First off, I'm totally breaking my own rule in posting this chapter now because I like to be ahead of the curve, but I figure it's Christmas Eve, and this chapter takes place at approximately midnight or so on Christmas... and I'm giving you a Christmas present. And maybe this'll force me to write a bit more on this story, eh. So here it is, the chapter you all have been waiting for. Hope it lives up to the hype.

One reviewer, Sarah, mentioned the possibility of Liz having a crush on Edwin and said that she could be using her crush on Derek to get what she wants (which I presume is Edwin? Or is it Derek?). Firstly, this is an interesting theory and probably within the realm of possibility. Especially interesting since it goes along with Edwin's own suggestion about how to get Derek to pay attention, not that he voiced that thought aloud... but then again, he didn't voice the thought about using Truman aloud either, and she did that, so... However, I would say that that scenario is fairly unlikely... Lizzie's not really a manipulative person (or very subtle), and I don't think she would try and manipulate Edwin like that by playing him against his brother, especially knowing how sensitive a topic Derek is with Edwin. I would say that Liz is definitely attracted to Edwin, as he's attracted to her, but a bit more confused about it. In the end, it's more or less like Edwin said: if Lizzie was interested in him, she would have what she wanted right now, and she wouldn't really need to resort to a trick to get it since she knows, on some level, that Edwin will do just about anything she asks of him... and obviously she's noticed that he reciprocates the kisses and whatnot, so she wouldn't really need to convince him much, per se. While her actions do cause Edwin to get somewhat jealous, jealousy doesn't quite affect him like it affects Derek, doesn't quite possess him as strongly because Ed's not as needy and, in some respects, he's much more closed about his emotions. If it did, she would've wanted Edwin to be screaming at her right after she kissed Truman.

Also, since you and I both have no idea how many Dasey videos I watched to come up with this fic, this chapter, in a way, goes out to all the makers of those videos. For helping me get inspired and figure out random logistical things. But mostly the inspiration thing since this isn't a Dasey story, and well, writing them requires a bit of stamina, and I dunno, I needed to re-find my ability to write them in a way, I guess.

Also, yay to me 'cause I finished my goal of finishing their confrontation, which composes the vast and more important majority of this chapter. I wasn't so sure I would, but finishing it was totally worth it. It's very, um, charged. I just hope I didn't like, horribly botch it or let anyone down, seriously. I tried to make it as epic as I could, y'know. And, anyways, in the next chap you get to see a bit of their reactions the morning after... Casey, Vicky, Derek, and so on. Also, I had no idea the end part was going to be that long, but I kinda like it since I feel it gives it all some well-needed perspective.

But, I warn you, don't think this chapter's the most important... or that it's the most revealing. There are still a lot of questions Edwin doesn't want to think or ask or answer. And a lot of those questions involve specifics. But, seriously, the chapter after this one is a lot more important to the fic (you also get to see a nice, interesting slice of D/C post-Christmas Eve interaction... and there's gonna be fireworks!). Like, seriously, you have no idea. But enough about that. I hope that you enjoy the chapter and that it's everything you expected and more. Or that it leaves you with more questions.

Thrust: 1. A force which increases the velocity of an object. 2. A force that causes propulsion.

Note: When a system accelerates mass in one direction, said mass will create a force of equal magnitude in the opposite direction.

Let's just call a spade a spade here.

This is a polite fiction, in case you haven't realized, where there's one truth everyone knows but never refers to directly. And we prefer to pretend than face the ugly truth. But me, me, I'm done pretending. Tonight the facade shattered for me once and for all.

Despite my best efforts to sleep, I found myself quite unable to drift off, still full of troublesome thoughts even though I was so tired I felt I could drop. I tried everything I could think of: counting sheep, reciting the alphabet backwards, running over the hockey statistics Derek had forced me to memorize in high school when I was the bookkeeper for his bookie operations. Nothing seemed to work. Dully, I remembered reading somewhere that getting off made you sleep more soundly, or something to that effect. It had been a while, and the kiss earlier had gotten me all worked up...

I debated it for a moment but found myself too tired to clearly sustain any one line of thought. Still, I found myself leaving the warmth of my bed for the bathroom, intent on a glass of water at the very least. I could taste it, the thickness of my sudden thirst. Just as I was about to touch the bottom stair, Casey's door opened. I stopped upon seeing the mildly vexed look on her face. She was headed downstairs, no doubt to do something she'd forgotten or neurotically bake cookies or arrange presents artfully under the tree. She'd barely made it to the staircase when she ran, quite literally, into my brother.

What I saw in the hallway was, by all means, an utterly singular occurrence. In the dimness of the hall, I could've sworn I saw Derek's eyes gleam with something akin to malice. Casey scowled at him and jumped back and away from him like she'd been burned. "Just the girl I was looking for," Derek drawled, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. His eyes ran over her, girlish pink nightwear and all, tracing every slope, plane, and curve of her like water. His stare was dark, intense, and unrelenting, unceasing. Casey failed to repress a shudder under his gaze. Derek's smirk was a tiny sliver of victory.

If I'd known the significance of what I was about to witness, I might've gone to get that glass of water after all. There was something strikingly predatory about my brother then, about the slow, cautious way he moved towards Casey and the way she cringed away. "Do you mind?" Casey cut in a bit hesitantly, voice wavering slightly. Derek raised a brow, and Casey pushed on in a bit of a firmer voice. "I have things I need to do downstairs." Her voice was overly cool, to the point where it was obvious that it was a bit of an act. She made an awkward gesture, half-pantomiming Derek stepping to the side.

If she thought a response that pitiful would be remotely effective with my brother, she was sorely mistaken, if not a bit delusional. Derek let out a low chuckle, like her actions, her attempt to be brave, amused him. He took a big step towards her, and Casey took a half-step back without realizing it. Then Derek smiled that terrible shark smile of his, seeming to fully come into possession of the entire hallway. "Oh, you'renot going anywhere, Sis," he countered darkly, daring her to challenge him. There was a mocking undertone in his voice and the way he regarded her. "It's time we had a talk, you and I."

Something about the way the shadows fell on his face, accenting the angularity and sharpness of his features, made this proclamation seem ominous. Indeed, because of the way the hallway was lit, nearly all of the light fell on Casey like some sort of angelic spotlight while it bathed my brother in darkness. Casey swallowed hard, eyes already scanning the hall for potential escape routes. Derek leaned forward, and it looked like he could grab her and entrap her at any moment if he so chose. "We'll talk later. In the daylight," Casey said. It was not a question or a request, but it was more of a concession than I thought she'd make. After all, she'd just agreed to speak with him.

An ugly, irritated look passed over Derek's face. He took another step forward, invading her space, hulking over her. "We'll talk now, Princess." He wasn't about to give her a chance to weasel out of it. Casey's eyes narrowed at the petname. She foolishly attempted to side-step him, but Derek was faster than she was. He moved to block her way, taking another step closer to her. "What makes you think you're going anywhere?"

Casey sighed wearily and gave Derek her best bored expression. "This is really childish," she said pointedly, crossing her arms over her chest. She leaned forward a little too, looking him straight in the face with a surprising frankness in her expression. "I am not playing games with you, Venturi," Casey said levelly in a tone that, had she been speaking to another person, would've left no room to question or comment further. But Casey was speaking to my brother, and that tone would barely give him a second of pause. "We're a little too old for that," she added a moment later, not quite smiling. Then she whirled around and swept past him with all the grace and skill of a ballerina, holding her neck high and proud like a swan.

Derek sighed privately, massaging his temples. "Something's gotta give," he muttered through his teeth, turning around swiftly, like a rocket. He half-lunged after her blindly, though I couldn't exactly see what he was doing in the dark. I just saw Derek's back, muscles stretched tight underneath his shirt. He was dressed for bed in an old t-shirt, white with bright green trim, and plaid flannels in similar shades of emerald and evergreen. I saw his hand come up in a sliver of light, clutching Casey's wrist in a death grip. He pulled her back up the stairs to the landing, turning a startled and already-struggling Casey around.

Then Derek moved her off to the side a little, blocking her potential escape route with his body. His expression was rather grim, his lips and jaw tight with irritation. "I'm not playing either, Casey," Derek hissed, still not releasing her wrist. No matter how hard she struggled, Derek managed to restrain her and keep her from bolting somehow. Derek exhaled through his nose. "Don't make this harder than it has to be, Nut Case," Derek said warningly, eying her with suspicion. "I don't want to restrain you here, but I think we both have four years worth of things to say to each other. We need to talk. And we need to do it now," Derek continued with a strange urgency, staring her down like he was afraid she was going to bolt.

His every muscle was tensed, ready to pin her down. Casey must've seen in his eyes that he wasn't going to back down because she nodded curtly. She exhaled heavily, and her breath was part sigh and part gasp, part breathlessness. "Fine," she assented shortly, jerking her hand free from his and motioning for him to back up. Derek took one step backward and not one more. "What do you want, Venturi?" she demanded, crossing her arms over her chest in what was clearly a defensive gesture. Her voice was a few tones above sub-zero, decidedly frosty like a November morning. Her expression was haughty and overly formal, an attempt at putting Derek in his place or something to that effect, no doubt.

Derek's expression changed. He let Casey come out into the hallway and face him properly, but he hadn't really moved. He leaned forward, uncomfortably into her space, tongue brushing across his lips briefly. A ghost of a smile, something quite a bit like victory, flitted across his face. Casey had no choice but to listen to him now. "You know exactly what I want, Casey, just like you know exactly why I'm here." He paused for a moment, leaning in a bit further, devilish smirk spreading across his features. "I'm here to collect," he announced casually, eyes flickering with a mean sort of amusement, like he was testing her.

Still, I hadn't seen that expression on Derek's face in years, and I certainly hadn't seen him looking so gleeful or gloating all vacation. Casey swallowed a bit tremulously, obviously uncomfortable, and she frowned. "I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about," she said loftily. She was distinctly at least two shades paler, and it wasn't the lighting making her that way. Derek gave her a skeptical and knowing look. Casey's features tightened, rather like a mask. "I don't owe you anything," Casey insisted coolly, jaw clenching.

Derek shook his head, a laughing look in his eyes. I recognized it as the expression he had when he started to make fun of people. "Now, see, that's where I disagree..." His lips twitched into a little half smile, and he took another step towards Casey. "Don't you know, Case? The devil always gets his due," he taunted, flashing her that positively wicked smile of his, watching the way she sort of jumped and taking some form of pleasure from it.

Casey recrossed her arms, fidgeting a little, still uncomfortable. She threw my brother a dirty look. "The devil, indeed," she muttered dourly, scowling at him. I couldn't tell if the statement made Derek pissed or if it made him perk up like a daisy after rain. He's so good at hiding his emotions that it's difficult to tell what he actually feels or if he actually feels, but that's the way my brother likes it.

Derek tilted his head, eyes darkening a little. He certainly seemed menacing standing there in the middle of the hallway, hands at his sides, ready to jump into action. "Don't be uncharitable, Sis," he chided in a faux holier-than-thou tone, pinching her cheek not unlike Aunt Madge. He flashed her a very cheeky smile, releasing her cheek. "Like some part of you doesn't want to redeem me?" Casey did not look amused by this; she rubbed her cheek, shooting him looks of vexation. He paused for the barest of seconds, his whole body inching forward, leaning in on his toes. In an instant, the grin dropped off of his face, and he was dead serious. "I want my kiss, Casey. You owe me that much."

Casey's eyes widened, but she'd known that was coming in the same way I had. Derek's voice was low and deceptively calm but with an undercurrent I couldn't quite place, an undercurrent of something more potent. At first she was just silent, struck dumb by the bluntness of his demand, the favor he was due. Then she shook her head, a look of disgust passing over her face as what he'd said properly registered. "What part of "no, you're my stepbrother, and you disgust me" don't you understand?" she retorted, attempting to walk back to her room.

Naturally, Derek wouldn't stand for that, so he followed her. He got in front of her and managed to grab her still-reddened wrist. How would she explain that to Noel if it bruised? Derek clucked his tongue, shaking his head at her. "Casey, Casey, Casey... you obviously haven't gotten any better at lying," he drawled in that utterly confident and familiar voice of his. He was holding her wrist somewhat more loosely, almost caressingly now, like more of a formality to keep her in place.

Casey's eyes flashed menacingly, and I saw something in my brother jump at the sight. "And obviously your ego couldn't get any bigger or else your head would explode!" Casey shouted, throwing a hand in the air in equally obvious frustration. Once again she jerked her wrist away from him, bringing it to her chest and wrapping the other hand around it protectively. Had Derek really hurt her? Derek was grinning like a fool, and the slightly mad look in his eyes made Casey additionally wary and confused at his reaction. Then again, she'd never understood that Derek's ego was something he was actually proud of, the clincher of his perfect act to fool everyone.

He leaned in, and Casey shrunk back a little, almost like she was afraid. "It's not the only thing about me that's big," Derek countered, waggling his eyebrows so suggestively that he might have well have broadcast his no doubt pornographic thoughts to her. "Wanna find out?"

Casey shuddered, which made Derek's grin turn even more smug. He seemed sort of out of character, but I hadn't seen him and Casey together for quite some time. Maybe they had always been like this, and I'd never noticed? I mean, I think I would notice or remember their relationship having such blatantly sexual undertones, but maybe my lack of such memories was due to my youth and childhood sexual unawareness? Or maybe things had changed sometime in those four years. After all, how well did I really know how they acted when they were all alone? "Well, I wouldn't know about that, and I don't want to," she uttered with a strong expression of distaste making her pretty features seem like something out of a monster movie.

It reminded me, bizarrely, of the videos Derek used to shoot of her in various stages of disarray, hair a mess, face contorting into all sorts of primal expressions, usually charging at him like some kind of overblown rhinoceros. Casey was so predictable, honestly.

Derek's insane grin became a smirk once again, though there was a substantial vibe of sleaziness intermingling with the smugness, arrogance, and confidence this time. He cocked his head at her, giving her a look like he knew better. Casey's face seemed like it reddened in the dimness. Her eyes became more cagey and flighty, refusing to meet his. "Actually, I think you have some idea, and you do," he replied expertly, scarcely allowing a pause between their words. Again with that mildly amused vaguely condescending tone, like he was humoring her.

His eyes narrowed as he paused for but a moment to lick his lips. He started to speak before Casey, speechless with rage, could even get her mouth open. "It's just one little kiss. No big deal, Princess," he continued, his voice a mocking caress. He made the word "princess" pop, and Casey flinched as he did it. Derek smiled like this amused him, that shark smile. "Unless you're afraid," he drawled, baiting her. He was, as usual, winding Casey up and seeing how far he could take things before it became too much, and she finally let go and spiraled out of control like a spinning top, degenerating into madness and hysteria.

Sometimes I legitimately think he'd be happy if he finally drove her insane like he's been trying to do for years. Clearly this is not a healthy sibling relationship (although I'm not one to talk, am I?).

Also, as Derek well knew, what he was doing was his best way to manipulate Casey into doing what she wanted. She used to love nothing more than proving him wrong, and I'm sure it galled her to hear him taunting her like that.

Nonetheless, by some miracle of self-control, Casey remained mostly impassive. Her face was as tight and stiff as if she'd used some sort of botulin toxin, frozen and seemingly passive but not absent of tension. She regarded him coolly, eyes icy blue like frostbite. "I'm not afraid of you, Brother," Casey said with a venom that surprised even her. Derek did something bizarre then, something akin to a flinch, as if what she'd said had stung. Or maybe it was because she'd called him "brother."

He recovered quickly, though, and I wondered if Casey had even noticed his strange spasm or the way her words had given him pause. Her words had given her pause too, though, because I noted an expression pass over her face—not quite horror or shame or distaste, but something vaguely like all of them, as if she thought she was better than that sort of thing or response, like her response was proof that Derek was getting to her. I presume that Derek getting to her was precisely what Casey didn't want to happen (but, no doubt, the inevitable conclusion of all these events).

Derek moved towards her once again, and Casey took several steps back without even thinking. She was a bit distracted, seemingly lost in thought, a dangerous position to be in when you're facing my brother. Her distraction from her surroundings put her at a disadvantage. Derek was fast; he could do a lot before she refocused her attention, and by then it would be too late, wouldn't it? "Oh, really, Sister? Then why are you backing away from me as we speak?" Derek rejoined, taking another step forward. Casey backed up further, but Derek managed to get in her face. They were running out of hallway, after all. "What do you really think's going to happen?" he asked, getting dangerously close to her face.

