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False Kings

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Casey woke with her head feeling like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it the night before, and she was just starting to feel the effects of a concussion. Or internal bleeding.

She groaned as she struggled to sit up, her vision convinced the world was slowly spinning. Which it technically always was, but noticing that constantly would be exhausting and frankly dangerous.

She inched her way off her bed and slipped her feet into her bunny slippers, the same beautiful pink as her favorite pair of pajamas, though the pink had faded a bit from years of love.

She made her way to the one bathroom she shared with four combined siblings and legally-considered-siblings-by-contract-of-marriage-and-social-etiquette, praying no one saw her. She did not, no, could not bear the shame of her younger siblings seeing her like this. It would be absolutely unseemly, incredibly disappointing and improper. She’d had her low points of course, but overall she strived to be a good role model, an example they could all follow. As opposed to Derek, who tended to coincide as the instigator of said low points.

Ugh, Derek. Now that was truly the worst person she could run into this morning. Stupid Derek and his stupid party. Why did she go? She hadn’t even wanted to go! She just couldn’t stand the thought of him getting to swing out to a cool forest party while she stayed home and prepped stuff for senior year.

She’d been prepping. All summer, in fact. She could take one night off to party and be a teenager!

She groaned miserably and trailed her hand along the wall, trying to keep herself balanced as she made her way to the bathroom. God, she hoped it was empty.

By some miracle of Sunday mornings, it was and she whipped the door shut and locked behind her as soon as she was inside. She leaned the back of her head against it, loosening a slow breath.

Only one more year. Then she’d get her acceptance letter from Harvard, or Duke, or Brown. Take her diploma and get out of London. Spend her days at smoky French cafes and dorm windows adorned with ivy. Nights at poetry readings and debate practice and dress rehearsals.

Only one more year until she could finally show the world what she could do and be applauded for it instead of mocked. Make real friends, date real guys, make a real difference in the world.

She heard a shout from somewhere in the house, followed by the sounds of loud voices and clinging pots.

Just not today.

She rubbed her face, not remembering if she’d managed to take off her makeup the night before. Hopefully if she had any pimples, she could rid herself of them before school started tomorrow. She was determined to get a handle on this year from the get-go.

She shuffled sleepily in the direction of the sink, reaching for her toothbrush. She applied a thin strip of toothpaste and flipped her two-minute hourglass timer, absentmindedly scrubbing away. She was wondering if her mom had remembered to get her teeth whitening strips as she looked up to evaluate the condition of her skin.

She froze. She felt her toothbrush slip from her fingers and tumble into the sink.

Her eyes.

She pressed closer unconsciously, fighting back the tears threatening to blur her vision as her nose hovered in front of the mirror.

Her eyes, normally a bright and clear blue- much like a refreshing and pure body of water- were now darkened. Stormy and obscured, the water churning underneath as you struggle to cross a bridge, fearing what will happen if you fall.

The change in hue was not so dramatic, per se. Casey only truly noticed because she was intimately familiar with the details of her face, having seen it every day. The difference was incredibly subtle, but it was there. She couldn’t explain it; it just was. There was something about her eyes that were different from the day before, and every other day before then.

What had she done?

What had she let in?

A pounding sounded at the door, sending her heart rate into a frenzy. She whirled, gripping the edges of the sink in fear.

“Yo! Whoever’s in there, I gotta go!” Edwin’s voice, cracking a bit from puberty, rang out clearly. “Like, now!”

“Um.” Casey stood frozen, panicking. There was no way. This could not be happening. How could she possibly explain something like this to her younger step-brother? To anyone? She didn’t know how to explain it to herself!

“Casey?” Edwin sounded slightly concerned. “Can you be done yet, please?”

“Period!” She blurted out. “I started my period!”

“Gross! Ew!” She could hear the gagging sounds on the other side of the door. “That’s sick! I so did not need to know that! Forget it, I’m using dad and Nora’s.” She strained her ears to pick up the sound of his retreating footsteps. Only when the hallway sounded empty did she breathe aloud.

She willed herself to turn back around, facing the mirror image once more. Her breath caught again as her gaze trained itself on her eerie irises.

What. The hell.

Casey did not like watching horror movies, or riding big roller coasters, or anything that gave her such an intense feeling of unease. Now, simply looking at herself made the hair on her arms stand on edge.

