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Tony:

The baseball was hit hard, but as it flies towards the outfield the second base player gets his mitt on it. I block the announcer's prattle and focus on the ball, flying from one mitt to another. If the batter were any good, his team wouldn't have lost this round.

I look away, tasting something bitter in my mouth. The TV screen is small so it's easy to dismiss it completely. I shouldn't look. I'll try my best not to this time. I know if I do, it's going to be even harder to let go. How can I just sit here and watch my fucking life go on without me; watch how I gave up everything I am for…

"Strike one!"

My eyes return to that small screen. A shot of the pitcher with a smug smile; a smile I've never seen on their faces when it was me holding the bat.

"Sir." I hear the nurse's cheerful voice. "It's over."

My heart clutches tightly as I watch my dreams crashing before me. What's on TV used to be me, though with better plays and less fat. Not anymore, though. Never again.

"Boy or a girl?"

"A beautiful baby boy."

I follow the nurse to a semi-private room filled with beds; happy mothers and fathers cooing and singing to their newborns. I spot Jessica easily, the only mother staring at the soundlessly asleep baby next to her without a trace of happiness.

"Hey," I greet her softly, grabbing a chair on the way and placing it next to her bed.

She nods silently without tearing her gaze from the boy. He's snuggled in one of the hospital's blue blankets, so small I can barely see his head peering from under the thin layer.

"He looks a lot like you," Jessica whispers, her face emotionless and cold.

I look at the boy again. He doesn't look like anyone, what with the scrunched up features and puffed cheeks. Come to think of it, he does look like Rory.

The doctor who delivered the baby approaches us with a smile. "Everything's all right?"

Jessica scowls without looking at her. I've known Jessica for nine months now, and her jealous streak never fails to amaze me. She resents all successful women; can't stand being in the same room with them. She couldn't get into college, and she had to start from scratch, not that she's gone anywhere. She's still at zero.

"Fine," I answer the doctor before she picks up on the tension in the air.

"Did you think of a name?" she asks me with a happy, bubbly smile that makes me sympathize with Jessica's hatred.

"No."

"That's fine. Most parents take a few days before they decide."

"Alexander," Jessica blurts out with resolve.

I stare at her with a frown.

"I named him Alexander." She eyes me with a challenging look, daring me to object.

"Good." I shrug. I don't really care whatever name she wants to give him. At this moment, I don't care at all.

"That's a beautiful name." I really wish the doctor will take a hike already. I'm not sure how much I can stand her chipper presence.

To my relief, she gives Jessica a few pointers and then walks out, not forgetting to throw me a cheerful wink.

When I return my eyes to the boy, I flinch at the small, black dots gazing at me. They're twinkling like small, black crystals. There's no expression on that small, reddish face, the little dark orbs staring directly at me make me squirm.

Jessica throws her head back into the pillows. "So, that's it."

"It's over," I mutter with a hollow voice, my eyes never leaving that expressionless little face.

"It's nowhere near over." Jessica laughs at me. "It's just the beginning."

Her words sting me, like she just slapped me hard. I was lamenting the loss of the life I know and love so much, that I forgot to consider the new life I'm just starting. A life I have no desire to live. My hand folds into a fist then opens shakily; it feels naked and useless without a bat.

I can picture it in my head, resting inside the closet, now neglected and worthless. I look angrily at the child, my mouth clamped in a tight, furious line. I'll never get to use my bat again.

~*~*~*~

Willow:

He's jumping again, his hands waving, yelling at them to pass the ball. He flails a little after landing from a high jump; the same silly laugh escapes his mouth when he manages to stay on his feet. He doesn't seem to stop laughing; it's hard to understand it given the circumstances.

He starts jumping for the tenth time, now pleading for them to pass the ball. The ball flies, but it's not intended for him; he follows it, jumping. He tries to catch it, his hands and legs working as if they have a mind of their own. He misses the ball and trips, but he gets up, he always gets up. Always trying to match up to them, be their equal; he lacks something, he can never reach their level. And they know it.

This time, he doesn't yell or plead; just runs after the ball, despite their objections, unaware of their disdained gazes. They want him away from their ball, away from their field. One of them pushes him to the ground, another pinches his ear, yet he keeps running, yelling for the ball.

