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1.

Afterwards, War gets a job at Baskin-Robbins.

As things to do when your family cuts you off, it's not really the most ideal. War's building up his biceps and working on his patience as kid after kid after kid wants to try just one more flavor. He deals with parents and grandparents and teenagers and toddlers and tantrums and a hundred thousand pink spoons. He comes up with fifteen different witty ways to handle the question of where his accent's from.

Every so often, someone comes in and says, "aren't you the Dowling boy?" and he has to answer, "the lawyer recommends I do not answer that question" and stare them steadily in the eye until Manager Fred coughs meaningfully.

"Stop being a total asshole to people who know your parents," Manager Fred tells him. War's sleeping on his sofa until he's figured out how to live on his own. Getting his money from the bank hadn't been the hard part. Staring down a stove and trying to make it turn into dinner had needed moral support from friends and family, and he's not got the family anymore.

It turns out you can keep the family through international moves, through bad grades, through no sense of direction in life and a bad goth habit, but you can't keep the family through a surprise younger sister, through a secret second family, through "Dad, I'm gay" when the Dad in question decides what the family really needs right now is paternity tests during a divorce fight.

War left home with a backpack containing important documents and three thousand dollars in cash. He's not upset about it. What he feels is...

What he feels is...

What he feels is, he'd like his shift to be over because it's raining, because it's always so loud when it is, because the kids are giving him a headache, and he's hungry, and he wants to go home, but home is across an ocean, home is something that doesn't exist, and he can't ever get it back.

 

2.

He meets Adam Young in a support group for adopted kids. War's not sure why either one of them are there; War's not technically adopted, he was just switched at birth and is now floundering with no direction in life and harboring deep insecurities about who he really is and all that terrible bullshit. And Adam's the picture-perfect advertisement for the nuclear family, except, Adam says sheepishly, he's kinda got two of them, but one of them doesn't know about the other one.

War's had it up to here with people having two families and them not knowing about it. It's not hard to pick sides in his parents's divorce, except neither side was all that comfortable with War. His mom had stared at him like he was a stranger and this time it wasn't because War had gotten a new piercing. He could just hear her thinking: whose kid did I raise, and is my real kid better than this?

War's never been his parents's first choice for what to pay attention to and it turns out he's not even their first choice for being their son. They'd rather have their real one. They want to find some other kid to pull into this divorce battle. War wishes them the best of luck.

"I've got two dads," Adam says. "One of them has a bad temper and wants to destroy the world. The other one waxes the car on Sundays."

"I'd pick the car guy," War says. He knows about people with bad tempers.

"And then I've got some weird uncles and one of them works for my other dad. But my dad doesn't know about my uncles. It's better that way."

"Secrets suck," War says, done with Adam's self-justifying bullshit. "You got all these people who aren't supposed to know about each other? Fuck that. That's not a way to structure your life. Tell car dad about angry dad. If he's really a good dad, he'll help you. And if he's a bad dad and won't have your back, at least you know you can't rely on him for anything. And those uncles? If they're on your side, then a job won't be more important to you than helping you with angry dad. You're not supposed to be the one who handles this stuff. You're not any of their parents. You don't need to protect them."

Adam blinks at him like War has no idea what he's talking about. War shrugs it off.

"You can't live your life keeping everyone else's secrets," War says. "If they'll beat you up for the secrets, pick between having the secrets or having them around. But if they'll throw you out over the secrets, you never fucking had them, okay? They weren't your family if they'll kick you when they find out they're not your family-- that they're not your only family. What's stronger, their connection to you, or their delusion that you're something you're not? If they'll throw you out, they don't deserve to have you. Tell them, okay? And then fucking see what happens. But don't bend over backwards protecting anyone. They don't deserve it."

War's met his younger sister. She doesn't deserve any of the dirt and mud and debris that'd been thrown up into the air when the bomb of her existence hit. She's cute. She's also five years old and Dad wants to raise her and never wants to see War again.

But a guy who cheats once is gonna cheat again. A guy who throws out a kid once will do it again. War wishes Daisy the best.

 

3.

War's mom had hired private detectives and some kind of Sherlock Holmes to track down her real son. War finds this out when Greasy Johnson shows up at the store, trailing Adam Young. The two of them are old childhood enemies, which they say is the same thing as being friends once they'd spent four years apart from each other. Greasy had been dug up in an American college playing American football. He'd called Adam when the lawyers had shown up, looking for someone normal to tell him what color the sky was. And Adam had somehow remembered War's last name, which was strange, and remembered where he worked, which was even stranger, since War's sure he'd never mentioned it. It's weird being essentially stalked by a guy your age who still looks like cupid on a ceiling.

