A/N: Hey all, sorry again for taking so long…but like I've said before, I have a schedule. ;p Here's to hoping this chapter's EXTRA long. ;)

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Ch.3—Avoiding the Inevitable

Somewhere, merry Christmas music was playing, a sportive ambience that Claire found utterly inappropriate for this tense moment. She chuckled softly to herself, just loud enough for that cocky younger brother of hers to become aware.

"Something the matter?" he questioned lightly.

She was surprised and annoyed to find that he had returned again, since he had only just left the room. Yet there he was, carrying a chair, in which he now sprawled carelessly.

"No," she spoke sharply, failing at hiding her despicable use of sarcasm, "Nothing at all," she said, stabbing her fork directly into the pumpkin pie that threatened to pass along unharmed. To avoid suspicion, she relocated the damaged piece of pie to her plate...and stabbed it again. As she took a vicious bite, Justin daringly scooped the rest of the pie from her plate and nonchalantly placed it on his own, nodding to her companionably.

Claire suppressed a growl, clutching tightly to Todd's unsuspecting open hand. Unbeknownst to her, he winced in pain from the sudden digging-in of her newly manicured fingernails, while she simply glared at her brother from across the table. Chris shifted uncomfortably in his seat next to Justin as his stomach rumbled audibly, and her gaze flicked to his face like a whip.

"Justin," she snarled, "Why don't you get your guest something to eat?" She paused, attempting to calm herself, "I'm sure he's hungry," her voice visibly softened. Her brother did not deign to reply to this but instead reached self-importantly for the nearest dish and passed it to Chris.

It took all that was in her for Claire to not scream at the top of her lungs at this outrage. Her brother had no business bringing her ex-boyfriend to their Christmas dinner. Turning to Todd, she smiled sweetly, finally releasing the grip on his hand. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to make a little trip to the ladies' room," she said, and before any of the three gentlemen could protest, she had scooted her chair a safe distance away, and trotted along down the hall. Her mind was churning with suppressed memories, and they remorselessly chipped away at the strength of her resolve, demanding some outlet. Somewhere between meeting Todd and decorating the Christmas tree, she had forgotten how manipulative her brother could sometimes be. If she could just be alone for a few minutes, maybe she would find some way to outwit him, but her mind kept returning uneasily to last Christmas—she felt trapped.

First loves do that to a girl, she guessed. She could not forget how it happened....

"Claire! Claire!" she heard her best friend calling behind her. She resisted the urge to turn, instead speeding up even more until she was practically running. She couldn't get into the details of how quiet she had been lately, regardless of their relationship. She knew what Molly would say, and she didn't want to hear it.

"Claire, would you just stop?" her huffing friend called, giving up the chase half a block behind her.

Reluctantly, she stopped but held her silence, not knowing what to say anyway. When Molly realized her best friend was not going to sprint on her, she calmly walked up to her and began to interrogate.

"So, what is it that you feel like you can't tell me? Is it something with your family? Is that why you're always so 'busy'? Or is it something else—something that you can't tell anybody?"

"I…it's not my family…" she trailed off, still uncertain of how much to say.

Molly's face fell and she became very concerned for the crestfallen girl before her. "You know that I won't tell anyone else, that I'm here for you no matter what…right?"

Claire nodded subtly. Tears threatened to choke her if she spoke, however, so she maintained her silence.

"Come on," her best friend urged her to come with her, "Let's get some coffee—we can talk about it."

"Why are you out here by yourself?" the voice of her mother sliced through her reverie.

Claire snapped around to see her mother's concerned and curious face staring at her. She wondered suddenly how long she had been preoccupied with her thoughts. "M-mom," she said in surprise, blinking her eyes a few times to adjust to the reality.

"Everyone started to wonder when you didn't come back after a few minutes."

Claire's lips curled up in a slight smirk, "Even Justin?" she asked skeptically.

"Well…you know how he is, dear," she said hesitantly.

"Oh, Claire Baby!" she heard Justin sing out from the dining room; she cringed. Mrs. Kappelen looked away with distaste, clearly trying to pretend he had said nothing. She looked to her daughter hopefully.

"I'm coming, Mom; don't worry."

She nodded and turned away, "Soon," she said, nodding at her daughter. Then she slipped back into the dining room, and Claire heard the slight rumble of conversation again. She sighed roughly and followed suit after her mother, noticing almost immediately how Todd seemed to have evaporated from the usual crowd.

