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Where the Heart Is

Chapter Text

Luke stares out the window of his taxi as he watches the snow-covered lawns of his parents’ suburban neighborhood. It’s a surprisingly strange sight; after spending the last five years in West Africa, the very notion of a White Christmas seems more than a little alien.

The cab stops in front of his parents’ house. He pays the driver, making sure to give her a generous tip (it is Christmas, after all), then grabs his backpack and gets out, making his way up his parents’ walk. Before he can even ring the doorbell, a gorgeous woman dressed in a t-shirt and pyjama pants opens the door.

“I must have the wrong house,” Luke says. He’s only halfway joking. He’s seen photos and videos of Lexie while he’s been away, knows that she’s no longer the teenager he remembers, but the transformation wrought by the last five years strikes him more forcefully than he had anticipated now that she stands before him, a grown and beautiful woman.

“Sister,” Lexie identifies herself with a grin, then pulls him into a hug. “Oh, I missed you so much.” He’s missed her too, of course, more powerfully and painfully than he could ever say. “I waited up all night for you, you know,” she adds as they make their way into the kitchen.

“It’s a long way from West Africa,” he reminds her, and once he’s put down his pack, begins the ritual of making the morning coffee. His parents’ kitchen is exactly the way he remembers it, and he doesn’t even have to think as he pulls out a new filter from the cabinet and the Folgers from inside the freezer, the muscle memory still there even after half a decade.

“Coffee,” he says near-reverentially once it has brewed, and pours himself a cup. He’s sure there must be plenty of places in Paris where one can be served a magnificent cup of coffee. Charles de Gaulle airport simply isn’t one of them, and he desperately needs the caffeine.

“Brought you something from far away,” he tells Lexie.

She makes this embarrassed little giggle. “Really?” she asks, as he pulls the gift-wrapped package out of his pack and hands it to her. She holds it in her hands for a few seconds, then pulls off the bow and presses it to his chest, the adhesive sticking to his shirt.

“What are you doing?” he asks, laughing.

“You’re my present this year,” she informs him solemnly.

The moment lingers between them, pregnant, and it’s probably a good thing their parents enter the kitchen a second later, because he’s not sure he would have been able to control himself if left alone with Lexie any longer. This was such a mistake, he thinks. He should have stayed in West Africa, never came back.

But he’s here, and he tries to ignore the lingering memory of the moment which just passed between them as he greets his mother and father, is pulled into overpowering embraces by each of them. After the entire family is well- and truly-caffeinated, the four of them make their way into the living room and begin to open the presents which sit beneath the tree.

His presents are both more numerous and more expensive than he remembers them being in previous Christmases. “We had five years to make up for,” Dad says good-naturedly.

Luke also notices that the vast majority of his presents will be absolutely useless to him back in West Africa.

After all the presents beneath the tree have been opened, they retire back to the kitchen for more coffee and a light breakfast consisting mostly of coffee cake. There’s a little light conversation, mostly about the recent cold weather and Luke’s flights.

"How long are you here?" Mom asks.

"My flight back is on the 1st," Luke answers.

"Any plans for what you want to do while you're here?" asks Dad.

"Not really," Luke answers. "I thought I'd just spend time with you and Lex."

"New Years Eve, me and a few of my friends from college are going to this fancy party in the city, since it'll be our first New Years after turning 21. We rented a limo and everything. Jane and her boyfriend just broke up a couple of weeks ago, though, so we have an extra ticket if you want to come."

"Sounds like a good idea," says Dad. "You should go.

"Okay," agrees Luke. "Sure."

Then Lexie lets loose a rather audible yawn.

“Did you stay up all night?” Mom asks Lexie.

Lexie shrugs. “By the time we got home from mass it was already almost two, and we didn’t know when he would get in, so. . . .”

“You should take a nap,” Dad says. “You too,” he adds, looking at Luke, “I know you couldn’t have gotten much rest on all those planes. I’ll help your mother with Christmas dinner.”

Obediently, Luke and Lexie make their way up the steps to the second floor where their bedrooms are located, Luke carrying his backpack. As soon as they’ve turned into the upstairs hall and are no longer visible to their parents, however, Lexie grabs him and pulls him close, brings her lips to his with such ferocity it’s almost an attack. By the time his conscious mind has processed what's happening, he's already opened his mouth to let her tongue enter.

It's like he's been holding his breath for the last five years and her mouth, her kisses are oxygen.

She drags him into his bedroom, deftly kicking the door shut with her foot once they're both inside, and the second it's shut her hands are at his belt, unbuckling it. He slides his hands up under her shirt. She’s not wearing a bra (of course not, he realizes, she’s wearing pyjamas), so his hands quickly touch the smooth skin of her bare breasts. He runs his fingers against them, caressing, feeling, exploring.

She’s unbuckled his jeans and is pushing them down. He kicks off his shoes and socks and shimmies to help his jeans fall down to his ankles, then steps out of them. Through all this time, they’ve been kissing, breaking the lock between their lips for only moments at a time to take quick breaths. When he pulls her shirt up over her head, however, they have to break the kiss for slightly longer, but as soon as its off and thrown onto Lexie’s bedroom floor their lips are back together, as if there were some magnetic force drawing them to each other.

Luke breaks the kiss again to pull off his own shirt. He’s dressed just in his boxers now, while Lexie’s in her pyjama bottoms, naked from the waist up. She raises her hands to his shoulder and pushes him gently towards her bed, and he takes the hint and walks backwards until he is right in front of it and lets her push him down on top of it.

She lays down on top of him, her breasts pressed against his bare chest, and they exchange another kiss, then another. Then they start spreading out, kissing each other’s jaw, neck, shoulders. Their kisses are wild and frenetic as they claim, possess, threaten to consume each other with their mouths and their hands, desperate for touch, as if to reassure each other of the physical reality of their presence after so long apart.

They continue this for at least ten minutes, this passionate conquest of each other’s bodies as they energetically grope and kiss. Luke can feel his heart about to burst out of his chest just from the athleticism of it, when finally Lexie slips her hands into the waistband of his boxers and pushes them down.

With a fumbling motion, she reaches out, opens a drawer in the nightstand next to her bed, and pulls out a condom.

Luke didn't expect to return to find her still a virgin--hell, he's not even sure she was a virgin when he left. Still, he can't help wonder how many times she's done this, with how many boys, and feels an incredible irrational, hypocritical resentment against them for defiling his sister.

She removes the condom from its wrapper then slips it onto him. She pulls off her pyjama pants and underpants and lowers herself onto him, taking him into her. Their bodies thrust against each other with a forceful, hungry rhythm, and Luke steels himself to keep from coming before his sister.

She’s tensing and relaxing in a quickening rhythm, and the almost pained expression on her face makes him think she’s biting back moans or groans or even ecstatic shouts lest they be heard by their parents below. Then she gives one last shudder and relaxes, and he comes moments after her.

They dispose of the condom, then press their naked bodies against each other, his wrapped around hers, as they gently waft off into unconsciousness. After all, they did come up here to take a nap.

Luke wakes to the sound of his mother calling them for dinner. He gently nudges Lexie awake. She opens her eyes, blinks, then gets up. The groggy look on her face is gradually replaced by a more pensive one as she processes her situation, remembers what they did before they fell asleep.

She gets up, yawns and stretches, and Luke watches with appreciation as her naked body moves, her breasts particularly. Desire swells in his heart, but it is a more subtle longing, mixed with fraternal love and affection, than the hungry passion which consumed the two of them before they fell asleep.

Lexie cracks her bedroom door open. “I’ll be right down, Mom,” she calls down.

“Do me a favor and wake up your brother?” their mother’s voice replies.

Lexie shoots a look at Luke, grinning. “Sure, Mom,” she answers. “It think I can handle that.” Still grinning, she shuts the door again and turns back towards Luke, who has gotten out of bed and is pulling on his underwear.

In the quietness of this moment, so different then the mad dash to fuck earlier, Luke can take in his surroundings. Like Lexie herself, her bedroom is simultaneously both different and familiar. It is still quintessentially her, but a number of details are different, even as many--the bed, the furniture, the curtains--are the same.

He notices an LSAT test prep book lying open on her desk. "You want to be a lawyer?" he asks.

Lexie makes a face as she fishes a bra out of a drawer. "Dad wants me to be a lawyer," she corrects.

They get dressed quickly, him picking his clothes from earlier up off of Lexie’s floor. He watches as a Lexie pulls on a pair of jeans and a cream-colored over-the-shoulder sweater. She looks good in it, although that’s hardly an unexpected surprise.

Lexie sticks her head out of her room into the hall. "It's safe," she says, and Luke follows her into the hall and downstairs, where additional family members have appeared during their unconsciousness. There’s Aunt Mary and Uncle Pete and their cousin Gwen, and Grandma Matthews as well.

If Luke remembers correctly, Gwen is about a year and a half younger than Lexie, and the family resemblance between the two girls is pretty clearly noticeable, although Gwen is about half an inch taller than Lexie (two and a half right now since she’s wearing heels and Lexie isn’t), slightly thinner, and improbably blonder (particularly improbably considering the fact that Luke distinctly remembers that when he left for Africa, she had been a brunette with hair several shades darker than Lexie’s). She’s wearing a top whose neckline can only be described as plunging, and Luke can’t help but appreciate the view. (Of course, considering that just hours ago he had been making love to his sister, he supposes that perving on his cousin hardly qualifies as worthy of mention.)

They sit down at the dining room table. Dad’s at the head of the table, with Mom on his right and Lexie on his left, and Grandma’s at the foot. Luke’s in between Lex and Gwen, across from Aunt Mary.

Luke tells them about the work he does, and what life is like in Côte d'Ivoire, even though he knows they don’t really understand. With the exception of Lexie and Gwen, they’re not even really paying all that close attention.

“Are you still dating that French girl?” Uncle Pete asks, in the middle of Luke’s description of the fractious political situation. “What was her name? Colleen?”

“Colette,” answers Luke. “No, we broke up a few months ago.”

“Why?” asks Gwen, her gaze intent.

“Gwendolyn,” Aunt Mary cautions.

“It’s all right,” says Luke. “We . . . realized the passion just wasn’t there anymore, I guess.”

Conversation passes away from him then, and Uncle Pete launches into an anecdote about a particularly troublesome customer at the car dealership he manages. Luke just stares at his plate as he pushes the food around with his fork, trying deliberately to not look at either Lexie or Gwen.

Eventually, after cleaning up the mess and washing the dishes and several rounds of after-dinner eggnog, the extended family members leave, and it’s just him and Lexie and their parents.

They all turn into bed, Luke and Lexie staying a few steps back from their parents as they all go up the steps so that once Mom and Dad have gone into their bedroom and closed the door, Luke can give his sister a lingering good-night kiss before they part ways and retire to their separate rooms.

His room is almost exactly the way he left it 5 years ago, from his trying-too-hard-to-be-ironic t-shirts in his closet to his high-school ice hockey equipment to his collection of Ghost Soup Infidel Gold comic books, including issue #172 signed by Marcos Johnson himself, who played Luke in the original Ghost Soup Infidel Blue TV show back in the ‘50’s. It seems almost alien to him now, these relics from a past life, as he slips into his bed, turns off the light, and gently falls once again into unconsciousness, visions of Lexie dancing through his head.

Chapter Text

“Time to get up, sleepyhead.”

Luke opens his eyes and turns over in his bed to see Lexie standing in his doorway dressed in a tank top and panties. “Mom and Dad are already gone on their shopping extravaganza,” she says, “so we have the house to ourselves for the day.”

