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Two Pictures of Chaos

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Part One

“Derek, you are the most annoying brother-”
“Step-brother.”
“Same difference…”
“...Yeah...alright...”
-- Futuritis, 4x18

She has no problems with secrets;
She knows how to keep them.
She never felt the need to let them show.
And I've had no trouble with speaking
Or trusting my instincts,
But maybe this is one that I should know.
But as I'm waiting in
The devil on my shoulder stares,
Laughing at the one thing I can't get, it's what I need…
-- “She (For Liz)” by Parachute

 

He knew she knew he had meant more than that when he brought up the “step” part, but honestly, with her looking so pleadingly at him he just suddenly felt tired. If she wanted to continue on in denial, he supposed he could give her what she wanted just this once. As much as he wished for more throughout high school, it’s not like they could have worked out anyway. They belonged in the "sibling" box with swords drawn and forever holding them against the other’s throat.

“...Yeah...alright...”

He couldn’t keep his voice from dropping into that whisper even if he had tried. She ignored it, of course, despite the clear spots of pink deepening in her cheeks. So, being the good -- quote, unquote -- “brother,” he immediately forced the topic to change in order to keep her smiling in that adorably hopeful, desperately naïve way.

Ugh, God, how in the world did he get so sappy…?


 

He and Emily broke up not long after graduation (It wasn’t even a fortnight after the conversation in the kitchen). She had surprisingly been the one to suggest it, saying she felt that the magic of the crush she’d carried for him all of these years just kind of became a warm glow of something closer to friendship over the last dregs of high school. She then hurriedly thanked him for prom and for finally giving her chance and they ended on mutual terms.

He and Casey then went to visit the Queens campus during the early summer semester for about a week -- just the two of them. It was something she was absolutely gaga about doing, but he was “drug” along so he made sure to complain a lot the entire way for propriety’s sake. They stayed in a hotel just down the street from the university -- seperate rooms, naturally.

As soon as they were out of sight of Nora and Dad, he decided he had to keep going with his “ladies’ man” schtick. Without the worry of Emily holding him back, it seemed as good a time as any. One of the rare moments he was away from his “sibling’s” side, he lost his virginity to a pretty, older bottle red-head he ran into while touring the music department. She sported a nose ring and a gigantic tattoo of a black mass of something on her shoulder, he wasn’t paying attention (and no, this wasn’t a ploy to deal with the strange impression of rejection from his step-sister).

Casey didn’t pass up the opportunity to give the spiel about safe sex when he told her about his achievement of getting rid of the V-card the next day when they ate lunch, but he didn’t mind. He was sure that as she was blah, blah, blahing about which condoms were better made and therefore stronger protection he could detect a hint of jealousy in her tone. He almost couldn’t keep his eyes off of her as she rambled on while unknowingly clenching her teeth a little too hard; pounding the keys on her laptop as if she were angry at something she couldn’t quite place.

“De-rek, are you even listening? This is is important!”

They made their excursions around campus separately (mostly), but they never failed have their meals together. And they actually had fun, almost like they were genuine friends (he’d still mentally refused to call them “family”). He’d watch her in secret throughout, either from across the table or from his side of whosoever hotel room they decided to have their supper in, and he would find himself accidentally slipping into daydreams about their future at the university. Many of them consisted of the two of them finally letting their respective guards down and just being together. His selfishly harbored wish would come true and he would have her. She let slip a few signals that she could possibly change her mind, too, even though she was unaware she was committing treason against herself. Brushing up too closely to him while waiting a line in the food court, grabbing his hand briefly to drag him over to show him an interesting protractor in the bookstore he could care less about, staring into his eyes a bit too long when she forgot to catch herself...

It got frequent enough that he even wondered -- with a strong denial that it gave his lower abdomen a thrill -- if perhaps the change could happen that week.

It has to happen. It’s gotta…

The family’s not here now, Case. Take a chance for once.

Take a chance on me...

But then she found out that scum Truman cheated on her again, thanks to one, unfortunate early morning phone call from Emily on their last day.

The crying fest that followed was awful. Casey curled herself under the bedsheets and refused to come out and pack, bawling practically until checkout. They almost had to call Dad to help them pay for another night. He had been beside himself, unsure of how to handle this kind of fallout and for the first time since his father remarried, he wished he could have Nora here. Instead, the best he could do was sit awkwardly on the edge of the bed, patting what he hoped was her shoulder and not her ass from atop the covers, saying whatever kind of semi-comforting thing he could think of. As the time for them to vacate the rooms drew nearer, he finally became fed-up and began berating her for listening to him in the first place when he had told her she should give Truman another shot after the Vicky-incident because Truman had shown up at Smelly Nelly’s to beg him to vouch for him. Casey never listened to him.

Somehow, them fightin’ words were enough of the trick to get her to throw the blankets off and pop straight into a sitting position; giving him the dawning glare of realization that was only watered down by the fact she was wearing pigtails.

“You’re right… This IS all of your fault! If I hadn’t been so stupid as to take your suggestion to make things work with Truman, I wouldn’t have a broken heart right now!”

And, just like that, she was back to her old self. She chewed him out the entire time she was hurrying around gathering her stuff into her overnight bags. She continued to do so in front of the desk clerk as they handed in their room keys and then all the way back from her place in the passenger seat of the Prince to London. And he honestly enjoyed every minute of it. It was definitely better than her falling down a pit of despair over someone who didn’t deserve to even eat the trimmings off of her toenails.

Not that he would ever tell her that to her face. Not unless she gave clear signs that she’s made an adjustment in her view about whatever the hell their relationship was.

“Well, I’ll tell you what, I am done crying about a guy who is, at best, a 6 ½ like Truman anyway! This summer is going to be all about improving myself so that when university rolls around, nothing but tens will be throwing themselves at my feet! But until then, I am a free woman!”

He eavesdropped on her ranting this to Nora and Lizzie from the top of the stairs where they couldn’t catch sight of him as the girls all sat around the kitchen table drinking tea. He wasn’t sure why it unsettled him so much, but, for some reason or another, he was somewhat shook by it. It could probably just be determined as the inane rantings of a jilted girl (who just happened to be his step-sister...who he might or might not be head over heels for) that wanted to appear like she wasn’t feeling vulnerable after being taken advantage of by someone she had cared about. He was certain she’d figure stuff out in the next couple of days and then maybe, maybe they would pick up where they left off in Queens and progress from there.

Leave it to Casey to go against all his hopeful expectations and do the complete opposite of everything he thought she'd do.

Now a “free woman” as she put it, she started throwing herself into figuring out what her course schedule for the coming semester would look like, even though the first day of school was still weeks away. That in itself wasn’t surprising for her to do since she was grade-A keener. What bothered him was that she spent less and less time at the house in order to hang out with new people. Whenever she was out somewhere, she would just randomly begin conversations with different sets of people. Again, that wasn’t the harsh part of it all. What really hurt was that she began to distance herself even from him. And it rocked his world because he always figured it would be him to pull that stunt first. Soon enough, she’d made enough friends so that it was like...she didn’t need him at all anymore… Oh, except, of course, as her goddamn brother.

Well, fuck that noise.

If she wanted to play the “It-Never-Happened” game, than he could, too, only ten times better.

The f-f-feelings were dispersed more easily than initially expected -- so much so he wondered if he imagined them the last couple of years (honestly so much so that it kind of scared him how effortlessly he was able to talk himself out of them…). To deal with the odd sensation of abandonment and the worry and something like betrayal, he basically went back to his old demeanor towards her, except this time a lot worse. Whenever he pranked her, he pranked her hard (anything to have her attention). They bounced right back into the frenemy zone. He tried not to get too excited when she dropped the happy-brother-sister-act towards him and he was once again just her step-brother. And when he wasn’t tormenting (correction: punishing) Casey with water balloons and old tuna placed underneath her bed, he was putting a hundred percent effort into his hockey thang as he practiced at the local Boys and Girls Club, fucking more chicks, and losing himself in his job at Smelly Nelly’s to get more spending money for the coming semester.

Yeah, he was going to be fine.

Just fine.

I need you out of my head for good…


 

And so, this is where life found them towards the end of summer just before uni, as if that late-night conversation in the kitchen never transpired. They stood at contradictory ends of the spectrum like kids would play on a seesaw, just as it had always been and he couldn't show that he cared...well, because he didn’t.

All was as it should be…

Until “The Vacation” happened.

They were all herded to the Great Blue Heron Lodge where the kids were all thrown in together by themselves without their parents and a step-grandmother who hated the Venturi half of the family. The only reason he stuck around was because he'd taken up the challenge to annoy Casey further by staying when she had wanted him to leave, set before him by Liz (and not because he simply enjoyed frustrating the priss he once considered the love of his life if Derek Venturi actually believed in mushy shit like destiny and fate).

But it was there that he met Roxy. She was a rich girl who grew up near the marsh and, while it took awhile for her to show her true, environment-saving self, he really felt he found someone he could move on with. Although, it didn’t escape his attention that Casey found someone as well -- the hot, dancing waiter Jonas or something -- it didn’t quite bother him as much as it should have because of Roxy.

(There had still been small, tiny moments between them -- he didn’t fail to notice that it was Casey herself who jumped in the lake in an attempt to save him when he’d fallen off one of Roxy’s dad’s jet skis trying to avoid killing Edwin. They found Marti together when their -- read: his -- youngest sister had run off to free the damn s-s-snake. He inspired granny Felicia to go retrieve Casey when she went AWOL. And he loved pulling her into impromptu dances because it gave him an excuse to have her close one more time since when he last had her like that “to himself” it was on national tv. He even yanked her away from Jaiden mid-kiss because Roxy had to get home to have a long talk with her father and because old habits die hard. But he’s not counting… Not in the least.)

They were acting more like brother and sister now than at any other point in the time they’d known each other. And he was tentatively okay with it.

It was following the events of the “Save the Marsh!” talent show when he found out she was planning on accompanying Jean Claude to New York… It was actually right in the middle of dancing with Casey and the fam, feeling all happy and proud that they did a good thing keeping the marsh safe from greedy hands and content that he could finally be with Roxy when Jenkins butted in with his freakishly small head and told him the “great news.” He stopped dancing at once as his world shattered around him. He could only look between their confused faces -- Casey’s hovering between a faltering smile as she realized something was wrong and mounting worry. Then he just stared into her crystal blue eyes and she stared right back and everything from high school came flooding back.

No… No, no, no, no, no!

He’d backed away slowly as Jeeves watched bewildered and understanding began to dawn on Casey before he turned away and high-tailed out of the events hall to go anywhere else. He needed air.


 

He ended up on that one dock where he’d accidentally caught Felicia skinny-dipping on that first morning. It was more secluded than the other docks were and he felt he could have his meltdown down in peace here.

He began pacing and rubbing his face with his hands before lifting them higher to card and yank furiously through his styled hair. He was hyperventilating, too, for fuck’s sake. He wasn’t one for panic attacks (that was supposed to be Casey's deal), but he thinks this is the closest he’s ever come. He could see the lights of Roxy’s dad’s resort twinkling at him from across the lake. He thought he heard thunder off in the distance, but it also could just easily have been the obnoxiously loud headache pounding in his ears.

What was he thinking? What was Casey thinking? She couldn’t leave everything she loved behind for a guy she barely knew -- her family, her friends, her school, him (it was unfathomable that he put himself in the ‘family’ category when it came to her). If she did, it might mean she and Jessie could turn serious and...oh, God. He at last stopped pacing and just stood in the middle of the dock with his hands upon his knees and his head down, trying to breathe in and out as deeply as he could.

Calm down, calm down, calm down...

“...rek? Derek. De-rek!”

He glanced up at the sound of his name being broken in half to see Casey stomping down to confront him about what had just occurred.

Pfft! Typical.

So, racking his brain for lies and stories to explain his behavior, he straightened slowly and quickly schooled his face into a scowl to square up with her just like normal.