Desperate, they form a circle. He isn’t allowed in. They decide on something, he doesn't understand what it is, he keeps on jumping.

Someone pushes him again, another points at a plane in the sky. From his place on the ground, he looks up. There's no plane. He returns his gaze at them, but they're gone. And they took their ball with them.

I wait for his reaction.

He laughs.

I clutch my headless Barbie and walk towards him.

"There's nothing to laugh about," I grumble, annoyed with him.

He won't let me see his face. I push him back. Tears all over his cheeks.

I toss the Barbie away and hug him. This time, his laugh sounds real.

~*~*~*~

Jesse:

Today, Xander is absent. He's never absent. School sucks without him and Willow and I just don't get along if he's not around, but we both share the same feelings of indefinable horror. Something major must have happened. He didn't seem sick yesterday. In class, I keep staring at the clock, hours moving turtle-like, so heavy on my chest.

I run to his house like a flash once school ends, I knock on the door frantically, but no one answers. I shift from foot to foot, waiting for a one-eyed, stick-legged, claw-handed version of my friend.

There is still no answer. I go around the house and try to peer from the kitchen window, but no one is inside. Everything looks still, dreadfully quiet. I frown down at the uneven grass before I head to my home.

Dad laughs when he sees me in the kitchen with my school assignments covering the table at this early hour. I can't bring myself to solve the math problem, still worried about Xander. If I'd found him at his house, I wouldn't be this upset. I really hate not knowing what happened.

"Jess!"

"Yeah?"

"Xander is on the phone."

My pencil flies through the air forgotten as I race to the living room and snatch the phone from Dad. When he blinks at me, I clear my throat and answer the phone casually, "Hello?"

"Hey, Jesse, what's up?"

I watch Dad shaking his head before heading to the kitchen. "School was boring, Cordelia was a bitch, and you were absent," I say the last part pointedly.

"Yeah."

My eyebrows meet each other. "What happened?"

"Uh, you know, yesterday…" he trails off, and I start to wonder what happened yesterday.

"The kiddie league?" I guess.

Xander had always been obsessed with joining the baseball team. He had this unhealthy fixation with sports, which is fine if he's actually any good at it. Some weeks ago, he'd been accepted into the team, much to his happiness and my dismay. I don't like sports, and neither does Willow, but we went along with it for him, and we helped, or tried to help him practice and get better. But, not everyone is born an athletic.

"Ye… no, got nothing to do with that. I just fell on the steps."

My frown goes deeper. "No, I saw you after the game, you were fine."

"My house."

"Oh."

Something in my chest squeezes. Something about Xander's dad, how silent he was yesterday as he watched Xander suck. A sudden shudder runs down my spine; was Xander doing it for his dad? His father was this major baseball player back in the fifties or something.

"Jesse, you bought Super Mario Bros. 3, right? We never got to play with it. How about a sleepover?"

He sounds weird, almost too cheerful. "Your house?"

"Ha, you're funny." Something is there; desperation. He really wants to sleep at my house tonight. "You're the one who has the Nintendo."

I really hate him for keeping things from me, and for a second I think about torturing him some more, maybe suggest bringing the Nintendo over to his house.

"Jess, you're still here?"

I reconsider. He's been hurt enough, and it won't be cool to be a jerk to him. It must be a rule in the Friends Handbook.

"Dad!" I yell. "Xander is coming over. We're ordering pizza!"

~*~*~*~

Xander:

I snap the door shut, then put on my headphones and start listening to the loudest music in the playlist. It's the best way to silence the stupid argument between me and… me. I can't bear the shame anymore, and I'm sick of drowning in humiliation everyday since…

I start nodding my head to the music. So loud. So perfect. Something inside me relaxes, tossing the weight behind, but something else burns like flaming coal jammed in my chest. Today, the teacher talked about pollution, the hole in the ozone layer, and carbon dioxide. He insisted we should limit producing carbon dioxide, and that the ozone hole is a real problem facing the planet. I can't sleep because of the freaking thoughts. Mom is the ozone hole and I'm the carbon dioxide. That hole should disappear and we should stop producing dirty particulates like me… so that nature can be clean.

Last Sunday, Jesse's mom dragged us to Church. I prayed, though I felt that God dislikes dirty people like me. I'm just a human shell with dirt running in my veins.