Every year since Luke and Lexie were old enough to leave home alone for the day, Mom and Dad have spent the entirety of Boxing Day shopping, going from one after Christmas sale to another.

Luke gets out of bed, dressed only in his boxer shorts. “I really need a shower,” he notes. The last time he bathed had been--what? A couple of days, not to mention continents, ago.

“Interested in company?” Lexie asks with a grin, and the two make their way into the bathroom and divest themselves of their few garments in a matter of seconds, standing naked in front of each other.

While yesterday’s frenzied lovemaking had been wild and enthusiastic and undeniably satisfying, now they are able to take their time, appreciate each other’s bodies without the crazed desperation that had overtaken them the day before. Luke enjoys the luxury of a long, leisurely look at his sister’s naked figure, taking in the gentle, graceful curves of her femininity.

Lexie pulls back the shower curtain and turns on the water, waiting a few seconds to let it get warm before stepping into the tub. He steps in after her, then returns the curtain.

It’s not unsexual, of course--his clearly visual erection is plain enough evidence of that--but still it’s oddly platonic as they wash each other in the shower, their soapy hands working their ways over each other’s body, as she rubs a washcloth against his chest and he runs a loofah along her breasts, her back, her ass. The difference between their ages was large enough that they never bathed together as young children, but it’s almost as he imagines that would have been like if they had, naked and innocent together without the overwhelming need for sex.

But then he slips his hand between her legs and she gives a little shudder as he presses it against her clit. He pushes her against the wall of the shower and pins her there with a kiss even as he works his fingers inside of her. He moves them with a confident competence, slowly at first, then more quickly.

He must have been right yesterday about her biting back her sounds, because right now she’s not even trying to hold back as she releases moan after incredibly audible moan of pleasure. “Yes,” she says, drawing out the word so it almost fades into the hiss of the showerhead. “Oh, Luke, yes.” She almost collapses into him as she comes, and he’s left holding her up in the shower.

Then she pushes him back away from the wall, carefully drops to her knees in the tub, and takes him into his mouth. She gives fabulous head, and he’s not sure whether he wants to curse or thank her past boyfriends for that fact. After he comes, she spits it out onto the floor of the tub, the water of the shower sending his ejaculate spiraling down into the drain.

They get out of the shower and towel each other off, then quickly break apart to their own rooms to get dressed.

“Have you had breakfast?” he asks Lexie when they regroup in the hall, he in jeans and a t-shirt, she in gym shorts and a college sweatshirt.

She shrugs. “I had a yogurt while I was waiting for Mom and Dad to leave,” she says.

“Let me make you something,” he says, making his way down the steps. He looks through the refrigerator, then begins to pull out ingredients: eggs, cheese, garlic, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and so on.

“Are you making a West African dish?” Lexie asks as she watches him chop the peppers.

“I’m making an omelette,” he tells her, as he dumps the chopped peppers into a bowl and begins on the onions. “I do make a mean banku, though, if I do say so myself.”

When he finishes her omelet, he slips onto a plate in front of her, then starts making his own.

“Can I ask you a question?” Lexie asks suddenly. She looks almost nervous, not quite meeting Luke’s eyes.

“Anything,” he says, knowing it’s a dangerous promise to make but unable to deny her anything.

“Did you leave because of me?”

And there it is. “No,” he says immediately, then, “Yes? I don’t know, Lex, it’s more complicated than that. I needed to get away so I could find myself. But, yeah, one of the things I needed to get away was that I couldn’t help spending every moment thinking about how much I wanted to fuck my sixteen-year old sister.”

Lexie studies him, curious. “And did that work?”

John shrugs. “Did I stop thinking about it? No. But at least it kept me from doing something I would regret.”

Lexie nods, thoughtful. “I’m not sixteen anymore, you know.”

“You’re still my sister,” he points out.

Lexie doesn’t say anything. She doesn't have to, after all; he’s come back from Africa, and they've already done--twice, now--what he’s yearned to do for so many years now. Right or wrong, it’s happened.

“So did you find yourself in Africa?”

He flips his omelette onto a plate, turns off the stove, and sits down next to Lexie. “You know, I really did. I found my place, the place where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to do, and not in a ‘white man’s burden’ sort of way either. It’s just--” He breaks off, not sure how to describe it so that Lexie will understand.

“Home,” Lexie offers.

“Yeah,” Luke agrees. “Home. All except for one thing.”

Lexie doesn't ask what that one thing is. He’s pretty sure it’s because she already knows she’s it.

They clean up the mess from breakfast, then move into the living room and commence a Christmas movie marathon consisting of The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Christmas Toy, Batman Returns, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Love Actually, and, of course, Luke’s bootlegged VHS of the Ghost Soup Infidel Red Holiday Special. They sit together on the couch under a blanket, with Lexie curled up at his side, as they watch their familiar, beloved Christmas classics.

“I would have let you, you know,” Lexie says about two-thirds of the way into Batman Returns.

Luke blinks at the unexpected comment. “What?”

“I would have let you fuck me. Before you left.”

Luke closes his eyes. “I know,” he says, although he didn’t, or at least hadn’t realized he had known until just now. “That’s part of the reason why I had to leave.”

Lexie doesn’t say anything else. Luke opens his eyes and they watch the Dark Knight save Christmas from the Penguin and Catwoman in silence.

About half-way through Love Actually Lexie picks up the remote and freezes the movie. “You want to get food?” she asks. “Luigi’s, maybe? You made breakfast, so it’s my treat.”

Now that’s a suggestion Luke can get behind. Most of his favorite foods he can get in West Africa, done as well as or better than at home, as long as he’s willing to pay for it. The exception tends to be the cheap, junk food. And no one makes pizza and hot wings like Luigi’s.

Lexie makes the call, then puts the movie back on. Twenty minutes later the delivery boy arrives with their food, Lexie pays for it, and they’re soon sitting in front of the TV eating their dinner. It’s just as good--bad--as Luke remembers.

When the last deliciously bad moment of the GSIR holiday special gives way to static and noise, Lex gets up and returns the VHS to its nondescript case. “You want to watch anything else?” she asks.

“Nah,” he says. “I think that’s good.” He pauses, then decides to go for it. “You never opened your present yesterday,” he points out to her.

She smiles at him, a lascivious grin. “I really think I did.”

Luke sighs dramatically, but can’t help smiling. “Your real present,” he says, and makes his way up to his room where his pack now is. He returns with the wrapped gift box he had given her the day before, now missing its bow.

She opens it, and oohs and ahs at the collection of West African jewelry inside: a necklace, a bracelet, a ring, all made from intricately hand-carved wooden pieces. “These are beautiful,” she says, putting on the jewelry.

“There’s something else,” he adds, suddenly feeling incredibly self-conscious as he pulls out a plain white envelope and hands it to her.

She opens it and looks inside. “What is this?” she asks, dumbstruck.

It’s a one-way plane ticket to Abidjan via Paris. “Come back with me,” he offers.

Luke can see the hesitation, the uncertainty pass across her face. “I know it’s asking a lot,” he says before she can answer, can tell him no. “You don’t have to decide right now. Just think about it.”

She nods, slowly, holding the plane ticket as if she’s almost afraid it might bite her.

There’s so much he wants to say. He wants to plead with her, beg her to come back with him, tell her that if she doesn’t he’ll be broken in half, torn between her and the place he’s supposed to be, the work he’s supposed to do.

But he doesn’t, because he suspects she already understands all that and knows it wouldn’t be fair to her to make her listen to him say it. If she says yes, it’ll have to be because she wants to, not because he needs her to.

A pair of lights pull into the driveway outside. Their parents are home from their day of consumeristic excess. A few moments later, they enter, carrying the shopping bags full of their spoils.

“Did the two of you have fun today?” Mom asks as she dumps her bags on the couch.

Lexie nods, and the agreement on her face seems to be genuine. “We mostly just watched Christmas movies and ate Luigi’s.”

“That sounds fun,” Dad says.

“It was,” Luke says, as he makes his way up the stairs to his room. He spends about an hour reading Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Parkes, then turns off his light and goes to sleep.

Chapter Text

Sunday morning there is a knock on his door. “Mom wants to know if you’re going to church,” Lexie asks from the other side of it.

This in itself is evidence of the kid gloves Luke’s parents are now treating him with. Any other year it would have gone without saying that Luke would have gone with his family to church. But five years away has apparently driven home the point that he’s an adult now and that they can’t actually force him to do anything he doesn’t want to do.

At the same time, there’s no point in driving a wedge even further between him and his parents. If going to church with them will make them happy for this week he’s with them, then he certainly can do that. Besides, his family always goes to Parker’s Diner after mass, and if there’s anything he’s missed as much as Luigi’s pizza and wings, it’s Parker’s French toast. “Uh, sure.”

“You can have the next shower, then,” Lexie says.

A half-hour later he’s downstairs, dressed in a shirt and tie and one of his old sports jackets (which fortunately still fits), ready to go to church. His father, similarly attired, is already waiting. Lexie comes down a couple of minutes later in a slim black dress with white sweater and white stockings, and his mother finally appears ten minutes after that.

They get into his father’s station wagon, and in ten minutes they’re pulling into the parking lot of St. Luke the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church. There’s a life-sized painting of the saintly physician standing next to the church sign, holding a staff and a Bible, with a dove whispering in his ear. He’s a kindly, bearded man, and Luke remembers the way he had felt a certain kinship with his first-century namesake as a child, wanting to grow up to be a saint just like St. Luke.

He’s lowered his expectations for himself quite a bit since.

They get out of the station wagon and enter the church, sitting in a pew about a third in from the back. Five minutes they’re joined by Uncle Pete, Aunt Mary, and Gwen, and Luke finds himself once again seated in between Lexie and Gwen.

He tries to get into the magic and mystery of the service, the way he used to so easily as a child, but he finds he can’t help but be conscious of how off-key his own voice is as he sings the hymns or how the lectors stumble over names. Then he’s consigned to twenty minutes listening to Monsignor preach about the miracle of the Incarnation and the horrors of abortion. The homily leaves it profoundly unclear what, if anything, the two things actually have to do with each other.

Monsignor seems to finally tire himself out eventually, and they move on to the creed.

When it’s time for communion, Luke stays seated as everyone else stands up. Lexie gets up with her parents, hesitates, then sits back down next to Luke. Luke lets himself watch Gwen’s hips swing back and forth as she makes her way up the communion line.

He still believes in God, he thinks, but the God he believes in no longer fits in the box that Catholicism seems to want to put Him/Her/It/Them into.

He does his best to pray anyway. He prays for Côte d'Ivoire, that they might finally get the election they’ve been waiting for so many years. He prays for the hungry and sick all across Africa and the globe. He prays for his parents, that they might learn to accept that his place is not here with them. He prays for himself and Lexie, that--here, he is stuck. He should pray for their absolution, but he cannot bring himself to be sorry for what they’ve shared together the past couple days. He hopes fervently that she will say yes and come with him, but that needs to be her decision, not some deity’s.

Parker’s thick slices of French toast are just as decadent and indulgent as he remembers, and he savors every bite.

Lexie gets an omelette. “It’s not as good as yours,” she whispers over to him.

Gwen talks about how she’s taken up photography as part of one of her college classes. “You should come over and take a look at my art sometime,” Gwen tells him.

Luke makes a noncommittal answer and continues to enjoy his French toast.

“Lex?” he asks, knocking on her door.

