A funny thing happened to me this weekend…other than the fact that I haven’t actually been home because I’ve been outside doing things like enjoying the sunshine.
[Now I have to pay because housework won’t do itself.]
Anyway, I was going over Cuckoo in the Nest to submit it to the writercon archive and to edit the version I’ve got on LJ while I was at it. I started taking notes about various things in the story and next thing I knew, I had a full-fledged DVD commentary.
So I figured: “What the hell. I’ll post it.” It just won a fanfic award and new people have taken a look at it. Maybe someone might be interested in seeing how it was constructed. If people want to read how I pulled it together, great. If not, I’ve got the notes for myself in memories.
If someone held a gun to my head and asked me which story I thought was — technically speaking — best short-form Buffy fanfic I ever wrote, this story would win hands-down. It’s the tightest story I’ve ever written and the one that’s the most economical with words. I can honestly say that there’s extremely little that’s extraneous here since every section ties closely to or is repeated in another one. It was also the most draining and hardest to write, especially since some of the hateful things that come out of “Tony’s” mouth (read: my keyboard) had me cringing.
Anyway, the DVD commentary is tucked in the story in bright red for anyone who wants to read it. But first, I thought I’d explain where this strange little story came from.
Cuckoo in the Nest sort of had four sparks that got married and birthed a plot bunny to make it.
Spark One: Nathaniel Hawthorne Is My Dead, White, Male Author Boyfriend
I’m a sad little Nathaniel Hawthorne fan girl. I had written Ishmael Sings of the White Whale — which was my weird little nod to Herman Melville and Moby Dick in particular. I wanted to go a step further and see if I could do a short story along the same lines as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, such as Young Goodman Brown, The Minister’s Black Veil, or Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment. As a result, Cuckoo in the Nest has a very specific writing style that (I hope) wouldn’t be too out of place if it was tucked next to other 19th century short stories by New England writers.
Please don’t laugh, but trying to follow the conventions of Nathanial Hawthorne’s short-story style is a lot like trying to do the same thing following the writing style Stephen King uses for his novellas. Both men employ a very distinct style and use the supernatural — whenever they opt to use the supernatural at all in their short stories, which both authors sometimes don’t — in very distinct ways when writing their shorter works. That style isn’t just different from other writers, but it’s radically different from the techniques they employ in their novels. There is a very specific set of tools and conceits they use that you’re not going to find in anything else they write.
It’s fitting in a way. It’s no hyperbole to say that Hawthorne really was the Steven King of his day, although his output was nowhere near as prolific nor his career as a novelist nearly as long as his New England literary descendant. Hawthorne, for however briefly, was the first American novelist/short story writer who managed to support himself and his family by writing fiction alone. Authors before him either had other jobs to pay the bills, or had enough of a family trust to rely on that and the income from what they wrote was the equivalent of “pin money.”
That’s quite a feat, when you think about it.
Hawthorne’s unique fingerprint, the thing that makes him Hawthorne and not, say, Edgar Allen Poe or Stephen King, is that whenever he employs the supernatural in his short stories, it steps across the landscape with a light footprint. The focus always is, and always will be, on the normal, everyday, people next door who live in the midst of the unknowable and unexplainable and are often completely unconscious of the wonders around them. In Hawthorne’s short stories, when the supernatural and the normal guy collide in a single, fatal moment, it’s always a life-changing experience. Sometimes the normal guy comes out the better for it; sometimes the worse; and sometimes (and this is the best and most maddening thing) he continues out resolutely, if now willfully, blind and refuses to learn a damn thing by his experience. You’re never entirely sure which way Hawthorne’s short stories will break.
I always got the feeling that the point of Hawthorne’s short stories was not these snapshots of when the normal and the supernatural collide, but what you do after these collisions and how you use your knowledge that you’ve gained.
I’ve always said (in my own fan-girlish way) that Xander’s big problem in the later seasons of Buffy was that he was the quintessentially Hawthornian character trapped in a Victorian gothic romance. As anyone who’s read both genres can tell you, there’s no room for a Hawthornian character in a Victorian gothic romance because the focus is completely different.
