"Are you sure you didn't give it to him, Willow?" Mrs. Rosenberg asked patiently, not looking up from where she was chopping vegetables and putting them into a steaming pot, an activity that fascinated five-year-old Xander. Dinner at the Harris house most often came from a box or bag. "It would be very generous of you, and non-gendered play is so important at your age."
"No! I didn't give her away!" Willow's pigtails swung as she shook her head. The tear-streaked look she shot at Xander hit him like a belt lash. He put the Barbie doll behind his back and wished he'd never picked it up. "Ashley is mine!"
"Ashley is the red-haired one, is that right, dear?"
Red-haired like Willow and her mother. The boy and girl both nodded.
"Well, Willow, while it is certainly appropriate to set boundaries around what is yours, and I applaud your empowered assertion, you do have other dolls. Perhaps you'd like to give this one to Xander, the better for him to play with you?"
"He took her! He's been bad! I don't understand!" Willow wailed. She ground the backs of her fists against her eyes and then frowned at Xander. "You're not my boyfriend anymore."
Xander felt tears roll over his cheeks as he watched her rush down the hall toward her room.
"Boyfriend?" Mrs. Rosenberg looked up with sudden interest. "What a charming premature simulation of adult roles. Tell me, Xander, what's involved in being a boyfriend?"
He shrugged helplessly. He was a boy, and Willow was his friend. But Willow was mad at him. Mrs. Rosenberg didn't seem mad. Was he going to get punished? "Can I go talk to Willow?"
Mrs. Rosenberg glanced at the clock. "Tomorrow, dear. Isn't it time for your mother to be walking by on her way from the bus stop?"
"Right." That had happened once; Mrs. Rosenberg thought it happened every weekday. Xander was afraid that if he explained, he wouldn't be allowed to stay through the afternoons anymore. "Tomorrow?"
"Definitely. And do remind your mother she's welcome to stop in any time."
"Right." On Mrs. Rosenberg's smile and nod, Xander let himself out the door and headed for the sidewalk. He had just been going to tease Willow with the doll that looked like her. Then she went to her mother and he got all tongue-tied. He didn't know what had happened.
The little boy wiped his eyes with the sleeve above his free hand, and hid the toy in the other. He knew he didn't want his parents to see him with a doll. He would hide the toy in the high grass by the fence in the empty lot on the way home, and then pick it up again tomorrow to return to Willow. Tomorrow, Willow would smile, and everything would be okay again.
When tomorrow came, the doll wasn't there.
Xander shifted, restless, under the down comforter. The top layer of sleep slid back like a single wave falling behind the tide. His empty eye-socket itched. That wasn't the way it had happened.
Was it? Dreams rolled in again.
"Willow?" The teacher spoke, and six-year-old Xander turned his head when he realized Willow wasn't sitting in the circle on the rug with them. "Why don't you join us?"
Xander scooted over. The stiff girl who settled into the space he made didn't seem much like the Willow who had bounced aboard the bus in front of him that morning. Xander had been more interested in the big yellow vehicle itself, but Willow had promised that kindergarten would be full of games, songs, flashcards, and all sorts of things that made her eyes shine.
When Willow knew something, you knew it was right. But her eyes weren't shining now, even though they had introduced themselves, sung the alphabet song, and colored on sheets where the teacher had written out each of their names before they came (his had too many letters on it and the "x" was in the middle).
"What's wrong?" Xander whispered.
Willow didn't meet his eyes. She shook her head, pointed at the teacher reading them a story about a practical princess, and kept her other hand clenched deep in the pocket of her green jumper.
Xander untied and retied his shoes during the story, just because he could. The kids with the cool Velcro had to keep it quiet, but laces were anytime, anywhere, if you knew how.
When the teacher had them stretch and return to the chairs and tables after the story, Xander saw that Willow still kept her hand in her pocket. "What are you holding?"