“Come in,” she says. He enters, and she’s hanging up her dress, wearing her bra and panties and white stockings.

“It’s not just my imagination, right?” Luke asks. “Gwen was really just hitting on me?”

“Oh, she was hitting on you hard,” agrees Lexie. “Not that I can blame her. She doesn’t know you’re already taken.”

Luke puts his head in his hands. “God, this family is so fucked up.”

“It could be worse,” points out Lexie. “It could have been Aunt Mary.”

“Jesus, Lex!” swears Luke. “Thanks a lot for that image.”

Lexie smiles beatifically. “What are sisters for?”

Luke reaches out and pulls Lexie down into his lap. “I don’t know, but whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s not what I use mine for.”

Chapter Text

Luke has a brief teleconferencing meeting with his coworkers back in Africa at one in the afternoon Greenwich Mean Time, which has him getting up a little earlier than he would have prefered on vacation. But it’s no real chore talking out the issues with Jacques and Lanre--after all, it’s not like they can expect him to actually do anything from across the Atlantic Ocean--and in some ways it’s a breath of fresh air to re-immerse himself however briefly and virtually in his African life after his disorienting return home.

Suddenly, he realizes that both Jacques and Lanre have gone silent. He’s about to ask what is the matter when Jacques tells him, “Il y a une très belle fille dans votre porte.

Luke glances behind him and sure enough, there’s Lexie standing in his doorway, watching him with a thoughtful expression on her face. “C’est Lexie. Elle est--” He breaks off. He can’t tell them Lexie’s his sister, not if he wants to bring her back to Africa with him as his lover. “Elle est mon amie,” he tells them, weakly.

Juste une amie?” Lanre asks, an incredulous smile on his lips. “Pas une petite amie, peut-être?

Luke shrugs. “Eh bien, on peut espérer, n’est-ce pas?

Jacques breaks into a big grin. “Allez,” he says, “amusez-vous avec votre ‘amie’. Nous sommes très bien ici sans vous.

Luke doesn’t need to be told twice. “D’accord,” he agrees. “À tout à l’heure.” He terminates the connection, then turns to Lexie. “What’s up, Lex?”

She holds up a phone. “Apparently someone heard you were in town,” she says. He raises his arm and she gently tosses it underhand to him. “Hello?” he asks, cautiously, after he catches it.

“Hey, man,” a familiar voice responds enthusiastically. “Betty said she thought she saw you in church yesterday. You were really going to come back without checking in with your best friend?”

“Sorry,” Luke answers automatically. “It’s been a bit busy the last few days, with the holiday and all.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Harry agrees. “So you got any plans for the rest of the week?”

“Other than this New Years thing Lexie invited me to, not really,” Luke admits. “You want to come over today and hang?”

“Sounds good,” answers Harry. “I have to imagine you have some rocking stories to tell after five years in Africa. See you then, man.”

“So what did you say about me?” Lexie asks as she takes the phone back.

“That you invited me to your New Year’s Eve Party,” he answers, confused. She was standing right there the whole conversation.

Lexie rolls her eyes. “Not to Harry. On Skype,” she clarifies, gesturing towards Luke’s laptop. “I may have gotten a C- in French, but I can recognize my own name.”

“Oh,” says Luke. That makes more sense. “They asked if you were my girlfriend.”


“I told them I hoped so.”

This clearly pleases Lexie, who beams and kisses him on his cheek. “Man never is, but always to be blessed,” she says enigmatically.

Luke furrows his brow. “Shakespeare?” he guesses.

“Pope,” Lexie answers with a knowing smile and waltzes out of his room.

Puzzled, Luke turns back to his laptop and does a quick Google search. The quote turns out to be from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man:

Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

He’s not quite sure what to make of that.

It’s good to spend time with Harry again, but it’s also strange. He’s forcefully aware that it was as much an accident as anything that they ended up best friends in high school, keeping in touch through college. They don’t really have all that much in common, a point that is driven home with emphasis as they compare their stories of the last five years.

“Prince Hal!” Lexie greets Harry as she enters the living room. “You want a beer?”

“Sure,” Harry agrees, flashing Lexie a smile, and she departs for the kitchen.

“So what have you been up to now that you're back?” Harry asks.

“I don’t know,” says Luke. “Mostly I’ve just been hanging out with Lexie.”

Harry gets a strange look on his face. “Do you think that’s wise?”

“What do you mean?” He didn’t think Harry knew about the tension between him and Lexie, but now he has to wonder what exactly his friend might have suspected.

“Nothing, man,” Harry says, as Lexie enters holding three bottles of Yuengling and a bottle opener. "You guys going to the Henderson party Wednesday night?" Every year, Felicia Henderson and her brother Jonathon hold a big party the night before New Year's Eve.

"Probably," Lexie answers with a shrug. "I don't see why not. It's always a good time."

Harry nods as he takes a Yuengling from Lexie, then holds it out so she can take off the cap. Lexie hands a bottle to Luke, then sits down on the couch in between the two of them.

Luke’s first thought is that after the way she was cuddled up by his side on Saturday night, the distance she’s leaving between her and him on the couch is--while undeniably prudent--strange and uncomfortable. He has to fight the urge to pull her closer, or to lay his hand on her thigh, or to touch her in one of a hundred other forbidden ways.

His second thought is how weird it is to see her with a beer in her hand. Despite everything, despite fucking her at least once a day since he’s been back, he still hasn’t come entirely to terms with the fact that she’s an adult now, that his baby sister isn’t sixteen years old anymore.

“So, how’s college?” Harry asks Lexie. “You’re studying pre-law, right?”

”Yeah,” agrees Lexie, then takes a sip of her beer. “It’s not so bad. I aced my poli sci final.”

Harry smiles at Luke across Lexie. “Your sis is gonna be a big bad lawyer,” he says with a grin.

Luke forces himself to smile back. Is it right, he asks himself not for the first time, to ask Lexie to give that up? Even if it’s not a path she picked for herself per se, Luke knows she would kill at it. He imagines her in court, dressed in a skirtsuit, making oral arguments before an intent jury. Is it fair to take that future away from her?

He’s not, he tells himself: he’s simply giving her a choice, letting her choose for herself. He even almost convinces himself--but not quite.

“I saw that you broke up with that Colette girl,” Harry says, as if intuiting that a change of subject is in order. “Shame; from those pictures you posted, she was a hottie.”

Luke takes another swallow of beer. “Yeah, she was,” he says, because he can’t very well deny it. Colette may not have been Lexie, but it wasn’t as if she had been at all lacking in the looks department.

Actually, if Luke is being honest, Colette was pretty much the perfect girlfriend: smart, hot, caring, and terrific in bed. After all, it wasn’t her fault she wasn’t Lexie.

Lexie takes another swig from her beer, then pulls a deck of cards from her jeans’ pocket. “So boys,” she says, “anyone up for a game of poker?”

The three of them relocate from the living room couch to the kitchen table, and Lexie deals out their hands. Luke wins the first hand with a pair of kings, then Harry wins the next two hands. The next hand, Luke draws a full house and gets into a bidding war with Lexie, who goes all in.

Unfortunately for her, turns out she only has a king-high straight.

“Lend me a twenty so I can keep playing?” Lexie asks Luke. “I’ll pay you back.” She says this last sentence totally casually, but under the table her hand moves to press against the crotch of his jeans. His dick immediately stirs under her touch.

“Um, sure,” he says, unable to quite match her level of naturalness, and hands her two tens from the pile of bills in front of him.

Lexie goes on to win the next four hands straight. At the end, she’s won over a hundred dollars for herself, not a bad take for what was supposed to be just a friendly game.

After Harry leaves, Lexie picks up the deck, starts to shuffle. “Want to play strip poker this time?”

Luke glances at the clock. “I’d love to, but it’s almost time for Mom to get home from work. It’d be a little hard to explain to her what her kids are doing playing cards half-naked at the kitchen table.”

Lexie accepts this, but keeps on shuffling. “Rummy, then?”

“Sure,” he says, then takes the deck from her and starts to deal. She gets up and gets another Yuengling from the fridge.

They play for a couple of minutes in silence, passing the beer back and forth between them. “So what’s the real reason you and Colette broke up?” she asks suddenly as she puts down three deuces in front of her, then discards a red ace.

Luke picks up the ace, uses it to put down a queen-king-ace straight. “Mostly the reason I gave Gwen on Christmas is the truth,” he says, discarding a black ten. “But--”

Lexie picks up a card from the deck. “Yes?”

“I think maybe, on some level, deep-down, Colette realized that every time I made love to her I was thinking of another woman.”

Lexie makes a show of glaring at him over her cards. “That other woman had better have been me,” she says, but there’s a playfulness in her eyes that tells him she knows very well that woman was her.

“Of course it was you,” he tells her. “Who else is there?”

Lexie nods, doesn’t say anything else as she studies her cards. They play on for several more minutes, not talking (except for Lexie’s cry of “Rummy!” when Luke absent-mindedly discards a deuce) until Lexie once again breaks the silence. “I’ve been thinking about what you asked me on Saturday, you know.”

“Yeah?” Luke asks, endeavoring to keep his voice neutral.

“Yeah,” Lexie confirms. “And--I don’t know. I mean, maybe you could just leave your life here and move to Africa, but I’m not you. I have school, my friends, Mom and Dad, even Uncle Pete and Aunt Mary and Gwen. I love you, Luke, but that’s a lot to walk away from.”

“I know,” Luke admits, trying not to let disappointment color his voice. “But I had to ask.”

“I get that,” Lexie says, her voice warm and understanding. “And I’m not saying no, not yet. Just--I don’t know what I’m saying.” She places her hand down on the table, then gets up and walks around the table, slips down onto his lap, and kisses him.

“Mom--” he begins, but she cuts him off with another kiss.

“We can hear her come in from here just fine,” she points out, and kisses him once again.

They must make out for ten minutes or so until they do indeed hear the sound of a key in the front door and Lexie gracefully slips off his lap.

“There you are,” Mom says as she enters the kitchen from the living room. “Did you two have fun today?”

“Yeah,” agrees Lexie. “Luke’s friend Harry came over and we played poker.”

“She skinned Harry and me blind, she means,” Luke elaborates, teasingly. “I’m going to have to hitch-hike back to Africa, now.”

Mom laughs, then opens the fridge and peers inside. “Pasta okay for dinner tonight?” she asks.

Luke bites back a frustrated sigh. He knows that the reason his mom only works part-time as a paralegal at his dad’s firm is because she enjoys cooking and taking care of the house. That isn’t really even all that hard for him to understand, either; after all, he quite enjoys cooking himself and frequently has his friends and co-workers in West Africa over for dinner parties. But at the same time, it’s so ridiculously patriarchal that he can’t help but judge her for her choice even as he admits that it’s hers to make, not his.

“Pasta’s great, Mom,” he tells her. Even pasta in the Matthews household is a production in itself; he knows she’s going to insist on making meatballs and garlic bread and a salad besides. “Is there anything I can help you with?” He knows even before he asks the question that her answer will be in the negative.

Lexie resumes her seat across from him and picks up her hand. She puts down three queens and three kings, then discards an ace, leaving her hand empty. “I win,” she says with a smile.

Chapter Text

On Tuesday, Luke wakes up even before his parents leave for work. In Africa, he had gotten used to waking up with the sun; apparently now his body’s finally gotten used to the new time zone. He follows the scent of coffee downstairs and into the kitchen.

“What are your plans for today?” his dad, dressed in suit and tie, asks from across his cup of Folgers.

