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Pumpkin Pie Syndrome and Other Occupational Hazards

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By the end of September, the file in Tommy F's teacher's desk (he was Tommy F, because there was a Tommy K as well) contained the information that he would be eight on November nineteenth; that he was doing math on a third grade level but was a little behind in reading; that he was allergic to bee stings and had an epi-pen in the locked storage cupboard; and, on a brand new Post-It note, that he was absolutely not allowed to sit near Ben or Lashaun, because if Xander turned his back on them for five seconds, all hell was going to break loose.

What wasn't in the file, because Xander hadn't known, and apparently Tommy F's first-grade teacher had forgotten to mention, was that Tommy F's dad was hot. Not just reasonably attractive; this was California, and it was second grade, so a lot of the parents were young and good-looking. Tommy F's dad, on the other hand, was the kind of guy Xander would notice in a bar and immediately classify as out of his league.

Of course, in this particular instance, he was also the parent of one of Xander's students, so he was off-limits no matter what. "Hi," Mr.--oh, crap, what did the F stand for? Xander sucked at remembering his students' last names--said, offering his hand for Xander to shake. Good handshake. Nice, firm grip. "I'm Riley Finn."

Finn. That was what the F was for. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Finn. Please, um, sit down." Xander was not checking Riley Finn's hand for a wedding ring. He knew Tommy's parental information sheet didn't list a mom, but he'd been teaching long enough to know that didn't mean there wasn't one somewhere. Or a stepmother, wicked or not.

Also, the presence of Tommy Finn, age seven, suggested that there was a better than even chance that his dad was straight. It wasn't certain--he was godfather to a couple of exceptions to that rule--but still, pretty good chance.

Also, Xander reminded himself, this was Tommy F's dad, and they were not here to discuss what he was doing on Friday night. They were here to discuss lizards, specifically leopard geckos, specifically the release of seven of them into Room 2G during Sustained Silent Reading that morning.

"Call me Riley," he said, pulling out one of the undersized chairs from the math manipulatives table and sitting down. There weren't many men who could manage to look good sitting in a tiny plastic chair, but Riley managed; it just made his legs look longer and his shoulders look even broader.

Geckos. Focus on the geckos. Focus on the girly screaming when the geckos made their presence known. Focus on the fact that not all of it had been coming from second-grade girls, or even second graders at all.

"Xander," he managed. "I'm only 'mean old Mr. Harris' if you're four feet tall." Riley was definitely more than four feet tall. And that, Xander told himself, was what it was. He didn't see many adults these days. He didn't even go out on the weekends any more; by the time he wrote out his weekly lesson plans and graded Friday's spelling tests and did his laundry, he didn't feel like going anywhere more exciting than the supermarket. No wonder he was getting obsessive over the most attractive man he'd seen in days.

"Xander." Riley smiled at him, and Xander revised "days" to "weeks." "Now, the message I got was a little confusing, but there was something about lizards?"

"Oh, yeah." Xander shook his head, running his hand through his hair and pushing up his glasses. "Lashaun Bell--I don't know if you know him, but he's one of your son's friends--"

"I know Lashaun," Riley said. "He and Tommy and Benjy Asadian wreck my living room at least once a month."

"Then this story is going to sound really familiar," Xander said, grinning in spite of himself. "Lashaun brought seven lizards to school in a shoebox for reasons only an eight year old boy would understand. He was showing them to Tommy and Ben--if you want to look cool, call him 'Ben' now; he decided last week that 'Benjy' is a baby name--while I was at the door talking to the vice-principal. From what I can tell, Tommy and Ben were fighting over who got to hold the box, the lid came off, and we were suddenly in a remake of The Great Escape." And Room 2G had spent the rest of the morning learning about lizards, with a specific focus on all the places they could hide in the average elementary school classroom.

Xander waited for Riley's reaction. He'd learned during his first year teaching that parents could be classified into three groups--well, four groups, but the fourth group was "invisible." Some parents got defensive, and started arguing with Xander that there was no way that their precious baby could possibly have done anything wrong. The second group overreacted; Xander always winced when he realized he'd set one of them off, and watched the kid carefully for the next few days, just to make sure that all that had happened at home was some yelling and maybe excessive grounding. The third group were the sane ones, and since Xander had already had two of these conferences this afternoon and they'd both been of the "not my kid" variety, Xander was really hoping Riley was sane.

Considering that Riley's reaction was to burst out laughing, Xander wasn't so sure. "I'm sorry," Riley said after a few seconds, his shoulders still shaking with suppressed laughter. "I know, it's totally disruptive, and trust me, Hurricane Tommy and I will be having a long talk about how I expect him to act at school. But seven lizards," he said. "I thought it was bad when our hamster got out, but--"

And really, it wasn't like Xander couldn't see the funny here. Apart from the thing where he'd had a gecko run up his pants leg, it had been funny. It was just the lizard-in-the-pants thing that was going to scar him for life. But the more Riley laughed, the harder it was to remember the scarring and the easier it was to see the funny, until Xander was laughing too.

