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Branches for Bones

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Spring

For her eighth birthday, Santana asks for three things: a fluffy white kitten, a rocket ship, and a dollhouse.

Everybody has a dollhouse.

Her cousin Sienna has a bright yellow one shaped like an apartment building that Uncle Roman made for her in his dusty workshop. Brittany at school, her maybe best friend, has a Barbie dollhouse with a purple bed that pulls out from the wall. Even Rachel from ballet class has this big one with an attic that lifts off and these tiny little dolls that Rachel says are made out of porcelain.

And yes, Rachel's annoying, mostly because she calls them The Tinies because they're the smallest girls in ballet class, but her daddies always bring an extra lollipop for Santana at pickup time and she sort of likes when they have play-dates.

Not that she'd tell anybody, because then Rachel might think they're best friends and she's really hoping that Brittany at school will be her best friend because Brittany likes to hold her hand at recess and takes advanced ballet at the big studio downtown and lets Santana read her books in the library corner during free time.

Rachel only lets her have the pretty dolls when they play dollhouse, and it's not the same.

Rachel can be just her ballet friend.

(Which she sort of already is, but only because the other girls in ballet class don't talk to them because they're the only two who don't have pink leotards.

"Black is what professional ballerinas wear," Rachel always has to say to Santana. Even if she already knows this. Brittany wears black. Brittany's the best.)

Mami and Papi kind of laugh at her when she tells them her birthday wish list. It's right before dinner and Desi's in his high chair, smearing peas on Mami's arm, and she only tells them because they're talking about getting a new couch for the playroom.

They laugh until she tells them she's serious and then they just look at each other.

"We'll see," Papi says.

He bends down to press a kiss into her hair and he smells like spices and soap and she buries her face in his shirt to make the moment last. When she was tinier he let her sit on his shoulders while he made dinner, but now he just picks her up to help stir and mostly tells her to draw him something nice with her crayons.

She draws him a dollhouse tonight with an itty bitty family inside and he sticks it on the fridge when she gives it to him, telling her it's beautiful.

"A real one would be more beautiful," she says with a pout.

Her parents laugh again and she begins to wonder if they listen to her at all.

/

Her birthday party is loud.

Mami made her invite her whole class from school and all the girls from ballet class, who only talk to her now because she's the birthday girl, not because she's wearing a fancy pink party dress.

(She made Mami buy the pink one too, hoping the ballet girls might tell her it was pretty.)

(Rachel said it was pretty.)

(Brittany said she looked beautiful.)

Mami got a big jumpy castle for the backyard, a fancy one with a slide down the side, and there's a pretty lady in a princess dress sitting at the kitchen table, doing face paint.

It's fun for a little bit; she gets a sparkly alien face painted on and holds Brittany's hand while Brittany gets a striped cat face, and even Rachel looks pretty with her movie star face.

"It's Barbra," Rachel says, rolling her eyes.

Santana didn't know pink lips and fancy black eye makeup had a name, but okay. If Rachel says.

She jumps in the castle with Brittany and even follows Brittany down the big slide but then some boys from her class start pushing each other in the castle and everybody starts screaming and laughing and she has to take her hand back from Brittany so she can cover her ears.

"It's too loud," she tells Brittany.

Brittany meows and takes her arm and just leads her back into the house.

They're sneaky, carefully slipping past the adults at the snack table to head upstairs, and Brittany doesn't even have to ask which room is Santana's. She just goes straight to the door at the end of the hall and opens it like she knew all along, and it fills Santana with this wonderfully warm feeling.

"I love your princess bed," Brittany says as she runs her hand over the ribbons at the bottom of the canopy.

Santana laughs because it's lovely and says, "It's also a rocket ship for space adventures."

Brittany meows again and climbs up onto the bed like an actual cat, curling up near the pillows. "Well let's go then," she says, patting the bed next to her. "Let's have a space adventure!"

Santana thinks about the party downstairs, which still sounds loud through the floor and closed door. Rachel might notice she's gone but Rachel's good at talking to everyone, so she won't really mind. The party won't miss her while she travels through space with a purring kitty cat.

"But you have to remember I'm a friendly alien," she says very seriously, before joining Brittany on the bed.

Brittany takes her hand again, saying, "A best friendly alien. Santana the best friendly alien."