“I don’t know,” he admits. He and Lexie have been playing it more or less by ear so far.

“You should get out of the house,” Dad advises. “It’s not good to spend all your time inside.”

Luke nods, thinking that Dad is right. He and Lexie should get out of the house. He’s trying to convince her to go to West Africa with him, and what has he done? Stayed in all the time. Admittedly, the sex was fantastic, but he knows he has more to offer her than that.

Once Mom and Dad have both left, he lets himself into Lexie’s room, sits down on the edge of her bed, and gently shakes her awake. She groggily blinks awake, looks at him, and smiles. “Good morning,” she says. “Care to join me in here?”

It’s tempting, but he wants to stick to his newfound determination to wine and dine Lexie. “Get dressed,” he tells her. “Put on something nice. I’m taking you out.”

Lexie studies him for a moment, then nods. “Okay,” she agrees, “but I get to decide where.”

Since Luke hasn’t figured out yet where he’s going to take Lexie, that trade actually works out in his favor. “Deal.”

Lexie seems to consider for a moment, then comes to a silent decision. “Go change into something nice,” she tells him, echoing his earlier request. “But not too nice. You’re going to want to be comfortable.”

That sounds vaguely ominous, but he’s agreed to do whatever she’s chosen. He returns to his room, puts on a pair of khakis and a polo shirt, then heads downstairs to wait for Lexie as she gets ready, bringing his copy of Tail of the Blue Bird down with him. He sits down on the couch, opens the book to the page he had dog-eared to save his place, and starts reading, quickly getting caught up again in the exploits of Kayo and Constable Garba.

He’ll leave the book with Lexie if she doesn’t go back to Africa with him, he decides. The blend of magical realism and mystery fiction is really right up her alley.

He becomes so engrossed in the book that when he suddenly realizes Lexie is standing in front of him, dressed in a v-necked sweater and a corduroy skirt over white tights, he’s not sure how long she’s been there. “Ready to go?” he asks, putting down the book.

“Yep,” says Lexie with an ominously pleased smile and leads the way out of the house to the driveway, grabbing a winter jacket out of the hall closet on her way out. Luke grabs his as well.

Luke waits for Lexie to unlock the doors, then gets into the passenger seat of Lexie’s yellow ‘96 Jetta. The car had been a sixteenth-birthday present from their parents. The past five years have not been as kind to it as they have been to Lexie herself, Luke notes.

Still, it starts up without a problem, and within minutes Lexie’s stopped at a Dunkin Donuts for them to grab a quick breakfast. Once they’re back in the car, Lexie pulls onto the interstate. Luke still doesn’t know what their destination is.

“If I go with you to Africa, am I going to have to learn French?” Lexie asks. Luke’s heart leaps with the knowledge that she’s still actively considering his offer.

“Well, no,” he says, “although it would help. It’s a lot easier to learn by immersion than from Mme. Bienkowski, though.” Mme. Bienkowski was the French teacher at Immaculate Conception High, the Catholic high school both Luke and Lexie attended.

About five minutes later, Lexie pulls into the parking lot of GreatSkate, the closest ice skating rink to their house. Luke suddenly notices the pair of broken-in ice skates in Lexie’s size sitting on the back seat of the car. Had she put them there while he had been engrossed in his book?

Luke pays for their admission into the rink, and then goes to rent a pair of skates for himself. “It’s been a while since I’ve done this, you know,” he reminds Lexie as he laces up the skates.

“You used to play ice hockey,” Lexie points out.

“Yeah, in high school,” says Luke. “That was almost a decade ago now.”

“Don’t worry,” says Lexie. “It’s like riding a bike.”

It’s a little bit more difficult than that, but Luke manages to find his balance again on the skates, and soon the two of them are making laps around the rink, hand in hand. He’d forgotten just how much he had loved the sensation of gliding gracefully across the ice, he realizes. Whether it’s chasing after a puck or just leisurely making his way around the rink, the sense that he’s eluded the normal restrictions of movement is a powerful high.

They continue to skate like that for hours. Sometimes Lexie will say something about her classes, or Luke about his job in West Africa. Other times a random non sequitor gets them going off on one topic or another, be it Renaissance literature or Bollywood drama, and they chase down the tangent until they’ve exhausted it. Often, they just skate in a comfortable silence, enjoying the moment and not letting themselves be troubled by the future, not worrying whether they or brother and sister or boyfriend and girlfriend or both or neither. Or at least, that’s what Luke’s trying to do, to focus on the immediacy of the now, the feel of Lexie’s hand in his, the sound of her voice, the beauty of her face, the air whistling by as they skate. To be in the moment, and try not to think about how in three days he’ll be returning to Africa, either with Lexie or without her.

If only this moment could last forever, he muses. In some ways, it’s even better than their sex. Well, almost as good, at least. In some ways.

Okay, sex with Lexie is totally better, but this is still pretty damn good.

Then, suddenly, Lexie gets a mischievous look on her face, lets go of his hand and darts away from him, skating at what Luke is sure is far too fast during a public skate. He races to keep up with her, but he’s not nearly as stable on his skates as Lexie is on hers, and loses control as he takes a turn. He goes flying into a small child, and as both he and she fall to the ground, his head hits the ice and for a moment, everything goes black.

“Are you all right?” Lexie asks as Luke pulls himself to his feet, uncertain on his skates.

“I’m okay,” Luke answers. “I’m just--”

“Jack and Jill went ’round the rink,” a dark-haired woman singsongs in an English accent as she skates by, “faster and still faster. Jack fell down, and broke his crown, and Jill went tumbling after.”

Luke blinks. “Let’s get you off the ice,” Lexie says, leading him to the rink’s exit.

“So Jack caught Jill, took hold of her and kissed her,” says the dark-haired Englishwoman as she passes by them once again. “This was odd in th’eyes of God, ’cause Jill, she was Jack’s sister.”

“Wait,” says Luke, turning to get a better look at the Englishwoman. “What?” He turns back towards Lexie--

--only to find himself in the kitchen of his appartment, back in Côte d’Ivoire. “Luke?” Colette’s seductive contralto calls out from the bedroom. “Reviens au lit, mon cher. Allons avoir du plaisir orgasmique ici de nous amuser, toi et moi, non? J'ai une surprise sexuelle très spéciale pour toi ce soir.

Une minute,” he calls back to her, trying to take stock of himself. Colette had broken up with him, hadn’t she? And now he is trying to court Lexie--

Colette exits the bedroom, dressed in zebra-print lace panties and a sheer camisole. “Prêt à prendre ces hors moi?

Luke opens his mouth, then closes it again, uncertain what he could possibly say. Instead, he simply makes his way for the front door and exits his apartment, only to step out into the hallway of his old school, Immaculate Conception High. The hallway is filled with students, so it must be passing time in between class periods.

He looks around, trying to regain his bearings, and sees Lexie and Gwen, the way he remembers them before he left, as teenagers. They’re dressed in their Catholic school uniforms, pleated tartan skirts and patent leather shoes and kneesocks and white blouses with the Immaculate Conception High insignia embroidered on the breast pocket. Lexie is getting something out of her locker while Gwen is speaking to her animatedly, the tresses of her chestnut hair flying through the air as her head shakes with excitement. He can’t quite make out what she’s saying, though.

He tries to make his way through the sea of schoolchildren to try to get closer to his sister and his cousin, but the mass of bodies presses against him as they make their way down the hall, pushing him further and further away, like by an ocean riptide too strong to swim against. Then the bell rings, and suddenly the hallway is empty as the students quickly disperse, with Lexie and Gwen nowhere to be seen.

“Women,” a familiar voice says from behind him.

He turns around to see Luke from Ghost Soup Infidel Blue, just like he was on the show, in fuzzy black-and-white.

“Women,” the Infidel repeats. “Fuck them.” The voice is recognizably Marcos Johnson’s, down to the campy acting style with overdramatic pauses, and while the language is a little more R-rated than would have been allowed on the television serial, the sentiment behind it is not exactly out of character. “That’s all they’re . . . good for.”

“Forgive me,” Luke answers, “if I don’t take relationship advice from a womanizing fictional character.”

Infidel Luke gives a quick “whatever, man” shrug. “Just don’t say . . . I didn’t . . . warn you.”

“You didn’t see two girls, brown hair, in school uniforms?” Luke answers. Of course, that description would fit a good quarter of the student body at Immaculate Conception.

“Two?” Infidel Luke asks with a raised eyebrow. “Way to go, man.”

Luke grabs the other Luke by the collar of his Infidel uniform and slams him against the lockers, before it even occurs to him that physically assaulting a space opera action hero might not be the wisest of plans. “That’s my sister and my cousin, you’re talking about,” he practically growls at the monochromatic spacer.

“Sorry man, I . . . didn’t know,” the Infidel apologizes, still in Johnson’s overdramatic cadences.

Luke releases him and steps back, to realize that there is another figure--another Luke, even--in the hallway. Saint Luke, just like he looks on the parish sign, his colors faded and washed out, is watching them from behind kind, weary eyes. He’s leaning on his staff, the dove perched on his shoulder.

“Sorry,” Luke apologizes. “I’m just worried about Lexie and Gwen.”

The evangelist nods, then quickly examines Infidel Luke. “There doesn’t seem to be any harm done,” the saintly physician decides.

“Of course not,” the Infidel agrees, puffing out his chest. “I . . . don’t damage . . . that easily, . . . you know.”

“Of course not,” St. Luke agrees easily, then turns back to Luke. “Now you, your hurt runs a little bit deeper, I suspect. A malady of the heart, if I’m not mistaken.”

“My sister Lexie,” Luke answers. “I’m in love with her.” For some reason, it never even occurs to him to hide his incestuous love from the saint.

“Now that’s . . . just fucked up,” Infidel Luke says, but immediately backs up, his hands up, when Luke glares at him. “Just saying.”

St. Luke nods thoughtfully. “Love is a powerful thing, lad. ‘And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three,’” he quotes, “‘and the greatest of these is love.’ Did I write that? No, that was Paul, wasn’t it? How about ‘Love and be free’?”

“That was St. Augustine,” Luke offers helpfully.

The saint nods, stroking his beard. “It was, wasn’t it. ‘Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not--’”

“St. Paul again.”

“‘For God so loved the world--’”

“St. John.”

“Well, ‘the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little’--that was me, I’m sure of it.”

Well, it was him quoting Jesus, but Luke decides not to nitpick with the evangelist, and just nods.

“Be sure to keep all these things,” St. Luke says to Luke, not a little pompously,“and ponder them in your heart.”

“Thanks, St. Luke,” Luke answers the saint, even if he didn’t actually so much say much of anything at all as just quote Bible verses at Luke. “I promise I’ll light a candle for you next time in church. But right now I need to find my sister.”

St. Luke smiles indulgently and shoos him away with a gesture. “Seek and ye shall find, my son.”

“St. Matthew,” Luke mutters under his breath, as he makes his way down the hall, looking into classroom after classroom, trying to find Lexie. In one classroom, a chimpanzee is lecturing on Euclidean geometry. In another, a Catholic sister is teaching a theology class--only she doesn’t resemble the sisters Luke remembers so much as a woman wearing a “sexy nun” Halloween costume. Or possibly a burlesque stripper dressed as a nun. He quickly moves on.

He turns a corner and comes face to face with Colette still dressed in just the camisole and panties.

“This is a high school,” Luke says. “You can’t be here, dressed like that. There are children here.”