We’ve never been normal…

Her glittering heels tacked smartly as they hit the wood of the dock, her expression burned like a thousand suns, and her hair that she’d cut and dyed blond earlier that summer bounced with life as she strode up to him. He fell in love all over again as she halted into a pencil stance right in front of him, her arms crossing tightly over her chest.

“What exactly was that in there!? I know it's a lot to expect from a creep like you, but I thought for once you’d be happy for me!”

“Oh, no, Casey, you’re mistaken, as usual. Of course, I’m happy for you because it's good for me as well! It’s been my dream to have you living in another country since we first met! You just misunderstood my joy for pain.”

He laid the sarcasm on so thick she’d have to cut her way out. And she was obviously up for the challenge, knife in hand.

“Then what was the reason for the kicked-puppy look you gave me in there? And why did you run?”

“ That wasn’t running, Space Case, that was skipping. Honestly, kind of shocked that you, of all people, don’t know the difference. Now, whether or not you might be able to do the act of skipping yourself is debatable.”

Cue obligatory finger-guns.

“Well, I’d obviously do it better than you could, especially since your skip was a great impression of you fleeing from something you didn’t wanna face.”

“Derek Venturi doesn’t do this ‘fleeing’ you speak of. He casually walks out while the ground beneath his feet transforms to gold and screaming fangirls faint in his wake.”

“Yeah freaking right! You couldn’t get away fast enough if your ass was on fire after Jesse told you the news. What’s wrong, Derek? Can’t stand the fact that your favorite target is going to be leaving you without someone to test your latest juvenile prank on?”

Or because you’re just leaving me in general…

“Please, I could find plenty of other keeners at Queens to prank instead. Granted, none will be as fun to get a rise out of as you, but-”

He threw his arms out in the most exaggerated shrug of exaggerated shrugs.

“-I’m sure I’ll manage! Well, this has been a nice chat, but good deeds as big as this last one take a lot out me, so I am going to go hit the hay.”

He tried to side-step her, but she clung to his nearest upper bicep like a bear trap and he knew he wasn’t going anywhere. However, instead of screaming some more like he anticipated her to, he was shocked when she spoke to him in a calm, almost soft voice that threatened to make him hard. He dared not turn to even aim a glare at her.

“Derek, seriously. This is kind of scaring me...like more than our usual fights do and definitely more than having to handle your underwear for laundry day.”

Her attempt at leavening humor was precarious at best and she sucked at it anyway.

“Please, Derek. Just be honest with me. I’m your sister. You can trust me.”

He nearly laughed out loud like a maniac.

“Yeah, ‘step-sister,’ ‘sister.’ It’s all the same difference, right?”

It was out of his mouth before he could check himself and suddenly something in the air around them shifted. It was like a roar in his ears that deafened him and he wondered if she could hear it, too.

“...What?”

She did.

“You heard me, Sis. And by society's standards, I actually really don’t have to reveal anything to you. I’m not supposed to be as close to you as we are. By the boundaries set by a piece of paper, we are only legally obligated to share the requisite holidays with the family and a sibling rivalry with our metaphorical swords drawn. Now, if you please, let me go before I tell Mr. Cue-Ball in there that your high school nickname was Klutzilla.”

He tried to snatch his arm back from her, but she pinched into him all the tighter, refusing to release him.

“Casey, would you--? Your witch talons are digging into me.”

“Derek… Are you jealous?”

He froze for almost a second too long before getting a grip and finally whipping around to stare at her. Her eyes resembled a deer in headlights, but only if that deer was very determined to sniff out the truth. He made himself give a characteristic chuckle, but it sounded strangled even to him.

“Oh, that’s funny! As if I’d be jealous of the Mr. Clean of Canada getting to hold you on stage every night as if I hadn’t done it first.”

Her crystal pools widen a fraction in surprise.

“What are you talking about…?”

Okay, fine. Fuck it. If she really wanted to hear him say it, then fuck it all, he’ll just have to spill his guts out on the wood of the dock and then he’ll make her clean it. Using his surging anger as leverage for his strength, he tore his arm loose from her vice-like grip at last, then leveled a steady, narrowed, fuming gaze at her with clenched teeth behind pursed lips.

“Are you really going to New York, Case?”

“Well, yeah, it’s a dream come true for me--”

“But does it have anything to do with Chrome-Dome-No-Neck in there?”

“Don’t talk about Jesse like that, Derek! Stop calling him those childish names! They're not even that clever!”

“Well, I was trying to be nice and hold back, but since you asked me so nicely not to! Now, like I was saying, does you dancing off to New York have to do with that walking scrotum?”

He nearly lost his footing when her hands whipped out lightning-fast to shove his shoulders back hard.

“De-rek!”

“Ca-sey!”

“Where is this coming from!? You’ve been so close to awesome these passed several days, I could almost forget who you were! Like you were actually worthy of being called my brother and this is undoing all of that! It’s sick! I mean, what about that rich bimbo across the lake who is the daughter of the jerk who almost destroyed the marsh and took my grandmother’s livelihood away!? Weren’t you planning on seducing her!? Are you the only person who gets to have a love life, Derek!?”

“Leave Roxy out of this--”

NO! It’s not right that you get get to bash the guy I’m interested in while I have to sit on the sidelines and watch you cuddle up to some prissy trophy again!”

“And now who sounds jealous?”

“Well, I’m not! I’m just trying to figure out what going on with you. I thought a decent sibling relationship was what we’ve been working towards--”

“No, the happy-go-lucky-brother-and-sister-best-friends-within-the-blended-family-unit was what you wanted, Case. You wanted to live in denial from day one when it’s never been normal what we have going on here. EVER.”

“So, what? Are you wishing to commit incest with me or something?”

“Casey, even I know that the only way we’d ever commit anything of that sort is if we were blood related. And, face it, we’re not.”

“It doesn’t make it feel any less dirty or sinful, though. My mom and your dad have tried to make a good life for all of us -- you and me included -- and I am not going to spoil it for them. Especially not with a new baby on the way. How selfish would we be if we did?”

“Ahhh, so you have given us some thought...”

“Only so I can remind myself what a terrible choice it would be! Look at us! We’re fighting again, on what is supposed to a momentous occasion. It’s not right -- we’re not right. It’s just hormones going haywire. So why can’t you just let it go?”

“You don’t think I’ve tried? How many girls I’ve fucked just to have one minute of peace from the fantasies that plague my every waking moment? That you’re the one giving me head every night in my mind when it’s actually the blond bitch who happens to be my new coworker at Smelly Nelly’s? That I sincerely pray to whatever God there is that I get to take your virginity, when in reality it was probably Max or -- God forbid -- Truman?”

“Oh, God, this is getting too personal…”

“Do you honestly believe that I wish for this, Casey? That I choose not to be aware that this is fucked up? Because, Babydoll, I am so goddamn conscious of it, it makes me want to puke half of the time.”

“Don’t ever call me that again.”

“Why? Afraid you might like it?”

“No, it’s just creepy and inappropriate.”

“Liar.”

“I’m not lying!”

“Yeah, right. You want me just as much as I want you, admit it.”

“Never, because it’s not true!”

Tell me the truth, Sis!”

“I’m not gonna be one of your conquests, Derek!”

This finally gave him pause and he looked at her for a minute. Genuinely looked at her. She started blushing and fidgeting under the intensity after a bit, so he relieved her with a reply to her accusation.

“What if I told you that that’s never what I thought of you?”

The sudden toning down of the argument was enough to shut her up as she tried to process its twists and turns. He could practically see the gears working transparently inside of her brilliant head and he just wanted her, right out here on the lake. This scorching need drove his next words to tumble out on an exhale escaping his lungs.

“Casey, may I please kiss you?”

He observed as if somehow removed from the situation as her entire universe splintered like so many fractured pieces of glass. The kaleidoscope of expressions that slid across her features was breathtaking to behold and he felt himself getting close to just damning trying to be a gentleman and simply swooping in to steal the kiss he’d just requested. Her breathing became erratic in what was obviously fear of the unknown.

“Derek, I--”

“Please, Casey, just once, and if there is truly nothing there for you, I’ll back off. I-I promise on my honor as your--”

He choked a little before he could continue.

“--brother.”

“Derek, this is crazy. Absolutely insane.”

“I know, but I think we owe ourselves this! Casey, for once in your life, live dangerously!”

The challenge was set and that silenced her once more and the night noises around them seemed to die away and the little pocket of air that infused the space between them became unbearably hot and thick. He wasn’t hearing a definitive “yes” from her.

But he wasn’t hearing an blatant “no” either.

So he took a cautious step forward, wanting to give her time to voice to any protestations she might want to raise; but instead of that, she just stood there watching him warily. There was something else twinkling in her eyes now, though, and it gave Derek relief to realize it appeared to be curiosity.

Another step and they were close enough now that it left no room for Jesus. He wondered if she could feel his heart pounding in sync with hers at this proximity.

He dipped his head.

The kiss began lightly at first. Just a chaste, closed-mouthed deal to test the waters. Then it gradually deepened until they both were open to each other and taking in the new sensations languidly. His mind was a mess as their lips slid over and under one another’s again and again and there was no doubt this was leaving her just as disoriented.

They broke apart slowly, but their breaths still mixed together.

Time, life, the universe stopped as they waited for the other to be the first to react.

Thunder abruptly rolled above and they both shot a look, startled, up at the dark sky that they could have sworn was a clear blue earlier that day. Before long, a torrent of rain dumped down on to them and quickly soaked them to the bone. Incredulously, this caused him to bark out a laugh and she lowered her gaze back to him to see why. She was obliged to wait for a few seconds until his chuckles subsided before he could speak again.

“How cliche is this!? I think we just threw the world outta whack and started a thunderstorm!”

“Like the Butterfly Effect?”

“Yeah! Whatever you say!”

“T-that’s silly, though, Derek. True, it was sunny earlier, but whether changes all of the time what with meteorological--”

“Just c’mere and kiss me again.”

He drug her back in to fit the length of his body by her hips and the next kiss was a crash in which thorough indecency took place. He plunged his tongue through her lips and unapologetically stroked hers until he felt she was probably liable to melt into a puddle in his hands, judging by her heady moans. She surprised him once more, though (she always did) when she threw herself into the pit of fire by suddenly responding to him with fierceness she usually reserves for their bigger squabbles. Her own hands were everywhere -- raking her twitching fingers through his wet hair and wrenching at the strands as he had earlier, rubbing up and down his arms as if trying to warm him against the chill of the rain, on his chest feeling for his heartbeat…

The next thing he knew, she had torn open his suit vest and the green dress shirt underneath and untucked it from his slacks, exposing him to the elements and to her fingernails as she raked them across his now bare torso. The contrast of the slight sting of the rain washing over the scratches she was assuredly leaving behind made his dick stand to attention as if it were a little soldier. He severed the kiss and lowered his mouth to the juncture of her rain-slicked neck and shoulder.

“If any buttons are missing, I’m making you cough up the dough to pay for a replacement. This is the only nice outfit I own.”

He ground this into her ear and it didn’t (though it should have) phase him to hear himself growling out the words like a possessive dog with much beloved toy.

“Shut up, Der-AH!”

She finished her reprimand of him on a squeal when her feet suddenly left the dock. He had used the knee of left leg to hoist her up and she hurriedly had to wrap her own legs around his waist lest she fall. He situated her carefully until he was sure her clothed sex was up against the bulge in his pants. They both simultaneously gasped at the intimate contact, knowing if they went any further it was going to change something forever. He stood there with a panting Casey in his arms as the rain drummed around them and they laid their foreheads against each other’s, their eyes boring one another’s soul.

“Are you still with me, Babydoll…?”

The new nickname slipped out without his control, but he found he didn’t care anymore. All he wanted was Casey’s consent to keep going. If she said no, well, it would kill him, but he could wait -- he’d already done so for awhile now, as sappy and whipped as it was. If she told him no because she was having seconds thoughts and decided she preferred that bald waiter… It would most likely break his spirit.