She spent the next several minutes desperately rinsing out her eyes with water, hoping to clear whatever was coating them. Absolutely nothing happened.

What was she going to do? Where could she even begin? She couldn’t just walk around her house wearing sunglasses. Talk about not drawing suspicion. She heard a door from down the hall open up, and Casey scrambled out of the bathroom and back to the safety of her bedroom before she could come across anyone else.

Pacing her room, she set out her outfit for tomorrow slowly, taking the time to piece her sanity back together. A pink cardigan here, a stretchy pair of jeans there, a comfortable pair of shoes freshly cleaned. She sat at her vanity, her back to the mirror as she methodically brushed though her chestnut hair, savoring the feeling of silk strands through her fingers. She was already feeling calmer. By the time she had finished her manicure- two coats of a neutral eggshell with both base coat and top coat- she felt ready to turn around in her chair.

She steeled herself, but her face was exactly as it had been that morning. Her hair was smooth. Her skin was clear. Her eyebrows were shaped.

And her eyes were that peculiar shade of blue she was unfamiliar with.

She sat back and heaved a sigh. It was so noticeable. Wasn’t it? There wasn’t even the tell-tell rim around the irises to indicate contacts. It was like some wizard had magically altered her own eye color in the middle of the night. She sucked on her teeth in frustration.

No. No no no. This was not happening. She was not letting this get to her. She was stressed about senior year and hungover from last night’s party. She would get this checked out by a doctor, but in the meantime it was probably some freak reaction that would go away on its own.

That party. Casey rubbed a hand over her brow, massaging her sinus area. She felt relatively confident she hadn’t drank much, yet she could barely recall what’d happened. Did someone prank her? She wasn’t sure how someone could pull off this- she peeked up at her mirror- as a prank, but wasn’t anything possible when people put their minds to it? Especially teenagers.

Derek had taught her that. The myriad of ways kids invented to make each other’s lives miserable for sport.

She thought they all needed to grow up.

She squared her shoulders, stood, and walked to her door. No more being afraid, no more chickening out of things. This was senior year Casey McDonald! This year she was taking risks, asserting herself, and not letting anything hold her back.

This year, she was going to be brave.

She repeated the mantra to herself as she made her way downstairs, the clink of kitchenware and gentle murmur of voices drawing near. She entered the kitchen cautiously. Her mother, Lizzie and Edwin were making casual conversation as they ate a late breakfast. Her mother briefly glanced up at her approach.

“Oh, morning Casey,” her mother said absently, half-bent over a work project.

Lizzie gave her a side hug as Casey passed by her seat. “Morning, Case.”

“Morning,” Casey replied, still on edge.

Edwin’s face twisted slightly in disgust, and Casey recoiled in fear before he muttered, “girls,” and went back to picking at his breakfast. Casey tentatively eased her shoulders, remembering their interaction from this morning.

Casey made herself toast, her eyes flitting between her fellow kitchen occupants. She couldn’t believe it. Was nobody going to say anything? Was nobody going to notice?

She almost felt herself relax. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe the change was so subtle, no one other than herself would even notice. Maybe there wasn’t a change afterall.

She was just finishing drying off her plate when her step-brother and mortal enemy, but possible eventual friend, Derek made his entrance.

He brushed in with his usual pomp and lack of grace; barking an order at Edwin, asking her mom about his breakfast. Casey braced herself as she walked past him. She could see him swing his attention to her, gearing up for an insult.

He did a double take, his jaw slackening slightly.

Casey stiffened, refusing to give anything away.

No way. There's no way he-

He grabbed her chin in his hand and she immediately squirmed backwards out of his grip, pushing at him. Undeterred, he peered closer at her again and she shoved him harder.

"Are you wearing color contacts?" He asked with suspicion.

Their gathered family members snapped their heads up. He had their attention now.

She trembled. "Don't be an idiot," she huffed weakly before making her getaway. She could feel his eyes following her as she left.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The next day at school showcased what Casey McDonald and Derek Venturi did best: act as each others’ opposites while completely avoiding each other.

Casey had been exhausted all day, internally blaming the after effects of a hangover. She had thoroughly learned her lesson about drinking before school started, even if it had been multiple days since such recklessness. Hopefully college would have more wine and less canned beer.

