If you're just tuning in, all pertinant story info can be found in Part 1.
The room was nice. Sterile and cool, devoid of any personal touches, but... nice. Technically, it would be called a suite, since there was not only a bath and bedroom, but also sitting area and kitchenette -- which suited Xander quite well. Room service made for easy clean-up, but he preferred to cook for himself. But food was a top priority, for at least the little one, so he resigned himself to calling out for their meal.
No. Top priority was to get started settling the nerves of a certain waif. "You can have anything you want, alright? Although you might want to start simple -- we don't want your stomach upset by too much rich food. How about soup and a sandwich, and a big bowl of mixed fruit? Gotta say, that sounds pretty good to me."
Was there a thin line of drool darkening the dirt-covered face? Before or after food... that was the question.
"Yeah, think that's what we'll do. Now, you wanna take a bath while we wait for lunch? Or you could wait til after, whichever you like." Fingers plucked at the stiff top layer. "There ya go. Let's get some bubbles started, and once you're splashing in the tub, I'll call room service. You should have plenty of time if they're as slow as I remember."
He brought the gift shop bag into the bathroom, only giving its lush accoutrements a quick, approving glance before turning on the water and making sure it wasn't too hot for young skin. It didn't take long to set out the new toiletries -- foaming bath soap, bubblegum scented bubble bath (his personal favorite, and he promised himself a soak with it later), fruity toothpaste and a Disney toothbrush, matching hair brush and comb -- then put the clean clothes on the counter. And promptly cursed himself.
"Oh crap, I'm sorry... I forgot underwear." He still didn't have a clue if the kid was a boy or girl. At that age and through so many layers of grunge, only a medical exam would be able to tell. Or a name, provided that it wasn't one of those trendy generic names made popular in recent years. Still, it was worth a shot. "And I still don't know your name." He bowed low, waving his hand in a flourish, and wiggled his eyebrows. "I am called Xander, and I will be your waiter for this evening. Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you."
His comical efforts produced the most beautiful sound he'd ever heard: a high so young peel of laughter, quickly covered by small hands. And that just wouldn't do. "It's alright to laugh, hun. Sometimes a good laugh is the only thing we've got to keep us from crying, yeah?"
Whatever he might have been expecting was thrown for a loop as Xander found his arms full of trembling tyke. Half sobs buried into his shirt, interspersed with giggles and the incomprehensible babble of a truly upset child. "Mommy...gone...no Daddy...cops came...so scared..."
"Shh, it's alright now, sugar. Xan'll keep you safe," he did his best to offer comfort. Hot tears trickled down his face, burning the empty socket, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered just then but the young life in his arms, so lost and alone. That the kid knew his parents were gone made things simpler in a way, but also much much worse. What could he say? Oh yeah, sorry to hear that? He couldn't be so cruel to anyone, much less a child.
How long they stayed like that, he didn't know or care. He was a comfortador, and someone needed what he could so readily provide. He melted down onto the floor and let the kid curl up on his lap as if it was the most natural thing in the world. We talked a few times about having kids, me and Anya, but that was in the far off future. Especially working with Buffy and all the hellmouthy stuff. I was so scared of turning out like my Dad that I kept putting her off... and now I'm almost glad. If we'd gotten married and had kids... Gods, don't need to think like that, not now! But at least maybe I can do some good with this little bundle.
Hiccupy breaths gradually gave way to the deep breathing of sleep, but Xander couldn't be bothered to move them from the bathroom floor. A short nap might just do the tyke some good, after all.
Guess this puts a monkey wrench in my plans to find Spike. But somehow, I think he'd approve. There are more important things in the world, right? A small, wistful smile curved his lips as he watched the weary face relax. Still need to find this one's name and gender.
Once upon a time, some forgotten person had told him that there was no rest more soothing than when holding a sleeping child. He had to agree, since he couldn't remember falling into a light doze. Only when the limp body in his lap wiggled and began to squirm with refreshed vigor did he come fully awake.
