"What if...?" Those are a writer's favorite words. Well, this writer's favorite words, anyway. That's how this story started. My roomie remarked one day that Spike Spiegel and Vicious must be brothers, because they look alike and because, to quote her, "only brothers could hate each other that much." And there was the What-if. I thought, "What if they really were brothers?" The next thing I knew, this story, my take on the pre-Bebop years of Vicious and Spike, was writing itself.

Be warned, if you're curious and decide to read it. This is not a pretty story, and it doesn't have a happy ending. There are subjects and language that might offend you. And it's unfinished still and likely to be long.

What? I haven't scared you away? Then welcome to my story. It's rated PG for some violence and bad words. Spike, Vicious, and all the other Cowboy Bebop characters don't belong to me, but all the non-Bebop characters are my own invention.

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Later, Father Thomas would think that it was fitting and even weirdly ironic that the child came to them during a storm. At the time, it was just another Martian rain to him, a little more violent than normal, but still, nothing unusual. He was more concerned with getting the woman and child out of the drenching rain than with portents.

The child had lusty lungs. He could hear it bellowing even through the drumming of the rain on the porch roof and the occasional crack of thunder. He gestured the woman into his parlor, hastening her with a hand on her back, greeting her by name. Mary Meade was a midwife, a trade that still thrived here on the streets even in these technologically enlightened times, and this was only another of her many visits to him, bearing an unwanted child in her plump arms. With the door shut against the storm, the child's crying suddenly ceased as well, and the ensuing silence rang in the air.

"I guess he didn't like getting wet, the poor little rat," Mary said apologetically.

"Has he even been fed?"

"Oh, that he has, but by me, not by his mother. She'll have nothing to do with him. Plans to be up and about her dirty business as soon as she can."

Father Thomas looked up from his desk, where he was already pulling out a folder and forms for this newest child. "Dirty business?" This was a rare comment from Mary, who was usually forgiving of her charges. "Who is his mother?"

Mary's lips pursed in disapproval. "Her name is Harrier, Barbara Harrier."

"I see." He wrote it without comment, but he understood Mary's attitude now. Among those who knew, Harrier was more commonly called The She-Wolf, and her reputation was equally grim. She was what was known euphemistically as a "magician," because she made problems disappear. In plain language, she was an assassin for hire. "Then this is one of my special children," he said with a sigh. "Which syndicate?"

"She won't declare one. You know she doesn't work for any one clan."

That would make things difficult. The clans didn't like losing track of their blood. Unless… "Who is the father?"

"She won't say. Only that he's dead."

Father Thomas refrained from an exasperated sigh. It wasn't Mary's fault, after all. Sooner or later one of the syndicates would claim the child. Until then, he need only keep it safe and protect the records. And help it grow into a young man who wouldn't want to join a syndicate, if he possibly could. "I'm surprised she didn't rid herself of it," he murmured. He hated even the thought of abortion, but it's what he would have expected from The She-Wolf.

"She considered it." Mary was equally disgusted, and didn't hide it as well. "But she does too much work for the Red Dragons and the White Tiger clan. You know how they are."

"I do indeed. It is one of the few things I know good about them." Both clans were run by men who were deeply conservative. The fact that The She-Wolf, a woman, was able to work for them at all was a testimony to how good she was at her job. "Does he have a name?"

"Not even that." Mary rocked the child gently, as if in sympathy.

Father Thomas opened his Encyclopedia of the Saints to the index and put his finger on a name at random. "His name is now Anthony Harrier."

"She won't like that, using her name."

"He's got to have a name. If she doesn't like it, she can give me the father's. When was he born?"

"Three days ago."

"Good God. Is he all right?"

"Healthy and strong as an ox, Father."

He finished filling in the date, then closed the file and put it in the locked drawer of his desk. Only then did he move to take the child. Mary handed him over willingly. It had already been a long night for her. "I'll stop by and get the blanket tomorrow, if that's all right with you, Father."

