Happy Holidays, one and all! May you live well, love long, and read to your heart's delight!
See Part 1 for details.
Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.
One would think, Xander mused as he made breakfast the next morning, that today was Christmas or something. Cus honestly, no real kid wakes up before dawn to get ready for school. He threw one flour-covered hand across his mouth as he yawned yet again. Then promptly sneezed (away from the skillet) as the tiny particles of flour went up his nose. His slapstick routine earned him a riot of laughter from the tall stool at the counter next to where he was working.
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, kiddo. I'll make you cook breakfast for me tomorrow." His warnings simply encouraged the young boy's giggles. I can't stay grumpy when he laughs outloud. Damn it's good to hear my boy being so easy-going and happy.
"Alright Corey, while you're eating breakfast, I'm going to take another shower. Seems I didn't manage to get off all the layers of sawdust from last night." Xander threw a dishtowel at his son, who snickered into his waffle and rolled his eyes. Who would believe that it's comforting to see a child being disrespectful? That one action would've earned him a good walloping on the streets, but he's confident enough with me... gotta be excuse enough to let it slide, just this once, right?
Ablutions taken care of, he returned to the scene of the crime and discovered his preciously precocious son sitting on the counter near the sink. With water running, stopper in place, and a healthy mound of bubbles forming over their dirty dishes. I didn't say anything about helping with chores yet, did I? My mom would have threatened my entire comic book collection to get me to voluntarily do dishes, even just putting them to soak. Well, that's my suspicions confirmed: Corey isn't a real kid at all, he's some kind of demon sent to... to what? Reward me by being the bestest, most considerate, most loving, snuggle-able wonderful son a guy could ask for? Er, think I just out-jinxed myself.
"Hey buddy, you didn't have to do that, but thank you! It'll save us so much time this morning that just maybe we can get up to school twenty minutes early and get all your goodies put away before your classmates arrive," Xander said, praising and offering a reward at the same time. Positive reinforcement, think I remember reading about that somewhere.
Corey's still-messy hair oops, forgot the haircut! bobbed and he flashed an impish grin at his dad. "So... I did good? Cus, I thought, y'know, just maybe, it might help a little."
Xander swung his boy off the counter in an easy arc, arms holding tight in a hug before letting Corey stand on his own. "You did great, kiddo. Just remember to be extra careful getting up on the counter like that. If you had fallen, I wouldn't have heard with all that water in my ears from the shower. So if you'll remind me this afternoon, after I pick you up from --" here, he stage whispered the single word "-- school --" then returned to his normal voice "-- we'll go back to Home Despot and find a nice sturdy ladder that's just right for you to reach the sink and counter, then I can start teaching you how to cook some. How's that sound?"
Thin arms surrounded his legs in a hit-n-run hug. "Sounds great! Gotta go grab my stuff. Be ready in a few, Daddy!"
"And so it begins," he spoke outloud to the kitchen as he wiped off the counter and added the used skillet, "I'll never be the center of his world again. It was great while it lasted, but definitely better for Corey to be independent and confident enough to hold his own. Seems like only yesterday..." Xander wiped his hand across his eye, only half-joking over the feelings of an 'empty nest'.
As it turned out, they were a full half hour early to school. This gave Corey more than enough time to meticulously organize his crayons and pencils, stack his tablets by size and color, and sneak Ralph (Clyde's beanie baby brother) out of his pocket and stuff him in his desk. From the other side of the room, Xander and Miss Vrba stifled their grins.
"He's still excited then?"
"Oh yes, as evidenced by him waking up before sun-up to nag me into breakfast. And then balancing each plate into the sink and getting the water ready to wash up while I was taking a shower. He's such an eager little helper."
"Sounds like it! And I promise not to cringe at the image of Corey climbing onto the counter as long as you promise to remedy the situation soon."
"Naturally, we're going to swing by the store after class to let him pick out his own ladder." A mock sniff. "My baby's all grown up!" The two adults laughed together, earning them a stern expression from Corey. Which simply set them off again.
Soon enough, the boy rejoined his teacher and guardian. "S'ok Daddy, you can go now," he announced, giving Xander's hand a squeeze before he grabbed Miss Vrba and dragged her over to the alphabet chart nearest his desk.