"Nice nap, huh? I needed it too." Those startling eyes greeted his warily. "You think only kids need naps? Ha! I was on an airplane for almost two days straight." Tiny exaggeration, but hey, artistic license. "So how about telling me your name, then we can make with the bubbles."
Fluttering eyelashes, no matter how clumped with dirt, should be outlawed, he decided.
"Mommy calls... called me Corey."
And Xander was sure by now that his heart must be bruised with all the emotions gripping it. So young to accept death as a part of life. To know you're alone and no one's going to save you.
"Well then, Corey, what about that bath?" Distraction technique #17: Trade emotional pain for physical comfort. "And you need to tell me what sort of underwear you want, 'cus I forgot to pick any up at the gift shop. They might have your size, or maybe we'll have to go out later for it. Whichever, works for me." He added a lopsided smile, praying that the kid might give a direct answer so the question of boy/girl could finally be answered.
"Can I have some with puppies on them?"
Oh well, there went that idea. How generic is 'puppies' for an answer. Gods, the only other way is to help get the kid undressed. And try not to feel like a perv for it. Not that good parents are perverts for seeing their kids undressed, right? But this isn't my kid... at least, not without a trail of paperwork. Woah! Way to go, Xanman, getting ahead of yourself, aren't you? Who says the kid wants to be taken in by you?
More wiggling, and Corey was out of his lap. The doubts plaguing Xander were quickly bypassed when a certain striptease-artist-in-training managed to take it all off in less time than it took him to get to his feet. Ah, congratulations Mr. Harris. It's a boy! He mentally wiped sweat off his brow. And can I just say thank you to whatever deity is responsible for me not having to cope with one more lovely bundle of emotional blackmail in the form of a pre-adolescent girl? Don't think I could handle going through another Dawn.
He added just enough hot water to the half-full tub to refresh bubbles and bring the water back up to a comfortable temperature, then set the boy inside to get started. "I'm gonna make that call to room service now. Soup and sandwiches, and fruit and maybe some ice cream, right? And we'll see if they can run us up a package of puppy-covered boxers too." The bright smile he received was well worth whatever trouble befell them in the near future. Who knew something as simple as hand-picked underwear could make a man feel so good?
"Yeah, half an hour's fine, no rush. Just make sure of the size, and for gods' sake, don't forget the puppies!"
He wasn't tired, honestly. A simple call to the front desk of his hotel couldn't possibly make him feel so out of touch with the world he'd grown up in. Just jetlag. He rested his head against the wall for a moment, happy to soak up the relatively peaceful sounds of Corey splashing away in the bathtub. Gotta check and make sure he scrubbed away most of the dirt. Man, I haven't seen hair that filthy since... that dream with the First Slayer. And ewww, so not an image I need right now.
Poking his head through the bathroom doorway, Xander blinked in surprise. If he didn't know better, he'd be easily convinced that this was his own, biological, made the old fashioned way, son. Except for those eyes. The few pictures he remembered from his childhood -- most normally found being used as coasters, or maybe in Willow's purse -- looked just like this tiny boy splashing happily in the center of a sea of bubbles.
"Lunch should be here any minute now, so let's see if we can't get the top layers off before we eat. Then if you want to soak some more, we can put fresh water and bubblesoap in, and you can turn into a prune, ok?" A craving he'd always had as a kid, and one his Dad never let him try. It was a waste of hot water.
Too-long, wavy brown hair touched the top of bony shoulders. A few bruises marked the life of a street urchin. Ragged finger and toe nails. Some chafing where clothes were too worn, too dirty, and had rubbed raw spots. Other than that, Corey wasn't in too bad a shape -- for which Xander silently said thanks. No trips to the emergency room for me. Explaining to an admittance clerk, oh no, he's not mine, I found him on the side of the road. Where's his Mommy? Down a side alley, cold and dead and stiff. Now which forms do I sign to claim financial responsibility that won't get me carted off for abduction?
Three washings later, there was a definite squeak to the boy's hair. They did a quick wash-up to remove the top layers of dislodged silt, laughing as Xander "missed" when he turned the shower on himself instead of Corey. He backed away to retrieve one of the hotel-issue towels just as someone knocked on the door.