To his sheer and utter happiness, she nodded sluggishly and he wondered what parallel dimension he woke up in this morning to get him here and now.

Slowly, he lowered himself to his knees, making sure to keep a hardy hold on the precious cargo he carried. The new sneakers he wore had a difficult time keeping a grip on the slippery wood beneath, but eventually he was sitting back on his heels, Casey straddling his lap. Then he stilled once more. They continued to be locked into an intense staring contest.

When he began to lazily rock into her, a sound not unlike that of a sob fell passed Casey’s lips and her lower jaw opened wider in pure, raw pleasure.

“Deeeee-rrreeekkkk…”

That long moan of his name snapped in half ingrained itself into the folds of his brain and made a home there to be with him until his dying day. Roxy had lost her place in the sun. His hips moved faster, his cloth-covered cock hitting her center again and again through the material of her underwear already drenched from the rain. The whole time they kept their eyes in level connection with one another’s, waiting to see who would surrender first.

Of course, it ended up being him -- the reason being her devilish tongue darting out to lick the drops of rainwater from his bottom lip and he lost all willpower.

“Cheater.”

He surged forward and smashed against her lips, hips gyrating wildy to meet with her own circling pelvis.

And, to keep the cliches rolling on at a consistent pace, another clap of thunder timed itself perfectly along with their collective climaxes. It made him wonder if there was actually a bit of truth in what he’d joked earlier about nature being thrown topsy turvy because of their illicit rendezvous. It occurred to him in a kind of creeping way that he sort of hoped it was.

Casey was now leaning bonelessly against his chest with her face hidden in his shoulder, still shuttering slightly from her profound orgasm. He tried to lift her away to be able to see her features, but she was fighting against him doing so, and it made him smile affectionately.

“Case, you okay?”

She didn’t answer, not even with a nod or shake of her head. It was beginning to put him on edge.

“Casey, answer me, Princess. Please, say something?”

His usage of the “Princess” moniker in a fond tone rather than employing it as an insult towards her as in normal circumstances at last got her to at least leave the safety of his shoulder, but she was still gazing down and away from him. Her eyes were cloaked behind her hair, making her look like Samara from The Ring and it unnerved him how silent she was being as it definitely didn’t bode well after what they just did.

“Case?”

Finally, finally, she lethargically raised her face to impart a look straight at him. Her eyes were shining even in the dark and rain obscured his vision. It didn’t seem like tears, though. In fact, it seriously appeared as if she were about to breakout a satisfied grin and relief flooded through him like a tsunami.

She was going to say something.

“T-that was--”

“CA-SEY!! DE-REK!!”

They both jumped as if shot with one bullet each at the sound of his dad’s voice calling for them from the direction of the lodge. They were being searched for because it was dark and it had clearly started storming. It was certain that everyone was possibly wondering where they had run off to and were getting worried about their well-being, probably especially since Derek had flown the coop in the a state he had.

“YO, CAA-SEEEY!!!”

That second shout was somewhat unfamiliar to him, but obviously Casey recognized it just fine because the edges of her eyes suddenly widened into frightened dinner plates and they lost their contented sheen.

“Oh, God… Jesse.”

His heart fell down to land in his stomach and then from his stomach to his ass. It didn’t take any amount of genius to know that she’s just been swept away from him and no amount of making-out on a secluded dock jutting out into a romantic lake or dry-humping in the rain would change it.

“We shouldn’t have done this.”

She hopped straight up from his lap to her feet without even utilizing her hands as a force of balance, which was impressive considering she was still in those ridiculous heels, and she attempted to trot away in careful steps so as not to slide and bust her head open on the wet wood. It appeared as if she were still having orgasmic tremors, as well. It took him a few tries more (more than he was willing to admit) than her to scramble to anything resembling a standing position.

“Casey, wait!”

She ignored him which he supposed was expected, but it still hurt him like hell.

“Casey, would you stop!?”

“Derek, enough.”

“We need to talk about this, Casey! Don’t walk away from me, please!”

Jesus, since when did they switch places?

“What’s there to talk about, Derek!? It was wrong and we both know it!”

He managed to grab ahold of the upper part of her left arm in an exact mirror of her earlier when she had done the same to him. Instead of feeling obliged to speak to her ear, though, he hurriedly switched his grip to her naked shoulders and gently, but swiftly spun her around to face him again.

There’s plenty.”

Her eyes narrowed at his insistence.

“What are you expecting me to do!? I’m not staying behind for you, Derek, because of what we just did! This is a huge opportunity for me to explore what I want career-wise! ”

“I never said that I ‘expected’ you to stay! Yes, it’ll hurt being without you here for awhile, but I don’t want to stomp out your fucking dreams. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t going simply because he was!”

“Of course, he’s not the only reason, Derek, but he is a big reason! He’s helped me -- us -- so much this summer: volunteering for Lizzie’s pageant to save the marsh and he’s allowed me to rekindle my love for dancing. That is huge! So, I think it’s pretty clear why I like and may want a future with him. I honestly thought you could care less about him or at least liked him a little.”

“But he’s not me!”

“Honestly, that’s probably what I enjoy most about him!”

That last barb was snapped at him with defiance and, though he tried to keep it tucked behind his mask of newly erupted emotional maturity, it still made to cut him to the bone. So, giving her an ugly grimace, he yanked her over to him; her breasts flattening up against his chest still exposed from the shirt she’d pulled apart. She gasped at the quickness of the movement, but she was cut off by another deep, probing kiss from him. She tensed against him at first, but she was soon putty in his arms and she allowed the kiss to finish naturally. They released slowly and didn’t move too far away from each other afterwards. Her eyes were still closed and the skin of his lips brushed hers when he spoke next.

Liar…”

At his whispered accusation, she immediately stepped back to put some distance between them and took on the saddest expression he’d ever seen her make.

“Maybe I am, but it still doesn’t change the fact that our parents are married. They’re having a baby soon. Do you really think they’d be happy for us if they found out...how we are? What we genuinely feel for each other?”

“In all seriousness, Casey, I think they’d be just fine with it. I mean, it’s Dad and Nora. They may not be the smartest or the hippest parents in the world, but I know whatever made us happy...they’d be cool with it or find some way to be. Lizzie, I’m not sure about, it’s 50/50. Ed might think it’s gross for awhile, but he’d get over it or I’d make him eat my fist. And Marti is a Smarti. Chances are she’s wanted us together far longer than before you and I figured anything out.”

A stifling silence passed between them. The rain was beginning to let up until, following a few short minutes, it was only drizzling.

He refocused on her when he heard her inhale.

“I just...don’t think I am ready. Maybe I’ll never be. It’s...way too much”

He could practically hear the rip! as his aforementioned spirit tore itself asunder.

I’ll never heal from this…

The noise of crunching leaves on wet grass caught their attention and it scared Derek into furiously trying to put his clothes back into place. He’d just managed to button up the green shirt (on which there were no missing buttons, thankfully) right on time for the beams of two flashlights to shine upon their soaked forms and who should come out of the darkness but Mr. Clean himself followed by his dad, George.

“There you two are! We got worried sick about you!”

That was Dad calling out in that breathless manner he could never seem to shake no matter how in shape he tried to get.

“What on earth happened? Derek, why’d you run off?”

Derek glanced instantly over at Casey and was surprised but also unsurprised when he found her staring pleadingly back. He knew what she wanted. It was the late night conversation in the kitchen all over again.

“Same difference.”

“Yeah...alright…”

Despite his anger, however, he just suddenly became too tired to lash out by coming up with something snarky. So he meandered down the lame excuses trail instead.

“Um… I-I wanted to see Roxy off. She had already walked out with her dad and I was trying to catch up with them to say goodbye to her."

George, being his absent-minded self, bought the lie hook, line, and sinker.

“Hmm, I guess I didn’t notice Roxy had gone. I was too busy dancing. But what about you, Casey? Were you saying farewell to Roxy, too?”

The dishonesty poured from her lips just as easily as it had from his.

“Oh, I was just...wanting to tell Derek about the good news of me going with Jesse to New York and I couldn’t wait until he came back so I went to look for him myself and located him here just as Roxy left. Unfortunately, the storm caught us unwares, as you can tell.”

She chuckled awkwardly, falsely. He could just see Jack’s face by the light of the flashlight and it had an expression of total confusion akin to the one just after he told Derek about New York and Derek had skedaddled. He could tell Jafar was trying to connect dots in that supremely bald cranium, but seemed to blessedly choose not to comment on the matter. He wondered if Casey would end up spilling the beans to the waiter later as they talked on the large porch of the lodge, sitting in deck chairs like a married couple and holding hands. And how the other man would react to her admitting she'd kissed her step-brother and more besides. His dad interrupted his reverie with a breathy chuckle at his son’s and step-daughter’s silly antics.

“Yeah, I’ll say. You guys look like a pair of drowned rats! Come on, let’s get you inside and dried off.”

They trudged back to the lodge together, Casey cuddled up into Jeremy’s body as they walked side by side and he with his dad as George laid an arm around his shoulders. On the way, he got to studying the couple in front of them (Derek Venturi and the word “studying,” together in the same sentence). Casey would normally have been slightly shorter than the guy, but in her heels it gave her enough height to be able to rest her head on the peak of his shoulder. Jeremy in turn had his left cheek settled on the top of Casey’s wet hair and a protective arm thrown around her waist to hold her closer. He had given her his rain jacket and it was now enveloping like a second skin, hiding away her short dress so that it made her appear as if she were walking naked through the darkness.

He ended up sleeping in the back of The Prince that night instead of sucking it up and sharing the cabin with all of his siblings like a good brother unbothered by his eldest sister’s good fortune. At the very least, it provided him some privacy as he masturbated to the memory of what happened on the dock and the wish that it could have somehow gone further.


 

He was jolted painfully awake by the jingle of his cellphone. It turned out to be Roxy, who he honestly had no interest in talking to this morning. She was begging pitifully for him to paddle across the lake to say goodbye to her before he left the lodge and, now that he no longer wanted to get with her, he couldn’t remember why he wanted to in the first place, other than he thought she was hot. But after last night, he felt nothing as he listened to her prattle on about nothing. She had no brain at all. No hopes, no dreams outside of just living off her daddy’s money.

But Casey’s voice was in his head, berating him for not acting like man and going to break it off with Roxy officially.

This is low, even for you, De-rek. If you don’t want to be with her, tell her face-to-face. She’ll thank you and maybe I’ll come around when I’ve heard that you’ve handled it maturely...

That last, little bit was his own wishful thinking, of course. And besides, it’s not like dumping a girl you’d just began dating officially the night before was anything remotely mature, anyway.

So, leaving the safety of The Prince he relieved himself in the trees, then dressed in the clothes he’d taken from his backpack in the cabin before coming out to bed. He had to pretend the sting from the scratches on his chest and stomach didn’t remind him of the night before as he pulled on his T-shirt. As he strolled down to the tiny dock with the canoes and paddle boats tied to it afterwards, he couldn’t help stopping to take in the beauty of the landscape. It was clear and sunny again this morning, but signs of the storm bowling through last night were everywhere from the fog on the lake to the sounds of faux rain in the surrounding forest as drops of water fell from the leaves to the ground.

He had just finished hooking up the life jacket snuggly around his body when he heard his name being called from behind him. He turned, half-hoping to see Casey, but tried not to be too disappointed when he saw it was Lizzie running down to him in her pajamas and tennis shoes. He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled as she slid to a stop and bent double with hands on her knees, quickly holding up a finger for him to give her a minute. This made him chuckle affectionately, something he didn’t hide from her like he would have from her older sister when she straightened up again.

“What’s got you up so early, Super Liz? I should think the hero of the hour would like to sleep in after being such a champ for the past three days.”