Then he realized that there was something yellow on Riley's shoulder. Yellow with black spots, as a matter of fact.

"Oh, crap," Xander said. "There were eight of them."

***



Of all the things Xander didn't want to do on a Saturday morning, going to the bookstore was pretty far up his list. Not that he disapproved of reading. He definitely approved of reading. He was a teacher; it was kind of in the job description. But since Rainbow Books and Gifts closed at noon on Saturdays, he had to get up early--well, early-ish. He had to go into tacky overpriced gay-themed merchandise hell. He had to shop.

And he had to find a book for his goddaughter's fifth birthday that Naomi and both her mothers would approve of, and as much as he loved Willow and Tara, they could be weirdly picky. Sometimes he wanted to just buy the kid a couple of Barbies and tell her moms to get over it. Hell, he'd get some for Dylan, too, just to be non-gender-specific.

Xander made his way through the racks of bumper stickers and rental DVDs, back to the children's section. Everything obvious and not brand new, either he or her moms had bought Naomi ages ago, and Xander hadn't really had a chance to check out the gay-themed children's books since he'd done that project in Children's Lit class, the one that had made half his classmates look at him funny for the rest of the term.

He started going through the books, eliminating the ones that were too hard for Naomi to read on her own, the ones that were serious downers--he could understand why kids needed books about hate crimes and HIV, but they made lousy birthday presents--and the ones that got too preachy. That came close to wiping out the whole section; maybe he should just go to Borders and pick out something heterosexist but not boring. He'd worked hard on being Dylan and Naomi's cool Uncle Xander; he didn't want to suddenly become "Uncle Xander, who gives stupid presents." 

"We liked The Duke Who Outlawed Jelly Beans," said a voice from behind Xander, making him jump and drop the book he was holding. He turned around, about to apologize for having acted like a flailing idiot, when he realized who had just spoken.

And who was hanging onto the man's hand. "Hi, Mr. Harris!" Tommy said, brandishing a large picture book. "Why aren't you at school?"

After a couple of years, Xander had gotten used to the idea that his kids thought he slept in the classroom. "There's no school on Saturday," he pointed out. "I was looking at books, just like you and your dad." Who was in a gay bookstore. Well, a gay and feminist bookstore, but it was still pretty short on straight men.

And who was still one of his students' parents, so Xander could just stop noticing that Riley Finn looked even better in jeans and a sweatshirt than he had in khakis and a dress shirt. Other things he needed to not notice were that the shirt made his eyes look very green, that his left hand--the one holding out the book Xander had just dropped--was completely free of any jewelry that wasn't made by Timex, and that he was grinning like running into Xander at the bookstore was going to be the high point of his day.

He was probably a used car salesman, Xander thought. Or life insurance. This was all just the start of a sales pitch. "I didn't mean to startle you," Riley said. "But that book was a big hit with Tommy, and so if you were looking for something to use at school--"

"No," Xander said. "Not for school. My goddaughter's turning five next week, and I need a present. Thanks for the suggestion." And if it looked at allreasonable for Naomi, then he was out of here. Preferably before his brain switched over from "ran into a parent at the store" mode into "conversation with hot guy" mode, and he started babbling like a fool. Willow kept telling him he was going to outgrow that one of these days, but here he was, over thirty and still waiting.

"I didn't expect to see you here," Riley said.

"In a bookstore? Reading's very important. I mean, not that I have enough time to read all that much, but it's important, and I like to encourage it, and besides, books are always a safe present for Naomi, the kid's never met a book she didn't like and oh, my God, I am making no sense at all."

Riley grinned again, letting go of Tommy's hand. "I think they're about to start story time," he said. "Why don't you go and grab us a spot while I talk to Mr. Harris, okay?" Tommy raced off--Xander was glad, and also kind of scared, to see the kid didn't save up all his energy for weekdays between eight and three--and Riley turned so that he could keep an eye on the circle of kids at the back of the store while they talked.

Another thing Xander needed to not notice about Tommy F's father was that he had a nice ass.

"Anyway," Xander said, trying to stop himself from launching into another stream of nonsense, "thanks for the book idea."

"No problem," Riley said. "Listen, do you have any plans for today?"

"Well, I fell asleep over the math tests last night, so I need to finish grading those," Xander said, "but nothing earth-shattering." He restrained himself from asking why. There was a perfectly reasonable and logical explanation that did not have anything to do with him having wild monkey sex with Tommy F's dad, and oh, God, he was not thinking that.