Those voices I can't block out, the sound of the door, the night's drunken giggles, the smell of cheap perfume. The door locked from the inside as if I'd ever step a foot in there if it was left open. I can never even pass it by.

Mom hands me my allowance, I smell the stench on the money. I choke on the smoke coming from the fire burning me without anyone knowing or noticing. It's the first torture of my daily life.

The second is running into our neighbor, Mr. Hood, who thinks he's too good to look at me. I don't look at him either. He was the one who opened my eyes to the possible truth. Four days ago, he grabbed my arm and pulled me close, but still, out of his lawn, roses don't mix up with dirt. He spilled all he knew, but I couldn't believe him, until I saw with my eyes.

The teacher asks me about the homework. I drop my gaze to the floor and hear Harmony's snicker. "Why didn't your mom help? Unless she's got a better job to do."

She's obviously talking about Mom working as a bartender, but that's not the job that popped into my head.

Knives stabbing me in my chest, and all I want to do at the moment is to beat the shit out of her for speaking that way about Mom. But I say nothing. I should beat Mom and that guy!

Jesse and Willow suggest a night at the Bronze, I decline like I did the last four days. The problem of the hole is still suffocating me, following me day and night. The second I close my eyes I see that freaking hole, it creeps toward me, almost swallowing me. I gasp awake, and breathe heavily.

I can't fix her, can't make the hole disappear, but maybe I can stop it from becoming worse. I get out of my room and notice her door half opened. Why did she leave the door open? Was the guy late? She didn't ask him to come over tonight?

I want to go in but an invisible force stops me, pulls me away, binds my feet. Curiosity pushes at me to go through a door that is never open at this time of night since he left.

Fear hits me as I freeze in place. Maybe she'd forgotten to close the door, I can't just go in and stare down her guy, or even lock eyes with her.

I pull myself together and try to take a step forward, but my feet are paralyzed. I have to go in, see for myself, get the whole truth.

I get my foot to move, one step forward. My heartbeat rages like angry sea waves hitting my chest hard, then withdrawing only to attack again with bigger force. I stare at the door that blocks what's happening inside. Pain spreads inside of me, fills me, my heart squeezes as I stand in front of the door. I'll go in, whatever happens, happens, I push the door open and hold in my breath.

He turns around and glares at me. "What the hell are you doing here?"

I stop breathing for a moment, totally thrown. "D… dad?"

I can't see her, her head is hidden behind his naked shoulder. I try to get a glimpse of her, but she's looking away, not meeting my gaze.

"Get out of here!"

~*~*~*~

It's the first time she makes breakfast since forever. The toast - just out of the toaster - with bacon and eggs wait for me on a plate. I stare at them for a second before directing my wary gaze to her. She's sitting silently, eating and sipping from her orange juice, she won't look at me. I sit and help myself to one of the best breakfasts I’ve had at home since I could remember.

"What happened to that guy?" I whisper, for some reason afraid he's going to hear me from where he is, spread on their bed, snoring in his drunken sleep.

"Oh, so now you're talking to me?"

I ignore her sarcasm and just cut to the chase. "Mr. Hood told me he was your high school honey."

A wistful look clouds her face as she gazes at her juice. "That he was."

"Was he… did you…" I'm not sure how to say this. I'm too scared to ask, so afraid of the truth. But, if what Mr. Hood claimed is true, and he knew about it as well, it'll definitely explain a lot. "Am I his…"

Mom sets her glass on the table sharply. "It's Tony, you idiot," she snaps at me, her eyes are icily cold in a way that says how dare you even think that. "Why the hell would I marry him if it wasn't for you?"

I swallow thickly, shivering slightly, and inwardly cursing myself for being an idiot. I shouldn't have believed Mr. Hood; should have known that everything he said was nothing but crap. From day one, they always made it clear why they were together, why they weren't happy, who is the reason for their gloomy dysfunctional life. I guess I wanted to believe Mr. Hood, because the thought of not being Tony's son, the thought that he was forced to take me in kind of made everything, my whole life with these people, make sense and almost bearable.

Still, I can't shake away my anger at her, my disgust and disappointment. "Mom, cheating?"

"You're your father's son, Xander. You'll never understand."