In Hawthorne’s universe, the normal world is of greater importance, because that’s the world we all live in and have to live with, regardless of the presence of the supernatural. After we are marked by supernatural, even if we become involved with the supernatural under some guise, we still have to interact with our more innocent neighbors, we still have to go to our jobs, and we still have live with our families.
To even come close to “doing a Hawthorne,” complete with the payment he exacts on the guilty in some of his short stories, Xander couldn’t be the focus and it couldn’t be told from his point of view. We had already seen Xander’s Hawthornian snapshot on screen in pilot episode, ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth,’ when he follows Buffy to find Willow and sees his first vampires. We already know that all-important answer — seven year’s worth, in fact — to the question, “Well, what did Xander do after he had his eyes opened?”
As a result, Xander’s Hawthornian snapshot happens “off stage” for Cuckoo in the Nest and it’s an unremarked and unnoticed event. Xander’s Hawthornian snapshot doesn’t open the story, but instead occurs a couple of pages in so it blends seamlessly with the background of Xander’s normal interactions with his parents. However, Xander’s moment does color those interactions. Xander doesn’t even find his voice (that is, his character doesn’t even speak) until after his first brush with the supernatural while he’s coming to grips with that and the decision he’s made, for better or for worse, to take a stand and stay involved despite everything he’s seen.
Insofar that Hawthorne has a heroes in his short stories, Xander is the classic Hawthornian hero in the truest sense of the word all the way through the series and right up until the very end. He may stumble, he may fall, he may on occasion even regress and backslide, but in the end Xander does not blink when faced with things that are beyond his neighbors’ comprehensions. He manages to live and act in the normal world, and he manages to hold his own in the supernatural one by helping with the fight to make sure the normal world is not overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed by it. He worked for and earned the right to stand at the edge of the Hellmouth at the end of S7’s ‘Chosen,’ despite the fact that he has never been anything more — nor anything less — than completely human.
You might say that if you view Buffy the Vampire Slayer through a Hawthornian prism, Buffy may be the hero, but Xander is its hope. He’s the guy we all want to be, and can aspire to be, if we ever find ourselves in faced with our own real-life version of the Hawthornian snapshot.
Because Xander, by definition, couldn’t be the focus of Cuckoo in the Nest, it had to instead focus on Tony’s, and to a lesser extent’s Jessica’s, Hawthornian snapshots.
Jessica’s comes first in the incident in the frat house, the very same incident that Tony hears about years after he married Jessica and leads him to believe that Xander is not his son. Jessica falls into the Hawthornian category of remaining stubbornly blind and unchanged by her experience with the supernatural. Her Hawthornian snapshot did not change anything about her life that wasn’t true before it happened and remained true after the event.
Tony’s Hawthornian snapshot doesn’t arrive until at the very end of the story. I admit that here I departed from the Hawthorne template in that I stop right in the middle of that moment. There’s no resolution to Tony. He’s left deliberately hanging. Will he walk away better or worse for his experience? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that, unlike Jessica, he’s not going to walk away unchanged.
Spark Two: The Title Makes the Story
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least give nwhepcat partial credit for the creation of Cuckoo in the Nest. She was the one that issued the “birthday fan fiction challenge” that resulted in the direct creation of Water Hold Me Down. That story lead to the creation of Cuckoo in the Nest. So, you might say that nwhepcat is indirectly responsible for this story seeing the light of day.
Cuckoo in the Nest started as a mess of notes I had pulled together for Water Hold Me Down. Even though I had zero plans to use them in that story, I needed to get my head straight about Xander’s childhood so I could stay consistent and believably connect the two versions of Xander. The two Xanders in that story that are so dissimilar that the only thing that really links them together is their childhoods. Somewhere along the way, I had so many notes that I realized that it wouldn’t be too hard massage it into a story
It still wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for a single stray thought I had while writing Water Hold Me Down. I got the idea in my head that “alternative universe Xander” probably viewed “our Xander” as a terrible cuckoo who was taking over his life and destroying his home.
When going back to my notes for Tony, the penny dropped. Xander’s the cuckoo in the nest. If you’re on the outside of the Harris household and looking in, Xander doesn’t even belong there. He doesn’t look like the father we saw in ‘Hell’s Bells’ and he (usually) doesn’t have his father’s more extreme bad habits. Xander, according to the hints dropped in canon, to a certain extent not only doesn’t think he belongs there, he doesn’t even want to be there. What if the feeling was mutual?