He was definitely going to Teacher Hell.

"Good." Riley grinned. "How about this. You get the book for your goddaughter, I'll go up and listen to--" he paused, squinting at the book the Story Lady, or Story Womyn, or whatever they called her here, was holding up, and then groaned-- "Heather Has Two Mommies for the eighty-third time, and then maybe we, the three of us, could grab some lunch? I have to take Tommy to a birthday party at two-thirty, but we'd have plenty of time."

Easy, Xander, he warned himself. Don't get too excited. "Sure," he said. "That makes sense. Since, you know, we have stuff in common, like, well, this." He waved at the bookstore, hoping Riley would get his meaning. "So it would make sense for us to hang out a little, share stories from the gecko trenches--"

"Actually," Riley said, cutting him off mid-blither, "I was kind of thinking this would be less like hanging out, and more like a date. A chaperoned date, but still a date."

It took three tries before Xander could make his mouth say, "Sounds good to me."

***



Kids, Xander decided, should be mandatory equipment for first dates. Any awkward silences were immediately filled with demands for chicken nuggets, attempts to blot ketchup out of a SpongeBob t-shirt, and stern instructions to sit down and eat lunch right now, Thomas Patrick Finn, or somebody was going to have an early bedtime.

But finally, Tommy had eaten enough lunch that his father was willing to let him kick off his sneakers and head for the play enclosure, and Xander realized he was actually going to have to carry on a conversation with Riley. This, he thought, was where it was going to all fall apart.

Maybe even sooner than he thought, because Riley was looking at him and frowning a little in a way that made Xander suspect that his Big Mac had caused a special sauce incident. One of these days, he was going to remember that good date food was not messy. Assuming he actually dated again, which wasn't exactly likely. Willow had been nagging him for months that he needed to get out there more, but he hadn't yet.

"You're not wearing your glasses," Riley said, though, which was weird, but a lot better than a sauce accident.

Xander shook his head. "I don't need them to drive, just if I'm going to be reading a lot. So I wear them at work, but the rest of the time, I can leave them off."

"You should wear them more," he said, which Xander would have chalked up to a keen interest in optometry if Riley hadn't followed it up with, "They look good on you."

He glared at Riley, although he was pretty sure his face was turning red. "Okay, how am I supposed to follow that?" he demanded. "You break out the big guns this early, and I'm left staring blankly into space trying to think of a way to keep the conversation going."

Riley shrugged, grinning. "You could always ask me what I do for a living."

The fact that Riley was suggesting it with that little smirky grin meant that he knew it was a lame cliché Xander had been trying to avoid, but then again, Xander couldn't see a better option at the moment. Besides, Riley had seen where Xander worked, so it was only fair. "What do you do for a living?" he repeated.

"It's boring," Riley said.

"Do you see grownups?" When Riley nodded, looking a little confused, Xander said, "Then by my standards, your job is a thrill a minute."

"Actually, most of them aren't really grownups," Riley said; "They're eighteen. I'm in grad school at the university. I teach three classes of freshman psych and work on my dissertation. Where 'work on my dissertation' and 'play spider solitaire' look pretty similar, at the moment."

"Eighteen," Xander said, "is old enough to drive, blow your nose without being prompted, and not blow bubbles in your milk. You work in my idea of heaven."

"You don't like teaching?"

"I love it," Xander said. "And I'm not just saying that because your kid's in my class. I have the best job in the world. Except when people release geckos in my classroom on Tuesday, there's a vomit chain reaction on Wednesday, the sixth graders pull the fire alarms three times on Thursday, and every single kid misspells 'through' on the spelling test on Friday. Then I start thinking maybe I wasted my college education."

"Vomit chain reaction?" Riley repeated.

"Trust me, you don't want to know."

"I think you're right there," Riley said. He must have fantastic peripheral vision, Xander thought, because he turned around then, calling, "Tommy! Let the other kids on the slide." Xander watched as Tommy slouched over to the other side of the play area, scowling. He didn't argue, though, which, in Xander's experience with Tommy Finn, was pretty darned amazing. "That's my guy," Riley added, and the scowl lessened.

"You're really good with him," Xander said. It had been obvious throughout lunch--hell, it was obvious at school--that Tommy idolized his dad, and today Xander had been able to see that Riley clearly adored him, too. And maybe it was a sign that Xander was getting old that "good with kids" was ranking as high in his brain as "looks good in jeans."

Riley sighed. "It's been me and him for most of his life," he said. "I was in the Army when he was really little; I missed a lot of big stuff then. But then when Sam--my wife--got sick..." He shrugged. "I got hardship leave because there wasn't anyone else to take care of either of them. And then when she died--I couldn't leave a toddler with a sitter for months at a time, so they gave me a discharge."