Colette doesn’t say anything, only shoots him a significant look, and Luke glances down at his own body to see that he is completely naked.

It takes a few seconds for the world to come into focus after Luke opens his eyes. When it does, it takes the form of a red-haired thirty-something woman in an E.M.T. uniform kneeling over him.

Ce que le baiser?” he asks, uncertain, disoriented.

“You had a bit of a fall, I’m afraid,” the woman answers cheerfully, answering the question in his voice rather than the question itself. Or at least he hopes so, he thinks as his grip on his own mental processes begins to return.

“Have you ever had a concussion before?” she asks as she shines a small flashlight in his eyes.

“A couple,” he admits, “back in high school. I used to play ice hockey.”

“Well, this one doesn’t look to be too bad,” the paramedic admits reluctantly. “Try to be more careful from now on, though.”

“Promise,” Luke agrees easily.

She looks up at Lexie. “You his girlfriend?”

Luke desperately hopes the paramedic can’t read the panicked indecision suddenly written across Lexie’s face. “His sister,” Lexie answers, after only a second’s hesitation.

“Well, stay with him for the rest of the day, and don’t let him drive,” the paramedic instructs her. “He can take a Tylenol for the pain, but if the headache gets any worse, or if there's any dizziness or confusion, you're going to want to call a doctor."

"Gotcha," says Luke, as Lexie nods to indicate she's understood.

Lexie watches Luke carefully as the two of them walk back to her car, as if she’s afraid he might suddenly collapse without warning in front of her. It’s only about 3 in the afternoon, but the hazy winter sky makes it seem much later.

“Sorry,” she says. “I know ‘traumatic head injury’ isn’t usually good first date fare.”

“It’s not your fault,” he tells her as he gets into the passenger seat of the Jetta. “Had a pretty strange dream while I was knocked out, though.”

“Oh?” asks Lexie as she starts the car up.

“You and Gwen were in it, except you were in your high school uniforms.”

Lexie raises an eyebrow. “Kinky.” She takes the car back on the interstate.

“It wasn’t like that,” Luke says, although now he totally is thinking of it like that, and--yeah. It takes a force of will to banish the question from his mind of whether Lexie still owns any of her old school uniforms. He’s virtually certain Gwen still does. “It was you the way I remembered you, before I left. Gwen was still a brunette and everything.”

“Except you still totally wanted to jump my bones back then,” Lexie points out.

“Well, okay, yeah,” Luke admits, because she’s not wrong.

“Any other random cameos?” Lexie aks.

Luke decides not to mention Colette. “St. Luke, like from the parish sign? And also Luke from Ghost Soup Infidel Blue.” He pauses, something falling into place. “And possibly also Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I really don’t know what was up with that one.”

“And the other two made so much sense?”

Luke shrugged. “Well, you know, Luke-Luke-Luke, so I figure it was a reflection of the self, mirror of the soul kind of thing,” he answers. “Like, St. Luke represents my higher, pious self while Luke from Ghost Soup is my lower, more animal self. Or something. Although to be honest, they both were sort of assholes, just in very different ways, so I don’t really want to think about what that says about myself.”

“I may have possibly written Ghost Soup fanfic when I was in high school where Luke and Angela were secretly brother and sister,” Lexie admits.

“Really?” Luke asks, surprised. “What was your pseud?”

Lexie laughs. “Like there’s any chance in hell of me telling you that. I was fifteen, and it was horrible.”

She’s gotten off the interstate and pulled into the parking lot of a small park about half a mile from their house. “Fancy a walk?” she asks.

“Sure,” Luke says, getting out of the car. “The winter air will do me good.”

There’s a lake at the center of the park, partially frozen over, and a large hill at the south side that several children, still off of school for the Christmas holiday, are sledding down on plastic toboggans. Luke can remember him and Lexie sledding on it themselves in their younger days.

They stroll leisurely along the cleared paved paths which circle the lake, and watch the children play as the sun slowly dips below the horizon.

“So, Parker’s for dinner?” Lexie asks, as they get back in the Jetta two hours later. “Or Luigi’s?”

“Actually,” Luke answers, “I was thinking of L'Étranger.”

Lexie whistles. “Isn’t that a bit pricey?”

“I do have a job, you know,” Luke says. “And besides, you’re worth it.”

L'Étranger has always struck Luke as a strange name for a restaurant, but he supposes it could have been worse. They could have called it La Nausée. Inside, one wall is covered by a mural of Sisyphus pushing his boulder up his hill in Tartarus.

Luke orders in French and the waiter, a young man who can’t be much older than Lexie, just looks at him blankly. He repeats the order in English and the boy nods. “And the lady?”

Lexie looks up at Luke from her menu. “You pick for me,” she says.

“Okay,” says Luke, and hastily re-scans the menu, trying to decide what she would like. “The lamb niçoise with spinach ratatouille,” he decides. “With the Cabernet Sauvignon, I think.” He glances at Lexie. “Sound good?”

She makes a gesture which is halfway in between a shrug and a nod.

Luke hands his menu back to the waiter. “And we’ll have the charcuterie plate as an hors d’œuvre.”

“Great,” says the waiter with another quick nod, and leaves them alone at the table.

“So Sartre is sitting in a cafe,” Lexie recites, “when a waitress approaches him: ‘Can I get you something to drink, Monsieur Sartre?’ And he says, ‘Yes, I'd like a cup of coffee with sugar, but no cream.’”

“And the waitress says, ‘I'm sorry, Monsieur Sartre, we are all out of cream,’” Luke finishes the joke. “‘How about with no milk?’”

Lexie smiles. “Heard that one already, huh?”

Luke just shrugs. “How many French existentialists does it take to change a light bulb?”

“I don’t know. How many?”

“Two,” Luke answers. “One to change the lightbulb and one to observe how the lightbulb symbolizes an incandescent beacon of subjectivity dans un enfer du néant cosmique.” He speaks the French slowly, so she’ll have a better chance of being able to understand him.

Lexie laughs, and, a second later, the waiter returns with the wine and the charcuterie plate. He takes a sip of his wine--a fruity Merlot with notes of mocha and molasses--then takes some andouillette and pâté from the charcuterie plate. Lexie takes some saucisson sec as she looks skeptically at Luke’s pâté.

As eccentric as the idea of an existentialism-themed French restaurant might be, the ambience is nonetheless quite good, comforting but not boring. Luke and Lexie exchange idle conversation as they pick away at the charcuterie plate, finally taking some time out to rest after what proved to be an unexpectedly exciting day.

About a half an hour after they order, the waiter returns with their meals. Despite the questionable quality of the wait staff, the food itself really is quite good. Luke’s canard au Riesling is quite exquisitely decadent, and Lexie’s lamb is just as delectable; they end up eating as much from each other’s plates as from their own. For dessert they share a sinfully delicious crème brûlée.

About halfway through the trip home, it suddenly occurs to Luke that they're not actually headed towards the house anymore. Things become clearer when Lexie pulls off the road by the Podgorski woods. It’s a favorite spot for high schoolers to go to make out, he knows. Heck, he took a few girlfriends here himself. “What are we, teenagers again?” he asks, trying to keep his voice light.

“It certainly feels that way,” Lexie says, as she turns off the engine and kills the lights, “with all this sneaking behind Mom and Dad’s backs.” She leans over the center console and quickly presses her lips to his, and he just as quickly is kissing her back, and just as emphatically.

It’s not long before his hands are slipping up under her shirt, or she is undoing his khakis. Once his pants are open, she grabs onto the back of his seat with her right hand for balance and, still kissing him, slides her hand inside his underwear and takes hold of his dick. It may be too small in the Jetta to comfortably have full-blown sexual intercourse, but her fingers and palm right now aren’t exactly leaving him with any complaints.

It’s still an awkward angle, especially using her non-dominant hand, so he knows Lexie’s not about to do anything too involved or intricate. But a handjob’s not exactly something that necessarily requires all that much expertise or artistry if the situation doesn’t allow for it. Lexie’s hand against his dick is pretty much guaranteed to do the trick no matter what.

She slides her fingers lightly up and down the shaft of his dick, unhurriedly, almost teasingly, as they continue to attack each other’s mouths with their own, their tongues exploring mouths which, despite just how much contact they’ve had with each other these last five days, still contain the flavor of the new and the exciting.

He gently bites down on Lexie’s lower lip and pulls it back a little before releasing it. She bites his chin, less gently.

“Careful,” he says, slipping as many fingers as he can manage inside the cup of her bra. “Don’t want to have to explain to Mom how I ended up with bite marks across my face.”

She bites him again, even as the heel of her palm grinds against his frenulum and her fingers lightly tickle across his scrotum. His hips almost involuntarily thrust up and forward against her hand, desperate for her touch and the satiation it can bring. The need for release is quickly overtaking him now, powerful and undeniable, restricting his entire world to just Lexie’s hand inside his underpants. A second later, he comes, squirting ejaculate against her wrist. He lets out a sigh as his entire body suddenly relaxes.

Lexie breaks their kiss to open the glove box with her right hand, then pulls out a tissue which she uses to wipe off her wrist--after which she reinitiates the kiss as if there had been no interruption.

Luke shifts their positions in the Jetta, lifting himself out of his seat and using the leverage to push her back down against the driver’s seat. It takes him a good half-minute trying to figure out how her skirt works so he can get his hand inside her panties, but eventually he manages it.

It is an incredibly awkward angle, damn it, and his task isn’t nearly as simple to pull off as Lexie’s had been. He’ll always wonder why God had to make female anatomy so much more complicated. But it’s not as if Colette, as adventurous as she was, hadn’t taught him to pleasure a woman in all sort of unlikely (at least a younger, naïver him had thought them unlikely) scenarios and positions, so he attacks the challenge of getting his sister off with as much enthusiasm and skill as he can, and neither is in particularly short supply.

At least he gets to work right-handed, he thinks, as he uses his left hand to balance himself against her seat. Trying to do this with his left hand would be--well, probably not impossible, but a hell of a lot more difficult to be sure.

Unfortunately that means he doesn’t have any hands left underneath her shirt to grope her breasts. What sacrifices he is willing to make for her, he thinks. He’d better make sure she appreciates it.

With that aim in mind, he slips two fingers inside her, slowly, gently. Now that Lexie’s hands are free, they are up underneath his shirt, one pressed against the small of his back, the other on his chest, massaging his nipple.

Once he is reasonably certain his fingers are positioned correctly, he begins moving them, slowly at first but with constantly building speed. Based on the way that Lexie is responding beneath him (well, sort of beneath him, sort of next to him, due to the awkward way they’re positioned in the Jetta), he figures he can’t be too far off.

He must be right, because Lexie’s breathing only gets heavier as he works even more quickly now, with even more force. “Don’t stop,” she whispers, which is good, because that option never even occurred to him, not before he brings her to climax, even if the pose he’s striking right now might not be the most comfortable one in the world.

He sees her body go tight one last time under his touch, and then she goes limp for a moment--but only a moment, because before he knows it, she’s back to kissing him again.

An hour and a half later, the yellow Volkswagen pulls up in front of the Matthews family residence, and Luke and Lexie make their way into the house.

Chapter Text

It's snowing Wednesday morning. Not particularly hard--"Just enough to be annoying," Luke's father says over his cup of Folgers as he prepares for work.

Luke nods. "It's strange seeing so much snow again, after five years in the tropics," he admits.

