It started harmlessly—more of a drunken inquiry than anything else. They were a handful of bottles in each, lying on the carpet of their living room while Sam and Emily made nachos in the kitchen. Their parents were gone for the weekend, Marti with her mom while Edwin and Lizzie were both at sleepovers. Maybe it was from the alcohol. Maybe it was because the end of high school was so close it was sending Casey into a spiral of reflection, but she didn’t even question it before asking. Which, she would be the first to acknowledge was a fairly crazy thing for a girl who could never seem to get her mind to stop whirling for a single second.
“Do you think we would ever be friends?” she asked. “Hypothetically, in a parallel universe where our parents never got married?”
He scoffed, reaching out for a beer he had already finished minutes ago. She handed him her own instead, and he hummed his approval. “We aren’t friends now.”
She rolled her eyes. Sometimes, when it was the two of them, she almost felt as if there was a pre-destined script they were acting out. He said something offensive, she rolled her eyes. He did something rude, and she yelled out Der- ek in a shrill voice. Almost as if playing these parts was easier than doing anything else.
“We’re essentially friends. At least friends adjacent. Acquaintances, maybe?” She didn’t know why her voice got a little higher, almost as if she needed it to be true. “Right?”
He shrugged. “Where are the nachos at?” he called. He flipped onto his stomach, twisting his body toward hers. His hair was even messier than normal, and his eyes were clouded from beer. “I don’t think we would have even met if it weren’t for our parents. And if we did, I don’t think we would have gotten past the first few words.”
“What are we talking about?” Emily asked through a mouthful of cheese and sour cream. Sam sat down beside her, and Casey and Derek both pushed themselves up to get at the food.
“Whether Derek and I would be friends without being forced into the same family.”
Sam laughed, and Derek joined in, but Emily shot her a look. Why does it matter? She had been sending looks like that more frequently recently, as if she didn’t understand this strangely sympathetic shift in Casey in regards to her stepbrother. It made sense since Casey didn’t understand it, either. She had attributed it to the fear of college changing everything she knew.
“I think you’re barely friends now,” Sam said.
Derek laughed, nachos nearly sputtering out of his mouth. He slapped Sam’s back. “That’s what I said!”
Casey grabbed her beer back and took a swig despite it tasting too warm and too sour. It didn’t matter that her and Derek wouldn’t have been friends, because they had the sort of connection they couldn’t run from, now. They were tied for life through the binds of family, whether they wanted to admit it or not.
Emily was passed out on Casey’s bed already, Sam in the bathroom brushing his teeth, and Derek was getting a glass of water. Casey had switched into shorts and an oversized tee shirt, hair thrown up in a ponytail. It was only because she was drunk. That was all it was. A stupid amount of bravery and curiosity that left her leaning against the wall as Derek walked down the hallway.
“What do you want?”
“Hi,” she said, words a little blurred. The alcohol had left her warm and happy, maybe a tiny bit unstable. “I’m Casey McDonald. We had homeroom together?”
“What the hell are you…” The realization hit him all at once. He rolled his eyes, hit her extended hand down, and crossed his arms over his chest. “You’ve really lost it now, Space Case.”
“So, you don’t remember me, then?” she asked. It was a stupid game, embarrassing even, but it was nice to pretend that there was more than familial bond keeping them together. Then the fear she felt over their lives drifting apart would make at least some sense.
“I remember you,” he said, voice softer but not enough to make her comfortable. “Grade-grubber, right?”
“Der- ek ,” she said. He stumbled as she pushed him away, though there was the hint of a smile on her lips.
“My reputation precedes me, clearly.” He reached up to pop the collar of a leather jacket he wasn’t wearing. His hands fell to the sides. “I’ll see you around?”
He disappeared into his room before she could answer, and when Sam shuffled out of the bathroom a minute later, she figured it was time to go to bed.
“Derek you are the most annoying brother—”
“Same difference.” Except, it felt almost like a lie.
“Yeah. You’re right.” It almost sounded like he felt the same.
(There was a moment in July where they had gone to a university party Emily had gotten them invited to through her cousin, where Casey had grabbed an extra drink and followed Derek out onto a balcony.
“Thirsty?” she asked, holding it out. He smirked, tilted his head, and it felt so close to the script but somehow different. “This isn’t really…”
“Your scene?” he finished. When he took the drink, he stepped closer. “Good thing you met a pro like me to walk you through it, then.”
When they walked back into the party, the game faded around them like pixie dust. Derek found a preppy blonde to make out with against the balcony, and Casey flirted with a football player that actually seemed interested in subjects besides football. It was nice.
“That was amazing,” Emily said as they made their way home. “Everything is going to be different in the best way next year.”
Casey eyed Derek, his hair actually groomed for once and his shoulders unusually taut. Not different enough, she thought. She shook it away, unsure where it had come from at all.)
“Are you really going to New York?” he asked. She had come out for a fresh breath of air, and he had been leaning against the side of the lodge. It was a nice night even with the light breeze prickling at the hairs on her arms. She leaned next to him, the darkness messing with her depth perception until her upper arm was grazing his own. “You’re going to go dance with Jesse and give up school? Not the Casey McDonald I know at all. Very irrational, Case.”
“Isn’t that what living up your youth is supposed to be all about?” Her voice sounded overly cheery to her own ears. The world seemed to sparkle with opportunity, and she couldn’t stop the bubble of hope from rising up her chest. “Taking chances.”
“Maybe for cool people, but Space Case? Ugh, no.” He shook his head in mock disgust. “How am I supposed to meet sorority girls now? I’m going to have to do so much more work, and you know how I feel about that. And homework? I’ll have to find another keener when it’s so convenient that you already are one.”
She chuckled, rolled her eyes. They followed the script, except she couldn’t help but lean her head against his shoulder. That was decidedly not in the stage directions. “Is this your way of saying you’re going to miss me?”
He lifted her head off of his shoulder and took a few steps out, pausing a beat, before turning back around. His head was ducked, and he took a few tiny steps toward her. When he looked up, his eyes were sparkling, and a smirk sat on his lips. “A dancer, huh? That was quite the show.”
Tilting her head, she watched Derek with furrowed brows. Then it snapped into place. “I prefer to go by my name. Casey.” She held out a hand. When she had been drunk in the hallway, she had never anticipated this game having a rematch, but here they were playing at it for the third time. It felt easier than she would have anticipated to slip back in.
“Derek.” He grasped her hand, and it was warm in her palm. “A girl like you, stuck in a place like this… what gives?”
She pushed some hair behind her ear. “A girl like me?”
“Pretty. Talented. Seems like a shame.”
“Oh, didn’t you hear?” For a moment, his lips twitched as if he was going to break character, and she stepped forward in a move to keep the game from ending. There was some sort of solace in this moment, and she reached out a hand without a destination in sight. Her finger ended up grazing his wrist, and surprisingly, he didn’t back away. “I got offered a role in New York to dance. Goodbye old life. New York, here I come.”
“Sounds exciting. Sounds like—” Derek’s voice cut out. Edmund and Marti called from the lodge for them simultaneously, and their voices built as they walked closer in an argument over where they had gone.
Casey looked at him briefly, trying to grasp onto whatever he was going to say as the look vanished from his face like the dying embers of a fire. He turned away, and when he turned back it was as if it had never been there at all. She was excited about her new life. Really, she was. Yet, there was something about watching Derek walk back toward the lodge, him picking up Marti to sit on his waist and Edmund blabbing away that made her heart constrict.
“You coming, crazy?” Derek yelled.
“Yeah!” Marti chimed in. “Your booooooyfriend is waiting for you.”
Casey followed, smile back in place. This was everything she hadn’t known she wanted. This was her life. She reached out for it with everything she had.
New York was great until it wasn’t. There was nothing wrong with Jesse. Actually, he was all sorts of perfect—caring, considerate, constant. And she loved dancing; it had been so long since she had pushed her body to the absolute limit. All she thought about was moving and acting, and when the audience clapped after a performance there wasn’t a single rush that had filled her with so much feeling.
She missed learning, though. Her brain felt as if it was idly standing by while she took a minor detour. Jesse didn’t understand that, and she couldn’t blame him for it, either. This was his ultimate dream, and while it was one of hers, it wasn’t all of them. She loved him as much as she could, but when it came down to it, there was something safe about being with him. It was almost too easy, and Casey hated that she couldn’t get that feeling out of her bones. She let him go.