"No need for you to trouble yourself, Mary. I'll send one of the children to you with it. Thank you for your care."

The sound of the storm raged briefly in the room as Mary opened the door and went out. Father Thomas barely noticed. He was turning back the folds of the blanket to gaze at this new charge on the Church's bounty. He was always amazed at the miniscule perfection of a newborn. Nothing reminded him more of the grace of God. This baby was unusually beautiful, with an abundance of very fair hair and delicate bones. Still untroubled by either the storm or the old man now holding him, he was awake and staring with the solemn directness of the very young. As Father Thomas stroked the blanket back, checking limbs, the baby gripped his knuckle with strength rare in a child only days old. "Mary is right, you are a healthy babe. Well, lets take you to the nuns and get you properly settled, shall we?"

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"It's play time now. You can see my particular charges. I must confess, the children have always been my favorite part of my service here at St. Mary's. So many of them have been adopted and grown into good, healthy adults. I hope you will make them a favorite with you, too." The sound of screaming laughter from a myriad of young throats pierced the afternoon quiet as Father Thomas threw open the windows. He waved, and most of the children streaming out onto the playground waved back at him.

Father Paul kept his face neutral. He didn't like children and never had. One of the many changes he planned to make at St. Mary's when he took over from the retiring Father Thomas was to phase out the orphanage entirely. The only difficulty would be with the so-called "special children", those with syndicate ties. He would have to negotiate with the syndicates about them. The rest could be farmed out to other orphanages, or, if they were old enough, to work for their living. Until Father Thomas was gone, however, and had officially turned over all duties to him, he had to at least pay lip service to the orphanage. He came to stand beside the old man and stared out at the playground, which was really nothing more than a fenced bit of asphalt with a few pieces of equipment scattered about. Mars was crowded. These kids were lucky to have even this much.

In the way of humans of any age, they clustered in small cliques, mostly grouped by age and sex. There was one notable stand-out, however, a skinny boy with long, near-white hair, about seven or eight years old, leaning casually against the fence. Not only was he part of no group, but the other children actually made a point of avoiding coming near him. And… Father Paul stared. "Is that boy smoking a cigarette?"

Father Thomas frowned. "You must mean Vicious. Pay no attention to it. He's only doing it because you're here, and if you make a fuss, he'll do something even worse."

Father Paul hadn't been able to get past the first sentence. "Vicious?" he repeated. "What kind of a name is Vicious for a kid?"

"He gave it to himself when he was five, and he won't answer to anything else, so you might as well just give in and accept it."

"Accept that? I should say not."

"He's far more stubborn than you are, son."

"It sounds as if he needs more discipline."

"By all means, apply all the discipline you wish. He'll enjoy it."

"He enjoys being punished? Is he masochistic, then?"

"No. He simply likes being challenged. I'm sure he's looking forward to testing you. None of us here, not by any means within our power, has been able to get him to cry or to back down from a stance once he's taken it. You'll find it much easier to deal with him if you accept that and work around him. He is just a child, but he forces you to use your wits." He drew back and closed the window. "You see? He knows we're talking about him."

The boy was staring at them, a smile on his lips, but a calculating look in his light eyes. Father Paul scowled. "A real problem child, that one, isn't he?"

"And he always has been, from the day he began to crawl."

"Yet you sound as if you like him."

"I admire him. That's different."

"You admire a child?"

"I admire anything with that much spirit. But," Father Thomas sighed as he lowered himself into his chair, the big, overstuffed, comfortable chair that Father Paul looked forward to taking over soon, "he has always been a great deal of trouble." He unlocked the deep drawer at the right side of his desk, which Father Paul already knew held the files for the syndicate brats. One file was noticeably larger than the others, and Father Thomas drew that one out and handed it to Father Paul.