Greasy orders gold medal ribbon on a waffle cone. Adam gets a strawberry milkshake. And War takes his break and endures Greasy Johnson asking him about what's going on.

"Do you want to be involved in this?" War asks him, unimpressed. "This family doesn't come with a 5-star rating."

"I get a choice?" Greasy asks, looking between Adam and War.

"Family's always a choice," War says. "Passing a paternity test doesn't mean you have to do anything. Mom's not going to kidnap you. She wants you because you're hers and because you're better than me." Greasy plays sports and is on track to graduating from college. War had dropped out after... War had dropped out. Of course Mom'll like Greasy better. He looks like Great-Uncle Earnest. War's never looked like anyone; now they know why.

And Mom doesn't have any messy history with Greasy polluting all their interactions. It's tabula rasa. She must love that. Dad gets a new kid to dote on and so does Mom. Everyone wins except for War, and who cares about War? War chose to leave. War picked up a bag and walked away. War changed his number and his address and dyed his hair four different colors and doesn't look at all like that nice Warlock Dowling, you know, the cultural attache's son.

War was never a nice little boy, but he'd been good at faking it. He'd gotten really good by the end.

They'd all been pretending so hard to be a nice little family. No wonder it turned out they'd all been lying.

So Greasy's his brother, fine. He's already gotten a new sister, what's adding a new brother gonna harm that isn't already destroyed. But Greasy showing up doesn't mean War's replaced as far as he's concerned. What's biology got to do with it? War's parents are his parents, even if he's not their kid. Greasy's parents aren't War's parents in exchange. War's not looking for new parents anyways. He's got the set he has, for better or for worse. And since it's for worse, he doesn't have anything to do with them anymore. War's not gonna stay where he's not wanted. He's not some kind of needy freak like that.

It doesn't even change anything when Greasy mentioned he was adopted. It just means that Greasy was wanted twice: first by his parents and then by War's. Who War's biological contributors were still isn't that important. He doesn't see why he should try to track them down. All it would give him is another set of adults who would judge him and decide if they like who he is. War's used to adults leaving him. He just happened to leave his parents before they could do that to him. It doesn't matter. Family's just family, who cares?

War aggressively finishes his pralines 'n cream scoop and goes back to work.

 

4.

Greasy sticks around, Adam hovering in the background like a really persistent visual hallucination. Adam keeps being friendly, like he's trying to give War a second new brother, and he doesn't care that War is pointedly ignoring him. Greasy's all right, as these things go. He's awkward and too physical, like he tripped his way into a sport he could do and suddenly got cool over it, but he's still a total freak who likes fish and wants to spend all his time with them. War can empathize with that. Fish are easier than people. People suck. People do things like cheat on their wives and spend a fortune on divorce lawyers and name their son Warlock.

War goes on with his life. He keeps up to date on the divorce proceedings through the questions Greasy asks him. War wants to shake him, wants to remind him that he's got a family who loves him back home, a family that chose him, a family that decided to take him in, so why the hell would he throw it away to pick War's family instead? War's family isn't anything you'd choose. War's family is something you get stuck with after nuns mess up in a hospital.

But Greasy is the kind of guy who's stubborn. He wants to see more to decide if he wants it or not. Well, that's his funeral. War's not gonna be able to stop him.

He tries, once. He says to Adam, "look, Greasy's your friend, right?"

"Yeah," Adam says.

"Then be a good friend and stop him from making a huge mistake," War says.

Adam turns those far-too-knowing eyes on him and War feels like something crashes through him and leaves him shaken. Then Adam says, pouting a little, "are you sure you don't want to know who your biological parents are?"

They aren't talking about that. They're talking about Greasy. War would never make that kind of mistake, he knows better. "Sure as anything," War says.

"What if," Adam asks, "they were really good? The kind of people who wax their car on Sundays and let you bring home a stray dog on your birthday."

"I'd tell them I've got a family," War says. "What, is it going to turn back time and I'll have them be there through important developmental milestones?" His own parents hadn't even been there for those. The people who had been there had been hired as parental stand-ins. War knows where he ranks. He's an obligation to his parents and a job to everyone else. Good riddance.

"What if it could?" Adam asks. "What if I could do that? Would you want that family instead?"

Adam's the creepiest person War's even met and he used to have a tutor who made him memorize every single plague, its years, and its death count. "I'm not going to erase my life. Anyway, wouldn't that count as suicide? That's not my scene."