"Well now, seeing as how I've been dismissed, I will take my leave. G'day m'lady, g'day fair prince." He bowed, walking backwards through the door. And narrowly missing another early parent bringing in supplies. Straightening up quickly, Xander stammered an apology and quickly left the building. He heard his boy's giggles all the way out to the car, soothing some of the ache of separation.
Alright, Corey's taken care of. Gabe and Myrna went to run some errands. No excuse now, Xan-man. Gotta suck it up and make that call. Mental peptalk aside, Xander knew his palms were sweating from nerves. He had no doubt that the following conversation was going to be difficult, probably full of anger and accusations, or worse: honest and deserved hurt. No matter what Spike was like when I first met him, the man I knew, the man who gave his own life to save our girls... he definitely has the right to chew me out. Even if I was as much left out of the loop as he was. And gah! Where did this sympathy for the undead come from? Yeah, alright, I know where it came from, when it happened, and even how it grew between us. I'm allowed at least five minutes a day of self-delusion, right? Just not going to ignore my friend, no matter what my girls or surrogate father figure think.
Had he talked himself into making the call? Xander thought about it, then thought again. No, I don't have to talk myself into anything. I want to hear from Spike. Even sorta miss the blond freak. Who else has the intellectual acumen to appreciate the subtle humor of bad British sci-fi sitcoms? Whether it was the reminder of the budding friendship between them, or the affirmation of their mutual geek appreciation club, Xander found a phone in his hand and his fingers doing the walking.
"Good morning, Wolfram & Hart. How may I direct your call?" A slightly nasal voice answered the phone. It sounded eerily familiar, but Xander refused to ask.
"Yes, I need to speak with Angel. Now, if possible." There, that sounded strong, firm, decisive...
"I'm sorry, Mr. Angel is in meetings for the rest of the week. Would you care to leave a message, or try another party's extension?"
More than a little thrown off script, he took a deep breath and dived in. "Alright then, is Spike available?"
"Of course, sir. I'll patch you through at once."
A series of clicks indicated the forwarding of his call, but Xander barely registered the sound. His internal monologue babbled merrily along without consent. I can do this. I can do this. Can I really do this? Please gods, let me be able to do this without much damage to my fragile ego.
"Spike here, whatcha want?"
He sounds... tired. As in 'end of days, beaten to a pulp and underfed and under-appreciated' tired. And we left him like this. Gods, I wasn't responsible for Spike being blacklisted by the Watchers Council, and I'm trying to make amends now for crimes against my friend that I didn't commit, had no prior knowledge of, and would have objected to. Loudly. With as much eloquence as I'm capable. Please tell Spike for me so he doesn't bite first and ask questions later. Thank you, amen.
"Anybody there? Time's wastin', but it's your quarter."
Xander cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and managed to finally choke out a few words. "Hey Spike. Guess who just read the email about you being back?"
Dead silence greeted him, followed by the unmistakable sound of the blonde's lighter. Xander's nerves reached new heights, and he could feel an avalanche of babble ready to spew from his mouth. "This was a bad idea. The baddest idea in the history of bad ideas. You've got every reason to be pissed off, I know that, but guess I was hoping that maybe you'd understand being left out of the executive decisions cus no one told me, had to find out from a backdated email that Andrew tried to say was a hoax and it soooo wasn't, but why would you want to forgive and forget when everyone else hands you crap and I'm just one more jerk to add to the list, right?"
He paused for a quick breath and was about to start in again when his ears caught up with his brain. Yep, there it was -- the deep, rumbling chuckle he remembered from hundreds of other times where he had rambled in front of the vampire.
"Sorry, I wasn't sure if you'd even pick up the phone if you knew it was me." A pitiful apology, and not the one Spike truly deserved, but it was a start.
"No worries, mate. Had to wonder who knew, seeing how old Rupert snubbed me fast enough." A deep inhale, probably smoking up a storm. "So, you decided to check on the wayward son, eh? Fair enough. Let's get this over with and you can toddle back to the ladies with a clear conscience."
