Cuckoo in the Nest

Cuckoo in the Nest

By Lizbeth Marcs

Rating: PG-13
Summary: Tony Harris always knew there was something off about the kid. From the day he was born, he and Jessica never had anything but bad luck.
Warning: Language. Racism/sexism. Depiction of alcoholism. Spoilers for all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tony Harris, Jessica Harris, Xander Harris, Rupert Giles, Willow Rosenberg, Anya and all associated characters and organizations are the property of FOX and Mutant Enemy. All original characters and the plot are mine. No payment was asked for or received in the writing of this story and no profit was earned. No copyright infringement on FOX or Mutant Enemy is intended.
Genre: Character study, old skool/future fic
Character (Main): Tony Harris
Supporting (Major): Jessica Harris, Xander, Anya, Giles, Willow

***

Tony looks at the kid and sees…

He doesn’t want to think about what he sees.

What he doesn’t see is a reflection, that’s for goddamn sure.

It makes him angry. Furious. Murderous.

He sees black hair and hazel eyes and he’s reminded that fucking Jessica conned him.

But he said, “’til death do us part,” so that’s the way it’s gotta be.

There are days he’d like to punch through the kid’s chest, rip out his heart, and squeeze it in front his eyes. He wants to scream the truth in the kid’s face, but he knows he won’t. He doesn’t want to admit that there might be a reason why the kid’s an only a child, even to himself. Like his daddy once told him: any man who shoots blanks ain’t a man. The kid is living, breathing proof — a constant reminder rubbed in his face on a daily basis — that maybe, just maybe, he shoots nothing but blanks.

Then there are days that Tony can feel himself melting when the kid smiles. It’s a smile that illuminates the face, that lights up the fucking room, and it’s so bright, bright, bright that all Tony can do is squint against the light, bask in the warmth, and wish he could get beyond black hair and hazel eyes.

The kid’s smile is cheaply won. Tony knows this from experience. The smallest goddamn thing makes the kid happy and when his face lights up with that smile it means about as much as someone dropping a penny in a slot. Maybe the kid’s so easily thrilled with life because he knows he’s lucky to have even been born. When Tony needs to take the edge off with Wild Turkey, he sometimes slips and reminds the kid of that fact. The kid’s smile vanishes and Tony gets angry because he can feel the loss in the pit of his stomach.

He and Jessica, they’ve been hitched for…how old’s the kid again? They were married eight years ago last month. Christ. Like he could forget. They went out to celebrate the anniversary and Jessica sent her food back because the meat wasn’t cooked enough. Jessica in a nutshell, right there. Never fucking happy with anything.

So, eight years ago last month he made the biggest mistake of his life by believing Jessica.

Two years ago this month he heard about Jessica in the frat house and realized the truth about the kid.

The kid’ll be eight next month.

***

The kid’s trying, but he just ain’t good.

The kid swings the bat and the baseball sails right past him. He should’ve been able to hit that. It was thrown right over the plate.

The whole little league experience is another link in the chain of evidence as far as Tony’s concerned. When Tony was a kid he was a sports freak. Baseball, basketball, football, anything with a ball and he was the king. MVP in JV. Football scholarship just waiting for him. Then along comes fucking Jessica and her lies.

Tony takes a sip from his beer. It’s cheap shit, but he needs to drive the kid home after the game so he can’t afford to get a buzz on. Some wetback asshole next to him starts screaming at the coach to yank the kid out of the lineup because he sucks so bad that he’s making the team lose.

Finally the loudmouth gets on his nerves and Tony points out that the team was losing long before the kid got anywhere near the bat.

Tony knows the other guy swung first. He doesn’t care what the other parents say.

The following week the coach takes Tony aside and tells him that maybe he should consider pulling the kid out of little league. His hand-eye coordination isn’t that great and he’s not really suited to organized sports. The kid just ain’t that much of a team player.

Tony reasonably argues his case. The kid’s 12 for chrissakes. No 12-year-old plays like a pro.

The coach keeps making excuses like the wuss he is and Tony knows he’s being fed a line of bullshit and he says so.

He grabs the kid and yanks him to the car as they leave before the game starts. Kid knows better than to say anything.

***

The kid’s gone sullen. It was a sudden thing, too. One day he’s acting like he’s got shit for brains, the next day it’s like someone has yanked his batteries.

While Tony likes the fact that the kid learned how to keep quiet and stay out of his way, he doesn’t like the pissy attitude that goes with it. The kid comes home from school and walks straight to his room without a word, do not pass go, do not collect $200. He stays there until dinner, at dinner he silently picks at his food, then he goes back to his room.

If Tony didn’t know any better, he’d think the kid was sneaking out nights because there are occasionally sounds of movement coming from his room in the wee hours of the morning. Fuck it. The kid’s 16. He’s probably jacking off to skin mags borrowed from that buddy of his, what’s his name…oh yeah, Jesse. Personally, he thinks that Jesse kid is a fag, so the kid probably got the skin mags from somewhere else.

Tony puts up with the kid’s shit for about two weeks.

The kid’s pale and silent as he picks at dinner just like he’s picked at dinner for the past 14 days. His eyes are so bloodshot red that for a brief moment Tony thinks the kid might’ve been smoking weed. He immediately tosses the idea out the second he thinks it because he hasn’t smelled that shit coming from the kid’s room. Besides, usually potheads are all over the food and the kid’s barely eating.

Jessica keeps giving the kid these worried looks before blaming Tony for not doing something. She employs her supersonic drama queen sigh that all but demands he talk to the kid.

Tony clears his throat and asks what the kid’s problem is.

The kid’s head pops up and he blinks quickly. “Nothing. Just…just not hungry is all.”

“You ain’t been hungry for weeks. You’re wasting food and that means you’re wasting my money.”

The kid mutters an apology and concentrates on his food again. The silent act stretches a bit before the kid adds, “Jesse hasn’t been in school for two weeks.”

“What happened?” Jessica asks.

Tony is pretty sure he imagined the kid’s wince, but he definitely notices the kid hunching lower over the table. “His mom thinks he ran away.” The kid says it like he doesn’t want to believe it’s true.

“He’ll crawl back when he gets hungry and he’s got a choice between starving and peddling ass,” Tony states.

The kid looks at Tony like he forgot how to speak English. There’s a frown line between the kid’s eyebrows, but other than that there’s a definite sense of no comprende.

“Honey, maybe you should let me make you a coffee,” Jessica interrupts.

“I’ll have another beer,” Tony says while he keeps his eyes on the kid. Son of a bitch. The kid ain’t been smoking weed. He’s been staying holed up in his room and crying like a pussy because his bud took a powder.

“He’s never coming back,” the kid says. His expression crumbles a little. “Don’t you get it? He’s gone. He’s never coming back and I—” He pushes back from the table and looks like he’s going to be sick. “I can’t do this. I can’t do this any more. I have to go.”

“Sit your ass down,” Tony orders.

The kid makes a move to stand. “I really have to—”

Tony’s out of his chair and he’s behind the kid. He forces him to remain sitting by placing two meaty hands on the kid’s shoulders and pushing down. “You have to what?” Tony asks. “Go in your room and cry some more? What are you? Some little girl who pissed her pants?”

“Fuck you,” the kid snarls.

Tony reacts on instinct and cracks the kid hard across the back of his head. The kid’s head snaps forward. He’s smart enough to keep his head down.

Tony sits back in his chair and points a fork at the kid. “In this house, you owe me a little respect, and that starts with not giving me your smart mouth. Save it for your buddies. I ain’t your buddy, got me?”

The kid slowly turns to face him. For the first time, Tony sees pure rage in those hazel eyes. The kid’s lips have disappeared into a line and his face is deathly pale, like something has drained all the blood from his body.

Tony reaches out and smacks the kid again, just in case he gets any ideas about taking a swing at him. There can be only one head of the household and this kid ain’t it.

The kid hunches closer to his dinner plate and keeps his eyes fixed on the moo goo gai pan.

“Eat it,” Tony orders.

“I’m not hungry,” the kid quietly says.

“Tony, just let him go. If he’s not hungry, he’s not hungry,” Jessica says.

“No. He’s going to sit there until he cleans his plate.” Tony is adamant. They spent good money for dinner and the kid is going to eat it even if he has to shove the food down the kid’s throat himself.

The kid’s hand slowly sneaks to the table and he picks up a fork. He gives Tony another look, this one almost pleading.

“Go on. Eat it,” Tony says.

The kid digs in, mechanically shoving food in his mouth at an ever-faster pace until the plate is clean.

“Now you can go do whatever it is you do in that room of yours,” Tony says.

The kid reminds him of a marionette with tangled strings as he stiffly gets up from his chair and jerkily leaves the kitchen.

“Don’t you dare slam that bedroom door,” Tony shouts after him.

There’s silence until they hear the bedroom door close. The kid knows better than to slam it after Tony’s warning.

“You were a little hard on him,” Jessica spits.

“Don’t you fucking start, Jessica.”

“He wasn’t hungry. He’s upset.”

“He’s too fucking sensitive.”

“This is the first time one of his friends has run away.”

“Yeah? Well, he needs to toughen the hell up. Jesus, how many kids in this town run away? Not like it’s something new.”

The conversation goes downhill after that.

Later that night, Jessica finally forgives his sorry ass and she decides that he doesn’t have to sleep on the couch. As Tony staggers past the bathroom on his way to bed, he swears he can hear the kid throwing up behind the closed door.

***

Seems like the kid’s hanging with a new bunch of friends. That Willow is probably the only old friend he’s still got. Tony has seen her mooning after the kid and thanks god the kid doesn’t notice it. She’s a Jew, she ain’t all that in the looks department, and half the time she can barely string two words together. Tony blames her egghead parents for her lack of social skills.

However, he’s hearing a bunch of new names when the kid is on the phone. There’s some girl with the name of Buffy. Tony can’t believe that someone would name their kid Buffy. Her parents were probably hippie freaks and were stoned when they named her.

There’s also someone named Giles. Someone else named Oz, as in Wizard of. Someone else called Angel, which just screams ‘wetback’ to Tony. The kid also talks about some teacher with his buddies on the phone, a Ms. Calendar. Her name comes up so often that Tony’s pretty sure the kid’s panting after teacher.

Then one day a new girl’s on the phone. Cordelia. As in Cordelia-fucking-Chase. The kid always disappears in his room with the phone when she calls. Tony doesn’t believe for one second she’s spreading her legs for the kid. A sweet piece of ass like that? Not a chance. Even so, he can more than see why the kid’s interested. Although what the hell a rich bitch like her would want with the kid, Tony has no fucking clue.

None of them ever stop by, well, except for Willow, but she’s always been around. He’s seen the Buffy chick — who is as blonde and as much of an airhead as her name suggests — in passing. She’s stopped by a few times to pick the kid up for one thing or another. The kid practically pushes Buffy out of the house after five minutes.

Cordelia he’s only seen through the front window. She sits in her car, checking her make-up in the rearview mirror while she’s waiting for the kid to barrel out the front door. Never even gets out of the car, which would at least be the polite thing to do since she’s sitting in front of his house.

It eventually occurs to Tony that maybe she stays out there because the kid told her to. The kid’s probably ashamed of him and doesn’t want him to meet his friends.

Well, the feeling’s mutual.

***

The kid’s into something bad, but he doesn’t figure the kid’s involved with the town’s PCP trade. Kid doesn’t have the kind of balls that’s necessary to play with the nasty characters involved in that kind of shit, Tony knows that much.

Whatever it is, it’s bad news, he can tell. The kid is constantly sneaking out at night and coming in at all hours of the early morning. While the kid was never the sharpest pencil in box, his grades have slowly sunk over the course of high school to the point where he’s graduating by the skin of his teeth. Plus, the kid is getting into fights, as unbelievable as that is. Judging by the state of some of his clothes, Tony bets the kid’s at the losing end more often than not. That’s probably the only reason why he hasn’t gotten a call from the school about it

One time the kid came home with a cast, right when Tony was in between jobs, which meant no health insurance and that meant he was stuck paying the whole fucking bill. And no, he didn’t believe the kid when he claimed he was trying to break up a fight and accidentally got hit with a baseball bat.

There’s been a few times Tony’s found the kid’s clothes in the trash out back while tossing the garbage. The clothes are always covered in something. Sometimes it’s this clear goo, other times the color is green, a few times pink, and once Tony swore he saw purple. He never takes too close a look because the smell is enough to make him puke.

