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Where the Heart Is

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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.