Still, she managed through it. She walked the halls with her best friend Emily, caught up with peers, came to every class with the reading done and syllabus filled out in gel pen.

Derek had shown up, which was impressive on its own merits.

As soon as the lunch bell rang, the collective student body of Thompson High practically jumped out of their seats, already mentally over their first day back from summer break.

"What's up with Casey?" Sam asked as they sat down in the cafeteria, their usual table left alone for them. "She looks wiped out."

Derek shrugged with practiced indifference. "Why do you care, Sammy boy? You got a little crush?"

Sam laughed. "Not since sophomore year, dude. She's basically like my sister at this point." He pointed his plastic spoon at Derek's chest. "Now you, however..."

Derek groaned. "Please, take her as your sister. I have enough problems as it is."

Sam gave him a knowing look. "What happened at the bonfire?"

"Nothing," Derek replied around a mouthful of his sandwich. Sam raised an eyebrow.

"Nothing!" Derek insisted.

He sighed. "You and I both know if I ever actually made a move on Casey, I wouldn’t have time to pack my Xbox before I got shipped off to military school." He frowned. "Or a psychiatry ward."

"It's not that bad, dude." Sam leaned over the table and gave Derek a light punch on the shoulder. "Maybe she's into you, too."

Derek chuckled sarcastically. "Yeah, when she loses her goddamn mind, sure."

“You’re older now,” Sam continued. “More mature.”

Derek gave him a blank stare.

“Comparatively speaking,” Sam added apologetically.

Derek fought the urge to pinch his brow.

He had to come to terms, in a way, with his crush on Casey when she and Sam had started dating. He realized he minded. Like, he really really minded. More than just annoyance at his stepsister dating his best friend. It was his best friend dating her that bothered him so much.

Then he realized Sam was so tame he was afraid to even kiss her, and Derek felt way better about the whole thing. It didn't hurt that Sam was a better hockey player too, when he and Casey were doing well.

Now they were all just friends, and along the way Sam had found out about Derek's mortifying secret. He would never live it down at this point. Casey would find out at his funeral.

Sam was tapping his spoon against his plate nervously. Derek raised an eyebrow. “What?”

Sam’s tapping paused. “So. Sally?”

“Vancouver,” Derek confirmed.

“And...you’re okay with that?”

Derek slouched his shoulders in, the only outward sign of defeat. “Not really, but I guess I’ll just have to,” he huffed in frustration, “fucking deal with it.”

“And Casey-”

“Actually, you know what?” Derek sat up, leaning forward on the table with his elbows. “Yeah, uh, have you noticed something weird about Casey today? Like, more so than usual,” he clarified. Something had definitely been up with her eyes this morning. They looked ghoulish.

“Uh.” Sam gave a weak shrug. “No? Is that a trick question?”

Derek closed his eyes briefly, inhaling slowly. “No, it’s- it’s whatever. It’s nothing.”

It was all probably over his head anyway.

He instructed Sam to get out his hockey book to go over plays for the upcoming year. This was one of the many things Derek was great at. Casey was not one of them, and it was better for everyone if he kept it that way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The rest of the week was, unfortunately, much less exciting than any of the high school seniors had planned.

Casey finished the day on Friday with extra credit already in 3 classes. Derek had somehow managed to get detention.

“Honestly, it’s kind of impressive. What’s your secret?” Casey teased as they walked in the front door. The house was still quiet. They must’ve gotten home first.

“Very funny, klutzilla. Let me know when you do something exciting enough to even warrant the kind of attention I get.” Derek breezed past her into the living room, dropping his backpack on the floor and swinging the keys to the Prince around his finger.

Casey scrunched her nose in distaste. “That’s a strange way of thanking me for letting you have the car two weekends in a row.”

Derek gawked at her. “Thank you? I had to bring the hall monitor last weekend! Talk about a buzzkill.”

She flipped a swath of hair over her shoulder. “Well, don’t talk so loud next time if you don’t want me to find out,” she retorted defensively. “Who are you even going out on a date with?”

“Dana,” he called from the kitchen, scrounging around.

Casey leaned against the dining room table. “Do I know her?”

“Nope.”

Casey frowned. “Well, I have plans too.”