He said this around his big grin. While he and Casey may have always been at odds within one another, he never had a problem with Lizzie and in fact, was very proud to call himself her older brother. She was just as feisty as the other two women in her family, but seemed to be situated more on her mother’s end of the spectrum when it to came taking a calm approach to arguments. And she was transforming into quite the looker. He had a feeling that eventually guys would be lined up outside their doorstep and around the block just for a chance to hold Lizzie’s hand. And, of course, he planned to be there giving each one of them the stink-eye just to freak ‘em out, but also to make sure they knew not to break the middle sister of the family’s heart. Which reminded him, he hadn’t been keeping tabs on that junior ornithologist Lizzie had been hanging out with during the family’s stay here...

The girl in question met his teasing words with a concerned expression.

“Derek, did you and Casey have another fight last night?”

His smile immediately disappeared. That is the one thing he did have a problem with Lizzie over: she had an uncomfortable habit of needing to get to the bottom of a problem and using the most straightforward pathways to get there instead of making up zany schemes. That was no way to go about life.

“Um...we had a small...disagreement, but nothing particularly hell-raising. Why?”

“Because she was crying from the minute she came into the cabin last night to the minute she dropped off to sleep, which only followed about a two hours after lights out. She wouldn’t tell anyone why she was upset, not even me or Mom. I could hear her sobbing from where she slept in your pullout couch. Which brings me to my next question: why didn’t you sleep in the cabin with the rest of us?”

He was having a hefty job of holding back a tremble in front of Lizzie at the very thought of Casey sleeping where he’d once been. Smelling him all around her… Having his scent linger on her skin even when she clung to Jim...

“I...was talking to Roxy all night on my cell and didn't want to keep everyone awake.”

“Well, that was awfully considerate of you--”

“Not really, because the gist of it is if everyone was awake, they’d be yelling at me to get off the phone and go to sleep. That's what I was trying to avoid.”

“Ah. I see. Then, can I ask what you and Casey were arguing about?”

“You know Casey, Liz. She’d make an argument out of an earthquake hitting and somehow believing it to be my fault.”

“I do suppose that is true… But that still doesn't answer my question.”

There was some incriminating fumbling on his part before he could decide on a satisfactory answer in his mind.

“I...said some not so very nice things about Justin-”

“Jesse.”

“--yeah, him.”

“I mean, what did you say? It must have been bad to upset her enough to cry all night.”

“Just that he’s a testi with legs and he has no neck.”

He was relieved for a minute from Lizzie’s ceaseless grilling when that last comment made her choke on a laugh, although she tried her damndest not to.

“Derek! How could you say such a terrible thing about Jesse? He’s really nice and Casey seems to genuinely like him.”

He tried not glower as he turned away from her and started getting a canoe ready to head across to Roxy’s resort.

“Oh, yeah? Like she ‘genuinely’ liked Max? Like she ‘genuinely’ liked Truman?”

“Hey, Truman is a pig that shouldn’t even be allowed to lick the bottom of Casey’s shoes, let alone date her. I’m thrilled he’s gone and I think she is, too. And while Max was nicer, he was a stick-in-the-mud and nothing Casey needed. Jesse is really cool and I think you’d get along well with him if you just talked to him, Derek. I know how you secretly get protective over Casey when she dates and then pretend you don’t.”

“...Yeah, well...

It was a lame comeback, but he was getting antsy being under so much scrutiny. Besides, while it had given him a reason to procrastinate the inevitable slap that was sure to come when he'd broken things off with Roxy, he felt he'd put it off long enough.

“I think she could end up marrying Jesse, don’t you agree?”

“As thrilling as discussing Casey’s love life is, I have somewhere to be right now and I’d like to get it over with before we leave today.”

“Oh? Where you going?”

“To Roxy’s.”

He tried not to sound sarcastic when he said it. It should have been obvious to Liz where he was off to given the events of the last couple of days. But he knew she was only being curious.

“Well, in that case, can I ask one more question before you go?”

“Shoot.”

There was suspicious pause.

“Derek Venturi, are you in love with my sister?”

He didn’t think it was possible for his blood to run so cold so fast, and yet, it happened instantly.

He whipped his head around in way that was liable to break the sound barrier in order give a wide-eyed stare to Lizzie, who gazed quite calmly right back, although the concern from before was still hanging around in the creases of her crow’s feet. An awkward silence had descended upon them and the only thing to be heard was the lapping of the lake water.

“Well? Are you?”

“Liz--”

“I mean, I’m not going to tell anyone if you do. I promise. It just the jealousy vibes you have going on right now are pretty severe, even though you think you hide it well. I figured you’d feel better venting too a nonpartisan representative such as myself so that it doesn’t come out in an unhealthy way that’s harmful to both you and her.”

He clenched his teeth, then sighed and stared out at the lake. The sun was a bit higher now. Any minute, everyone staying within the lodge was going to awaken. He wanted to be gone before that happened.

“It-it’s complicated…”

“How so?”

“You know why, Lizzie.”

“But it doesn’t have to be.”

“Weren’t you the one just gushing about Casey and James possibly getting married?”

“In fairness, I just said she could. That doesn’t mean I agree with the match they make. Casey needs someone to challenge her and Jesse isn’t that guy, but she tends to be blinded when she really smitten with someone.”

Another silence.

“Is that really what the fight was about last night?”

“Yeah…”

“Did you tell her how you feel? What did she say?”

“Let’s just say she’s probably even more excited to get to New York than before. It’s farther away from me.”

“Oh.”

“Does anyone else know?”

“Edwin’s been suspecting something between you two for a long time. He and I used to spy on you guys around the house. He hasn’t figured it all out as fast I have, though. And Marti probably would just want her Smerek to be happy.”

“And Dad and Nora?”

“None the wiser.”

“Good. I’m not ready to deal with that shit yet. How about Josephat?”

“From what I could tell, I don’t think Jesse knows anything. At least, I don’t know if Casey has said anything to him in regards to you.”

“Hmm…”

“Do you want to know how I feel about it?”

“Depends… Are you about let me have it with a coming-to-Jesus lecture?”

He just barely dodged a swipe to the shoulder from her open palm, which made his characteristic smirk reappear on his face.

“Hey! Seriously. This is my sister we’re discussing here. Would like to hear my opinion or not?”

“Sure, lay it on me.”

“I think you two are perfect for one another.”

He glanced up with one eye at at his brilliant little sister who returned his look with a warm grin. And he hadn’t felt so alleviated since just after the talent show and it made him grateful.

“Thanks, Liz.”

“Don’t mention it. Now, go. Didn’t you say you had somewhere to be?”

The smirk grew into a full-blown smile as he hopped into the canoe, minding himself so he didn’t tip it. After rowing for a few yards, he turned around and gave Lizzie a hearty wave and she indulged with a small one back, her body twisting from side-to-side. Then he continued on to the resort across the way to face the music.


 

The break-up with Roxy started out about as well as anticipated.

And he does receive that slap.

Not to mention he got yelled at. Like a lot. And it wasn’t fun like it would have been if it were Casey.

It mostly consisted of Roxy shouting and accusing him of taking advantage of her by talking her into betraying her father. It escalated from there until finally he ended up screaming at the top of his lungs:

“I thought you said you did it for your grandfather and not for me!”

That finally got her to quiet down and it ends with them sitting on the couch to hash it out. He tells her a big, fat lie about distance and being busy getting ready for university and that she probably just honestly shouldn’t set her heart on a “guy like him.” She has gigantic crocodile tears streaming down her cheeks that are ruining her make-up, but she says she understands. He’s just counting himself lucky that her father coincidentally happened to be out on an early morning business errand, and therefore, wasn’t present for this blow up.

They spend the rest of the time speaking about nothing when he at last hears his cellphone -- a summons from his family that it’s time to get going. So, following a mutual farewell hug with Roxy, he exits the resort for the last time and gets back in his canoe and he’s never been so relieved to have a few minutes to himself on the water.

After he’s tied up the canoe, he strolls up the bank towards the cabin to gather up his duffle when who should he happen to run to but Casey herself. She’s in the process of lugging out her ugly, tartan rolling suitcase (and he wants to gag himself because of the fact that he even knows what tartan is and it’s because of this beautiful, infuriating woman right in front of him) when she nearly belts him with the flimsy, cabin door. He catches it just in time in one hand and catches her attention at the same moment and it is suddenly just the two of them in the entire world. His scratched-up stomach is doing a weird, flip-flopping thing and it kills him that all he wants to do is kiss her; especially because he can see that Lizzie had been telling the truth about Casey crying. She looks awful, but it doesn’t do much to dissuade him of her beauty.

“Hey.”

He ventures first, trying to break the ice. She nods a greeting.

“Hello.”

Even her voice sounds cracked from the over-exertion of her emotions. It makes him feel a little guilty that he is the cause of it, so he motions towards her bag with the fingers that aren’t holding the door.

“Need a hand?”

He has a flashback of the living room in their house in London and a picture frame that he tries to grab and Casey grounding out a, “No,” and he for some reason hopes she doesn’t decline his offer to help this time like she did then.

“Um… Sure. If you really want to.”

He decides not to over-analyze her acceptance nor her hesitation and reaches out to grab the handle of the suitcase, getting a kind of perverted thrill when his arm brushes passed her thigh and he can detect a hint of a shiver. Following some fumbling and a few, harsh reprimands from Casey about how she doesn’t want him banging her suitcase against the cabin steps (which he does just to annoy her), they start walking side-by-side to Dad’s car with him dragging the luggage behind him and a silence so deafening, he partially wonders if he actually just lost his hearing.

“So, Lizzie told me you went to see Roxy this morning.”

“Mmhmm.”

“What were you doing over there so early?”

“Why? Jealous?”

NO!

She pauses as she realizes how defensive (and loud) she got and clears her throat before starting again in a lower voice.

“I was just curious.”

God, she was so adorable when she was trying to act so irritatingly innocent.

“Ohhhh, you know. Just went to say goodbye and that I’m breaking up with her. Nothing all that out of the ordinary.”

He says this with a shit-eating grin that only got impossibly wider when he hears her stop dead in her tracks and was left behind while he keeps on walking, trailing her girly suitcase with him. He can feel her staring holes through his back and it takes a serious effort not to begin chuckling. The feeling only gets worse when he hears her rapid footsteps beating the earth as she tries to catch up with his long strides. She pops up again next to his right shoulder with an expression that was a mix of both horrified and confused, and at this point, he has to snicker.

“Aw, did it just hit to you?”

“W-why did you do that, Derek? I thought you liked her? Like a lot.”

“You know perfectly well why I did, Space Case. I didn’t want to lead her on when I have unfinished business elsewhere. Thought you’d be ‘proud’ that I was a trying to be a big boy.”

“Don’t label me as unfinished business when I’m not even supposed to be anything other than your sibling. And honestly you cutting her off so quick after making it official just paints you as afraid of commitment, which pretty much fits my expectations.”

“So, you’d rather me be stuck in a loveless relationship? That’s kind of unfair to both me and Roxy, don’t you think?”

“You don’t know if it would have remained loveless. And now you never will.”

“Well, that’s the chance I was willing to take.”

His tone becomes slightly more somber and bitter as he comes to the parked cars and he turns to address her, which seems to startle her.

“Where would you like me to put this?”

“Uh um, in George’s car.”

Pfft! Figures.

“Figures. So, how’d you convince Dad into letting you ride back with him and the rest of the girls?”

“I-I told him that I really missed my mom and that I would really like to talk to her about N-New York and stuff on the way back home. And that I honestly didn’t think you’d try to lose everyone and go south because you learned such valuable lessons these passed few days. ...W-which the part about me missing Mom is actually true and I don’t think you’re so bull-headed as to drive straight to the border, not if you value Edwin’s safety since he’ll be riding wi-”

“Case, is this really how it’s going to be from now on?”

She had been starting to ramble because of her nerves.

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t play dumb. It’s not becoming of you.”

“I’m surprised you even know how to use that phrase.”

He drops the suitcase handle and sifts his now free fingers through his hair to pull at the strands out of frustration with her. He begins pacing like he had on the dock, as if suddenly the great outdoors around the lodge is a suffocating place to be and he is a trapped animal that couldn’t find enough room to roam.