One night the kid shows up at the dinner table with bruises around his neck looking shocked and glassy-eyed.

“When did that happen?” Tony asks.

The kid startles and mumbles something about last night and him being with some friends when this fight started…a stumbling, half-assed excuse that is so pathetic that Tony tunes it out halfway through.

“You have to go to the hospital?” Tony asks.

The kid blinks and numbly says he didn’t.

Thank god. Tony can’t afford to fit a frigging hospital bill into the household budget. He punches a fork in the kid’s general direction and starts asking some questions. “What do you get up to at night?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t give me that. You’re going out. Where are you going?”

“Nowhere.”

“You show up with bruises, broken bones, you’re throwing clothes covered with god knows what in the trash and you’re doing nothing and going nowhere? Stop yanking my dick and telling me that you thought you were milking a cow.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Oh, well excuse me. I must have misunderstood with all the sneaking out, and you hiding ruined clothes, and the bruises around your neck.”

The kid looks surprised that Tony noticed.

“Honey, I keep finding bloodstains in your clothes,” Jessica says. “Are you in trouble? Do you need our help?”

“He got himself into it, he should get himself out,” Tony says.

“Tony,” Jessica says meaningfully.

“Ma, it’s okay,” the kid says.

Tony smiles and says to Jessica, “He’s your son through and through, that’s for goddamn sure. Mr. Martyr over here. Maybe we should hand him a crown of thorns.” He sips from his beer to make his point.

Jessica’s mouth pinches into a bitchy bow.

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” the kid insists. “Hey, look at it this way. I’ll be graduating in a few months, assuming I survive that long, and then you’ll never see me again.”

“Watch your tone, young man,” Tony snaps at the kid.

The kid immediately looks down and mumbles an apology.

“Finish dinner,” Jessica says to the kid. “It’s getting cold.”

The kid does as his mother tells him without another word. Instead of going to his room, he grabs a coat and marches out the front door as bold as you please.

The second the front door closes, Jessica rounds on him for hurting her baby’s feelings.

Tony doesn’t take it lying down, that’s for damn sure.

After all, the kid’s Jessica’s responsibility; it never was supposed to be his and he got stuck with it for 18 frigging years. Only reason why the kid’s still under his roof is because Tony extracted a promise out of the kid that he’d leave the day after graduation. If it weren’t for that promise, plus the fact he needed to keep the peace with Jessica, Tony would’ve tossed the kid’s sorry ass out on his birthday back in December.

***

Over the summer while the kid is gone, things improve for Tony by leaps and bounds. He lands a new sales job and racks up the commissions and bonuses. He’s on such a roll with the money that any more of this he’ll be getting rich selling ice cream to Eskimos.

He and Jessica are getting along better than they have in years. Just the other night they were laughing and talking in bed like they never left high school. He’d forgotten how beautiful Jessica was in the dim light and how her smile always made his stomach do a barrel roll. It’s like he’s going through a second honeymoon.

His life is going so good that Tony really doesn’t need to take the edge off. That’s not saying that life is stress-free, but his luck is turning and he is finally hitting that smooth patch. About friggin’ time he got his piece.

He forgot that it couldn’t last.

Tony pulls into the drive, gets out of the car, and breathes in the late summer air. He thinks he might sweep Jessica away this weekend, maybe go up the coast to some motel and pretend they’re both getting a bit of strange on the side.

He’s halfway to the door when he sees the junk car parked in front of the house. He stops and gives it the curious once-over. Doesn’t look familiar. Probably belongs to someone visiting the neighbors. Still, it pisses him off that someone parked that piece of shit in front of his house. People might think it belongs there.

He whistles his way through the front door and shouts that he’s home.

Jessica materializes in the kitchen door. She’s pale and wringing her hands.

“Honey?” Tony asks. “Honey, what is it?”

Over her shoulder, he can see someone sitting at the kitchen table with their head in their hands.

No, he thinks. No, things were just getting good. He wouldn’t dare. He wouldn’t.

Tony shoves his way past her and sees that the uninvited guest is the kid himself.

The kid hops out of his chair and stands with his head down and hands in his pockets. His shoulders are hunched and he shuffles nervously from one foot to the next. He looks pale, dusty, tired, and just plain old worn out.

Tony wants him to leave and tells the kid to hit the road.

The kid hunches his shoulders a little more and he looks to Jessica for a reprieve.

“Tony, he’s got nowhere to go and he doesn’t have any money to go anywhere,” Jessica pleads. “We can’t just chuck him into the street. What will people say if they see he’s sleeping in that car?”

The kid acts like he’s been shot, but he quickly recovers and waits with bowed head and nervous fidgeting.

Tony asks the kid if he needs to take a piss.

The kid shakes his head no.

“Then stop that twitching. You’re making me agitated.”

The kid sits down in a chair and tries to force himself to sit still, but Tony just knows that one of the kid’s legs is jiggling with nerves.

“So, you’ve come crawling back,” Tony says. “What happened to our deal?”

“Deal?” Jessica asks as the kid sinks lower into his seat.

“Fucking useless, you know that?” Tony asks to the kid. “Should’ve known you couldn’t cut it.”

The kid closes his eyes and swallows.

“You want back in my nest?” Tony asks the kid.

“What’s this about a deal?” Jessica’s voice is climbing the bitch scale.

“Answer me,” Tony orders the kid. “You want to move back into my house? Do you?”

“I…I just need a place to stay for…I’m out of money,” the kid mumbles. “I promise to leave when I save up enough, but I…I’ve got nothing. Everything I had pretty much went into that car out front.”

“Yeah? Well whatever you paid, you got took,” Tony snarls.

“Tony,” Jessica snaps. “What deal?”

Tony jerks his head at the kid. “The deal where he does the manly thing and stops leeching off us.”

“He’s only asking for a helping hand until he gets on his feet,” Jessica says. She draws herself up. “I told him he could stay.”

“You what?” Tony roars.

The kid’s head snaps up and he shrinks backwards. Oh, yeah. The kid knows that whatever Jessica promised doesn’t mean shit if Tony won’t agree to it. He can see the realization dawning on the kid’s face that living out of that shitbox in front of the house is a very real possibility.

Jessica flinches, but Tony can see from the deadly glitter in her eyes that she’s going to make him pay through the dick for this little night’s work. Shit, shit, shit. He’s stuck. If he tosses the kid out on his ass like he deserves, Jessica will fucking hound him until he changes his mind, but the thought of paying one more penny to support the kid sets not at all well with him. As far as he’s concerned, he’s paid far more than his due for keeping the kid fed and clothed. It’s high time for the kid to earn his own fucking keep.

“Fine,” Tony says to the kid. “Fine you can stay, but there are rules.”

The kid gives him a quick nod.

“First, you live in the basement.”

“The basement?” The kid’s mouth drops open.

“You can always sleep in the car,” Tony points out.

The kid attempts a protest. “What’s wrong with my old room?”

“Aren’t you a man now?” Tony sneers. “I’d think you want your place complete with own entrance so your mother and me don’t know when you come and go. Besides, if you fall back into whatever shit you were involved with in high school, I don’t want the cops knocking on my door when they’re looking for you.”

The kid sends a silent appeal to his mother with a look.

“We’ll talk about it,” Jessica says.

“Not open for negotiation,” Tony insists.

Jessica’s eyes narrow, but Tony knows that she knows from the tone of his voice that she’s got zero wiggle room.

He smiles at her. “You want me to help your son? I got ground rules. And that’s the first one.”

“There’s more?” the kid quietly asks.

“Rent,” Tony announces. “I’m not going to support your lazy ass any more. I expect to be paid $250 a month for the right to park your ass in the basement. You want food? That’s another $35 a week. You want to use our bathroom? That’s another $35 a week for water usage.”

The kid’s shoulders keep slumping further and further down as he listens to the list. On the last item, he asks, “To use the bathroom? You’re charging me for using the bathroom?”

“There’s a shower stall and toilet in the basement,” Jessica says.

“Does either one even work?” the kid asks.

“You’re going to find out,” Tony says. “I’m not finished. To use the bathroom in the basement, I want $20 a week to cover water use. If your mother does your clothes, it’ll be $5 a load. Do it yourself, I expect $2.50 a load. To park that piece of shit in my driveway, I want $10 a week.”

“Any other charges?” the kid asks.

“Nope. That about covers it,” Tony says. “If something comes up, I’ll let you know.”

“When do you want me to start paying? I don’t have any money at all,” the kid says.

Tony agrees to waive the rent and fees for a month, but it’s a temporary reprieve. He stresses to the kid that he expects this month’s rent, as well as all applicable charges, to be paid in full by the end of November.

The kid slowly picks up his duffle bag, slings it over his shoulder, and keeps his head bowed as he walks out of the kitchen. As the kid walks by Tony, he grabs the kid’s arm and the kid stops. He doesn’t look at Tony and instead resolutely stares at the floor while he waits.

“The free ride is over,” Tony says. “I paid for your ass for 18 years, now it’s time you pull your own weight. I’m through tossing money at you. Do you understand?”

The kid doesn’t look at him, but he gives a slight nod.

“Now, I think you owe me a thank you for letting you stay,” Tony points out. “We had a deal and I let you out of it.”

The kid looks at him like he can’t believe Tony just said what he did.

“Say thank you to your father,” Jessica prompts.

The kid closes his eyes and he bows his head like he just wants to cry. Tony didn’t think it was possible for the kid to look even more defeated than he already did. The kid breathes hard for a few seconds and Tony figures he’s thinking again about sticking around.

The kid finally mumbles, “Thank you.”

Tony lets his hand drop and the kid walks past him with head still down. He immediately heads for the basement door instead of his old room. At least the kid knows better than to even ask, let alone assume, that Tony would let him slide for even one night.

This wasn’t exactly the outcome Tony wanted. What he wanted was for the kid to yank his arm out of his grip, tell him to fuck off, and leave never to be seen again. The only good thing about this situation that Tony can see is that there’ll be a little extra money coming into the house. Plus, there is no way the kid is going to stay for more than a few months before he gets sick of being dinged for every little thing, up to and including breathing the oxygen.

Tony’s pretty sure the situation will resolve itself given enough time. All he needs to do is kick back, come up with a few more outrageous fees, and wait.

Jessica is glaring at him and there’s smoke coming out of her ears. Tony knows he won’t be getting any sweet loving any time soon, thanks to the kid.

Fucking kid. Always has to ruin a good thing.

***

Over the next few months, Tony’s life falls to pieces. He thinks the kid might be responsible in some way, which on some level he knows is a stupid idea. He had his smooth run; now he’s in a bad patch.

Yet, the idea that the kid is his personal black cat sinks into his brain and doesn’t let go. He almost swears that the kid brings him bad luck. Whenever the kid’s around, Tony’s life goes into the toilet so the universe can take a shit on his head. It’s like a curse. He’s even got evidence. The three-plus months the kid was gone were the best months in Tony’s life since he graduated high school.

Rory shows up on the doorstep a few weeks after the kid does. Turns out he finally got out of jail from his DUI and discovered that he was broke and out of a place to live. He winds up in the kid’s old room because, hey, Rory. Can’t turn him away. The kid clearly resents the fact that Rory gets his old room and that Rory ain’t paying any rent. Fuck it. Rory’s a guest, so who gives a shit what the kid thinks.

Much as Tony loves Rory, he feels crowded by the other man’s presence. Rory takes up too much space with his schemes and dreams and never-ending streams of bad jokes as he sprawls out on the couch, help wanted ads forgotten and tossed on the living room floor while he watches Wheel of Fortune or The Price is Right or some talk show scream fest on the boob tube while he sucks from a bottle of schnapps. Tony does hint around that maybe Rory needs to get back on his feet really soon because the guy’s eating him out of house and home. Plus the sheer amount of alcohol flowing through his veins on a nightly basis while he keeps up with Rory has resulted in some very brutal days after. He’s not young anymore and it’s taking him longer and longer to recover from a good old-fashioned binge.

Jessica and he are constantly on the outs again.

His once-golden sales touch is faltering and he’s having a harder time making his nut.

Thank god the kid is paying his rent and all his fees. Given the way his life is going, Tony isn’t sure how he’d make the budget otherwise. If there was at all one good thing he could say about having the kid around, that would be the one good thing.

And the only good thing, he might add.