From there on in, Xander was not just any ol’ cuckoo messing up any ol’ nest, he was Tony’s cuckoo messing up Tony’s nest. Hence: Cuckoo in the Nest.
When I had the title, it ended up defining the story instead of the other way around. Usually, I have a “stand-in” title when I start writing. The title almost always changes once I get a little bit of the way into the writing to one that better says something about the story underneath it. In true wag-the-dog style, Cuckoo in the Nest happened from the opposite direction. From the day I decided to try turning my haphazard notes on Xander’s childhood into an actual short story, the file never lived under a different name. It always was, and always will be, Cuckoo in the Nest.
The ironic thing is, Xander really does take over Tony’s headspace (if not his physical home) to such an extent that Xander becomes a psychological cuckoo. And just like a real-life cuckoo, when Xander makes his break with parents in the form of a final “fuck you” spelled out in a medical file, he decides that his parents are no longer “worth the effort” to bother with. In the aftermath, Xander still is the cuckoo because he leaves behind an emotional devastation as Tony is forced to come to grips with his shattered life-long illusions to the point where he’s so overwhelmed by what he’s done that it gives finally the supernatural an opening to extract the price for Tony’s actions in the story.
I feel compelled to point out that Cuckoo in the Nest is a true stand-alone story. It’s not meant to, nor is it designed to, fit in with either the Whisperverse, Africanderverse, the Psalmverse, or any other story I‘ve written. The only way it connects with any Xander story I write is that the “facts” I put together for the “past section” of Cuckoo in the Nest are firmly in my personal fanon. Tony is always Xander’s father and Xander always has a human origin. Well, except for Revelations and Where Fools Go 1 and Where Fools Go 2 on the human part, but those three stories are the big exceptions.
Spark Three: My Take on the ‘Xander’s Real Father’ Fanfic Genre
At one time, this was the most popular genre in Xander fan fiction, bigger than the ‘Xander’s Halloween Costume’ fanfic genre if you can believe it. I don’t know much about the history of this one, because the challenge that sent a flotilla of these stories into fanon predates my entry into online fandom by quite a bit. I don’t know who issued the original challenge, when it was issued, or why it was issued. I do know that at one time you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting one of these stories bearing the notation that they were part of the ‘Xander’s Real Father’ challenge, but there never was a direct link back to the original challenge. In a lot of ways, it’s like the ‘Five Things’ fanfic challenge. Heavens know where it came from, but it seems like just about everyone has written such a story and credited that challenge. Unlike the Halloween Costume fanfics — which seem to be a mostly het or gen fanfic phenomenon — both ‘Xander’s Real Father’ and ‘Five Things’ crossed the het-slash divide with ease..
The ‘Xander’s Real Father’ challenge generally fall into one of two categories.
The first category is that Tony is not Xander’s father (sometimes Jessica isn’t his mother either, but that’s usually a sideline) and instead Xander is the son of some supernatural creature. The second category is that Tony is Xander’s father, but that Tony is himself a demon or some other supernatural creature and not at all what he appears to be.
I had never read a single story in this genre — not that I’m saying it doesn’t exist, just that I never found one — where Tony is not only Xander’s father, but that there’s absolutely, positively nothing supernatural about Tony, Jessica, or Xander. I’ve never seen a story that says flat out that the circumstances of Harris family and Xander’s home life is rooted in nothing so extraordinary as heartbreaking human reality, a reality that some children (I would say, too many children) live with every day.
In a lot of ways, the conventions employed by most of the ‘Xander’s Real Father’ genre did most of the work for me. When people started reading, they twigged very quickly to the fact that Cuckoo in the Nest slotted neatly in this category, even if the point of view was different. Most stories in this category are told from Xander’s point of view. This one is told from Tony’s point of view, and he “tells” people right up front that he’s most definitely not Xander’s father.
From there, people had only two questions: “Who really is Xander’s father?” and “What’s the supernatural angle in Xander’s parentage?” When the answer to the first question turned out to be “Tony” and the answer to the second question turned out to be “None,” I got what, to me, seemed to be an extraordinary reaction. People who gave me feedback were not only surprised, but pleased by the conclusion. I had deliberately wrote against every single ‘Xander’s Real Father’ story I had ever read, and this is the first time I’d ever seen people say in written feedback to the writer that the ending completely satisfied them on an emotional level because, in the end, it made Xander that much more special.