His eyes darted from her eyes to her face and then, finally, to her lips. Casey no doubt felt the pointed intent and challenge of his stare because she drew herself up. "I don't need to kiss you to prove a point," she said, rolling her eyes. She pulled her body as far away from his as was possible, especially her head. Her hands fell to her hips, an offensive rather than defensive position. The switch, I thought, was interesting. It was a reminder that Casey could be just as unpredictable and dangerous as Derek when she wanted to be.

After a brief pause, she continued primly, "Also, there's something called a personal bubble, and you are invading mine!" She gave Derek a decidedly schoolmarmish look, stern and no-nonsense. Derek snickered, finding her puritan offense absolutely hilarious. Then Casey reached out, briefly putting a hand to his chest and pushing him back gently but still with an impressive amount of force. "Besides, why would I want to be close to you?" she spat in disgust, eying him like some sort of bug or slug she wanted to remove from her sight.

Derek's jaw tightened. He moved towards her once again, not especially deterred by the push. "You tell me, Case," he retorted. He eyed her body, her posture, seeing something that she or I didn't. A smug grin applied itself to his lips. He licked his lips with relish, enjoying how the gesture made Casey more or less squirm. And, naturally, he encroached even more upon her personal space, probably to see if she'd bother defending it this time. "Is it 'cause you get all excited? You know, like you are. Right. Now..." he teased in a low drawl, reaching out and putting his finger just below her collarbone, touching bare skin. He picked up his finger, moving it down slowly in a dotting fashion, where his pokes (though my brother's touch was substantially more gentle and taunting than that mildly violent gesture) skipped over her clothes with the intention of creating buttons.

Casey very nearly jumped, smacking his hand away before he could do anything further. "I'm not excite-" she attempted to protest, becoming indignant. Blood flooded to her face, making her turn more or less completely red.

Naturally, Derek interrupted her before she could even finish her sentence, much less her furious protestations. He snorted. "Oh, so your heart's just beating faster then because you're about to have a heart attack?" He gave her a look, and Casey looked away, still flushing. Derek's grin widened as he took a half step closer. "I mean, you're practically panting, and I haven't even done anything to you yet," he continued arrogantly. He wasn't wrong, though. Casey was breathing a bit harder, and I'm sure the blood was pumping substantially faster as her glands pumped out more adrenaline. Fight or flight and all that.

Still, Derek was, at the very least, scarily attuned to her body and its various functions. "I'm curious... What do you think I'm gonna do to you, Casey?" he asked with a low rumble of amusement. His eyes sparkled, high off of the thrill of challenging her. His voice made it pretty clear that he had a few ideas about what she was thinking and that he was more than willing to do exactly what she imagined him attempting.

Casey let out a not-quite ragged breath but didn't give in to his baiting. She didn't want to put ideas in his head after all, much less leave him with the feeling that any of those ideas had even the slightest possibility of actually occurring. She rolled her eyes at him, as if this whole spectacle bored her. "Nothing," she said, cutting him off completely. I was surprised she hadn't called him on him not living up to his promise, not doing what he said he'd do and talk about the past four years. She moved to the side, getting away from him slightly. The thing that got me about what she said and the way she said it, was how utterly and absolutely sure she was that he wouldn't do anything.

Derek laughed loudly, staring at her in disbelief. "Wow, now there's a new one. I have been accused of doing many things over the years, but nothing has never been one of them," he said incredulously. There was something else burning in that stare, something showed how much it bothered him that she really didn't think he'd do anything. My brother is many things, but all talk and no action has never been one of them. I wondered why Casey didn't see that? Had it really been that long, had she really forgotten what he was like? Didn't she realize that saying something like that was more or less inviting Derek to do his worst? She should know; they're the same in that respect, only Derek's so much worse. Or maybe she did and that was something she wante...

I sat down quietly, head spinning from all the confusion and thoughts this encounter was provoking in me. There was a lot of raw data to sort through and interpret, but how could I be sure that I'd interpreted it correctly? How did this incident fit in with the things I'd witnessed throughout the last four years (and, really, the four years before that?). For the first time, I thought of getting Lizzie and bringing her down here to watch this with me. She'd always been better with people than I was. Yet something convinced me not to do it; I had the strongest feeling that Lizzie wouldn't want to see this. It also occurred to me that, if I went upstairs and brought her down, we might miss a key part or somehow wind up interrupting... and then I would never get to know or understand whatever it was between them! So I remained seated on the stair, watching with wide eyes.

"You're not as brave as you think you are, Der-Bear," Casey said smartly, as if reiterating the fact that she didn't think he was going to do anything. She was implying a sort of cowardice I had never really expected my brother to possess, yet, for the strangest reason, it didn't surprise me. The more I thought about it, the more it sort of made sense, but the idea was difficult to reconcile with the brother I knew.

Derek's eyes flashed, and he gritted his teeth. The implication, no matter how euphemized and weakened it was, struck a cord in him. I think it was probably worse, actually, because she hadn't outright called him a coward. It was more than clear that that was what she meant and was thinking from the vaguely smug look in her eyes, like she had something over him, for a change. The mocking nickname was what really started to push him over the edge.

I began to see that this was going to get progressively more ugly, that they were both taking no prisoners. It was a strange realization, the fact that Casey actually had more power than I'd ever thought. She had the power to get to Derek the same way he got to her, and she had some sort of ability to inflict pain and draw blood like my brother. "This from someone who can't even say my name? Like the mere word somehow terrifies you... You can't, can you, Casey?" Derek countered, anger showing.

A perfectly serene Casey raised a brow. The venom in Derek's voice hadn't upset her, nor had the implications of cowardice. Then again, I've always felt that men take being called a coward much worse than women do, something about a coward not being a man since bravery is one of our most vaunted virtues. It chafes at us in a way it doesn't chafe at them. "It's not that I can't. It's that I don't. Why bother giving you the gratification? You thrive on recognition, and giving you none is the best way to get rid of you," Casey explained calmly but without any warmth.

I hadn't noticed it, actually, but Derek was right once again. Casey hadn't said his name once the entire length of their conversation, although she might have many times, and it would've been natural for her to do so. She'd called him by our last name twice, which had only just now struck me as an odd, cold formality, Brother once, and once by that ridiculous nickname. Derek, on the other hand, seemed to use her name or some sort of a nickname in almost every sentence. He shortened her name to the intimately familiar "Case" most of all, which seemed to rankle Casey a little bit more every time she heard it, but that didn't irritate her as much as him calling her "Princess."

I thought back to all the times I'd heard them speak over the vacation, looking to see if the pattern stretched to those conversations as well. Derek had said her name pretty often and used plenty of nicknames, both insulting and familiar (ranging from the high school Klutzilla, Princess, Space Case, and Keener... to Nut Case, Basket Case, Sister, and regular Case). He seemed to use her name when he was being more serious, and he seemed to use "Case" with the same frequency as her actual name. Maybe it was just me, but he seemed to call her "Case" when he was taunting her or needling her.

Casey, on the contrary, seemed rarely to refer to him directly at all. She'd screamed his name three times in the way she used to, unable to break the habit, but other than that, I could only remember hearing her say his name three times, four if I counted earlier in the hall when she'd thought I was him. She even seemed to avoid using his name in reference to him.

"And how's that working out for you?" Derek rejoined, smirking as if to rub in the fact that it wasn't really working at all. I hadn't seen Derek so amused in years, really, but there was kind of a meanness to it, meaner than usual with her. He shook his head at her, the smirk disappearing as his tone became suddenly serious. He was still mocking her, of course, but he meant business. "Now, Casey, you're really just deluding yourself if you think you can actually get rid of me. I won't come quietly," he said in a low voice, so close their noses were practically brushing.

Casey made a face, jerking her head back before Derek could do something like take the kiss he was demanding. She waved a hand in front of her face, like she was dispelling some unpleasant odor. Casey backed away smoothly in a sort of circular fashion, facial expression changing quickly to disgust. "Oh, lovely. You've been drinking! Just what this holiday disaster needs..." she exclaimed sarcastically. Her voice rose and sort of squeaked on that one word, "drinking." That and the clenched fist at her side was a sign that Derek drinking upset her more than she was willing to admit. "Funny, I wasn't aware Derekus was a drinking holiday," she continued scornfully. With the way she looked at him, it was like she had no respect for him at all.

Derek saw this and resented it, especially since she was most likely the reason he'd been drinking. I wondered if the alcohol was why Derek seemed so different. Then again, my brother wasn't really the type to go hiding behind alcohol unless it was convenient for him. Derek could drink an elephant under the table. He gave Casey a dismissive, almost bored look, like she was stupid for even insinuating he might have a drinking problem. "It's a holiday celebrating me, Case. I can do whatever the hell I want on it," he grunted, barely managing to suppress his irritation. He scowled at her full-out. "You'd be surprised how much being around your... family..." He practically spat the word "family," as if it were some sort of curse or insult. Maybe it was; maybe he considered being related to Casey the ultimate insult. "-All day makes you need to drink."

He eyed Casey pointedly as he said it. Her eyes narrowed in response, like she knew exactly what he meant. "With a brother like you," she sneered, "I'm not that surprised. However, unlike you, I don't make a habit of turning to alcohol when I've had a bad day." Her voice was absolutely scathing, such a powerful indictment of her disgust. She'd certainly had a worse day than Derek, but unlike him, I'd only seen her have a glass of mulled wine, half a cup of eggnog (she could taste the alcohol pretty soon), and a cup of punch.

Derek's jaw tightened, and he threw a similar expression her way. "It takes the edge off, Princess. Makes everything feel... easier," he said through clenched teeth. It was almost defensive, but not quite. Clearly he hadn't been drinking enough if all that alcohol had made my brother so punchy. What, I wondered, was easier about all this? Was it easier to get the words out? To be around her? To stand it?

I thought to myself he sounded a bit like a drug addict phrasing it like that, and apparently Casey agreed, probably because she'd always secretly suspected him of using some sort of illegal mind-altering substance. The look of revulsion remained on her face; my brother was still too close. She could still smell his breath with that bloodhound nose of hers, I assumed. "And now, apparently, my cousin isn't the only alcoholic in the family," she said harshly, straightening her already impossibly straight spine even further, making her posture abnormally elongated and uncomfortable.

Derek's eyes flashed with an emotion that can only be described as wrath. He advanced upon her without consciously thinking of it, seeking out a confrontation. His voice was deceptively calm but still pretty tight. "I'm not a drunk, okay, and I'm not that drunk now. In fact, I'm seeing things clearer than ever," Derek snarled, looking over her contemptuously. A vague redness may have registered on Casey's cheeks, but if it had, I couldn't really tell. He took a step closer to her, swaying a little. "You can try to avoid me all you want, Casey. It's not going to work. It won't make this go away. No matter how much you want it to." He was more or less right in her face as he said it.

Casey rolled her eyes at him and turned away, crossing her arms over her chest. She let out a weary sort of sigh, as if she were exasperated and trying to conceal it. "Look, Derry-Beary, for your own sake, stop making a fool out of yourself and just go to bed. I don't have time to waste on such juvenile conversations," she replied frostily, completely disregarding what he said and denying any of its potential accuracy. The hated nickname sort of made Derek startle a bit, probably because it was the most directly she'd addressed him all conversation. She once again moved to pass my brother, but Derek stepped directly in her path.

Casey's face scrunched up unpleasantly. "Well, I do," Derek counted, crossing his arms over his chest. "And I think you can afford to make a little time for your older brother, can't you? Or are you a baaaad sister, Casey?" He drew out the D in bad, and it was hard to tell whether he was taunting her or flirting with her. Maybe a little of both. Derek breathed on her, like noxious fumes, and Casey flinched, screwing up her face and turning her head away from him. She let out a shallow breath, like she couldn't even breath the same air as him.

"You are not my older brother, and I'm better than you deserve," Casey managed tightly, looking past him at the wall. Derek's jaw clenched at pride in her voice, at the way she acted like merely talking to him was a condescension he didn't merit. Her eyes flicked up and met his for a second as she realized how close he actually was to her. She could probably feel his body heat seeping into the air, could feel just how charged that space between them was. "Get off of me and go away, Derek," she said coolly, pushing him to the side. She'd said his name then, and I wondered if it meant something. "The less I see of you, the better," she sneered, turning her nose up at him and walking past him, heading back towards her bedroom.

Derek stalked after her, fuming. "So, what, I get the same treatment as Truman now, Casey? A brush-off, really?" He began to raise his voice. Casey stopped in her tracks when he mentioned Truman, slowly turning her head around. Truman was still a sore spot with her. Derek took the opportunity to grab her arm and turn her around to face him. The look on his face was painful for me to witness because it was so unlike him, something about it so... wanting. "I'm part of your family. I thought that was supposed to mean something... Here's your feel-good family moment, Case. The one you always wanted..." He entreated, holding open his arms. "Now why don't you come give your brother a kiss?" he urged with a too-casual smile.

I could see that it bothered him more than he was letting on, and I wondered if Casey could see that too. I wondered a lot of things about her relationship with my brother, like if she even knew what it was or if she had any idea what he was like now. She looked a bit conflicted, judging by the expression on her face, so maybe Derek had swayed her some. She faintly bit at the bottom corner of her lip, silent in thought. And then she spoke, glancing pointedly around the hallway, knocking Derek's hand off her arm. "What a very good point... Now where are Edwin and Sebastian? After all, they're my real brothers."

Nothing surprised me more than hearing my name come up, even though Casey knew very well where Sebastian and I were (or thought we were, at any rate, given my current position). Derek took a half-step forward, body stiff, smile gone. "Huh, so there's a difference between me and Edwin as brothers but not Ed and Sebastian. Interesting. Guess it isn't the same difference at all, is it, Case?" Derek drawled, voice dripping with something biting. He pressed his thumb into the inside of her elbow, right in the hollow where nurses draw blood. The rest of his fingers wrapped around her elbow firmly enough, like he was trying to hold on to a piece of her, to somehow hold her there with him.

The phrase seemed to be something between them, something only the two of them understood. Thinking back to what Derek said, I assumed it must be something about the difference between a stepsibling and a real sibling, something about their relationship... but whatever it was was beyond me. Casey stiffened, attempting to withdraw from him. She might've even flinched briefly. "Why are you always harping on about that?" she griped, giving him a sharp look. The comment apparently had an additional significance to Derek that it didn't to Casey.

Then her eyes locked with his in a very familiar, sort of intimate way. She let out a breath, hair falling into her face. "The difference is that you will never be my brother," she said quite clearly, emphatic about their lack of relation. "You're just not." I frowned, wondering what she meant by that. Was she denying their relation from a technical standpoint, because she didn't want to be associated to him and was ashamed to be related to him, or was there some other reason?

Apparently Derek didn't think this was good enough reasoning either. He smirked a bit, still thinking the situation in his favor. "Then what am I, Casey?" She didn't answer him or look at him. Derek answered for her, releasing her arm. He tilted her head up with his index finger, forcing her to look at him. He was smiling faintly and had an almost pleasant look on his face. "Hard to say, isn't it? It's a little bit more complicated than all that, right?"

Derek was right, of course, but Casey wouldn't admit that just like she wouldn't admit that her rationale made completely no sense (meaning there was probably some ridiculous emotional reason why Derek wasn't her brother, blech). She got flustered when Derek's hand tipped her chin up and took a hasty step back. "You're a giant pain in my ass that I'm stuck with for the rest of the holidays, that's what you are," she retorted, cocking a hand on her hip. She was wearing an expression similar to that of a linebacker or enforcer, like she wanted to tackle Derek, to knock him down at full speed and push forward.

My brother laughed loudly, amused at the way she'd said it, all serious-like. Casey could be very serious at times, but when she was attempting to be threatening, it was more comical than actually menacing nine times out of ten. This time was no exception, what with the pale pink flowered nightdress and her hair, loose and wavy. "Huh. Well, at least I got a piece of that ass," Derek quipped, sloppily reaching down to grab her ass for emphasis (and probably his own enjoyment). He managed a stroke and a brief squeeze, and this sleazy look spread across his face as he did it, which made my mind go in several very unpleasant directions.

I was surprised that he actually succeeded for approximately two seconds before Casey gasped and tore his hand away from her ass, instantaneously slapping Derek's face with an audible smack. Derek made a face, rubbing the reddened skin. It had, no doubt, stung. "Feisty. I like that," he added with a grin.

