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False Kings

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It starts, as they always seem to do, at a costume party. It will end at a carnival that was not there the week before, and would not be there the week after.

 

Casey was standing at the edge of the party, loitering awkwardly near the refreshments table. The red solo cup made her hand feel clammy, holding onto it with a stiff grip even as the sweat collected in her palm. She felt as though that plastic cup filled with spiked punch was the only thing keeping her tethered.

 

She shifted. The cheap velvet of her black dress brushed against her skin, the plastic fangs in her mouth made her lips push out.

 

She swallowed and ran her tongue over them.

 

Casey was not a party person by nature. She was certainly not a "Halloween in summer party out in the woods where I don't know anyone except my annoying step-brother who ditched me as soon as we got here" kind of person.

 

But here she was, and Derek had the keys to the car.

 

It was her fault, in a way. Derek had been trying to bargain for the car, as this was her weekend with it. Under scrutiny, he'd let slip there was going to be a bonfire before senior year started on Monday. Casey had been feeling proud of herself for successfully coercing him into taking her with him in exchange for car privileges.

 

Not only did he have to drive, as he was the only one of them who knew where this thing even was, but now Casey was stuck here, alone, killing time while Derek had fun. She resisted the urge to check her watch again.

 

She drifted away from the drink table, making sure her cup was appropriately full in case anyone tried to offer her more. She felt drawn to the tree line that surrounded the clearing, something pulling her towards the woods.

 

She really hoped she wasn’t going to walk into somebody’s makeout session.

 

She really, really hoped she wasn’t going to walk into Derek’s.

 

As she drifted further away from the light of the bonfire and chatter of the party, she felt a calmness settle over her. It wasn’t that she was an introvert- far from it- but there was something chaotic in the nature of her peers that Casey could just never relate to. She tried to fit in, tried to let loose and have fun, break the rules and sneak out.

 

Yet it always felt like playacting, something she was doing more for everyone else than herself. As if the only way to live her life was the way she was expected to.

 

It made things easier, in a way. She always knew the expectations, always knew the rules.

 

She took a small sip from her own cup, the sickly sweet nature of the punch doing a fantastic job of covering the bitterness of the alcohol. It was easy to see how kids could down multiple cups of this stuff without realizing.

 

She felt something bump into her from behind. She spun, startled.

 

“Sorry! Oh, hey Casey.”

 

The voice belonged to a tall boy with a smooth grin she vaguely recognized from earlier in the night. He was wearing a varsity letter jacket. His costume was, apparently, a football player.

 

Very original.

 

Casey smiled politely. “Hi! I’m sorry, I don’t think I know you.”

 

He stuck his hand out forcefully. Casey took a small step back before accepting it, gingerly shaking it. “Adam. You don’t go to school around here, do you?”

 

“Uh, no.” Casey scanned behind him for the only person she knew here, looking to make an escape from this conversation. “Thompson High. In London.”

 

Adam smiled. “Nice. I like the costume by the way.”

 

Casey brightened. “Thanks! I know vampires are way overdone, but I had a big Stevie Nicks phase when I was thirteen, so I already had the dress and everything.”

 

“Uh huh.” His eyes glazed over as they roamed over her. “Sexy.”

 

Her smile dimmed.

 

“Hey, uh, you didn’t happen to come here with anyone, did you?”

 

She stifled a sigh of relief. “I did, actually! You know Derek Venturi? Hockey player?”

 

Adam’s face twisted in disgust. “What, he your boyfriend or something?”

 

“No!” She cringed. “Ew, no. Step-brother, actually.”

 

The look on Adam’s face made her want to take it back, damn the consequences. She finally realized the slight sway of his stance. He wasn’t sober.

 

She felt a buzzing in her head begin to crescendo. She wasn’t either.

 

She risked a look around.

 

They were completely alone.

 

Casey tried taking a step back, but Adam had already snaked a hand around her wrist. He was saying something about the rest of the party, or about how beautiful she looked while she just kept a polite smile on her face, attempting to subtly extricate her hand from his grip.

Suddenly, a shadow descended over them both.

 

Adam dropped her hand and Casey turned. Before her was the most beautiful boy she had ever seen.

 

Tall and willowy, holding himself as though he wore a crown atop his head. Eyes as dark as the night sky above them, with softly swept hair to match.