The kid’s found himself a piece of ass. First time Tony saw her, he had to rub his eyes and take a closer look because this one was smoking hot. There was no way in hell something that looked like that would touch the kid with a ten-foot pole. Then she opened her mouth. Five minutes after she starts talking — which involved some long convoluted explanation on how her parents named her Anya — Tony figures out the real deal. The girl is a retard, which explains a whole hell of lot.

He tends to avoid Anya as much as possible when she comes over. There’s only one thing worse than her being retard and that’s the fact that the kid is taking advantage of a retard under his roof. Sometimes when he gets a before-bed beer to help him sleep, he can hear the kid screwing her to the mattress through the basement door.

Yeah, well, the kid better just hope she doesn’t come up pregnant, because then the fun and games would be over. Then again, if she did turn up pregnant, chances were pretty good she wouldn’t peg the guy living in a basement with only a high school education and a series of minimum-wage jobs on his resume. Oh, no. Good bet she’d go out and screw someone with a real future and then blame the whole thing on that other guy.

He also suspects that she’s not the only person the kid’s screwing. There’s some skinny blond guy that follows the kid home on occasion who looks like he thinks he’s a bad ass. Tony can tell this blonde guy thinks so because he dresses head-to-toe in leather and walks around with a permanent sneer on his face. He doesn’t entirely like the way the guy looks at the kid when they enter through the backyard transom into the basement.

Turns out the kid’s bit of strange involves men. Terrific. The kid’s a fag and he’s bringing his fag friends here.

Jessica says he’s overreacting, and even if it was true, it’s probably just a phase. Besides, Anya is almost always over, so it seems to her that Tony’s overreacting. She renders these pronouncements in that drunken circular reasoning that she’s so good at when she’s had too much wine.

Tony doesn’t think so. He doesn’t think Jessica’s worried enough.

For one thing, the kid’s screwing a retard, which means she probably wouldn’t notice any signs that the kid was getting some on the side, especially if it involved dick. A woman with a full deck would probably figure it out pretty quick. For another thing, the blonde guy has been around several times and not once has the kid taken him through the house. They always enter the basement by the entrance that would take them directly from the backyard. Plus, the blonde guy always stays not just overnight, but through the whole next day while the kid’s at work. The retard’s never around when the blonde guy is over, so right there that tells Tony something.

Really, all Tony sees are big red flags waving in his face, but Jessica would never believe her precious baby likes it up the ass.

Tony finally confronts the kid with it when he pays his weekly fees on Friday. Truthfully, he didn’t want to say anything, but he’s still nursing a hangover from the night before and three cans representing the hair of the dog that bit him isn’t doing a damn thing for his pounding headache. It doesn’t help his state of mind that he saw the blond guy leaving the house wearing one of the kid’s obnoxious shirts a few days ago, which can only be taken as a bad sign.

“This ain’t a whorehouse,” Tony remarks as he counts the money, “so I’d like you to stop treating it like one.”

The kid nervously licks his lips. “I’ll tell Anya not to come over so much.”

“Anya ain’t the problem. You can fuck her all you want for all I care,” Tony says. “Just make sure to keep the cock under wraps if you don’t want to get stuck with a brat. If she turns up pregnant, you’re out. I ain’t putting up with no screaming baby at my age. I had to do it once and it was more than enough, hear me?”

The kid blushes three shades of scarlet. “So I don’t understand the problem.”

“I want you to stop bringing your ‘men friends’ here. Bad enough that I know what you’re doing, but I don’t have to put up with you doing it under my roof.”

“Hunh?” The kid’s good. He’s got that whatchyootalkinabout look down cold.

“Your little leather buddy. Yeah. Don’t look so shocked. I’ve seen you sneaking him in through the back. I know he stays the night and sometimes hangs out down there the next day waiting for you to get home.”

“Spike? You think I’m…that I’m…with Spike?”

Spike. Jesus Christ. Between the leather, the pretty boy look, and the name, this Spike sounds like he probably has a pink triangle tattooed on his ass. Also, with a name like Spike, that pretty much tells Tony that the kid’s the one getting impaled like he’s the one with the pussy.

“Don’t even try to lie to me,” Tony tells the kid. “I got eyes. You want to play reindeer games with the boys you do it somewhere else, got me?”

“I’m not,” the kid shakes his head. “He’s a…well…he’s someone I know, that’s all. He’s down on his luck and, ummm, some friends of mine are trying to sort of, kind of, help and—”

“Don’t give me that,” Tony tells the kid. “You don’t have any friends.”

The kid clenches his jaw and looks down.

“You got that girlfriend of yours and that’s about it. Hell, even Willow ain’t been around and she used to be on you like lint, so don’t give me that bullshit,” Tony says. “I’m not interested in hearing your fake sob story that you’re trying to help out a ‘friend.’ I don’t want to see him around no more. You get your bit of cock somewhere else.”

The kid’s face is sunburn red by the time Tony’s done and when he answers, his voice is low and furious. “You won’t see him again.”

“Glad we understand each other,” Tony says. “And you owe me another hundred bucks.”

The kid’s head snaps up. “What? Why? I already paid you everything I owe.”

“Fees,” Tony says. “For all the times when your boyfriend stayed over. He was using electricity and water. Someone’s got to pay for that.”

The kid’s jaw juts out and for a moment Tony thinks that this is it. He’s finally pushed the kid over the line and he’s going to walk.

“I’ll pay you in two weeks,” the kid finally says.

“Next week,” Tony counters.

“But—” the kid begins.

“Not negotiable,” Tony states.

***

Jesus, the kid’s turned into a fat fuck.

Given the harpy he’s about to marry, it’s no wonder. Although Tony’s anti-harpy poison of choice is beer while the kid employs the see food diet.

Get it? Get it? See food, Tony mirthlessly thinks as he watches the kid shove something else in his mouth. Dear god in heaven, the kid hasn’t stopped chewing since he and Anya walked into the house. He’s frigging worse than Rory. He almost went broke keeping Rory fed before he finally moved out to some trailer park outside of Santa Barbara. Kid’s eating like he’s trying to break Rory’s year-long grocery bill in one sitting.

While Jessica coos over the bridal magazines, Tony can hear Anya skillfully angling for yet another donation from Chez Harris. Did he actually once think Anya was a retard? It’s hard for Tony to believe he did now that he’s experienced Anya’s expert picking of his pockets. Still, there’s no denying there’s something wrong with her, but that’s probably due to the fact that she’s descended from a long line of circus freaks.

Despite that, he still doesn’t get why Anya is so into the kid, especially given the way he’s bloated up over the past few months. She’s still a hot piece of ass and could probably land herself some good-looking rich guy, assuming she could keep her mouth shut long enough to march down the aisle and could talk the poor bastard out of making her sign a prenup.

The kid’s watching Anya with nervous eyes and Tony can see the kid wants to get married about as much as he wants to be slowly tortured to death. It’s no mystery why he’s going to march down the aisle anyway. One, the kid’s gotta know he’s one back injury from permanent workman’s comp, which means less dough to impress the ladies. Two, the kid also knows he’s not going to get a better deal than what he’s got, even if Anya could take over as chief harpy for the lower 48 states. Assuming the kid manages to keep it together until the wedding day, Tony figures the marriage won’t even last five years. Anya will probably conclude pretty quickly that she got a bum deal and will leave as soon as she gets a better offer.

Tony downs his shot. The sooner they get this wedding business over with, the better. Although to be honest, he’s not sure how he’s going to take the whole “Grandpa Harris” thing that he just knows Anya’s going to enforce. Since she’s an orphan, Tony figures Anya’s going to be shaking him and Jessica down to “help the baby” every chance she gets. Doesn’t help that Tony just knows Jessica’ll be sneaking money and presents to the kid for his kid, no matter what Tony says about it. He can feel his blood pressure rise at the thought.

“What’s she talking you into paying for now?” Tony demands.

Jessica and Anya look up from the bridal magazines.

“She’s not,” the kid quickly says. “Right, Ahn?”

“Well, actually, this bouquet is exactly the one I want,” Anya holds up the magazine picture so Tony and the kid can see it. “You know the one that looks like flowers are spilling out of it and—”

“Ahn,” the kid winces. “I thought we agreed—”

“But I really want this one. It’s perfect. It has white and red roses.” Anya gets a dreamy smile on her face. “It’s symbolic.”

“Symbolic,” Tony snorts.

“Tony,” Jessica intones. She turns to Anya and pats her on the hand. “Symbolic of what, dear?”

“Don’t ask, please don’t ask.” The kid looks panicked.

“Oh, you know, the wedding night,” Anya chirps.

The kid lets out a breath. “That answer could’ve been so much worse.”

Anya is practically bouncing in place. “I can’t wait for the wedding. It’s just…just everything. I can’t wait to hear the music and wear my very expensive, but tastefully understated gown and open all the presents, but I especially can’t wait for the Hymen’s Greetings from all my old friends and former co-workers and my old boss. It’s good luck to get Hymen’s Greetings on the wedding day.”

The kid does a spit take with his soda.

“What’s a ‘Hi man’ greeting?” Tony asks. “I thought ‘Hi man’ was a greeting.”

Anya says, “Well, it’s Hymen’s Greetings because—”

“Ahn!” the kid snaps.

The bride-to-be gives him a hurt look.

“Now’s not the time,” the kid says.

“But he asked,” Anya points out with a wounded air.

“Never you mind, dear. I think someone’s suffering the jitters.” Jessica hesitates a bit before adding, “Hymen’s Greetings? My that’s…unusual I guess. Is that a circus thing?”

Anya opens her mouth, but the kid interrupts her with a quick yes. This earns the kid another wounded look from bridezilla, the woman who ate Sunnydale. No, wait. Anya is obviously not eating Sunnydale. The kid on the other hand…

Suddenly, a penny drops in Tony’s slot. Of course. Makes sense given the fact the kid looks trapped as all hell. It also explains why Anya’s actually planning on marrying the useless lump.

“So, how long have you been preggers?” Tony asks.

“Tony!” Jessica snaps.

The kid’s eyes go as wide as saucers, as he turns to look at Anya.

Anya just looks confused.

“You know, knocked up. How far along are you, honey?” Even though he was horrified by the prospect of ‘Grandpa Harris’ just a few minutes before, Tony can’t help but start laughing at the thought of the kid trying to raise a kid.

“Ahn?” the kid’s voice sounds strangled, which only makes Tony laugh harder.

“I’m not pregnant,” Anya says. “We’re not planning on having any pink children until I finish buying out my half of the Magic Box. My silent and absent partner, who is not coming to the wedding because he’s too busy, is being stubborn about signing the paperwork.”

The kid cringes.

“I would like to start a family right away, but someone thinks we need to be more financially settled and own a ranch home before we have pink children to carry on the Harris name.” Anya glares at the kid. “I don’t see the problem. We can always put a baby in the closet.”

Jessica looks horrified.

“We’re not putting a kid in the closet, Ahn,” the kid says.

“I don’t see why not.” Anya seems confused. “It’s a big closet, and you said yourself that it’s only called a closet because there are no windows. It’s a lot bigger than our bathroom, which if you ask me means that it’s not really a closet but a small room without windows.”

“There’s no ventilation in that room, so we can’t put a kid in there.” The kid says it with a weary air, like he’s had this discussion a few thousand times before.

“We could just open the door,” Anya says.

“Ahn, please, not now,” the kid pleads.

“Well, the fact is that someone doesn’t want children right now so we are not having children right now. Someone wants to have a ranch home first, so we’re going to wait until we have a ranch home first. But we can’t get the ranch home until I finish buying out my half of the Magic Box, which I can’t do because I can’t reach my partner on the phone,” Anya explains.

“In a nutshell in case you missed it, no, Anya’s not pregnant,” the kid says.

“I better get pregnant soon, though,” Anya interjects, “because these ovaries are not getting any younger and all the magazines say that the older you get the harder it is to conceive.”

Tony grins as he pours himself another shot of Southern Comfort while he watches the kid pinch the bridge of his nose like he’s got a raging headache. Appears Anya always has to get in the last word. Oh, yeah. Not only is this marriage not going to last, it’s going to be pure hell on the kid while it does.

Payback’s a bitch, Tony thinks with satisfaction as he downs his shot. Don’t come crawling to me when it all falls apart, because the bank will be officially closed once this wedding is over.

Fuck it. Let Jessica have her fun. They’ve already paid for the bar, rent on the space, the minister, and the musicians. She might as well pay for the wedding bouquet. Anything to give the kid a taste of what he’s had to put up with for 21 fucking years.