Casey threw her hands up in the air and let loose an aggravated grunt that made her sound like some sort of hippopotamus or water buffalo. I was surprised not to hear her shout his name as usual. She glowered at Derek with twice the force of her usual glare, but Derek just kept on grinning. "Shut your disgusting mouth," Casey huffed. Derek opened his mouth like he was going to say something, probably just to piss her off (since he didn't interrupt her). I could see Casey visibly get angrier and knew she was close to losing it, as did Derek. "Read my lips, Derek: I want you nowhere near me. I cannot be any clearer about that," Casey snapped.

However, Casey was still a bit too close to Derek when she said that, so I don't know if he got the message. He was staring at her lips, though, but he probably wasn't trying to read them. After all, Derek knew as well as anybody else that Casey didn't always mean what she said. Her relationship with Truman is kind of a whole case in point for that. "Really?" Derek said, gesturing to her face, "'Cause that's not what your eyes are saying." Well, at least he didn't say something like "your lips are saying no, but your eyes are saying yes." Even though that's what he meant. Or maybe Casey's just one of those people whose lips and eyes don't match when she's lying to herself.

Casey started sputtering, and Derek leaned back a little, enjoying watching her for a moment. He took a mostly swaggering step towards her, voice urging. "Come on, Casey, try me. You'll like me," he declared cockily. Given his reputation, he was probably right (but even if Casey did like such a thing, which seemed contrary to everything she'd said to him tonight, it'd be the sort of thing she liked secretly, against her will). Casey froze, face contorted in another expression of revulsion. Derek brushed it off and continued towards her motionless form.

He stopped when he was close enough to whisper in her ear. I wondered why Casey let him get so close. "Or is that exactly what you're afraid of? That you'll like it a little too much? That once you've fi-nally had a taste you won't want to go back to No-elle?" he whispered mockingly, face turned towards hers. He drew out the word "finally" and leaned closer still as he said it before making a ridiculous kissy face at her. His darker eyes flickered over every feature, observing her a few millimeters away from her face, as if cataloging it for later. If he seemingly wanted the kiss from her so badly (he'd asked her directly at least two times), why didn't he kiss her then, when he was so close, and she couldn't (or wouldn't?) exactly stop him?

Why didn't he take what he wanted, as usual? Casey'd flinched when he'd mentioned Noel, had almost closed her eyes when he was that close to her, like she didn't want to see him there. She seemed to snap out of the passivity then, her face hardening into rock like cooling lava. She crossed her arms over her chest again, evidently uncomfortable, shifting a bit. Then she rolled her eyes at him, refusing to back down. "Don't flatter yourself, Derek," she spat. She paused for a moment, and a small, icy smile appeared on her lips. "You weren't even that good with your hands," she remarked sharply. Her eyes were like daggers.

I think my jaw just about dropped to the floor when she said that, wondering what had happened and how far had and was that why they? I found myself incapable of finishing a sentence. Derek's own eyes widened, and he winced, eyes shutting briefly at her words. He wasn't as impervious as I'd thought, then. He opened his eyes again, but there was still this odd, almost stricken look on his face that wouldn't go away. "Ouch..." he muttered. His next comment was said with a noxious combination of cockiness and bravado that may have been real or manufactured, though I suspected the latter. "Doesn't change the fact that I'm so right, aren't I?"

It sounded to me like a desperate attempt to recover lost ground, to reassert something. Casey snorted, as if she suddenly found him ridiculous, barely sparing him a glance. "You are so wrong you have no idea." She let out a little laugh even. It was as if the balance of power had somehow shifted between them. The space between them was getting bigger somehow. Casey wasn't going to stay there much longer.

Derek took a step forward. Casey watched him with passionless, bored eyes. "Prove it to me, then," Derek challenged, getting her to meet his gaze. He beckoned her forward with palms open and facing out by his waist. It was obvious how he wanted her to prove it. Maybe she didn't hear the cord of steel in his voice, the determination, but I did, and I knew it wasn't going to end well for either of them.

Casey gave him a look, unimpressed and maybe a bit disappointed with him. "I'm not dumb enough to fall for that twice," she replied. A look of mild irritation passed over her face as she undoubtedly remembered her first kiss with Truman, the one he'd tricked her into giving him, though I'm sure he never thought Casey would do it. It was, to be honest, something she'd half worked herself up into doing. Derek was different; he didn't think she'd do it, probably knew she wouldn't, but he was trying his best to convince her somehow, and he wouldn't stop until he got bored or got what he wanted. At this point, it could still have gone either way.

Derek threw her a look but didn't roll his eyes. "C'mon, Casey, it's just one lousy kiss..." The cutting look Casey gave him indicated that she didn't believe his attempts to make it seem like such a request was nothing. Derek's eyes narrowed. "And I never took you for a spineless coward either... too afraid to do anything." He paused, cocking his head and regarding her thoughtfully for a moment before his lips curved into that condescending smile. "Are you worried I'll plant one on you and make you fall in love with me? Do you really think I'm going to manage to seduce you with a single kiss?" he drawled, glancing pointedly at her lips in a way that made Casey so uncomfortable that she cleared her throat and couldn't look at him. "This isn't a Disney movie," he continued belittlingly, the darkness of his eyes recalling evil step-relations and predatory beasts from those films. A regular Beauty and the Beast they were.

"I mean, I know I'm good, but I've never seduced someone away from their fiancé with just one kiss," Derek mused. The way he said it indicated that Derek was considering attempting to do that very thing as a personal challenge. Derek loves to challenge just about anything, actually. Authority figures, our parents, Casey, other hockey teams, other peoples' beliefs, and so on, if he thinks it'll be amusing or cares enough. He has a very confrontational view towards life, and if he can find a reason to oppose something, he'll do it just to be contrary and get that rise, that reaction he craves from people (not just Casey).

You see, being difficult is, as far as I can determine it, Derek's main goal in life. This includes not only making other people's lives more difficult but also personally challenging himself, I suppose to prove he's not afraid of a challenge or is super capable or something like that. Another reason he likes to challenge himself is that it gives Derek plenty of interesting stories and reasons to brag about himself. After all, few people have the guts to be Derek Venturi. He paused, smirking. "'Cause, if you do, you put a lot of faith in my kisses, and, well, what does that say about your pathetic sex life, huh, Casey?"

Casey's eyes flashed dangerously. "My sex life is not pathetic!" she protested a bit too defensively. Derek quirked a brow, silently questioning her all-too vehement statement. Casey promptly flushed iron red, embarrassed and probably a bit angry that Derek had managed to goad her into talking about her sex life, getting her to play right into his hand. Derek grinned victoriously. Casey tried her best to hold her head high and pretend her cheeks weren't burning and that she wasn't thinking of sexual things. "I think you want to seduce me, and, frankly, I neither want nor need to be seduced, thank you, much less kiss you," she said firmly, eyes locking with his to show she meant it.

She sounded so businesslike and uptight it was almost comical. Derek didn't seem to think so, of course, but it's hard to find amusement in being rejected fairly brutally. "You don't have to say it like it's that repulsive..." he muttered tersely, sounding almost hurt. A half-smile almost appeared on Casey's face at the petulance and tinge of irritation in his voice. But then Derek looked up, and the almost-smile disappeared, replaced by the blank expression she'd taken to wearing in some attempt to remain calm while dealing with Derek. "But it's tradition, dear sister. It's the rules, and you love rules. And you've never been one to buck tradition," Derek urged, oozing charm, coming closer until he was close enough to reach out and touch her.

Yet, for some reason, despite his endless physicality that night, he didn't. Maybe if her nightdress had had a little bow, he would've toyed with its strings and untied it. "And you've been one to follow it? So hard-up to kiss your stepsister?" Casey scoffed, pushing past him. Derek did not appreciate the mockery in her voice, judging by the clenched hands at his sides. A moment later, Casey half-turned and said over her shoulder, "Besides, you said it yourself. You're the exception to every rule, right, Venturi?"

Derek looked up at her. "Not this one," he said sulkily. Casey shook her head. For a moment, she looked like she was about to giggle, but then she merely turned around and headed towards her door. Derek wasn't going to let her get away that easily. The minute her fingers touched the door, Derek's hand was on hers, stopping her from opening it. "Somewhere, somehow, someone's gotta be kissed," Derek murmured in a low, determined voice. Casey's shoulders tensed up. He stood directly behind Casey, body not quite touching hers but close. The side of his face was so close to hers that he might've brushed her cheek with his nose.

I couldn't really see the look on Derek's face, but I think it must've been something intimate, something akin to reverence. As you can see, everything was happening so fast I couldn't really process it, and I was trying my hardest not to let my previous judgments affect what I was witnessing. Whatever this was, it was different than all of the other encounters I'd witnessed between them, even in the whole of our family history. This was Casey and Derek as I'd rarely seen them, alone together, stripped of all acts and pretenses, at their most elemental and combative. Aside from that talk earlier this evening and that time in the kitchen (and only one of those moments could've really been considered remotely important), I think it must've been the first time they'd been really alone together in almost four years.

Casey didn't dare turn around, fully aware of how close Derek was and how turning around would press her body against his. She'd effectively be turning into him, and wouldn't he like that? She knew that she was safest facing the door, even with Derek's breath on her neck. She had no choice. I couldn't really see her face that well, but it looked like she was bracing herself for something. She seemed to be clenching her teeth. "Don't you have someone else to torment?" she bit out. Frustration seeped into her tone, allowing a rare bit of emotion to slip through her cold veneer and show that Derek's persistence really was getting to her. She squeezed her free hand tight into a fist and then released it, stretching her fingers wide apart (probably because she could hardly wring her hands with Derek positioned as he was).

Derek snickered. "Not right now. Besides, you're my favorite target," came his calm and assured answer. He moved away just enough so that he could turn Casey around. Her body barely brushed against his, but Derek pried her hand from the door. Once Casey realized that Derek had laced his fingers with hers and was effectively holding her hand, she dropped it like she'd put her hand in steaming dishwater.

Derek moved a little closer, slowly like a shark that had seen blood in the water. "I'm not asking for a lot here, Casey. In fact, I think I'm being quite reasonable..." Derek said, fixing her with a look. Casey looked like she was going to be ill. "I did something for you, now you do something for me. That's the way it works," Derek continued, punctuating this statement with a smile. It was not as nonthreatening as it was supposed to come off. The color drained from Casey's face. What did he have on her?

It almost seemed like he was blackmailing her, but if he was, why hadn't she immediately given him what he wanted? Why hadn't he immediately referenced it and used it against her? "It's only fair," Derek continued diplomatically, "and it doesn't even involve touching my genitals... All you've got to do is kiss me like you mean it for a few minutes. Should be easy enough." Casey's eyes were wide with horror. I blinked in astonishment, unable to believe Derek had actually just said that. What favor did she owe him?

She was struck dumb for a moment, attempting to process what he'd just said. Derek had been so nonchalant about it, like what he was asking was nothing more than a business proposal or previously-discussed form of payment. He'd said it in this infuriatingly patient tone, as if he was explaining it to a two-year-old.

After a while, Casey, like the engine of the Prince, sputtered to life, still disbelieving. "I am en-gaged, you moron. I don't want to be kissing anyone but Noel!" she cried, throwing her hands in the air.

Derek cocked his head and gave her that same patronizing look. "Come on, now, Casey, we both know that isn't true," he said knowingly, utterly confident in himself. He frowned a little nonetheless. Then he licked his lips, eying her hopefully. "You know I'm good for it, Sis." His voice was low, a little throatier than it should've been.

How would she know, I wondered. Casey was still paler than usual and still found it hard to speak. Yet somehow she was still able to shut him down coolly. I wondered how long Casey could really hold out against him. Would she give in, would Derek trick her, or would my brother come out for once empty-handed? "You are good for nothing," she managed sharply, pointing at him. "Least of all that." She said it with a dismissive toss of her head, hand finding the doorknob behind her.

I figured I didn't want to know what they were referring to, although I could make a good guess.

Derek's expression was nonplussed. Did any of her brutal shutdowns actually hurt him? She was getting progressively more blunt as Derek persisted, yet barely anything she said seemed to get to him. It had to be by now, though, given how adamant she'd been. I wondered at Derek's secret. She'd just basically called him worthless after all. "You think you're the first person who's ever told me that, Casey? You're going to have to do better than that if you really want to get to me," Derek rejoined. He waited a moment before dangerously invading her personal space yet again. "Now, kiss me, Casey. I dare you."

Casey might've rolled her eyes. Either way, she didn't wait to shove Derek back and away from her. "For the last time, NO!" Casey half-shouted. She still remained fairly quiet, but it was the first time she'd really risen her voice in the conversation, a sign that Derek's tactics, no matter how childish, were really getting to her. Casey let out a breath through her nose, irritated and trying to calm herself down. "As hard as this may be for you to believe, I have absolutely no desire to kiss you."

Derek's face turned unpleasant for a moment, but pretty soon that side-smile was back on his face. There was something bitter about it, though. He started walking towards her. Casey should've taken that opportunity to open the door, dash into her room, and lock and barricade herself in. She had a few moments where Derek was just standing there, rocking on his heels. Maybe she was afraid Derek would get there faster and they'd both somehow wind up in her Noel-free bedroom with a locked door. "Now, Casey, did I say I was asking? Did I sound like I was asking?" he asked rhetorically. The smile fell as he reached her. "That wasn't a question, Princess."

Casey eyed his closeness warily. He was still far enough away for her not to be touching him but close enough so that she was uncomfortable and on edge. "I don't care because, last I checked, you have no hold over me! I don't have to listen to a single word you say!" she said defiantly, pointing her finger at him. The problem was that it came off almost hysterical, so it sounded like she was trying to convince herself just as much as she was trying to convince him of that.

He gave her a bored look, silently asking if she was done with her little rant. "You don't have to, but I can make you..." he replied ominously, reaching out for her shoulder. Casey rolled her shoulder back so it was out of his reach. Derek lurched forward, his face blank and serious for once. His hand made contact with her shoulder. Casey tensed like a rubber band stretched to its limits. "I'm not asking nicely anymore. I'm not asking, Casey. Period." He leaned in closer to her face. "And, really, Case, what makes you think you have a choice in the matter anyway?"

Their noses were practically touching, yet Casey didn't seem unnerved, even as Derek was nearly threatening her. She raised her eyebrows, moving her shoulder out from under his hand. "And what makes you so sure you'll succeed? Your will?" She allowed herself a loud laugh and then an amused smile at the way Derek clenched his jaw. I thought personally that she had greatly underestimated Derek's will and determination. She'd probably pay for it later. "The world doesn't revolve around you and your childish desires anymore, Venturi!"

The minute she said it, I knew she shouldn't have. It was like she was just asking him to prove her wrong with such a stupid statement, honestly. Predictably, Derek got in her face. His expression was especially smug. "Your world will always revolve around me just a little, Casey. If only because you're trying so hard to get away from it," he pronounced. Casey opened her mouth to argue, but Derek stopped her with a finger to her lips, speaking quickly. Their eyes met and held the stare. "Face it, Case, I'm under your skin, whether you like it or not. And I'm always gonna be there, so don't think you can run from it or claw it out. Because you can't. I'm unforgettable and inescapable," he murmured darkly, a wicked little smile on his lips. He used the opportunity to brush his thumb across her lower lip. Casey shuddered like she'd just imagined him crawling under her skin, forever an itch she couldn't scratch.

Derek gave her an indulgent smile and drew his hand back, off her slightly parted lips. He tapped her temple lightly. "I'm always gonna be in your head, whether you admit it or not... I'll always be there in the back of your mind, and you're always gonna wonder." Derek leaned his head back a little, deliberately and slowly licking his lips. Casey swallowed uncomfortably and attempted to look away. She'd turned even paler than before. Maybe Derek was onto something after all.

"Unless you do something about it," Derek challenged, staring her down. Casey's eyes flicked back to his, evaluating the statement silently. He paused for a moment, allowing it to sink in before gesturing to her. "So, Case, the question remains... are you gonna do something about it or not?" For a long, long moment, Casey just stared at him, wondering how to take that.

Then she spoke, and it was obvious that she was unsettled. When I say that it was obvious, I mean that it was clear from the jittery way she held herself, on the balls of her feet, practically twitching. What really gave it away was the crazy look in her eyes, though. "I don't know what you're talking about, but you sound disturbed and very likely deranged. I think you ought to consult a psychiatrist who would undoubtedly be more able than me to give you the help and sedatives you deserve," Casey said quickly, twisting the doorknob behind her. Derek once again stilled her motion by covering her hand.