And Adam hadn't seemed like he'd liked that answer but it was the only one he was gonna get. War's got his life. It might suck, but it's his. He's not going to bother wondering what it might have been like. That's stupid and a waste of time. If he was raised by his biological parents, he wouldn't be War. He'd be someone totally different. It'd be like death. He wouldn't ask for that, not even in one of Adam's stupid hypotheticals.

So, yeah. He can't stop Greasy from being dumb. And it's not his problem. It's not. He walked away. It's not on him to get involved. It's not on him to save Greasy. Let him make his own damn mistakes. This isn't War's problem to solve.

Some problems you don't solve, you just walk away from. Let other people destroy themselves in peace. It's not something someone who calls himself War is ever gonna solve.

 

5.

War's used to being the bad influence in people's lives, what with the make-up, the jewelry, and the attitude, so it's weird that his two new friends were both in rival childhood gangs. War never got up to anything like that. He was never the scourge of the neighborhood. He wasn't even allowed to get a dog. It's weird that, out of the three of them, War was the good kid.

His family had always taken War on sufferance. One day, their perspective was, War would grow up, put on some khakis, and vote Republican. Until then, they just had to endure.

Joke's on them, now they don't have to endure anything.

War hums a nursery rhyme under his breath, finishing up with "under the rule of Satan our master" just loudly enough to see Greasy startle. Adam takes it in stride, like he does everything.

"Yeah, so," War stands up, drawing his fingers through his hair to pull it back from his face, "what were you saying about England?"

"I said me and Adam are flying back next month and want you to come visit," Greasy says, like War's flown anywhere since he stopped following his dad around the world.

"You're picking your real family, then?" War asks.

Greasy and Adam exchange looks. "I'm gonna have both," Greasy says, "and they're both gonna know about each other."

War snorts. "Yo, Adam, how are your dads getting along?"

Adam's sneaker scuffs the carpet. "I'm not gonna tell him," Adam says. Greasy looks confused; maybe he was never privy to Adam's angst about his secret parentage. Or maybe Greasy just thinks War didn't know. Whatever. Let them have their Tadfield intrigues. The only time War was in Tadfield was when he was being born.

"This isn't some kind of plot to make me meet my birth parents, is it?" War asks Adam. Greasy wouldn't do that to him without warning. Adam absolutely would. War grudgingly approves of Adam's wrecking ball nature, even if he doesn't approve of it being pointed at him. "Because you know I don't want them."

"What if you meet them incidentally?" Adam asks, the picture of innocence. "You don't even need to know it's them!"

"Then I'll stay in America," War says. Really, what do the two of them think, that War spent eleven years across the pond as the son of a diplomat and wasn't taken around to see all the sights? The only things Adam and Greasy could introduce him to are people. People are suspicious.

"I could always bring them to you," Adam grumbles. Greasy grabs Adam by the shoulder before War can slug him.

"Okay, okay, no parents," Greasy says. "But will you come anyway? I want you to meet my parents, since I've met yours."

There's no chance Greasy's parents gave birth to War, so, well, why not? It's not like War really has anything better to do. He's just killing time here. Wasting time, really. Why not spend a week or two mooching off of Greasy and Adam? It's only fair after he's spent this much time guiding them through the morass that is Ye Olde Family Dowling. They owe him. Just so long as they don't try to get him adopted or anything, that's all fine. War's gonna have to check on his passport, but it should be all... it should be okay, right? And he doesn't need to tell anyone he's going back there, he just needs to talk to Manager Fred, but he doesn't need to tell his parents or anyone, they don't need to know. War can go places without telling them. War can make decisions without considering them. They don't love him, so they don't get to own him. He doesn't need to give them his plans or consider them when making them.

It's not running away from home when you've already done that.

So he says to Greasy, "yeah, all right, I'll visit you." And if he happens to see Adam, that's fine, too, but he'll make damn sure Adam's not lugging any adults along with him. War isn't asking how Adam knows who was responsible for War's earthly existence because, quite frankly, he doesn't give a shit. And he doesn't know why Adam cares so much, either, but he's also not gonna bother asking about it. He already knows other people care more about these things than War does, like, for example, Greasy deciding to track down his ersatz brother because suddenly he had one. Yeah, maybe War's got another family out there, more brothers and sisters, another set of parents and cousins and headaches. Maybe they're out there. But he doesn't want them. War just wishes Adam would drop it already. If Adam is jealous of Greasy getting a new brother out of the blue, Adam can find another outlet.

War pretends not to hear Adam whispering to Greasy, "I really think they'd like him", and Greasy shushing him.

"It's gonna be great," Greasy says to War. "There's paintball nearby. You can shoot Adam all you need to."

And War slowly, sweetly, grins.