*** vIt’s been almost two weeks since the “wedding.”

Wedding, now there’s a laugh, Tony bitterly thinks. He figured the kid would take off before the march down the aisle, or failing that, end up a bitter divorced dad with killer alimony and child-support payments. He never in a million would’ve guessed that the kid would jilt bridezilla on the actual wedding day.

He might as well have flushed all that fucking money down the toilet. He and Jessica can’t even get a partial refund on the dough they shelled out because everyone except the groom was present and accounted for. Plus, the lodge had the nerve to present him with a bill for “damages.” Jesus! He didn’t see any of her people getting any bills and they’re the ones who should be paying because they started the brawl. That guy with the tentacles threw the first punch. He doesn’t care what anyone says.

Naturally, neither the kid nor Anya could be found after the horror show, so all Tony can do is simmer and stew on the unpaid bills. There’s no fucking way he’s going to be the one paying for this. Unh-unh. They couldn’t get their shit together, so they should pay the balance. Even better, he should be reimbursed for all the money he plunked down.

Tony had driven by the kid’s apartment several times in the intervening weeks, but there was no car and no sign that anyone was home. He even went to that witch shop Anya owns — excuse me, part owns — to see if he could get some satisfaction. All he got was a ‘closed’ sign and some bitchy regular in desperate need of razorblade for her legs and a man to fuck hanging around in front of the closed storefront complaining that the shop hadn’t been open for more than a week.

He’s ready to give up, but Jessica squealing over the phone with Carol is enough to prompt him to try one more time. It turns out Carol has started dating that Kevin guy, the one with the skin condition and the circus job. Bad enough that the kid almost married into circus geeks, now he’s faced with the prospect of blood kin marrying into the shallow end of the gene pool.

The way Tony sees it, the kid owes him money just for pain and suffering alone. If it wasn’t for that wedding, Carol wouldn’t have met the circus geek, and he wouldn’t be faced with the prospect of having to look at the guy’s ugly face again. The idea of Carol screwing anyone, let alone a warty loser who looks like he should be in a zoo, is enough to make him want a beer so he could drown the picture out of his head.

When Tony turns the corner, he sees the kid’s car parked in front of his apartment building and lets out a whoop of triumph. Looks like he’s getting his satisfaction after all.

Tony quickly parks the car, runs into the vestibule with his head down on the off chance the kid might be looking out a window, and checks the doorbell tags to find the kid’s apartment number. The last time — the only time — he was here, he had been more than a little drunk already since he started the celebrating early. About all he remembers is that there was some stairs involved to get to the kid’s place, but that’s about it.

He groans when he sees the number on the tag. Figures the fucking kid would pick the very top floor. A quick search tells him that not only does the kid live on the top floor, he lives in a building with no elevator. Jesus, he doesn’t remember it being this involved to get to the kid’s front door. He must’ve been truly wasted the day the kid managed to fuck up his own wedding.

On the second floor some nosy old broad marches out of her apartment, takes one look at him, and demands to know who he is and what business he has in the building. Tony tries to ignore her as he brushes past, but she threatens to call the cops, so he’s forced to tell her that he needs to get to the kid’s apartment.

Just like that the old broad smiles and pats his arm. “Such a nice boy,” she says. “Always offering to help me bring in the groceries when he sees me. Always holds open the doors. Such a gentleman. Such a shame what happened.” The broad looks around and leans in, breathing garlic fumes up in his face. “I tell you, it’s that girl of his. Always so rude, never willing to lift a pinky unless there’s something in it for her. Whatever went wrong, she started it. I know it. Never saw what he saw in her at all. Not at all.”

A few bon mots about how wonderful the kid is later and Tony manages to escape. By the time he makes it to the kid’s door, annoyance has long outrun angry and is now heading into furious. Even though he’s still breathing hard with the stair-climbing effort, he pounds on the door. He hears rustling inside and the sound of something being knocked over.

He pounds again, yelling, “I want to talk to you.”

The door flies open, revealing the bleary-eyed kid himself. It looks like he just threw the jeans on since the top button is unbuttoned and the fly is partially undone. Tony winces at the flabby expanse of pale, exposed flush that passes for the kid’s torso from the waist up. He smells like sweat, dirt, vomit, and booze.

“Perfect.” The kid practically belches the word and Tony’s forced to wave a hand in front his nose because of the smell. He figures if he lit a match and held it in front of the kid’s open mouth, the flame would turn blue.

The kid wobbles a bit before he slumps against the doorframe. As he takes a swig from a beer can, Tony catches a glimpse of the apartment beyond. There’s empties everywhere and it looks like someone has trashed the place.

The kid looks at him expectantly with bloodshot hazel eyes for a moment before asking,

“Well? Waddya wan’?’

Tony gets straight to the point. “You owe me money.”

“Oh? Dis oughtta be good.”

“The wedding. I paid for that and now I’m being presented with more bills for damages because of a fight her people started. I want my money back and I want you to take over the rest of the payments.”

The kid leans forward slightly and clutches the doorframe to steady himself. “So file a complaint with the Betta Buzen…Bizen…Bizen…where people get money back.”

“Contracts. They got me dead-to-rights and since my name’s on the credit card slips, I have to pay.” Tony pokes a finger in the kid’s exposed chest. “The way I figure it, you should pay.”

The kid is so busy staring at where Tony poked him, that for a second Tony isn’t sure that anything he’s said has even registered.

The kid starts giggling and waving a finger at him. “Ah nah. I don’ need this right now. Tony, Tony, Tony, you are soooooo far down on my lischt of problems that you? You not even in tha same area code. You not on tha planet. You not even in tha universe. Jus’ sayin’.”

Tony clenches his fists so hard that he can feel the nails biting into the palms of his hands.

“See?” the kid waves a hand around him as he unsteadily turns and weaves deeper into the apartment. He tosses the beer can in the direction of the kitchen. “Ahn-ya a’ready got herself a li’l orgasm buddy.” He spins around to face Tony and momentarily loses his balance. He catches himself before he topples over. “Body not even cold. Nothin’. Goes right fer tha evil undead. You think screwing a corpse woul’ be…I dunno…yuck? But you guess wrong!”

Tony could not have heard right. Anya was into screwing the dead? Just how bad was the kid in bed? And where do you go to screw dead people? The morgue?

“’Cause it turns out bleachie is screwing ’nother friend. Of mine. I think.” The kid gives Tony a puzzled look. “Why you here ’gain?”

“Money. That you owe me,” Tony growls.

“So he’s screwin’ Ahn-ya. He’s screwin’ Buf-fy. Only reason he’s not screwin’ Willow is ’cause she’s gay now. Which she tells me. All tha time. I get it! I get it! I heard ya tha firs’ tree thousan’ times. Jeez.” The kid frowns. “Or maybe that why she gay now. Took him fer a spin an’ he put her offa men.” He nods sagely, like he’s finally figured out the secret of the universe. “Coul’ be. Coul’ be.”

“About that money—” Tony begins.

“He’s a pervert,” the kid declares like he’s received a truth from on high. “Make sense. Prob’ly checkin’ me out, too. All that, ‘You a nummy treat.’ Oh. Wait. I said that. He said I was…was…not a nummy treat. I think I’m perfectly nummy.” The kid takes an unsteady bow. “His loss.”

Great. Now the kid is going to spill about his fag boyfriends. Jesus, why did these two even think getting close to a preacher was a good idea? He’s into cock; she’s into the dead. Tony just doesn’t want to hear any more.

“Stop. Just stop right there. I don’t care about your fucked-up life. I want my money.”

The kid sneers. “Tough. I don’ got it. Ahn-ya cleaned out tha bank,” he waves a hand as he searches for the word, “stuff. Bank stuff. Where tha money is. You want it? You talk to her. Me? I’m done.”

Tony charges the kid with fist raised, fully intent on beating the money out of him. As drunk as the kid is, he still manages to move fast enough to get out of the way. Tony stumbles over something and next thing he knows he’s pinned to the couch with the kid on top of him.

“I don’ need dis,” the kid wearily breathes, causing Tony to wince from the sour smell of stale booze and vomit. “I think you betta go now befo’ things get really outta control.”

Out of control? Tony wonders as the kid hauls him to his feet. This is already out of control. The conversation is not going as he planned. He figured the kid would hand over the money with no argument, because it’s clear who the injured party is here. What he got was too much information about the kid’s perverted sex life and physically attacked.

The kid pulls Tony’s right arm so far up behind his back that Tony yelps from the pain. The kid’s left hand is clamped so hard around the back of Tony’s neck, that he’s pretty sure there’ll be a hand-shaped bruise there when the kid lets go. He wonders when the hell the kid got so strong as he’s marched out the apartment door. What makes it even more unbelievable is that the kid is managing to physically throw Tony out of the apartment despite the fact the kid’s barely standing upright.

With a final shove from behind, Tony stumbles into the hall. He spins around with a snarl and sees the kid giving him an idiot stare.

“Buh-bye,” the kid waves.

As the kid closes the door, Tony charges again. He isn’t fast enough and he slams right into the unyielding wood. Tony’s shaking with rage as he starts beating and kicking at the door. “Open up you little fucker! Open up! Face me like a man, you fuckwit.”

“Go’way!” a muffled voice yells through the door.

Tony beats harder on the door.

“Dailin’ 911!” the muffled voice announces. “So jus’ keep on bangin’! I gotchyer bangin’ righ’ here.”

Tony backs off. The last thing he needs is a scene. He definitely doesn’t want the police involved. He throws a final punch at the door and yells when his knuckles feel the pain of contact. Tony makes good his escape after that, cradling his injured hand as he double-times his way down the stairs, past the old broad who’s now glaring daggers at him, and out the door to his car.

After he gets in the car and locks all the doors, it takes Tony a good ten minutes before he feels steady enough to drive. The kid probably did Anya a favor by taking off. Even if he isn’t a fag and she isn’t into screwing the dead, the kid is obviously a violent drunk. God knows what Anya had to put up with. In fact, Tony’s now surprised that Anya didn’t leave the kid instead of the other way around.

Jesus. He needs a drink to steady his nerves before he gets home. He’s not sure what’s going to piss Jessica off more: the fact he tried to get her precious baby to pay for his mistake or the fact that the kid refused to pay.

***

Tony’s riding the blurry edge between buzzed and drunk as he considers his situation. The earthquake didn’t just take his home and everything he owned, it also managed to suck down a town’s worth of memories and a good chunk of his destroyed life.

Tony drinks the dregs from his beer can. True, most of the memories weren’t good ones, but that’s hardly the point. Not that he can figure out what the point is.

Jessica pulls a beer from the case and Tony snarls at her. Jessica shoots him a glare and defiantly pops the can open.

“Slow down,” Tony says with exaggerated care. “We gotta make this last. We don’t wanna be buying a case a day. Gotta make the emergency money last.”

“It’s just a beer,” Jessica pouts.

“You’ve had four already,” Tony points out.

“Yeah?” Jessica sneers. “Well you’ve had six.”

Tony sighs. Jessica is an idiot when it comes to finances, as evidenced by the fact that she always spends more money than they have in the budget. Since appealing to frugality is out, Tony decides to employ logic. “I earned the money to buy the beer, I’m bigger than you, so I should get more beer.”

Jessica opens her mouth, but whatever she’s about to say is interrupted by a knock on the door. The two of them freeze and exchange looks. Without so much as a word, Jessica shoves what’s left of the case under the bed while Tony gathers up the empties and throws them in a wastebasket under the desk. They’ve already had to endure sermons from some folks in the Salvation Army and other assorted holy-rollers bearing emergency care packages. True, it may be some Red Cross worker who doesn’t give a shit, but then again neither he nor Jessica needs some Christian soldier lecturing them about the evils of demon rum.

“Coming!” Jessica yells. “Hold on for one minute!”

She opens the door and with a cry throws herself at the person on the other side.

Ahhhh, shit. It’s the kid, Tony sourly thinks. This is positively the last thing he needs right now. He knew Jessica was worried about the kid, but Tony had a feeling they’d see him again. The kid has always turned up in his life at the worst possible time and there is no worse time than when the old hometown gets swallowed by an earthquake. Frankly, the fact that the kid showed up right at this very moment makes perfect, logical sense. Hell, Tony is almost willing to bet that the kid is somehow involved with his and Jessica’s predicament.