The truth was, women like her made life difficult. Casey had read that line in a memoir of some Syrian activist, underlining it with every color pen she could find—something about it resonated completely. She didn’t mean to, and she wouldn’t change it about herself, but it was true. She strived for perfection and could only be happy when she was close to it, and above all else she never wanted easy. She made life difficult.
“Your last performance,” her mother said, reaching forward for a hug. It had taken them a full year to be able to coordinate all of their schedules to come see her, but it was worth the wait. “It was stunning.”
“Thank you,” she said back, ignoring the fact that Derek was flirting with the girl selling merchandise and Edwin had been gone far too long for a simple bathroom trip. She turned toward Lizzie and Marti to give them each a hug. Marti reached up and dipped her finger in the glitter around Casey’s eyes, wiping it on her own cheek. “I’m so glad you guys could come.”
“We’re excited to have you back in the country,” George said. “I know we should want you to spread your wings and all, but it’ll be nice having you closer to the nest.”
Her mom wrapped an arm around George’s back. “Seconded.”
“Where’s Jesse?” Lizzie asked as she whipped her head around. “Isn’t he coming to dinner with us?”
“Oh, he’s touring with a different company now. He didn’t just move on from the show, he moved on from New York.” She would have added from me , but that wasn’t true. She had been the one happy to let him fly away. The makeup on her face started to melt . “He’s been doing it for about a month now.”
“Your boyfriend left?” Derek asked, clearly done with the merchandise girl as he slipped a number in his back pocket and fell back into the lopsided circle they all made.
She clapped her hands in front of her chest. “ Not my boyfriend anymore. Now, who’s hungry? I know a great burger place.”
Derek may have been a year older, but he was still Derek. He never let anything go. With every conversation shift he twisted the conversation back to Jesse and their break up, until Casey accidentally spilled her shake all over his lap and Derek retaliated with ketchup in her hair. They get kicked out of the diner after Marti had begun clanging the silverware together in a chant for their fight, but it was worth it by the time they were rolling over each other in laughter. She’d missed this, even if it was clear George and Nora had not.
“You think at some point you guys would grow up,” Nora said outside the restaurant while she tapped her toe. George crossed his arms in solidarity.
Derek clapped a hand on Casey’s shoulder. “You know, you think we really would. Can’t wait to have you home, sis.”
George sighed. “Maybe I redact my statement about being closer to the nest. I’d rather our nest stay in one piece.”
(There was a week in March where Derek had come out for his Spring Break. She had met him at the airport, they had fought all the way back to her apartment in the cab, and it wasn’t until later that night after dinner she admitted she was happy to see him. He agreed to nothing, but he smiled instead of smirked.
They went to the Museum of Moving Image, separating and meeting between displays on cameras and moving clips. At one point she had sidled up next to him in the glow of one of the first films ever made. “Come here often?” she had joked. He offered to buy her a coffee so they could talk about their favorite movies.
“Do you ever think about how close you and your stepbrother are?” Jesse asked later. “Don’t you think it’s a little weird?”
“We aren’t close. We hate each other.” That was one of the only constants in her life: the hate they shared. “Sometimes we get along, but mostly we can’t stand one another.”
“You sure about that?”
When Derek left two days later, she breathed in the New York air and fell back into the routine of normalcy. Derek was London, not New York. That wasn’t her anymore.)
Casey’s lease ran until mid-August, so she only ended up with a few weeks back at home before university. It felt constricted after an entire year of being in a city all on her own in a completely different country. There were some nice things about it, though—bonding time and catching up on reading and definitely not Derek.
“You can’t seriously enjoy this,” he said as he fell into his chair.
“As a matter of fact, I do.” She turned the volume up a bit higher just to spite him. “It’s the perfect balance of empowerment and romance.”
“Geez, Case. You live a year in New York and you’re still under the impression love is real?”
She caught her breath, turning toward him with a singular raised brow. “You really don’t think love is real?”
For some reason, the room seemed to get smaller as he looked at her. His face went impassive, like he didn’t want her reading any of his cards. “Should I?”
“George, Nora. They’re in love.”
“After being divorced.” Derek said. “I think people can find fleeting happiness. Love, it’s not…”
Casey sucked in a breath. It didn’t matter a lick what Derek thought about love, except for some reason it almost felt like it did. “I didn’t realize you were actually as cynical as that. You’ve really never been in love before?”
He paused and all the air was sucked from the room. They stared at each other for an impossible beat. When he turned back to the television, the moment cracked. “I really can’t stand this crap. It’s horrible.”
She wasn’t sure if he meant the conversation or the television, but it didn’t matter because he left all the same. Casey watched the show for a minute or two more before shutting it off and doing the same.
(The house had to get sprayed for a ant infestation, and Derek and Casey entertained themselves while everyone else was at the movies. They drove around for a while first, unsure where they were going, when Derek finally pulled up at a charity shop about a half hour away from their house.
Casey protested but eventually gave in because she liked the idea of finding diamonds in the rough (definitely not a pattern in your life, Casey, definitely not), and she found herself hidden within the clothes.
He picked out a long dress for her she never would have looked twice at. When she tried it on, she paired it with a fringe vest to complete the look. She was playing a part, and so was he, and there was something freeing about that. Falling into roles that were different from the script they usually followed.
As she checked out, Casey made the clerk pull the cameras off of the wall. She picked out the one in the best condition and bought it for him, luckily a half role of film still inside.
“You have the look ,” he said as he held up the camera, taking fake pictures with clicking sounds from his mouth. “You must model for me.”
“I’m a professional,” she joked, flipping her hair from side to side. “I don’t let just anyone photograph me.”
They kept playing the game—him taking picture of her new outfit against alleys of brick and in front of backdrops of city life. It was weird, how somehow the whole day felt like a date more than hanging out. How it felt almost like a secret.)
“You really want me to pretend you don’t exist?” Derek asked. They were driving to Queen's with Casey’s stuff piled in the back. His own was in storage nearby campus, ready to be picked up whenever he had the chance. “Does that still stand?”
“You really want me to pretend you do?” She twisted her body toward him, leaning her back against the cool window pane and bringing her legs up underneath herself. “You have friends and a life. You want Spacey Casey ruining that?”
He shrugged. “I’m just hoping you still want to join a sorority. There will be fresh meat and everything. ”
“You’re so disgusting,” she said with a huff.
“I think you mean devastatingly attractive. Maybe you’re disgusted by the pure, raw masculinity I possess and your unwilling charm to it all?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah, totally Derek. How did you know you had me quaking in my boots this whole time?”
“Woah, keep it in your pants, Case. This is a PG-13 flick, you didn’t know?”
They bantered back and forth a little more before stopping for food, where they called a truce so they could get three meals and split it evenly between them. Derek actually helped move her stuff in, but only because she had promised to buy him alcohol later. In turn, she helped him get his things from storage because, though she loved telling Derek no, she also couldn’t stop her innate desire to be helpful.
When they got back to his new apartment, his three hockey friends slash roommates were hanging around in the living room. “Who is this ?” one of them asked—a dark-skinned boy with broad shoulders and a smile that made Casey’s knees go a little weak.
Derek threw an arm around her shoulders. “This is Casey. Someone from home.”
Her eyes flickered to the side of his face, searching for what game they were playing. Had she missed some part of their conversation from earlier? Some pivotal part of whatever was happening here? It felt nice , though, so she leaned in further. For once, she decided not to overanalyze (or at least she tried her hardest not to). “It’s nice to meet you all.”
He hadn’t said stepsister. He hadn’t said sister. Just someone from home, an ambiguous title with a side of possessive physicality. Casey was trying to not freak out, really she was.
Later, when she was unpacking his neverending boxes of knick-knacks she couldn’t believe she had been talked into helping with, the sounds of his roommates’ conversation drifted through the open door.
“She’s hot, man. She an ex?”
“Casey? Nah,” Derek said. “She’s just Casey.”
Just Casey. There were too many things coming out of Derek’s mouth she couldn’t begin to comprehend. Her mind whirled.
“Well, you’ve got her whipped. Doing all your unpacking? Looks like I need a Casey.”
She looked down at her hands holding his rubik’s cube and a crinkled automotive magazine. What the hell was she doing? Exiting into the hallway, she saw him sitting on the footrest across from his roomates.