"And Brittany the best friendly cat," Santana adds with a grin. "Better hold on for blast-off."

Brittany squeezes Santana's hand.

"I already am, silly."

Santana decides they'll go to Pluto today, because it's so far away that it will take them a long time to come back to earth. And maybe they'll find a giant dollhouse that's big enough to fit them both and they can just live there forever and ever and ever.

She starts the countdown and thinks of how perfect it would be, spending forever with her best friendly cat.

She won't even miss blowing out the candles on her birthday cake.

/

She doesn't miss blowing out the candles on her birthday cake, but it's only because Mami finds them on their way back from Pluto (no dollhouses, only ice and baby penguins) and makes them both come back downstairs for cake and presents.

Santana gets to sit in the chair at the end of the table – Mami tied pink and silver balloons to it so everyone knows it's for the birthday girl – and Brittany and Rachel are on either side of her, but only because Rachel promises to be quiet and Brittany just needs to be next to her. Plus it means that the boys aren't close enough to blow out the candles before her, and maybe she even sticks out her tongue at Finn and Owen when everyone finishes singing.

They're stupid if they think they can take her wish away from her.

(She means to wish for a dollhouse, but then Brittany smiles at her, and…)

"Can't tell," she says smugly when Rachel asks what she wished for.

"If you tell, the wish doesn't come true," Brittany explains, leaning forward to watch Mami cut the first piece of cake.

It's a chocolate cake this year, because Santana didn't like the vanilla one they made last year, and Santana thinks the chocolate looks extra pretty with all the pink and yellow icing. It's meant to be a fancy castle with turrets and flowers instead of a moat. She helped Mami make it yesterday before bed, but not the icing part because Mami wanted it to be a surprise.

She thinks it's awesome.

"It's definitely super-duper," Brittany says to Santana when they're eating it, and Santana just gives her a big smile and doesn't even bother wiping the cake crumbs off her chin.

It feels like a beard, and she keeps it like that until present time, when Mami wipes it away so she doesn't look "such a mess" in pictures. (She always looks a mess in pictures, mostly because Mami always takes pictures when she's in the middle of painting or sculpting her mashed potatoes, but apparently birthday parties are different. Beardless.)

She does, however, look like an alien in pictures, thanks to the face paint lady, which is even better than a princess or a ballerina.

And it's even more better when she opens her first gift (from Brittany, because it's the most important one) and holds up a giant bubble gun and a big round pillow that looks like the earth.

"Alien invasion!" she says gleefully, shooting bubbles into the air.

Brittany claps her hands together and grins and Santana insists on hugging her before she opens any more presents. (And this is what Mami takes a picture of; not the gift, or when she unwrapped it. When they get the pictures printed at the store later she takes the extra copy of this picture for herself, keeping it hidden in her toy box so she can look at it whenever she wants.)

lot of people get her Barbies, mostly the boys, whose moms all tell her she can dress them up and brush their hair, and some people get her Beanie Babies, which she thinks are a lot better than Barbies, and a few people get her dress-up clothes.

She really likes the Playmobil set she gets from Gemma from ballet class and the butterfly catcher she gets from Owen.

(And she loves the music box she gets from Rachel, but Rachel ruins it by pointing out how the little dancer inside has a "black leotard like professional dancers" and Santana pretends she doesn't see the girls from ballet class making faces.)

The family presents are saved for last, as always, when most of the kids have gone home and it's just her and Brittany and Rachel eating more cake in the living room.

Rachel's daddy helps Mami bring in the big stack and Santana's breath catches in her chest when she sees the impossibly large gift wrapped in shiny silver paper. It's the same paper she helps rip off at her cousin Sienna's parties, extra thick and glossy, and she knows Uncle Roman has a huge roll of it in his workshop.

His workshop for making wood things, like chests and wagons and dollhouses.

She nearly throws her cake on the floor in her excitement to open it.

"It's from your Uncle Roman," Mami says as she hovers with the camera, angling in when Santana tugs off a considerably large chunk of paper.

Something bristles against her hand and that's when she realizes the shape of the gift is too wide and short to be a dollhouse; more squat and chest-shaped, and with each rip of paper her heart sinks more and more.

You have to look thankful, she reminds herself.