 

He smiled at her, a slow crawl that felt almost menacing, like a wolf baring its teeth.

 

She let out a small gasp.

 

His clothing was ornate and perfectly tailored. He had all the grace and charm exuding from him that Casey would expect from a dancer.

 

She knew, somehow though, that this was someone who preferred to watch from the audience, catching the moments others missed.

 

Casey smiled back at him, tucking into herself shyly.

 

“Can I help you, man?” Adam’s voice jolted her from her thoughts. The newcomer tilted his head, peering down at Adam even though they must’ve been about the same height.

 

Casey noticed Adam shift uncomfortably.

 

The boy smiled. “A costume party, I see. And you come as a football star. How original.”

 

Casey bit her lip to hold in a laugh.

 

Adam’s chest puffed out. “I said,” he took a step forward, “can I help you?”

 

There was a moment where something passed between them, where Adam evidently noticed this was not a bear worth poking. His stance became defensive, and he stepped back.

 

The boy looked towards Casey. “Is he bothering you, my lady?”

 

Adam snorted, but Casey paid him no attention.

 

“Just Casey is fine. And a little, actually.”

 

Adam raised his voice in protest, but was cut off by a glare from the boy. She heard Adam slink away back to the bonfire, where there were plenty more tipsy girls to latch on to.

 

Casey let out a breath. “Thank you.” She paused. “Who are you, anyway?”

 

He smiled victoriously, gesturing to himself. “A prince.”

 

Casey giggled. “Very fitting. Your behavior has been quite princely tonight.”

 

“Quite?” His eyes twinkled. “I don’t usually make it a habit of rescuing damsels, I must say.”

 

“Oh?” Casey risked a small step forward. “Then what does bring you to occasions like these?”

 

He leaned towards her conspiratorially. “Excitement. Amusement.” He leaned back, smirking. “Tragedies.”

 

Casey hummed. “Well, those are certainly all things you find at a high school party.” For the first time, she squinted at her would be rescuer. “How old are you, exactly?”

 

He paused. “Millenia more than anyone in this realm.”

 

A laugh burst out of her. “Ugh. Me too.” She pointed at her fangs, which earned her another smile from the dark-eyed boy.

 

“Not all vampires are ancient, from what I understand.”

 

“That’s true. Everyone around me certainly makes me feel that way.” Casey wrapped her arms around herself, still holding onto her drink. She was aware that she was confessing deep insecurities to a total stranger while buzzed, but in a way it made it easier. He wasn’t someone she expected she was going to see again before she went to college. So what if he knew how old she felt at seventeen?

 

“You must understand them, to some extent? All vampires were once human. For us fae folk though,” he paused dramatically, “our realm is very different. Food, time, mortality. Humans are not necessarily our food source as much as they are entertainment.”

 

Casey nodded, playing along. “Vampires don’t have to prey on humans, though. Louis sucked the blood of rats for years.”

 

The boy’s smile brightened. “Ah! A fan of literature. You impress me more by the second.”

 

Casey blushed under the compliment.

 

He took a strand of her hair, twirling it gently between his fingers. “So tell me,” he asked softly, “how does it feel to be more than human?”

 

Casey thought back to all of her English classes, questions like these she had pondered hundreds of times when she was sick of being seen as just a silly teenage girl.

 

“Lonely.” She answered finally. “Frustrating.”

 

He raised an eyebrow.

 

“How’s your Greek mythology?” She ventured.

 

“I’ve read much about it.”

 

She sighed. “You know how everyone thinks of the myth of Midas as though his powers were incredible? Turning everything he touched, everyone he loved, into gold? No one seems to remember it was meant to be a tragedy.”

 

The boy cocked his head. “Is physical affection a necessary component of love?”

 

“No,” she said slowly. “Midas thought he was doing everyone a favor, that his powers were helpful, right? But all anyone he cared about wanted was him.”

 

It wasn’t a perfect interpretation, but the boy seemed impressed nonetheless. He rubbed his forefinger across his bottom lip, as though lost in thought. He looked back up at her. “You are fascinating, for one so young and inexperienced.”

 

She felt part of herself deflate. “That’s what everyone seems to think. It’s always how impressive I am, for a girl. How mature I am, for a teenager. You know?”

 

He smiled wryly. “I confess to not knowing the intimate nature of being a young maiden, myself.”