"Hey now!" It felt so good to hear his friend's voice that Xander nearly missed the insinuation of him doing some sort of dirty job. We're so much alike, always expecting to be rejected and shunned, ridiculed for having feelings. Damn, gotta nip this one quick. "I only found out about two weeks ago. Hopped a ride back to the states from Africa of all places, left my post, my job, and fussed out Andrew -- which felt pretty good, let me tell ya -- haven't talked with the girls or Giles about it either. I'm still hacked off about how they hid you coming back. Don't go all... stoic on me, alright?"
More silence, this one somehow different than the first. Contemplative, that's the word for it. Didn't set his teeth on edge as much, but he still held his breath.
"Right then, let's start over, shall we? Hello Xander, it's been awhile. How have you been?"
"Gah! Go from offended snarky to polite snarky in 3.8 seconds. And no, it isn't any better. Geez Bleachy, this isn't Watcher Harris talking -- it's Xander, the goofy roommate who misses his bud. Throw me a line, will ya?"
"A line, huh? Alright then... Three G'rlukdov demons slither into a bar --"
"Ha, heard that one already. Don't you remember? We were mocking the STNG reruns, which they so ran out of order, and we kept exchanging jokes during commercial breaks." Good times. This is the Spike I've missed. And please, let him forgive me?
More laughter over the phone, and the mood just relaxed.
They spent nearly two hours just talking, playing catch-up and making fun of Angel (always a popular sport). All too soon Xander looked up and noticed the time.
"Ack! I'm sorry to cut you off there, bud, but I gotta go. Uh, wanna come over tonight? Someone I'd like you to meet. Several someones, actually, but one in particular." He raced around the room, locating keys and wallet, shoving his feet into sneakers while he juggled the phone. "Please say yes, Spike. You'll love them, Corey especially."
"Hold on there, Harris." The words caused a shiver of memory to race down Xander's spine. "Who's this Corey, and who else do you think I need to meet?"
"Uh... you wouldn't believe me if I told ya. This one's something you gotta see to believe. Sorta like first time introductions to a vamp, alright?" He couldn't figure out a better way to explain how he'd suddenly been adopted by son and grandparents in less than two weeks. "Grab a pen and take down my address real fast, cus honestly, I gotta run out the door in two minutes or less."
Stunned by the abrupt halt of their conversation, Spike sounded a little hurt and a little worried, but was all mockney when he said, "Spill it then, and get your arse movin'."
If Corey was bouncing off the clouds over his first day of school, Xander was nearly as elated by re-establishing his friendship with the blonde. He merrily sang along with the radio, smoothly turned down the street toward the school, and waved at every pedestrian and driver he passed. By the time he shut the truck door and skipped up the front steps, his tanned face was nearly glowing from the sheer happiness of his morning's talk with Spike.
As per yesterday's suggestion, Corey was waiting for him in the library. He wasn't difficult to find either, completely surrounded by books with the librarian and both her assistants kneeling beside him. Paying homage, more like. Damn, he's gonna be a heartbreaker if we aren't careful.
Xander stuck his head in the doorway and smiled a greeting at the three ladies. "Hey Corey, you about ready to head home?" He grinned at his son's bright eyes and blissful expression. "I'll bet, if you ask nicely enough, they'll let you bring a book or two home with you," he whispered loud enough for all four to hear.
Corey's eyes widened even farther looks like an anime waif when he does that. "I can do that?" he asked his father, then looked to each of the women for verification. "Wow! How many can I borrow? For how long? What happens if I run out of books? Will you order more or can I go to someone else's library to see if they've got something different? Daddy, what're you waiting for? Help me pick out my books!"
Score one for public education! That's the most I've heard him speak at one time, ever. And he's using much better grammar too. Gotta remember to send flowers up to all these nice ladies, and Miss Vrba as well. And chocolates, mustn't forget the chocolates!
While the librarian and her assistants laughed at his dilema, Xander found himself dragged down to a munchkin-sized chair. His lap was soon the new home for a dozen thin early reader books. Looks like Dr. Seuss is on the menu for tonight. Maybe I can talk Spike into reading outloud for us? Everything sounds better when he's the one talking. And woah Xan-man, that sounds girly, better watch your testosterone levels.
Since Xander knew his son's stomach could handle just about anything these days, he gave in to the craving for Thai delivery. Serving for six should just about cover it, Xander snickered.