It's near impossible with Brittany and Rachel bouncing in their seats beside her and Rachel's daddy cheering on her every tear of paper. They just seem so happy, like they don't know the world's about to end, and she has to turn her frown into a scowl and pretend like she's just really frustrated with the paper not coming off quick enough.

"Just rip it!" Rachel's daddy says. "No need to be gentle; you're not going to save the paper for later."

She has to just get it over with when Rachel offers to help, so she braces herself and rips off the piece covering the top of the gift and only lets herself look when the oohs have stopped piercing her heart. And it's-

Not a dollhouse.

It's a forest, or a forest on top of a small table, full of little pine trees and a river running diagonally across the center. It's big enough for Rachel's little porcelain family to play in and for a moment she considers just telling Rachel she can have it, the way the girl's clutching at Santana's dress and saying how sweet it is, but Mami's snapping a picture before she can get the words out and she does her best to put on a smile.

It's not a dollhouse.

Sienna has a dollhouse and Brittany has a dollhouse and Rachel has a dollhouse.

Santana has a little forest with trees and hills and a river and she knows she's not a baby but she wants to yell and hit things anyway.

Because everybody has a dollhouse, and she has…

"A little bear family!"

Brittany's tugging something out of a hole in one of the small hills, her face bright and curious as she reveals a small mama bear and two little cubs.

She places them carefully in Santana's open palm and does a happy wriggle and nods enthusiastically when Mami tells her they're made of clay, because they "feel like rock only nicer. And they're so sweet!"

"There's more," Mami says, and this time it's Rachel on her knees, pulling something out of a wider hole in a smaller hill.

"A fox family," Rachel says softly.

Another mama and two babies, with furry tails that stick out from their clay behinds.

She puts them in Santana's other hand and stands the mama fox upright, tickling Santana's palm as she does so. And they are kind of sweet, Santana realizes as Rachel makes the mama fox kiss her skin. Brittany does the same with the mama bear and Santana holds her hands impeccably still, letting her friends pepper her skin with kisses from clay snouts.

"One more thing," Mami says with a tender smile. "Check under the branches of the biggest tree."

Brittany waits for Santana's permission and then travels the entire forest in search of the biggest tree, which sits tall and proud in the valley on the other side of the river. It's old, Santana knows, because it's so tall, and because the bottom branches make such a round circle. It's old and wise like the trees in her books, and she wonders if it gives and gives just the same.

"Oh," Brittany whispers in awe, and then Santana knows it does.

Hidden under the tree was a figure just a smidge bigger than the bear cubs, clay and tan-skinned and dark hair just barely covering her eyes, wearing a soft fabric costume. A bear costume, with a teeny tiny zipper down the front.

"It's you," Rachel says.

For the first time, Santana doesn't feel like hitting anything when Rachel speaks.

She just stares in awe at her tiny bear-costume self, nestled so perfectly in Brittany's open palm.

Uncle Roman didn't give her a dollhouse. He gave her an adventure.

 


Winter

Sometimes, the bears let Santana sleep with them in the cave.

The winters are cold, and it's no place for a little girl, wandering lost in the forest.

Sometimes they take her in and snuggle around her and she feels happy, like everything after will always be warm. But she's still just a girl in bear skin, and sometimes they won't even let her cross the river.

She sleeps under the tree and shivers and shivers, and the cold forest is no place for a scared little girl.

(Sometimes she takes little Santana into her own big bed, but she's a giant and an alien and crushes the earth every time she lays down her head, and little Santana is better off alone in the forest. At least then sometimes the bears think she's one of them.)

(At least sometimes she has the right skin.)

One time she lets Rachel bring over her porcelain family and their little black carriage, but it gets caught in the river and Rachel cries real tears when her family drowns and gets eaten by all the fish and sharks.

"There aren't sharks in the forest, Santana," Rachel says, teary-eyed and hands on her hips.

"Your family wasn't even going anywhere important. They make good fish food," Santana tells her. It comes out a little meaner than she meant but she doesn't take it back.

Rachel cries real tears for a different reason and asks to phone her daddies so she can go home.

Mami says it's not because of her, but when Rachel switches to ballet classes at the big studio downtown Santana feels impossibly small and takes to hiding in the coat room so the other girls don't have to look at her.