"I'm sorry." Which sounded lame, and Xander knew that, but there also wasn't anything else he could say, really.

"It was a long time ago," Riley said, and Xander nodded, even if he knew that didn't really matter. Just because something was a long time ago didn't mean that it didn't still hurt. Riley took a drink of his Coke, then swiped a little of Tommy's abandoned milkshake; when he looked up at Xander, he looked okay, even if his smile was just a little too bright. "Anyway. All of a sudden I was out of the Army and single, and eventually, once I was ready to think about dating again, I realized there was no good reason to pretend I'm not bi. Not that I pretended much," he said. "Sam knew; it was just the Army." He grinned. "And not that I get to date much. Between school and work and Tommy, I'm not exactly over-burdened with free time."

Xander grinned back at him. "Yeah, well, you'd never know you were out of practice." He shook his head. "And let's pretend that sounded the way it did in my head: not even slightly lame."

"I'm okay with the way it sounded here," Riley said. "I mean, it's a lot to live up to, but I'll do my best."

And then--well, Willow would say it was just like a movie, except that he was never, ever going to tell Willow that, sitting at one of the tables next to the McDonald's Play Place, he'd looked up at Riley, and their eyes had met, and just for a second, Xander had thought... He didn't know what he thought, except that just for a second, he'd believed this could turn into something big.

Of course, Tommy picked that exact minute to do a swan dive off the top of the slide--Xander really should have been expecting that; you really could nottake your eyes off that kid for a second--and Riley had to go charging off to the rescue; and then there was a bloody lip to clean off with wet napkins, and a newly-loose baby tooth to duly admire, and whatever that moment had been, it was gone now.

***



Number one on the list of things Xander was not doing was thinking about Riley Finn.

Number two on the list was "thinking about Riley Finn in his old Army uniform," number three was "thinking about Riley Finn not in his old Army uniform," and numbers four through infinity were things Xander wasn't admitting, even to himself, that he was capable of thinking in the first place; he hadn't previously realized the military thing was hot.

The not-thinking was getting easier, because it had been two weeks since he'd seen Riley, except as a signature on Tommy's spelling test (8 out of 10 wrong, and Xander had had to break out the dreaded bunny-rabbit stamp, the one that said, "please try harder!"), and hey, Xander knew when to cut his losses. His entire life up until this point had been a lesson in just that.

"That one guy isn't the point, sweetie," Willow was saying. "Dylan, sweetie, Mommy's talking to Uncle Xander now. Go tell Mama what you need." There was silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds, and then Willow said, "Sorry about that. You know how it is."

"No problem," Xander said, because he'd been around the kids enough that he did know, and then he waited, because Willow had definitely not been done. In fact, now might be a good time to get comfortable, he realized; they could be here for a while. He kicked off his shoes and lay back on the couch, stuffing a pillow under his head. There, now he was all set for an hour or so of Willow trying to get him to agree that he needed to find a nice guy and settle down in domestic bliss.

"The one guy, "she repeated, "isn't the point. Look, I know how bummed you were that things didn't work out with Jesse--"

"I thought we agreed to pretend that Jesse and I were never together," Xander said, frowning. It had been a disaster, it had nearly ruined their friendship, and they'd decided the best thing to do was to just ignore those eight weeks and try to get back to normal. It had taken a while, but they'd finally managed, and he didn't want to do anything to screw that up again. It wasn't all that likely now that Jesse was living in Boulder, but still. They'd made a deal.

"You and Jesse agreed," Willow said. "I said I thought that was stupid."

"Technically," Xander said, "I think you said that I was stupid, which I still say is unfair, since it takes two to break up." He really didn't want to have this conversation again. The thing with Jesse had been five years ago. And it wasn't like he hadn't dated since then. Not often, and nobody for very long, but there was nothing wrong with having standards.

"You went into it knowing that it was a bad idea," Willow pointed out. "You know I love Jesse, but you're the one who told me he's so far in the closet that he gets his mail in Narnia."

Xander sighed. "That's ancient history, Will. And it has nothing to do with Riley Finn, since he hasn't called me."

"You gave him your number?"

"Of course I did." Actually, now that she mentioned it, Xander wasn't a hundred percent sure he had. He thought he had. He'd definitely meant to. But he might not have actually gotten around to it.

"You could always call him, you know."

"Spoken like somebody who's been with Tara so long she forgot the heart-stopping terror of picking up the phone. Besides, he didn't give me hisnumber."

"Sweetie? Don't you have all your students' phone numbers in a file? I seem to recall that somewhere at the beginning of your story, you called him to complain about lizards."

"You're a genius," Xander said. "Not that I'm going to do it," he added, "but at least if I wanted to, I could."

