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Don't Read The Last Page (But I Stay)

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There’s a knock on Casey’s dorm room door just seconds before her cell starts singing and vibrating, trying it’s damnedest to dance its way off the cheap chipboard desk shoved opposite her bed.

Casey had been spending the better part of the past three hours studying for her first biology exam and failing to convince herself she’s not going to Derek’s hockey game, so she’s pretty zazzed about a double-whammy distraction. She grabs her phone before lunging off her bed to open the door just as she answers.

On the line, her mother’s frantic voice starts rambling, but Casey doesn’t have to listen to guess at what Nora’s freaking out about, because standing in the hallway of her university dorm building is Marti, clutching a backpack and wearing a defiant expression twisting her lips up. She looks so much like Derek with that expression on her face that Casey’s heart trips itself up and she inwardly scoffs at the sheer idea that she’d have been able to miss that hockey game.

“I’ll take care of it,” Casey says absentmindedly, hanging up on her mom and wincing at the lecture she’s going to get the next time she calls home. “Get inside before someone offers you a drink,” Casey says to her step-sister, only half-joking. Marti cracks a weak smile, but shuffles into the single underneath Casey’s outstretched arm and throws herself onto the bed, pulling a pillow over her head and screaming into the hot-air balloon plushie Casey has.

“Want to go get some good seats at the ice rink?” Casey asks after flipping through her notecards on the cardiovascular system pretty half-heartedly. She keeps her eyes to herself, but watches Marti poke her head out from under her bedding and look over suspiciously.

You want to go watch hockey?” Marti demands, because she, unlike everyone else in the family, knows better than to bring up Derek when Casey’s doing a nice thing.

“I need a brainless activity to do, so I can remind myself why I want to double-major.” Casey says, and it’s pretty convincing, so Marti lets it go, swiveling around so she’s got her legs hanging off the side of the lifted mattress.

“We have to wear Derek’s jerseys for good luck!” she protests when Casey tries to hustle the pair of them into jackets.

“We don’t have Derek’s jerseys, Marti,” Casey says in her most reasonable tone, and Marti rolls her eyes.

“We’re his lucky charms, we have to get some!”

And that’s about when the decision to break into Derek’s dorm room is made. His building is the athletes’ dorm across the quad, and he’s on the second floor where she’s on the fourth, and Casey has been dragging her feet about visiting, but three years of living with Derek means she’d swiped the key the first time they’d run into each other, in Social Psychology, their only shared class. She and Marti find his door, aided by the little whiteboards mounted on most of the doors, helpfully announcing to visitors at large which shoebox-sized room belongs to D. Venturi + Harrison Mota.

Living with Derek for three years has also rendered Casey more or less impervious to the stench that wafts over her and Marti when they swing the door open. Marti grins a little at the expression on Casey’s face as her older sister picks through the room and sits gingerly on Derek’s checkered bed print.

“It’s not so bad,” Marti comments airily, sifting through Derek’s wardrobe with ease. She takes her time, letting Casey notice the family pictures pinned along the bottom edge of the corkboard hanging above Derek’s bed before she suddenly finds a practice jersey and a sweatshirt, both emblazoned with Venturi on the back. “Found them!”

“Good,” Casey says, accepting the jersey with a small amount of grace. “Let’s get out of here before we need matching tetanus shots.”

Marti rolls her eyes openly at Casey and Casey hip bumps her out of the room, locking the door behind them. Not before she makes Derek’s bed, though, because she’s mellowing out in college, but she’s still Casey.

They walk to the rink, Casey asking Marti about her classes and about baby Simon and Edwin and Lizzie and very pointedly not asking why Marti had showed up five hours away from home at Casey’s college dorm.

“You’re not subtle,” Marti tells her after a third story about Edwin striking out with yet another girl.

“I’m working on letting people come to me instead of making them open up,” Casey admits, throwing her arm over Marti’s shoulders after flashing her student card and receiving their tickets. “Let me know how it’s working.”

“Surprisingly well,” Marti tells her, and Casey smiles, pulling her closer so they can waddle towards the rink-side seats, elbowing past students and fans alike. It’ll be almost an hour until face-off, but it’s the first game of the season, so the arena is filling up pretty quickly, filled with people wearing red, yellow, and blue and chattering excitedly, pennant flags already fluttering.

