Standard disclaimer: The characters aren't mine. This should come as no surprise. I am simply a teller of stories that occasionally claw their way desperately out of my head.

Setting: Becomes obvious pretty quickly. No spoilers, but much meaning should you chose to see it.

Notes: Installment #2 in the "Slices of Life" series, showing random moments taken from the lives of our favourite characters.

(13 January 2004)

Slices of Life
Slice Two: Growing Up on a Saturday Afternoon

The two best friends sat side-by-side, soaking up the warm California sun overhead and watching the hustle and bustle of downtown Sunnydale rush by in the distance. This was the highest place they knew of in town, and just one of the many secret spots where they would spend a Saturday afternoon. It was a little on the arid side and fairly dusty – their clothes would inevitably give away where they had been, but it was breezy and high and all theirs.

Xander was animatedly filling Willow in on the several hours of cartoon watching he had done that morning, as was his usual Saturday ritual: get up, sneak downstairs, watch cartoons while scarfing down as many bowls of sugary cereal as his stomach could handle until his parents made their appearance. Then he would hop on his 10-speed Huffy and make for the Rosenbergs, leaving their bickering far behind him.

He wasn't sure if Mrs. Rosenberg actually liked him very much, but she at least seemed to accept that Xander wasn't going away any time soon, and she always treated him nicely. She didn't yell at him either, or go out of her way to make him feel like he was a bad son and a worse person, so she was pretty okay in his book. Plus, she always insisted on making him a sandwich and had the coolest juice boxes. He didn't like how she and Mr. Rosenberg seemed to mostly ignore Willow unless it had to do with grades or telling her what she was doing wrong, but they never screamed at her or each other, and Willow never moved stiffly like her body was covered in unseen bruises, so Xander figured his friend's parents could be a whole lot worse. A couple of years ago, when he was just a kid, he had asked Mrs. Rosenberg if he could stay with them and Willow, pretty much for always. She had of course told him that it was impossible, but after that day she would always greet him with sandwiches and juice boxes, and Xander was content with that.

Xander's Saturday afternoons with Willow were the highlight of his week. They would sometimes play He-Man or Spider-Man or GI Joe, sometimes ride their bikes around town for hours, or, like today, head to one of their secret spots and just talk about whatever. At the moment, it was cartoons. Willow had told him years ago that her father refused to allow her to "rot her brain" on the seemingly endless parade of Saturday morning cartoons. This boggled Xander's mind, since as far as he was concerned, Saturday mornings were created for cartoons, so he made sure to pay extra special attention to every one he watched so he could recreate it for Willow later that afternoon. He loved telling Willow the stories. She would get so wound up in them, her eyes wide and shining with excitement, laughing and gasping and encouraging in all the right places.

Having finally finished the last cartoon, Xander collapsed backwards dramatically in the dirt, sending up a plume of dust that circled around them before being carried away by the breeze. He hadn't actually gotten to finish watching that one before his father's angry voice had carried downstairs and Xander had been forced to run outside, so he'd made up the ending. The hero had been brave and strong, had saved his friends and beaten the bad guys. The hero always saved his friends and beat the bad guys. Willow had clapped enthusiastically as he finished, so Xander considered his fabricated ending a complete success. He smiled as he lay on his back and watched the clouds floating lazily overhead as Willow babbled happily about all her favourite parts in the stories she'd just been told.

When she finally fell silent, Xander lifted his head and looked over at Willow, instantly becoming distressed when he saw her eyes had crinkled in that way that meant she was sad. Getting sad was okay for Saturday afternoons. It was almost as much a part of the day as Xander's cartoons, although nowhere near as much fun. He knew that it helped, though, that it made both of them feel better to be able to talk about the sad stuff. It hurt to see Willow with that crinkle, and he hated to see her cry, but she always looked so much better afterwards so he encouraged her to cry whenever she felt like it. Willow did the same for him, and although he never took her up on the offer, it made him feel better to know that he could if he wanted to.