Father Paul had come from Ganymede, and from a wealthy family, so he wasn't familiar with the name Barbara Harrier, and he skipped lightly over it. He frowned in disapproval at the lack of a father's name, but decided not to say anything. There wasn't even a syndicate tag to indicate where the boy belonged. The old man was probably senile and had simply forgotten to follow up. He could do all that later, himself. He would have to, in order to get rid of the kid without antagonizing whatever syndicate claimed him. Getting rid of him would be a priority, too – he was appalled at the number of yellow disciplinary sheets the file contained. "Fighting… fighting… is that all the kid does, is fight? I take it he's a bully."

"You can't put ordinary explanations on Vicious. Look more closely. You'll see that Vicious has never, not once, fought with anyone younger or smaller than himself. Always larger and stronger. It doesn't appear there, but he also never fights with cowards. He's rather the scourge of the bullies, in fact," he added with a wry smile.

Father Paul was staring in horror at one sheet. "This kid was twice his size, and he put him in the hospital?"

"Ah, yes, Willie Samples. That was sad. Willie never did regain full use of his voice."

"You must have done something that worked with the kid eventually. The fighting seems to have stopped, a year or so ago."

"He ran out of opponents. No one will fight him now, no matter how big or strong or mean they feel. Not even the new kids. Word gets around, you see. It's really made things much more peaceful, in the long run. You see, the bullies don't pick on the younger children, either, because Vicious is quite happy to consider that a reason to challenge them to fight."

Father Paul made a face. "I suppose he's a hero to the younger kids, then."

"Not at all. Grateful, yes, but nothing more. Children aren't stupid, Paul. They know he fights for himself, not for them."

"What the devil is he trying to prove?"

"I don't know. I don't understand him, nor pretend to."

Father Paul was further into the file, and saw something that astonished him. "But his academic record is… it's excellent! That makes no sense!"

"I told you not to try to put ordinary standards on him. He doesn't like to be beaten in any field. And he's extremely intelligent. I've never seen a child soak up knowledge as he does. He's reading at least four levels above his age."

"Incredible. But I can't believe you refer to him by that name, even here in the official records."

"One gets into the habit, I suppose."

"Where did he ever get such an outlandish name, anyway?"

"From Sister Mary Margaret. No, don't look shocked, she didn't dub him that. She found him doing something to a cat, once. She won't say what it was, and he insists it was nothing more than an experiment. But you know how her temper is. When she snatched him away from the unfortunate cat, she called him a vicious little beast. He liked the sound of it and asked her what 'vicious' meant. Apparently her definition pleased him, and from that day forward, he insisted his name was going to be Vicious. And, as I said, it's impossible to move him, once he's made up his mind."

"You can't seriously expect me to call a child Vicious."

"You will. Eventually," Father Thomas smiled.

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As soon as the old man and the younger, bony one turned away from the window, Vicious took the cigarette from his mouth, dropped it casually to the ground, and crushed it. He actually hated the things, but no one was going to learn that from his actions. And he'd irritated the bony priest, which was his intention, so he no longer needed the stinking weed.

He smiled. Father Thomas, with his good heart and forgiving nature, had been a true challenge to his brain. It was growing harder and harder to find ways to disobey and anger the old fox. This new fellow, thin and paunchy, with his mean narrow eyes, was going to be a challenge to his body – he definitely looked like the "spare the rod, spoil the child" type. He would be easy to anger and quick to punish. It remained to be seen if he applied more than the rod, and how far he could be pushed in an effort to force tears from someone who would never shed one.

Vicious yawned, stretched, and turned to look through the fence at the street beyond. Sister Joan often talked about the ugliness of the streets, how dirty they were, and how dangerous. Vicious couldn't wait to walk them. Not the tame places where they were occasionally taken, in small groups, for treats (something he rarely got), but the real streets, where there were rats as big as dogs and people who would kill you for looking at them wrong. By the time he got there, he'd be ready. And this new priest would help him get ready.

A polite and very loud cough at his side drew his attention downward to a small, pigtailed girl named Amy. Whenever they wanted something, they always sent the young ones. Even in anger, he would never harm the young ones. That was beneath him. He lifted a brow to show Amy she had his attention. "Please," she said, "we're playing kickball. Would you come play on our side?"