Once his mother and father have left for work, he heads upstairs to Lexie's bedroom. He quietly enters her room, strips down to his boxers, then slides into bed with her. She stirs as he slips under the blankets but doesn't wake, only turns over so that now she's nestled up against him, her body against his, and Luke lets himself fall back asleep.

Luke wakes to a line of kisses being left along his collarbone. He opens his eyes and there's Lexie, still nestled against him as she presses kiss after kiss against him. "Good morning," she says to him with a smile when she sees he is awake, then climbs on top of him so that she is straddling him.

"Good morning," he echoes, then reaches up to pull her down to him. Their mouths meet halfway in a kiss, but then Lexie pulls away. "I haven't brushed my teeth yet."

"Tough," says Luke, then pulls her back into the kiss. He rolls over so that now he's on top, and keeps on kissing her as he opens the drawer in the nightstand next to her bed and pulls out a condom.

"It's snowing outside," Luke says, about a half-hour later.

"So let's stay in bed all day long where it's nice and warm," Lexie says, then begins leaving a trail of kisses down his chest.

"I'm flattered you have such an exaggerated idea of my virility," Luke tells his sister. "But I'm afraid this is an area where the reality falls short of the fantasy."

Lexie meets his eyes. "It really doesn't," she tells him, and there's a beat, a single moment which seems like it could last forever, before she brings her mouth to his for another kiss.

"It's been five years since I got to see it snow," Luke points out.

"There's been snow on the ground every day since you got here," Lexie counters.

"Yeah, but not coming down. We should go out in."

"And do what?" asks Lexie. "Build a snowman? Throw snowballs at each other like we were little kids again?"

Luke shrugs, doesn't say anything.

"Oh, all right," Lexie says, getting out of bed. "If you insist. And you're quite sure you can't handle another round."

Luke eyes his sister warily as she pulls on a pair of jeans. If he'd realized that she was this insatiable, he's not sure he would have managed to stay away for as long as he did. "Twice in a morning is all I'm capable of, I'm afraid, Lex."

Lex smiles at him as she puts on a sweatshirt, not bothering with a bra. "I suppose a girl can't have everything," she says.

Luke surveys the fridge's contents and decides that a snow day like today calls for grilled cheese sandwiches with bacon and tomato served alongside generous bowls of their mother's homemade soup (fashioned from the leftovers of Christmas dinner, of course). He puts the soup in a small pot on the back burner to heat up and begins to butter the frying pan.

"Is your secret plan to get me so used to you cooking for me that I have to go Africa with you just to get fed?" she asks a couple of minutes later when he sets a plate with two sandwiches on it down in front of you.

"Whatever works," Luke agrees amiably, as he throws two more sandwiches onto the frying pan. "I'm pretty sure you can handle grilled cheese and soup all by yourself, though."

When they're done with lunch, he makes two mugs of hot chocolate, heaped with marshmallows and whipped cream, which they bring with them into the back yard and the snow. Lexie's dressed up in enough layers to clothe an entire family, which is ludicrous because she should really be used to this weather, while he's the one who has spent the last five years in equatorial Africa.

She must be thinking more or less the right idea, because she says, "Sometimes I think you had the right idea, running off to the equator." She takes a sip of her hot chocolate. "It really is fucking cold out here."

"We can go back in if you want to," Luke offers.

Lex shakes her head. "No, go ahead, have your moment or whatever."

There's at least a dozen people standing on the Hendersons' porch despite even the wintry temps, most of them with a beer bottle in one hand and a cigarette or a joint in the other.

"You guys made it!" a familiar voice calls out. Luke turns to see Harry, smiling at him and Lexie with a big grin.

"We said we probably would," Lexie answers amiably.

"Hey, you guys want some?" Harry asks, gesturing at the marijuana joint in his right hand. "It's pretty good stuff."

Lexie shakes her head firmly and moves to press the doorbell on the Henderson' front door.

"Luke! Lexie!" Felicia Henderson greets them as she opens the door, pulling each of them in turn into a hug. "I heard you were back in town for the holidays," she adds to Luke. She was, if he remembers correctly, two years below Luke at Immaculate Conception High, while her younger brother Jonathan was in the year above Lexie.

"Just for the week," he tells her. "I leave to go back day after tomorrow."

"New Year's?" Felicia asks with a frown. "That sucks. I'm pretty sure that 'let auld acquaintance be forgot' wasn't intended to be taken quite that literally." She shrugs and waves them in.

"Anyway, come on in. Food's in the kitchen, the booze is in the basement, and people are pretty much everywhere," she explains to them as she takes their coats.

They make their way to the basement first. "You ever tried it?" he asks Lexie. With the noise levels in the house being as high as they are, his normal indoor voice is more or less the equivalence of a whisper; he would have had to shout to ensure anyone further away than Lexie would be able to hear him clearly.

"What, weed?" Lexie asks after a moment of presumably running the previous couple minutes of conversation through her in mind in search of a suitable referent. "I'm not sixteen years old anymore, you know," she points out, rolling her eyes. "I am a junior in college now."

"I'll take that as a less than fully cooperative yes," Luke says as they make their way down the steps into the Henderson' finished basement, just as gargantuan as the rest of the house. "I was just curious."

There's a few people playing a game of pool at the billiards table in the center of the room, and a few more playing beer pong at the ping-pongtable next to it. A mob of others are watching the games, while still others are seated--often two or three to a seat, many of them making out--at the comfortable-looking bean-bag seats, armchairs, and love seats which line the basement's walls. In a corner of the room, several people are playing Call of Duty in front of a large high-definition widescreen television. They, too, have their mob of spectators.

There's music playing, but the bass is turned up so much as to render it almost unrecognizable.

"If we only have two days left, I'm not going to spend it stoned," Lexie answers. She gestures with her head towards the corner opposite the television, which contains two kegs, several coolers full of cans and bottles of beer and wine coolers, and a table covered in various bottles of spirits and liquors, as well as soft drinks and fruit juices for use as mixers. Jonathon Henderson is playing bartender, more or less. "Just pleasantly buzzed."

"Yuengling?" Luke asks as they make their way to the corner. At Lexie's nod, he kneels down at one of the coolers and fishes two bottles of Yuengling out while she heads over to Jonathan in order to render their compliments to their host.

"Hey, Luke," a voice coos which is even more familiar than Harry's. He looks up from the cooler to see Gwen, dressed in an obscenely short skirt and a top which is alternatingly sequined and diaphanous, with over-the-knee black leather boots. Since he's kneeling, his eyeline is more or less directly into her cleavage, which is only about an inch and a half from his face.

"Gwen, hi," he says as he quickly rises to his feet with the two beer bottles. "Having fun?"

"I am now," she says, leaning in to him much more than he's really comfortable with. She's holding a solo cup full of what looks like cola, but her breath smells like alcohol.

The onslaught of low-frequency mechanical waves of pressure emanating from the Henderson's expensive basement subwoofer ceases momentarily, then begins again. "I love this song," Gwen says almost automatically. Luke has to strain his ears in order to recognize it as "Bottle Pop" by the Pussycat Dolls. "You want to dance?"

"Look, Gwen, I'd love to," he lies. "But I need to get going." He turns away, but she reaches out, turns him back towards her, and kisses him, in a manner that could not at all be confused with any kiss which could be considered even remotely cousinly.

He pulls away as soon as his brain processes what is happening. "You're my cousin, Gwen." Luke feels like a total hypocrite saying this, considering just what he and Lexie have been up to the last few days, but it's the easiest way to let her down. "We can't do this."

He holds her in place by the shoulders as he steps away from her, then quickly navigates his way the long way round the room, through the throng of beer pong spectators, before reuniting with Lexie. On the way, he runs into four different people he knew in high school and is obligated to engage in quick small talk, answering the most inane possible questions about his time in Africa.

Eventually, he gets to Lexie, who's now talking with two other girls he maybe vaguely recognizes, and hands her her beer.

Felicia wasn't lying about the house being full of people. The Henderson's huge three-story French Colonial house is easily the biggest in town, but there must be just as easily well over a hundred people at the party, spilling out of every room.

Neither Luke nor Lexie is exactly socially awkward. Luke's actually quite good at working a room full of strangers, a skill that served him quite well when he traveled to West Africa and found himself a stranger in a strange land. But he's not in a room full of strangers. He's in a house full of people he once knew fairly well, former teammates and ex-girlfriends and casual acquaintances who all think they know him, but who really only know the popular jock that he used to be. If in truth he was ever really the person they think they know.

Lexie grabs his hand and gives it a quick squeeze, as if she's already intuited the thoughts running through his head (which, knowing her, she most likely indeed has). Then she lets go of his hand and instead places a hand on his shoulder, gently guiding him through the house. "Don't worry," she says into his ear. "I'm not letting you out of my sight, not when there's so many of your disgruntled high school girlfriends around so eager to steal you back. Plus, you know, Gwen."

"Did you see--"

"Her kiss you?" Lexie finishes the question. "Yeah, I saw. Looked like one hell of a kiss from where I was."

"I didn't--I mean--"

"Dude, relax." Her voice is light, but perhaps not totally naturally so. "I know it's not your fault."

After about an hour at the Henderson's party, Luke begins to relax. It's helped by the fact that the frequency of people coming to him to catch up with small talk has begun to taper off, but it's helped even more that Lexie hasn't left his side since the incident with Gwen.

He wonders if it's more than a little bit suspicious, if two siblings as far apart in age as he and Lexie are oughtn't to spend more time apart with their disparate friends and acquaintances. He finds he doesn't care, that there's only so much effort he's able to put into keeping up the masquerade.

"I have to pee," Lexie announces. She glances with displeasure at the line of people waiting outside the first-floor bathroom. "You think the upstairs bathroom has a shorter line?"

They go upstairs and it does indeed have a shorter line, although not really by all that much. Lexie grimaces and gets at the back of the queue, while Luke, unmoored from Lexie for the first time since Gwen kissed him, walks into the first room he passes, which he can only assume is Felicia's bedroom. The decoration isn't generic enough to be a guest room, while being far too feminine to be Jonathon's and too, well, young to be their parents'. There's over a dozen people engaged in almost a half-dozen different conversations, either standing or sitting on her bed or one of her armchairs, plus a couple who's making out on her bed.

He sits down on the very edge of the bed in a position where he can see out of Felicia's door into the hallway, and nurses his beer, hoping no one will talk to him. This plan seems to be working surprising well, until--

"There you are," Gwen says as she enters Felicia's room.


"Hi, Gwen," he says, standing up. "I'm just waiting for Lexie--"

"Forget about her," she says, once again leaning into him. This time, there's a quite pronounced slur to her speech, and her movements lack her usual graceful coordination. "You don't need her."

"She's my sister," Luke reminds her gently.

"And I'm your cousin," Gwen agrees. "But the thing is, Luke, I can be so much more if you let me be."

Then she kisses him again, this time with an impassioned, almost frenzied abandon. The surprising forcefulness of her lunge at him combined with the unexpectedness of the gesture has him reeling backwards so that the two of them fall back onto Felicia's bed, with Gwen on top of him. He can feel her body pressed down against his, and okay, yeah, his body is . . . responding, whether he wants to or not.

Next to them, the other couple making out don't even seem to notice them.

"Gwen, no," he says and flips her over so that he's pinning her down. The new pose isn't really any less sexual, but at least he's in control now.

"I really can't leave you alone for even a minute, can I?" Lexie asks as she enters the room.

"I really wish you wouldn't," he says, as he gingerly gets up off of Gwen and then off the bed. He glances over at Lexie who, from the look on her face, isn't quite able to decide if the scene she's encountered upon is hilarious or infuriating.