 

She felt her cheeks heat again. “Of course,” she stammered out.

 

“You seem keen on impressing me.”

 

“It’s kind of my thing,” she admitted glumly. “Keener number one. People pleaser. Neurotic extraordinaire. My classmates are absolutely hilarious.”

 

He gazed at her with the kind of sympathy she was used to getting from teachers when she told them she had a hard time making friends with people her own age. His expression quickly shifted into something she couldn’t read.

 

“You have nothing to be ashamed of. You are captivating, and brilliant, yet so gentle and quiet,” he said with finality. “It’s a shame. I can only imagine how magnificent you’d be if you’d allow yourself to be vicious.”

 

“Vicious?” She repeated. She huffed out a laugh. “Please. If I’m not nice enough to somebody, they call me a bitch. If I’m too nice, I get called a slut. I can’t ever win. I just have to do the best that I can with what I have.”

 

She got the distinct sense she was disappointing him.

 

“And I have a lot!” She defended herself.

 

“You do,” he agreed. “Yet you are weighed down by those around you. Why do you insist on muzzling yourself for them?” He stepped closer to her, so their faces were inches apart. “Don’t you understand the power you hold?”

 

“Power?” she repeated weakly.

 

He slid his fingers under her chin, stroking her skin. “Why shouldn’t they fear you?” He whispered.

 

The last person she wanted to envision at this moment was Derek, but she did. He had a habit of butting into spaces of hers where he was unwanted.

 

“Guys don’t like girls that are bitchy,” she mumbled.

 

The boy hissed with displeasure. “A statement I presume you were told by one such of the species. Their weakness should be your strength. Your victory should be their undoing.”

 

She gazed up at him, confused. The cup still clutched in her hand was warm.

 

"Tired of letting boys take your heart, getting nothing in return?"

 

Despite herself, Casey felt her eyes traveling to the direction she'd last seen Derek, arm slung around a pretty girl. She didn't like those thoughts, didn't like thinking about him at all.

 

The boy- the prince, she corrected herself wryly- turned her face back to his with a slender index finger pressed against her cheek.

 

"What if you could take theirs instead?" He crooned. "Take me into your heart, darling. Let me see the darkness you fear will keep you alone forever. I will give you the strength you need to be free from your pain."

 

Casey's heart swirled at the implication. Free from pain? From heartbreak? She was so tired of giving her all to people who did nothing but let her down. Still, she hesitated. Who was this if not another pretty boy making false promises, toying with her emotions?

 

She raised her chin defiantly. "If you are what you say you are, who you say you are, then we both know you can't lie to me. So what's the catch, your highness?"

 

He chuckled, placing a hand against his heart. "Ah, please, no such formalities with me, Cassandra."

 

Casey blinked. Had she told him that? No, he must've just assumed Casey was a nickname.

 

“You’ve never even told me your name.”

 

He looked at her severely. “Names have power, love. As do you. You would do best to not give things that belong to you away so freely.”

 

She bristled. “If what I have is mine, then I am free to do with it as I please.”

 

He inclined his head. “Correct, but we both must understand the restrictions placed on you are not all self-imposed, hmm?” He leaned in closer once more. She fought the urge to shiver. “You want what I have, don’t you, Cassandra? You want the power to walk among strangers unafraid. Among those you know.”

 

“I’m not afraid,” she insisted. He gave her that sympathetic look again, and she felt the pull to keep spilling all her darkest secrets to him. “Not all the time. Not consciously. It’s just-” She closed her eyes, taking a deep breath in. “It’s just one of those fears you get used to playing in the background. You know you’re supposed to be afraid of men, but it’s so exhausting.” She closed her eyes again. “And you know no matter how afraid or careful you are, nothing will save you.”

 

The prince’s voice was silken. “There are many kinds of heartbreak. Some take things from you. Aspects of yourself you never meant to give.”

 

She opened her eyes to find herself staring into the night sky, the swirls of constellations against the utter blackness of his irises. “I don’t want you taking anything from me,” she exhaled.

 

He raised a palm up. “Nothing taken. Only freely given. Those are the terms.”

 

“What do you take?” she whispered.

 

His brow furrowed slightly. After a long moment he answered, “your fears.”

 

“What will you leave behind?”