He rarely got asked. Not because he wasn't good – he was good at everything he did – but because he played only to win. Once, when he'd had friends, long ago, he'd played often, becoming hard-muscled, swift and agile, and rejoicing in it. But he no longer had friends. He'd stopped making them, because at the orphanage, all your friends went away. Not him; he stayed. He refused to be shown to the prospective parents like a puppy in a window, and after the first few times they'd tried to drag him forth, no one would volunteer to bring him, and he was no longer any part of the little pet parade. He'd leave here on his own, and when he chose to leave. But all his friends had been gone a long time now, he'd made no new ones, and he hadn't played kickball in over a year.

Well. Amy was looking up at him with nervous hope, and he could use the exercise. He bent down and picked her up. "Sure. Whose team am I on, again?"

"Ours!" she crowed. "We're gonna win!"

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Father Thomas retired a few months later, unhappy with his decision but unable to get an exemption to the mandatory age rule. He worried about the children. He wasn't as simple and foolish as Father Paul imagined. He only hoped that Mother Superior could wield enough influence to keep the orphanage alive. She would certainly be motivated to, since care of the children was the nuns' primary work.

As he tossed his bags into his car, he felt eyes on him. He looked up at the church door to see Father Paul gazing down with benign pleasure, his hands folded on his rounded stomach. To the right, in the playground, was a solitary figure where, at this hour, no one should be, since the children were in school. Of course it was Vicious. Their eyes met, and then both of them looked up the steps to the new priest. You give him hell, son, Father Thomas thought. He made a mental note to confess the wicked wish as soon as possible, and hoped by then that he'd be repentant.

He was sure, however, that Vicious and Paul would definitely be trouble for each other. He wasn't sure who would win the battle, but if he'd been a betting man, he'd have placed his stake on the boy.

He got in the car, looking ahead now. To Earth, his home, a quiet life far from here. He only turned once to look back. Paul had already gone inside, but Vicious was still there, and when Father Thomas turned, the boy gave him a half-satiric, half-serious salute.

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Father Paul and Vicious did give each other hell. By the time the priest had been there a season, he had given up and begun to call the kid by his self-given name. By the time he'd been there half a year, he was half-convinced the boy's father was Satan himself. By the time a year had gone by, he hated the boy as he'd never hated anyone in his life.

Father Thomas had been right. Nothing could bend or break the kid. Beatings, starvation, and solitary confinement had no visible effect on him. He took them all in silence, sometimes even with a smile. And Vicious always seemed to know the exact way to drive him into a fury. Once, he lost his temper completely, knocked the boy flying, and then began to kick him. Vicious had simply rolled up into a ball and lain there laughing silently – laughing – even when one kick cracked a rib. At the hospital, trembling under the fear of exposure, he'd claimed the boy had fallen down a flight of stairs. To his amazement, Vicious hadn't contradicted him. He'd thought at first it was a mercy, but he should have known better. From that moment on, in a peculiar way, the boy had something over him, a lie they shared, and he smirked with it whenever no one else was watching.

He almost wished he'd killed the kid. It didn't seem incongruous to him to hate a child with such intensity. But Vicious was no child, he was a demon. He had to be. When he was finally informed of the reputation of Vicious' mother, it was like a confirmation. With a mother like that, of course the kid was a hellspawn. Sometimes he thought he was going crazy – this was a child, a little boy! Then he'd cross the playground and Vicious would catch his eye, and smirk, and he knew the Devil was in that kid, tempting him to violence again.

He never laid another hand on the boy, but he began to work his mind to devise punishments that would truly be punishments, things Vicious loved that he could deprive him of. He never found one. Never once did he take away something, no matter how apparently dear, that wiped the quiet, triumphant smile from those pale grey eyes. Every battle they fought, large or small, he lost. And he had no idea why he was losing. He could only fume and long for the bygone days of witch trials.