Previously: Part 1 & Part 2.
It would figure, since he had intentionally turned down every proposed trip to LA during the frantic Scooby years, that Xander had no idea which areas of the City of Angels were... more angelic than others. If all he had to worry about was his own safety, he might've chosen the first available apartment. Regardless of its neighborhood or reputation. But for the moment he also had Corey to consider, and no way was he going to risk the traumatized boy in a less-than-healthy atmosphere.
He grabbed a handful of apartment guide magazines and several newspapers to search through, then decided to add to his options by asking every waitress, bellhop, and salesclerk he met for references as well. And as luck would have it, he struck paydirt at dinner the first night -- his adorable charge wow'ed the staff of Denney's, producing a full notebook of names for family-oriented apartment complexes and a few by-the-month duplex rentals.
"Hey Corey, wanna give me a hand with these?" Xander motioned to the piles of notes, glossy pictures, and brochures. He glanced up at the boy, noticing almost at once the apprehensive expression on the young face. "Woah now, what's with the look, kiddo?" Wavy brown hair bounced in denial of any look, but Xander was a good reader of people's moods. Quickly dropping to his knees, Xan held his arms open to receive a watery hug from the boy.
Rocking the child in a gentle embrace, Xander wondered for the hundredth time whether he was capable of nurturing such a world-weary kid. Granted, Corey hadn't been sexually abused -- a small mercy, considering what his mother almost certainly did for a living -- but that one blessing was only a drop in the bucket against the harsh environment he'd been raised in. Still, the kid seemed to like him, trust him even, and that had to be some sort of ringing endorsement, right?
"Hey buddy, come on now, shhh," muttering into the boy's soft hair, Xander petted it away from the puffy, tear-stained face. "What's going on in that wicked handsome head of yours, huh?"
Eventually, the snuffles calmed down to where Corey could speak clearly. "When you move, are you takin' Clyde wif you?" Enormous blue eyes, clearly expecting rejection yet again, stared into Xander's soul.
I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not hunt down every last person who has ever hurt my boy and tear their balls out through their nostrils. I. Will. Not. Cry.
"Oh Corey, sweetheart, you're coming with me! Of course you are... if you want, that is. You and Clyde and all your toys and books, and we can find someplace with a nice big yard and maybe a playground nearby, and a huge kitchen where we can make all sorts of a mess fixing pancakes every Saturday morning while we watch cartoons 'til our brains melt into soup for lunch."
Xander-babble carried him away on a rush of emotion, and seemed to be the reassurance the young one needed that he wasn't being deserted once more. Snuggling deep into the warm stability of his guardian's arms, Corey's hitched breath began to slow toward normalcy. In between hiccups, he managed to whisper, "Can we have a treehouse? M-maybe Clyde could learn to climb up a tree..."
It's a truly disturbing feeling when your heart eases and clenches at the same moment, but Xander refused to let his tumble of emotions loose on the troubled child in his arms. He laid a soft kiss on the bubblegum scented waves and offered the best reassurance he had at the time: "If we can't find one already made, you and me, we can build it ourselves. Then Clyde can have all the neat ladders and swings he wants, and a few hidey-holes that no one knows about but us."
His soothing voice lulled the boy into a fitful sleep, but Xander was still troubled. Such a young child, but with so many worries already. The only thing he could do was try to counterbalance the past with love and security and laughter.
And just maybe, by giving to Corey, he would finally feel more comfortable about his own childhood.
"Mommy, why does Daddy hate me?" A shuddering first grade boy asked his mother from one corner of the shabby couch. His bloody lip dripped steadily down his chin, but he knew better than to let the red mess get on his clothes or any furniture. Gingerly wiping the stream away with a damp paper towel, he tried to catch his mother's eyes... but she was nearly too far gone to even notice his presence. Again.
"Mmm," began the groggy response, "No more'n he hates me. Just gotta try not to draw attention. Don't give him more reasons to yell and hit."
He wanted to ask more questions, but one look at the slack face told him that his mother had (once again) successfully drank herself into oblivion. It was just as well, really -- if he managed to wake her, she might forget that she was supposed to be the one who didn't hit her son.
Xander's eyes flew open. His breathing came too quickly and his skin felt clammy with cold sweat. If it weren't for the bundle of blissfully sleeping Corey at his side, he would have raced into the bathroom to douse his head with cold water. Probably throw up his supper too. Gods, I hate that dream!
His parents had never been award winners by anyone's definition, but there had been a time -- way back in his earliest memories -- when they weren't that bad either. Granted, that was before his Dad started drinking away his disappointments. Before his Mom followed suit out of self-defense. But yeah, he could remember when they were a fairly typical family. Husband and wife and pre-school son, taking an afternoon stroll through the park or maybe even visiting the zoo. Watching TV together with take-out on the coffee table. A few shining twinkles of memory teased with nearly unbelievable tales about one Anthony Harris playing catch with his four-year-old son in the back yard. Baking peanut butter cookies with his Mommy on Sunday afternoons, and waiting with huge eyes for the last drop to be placed on the baking sheet so little Alexander could scrape the remaining dough out of the bowl with chubby little fingers.