"Just a minute please," he called toward the front of the suite, then turned back to a wide-eyed little boy. "Let's get you wrapped up first, then you can go with me to get our food, ok?" It took more self-control than he thought he had left, but Xander ignored the frightened whimper long enough to mummify his charge, pick him up and toss him across a broad shoulder.
Hellmouth paranoia made him look through the peephole before opening the door. Not that he expected anything too deadly before dark, but still. "Oh good, just in time." He unlocked the door and stepped aside for the bellhop to wheel in their tray. On a partially covered shelf beneath overflowing plates of food, he could see the logo of the hotel's tourist shop, and judged it good enough.
Juggling a squirmy, wet child while trying to tug his wallet out of his pants took a bit of effort, but at least the waiter had a good laugh at his expense. "Here ya go, and thanks again."
Door closed, he moved over to the couch and gently tossed his bound bundle onto the cushions. "Wanna see what sort of puppies he brought ya?" Corey's building confidence that maybe, just maybe, this adult wasn't going to toss him aside let the boy giggle as he tried to extricate himself from miles of terrycloth.
I've always said, it's the simple things in life that mean the most. Especially when our world's been turned on its ear again. And if Corey wants to wear puppies on his ass, then Corey can wear puppies on his ass. Maybe I can talk him into doing a little shopping later, and we can find him a stuffed puppy or two. And better clothes than these walking advertisements for Epcot Center.
He hadn't been sure, when he first ordered a double lunch, that Corey could eat very much. Oh, he had no doubt that the kid was at starvation level. But for that very reason, if he ate too much at once, it could make him incredibly sick. So soup, basic sandwiches, and fruit. Simple and easy to digest. And chocolate milk! Comfort food for both orphaned child and exhausted man.
If Xander wasn't able to remember a time when he could clear out a fully-packed refrigerator by himself in one afternoon, he might have been more concerned for his charge. He'd ordered the simplest sandwiches on the hotel's menu, but that just meant double-decker turkey melts with a complete salad in between thick slices of moist bird, smooth melted swiss cheese, and a dill spread that he wanted the recipe for later use. Even the "plain" tomato soup wasn't so plain; chunks of sweet tomatoes floated in a thick base with slivers of celery and onion and... was that basil too? The few weeks he'd spent as prep cook to Sunnydale's only four-star restaurant had him practically drooling at the lush flavor combinations. That Corey also approved -- and had no problems finishing off three huge slabs of sandwich and looked like he wanted to lick the bowl clean -- gave him a few warm fuzzies.
"You can have the rest of mine if you like, Corey." He pushed the half-full bowl within easy reach of the boy. "Really, it's ok," Xander reassured, seeing the suspicious look directed at him. "Hey, we can order more, or you can finish off mine and then we can see what's available for supper. I'm going to have to talk with their cook before long, find out his recipes. 'Cus this soup? Too good for the common man." He dipped a corner of his sandwich in the cooling soup and took a huge bite.
Just as he'd expected, Xander's antics won him another of those incredible laughs. Could so easily get addicted to hearing that sound. It also appeared to put the boy at ease enough to accept the offering, which lasted only as long as it took Xander to finish off his last turkey melt.
"Don't suppose you've left a little room for dessert, hmm?" He lifted the domed silver cover and unveiled... "Oh. My. Gods. I haven't seen this many types of fruit in one place in my life! And French vanilla ice cream -- wanna bet they churned it right here? Gah! You're gonna have to help me out here, or I'll be too stuffed to move for a week."
His bites were much smaller, but Corey managed to finish off a good portion of fruit and ice cream. And what he didn't inhale, Xander was determined not to let go to waste. He hadn't had such a treat since leaving England for his assignment. Not going to think about that right now. Got more important things on the agenda, like a sleepy little boy in need of fluffy pillows and maybe a big hug.
Sure enough, the lad was dropping off with half a strawberry between his juice-smeared lips. Xander carefully wiped away the worst of the damage and picked him up, moving as quietly as possible into the bedroom. He first thought the boy was asleep as he lifted the sheet up over his bulging stomach, but before he could leave the room a tiny voice called out, "Stay wif me... just til I fall asleep?"