The team piles onto the ice, doing a slow lap around the ice before starting to pass a few pucks around, warming up and hamming it up for the cheering fans. Casey sends Marti with a twenty dollar note for two hot dogs and two milkshakes from the concession stand and busies herself with texting her mother back, telling her that Marti’s okay and will be escorted back to London over the weekend.

Casey and Marti bicker over the nutritional value of cheese fries before the puck drop, and then they watch with unflinching attention as the senior center forward gets slammed into the boards straight after halftime and he topples over and then doesn’t get up. He’s carried off the ice by a handful of athletic trainers, and then someone shoves Derek off the player’s bench.

The family sitting next to Marti look over at the pair of them in concern when their regular cheering turns hypersonic, but neither Casey nor Marti notice, because Derek glances over from center ice and, impossibly, spots them in the crowd.

He visibly steadies himself, straightening his shoulders before stooping over and adjusting his grip on his stick.

The rest of the game passes in a blur, borrowed adrenaline rushing through Casey’s bloodstream. The announcer starts chanting Derek’s name when he gets an assist, and the whole arena seems to shake when he slaps the puck into the top shelf seconds before the buzzer goes off.

Marti and Casey turn to each other, screaming and hugging and letting the crowd surge drag them past their seats, and then they have to dig their heels into the linoleum of the entrance hall, doing their best to elbow their way towards the tunnel. Marti almost gets bowled over, and Casey hefts her up onto her hip, grunting and groaning for show.

“You’re really getting too big for this, Marti,” Casey tells her and Marti beams, locking an arm around her neck and hanging on tight like an overgrown octopus.

They loiter around in the tunnel, a handful of girlfriends, a single boyfriend, family members, and a janitor with them, making small talk. Marti’s energy is crashing after the bus trip and the game and the double milkshake, and she rests her head against Casey’s, fingers curling in the white mesh fabric of Casey’s borrowed jersey.

Slowly but surely players start to trickle out, meeting up with each of their people, and Derek comes out nearly last, a handful of boys around him, slapping him on the back and jostling him around, grins on all of their faces. The senior center slowly makes his way over and ruffles Derek’s hair, says something that makes Derek duck his head a little bashfully before he sorts out his cocky bravado.

It sort of melts into something a little more natural when he spots Casey and Marti towards the end of the tunnel. Derek exchanges fistbumps with the guys and readjusts the strap of his enormous hockey bag over his shoulder, picking up the pace to reach the pair of them amid mostly good-natured jeering.

“Not exactly the last two people I expected to see at my game,” he teases, reaching out to finger the hem of his practice jersey a little wonderingly, knuckles brushing against Casey’s hip for the briefest of seconds before he pulls away, shifting his bag again so he can take Marti from Casey and let her arms have some rest.

“Congrats on your fling-flong, Triple D,” Casey says, trying on Derek’s smirk for size as Marti laughs against his shoulder. Derek presses his lips together, clearly trying not to laugh so soon already.

“Game not too violent for your princess sensibilities?” Derek asks in return and then yelps when Marti manages an awkward-looking kick. He hefts her up higher and Casey notices the exhaustion around his eyes.

“Give her back to me, D,” Casey says, stepping closer and reaching out. Derek twists away a little, hugging Marti closer to him. “You’re exhausted, you’ll drop her!”

“He better not drop me!” Marti squeals in protest, but she wraps one of her arms around Casey’s shoulders and keeps the other hooked over Derek’s neck, dragging the three of them in for a hug that has Derek groaning.

“Let’s get food,” Marti says, keeping them all squished together so that they can hobble out of the arena and onto the pavement outside. Casey pulls away at the curb, letting Marti settle safely in Derek’s arms and more or less yanking his gym bag away from him and slinging it across her shoulders so they can walk to the Prince. People stop them to pound Derek on the back, and he smirks and laughs and trades jokes with each and every one of them.

But when they get to the Prince, he deposits Marti in the back and slides into the passenger seat without complaint, tilting his head back and resting it against the headrest for just a second. Casey shoves the bag in the trunk and forces it shut, clamoring into the driver’s seat and turning the key in the ignition the required three times to get the engine running.