He snorted, amused at how on edge she was. "Yeah, 'cause I'm the Mental Case here." He tapped the top of her head then, like he expected to hear an echo. Casey scowled and attempted (but failed) to calm down. At the very least, she managed to put her free hand to her side. Something else flickered in Derek's eyes. "You know what I think, Casey?" He paused for a moment, expectant.

Casey rolled her eyes, attempting to twist the knob. She was sort of able to do that, but she wasn't able to open the door with Derek attached to her like that. Her eyes accidentally met his for a moment, but she didn't immediately look away. "Actually," she said acidly, "I was fairly certain you didn't think at all. As this insipid conversation proves." She resumed her struggling with the door, once again to no avail.

He merely smiled and continued, eyes glittering, determined and malicious, as if she'd said nothing. He was on a roll, and there was no stopping him once he'd begun. "I think the reason you were so obsessed with Truman, the real reason you ran all the way to Toronto and never looked back, the reason why you and I haven't spent a single moment alone together in four years..." His voice hardened as he went on. He punctuated each statement by poking her in the chest with his index finger, in a soft part, not so hard as to cause her real pain but enough to cause some discomfort.

He paused for a moment, walking his fingers up over her collarbone and up her throat. Casey held her head high because she had no choice; she was trying and failing to shy away from his touch. Her breathing was erratic at best, fast and shallow. Derek leaned in so his forehead was nearly up against hers. I thought he might've liked that. "Was because you figured out you were starting to develop feelings for me... And not feelings of the brotherly-sisterly variety." Casey swallowed. Her face was as white as sodium chloride. "Non-brotherly love, 'Sis," Derek spelled it out for her, wearing a sick, bitter little smile that more greatly resembled a grimace. Mockery dripped from every word.

His eyes cut into her like diamonds, cutting through carefully-constructed layers of glass and ice. "And you just couldn't have that because that was just going to wreckall of your little carefully-constructed plans for your perfect, pretty little life, wasn't it? Being in love with a guy like me, a guy who won't play nicely and cave into all of your wishes?" Derek continued, so close now that his body was pressing completely against hers, pinning her to the door. He looked at her then like he was going to kiss her, and he might have, had Casey not-

Completely and justifiably freaked out.

Whoa, wait, had Derek just accused Casey of being in love with him? I mean, he'd said "a guy like me" but he totally meant himself! I felt bad for Casey, aware now that there was no way this wasn't going to end messily, not without some collateral damage. Her eyes widened like saucers, but she didn't waste a moment in disabusing him of this illusion. First off, she made some grunting/groaning noise born of immense frustration and exploded at him, grabbing him by the collar of his t-shirt and looking down at him. She started shaking him in fury. "EXCUSE ME, but are you on something?" She hit him hard in the chest, knocking a bit of air out of him, before continuing to shake him.

"I mean, seriously, there is no other way I can get how anyone in his right mind, even someone as deluded as you, could possibly, possibly think something so ridiculous without abusing some sort of illegal mind-destroying substance! That's preposterous!" Her voice was getting progressively higher as she spoke. If there was a bit of distance between them, she would've been pacing now, rather than alternatively shaking and smacking my brother like a madwoman. Derek, I'm sure, was wearing that self-satisfied grin of his, amused at seeing her so completely unhinged. Eventually, she let him go and moved into the hallway.

She started laughing, utterly incredulous, on the verge of hysteria and sputtering. "Me, have feelings for you? You have got to be kidding me," Casey scoffed, giving him a dismissive look. She was heading downstairs again? Going to Mommy and Daddy or, worse, Truman, to seek refuge from the Big Bad Stepbrother? I was a bit disappointed, to be honest. Derek's own expression solidified into something utterly devoid of emotion, which meant it hurt him more than anything else she'd said all night.

Casey turned around again, shaking her head. "Honestly, you're..." She was searching for words to describe it, and her eyes hardened when she found them. "You're barely even a brother to me because I find everything about you so repulsive and repugnant to me, especially your behavior, that I no longer wish to associate with you in any significant way." I'll be honest; that was so harsh I winced. Then she turned on her heel and coolly headed for the stairs.

As usual, Derek was hot on her heels. How long were they going to do this? How long were they going to keep dancing in circles around each other? How long can Derek keep chasing after her? "Sam, Max, Truman, Noel... They're all just pale shades of me, Casey." An incredible confidence dripped from his words, like he was trying to match her venom tit for tat. Casey froze in her tracks, and Derek shrugged. "Better you realize that sooner than later."

He came still closer, approaching her from behind and trailing his hand down her arm sensuously. Casey tensed under his touch but didn't move a muscle. Did she enjoy it? Was that the reason why her breath had hitched? "Does Noel make you feel like this?" Derek whispered directly into her ear, causing her to shiver. Derek let out a low chuckle. Casey shuddered again when she felt the vibrations of that rumbling laugh. "'Cause I somehow doubt that Noel Covington gets your heart pumping quite like this. There's no rush with him, no uncertainty." I saw Derek's other hand reach around her, but I didn't see where he touched her or even if he did.

Casey looked at him over her shoulder. I saw her forcibly remove Derek's hand and fling it back at him. "Maybe that's because I'm not afraid Noel's going to sexually assault me," she returned archly. The look on her face made it clear she wasn't joking, and Derek's face took on an ugly expression.

His face was all in shadows again, and he turned a little so he was sandwiched between Casey and the wall. His hand was still on her arm, and he gripped it more tightly, forcing her head up to look at him. "Don't tell me you're afraid of me, Casey." His voice was low and menacing. Casey attempted to look down or away, but Derek wouldn't let her, his grip firm on her arm. I couldn't really see his face at all from that position. "'Cause we both know it isn't really me you're afraid of. You're afraid of yourself. Of the things I can make you do. Because you don't trust yourself around me," Derek drawled, leaning in closer to her face. His thumb stroked her arm absently.

Casey opened her mouth to deny what he'd said, but Derek cut her off before she could get a word out. He chuckled darkly. "And don't tell me you only just started being afraid of me, Casey." He paused, eyes boring directly into hers, a thin threat of a smile on his lips. "You have absolutely no idea what I'm capable of," he said menacingly. I saw his teeth glint in the dimness. She gave him a look that said she knew exactly what he was capable of.

She pulled her arm away, rubbing at it with an expression of mild discomfort on her face. "Don't try threatening me, D-bag," she spat. Oh, cute, a play on his old nickname. I expected Derek to be a bit annoyed by that. She didn't seem to be afraid of him for whatever reason, which struck me as odd. His posture, the way he was turned towards her, was certainly threatening, as was the expression on his face. Casey had been all sorts of extremes tonight, and at some point, she had undoubtedly been afraid of my brother. But I was starting to think that maybe Derek had gotten that last bit right. Maybe she wasn't so much afraid of him as she was afraid of what Derek could make her do. It was no secret that she lost her reason whenever he was involved.

Wasn't Casey really afraid of how Derek made her feel? Wasn't she really afraid of not being in control? She drew back from him, regarding him coolly. "I'm not scared of you at all," she stated. Her stare seemed to back up her words. Still, I couldn't help but think that, if it were really true, she wouldn't have to say it so much. She shrugged a little and spoke before Derek could say something to counter her. "You're not the only one who's changed," she said flatly. "Now," she continued in that same dead-calm voice, "do you know what I'm capable of?" With the way the shadows fell on her pale face, I was beginning to wonder what she was capable of as well. Casey had changed quite a bit over the years, more than any of us had realized. There was something harder, harsher about her, a brittleness to her that wasn't there before.

Derek rolled his eyes. "Don't make me laugh, McDonald. What are you going to do, dance around me in circles?" he scoffed, miming a ballerina twirl. Ever the flair for dramatics, my brother. When he was done with his little demonstration, Derek stopped and turned suddenly serious. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he started advancing on Casey, making her back up. In effect, he led her all the way to the wall between their bedrooms until she was backed up against it, and he was more or less pinning her against the wall. "Let me paint a picture for you, sis..." he began in a storyteller voice, a kind of sleepy, romantic way of articulating things. Then he smiled meanly, gesturing between the two of them. "Of the last time we met alone like this."

Wow, he even rhymed.

Casey swallowed hard. It was hard to tell, what with her being in Derek's shadow and all, but she looked a bit green. Derek glanced around the hall, giving her just a bit more room to breathe. "Four years ago... In this very hallway, actually." His eyes flicked back to Casey. There was a lost, faraway look in them, as if he were in another place or another time. His voice got lower, and his hand found the doorframes of their rooms, so he had one arm on either side of her. His intonation was almost poetic, rhythmic like some sort of chant or spell to put her back in that time and place. "It was late at night and cold outside. You were stumbling in drunk from a party. I was in my room, waiting up for you." He paused for the barest of moments before throwing her a knowing look, this one so intimate that Casey swallowed thickly, as if she was about to be ill, and looked away with shame written all over her face. She knew how the story went, how it began and ended, all right.

I didn't like the way this "story" was headed. Derek was lovingly caressing the doorframes, his in particular. So far, it didn't sound like either of them. Casey coming home drunk from a party while Derek was at home, waiting up? It was hard to believe. Derek's eyes narrowed as he tilted his head. His gaze was piercing and convicting, which was exactly why Casey couldn't meet his eyes for more than a moment or two. "And you weren't exactly that drunk, were you, sis?" he asked rhetorically. His voice was lower, throatier, the toxic fumes of his alcoholic breath probably hitting her skin. Casey stiffened and shuddered when he called her "sis," though she'd never reacted before. Her eyes scrunched shut, and I watched her withdraw into herself. "...And you asked me for a favor," Derek continued huskily, licking his lips and leaning in even closer until he was scarcely more than a hair's breadth away from her lips.

Casey's eyes shot open, and her head slammed against the wall once she saw how close he was. She grimaced briefly, nostrils flaring, but didn't cry out. Her eyes were as clear blue as the Caribbean but as frigid as the Bering. "Don't start, Derek," she snapped, a warning tone in her voice. Her hands found her hips. I couldn't help but raise a brow. I'd wanted to hear the rest of Derek's little story. What favor had she asked him for? So she did actually owe him then?

A smirk curled on his lips. "Too late." Whatever she'd asked him for, it couldn't be good. When you make a deal with the devil, he's always going to expect payment. And, wow, I just thought that like the Devil was actually real. Clearly I need to sleep and regain my wits... but I couldn't, not now, not until this conversation was over. Because I knew that if I left now for my warm bed, I'd never know why they were like this or what they were talking about, and at that very moment, I knew there was nothing in the world I wanted to know more than what was going on between the two of them, not the ability to travel forward in time, not the mysteries of black holes, not the existence of the "God particle," not the missing link between humans and apes.

For Derek, a kiss was apparently enough payment. But it didn't seem like enough, not from what he'd implied, at least. Derek wanted more. He always wanted more. Casey glowered at him. Derek paid this no mind, naturally. "And why not?" Derek said shortly. "Afraid you're not going to be able to stop me once I do?" His smile turned particularly roguish. "Still not gonna let me finish, are you, Case?" he added suggestively, raising his brows. My jaw dropped once again. There was no way to interpret that phrase in any vaguely non... I can't do this. I refuse. There are some highly speculative places I refuse to take my mind, and this is one of those places.

Casey blanched and actually looked like she was about to throw up on my brother, so Derek took a wary step back, never once taking his eyes off her. Casey shifted a little, pushing herself against the wall and relaxing a bit. She didn't say a word but swallowed and seemed to be thinking of something to say. Derek stood there, staring at her expectantly. After a small eternity, a bored Derek opened his mouth, deciding to say something. I wondered if he was going to continue with his little "bedtime story," but I never got to find out. Casey made a point of interrupting him, and Derek smiled humorlessly. She'd just proved his point, hadn't she? She still wasn't going to let him finish. "We've been over this, D," she sighed. Her patience with him was wearing thin.

Derek's brow furrowed. "Um, no, we haven't." Casey threw him a sharp look, which Derek returned. "Stop patronizing me, Princess," he retorted with a trace of resentment in his voice. He called her that nickname when he thought she was being uppity or pretentious or acting like she was above him, prissy, and I think he hated that, hated her talking down to him, more than he hated even her coldest words.

Casey scowled, crossing her arms over her chest and squeezing her arms tight around herself. The action pushed her breasts together, and Derek noticed. His eyes dropped immediately, drawn to her now-impossible cleavage. I, on the other hand, found it easy to not look at Casey's breasts or anywhere near them because she's my sister, and that's wrong. Casey didn't notice the changed direction of his stare. Her eyes were staring at the ceiling. Her body was calm, her voice almost bored. "It was just the one time. Four years ago," she said bluntly, dismissively.

I saw something flash across Derek's face, linger for a moment, and then disappear, like a meteor shower. "Oh, cute, you've been counting!" he rejoined sarcastically. I recognized the barb for what it was, an attempt to draw her attention back on to him but away from whatever emotion had just passed over his face. His comment was an attempt to turn the tables on her, to distract from his own reaction, which was the exact opposite of bored and dismissive.

Nonetheless, I amended a moment later, Derek had a point. A minor point, given she didn't list the exact number of hours, minutes, or days (though maybe it had actually happened four years ago on their last Christmas Eve together, around this time?). I began frantically trying to remember when their relationship had shifted. When had the change occurred? When had they started acting differently around each other? I was frustrated to find that, no matter how hard I wracked my brain for an answer, I couldn't think of any specific instances or a specific day.

I had been preoccupied with other matters at the time: silly inconsequential things like what to buy my first real girlfriend, Michelle, for Christmas... and a healthy dose of how to avoid Lizzie yet somehow still get our friendship back on track. Lizzie was also avoiding me for reasons I, of course, didn't understand, so I was utterly bewildered. I only knew that, despite everything, and how wrong it had all gone (and so fast!), that we had something special, a rare friendship, the likes of which only comes along once in a lifetime or so, and it was something I didn't want to lose or give up. So how to hold on? I'd found a way then, but I wasn't so sure about now.

And, damn it, why was I thinking about Lizzie when I was supposed to be working this out? A voice in the back of my head taunted me, saying I knew exactly why and how badly did I exactly want to know what was going on here with my older siblings? Badly enough to keep listening, I answered mentally.

Casey rolled her eyes at him, taking it in stride. Her eyes met his, colder than liquid nitrogen. I had a sudden flash of making ice cream with liquid nitrogen in chemistry class, the sizzling sound, the way it steamed everything it touched, and the tables turned all foggy. Her stare was like that. "-Nothing came of it, and nothing's going to come of it. I barely even remember that night, and, as far as I'm concerned, nothing happened that was worth remembering. So get over it. Do us both a favor and forget about it," she said quickly. Her lips were thin with suppressed rage, and her voice was sharp and cutting like a scalpel. The words cut Derek open in the exact same way, with a coroner's precision.

What had they done, though? I was waiting breathlessly for an explanation. And why was I afraid to know? What illusions about my childhood or this family did I think the answer would disabuse me of?

Derek's whole body tensed. His hands became fists at his sides. Most tellingly of all, an expression akin to pain appeared on his face before he managed to make it disappear. His features remained tight, though, so he was still upset. His eyes, however, were narrowed in suppressed anger. I didn't think Casey could see that, though, in Derek's face. It wasn't like her to be deliberately cruel, after all, but Derek made her forget herself. And maybe she was just saying all of these things, the worst things she could think of, in an attempt to make him go away. She'd given him options, easy ways out of this conversation, but he'd persisted, and so she'd gotten desperate.

She shrugged casually, as if anything about this situation was casual. Derek became even more infuriated somehow, even more tense. "I was drunk and horny and lonely, and you were there. That's all," Casey said quietly, finally. Her voice was utterly devoid of emotion, dead almost. She shuddered, and her arms slipped down around her waist, crossed over each other, wrapped protectively around her body. She paused and then volunteered with some disgust and a nasty look, "And it's not like I actually slept with you."

How I managed not to fall off the stairs and roll all the way down and come to a stop somewhere near their feat, I honestly have no idea. I supposed I might've if I was a fainter, but clearly I'm not. My throat was dry. So Casey hadn't slept with my brother (and that could really mean a lot of things, actually), but she'd done something with him, most likely something less than that and sexu- Casey was talking again, arms crossed a bit higher this time in that familiar defensive position. "It was a mistake. It didn't mean a thing. That's it, end of story," she stated frostily. Her voice was so cold it could've reached absolute zero and stopped all motion.