Derek laughed, strolling back into view. “Really?”

“Really. You know that ultra snazzy new bar they just opened downtown?”

He looked surprised. “Funhouse?”

“That’s the one.”

“No way.” Derek shook his head in disbelief. “You’re not going to-”

Casey fished her trump card out of her pocket and waved it in his face. She held it steady just long enough for recognition to pop in his eyes. “A fake ID? A really good fake ID?

She pulled it back victoriously, stuffing it back in her jean pocket. Derek’s mouth still hung slightly open in disbelief.

“Aren’t you going to congratulate me?” She asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

“I can’t believe it,” he said finally. “The keener is sneaking into a bar? Alone?”

She feigned casual enthusiasm. “Oh, you know. Just getting out there, enjoying my youth.” She smirked. “Where are you taking Dana? Burger King?”

He frowned. “Pizza Palace.”

She burst out a laugh. He didn’t blush or hug his shoulders in, but Casey knew him well enough to tell he was embarrassed.

“Where’s all your Smelly Nelly’s money been going?” She asked. Hurt flashed across his eyes.

Oh.

“Derek, I’m so-”

“It’s fine.” He raised his palms up, shrugging. “We broke up. It’s fine.”

She toyed with her nail polish, unsure if she should still try apologizing. “Are you sure it’s a good idea for you to dive right back into dating?”

He barked a laugh. “Casey, you’ve met me right?”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, and I know this is just a defense mechanism because you’re not over Sally and you don’t want to talk about it!”

His expression darkened. Oh, he was going to get her for this one.

He swept towards her, leaning in. “Is that what you think, Casey?” He whispered.

She swallowed. “Yes, and you’re not going to bully me into dropping the subject.”

“Aww, Casey. You’re so convinced everyone needs you, aren’t you?”

She balled up one of her fists. “I can’t wait to be out of here and go to university.”

Derek leaned away, gesturing towards the stairs for her with one arm. “Right back at cha, sis.” He put extra sarcasm on the “sis”, because he was the worst.

“Good,” she began stalking up the stairs towards her bedroom. “Because I bet you’ll still be living here, filling up my gas tank when I get back!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Casey was a rule-follower by nature. She liked rules. She liked structure. It gave her confidence knowing there was a plan in place for her to follow.

So even in rule-breaking, she still had to follow the rules on how to do it.

Unfortunately, rule-breaking was a matter she had little clinical knowledge for, and her only true source of learned wisdom was Derek. His track record for not getting caught was less than desirable.

This was how she found herself almost paralyzed by anxiety on a Saturday night, as the bus closed its doors and pulled away behind her. Initially, Derek taking the car was no problem. She knew how to get herself around using public transportation. It was more environmentally friendly, and if she was drinking tonight it was also much safer.

Yet the feeling of dread that came over her as she stood outside the Funhouse bar, over an hour away from her house, made her second-guess all the confidence she’d ever had in herself. She had half a mind to go sit and wait twenty minutes at the bus stop again, just to go home and forget she’d ever been there.

She imagined the look on Derek’s face when he’d learn she had backed out. It was unbearable and completely punchable.

So she stood tall, smoothed out the wrinkles in her dress, and hugged her cardigan tighter to herself as she walked through the doors of the Funhouse.

The bouncer barely glanced at her ID as he let her in. She fought down the giddy excitement bubbling up in her stomach. This place was all the rage, or so she’d heard. Live music. Adults chatting over cocktails. Connections formed on the dance floor.

There was no petty teenage drama here. No pranking or teasing or name-calling. This is where Casey wanted to be, where she belonged. With a glass of wine and a handsome stranger sitting across from her, discussing their favorite films.

Walking into the Funhouse, she was overcome by the brightness of it all. Mirrors glittered intensely off the diamond decorations. Floor to ceiling was glass and white lights. The place looked pristine. Neat and tidy, as if they were all in a big cocktail themselves and were being served up.

She had no idea where to even begin.

She wandered around for maybe an hour. Or half an hour. Or only ten minutes? Someone kept buying her drinks. The lights were getting brighter, uncomfortably so. The music made her head swell, and she was already sweating through her dress.