Gwen reaches up, as if to pull Luke back down again, but wildly miscalculates and begins grasping at air, while Lexie interposes herself between Luke and Gwen. "Come on, Gwen," she says to their cousin gently. "You're only embarrassing yourself."

"You can be a real bitch, you know that?" Gwen asks Lexie.

If Lexie's fazed by the epithet, she doesn't let herself show it. "You don't mean that," she tells Gwen calmly. "That's just the alcohol talking."

"How much have you had to drink?" he asks Gwen.

Gwen pouts. "Just a few vodka cokes."

"You are not driving home," he informs her, then sighs. "We'll give you a ride home." Even if that means having to spend even more time with her while she's drunkenly making passes at him. The things one does for family.

"We can't take her home," Lexie says, eyeing their inebriated cousin critically. "Her parents would kill her if they saw her like this." She lets out a sigh. "I'll call Aunt Mary and tell her she'll be staying at our house tonight."

"Sleepover?" asks Gwen. "Just like old times, then?"

"Minus the footie pyjamas," Lexie says dryly, as she and Lexie lead her out of Felicia's bedroom, through the hall and down the steps back to the ground floor.

Luke sees Felicia in the crowd and makes a gesture to try and catch her eye. "Leaving already?" she asks when she comes over, sounding genuinely disappointed.

"I think Gwen has sort of partied herself out," Luke notes apologetically, with a quick glance at his cousin who is now more or less hanging off his arm.

Felicia flashes him a sympathetic smile. "I'll get your coats, then," she says, leaving and returning a minute later with the promised garments,

Luke has to help Gwen into her coat, which is both pink and significantly thinner than really indicated by the weather. Memories flash through his mind of him performing the same service for his cousin, when she was three and he was twelve. Plus ça change. . . .

They lead Gwen to Lexie's car, but she keeps stumbling in the gravel of the Henderson' driveway in her high-heeled boots, and eventually Luke just sweeps his cousin up into a fireman's carry. She definitely weighs more than she did when she was three.

Lexie opens the back door of her Jetta for him and he places Gwen gently on the backseat, then goes around and gets in the other side of the car, sitting in the backseat next to Gwen so to be better to keep an eye on her. She curls up against him, her head resting on his shoulder, but she doesn't say anything, and by the time Lexie pulls into the driveway of their parents' house, Gwen is fast asleep.

Luke gets out and scoops up his cousin to carry her into the house. "Huh?" she asks, coming at least partially awake. "Shh," Luke whispers into her ear. "Go back to sleep."

Their own parents have already turned in for the night, so they do their best to make their way into the house and up to Lexie's bedroom as quietly as possible, with Lexie turning lights on and off as they travel from room to room.

"Help me get her boots off," Lexie tells him once he's laid Gwen down on Lexie's bed. It's not easy, but eventually they get them off.

"You're going to be okay with her?" he asks, uncertainly.

"I'm a junior in college," she reminds him for the second time that night. "Trust me, I know what to do with a drunk roommate."

"Okay," says Luke, and begins to head out of her room.

"Wait," says Lexie, and Luke turns back to face his sister.

Lexie glances behind her at Gwen, who is lying in the bed with her back to them. Her groaning indicates she's still at least half-awake, but she seems pretty oblivious to the world around her. Lexie angles her face up for a kiss and Luke obliges. "Good night," he says to her.

"Good night," she answers back, and he .crosses the hall to his own bedroom.

He knows he's not going to be able to fall asleep in the state he's in right now, so once he's gotten into bed he--ahem--takes things into his own hands, slipping his hand into his boxers and around his dick.

He imagines himself in bed with Lexie, but he just can't get the image of Gwen in that miniskirt and those thigh-high boots out of his mind whether he wants to or not. In his mind's eye, Gwen pulls off her top, and a pair of exquisite, firm white breasts now hang free and unencumbered. He imagines himself reaching out and grabbing them, giving each a rough squeeze as the red areolae brush against the heels of his palms.

Because this is his imagination, he's able to do all of this without getting out of his bed, where a naked Lexie is sucking on his earlobe.

Meanwhile, Gwen pulls back the covers on the bed, then reaches out and slips his boxers down in order to go down on him, taking him into her mouth, her tongue massaging the shaft of his dick, gently at first, then with steadily increasing forcefulness and speed.

Gwen begins to deep-throat him, even as Lexie's fingertips trace lines across his chest and her teeth drag against his chin. He imagines reaching out with one hand and slipping his fingers through the bottle-blonde locks of Gwen's hair, while with the other he reaches around Lexie in order to grab his sister's ass.

His breathing--both in the fantasy and in real life--becomes heavier as he gets closer and closer to release. Suddenly the imagined scenario shifts completely and they're no longer in the bed; instead, Luke has--Gwen? Lexie? Colette? l'éternel féminin?--bent over the hood of Lexie's Jetta as he fucks her from behind, doggystyle, and then he comes and the fantasy dissolves and he has ejaculate shot all across his stomach and chest.

He grabs a dirty t-shirt to wipe off the mess, throws it across the room into the hamper, then rolls over and falls asleep almost instantly.

Chapter Text

He sleeps late the next morning. Apparently the night before tired him out more than he realized. He gets out of bed and dresses, pulling on a t-shirt and jeans.

The door to Lexie’s bedroom is open and when he glances in, he sees it’s empty. He continues his way downstairs and finds both his sister and his cousin in the kitchen. Lexie's eating a cup of yogurt, while a cup of coffee sits steaming in front of Gwen.

Gwen's dressed in her outfit from the night before, of course, and looks particularly incongruous in the miniskirt and sequined top at the kitchen breakfast table.

"About last night," Gwen begins as Luke pulls a mug out of the cabinet and helps himself to some of the coffee in the pot.

Luke makes a shooing away gesture with his free hand. "Forget about it."

"That might be best," Gwen admits, not meeting his eyes. "Still, sorry."

An uncomfortable silence lingers over the kitchen, so Luke busies himself pulling ingredients out of the fridge so that he can make omelettes for Lexie and Gwen (and himself, of course).

They eat breakfast in a reasonably companionable silence. When they're finished, Lexie picks up her keys. "Come on," she says to Gwen. "I'll give you a ride back to the Henderson's to pick up your car."

Gwen nods, then turns and pulls Luke into a hug, leaning up to give him a relatively chaste kiss upon the cheek. “Bye,” she says. “I’ll miss you.”

"You too," he says, hugging her back, because despite everything, she's still his cousin, and he will. "Goodbye, Gwen."

She pulls away, a sullen expression on her face, and follows Lexie out of the kitchen to the Jetta. Luke turns back to the kitchen counter and begins cleaning the mess from breakfast.

It's less than half an hour before Lexie returns from dropping off Gwen, but by the time she does, Luke is finished cleaning the kitchen and seated at the living room sofa with Tail of the Blue Bird.

She doesn't say anything when she enters the house, just sits down on the sofa next him, resting her head on his shoulder. He pretends to continue to read, but he's too focused on her body next to him, touching him, to think of anything else. The moment is simple, uncomplicated, and he wishes it could last forever: just the two of them, undisturbed by the universe. He tries not to think about how this time tomorrow, he'll be on a plane to Paris, and Lexie might not be with him.

It's at least a couple of minutes before Lexie breaks the silence. “If I say no, will you ask Gwen to go to Africa with you? She’d probably say yes, you know.”

“Maybe,” says Luke. Personally he doubts it, but Lexie knows Gwen better than he does; not only is she closer to Gwen’s age and the same gender, but Lexie’s been present these past five years that Luke has been absent. “But I don’t want Gwen. I want you.”

“You’re not attracted to her?” Her voice is incredulous, almost accusing.

Luke shrugs, causing Lexie's head to bob up on his shoulder. “Do I think she’s hot? Sure. And I love her, because she’s my cousin. But I love you more than just as a sister, and it’s not just the sex, either--although God knows, that’s been great." He takes a breath. "I’m in love with you, Lex: mad, wild, desperate love.”

He’s never told her that before, he suddenly realizes, feeling like a dumbass. He’s told her that he loves her, sure--but she’s his sister, of course he loves her. Hell, he was telling her he loved her before she was old enough to understand what he was saying. But it strikes him that he’s been woefully inadequate in communicating just how much she means to him.

He turns towards her, forcing her to lift her head from his shoulder. “Will I be irredeemably corny if I say you’re my soulmate?” he asks her, looking her right in the eyes.

“Yes,” says Lexie without hesitation, but Luke can see that she is pleased.

“Are you jealous?” he asks her, unable to keep from returning her smile.

“Of Gwen? No,” Lexie answers, too quickly.

"Good, because you shouldn't be," he tries to reassure her. "And you’re not upset by what she said to you last night?”

Lexie laughs. “It’s not the first time she's ever called me a bitch, Luke. Believe me, we've called each either other a whole lot worse. Remember, she’s only a grade below me. You can figure we were pretty much in competition for the same boys all the way through high school."

"You two have similar taste in men, huh?"

"Apparently," Lexie agrees, and nestles into his side.

Luke puts his arm around her. "I wish it didn't have to be like this," he says. "I wish we didn't have to choose."

"'Oh, that it were not in religion sin,'" Lexie says, a little wistfully, "'to make our love a god and worship it.'"

“Pope again?” Luke guesses.

“John Ford,” Lexie answers. “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.”

Luke laughs. “Appropriate.”

“I thought so,” agrees Lexie wryly, then grows somber. "'For every sigh that thou hast spent for me, I have sigh'd ten,'" she recites, the memorized Jacobean verse flowing from her lips as naturally as if she were a native speaker. "'For every tear shed, twenty.'"

Luke just pulls her closer to him, tightening the embrace. They sit there, holding each other, in silence.

Luke looks at his reflection in his bedroom mirror. There's nothing wrong with it, per se: the six-year-old suit he's wearing still fits him just fine. Still, he frowns, unsatisfied. He changes his tie, but he's no more pleased with the result.

He checks his laptop for the time, sees that it's less than a half-hour until they're supposed to be picked up. He makes his way across the hall to her room and knocks on the door.

"Come in," she answers, and he opens the door. She’s standing in front of her own mirror, dressed in a crimson backless minidress, as she applies her makeup.

“Yowsa,” says Luke. “You do know it’s winter outside, right?”

Lexie smiles. “I’ll wear a jacket.” She glances over at him. "You're looking quite handsome tonight, yourself."

"Not like you," he demurs. "You look--" She looks stunningly gorgeous, enough to drive him absolutely wild with desire. "You're more than beautiful. Radiant."

"Why, thank you, sir," she says as she finishes applying her makeup, then bends over and picks up her heels. "We'd better go downstairs."

"My beautiful children," their mother beams as they walk down the steps. "James, go get the camera."

Their father returns with the digital camera, and the two of them are forced to pose for a series of shots, both individually and together, almost as if they were going to prom or something. This continues for a good fifteen minutes.

Lexie's cell phone buzzes, and she announces that the limousine is out front and they have to go.

"I'll drive Luke to the airport tomorrow," Lexie says. "That way the two of you can sleep in tomorrow."

"Are you sure?" their father asks. "You'll be having a late night tonight."

"So will you," Lexie answers firmly. "And I'll be getting just as much sleep as Luke will, and he doesn't have any choice but to get up."

"If you're sure," he agrees uncertainly, then turns to Luke. "Have a good trip back then, son."

"Thanks, Dad," he says, taking his father's extended hand and shaking it, then giving him a quick hug.