Her fingers unclasped against the inside of her jumper before she withdrew her hand. "Nothing."
"There's something in your pocket." He poked the fabric.
Willow jerked away and ran to a chair on the other side of the room. Xander shrugged. He sat by a boy named Jesse, and they turned their name sheets into racecars.
When Xander's car won the championship of the world around the table, he looked up, hoping Willow had seen his victory. Instead, the teacher was kneeling by her as tears rolled down her face. She nodded to the teacher and went to sit on the rug by herself behind the short bookshelf.
Xander ducked under the table and ran low behind the chairs to the rug. "Did you get hurt?"
Willow shook her head.
"Are you scared?" Xander sat in front of her.
Willow peeked around the corner of the bookshelf, then pulled two halves of a yellow crayon from her pocket. Her eyes were huge. "I broke it."
"So! They'll never let me come back!"
"Oh. I didn't know that." Xander peered around the corner himself. The teacher smiled at him. She could probably see them over the short bookshelf, he realized. Could she see the crayon? It was hard to imagine Willow getting in trouble; she never did anything wrong. But sometimes grown-ups didn't understand that it wasn't your fault. Xander swallowed. "Okay, you go ask the teacher where the bathroom is—"
"They just showed us where the bathroom is!"
"Pretend you forgot. I'll take the crayon, and grab the tape from the teacher's desk. I'll tape the pieces back together and put it in the crayon tub."
"No." Willow put the pieces back in her pocket and sniffed. "What if you got caught? I broke it; I'll tape it back together. You pretend you forgot where the bathroom is."
When the teacher caught Willow, she was taken away to a special kindergarten for delinquents.
Xander pushed back the comforter and pulled a pillow over his head. Not quite awake, he recognized anxiety making a hash of his dreams, denying him the good night's sleep his hard-earned, middle-aged aches and pains surely deserved.
Knowing he dreamed, he consciously chose door number three.
"No, this way!" Thirteen-year-old Xander shouted to Jesse, holding his skateboard over his head to keep off the downpour as he dashed up Willow's walkway. Once under the sun shade, he rang the doorbell and felt behind him for his soaked schoolbag. When Willow opened the door, he was surprised to find himself looking down at her; he must have grown again. "Shelter from the storm, ma'am?"
"Skateboards stay on the porch." Willow gestured them inside, her two long braids swaying as she shook her head over their dripping state. "You look like drowned... actually, I've never seen a drowned anything, so I don't know what you look like. Just hang up all your wet stuff and take off your shoes before you come through. And be kinda quiet; my dad's working in the study."
Xander pointed out the hooks and mat to Jesse. "I want my money back on this southern California citizenship deal. Haven't they heard that it's never supposed to rain here?"
"You know that it does this every February." Willow pushed up the sleeves of her orange sweater and headed for the kitchen. "That's why I gave you that umbrella in December."
"Ah, my Hanukah umbrella! But it didn't rain during Hanukah, so I put it away for next year."
"Do I smell brownies?" Jesse asked, following Willow.
"Oh, is Amy here, too?" Xander trailed behind. The plump, blonde girl waved to him with an oven-mitted hand as he came out of the hallway into the kitchen. "So I guess your mom's New Year's resolution took a turn for the worse, huh?"
"We were up to actual meat with vegetables, but then she had a donut at work, and it's back to broth and a padlocked fridge." Amy rolled her eyes. "Thank goodness for school lunches and Willow."
"I'll drink to that!" Jesse said. "Can I have something to drink with?"
"Water, milk or grape juice," Willow offered. "Or — oh! — considering the soaking and dripping and all, I could make some herbal tea! We've got chamomile and three kinds of mint!"
Xander and Jesse exchanged a look. "Do you have to call it 'herbal tea,' Will? I mean, sure, a warm beverage would be welcome, but couldn't it be, like, 'mountain men's hearty dried leaves in scalding water'?"