The first two hours after he'd picked Corey up from school were filled with alphabet recitals, counting up to ten, and a ton of 'Crissy said...,' 'Jason has...,' and 'Miss Vrba told us...' They picked up a suitable ladder as the boy relayed every minute in graphic detail of his exciting first day -- and in the spirit of magnanimous spending, Xander had the salesclerk at Home Depot create a little decal that said 'Property of Corey Harris'. The proud new schoolboy refused to let his dad carry either his library booty or his backpack, but readily handed over The Cat in the Hat when Xander offered to read it with him.
Dinner arrived at 7:30pm, jarring Xander from his domestic stupor. Crap! Spike'll be here soon and I haven't warned Corey! Helping his boy tidy the living room, he wondered how the meeting would turn out. As long as Corey doesn't feel too threatened, and Spike minds his growling, it should go well... I hope.
Another glance around the room, and he deemed it good enough. He called Corey over to join him on the sofa and turned sideways to see the kid's features full-on.
"Hey babe, we're going to have an old friend of mine over for dinner tonight," Xander began, breathing a mental sigh of relief at the look of mild interest on his son's face. "You'll like him, I think. He's funny and loves to watch cool movies and listen to loud music. And he reads alot!"
Throwing in the last comment would probably piss Spike off, but it was a sure way to earn Corey's positive interest. Cheap trick, but whatever works to make this a smooth evening.
"Any friend of yours is a friend of mine, right Daddy?" Too-innocent eyes looked up at him, a small smile twisting the serious expression into one of teasing fun.
Xander laughed heartily. "Where in the world did you pick up that expression, kiddo?"
Corey batted his eyelashes and smirked oh dear gods, where's my camera? before explaining again the book Missus Reid had read to him in the library, and "Daddy, don't you ever listen to me?"
As funny as it sounded, Xander vowed to have a look at the approved reading list. Cus those phrases? Too mature for a five year old to be spouting.
He was saved from further headache by the doorbell. Xander jumped off the couch, only slightly aware of his son's worried expression. Just gotta get through introductions, then Corey will see how great Spike is. Right? Please be right. I miss my friend! Unless he's afraid that I won't want to spend any time with him if Spike's in the picture... ah crap, that's so likely to be the problem. How do I fix this one and still keep them both? Assuming that I've still got the great Bleached One as a friend. Gah.
A second ringing of the bell broke him out of his worries. Xander forced himself to take a few slow breaths before opening the door. Wow, just look at what eating regular will do to a vamp.
Part of the undead package: negligible aging. And on Spike, it was so very pronounced. He was wearing his precious duster, but that was the end of the similarities. A nice pair of front-creased slacks in charcoal grey was matched with a deep blue dress shirt. Neat and very attractive, without being too dressy. Classy, that's what he is. Haven't seem him this spiffed up in... years. Makes quite an impression too. Cus. Damn.
Scarred eyebrow raised, the blonde drawled, "G'evenin' mate, wanna do the invite? Night's not getting any younger here."
Xander felt his face go up in flames. What kind of host friend was he to leave a guest on his doorstep? "Sorry, of course you are always welcome in my home. Come on in, Spike."
Smirk firmly in place, the blonde stepped over the threshold. His eyes darted around the room, taking in the comfortably homey atmosphere. He took a whiff and smiled, pleased that his former roommate remembered his taste for spicy Thai. Something was off though. With his head cocked, Spike focused on listening... and found a second heartbeat just behind the partially closed door just down the hall.
"Wanna take care of the introductions, mate? Seems like your friend is near to panic in there, he said in an even voice. Whoever was hiding in the other room was near to cardiac failure, if their heart rate was any indication.
Doh! Super senses via vampire. How could I forget that handy little trick? Xander whapped a hand to his forehead, then raised his voice just a bit to call out, "Hey Corey, come on out and say hi to my friend Spike."
Wide blue eyes peaked around the door and met a stunned but nearly identical stare from the Brit. Corey shyly made his way into the room and scampered over to stand behind his father. Tiny fingers grappled for Xander's hand as the boy hid halfway behind his dad's long legs. Finally feeling shielded from the strange man, he whispered a hello.