Tony fishes the case from under the bed as he quickly tries to come up for reasons why the kid should just leave them in peace. He’s willing to bet the kid’s about to hit them up for a loan to help him back on his feet or some such bullshit. Well, the kid can just forget it. He doesn’t care what Jessica says. After that little fiasco last year, Tony ain’t giving the kid squat. The problem is Jessica might disagree and he really doesn’t need that kind of fight right now.

As the kid carefully disentangles himself from Jessica, Tony realizes that he’s sporting an eye patch.

“Can I come in?” the kid says.

Before Tony can answer that, Jessica clutches the kid’s arm and escorts him to one of the hotel chairs. The kid looks around him and there seems to be a trace of distaste on his lips.

“Well, someone sure as hell looks like they don’t want to be here,” Tony remarks as he fishes a can out of the box.

The kid ignores him. “Sorry that it took me almost two weeks to get here. I was looking to see if you got out alive, but it turns out I was looking at the wrong list.”

“What happened to your eye?” Jessica reaches out to caress the kid’s face.

The kid shies away from her touch. “Injured it. On the way out of town. It’s nothing. I just have to keep it covered.”

“You look like a pirate,” Tony comments as he pops the can. “All you need is the frigging parrot and the puffy shirt and you’ll be all set for all the kids’ birthday parties.”

“That beer can’t be helping you,” the kid says.

“Didn’t ask you,” Tony responds with a surly air.

“Please, not right now,” Jessica says. Tony’s not sure if she’s talking to him or the kid.

“I ain’t lending you money. We got our own problems,” Tony declares.

“I’m…I’m not…” The kid gives his head a hard shake. “I just wanted to see if you were okay.”

Tony snorts. Even Jessica doesn’t look like she believes the kid.

The kid is clearly uncomfortable with the resounding vote of no confidence. “I’m actually okay. Financially, I mean. Ahn…a friend put a huge cash deposit in my savings account a few weeks ago, which I didn’t know about until three days ago. So, I’m good to go for awhile.”

“Well, fer once yer not crying poverty,” Tony mumbles into his beer.

The kid’s visible eye blinks at him. “Outside of when I lived in the basement, I don’t remember ever crying—”

“Oh, please,” Tony laughs. “Every time your mother and I turned around you were there with a hand out. Wouldn’t even reimburse us for the wedding.”

The kid winces.

“Hell, you told me you were dead broke when I presented you with the bill after you ran away from your responsibilities,” Tony says.

“That is true,” Jessica agrees.

Tony feels like the ground has shifted. Jessica taking his side? He thought it would never happen while he drew breath.

The kid looks confused. “I don’t remember this. When did you present me with a bill? I’m pretty sure I would’ve at least paid something if I—”

“You informed me that your ex, the one who likes to screw the dead, cleaned out the bank accounts,” Tony says.

The kid chokes a bit on that before a sickly grin takes over. “Why don’t I remember having this conversation? Because if I said that to you, I’m pretty sure I would’ve remembered.”

“Don’t make excuses,” Tony spits. “You were piss-drunk and going on and on how you didn’t have time to listen to me. Well, I had a legitimate—”

“That explains it,” the kid softly interrupts. He at least has the decency to look ashamed. “I said a lot of crazy stuff at the time since I was living in a bottle. A lot of things that happened right after…right after…well, they’re pretty much fuzzy or blank.”

Tony can feel his eyes roll. Once more the kid’s avoiding responsibility, just like he always does.

“I said a lot of bad things about Ahn…Ahn…sorry,” the kid swallows hard. “Anya didn’t make it out. A mutual fr— I mean someone we both know saw her get killed at the high school.”

“You two still talked? Despite everything?” Jessica asks.

The kid blinks dumbly at her and does that hard swallow again. “Unh, yeah.”

The idea of the kid and Anya even being in the same room after the fucked-up affair makes Tony giggle.

The kid shoots him a glare. “Thing is we both said a lot of brutal things to and about each other after…after…” The kid shakes his head. “But accusing Ahn…I mean…accusing her of having sex with the undead? I mean, dead? That’s a new one on me.” The kid nervously taps on the table. “Plus, she had her own checking account and she didn’t touch mine, so I don’t know where I got she cleaned out the bank accounts.”

“Oh, I just bet I can guess,” Tony snarls. “You didn’t want to pay.”

“You did leave us in a bind,” Jessica softly adds.

Tony blinks. Jessica is taking his side again.

“And I’m here to fix that,” the kid says as he starts fishing around his pants pockets. “I, unh, have some temporary checks from my bank. And since I don’t think you take Visa or MasterCard, I’ll just write one for what I owe you.”

The disappointed look on the kid’s face as he finally finds his checkbook and asks Jessica for the total is enough to make Tony roll his eyes for the second time in as many minutes. He wonders what the hell the kid expected between his series of screw-ups last year and the fact that the kid didn’t even bother to contact them until now.

The kid rips the check off and silently hands it to Jessica.

“But…this…this is too much!” Jessica declares.

“I threw some extra in. To help you get back on your feet,” the kid says.

“We don’t need your charity,” Tony growls.

“Thank you,” Jessica says as she clutches the check to her chest.

“Just make sure you show ID when you cash it. I included my cell phone number on the memo line in case you have any problems,” the kid says. “Oh, that reminds me. Make sure you cash it as fast as possible. I’m, unh, going to be leaving California in a few days.”

Tony’s eyebrows rise in surprise at the news.

“Where are you going?” Jessica asks.

“I got a job from one of my Sunnydale contacts. It’s a pretty good one and one I definitely think is out of my league, but it seems everyone in the company thinks I can really make a contribution,” the kid says.

Figures the kid would roll right out the shit and land in a field of flowers. Tony swears the kid steals all his good luck away and uses it for himself.

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question,” Jessica says as she looks at the check again. Tony wonders if Jessica is considering running off with her precious baby and leaving him to rot in this hotel room. Good riddance to bad rubbish if that’s the case.

“I know we’re going to Cleveland first, but I don’t know from there,” the kid says. “Since I’m getting in on the ground floor of this company—”

“Oooooo, key words. ‘Ground floor,’” Tony chuckles. “Figures. In two years they’ll toss you out on your ass the second they get someone more qualified or with an actual college degree. Or it’ll go bankrupt. Been there, done that.”

The kid’s body posture stiffens, but Tony swears he can see a flash of something resembling doubt cross the kid’s face.

“Somehow I don’t think either one will happen,” the kid finally says.

“You tryin’ to tell me, or are you tryin’ to tell you,” Tony snickers. Whatever the kid’s heading into, it’s pretty clear the kid knows he’s woefully under-qualified for the job.

“Anyway, I pretty much have my choice of assignments,” the kid tells Jessica. “I’m kind of torn between southeast Asia, Africa, or the Pacific Rim.”

“You’ll blend right in with the chinks, spear-chuckers, and the cannibals,” Tony waves his nearly empty beer at the kid. “You’re the whitest white boy on the planet. You won’t last a day.”

“Wow. You’ve managed to insult a good portion of the earth’s population as well as get a dig in at me. That’s got to be a record,” the kid says tightly.

“Watch your tone with me,” Tony snaps.

The kid shakes his head and looks away.

“But…but those places are dangerous!” Jessica wails as the kid’s itinerary finally sinks through to her alcohol-addled brain.

“Not if you know what you’re doing,” the kid assures her.

“Oh, and Mr. D-Average knows what he’s doing,” Tony says.

“Look, they’re all places I never even thought of going to because I never thought I’d get the chance to go. Well, now I have the chance to go and I want to go because I can go,” the words come spilling out of the kid and his face lights up so bright, bright, bright that Tony wants to fling his beer in the kid’s face. “It’s something so completely different than, well, anything I’ve ever had or seen and I just…I need to do this. I need to just break away awhile and see what I can do when I’m out there on my own in an unfamiliar part of the world. I’ll never get a chance like this again.”

“You sound like a woman.” Tony falls over laughing. “If you start talking about how this is your big chance to find yourself, I will puke.”

The kid opens his mouth, but Jessica interrupts with, “You do sound like Carol ever since she started dating Kevin.”

Jessica agreeing with him three times in one conversation? Tony just doesn’t know what to make of it.

The kid mouths “Kevin?” as if he’s trying place the name. He brightens. “You mean Krelvin? No kidding! Good for her.” His face darkens. “Did she get—”

“She moved to La Jolla a few months ago.” Jessica pats the kid’s knee. “I just don’t know. Since she’s moved in with Kevin—”

“Krelvin,” the kid corrects.

“She’s gone on this diet, and she’s gone back to school, and she’s getting involved with his circus life.” Jessica shakes her head. “I just don’t know her anymore. I worry about her daughter.”

“As long as they’re happy,” the kid says.

“She’s being brainwashed by the circus folk and I blame you,” Tony says. “If it wasn’t for you, she wouldn’t have hooked up with wart-face and think she won the lottery.”

The kid glances at his watch. “Oh, gee. Look at the time. I have to head back. I’m staying just up the road, but I have a…ummm…thing. Meeting thing. With my new boss. To plan. And plot. And stuff.”

“Will we be able to reach you?” Jessica plaintively asks.

The kid wavers a moment, as if he’s actually considering not turning over the contact information. Tony finds himself fervently hoping the kid won’t.

Jessica’s little-girl-lost look wins out and the kid tears a piece of scrap paper from the back of his checks. “I don’t know where I’ll be, like I said, but you have to reach me for any reason or…or if you want to tell me where you end up, call this number.”

Jessica takes it and frowns. “These numbers don’t look right.”

“Oh. That’s because it’s to the cov— I mean, contractors who work with my company. They’re in England,” the kid explains.

“Not exactly a cheap call,” Tony remarks.

“They’ll be able to find me if you need me, or at least they’ll be able to find people who can find me,” the kid says as he stands up. “I’m sorry I can’t do anything more, but—”

“No you’re not,” Tony interrupts. He gets some mean satisfaction when the kid betrays himself by wincing.

“We’ll be fine. Now,” Jessica says as she clutches the check.

The kid’s eye scans the motel room, resting briefly on Tony and Jessica. “Is there anything else? Anything you want to say to me?” His voice sounds so tired as he asks.

“Bon voyage,” Tony waves as he reaches into the case for another beer. “Try not to get VD when you screw the locals. Those people aren’t big on the cleanliness.”

The kid looks vaguely horrified, like the thought hadn’t occurred to him.

“No, I think everything’s settled,” Jessica says as she holds the kid’s contact number up and studies it.

“I guess that’s it then.” The kid ducks his head. “Good luck and, unh,” he huffs a breath, “good-bye, I guess.”

As the kid leaves Tony suddenly feels this sense of release, like the dark shadow that has hung over his entire life is leaving with the kid and at long last leaving him in peace. He relaxes as he watches Jessica tuck the check in her purse and nearly smiles. A new beginning, the kid and his bad luck nowhere nearby, and seed money to start over. It feels like his luck is finally changing.

Jessica holds up the scrap of paper with a frown, “‘Lady Haversham.’ Royalty? How does he know royalty?”

Tony’s brain screeches to a halt. The kid’s got one last claw in them. He has to cut it off before Jessica changes her mind and calls the kid and the bad luck back. He desperately leaps at his wife and scrambles to get the paper out of her hand.

“Tony!” she screams as he lands into her.

Tony fumbles and fights with her until he rips her prize away. A quick glance shows him the row of strange numbers and the words ‘Devon, Lady Haversham’ underneath and confirms he didn’t grab the check by mistake. Jessica’s still getting to her feet as he runs into the bathroom, tosses the paper in the toilet, and flushes.

“What did you do that for?” Jessica yowls. “He’s our son!”

Tony marches out of the bathroom feeling freer than he has in years. “No. He’s your son. Yours.”

Jessica’s face collapses in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, don’t give me that,” Tony stalks forward and begins circling her. “I’ve got eyes. Does he look like me?”

“Tony, what—”

Tony grabs Jessica’s arm and gives her a hard shake that sends her to her knees. “I said, ‘Does he look like me?’”

“What’s gotten into you? You’re talking crazy.”

“Oh, am I?”

Jessica looks up at him with tearful pinpricks forming at the corner of her eyes. “What brought this on?”

“We just lost everything and you’re asking me what brought this on?” Tony wants to laugh.

Tony leans down. He’s breathing hard with something he can’t name. It feels like hope. It feels like promise. It feels like a new beginning. But if he’s going to get it, if he’s going to shake the kid and his bad luck off for good, he’s got to break clean with the past. He knows it. He can feel it.

It has to start right here. It has to start now. It can’t wait.