And it did stop Derek's motion for a bit as he merely stared at her, mouth gaping. It took a while for his anger to loosen and start rattling with him like a rusty rolling pin. "That's not the whole story. But go on, Casey, keep telling yourself that's the way it happened," Derek countered swiftly, still stunned by her even more swift dismissal. She was still wearing that strange expression, that mix of disgust, shame, regret, and, maybe, hatred.

Derek's eyes flashed, and his voice rose a little bit. "Keep pretending like you didn't know what you were doing. Like you didn't like what I did to you," he challenged. His tongue flicked briefly across his lips, moistening them. I grimaced, not wanting to think of whatever Derek had done to her. Thinking of Casey or Derek in any remotely sexual context really grosses me out, and it's none of my business. There was something in his voice akin to Casey's disgust, an emotion similar but not quite the same. And it was directed at Casey?

She made a face at him. He reached for her again, but Casey sidestepped him. She gave him a warning look, a look that made it clear she would dismember him if he tried again. "I wanted Truman then, not you," she corrected harshly. I had a general idea of what had happened between them, and I didn't like it. It sounded entirely too familiar for my liking.

Derek gave her a skeptical look. He opened his mouth to call her on it, but Casey interrupted viciously, "I never wanted you, Derek, just like I don't want you now." Casey seemed to genuinely believe this, but whether or not it was actually true was another question entirely. She was entirely calm and secure in herself despite the venom, and that struck me as a bit off. What was she hiding?

Amazingly, that statement didn't even give Derek pause. It was like, no matter how hard Casey sent something at him, he had to respond in kind. "Yeah? Then why'd you ask me?" he countered bluntly. He started moving back towards her once again, hands clenched into fists at his sides. He spelled it out for her, "You asked, a-s-k-e-d, remember. You begged. Me, not him..." Casey flinched as if he'd struck her. I suppose, with all those accusations, it was rather like he had. She might've been trembling finely, but I wasn't close enough to tell.

Derek continued undaunted, rising to his full height over her. His eyes bored into hers with a pressure and intent that reminded me of a deep-drilling oil derrick (aptly named, eh, given the towering and boring he was currently doing). "It wasn't like you didn't know what you were doing. It wasn't like you couldn't have asked him. And it's not like I've got the only Y-chromosome in the house, Casey, or that I'm the only guy you know in town. You picked me for a reason, and it had nothing to do with freaking Truman French," he continued pointedly, staring her down. It was Casey who broke the all-too intense stare, but Derek didn't revel in that small victory. "You wanted to see what it was like, the forbidden fruit."

Casey's head shot up, and she let out an undignified snort. Can't blame her, really. Derek had just compared himself to fruit (the forbidden stepbrother, really? That was his angle on this?). "Please! You were the only one on hand. It was convenient," she replied quickly, a bit too quickly, actually. It came off defensive and made her sound a bit like she was at the end of all her convenient little write-offs for what had happened with them. Whatever it was, it obviously meant more than Casey was willing to admit... at least to Derek. It was harder to get a read on Casey's emotions. She's not as transparent as she used to be, to me, at least.

Maybe Derek understood her better than I did since they're both so similar. But if he did, it seemed to me like he'd actually be getting somewhere with her, and he was getting absolutely nowhere. Derek gave her a dirty look, not buying it for a second. "Oh, what? Edwin was too young? My dad was too married? Sam too far away? Truman too similar to what you "really wanted?"" he countered nastily. He actually used air quotes when he was asking if Truman was what she really wanted. I was jolted by his mention of my name, much less in connection with Casey. Casey's jaw clenched, the fire in her eyes making it clear just how furious she was with him. Derek patted her on the cheek patronizingly. "Keep telling yourself that, Casey, but I know better. Go on ahead. I dare you."

Casey exhaled a bit raggedly. Derek's hand was still on her cheek. I wondered why Casey was being so nonconfrontational now, why she just stood there like a scared animal and let him do whatever he wanted. Derek's eyes narrowed as he leaned in a little bit closer. Something akin to revulsion, something gritty and angry, passed across his face. "You're just too damn scared to say what you know is true deep down... and that, that makes me sick." Casey looked down, shifting a little. Her expression was blank and emotionless, revealing nothing. He removed his hand from her cheek and pointed a finger at her. "We've done a hell of a lot more than just kiss and you know it, Casey, so stop acting like you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, like nothing ever happened between us." His voice was low, shaking almost, with an undercurrent of suppressed rage. There was an intensity in his eyes I hadn't noticed before. He paused a moment and then leaned in, making sure his breath hit Casey's face. She closed her eyes reflexively, making a face. "'Cause it did." Derek's face was contorted into some sort of feral snarl, words blunt and direct.

She opened her eyes, a mildly irritated look adding to the sour expression she was still directing at him. She held her hands up in a sort of surrendering position. "I'm not denying it." She swallowed then, unable to suppress the look of disgust that shivered over her. Casey continued calmly, "I just don't want to talk about it because I don't like thinking about it." She sounded so polite as she was saying it, which was probably the worst part. Her eyes met his, her words slow and deliberate. "Because thinking about it... makes. me. sick." Her hand rubbed her stomach absently. Derek flinched, something a lot like sorrow tinging his features.

Casey ignored his expression. The pinched look on her face indicated that she didn't like talking about it. Given the paleness of her face and her general level of disgust and shame, it really did make her sick. I felt a brief moment of sympathy for her before remembering that she was brutally hurting my brother, who would, of course, pretend to be unaffected. "Besides, I didn't even kiss you then, and I'm certainly not going to kiss you now. No matter how obnoxiously you demand I do," she said with finality, refusing to back down or give in.

I knew Derek wasn't just going to let that slide, even though it seemed to me that he should cut his losses once in a while. "You're chicken, that's what you are," he sneered, his face scrunching up with repugnance, "At least I can face up to this and acknowledge it for what it is. 'S more than I can say for you. All you do is run." Casey's jaw tightened, but she didn't seem to take offense like Derek would've if she'd said the same thing to him. He gave her a knowing look. "You can't even stay here without feeling uncomfortable, can you? That's why you never come home. Because you're afraid that me and... this-" He gestured between the two of them. "... will be lurking around every corner just waiting for you, aren't you, Casey?" he taunted. Casey stiffened and then slipped past him, ducking under the arms he'd put back up to invade her personal space and trap her there.

She made a beeline for her door, apparently not able or willing to listen to any more of this. Maybe Derek was right about her. Or maybe he was just too ridiculous for her to put up with anymore. Casey opened her door, but Derek stopped her in his tracks by raising his voice. She glowered at him as he advanced. "And you don't want to think about this at all because you might just realize something! And that would wreck this whole denial thing you've got going for you, now wouldn't it? That's the real reason why you're damn near running to the altar with Noel, isn't it?" Derek persisted, an almost electric fury crackling from every cell in his body.

Wait, did Derek just reiterate that claim of his that Casey has feelings for him? And, according to him, she's in denial about it and is rushing to marry Noel so... what? So she doesn't have to realize it? Derek's right about Casey's reasoning not adding up, but his doesn't exactly add up either. I mean, Casey running to be with other guys because she's really in love with him and can't face it? Sure, logistically that's possible and sort of makes sense, but the reason she can't face having feelings for him? It's not because he's not her kind of guy, because he's complicated. Regardless of whether or not Casey has feelings for him (which, frankly, I doubt, at least... I don't think she's-), she wouldn't deny them because of that. She'd deny them because he's her stepbrother, because she doesn't want to ruin our family, because she doesn't know how she feels about him, and because of what everyone would think. And a hundred other reasons I could give you.

If Casey ever considered anything with Derek, ever, she'd be too afraid of ruining everything. She knows and probably thinks that she and Derek are far too different. And Derek's... dangerous. Because if she actu—But, of course, I'm not one to make claims without evidence. Casey scowled at him and said primly, if not a bit stiffly, "I am marrying Noel because I love him, and that's obviously something that someone like you will never understand." Then she swept inside her bedroom, closing the door securely and quietly behind her before Derek could say a word. For a moment I thought it was all over, that Derek hadn't gotten what he wanted, and I was just as dumbfounded as my brother, who just stood there staring at the door with a mixture of disbelief and anger on his face.

But even that wasn't enough to dissuade my brother. I don't know what it was that she said that so offended him, maybe the mention of Noel, or her love for him, or the fact that she was denying him, or maybe something else, but a seething Derek stormed over to her door and started banging on it as loudly as he could. He was lucky that Noel wasn't there that night, and he knew it. "Keep on telling yourself that, Casey. Whatever helps you sleep at night!" he shouted after her. The door was open less than a second later when it seemed like Derek was about to raise his voice even more.

He'd been fairly loud, actually, so I was surprised that Vicky, so attuned to his voice, Marti, Great Aunt Madge, or Sergei hadn't awakened. Casey threw the door open, red with fury and embarrassment. She poked her head out of the door, glancing around the hall to see if anyone had heard. She was fully aware that Derek could shout anything right now to embarrass her. He had a lot of ammunition and a large inclination to use it. Derek grinned rakishly. "If I knew raising my voice was all I had to do to get close to you, I'd have done it sooner."

She'd almost fallen into him in her haste to check the hallway for anyone. Clearly she didn't check the hallway well enough since yours truly had heard everything, but sometimes being invisible has its benefits. Casey jumped back from him, frowning. She huffed but closed the door behind her and came into the hallway, intending to bring the conversation to a swift end, perhaps. She threw her hands in the air, beyond frustrated. "You are impossible!" she cried. She'd had it up to here with him.

Derek leaned against the bright red door to his bedroom like he belonged there. And he was my brother once again, smirking and oh-so infuriatingly smug. I was surprised the return of the cocky stepbrother she knew in high school wasn't enough to send Casey into a fresh tantrum. "I know," he said, leaning in towards her slightly, smirk never falling from his face, "I'm kind of proud of it." It reminded me of a time four years ago, right after they'd just moved in. Derek in her doorway, Casey wearing pink, that same smirk, and "in my house, I always get what I want." He'd also said something like that before, hadn't he? He waggled his eyebrows, moving a bit closer to her face with each syllable, adding, "And ir-re-sis-tible. You forgot that." He rolled the rs in the word as he said it, and Casey grimaced.

Apparently Derek had learned something in Spanish class after all. She shook her head at him. "You're perfectly resistible, believe me," she said, giving him one of her toughest unimpressed looks. Casey seemed to have a lot more willpower than I remembered.

Derek threw her a mildly amused look. "Oh, cute, Casey... Do you always get so nervous when a man comes so close to you, or am I the exception?" he drawled, moving in closer to her. That seemed to be all he did, constantly moving closer, constantly trying for more. Casey swallowed tremulously, seeming to prove Derek's theory. He smiled down on her benevolently. A moment later, he said quietly, a bit fondly, "Right, I'm always the exception, aren't I?"

Casey didn't have to nod, though I doubt she would've. The look on her face said it all. There was something softer about her, something to her now like a scared child. I didn't know why that statement, out of everything he'd said, something seemingly so nonconfrontational, could have such an effect on Casey. Maybe it was temporary, or maybe everything was just hitting her then, at that particular moment. She managed to look Derek in the eyes, and then she foolishly attempted to bargain with him, to appeal to some sensibility my brother doesn't have. "Don't," she whispered pleadingly, tensing as he moved nearer, closer to that kiss he wanted so badly.

At first, unbelievably, it seemed to work. Derek stopped moving closer. Something about her face got to him and stalled him. Maybe his long-forgotten conscience was rearing up its ugly, unwanted head. Or maybe he didn't want to have to force her to kiss him. "It's just a kiss, Casey. Why shouldn't I?" he said in a calmer, strange voice. His eyes fell slowly to her lips.

Casey sighed, thinking of the many different answers to that question. She'd made it very clear why she didn't want to kiss him. "Because it would never be "just a kiss" with you, Derek," she replied quietly, a dark look flitting over her face. She knew that Derek would always want more, that he would never settle for just a kiss. But I suppose Derek interpreted her turn of words differently because he once again started to come towards her, reading something in the dark depths of the ocean of her eyes. She reached a hand out to stop him, rather futilely, and reminded him firmly, "I have a fiancé. I'm getting married in six months. Don't ruin it for me."

That was, of course, the wrong thing to say. It hadn't worked on Derek before, so I wondered why she thought it would in that quiet, almost pleading voice. Derek had been hardwired to do the exact opposite of whatever she said since they'd first met (and, honestly, probably even before that). Derek's eyes flashed and a cruelness sharpened his features all of a sudden. "Do you honestly think I care about that?" he asked sarcastically, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning in to sneer in her face. He glanced pointedly around the hallway before his eyes settled on Casey's closed door. "Your fiancé's not here right now. Not here to save you from the Big Bad Stepbrother," he taunted, inching forward.

Dark intent glittered in his eyes. A stray beam of moonlight skittered across his bared teeth, emphasizing his sudden wolfishness. Derek was sure looking at her like he wanted to eat her alive. Casey swallowed uncomfortably, fingering the doorknob, very aware of the fact that her room was dark and empty. I bet she was wishing she'd told Noel to come back or that she'd gone with him instead of staying here and becoming a victim of her commitment to our family. Derek was perilously close to having her cornered. "Why, Case? Afraid you won't be able to go through with the charade once you finally know what I taste like?"

Casey made a face at him and pushed him away, hard once again. Fury sparked from her eyes; she must be mad about him calling her future marriage a charade. "I'm not going to kiss you because I love Noel, and I'm with him. I have absolutely no desire to jeopardize that by kissing you because of some stupid Christmas tradition. I don't even want to kiss you, so why would I-" Casey explained wearily, tiring of the game and my brother. Her eyes were half-closed already, and it was at least a half-hour past twelve if not later than that. She started to push the door open, signaling she'd thought their little conversation was coming to an end. She couldn't have been more wrong about that.

"You said my name, remember!" Derek shouted—no, screamed—this as if it were a battle cry, rallying and grounding his whole being around this claim. His voice was raw and painful to hear. It was clear from the dark, wild look in his eyes that this inescapable, barely audible, almost imagined wisp of a breathless moan had haunted his dreams for years of sleepless nights, and that this feeling had sunk down deep into his soul so that my brother had become a man ceaselessly tormented by memories and ghosts and might-have-beens. How many times, I wondered, had he asked himself if he'd just imagined it? How many times had he wondered or thought himself crazy? How had this uncertainty chewed at him, decayed him, frayed at his nerves and eaten away at him from the inside in those four years?

After all that, it was no wonder I sometimes thought I barely recognized the man my brother had become. Something was literally eating away at him, hollowing out his cheeks and darkening the circles under his eyes. And that something was this, whatever it was between them, something so destructively powerful that even my brother didn't know what it was or what it meant. Whatever it was, that kind of... passion... burns, and it was just as likely to kill him slowly and painfully, like meat roasting on a spit over an open flame, unless something changed tonight.

Casey stopped dead in her tracks, ceased moving, becoming a captive audience. She'd gone completely white. Derek lurched forward drunkenly. The clumsiness of the motion was the only reason to call it drunken; it may have even been intentional, but my brother moved like the zombie he'd been on that ridiculous dance show. Casey dodged him, nearly jumping back into the hallway. Derek turned slowly, eyes finding hers again. I could practically see the adrenaline pumping through her veins from the way she changed her stance to something more aggressive and had her hands up around her face defensively but in a ready position. She looked vigilant and alert but also sort of... scared, not that she would admit it.

Derek's eyes narrowed. He looked like he was clinging to the last vestiges of his sanity. I prayed Casey didn't do anything to set him off and make him lose it completely. I got a look at him, and he did look like a wreck. His hair was messed up, very nearly standing on edge. The circles under his eyes were dark, the irises and dilated pupils above them still darker. His hands were at his sides, fingers painfully stretched out, knuckles white. He advanced upon Casey slowly but purposefully, like a man with a bomb. "So don't try to say it wasn't me that night because you damn well knew who the hell you were with!" Derek growled.