Which, at least at my end, was kind of the whole point of Cuckoo in the Nest. I simply can’t identify with a Xander who was born super-special and is forced to pay a super-special punishment for that super-specialness. That Xander isn’t “real” to me.
However, I can identify with the 16-year-old kid with a crappy home life who, despite everything that’s been pounded into his head from childhood, grows up to be a happy, healthy, and productive member of society who makes a real contribution to the lives of the people around him. That Xander is real, and he really exists somewhere inside a million people who walk this earth every day.
And to everyone who wrote to me and thanked me for not going down the ‘Xander is a half-demon’ route, for every person who wrote me and said you were glad that Tony was really Xander’s father, and for every person who wrote me and said that the ending made them happy, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your feedback actually brought tears to my eyes.
Spark Four: I Hope You’re Doing Okay Out There
There was a time in my life that I could honestly say that every single friend I had came from lives like the one I one I wove for Xander in Cuckoo in the Nest. There was a point where I thought I was the weird kid because my home life, if not my school life, was a generally happy one. For whatever reason, during my college years and the years immediately following, I ended up being the human “sounding board” for these recently emancipated people as they tried to figure out how they could avoid becoming their parents, which meant I heard a lot of stories.
And when I say a lot of stories, I mean I heard the stories so many times — all of which had some heart-breaking core similarities — that I’d get overwhelmed because all I could do was sit there and listen to these stories of once upon a time. Trust me when I tell you, there are a one or two people in this world who better be damn glad that I didn’t have immediate access to a time machine and a gun. Anyway, two or three times over the course of a decade I got so overwhelmed that I’d call my parents and which ever one answered the phone would get this: “I just wanted to say that I love you sooooo much and that I know I won the parent lottery. Gotta go. Bye.” Then I’d hang up. For whatever reason — and to this day I can’t explain it — I never called them from a place where my parents could call me back and ask me what was wrong.
I’ve lost touch over the years with almost all of these people as we moved on with our lives and into other states. I have zero idea if anything I did or said helped them. What I can tell you is that they gifted me with the ability to sort out which rotten childhood stories were real and which ones were utter bullshit (and yes, there are some drama queens out there that like to build a tragic past because it somehow makes them more “real” or more “important” …I’ve known a few of those, too). You might say I got an “ear” for it. It was helpful when I was a reporter, but like every other skill we acquire, once you’ve got it, it never completely goes away even when you think you really don’t need it any more. I don’t wish this particular “ear” on anyone.
In a way, Cuckoo in the Nest is a bit of a wish-fulfillment fantasy for me. Since I live in the real world, I know that not all of those old friends and acquaintances were able to win those happy and healthy lives they so desperately wanted, but I’d like to believe that most of them did.
Cuckoo in the Nest is my way of saying, “If you’re out there, and you’re reading this, I want you to know that I haven’t forgotten you and I hope you’re doing okay.”
And that’s why some of the feedback made me cry.
Title:Cuckoo in the Nest
Author: Lizbeth Marcs
Fandom: ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’
Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer are owned by FOX, written and produced by Mutant Enemy, which means none of the characters in this story are mine.
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.
Genre: Character study, old skool/future fic
Warning: Language. Spoilers for all of BtVS.
Character (Main): Tony Harris
Supporting (Major): Jessica Harris, Xander, Anya, Giles, Willow
This introductory is all about how the poison started flowing Tony’s headspace for Cuckoo.
As befits a rather self-centered man, his initial problem is that Xander doesn’t reflect anything Tony believes about himself. When other puzzle pieces fall into his lap, all of which is laid out in this first section, he’s already primed to believe that Xander isn’t his kid. It’s never a thought he’s entirely able to shake until he gets hardcore proof.
The key to remember is that Tony doesn’t for one moment believe that he’s a bad guy or that he’s anything less than justified. As far as Tony’s concerned, he was robbed of his life because of a “lie.” Tony’s thought process is pretty simple: he sacrificed everything for a kid that wasn’t even his; no other “real man” would do what he’s done and live with the reminder that he’s “been had” every single day.