 

He smiled, a fearsome sight. Casey realized she had the overwhelming urge to be like him.

 

“Just a piece,” he said simply. “A vanguard, if you will. To ensure your safety, whatever you wish to do with it.”

 

She narrowed her eyes at him. “What do you want from me?”

 

“In exchange for power? Excitement. When that fails, I’ll take it back.”

 

Casey felt that crescendo in her head again. Instead of fear, this time she felt a thrill.

 

“A dangerous proposition,” she got out.

 

“You admitted it yourself, women live their lives in danger. There are benefits to being your own nightmare, I assure you.”

 

She hadn’t meant anything as brazen as making a statement for all women, but it was kind of true, wasn’t it? She would like to believe Adam had meant her no harm, but that was never a guarantee until the moment was over. She couldn’t speak for any other girl he had ever talked to or would ever talk to. And there were probably a dozen boys just like him at this party alone, stalking through the tree line for a girl to boost their ego.

 

Casey could’ve been with one such boy right now, but she understood that who stood in front of her was much more than a soft-faced boy.

 

Freely given. Those are the terms.

 

She straightened, her resolve hardening. “I want it.”

 

The prince smirked. “I know. How much are you willing to sacrifice?”

 

She hesitated. “Every boy like Adam?” she ventured.

 

“A noble goal. I accept. In my unending generosity, I will allow for flexibility in your hunts.”

 

He held a champagne flute out to her. She wondered, distantly, why she hadn’t noticed that in his hands before.

 

“The deal is the deal,” he said.

 

Cautiously, she clicked the side of her plastic cup against his glass. The resounding crack rang around the clearing, resonating in her ears, verberating down her spine like a thunderclap. She shivered.

 

Out of the corner of her eye, Casey saw shadows begin to dance. The prince's smile stretched into a leer, horns like antlers expanding from his head, his eyes like the fires in hell-

 

She blinked, and the image was gone. He was just a normal boy again.

 

Or close enough.

 

She inhaled shakily, wondering what she had just done.

 

"Casey!" She turned to see who the annoying voice belonged to emerging from the trees. "Come on, time to go." Derek stopped just short of her, looking quizzical. "What are you doing out here?"

 

Casey turned her head. The prince was nowhere to be found. She didn’t expect to see him again.

 

She looked back at Derek. "Stargazing?" She said lamely.

 

Derek briefly raised his eyes to look at the stars above them. "Oh-kay," he said slowly, still looking at her suspiciously. "Whatever you say, Space Case."

 

He started walking backwards, in the direction of where they’d entered the party from, spinning the car keys around his fingers. Casey hurried after him.

 

"Hey! Slow down!" She called. He gave no sign he'd heard her. "Derek!" She whined.

 

She saw the slight shake of his shoulders as he laughed, but he did slow his pace. Casey let out a huff as she caught up to him, wobbling slightly as her heels struggled to make traction against the forest floor. "What's the deal, anyway? Why are we leaving? It hasn't even been that long."

 

He shot another curious glance at her. She shrugged in response, confused. "Casey, we've been here for hours."

 

She sucked in a breath and checked her watch.

 

It was several minutes after midnight.

 

"Oh," was all she had.

 

After a long moment Derek, mercifully, shifted his gaze ahead of them. "Anyway, I pissed some girl off. Time to go before she starts asking about me."

 

"Derek! What did you do?" Casey demanded.

 

Derek gave a sly grin. "She was talking about how much she liked football players, so I might've made up a thing or two." He put on a serious expression. "For your information, I'm a football star from Vancouver now. Being scouted by pros and everything."

 

Casey frowned. “You’re literally wearing a hockey uniform.”

 

Derek raised his hands in defense. “Hey, I didn’t say she was a genius.”

 

Casey scoffed.

 

“Did you at least try to have fun?” He asked as he opened the driver’s side door for himself.

 

“Yup, plenty,” she replied dismissively. She felt exhausted. She just wanted to get home and fall asleep, a classic Henry James book tucked in her hands.

 

Derek shook his head as he started up the engine. “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to live a little, Casey.”

 

She relaxed into the passenger’s seat, oddly grateful to be stuck with someone annoying but familiar for the next three hours. “Don’t jinx me.” She rested her head back, closing her eyes.

 

She heard Derek laugh softly, and a small smile curled her lips.

Chapter Text

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.