Casey takes the long way to the campus pizzeria and ignores Derek’s gaze on the side of her face. He turns in his seat to quiz Marti on pranking techniques, rapidfire and serious-voiced like they’re studying for a final. Marti’s just as solemn, competitive and determined to impress her big brother. Casey pulls into a carpark and jabs him hard in the thigh, relishing the pained groan and the look of annoyance.

“We’re here,” is all she says, stealing his leather jacket from the back seat and pulling it on as she gets out. The hostess of the tiny, family-owned Italian place is older, and she gives their little trio an approving smile that has Casey’s belly flip-flopping uncomfortably. Suddenly, she’s all too aware that they look like a family, instead of just family members. She and Marti are wearing his number, for chrissakes, and Derek’s got his arms around the pair of them.

A handful of patrons recognize Derek, helped along by Casey’s stolen practice jersey with the Queens’ colors. They get stopped on the way to their table, two players and their family members praising Derek’s assist and then his goal, and he cracks some jokes, jostling Casey against him when he readjusts his grip so he’s got her in some sort of loose headlock. Eventually, Marti yanks on his arm, whining out his nickname, and he begs off, gesturing to their awaiting table and laughs. “Sorry guys, I gotta get some food in these ladies before they resort to cannibalism.”

Casey spends most of drinks stuck in her head, panicking every time Derek leans closer to her to either noisily slurp her lemonade or try and bait her into conversation. When he makes like he’s going to give her a wet willy, that startles her back into conversation so that they can argue over the relative merits of a low-fat tomato basil sauce verses three-cheese decadent alfredo sauce.

“Space-Case, relax,” Derek drawls when she starts to try and pull up nutritional facts on her Blackberry. “I just burned about ten thousand calories carrying Smarti around—”

“Hey!” Marti protests, giggling.

“—not to mention the hockey game I just finished.” He gestures with the loaf of bread, sending crumbs flying everywhere and revelling in Casey’s look of disgust.

“You should refuel with healthier choices, Derek,” Casey sniffs, making a show of brushing crumbs off her (borrowed) jersey and then off the table in front of her. She and Derek abscond with the second page of Marti’s coloring booklet, duking it out over naughts and crosses and having a tiny sword fight with crayons.

They decline their waiter’s stilted offer of dessert after Casey accidentally overturns Marti’s chocolate milk and ruins her jeans and the checkered table cloth. Derek leaves a good tip and ushers them out, trying to disguise his yawn with a cough. Casey pushes him towards the passenger seat again when he starts making noises about driving, pretending to shove him in head first while Marti alternates between cheering and trying to defend Derek.

Casey pulls up to the parking lot outside her dormitory, and he’s looking at her strangely, gaze steady on her profile, confused, and Casey swallows tightly and tries to focus on the fact that Marti came all this way because she obviously had a crisis of her own to worry about. She says as much to Derek after he pulls a sleeping Marti out from the back seat and turns to her, mouth opened to ask her why she’s being such a space-case, most likely.

“We can deal with more than one family crisis at a time, Case,” Derek says, a little frustratedly, and she can’t help but flinch back at his phrasing. He clearly notices, because his mouth twists into an ugly grimace, and he nods shortly, dragging a hand through his puffball of a hairstyle, exhaustion not related to hours of grueling contact sport slumping his shoulders slightly.

Casey’s used to Derek looking larger than life, has found the bravado annoying most of her teenage years, and finds herself missing it now. Derek is rarely quiet and introspective, and the fact that she’s part of why he looks so tired makes her stomach clench into painful knots and she steps closer to him, half of his face in shadow, the lighting contrast intense under the street light. He watches her with those eyes of his, carrying their sister between like it’s second nature, and Casey just gestures at him to follow her up the steps and to the elevator behind the receptionist desk.

The girls in charge of keeping a building full of college students pure and untouched have left their posts, so no one questions Casey bringing Derek Venturi and a child into her single save for a couple of floormates that give her impressed looks that has Derek snickering and Casey rolling her eyes.

Settling Marti in Casey’s bed wakes her up a little and she’s rubbing her eyes when Casey comes back from the communal bathroom in a tank top and some flannel pants Derek pretends he doesn’t recognize.