“Stop acting like you are above the subject and just answer the question! It’s not that hard! I’m not wanting to pick a fight with you, Casey!”

“You’re fighting with me right now!”

“Only because you keep tiptoeing around the issue and acting like someone died! You can’t avoid me forever because of what we did and the things we said.”

“I’m not avoiding-”

Bullshit.

“Watch your language! There are children walking around! And how do you expect me to act, Derek? I mean, if you really want me to talk about it, we almost had sex last night and, yes, I am very ashamed and feel as if I’ve lost something! Don’t ask me what it is, because I don’t even know! What’s even worse we were out in the open where anyone could see! Could you imagine what would have happened if your dad and Jesse had come upon us just a few minutes earlier while we were in such a state? We would have been the talk of the town and not all talk is good talk!”

“So, you’re more worried about your reputation?”

“No, Derek. I’m just scared of repercussions. What it could it do to our family. There’s a difference. My grandmother had just accepted you as her grandson and you want to throw that accomplishment away because it gets in the way of us? Did you ever think of what us being together could do to the new baby in the future?”

He places a hand to his forehead to rub at it till it turned pink and smiles ruefully at the ground.

“Oh, Babydoll, you have no earthly idea how much I’ve thought about every, single facet if this whole, goddamn mess and how many consequences there could be.”

“I’ve told you to quit calling me that.”

“Too bad. Can’t. It’s like a floodgate. Once opened, hard to stop.”

“And this is exactly why you are riding with Edwin home. We can’t trust ourselves alone together. Not anymore…”

He glances up when he hears what she’d just said.

“You make it sound as if you’re affected by me, too.”

She starts at the suggestion and gives him a look that has potential to wither flowers.

“I’m not. At least, not in the way you think.”

That hurt a bit, but he still calls her bluff.

“The scratches across my chest would beg to differ. Jesus, you are such a shitty liar.”

“Derek, whatever happened between us last night, it wasn’t real. I even told you it was probably just hormones.”

She hasn't bothered to call him out on his potty mouth this time, he notes with amusement.

“Oh, yeah? What were you crying for all night then? Why did you sleep in the pull-out when I didn't come in? And don’t tell me it's because you had wanted the couch to begin with.”

Mortification makes itself known in the blush that spreads across her shoulders. It distracts him a little bit.

“Who told you that?”

“A nonpartisan representative.”

“Fine! Don’t tell me, but you just forfeited the chance to get me to tell you why I had been crying!”

“It’s not like I don't already have a clue as to why, anyway. Unless it was actually because you ended up telling dear Jeter the whole story and he didn’t take well to a little competition.”

“Who’s this ‘competition’ you speak of? I’d like to meet him.”

“Oh! That was such a good one, Case! I’m thoroughly wounded.”

“It’s true, though. You’re no competition for Jesse. Either way, I didn't tell him because there was nothing to tell. We’re just two, reasonably stable young adults -- one much more stable than the other -- who got carried away with the adrenaline of a successful bid to save a beautiful environment. ...And hormones.”

“How many times did you have to repeat that to yourself before you finally bought into your own bullshitery?”

“None, because I believed in it already!”

“It’s not what you said last night.”

“Last night was a case of me letting lust get to my head. I remember saying it was crazy. I remember saying it was insane.”

“Yes, but you also said that there was genuine emotion there and that you just weren’t ready. No matter how stupid you think I am, Princess, I know that has to mean something. I wouldn’t be out here dissecting fucking feelings if I didn’t think we could get it to work. It took me a while to admit it, but deep, deep, deep down, no matter how many girls I seduce into bed with me, and as cheesy as it’s going to make me sound, I’ve always known you and I would end up here. It’s always us.”

A silence falls over the two of them after this admittedly heartfelt speech. Casey a couple of feet away now since he’d quit pacing, still hovering near his dad’s car, and her arms had crossed themselves over her chest, accentuating her breasts and making it a bit hard for him to think. She seems to be coming to a decision within herself, because she tries to stand straighter in order to make herself appear taller, but her face is impassive and her eyes are searching the ground as if the dirt held the answers to this entire mess and she seems unsure of her next words even has she inhales.

“Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you this and possibly break your heart...but I’ve fallen in love with Jesse.”

She furrows her brows the as if she couldn't believe she had said that out loud, but then nod as if to forcefully affirm it, mostly to herself.

He watches her, wanting to get mad at her and wanting to fight and argue the point some more, but as had been happening so often as of late he just feels tired. He knew she was obviously lying, even though a jealous part of him wants to believe her. ...But the energy he used to have an abundance of in order to keep his roasting skills sharp just suddenly deflates out of him and leaves him in rumination.

“Is that so?”

His surprisingly calm reply causes her to hurriedly glance up because it takes her aback and she observes him with the same furrowed brow, expecting him to bring out the big guns any minute.

“Well… Yes. Like I said last night, he’s been a good friend to all of us, including you, and I think he and I bring out the best in each other -- both romantically and when it comes to dance. I also feel he’d be a good fit for the family...”

While she is babbling about how fantastic Jeremiah is, he employs the opportunity to start getting closer to her; arms swinging leisurely by his side. He attempts to keep his pace slow and even so she doesn’t detect his motives, but she catches his movements out of the corner of her eye anyway and she stiffens in suspicion.

“What are doing?”

He continues his advance.

“I’m riding a horse. What does it look like I’m doin’?”

“Derek, s-stay back, I mean it...”

The command comes out as a shivering whisper, but it's convincing enough to make him pause.

“Are you sure you mean that?”

She appears floored by this question.

“Because if you are, let me know now and I’ll leave you alone to go take care of myself. I don’t want to push you into anything, Case. I’m really not the monster you think I am.”

He’s kind of astonished at how placid he’s being right now, because inside he’s definitely not. She’s astonished, too, if her open mouth is anything to go by. She's clearly at war with herself inside her head as well, as her eyeballs keep twitching as if they have vibrating motors attached to them. After standing there for what seems to be eons, she finally replies with, to his secret jubilation, a slow shake of her head.

So he presses forward with her eyes on him the whole time, in a gradual fashion to keep from scaring her off. It’s unbelievably sexy and he has the most difficult time not to let the blood in his body rush south. In the blue of her iris, he can tell she wants to clear out of his way so he can’t box her in, but she instead appears transfixed by him and that sheen of curiosity has returned in full force.

He gets right up in her face, close enough to smell the hint of mint from her toothpaste upon her breath. He places each palm of his hands against the edge of the car’s roof behind her, effectively trapping her. He’s watching her lips and with a jolt of euphoria, he can see she has her gaze on his, too.

“You’ve really got to learn how to lie to yourself better…”

It’s the only thing he says before he’s kissing her.

It starts out like it did last night -- gentle and chaste before they both deepen it at the same time and it isn’t long before their frenching heavily. It’s incredibly erotic, having the very tongue in his mouth that he’s so used to hearing harsh barbs of insults from. And since they seemed to have had some unspoken agreement to take it slow this time around, he’s able to pay attention to her moans and they're he most beautiful sounds he’s ever heard.

He releases her lips and begins reverently pecking along the right side of her jaw and her neck, a move that leaves her panting and leaning further back against the car. Seizing the moment, he puts his body flush against hers and he’s mentally memorizing every curve and line that makes up Casey.

“De-rek...we have to-”

“Please, don’t tell me to stop.”

You can’t...just...keep kissing me every time you don’t agree with...something I say…”

“But it’s so much fun…especially when I get to hear you make little noises like that instead of yelling at me or gushing about Jonathan.”

“It’s...manipulation. And it’s so risky We could-”

She cuts herself off with a loud gasp because he’s placed his open mouth at the very front of her throat, grazing the skin there with his own tongue.

And then all of a sudden she is shoving him away and his anger flares for a few minutes until he realizes there are footsteps approaching and he turns to see Marti and Nora trotting down from the front porch of the lodge. They hadn’t spotted his and Casey’s make-out session, talking as animatedly as they were to each other. They both look up, however, at the sensation of being stared at by the two eldest kids and Marti breaks into a wide grin at the sight of him.

“SMEREK!!”

She runs and does an impressive flying leap so that he has no choice but to act as if he and Casey weren’t just heavily lip-locking in order to be able to catch his youngest sister from midair.

“Hey, Smarti!”

He spins her around, smiling way too big for it to be real and he’s kind of surprised Marti doesn’t notice, but then again the little girl is still in the prime of her life where innocence rages supreme and she doesn’t think twice about her two, older siblings who are unrelated to each other and normally out for each other’s blood hanging out together outside where neither one of them would think to get as close as they had been a second ago…

Over the screech of Marti’s excited squeals, he can just hear Nora sidling up to Casey to have a chat.

“So, are you two packed up?”

“Um… Yeah. W-well, a least I am. Derek was actually just helping put my suitcase in the car.”

“Well, that’s awfully nice of Derek! See, I told you you two could along and it only took, what, about three and a half years?”

Casey’s uncomfortable, high laugh reaches his ears.

“Ha ha, yeah, that’s us! Best buds, just like you always predicted!”

He almost drops Marti to stare after her as Casey begins to scurry away from the scene.

“I-I’m going to go say good-bye to Jesse and talk over plans for New york really quick. See you all in a bit!”

He watches with frustration as she strolls around the back of the lodge where the employee’s cabins are situated. Even from the ever-lengthening distance, he could see her lips were still swollen from his kisses and he curses under his breath before returning his full attention back to helping Marti fly around like a superhero.


 

The drive home was, to say the least, excruciatingly awful.

The whole time, Edwin babbled about his comedy act in the talent show with Mr. Sampson as if it were the only thing in the world that mattered anymore and it took a everything he had not reach over and choke him. Everyone already expected him to be put in jail at some point in his life anyway, might as well be because he strangled his little brother for annoying him to death.

But he doesn’t and Edweirdo makes it home in one piece; none the wiser that the driver of the car had been fantasizing about Casey going down on him the entire time instead of listening.

He pulls The Prince into the driveway first, his dad’s vehicle coming in to park behind. Once stopped, everyone except him piles out immediately and begins tiredly unloading their stuff from the trip. He watches his rearview mirror intently as he catches sight of Casey climbing over everyone, suitcase in hand, vacating her place in the car and begin trudging towards the front stoop. She must sense him staring, because she whips a unsuspecting gaze that quickly turns defiant towards his eyes reflected in The Prince’s side mirror.

They have a standoff of sorts that lasts several seconds until it finally ends with him mouthing to the Casey in the mirror:

“You’re beautiful…”

He grins maniacally at her scandalized expression and she glances back at the family to make sure no one has seen. They are all oblivious, too wrapped up in figuring out whose duffle was whose, and she turns back to seer him with a poisonous, blue look before pleasantly shocking him by discreetly flipping him the bird. And he’s never believed in fate more than he does right at this moment as he guffaws like a hyena at her hurrying to escape into the house while Dad shouts desperately about what the heck is so funny while everyone else is still badgering him to figure out where all of their belongings are.

It's amazing.


 

But the week and a half leading up to Casey flying to New York and he driving back to Queens alone is decidedly not amazing.

She’s definitely avoiding him now. If she happened to be in a room that he entered, she would swiftly vamoose. If it was vice versa, she’d spin expertly in the doorway as if she were already performing on a stage on Broadway and go back the way she came. His hopes of cornering her into a conversation were drawing thin as well, because every time he did catch her somewhat unawares, she’d shove her palm in his face with a sharp:

“Not now.”

Before fastly going somewhere else. Anywhere else, as long as he wasn’t there. It severely bummed him out, but he couldn’t do much about it just moping, so he tried to fill his days hanging out with Sam. That was arguably the worst decision he could have made because Sam had somehow procured himself his own girlfriend over the summer and it didn't take long before he felt like a third wheel.

Derek Venturi didn't do being a third wheel.

There wasn’t much choice for him but to work off his two-week’s-notice at Smelly Nelly’s and to schlump around at home watching Casey flitter from room to room with a checklist of what she would need in New York. Joaquin eventually drove down and the two of them went up to Queens themselves on Wednesday -- a week before she was supposed to leave -- but for what he didn’t know. She came up with lame excuses instead when he asked.