~*~*~*~

Cordelia:

I tap my fingers on my desk impatiently as I sit next to the phone. I take a magazine and flip through it, and then stare at the phone one more time. I toss the magazine aside and grab my Walkman. Ugh, I hate this song. I glare at the phone. Why hasn't he called yet? Unless, he won't. Typical. What did I expect? The brainless loser never dated a girl before; he didn't even know that it was the guy's job to spend money on his girlfriend.

I go back to tapping my fingers on the desk until I release an aggravated sigh and snatch the phone. I hate Xander stupid Harris! How humiliating to dial his number and ask him to pick me up. I feel cheap. What am I doing? I'm totally being cheap.

Before I had a chance to hang up my phone, an annoyed grumble is heard from the other line, "Who?"

How rude. This must be his father. Well, like father like son, apparently. "Is Xander there?" I ask with an eye roll.

"Are you his little redhead friend?" he slurs in the most disgusting drunk voice I ever heard.

"What? Ew much. Do I sound like I wear overalls?"

"Who are you then?"

"Cordelia Chase."

"Chase, huh? What does a rich girl like you want with that boy?"

I frown, not really liking where this is going. So, I decide to end this conversation now. "Just tell him that I'm going to swing by."

"Tony!" I hear a woman's voice shrieking from his end of the line.

I bite my lower lip when Xander's father starts throwing a few gross insults. Xander's mother's aren't better either. I hang up when it came to bathroom trash talk. I draw the line on that.

~*~*~*~

He's silent. Mopey, angry silent, which I get. I mean, it's not the first time I pick up a guy in my daddy's car, and they always end up sulking for their bruised macho ego. It doesn't matter; once we get to the romantic spot, he'll be too absorbed with sucking face and regaining his macho points.

Anyway, let's get to the real dilemma, Xander's house. Seriously, other than the size issue, it's like it was last painted when big hair was in. And his dad, I couldn't just go and ring the bell, I didn't want to see him, so I just honked from my place in the car. Fortunately for me, Xander jumped into the car just a few seconds after I made my presence clear.

I glance at him once more, still mopey, and now I'm bored.

"Does your father always answer the phone?" I say in an attempt to make conversation.

He tenses a little. "Why?"

"We talked, as you know." With a lip twirl, I add, "He's a treat."

Silence.

"He sounded drunk."

"Yeah?"

"And then he shouted at your mother."

No comment. Okay, I get that the subject is sensitive, but the fact that it gets Xander, the king of babble, to sew his mouth shut for more than five seconds? Not to mention, he hasn't taken his eyes off the window since I picked him up. I'm sure if I asked him about the color of my lipstick, he won't know the answer. Scratch that, he won't even recognize it even if he looked at me.

"Do they fight a lot?" My eyes are totally focused on the road now. If he doesn't want to look at me, why the hell would I want to look at him? He's not much of a vision anyway.

"Why are we talking about this?" his voice rises in annoyance. Finally, an emotion. "You don't hear me butting in about your household."

Yeah, because the only thing you care about are my lips, I think bitterly. "My parents barely talk to each other. Yours do."

"If you call the yelling and occasional cursing ‘talking’."

"What do they fight about?"

"I don't know. I'm always at the library."

"What about Christmas and Thanksgiving?"

"Best time for backyard camping."

I stifle a laugh. "You're kidding."

"No, and that's the end of this subject."

I knew that Xander came from a poor household and that his mother carried the weight of the family most of the time, but that's some serious damaged family stuff. I mean, who doesn't spend Christmas with their own family? And why haven't I heard of this before? Gossip spreads like seasonal flu at school, and news about Xander's mother working at the drive-thru spread through the school before she signed the job application.

"Cordelia," Xander says, finally looking at me. A determined and serious look crosses his eyes. "Everything you know, keep it to yourself."

I regard him with narrowed eyes. Could it be that Xander never told anyone about this? That he's got secrets that no one knows about? The fact that Xander has this mysterious home life makes him, well, somewhat cool.

"Wait a minute, you mean Willow doesn't know?" I can feel my eyebrows passing my hairline. The thought of Willow not knowing something about Xander? The thought of me knowing something about Xander that Willow doesn't?

He gives me a side glance. "No one knows."

"But me." Triumph colors my voice. I can just picture Willow's face when she hears about this.

He shoots me a warning glare. "No gloating."

"But…"

"Really, Cordelia, no one knows. It stays between us."