Another few steps. "And you weren't picturing Truman or some other guy with you! You were thinking about me!" Derek continued exigently. He was being so loud he didn't care who heard them. No one said or did anything, so I assumed they must all be asleep like I was supposed to be. Or, maybe, they just didn't care enough to get involved in this mess. Maybe they didn't want to know. Derek was pointing at himself now, practically in Casey's face. "My face, my hands on you, my eyes, my lips on your skin. No one else's!" Derek insisted, now shouting. His hands clenched when he mentioned them, like he was remembering touching her. Casey flinched.

Apparently the single murmuring of a name was enough to convince Derek of the surety of his theory. I wasn't so sure. Casey'd regained a bit of her color, but she was still pretty pale. Derek's hands were within centimeters of her face. The mad look was still in his eyes, which were running all over her face. Casey coolly avoided his gaze, however, pointedly ignoring the fact that he was staring at her, acting as if she didn't notice. "Gee, Derek, I never knew you were so possessive," she rejoined mockingly, crossing her arms over her chest. Her lips thinned into a mean smile. "Especially of things that were never yours in the first place."

Derek took another step forward. His expression was thunderous. He reached out for Casey, reached out for her shoulders, but she nearly jumped backwards. "I've been going crazy over this, watching you act like nothing happened but not speaking a single word to me for years. I'm done with this kid stuff, Casey," Derek said seriously, flinging his hands in the air. Maybe he did it because he was frustrated, or maybe he was just trying to disguise the fact that his hands were shaking. He reached out for her shoulder, but she jerked it back, out of his reach. She backed up a bit further, now more than midway down the hall, looking a bit panicked but hiding it fairly well.

His expression darkened further, if that was possible. "Face it like a grown-up, Casey!" Derek barked. Casey jumped, startled. "Something happened between us, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, and one day, you're going to have to face up to that and ask yourself what it meant. To you. To me." His hand finally made contact with her shoulder, gripping it fiercely and trying to hold on, as if to hold her there. She didn't (couldn't) move. Derek's eyes met hers briefly. "You don't do things for no reason, Case... And maybe then it'll be too late, and you'll have wasted half your life on things that didn't matter. Do you really want that for yourself?" he continued urgently.

Casey looked down, unable to refute this, apparently. Maybe she sensed the grain of truth in his words. Derek used his other hand to shift her head this way and that way, trying to make her look at him. But Casey flinched every time he touched her and withdrew sharply each time, as if it hurt. Derek's good at inflicting pain of all sorts, but I don't think he's learned how to inflict pain by just brushing his fingers across skin. He lowered his voice even more, so I could barely hear it in that otherwise absolutely silent hallway. The way he'd turned, I didn't get a decent look at his facial expression, but I imagined it mirrored his voice. Something about his voice thickened, revealing the heavy, heady emotion in his tone. "I don't want that for you." His thumb brushed soothingly against bare flesh, over her clavicle, down in the hollow of her collarbone, over her.

She shuddered, probably both at the touch and at the fact that she'd happened to catch his stare by accident. What was Derek asking here? I was sure that neither of them wanted her to live a life of regrets, but both of them had different ideas of what that was. Casey tensed. "And I don't want you, Derek," she replied in a perfectly level but not quite convincing tone of voice. Maybe it was something in the way she trembled, or maybe it was the way she couldn't quite look him in the eye but forced herself to at least look at her face. She might not want him (and I didn't think she did), but there was something there, something she was hiding from him.

What, really, was there to say to that? Derek could've asked why or how she knew, I suppose, but my brother didn't have the kind of patience to put up with her lying answers. Casey backed up quickly, escaping his loosened grasp, fearing that Derek was going to lose it.

She was partly right. Their stalemate was about to finally come to a head. As if they'd choreographed it, Derek and Casey started to circle each other, staring each other down. There was something very elemental and predatory about it, but I couldn't determine who was the prey and who was the predator in this little scenario. I'd never actually seen them do this before, but it felt familiar, so I assumed they must've in the past, given the way they maintained eye contact for the entire length of the circle and stopped at the exact same moment, bizarrely in sync in their argument. If I had to approximate, I'd say Derek started it, as always, but I couldn't be sure.

He leaned in towards Casey, eying her up and down, gesturing between the two of them with his index finger. "You and me... It's going to happen, Case. It's only a matter of time," Derek warned, raising a brow. It wasn't a threat; it was a prophesy and a promise. He leaned in a little closer so that she must've felt his breath on her face. She wasn't about to back down, though, or show that she was actually affected by his proximity. "You can't run from me forever. Someday I'm gonna catch up." His lips turned up at the corners almost fondly but in an expression I connected with Derek issuing a challenge.

It wasn't the reaction I'd expected, to be honest, given the rage that I'd seen flare up in him, the way he tensed, so I found myself writing it off. It would end soon enough. Casey was right about nothing happening. They were both all talk and no action, just the way Casey liked it.

They stood there in silence, and it hit me that, for some inexplicable reason, both of them were panting, still staring each other down. Their chests were heaving like they'd both run for miles when all they'd done was circle each other. Derek's eyes glinted darkly. A second later, out of nowhere, Derek lunged at her, grabbing her shoulders and forcing her backward until the two of them slammed into the wall between their bedrooms so hard that the paintings and the art of our childhood rattled. Derek pressed his body up against hers, clearly enjoying it from the way he threw his head back a little, pinioning her in with his body. A pained look passed over her face. Derek's arms were on either side of her face, trapping her there, looking down on her with satisfaction. The smirk spread slowly across his face, showing just how gratified he was at this moment.

And, so, like always, Derek took what he wanted by force. "You're not going anywhere this time, Case."

I will remember that sight of them standing in the hallway for the rest of my life. There was a predatory gleam in Derek's eyes, a familiar glint of challenge there as he backed her up and pinned her against the hallway wall between their bedrooms. His body plastered against hers, covering it. Casey looked up at him like a small animal caught in a trap, caged in by his body, the bars of his limbs surrounding her. Yet there was a steely determination in her eyes that dared Derek to do his worst and said that she could take it, all of it, and still emerge whole, sane, unscathed, and utterly the same, that anything he could possibly do to her would have no effect at all.

Derek didn't kiss her right off the bat like I thought he would. Strangely, oddly for my impatient brother, he took his time, wanting to doubtlessly draw the moment (and Casey's discomfort) out as long as possible. He leaned in then, so that their noses were nearly touching, and they could feel each other's breath on their faces. He closed his eyes and seemed to inhale her scent. Derek absorbed this feeling of power, got high off of it and their proximity, and it made him stronger. It made him invincible and unconquerable, more fully himself, more fully the Derek I'd always known, than I'd seen in years. Casey's eyes closed for a minute, a brief moment of weakness, with distaste, rather than pleasure, plainly written on her face. Derek didn't care, though. He dragged his nose across her face in a sort of extended Eskimo kiss.

He watched her with the worst kind of stare, a hungry, greedy, unbearable, unrelenting sort of look, a creepy sort of fascination with the expression. Worse still, I recognized the look on his face as a kind of manic desperation, a look I'd seen reflected in the mirror in shades and fragments, bits and pieces. It was the look of a man who has held back far too much for far too long, kept too many things bottled up so he won't feel anything... and, then, suddenly the bottle's cracking and the feelings and rush of openness are threatening to completely overcome him. More than that, however, it was the look of a man at the very end of his rope, clinging to the last vestiges of his sanity, tightly wound, stretched to his breaking point, and so very ready to snap... just for the release, the sweet relief of not having to hold it all in.

"I won't let you get away again," he breathed intently. He almost said the words into her mouth. Then he edged forward slowly, placing his hands firmly on either side of her face, and he pressed his lips against hers. It was nothing more than that at first, a soft peck, lips merely held against lips, much like how I'd kissed Lizzie earlier in front of the 'rents. Any movements Casey had been making to get away suddenly stalled; she froze as completely and docilely as if she'd reached absolute zero. My elder sister, the classical marble statue: white, still, and untouchable. It might have been shock, or it might have been fear that stopped her; or, it very well might have been the knowledge that there was nothing that would infuriate Derek Venturi more than no reaction at all, especially to an act of war, a theft, a violation of this magnitude. Everyone knew this had been a long time coming, and I felt as if a part of me had been waiting for something exactly like this to happen, and now that it had, I was holding my breath, feeling as if the world had somehow ended, and I was watching its destruction, unable to move or do anything about it.

It was like the End of History.

It was an anticlimactic beginning, for sure, but Derek soon made up for it. He held his lips against hers for just one long moment, relishing it, enjoying this moment of absolute victory over her. Casey was never absolutely submissive, after all. His body was flush with triumph. Then he tipped his head a little to the side and began to move. He stroked her cheek, eyes locked with hers, illustrating the power he held over her now, and then he attacked her lips with a newfound fervor. He crushed his lips against hers, pressing forward and aligning their hips like magnets. His body pushed her harder into the wall, arching towards her, wanting to get closer and closer to her.

He'd found a way in, so he twisted a little, like trying to fit a lock into a key, finding just the right spot to put pressure on to make it give and open. And that's when I heard him moan. It rippled through the air and was the loudest sound in that house that minute. I felt as if it must've echoed throughout the rest of the house, even down to the basement. He almost stilled for a moment, doubtlessly memorizing the taste of our sister, the texture of her mouth, the softness of her. For her part, Casey remained as still as a statue, eyes screwed shut now, a mild expression of horror conveyed by the unwelcome stiffness of her body. All of her was tensed up and on edge, rigidly controlled and firmly in place, like she was living a nightmare and just wanted it all to be over with already. Then Derek was devouring her wetly, sucking and biting and nipping at her like he couldn't get enough. And I don't suppose he could. His knees buckled a little, throwing him more heavily against her. There was an odd, worshipful sort of tenderness in his ferocity that's hard to capture in words.

Casey had inevitably started to respond, as we'd both known that she would. She never could resist an opportunity to challenge Derek and meet him blow for blow. Plus, my brother was doubtlessly an expert kisser, and he was using all of his best moves on Casey, so it was only natural for her to be moved. There was a queer sort of look on Casey's face, a kind of hesitance, like she was afraid to enjoy it but she couldn't help but give into it a little. It seemed like, tentatively, she was starting to reciprocate, moving her lips in time to his. She was relaxing ever so slightly, letting her guard down bit by bit, but she was still holding back, unable to fully let go and just live in the moment.

There was a kind of poetry, a symmetry, a natural beauty in the way they stood there together, motions perfectly choreographed, more together and understanding of each other than they had been in years. How it must've been to suddenly be so crisply, so painfully aware of one another. The sight of them there, just kissing, was somehow easily the most erotic thing I'd ever seen. It seemed right to me, then, all of it, that so many problems could've been solved (or not existed in the first place) if they'd just done this in the first place.

It was, surprisingly, the look on my brother's normally inexpressive face that told me all I needed to know. It was only then that my brother allowed his eyes to close, and this indescribable look I'd never seen before passed over his features.

It was, first and foremost, a look of rapture, of passion, faintly tinged with awe and disbelief. All the lines in his face, the tenseness in his body, seemed to merely disappear, and he almost looked exactly like the brother I knew (almost because my brother had certainly never had that particular expression on his face in all the time I'd known him). It was a look of relief, I realized. The expression I was marveling at was a look of pure, bone-deep, soul-deep satisfaction, a genuine appearance of happiness. My brother was even smiling a little as he titled back his head, drawing her towards him. Casey let him, didn't really resist, just followed, for her part. It was hard to see her face and her expression from my vantage point, and, besides, her face was studiously, cautiously blank.

I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen him really smile like he meant it. His body relaxed completely, grounding hers, and his movements became more fluid and assured and less forceful. There was completion written there, true pleasure in every motion. A hand slipped up the wall, and the other fell possessively, easily, to her neck, thumb right over her pulse. I realized then that Derek's cynical, bitter, restless spirit was at peace. I saw the fullness in his formerly haggard, hollow features, the color that had flooded into his previous pale, sickly appearance, the life that had suddenly infused him, the light that seemed to radiate outward from his being. Derek was happy, and the change that came over him was both a frightening and glorious sight to behold.

He melted into her, like he wanted and intended and desired nothing more than to become a part of her, to bind himself to her and join them more fully, so smoothly, so easily, so naturally. I had never seen anything like that.

But, of course, all good things must come to and end. Derek's hand fell further, coming to rest on her hip and beginning to slide up underneath her shirt, letting him explore and appreciate the softness and warmth of her skin. Either that triggered something in Casey and caused her to realize what she was doing and whom she was very nearly clinging to, or she'd just found the perfect moment of distraction on my brother's part to realize her escape plan... either way, her hands went up to his collar, seeming at first to be pulling him closer, but, in an instant, she threw all the force she could into pushing him away. It didn't entirely work, but it did push him backwards, sending him rocking back on his heels. Derek opened his eyes, and the blindness fell away. The nakedness and vulnerability that had been there vanished from his features as if they had never been there, and he was hard, an immovable object once again.

He was thirsty to avenge himself. His narrowed, determined eyes flashed nearly black with this potent desire. Then he rushed at her, breathless and furious, covering her body with his, slamming her hard into the wall. The thud of her body echoed loudly in the hall, and Casey let out a short, breathless gasp of pain. With one hand, he held her wrists tightly above her head, pressing them against the wall. With the other, he grasped at any part of her he could reach, running his hands over her, touching what he liked. He mashed his lips into hers brutally with neither art or delicacy, needing possession, seeking to burn her and brand her and leave bruises to show he'd been there. He wanted, more than anything else, I think, to leave a black mark on her soul, to ruin her for others, and to will his indelible tattoo on her forever so she could never, ever forget him. He tugged on her hair, using it to pull her towards him, making her cry out faintly. He wasn't done yet.

In all honesty, by this point, as any good brother, I was beginning to worry for both my sister's safety and my brother's sanity, or whatever remained of it at that particular moment in time, but I needn't have worried. Just as I was beginning to formulate a plan of walking "obliviously" down, right into the middle of this awkward scene, interrupting and acting as if I hadn't been watching the whole thing from my perch at the top of the stairs, Casey kneed Derek in the guts (ironic, I know), reeled back, and, freeing one of her hands as his grip slipped, slapped Derek hard across the face. Then, before he had time to properly react and likely gain the upper hand, Casey shoved him, sending him sprawling to the floor on his ass, landing in an indelicate heap. Then she kicked him in the side and hissed over him, "You are the last man on earth I would ever want. The last man. And, get this through your thick skull, I want absolutely nothing to do with you... If we were the last two people on earth, I would kill myself and let the species die out." Then she made a big show of wiping her mouth. "Oh, and go to hell, Derek."

"But you're never gonna get the taste of me out of your mouth, are you, Case?" Derek sneered after her, still on the floor, as she stormed off. He hadn't won, but it amazed me, his ability to get in the last word and still somehow come out as if he'd won. He'd gotten a fraction of what he wanted, though, so I supposed maybe he had actually won. He'd said something that would haunt Casey for a long time. He smirked, watching her bolt away, as if he wasn't in pain at all, the vestiges of grim satisfaction that he had accomplished this one small thing and was one step closer to wearing her down.

She just about ran to the bathroom afterwards, slamming the door behind her and locking it. I heard the faint sound of her retching through the door and pictured her bent over the toilet, vomiting out of disgust, shuddering. Derek, meanwhile, got up, grunting a little. Then Derek smiled faintly, beatifically, hesitantly brushing his fingers across his lips. His touch was fond, tender, even, as if he still couldn't believe that just actually happened. I couldn't blame him because I was thinking the same thing, but I suppose, unlike him, I hadn't been dreaming of that moment and imagining it in my head for however many years it had tormented my brother's nights. He kept smiling to himself, looking for all the world like a fool. "Hm... So, she tastes like raspberries..." he murmured rapturously, as if in awe, stroking his lips. He finally knew.

Then the smile fell from his face, and he turned on his heel, serious once again. I watched as he went back to his room, a grim, even more determined look on his face. It was the look of a man with a plan, or, more generally, my brother up to no good, as per usual. He went in, but the door had scarcely shut behind him before he was coming out again, a sleepy Sergei (and sleeping bag) in tow. Sergei, the poor guy, looked confused, but Derek muttered some things and gestured jerkily to the stairway where I was hiding, watching it all. Sergei frowned at Derek and headed reluctantly towards the staircase.

I watched then as Derek knocked on the door to Lizzie's room, probably the only time he had ever done so and would ever do so while it was her room. Lizzie was, of course, upstairs, which meant he was there for Vicky. When the door didn't immediately open, Derek barged in, per usual, and I had a sudden, sickening realization of what Derek was about to do and didn't like it. When I glanced up, Sergei was blocking my view and staring down at me both curiously and mildly accusingly. I scooted towards the wall and motioned for him to sit next to me on the landing, putting my finger to my lips as a signal to be quiet. Sergei joined me but didn't look to happy about it.