"Sometimes I just say the wrong things," she tells Mami one night, after Mami makes the foxes dance on top of the trees.

She means it about a million different things but she's also thinking about making Rachel cry, and the mean word she accidentally said to Brittany during math, and how she spent recess alone under the slides and didn't even come out when Finn asked her to play spies with him.

Mami holds her and kisses her forehead and says, "I know, mija. But your heart's always in the right place, and that's what counts."

She thinks about it for a long time after Mami shuts off the lights and pulls the door almost completely shut (she may be eight but she still needs that sliver) and wonders how she can show people where her heart is if they won't even look at her.

Little Santana has a heart in the right place, but sometimes not even the bears want her.

She doesn't know if it's really complicated or really easy, but she lets little Santana join her in the big bed anyway and warns her that if she crushes her in the middle of the night she only meant to hug her in her sleep.

Little Santana doesn't say anything in return, but Santana thinks she might just be happy.

In the morning she wakes up to snow outside her window and little Santana still asleep on the other pillow and maybe the bed's too big for even both of them, but it's still warm. Still safe.

She makes Mami call Rachel's daddy to explain that she never meant to say mean things, and then picks an extra special bracelet out of her music box with pretty glass beads to give to Brittany at school that day, to show Brittany she didn't mean to call her stupid.

She's giving like the Giving Tree.

When she checks on little Santana before heading down to breakfast, she's napping with the bears, in the middle of a warm snuggly pile.

"Remember to tell them you love them," she says to her little bear self.

/

She quits ballet class just before the holiday showcase, after falling off the stage in rehearsal and being moved from the front line to the very back with all the girls who never remember to point their toes.

She tells Mami she never wants to see another leotard again in her life, and Mami laughs, but then Rachel's daddy invites them to see Rachel's holiday showcase down at the big studio, and Santana quickly corrects it by saying, "I meant I never want to see another pinkleotard again in my life. Black leotards are okay."

Because Rachel goes to the same studio as Brittany now, and when Santana tells Brittany at school that she's coming to see her dance, Brittany actually spins her around in a big hug like they do in the movies.

"Now I get to blow my kiss at you!" Brittany tells her with a huge grin.

And she does – at the very end of the performance when all the girls blow a kiss into the audience. Santana knows Brittany can't see her because of all the lights but she still reaches up to catch it, sending all the butterflies in her chest into a fluttery tornado.

She makes sure to find Brittany afterwards to tell her and Brittany gives her another little kiss so she can see it this time.

Santana catches it just the same, and again when Brittany repeats it, and even when another girl's baby brother toddles over and starts blowing kisses as well. It's worth it just to see Brittany's pretty smile.

And then she's in such a good mood that she even goes and finds Rachel, who's near the snack table, chattering away with her daddies, to tell her (somewhat reluctantly) that she was pretty good up on stage.

She does not appreciate being squeezed to death in a hug, but she's pretty sure that these are the sorts of things that will get her into heaven so she gingerly pats Rachel's back and breathes a heavy sigh of relief when Mami comes with their coats to tell her they have to go.

"You should come over some time to practice with me," Rachel says, and Santana agrees even though she'd rather cut off all her fingers.

It makes Mami and Rachel's daddies smile, so whatever.

/

"I'm really proud of you for being such a good friend to Rachel," Mami tells her in the car.

She wants to ask and Brittany too? but she really just wants to keep that for herself, so she settles on shrugging and saying that Rachel's not annoying all the time.

(And she still feels a little guilty for drowning Rachel's porcelain family, even if it means she doesn't have to have play-dates with Rachel anymore.)

Mami just kind of thinks about it for a while, then quietly says, "The right thing isn't always easy, mija, and it's going to get even harder when you get older. You're going to face a lot of challenges."

It's difficult to fight an eye roll.

She knows Mami only tells her these things because she needs to hear them, but she always ends up with this heavy dread in her stomach that keeps her up long after bed time and sometimes she would really just like to not have to worry so much about When She's Older.

I don't want to face challenges nearly slips right out, but she stops herself because Mami would be really disappointed if she heard that.

"I'm never going to be one of those stupid teenagers who jumps off cliffs with everyone else," she says instead, tracing a heart into the foggy car window. Mami laughs and she keeps going so they don't start talking about Bad Decisions and Peer Pressure. "I promise I'm only ever going to jump off cliffs on my own."