I purse my lips in displeasure. He always manages to ruin a good thing. Let's see if the times he mentions Willow or Buffy's names during make out manage to outnumber the last time.

~*~*~*~

Buffy:

The punching bag is swaying even though my last punch was a minute ago. I stare at it with burning eyes as I feel beads of sweat running down my forehead, my chest rising with each heartbeat and my breath heavy. Spending a whole day with Giles, doing nothing but training does that. He was being evil, trying to push me as hard as he can so I would surrender. Willow, too, with her insistence and putting off homework from me. We had a nice time at the Espresso Pump yesterday; it was easy to patch things up with Willow. Her problem with me was mostly that I don't listen to her problems, and I did. Yesterday we talked about nothing but Willow's problems. Willow was happy and I was relieved.

The punching bag stops moving.

I remember Willow and Giles' critical stares when I hid in Giles' office at the sound of Xander going into the library. I still can't face him. Not after everything that happened at my house two nights ago.

I really want to forget, to start a new page, but his words, his harsh, harsh words, still ringing in my ears. He just… he isn't like Willow. He can't bring himself to sympathize or even pretend to. His views on that part of my life that hurts the most hurts me even more. He'll never get it. And I don't expect him to, but I really wish he'll back off.

I can feel the punching bag combusting into flame any second now due to the fire inside me, so intense it's about to blow me up. My shaking fist rises up and flies into the punching bag, the smack echoes in my ear. I start hitting again, harder, stronger, faster, I hit and hit, pounding the hell out of the punching bag.

"Any second now, that thing is gonna fly to Giles' office."

I spin, fists under my chin, bracing my body to attack, still lost in the mental fight zone. I let out a couple of heavy breaths when Xander, standing by the library doors, lifts his hands up in surrender. I try to calm down, let the adrenaline washes off. I use my arm to wipe the sweat from my forehead, and then undo my ponytail.

"Haven't seen you all day," Xander says. "Wanted to welcome you back to school, but I couldn't find you."

I don't meet his gaze, pulling the stray strands of hair back and tying my hair into a ponytail again.

"So, you're training?"

Still not looking at him, I nod, wiping more sweat from my lips with my arm.

"Good to see you focused."

I don't reply. My eyes stare longingly at the punching bag and I wish he'll just leave.

"Wanna do something tonight?"

I release a suffering sigh. "I don't… I don't think so. Got some catching up to do with Mom."

"Yeah, she needs it."

"I need it, too."

"Right."

My hands ball into fists of frustration and I finally look up. His face looks calm, yet I know that inside that mask lies a whole lot of aggravation and anger. I'm really not in the mood for this. I don't care what he thinks anymore. I just… I don't care.

I give him my back, focusing on the punching bag. "I wanna get back to training."

"Who's stopping you?"

My lips purse in irritation and I look at him over my shoulder. "Do you want something?"

"Since when do I need a reason to hang with my best friend?"

"Best friend," I say with a hollow voice.

Xander's eyes go wide with shock. "What? Now we're not friends?"

I feel tired all of a sudden and I shake my head without looking at him. "I didn't say that."

"Obviously, you're upset with me." I feel him approach, his voice cold and full of suppressed anger. "That's rich. I wasn't the one who bailed on her friends for some bloodsucking fiend."

"Xander, just…" I throw my arms up in frustration, but can't seem to find the best words to say without making this conversation more horrendous than it already is. "Get out of here."

"Do you know how hard it was not knowing whether you were dead or alive? Do you know how much pain you caused?"

My stomach tightens in that familiar way it does whenever we engage in one of our fights. "I was in pain, too," I say defensively.

"Yes, all for some psycho son of a bitch."

"You've always hated him," I say in cutting tones.

"I have every right to hate him!" he snaps harshly. "Did you forget all the things he'd done?"

I wince, my hands going to cover my ears. "Xander, you're shouting…"

Now he's pointing his finger and his face is completely pissed off. "Did you know he tried to kill me and drop my dead body as a present in your doorsteps?"

"Stop yelling at me!" I scream at him in a voice louder than his. His mouth snaps shut and a stunned expression crosses his face. He stares at me with shock, as if what I said is something new. He always loses his temper when we're arguing, I'm sure he doesn't even know what he's shouting most of the time.

