle Alexander. Or I guess I had an Uncle Alexander. I wonder what happened
to him? Maybe I was named . . ."

She smiles in relief that the letter is not, after all, denunciatory, and relaxes a little and feels the
sunshine on her face.
* * *
You can't quite put your finger on it, but for some reason, Alexander doesn't seem to like Tony.
You can't get him to talk about it, which is strange. He just shrugs and won't meet your eye.
Surely he's not jealous that finally you have someone to love, someone other than him? You pry
a little and he smiles and says that's not the problem. But when you press, he clams up again, and
you're getting frustrated. You're on top of the world, and all you want is your beloved boy to
share it with you. "Don't you know," you say, "that you are the most important person in the
world to me? That if I had to pick between you and Tony, I'd pick you every time?" It is true,
and his face says he knows it, but he still won't answer your questions.

Maybe, you think, weeks later, it's that he thinks Tony doesn't treat you right. But that's
ridiculous. You wish he were here to see for himself. Tony is coming to pick you up; he said it
was an important night, and for you to wear your best dress: "Something green, maybe, Jess, to
bring out your eyes?" You looked at him when he said that, and you realized that his eyes were
somehow colorless, like water, vaguely blue, or maybe they're gray, maybe there's a snaking of
green in them. You opened your mouth to say something about that and he pulled you close and
kissed you again. It was the seventh time. You couldn't believe you were still counting kisses,
but who knew how much longer this fairytale would last?

So you stand and wait in the green dress you bought last week, and you can feel the new shoes
already pinching your feet so badly that soon you will be bleeding, but you can't sit and wait.
You wish Alexander were there to talk to, but he is at the carnival with his friends, and won't be
back until late. Your stomach rumbles loudly, and you hurry to the kitchen for a few crackers,
trying to appease your stomach without spoiling your dinner. Tony says he's taking you to the
best restaurant in town. And you wait, brushing crumbs off your skirt, pushing back a stray curl,
straightening your stockings. And you wait. And you wait.

Your mother takes one look at your drawn face and just holds out her arms. You wander into
them and she tells you everything will be okay. But you're not crying. You're not even
surprised. You just keep thinking that you should have been more prepared for this moment,
when he came to his senses. But then you remember how he insisted that this was going to be a
special date, and you grab the phone. One of his fraternity brothers tells you that he left hours
ago for the date, and you start to get worried. You sit by the phone, praying for it to ring. When
it does, the sound is so sharp it seems to slice right through you. You grab it, but it's a wrong
number, and as you hang up, there is a flash of light in the driveway. You run on your bleeding
feet, pull open the front door, and see two policemen on your front step. You didn't even hear
your parents come up behind you, but they must have, because someone caught you when you
heard the smaller policeman say that Alexander was dead.
* * *
"He died." His voice seems to come from far away, and she opens her eyes to look at him. He
sees the question on her face. "My Uncle Alexander. He was killed by a drunk driver when he
was fourteen."

What can she say, she whose every possible sibling was lost in a miscarriage? She has no idea
what kind of devastation that would wreak; the only standard she has is Buffy and Dawn, whose
circumstances are too peculiar to be applicable. "Xander, I'm so sorry. Were, um, were they
close?"

He nods painfully, feeling the loss although he never knew the boy. "Yeah. Sounds like. Sounds
like they were . . . like us." That makes it real for both of them, and they clumsily, hurriedly, wrap
their arms around each other, as if their bones and muscles have somehow transformed into
invulnerable armor. His lips are on her neck, just below her ear, and she feels rather than hears
him say it. "I love you, Willow."
* * *
You are a bride. You are in mourning. The juxtaposition doesn't bother you.

You have never alluded to that night, but it is all you think about. When Tony showed up the
next day, bedraggled and with bloodshot eyes, with a story about his car breaking down in the
middle of nowhere, you nod. And when he finally takes you to that restaurant and proposes, you
nod again, your head feeling too heavy for your neck. What else is there for you to do? You
have lost what you needed most. All you can do is gather the shreds of your life and try to move
forward.