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.
Confession time. One of the things that drives me nuts is that Xander is often described in fanon as having brown eyes, usually leaning toward dark brown. It’s not enough to get me to stop reading a story, mostly because the fanon conceit is so wide-spread that I’d never read anything at all if I did that.
I usually check the actor stats whenever I have to describe a Buffy character’s physical characteristics because it’s very easy to get stuck in a fanon mindset. Nicholas Brendon, according to his own profile, has hazel eyes, not brown. I’ve been called on my insistence that Xander has “hazel eyes” a couple of times and I think I was on this story, too. Whenever it happens, I have to dig up a Web site to prove that I’m not changing the color of “Xander’s” eyes.
But he said, “’til death do us part,” so that’s the way it’s gotta be.
My first Tony-Xander parallel. I wanted to show that both men could be extremely loyal, even when the loyalty may no longer make objective sense in the case of Xander or has become cancerous in the case of Tony.
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.
I hate the phrase “shooting blanks” with a passion when it’s used to measure a guy’s manhood in terms of how many times he’s gotten someone pregnant. I couldn’t get around using it because it’s a nice macho shorthand to show that Tony has ISH-eeewwwws and that he’s projecting those on his son.
The “punch through the kid’s chest, rip out his heart” is a deliberate riff on Xander’s dream in S4’s ‘Restless.’ Tony in Xander’s dream not only looks different, he acts completely different. In S6’s ‘Hell’s Bells,’ Tony and Xander barely look related and Tony comes across more as an impotent, bitter drunk with a mean streak. I just fanwanked ‘Restless’ by saying that Xander had subconsciously picked up on Tony’s not-so-hidden desires. My other ‘Restless’ fanwank is that the dream-Tony in ‘Restless’ represents how Xander viewed his father at that time in his life, complete with different physical characteristics that are cleverly re-arranged to make his father an legitimately menacing figure.
This is the most I tie Tony’s character in to ‘Restless,’ since I mostly peg Tony’s character to what we saw of him in ‘Hell’s Bells’ and Xander’s vision of himself as a bitter drunk in the same episode.
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.
I use the “bright, bright, bright” description four times in this story at very specific points. In this first instance, it’s used to show that when he was young, Xander’s emotional state was fairly easy to read because, as Tony notes in the paragraph below this one, this kind of smile is so common that Tony thinks that it’s “cheaply won.” Tony dismisses its appearance as borderline meaningless when he sees it.
Plus, I like the cadence of how “bright, bright, bright” sounds when you say it out loud.
I also wanted to show that Tony would really like to get beyond the idea that Xander’s not his son, but can’t quite manage it. Maybe if Xander had a sibling, Tony might’ve been able to do it. Then again, if Xander had a sibling, Xander could’ve ended up being the “lesser kid” and treated that way. I’m honestly not sure which direction this version of Tony would’ve gone had he managed to get Jessica pregnant after they were married.
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.
Wild Turkey is Tony’s favorite alcohol in my particular fanon. I make multiple references to it in Water Hold Me Down as it being “Tony’s drink.” Also in my bizarre fanon? Offering Xander a shot of Wild Turkey is sure to inspire a pretty rude — if not violent, depending on who’s offering — reaction.
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 timing of Tony finding out about “Jessica in the frat house” and the “realization” that Xander isn’t his son is very deliberate on my part. He finds out a month before Xander’s sixth birthday, the very birthday where his parents had a party for him and brought in the clown that traumatized him so much that he developed a fear of clowns. When we find this fear out in S1’s ‘Nightmares,’ it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense considering what Xander’s already gone through since Buffy moved into town.
In my own personal fanon, I’ve always maintained that the clown was a stand-in for something else, the real thing that Xander was afraid of but at that point wasn’t ready to confront. Although the meta explanation that ME hadn’t really thought out the background of anyone not named Buffy is most likely the real reason that Xander’s fear of clowns appeared exactly once and was never seen again. This fear was not even seen in ‘Restless,’ which supposedly had all the Scoobs facing their worst fears in dreamtime.