"Can't you ever get your point across without yelling?" I say angrily. I've had it with his attitude. I won't stand and take it this time, this has got to end.

Xander's lips quivers slightly, he runs a hand through his hair, his gaze on the floor, still looking stunned. I didn't expect this reaction, and I hate the flicker of guilt I'm feeling. I said nothing wrong.

He looks up at me again, and I flinch. That tortured look in his eyes, his lips are still quivering. I'm not sure how to react to that. I've never seen Xander like this. "I'm sorry," he says softly. "Buffy, I'm… I'm just so angry." His voice cracks at the last word.

He appears so filled with self-loathing that my hands tremble with an urge to give him a comforting touch. Something inside me resists it, and I try my best to look casual. "Got the best cure for that." I nod my head at the punching bag.

He releases a soft chuckle and gives a slight shrug. "Yeah, not sure I know how to use that."

"I'll hold it for you." He blinks at me startled. My expression softens. "It really helps, Xander."

"Does it?" His voice shakes a little. "Would you hold it for me every day?"

I lift an eyebrow. "Why? You're planning on staying angry with me for that long?"

He looks taken aback. "I wasn't…" he trails off, looking away. "Never mind. I guess today will do just fine."

I nod. "Let's do it."

He looks back at me, and this time a grateful smile curls up his lips. I can't help but return it. We're friends again.

~*~*~*~

Anya:

I feel a thrill when Xander slips out of his yellow bird boxers and stands before me in his naked glory. My eyes can't help but drink in every detail of his nicely shaped body, especially those big, muscled arms and his half-erected penis. It's always like that. Every single night. We lose each other in the throes of passion, moaning and screaming out each other's names, lost in ecstasy.

He tosses himself onto the bed next to me and immediately resumes kissing and sucking on my neck. Usually I repay him with a joyful giggle and more kissing and sucking from my end, and then we'll engage in a long, exotic, fervent sex that leaves both of us worn out but very satisfied. However, according to A Couple's Guide to Communication that's not how it should be. Couples should talk more, feelings should be expressed, needs and desires - not sex related, - should be exchanged. It's the only way to a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

So, like the good human girlfriend I am, I gently push Xander and his luscious lips away from me and start talking, "Your uncle Rory was fighting with your mom this afternoon."

Xander rolls his eyes. "What's new?" He inches closer to me, his lips already pursed and ready to kiss.

I reluctantly withdraw. "Something about a ladder. How your mom never left the bottom."

He blinks a little. And then confusion clears from his face as he realizes what I'm talking about. "Ah, Mom's endless train wreck of jobs."

"She was crying. So, I went to comfort her, and we talked about me."

Xander's whole body freezes and his eyes are the size of those animated cartoons he likes to watch in the morning. "What? Anya, no, we don't tell that stuff to people who are not Scoobies. We talked about this before."

I shake my head and give him a playful slap on the shoulder. "Relax, silly. I only talked about how a year ago I was on top of that metaphorical ladder and now I'm at the bottom."

"Bottom." His face falls slightly, and then his eyes stare down at the mattress.

"Yeah, never getting to the top is way easier than falling. Your mom is the luckier one." I nod, feeling pleased with myself. There, we had a much needed couple's talk. Now we can have sex.

I edge closer to him seductively and wrap my arms around his neck. He breaks away from my hold. "Uh, I don't think I can tonight. Big job interview tomorrow. Better get enough sleep to ace it."

I'm thrown. A couple of seconds ago he was all over me, what happened? "But, Xander, we were just starting!"

He gives me a small, apologetic smile. "Sorry, Ahn, I promise tomorrow."

I shake my head hard. No, no, no! That's not how it’s supposed to happen. "I want orgasms."

"But it's gonna be extra special tomorrow, because then I might actually start climbing my ladder."

~*~*~*~

Jessica:

I knock on the door and wait silently.

A young woman, one of the bridesmaids, opens the door and peers at me with a shy smile. "Yes, Mrs. Harris?"

"Can I have a word with Anya?"

She flusters a little, her eyes falling on her hideous green bridesmaid's dress. "Oh, yeah, well… it's not a good time."

I frown disapprovingly. "I need to talk to her."

"Tara, what are you doing? My hair won't do itself!" Anya's shrill voice sounds from the inside and rings in my ears.