“Der-ek! I can’t believe I’m doing all the work,” she said as she threw the magazine at his head.
He chuckled and ducked. Just as he stood up, she went to jump at his back. He wrapped an arm around to keep her safely in place. For a minute he swirled around, ignoring the way she ruffled his hair and squealed in his ear. She fell off, almost bringing him down with her until he helped keep her upright. He held out his hands in surrender, and the two of them stood a few feet apart breathing heavily.
“Wow, you sure you haven’t dated? Or something like that?” It was the goalie who had spoken, a twig of a guy Casey couldn’t remember the name of. Alex, maybe?
Casey laughed, and the way she did made Derek roll his eyes at how she could possibly go from murder to laughter. From murder to laughter , she thought. It could be our joint book title . “Something like that,” she said. Two could play that game. Hell, she had invented it.
She did join a sorority, though it wasn’t quite as much fun as she had anticipated it being. There was a long rush period where they were out every night—drinking, spilling secrets, and bonding over inane activities.
One night they were expected to skinny dip as a group. The next they were singing songs to boys on the quad. The night after that, they were at a club in search of a boy’s number.
Casey struck out with a lumberjack of a man (who had happened to be there with his boyfriend) before spotting him across the room. He was leaned up against the bar in his leather jacket of all things, hair wild but slicked at the sides. It still shocked her he had learned how to do anything with that nest of his. The girl he was chatting up seemed insanely interested, though there was something lazy in his response.
It felt like too much of a coincidence to ignore. And maybe it was the similarity to the night the game had started—that similarity mostly being the buzzing of alcohol in her system and the feeling like she was on the cusp of something dangerous. When she approached him from behind, the girl saw her before he did. Her eyes narrowed, and Casey liked how somehow she was considered competition.
Casey leaned into him, close enough to feel the heat radiating off of his body, and watched him turn slowly around to see her. His lips stretched up at one edge.
“Can I help you with something?” he asked.
“I could use a drink,” she said. “And maybe your phone number?”
He chuckled, and the girl he’d been talking to disappeared back into the crowd with a huff. Casey’s eyes trailed the way his hand moved up to his hair to rifle a hand through it, disturbing a few of his locks into disarray.
“That’s rather presumptuous of you.” He got the attention of the bartender, tapping his glass and motioning for two with his fingers. Only Derek could get the attention of a bartender on a Saturday night without saying a single word. “How are you even sure I’m worth it?”
She tilted her head and quirked her lips up. “Are you saying you’re not?”
“Oh, I’d never say that.” He paused, taking a sip of the beer the bartender had left and leaving a generous tip. She took the other one and drank while he watched her throat for a second too long. “What makes you worthy of getting my number?”
The bar was too hot, too crowded. Someone from behind bumped into her lower back, and she crashed closer into Derek. This wasn’t who she was. She should be studying in her dorm room or watching a Lifetime movie marathon with a big bowl of popcorn. New York may have changed her, but she wasn’t this girl. At least, she didn’t think she was. Certainly not the girl who flirted with her stepbrother in a bar like they didn’t know each other at all.
Flirted. It was the first time she had admitted that there was something non-platonic in their game. The feelings she had been pushing away for years—the anxiety, the angst—rolled back into her stomach with a familiarity. Things that were bad for you weren’t supposed to feel so good.
“Well…” she paused, made sure he was looking as she took a slow slug of beer, and set the drink back down. “There’s only one way to figure that out, isn’t there?”
There was a breath between them, and Derek moved closer, closer, reaching behind her to grab a pen off of the bar. He picked up her hand and wrote on the pale flesh in a humorously bad scrawl.
He breathed, and she could feel it over the planes of her face. “I guess so.”
For a moment, a split second, Casey almost thought they were moving toward each other. She was almost going to let him. They were unmovable forces, always had been, and this seemed nearly like gravity.
A hand grabbed her wrist, yanking her away. “Hope you got his number, Casey, because time’s up.”
Shuffling over her feet, Casey followed, but she couldn’t stop from looking over her shoulder at Derek still leaned up casually against the bar. He held up his hand in a mock recreation of a telephone, and she would have laughed if her chest wasn’t beating so wildly.
(Casey’s fall formal date ditched her for a girl in their rival sorority an hour beforehand, and she ended up at Derek’s doorstep. Her hair was falling in haphazard curls, makeup smeared at the corners of her eyes, and she was painfully aware that her and dances were officially not destined to be.
When he opened the door, his eyebrows crashed together. “Wha—” He stepped aside, letting her through.
“Do you think you could pretend to be someone who cared?” she asked, wincing at how harsh her wording sounded. It was meant to be a reference to their game more than anything—pretend to be someone who doesn’t know me, pretend to be someone who’d want to comfort me. “I just…”
“You think I don’t care?” he asked. Casey didn’t understand the way his face fell, his shoulders grew taut. “I don’t have to pretend to be someone else to care about you.”
That made Casey start crying again. Derek ushered her past the living room and into his bedroom, settling her into bed while he grabbed a sweatshirt for her. She slipped out of the dress and into the extra fabric that smelled of him. He grabbed her tea (she left it there because he refused to buy it) and popcorn, and they settled in with his laptop between their legs to watch a movie.
“Don’t think just because you’re crying you get movie control or you can hog the popcorn,” he said.
She rested her head on his chest while he stretched, and, after a moment of frozen panic, he let his arm fall back down, curling around her.)
Out of all of the places for their facade to finally cross the point of no return, it just had to be their freaking house. It was Christmas Eve (Derekus Eve, he corrected upon their arrival, because apparently some things never changed), and Casey had finally gotten Marti to bed with the fourth reading of the Night Before Christmas. Edwin was making racket from the attic Casey had no desire to know the source of, and Lizzie was already passed out.
She softly closed Marti’s door and turned to find Derek leaning in his doorway. “What?” she asked, raising a brow as she stepped closer.
He rolled his eyes. “I haven’t even said anything yet. How can you already be angry.”
She scoffed. “Please, you highly underestimate your ability to frustrate me. Sometimes you just stand there, and I find myself fuming. Your personality is built on annoyance as its primary function.”
He shuffled back to full height, taking a step toward her and raising a brow. “You think I’m more annoying than you?” She nodded, and he mockingly laughed. “Nuh uh. I have had to listen to a million and one ridiculous speeches on morality and schoolwork and whatever silly, prissy little thought passes through your brain. I’m the victim here.”
“Derek,” she hissed, pushing him through his doorway and closing the door behind them. “You’re going to wake up the girls. If I have to read The Night Before Christmas one more time,” she said with a poke to his chest to accentuate the point, “I will officially lose it.”
Casey moved to poke him again, but before the finger could make contact he had grabbed it midair. They stood too close, with the tension of the argument still pulsing between them, and Casey didn’t know if she had ever fully appreciated the blueness of his gaze. Her free hand moved on its free volition, in some sort of haze she could not label, and floated near his cheek. For a moment they both hovered, and then Derek crashed his lips against her own.
Shock froze her, and when he pulled back, Derek’s face was a mix of raw fear and embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Case, I—”
“I don’t,” she said, clearing her throat when it came out croaking, “normally do this on a first date.”
For a split second Casey could see too much on his face—frustration, maybe? angst? disappointment?—but before she could get a grasp on any of them it was already gone. She lurched forward, and he was there ready to take her when she kissed back.
His knees hit the bed, and he fell, Casey falling on top of him. As he scooted backward, she was more than happy to straddle his waist. How many arguments had they had within these four walls? How many other people had they kissed? This was their game , she reminded before her mind could fall into full-blown panic. A very sexually-charged version of it. Neither of them had hooked up with anyone in a while, and this was simple biology. It was crazy it hadn’t happened before then, really.
Derek leaned up on his elbows and captured her neck between his teeth with a nip. A gasp left her lips, and she moaned when he suckled it. He paused, pulling back to look at her. “Fuck, Case.”
Casey could imagine how she looked—plump lips, tousled hair, a red mark now on her neck on full display. Derek stared back at her a similar version with wide eyes and pink, wet lips. She really must be going crazy with how good he looked. It was like all it had taken was a single kiss to break past the wall, now she didn’t know if she could ever stop.
When she bent back forward, her hair creating a curtain around them, she leaned into his body. His hands came up to grasp at her hips, and she bit his lower lip. It was too much. Derek was too much. Something about him set every part of her on fire. He pulled back. “ Fuck, Case,” he repeated as he touched his lips.