He was pretty sure Willow was gearing up to tell him what a big chicken he was being, but the click of call waiting saved him. "Got another call," he said. "Back in a second." He was supposedly paying four ninety-five a month for voice mail, but it didn't work all that often. He switched over to the other call. "Hello?"

"Uh, is this Xander Harris?" He couldn't recognize the voice. The guy called him Xander, though, and not Alexander, so he probably wasn't a telemarketer.

"Speaking."

"It's Riley."

"Um." Xander bit back the "Wow, what a coincidence, my best friend was just saying I was a chicken for not calling you," comment, and decided to go with, "Hi."

"So, I know you didn't give me your phone number," Riley said, "but I was hoping that was more the general chaos and less that you didn't want to talk to me again."

"Yeah," Xander said. "It really was." He grinned. "Look, I have somebody on the other line. Let me say goodbye, and I'll be right back."

"Okay," Riley said. "But if this is a lame excuse to hang up on me, don't expect my kid to give you a '#1 Teacher' coffee cup this Christmas."

Xander laughed. "I would never jeopardize the coffee cup," he said, switching back to Willow. "I know," he said. "That was way more than a second. And now I'm going to have to hang up."

"Is something wrong?"

"No," he said, grinning. "I have Riley on the other line." Even with the receiver held away from his ear, Xander could hear Willow squealing with joy. That was the thing about Will, he thought. She might lecture him, she might call him a coward, she might refuse to listen to him when he said that he could handle his own personal life without help--but in the end, he knew she just wanted him to be happy.

He was grinning like an idiot right now, so he thought that he just might be.

"Hey," Xander said when he switched back. "So, where were we?"

"We had just established that even if you don't want to talk to me, you'd do it so my kid would give you a Christmas present from the dollar store." Riley chuckled softly. "Although to tell you the truth, I'm kind of hoping you do."

"Yeah," Xander said. "I'm glad you called." Even if he knew he really shouldn't be doing this. It was only the beginning of October. Tommy was going to be in Xander's class for eight more months. Flirting with Tommy's dad--going on dates with Tommy's dad--there were so many ways that could go wrong. And he knew better, even if there weren't actually rules against it.

It was hard to remember that, though, when Riley said, "I would have called before, but there are a lot of Harrises in the phone book, and none of them are named Xander. I mean, I figured out to try the A's eventually, but it took a while. Plus, I gave my first exam this week."

"Did it go better than the spelling test?"

"Actually," Riley said, laughing, "I was going to ask you if I could borrow the bunny stamp."

Xander laughed too; whatever awkwardness there had been in the conversation--and it was probably all on Xander's side, anyway--disappeared, and Xander discovered that even without Tommy providing a constant source of conversation, he could talk to Riley. He liked talking to Riley, liked listening to Riley telling him about growing up in Iowa, and about the Army, and about the dissertation he was avoiding writing. And Riley listened to him, too, while he talked about volunteering in an after-school program when he was nineteen and between jobs, and finding out that even if he hadn't been a great student, he was good at explaining things to kids--maybe because he hadn't been a great student--and moving in with Willow and Tara so he could afford to go back to school.

They didn't talk about Xander's job now, or about Tommy, and Xander felt almost like there had been some kind of unspoken agreement that this conversation was about them.

And when Riley said, "I hate to do this, Xander, but Mrs. Bell is going to be dropping Tommy off soon, so I need to go. But--tomorrow night. I have a sitter already, and I was hoping you might want to get some dinner, maybe see a movie? I'll even promise to get you home early, since it's a school night."

That was an actual date. Xander's life had been pretty short on those lately, where "lately" was measured in years, if he was going to be honest. Which was one of the things Willow despaired about, because she kept pointing out he wasn't really likely to meet Mr. Right in a skanky bar. Or even a non-skanky bar. Not, he hurried to add even to himself, that he was thinking about Riley in those terms, because he wasn't a thirteen-year-old girl, drawing hearts in her notebook because some boy looked at her.

"If you're free. I know it's short notice." And then he realized that he'd been off not writing "Xander and Riley Harris-Finn" in some metaphorical notebook, and not saying anything, and Riley was probably thinking that he was trying to come up with a nice way to say "hell, no."

"That sounds great," Xander said, before Riley gave up on him altogether and tried to find a guy who was, you know, coherent.

"Good. Seven o'clock okay?" Riley gave him the name and address of a restaurant Xander remembered seeing but hadn't ever gone to, and then said goodbye quickly with the sound of a kid yelling, "Dad! I'm home!" in the background.

Xander hung up, grinning. He wasn't going to call Willow, he told himself. He was a mature adult who did not have to call his best friend to tell her that he had a date for tomorrow night.

He held out for seven and a half minutes, which he thought was pretty darned good.