"Wouldn't quite fit on the label." Amy took off the oven mitts and handed them to Willow just as the timer sounded. "I'll start the tea, if you'll get the brownies out."
"We just need a bigger label," Xander protested, and then fell off his train of thought as Amy leaned over the sink to turn on the faucet. Sometime in the past year, she had acquired new curves that made him nervous. He swallowed and redirected his attention to the pan of brownies Willow was setting on top of a wooden cutting board. Brownies, he understood from way back.
"Or a smaller font," Jesse pitched in. "Think of the marketing potential. 'Tea for men. It's not your English ancestor's tea.'"
"If their tea hadn't sometimes been for men, they couldn't have been ancestors," Willow said. "Or something. We're supposed to wait until these cool to cut them, right?"
"Not a problem, little lady." Xander lifted his hand over the pan and used his mutant cryokinesis to drop the temperature of ambient water vapor until the chocolate treat was ready to divide and scarf. His fingernails iced up a little.
Willow nudged his arm out of her way as she took a plastic knife to the pan. "So how are things going with the super-heroing, tiger? I hardly see you anymore."
"Oh, you know, busy." Xander snagged the first brownie. "When the president called on the ultra video phone this morning, my butler—"
Xander woke with a start to find Willow's side of the bed empty. Or perhaps it was his side of the bed. He seemed to be somewhere in the middle, and he was still getting used to this "sides" thing again. Sitting up, he didn't need to turn his head to spot her on the windowseat he had built for her when this room was hers, not theirs. She had her Kindle in one hand and her reading glasses in the other. With more than enough moonlight to read, her attention nevertheless seemed to drift far beyond the trees, mountains and ocean on the other side of the frost-traced glass.
"Nightmares?" he asked gently. They had haunted her ever since her magic addiction. Tara had confided in him once, worried, so long ago; he had seen for himself in years since.
Willow snapped her head around at the sound, and smiled only after meeting his eye. "Not tonight. You seem to have snagged them all."
He looked down at the tangled sheets. "Did I drive you away?"
"Not far." She left her Kindle and glasses on the bench and came to sit next to him. Yes, that was definitely her side of the bed. "Never very far."
Their kiss was slow and easy. They moved as if morning would never come to interrupt, and the supply of each other could never run low. They both knew better; that's how they had learned to hold such moments like handfuls of water in the first place. But while no longer quite new, their kisses still felt like revelations to Xander.
"So what made you my personal dream catcher tonight?" Willow settled her head into the crook of his neck.
"I don't know." Xander smelled again that she had dyed her hair before bed — #16 Spiced Tea Auburn, the grocery list had said — and he smiled the smug smile of a man who has been assured that his gray makes him look distinguished. "It is my first night in a strange bed."
"You've been in this bed before," Willow's voice conveyed the puzzled frown Xander couldn't see. "Unless by 'strange' you mean—"
"This used to be your bed." He kissed her forehead and pulled up the comforter he had apparently kicked off. The heater wasn't keeping up, which was no surprise, given the lack of proper insulation in this old pile. Another project for his list. "This is the first time I've ever been in our bed."
"Oh! Me, too." Willow snuggled in as they leaned back. "Do you want to rearrange the furniture after all? Because you never had nightm— Wait. Second thoughts?"
"After Buffy broke a fingernail helping me move?" Xander wrapped his arms around Willow. They couldn't sleep like this — his circulation would cut off — but for a moment he held her as closely as he could. He wondered at all the times they might have lost each other. It wasn't the earth-shaking crises and heart-rending tragedies; it was the tiniest choices, hidden in the everyday routine. But fate wasn't something you talked about when you'd followed Buffy as long as they had. "Second thoughts, third, all come back to you. Us. Now. I'm up for dream-catcher duty for as long as you'll have me."
"I've always had you." Willow yawned. "I mean, I'll always have you."
Xander fell asleep again in complete agreement.
— End —