Xander hurriedly got to his feet and knelt down in front of Willow. She wasn't crying yet, but if she decided to start, he needed to be ready. At first he had been afraid to give her a hug, being all but unfamiliar with the simple expression of comfort and affection. But then there had been that one particularly bad Saturday, after Mr. Rosenberg had spent an hour or so telling Willow that she wasn't trying hard enough in school and was nothing but a disappointment to him and her mother. When she finally met up with Xander later that day and told him about it, she had started crying, full of shame and unable to think of what more she could do to not disappoint them so much. Xander had listened carefully and imparted all the wisdom he had garnered in his seven long years, and when that didn't work, he had turned to making jokes and funny faces. Soon his arsenal was depleted, and Willow's tears showed no sign of stopping. At a complete loss for what else to do, he had simply embraced the smaller girl, held her tight as sobs racked her tiny frame and told her that he thought she was the smartest, most bestest person in the whole wide world, and that if her parents didn't see that then they were just big stupidy stupid-heads so who cared what they thought? Willow's crying had become harder at first and Xander almost pulled away in embarrassment, kicking himself for making it worse, but Willow was holding him so tight that he couldn't move. After a few moments her sobs subsided to wet gasps for air, and soon even that was a distant memory. When she finally pulled away from him and gave him the brightest, warmest smile he'd ever seen, Xander knew he'd done right and decided two things then and there: One, hugs were awesome, and two, he was definitely going for the hug first next time.

So Xander knelt, arms at the ready, but Willow wasn't crying. Instead, she looked up at Xander and asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

The question took Xander by surprise. He had always just sort of assumed things would be the way they were right now forever. Nobody had ever bothered to ask him what he wanted to do with his life before. Not really. Sure, he'd had to stand up on the first day of school and say his name, his favourite animal, and what he wanted to be when he grew up, but Xander had quickly learned that teachers didn't really care what you said, so long as it wasn't too weird. So he always answered the same: Xander Harris, monkeys, fireman. There was no desire whatsoever to be a fireman, but by the time second grade rolled around, he had come to realize that enthusiastically answering "Batman, so I can kick lots of bad guy butt!" just led to teachers talking to his parents about his detachment from reality and a grounding from comic books for a month. So in second grade, Xander stopped trying to connect with his teachers and instead repeated what the kid in front of him had said. Miss Crawford smiled brightly at his response and moved to the next kid, and Xander took the standard answer and made it his own.

Willow wouldn't want the standard answer, though, so Xander told her he wanted to be Batman. She laughed and said that he couldn't be Batman cuz Bruce Wayne was Batman, so what else? Xander had no ideas, so he turned the question around and asked Willow what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her face got the sad crinkle again, but she still didn't cry. Instead, she told Xander about how that had been Mr. Rosenberg's discussion topic for that morning. He had told her that if she would work just a little bit harder, she could be a very successful doctor or lawyer. Mrs. Rosenberg had suggested that Willow might want to be an important sociologist like her mother, and write insightful research papers and tour the country giving lectures. Neither parent had actually asked Willow what she wanted to be, they simply gave her some options and reminded her that it was never too late to start planning for the future. She had nodded eagerly and assured her parents that she understood, and had been thinking about it ever since.

She told Xander that she wasn't really interested in being a doctor or a lawyer or a sociologist, but didn't know what else she could be and that was making her sad. Xander replied that Batman was apparently out, and grinned when Willow gave him that amused smile that said he was being silly and she loved it. When he asked her what sort of stuff she wanted to do, Willow replied that she wasn't really sure, but knew she wanted to help people and make a difference. She didn't think she'd be very good at it, though. Xander said he thought she'd be great at it, since she helped him all the time.

Without warning, Willow threw her arms around Xander's neck and squeezed tightly. He almost couldn't breathe, but since he could, he just grinned again and enjoyed it. Nobody made him feel less like a worthless, good-for-nothing, waste of space than Willow. Even when his father screamed it in his face as he grabbed for his belt, Xander could feel Willow's arms around his neck and knew that it wasn't true. Not completely.

Willow broke the hug almost as quickly as she started it, rolling easily and quickly to her feet. She laughed, a delighted sound that carried on the perpetual wind, and he couldn't help but grin in response. She tapped Xander on the forehead, proclaiming him "It", and she squealed in glee as she ran full-speed towards her bike.

He realized in that moment what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wanted to protect that laughter, that smile, that twinkle in her eyes. He wanted to always be there for Willow when she needed him, even if she didn't think she did. To hug her until all the bad stuff went away.

Xander felt as though a weight he hadn't even realized he was carrying had been lifted from his shoulders, and his laughter joined Willow's on the warm breeze. He leapt to his feet and flew towards his own bike, chasing the redhead down Kingman's Bluff.

It was decided. When Xander grew up, he would be Willow's hero.