She pulled her shirt over her head, partially because she wanted his hands on her bare skin and partially because she liked surprising Derek. His eyes widened to an almost comical degree, and when she tossed it to the floor behind her, he was already twisting them around so her back was against the mattress.
He started by kissing her neck, trailing down to her collarbone and above her breast. He paused by the cup of her bra, looking up at her through eyelashes, and waited for a nod before lowering the fabric and taking a nipple into his mouth. Casey groaned and reached a hand out to grab onto his hair.
His kisses moved lower, circling around her navel. He went to her hip, biting a mark there and receiving a gasp in response. “You like that, sweetheart?” he whispered.
“Don’t—” she gasped again as he breathed over her center and landed on her inner thigh instead, “call me sweetheart.”
“No?” he asked, kissing the other thigh. “What about,” he said as he stopped over where she wanted him most, looking up at her with a smirk she wanted to slap and kiss with equal measure, “baby?” It was a two-fold question, and she nodded to both. He slipped the pajamas off.
After an aggravating beat, his mouth found her clit. Her hands wrapped around the fabric of his comforter, her back arching as she searched for more. He brought a finger up and teased her opening. After a beat, his mouth and finger went back to work simultaneously.
“Derek?” her voice was breathier than she wanted, but she wanted, wanted, wanted. Her abdomen was burning too hot for her to care about a single thing. “Do you have a condom?”
That was all he needed to hear to crawl back up her, pausing only to leave a piercing kiss on her lips of which she could taste herself before reaching into his bedside table. He came back holding it between his pointer and middle finger, a roguish smile on his lips. “And what should I do with this, baby?”
She took it from him and flipped them back over, yanking his pants off with his help. “I figured someone with your experience would know,” she said. He watched in awe as she slipped the condom over him. “Let me show you.”
His hands went back to her hips, gripping her securely, and she paused over his dick. “You want this, baby ?” she mocked, but somehow she could tell Derek found that hot. That, in turn, was also kind of hot.
“Of course you’d be a control freak here, too,” he said, but it was less of an insult and more a statement of awe. He looked at her as if she couldn’t possibly be real. When she lowered herself finally, taking all of him in, he threw his head back against the pillows with a groan. “Fuck.”
Her nails dipped into his chest as she rode him. At first, her head was thrown back, eyes closed, but as she grew closer to orgasm she found his gaze. He had been watching her the whole time, and that turned Casey on. She watched his mouth fall open and his face constrict, and a few moments later she was coming, too. She fell into the crook of his shoulder, legs tangled, as they caught their breaths.
Casey could almost fall asleep like that if it wasn’t for the dirty condom and the stench of sex. She pulled back and flipped onto her back, adjusting her bra and staring at the white ceiling. “Why were you in the hallway, anyways?”
“Thought you might want to watch a movie.” He shrugged. They sat there with only the sounds of their breathing and the realization of what they had just done. “Hey, Casey?”
She laughed so she wouldn’t cry.
(Maybe there had been a time, a split second here or there, where she had thought he was cute. Before she knew he was her future stepbrother, and he had been just another boy in the hallways of a potential high school. When he played with Marti. When he fell asleep watching hockey and his face took on all the openness and freedom he mimicked awake.
Once, when Truman was relentlessly asking her out for months, she dreamt about Truman talking to her at school except it had been Derek leaning next to her locker. She had been too disturbed to write it down in her dream journal, but she remembered the way he had smiled, smirked, leaned into her.
Maybe that was where the game really began. Maybe dating Truman had been the first step in pretending in some parallel universe her and Derek would have met, been friends, etc. etc. flirtedkisseddated, etc. Maybe she had been feeling these things longer than she was willing to admit.
But the point was she wasn’t. going. to admit. that.)
They didn’t talk about it the next day, and Casey was both relieved and bewildered. She had woken up nearly convinced it had all been a terrible, wonderful dream. Her body felt satisfied in a way it hadn’t in too long. And the fact that it was Derek who had left her that way was shocking. She shook it off and tried to play it cool.
At some point, Christmas morning present-opening had lost some of its grandeur. She liked receiving gifts, but it was more fun to watch the undiluted joy of Marti, Edwin, and Lizzie who could still be surprised with the perfect, surprise present. And it felt even better when it had come from her (Casey was a perfectionist, even in this).
“This sweater is perfect, Casey,” Lizzie said, coming from behind to give her a hug.
Casey squeezed her sister’s arm and smiled. “I saw it at this New York boutique and knew it was for you instantly. I couldn’t resist.”
“Yeah, Casey.” Derek wrapped an arm around her neck, his fingers twitching briefly over the ends of her hair. “Thanks for the album. Surprisingly cool.”
Looking over her shoulder in haste, as if she was going to be caught in the lie of last night, she noticed Lizzie already in conversation with Edwin on the couch. “What?” she asked, regaining her breath, “no gift for me?”
“Oh, I’m saving mine for later.” He pulled back, his fingers dancing over the soft skin of her neck in a way that made the hair on her arm prickle awake.
George clapped his hands, breaking them all out of their conversations. “Nora and I have quite the feast planned for you all, but it’ll be a few hours so go play with your toys and stay out of our hair thank you very much.”
Marti hopped up with her new set of glitter pens.. “Fine by me. I’ve got some coloring to do.”
Edwin squeezed his board game to this chest. “Lizzie? Derek? Casey? Want to play Road to the Holy Grail? It’s a riot, I swear.”
“As totally amusing and not at all lame as that sounds, you’re going to have to count me out,” Derek said as he stood. “I have a perfectly good nap waiting for me.”
Casey joined him on her feet. “Sorry, Edwin, but I have some reading I want to get ahead on.”
“Homework? On Christmas?” Derek scoffed. “Any time I think you’ve scraped the barrel of lameness you are just so good at proving me wrong.”
“Derek!” She reached out to slap him, but he was already running up the stairs. After a second, she sprinted behind him. “You’re the absolute worst!”
He ran to his bedroom, pulling her in behind him, and pushed her back against the now closed door. He moved in to kiss her, pausing over her mouth. “The worst? Don’t you want your Christmas present?”
She shrugged, trying to play it cool despite being totally not cool. “Depends on what the cost is.”
“Just this once,” he said as he gave a lingering kiss to the left of her mouth, “this is entirely for free.”
Derek? Doing something for free? For her of all people? Obviously they were still playing the game. There was no way this was her real life. They must have still been playing as he kissed her against the door, as he unzipped her pants, as he made her come underneath his fingers with his free hand stifling her moans.
They continued playing as she sucked him off on the mattress, taking all of him in her mouth. The game paused as they breathed, staring at the ceiling and discussing the movie George and Nora had rented for them to watch later (Casey: It can’t really be that bad, Derek: trust me, it probably will be ) as if they hadn’t only moments earlier been moaning each other’s names. Then, they fell back into the fallacy as he carried her to his desk chair, sitting at the desk as she wrapped her legs around his waist and used the tabletop as leverage to ride him.
He breathed into her ear, which she was pretty sure would have been annoying if anyone else had ever done it, but for some reason he made hot. “Come on. Come on, baby,” He said into the shell of her ear.
She felt the rise of her stomach, her body grow more and more feral as it seemed to be taken over by something primal, when a knock came from the door. They halted halfway through a thrust.
“Who’s there?” Derek asked. His voice was gravelly, which Casey desperately hoped sounded more tired than aroused. “This better be good because I was sleeping.”
“Dinner is ready, Derek,” Nora said through the wood.
They had been quiet enough, right? Because the door seemed so thin now that her mother was speaking through it. She could not believe Derek was still halfway inside of her, and her mother was standing outside of the door. This was not her life.
“Is Casey with you? She’s not in her room.”
Casey cleared her throat. “Here, mom! I was just looking through some of the music on his computer, trying to find this song I used to like. We’ll be right down.”
“Okay, don’t be long.” Her footsteps retreated down the hallway.
Derek nudged her hips up, and she scuttled off of him and back into her pants as quickly as she could. There were a couple of angry red marks on her neck she had no idea how to cover, but she assumed if she wore her hair down and slipped into her sweater it might cover it up well enough. When she turned around, Derek was back in his own clothes.
“Should we talk about this?” he asked.
When had he become the voice of reason? Casey wanted to scream. “I’d rather we didn’t.”