"Fear not, sister; I'm sure he's simply gone to the gentlemen's room," said Justin with sarcasm, noting where Claire's glance rested. Claire gave him a rude glare.

"Somehow, I doubt it," she snapped politely, taking her seat again. But when she glanced up to see Chris sitting across from her, and on top of that apparently staring at her, she uneasily got up. Her cocky younger brother seemed to be aware of the reason for her sudden departure again, and quite seriously got up to stop her.

"You need to talk to Chris about what happened, and you have to do it now," he told her authoritatively.

He almost whispered it when he pulled her aside, and she appreciated at least that little respect he had offered. Lately almost everything he said was dripping with sarcasm and pitched for everyone to hear. She sighed.

"Fine, I'll talk to him. But, in the future, I would advise you to not butt into my personal life so extensively." If I do this, maybe he'll finally leave me alone.

"I'll try not to," he said, grinning wildly as she took her place back at the table.

Yet it was an awkward situation, and each possible conversation starter she considered was somehow wrong. To add to that, she noticed how nearly every individual who had been at the table had either left or gathered in the family room. Soon it would only be the three of them.

"Justin, dear, would you help me clear the food from the table?" Mrs. Kappelen's eyes twinkled as she prodded him. He muttered something unintelligible but got up to oblige her.

Claire rolled her eyes and slouched back in her chair. Was everyone against her and Todd? She shook her head at the thought, surprised when Chris—for the first time all evening—decided to speak.

"Claire, I know things didn't work out the way you would've liked last year…" he began uncertainly.

"Listen," she cut him off, "I don't know what you're expecting here, but I'd like to know why exactly you came today and how much of it had to do with my brother."

For a moment, he said nothing, but then, "He told me you were having a family party and I was invited."

"I'm gonna kill him," she muttered under her breath, her eyes darting in Justin's direction. Irrepressible as always, he winked at her in the midst of his enforced enslavement. She looked back towards Chris and forced a tight smile, "And?" she asked.

"I thought maybe we could just talk," he said.

"Talk," she said, blankly.

"Well, you haven't been at all forthcoming since—you know…" he attempted to explain.

"I think I have reason to be," she stifled a huff. Justin, currently engaged in gathering dirty napkins nearby, shook his head slowly at her and raised his eyebrows. Claire felt his presence and shot another glare in his direction. Why couldn't the meddling fool just leave? When Justin still remained stationary, she began to rise from her chair.

"No need," he said, snatching her napkin quickly.

A few moments after he spoke, she realized his quick cover up and posted a fake smile before he moved away, "Jee…thanks."

"At your service," he proclaimed, bowing extravagantly.

She rolled her eyes again and sat back down, "Where were we?" she asked airily.

Chris appeared briefly confused by her flippant approach to continuing their conversation. He glanced towards the kitchen, and realized instantly that Justin would be a distraction, "Would you like to take a walk?" he asked.

Hoping this would release her from her brother's pesky presence, she agreed. He extended his hand to her across the table, but she simply stood up and walked around, heading out the door.

"Uh, don't you think you might need a jacket?" he suggested.

"The winter air agrees with me," she said in ignorance of his question.

Before he could respond, she whisked herself out the door into the falling snow. Following after her, he nodded briefly to the rest of the Kappelens, closing the door behind him.

Mr. Kappelen shook his head, "And where did Todd go, you think?" he commented to his wife.

"Oh," she said, suddenly noticing that he had come in from the family room, "I believe Justin said he had a sudden engagement to attend to."

"Hmmm," he grunted noncommittally.

Justin felt the sudden heat of his parents' stare on the back of his neck and whirled around, "What?"

"What was it you said exactly, dear?" his mother said sweetly, as if she couldn't quite remember.

He gulped, pulling out the collar of his shirt with a bit of unease, "Just what you said, Mom…a sudden engagement," his quirky smile returned, and with the table completely cleared, he grabbed an apple and bit into it as he left the room.

"I didn't even think the boy liked apples," his father muttered, clearly surprised.

His wife nodded slightly, "I have discovered recently, that if it is edible and unwanted, he will consume it."

Mr. Kappelen nodded and changed the subject, "Do you believe him about Todd?"

Her eyes remained fixed on the door that Chris and Claire had exited from, "Absolutely not."

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A/N: Yay! Longer! Please R & R…and we will love you. *nods*