“That boy does not look like me. He doesn’t look like anyone in my family. He doesn’t look like you or anyone in your family.” Tony gives her a shake as Jessica lets out a sob. “Didn’t think much about it until the kid was six. Didn’t think about it at all. Then one day, know what happened?”

Jessica’s starting with the steady sobbing.

“Ran into one of my old high school buddies who told me a little story about you and some guy in a mask at a frat house.” Tony gives her another shake. “Sound familiar?”

“He’s yours he’s yours he’s yours he’s yours…” Jessica mumbles through the tears. It’s like she’s stuck on the two words.

“You sure?” Tony lets her go with a shove and looms over her. “Because you know what? I know he’s not. That boy is nothing like me or mine. How stupid do you think I am?”

“I don’t—” Jessica begins.

“DON’T LIE TO ME! NO MORE LYING!” Tony screams.

He teeters on the edge for a crazy moment. Right now he could kill the cringing woman at his feet. It would be revenge— no, justice — for all the years she and the kid made his life a living hell. He pulls back his leg to kick her, but something in his brain clicks at the last moment and he spins around to kick the trashcan across the room. Next thing he knows, he’s grabbing anything and everything that his hands come into contact with and he’s blindly throwing it all away as he screams incoherently about all the years of his miserable, stolen life.

Eventually he runs out of things to grab, or maybe he just runs out of energy, and he collapses to his hands and knees. He can hear Jessica whimpering and he looks up to see her crouched in a corner and looking at him with big eyes. There’s a cut on her forehead that’s bleeding like a son of a bitch.

“Wait,” Tony says, although he’s not entirely sure what he’s asking Jessica to wait for.

He crawls into the bathroom, grabs one of the cheap towels, and crawls over to her side. Jessica flinches away from him when he reaches out, but relaxes when he presses the towel against the cut. He suddenly realizes that through the whole operation that he’s been whispering to Jessica, “Please, please, please, please…”

“I thought he was yours,” Jessica whispers back. “I thought sure he was…I wanted…I needed him to be.” She starts crying again, only this time the tears come softly.

Tony wants to hear the truth, and yet he doesn’t. He feels helpless, spell-bound into silence. All he can do is press gently against the cut and wipe away blood.

“You were camping and Gina, you know she broke up with her boyfriend around then, got invited to this frat party and she didn’t want to go alone,” Jessica says. “I went just for something to do and…and…”

Tony stops. His hands and the towel drop into his lap and all he can do is watch her. Time may be moving forward normally for Jessica, but time is frozen for him. Hell, maybe it froze the day Jessica told him she was pregnant and said it was his.

“There was some drink. It made me, I don’t know, fuzzy I guess.” She sniffs as her head leans back against the wall. “Someone started lighting incense and someone started chanting some song, and next thing I know I’m…oh god.”

“Did he force you?” Tony asks. When Jessica looks at him, he realizes that he’s as surprised as she is that he not only thought to ask, but that the question doesn’t sound remotely like an accusation.

“It felt right, just so right.” Jessica’s talking like she’s remembering a distant dream. “We…unh…and it was…” She throws Tony a panicked look and cringes.

Tony can’t move. He can barely breathe. His hands are blocks of lead as he sits and waits for it to get worse. That’s the one thing he can always count on: his life can always get worse when the kid is involved.

When Jessica realizes that Tony isn’t going to hit her, she admits, “It was good, at first. Then it started to hurt. Really, hurt. Like I was being…like being torn in two and then…and then…”

“And then,” Tony echoes.

“I was screaming and this guy was roaring and I tried to rip off his mask to see…and it wouldn’t come off. It just wouldn’t come off. When he was…when he,” Jessica draws a shuddery breath. “He just yanked out of me which hurt me even more and he was yelling about something. I couldn’t figure it out and all these boys…they came in and they saw me and…and…”

Tony’s fists clench. It’s worse than he thought. Worse than he was told. He was told that the rumor was one guy. Jessica’s about to tell him it was a gang-bang.

“And the guy in the mask was yelling something about ‘already filled up’ and something about waiting another hundred years and something about a contract. And all these boys were begging, like they were afraid of something. I don’t know. It just didn’t make sense.” Jessica is back in that distance, like she’s telling him a story about something that happened to someone else. “He kept saying it over and over again while he pointed at me. ‘Already filled up.’ The way he said it with that mask he was wearing…I was afraid I was going to die and…and…”

A mask, Tony thinks. The other guy was wearing a mask and that’s why I got stuck with it. Tony is willing to bet his very soul that if Jessica had a choice, if Jessica could’ve only removed that mask, she would’ve pegged college boy for the daddy and he would’ve been in the free and clear.

“It gets fuzzy after that. Well, fuzzier.” Jessica bites her lip. “There are these screams and I see red everywhere and Gina’s shaking me, telling me we had to get out of there. We couldn’t find my clothes, so we had to wrap me in a sheet, and we just ran. We could hear the screaming outside and this roaring sound and…” Jessica’s face crumbles into tears.

Tony gets to his feet and walks to the hotel room door. He’s got grounds. He’s got an out. Jessica lied, his future died, and now he can walk. But the hell of it is this: He said “’till death” and that means something to him, goddamn it. The kid’s taken everything from him and has given him nothing in return. Breaking his promise, even if Jessica lied to get it, would be a victory for the kid.

“No,” Tony whispers.

“I thought, I really thought, he was yours. I did, I did. I needed him to be yours and I couldn’t tell you truth because after that it seemed everything fell apart,” Jessica says in a pleading voice. “Gina told a few people what happened at school, so my name was mud. Then Gina and a lot of my friends committed suicide or ran away, so I was all alone. I was pregnant and my parents were threatening to throw me out. I had no one else. You were…you are all I have left.”

Tony slams the door with the flat of his hand. “No.”

Jessica starts sobbing again and Tony turns to look at her. Christ, she looks fugly. Her face is bloated and splotchy from crying, her figure’s gone to pot over the years, and her whole body is heaving in such a way that every roll of fat is jiggling. But for all that, Jessica is still his, for better or worse, ’till death.

That’s when it hits him that maybe the kid did as much harm to Jessica as the kid did to him. They both were blessed with bad luck from the second the kid was conceived. With the kid on the other side of the world, they just might stand a chance of finally grabbing some of the good life for themselves.

He drifts over to Jessica’s handbag and riffles through it, tuning out Jessica’s quiet sobs. He finds the check and he unfolds it. His eyes bug out when he sees the amount written there.

Tony looks over his shoulder at his wife and says, “Pack whatever you got. We’re cashing this check, we’re buying a car, and we’re leaving.”

“We?” Jessica asks as she swipes the tears away from her face. Tony wants to laugh at the surprised expression that has replaced the heartbreak.

Tony crosses the room and crouches in front of her. “Oh, no. You’re not shaking me that easy. You and me? We’re running away from this shithole as fast as we can.”

Jessica edges away from him, as if she thinks he just might be dangerous. “Where are we going to go?”

Tony knows he’s smiling like he’s gone crazy, and maybe he has now that there’s an escape hatch opening right in front of him. “Let’s see where we end up.”

***

Tony knows exactly what everyone in his little Arizona town sees.

He is one half of the happily married Mr.-and-Mrs.-Harris, owners of the local Fluff ’n Fold Dry Cleaning franchise, members in good standing at Our Savior Episcopal Church, weekly attendees of the AA meeting held in a storefront down on Dream Street.

He is a volunteer little league coach who knows how to wrangle the obnoxious stage moms and stage dads who dream little junior’s got what it takes to make the big leagues, but still takes his kids out for ice cream even when they lose.

She is a volunteer for the local Red Cross serving juice and cookies every other weekend at the blood donation center.

They’re members of the Better Business Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, the Lions, and the Shriners.

The kids love them, the parents adore them, and people look up to both of them. They are pillars of the community, fine upstanding citizens, just the way it should have been if it wasn’t for—

Tony refuses to think about—

There’s this name that he’s heard the kids say that’s from some book they all read. It’s supposed to be said instead of the actual name of the bad guy because to say the name might attract his attention.

He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

It’s a prefect way to describe the distant, indistinct shadow. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Better the shadow stays in Sunnydale with the rest of a past that’s better forgotten.

Tony knows that he’s been given a gift; the very thing men would sell all they hold dear, up to and including their souls, to get. He got a clean slate, a complete break with the past, and a chance to start over where no one knows him or Jessica.

He’s happy. He’s good. All he needed was things to go his way just for a little while to prove it was possible.

Just the same, Tony looks over his shoulder, half expecting to see a shadow with dark hair and hazel eyes standing behind him. It’s stupid, he knows, because He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named doesn’t know where they are and won’t ever be able to find them. He highly doubts that the shadow would even recognize him because he has well and truly changed his spots. Tony Harris here in Arizona is not Tony Harris there in California.

It took some doing to get Jessica on the same page, but she finally did. Life was getting better even without her letting go completely, but once she made her own mental break life flipped from sour to sweet with a suddenness that took Tony’s breath away. They’re both in a good place right now and neither one of them want to fuck it up. It took two years to get here, but here they are.

Just the other day, Jessica was cooing over a baby. One of their regular customers stopped by to show them her newborn daughter and drop off her old maternity clothes for the clothing drive he and Jessica were sponsoring.

“You’re so good with children,” the young mother had said. “She’s been so fussy, but she seems to love you. Do you have any kids?”

Tony remembers freezing a moment, but Jessica stepped right up to the plate.

“If we did, you would’ve known,” Jessica had said. “I’m pretty sure we’d be bragging all the time and showing people pictures.”

The young mother had stumbled over an apology. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay,” Jessica had interrupted. “Things have a way of working out for the best.”

***

The kid sits across the table from him and Tony is struck anew on how this kid isn’t a reflection.

Dark hair. Hazel eyes. His face and body has reduced back down to its original shape. No, an even better shape than that body ever was. Tony idly wonders how much time the kid puts in at the gym to maintain the physique.

Fucking kid. He finally got Jessica all to himself. He finally worked past the years of lies, and the kid sails back into their lives and threatens to fuck it all up.

“Just passing through. I was in the next town on business and I thought I’d stop by to see how you were doing,” the kid had said when he showed up on their doorstep out of the clear blue sky. No word from the kid in almost three years, not even a call letting them know he was in town before coming over.

Tony could smell the hidden agenda a mile away.

When the kid offers to take him out for a little man-on-man talk, Tony settles on a small café in the next town because god knows he doesn’t want anyone he knows to see him with the kid. Plus, he got his two-year AA chip a little bit back and he doesn’t want to blow it by getting anywhere near a bar. While the ache has never gone away, when the kid showed up wearing expensive but casual clothes, the ache turned into overwhelming need.

Tony swears the kid’s a fucking vampire feeding right off his life’s blood.

The kid skates around whatever it is he’s trying to say. No shock there. The kid always was a coward. If there were a way to back down from a fight, he always took it no questions asked.

“You’re doing really well. That dry cleaning franchise seems to be doing it for you.” The kid sips at his coffee and Tony sees his hand is shaking a little. “Blown away by the little league thing though. Those kids love you. You’re like the town’s cool adults.”

The kid’s trying to keep it light, but Tony can hear the accusation hidden in the voice. The kid just doesn’t have the balls to come right out and say it, though. Musculature aside, he still doesn’t have a solid bone in his body.

The kid smiles, but it’s not a light-up-the-room smile that once made Tony want to forget. It’s unsteady and wavery at the corners. Kid’s got a new nervous tic, too. His left eye — the one that had the patch over it last time Tony saw him — constantly tears. The kid swipes the wetness under the eye away without even realizing he’s doing it. Tony childishly wants to rip the eye out if only so he won’t have to watch it water any more.

He’s surprised when the kid comes right out with a question.

“Why?”

“Why what?” Tony casually asks.

The kid’s eyes scan the street and he suddenly looks like he’s eight and that someone has ripped out his heart and squeezed it in front of his eyes. “Why couldn’t you do this for me?”

Looks like the kid finally found a backbone. Tony can honestly say that he didn’t see that question coming. He fumbles a little because he’s been caught off guard by the kid’s never-before-seen attempt at bluntness.

The kid’s focusing on him now and he’s just so quiet, so very still, that Tony wonders if he’s looking at a picture instead of a real human being.

Tony keeps it simple. “There were a lot of things that happened in Sunnydale. A lot of things you don’t know about.”