“Okay.” He nodded, and she tried to tell if he was angry or happy or something else. His face was unreadable. “Let’s go eat, then.”
The rest of Christmas break passed in a blur. Too many family activities, responsibilities, and catch up time with Emily for Casey to get a moment alone (or alone plus one). In a way, Casey liked not having the time to think too thoroughly on anything in her life.
The night before they headed back, Derek insulted her thrift shop shirt and Casey retaliated by throwing her half-chewed roll at his head. Edwin laughed, accidentally hitting his spoon and flinging corn that hit Lizzie in the shoulder. After that, chaos erupted all around. Marti threw food with abandon, George hid behind his chair with a few half-assed please to stop, and Nora stood in the middle of the battlefield with a plea for them to stop.
Seeing the way Nora’s face constricted made Casey feel a slew of emotions (most of them hard and heavy), and she dropped the food back onto her plate. Derek used the opportunity to fling mashed potatoes at her face.
“Enough!” Nora yelled. “Can’t we just have one night of peace?”
“With Derek and Casey? Unlikely.” Edwin chuckled as he shook corn out of his hair.
Casey stared across the table at her stepbrother. Her step brother. Her mother would be so disappointed to know what they’d done in Derek’s room. Disgusted, most definitely. And her siblings? God, what would they think of her? It made her shudder.
Because the truth was Lizzie was her sister and so was Marti. Edwin was her brother. By that logic, Derek should be, too. The step in his title had always seemed more important, though she couldn’t for the life of her ever put a reason on it. It shouldn’t matter that sleeping with Derek made her feel explicitly alive. It didn’t matter that sometimes her mind ran away from her, and she thought his smile—not his smirk, his true smile reserved for special occasions and moments caught off guard—left her breath short and her heart feeling tighter.
The guilt filled her up ankle to forehead as she saw her frustrated mother. Her beautiful, caring mother who had been willing to sacrifice her life a million times over for the sake of her daughters.
“Sorry,” Casey said. “We’ll clean it up.”
“We will?” Edwin asked.
Derek scoffed. “ You will.”
“We all will,” she said, harder this time. “Right, Derek? Setting a good example for our younger siblings?”
Casey knew there must have been something raw and pained in her voice when he didn’t argue. Normally, there would have been some response about not caring about the example he set or I’d rather set an example of cool or nah, that's perfectly fine by me. Instead, he nodded.
It didn’t actually take that long to clean up once they divide-and-conquered. The place looked spotless by the time they were done, maybe better than before, and George and Nora took pity on them. They brought out the chocolate cake they had baked for the occasion and pulled out the ice cream from the freezer.
“Our lives may be easier when you two aren’t around,” George said in his slightly tactless manner, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t still miss you.”
The guilt lasted through January. Casey threw herself into schoolwork to a dangerous degree. She got a job as a jazz dance instructor for a studio nearby, and she threw herself into that, too. Her body was exhausted (not in the way she truly wanted it to be), and her mind had no free time to think. Perfect.
“You’re ignoring me,” he said the first week of February after knocking on her dorm door. “Don’t be a baby, Casey.”
Except that was the wrong thing to say because all Casey could think about was the way his breath felt against her inner thigh when he had called her that. He winced, realizing his mistake.
“I’ve been busy,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Yeah,” he said with a roll of his eyes, “definitely nothing to do with all that sex. You’re neurotic, Casey, but you’re not stupid.”
“We let the game get too far, but we’re sophisticated adults who can move past this for the sake of our family.” She pushed her shoulders back in an attempt to feel stronger. It didn’t work.
“Our stupid game, right.” He rubbed a hand over his face, and Casey wasn’t used to seeing Derek like this. She was startled to realize, though, that she was likely the one who saw him like this the most. It struck her heart in a funny way.
“Is it really just a game to you?”
Casey couldn’t read his face. She wanted to reach into him and hold his heart, have it pulse in her hands so she could memorize every inch of the surface and the shape. She wanted to know without a doubt what it was that made Derek tick, what he was thinking and feeling.
“It’s…” She sighed. “I don’t know what it is.”
“I’m not trying to interrogate you,” Derek said. “God, when did I become the chick in this relationship? This is so fucked. I shouldn’t be the one trying to talk about this.”
Casey laughed. “Wow, this really is fucked.”
He snorted.” And now you’re swearing. What fucking parallel universe did we get transported to.” He sighed and reached up to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. “What if we don’t talk about it for now? We just… press pause. Promise to come back and discuss at a later date. Deal?”
They shook hands. “Deal.”
For a moment, neither of them moved. Then they sealed it with a kiss. Clothes on the floor. A back arched, cries released, a satisfying conclusion. Blood dried underneath her nails and scratches etched on his back.
All she wanted to do was scrub her hands until they were rubbed raw, but she didn’t. She picked at it all night, let the dirt crust it in further, and painted her nails so she didn’t have to stare at it anymore.
They slept together in the bathroom at the dinghy college bar near campus. They slept together pressed against the flat surface of the sorority house. They slept together in the backseat of The Prince. Sometimes, slept together wasn’t a synonym for fucked and instead they just… slept together, curled around each other like question marks.
“Do you remember when I said you were a good brother?” she asked. They were sprawled on his bed, a pizza box beside them and Casey’s shirt still on the floor by the door. “It was the night we both announced we were going to Queen's.”
He nodded as he bit into a slice of pizza. “Yeah, I remember. Same difference.”
“Gross, Derek. Chew then speak.” She hit his shoulder. “Yeah, same difference.”
Groaning, he flipped onto his side and watched the planes of her face as she thought. “Just this once, I’ll open the floodgates for feelings. So, what are you thinking about, Casey? ” His voice went nasally and obnoxious.
She rolled her eyes. “Did you already feel something back then? That conversation, did I imagine something else there?”
Her brow furrowed. “What?”
Derek flipped onto his back. One arm laid flat on his stomach, and the other flung out to his side, his pinky finger grazing the skin of her waist. “I felt something always.”
(Derek never wanted to tell this story. For the sake of his side of the truth, though, he would say this.
A girl moved into his house he had never wanted there in the first place. When she fought with him he hated it except for when it was almost exciting. She was hot, sure, but she was annoying and off limits. There were so many easier girls to deal with.
Except, at some point, he started resenting that ease. Maybe it was when he realized the frustration over her dating Sam was jealousy. Maybe it was when he realized fighting with her was the best part of the day. More aptly, it was probably when she kept doing things for him—singing in his band, helping him with his girlfriend—though he didn’t do a single thing she deserved in return.
It didn’t really matter because nothing he ever did made that sick, soft feeling go away. He didn’t need to pretend to be someone else to comfort her. He didn’t need to pretend to be someone else to love her even if she did.
He never had.)
Casey took summer school, catching up on the year she had missed in two eight-week periods of intensive learning. To everyone’s surprise (besides Casey, who had helped him with the applications yet didn’t voice any that), Derek got into a young filmmaker’s internship. While Casey studied in Derek’s room, sublet while he was away filming, Derek helped a semi-notable Canadian filmmaker with his next big picture. They couldn’t have been more distinctly Derek and Casey.
Part of the internship program involved Derek receiving the opportunity to film his own short film on the side, using his resources to get criticism and advice and grow his artistic vision underneath a helpful eye.
“We want to see it!” Nora said at the end of summer.
They’d both come home for Edwin’s birthday weekend. It was the first time they had seen each other since June, and it didn’t feel exciting as much as it was calming—like coming back home after being abroad for months. Like falling back into the comfort of your own bed after moving from hotel to hotel. Derek and her had shared a semi-unwilling hug, and it had been enough to calm the frizzing madness in Casey’s head.
Derek cleared his throat. “Okay, but it’s not actually all-age appropriate.”
“You filmed a porno?” Casey squealed.
“Casey!” George and Nora reprimanded.
She blushed. “Sorry.” She caught Derek’s amused expression and quirked lips—she blushed more.
The younger siblings were sent away until George and Nora could gauge the sensitivity of the material ( I’m old enough to see anything on that tape, Edwin argued. Well, I’ll see about that , George replied). The four of them sat down, Derek in his chair leaned back in an attempt to seem less nervous than the fingers tapping against his thigh suggested. The short film clicked to a start, already so different than anything else he had ever done with a simple shot of the sky. Casey leaned forward.
