Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes).
"You're not talking to her, are you?"
Irina looked up from her position on the bed, papers spread around her as she tried to concentrate. "That wouldn't be very mature of me, now would it?"
Katya raised a brow. "But you haven't spoken a word to her since last evening… well, not a civil word, anyway. I scarcely think that the impressive stream of expletives you screamed counted."
Irina considered her for a minute. "Sit down, Katya," she finally said, sweeping a sheaf of papers into a pile to clear a spot. "And I haven't spoken to her because I have yet to see her today."
"Using your training to keep track of her movements all day just so you're never in the same room that she's in does not constitute as a real excuse." She sat next to her, leaning back against the pillows.
"It was careless and inconsiderate for her to do what she did," Irina replied, back completely straight.
"Rushka…" Katya sighed, and handed her the cup she carried. "Have some tea."
"What did you do to it?" Irina asked, cautiously sipping.
"Nothing at all," Katya assured her.
Irina took a larger sip, eyes fluttering shut.
"Darling," Katya continued, her tone gentle, "you know that all Elena is trying to do is get you laid."
Irina choked on her tea, nearly snorting it up her nose and spilling it on the blankets.
"It's the truth." She patted her sister on the back. "We do care about you, after all."
"Katya, I want you to go away, okay?"
"Elena was only working out of your best interests."
"Okay. Come out for dinner, or I'll kiss your husband again."
"Katya, I have a knife within arms reach."
"So do I." She shrugged. "That's not a valid threat anymore, at least now that you're an adult and reach higher than my waist."
Irina sighed and her shoulders slumped dramatically. "I could have killed you more efficiently before my late growth spurt."
"Undoubtedly. Dinner should be ready any minute… unless, of course, darling Jack fails to show up." They held a measured look.
"I'm not going to be upset if he doesn't," Irina said defensively. "We're in Siberia, after all. He can't just hop on a plane and fly halfway across the world for dinner-"
"And dessert," Katya inserted wickedly.
"-and expect to get away with it and not be noticed. Don't you understand, Katya?" Irina asked insistently, and grabbed her shoulders. "Discretion! Discretion is key! Discretion!"
There was a knock at the front door.
Katya grinned. "I'm sure Jack will be very discreet."
Irina shoved her back onto the headboard as she hurtled off the bed, running for the door.
"That impatient?" Katya queried, recovering and following a few steps behind. "Not that I exactly blame you, given my short experience with him."
"Shut up, Katya…" Irina muttered as she rounded the corner into the kitchen. She looked around the empty room. "Elena, where the hell are you?"
Her oldest sister entered behind her, brow raised. "Here. Sorry, was there a knock?"
Irina looked between Katya and Elena, suspicious. "Yes… will one of you be opening the door?"
Instantly Katya lounged back against the wall, brushing a hand across her cropped hair. "Rushka, I think you should do it, I'm very tired all of a sudden."
Elena nodded, pretending to steady herself against a chair. "Yes, I feel it too. Go answer the door, Irina." She glanced over at Katya. "We'll escort you, but I don't think either of us could possibly muster the energy to walk across the room and open that big, heavy, door."
Irina stared at them, disgusted. "Do you really think I buy that sh*t?"
"No," Elena replied simply. "But you have two options."
"I do?" Irina asked sarcastically, and crossed her arms defensively.
"Yes. You can go open the door- because we're not- or you can let him freeze." Elena planted her hands on her hips and sent her an identical challenging stare.
Irina sighed and pulled sharply around, marching angrily towards the door. She pulled it open and scowled Jack, who stood with a similar scowl on his face.
"Do I need to know the secret password and hand shake, or will you simply let me in?" he demanded, glancing behind her to where her sisters waited with small feline smiles gracing their faces.
Irina feigned surprise. "You didn't tell him the secret password?" she asked her sisters mockingly. "You know we don't let anyone in without it. Sorry, Jack. You'll have to find your way back to wherever you came from…"
He pushed past her to the inside and nodded a greeting towards the other two. "Hello, Katya. And you must be Elena."
She smiled. "Yes. Welcome to the House of Hellions."
He was momentarily startled. Dropping his coat in a corner (as no coat rack was available) he allowed himself a tiny smile. "It's very appropriate."
Elena smiled brightly. "Irina wasn't going to let you in," she told him, as if imparting a great secret. Katya grinned, and pretended to inspect her nails.
Jack shot a glance at Irina, who was obviously upset. "I noticed," he replied blandly. "I assume you've been taunting her night and day since Katya returned?"
"Yes," Katya murmured. "We've all been chatting like little birdies for days about my exploits with you."
Irina shot her a dirty look. "Jack, what are you doing here? Family bonding will not be helpful when it comes to keeping Sydney out of danger," she hissed.