“Oh, um… I need to...clean out...my...dorm.”

“Casey, we didn't even sign up for dorms when we went up there earlier this summer.”

“Oh! ...Yes, I forgot. In that case, I’m going up there to register for classes.”

“You won’t be there this year.”

“Okay, Mr-I-Have-An-Answer-For-Everything, I’m going there to show Jesse around. He was curious about the campus.”

He pointedly ignored the growing annoyance in her tone.

“Well, how about I come with and the two of us can give him the grand tour -- two guides will be more entertaining than one, lonely keener.”

“No, no, that’s fine! You stay here. I’ll manage just peachy on my own. C’mon, Jesse!”

She grabbed Jared’s shirt collar with the grip-force of a man that had 200-times her own strength. The last thing he saw before they went out the front door was Jared’s comical expression of surprise as he was bodily yanked to his own car that they’d be taking to the school and that was the end of that. He didn’t see them again that day until just after nightfall and she still refused to impart what business she’d been up to despite what prodding tactics he employed.

“Is she super mad at you or something? Just for admitting your feelings?”

Lizzie asks him this on Friday morning in disbelief over her sister’s behavior. He shook his head immediately after she brought up the question.

“I think it's only partly that. My newly-developed intuition and overall familiarity with all things that makes Casey tick -- or mad -- tells me she’s more super in denial, though. Which, if I am honest with you and myself, I can’t blame her for.”

Woah! Derek Venturi is actually owning up to his side of the famed McDonald-Venturi sibling rivalry? You must have it bad for Casey…”

He gave the youngest McDonald a self-deprecating grin.

“I know. It’s a shocker. And trust me, nobody’s been more shocked to figure it out more than I have been.”

Liz bit her lip as she gained a thousand-yard stare into the corner of his childhood bedroom.

“I don't know, though. It’s really not very fair to you, is it -- she being upset only because you’re the one brave enough to acknowledge your feelings first? And then be the first to put them out there, only for her to pretend she’s fallen for Jesse because she’s scared of consequences that may not be worth worrying over anyway? Maybe I should go talk to her on your behalf…”

She started to get up from his computer chair which she had dragged over to the side of his bed in order to make talking to him easier, but he quickly shot a hand out to clutch at her wrist.

“Forget it, Liz. Let Casey lie to herself as long as she wants to for now. As much as it's against my nature, we may just have to wait it out. Besides, this situation is definitely something me and her need to sort out between ourselves before we involve anyone else. Talking to her about it would probably just drag you into the crossfire.”

Liz raised an eyebrow.

“Since when have you become such an expert on matters of the heart?”

He pretended to think, then shrugged with what he prayed was a shred of masculinity.

“I like to think the skills have always been there, just underdeveloped… It just took something drastic like Casey going all gung-ho to New York with a virtual stranger to draw them out of the deepest, darkest, dustiest corners of my brain… Soul… Whichever.”

Liz smiled primarily, then let it melt into a concerned frown.

“But...Casey leaves next Wednesday. There’s got to be way for you to show her you're being serious about what you feel before she makes her plane then.”

He shrugged his shoulders again, and then folded his arms behind his head on his pillow; laying back.

“You’re guess is as good as mine, Super Liz.”

A silence fell over them and it lasted a few minutes. Then suddenly, Lizzie’s whole countenance lit up like one of those new-fangled energy-saving light bulbs.

“I...may have a pretty brilliant idea!”

He shot her a curious side-glance out of his peripheral.

“You have my attention..."


 

Wednesday is just a night away.

And he has to pick the dumbest fight imaginable with Casey over something so stupid during dinner -- the only time she wouldn't allow herself to escape his presence because it’s a special going-away supper -- that he could pretend to be mad enough over to storm out and get time to head to the mall. Easy as pie.

“Hey, Space Case, you seen my lucky necklace anywhere?”

He makes sure to muster as much anger as he could, inserting it into his words like an imaginary turkey baster. She snaps a glance up at him, her eyebrows furrowing so far down with confusion they're merging with the bridge of her nose; her eyes swiveling from side-to-side as if she isn't even sure he is talking to her. From her spot at the table, Liz gives him a conspiratorial thumbs-up, doing a bomb-ass job of keeping it hidden from Edwin who was sitting across from her as always.

“You mean that nasty cord with the metal hoop thing you never remove? I’ve never even seen you take it off, much less touched it. Ask Edwin down there, he’s the one who wants to be just like you.”

“WHAT!? How dare you accuse me of taking Derek’s thi-OW!!!”

Lizzie had kicked Ed in the shin underneath the table.

“Oops! Sorry, Ed! My foot slipped!”

She ignores Edwin’s glower and turns back with rapt consideration to see how her older step-brother would respond to Casey’s answer while Nora reminds everyone not to argue at the table. Unfortunately for his still-heavily-pregnant stepmother, he has a plan that has already been set in motion from the moment Casey had looked at him and gave him a reply.

“Well, guess again, because I wasn’t going to put it on until after my shower this morning, but it was gone from my room when I went back in there. Now, I know you’ve been jumping every which way to get ready for New York-”

“I haven’t stepped foot into your filthy room since we got back from the lodge, so I really don’t see how you think I’m the one who could have taken it. And since when did you start considering it ‘lucky’ anyway?”

He has to think swiftly on this one.

“Since forever and it’s the whole reason I’ve been so slammin’ at hockey since in high school. It’s my meal ticket to having an amazing winning streak during the coming years! You’d know that if you’d paid the least bit of attention to me when I had mentioned it in the dining hall on campus instead of getting a jumpstart on homework for classes you aren't even going to attend now. Remember the conversation?”

He could swear a flash of guilt crosses over her countenance as he dares to mention that week in which they got along famously together almost like friends, like she is remorseful for apparently having not listened to the imaginary discussion he’d just mentioned. For a moment he hopes maybe she’ll say something about it, apologize for abandoning him when they returned home like the mature half of the pair of them that she is supposed to be. He is disappointed, though, when the regretful expression is seemingly buried in a hurry and she takes on the air of a clinical scientist trying to puzzle out a particularly difficult conundrum.

“Um, I did pay attention and I certainly don't remember at any point where you mentioned your necklace being your good luck charm. I mean, I know a lot of sports players are superstitious and all, but I honestly don’t think you need something so insignificant to just make yourself feel like you play better. You’re already great, even I can humbly admit that.”

“How could you be sure it doesn't make me a better player since, as you said, I never took it off? But, of course, you’ve never come to any of the games except some of the ones Dad and Nora made you go to in high school.”

“I went to enough of the games, Derek, and I’ve heard things. Thompson High is plenty proud of its hockey team. Besides, I didn’t think you honestly wanted me at your games…”

“Once more, you should have been paying attention.”

I did pay attention!!!”

“Casey! Don’t screech like that! It’s not good manners when we’re at the table.”

He smirks in full view of Casey after Nora’s reprimand. This is getting good.

“Yes, listen to your mother, Princess.”

He revels in her scandalized shock as Casey whips a glare to her mom, whose cheeks are beginning to blossom pink like her daughter’s did when she was a little bit mortified.

“Mom! Are you really going to let him talk to me that way!?”

“George, help me out here…”

“Derek, don’t rile Casey up while we're eating. For goodness sake, you’re about to be in college.”

“I’ll pipe down as soon as Little Miss Space Case tells me where my necklace is…”

He pauses, allowing his smirk to mutate into a leer. He really didn’t expect himself to be this competent at acting, Then again, he had been kind of doing it already for years when it came to his f-f-feelings.

“...that is, if she’s been paying attention to what I’ve been saying this entire time.”

At this point, Casey surges mightily to her feet, knocking her chair backwards and resembling a tyrannical goddess with her hair flaring out around her. Her eyes are sending crystal blue daggers in his direction and he’s enjoying every minute of it, in more ways than one.

“You mean like I 'paid attention' when you went on and on about losing your virginity to that random witch like you thought I was going to give you some kind of trophy!”

Casey!”

You’re not a virgin anymore, Derek?!”

Nora’s shout clearly displays her obvious astonishment at the scene unfolding before her. His dad is seemingly stuck between being impressed at his son’s skills with the ladies, disappointed that the same son couldn’t at least wait until marriage before hopping into a bed with one, and annoyed that since the son was basically an dult the father couldn’t really do a damn thing about it.

Mirroring Casey’s actions, he, too, rose like a dog who had been itching for a fight for days; sending his own chair sideways and nearly hitting Marti and Ed.

“What’s wrong, Case? Jealous mine was taken before yours!?”

Oh, God, this is definitely hitting lowbrow territory. Again, something flickers across her face as he brings something personal only where it concerns them up, but it’s more difficult to decipher this time. And again, it is put under wraps before he could even blink. Then he feels his head being drug forwards as she snatches his shirt collar at the speed of light like she to did to Jacob the other day until her furious expression is all he can see. It’s at this moment he really hopes he doesn’t contract an erection in full view of the whole family.

But he keeps on pretend-sneering like a mighty fool with a challenge to enact.

“Why would I be jealous of a sexist pig like you…!

It is said in a hiss that makes his heart go all a flutter and he can see that their new proximity just might be turning Casey on as well because the pink is erupting quite nicely just under her eyes and even extending down the long column of her throat. She’s also slowly letting the steel in her gaze become come-hither bedroom eyes and he can feel his arms simply trembling to wrap around her and bring her to him; to hell with everyone else in the room.

“Maybe because ol’ Jordan isn’t man enough to step up to the plate and you have an obsessive need to prove every guy you’re with at the time is better than me.”

By the way Casey’s mouth slowly drops open at his words, he can’t tell if they’re the straw that breaks the camel’s back or if they cause her to want to leap across the table to jump his bones then and there, because he knows a purr accidentally sneaked in between the cracks. He prays no ones else can hear it, too; although, by quickly glancing sideways he can tell that Lizzie detected it, if her wide eyes and red face were any indication.

ALRIGHT, THAT’S ENOUGH!!!”

This surprisingly comes from his dad, startling both he and Casey into whipping their stares to his side of the room as he shoves his own chair back with a shrieking honk across the linoleum and stands up with his two hands palms down on the tabletop. He’s scowling in a way that has never been seen by any of the Venturi siblings, which means he’s extremely and uncharacteristically furious.

“I can’t believe you two! Going at it like cats and dogs on Casey’s last night in the country for an entire year! And over something as silly as a necklace? Sorry, Der, but that is just a little bit ridiculous. This is supposed to be a nice, family meal where nobody accuses anybody of anything. Both of you are adults now, shouldn’t you guys be able to settle this in a calm fashion that doesn’t ruin everyone’s eardrums and appetites?”

“But he started it!”

“But she’s trying to sabotage me!”

They spoke at the exact same time, which basically then turned into them trying to speak over one another like figuratively climbing the stairs. This then disintegrated into them shouting at each other again, but that nonsense is soon dismissed by Dad once more.

“Stop it, stop it, stop it! I don’t care which of you began it, all I want is for the pair of you to finish it civilly like the mature man and woman that you are. I mean, it appeared like you guys were getting along so well together at Felicia’s lodge until after the freak thunderstorm that last night. What happened?”

An uncomfortable silence follows this line of questioning and he decides that now is probably as good as any to slip out, with all due respect to his father.

“Yeah...well, I think you’ll just have to satisfy yourself with asking the Princess…”

He jerks a harsh thumb in Casey’s direction without looking at directly at her. He could practically sense the rolling heat of her anger threatening to ascend again and he knows he needs to leave right that second.

“...the answer to that. If she’s not going to hand over my rightful property and you’re going to insist on sticking up for her, Dad, then I’m outta here. I’m not gonna listen to everyone yelling at me right now just because she’s flying out of Canada in the morning with someone she just met.”