The movie was in hues of light pink and blue. Chances, it was called. Two people walked down the street oblivious to one another, intercut with scenes that were more body parts and geometry than anything else. Two fingers clasping here. A collarbone there. Sensual scenes interlaced with the day to day action of two separate people, growing quicker as the movie went along.
The two people bumped into each other on the street, all the intercutting halting as they stared at one another. The moment paused—awkward, silent, almost a beat too long. As they finally walked away from one another, the screen melted into the two of them kissing in soft lighting. The scene burted back to reality: two people walking away from each other, an opportunity lost forever. The screen turned black.
“So…” Derek began, twisting his body toward them, “what did you—Casey?”
She looked up to see them all staring at her, and she noticed how many tears were streaming down her cheeks. Nora wrapped an arm around her and squeezed her into her side. George awkwardly patted her back. The film had cut at something deep in her, made her feel.
“It was just… It was really good Derek. Very emotional.”
“Thanks, Case.” He looked dazed, almost like a deer in headlights.
“I didn’t know you had this in you, Derek.” George whistled low. “I’m very impressed.”
“So proud,” Nora echoed.
Casey thought about it later, the flashing images and the colors and how somehow, someway, it made her feel the way she did when she thought too long about the inevitability of the two of them crashing and burning like wildfire. Total demise.
(Most times, the game started easily. They were strangers at a bar or a coffee shop or at school. As they broke past their physical boundaries it happened more than it had in the past, shifting slightly. When they slept together, they often played at being boyfriend and girlfriend. Always with the word pretend stamped on it, though. Always the claim of distance. Sometimes it was explicitly stated, other times not. It was there, though, an invisible fog breaking them apart from reality.
There was one day, though, a lazy Sunday where they had ordered food in and laid on their bed. Derek was futzing on his computer. Casey did reading for homework on her stomach.
Derek kissed up her spine to her nape, nuzzling his head into the crook of her neck. “Where should we go on our honeymoon?”
They talked about warm places and distant places and historical places. Casey kissed him, and they didn’t fuck. It was soft, exploring.
They didn’t talk about that afternoon. They didn’t about a lot of things, but they especially didn’t talk about that.)
Summer dredged past and slipped easily into fall. Casey loved everything about fall from the warm drinks and fuzzy sweaters to the cozy flannels. Her study group friends planned a horror movie marathon, which she hated just as much as she thought she would. The mulled wine had been nice, and she had enjoyed the company, but she was jittery by the time she left in the late night/early morning.
It shouldn’t have surprised her when her car broke down. Her life had come wildly undone—it should be expected at this point. She called Derek because she always called Derek in her times of biggest need.
“Wha—?” His voice was barely awake.
“My car broke down in my way home. Can—”
“Drop me a pin. On my way.” The phone cracked off.
The next twenty minutes involved Casey sitting ramrod straight in her locked car. Every sound outside set her off. She was half-dozing by the time he tapped at her window, causing her to scream. She opened the door.
“Grab your stuff. I’m too tired to fix your shit so we’ll come back in the morning.”
Casey was clearly tired, too, because she didn’t argue. She threw her flannel over her shoulders, grabbed her bag, and locked the car behind her. The Prince still smelled the way it did in high school—fried food, body deodorant, aged car. They drove back to his apartment in silence beside for the low hum of music. By the time they were at his apartment, they were barely walking without dragging their feet. He opened the door, and for the first time completely looked at Casey. He halted.
“What?” she asked, feeling self-conscious.
“Is that my shirt?”
She looked down and fingered the red flannel covering her v-neck. “Yes?” she asked. She hadn’t planned on him figuring it out or seeing her at all.
He groaned and ran a hand through his hair. “God, that's stupid hot. I am too tired for this.”
Leaning forward, she kissed his cheek. “Thank you for picking me up. Let’s go to bed.”
And so they did. Harmlessly, on Derek’s full mattress, they fell asleep together.
She woke up warm. Derek’s arm was flung over her waist, their legs tangled together. His face was buried into the dip between her shoulder blades, and if she didn’t have to pee she probably never would have left. Luckily, his roommates were still sleeping or gone as she went down the hallway. After the night she had, she couldn’t deal with them. Her throat was dry, and she went to grab a glass of water from the kitchen. As she exited the hall, she saw a familiar someone on the couch.
“Casey!” She hopped up and came to give her a hug. “I came to surprise you for our annual Practical Magic and Hocus Pocus watching. I went to your apartment and your roommate said you were supposed to come home last night, but you hadn’t, so you were at your friend’s house that is definitely not your boyfriend but probably should be. Who the heck is this guy, by the way? You haven’t said anything.”
“Oh, it’s not—” She should have known being vague about Derek would have come back to bite her in the ass (but her roommate was so nosy, and she didn’t want prying into her family life).
To rub salt into the wound, Derek walked out right then as if coming on stage for his cue. Of course he came out then. “Case, you better be making pancakes if you’re up this early.”
“Emily?” He looked down at his shirtless torso and ran a hand up to his wild hair as if that could make anything better. “Hey.”
Emily’s head whipped back and forth between the two of them as she tried to piece together the situation. “He’s shirtless. You came from his room. Your roommate said… what the fuck is going on? Are you two? Oh my god, ew ew ew .”
“Emily…” but Casey didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know how to get herself out of this, and for once in his life Derek was staying silent.
Emily booked it out of the apartment, and Casey gave a look to Derek over her shoulder before following. His look, though, would follow her. The way his eyes were wide but also almost… relieved? As if the weight of everything had been lifted. Casey didn’t relate, couldn’t try to rationalize it, so she jogged faster to catch up.
She saw her again at the front door of the apartment building, leaning against the cold, red brick. If Emily was done with her, Casey didn’t know what she would do. Ever since her mother married George, Emily had been one of the most significant rocks in her life. She had been a blessing, showing up right at the moment she needed anyone. And instead of getting anyone she had gotten Emily —a blessing of a friend. She didn’t deserve her.
“He’s your brother,” Emily finally said. “Your parents are married. ”
“Not related by blood.” Casey fidgeted with her hair, her tank top, the rubber band on her wrist. She didn’t know what to do with all of her self. She knew her defense was flimsy and fallible.
“That still doesn’t make it right, Casey. Has this been going on since high school?” Emily stood straight and turned toward her friend. “How are your parents going to feel?”
Casey exploded, the feelings all too much. All Emily was doing was vocalizing all the things she had already thought herself. “I don't know! I don’t know what to do about this. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, but I couldn’t make it stop, any of it because— because—” I love him . God, she really wished she hadn’t realized that big, beautiful, and horrifying fact right at that moment.
“Explain something to me.” Emily’s hands floated helplessly around her head. “Anything. I just want to be able to see Casey in some part of this, no matter how small.”
“I started this stupid game,” she said without thinking. The words tumbled over themselves. “At the end of high school I asked if Derek and I would have been friends in another life, you might remember. Well, sometimes, we started almost pretending we were in a different life, I guess. It was a silly game that I don’t know how we got sucked into.” Casey backtracked as she saw Emily’s face scrunch up in disgust. “It wasn’t sexual! It was just…. I don’t know what it was. Maybe a source to prove the fact that we meant something to each other was valid. Maybe it just turned into an excuse.”
“You like Derek? Genuinely?” Emily shook her head. “None of this makes sense. I don’t recognize you.”
Casey didn’t recognize herself. But that definitely didn’t make hearing it any better.
“Do you hate me?” Casey asked.
Emily sighed. “I just need to go home, take some time to process this all. I’m not, I don’t hate you, Casey.” She walked away, and Casey didn’t follow.
(Casey loved him, too. Maybe it had been there for a while. The condensed version went like this.
She moved into a house with a family she barely knew. Her life was uprooted and never quite given the soil it needed to grow again. Derek was a nuisance at best.
When she thought back about it later, she could see the signs. Even then, maybe she nearly loved him. Maybe she was pulled to him. Maybe she couldn’t stand to be away from him.
She just couldn’t admit that to anyone, though, because it didn’t feel very Casey at all.)
Emily told Sam. Which was surprising, but not ultimately the worst case scenario.
“Why did you tell him?” Casey asked over the phone, her voice shrill. She paced from one side of her bedroom to the other. The walls weren’t set far enough apart.