Moving among the other bargoers, she soon had to come to a crushing disappointment. Where she had come hoping for excitement and maturity, she was finding none. These people weren’t interested in discussing life goals with her. The crowd was noisy and rowdy. Those who weren’t shouting were stumbling and spilling their drinks. Others looked at her with their noses stuck in the air.

She chewed on her lip, pushing away the growing desire to cry. Or throw up. Or scream.

Why? Why was it that no matter where she went, no matter how hard she worked, she was never good enough for anyone? She could never fit in? Ever since she moved to London, everything had been out of sorts. She was constantly struggling to hold on to everything, constantly watching things fall apart around her.

She was in a packed room, surrounded by bodies, and she felt so isolated.

She couldn’t take it. She spun on her heel and headed straight for the first exit sign she could find. She slammed open the door with her body weight, pushing against the sticky floor with her heels.

It swung open after a moment and she burst out, heaving in great gasps of chilled September night air. She was in the alley outside the bar instead of on the main street. She was grateful, at least, no one was seeing her like this.

She placed her hands on her knees, leaning over until her heartbeat slowed and her breathing regulated. She took a few cautious steps before the door behind her was thrown open again, making her jump. She swung around, barely managing to keep her balance.

A young man stood, brown hair slightly mussed. His facial hair was well-kept. He smiled reassuringly. “Hey, sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you. Just wanted to make sure you were alright.”

Casey heard herself slur out something like “I’m fine”, but she wasn’t sure. His face was familiar and she wanted to know why.

He chuckled, taking a step closer. “You wanna get out of here?”

“Myself,” she responded immediately, stepping backwards.

“You’re not driving, are you? That’s insane.” He scoffed. “Come on, I can make sure you get home safe.”

He made to step forwards again. She took a step backwards to match, but it was hard to keep herself from falling. Damn it, how much did she drink?

She narrowed her eyes at him. Drinks. He was the guy who kept buying her drinks.

“H’much did you buy me?” She slurred out.

“Hmm?” He pretended to not hear, reaching to grab her arm. She shrugged away.

“My drinks! You did something to my drinks!”

He rolled his eyes playfully. “Come on, now. Do you have someone picking you up? Really, it’s no big deal for me to drop you off.”

She backed up again, but instead of moving away from him she staggered, heels scraping against the asphalt. Her back hit the wall that belonged to the building sitting next to the Funhouse. She pressed her palms against the brick surface, curling in on herself.

He smiled at her, and there was something predatory in it. Casey did not feel safe. She did not feel wanted.

Something came to her then. A similar smile, from a very different man.

"The deal is the deal."

She remembered now, hazy and fuzzy, but there. A prince. A promise. An exchange.

The prince had not looked at her like this. The prince looked at her like she was full of possibilities that he wanted to see through. Like she had power.

She did not feel powerful. She wanted the prince here. She wanted anybody here who would save her.

The man in front of her stood completely at ease, one hand in his pocket as the other reached to grab at her arm again.

“Don’t,” she pushed his hand away gruffly, “touch me.”

The lines in his face deepened. “Let’s get you home, sweetheart.”

She broke away, scrambling to the left and towards the main street as fast as she could. She made to scream but he caught up with her then, clamping a hand over her mouth. His other arm wrapped around her waist and sunk his nails into her flesh, dragging her backwards. She tried screaming, but she was so muffled. She kicked out wildly, trying to find purchase or claw at anything.

He growled something in her ear, and something inside her snapped. She twisted around, ramming her elbow backwards with as much force as she could muster. She thought she hit somewhere near his neck or throat. He whooshed out a breath and his grasp on her slackened. She kicked herself free, panting and gasping as he collapsed behind her.

She glanced a risk behind, terrified he had already recovered and was going to come after her again.

He didn’t stir. He wasn’t moving at all.

She waited. And waited. Tentatively, she inched closer until she could nudge his side with her foot. She backed up instantly, positioning herself to sprint away the second he made so much as a twitch.

He didn’t move at all or make a sound. She stood there, her life no longer flashing before her own eyes. Giving into her compassionate nature, she finally bent down to check his pulse, reaching for her phone to dial 911.

She didn’t get past the first digit. There was no point.

He had no pulse. He had no heartbeat. He wasn’t breathing.

Casey slowly leaned back on her heels.

This man was dead.

And she felt amazing.