He couldn’t help throwing that last bit in there for Casey’s benefit as he gets to the kitchen counter in two strides to roughly grab for The Prince’s car keys. Then he’s stomping for the door like a petulant child steaming over being told he couldn’t get what he wants. Nobody bothers to stand and stop him, not even his dad or Nora. He throws open the front door so hard, it absentmindedly shocks him that it didn’t stick into the plaster of the wall. Before he can make a grand exit, however, the noise of another chair being pushed makes turn back.

It’s Lizzie.

“Um… Is it okay if I go with you, Derek?”

He gives her a raised eyebrow, but then shrugs like he isn’t in the least worried about how it might look, especially to Casey.

“Sure. Whatever you wanna do…”

Nora raises an apprehensive protest, though.

“Lizzie, perhaps you should let Derek be alone for awhile…”

Lizzie waves her hand exaggeratedly, rejecting her mother’s concern.

“It’s fine, Mom. You heard Derek -- he doesn’t care if I go. Besides, with me there he has less of a chance to do anything stupid out of anger.”

Lizzie takes the opportunity to flash a smile at him, one that means so many clandestine things he doesn’t want to even decipher them. He’s too busy secretly watching Casey, who had almost mechanically righted her seat, then slowly lowered herself to return to it, and is now staring down at the table through the circle of her folded arms as if in a severe daze. She’s not even jumping in with her own objections about her little sister riding along with him like he expects. The increasingly familiar niggling of guilt is beginning to creep in on him, so he shakes his head and starts out the door once more.

“Well, hurry up and make a decision about whether you’re coming or not, Liz. I’m going now. Don’t anybody wait up.”

And he strolls out, not troubling himself to stay and hear Lizzie’s reply or choice. As he gets into The Prince’s driver’s seat, he had just mentally determined that he would wait five minutes before leaving her behind when he’s admittedly startled by the passenger door opening and Liz showing herself into the car. After slamming herself in she just buckles up and settles back to stare out the front windshield, not even glancing his way as she crosses her arms loosely over her stomach as if this is all the most natural thing in the world for her to do, hang out with him.

He observes her for a few minutes more, then concludes to just fuck it and puts The Prince in gear.

They don’t speak to each other for the entire ride to the mall.


 

“That was kind of a big risk you took, don’t you think?”

“No bigger than you speaking in a way like you were going to drag Casey to make-out on the floor, Mr. I-Get-All-Husky-When-I-Am-Turned-On. I’m weirded out that no one else picked up on it, but then our family seems to live off of being oblivious. And mine was calculated, unlike yours.”

He had to chuckle because she is right.

“Maybe, but coming along with me just kind of proves that you are being anything but nonpartisan in this, if what I’ve learned from keener Casey over the years is something to go by.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about. I just wanted to come to make sure my older step-brother didn’t hurt himself and to help him pick out the correct necklace that my sister was admiring a few weeks ago so that he can win her heart. Totally normal.”

“Whatever you say.”

He ruffles her blonde-and-purple hair like he would a stubborn puppy’s and her arms spaz out to try to get him away from her head. After a good, companionable laugh over their own antics, they go back to browsing the racks upon racks of jewelry in order to locate the exact piece Liz had mentioned to him on Friday.

“It really should be around here. I hope they haven’t sold it…”

“We seriously need to find it quick. It’s not too long before the mall is gonna close for the night.”

“I’m still not understanding why it had to be now that you came to buy it when you had since Friday after I told you about it. And then you had all day today up till dinner. You could have dropped by here during opening hours and gotten it, then hidden it somewhere in your room, or in my room if you were paranoid that Casey was going to go snooping.”

He gives her a very Derek-like smirk.

“And I thought you said you and Edwin kept tabs on us? If your spywork was any good at all, you’d know that I don’t normally premeditate my apologies to Case. I wait until the very last minute to come up with a grand gesture of sincere atonement for my sins. I like to think she finds it romantic; especially if I come running up just as you all are seeing her on to the plane and I surprise her with it when she thinks I’ve actually been stewing the whole night over at Sam’s or Ralph’s. Which reminds me, I gotta jingle Ralph to let him know I’m stopping by to keep up appearances…”

Liz side-eyes him witheringly and he’s somewhat uncomfortably reminded of the very girl they are discussing.

“Seems...kind of elaborate. Wouldn’t it have been easier to purchase it earlier, like I just said, and then take her aside and give it to her while declaring your undying love for her when she’s not rushing to make a flight? I mean it would give you two time to really talk it out-”

His loud, wheezing laugh cut her off and she was obliged to wait until he finished while the expression on her face grew progressively disapproving.

“Ha ha ha, ha ha ha! Oh, yeah -- like ‘talking out what our relationship is’ worked real well the last couple times we tried! That’s a good one, Liz! You’re a genuine hoot when you wanna be!”

Lizzie huffed indignantly in response.

“There’s no need to get all sarcastic about it. You said yourself that it’s something you guys need to work out on your own and I think the only way that can happen is to have a positive conversation away from everyone else.”

He immediately stopped laughing at the candidness in her voice and bestowed her a more straightforward grin.

“You honestly want us together, huh?”

The younger girl shrugged heavily while straining to peer down to her lower left.

“Well...yeah. I meant it when I said you two are perfect for each other. Whether you guys were at each other’s throats or forced to be a team, you always came out closer and I think that says something about your chemistry and bond. You two would be absolutely miserable if you ended up with anyone else and I don’t want that for either one of you, or for others to pay the price for your idiocies.”

“Then trust me, Liz. Getting back to the basics is probably the best way for both me and Casey. It’s what the pretend fight was for earlier at dinner. It’s probably my greatest chance against ol’ Jethro.”

“Are you ever going to say his name right?”

“Nah! It’s way, too much fun acting like I don’t care to even know it... Which, if I’m completely blunt, I don’t.”

Before she could retort, Lizzie’s eyes suddenly did a double-take over his left shoulder and she pointed excitedly, uncharacteristically jumping up and down like a schoolgirl.

“Derek, there it is!”

And before he could even have time to react, she is pushing passed him towards a display near the very back of the store. He hurries to spin around and follow as quickly as he can.

It is a beautiful necklace alright -- a gold chain long enough to where the dime-sized, daisy-shaped pendant would sit perfectly in the center of Casey’s collarbone. And the tiny white diamond (Casey's birthstone, according Liz) in the very heart of the daisy would catch the eye of any who dared to stand in front of her. He was sure Casey would adore it the moment she opened the box he would present it to her in.

The problem was, as gorgeous as it is, it’s also pretty expensive.

“A hundred and ten bucks… Are you sure you are willing to do this?”

He turns a look of resolution towards her as she gazes worriedly back, biting her bottom lip as if that is the only thing keeping her grounded.

“Never been more sure of anything in my life.”

He carefully slips the necklace from its stand and admires its glittering magnificence as it rests in the palm of his hand.

“If this doesn't get her hopping over to my side of the fence, Liz, I don’t have a clue what will.”

He pays with the little money he’s earned working at Smelly Nelly’s, whatever he was able to fish out of what was leftover in his piggy bank in his room at home, and what he was able to beg his dad for under the guise of wishing to fix up the Prince before school started back. Lizzie covers the rest with the cash she had aquired during babysitting gigs over the summer. He promises to pay her back as soon as he can, but she insists that she didn't plan on holding her breath. He lets it go because he doesn’t even know if he’ll really be able to anyway and they leave the mall much the same way they came in -- without speaking.


 

He drops Lizzie off at the house and, like any decent big brother, makes sure she gets inside the front door before zooming over to Ralph’s where he crashes promptly on the couch. Like the unquestioning doofus that he is, Ralph just welcomes him and tells him not to make too much noise because Grandma is upstairs trying to catch some Z’s. He keeps the small bag containing the necklace in his shorts pocket, hoping to God he doesn’t crush it while rolling around in his sleep.

He doesn’t, thankfully.

He wakes up the next morning with several missed texts from Lizzie and two missed calls.

9:30 pm: “Casey tried to hound me last night, but I fended her off. She kept demanding to know where you were and when I told her you went to Ralph’s she became sort of subdued. I honestly couldn’t tell if she was simply mad that I hung out with you when I should have stayed home to comfort her after your ‘fight’ at dinner or if she was somehow oddly jealous or something else.”

10:15 pm: “Update: She sounds like she crying in her room…”

6:06 am: “She knocked on your bedroom door this morning. More like tapped, like she couldn’t figure out if she wanted you to be in there to answer or not. When you didn’t, she did this weird sigh and went downstairs like her heart was broken. It was actually kind of sad."

6:30 am: "Mom’s up and talking to her downstairs. I’ve heard your name crop up a couple of times. Most likely they’re talking about last night. I’m about to head down."

6:48 am: “I’m sitting across from her right now and she looks like she hasn’t gotten much sleep, like at the cabin last week…”

7:02 am: “Everyone else is starting to get up so we can see Casey to the airport. You might wanna be heading over there, too."

The first missed call was at seven fifteen.

7:16 am: “Come on, Derek, wake up! We’ll be leaving here in about twenty-eight minutes!"

The next missed call was at seven forty-five and the last text was sent shortly after that.

7:46 am: “Christ, Derek, you couldn’t have been that tired from last night! You’re going to miss your chance, Lover Boy! Hurry up and drive over to meet us before she boards!”

He needs no second bidding and is out the door in about five minutes following his reading of the final message. He doesn’t even bother to say goodbye or thank-you to a sleepy and (perpetually) confused Ralph, who is just then stomping heavily down his stairs and sees him rushing passed in a flash. As a condolence, he shouts over his shoulder that he’d call Ralph later and he is in The Prince and gone before his friend could figure out what the hell just happened.

7:51 am: “OMW!”


 

He careens into what seems like the only empty spot in the whole, damn parking garage, nearly sideswiping an expensive Buick. He is out of the driver’s seat before it had fully come to a stop, not even bothering to think about locking the doors. He is a man on a mission and he’s damned if he’s gonna fail it.

8:26 am: “Lizzie! Whst gate is itI dont remmbrf!!”

8:26 am: “It's Gate B12! Hurry, Derek, or you’ll miss her! You got thirty-seven minutes!”

8:27: “trying tp gte thru security as fst as I can! U may have 2 send dad or yur mom back down here!”

8:27: “On it.”

He glances up with an angry brow and pursed lips at the overly-fit TSA officer that owns a military buzz-cut and green eyes that could make a hardened criminal wet their pants, turning his phone around and shoving the brightened screen forward to show him Lizzie’s latest text.

“There, happy!? My little sister is convincing one of our folks to come back!”

“We’ll see, young man.”

“Quit calling me ‘young man.’ You don’t look that much older than I do.”

“I’m thirty-three.”

“Whatever, cool. This is still bullshit. You’re still young enough to remember how it is at my age. Just let me through and I’ll pay you back with a coffee if you’re ever around at Smelly Nelly’s in the next week or so .”

“Afraid I can’t do that, son.”

“I’m not your fucking son…”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing! Never you mind.”

Usually his charm worked on everyone. He hopes he isn’t losing his edge or this didn’t bode well for the coming years. His charisma is all he has to skate by in life and, if he loses that, he is a goner.

Following a good, solid three minutes of anxious shifting from foot-to-foot and hand-wringing, he is relieved to spot the hideous, shoulder-length blond hair of his dad ambling its way through the crowd back to the security lines. He can’t help smiling from ear-to-ear when Dad comes closer and he shoots the guard a superior sneer.

“See, look! This is my dad right here! Dad! Tell this idiot I’m with you guys so I can come in and say goodbye to Case.”

His dad, however, instead of doing as his son asks, just gives him a strange, questioning quirk of his eyebrow and a deep frown that mimics something he would do so much, he’s sure the guard would have to be a complete dumbass not to notice the familial resemblance.

“Is this kid your son, sir?”

What his dad says next shocks him enough to where his stomach sinks sickeningly down through the veins in his thighs to pool somewhere in his kneecaps.

“No… I’ve never seen this boy in my life, officer.”

His bottom jaw feels liable to fall right off his face on to the dirty airport floor.