In Whisper, I pegged the aftermath of the clown incident was the first and worst time Tony had physically hurt him in a misguided attempt to teach him how to be “a man.” For the purposes of Cuckoo, I left it deliberately vague. It could be a Whisper scenario, or it could be the first time that Tony was publicly and humiliatingly drunk during an important family event, or it could be the first time his parents had a violent fight. Any scenario sounds plausible to me.
I also just realized how quickly Tony and Jessica got hitched after she found out she was pregnant. She was only 3 months along. It’s a borderline whoops, but I decided to let it stand, if only to show that when Tony believed Xander was his, he really did take his responsibility seriously and tried to do the “right thing.”
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, of course, fancies himself a man’s man, despite the fact that he’s pretty sure he “shoots blanks.” Even at 12 Xander has the bad luck to not fit Tony’s definition of a “real man.”
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.
Nice of Tony to point out that Xander’s only 12 and can’t possibly be held to pro-ball standards when he thinks someone else is verbalizing his own thoughts.
I didn’t want to make Tony a complete dickhead, although the “wetback” crack definitely puts him more in the dickhead camp. I wanted to show that Tony will defend Xander to a certain extent. Although the murkiness of Tony’s relationship to Xander makes you wonder if he’s defending Xander, or he doesn’t like the fact that something that’s seen as “his” is viewed as inferior.
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.
In typical Tony fashion, he completely misses the coach’s point. Xander isn’t really the problem. He is. Part of the blame is on the coach though, since the coach uses Xander as the scapegoat. And, yeah, I’ve seen coaches use this chickenshit tactic to get rid of parents who are trouble, especially when the kid in question isn’t one of their better players.
The little league scene, by the way, also harks back to ‘Nightmares’ and a little bit of S3’s ‘The Zeppo.’ In ‘Nightmares,’ Xander makes a knowing, throw-away comment that he’s surprised the parents didn’t beat Billy to a pulp for being responsible for his little league team’s loss; nor is he really surprised by the idea that the coach did beat Billy into a coma for that same loss. In ‘The Zeppo,’ Xander jokes to Jack that he’s very bad at hand-eye coordination, so much so that his parents made him undergo a test to make sure he wasn’t “slow.”
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.
As I said in the intro notes above, this is after Xander’s Hawthornian snapshot and the immediate aftermath of S1’s ‘The Harvest’ when he (accidentally) stakes Jesse. Think of it as Xander coming to grips with the butcher’s bill for his decision to get and stay involved with Buffy’s mission.
The most we saw of this emotional fallout was Xander’s life-long dislike of vampires, regardless of souled status. The more immediate fallout was never seen on the show, but I’m with the rest of fanon on this one. They were obviously close friends from what we saw in the first two episodes, so there had to be some kind of emotional breakdown that occurred off-screen.
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.
Jessica in Cuckoo is notably less of a victim than the Jessica we saw in ‘Hell’s Bells.’ In fact, I had a difficult time reconciling the ‘Hell’s Bells’ Jessica with the Jessica we had heard during her off-screen drunken fights with Tony throughout most of the series. It sounded to me that she could give as good as she could get. This doesn’t excuse Tony’s behavior and attitudes towards her in the least, by the way.
I suppose I modeled Jessica’s basic characteristics on the same lines as Andrew. She’s something like a mushroom in that takes on the flava of her surroundings. She’s a little more self-aware and a little less self-centered than Tony, although not by much. If anything, I was trying to show that life in general has beaten Jessica down to the point that she goes along with whomever is the strongest in her life because it’s easier for her to live life that way. Unfortunately for her and Xander, she’s decided that the “strong person” is Tony.
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.”
Ahhhh, Xander finally has a voice and speaks.
Something to note here: In the original draft of Cuckoo, the only person who has a voice is Tony. Whenever either Jessica or Xander or any other person not named Tony “speaks,” their words were rendered in italics with no quotation marks around the words. My initial thought was that doing it this way would more firmly reveal, using the magic of fonts, Tony’s inherent self-centered nature. The people around him would’ve even be given the polite convention of quotation marks because their words don’t really matter.
The small problem with this conceit is that putting everything said by other people in italics made those words stand out a whole lot more than anything Tony said or did. Plus, it was messy and confusing. I dropped it and went back to standard written conventions. It was an interesting experiment, but not one I’m tempted to try again.