The kid’s eyes widen and he sits up straighter. An inner light touches his face and Tony sees that some sort of realization is dawning. The kid starts breathing heavily and he reaches across the table, almost but not quite touching Tony’s hand. “You knew? All this time you knew and you never said anything to me? Why didn’t you say anything? I would’ve understood.”

The questions tumbling out the kid’s mouth makes Tony angrier than he’s ever been in his life. Angrier than when he realized the truth. Angrier than when Jessica finally admitted the truth.

Tony’s got a few questions of his own. “Who told you? Was it your Cousin Carol? Cousin Rigby? Your mother? Did everyone in that fucking town know except me? You can’t tell me that you pretended you didn’t know all these years. Little pussy like you would’ve tossed it in my face after you moved out to your own apartment.”

The kid’s thrown. “What? I…I don’t understand. Wait. Back up.”

“Who told you I wasn’t your father?” Tony demands.

The kid stops breathing for a moment and his jaw goes slack. His eyes are bright, bright, bright with shock and confusion. Tony feels like he’s trapped in a spotlight as the kid openly stares and doesn’t say a word. The silence speaks volumes about what the kid would say if he ever got his voice working again.

Son of a bitch. The kid didn’t know.

Tony decides that since the kid now knows, he might as well go all the way. “Do you know what it’s like raising a kid that’s not even yours? To find out that the woman you loved more than anything lied to you? That she took advantage of you because you were the one most likely to do the right thing? I supported you, I fed you, I gave you a roof over your head, and you weren’t even my responsibility. You were someone else’s, except he got off scot-free. I lost a football scholarship because of you. I lost my future because of you. Do you have any idea what it’s like to live with a lie for years and to be reminded every single day that you were cheated out of your life because your had to constantly look at a bastard that wasn’t even yours?”

Tony’s amazed he’s not screaming all the nasty truths he kept locked away from the kid by the end. His voice remains pitched low and even, almost gentle, like he’s breaking the news to the kid that the kid had a fatal disease or that his best friend had died.

The kid closes his mouth somewhere in Tony’s quiet rant. The cords tighten in his neck and he blinks rapidly. Even though the kid’s body is statue-still, the movement in his hair betrays a slight tremor. When Tony is done, the kid closes his eyes and swallows. When he opens them again, Tony swears he can see a flash of understanding there.

“It wasn’t my fault,” the kid quietly says as he ducks his head. “I didn’t ask for this. Blaming me is not fair.”

“This ain’t about fair,” Tony tells the kid. “This is about the truth, and the truth is you don’t belong in my nest and you never did.”

The kid studies Tony a moment before jerking a quick nod. “Guess I now know why you don’t have any pictures of me in your new house,” he says as he stands up, fishes out a wallet, and tosses a $20 bill on the table. “Keep the change,” the kid adds. He practically runs out of the café and disappears almost the moment his feet hit the sidewalk.

Tony feels a little bad about how it all went down, but he feels strangely relieved at the same time. The kid always brought him bad luck. His life and Jessica’s life only improved once the kid was out of it. Maybe now the kid will finally stay away and keep his bad luck with him.

***

Tony sees the kid sliding out of the coffee shop right in front of him and he immediately turns to look in a shop window. He watches the kid’s retreating back out of the corner of his eye and he silently swears. He thought sure the kid left town yesterday right after he told him the truth.

There’s a high-pitched series of beeps and the kid immediately starts patting himself down for his cell phone. He finally finds it and flips it open with a professional greeting. The kid stands still a moment before ducking into an alley, probably to continue the conversation in private.

Tony knows he’s playing with fire, but he can’t resist. He needs to know if the kid is planning to make trouble for him and Jessica now that the truth is out. He sneaks up to the alley entrance and leans nonchalantly against the wall. The kid’s not that far inside and Tony can hear the kid’s end of the conversation.

“—waited until Tony left this morning.”

There’s a pause.

“I had to know if he was telling the truth. No. You know I can’t trust what Tony says. He always used to say things just to get a reaction and I thought this was the same-old, same-old.”

Tony angrily clenches his fists as the kid pauses, probably listening to the voice at the other end. The kid thought he was lying? Why the hell would he lie about this?

The kid huffs a breath that sounds suspiciously close to a sob. “Yeah,” the kid says softly. “She backed Tony’s story and added a few details, like the part where she got drunk at some frat party and slept with some guy wearing what she thinks was a mask. My favorite bit is the detail where she tried to remove it and it wouldn’t come off.”

There’s a sound of rustling. The kid’s voice still sounds unsteady. “I got the samples you said I should get. There was a lot of throwing things at my head while Jessica screamed and yelled that I ruined her life and that she wasn’t going to let me do it to her again now that things were going so well for her, which kind of is the worst thing about this. I mean she sometimes tried to defend me when Tony’d get really bad. Tony is one thing, but Jessica? I never saw it coming.”

Tony doesn’t get it either. It never occurred to him that Jessica just might resent the kid as much as he does. At least she never gave any sign that she did when the kid was around since she always took her precious baby’s side. He figured with the kid back in town and dressed like he was something resembling successful, Jessica would be falling all over herself to get in good with the kid.

“Yeah, despite that I was able to talk her into handing over some photos of her and Tony. I had to swipe the hair samples, toenail clippings, and toothbrushes, though. Oh, bonus, I also scored a bunch of used Kleenex.”

Tony starts. Why the hell would the kid want hair samples, toenail clippings, toothbrushes, and used Kleenex? And why the hell would he want photos after yesterday? He and Jessica were going to have to talk when he got home.

The kid’s probably still listening to someone, because this pause is long. “It’s not over the top. I need to know,” the kid finally says.

Another pause punctuated by a bitter laugh. “Conceived under questionable circumstances in Sunnydale, remember? What if I’m half…I mean what if I’m not…I guess if I wasn’t exactly 100% human it would explain a lot. It would explain too much. I mean, c’mon. How long have you known me?”

Tony can feel his forehead crunch with confusion. Not human? Who did the kid think he was? Clark-Fucking-Call-Me-Superman-Kent?

“Yeah, yeah,” the kid says to whomever is on the other end, “I know I’ve got a medical and aura check record that’s almost three years long, but we’ve never checked for something like this. Plus, do I have to remind you what happened to me after I got to Africa? I thought I was going insane. I was well on my way to going off the deep end before I stumbled into the Binu shrine near Arou-by-Ibi. If it wasn’t for the Binukedine...”

Jesus Christ, what does the kid do for a living? Tony wonders.

Tony can hear the kid’s breathing. “Right now you have more faith in my humanity than I do, which is pretty scary.”

A pause.

“Hey, Will? Thanks. For talking me down last night. And for listening to me go crazy just now. And thanks for doing this for me.”

Crazy? Tony wonders. If anything, the kid is being amazingly calm about the situation, especially if what he said about Jessica going off on him was true.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if it’s true. Live with it I guess. What else can I do?”

Pause.

“Yeah. Never thought I’d see the day when I actually wanted to be a Harris either.”

Tony blinks at that. He’s not sure what surprises him more: the sentiment or the kid’s weary tone of voice.

“Leaving now, in fact. Just stopped to get a cup of coffee for the road. You caught me while I was on my way to the car.”

There’s a sound of rustling.

“I’ll be in London around eight-ish tomorrow. After yesterday, I can’t wait to get home and hang with my real family. I never should’ve listened to the Council’s mental health specialist about confronting Tony about—”

There’s another long pause like the person on the other end of the phone has interrupted the kid to say something. In the silence Tony wonders, Home? London? The kid lives in fucking London?

“Okay, yeah. She had a point. I guess it is better that I know than spending the rest of my life thinking it was something I did to make him…well, now that I think about it, it was something I did.” A soft laugh. “I was born, right?”

Right in one, Tony thinks. The kid finally smartened up. “Look, I just can’t…I can’t do this right now, okay? Maybe later after I’ve had time to process. It’s still too fresh. No, I won’t clam up once I calm down. Willow! I promise.”

Tony startles when he hears the name ‘Willow.’ He wonders idly if this Willow is the same Jew girl friend he had when he was a kid. He somehow doubts it since she disappeared from the kid’s life after that fucked-up non-wedding, probably out of womanly solidarity to that Anya because women always stick together and blame the men for all their problems. Although it could be her because he finds it equally hard to believe that there are two girls running around in this godforsaken world with the name Willow.

“Yeah, see you at the airport. Thanks for the offer, but I don’t think a double-chocolate latte with triple-chocolate cake is going to fix this. I just…I don’t know. Just some company will be good enough. You, too. Bye.”

Tony scurries away from the entrance and makes it his business to stare into a shop window with a hand over the bottom of his face like he’s contemplating buying the green dress on display for himself. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the kid leave the alley and pause at the entrance while he shoves the cell phone in his pocket. He holds his breath and doesn’t let it out until the kid heads off in the opposite direction without so much as a glance in his direction.

Screw lunch. He’s heading back to the store. He’s giving Jessica a call to see what went down with the kid.

***

Amazingly, bad luck doesn’t stick around after the kid leaves and life goes on pretty much as it had before. If anything, his luck holds since no one seems to have noticed the kid was around, or rather, no one mentions it. Tony feels he can finally relax. The shadow caught up with him and even touched him on the shoulder, but in the end couldn’t hurt him. He is finally free.

It lasts for a year and a day.

Tony is in the kitchen reading the paper when he hears a knock on the front door. Something in him freezes. He doesn’t know why, but he has a feeling there’s bad news on the other side.

“I’ll get it!” Jessica shouts.

Tony wants to tell her to stop. He wants to tell her they should pretend they’re not home and hope that the other person gives up and goes away.

This is fucking stupid, he thinks. It’s just someone at the door. Probably a Jehovah’s Witness or some other loser trying to get them to buy whatever bullshit they’re selling.

There’s a murmur of a male voice exchanging pleasantries with Jessica. Tony heaves a sigh and goes into the living room to see whom Jessica let in.

There’s a distinguished-looking man with glasses just getting seated in a chair. He’s got a file folder in one hand and he seems a little bit at a loss on what to do with it. He finally settles for putting it on his lap as he agrees in a hoity-toity English accent to an offer of a glass of water from Jessica.

“Can I help you Mr…” Tony begins.

The man studies Tony a moment with a frown. “Giles,” he finally answers. “Rupert Giles.”

“Mr. Giles. What can I do for you?” Tony acknowledges with a nod as he tries to place where he’s heard the name before. He decides that he’s probably heard it on one of those PBS things Jessica’s taken to watching.

Mr. Giles leans back and accepts the water glass from Jessica. “I happened to be in the neighborhood. Actually, I was a few towns over on business and I thought I’d drop this off to you.” He indicates the folder in his lap.

“Oh?” Jessica asks as she settles on the couch.

“I’m here on behalf of Xander,” Mr. Giles says.

Tony drops into a chair. He should’ve known that he wasn’t safe as long as the kid was still alive. He has a sneaking suspicion that the kid is about to bless him with a new run of bad luck. He chances a look at Jessica and he sees that his wife is sitting very still with smile frozen on her face.

“How is he?” Jessica asks. “He’s not hurt, or—”

“He’s doing quite well,” Mr. Giles interrupts. He takes a sip from his glass before adding, “In fact, he’s getting married.”

Tony stifles the urge to laugh because he’s already been down this road. Not a chance. The kid’ll run out the second he sees the altar.

“We had no idea. We haven’t heard from him since last year.” Jessica gives Tony a look. “Is…is that why you’re here?”

“Hmmm? What? Oh. No. No not at all,” Mr. Giles says.

“Good,” Tony says. “I ain’t paying for another wedding that’s not going to happen.”

A storm cloud seems to pass in front of Mr. Giles’s glasses. “You aren’t invited.”

Jessica fidgets. Tony feels like he’s been slapped.

Mr. Giles has the decency to sound apologetic when he adds, “Xander simply felt you would have no interest in coming. I was rather under the impression you were estranged.” He waves an elegant hand. “No matter. The date is set for five months from now in London.”

“So…so…the plans may change?” Christ, Jessica sounds so goddamn needy, even though she told the kid to stay away the hell away from them.

Tony is more stung by the insult of not even getting an invitation, not that he particularly wants to get one. Chances are he would’ve found a way to get out of it because, one, he’s got nothing more to say to the kid now that everything’s out in the open and, two, he has no interest in witnessing another fucked-up affair.