How could he refuse? Many a time, Xander had wished for such basic reassurance from his own parents and been told to stop acting like a baby. Well, if that was infantile behavior, then he needed a really huge diaper. No matter how old he was, Xander often craved the simple comfort of another body nearby. He could certainly provide that much for this child.
He had only intended to lay down for a few minutes, let Corey fall asleep knowing he wasn't being abandoned, but Xander's eye just wouldn't stay open. He was well fed, relatively clean, and on a bed far more comfortable than any place he'd slept in the past year. With one arm thrown across the steady rise and fall of his boy's chest, Xander drifted into a deep, peaceful slumber.
Movement rattled him out of a horrifying terrible memory nightmare. Reflexes that had kept him alive first on the Hellmouth, then across the globe in the wilds of Africa, had him up and moving before his brain kicked in. Expecting a predator, his heart plummeted when he caught sight of the wide eyes peaking out from over the side of the bed.
"Oh Corey, I'm so sorry to have scared you!" He took great pains to keep his voice soft and easy, even as the guilt kicked in. This child knew of terror already -- there was no need to compound his trauma by a trigger-happy guardian. "It was just a nightmare, a bad dream, y'know?"
Solemnly, the boy nodded his head. Yes, he probably did know all about bad dreams.
"Ah... it's probably time for supper about now. Are you hungry? After that huge lunch, I'm not sure how much I can eat, but I'd be willing to try if it involves chocolate." Distract, distract, distract... "Or maybe you want to walk down the street a bit and check out that toy shop I saw as we passed." Bingo! We have a winner. Messy brown hair bounced excitedly as he nodded his approval. "Then let's get cleaned up a bit and see if those clothes fit, and we'll be ready to leave."
The t-shirt and shorts... Xander silently blessed the creators of elastic and stretch knits. The best he could say about it was at least Corey wasn't complaining. He did his best to be gentle, brushing through the tangled mess of hair, and finally decided that a trip to the barber was on his list of to-do's. Slipping into his last pair of clean dockers, Xander pronounced them as presentable as they were going to get. He grabbed keys, wallet, and cardkey before shutting the door behind them.
"Alright kiddo, let's go wreck havoc on my company credit card."
It is a dangerous thing to allow a small child full access to every toy he's ever wanted. But much worse, to give a fully grown man who had been deprived of the basics the same access. As Xander and Corey walked through the glass double doors of the national chain toystore, every clerk in sight heard the sound of cash registers cha-chinging. But the Xanman hadn't spent years as his girls' packmule without learning a few tricks to Power Shopping. He grabbed a cart, placed the boy in its seat, and headed over to the clothing section first.
"If we get this part out of the way, we can spend more time playing with the fun stuff," he explained. Corey nodded sagely, those brilliant eyes unblinking as he took in every inch of the wonders to be found.
Half an hour later, they had a satisfying stack of jeans, shorts, shirts, socks, more underwear, caps, and assorted personal items in expensive character labels. Not that Xander would begrudge the kid -- he would never push his own Goodwill wardrobe on any child. He did, however, pause a moment before heading toward the 'fun stuff' aisles.
"Hey Corey, how old are you?" It was an important question. A responsible question. Any adult in command of a child should know the answer. And it was his job to keep the less child-safe toys away from fingers too young to... Oh, who was he fooling. He wanted to know, but he also needed to keep the kid safe. And so what if that meant leaving the 'big kid' toys for Xander to play with.
An unexpected look of panic crossed the boy's face. "Not sure. Birthday's in July though."
He did not groan outloud. Internally was another story, but he was quite proud of the fact that he didn't upset the child even more. "That's alright, we'll find a way to tell. I'm guessing that you're about five or six years old, so we'll head over to the Tonka trucks first." And when I get around to calling Wills, I'll ask her about spells to tell things like that. Dunno if I should tell her what's happened or not... just not now.