Twenty years later, and he still had nightmares about the miserable excuses for humanity that had the unwanted distinction of being his parents.
Gently disentangling himself from the mini-octopus sharing his bed, Xander took a moment to tuck a light blanket around the boy's shoulders and scoot his stuffed dog within easy reach. Corey's eyes flickered in deep REM sleep, and his lips curved into a grin of mischief -- the overall effect acting as a balm to ease some of Xander's anxiety.
You won't ever have to go through that, little one. Not if I have anything to say about it. With one last stroke to the boy's floppy hair, Xander quietly made his way into the kitchenette. He didn't want to chance waking Corey by using the faucet in the bathroom, but the kitchen sink would work as well. Just a few minutes of solitude to sort/sift/stuff those dark memories back into his mental Basement of Doom, without having to mask his emotions from a world-wise, perceptive five year old, that's what he needed.
Alright, so... yeah... my childhood sucked rocks. Tell me something I don't know. Like what I'm supposed to do with Corey. Or how I'm supposed to find out if Spike is really back. Or which one of the girls I should call first. Or how in hell I'm supposed to talk to Giles about taking a stateside post, maybe as active Watcher to just one or two girls. Huh, that might not be too bad, actually. There used to be a list of SiTs in America, by city, and which Watcher watched how many of them. Never enough to go around either, so just maybe G-man will work with me on this. Should call him before I talk to the girls then, make it look like an accidental thought, nothing he'd get suspicious about. Right. Like that'll fly with Mr. Observant. Gah! Am I overthinking this? Probably. Spike always said that my greatest weakness was trying to think.
He had to snicker at himself for that, even if it was a lame joke. Just being able to remember the blond vampire without a mile of regret burying the few good memories was such a relief.
Another two days passed in similar fashion: wake up with a squirming kid, feed self and squirming kid, bathe same, shop for more 'necessities', stop for meals as needed, fall into bed and cuddle. Rinse and repeat.
On the eve of their fifth day at the hotel, Xander made an executive decision.
"Hey buddy," he spoke softly so as not to startle the still timid boy, "it's going to get boring, us staying in this hotel forever. What do you say to us getting serious about finding a house or something tomorrow?"
Cool blue eyes much too wise for their years stared back at him for several moments. Then snap, Corey's shy smile getting easier, isn't it kiddo? broke through. "Guess we can."
And so loquacious. Just stick around, me fine boyo, and I'll teach ya to babble with the best.
Xander nodded, his most serious expression firmly in place. "Think we're outgrowing our rooms."
The happy giggle that greeted his gentle teasing thrilled him down to his toes, even after the youngster covered it up with his hands.
So... I should probably call HQ and find out what sort of credit I've built up. Overseas duty, plus surviving beyond my two year tour of Africa... aught to be worth a fair chunk of change. But who to call? I might need Willow's magic fingers to come up with the legal stuff for Corey sooner or later. And Giles is the boss. The big boss, actually. But they both kept a pretty big secret from me. Not something I want to get over just yet. Which leaves Andrew -- the great poser. Ah well, all for a good cause.
Internal ponderings on pause, he glanced over at his charge. Corey seemed to be happily occupied with building log bridges for his toy cars. But every few minutes he would look at Xander with a gaze that pleaded not to be abandoned. How cruel would a person have to be, to take a child off the streets, spoil him for a week, then kick him out? No way, not this underachiever. Whatever else I've been called, unfeeling bastard I am not!
A very distinctive ring tone brought him out of his thoughts. Could've sworn I shut the Council cell off! He turned down the TV and prayed for the caller to give up -- no such luck, though.
With a press of a button, all of Xander's old insecurities returned full force. "You got the Xanman, talk to me," he answered with mock cheer.
The tell-tale crackle of an overseas call made him sigh inwardly, even before the caller identified himself: "Ah yes, the lost son is finally located. It is good to hear your voice, Alexander."
Andrew's faux Brit affectations annoyed even the most patient people. Not that Xander fell into that category.
"Sorry, Andy, but I haven't been 'lost'... just taking a much needed vacation from the permanent sunstroke that is Africa." Xander laced all the sarcasm a la Spike he could muster, adding a full sneer for effect. It was childish. It was petty. It couldn't possibly be seen from England. It made him feel just a little bit better.
A slightly more fake, 'genteel' cough came from 'across the pond', followed by the toned down geek's whine, "I've been trying to reach you for days." He cleared his throat again. "Terribly sensitive information, you must understand. We can't let just anybody know about You Know What."