"Are you sure you need to go back?" his mother asks him as she pulls him into a tight embrace.

"I'm sure," he tells her, hugging her back. For all his doubts and uncertainties, of that much, he is indeed sure.

They live the closest to the city out of Lexie’s college friends, so the limo’s already full of the other girls when they get in. Lexie quickly introduces them: Tamara, Magda, London, and Jane.

“So this is your brother,” Tamara says, eyeing Luke with an assessing gaze from behind her turtleshell spectacles. “You didn’t say he was a hottie.”

“Is he single?” London asks, her own gaze no less predatory.

“He has a girlfriend,” Lexie answers quickly, before Luke has a chance to speak for himself.

The drive into the city consists mostly of Luke answering questions about Africa: questions he's gotten used to hearing by now, ones he can now answer easily enough without thinking. He's surrounded by a quartet of attractive young women, but he finds he can only think of Lexie next to him. He tries to act as if the two of them pressed together is only the regular familiarity of brother and sister in a crowded limousine, that he's not distracted by the bared skin of her exposed back, shoulders, legs, cleavage.

At last, the limousine pulls up in front of their destination, and the six of them get out and make their way into the gallery's grand banquet hall. The room is huge and filled with people, men and women (mostly in their twenties and thirties, Luke notices) dressed in formalwear, servers perambulating with hors d'oeurvres, the bar at the far side of the room, and the band on the stage, playing. The edges of the room are lined with large abstract sculptures and paintings.

The band seems to specialize in brassy jazz covers of classic rock songs. Luke’s not a great jazz fan, but the results are surprisingly danceable, and he joins Lexie and her friends on the dance floor. He doesn’t consider himself a great dancer, but what he lacks in skill he’s willing to make up in enthusiasm, especially once he’s had a couple of whiskey sours in him.

He dances with each of Lexie's friends in turn. Tamara, the bookish-looking Latina in a streaming olive gown, moves with more confidence than grace, while Magda, the tall, red-haired beauty wrapped in diaphanous pink silk, is almost timid. London, a short dark-skinned woman with bleach-blonde hair even lighter than Gwen's and a silver sheath dress, slips in front of him as if they were dancing partners all their lives. Jane--well, he's pretty sure he did in fact dance with Jane at some point, but the memory of the event fails to leave any lasting impression whatsoever.

At last he ends up in front of Lexie, as the band plays “Edge of Seventeen.” "Enjoying yourself?" Lexie asks."

"Sure," he answers easily enough, the music and alcohol having their effect. "You?"

She nods, but there's an uncertainty behind it. "And the days go by like a strand in the wind," the vocalist sings behind them. "In the web that is my own, I begin again."

"Come on," Luke says, and twirls her around, earning a gleeful shout and a smile. They dance, their bodies anticipating each other's movements as only siblings could. The vocalist continues to sing and the band continues to play but Luke doesn't even hear them, his entire world reduced him and Lexie, moving in tandem, as if they were a single, two-bodied organism.

Then the song ends and, an instant behind it, so does their seemingly endless movement. The illusion suddenly--almost violently--broken, both Luke and Lexie make their way off the dance floor back to the bar, where Luke orders another whiskey sour and Lexie a cosmopolitan martini. "Having a good time?" he asks her. He is, much more so than he had expected, if he's being honest.

Lexie bites her lip, surprisingly uncertain, then nods. "If music be the food of love, play on," she quotes. She sounds more than a little wistful, or maybe that's just the alcohol slurring her speech. "Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die."

"That one's Shakespeare, I'm sure of it," he says, wracking his brain for which play. "As You Like It?"

"Twelfth Night," she corrects with a wry smile. "Orsino to his lords, Act 1, Scene 1."

Luke shrugs, accepting the correction. He's always enjoyed to read, but that enjoyment dims in comparison to Lexie's own love of the written word. She's most fond of the early modern poets, the Shakespeares and Popes and Fords, but really she's always been able to devour any book or poem or story she came into contact with, cherishing it until she could quote it from memory. Luke can imagine her as a lawyer, divorced from all but the most technical of prose, about as much as--well, about as well as he can imagine himself as one, which is to say not at all.

The music comes to a temporary lull, as the band finishes the most recent song, a ragtime-style rendition of Bowie's "Space Oddity" featuring an extended trumpet solo. "We have time for one more dance before midnight," the band's frontwoman announces. "So find yourself someone to bring in the new year with, and get to the dance floor!"

Luke finishes his whiskey in one last gulp. "Would you care to dance?" he asks Lexie, extending a hand to her.

Lexie downs her own drink, then places the martini glass on the bar. "I'd love to," she answers, rising and taking his hand, and the two of them make their way back to the dance floor.

The band starts to play. They've somehow--brilliantly--managed to turn Buffet's “Margaritaville” into a sort of oddly syncopated waltz, and the two siblings immediately and easily settle into a simple box step, as the vocalist sorrowfully croons over her lost shaker of salt.

“Yes,” Lexie says, about a minute into the waltz, right after they've (mostly) perfectly executed a spin.

“Yes?” he asks.

“Yes, I’ll go with you. To Africa, I mean.” She disengages from his embrace, then pulls the handcrafted wooden ring he had given her for Christmas off of the ring finger of her right hand, and slips it onto the same finger of her left hand. Then she melts back into his arms and they resume dancing.

The waltz ends, of course, with the vocalist's mournful yet inevitable conclusion that she is herself responsible for her mislocated salt-shaker. A drumroll follows as the band counts down the final seconds of the 2009.

"Ten! . . . Nine! . . . Eight!"

Luke stares down at Lexie, his sister's eyes reflecting his own love and devotion back at him. The last five years--the last twenty-eight years, really--may have been long and difficult as he was forced to lose and find himself, but he knows they were all worth it, because they culminate in this moment. This is who he is: brother, lover, and companion, until death do them part.

"Seven! . . . Six! . . . Five! . . . Four!"

Luke doesn't know what 2010 will have in store for him, for them. It doesn't matter. He'll have Lexie at his side to spend it--and every year after--with, and that makes everything else unimportant in comparison. In good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, they will have each other to love and honor all the days of their life.

"Three! . . . Two! . . . One! . . . HAPPY NEW YEAR!!"

They kiss, and time stands still.

Chapter Text

The kiss isn't the deepest or longest or most aggressive they've shared--that honor goes, hands down, to that first kiss on Christmas morning--but neither is it exactly brief, nor chaste. And this kiss possesses something all their previous kisses lacked. It's not just an expression of love or affection or desire, although all of those are present in it. But there's something more, something which had been absent even in their lovemaking. This kiss contains a promise, a sacrament, the final and inextricable communion of two souls.

When they break the kiss, Luke glances out of the corner of his eyes, first left and then right, to see if any of Lexie's friends were watching. He doesn't see any of them, but also finds he doesn't really care one way or another. His sister is in his arms and he is never, ever going to let go of her. "Happy New Year, Lex."

Lexie smiles back at him, her face an image of beatific contentment. "Happy New Year," she replies, as the band begins to play "Auld Lang Syne."

Luke’s not sure if Lexie’s friends saw them kiss or if everybody is just very tired and drunk, but there’s silence in the limo as it takes them away from the city. He figures it doesn’t matter. Even if they did see something, Luke and Lexie will be long gone by the time anything would be able to get back to their parents.

The limo pulls up in front of the Matthews household, and Luke and Lexie say a brief goodbye to Tamara, Magda, London, and Jane as they get out, then start their walk up to house. "Mom and Dad must still be at Uncle Peter and Aunt Mary's," Lexie notes, gesturing at the absence of their father's car in the driveway.

They make their way through the house and up the stairs. "See you in a couple of hours," he tells Lexie. She leans in for a kiss and he obliges, then makes his way into his room. He makes sure to set his alarm, then collapses into bed, where unconsciousness takes him immediately.

Luke wakes up what seems like a few minutes later, his alarm blaring in his ears as he groggily searches for it to turn it off. It requires an act of will to get out of bed, but Africa is calling. He winces as he gets up and quickly dresses, then finishes packing his bag before exiting his room, half-afraid to find out his memories of New Year's were nothing but a very pleasant dream.

He finds Lexie in the bathroom, dressed in travel clothes and brushing her teeth. He grabs his own travel toothbrush and brushes his own teeth. Once they've both spit out into the sink, he leans over and gives Lexie a quick good-morning. "Morning."

"Morning," she says, smiling up at him. "You ready to go?"

"Just as soon as I pack my toothbrush," he tells her, shaking the water from its bristles before returning it to its travel case. "You?"

"Yep," Lexie says. "Let's go."

It's a bittersweet sensation getting in the Jetta with Lexie, knowing he may never go back to this house. But that house isn't his home, not anymore. The one thing that made it still "home" is sitting in the driver's seat of the Jetta, and she's going with him. He can't really convince himself it's true, but he just watches as they get onto the highway and, about twenty minutes later, take the exit for the airport.

They leave her car in the short-term parking lot. “We can call our parents from Paris and tell them to pick it up,” he says as he grabs his backpack and gets out of the car.

To his surprise, he watches Lexie pop the trunk of her Jetta and pull out a full-sized luggage bag. “When did you pack that?” he asks.

Lexie shrugs. “A couple of days ago, just in case,” she answers. “I figured I could always just unpack it if I decided not to go, and I didn’t want to end up deciding to go and then being forced to leave everything behind because I didn’t have time to pack.”

They make their way to the terminal and manage to check their baggage and go through security without any incident, giving them time to catch breakfast on the concourse while they wait for their flight. Lexie takes a bite out of her croissant, then leans over and rests her head on Luke's shoulder.

"Tired?" he asks her.

"Three hours isn't exactly a full night's sleep," she agrees.

Luke turns his head and presses a kiss to her forehead. "Just be glad you didn't drink more than you did last night," he points out. "An airplane isn't exactly an ideal place for a hangover."

"Ugh," she says, then lifts her head and looks at Luke. "Speaking of getting wasted, how do you think Gwen will react when she learns I've run off with you?"

Luke shrugs. "She'll get over it," he says nonchalantly, hoping he's right. But as much hopes the best for his cousin, he also finds that he doesn't really care how she reacts.

Lexie nods thoughtfully. "How do you think Mom and Dad will react?" she asks, the worry clear on her face.

Despite Lexie's obvious trepidation, Luke still can't quite totally stifle a wry laugh in response to her question. "Badly," he admits. He can't imagine they'll take Lexie's sudden disappearance very well, even without them knowing the truth about the nature of the relationship between their son and daughter. "But what are they going to do about it? Follow us to Africa and try to drag you back with them?"

Lexie laughs. "I wouldn't put it past them."

Luke takes her left hand, the hand whose ring finger now bears his ring, and brings it to his mouth, pressing a soft kiss to her knuckles. "You're not the little sixteen-year-old girl you were when I left for Africa. You're an adult now. You deserve to get to make this decision for yourself." He's just glad as hell the decision she made was to choose him.

Lexie sighs. "I know. But it's still a little scary, you know."

He presses a second kiss to her knuckles. "I know," he answers. "Life-changing events always are. But I'll be right there with you, I promise."

Lexie smiles. "Always?"

Luke nods, not letting go of her hand. "Always."

After breakfast, they walk towards their gate hand in hand and wait for their plane to stard boarding. When it's time to board, they stand, still holding hands. "Ready?" Luke asks, giving Lexie's hand a quick squeeze.

"Yeah," Lexie answers, a grin spreading across her face. "Let's go home."