It shouldn't have surprised him, really. How could any child raised on the streets be expected to have a 'normal' education? Still, it made Xander's stomach clench unpleasantly. They had to pass the educational section anyways, giving him plenty of opportunity to toss books and flashcards into the cart. He even found a couple of electronic Speak-n-Say games that weren't too insulting. That he was worried about hurting the boy's feelings by giving him 'baby toys' probably indicated that he was getting a tiny bit too attached, but he pushed that nasty thought aside for later worry.
There was only so much room in the cart -- and loading up a hotel room wasn't that good an idea either -- so they spent more time 'test-driving' various toys than actually selecting them for purchase. He did make a point to find the floppiest, softest, most huggable stuffed puppy in the whole store, which won him a big smile and bigger hug. A dozen sturdy cars, five thick puzzle books, and the gold medal prizes (Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys) would have to suffice until Xander put down roots. I'm already thinking of him as my kid. This is either very good, or incredibly bad. But the expressions on his face... I'll do everything in my power to make this kid happy.
He'd learned a nifty little trick shortly after going to work for the Council: For the right amount of money, you can have anything delivered. A quiet word to the manager insured that the bulk of their purchases would be waiting for them at the front desk of the hotel. He made sure to keep out a change of clothes and Clyde (the stuffed pup), then swung Corey into his arms for a fast trip to the men's room.
"We still need to find some good shoes, but at least you won't look like a neon sign, right?" The boy squirmed and wiggled, trying desperately to get away. Oh yeah, really desperate... the mad case of giggles proved how traumatized he is. Ten minutes later, the kid looked... sharp. Dark blue shorts with a wide stripe of checkered material down the outside seams, a black and blue t-shirt bearing the Nas-Car logo, and matching cap. A bit more commercial than Xander would've worn, but the boy was happy so he couldn't complain.
"Now, how about something to eat... Think I could swallow an elephant and still have room for pie." Ah, more giggles. Mission accomplished.
They found a burger joint not too far from Toy Heaven, and managed to finish off a fair sized meal. Bringing two over-sized ice cream cones along for the ride, they wandered further down the block to a kids' shoe store. Sandals and tennis shoes and one pair of cowboy boots I will not ask, I will not ask later, they headed back to home base.
Corey was getting tired, that much any fool could see. It had been an eventful day for him. And for Xander too. The last half block passed with bags on one arm and a limp dishrag on the other, and he was never so glad for automatic doors in his life. He asked a bellhop to follow with their bags, promised to make the appropriate change to the management about room occupancy, and all but collapsed through the door to their suite. And so what if he over-tipped... all for a good cause, right?
The room was almost pitch black when he woke up next. Comfortable, dry, not hungry, why awake? Then he heard it -- only someone trained to listen for the most minute changes in ambient sounds (or supernatural senses) would have caught the tiny whimper. He leaned over to switch on the bedside lamp, cringing as his economical movements caused another whimper. Only someone who has learned the hard way to keep quiet... damn, not again.
Oh yes, he knew quite well the signs of an unhappy home life. Not that Corey had a stable roof over his head. He suspected that the boy's mother was one of the 'unattached' prostitutes -- those not under the dubious protection of a pimp -- that wandered the streets of any large city across the world. That she hadn't just dropped the boy off at an orphanage or church confused him, but who knew what their situation was. He just prayed that she hadn't been training the boy as part of her 'act'... Xander definitely wasn't equipped to handle a sexually abused five year old. And can we say thank the gods there was one line the old man wouldn't cross!
He did the one thing that always seemed to work with his girls, and all the frightened Potentials. He pulled the trembling little body up against his chest and held on tight. Xander knew to expect a fight, as the boy obviously wasn't awake enough to know who was holding him, and he wasn't disappointed. Stick thin arms and legs swung, kicked, and flailed until the poor tyke wore himself out.
"Shh, Corey, you're alright, you're ok. It's just me here, no one else. Just Xander and Corey, and your puppy. Remember Clyde? He's a right handsome fellow. But I think he might be a little scared now. Why don't we find him and see if he could use a big hug, hmm? Everyone needs a hug once in awhile, and I'll bet he's afraid of this great big new place. You with me yet, buddy? Come back to Xander, hun."