"Damn Andrew, I heard the caps in your voice all the way over here! Have you been practicing your Mr. Ominous routine in the mirror again?"
Unsure of his co-worker's tone of voice, Andrew decided on 'begrudging admiration' as opposed to 'mean-spirited sarcasm'. "Well yes, just a bit." Another throat clearing. "But that is neither here nor there. Xander, we must ascertain your devotion to secrecy in regards the delicate -- and volatile -- situation in the City of Angels."
It couldn't be helped -- no matter the thousands of miles between them, the little nerd still pressed all of Xander's buttons. He rolled his eye and sighed aloud, then announced in a dry voice, "Andrew, this is me rolling my eye at you. Loudly. I haven't spoken to anyone 'in the know' since we talked last week. Not even sure what I'm going to do about it anyway. Besides... something else came up to distract me, and I think you're just the man to handle it."
Where blunt honesty rattles the little shit, he can always be counted on to fall for flattery. And he is good with getting legal docs delivered. Let's hope he takes the bait.
For a few long seconds, Xander heard Andrew's mental gears switch from prurient indignation to tentative preening. Finally, a long lost, more normal, pre-English invasion dweeb regrouped. "Right, then. Tell me the story and I'll see what can be done."
It really hadn't taken that much effort, Xander realized, to convince the 'petite' Watcher to cough up a full set of papers for Corey -- birth certificate (listing one Alexander L. Harris as the biological father), social security card, shot records (which he would have to make real very soon), and a completely bogus list of former babysitters. He even volunteered to set up a non-Council bank account for Xander, and a college trust for Corey. The only catch? He wanted pictures of his 'first nephew-by-proxy.' It seemed a small price to pay for his boy's security.
Less than three hours later, a courier arrived with the requested paperwork, including the name of a local pediatrician who would get Corey started on his immunizations without asking too many unfortunate questions along the way.
Oh joy. How do I explain the need for measles shots to a little kid who's never visited a doctor?> And Hell! He's going to need dental check-ups and eye exams and back to school shopping and whatinhell have I gotten myself into?!
Overwhelmed by his sudden, self-inflicted parenthood, Xander took two aspirin and collapsed on the bed. He let Corey's happy mutterings lull him into a lighter frame of mind, content that -- for better or worse -- he'd done the right thing.
It seemed as if he'd only blinked a few times before Xander found himself signing a cashier's check for a two-story duplex in a quiet neighborhood. It had two bedrooms and a bath and a half on either side, with one half currently occupied by a nice old couple, and was in much better repair than he could've hoped for. The selling point was a sturdy old oak in the backyard that had lovely, thick branches just waiting for Corey to decide on a blueprint for his dream treehouse.
On Mrs. Lowenski's recommendation, Xander and his 'son' spent a full day at a local resale shop. Smart lady, our new neighbor. Wouldn't be too bright to buy all new furniture for a 'widower' and a young boy to screw up in the first week.
Gabe and Myrna Lowenski were proving their worth many times over, in ways that clearly stunned the Sunnydale-jaded Xander. The elderly couple had owned the duplex for many years, using the spare side of their residence as guaranteed income for their retirement. Gabe handled the maintenance on weekends, and later full time after he retired from his small furnishings shop, while Myrna took care of the interviewing and legalities. As they neared their 50th anniversary, the couple felt ready to turn the tables -- selling their property, with a handy clause that they be allowed to lease their long-term home until both partners died... or needed to be placed under assisted living conditions.
The biggest blessing, however, was one Xander planned on taking full advantage of sometime in the near future: Myrna had offered to watch 'your darling boy, such a smart one, he is' whenever Xander went off to work. Corey had taken an instant liking to the fading beauty, and happily called her Grammy Myrna to the old lady's utter delight. Not to be left out, Gabe volunteered to show the boy how to fish, camp, and tinker around the house. When Xander learned how seldom the Lowenski's got to see their natural grandchildren (once a year, if they were lucky), he accepted with good grace and a warm feeling in his chest. That he was just as cherished as his young son only made the decision easier.
A secondary benefit to signing papers for their new home was in bringing Xander back to the 'present day civilized world' mindset. He quickly acquired a calendar and found, to his dismay and Corey's delight, that registration for the new school year was only a week away.
No amount of reasoning could prevent the boy's excitement -- uneducated he might be, but a streetwise five year old knew that 'normal kids' went to school. He could pick pockets and schmooze with the best, but Corey lacked the very basic skills of reading and numbers. A well-timed pout (complete with trembling lip) forced Xander to cave on the subject. Before he could think of more logical objections, Xander found himself the unhappy owner of the local elementary school's supply list, led dragged through retail hell by his unbelievably hyper 'son'.