Concern and love vied for first place on Xander's face. Naturally Corey will be a little shy meeting new people... I had just hoped for this meeting to be as easy as signing him up for school. Bleh. With his unoccupied hand, he ruffled the boy's hair and smiled down at the messy mop. Head still down, he was unaware of the obviously smitten expression on his own face as he made the intros, "Corey, this is one of my oldest friends, Spike." His smile was proud and caring, even as he turned back to the blonde. "Spike, this little bit of wonderful is Corey. My son."
The moment of truth. And most of it depends on Spike's reactions. Corey... well, he'll see most of the same things I do in Spike. So long as the Bleached Wonder doesn't stick his feet in his mouth first. Damn, we're really a matched set for inappropriate comments, aren't we?
Vamp speed nearly saved the blonde's self-image. If Xander didn't know him so well, he would easily have missed the lightning fast double-take. Spike's eyes flicked from adult to child and back, then his standard cockiness fell into place. He nodded at the boy, eyes still dancing between the pair. " 'lo there, lil bit," he started, then closed his mouth with a snap and shot Xander several non-verbal questions with his eyes. "Looks like you left out a few juicy pieces of news, mate."
Xander's mouth opened to say something -- he had no idea what, but something would have bumbled past his lips -- but was stopped by a timely interruption. A sound so beautiful that no one could withhold a smile in response: his son's laughter rang through the room. A glance at his friend showed that he wasn't alone in melting at the boy's joyous noise.
"Daddy's new at this," Corey said, his earlier bout of shyness forgotten. He stepped beside his father and solemnly offered his hand to the vampire. "Corey Alexander Harris," he announced himself formally, "Pleased ta meet ya." The twinkle in his eye loudly proclaiming his pleasure at throwing his dad's friend with his manners.
Spike dropped down to his knees in front of the boy, accepting the tiny hand in his own. With an eerily identical glimmer, he returned the greeting, "Hello there, Corey Alexander Harris. My name is Spike, or Will if you prefer. And any son of Xander's is a son of mine."
The healthy smacking sound of Xander's palm smacking his forehead (again) broke the twin blue-eyed devils' mockery of courtesy. Spike threw him a smirk and the eyebrow maneuver that meant he had some explaining to do, while Corey's expression turned up a few notches on the mischief meter. He tugged at the blonde's fingers to get his full attention once more.
" 'zat mean I can call you Papa?"
One breath. Two breaths. On the third, Xander let out a guffaw that made Spike fall on his ass.
A speechless blonde attempted several non-words, leaving his response at, "Er... Xander?"
He was made to wait while the human was collapsed in a laughing fit like he hadn't felt in years. It just feels so good, so right to be with these two. Wiping tears from his face, he caught Spike's worried look and snickered again. "Don't look at me, buddy. You said it -- Corey's just accepting your offer." He pulled the giggling culprit onto his lap and patted his hair, then looked thoughtfully at his friend. "Of course, I expect you to be around more than most weekend dads. It's tough enough for kids these days without our son having to live through a broken home." Corey nodded his head in utterly serious agreement.
Spike's stare whipped back and forth between the two brunettes. He knew he was being teased, but something made him think it wasn't about the 'offer' of half-custody. Imminent mental breakdown from the truly weird turn of conversation made him grasp for straws of normality.
"So, uh... do I smell Thai?"
Dinner was met with a measure of success. Corey seemed to approve of the spices used -- and gods, could the kid pack it away! Of course, Spike and Xander finished off what remained. Soon enough, the boy was off taking his bath, leaving the adults to clean up and talk quietly.
"You never do things by halves, do ya Harris?" the blonde teased as he tossed empty cartons into the trash. "When'd you find out about the lil squirt?"
Xander laughed softly as he washed up the flatware. "It's not quite what you think, Spike. I found him the day I got to L.A. -- on a sidewalk, hoping his mother was just sleeping, instead of being dead. No such luck as far as I can tell." He grinned sideways at the look of disbelief. "Looks alot like me though, doesn't he? I tell ya, it makes things soooo much easier."
