Willow loves celebrating the New Year. The festive atmosphere, the events and the traditions, these are things that she rarely had growing up. Now that she's long past her parents' home, long past the time when someone else could dictate to her, she gets to decide what she wants. Who she is.
And best of all, she gets to do it twice.
"So there's that thing," Xander says.
"Eloquent." Her grin is soft, because for all that he calls it thing rather than its name, a mouthful he can never remember despite his growing acumen with demonic tongue-twisters, Xander knows. He understands, leaning one warm, heavy shoulder against hers and waiting for her to lean back.
He's always by her side.
Willow pushes that thought away. "Yup, there's my thing."
"You gonna make that weird bread again?"
Last year she and Tara had tried their hands at baking. Witches should be good at that! It's all just recipes in the end. Ingredients mixed and thoughts offered up to something far more powerful than she is. It's really all the same.
Her bread, rounded and golden like a ring, had been... not so good.
"Yes, I'm baking," she says, head on his shoulder and arm around his waist. "I'm gonna be the bakiest best this year."
He laughs, lines crinkling around his eyes. He shouldn't have those, not at barely 21 and already so old he feels ancient to her, like a heavy oak tree that's just extending, growing taller, growing deeper with each passing day.
Willow, for all she's named for a tree, never feels like one. She's too ephemeral, even inside her own head. Like a book, the pages soft to the touch, printing ink that writes her stories, all the spells and heartaches and changes she's gone through, chronicled like one of the Watchers. Only the leather that binds her together isn't as tough as she wants it to be. It has tears in it, rents that threaten to let all the thoughts collected inside escape and fly away. All those words. Willow is made up of words.
Without them she isn’t- she just isn’t.
This summer she’d leaked so many of those words, ocean-salt and pain. But she isn't thinking about this summer, or what might happen later. She's thinking about the New Year. Her parents are off in... some academic conference they'd emailed her about, but Willow is determined to do it right this year. Find that pattern to keep all her words in straight lines, with grammar and punctuation and everything.
She has the shule her parents went to, but this year it'll be the college Hillel she attends. So many lost children looking for that taste of home. They want nostalgia, of course. She's already talked to a few of the other members, the ones that don't side-eye her when they realize she's that one, the one that joined the coven on, like, her first day of freshman year, and they speak of homes that smell of honey, of chicken soup and brisket. They lament on the week later, the lox and white fish that are impossible to get on this side of the country.
Okay, yes, most of the people she'd spoken to were from the east coast. Two from New York City. She likes Rachel and Lorin, bonded by location and faith rather than prior knowledge and definitely going to date before the end of the month, or so the Hillel pool is certain. They're fun and welcoming of the sort-of-mix that Willow knows herself to be (words, again, all jumbled and complicated), but they want to breathe in things that Willow cannot share.
She wants to. Wants it so much.
"Hey, dream-girl." Xander peers down at her, smiling again. "You're spacey today."
"Thinky. Totally different," she disagrees with a nod.
Xander laughs and loops his arm around her, steering her from their meandering walk from the- how did she get to the science building? Willow blinks, finally aware that she's basically walked a circuit around the whole campus for no reason she can conjure.
"Hey, weren't you supposed to be on a job all week? It's- " she checks her watch, " -three in the afternoon! There is no tardiness for Xander, because he is the best. And should stay that way."
Xander's new-found confidence is still a little jarring to her. His shrug is easy, calm (and none of them mention the lingering sadness, the missing hole that stinks of blood and salt no matter how they try to wash it away; after almost four months, Willow's gotten good at denial; they all have) and he guides her towards one of the benches.
"Problem on the site and we got let out for the afternoon.” The dismissal rings mostly true, so Willow isn’t frowning when he takes a deep breathe. “So, I know there these words that you always try to teach me and yeah, teaching, that never did go so well so I never remember them."
And there goes that confidence, Willow thinks, blinking. Hello, Xander babble, her twin returned.
Xander ducks under her curiously raised eyebrows and then digs into the bag he almost always carries now. Tools and other things (tissues, a whole box, because Dawn... well, there are just always tissues) and apparently one of them is a blue and white wrapped rectangle he hands over.
"I know this isn't the present holiday, but. I thought you might like this."
"Open it," he says.
There's a lull in his speech where if he were Spike, he'd say pet or love the way he's always doing around Dawn. Hovering, yes; but also so full of warmth and affection that for a moment, Willow has to blink away tears.
Xander doesn’t need to say the words. Willow always hears them.
"You didn't have to," she tries, only a little mushy sounding.
"I know. I wanted to."
Willow undoes the tape carefully, mentally acknowledging that he had someone professional do the wrapping. For all Xander is displaying remarkable skill with wood, the finer types of it, pulp and paper, are still beyond him.
Those are hers.
Like the book he's given her. A book.
"There was this whole thing with Ashke-something that sounds more like the ankh Giles and I found last patrol, and then something that sounded like safari and I don't know which matters, but- "
Xander breaks off, abrupt, but Willow doesn't mind. She's already found what she wants, a recipe for challah with apples and honey, sweet and tart like the leaves that turn orange and yellow all around them, and if she's crying just a little, leaking a bit, there's a book in her lap to catch anything that might escape.
Plus Xander's arms are around her, holding her and the book, squished between them, tight. So very tight, like he won't let go. Never, ever.
Willow takes off two days of classes this year, the way she didn't last. She goes to the Hillel in the morning. The first day she spends the afternoon with them, sharing a meal that is potluck and random and just a little more awkward than she wants, but not enough to make her want to leave. She's welcome there, not odd or unwanted just not necessarily the same, listening to stories and complaints that what they cooked is not as good as their mother's, sorry, and- it's good.
But the next day, that's even better.
Services again, where Willow stands up and listens to a horn blow and blow, a siren call she feels in her heart. It tells her things. Tekiah, a call to arms and to life, to reaffirm (even if part of it is missing but Willow can fix that, she will), and to family.
Because after services Willow goes to Xander's apartment and cooks. She goes through section after section of the book Xander gifted her, driven by understanding that has nothing to do with the words she speaks before they eat, but by her. Xander understands her. He can read the words inside of her no matter how jumbled and tumbled and wrong they might seem.
That evening, Willow sits at the head of the table and lists prayer after prayer in her own mind as her family (minus one) eats the food she and Tara cooked, as delicious as any of Lorin's boasts about his mother's. Because it's theirs and it's family; Tara holds her hand whenever she has a moment; Giles smiling fondly without a hint of bitterness in his eyes; Dawn chattering away about her new classes; even Anya approves of the food, for demoness though she might be, and rival more often than either of them would like, she was once a girl who understood traditions and understands now that this is one they need to have.
Family. That's what being Jewish has always been about to Willow, and what she's always lacked.
Thought she lacked.
"Thanks," she says, when Xander slices into a rounded, braided loaf of bread, studded with raisins like jewels a top a golden crown.
For answer, Xander takes a bite of the end he's cut. "Purely selfish," he lies to her, "I just like the challah. And this? This is perfect."
Willow has to agree. It really is perfect.
"Chag Sameach," she tells them, words she means with all her heart.