***



He'd had breakfast duty in the cafeteria, which meant he'd had to be at school by quarter to seven, and he was a walking zombie, but for once, Xander didn't care. He'd gulped down coffee and encouraged first graders to eat their cereal and broke up an argument between a couple of fifth graders, all with a big, stupid grin on his face.

It was safe to say that he'd had a good time. He'd worn his glasses, and from the way Riley had grinned when he saw Xander, he knew Riley had realized it had been just because he'd suggested it.

Dinner had been at an Italian place; he thought the food had been good. He did remember that he managed to not get tomato sauce on his shirt, which was always a minor miracle, but mostly, he'd paid more attention to Riley than to the food. They'd talked about kung-fu movies and music and vacations they wanted to take, and Riley had talked about how it was hard for a single dad to get dates, period, but that it was even harder to find a guy who didn't actually mind playing second fiddle to a kid; Xander wasn't sure that he didn't mind, exactly, but he knew that was the right way for things to be, and so he wouldn't have complained.

Xander had even, about halfway through the meal, wound up talking about Jesse, and how trying to get something he'd wanted since he was fifteen had nearly screwed up one of the two most important relationships in his life. Maybe it was rude to talk about your ex-boyfriend on a date, but on the other hand, it was the first time he'd talked about Jesse and hadn't wound up feeling miserable, and when he said that, Riley had grinned. "Maybe you're ready to move on," Riley said, and maybe he was right.

They hadn't made it to the movie; they'd sat there in the restaurant, lingering over coffee and dessert, because going somewhere else might interrupt the conversation. The only bad part was the voice that had started up in the back of Xander's mind around the time the appetizers had arrived, the one that kept saying, Oh, God, please don't let me fuck this up.

Because Riley was nice. Riley wasn't dangerous; he wasn't fucked-up enough for it to be obvious from fifty paces; his kid and his colleagues and his parents knew he was bi. Riley was, in other words, exactly like nobody Xander had ever been involved with. Xander wasn't used to being the screwed-up one in the relationship, and he really didn't want Riley to look back in a year or so and think, "Thank God I got away from that one."

He didn't want Riley to look back in a year or so and have gotten away, period, and hello, this was only their second date; he'd clearly been hanging around with too many lesbians, because he was dangerously close to turning into a bad joke about U-Hauls.

But the thing was, he liked this. He liked that he'd kissed Riley in the parking lot outside DiFiore's, with his back against the door of his car and Riley's hand curled around the back of his neck. Everything had been quiet and still, the loudest sound the beating of his own heart, and Xander had wanted it to go on forever. He even liked that after that, Riley had said goodnight. Okay, he'd have liked it if Riley had wanted to come back to his place, too, but there was something to be said for anticipation.

He liked that he'd had a phone message from Riley when he got home. And to be honest, he was having trouble thinking of something he didn't like about Riley Finn. Except for the obvious one, that it was a really, really bad idea for them to be trying to date. But Riley hadn't mentioned that, and Xander didn't want to be the one to bring it up.

Considering his usual luck, Riley wasn't going to stick around long enough for it to be a problem, anyway.

***



Apparently, on Thursdays, Tommy had karate class with Lashaun Bell, and then ate dinner with Lashaun's family so that Riley could put in a couple of hours of work on his dissertation. Tomorrow was a teacher inservice day, though, which Xander would generally be dreading--motivational speakers, yuck--but which meant that when Tommy asked if he could spend the night at Lashaun's, Riley could say yes.

And that meant that Riley had called Xander on Wednesday night after Tommy was in bed, and offered to come over with dinner. "I'd ask you over here," he'd said, "but Lashaun lives right down the street, and... I know Tommy was around the first time we had lunch, but I want to keep my kid and my personal life separate until I'm absolutely sure something is serious. I figure it'd be hard on him if stuff didn't work out." 

So they'd agreed that Riley would come over for dinner, and all Xander had to do was make sure the apartment was fit for company, which it was as long as Riley didn't look under the bed. Xander figured that if it looked like Riley was threatening to check out the thriving dust-bunny colony, he'd at least be in a good location to be distracted.

Xander had been expecting takeout; when Riley showed up carrying bags from the A&P, Xander blinked. "You're cooking?"

"Unless you want to eat raw meat." Riley grinned at him as he took half the bags and carried them through to the kitchen.

"I mean--you can cook?" Xander could cook. Sort of. He was good with spaghetti, sloppy joes, and his specialty: "stuff with barbecue sauce, dumped in the crock-pot Willow and Tara got him for Christmas one year." He made killer waffles. He could read a recipe and follow it, unless it had stuff in it like capers and shiitake mushrooms. He just didn't bother most of the time.

Riley gave him a look. "I have a kid at home. What am I supposed to do, let him live on Spaghetti-Os?"