Tara winces when she notes my grimace. Her head disappears inside and I hear her mumble, "Oh, it's Mrs. Harris."

"No, no! Don't let her in. I'm not done yet!"

Tara's face returns, awkward and nervous. "Um…"

"Tell her I came to help. I'm also bearing some advice."

She looks inside the room again. "She…"

"Not when my hair looks like overcooked onion rings."

Tara looks at me with an apologetic, embarrassed smile. "I'm sorry." And gently closes the door in my face.

The nerve. First, she sits us at the third row and now she doesn't want me to help? Suit herself.

I retreat to the main hall, spotting the variety of flowers filling the place. I don't remember Tony paying for them; I'm actually surprised he paid for any of this. The decorations and arrangement all look lovely. I feel a pang of sorrow in my chest, thinking of my own wedding. A small gathering of his family and mine at his parents' house, the critical stares my grandparents cast me, judging me throughout the ceremony, my mother trying her best to appeal to his parents. It was all too embarrassing.

I came from a very religious family, one that believes that nothing makes a woman happy and content like marriage. The fact that I slept with a man and got pregnant almost "killed" the family, my grandmother reminded me every chance she got.

I couldn't stand it though, especially after Xander was born. Things kept getting worse each day. One morning, I woke up and looked at myself in the mirror. My face was worn-out, heartbroken, lost, and hollow. I couldn't keep doing this. That morning I had decided to run away. I remember it like it was yesterday. Tony was out looking for a job, and Xander was sleeping in his crib. It was the perfect opportunity.

Unfortunately, Mom was standing right in front of the door when I was about to make my escape. She had given me a hard time about giving up and leaving a three months old baby alone in the house. Then, she reminded me of the lessons I've heard since I was three. I should be patient, I should devote my life to that sleeping baby upstairs, I should be grateful that Tony agreed to marry me and throw his whole life away for me and the baby. She said that leaving would make people talk, that I would be the example of the woman who deserted her husband and son because she was weak.

I didn't want to be the laughing stock of the family and neighborhood, so from that moment on, I started pretending. I planned birthday parties, I took Xander and his friends to the zoo, I bought them ice cream. I made sure Xander had clothes, shoes, bags, toys and everything a little boy needed. I made sure his father's mishaps didn't leave the house, I took care of Xander's injuries and mine before they scarred. I tried my best to show us as a healthy, well-adjusted family for all to see.

I even took a family picture of us every three years. They always looked convincing, except if you look hard enough, you'll notice the emptiness in our eyes.

On the other hand, Tony doesn't care much about image. He makes his feelings for us absolutely clear everyday and in front of everyone, and he never tried to hold in his threats. He always embarrassed me. I never went to social events with him. I went to Parent Teacher days alone, visited Xander's friends' families alone, did neighborhood activities alone. Sometimes Tony wanted to tag along, but after he made a scene at Willow's bat mitzvah, I made sure he never knew about anything ever again.

It couldn't be helped today. And Tony certainly made sure he embarrassed me in front of everybody like he always does. That jab about drinking because he married me, while true, is still unnecessary for others to know about. He really doesn't care how we come across to people.

Going at each other's throats, throwing things at each other, beating the hell out of each other. Loud, loud, loud yelling everyday. For the past twenty one years, that's all we did.

And even now, on our son's wedding day, sitting in the first row as the ceremony is about to start, we're fighting. It doesn't matter what's it about, what matters is whose voice is the loudest.

I try to get him to calm down, I try to remind him that we're not alone; our crap isn't hidden in the privacy of home. As usual, he doesn't listen to me.

It's then when my eyes catch Xander letting go of Anya's hand. I freeze as déjà vu takes me back to that day; the one when I wanted to get away. I can see my face clearly as it stared straight back at me in the mirror years ago. The same broken, hollow expression is looking at Anya's retreating back.

My eyes widen when it hits me in the hardest way; the pretense, the jokes, the lies, the secrets, the fake smiles. Xander turns around, and I vaguely shake my head; don't leave, don't leave. But that's what he does. He manages to do what I couldn't do. I wasn't standing there to stop him.

I never thought I needed to. All my life I've pictured glimmers of Tony in him, insisted they were there.

I was wrong.

He's actually me.

~*~*~*~

The End