“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.
Hunh. I didn’t realize until I went through this story just how carefully phrased Xander’s answer is. It’s not a lie, but it’s not the truth either.
“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.”
I’m never entirely sure what Xander means here. Does he mean he can’t take talking about Jesse anymore? Or does he mean he can’t take being part of Buffy’s world anymore? It’s really kind of vague, but I also like the fact that it is so vague.
This is not the last time in the story where I’m not entirely sure about Xander’s motivations or meaning when says or does something. Good thing none of those instances are important story points, otherwise I’d be pretty screwed.
“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.
This is first time Xander directly rebels against Tony’s bullying ways and it ends with him being the loser.
This is somewhat echoed later in the story when Tony confronts a drunk post-wedding Xander in his apartment. Tony expects Xander to submit like he usually does, only to have the tables turned on him when Xander physically throws him out. These two “scenes of rebellion” are bookends to show that, by and large, Tony’s right. Xander generally does back down in a face-to-face confrontation with his father. For Xander to push defending himself beyond a warning comment from Tony, as he does here and in the post-wedding scene, he has to be in a pretty bad emotional space.
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.”
I thought it was important to at least make reference to Sunnydale’s “special problems” fairly early on in the story. The high death and missing persons rate was referred to by multiple non-Scoobs in the first three seasons. There was also the sense that even the people who weren’t in with the Scoobs knew there was something weird about their town. Naturally Tony and Jessica — like most people in Sunnydale — have developed “rational” explanations to explain all those disappearances.
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.
The casual racism that Tony exhibits, especially in the above three paragraphs, was simply cringe-worthy for me to write. I still cringe just reading it over because I wrote that. I’d rather write PWP drabbles for the next three years than write something like this again.
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.
This part pretty much covers all of S1 and S2 up to ‘Surprise.’ It was fun writing Tony’s screwed-up point of view of Xander’s friends and acquaintances, especially since it’s pretty clear that his exposure to the same is so very, very limited.
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.
It’s painfully obvious to Tony that Xander’s taking an active role in keeping his family very far away from the people he knows outside the home and he pretty much pegs the reason why Xander’s doing it. I like Tony’s childish sentiment that closes this section. It’s a mental “well, screw you too” to Xander.
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.
At the time I wrote this, I admit that I kind of giggled. Xander’s up to his eyeballs in the town’s “PCP trade.” This is again a case of Tony dismissing Xander as “a real man,” even though Xander’s fighting things on a regular basis that would probably have Tony shitting his pants if he caught even a glimpse of them.
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
Lord knows that Xander was never shown to be academically dangerous, but I like that thought that Xander paid a “hidden cost” for his involvement with Buffy, one that was almost invisible to everyone who knew him and maybe even to himself. It’s like everything else when it comes to Xander’s sacrifices: it’s a matter of degrees, but those degrees can spell a life-changing difference. It’s nothing showy, so no one really notices, and it’s a minor thing when compared to the things that (rightfully) are in a greater position of importance on the list of things that the Scoobs need to be concerned about. The cost is so specifically human, and possibly even so specific to Xander, that it doesn’t even rate as a blip on the list of things the Willow, Giles, and Xander sacrificed over seven years to help Buffy.
I suppose I wanted to show that in this particular cost, Xander went from struggling student who might’ve been able to qualify for community college after graduation (I got the notion near the end of S3 that he did seem to want to apply, but didn’t bother because of his grades and SAT scores), to a student who barely graduated high school. I also like the thought that Tony is really the only one who notices that Xander’s paying for his membership in the Scoobs, but completely misinterprets the whys of it.
Not that Tony’s powers of observation are helpful here. The only reason why he holds his tongue because no one’s confronted him about his son’s extracurricular activities and because, with one or two hiccups aside, it’s never really inconvenienced him enough to say something.
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.
This refers to Xander getting his arm broken by a vampire during ‘Becoming, Part 1.’
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.
This scene takes place right after S3’s ‘Consequences’ when Faith tried to strangle Xander. Once more, I’m playing with the idea that Xander had an off-screen emotional reaction to what happened to him onscreen that we didn’t see on the show.
“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.