“‘Fess up, Smarti,” Derek says, throwing himself into the blue wingback chair she’d paid him twenty bucks to drag up four flights of stairs at the start of the term. “Nora and dad are going ballistic back home, and it’s all I can do, keeping them from packing up the Brady Bunch and enacting Hostile Takeover, The Sequel: This Time It’s College.”

“Not interested in directing a sequel film?” Casey asks, crawling in bed behind Marti, huddling between her and the wall, folding a pillow into submission.

“What I’m interested in,” Derek says testily, mocking Casey’s voice in a familiar nasal tone, “is the lobotomy you clearly had, since you apparently haven’t nagged Marti into sobbing submission.”

“And that hit on the head in third quarter that turned you into an over-invested emotional guru can be conversational focus point number two!” Casey snaps, twisting around so she can pull her hair into a loose braid.

“I kissed a girl!” Marti blurts out before Derek can retort, and he sort of chokes, his mouth gaping open. Behind her, Casey has pushed herself into an upright position, but she’s suspiciously silent, even though Marti can practically recite all of the supportive phrases she’s got in her arsenal.

“You’re already old enough to like girls?” Derek manages after one too many seconds of silence, but Marti relaxes, because he’s slouched back against the chair again, looking at her the same way he always has: like she’s his baby sister and he loves her no matter what, including bad makeovers and kissing girls, apparently.

“I see I was right in worrying that Marti would grow up into a second Derek,” Casey teases, wrapping her arms around Marti’s front from behind and pulling her close. “Tell us about the girl.”

Derek moans and grumbles that he doesn’t want to participate in girl talk about girls anymore than he did when it was girl talk about boys, but he does ask the important questions, like whether Lina knows anything about cars and what kind of music Lina listens to, because it’s important to establish a foundation of the cool factor before high school, or she could end up like the super keener trying to strangle you over there.

Casey makes Derek huddle on her tiny mattress with the pair of them, sandwiching Marti in the middle and turning out all three lamps, just leaving the fairy lights on, bathing the room in a soft yellow glow. She tucks an arm over Marti’s waist and shoves her other beneath one of her pillows and falls asleep feeling warm and settled.

Marti waits until Casey starts snuffling, not snoring, shut up, Derek before she scoots up a bit so she can stare at Derek, wrinkle between her eyebrows.

“Nora and dad’ll get over it if you and Casey start dating,” Marti whispers and doesn’t give a reaction when Derek’s eyes widen to the size of pucks.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, Smarti,” Derek whispers back, eyes flicking between his sister and Casey, making sure the latter doesn’t suddenly decide to wake up and hear the conversation he’s apparently being forced to have. “And this isn’t really the time to elaborate.”

“She likes you back, Smerek,” Marti says matter-of-factly, nodding a little and pulling Derek closer, maneuvering his arm until he’s got both girls wrapped up in his hold. “Don’t be a dingus.”

Marti makes a big show of turning around so she’s facing Casey, yawning dramatically and stretching until the tips of her toes are pointed outwards. She’s missed her oldest siblings, likes the companionship that Edwin and Lizzie sometimes offer her and loves finally having a younger sibling to look after, but has a soft spot in her chest for the tiny pseudo-family within their huge blended family that Derek and Casey have become, being ten years older than her and always willing to go along with every plan or idea she has.

Derek falls asleep before he can think to remove his arm. And in the morning, when Casey quietly wakes him up to drag him to the benches out front of her sleepy dormitory hall, college students smarter than them lording over the weekend and still snuggled up in bed, without a tween, he hardly grumbles at all.

He lets her babble at him, her hair messy and his jacket thrown over her dorky too-sensible pajamas, thinks about how Marti had a crisis and came to them, traveled nearly five hundred kilometers to talk to him and Casey about kissing a girl. Derek watches Casey verbally argue with herself about the pros and cons of possibly, maybe, against her better judgement, considering potentially going on a single testing-the-waters date with him. Imagines not having to deal with this particular brand of crazy for the rest of his life.

Thinks about getting to have it for the rest of his life, getting to keep her. Kisses her between sentences, fingers cold against her jawline as he pretends like her sigh of relief wasn’t mutual.

Doesn’t notice Marti smirking at them from the window, four stories above them, already texting Lina about when she’ll be home.