Mr. Giles doesn’t answer Jessica’s question, a sure sign that the kid has about much interest in seeing them as Tony does in seeing him. “I am sorry, but I must make this quick. I am rather pressed for time. Business, you understand. I must get to the airport so I can catch my flight to back to London.”

“So why are you here?” Tony asks.

“As I said, I am here on behalf of Xander to deliver this. He felt it best to entrust this delicate matter to someone else rather than deliver the news in person, given how you and he parted company last time you spoke. Since I was going to be in the area, I agreed to fulfill his obligation.” Mr. Giles puts the file folder on the coffee table. For some odd reason, he rests the palm of his hand on its surface, like he doesn’t want to divulge what it says.

“So what am I looking at?” Tony asks.

“Reports from a DNA test as well as other tests,” Mr. Giles answers shortly. “I do believe you gave him some rather stunning news last year? He wanted to confirm your story. Actually, we ran quite a few tests both scientific and…well, I won’t bore you with the details. To sum up, genetically speaking, Xander is related by blood to both yourself and your wife.”

Jessica’s mouth drops open.

Tony needs to confirm what he just heard. “Are you telling me that he’s my son?”

“He is the fruit of your loins, yes.” Mr. Giles’s voice has just a hint of ice in it.

As Mr. Giles stands, Tony pounces on the file folder and starts riffling through the paperwork. A quick glance tells him that he’s not going to understand half of what he’s looking at, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the conclusions are written in clear English.

“It appears my duty is discharged, so I’ll bid you good day,” Mr. Giles says in his oh-so-proper accent.

Jessica stands. “I don’t know what to…I’m surprised he didn’t want to tell us in person.”

Mr. Giles gives her a stern look, like he knows exactly what Jessica said to the kid.

Jessica cringes and meekly says, “Thank you for delivering the news.”

“Not at all.” Mr. Giles waves it off, as if he were dismissing Jessica’s thanks. “Xander is an extraordinary man. On more than one occasion I’ve felt blessed that our organization has him on our side. So when he asked me to do this singular favor for him, I was more than happy to oblige since he does so rarely ask for favors.”

“But black hair…hazel eyes,” Tony stammers.

“Is there no one in your family with dark hair and hazel eyes?” Mr. Giles sounds like he’s just heard the stupidest shit he’s ever heard.

Tony opens his mouth and thinks the better of that answer. He finally allows, “Well, yeah, but he doesn’t actually look like anyone in my family or Jessica’s.”

“So you reached the conclusion you did because he’s not a perfect photocopy of either yourself or your wife or your respective families.” Mr. Giles’s voice sounds diamond hard.

“I don’t believe it. I’m really the kid’s father,” Tony says with wonder.

There’s a distinct electrical crackle in the room as Mr. Giles stiffens with his hands behind his back. “I said he was your son. I never said that you were his father.”

Tony steps back from Mr. Giles’s barely concealed rage and wonders what tall tales the kid has been whispering about his old man. “It’s the same thing,” Tony defiantly points out.

Mr. Giles slumps slightly at that. “Yes, I suppose in your mind that it is.”

***

The week since Mr. Giles dumped the folder on him life has been hell. He’s been fighting some flu-like bug and hasn’t been able to get out of bed. Jessica and him have been fighting non-stop. Oh, she won’t go anywhere, because of that “’til death” promise, but that doesn’t mean she won’t make his life a living hell.

Plus, there’ve been dreams. Wait. No. Dreams are the wrong word. He keeps seeing snapshots whenever he closes his eyes and every image is a picture of the kid at various ages.

He thinks he might be going a little crazy.

Today was the first day he made it to his dry cleaners since the folder came into his life, but he could barely put in a full day. He left early and found himself wandering around town until landing in front of a cash register at a liquor store with a bottle of Wild Turkey clutched in his sweating hand.

Tony knows he shouldn’t have taken it home. He knows that. But he needs to prove he’s got control over something in his life and not taking a drink while the bottle’s on the table in front of him is the ultimate test.

Jessica took one look at him sitting in the kitchen with the unopened Wild Turkey, let out a squeak, and ran out of the house. The phone started ringing nonstop after that. It got to the point that the constant shrillness was giving him a headache, so he went through the house and shut off all the ringers on all the phones.

Now it’s just him and the kids. That’s right. Kids. Plural.

He was alone when he left to shut off the phones, but when he gets back into the kitchen there is a fucking crowd in there and every face looks like different versions of the kid through the years. As he takes his seat at the table right in front of the bottle, he can feel his headache settle behind his eyes.

There’s the kid at eight with his cheap and easy smile. There’s the fidgety 12-year-old as he fumbles with his bat and uncomfortably picks at his uniform. There’s the sullen son of a bitch at 16. There’s another version with a cast on his arm standing next to a version with bruises around his neck. There’s the defeated 18-year-old who finally figured out that life was not a free ride. There’s the drunk, bloated fatso of 21. There’s the kid wearing his pirate’s eye patch at 22. They’re not the only versions, but they’re the ones who stand out.

And then there’s the kid as he looked a year ago sitting across the table. Of all the versions in the room, this one is the only one who seems actually real. All the others flit through the kitchen like ghosts as they wander and circle from one side of the room to the other. Sometimes they walk through a door; sometimes they walk through a wall as if it’s a door. One of them, Tony swears to god, walks right into the refrigerator and never comes back out.

The one sitting across the table doesn’t move, though. He just sits there looking much more solid than the others. He’s surrounded by dark shadows, like he’s bringing the bad luck back with him, like he’s just itching to dump it at Tony’s feet and make him live with it until it destroys him once and for all.

“What do you want?” Tony finally asks. “Can’t you just leave me in peace?”

The kid doesn’t say anything. Tony’s a little thrown off because the eyes aren’t hazel, but coal black, so black that he can’t even see the whites around the iris. She doesn’t even fucking blink. Wait…no…not she. Him. While he sometimes thought the kid just might be a fag when he was hanging with that bleached blonde leather guy, he always looked solidly male.

“I’m not scared of you, you know,” Tony says.

She…no he…raises his eyebrows at that and there’s even a slight snicker. This one can talk, apparently. All the other ghosts are silent.

The 8-year-old tumbles out of his corner to the real-looking version of the kid and smiles up at him. The real-looking kid looks down and a smile explodes across his face. The smile dosen’t look right, Tony thinks. It’s got the full on happy in it, but it seems like it doesn’t quite match up with the bright, bright, bright smile on the younger version of the kid. The 8-year-old version glances at Tony and the smile disappears so quickly that Tony can feel the stab in his gut. The kid snuggles a little closer to the older version, as if seeking comfort.

The older version’s gaze moves from the younger version of himself and the black eyes hone right in on Tony with the silent menace. There’s a storm building on the older kid’s face and Tony figures that when it explodes, he might not survive the experience.

The 8-year-old flits away, walks through the stove, and disappears god knows where.

Tony thinks he should walk away from this. He should get up and leave the kitchen right now. Except he’s not so sure that the oldest edition of the kid won’t follow him from room to room, won’t follow him to the ends of the earth if that’s what it took to see him dead.

“Leave me alone,” Tony pleads. “Just leave me alone. What do you want from me? I didn’t know.”

The kid leans back in his chair as younger versions flit around him, but still says nothing. All he gets in response is a cold smile, like the kid’s waiting for something.

“You have no right to judge me,” Tony says. “No right at all. I’d like to see what you’d do if you were in my place. I guarantee you’d be no better. No. Wait. You’d be worse because you got a track record. That’s right. If you were in my shoes, you would’ve dumped your mother’s ass because loyalty means shit to you. That wedding of yours? Isn’t going to last. You have no idea what ’til death means.”

For a moment there’s a slight ripple and Tony swears the kid looks like a red-haired woman for a brief moment. When reality re-asserts itself, the kid looks more solid than he did before.

“You’re nothing but trouble, always was,” Tony says. “The day you were born you brought me bad luck. Well, I’m not letting you get away with it this time.”

“Seems to me you made your own bad luck.”

Tony jumps because he didn’t expect the kid to speak.

“Yeah, well, you seem to impose your shitty luck on me,” Tony argues back. He’s not going to let the kid get the better of him. Tony waves at the bottle and says, “This is all your fault. If you were anything resembling what my son should be, this never would’ve happened.”

“Did I? I made you buy that bottle? Is that what you’re saying?” The kid’s voice is odd. It sounds like him, yet it has some higher-pitched echo behind it that Tony can’t quite catch.

“Oh, no. No. I’m not giving you that much power,” Tony says as leans back with a grin.

“But you just said I made you buy the bottle.”

Tony grimaces.

“I never made you do anything. I never made you buy any bottle. Never made you drink. Never made you fight or hold a grudge. You did that all by yourself. I was just your personal scapegoat-type person because better to blame someone than blame the person who deserved it.”

“And I deserved it?” Tony asks with a derisive snort. “Tell you what. Live my life for one fucking day, just one day when I had to put up with your teenage bullshit, and then we’ll talk about who deserves what around here.”

The kid leans forward and rests a chin in his hand. “I’ll make you a deal, dad. We’re going to sit here all night with that bottle just right there. If you don’t do anything with it, if you don’t open it and take that drink you want, I’ll leave you alone for good. What do you say to that?”

“That’s it?” Tony asks. He’s not sure whether he believes the kid.

The kid spreads his hands, those coal-black eyes shining with angry amusement. “That’s it. You and me will sit here until dawn and then it’s over.” The kid leans back in his chair. The dim kitchen light over the sink seems to bring out hidden red highlights in his black hair. “Think you can do it?”

Tony defiantly stares back. It’s 10 now, so yeah, he can do this until six. Not a problem.

The kid sits still in his chair and waits like he’s got all the time in the world; like he’s already won the battle of the bottle.

The silence gets to Tony and he says, “You never said why you were doing this to me.”

“I’m not doing anything to you. It’s actually funny, not funny ha-ha, but funny hunh. See? I wouldn’t be able to get near you if on some level you didn’t think you deserved this. It’s a karma thing. You do everything to you and I get to watch. Best of all, I don’t have to live with it coming back on me three times because I’m not actually doing anything to you. I really need to thank Amy if I ever see her again. It’s a neat-o idea.”

Tony doesn’t understand half of what she…no, he…has said, but it doesn’t stop him from accusing the kid with, “You little bastard.”

“Except I’m not, which now you know.” The kid gives him a careless shrug. “Hey, don’t get mad at me. It’s your brain. Besides, are you even sure this is real?”

Tony glances around the room at all the intangible versions of the kid wandering through. Some of them stop and look at him, but Tony’s not sure if they see him as he is now, or if they’re looking at a Tony who once was. He can’t even answer the kid’s question. Of course it’s not real, that much is obvious, but it feels more real than anything he’s felt in his life.

The kid says, “It’s a wedding present. Although I’m pretty sure Xa— I mean certain people might be really, really upset with me if they found out I was here because they don’t think you’re worth the effort.”

“Not worth the effort?” Tony chokes. “Why you little—”

“But me? I think this is very much worth the effort,” the kid interrupts him with nasty smile. “When you fail, and I know you will, it’s proof that you were just making excuses for every bottle, for every drunk temper tantrum, for every nasty thing you did. Because your life didn’t go exactly according to your big plans, you had to blame someone and who better than someone who at first couldn’t fight back and then wouldn’t fight back? So, dad, surprise me. For once in your life, try not to be Mr. Disappoint-y. For once in your life, don’t pick up the bottle because things aren’t going your way.”

Tony glares back and refuses to say anything more to the kid. He could walk away from the challenge and he knows it. There’s nothing holding him in place and no one’s forcing him to do this, but he’s not going to give the kid the satisfaction.

So the two of them stare at each other across the table as the ghosts flit around them. The kid’s strange black eyes don’t blink, don’t waver once from Tony’s face, even when the younger versions walk through the table between them.

Tony can feel his eyes drying out with the effort to stare back. Sometimes he has to look at the bottle if only to get some relief from those black eyes. Sometimes he looks at the bottle because he swears that he sees a red-haired woman instead of the kid. His hands are itchy and he can feel a bead of sweat rolling down between his shoulder blades. His throat feels like it wants to close he’s so thirsty and he desperately needs to take a piss.

But he’s not going to let the kid win. Not this time. Not again.

Tony’s fingers tap nervously on the table.

He’s not going to let him win.

Tony picks up the bottle and puts it down, still unopened, and checks the clock.

He’s got six hours to go.

He can do this. He can.

The kid’s not going to get to him.

He means it this time.

He does.

The End

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