He rinsed out the sponge, drained the sink, and leaned against the counter. An evil smirk took over his grin. "So, unless there's something you haven't told me about vamp physiology, Corey is not our long lost lurve child." Dramatic sigh, pouty lips, eye cast down as he affected wistfulness. "Our secret affair bore no fruit." He managed a sad little sniff before losing it and laughing hard enough to produce tears.
Even knowing that Harris was pulling his chain, Spike's mouth dropped open in stunned 'pause' mode. It closed with a snap a minute later, then he seemed to pull up to his full height, a sly expression flashing across his features. Two steps forward had him standing mere inches from the brunette, who made no move to prevent his personal space from being invaded.
A soft, cool hand reached up to stroke Xander's neck, fingers barely touching his warmth. Blue eyes peered up through dark lashes at him, a curious mixture of hesitation, teasing and something else lurking beneath it all.'
"I'm sorry, luv. It was such a horrible time, I just didn't know how to bring a child into our weekly appointment with apocalypse." Spike leaned the entire length of his body against Xander's, his mouth moving to the other man's ear. "Couldn't bring myself to get rid of the product of our passion though."
Xander stood still as a post -- torn between amusement at the bizarre play acting and trying to figure out his own response to the blonde's proximity. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so aware of another person's closeness.
Leaning into the nuzzling vamp, Xander's hands came up to gently rest on taut shoulders. "Oh baby, I wish I'd been there to support you." He wanted to add a snicker or some quip to lighten the mood, but something held him back. Instead his hands moved on their own to offer comforting strokes across wiry arms. Spike feels good. Spike shouldn't feel good... should he? And alright, the guy thing -- I can deal with that -- but it's Spike! And he isn't moving away... or does he feel it too? Gods! I need to have a talk with Corey about putting ideas in Daddy's sub-conscious.
The look Spike sent him made Xander shiver all the way down to his toes. A deft tongue peaked out between supple lips, leaving a glimmer of moisture that begged to be chased. Completely mesmerized, Xander felt his head tilt and lean toward the pouty mouth. Spike's eyes lowered to stare at the mortal's lips, his own opening just a bit.
"Daddy! 'm done with my bath, and which book are we going to read tonight?"
Xander jumped straight into the air, his hands falling to clutch his chest. He gulped a deep breath and closed his eye before answering, "How about we get started on Gulliver's Travels? Get into your p.j.'s and brush your teeth. I'll find the book and join you in a few minutes."
"Lily poo shuns? Yeah!" The wet patter of half-dried feet ran back down the hall, giving the adults too much time to react to...
"Spike," the brunette's voice was wobbly and a little breathless, "did we almost..." He couldn't finish the thought.
Nodding slowly, Spike seemed just as unnerved. "Yeah, think so." He swallowed hard. "Dunno whether to laugh or growl at the interruption."
Xander blinked. "Uh... I think I'll settle for a gurgle of gah right now." His hand reached toward the blonde, but stopped short before contact was made. "This is... new and different."
A half-snort of amusement. "Definitely 'new and different', luv." Hesitant eyes lifted to search Xander's face. "Think we should try it out?"
Well, that's not what I would've expected. His eye tracked down to his hand, still held so near Spike's It's not like how me and Ahn got together. Or Cordy either, or any of the demons wanting to make me their butt monkey. We're friends, right? That's supposed to be the best way to start a relationship. Woah! Reboot the brain, Xan-man. Am I seriously thinking about getting groiny with the Bleached Menace?!
Before his internal freak-out could kick into fifth gear, cool fingers threaded through his out-stretched hand. With gentle pressure, he flexed his own fingers just enough to move them into a comfortable position, noting how well they seemed to fit together. He closed his eye for another breath, taking stock of all the reasons why he shouldn't 'go there'... and opened to see Spike's face. Wow, now I understand when people say 'unguarded expression'. It's like everything he's thinking and feeling are written in big capital letters across his face. 'Don't hurt me.' 'What am I thinking?!.' And the ever popular 'I'm scared to try, but more scared not to.' Wonder if he's seeing the same things on my face. Probably... gods know I could never hide much from anyone. And I'll bet this waiting is just about killing him. Well, the last few snap decisions I've made have turned out great. Let's see if my batting average holds up.
Xander tugged his hand, slightly surprised and greatly relieved when Spike's body came along for the ride.