At the moment, with both doors (mostly) closed, I had a vivid image of Casey in my head, at the sink, gazing at her reflection, trying to make sense of what had just happened, trying to reconcile herself with her own reaction and then slowly shaking her head. I'd caught a flash of her before she'd left: her hair was a mess, her clothes were rumpled and pulled at, face and body flushed, and, most tellingly of all, her lips were swollen. All signs, of course, that a person has just been thoroughly kissed and most likely enjoyed it. I pictured her staring at herself like she was a stranger, like she couldn't believe that had just happened to her, paling as realization sunk in and the horror swept over her face. It was a good thing Noel wasn't here to notice the changes in his beloved fiancée.

I saw her rinsing her mouth, spitting again and again, brushing her teeth back and forth, up and down, round and round, until her gums bled, gargling mouthwash, desperate that Derek not be proven right, desperate to get the taste of him out of her mouth. I saw her splashing her face with cold water, then washing her face, scrubbing at some of the skin with heavy soap and shaking fingers. I saw Casey looking at her reflection, lost, as if she didn't know who she was anymore, looking at it like it was a way of getting back to the woman she'd been before Derek had committed his despicable (eye-opening) deed. I imagined her in there, trying to erase all the visible traces of what had happened from her body, drying her face frantically, raking her fingers through her hair again and again, straightening it, fixing her clothes, pulling them into their proper positions, glancing at herself again and again, unable to leave, because she was just sure she'd missed something.

And she had, of course, because Derek had left a mark on her that she couldn't see and would never completely be able to get rid of. He'd succeeded in marking her for life, tainting her with his blood.

She surprised me by leaving the bathroom before Derek had finished talking to Vicky. She opened the door slowly, so that it was a low creak, and she peered out, glancing around the hallway like a frightened rabbit, to make sure that the coast was clear and, most importantly, Derek-free. She looked almost exactly like I'd pictured: face too white, eyes wide, lips nearly raw and still swollen, hair straighter than it had been before, clothes perfectly in place, not at all wrinkled. Then she darted across the hallway to her room, feet barely touching the ground, silent and fleeting as a ghost, shutting and locking the door behind her. I felt Sergei's questioning gaze but didn't want to risk my position by answering him.

I motioned instead to Lizzie's room, where the door was slowly opening, not even a minute after Casey had locked the door. Derek emerged first, with a faintly giggling Vicky murmuring and following behind him obediently. Derek was pulling her along by the hand, face impassive as if set in stone. I noticed, for the first time, that his lip was split. I hadn't realized it, but, somewhere in the struggle, Casey had bitten his lip and drawn blood. So Casey had really had the taste of him in her mouth, then, bitter and salty like iron. He marched into his room like a soldier, determined to accomplish his mission. Just before he shut the door behind Vicky, I saw him lurch forward and draw her into him, already tugging at her clothes. Then he pulled the bright red door shut and, probably, adjusted the vent (if he hadn't done so already), and, well... I heard some of the noises from upstairs, so it was pretty easy to guess what was going on.

I got up, motioning for Sergei to follow me after Derek had shut the door. He was raising an eyebrow, doubtlessly wondering about Derek's actions. I would explain it to him best as I could, best as I understood it, up in my room. I opened the door quietly, trying not to wake Lizzie. I knew instinctively that, as much as I wanted to put her off Derek, I couldn't tell her about this. She wouldn't understand, and she wouldn't believe it unless she'd seen it with her own two eyes. I glanced to the bed. Lizzie was lying on her side, her back facing us, covers down around her waist. She seemed to be dead to the world.

I motioned for Sergei to sit down on the couch and headed to my bookcase, fingers finding the movie I needed almost immediately. I'd put it in my DVD player and turned on the television before I even knew what I was doing. Sergei gave me a quizzical look which I ignored. I was glad he was taking pains to be quiet, though, to avoid waking the sleeping sister in my bed. "So," I began quietly, "how much has Derek told you about Casey?" This question was more for me than for him since it was something I'd been dying to know since I first met him, but it was as good a place to start as any.

Sergei shrugged, still looking confused. "Not much, I guess." He frowned, thinking for a moment as if trying to recall every time Derek had mentioned her. "She is in a few pictures Derek has." I nodded, half-expecting this but also surprised to hear that Derek actually had family pictures lying around his apartment. "And I've seen her at some of our matches..." he continued cautiously. I wondered if Derek had actually pointed her out or if Sergei had just remembered her face from when she was sitting with us. The look on his face became a bit stranger. "And he... he has videos of her on his computer."

I raised a brow at that. It sounds so salacious, doesn't it? I shouldn't have been surprised since I knew Derek loved to practice his filming techniques on Casey and had created a stash of embarrassing videos while in high school. He'd also helped her with that film project she did for their sociology class, so it was more than probable that he had some non-embarrassing footage of her on his computer. I remembered with a start how Nora and Dad had asked Derek to document the early days of Sebastian's life, and I realized with a start that he probably had a great deal of footage of Casey with Sebastian in more vulnerable and peaceful moments. Sergei's eyes were darting around as if he was trying to hide something, so I fixed him with a look.

"He watches them sometimes, but he always looks..." Sergei confessed, fumbling with words. He frowned a little bit. "-Sad after." My eyebrows shot up even further, and Sergei surprised me by volunteering, "I think he misses her." I nodded slowly, agreeing but still surprised. Sergei still didn't say what Derek had told him about her, which made me wonder if Derek had said anything or even explained that-

Sergei continued, a serious, strained look on his face. "He used to mention her more. When I first met Derek, he was always talking about her." That must've been during his first semester at UWO, when both Derek and Casey still lived here. Back when they still had a normal relationship, or, well, as normal as things ever got between them, at least. "He smiled then," Sergei added a moment later, in that same sad tone. I wondered if he meant that Derek smiled while talking about Casey or just smiled, period. He still smiled, but he did seem to smile less than I remembered.

I nodded, motioning for him to go on. The more he tells me, the better I'm able to gage how much to tell him and where I should start. Sergei shrugged. "He still tells stories sometimes." That surprised me, given how he acted whenever any of his family members even mentioned her name. "Usually because of Ralph," Sergei explained. Ah. I nodded, understanding. Ralph's not afraid to mention Casey and probably doesn't remember there's kind of a moratorium on talking about her in Derek's presence. So I guess it's easier for Derek to humor him than get mad about it since he knows Ralph can't help it. "And he gets this look on his face after. Bittersweet. Dark."

I tried to ignore the fact that he'd just described Derek's expression with terms usually used to describe chocolate. I could imagine the expression he'd related, the hope fading from his features, the tightness of his face, the pained expression after he realized he could never go back to that. I nodded slowly, accepting that that was as specific as it was going to get. "I... I don't know what exactly Derek ever said to you about her... but she's Lizzie's older sister. Derek's other stepsister." Honestly, I wasn't sure Derek had ever told Sergei what, exactly, Casey was to him... and I couldn't be sure if he'd even mentioned that she was his stepsister, even if that was, sadly, the defining aspect of their relationship (it seemed like something he would leave out for whatever reason). I glanced over to Sergei to gage his reaction to what I'd said, but his face was as blank as ever. No help there. "Our parents got married a little over eight years ago, when Derek and Casey were in their second year of high school."

I made some sort of helpless, awkward gesture. "As you can see, Derek and Casey don't really get along. They, um, used to fight all the time about everything, always trying to one-up each other... And then, towards the end of their last year in high school, they sort of became friends. As bizarre as that was." I glanced over at him again and immediately looked away, uncomfortable at just how piercing his stare was. "They were supposed to go to the same university, even, you know... Queens. It's, uh, it's in Kingston." I hadn't realized how hard it would actually be for me to explain Casey and Derek to an outsider, just how hard it was to talk about these things.

Sergei raised an eyebrow, clearly surprised at this. I nodded a bit grimly, forcing myself to press on. "Yeah, Derek doesn't talk about it much... You see, Sebastian was born, and that kind of changed everything. Casey deferred and took a semester off, and Derek got off UWO's waitlist and decided to stay here to, you know, help out." Sergei gave me an expectant look. "Doesn't sound like him, I know." I swallowed; this next part was the hardest. "I don't really know what happened between them that Christmas, but something... happened... and afterwards, they were completely different people." That was a blatant lie, actually, but I couldn't explain to Sergei what I'd just found out, what I was still working through. Even if I could've found the words, I doubt I could've voiced them.

"Casey decided to go to University of Toronto and never looked back... Derek hasn't really been the same since... And she and Derek have been more or less avoiding each other for the better part of four years as a result of it. They don't really talk about each other, get all weird when you mention the other one. It's made our family all weird. No one knows why or what to do, just that they're different... And, well, I'm sure you've noticed the tension between them." Sergei nodded. "It wasn't always that... thick, like you could cut it with a knife." Or that sexual, I added mentally. "I think it's gotten worse since Casey got engaged." If it getting worse was at all possible. Maybe Derek just got more desperate?

Sergei nodded more emphatically and looked like he was about to say something. Perhaps he, like me, remembered Derek's drunkenness after hearing about the engagement. I sighed, debating for a moment how best to explain what had occurred in the hallway. I felt like I was leaving out a lot of details and context with the way I put it, but there wasn't really any other way to say it. "Derek and Casey kissed," I said simply, aware of just how surreal it felt to say that. Sergei gave me a surprised look, no doubt remembering Casey's fiancé (though, if he really knew Derek, that couldn't be too much of a surprise, now could it?). I sighed, sinking back into the couch. "And it's been a long time coming."

I licked my lips, focusing on the movie, the predictable little screen and the familiar laughably poor acting. It was nice to know that one thing in the world was steady and constant, even if it was a film as bad as this one. Honestly, though, Plan 9's not the worst movie that was ever made. It's mediocre in a laughable way at least, you know? But it doesn't quite shut my brain down half as much as it should. "Cousin Vicky looks like Casey... And she, well... Derek, uh, he always wants more. And Casey wasn't willing or able to give him that. So he found a substitute to, um, take out his frustrations on," I explained awkwardly, feeling very uncomfortable trying to find the most politically correct yet still accurate way to say that. It still sounded unbelievably awkward, but, well, the situation was actually that uncomfortable.

Sergei nodded. His silence and lack of questions was beginning to unnerve me a bit. I kind of wondered how he and my brother had gotten so close. Were they friends because Sergei knew when not to ask questions? I personally was trying not to completely freak out because I'd probably start hyperventilating or something after putting it all together. It was a lot to absorb, a lot of things still swirling around in my head that I didn't know what to do with. "So that's Derek's secret," he mused, stroking his chin thoughtfully. He sounded like one of those Russian writers, waxing philosophical about the human condition and the meaning of life. "That's his great tragedy."

I frowned, not exactly considering it a tragedy. Life has never been cruel to my brother. My brother has been cruel to life. I opened my mouth to say these very things and probably spill some of my built-up resentment to his best friend, but Sergei asked me another question before I could utter a single word. "And Casey... What is she like?" he asked abruptly. I closed my mouth, pondering how best to answer this question. Sergei hadn't been properly introduced to her, for starters, so of course he wouldn't know. He's operating off of the very few things Derek's told him about her.

"Stubborn." I shrugged. I'm not the best at studying character, and I'm not the Venturi who knows Casey best. What reason do I have to know her, after all? "Neurotic. Prim and proper. Put-together. Responsible. Not the most fun. A perfectionist. And a know-it-all. But competitive. Type-A. Crazy. Drama Queen. A goodie-two-shoes... A bit self-righteous..." Those were all the first words that came to mind when I thought of her, but they were missing something. I tried to find a way to describe it. "She's different around Derek though, you know? He makes her lose it, gets her completely unraveled. Brings out a different side of her, something more... human." I winced at that characterization myself, but Casey could be cold when she wanted to be.

I frowned, trying to examine Derek's counter-reaction. Their relationship, their confrontations and conversations, none of that was ever one-sided. I often thought, actually, that they were the perfect evidence of Newton's laws of motion. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That describes them to a tee; one of them's always pushing back against the other one. It's an endless back-and-forth, and reciprocity is an important part of it, no matter how much Casey wants to ignore that aspect. "And I... I think Casey kind of gets under Derek's skin in a way no one else does. Like an itch he can't scratch." The sexual aspect of that turn of phrase hit me and seemed just so fitting at that moment.

"And how does Casey feel about your brother?" Sergei demanded. His face wore a protective yet forbidding expression. I personally felt he should've been asking Casey that question, but I wasn't sure she'd answer (much less honestly). Honestly, I have absolutely no clue, and that's something I've been going over over and over again in my head, wracking my brain for an explanation that I can't find. The truth is that I, like Derek, don't know at all how Casey feels about him. I can't read her well enough because I don't know her well enough anymore. I know enough to say she's being dishonest and that she's hiding something, but other than that, I really can't say. Casey's the kind of person who believes what she tells herself.

I just shrugged. As much as I wanted to answer that question, I couldn't. I can't vouch for Casey's feelings. I kept staring at the movie, attempting to divine ultimate truth from it. It was familiar, comforting even. I knew all the words, knew exactly what was going to happen, knew what to expect. And that meant I was able to just shut down and think about other matters. It brought clarity, clarity that I desperately needed since everything was so damn jumbled in my head.

Sergei cleared his throat awkwardly, interrupting my inner monologue. I turned slowly to look at him. I felt like I was in a fog. I wanted... well, I didn't know, but I wanted Lizzie. I wanted to tell her about this, but I knew I couldn't. She wouldn't understand, and even if she did, I felt like she'd just use it somehow, warp it to suit her goals in her quest to land my brother. Honestly, though, I didn't think she'd want to know. Maybe it would change things for her a little too much. Still, she was the first one I thought of going to.

He glanced pointedly over at Lizzie, who was still sleeping peacefully in my bed. An uncomfortable look passed over his face, and he swallowed a bit harder than he might have. I examined Lizzie in the dim light, the way the moonlight and light from the lamp next to me framed her in shadows, the way the light reflected off of her paler skin, how dark and messy her hair was. I couldn't see her face in the darkness, but I could imagine perfectly the look on her face as she slept, eyelids half-open, the dark fringe of her fluttering eyelashes, lips just barely parted, relaxed as she wasn't in daily life. He made a vague, noncommittal gesture in her direction. "You and Lizzie, are you...?" I heard the speculative undertone in his voice and recognized the actual question, the one he was avoiding.

You could say his question rubbed at a bit of a sore spot. I also interrupted him before he could finish, cutting him off as quickly as a sharp knife. "Look, I don't know what my brother told you, but it's crap. And he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about," I retorted shortly, clenching my jaw. The words came out a bit blunter and sharper than I might've said them, with an undercurrent of bitterness and irritation.

Sergei was a bit more hesitant. He eyed me uncomfortably, a bit reluctant to continue talking, like he thought I would explode like an atom bomb. This surprised me, given his close friendship with my far more volatile brother. You'd think he'd be used to that sort of thing by now. "He seems to think you love her," Sergei suggested cautiously, watching my reaction very, very carefully. I wondered irritably if he was doing some sort of lame reconnaissance for my brother, who should be able to do this himself.

I tried not to be overtly affected by this accusation, lest I give something key away. Nonetheless, I think my jaw clenched further despite my best efforts. "Not in the way that he thinks," I said tersely, glaring at the screen. I hated that Derek was trying to manipulate my relationship with Liz to measure to some equivalent in his own life. I shook my head, briefly glancing at Sergei. "He's gotten this stupid idea into his head to try and fix us up. Thinks I'm into her or whatever," I continued dismissively, practically rolling my eyes. I couldn't have been more emphatic about my next statement. "But I'm not interested, and she's in love with someone else. Besides... she's my sister, you know? You don't mess with that."

Sergei nodded slowly like he understood, but I could sense that he didn't fully get it. How could he? Sergei was an only child. The more I thought about what my brother wanted to happen between Lizzie and me, the angrier I became. I continued exasperatedly, voice becoming progressively louder and more strained, "And no matter how many times I try to tell him that, he never seems to listen to a single word I say." Derek may be my brother, but nothing made me more furious than him pretending he knew more than I did, especially about my own life when, actually, Derek was incredibly short-sighted and blinded by his own prejudices and experiences. The patronizing, pedantic tone of his, the way he practically ordered me around to do this or that absolutely infuriated me.