I have a son. Me, a son? What happened to the nine month waiting period? Gods, please don't let me muck this up like my parents did.
Resolved to break at least one nasty cycle of domestic sickness, he plastered a smile on his face and vowed not to dampen his son's I have a son! enthusiasm. In no time at all, the smile felt natural, unforced.
Along with crayons and writing tablets came school uniforms. And can I say 'thank the Gods' for this blessed relief from peer pressure? Four sets of shorts, six long pants, six short-sleeved Polo shirts, six long-sleeved button downs, sneakers and loafers, tiny little ties, vests, jackets and sweaters... plus a whole line of mascot-stenciled paraphernalia to decorate Corey's bedroom.
If he keeps this level of school spirit and thirst for knowledge -- help, I'm channeling G-man -- he's gonna be smarter than Wills before he's ten. I'll say it again: Gods, pleasepleaseplease don't let me screw this up! Professional slacker, single father to a bookworm? Gah! Xander's thoughts ended in a strangled whimper.
Before he had the chance to indulge in a well-deserved sulk, a small hand crept around three of his calloused fingers. Xander blinked away all notions of his impending pity trip as he took in the glowing pleasure radiating from his boy. He felt his heart swell with love and pride at his new miracle, and released the blinding smile that demanded to be set free. "Hey buddy, how're we doing with the list?"
"Jus' need a ba'pack an pencil box, an some choc'lat for the teacher," Corey answered with twinkling eyes. His resemblance to a certain undead con-man was never more apparent.
Nodding wisely, Xander winked at his son I have a son! and let himself be led over to the backpack selection, wading through harried housewives and grumbling grandmothers to reach their destination. "Of course we do. Remember this lesson, oh child of mine, and it will serve you well for the rest of your life -- the way to soothe almost any woman is through quality chocolate."
Corey's head bobbed in agreement, once again looking far too mature for his age. Then he giggled and the moment broke. In a flash, the bubbly soon-to-be schoolboy dropped Xander's hand and bounded over to the mountains of 'approved' backpacks.
Oh to have that much energy again. Taking a deep breath, he squeezed between two bickering moms to help Corey decide between Nas-Car and Tonka backpacks.
It took them the better part of the weekend to get all of their new goodies put away properly. Of course, there were twice as many bags to sift through than were needed to carry Corey's school things -- one particularly industrious sales clerk had practically ordered Xander to get a new wardrobe, so as not to embarrass himself or his son. A cheap tactic, Xander knew, but one that had hit home. His own parents had always managed to mortify him, either by their cheep whiskey-drenched clothes or their slurred profanity. He swore to never inflict the same tortures on his son.
As the late afternoon sun dipped behind their mammoth backyard tree, Xander called a halt to their chores. "Alright kiddo, I think we need to eat, yeah?" At Corey's weary nod, he led the boy into their kitchen and brought out the makings for grilled cheese and soup. Deftly toasting the sandwiches, he brought up a topic that had been on his mind since his first look at the fabricated birth certificate.
"Corey... do you remember when we got that package from the funny looking guy in shorts a few days ago?" He wasn't sure how to broach the subject, but with his boy's bright mind, it shouldn't take much to get Corey to ask the question that had Xander's stomach in knots. Too long chestnut waves bobbed above a bowl of chicken noodle soup without making a sound (other than slurps), so Xander plodded on, "Right... well, you remember the paper that said where and when you were born? It was also supposed to list the names of your parents, but we didn't know what your Mommy or Daddy's names were, so we made up a name for your Mommy... and... jeez, this is harder than I thought it would be..."
"You want me to stay wif you... forever?" Corey's timid voice was back, his eyes peaking out from under shaggy bangs. He looked like he was torn between hope and fear of overstepping the boundaries of their still so new relationship.
He couldn't point a finger at any one particular reason why that question, asked in that voice, made him choke up so quickly. He shut off the burner and put the skillet on the cooler side, then dropped to his knees next to his boy's chair. Putting his hands on the armrests, he looked straight into Corey's eyes and answered honestly, "Hun, I would be thrilled to call such a wonderful kid as you my own. But this has to be your decision too. If you want to look around for someone else, I'll do everything in my power to make sure you get exactly the parents you want. If you'd rather have a Mommy and Daddy, well, it doesn't look like I'm going to be getting married anytime in the near future. So it'll just be you and me for awhile, yeah? But it's your choice here, sweetheart. What do ya say?"
Corey's head fell down, covering his eyes long enough that Xander feared he'd messed up. Slowly, the child's face re-emerged, showing the biggest, most beautiful smile Xander had ever seen directed at him. "Zat mean I can call you Daddy, where ev'rybody can hear?"
It took some doing to explain 'happy tears' to the former street kid, but by the time he'd settled Corey into bed for the night, Xander had them under control. Mostly.