He held his hands over the stove, keeping his back to her. "But would I ever turn down an invitation into the inner circle of the Derevko sisters? I thought you said you knew me, Irina."
"Don't play the innocent card with me, Jack. You kissed my sister!"
"She kissed me!" he replied, turning to glare at her. "And if you had been there, I assure you it wouldn't have happened."
"What is that supposed to mean?" she shot back.
"It means that if you had pulled yourself out of this hellhole for once-"
Katya and Elena exchanged a look.
"Why don't we eat?" Elena interrupted quickly. Irina and Jack both nodded curtly, and sat down on opposite sides of the table.
Katya sensed an opportunity, and she quickly seated herself in the seat closest to Jack, sending Irina an innocent look.
Irina seethed quietly.
"How's Sydney?" Katya asked, smoothing her napkin over her lap.
"Fine." Jack smiled bitter-sweetly. "She's always fine."
"And Agent Vaughn?" Irina said quietly, accepting a basket of bread from Elena.
Jack gave her a warning look. "Agent Vaughn is no longer someone to consider."
"I still have hopes for him."
"I refuse to let our daughter attach herself to a married man," Jack replied sternly.
"I doubt he'll be married for long," Irina posited. "Women like Lauren Reed are always found out eventually."
He dropped his fork. "Excuse me?"
"Agent Vaughn," she replied slowly, "has just been Derevkoed. She's Covenant, as far as I know."
He leaned away from the table. "How long have you known?"
She shot him a critical look. "Not long. A week at most. She's been very good at covering her tracks."
"Not as good as you, obviously," Katya said blandly. "Rushka, please pass the butter."
Irina sighed, handing over the small plate. "Thank you, Katya, for bringing up the sensitive past."
"Just trying to get you laid, remember," Katya muttered.
Jack froze. "Excuse me?"
Irina lunged for Katya's throat. "I have let your life continue for far too long," she growled as her sister blocked her hands. "Do you want to be buried back home, or can I just throw your body out the door and let it freeze?"
Katya sighed, and grabbed her sister's wrists in a secure grip. "Elena, perhaps it's time we left this party."
Elena smiled and patted Jack's shoulder. "Be careful with this table, it would be hell trying to find another one and drag it back here."
Katya pulled away from Irina and kissed Jack quickly. "Have fun, and try not to compare her to me."
She skirted Irina's next attack adroitly, disappearing into the hall with Elena.
Irina threw herself back into her chair, absolutely furious.
"So," Jack said thoughtfully, "those are your sisters in action."
She nodded, still scowling.
"You're the baby, aren't you?"
She bared her teeth in a grimace.
"They drive you insane, don't they?"
She picked up her knife and threw it across the room, smiling tightly when the metal tip buried itself into the wood of the wall.
"I see." He stared at her seriously. "Dr. Barnett would love to analyze your family interactions."
"Dr. Barnett can go to hell," she said sharply.
"I feel rather the same way." He ripped a piece of bread in half and offered her a piece. "Hungry?"
She considered throwing herself into his lap and showing him how much of a better kisser she was than Katya, but dismissed it as the thought of an irrational lunatic.
"Very well." He chewed it thoughtfully. "So this wasn't your idea?"
"Of course not."
"Mad at me?"
"Of course I am."
She paused. "Possibly."
"Fine." He stood and grabbed his coat.
"Where are you going?"
"Because you're acting like a hostile blind date."
Someone sniggered in the hall. Irina slumped back against her chair and sighed.
"Have you tried being a Derevko lately?" she asked, waving her hands in the air. "Huh? Have you? I reserve the right to be hostile for as long as I am sharing a residence with those harpies."
A gale of laughter from the hallway. She started to stand, intent on bloodshed, but he grabbed her arm and pushed her back down.
"I do apologize for what happened. Although I can't quite figure out if you were more upset at the kiss or her groping my liver."
She tilted her head uncertainly. "I have to decide?"
"I suppose not." He sat down again, and pulled his chair close enough for their knees to touch. "I suppose you want to slice me open and give it a go yourself."
She shook her head. "No, I spent too much time as a teenager trying to replicate her actions. I've given up."
"It's always good to outgrow childhood habits."
She nodded, and walked over to the cupboard. She glanced questioningly at him. "Tea or alcohol?"
She silently agreed, and filled the kettle with water. After placing it on the burner, she pulled out two small glasses and a bottle filled with dark liquid.
She plunked a glass of the syrupy liqueur in front of him, and he eyed it doubtfully. "What is this?"
She smiled secretly. "Katya's personal stash," she whispered. "Shh."
There was a scuffle in the hallway, and her smile grew.