He thought about pointing out that he'd had Spaghetti-Os for dinner last night, but just shook his head. "Sorry. I was just impressed."

"I'll forgive you if you make the salad." Salad was something Xander could do; he started unpacking the groceries, setting aside everything that looked like it was destined for salad. "Don't expect anything fancy," Riley said, as he turned on the oven. "My one and only show-off meal is steak and baked potatoes." He picked the potatoes up from the counter, taking them to the sink to wash them off.

"You're in my kitchen cooking," Xander said. "Have I not mentioned yet that I'm already impressed?"

"I wanted to hear it again," Riley said, turning back to him and grinning.

Riley was wearing a UC Sunnydale sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up; one of the cuffs was water-logged anyway. He was scrubbing vegetables, which was about the least sexy thing Xander could think of for somebody to be doing, but Xander's standards were apparently being turned upside down, because all he could think to do was to come up behind Riley, sliding his arms around Riley's waist and kissing the back of his neck. "I could show you," he offered.

"That depends on how hungry you are," Riley said, but he was already turning off the water.

"Pretty much not at all," Xander said, pulling him closer.

***



It turned out sex was like pumpkin pie. Xander could go eleven months out of the year without having any pumpkin pie; other pie was reasonably satisfying, even if it wasn't quite the same thing, but once he had that first piece in November, he went way overboard.

Well, okay, maybe the metaphor fell apart at about the time he remembered that he tended to actually make himself sick on pumpkin pie. And that--no, he could think of some instances where Cool Whip might actually be appropriate. But the whole "got by just fine without it until he was reminded how much he liked it"? Yeah, that part of the metaphor worked.

Not that he could go overboard when it wasn't like he could see Riley all the time. He had been able to stay the night that first time, because Tommy had his cell phone number and knew that he should call if something went horribly wrong, but then Xander had had to get up and go to work, and he left early enough that there hadn't even been time for a quickie. At least he'd had something fun to think about during their guest speaker on graphic organizers.

And at least there had been phone calls, and e-mail; Xander had never been happier that Willow had given him her old computer so he could make worksheets and stuff at home. E-mail was better, because Riley was careful about what he said on the phone unless he was sure he was alone in the house. E-mail, on the other hand, let Xander know that he wasn't the only one experiencing pumpkin pie syndrome.

***



The first sign that something was about to go horribly wrong with their plan to get together on Thursday came when Tommy wasn't at school. Since the kid hadn't missed class so far this year, Xander was a little concerned just as his teacher; there was a bug going around, and apparently Tommy was the next one in line to get it. But as his teacher, all Xander needed to do was to put his work in a folder to send home when he got back to class.

As his dad's sort-of boyfriend, though, Xander could see their plans to get together while Tommy had his karate lesson falling apart completely. He had hope, though, because there was always the chance that Tommy had just had a dentist appointment. Maybe he was fine.

That hope vanished when he got home and checked his voice mail. "I'm sorry," Riley's voice said, sounding tinny and distant. "Tommy's sick. It's not bad, just a cold, but I'm keeping him home from school and karate, so we're going to have to reschedule. I'll call you tonight once he's asleep, okay?"

And of course it was okay. Xander wanted Riley to put his sick kid first. He'd be a crappy father if he didn't, and it turned out that Xander didn't want to date a crappy father. He'd had enough experience with those for the first eighteen years of his life to last him for the rest of it.

Just because it was okay didn't mean Xander liked it, though. A Thursday spent watching TV and trying to come up with a couple of decent review activities on contractions was not exactly the Thursday he'd been looking forward to.

At least Riley was going to call, he told himself. Other stuff might get in the way, but it looked like they were actually kind of dating, after all.

***



"I don't think my dad likes me any more."

That was out of the blue. Tommy was supposed to be sitting on the steps during recess because he pulled Tanya Jackson's hair, not because he had some major unburdening of his soul to do. "I'm pretty sure your dad likes you," Xander said, and didn't add, "Since he talked about you to me on the phone for half an hour last night." But he was supposed to be validating the kid's feelings, so he did go on with, "But what's going on that makes it seem like he doesn't?"

Tommy shrugged. "I keep having a babysitter," he said. "I never used to have to have a babysitter all the time." And Xander couldn't argue that it wasn't "all the time," it was once every two weekends, because he wasn't supposed to know what Riley had been doing every other Saturday evening for the past couple of months. He wasn't supposed to know anything at all about Riley except that he was Tommy's dad, and they had had lunch together one day at McDonald's because they'd run into one another at the bookstore.

Xander took a deep breath. "Did your dad say where he goes when you have a babysitter?"

"He has friends he wants to see," Tommy said. "He's a grownup. Grownups aren't supposed to have friends."