By that point, something strange and powerful had come over me, like all the resentment and irritation and frustration I'd been feeling towards my brother just exploded in some sort of elaborate fireball of death. "Just because he's in love with his stepsister and can't do anything about it doesn't mean that everyone else is!" I roared. It seemed to me that my voice was booming, loud enough to echo off of all the walls, petulant and enraged at the same time. How senseless my brother was!

And there it was, the cruel truth. The truth I'd always known but had been too scared to acknowledge.

I felt lighter and heavier at the same time, relieved of the secret burden I'd never realized I was carrying (for my brother), but terrified, staggering under the weight of what I'd just said. It took me a while to realize what I'd said, but when it hit me, I froze, unable to believe I'd just said that like some sort of battle cry. It was the first time I'd ever said it out loud, and it stunned me into silence. Because wasn't that what I'd been thinking all along anyways but never said? And why had I never said it? Because I was scared of how things would change if someone in this family finally acknowledged that unspoken truth? If there was finally an answer to why things were so strange and so broken in this family? Or was it some other thing, some other reason that, as of yet, eluded me?

It bothered me a lot that Derek thought I was some perfect, pathetic mirror of him, that we were perfectly alike even in terms of our feelings for our stepsisters. Because we aren't. We may be brothers, and we may share approximately fifty percent of the same DNA, but we're different people with different personalities and attitudes and divergent lifestyles. Our relationships with our stepsisters also couldn't be more different; Casey and Derek were the rivals/archenemies-turned-friends-turned-mortal-enemies-yet-again, but Lizzie and I have always been best friends and partners in crime. Those dynamics are completely different. Derek and Casey were forever going to be more complicated, more dramatic. And, honestly, I don't think they could handle something like what Lizzie and I have, much less sustain it as long as we have.

They never could've recovered and rebounded from something like that summer. The way they fought, the subject matter of their fight (now, that, that was something still too explosive to consider!) only served to further convince me of that fact.

Sergei didn't realize the significance of this (how could he?), probably because he'd either (already) known (though I doubted it) or had come independently to this conclusion after hearing what I'd just witnessed. Or, perhaps, he'd had some sort of intuition I hadn't from his years with Derek. Either way, he said nothing about what I'd just shouted. I glanced over at Lizzie, worrying that my shouting had awakened her, only to find her still fortuitously asleep. My epiphany would no doubt have crushed her, and, as much as she needed and probably deserved to know who actually held my brother's heart, I didn't want to do that to her. "So you and Lizzie aren't dating, then?" Sergei asked once more, seeming inordinately interested in the fact.

I remembered wearily the things I'd said in front of Oksana and concluded he must be asking me because of that. I didn't want him to get the wrong idea about our family, after all, what with my brother in love with my other sister. "NO!" I snapped irritably. I was mostly annoyed because I thought I had been perfectly clear about that earlier. And, well, why does everyone ask me that, even people I barely know? I huffed out a breath. "She's my sister and my best friend. That's all," I maintained adamantly.

Derek would've scoffed, but Sergei just nodded. A strange look flitted over his face. I didn't know him well enough to read him or correctly interpret the look in his eyes, which seemed almost excited. His eyes were such a cold, icy blue that looking at them made me look away, feeling chilled and somehow like I was staring into some sort of an abyss. "Good..." Sergei murmured. Sergei's a smart guy, don't get me wrong, but he can be a bit awkward socially.

I was watching the movie, enjoying the simplicity of the poorly-executed plot. I love b-movies or f-movies or whatever the grade of this film is. I was enjoying the film so much that I didn't notice Sergei moving closer to me or register that his leg was brushing against mine and all that until I felt his hands on my face, turning me towards him. His eyes were so eerily blue, like one of the brighter copper compounds. And then his face was way too close to mine and coming closer still, and WTF, WAS HE TRYING TO KISS ME? I jerked my head back, virtually jumping away from him and very nearly falling off the couch. "Dude, what the hell are you doing?"

How hadn't I noticed how close we were sitting? Or that he was moving closer? Or that he was gay? I mean, I'd had a feeling that something about him was a little... off... and that this whole situation was a bit weird, but seriously... I had obviously never expected my brother's best friend to pull something like that! But, I mean, the guy's a hockey player, Russian, and very macho and not metrosexual-seeming at all, so how was I supposed to know? Does Derek even know about this?

I hadn't been looking at Sergei, as I was too busy going over it in my head and cursing my failure to recognize this tendency in him and trying not to hyperventilate, so I didn't see his face fall. My face was hot and red as the surface of the sun, and I couldn't even look at Sergei. I think it would've been hard to tell which one of us was more embarrassed and mortified, him or me. Ugh, and I thought Lizzie and the messed-up situation with my siblings were my biggest problems. "I thought it was obvious... I was making a move," he explained slowly. I chanced a glance at him. He looked a bit put-out. How am I even supposed to deal with something like this?

It's not like there's an instruction manual for this sort of thing, the whole, "yeah, sorry 'bout that, but I'm actually straight" talk. I mean, I know I'm not all macho like Derek, but I like to think it's pretty obvious to anyone who knows me that I'm not into other guys... not that there's anything wrong with that, but I'm just... not. I've never been attracted to another guy. And, honestly, even if I were, the whole thing with Lizzie is a way bigger issue for me. I mean, as much as I'd like to say things with Lizzie would be more clear-cut and black and white and less confusing if I were gay or bisexual, I'm not so sure they would be. I think it'd still be this much of a mess, maybe even more.

I gave him a look, fighting the urge to roll my eyes, backing up against the arm of the couch and turning to look at him. Yeah, I kinda got that. Ugh, I so hate having to repeat myself. "No, I mean, seriously, what the hell did you think you were doing? I'm not gay." It sadly came out a lot more bluntly than I meant to say it, but I've never been very good with people. And, honestly, I don't think there was a way I could've said that that wouldn't have been really ridiculously awkward. It's better I was straightforward about it, so he's not confused or anything.

He flinched when I said it, hanging his head a little. He's a nice enough guy, but I'm attracted to girls. I felt bad, but what else could I do? I'm very much not gay, as evidenced by my little make-out session with Lizzie earlier. Seriously, why is it that my sister gets me harder than anyone else... without even trying? That's so damn twisted... and what do you even do about something like that? But I couldn't very well tell Sergei I had a longstanding hard-on for my sister either, especially with how much it creeps me out. Sergei frowned, rapidly trying to make a case for either my being gay or him hitting on me. "But you said you weren't dating Lizzie, that Derek didn't know anything... And you haven't dated anyone in a year, and your parents let you sleep with your sister... And you have girl friends, yes... And-"

I grimaced. He was right on all counts. I'd said those things. I wondered, though, how he knew I hadn't dated anyone in a year. Did Derek tell him that when he was talking about Lizzie and me with Sergei? I also didn't recall ever mentioning that I had girl friends besides Lizzie because, well, honestly, I don't. I have Lizzie, and then we have some mutual friends, but they're really more her friends than mine, you know? There's Sylvia (sort of), Chuck, Danielle (kind of), and some of my exes... "Despite what you've heard, I'm actually not gay." Again, that came out blunter than I intended, so, a beat later, I said apologetically, "Not that there's anything, um, wrong with that. 'Cause there isn't. I'm just... not."

This statement was somehow negated by my fumbling with words. Sergei looked down; he was distinctly uncomfortable. "I am sorry, Edwin..." he began in a small voice.

I shut my eyes, feeling worse. I let out a long breath before interrupting him. How do I put this carefully without screwing things up any further? I ran a hand through my hair. "Look, I don't really care that you're gay..." I announced brusquely. I don't care, really, but obviously I care that he just tried to put the moves on me! I attempted to force myself to relax and lean back into the couch. "It's just... Does Derek know about this?" I looked over at him just in time to see Sergei solemnly shaking his head no.

Of course Derek doesn't know. Does anyone, then? If he can't tell my brother, how'd he get the guts to try and hit on me? Did he think I'd be a mathematical certainty or something? I was kind of offended; I'm not that easy, thanks. The Male Code applies to brothers too, right? I mean, just because I'm not a girl... I'd still be weirded out if one of my friends dated Derek or Casey, you know? Not to mention Marti or Lizzie. Just like Casey was weirded out by Derek dating Emily or by that salesgirl hitting on me. "What I have a problem with is that you just made a move on your best friend's brother. Regardless of how Derek would feel about your um... Regardless of that, Derek would not approve of you going after his little brother. You just don't do that. It's creepy. I mean, really, what did you think was going to happen?" I interjected pointedly, trying to keep the indignation out of my voice.

I tried to imagine how Sergei would've sprung that on my brother if I'd reciprocated his sentiments but couldn't even picture it. Derek would be furious and incomprehensible. Something in Sergei's eyes softened. He began to apologize once again. "I am so-"

But I didn't let him finish because Derek reminded me of other questions I had. I stared at him, incredulous. "-Is that why you made a move on me? Because I'm Derek's brother? Is this all about him? You just want me because Derek's super-hetero, and you can't have him, and I seem like I might be gay just because I'm not a manwhore and my best friend's a girl?" I demanded, trying and failing to keep myself from more or less freaking out. My voice went up a few octaves and was cracking like I was back in middle school, totally cringe-worthy.

Sergei scowled, straightening on the couch. I hadn't noticed it until then, but I'd been holding myself very stiffly and as far away from him as possible. Color suffused his pale cheeks. "No! I may be g-gay, but I do not want every guy I know. And Derek is not my type. He's my friend, my brother," he injected indignantly, clearly offended. His eyes were hard. I felt a bit chagrined, but I knew I hadn't asked that question because he was gay. I'd asked that question because he came on to me. He gestured sloppily to me. "I came onto you because you're smart and funny and attractive, and I can have an actual conversation with you. We have things in common. You understand things," Sergei insisted.

I blinked, mildly surprised at this. Sergei's cheeks were still flushed, though I wasn't sure if it was from embarrassment or anger. I looked away from him, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. As nice as it is to be admired, the guy still barely knew me. We'd had so few conversations I could count them on one hand, and Sergei wasn't big on words unless he was talking about incredibly obscure chemical properties or his research. I mean, I can say all of the same things about Lizzie, but I don't want to put the moves on her, you know?

I forced myself to look at him. He deserved at least that much. I sighed, making myself meet his eerie gaze. "I'm Derek's brother, Sergei. You get that, right? My whole life I've grown up in his shadow... and it's not the greatest place to be. So when I asked you that... It's nothing personal. I'm just used to everyone really wanting or expecting Derek. They use me to get to him or as a substitute for him, and it's getting real old. So whenever someone acts like they're interested in me, that's my first thought," I said bluntly. My voice was a little raw, a little bitter. The amount of honesty in what I'd just said to him surprised me. I didn't really talk to anyone about how I felt growing up with Derek... Zach, maybe, because he gets it... sometimes Lizzie when she's really pissing me off going on about him...

Sergei frowned, eyes widening. Apparently my honesty surprised him too and got him off the defensive. "That is very sad. You are completely different," he said, reaching out to pat me on the shoulder. I very nearly jumped at the contact, but Sergei correctly read the look in my eyes and drew away as if on fire. I must've made some sort of face. He offered me a half-smile. "It is a good thing. You don't need to be Derek, you know, for people to like you," Sergei told me in all seriousness.

I shrugged, trying to pretend like I didn't care. Experience has shown me otherwise, but I manage. I wondered if Sergei could see through me, if he saw through Derek. I attempted to change the subject as quickly as possible, "You know, I know it's none of my business, man, but you should tell my brother." Sergei tensed, watching me out of the corner of his eye. He'd begun to frown. I tried to backpedal, "I mean, not about this whole thing, but... you know. That you're gay. I don't really think he'd care much." I refrained from saying that Derek was in love with his stepsister and not really in any moral position to judge, even if he cared about that sort of thing.

Once again, I shrugged, trying to keep it nonchalant. I really did think he ought to tell Derek. I can see how he'd be afraid to, given that Derek is probably the closest thing to a brother he has here and Derek doesn't seem like he's very welcoming to that sort of thing... but that's the thing about Derek; he'll always surprise you. I looked Sergei in the eye; he averted his gaze pointedly. "I mean, yeah, he might freak out a bit at first, but I think you'll feel better once he knows. Once anyone knows... I mean, you're not real friends if you feel like you have to keep such a huge secret from him... and if you're really friends, then Derek will still care about you and want you around no matter what," I continued, utterly convinced in what I was telling him.

My brother may lie a lot, but he never really lies about who he is. He's ridiculously uncompromising in that respect, even if he's making up achievements or that sort of thing, and a lie like this... would bother him. It might make him question his friendship with Sergei, and he might even be a little bit hurt by it, not that he'd ever show it. But if they're really as close as I think they are, he'll get over it pretty fast. Derek can be very forgiving when he wants to be. He can also be very supportive; just look at how he's trying to push me to get together with Lizzie because he thinks she'd be good for me and all that. "He's more progressive than you think, you know, despite the whole caveman thing."

Sergei gave me a look, clearly unimpressed with this line of reasoning. He drew into himself a little bit, like one of those lonely islands by the Arctic Circle. He mumbled something under his breath, probably about Derek or cavemen. He threw me a forbidding look, silently warning that I wasn't to tell Derek either. I relaxed a bit and moved a little closer to Sergei. He didn't have cooties or a contagious illness that I knew of, after all (although Russia's HIV rate is worryingly high, come to think of it). I shook the thought off. "I mean, how can you say that Derek really knows you and that you're really friends if there's this huge part of you that he doesn't know?" I pressed further.

He glared at me, his expression sullen. "I do not know, Edwin." He shrugged, face blank once again. "I'm seeing right now that there is this whole side to Derek that I never knew," he replied pointedly. It was then that I felt the hypocrisy of my own words. How much had I kept from Lizzie over the years? How much was I keeping from her now? But, no, that was different. That was for her own good, for my sanity or what's left of it, at any rate. Either way, I knew I couldn't argue with that.

Sergei was better about people than I gave him credit for. He looked at me, lost in thought, and sighed. "I tired." He glanced blearily at the movie. "This film is horrible." I opened my mouth to negate that claim, but Sergei was already curling up against the other arm of the couch, pushing a pillow under his head. "I think I will sleep now," he announced quietly, pulling the sleeping bag over himself. Getting the hint, I got up slowly, vaguely annoyed that my thinking process had been interrupted. I thought to tell him that the sofa unfolded into a proper bed, but Sergei closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep almost as soon as he could stretch out over the full length of the couch (it still wasn't long enough for him, however).

Shaking my head, still unable to believe everything that had transpired in such a short amount of time. I hated that those dumb questions were still floating around in my head, that I still didn't completely get what it meant. There is nothing I hate more than not having all the answers. In a fog, I walked back over to my bed and crawled into it, still thinking furiously.

What did it mean for me? That was the question that was repeating itself over and over again in my head like a tape on loop.

All I could hear was the sound of Lizzie's breathing, slow, reliable, and measured. She was still blissfully sound asleep, hadn't felt the mattress shifting under my weight. She seemed so still and peaceful in sleep, so very unlike how she was in daily life. I envied her; I'd never be able to sleep so lightly, so softly. I drew comfort in her presence, in her familiar weight, the familiar scent of her hair, of her faded perfume, the softness of her skin, the familiar way her chest rose and fell. Before I knew what I was doing, I was wrapping my body around hers, lacing my arms around her waist, pressing my front to her back. Every breath seemed to bring us closer. Unbidden, I wiggled forward, burying my head in her hair, into the crook of her neck, and breathing in her scent. Like pure oxygen, it gave me a a kind of sleepy high.

Liz arched into my touch, meeting it everywhere she could. Her body relaxed immediately, relaxed even more if that was at all possible. She was so soft and warm and familiar that it was easy for me to relax too. Even unconscious she still had a way of grounding me when I felt like my foundations were unstable, and everything I thought was solid is shifting and eroding and so much more mutable than I ever realized. I closed my eyes, moving closer still to the one thing in my life that made sense to me anymore, glad that I still had this, a friendship as dependable and important as anything I'd ever known, even the certainty of cold, hard facts.

And, lying there with my arms around her, snuggling into her, I was absolutely certain of one thing: that Lizzie would always be my anchor. And that, that would never change.

Loren ;*

Review, if you please! I would greatly appreciate them, given the season. ;)