He swallowed it quickly, and spluttered. "That is the most awful liquid I have ever swallowed."
She tossed her own back with a straight face. "I know."
He reached for the bottle and poured another glass. He threw it back with the same grimace.
She smiled and patted his hand. "So. Why did you really come?"
"I feel the occasional need to drink gut-rot liquor with dark-haired women," he replied, toying with the glass. "I've just never done it in Siberia before."
"Weak, Jack. Weak." The kettle began to sing, and she moved to pull out the teabags and cups.
"I wasn't doing anything," he said, and shrugged.
"Startling," she remarked quietly.
"Are you about to bring up the kiss again?"
"No." She sat down again, handing him his tea. "Katya was just experimenting with hindsight."
"When she was twenty-two, she broke her leg. Her next mission was handed to me." She sipped her tea calmly, staring at him over the rim of the cup.
He blinked. "The mission? Your mission?"
"Well," she conceded primly, "her mission. Do you feel gypped, Jack, at receiving the understudy, as opposed to the leading lady?"
He put his cup down slowly. "Irina, I'm going to be blunt."
She nodded serenely.
"I would never have followed Katya halfway around the world. Or your other sister. Or anyone else."
She tried to smile. "Is this your way of implying undying devotion?"
"I have my methods. Disappointed?"
"I was hoping for something more along the lines of bowing and scraping, but it will do," she teased lightly, and sipped her tea.
"You're drinking that awfully fast," he noted.
"If I may ask, why?"
"Because any moment Katya will saunter in and snatch it."
"So she kisses your husband and steals your tea?" He sipped his own. "I'm all astonishment."
"I'm sure you are."
"If only I had known the kind of family I married into…"
"You could always ask for an annulment, I suppose. Except, of course, everyone would want to know why you were trying to annul a marriage in which you are technically a widow." Her knee nudged his purposefully, though the expression on her face was anything but playful.
"Too many questions," he sighed. "I could never be involved in such a public spectacle."
"Oh, I know. So you're stuck with myself and the whole clan."
"Weaker men would run screaming onto the steppes and disappear," he replied, and grabbed her hand suddenly.
She appeared not to notice. "Tired?"
"I'm afraid so," he said, though his grip on her hand said anything but that.
She nodded and placed her empty cup on the table. "Would you like to see my cubby of a room, then?"
"Depends on the quality of the mattress," he said seriously. "You know how hard it is for me to sleep on a bad mattress."
She began leading him towards the doorway to the hall. "I'll help you get comfortable."
He stopped her just before the door. "It didn't mean anything, with Katya."
"Oh, I know. If I thought it did I wouldn't be taking you to my bed. To sleep, of course."
"Of course." He gave her a surprisingly tender look, and pushed a strand of hair off her face. "Stay with me?"
"Of course. I couldn't leave you alone… to sleep… in the same house as my sisters. It wouldn't be proper, or polite."
He nodded seriously. "Good."
They considered each other for a moment, Irina leaning slightly towards him. His hand caressed her shoulder lightly, and she moved closer.
He slanted his mouth over hers gently, holding her against him for several minutes as they kissed softly in welcome.
She pulled away, smiling tenderly. "Welcome home, Jack."
"I'm very glad to be here," he replied, and followed her down the hall to her room, passing Katya and Elena who sat on the floor near the kitchen entrance. Katya smiled enigmatically, and Elena laughed quietly and waved. Jack shook his head good-humoredly, and shut the door.
Katya and Elena exchanged a look.
"For Rushka, that's the height of romance," Katya remarked, standing and offering Elena a hand.
"Insanely enough." Elena moved back into the kitchen and fetched two fresh cups. "Tea?"
Katya considered the bottle of her liqueur on the table and sighed. "Please," she replied, putting away the bottle. "Think we'll be able to get any sleep tonight?"
"Of course not." She sat down, pulling her long legs up to her chest. "The downside of our successful game."
Katya grinned. "I love games."
Elena laughed, and threw back her hair. "Me too." She pointed towards the wall, where the knife still clung to the wood. "And we know Rina does."
"You know what our next game will be, don't you?' Katya asked, adding sugar to her tea.
"I'm sure I do, but please indulge me," Elena replied, a glint in her eyes.
"I think it's time we paid a visit to our niece."
"Undoubtedly," Elena said, mock-seriously. "And perhaps this Lauren, as well. It's well and good for a Derevko to pull that stunt-"
"-but no one else can even come close," Katya finished. "She's no Rushka, that's for sure."
"Obviously." Elena's smile was feral, and her eyes glittered as she sipped the hot liquid. "We'll see just how much this Lauren Reed appreciates games."
"And how well our niece can play one."
Katya stretched languidly, and they began to plot their next game.