And so you stand in a hall in a white dress and repeat the words the old man is intoning. You
have heard some of the nosy old biddies declare that you just shrugged off your brother's death,
getting married so quickly. As if you didn't have to force every beat of your heart. And you hear
others, misty-eyed with sentiment, swoon that true love has found you in your hour of sorrow.
As if Tony were an acceptable substitute in any way for Alexander. But you do feel something
for him, and he has convinced you that he loves you, and so you hold a bouquet of pink and white
carnations and say your vows.

And later that night when the guests and your parents have gone, you are in a lacy nightgown,
your hands gripping the peach silk sheet. You lost track of him after the ritual of the first dance,
and as he comes into the room, you can tell by the exaggerated caution with which he makes his
way to the bed that he is drunk. You shrink a little, and he catches it; you are startled to see him
looking hurt – you didn't know you had that kind of power over him. His cheeks redden, and he
is deliberately gentle as he sits on the bed and reaches for your hands.

After an appreciative look, he frees you from the soft white nightgown. You are still too shy to
make a move, so he strips off his own clothes, and he lays you down. You can keep your eyes
closed, you realize, but there is no way to temporarily shut down your sense of touch. And you
are clinging to him through the pain and the faint pleasure lurking behind it, happy that at least
you have given him what he wants. He lies next to you for a moment and then he sits up, saying,
"You don't want to sleep in that. I'm going to call for fresh sheets." You nod and pull on your
nightgown. He looks at the blood on the sheets and gives you your first kiss of the night.
* * *
His shoulders are stiffening under her protective arm. "That's when she married my dad. Right
after. I guess she just wanted to get away." For the first time he sounds like he's differentiating
between his parents. His mother has offered him a way into her life, and he is taking it, leaving his
own problems behind for a while. Even though he knows how the story ends, this journey is too
compelling for him to stop now. He needs to know how she became what she is today. He needs
to know.
* * *
You are in the kitchen of your tiny apartment, fixing coffee and cutting cake for Tony and his
parents. His mother, a whisper of a woman always dressed in a cream-colored dress and a string
of pearls, is hovering in the doorway trying to pretend that she doesn't hear her husband and son
arguing. You can make it out clearly without straining. You hear your father-in-law shouting
incoherently and Tony yelling back. "I did it! I married her!" he screams. "Now where's the
house you promised me?!"

Your mother-in-law blushes painfully and tries to distract you. "Jessica, my dear," she murmurs
in that reedy voice, as if cruel fingers have bruised her larynx past mending. "Jessica. I was so
happy when Tony asked you to marry him. You've been so good for him, my dear." She smiles
quaveringly and you nod because you can't bear to let her down. "I know he's much happier with
you than he would have been with that Cathy Shipman." Your throat tightens as you remember
Cathy's giggling innuendoes in last year's French class. "You don't know what a girl like that has
been up to," she continues, gaining confidence as the shouting from the bedroom dies down, and
another hesitant smile flits across her face; "and I could tell just by looking at you that you've
always been a good girl." There is pride in her voice now. "You're a real lady."

You turn back to the counter, clenched fists resting on either side of the cake-plate. You've
never had the chance to be anything but a good girl. Aside from your wedding night, Tony hasn't
touched you once. Most nights he spends hugging the toilet in your tiny bathroom, too drunk to
sit up. On the nights he makes it into bed and crawls on top of you, he is too inebriated to
accomplish much – or stay awake. You're back to writing stories in your head. But they all peter
out without your other half, without Alexander.
* * *
"It sounds like it got bad for her pretty fast," he says, trying to sound matter-of-fact, but she sees
through that, sees through him to the tender heart that beats within. She knows that it is his
greatest strength, knows too that he would never see it that way. "They moved to Sunnydale a
few months after the wedding to start over. Our house was a wedding present from my
grandparents," he tells her, not expecting a response, but needing to tell his mother's story out
loud. She is not just a good listener, he realizes; she is the only one to whom he would care to tell
this tale.
* * *
You are sick of the ugliness of this house your father-in-law bought you; your virtue was, it
seems, the price – Tony has become far less reticent about his past in recent months. If the blood
on the sheets paid for this house, you think, then it should be a place you love, and so you have
decided to redecorate, to make it a sanctuary. Tony's paycheck from the mannequin factory can
be stretched to redo the living room, if you paint the walls and make the curtains yourself. You
are considering color schemes when the doorbell rings.