He smiled. "Grownups have friends, Tommy. And even if sometimes they want to spend time with those friends, it doesn't mean they love their kids any less." And if this was any other kid in his class, he'd be picking up the phone at three o'clock and calling Tommy's dad to let him know what was going on in his kid's head--not because he thought there was anything massively wrong, but just because it was the kind of thing parents, especially concerned parents who didn't overreact, should know their kids were talking about to their teachers.

The problem was, if he did that, there was a good chance Riley was going to stop having any time to spend with him, and god, he couldn't believe he was actually considering not telling Riley.

That was it, he decided. He'd given it a fair shot, but apparently he couldn't do this. He was either going to be a bad boyfriend or a bad teacher, and unfortunately, he knew which one he had to pick.

***




In the end, he decided not to treat Riley just like any other parent; instead, he called him and asked if they could meet for coffee. Tommy had brought in a note for his bus driver that said he was going home with Ben, so he'd figured Riley would be free for a couple of hours.

Not that this was going to take a couple of hours. It had only been a couple of minutes, so far, and Xander had already explained things to the point where he was totally wrecking his life. "It's not Tommy's attitude that's the problem," he said, wrapping his hands around his cup of coffee. "You can probably fix that. Talk to him, spend some time with him, it'll be okay."

"Yeah," Riley said. "I'm going to hang out with him this weekend. Maybe take him to a basketball game at the college."

"That should be good," Xander said. He tried to switch into teacher-mode, worrying about Tommy and not about how much this was going to suck. It didn't work. "The thing is, Riley, I, um. I can't do this any more."

Riley looked at him, clearly stunned. "You said yourself that I could fix things with Tommy."

"Yeah, you can, and that's great. But--I'm supposed to be on his side," Xander said. "I'm supposed to pick up the phone in a heartbeat and call you if your kid's upset about stuff going on at home. I'm not supposed to stop and think about how it's going to affect me. I should never have gotten involved with you in the first place; I knew it was a bad idea while Tommy was in my class."

Riley ran a hand through his hair. "So, what? You're saying it's not me, it's your job?"

Xander nodded. "The past couple of months have been--Riley, it's been great. I--Christ. I don't want to do this, but it's the right thing to do."

The smile Riley gave him didn't come anywhere near meeting his eyes. "And there's nothing I can do to change your mind?"

"Please don't try." There probably was something he could do; Xander really didn't want this to end. He gave Riley the same kind of tight smile Riley had just given him. "Look. I know I don't have the right to ask this--but in June, Tommy won't be in my class any more. If you're not, um, seeing anybody else, and you want to--"

Riley smiled again, just slightly. "I'll call you," he said. Xander was pretty sure that was the kind of "I'll call you" that really just meant, "Please stop talking," but he'd take whatever he could get.

***



Xander figured that even if he had been the one doing the breaking up, he was perfectly entitled to sulk as long as he wanted to. So far, it was four days and counting. It was Saturday night, and if he hadn't been all stupid and noble and broken up with Riley, they'd be out somewhere right now. Maybe bowling. Riley kept threatening to take him bowling, and Xander was willing to go along with it. He'd have gone along with pretty much anything Riley had suggested, to be honest, because so far nothing they'd done had been un-fun. That was the thing about hanging out with Riley. 

That had been the thing about hanging out with Riley, he corrected himself. He wasn't doing that any more. 

Instead, he was watching cars explode in some stupid home-video show on cable, sitting on the couch eating cold pizza, and trying to convince Willow that he didn't need an intervention, at least not just yet. "I'm going to be fine," he said, balancing the receiver between his ear and shoulder.

"I think you need to get out of the house," Willow said. "Why don't you come over tomorrow? You can play with the kids, I'll make dinner--"

"I get out of the house," Xander said. "I've been going to work."

"That doesn't count."

"It definitely does," he said, "because--" He was interrupted by the sound of his doorbell. "Gotta go, Will, there's somebody at the door." It was probably someone selling crap, or a Jehovah's Witness, but it was getting old telling Willow that he was fine.

He went over to the door, unlocking it and opening it, and then standing there dumbfounded. "Riley?"

"Screw it," Riley said. "We'll move across town so Tommy's in another school district. I'll borrow money from my parents to send him to a private school for the rest of the year. I'll--I don't know what I'll do, but give me a couple of weeks to figure it out, and I'll do something, okay?"

"What? Riley, what are you talk--"

It didn't matter what Riley was talking about, really, because Riley was pushing him back against the wall, his mouth only a fraction of an inch away from Xander's as he murmured, "Tommy's at Lashaun's again, so we have all night. In a little while, you and I are going to talk and get this all straightened out, but first--"

And then Riley was kissing him, and Xander didn't need him to finish his sentence, after all.