Her voice sputtered across the line. “It was a big thing, Casey, and I wasn’t going to out you to your family. I ran into Sam, and before I even knew what I was doing I had it all out on the table. He actually had some really interesting things to say. Have you talked to Derek?”
“I received exactly one brief, panicked voicemail this morning and radio silence since. What did Sam say to him?”
“Sam took it surprisingly… well? He was freaking out about it, obviously, but after he thought about it for a second he said it kinda made a lot of things come together. Him and I got lunch together to talk it over.”
Casey sat down on her desk chair, rolled from one side of the desk to the other, and stood back up again. “Brief pause. Is this a getting lunch together turned into getting lunch together kind of thing or was this strictly platonic lunch?”
Emily snorted. “Sam is far more of a brother to me than Derek is to you. Plus, I’ve kinda been seeing this girl on and off. Nothing serious.”
“Wait, really? We need to talk about this once we have gotten through the shit show of my own life first. I mean, that is if you still want to be my friend.” Casey worked her bottom lip between her teeth.
“Of course, I still want to be your friend. Your best friend. It just means… readjusting the way I’ve been thinking about you two for six years. For Sam, though, it almost made sense to him.”
“Made sense? Me and my stepbrother having a strictly non-platonic undefined relationship made sense to him?”
“See, saying things like that is not going to make it easier for me to digest everything.” Casey mumbled a sorry, and Emily continued. “You guys were always on each other’s cases about everything like in a truly hated, despised, wanted to annihilate each other way. You can’t hate someone that much without caring a whole hell of a lot. I was just looking at the caring part of it in a completely different way.”
“I’ve never…” Casey tilted her head and stared at the ballet poster on her wall. “I hadn’t thought about it quite like that, actually. I was never sure how it all started and where my feelings came from. Sometimes, I thought he might have kissed them into me.”
“He is a good kisser, isn’t he?” Emily asked. “Ugh, this is weird, but I don’t want it to be weird.”
Casey nodded. “Yeah. We’re going to have to figure out a new normal. I’m just over the moon that you didn’t decide to completely dump me from your life. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“Ditto.” For a second they sat in each other’s silence, listened to the other’s breath, and Casey felt momentarily at peace. At least she knew she had her best friend with whatever came next.
The next involved being ignored by Derek, which drove Casey mad. Nothing Sam could have said should have that reaction, and Casey found herself reverting into the hyper-attentivity of her youth as she tried to track him down. She tried his classes, his apartment, and the bar. Nothing. Finally, she tried hockey practice.
She should have known the one thing he wouldn’t blow off was hockey.
The coach blared on the whistle as they ran drills, and Casey discreetly slipped into the stands. She didn’t want to disrupt practice or give Derek an excuse to continue running from her. She was done with running. She was done with playing behind the facade of their games. This was the most her she had felt in months—taking charge of her destiny, following her heart even when it was hard. Casey may have made life difficult, but she loved that about herself at the end of the day.
Whatever the future entailed, Casey could not put her finger on it. She had no idea what to expect from trying to map a path for them, but she was willing to try. Talking to Emily about her feelings, having it pointed out that maybe she had always felt this way, realizing she loved him. It made her feel equal measures giddy and agonized.
The ice cleared post-practice for everyone besides Derek. He practiced his slap shot, one after another. Casey watched him with a worried brow for ten minutes before deciding she couldn’t wait a moment longer.
“Derek!” She leaned against the door for the ice. He turned toward her but didn’t move, and she decided to walk out onto the ice to meet him.
“No street shoes on the ice, Case,” he said. It lacked the normal level of humor.
“Well, if you hadn’t been such a contrary ass and came over to me, we would not be having this problem.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest, remembered she had come here to tell him she loved him, and let them fall back to her sides. “We need to talk.”
“It’s over, I know.” He half rotated back toward the goal and flung a puck. It missed by a foot to the right. “We don’t have to talk about it. We can just part as we came in—unwilling stepsiblings.”
“Wait, what?” Casey slipped as she took a step forward but righted herself by grasping onto his padded shoulder. He turned back toward her, and the coldness in his eyes made her let go. “Where is this coming from?”
“It was a game, right? We pretended we were other people, we fucked, we had a good time, but it couldn’t last. You were the one who loved to point out how wrong it was.” Derek shook his head. His skin was still pink and sweaty from practice, and he wiped at his brow.
She never imagined this conversation happening in an ice rink. She never imagined this conversation happening at all.
“But…” I love you. I don’t want to love anyone else. Hadn’t he been the one to say there was something else sitting underneath the surface this whole time? Unless she had interpreted it wrong, and he had meant something purely sexual. Casey felt the back of her eyes prickle with tears. Life could move forward, she could do a million new things, but she would still be here—a girl who felt too much. “That’s it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know what else it could be. You want to tell George and Nora?” He scoffed.
Casey had seen Derek be a lot of things before, things that were not always nice, but she had never seen him so harsh and cruel. Everything about him was sharp. She felt like tender meat ready to be sliced in comparison.
She didn’t want to tell George and Nora alone. Together, they could face it, but it was becoming obvious Derek was not going to take that on with her. They really had been playing at a game this whole time, and she had been stupid to assume it was a game either of them could come out winning. It was like war—they were two soldiers who left alive, but at what cost.
Everything about this made her shake with anger all of a sudden. The way he was treating her like he hadn’t called her baby, hadn’t looked at her like she was worth the moon and more. How he shut her down instantly. How he was fine and she was not and none of this was fair. He had been the one to kiss her first, and now he was the one to leave.
“I wish I had never met you Derek Venturi,” she hissed. A tear leaked down her cheek, and she furiously wiped it away. “Good luck with your stupid slap shot.”
She didn’t really mean it, but he hadn’t meant any of it, so who was actually worse.
They didn’t talk. Casey started going out with her sorority sisters on Friday nights instead of slumping over to Derek’s apartment. She drank enough to feel forget ebbing in her veins and danced her heart out on the dance floor. When her sisters started pairing off, she found someone beautiful and dumb and tried to fuck and forget.
Derek made a bunch of weird dark stop motion films his professor was confused about but ultimately enjoyed. He found a few girls, none of them memorable, and lost himself in them to the point of distraction. Eventually, he found Sara—a blonde, hipster art student who was easy in every way of the word. She didn’t fight, smiled wide at every joke, and when they had sex she never pretended to be anyone but her.
Derek and Casey didn’t talk. The most they heard about each other was through George or Nora, and if their parents thought their sudden disconnect was strange they didn’t mention it.
Instead of coming home for Christmas, Casey went to Germany for a headstart on the business study abroad program she had gotten into for the semester. She travelled and learned. When she was asked to stay an extra month for her internship, she did.
Maybe she was escaping her problems at least a little, but she was also opening herself to something new. That was what youth was all about, right?
Maybe for cool people, but Space Case? Ugh, no.
She moved and kept moving until the words were erased from her mind, and she was a new version of herself. More confident. Refocused on her path. Not willing to let her emotions take her whole and swallow her up. When she saw him next, she was determined to feel nothing at all.
“Welcome back, Casey!” The whole family was holding a painted sign, and George was carrying a big bouquet of flowers he passed off to her with a kiss to the cheek.
“You guys didn’t have to do this,” Casey said.
“Oh, we really did.” Derek was standing in the back, clearly refusing to hold the sign. His arms were crossed against his chest.
Out of all the possibilities Casey had contemplated, him coming to the airport for some reason had not been one of them. He looked good, though. He filled out his shirt more than he had the last time she saw him, and his hair was now short on the sides and slightly mussed on top. It suited him.
“George and Nora enforced it,” he continued. George hit the back of his head. “Hey! You said to never lie, and I’m just a prime example of the wonderful, honest children you’ve raised.”
Lizzie stepped forward and gave her a hug. “Ignore Derek. The rest of us are happy to see you.” Lizzie’s hair had shifted back to brown and was cut short underneath her chin. Casey tugged at it with a smile.
After giving hugs to the rest of her family, promising Marti she had brought back souvenirs, Derek stood in front of her. She knew she should probably give him a hug for the sake of illusion, but they had never been that close anyways, right? Instead, she shoved his shoulder and took a purposeful step back. She couldn’t allow herself to get sucked into anyone’s gravity anymore. She was done with all of that.
“So, what’s on the agenda for the evening? We having a family dinner?” Casey bopped up onto the balls of her feet.