The man on the step takes your breath away. His dark eyes, wavy black hair, and clear features
belong to the hero of the last story you dreamed up with Alexander. He nods politely and you
realize he's not long out of boyhood although he seems to be not much younger than you. "Mrs.
Harris? I'm from Valley Carpets. You called about selecting a living room carpet?" He seems
nervous, you realize as you smile and beckon him in. There are twin thuds as he sets down each
book of samples to accept the glass of iced tea you hold out to him.

Something is coming over you, and you're thrilled to be conscious of every moment of it. You
lead him into the living room, swishing your hips slightly. You are in control here, and you revel
in the headiness of your newfound power. He speaks as though you were a snake-charmer who
has left him without a will of his own. He tells you that his name is William LaVelle. An arched
eyebrow from you and he confesses, "But everybody calls me Willy." He plays clarinet in a jazz
band but sells carpet to earn the money his father, a bitter bartender, charges for letting him sleep
in the basement. His life story comes pouring out and you are enthralled. It is the five o'clock
siren that breaks that spell, and you have to turn on the lamp to see the colors of the carpet
swatches clearly. You decide on a soft green, and even when he has gone, you cannot stop
smiling.

You paint the walls a rosy buff, finishing in two days. The next day, three men come to install the
carpet you have chosen. And the following day you are up in the attic sorting through boxes of
knickknacks when the doorbell rings. It's Willy, dressed in a nicer suit than last time, smiling
nervously, saying something about a courtesy follow-up appointment. But you take him by the
hand and lead him to the living room and you smile at him as his fingers fumble with the
fastenings of your dungarees. You take your time, undoing his tie, teasingly caressing each
button of his shirt. The new plush carpet is softer than grass, more yielding than earth, under your
bare back. He has left the bandanna in your hair, and his hand smooths over your shoulder as you
draw him down to you. His uncertainty has inexplicably made you a siren, transformed you into a
heroine of the tales you once told.

And then he is gone, the warm autumn sunlight catching him in a glow, and you know he is gone
for good when a few months later you get a postcard from an Army base with only his initials
inked on the back. And that is the night you realize that you created life that gorgeous November
day.

Tony must believe that his virility has been unaffected by alcohol, because he is accepting his
drinking buddies' congratulatory slaps on the back without a twinge. And you feel no flicker of
shame. And your boy has his father's dark hair and his uncle's wide eyes, so you name him for
them.
* * *
He stands suddenly, and his face is alight. He preempts any question she would have asked.
"Willow, I need you to check something for me. I need you to find out Willy's last name." He's
acting like his mother's letter is a map to buried treasure, and she agrees without a murmur to do
whatever he needs.

His head is spinning. He's not the child of that monster, of the man in whose house he was raised.
That blood does not flow in his veins, and if nothing else, being friend to both Buffy and Dawn
has taught him the importance of blood. He just might be free.
* * *
Tony thinks your son was named after him and his father – Paul Alexander Harris – and seems to
believe that LaVelle is your mother's maiden name. He doesn't like the baby's need for constant
care, but he tolerates it for some time. His patience wears off quickly when he sees nothing of
himself in Xander, and there is nothing you can do to keep him from neglecting the boy. Or from
hating you both.

And a small child can provide no refuge for you, and you succumb to Tony's ugliness, answering
him back in kind, fighting his abuse with the same dirty weapon. You are tarnishing yourself, and
you are losing your boy. But by now you have lost sight of Alexander, and Willy, and Xander;
the whiskey that numbed your pain destroyed your heart bit by bit. The last living piece is
screaming now, and you put down the glass to hear it. You want to make it all up to him. You
push away your tumbler, find some paper and a pen, and start to write.