Mami laughs again, a little softer, and she knows the conversation's behind them when Mami switches the radio to the Christmas station and starts humming along to Baby, It's Cold Outside.

Santana goes back to thinking about Brittany and settles into her booster seat so she can continue drawing in the window fog. Four hearts and a giant Christmas tree later, she's decided that she would never ever choose the cold outside over a warm fire with Brittany, and hopes that Brittany brings bubbles to school again on Monday because the only thing better than snow forts at recess are snow forts at recess with bubbles.

And Brittany.

Everything's better with Brittany.

(She most definitely will not tell Mami this, but she's almost completely sure that she'd jump off a thousand cliffs if Brittany asked her to. Not that she'd survive the first cliff, but if they had cliffs in heaven, she'd jump off all of them and never ever let go of Brittany's hand.)

/

She has Brittany over for a play-date right after Christmas, because Brittany calls to tell her about all her new toys and they both decide everything will be better if they can play with it together.

Most importantly, Brittany got a rocket ship from Santa and it came with two little astronauts that Brittany wants to name after the two of them.

"They only look like boys because their helmets cover their hair," Brittany says when she's dumping all the pieces out onto Santana's rug, shaking the rocket ship so nothing gets stuck inside. "If their helmets came off you'd see that one has really long blonde hair and the other has really pretty brown hair, just like you and me."

Santana can't argue with that, so she suggests they use her bed as the rocket launcher and throws all the pillows on the floor to make room.

They visit three planets and another galaxy before Brittany spots the forest table under the window and decides that any space adventure without animals isn't a real adventure, so they load up the rocket with the bears and the foxes and are about to blast off when Brittany shoots upright.

"Where's little bear Santana?" she asks in alarm.

She's hiding under her big tree because Santana couldn't stop thinking about the very big possibility that there would be more than just cliffs in her future, but she doesn't really know how to explain that to Brittany so she just points across the river.

"Hiding," she says.

Brittany very carefully extracts little Santana from under the pine branches and surprises both little and big Santana by kissing the top of her bear costume head.

"You don't have to be so sad, little bear," Brittany murmurs. "The forest isn't so big."

Santana lets the rocket ship in her hands fall to the mattress and just stares at Brittany, chest suddenly feeling incredibly tight. It doesn't seem like they're playing space adventures anymore; not with the way Brittany's running her fingertips along the forest floor, whispering tiny promises to little bear Santana.

"We can even leave a bread crumb trail so you don't get lost," she's saying.

Santana's never seen Brittany like this before: eyes dark with concern and sadness, whispers coming out so quickly it's as if she's afraid she's going to run out of time.

And then Brittany turns away from the forest, towards Santana, and just looks at her with her head tilted to the side.

"I think you just need the biggest hug in the world," Brittany decides. "You too," she says to little bear Santana, "but I don't think I can do that without crushing you, so I'm going to give you one in my mind and let you go play in the rocket ship."

She shuts her eyes for a moment and then carefully nestles little Santana between the seats in the top of the rocket ship, squished in the middle of the astronauts.

"So she can see the stars," she explains.

Santana has about one second to process that before Brittany throws her arms around her and buries her face in her neck and squeezes her for all she's worth, like the world will end if she doesn't give her the best hug she possibly can.

Santana squeezes back after the initial shock, letting her chin rest on Brittany's shoulder. She very, very quietly wonders if Brittany would mind if she kissed her head, like Brittany did with little Santana, but then remembers how much Rachel screeched when Santana kissed her cheek by accident in the very tiny coat room at ballet class and just resigns herself to holding Brittany, hoping Brittany doesn't grow tired any time soon.

She doesn't, and they hug until Santana notices the most beautiful snowflakes drifting down outside her window and Brittany decides they need to make snow angels right now.

Santana thinks the angels they make while holding hands are the prettiest, and so they make a dozen more, until the backyard is so full of angels there's almost no snow left to walk in; just a path along the edge of the fence, which Brittany declares a frame and turns their angels into a work of art.

/

For her ninth birthday, Brittany asks for three things: an alien spaceship, a tree fort, and a tiny clay figure of herself in a fox costume.

"I have a very big job to do," she tells her mother. "I'm going to be a best friend."