“Well…” Nora looked toward George, and her siblings looked between them all. “We thought you might just want a relaxing night after such a long day of travel!”
Casey sighed. “You all have plans, don’t you?”
Nora shrunk. “We all have plans.”
“Don’t worry about it, guys. I’m so exhausted. It’ll be great to just relax for a little while before heading back to Queen's.” Casey threw her duffel bag over her shoulder as George grabbed the luggage. Together, they all went to the car.
“You have to head back so soon?” Nora asked.
Casey nodded. “My job starts back up after the weekend. I have to be there, but I’ll be able to come back semi-frequently this summer.”
The car beeped in front of them as they approached. Holding her close, Nora gave her shoulder a squeeze and patted her arm. “You’re a full-blown adult, Casey. I’m so proud of you.”
“Yeah, we’re all very proud.” Derek rolled his eyes. “Who’s gonna ride with me besides for Edwin because he doesn’t respect the sanctity of The Prince.”
“You throw up in the back of a car one time , and suddenly…”
Derek held up a hand. “Don’t remind me. Please.”
“Why doesn’t Casey go with you? That way the bags will all be there when you drive back. Less work!” George clapped his hands, impressed with his own thought. “Last person back home is a rotten egg!”
Lizzie turned to Casey. “He’s just saying that because he’s going to be late for the work dinner party. He needs an excuse to speed.”
“Stop smack talking me and get in the car!” George called.
Casey watched them pile in, protests dying on her lips since there was no one to send them to in the first place. She turned toward Derek’s car and threw in her bags. When she sat down in the passenger seat, she could feel the stifled air.
Derek tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. “So…”
“We don’t have to talk,” Casey said in a voice riddled with false cheer. She smiled. “I’m tired.”
She leaned her head against the window, and they stayed silent.
The thing that broke the silence was, of all things, a text from Sam about a month later.
I know it’s not my place, but could you and Derek please talk? I’m tired of seeing him this way.
It sat on her phone for days. She could feel it burning a space in her pocket any time she went anywhere. Finally, on the fourth day she sent a simple response.
The next day, she found herself at his apartment door. Her heartbeat pulsed through her whole body, but Casey McDonald was not a quitter. She was strong and fierce. She never let anyone tell her what she could and could not do. So, she knocked. It took 43 seconds for Derek to answer.
“Oh,” he said, eyebrows clashing in the middle.
She tilted her head and pushed past him. “Nice to see you, too. We need to talk.”
“I don’t like conversations that start with 'we need to talk'.”
Casey thought about the last time she had said it to him. She didn’t much like them, either.
“Sam seems to think you’re not alright. Or something isn’t right with us. Maybe both. I think we should talk this through, lay our cards on the table.” She rambled and tried to regain composure. “We have to deal with each other for the rest of our lives.”
“Casey McDonald? Inarticulate?” Derek whistled. “Wow, you really must be shook.”
She sat herself down on the couch, crossing and uncrossing her legs. Finally, she brought one underneath herself. “Can we talk, please? Even if you don’t want me to be a part of your life, I’m going to be around so it’s best if—”
“You think I don’t want to be a part of your life?”
“Can you sit? You’re making me nervous.” She clasped her hands on her lap. “And yeah, you ended it. It’s over, remember? Your words, not mine.”
He didn’t sit. “You opened with we need to talk . I knew what was coming.”
She bolted to her feet. “It wasn’t coming!” A deep breath filled her lungs, but she still felt incapable of breathing. The tension around her was too much, the pressure all-encompassing. “It wasn’t coming,” she repeated calmer. “I was going to tell you I loved you, not that it matters now. All cards on the table, though.”
“You loved me?” He ran a hand through his hair, shifted his weight. He grunted and kicked the coffee table in front of him, and she recoiled. “Sorry,” he said after a breathe, “I’m just… sorry.”
“Did you think I didn’t?” she asked. Her voice was fragile like a tiny bird.
He finally made eye contact, and Casey could see his watery eyes flicker in the light. “You started the game. I thought you wanted a different version of me.”
“God, I wish I could want a different version of you. This one has made my life infinitely more difficult.” Casey stepped around the coffee table, hating the way so many things sat between them. From here she could see the dusting of freckles over the bridge of his nose that always got darker over summer.
He paused. Were either of them breathing? “Want? Present tense?”
She couldn’t do this again. She didn’t want to ready herself to put all of her out there just for the possibility to be ripped into shreds. If she was going to take the leap, she couldn’t recover a second time. Hell, she had barely recovered at all the first. She nodded.
“All cards on the table.” He took a breath. “After talking to Sam about it all, I got freaked out that it was all going to end. I was trying to protect myself, make it seem like I was detached so we could retain some sense of normalcy. I didn’t realize I was breaking us.” He took a step back and breathed in. “That’s not what I wanted.”
“If you broke us it was only because I set the fault lines.” Casey ran a hand through her hair and shifted her weight. “I wish I hadn’t started the game at all. It made everything so complicated.”
He shrugged. “Everything with us is complicated. I don’t know if there’s a way around it.”
Casey took another step forward. He was in breathing distance, and she brought a hand up to cup his cheek. When he leaned into it, the fragility of the moment almost made her want to cry. She wanted every part of this horribly difficult man in front of her. She was pretty sure he wanted all the crazy, ludicrous parts of herself in return. That was love, wanting everything a person had to offer.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked. “You. No one else.”
She nodded and reached up on her toes before he could meet her halfway. When his hand tangled into her hair, and her arms wrapped around his neck, it felt right. There was a part of her that shifted back into place inside herself that had been set off-kilter months and months ago. They may have not been perfect, but they were better together than they were apart.
“I’m not going to be a good boyfriend,” he said as they separated, foreheads resting together. “Like, I definitely won’t offer you the last bite of something.”
She shrugged, leaned forward, and pecked him on the lips. “I’ve always liked fighting you for it more anyways.”
(Casey leaned back into Derek’s chest as he surfed through television channels with one hand and played with her hair with the other.
“I know we said we’re done with the game, but where does that leave us on roleplay? Cause if you still have that skirt from private school, then—”
Casey hit him hard, and he tickled her ribs. They kissed, and then she gave him a rant about the inherent misogyny in power-based dynamics. They kissed some more, then fucked, then finally got around to watching TV.
It was pretty goddamn close to perfect.)
The door to the apartment swung open. Casey stepped through with a box of odds and ends, knick-knacks for the mantel or the cove by the window. It was still a shitty apartment near the university, but it felt more hers than anything had ever felt before. Well, her and Derek’s.
He stepped in behind her and dropped the box of pots and pans a little too hard against the linoleum. They clanked in the spcae. “So this is where I think we could hang the flat screen?” he said as he swept his hand over the entirety of the wall. “We could get a recliner for that corner over there, too. It would bring the room together.”
“No way is a recliner entering this space.” Casey softly set down her box on the pile of boxes already sitting in the middle of the living room. “I put my foot down.”
“Always such a fucking buzzkill, Case. You’re killing my vibe.” Derek shook his head. “I’m trying to create a space for entertaining, but if you want it to be plain boring , then…”
She kissed him. Kissing him, she had found, was her favorite way of shutting him up.
“Fine, no recliner. We’ll compromise on the flat screen.” He smiled, and it wasn’t her fault it was so goddamn infectious. He bent forward and pecked her lips, pulling back to look at their space. “How are we going to do this?”
She rolled her eyes. “Couch on the far wall, obviously. It would be cool if we could find an armchair at a—”
“No.” He motioned between them. “You and me. How do we do this?”
She moved forward and wrapped her arms around his waist. He held her against his chest.
“We figure it out together. We start here, and we keep taking steps forward,” she said.
“Some of it’s going to suck.” He sighed.
“Yeah,” she said as she pulled back. His eyes were clear and set right on her. She couldn’t imagine ever letting him go now that she fully had him. By the way his hands tightened on her waist, she imagined he felt the same. “Some of it will probably be incredible, though.”
“Some of it already has been.” He kissed her—soundly and easily. Casey melted into him. “Let’s stick with the good stuff for now, cool?” He picked her up off the ground and walked them toward the bedroom.
She laughed, planting a kiss on the space where his collarbone met his neck. Part of her wanted to yell at him about procrastination and avoidance and all the other things they knew how to fight about. The other part of her just wanted to soak in the moment. So she did.
After all, they had plenty of time for the other stuff. All the time in the world.