Finally, finally the boy's eyes opened to take in his surroundings. And Xander recognized that expression all too well. The "Oh hell, where am I and who's going to come after me" look. A very close cousin to the "What do they think I've done and how hard are they going to hit this time" look.
"See, just us three here. I think Clyde's buried in the blankets, maybe that's why he's so scared. Let's dig him out and cuddle for a bit. There's nothing wrong with getting a hug when you're scared, Corey. But maybe Clyde's Mommy didn't tell him that." Pet his hair, pat his back, don't let go no matter what. And for gods' sake, Xander, do not show him how many memories he's dug up.
With his squishy puppy strangled against his chest, the boy wiggled against Xander until there wasn't a square inch of space between them. His snuffles slowed down, stopped, and he seemed to be seconds away from falling back asleep. Then... "Are Mommies supposed to forget things like that?"
The acrid taste at the back of his throat wanted to leave his body, forcibly and with great substance. "No sweetie, they aren't supposed to forget things like that. But Mommies are just human, just like you and me. But not Clyde, because he's a puppy, not a human. And sometimes Mommies forget that it's more important to take care of their kids than anything else in the world. It isn't because they hate their kids... they just don't seem to know how to change."
"Do Daddies forget too?"
He wouldn't cry. Wrong time, wrong place, bad example. But dear gods, he wanted to. "Yes hun, sometimes Daddies forget too." He had to work at not hugging the boy too hard. "But y'know what? Purple and blue spotted puppies don't forget. They'll love you forever and ever, and always want hugs from their favorite little boys. Guess it's a good thing we found Clyde then, since he needed to find his own special person for all those hugs."
Please please please let it work. This kid isn't stupid, for all he can't read and write, but he's as emotionally stunted as any abuse case I've ever seen. And since I can't promise that I'll never leave, he needs one stable thing he can latch onto. Clyde, you overstuffed pooch, you'd better not let him down.
Eventually the sniffles died down, the chest stopped jumping in silent sobs. As a desperate attempt to distract them both, Xander decided to call room service for a midnight snack. Chocolate couldn't cure the world's many problems, but it sure went a long way.
It was close to noon before either of them woke the following morning. Xander left the boy to play with his Lincoln Logs while he showered, then filled the tub with more bubbles and tossed Corey in, still wearing his pajamas. A much better start than how we finished up yesterday. And I do know not to get my hopes up... it's going to be a long, long time before he gets over some of his issues. If ever. But for now, he's in my hands. And it feels pretty fuckin' good being in charge of doing right by my boy. Even if he isn't, and probably never will be, My boy.
Freshly bathed and dressed, they headed out for breakfast. Xander paused by the front desk long enough to ask for directions, then piled them into the rental car and headed for the penultimate in breakfast restaurants: IHOP. Chocolate chip pancakes for him, a funny sunny face for Corey, and they could split an omelet and hash browns. Cus this kid? He could pack it away. After living hand-to-mouth for most of his life, the boy was entitled to a little fattening up.
I'm not trying to overcompensate, really. I make sure he has healthy food, just alot of it. And it's not like he's liable to get fat very soon. Maybe I should add vitamins to the shopping list... along with an apartment or house, furniture, and all the trappings. And pray that Giles doesn't have my head for abusing the company card like this.
They found a Wal-Mart not too far from the restaurant and managed to stock up on every little thing Xander thought a small boy might need, as well as a few that he simply wanted. On the way to the check-out line, Corey made a random comment about Xander's clothes being warn and faded, and the cart quickly executed a neat 90 degree angle. More damage to the card, but this he could justify -- his clothes and living expenses were part of the Watcher package.
With nothing perishable to worry about, all their bags were tossed into the back seat. Xander found himself torn between wanting to give the little one a fun-filled day, and finding someone who could insure Corey would be in a stable, loving home. I don't want him to go to just anyone... but if I take him in, Giles will have to find some other assignment for me. No more globe-trotting, no more being away from home base for months at a time. And damn, what'll I tell the girls?