Unlike the earlier scene in this story in which Xander at least talks about Jesse’s “disappearance,” Xander just outright lies about what happened. It shows that by now, Xander knows there’s no point in even telling an edited version of the truth. It’s not worth the shit he’d get from Tony over it.
“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?”
Love Tony’s priorities. First he wants to find out if Xander’s latest problem is going to cost him money or cause him trouble. Then he decides that maybe he should get to the bottom of whatever Xander’s been doing for almost three years. Better late than never, I guess.
“Don’t give me that. You’re going out. Where are you going?”
“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.”
My god! Xander sounds like a typical teenager!
“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.
Well, duh, Tony. Of course he’s surprised, not to mention defensive. You never showed you cared before.
Again, this is me playing with the idea that Tony is observant in the same way that Xander is generally observant. Another parallel between Tony and Xander is that sometimes their observations aren’t worth a damn, even if they tend to be correct about what they see. I wanted to show that both Tony and Xander get tripped up when personal issues and biases interfere; when they go about arguing their case in a bad way; when they go with their conclusions even though they don’t know the full story behind what they see; when they refuse to accept their own observations; or when they don’t say anything at all.
“Honey, I keep finding bloodstains in your clothes,” Jessica says. “Are you in trouble? Do you need our help?”
Aaaaand Jessica shows that she’s almost as bad as Tony on this score. Need I point out? Almost three years before the parents confront Xander about his activities. Jessica only does it because Tony finally says something.
“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.
Once it’s clear that Xander’s not going to tell him shit, Tony washes his hands of the situation. Jessica’s not a whole lot better. Like Xander, they’re just biding time until graduation and Xander leaves.
“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.”
Wow. That reads as a lot more angry and bitter than I remember.
“Watch your tone, young man,” Tony snaps at the kid.
The kid immediately looks down and mumbles an apology.
This is a contrast to the “Jesse” discussion during which Tony says something that annoys Xander and Xander keeps trying to defend himself even after Tony tells him to shut up. As seen in that first part, Xander comes out the loser fairly quickly after he keeps pushing after Tony’s warning.
This has lead to the new pattern that you see in the Xander-Tony dynamic. Tony says something that annoys Xander. Xander mildly (all things considering) tries to defend himself. Tony threatens. Xander immediately backs down and doesn’t push the issue.
I repeat this particular dynamic several times through the story so that in the two times after the “Jesse converstation” when Xander “changes the script” and doesn’t back down in the face of Tony’s unspoken threats — as he does post-wedding and in his last personal interaction with Tony near the end of the story — it’s supposed to signal to the reader that the exchange is a significant turning point in their relationship.
I’m not sure how well the above came across, but I rather enjoyed playing with the pattern and how everyone in the Tony-Jessica-Xander shadow play constantly fall into the same roles, regardless of time and place. It’s also significant that the only person who even tries changing the dynamic — twice under emotional duress in the case of the Jesse and post-wedding conversations and once deliberately as in the case of Xander’s final face-to-face meeting with his father — is Xander.
Whenever Xander tries to change the script, Tony always reacts violently in an effort to put Xander back in his place. Tony handily wins the first round in the Jesse conversation, Tony easily loses the second round in the wedding conversation, and Tony thinks he’s won in the third round in his last face-to-face talk with Xander only to discover he won the battle but lost the war.
“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.
Xander’s getting a little “uppity” since he figures graduation will not only emancipate him from high school, but also his parents. I wanted to show that Xander is suffering a little bit from hubris in advance of his departure to make a nice contrast to him returning home in abject defeat.
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.
Hunh. In re-reading this, I just realized that this could be read as Tony extracting the promise that Xander would leave right after graduation under duress, a sort of, “if you don’t agree to X, I’ll throw you out the second you turn 18 in December even if you still have half your senior year to go and it’s in the middle of winter.”
Once more I blame nwhepcat for this one. She started the fanon idea that Xander’s birthday is on December 8 (which also happens to be my birthday). I adopted it for Water Hold Me Down and it’s remained stuck in my head for all Xander-centric stuff I write. Of course, this has caused a bizarre age-related problem with Whisper, one of the prequels to Water Hold Me Down, since Xander should have been 14 and not 12 at the time of Willow’s bat-mitzvah.
Continued in DVD Commentary: Cuckoo in the Nest, Part 2.