“D-Dad… Dad, you can’t be serious right now. Tell him you know who I am so I can see Casey before she leaves.”

The nosy guard butted in between them, touching George on the shoulder to gain his attention and then pointing at the son again.

“So, you’re sure this guy isn’t related to you? He seems really adamant to get to your daughter, I guess. He an old boyfriend of hers or something?”

George rapidly shakes his head.

“No, no, nothing of the sort. I don’t really know what he wants with me or my step-daughter. If you want, you can just throw him out until he lands on his entitled behind.”

At this point, his dad dips his head as if to rub at his right temple with the pads of his fingers, but as he did so the glint of a shit-eating smirk so similar to his son’s own flickers across his lips. It makes the youngest of the three men’s blood boil and he just snaps.

“Damnit, Dad, I saw that!! It’s me, I’m your son, Derek! Let me in to catch Casey, please!”

This outburst is the exact moment when the officer must have decided that he was threat because he swoops around and bends his left arm behind his back at the elbow. It’s painful enough to make him grunt loudly and he tries desperately to wiggle out of the other male’s grasp, but the guard just holds on tighter and it doesn’t help that he’s the stronger out of the two of them.

“Alright, that’s enough outta you, you little punk!”

And now he’s being dragged backwards, away from his dad, whose face is starting to fall into an expression of realization that his joke has gone too far, though he’s still somewhat chuckling. George reaches out a hand then, getting the guard to look at him again just in time.

“Uh, officer! Officer, it-it was honestly just a prank…! The boy really is my son. His step-sister is going to New York in a few minutes and he’s just late getting here to wish her farewell. You can let him go.”

The guard is somewhat reluctant to release his grip, but after a little more reassurance from George, he finally does. This gets him and his dad a two-for-one lecture about playing tricks on “persons of the law” that goes on for way, too long, that he almost fears he’s just going end up missing Casey altogether. They are ultimately allowed to go following at least two minutes and they walk side-by-side towards the correct gate. The scene he imagines this makes gives him a sense of surreal deja vu because it brings to mind strolling back to the lodge beside his dad after the rendezvous on the dock. The memory suddenly makes his stomach, now having returned upwards from its trip to his knees, swoop around like a tiny bat inside of him.

“You know why I did that, don’t you, Der?”

He turned to grace his dad with an annoyed glance.

“I do… Doesn’t mean I don’t think it was a complete dick move on your part.”

His dad abruptly halted and shot out to lay a hand on his shoulder to get him to stop, too, and he was obliged to look around to bestow his father his full consideration.

“Hey! You’re the one who ruined your step-sister’s going away dinner last night, something that was supposed to be a special. You had to start that stupid ass fight with her over a piece of twine that could be easily replaced. It’s a tiring act, Derek.”

George pauses here, his countenance taking on a look of something thoughtful, bewildering his son.

“But you want to know what I think? I think you were just so worried about someone you’ve grown close to over the last three years -- someone you never even thought you’d care about -- is going to leave. You’re afraid of losing your sister, aren’t you, Derek? Of losing your best friend?”

The sudden switch in the direction of topics throws him and he can think of nothing to say except for one thing; so, crossing his arms tightly as if attempting to keep the limbs of his body in place, he replies:

“It’s...something like that, yeah.”

He surprises himself when he feels the telltale prick of tears at the inner corners of his eyes. He’s even more taken aback when Dad flings himself upon him without warning in what seems to be a comforting bear hug.

They stand there, George just embracing him as if it’ll make it everything better but he doesn’t let his arms encircle to return the gesture. He only flashes back to when his parents got divorced and his dad did something very much identical this -- just came into his room during a night when he as a twelve-year-old boy was crying out for the mother who had just abandoned them and mutely pulled him into his chest. They had simply held one another to console and give hope that it all would be okay.

At last, George steps back and peers into his son’s eyes like someone straining to peek through a crack in a closed door.

“I’m gonna miss her, too.”

He rewards his dad with a cajoling half-smile without showing any teeth, pretending on the surface that a huge weight has been lifted off of his shoulders.

If only you really knew what I am going through, Dad…


 

They get to the gate finally and there is already a line of people piling through the ramp on to the plane, but they spot their family right away because they’re all huddled in a little, conspiratorial group off to one side. Julien is hanging among them, of course, his bald head resembling one of those shrunken things from the Amazon but without the ratty topknot and lacking wrinkles as he casually chats up Nora, who’s rubbing her swollen belly like it’s second nature.

But he only has eyes for her, observing as he approaches with George her speaking animatedly with Lizzie and Marti, an excited grin breaking her face in two. She doesn’t even look like she lost any sleep, as Lizzie had reported to him. The bat that is in the place of his stomach is fluttering again at how she seems so ready for this adventure and that causes his heart to stutter a bit as he begins wondering if he should go through with gifting her the necklace after all.

“Hey, everybody! Look who’s here to pay his parting respects!”

His dad announced that as loudly as if his voice had been filtered through a bullhorn. He barely hears it, however, as Casey’s shocking blue eyes snap up to meet his and she freezes where she stands, the edges of the aforementioned orbs widening and the happiness slipping from her face like melting ice in awe that he had even shown up. They stay locked with each other as Nora mumbles to everyone to let them have their space to say their goodbyes. He only briefly slips as he catches Lizzie’s gaze out of his peripheral and his chin wags infinitesimally at her to acknowledge his thanks in helping him get here before it was too late and she returns with just as small a nod and then she trots away to go join everyone else.

And now it is truly only the two of them. The din of the crowds and extra noises of the airport have died away and it’s like they are the sole survivors of an apocalypse -- the only two left alive.

“...You’re here…?”

The sound of her breathing that sentence jumpstarts his already thumping heart into overdrive and it genuinely kind of hurts.

“Yeah… I couldn’t very well let you get on that plane without allowing you one, last gander of my handsome face. Because, remember, this moment is going to have to tide you over for a year.”

This actually draws a fucking girly-ass giggle from her and he’s absolutely floored that it doesn’t make him want to take her up against a wall then and there in front of all of those people. It honestly just compels his even larger desire to purely hold her like she’s his lifeline in this goddamn mess of a love story.

“De-rek… I’d hardly call your egotistical excuse for a mug ‘handsome.’ No way would I ever want it on my mind, not when I have better things to think about.”

He huffs mirthfully through his nose as her smile makes a triumphant return.

“Like yours is that much better. I’ve seen you without your make-up and it’s hardly worth it.”

“...You called me beautiful.”

“And you believed me?”

“Jerk.”

“Priss.”

Another silence swallows them up, but it isn’t uncomfortable as it is merely daunting because there is a gap between them that both are too timid to cross without some sign from the other that it’s okay to do so. He decides he should be the one to venture first, but she beats him to the punch.

“I’m sorry about last night.”

“No, Case, you don’t have to be. I’m the one who’s sorry. I was just...mad about that stupid necklace disappearing and I took it out on you, I guess. ”

She startles him with the her subsequent question.

“Are you sure that’s the only reason…?”

“Well, of course, it’s not. I just don’t think this place has the right atmosphere to bring up something so personal that should be just between you and me.”

Casey’s demure laugh makes a reappearance.

“Yeah, I guess not.”

And again, they fall into quiet contemplation of each other. She is going to have to board right that second and he mentions this, to which she nods. But she still doesn’t move or wave goodbye to him. She only looks until...

“Derek… Would it be okay if -- for once -- I gave you a hug?”

She doesn’t even have to ask twice before he’s traversing the gap in two steps, arms wide, and they’re wrapping themselves up in each other as if the world is going to end the minute she departs on that plane. There’s no kissing involved this time -- he makes sure not to lose control of himself -- it is solely an embrace between two very different people who had become close over the years and neither is willing to part from it very soon. He has her clasped to him by her fit waist while she’s clutching around his shoulders and both of their faces are buried in one another’s neck. He can promptly tell she’s crying when his skin there starts to become slick with moisture that he’s sure isn’t his or her sweat

“Hey, hey, none of that. Everyone will think I did something bad to make you all weepy and shit.”

She chuckles once more, but continues to shed tears. They’re rocking from side-to-side at this point and he has a delayed realization that he doesn’t know, or in fact, care if their family is watching this sappy display. All he wants to do right now is to maintain this closeness with Casey for as long as they were able to prolong it. And if there was some way he could bottle up this moment and bring it with him to uni where he could enjoy whenever he wished, well, that would just be a bonus.

But then Julius comes up behind Casey, seemingly ignorant of her step-brother’s indignant glare that he is interrupting their somewhat unsibling-like embrace as he talks right into her ear canal like he’s singing into a microphone-

“Casey, let’s go, or we’ll be left behind.”

-and they both knew the time had come to cease. They start reluctantly uncoiling their respective limbs from each other’s warmth but sustain holding each other hands.

“Uh, okay! Yeah! I’ll be right there, Jess.”

She says this while continuing to stare up at him through a haze of tears and something that just might be love as Julia disappears without even gaining a backwards glance from her. And he can’t help the feeling that a complete glow of satisfaction is surrounding his body and he doesn’t give a shit if anyone is there to witness it; not even Jonah. He’s seriously on the verge of just saying, “Screw it!” and laying a kiss on her trembling, parted lips when her eyes widened again as if in remembrance of something important and her mouth does an infuriatingly cute, little O-shape.

“Oh, I nearly forgot! I have something for you!”

She wipes hastily at her eyes, then unzips and dives a hand into the gigantic, overloaded carry-on bag he just now registers that she has slung over her left shoulder and he watches dumbly as she begins shifting stuff around. It takes him a few minutes -- just about the time she starts mumbling to herself under her breath, wondering where “it” is -- before he recalls that he also has something for her.

“That’s kind of funny, because I actually have something for you, too.”

She pauses her search to glance up at him with the most adoring expression imaginable that he sort of ponders on whether she even knows she is doing it.

“You do…? For me?”

He smiles at her incredulousness.

“Yeah, but you go ahead and hand me yours first. And speed it up, you have a plane to catch!”

“Ah, right!”

And she goes back to digging, digging, digging. Rather furiously, too, until at last she releases a tiny: “Ah, ha!” as she locates what she is hunting for. And the next thing he realizes, she holding a thin, leather-bound notebook-looking item out towards him with hundreds of colorful post-it notes sticking from the sides of the pages. He furrows his brows at her, stumped as to what it could be and what she expected him to do with it.

“That isn’t a recommended reading list, is it?”

“De-rek, no! Of course not!”

“Then I give up. What is it?”

She tries to get frustrated, but can’t because there is a smile still formed on her perfectly pouty mouth and all she does is giggle again at his sillness. He could get used to that giggle…

“Well, if you would shut your piehole and let me explain! Do you remember last Wednesday when Jesse came down from the lodge and the two of us drove up to Queens?”

“How could I forget? You gave the flimsy excuse that you were going there to clean out a non-existent dorm room.”

She has the courtesy to blush out of guilt and embarrassment when he stuck her with that, accompanying it with a sheepish smile.

“Ye-eah… Sorry, about that. I know it was lame, but I really needed you to stay at home in order for Jesse and I to get this filled out to surprise you.”

She thrusts the notebook out towards him a second time, her movements more insistent now.

“Hurry up and take a look at it! I’m running out of time, but I’m too excited to see your face when you see what’s inside!”

Her words create a big grin that nearly that stretches from ear-to-ear and he finally gently takes the book from her hands (which are oddly shaking); balancing it on his left palm so that he could open it and start flipping through it. He even attempts to exercise caution so that he doesn't knock loose any of the post-its Casey’s stuck in.

Confusion is the first to register on his mind as he notices that the pages are filled top-to-bottom with what appear to be just numbers. A second or two more perusing and he then spots the names that are matched up with each set of digits. Another beat and it hits him that they are all girls names. A gnawing unease suddenly begins to steadily bloom within his stomach as he starts to recognize what this “gift” actually is.

An address book.

Casey’s just given him an address book.

The smile he’d sported slides solemnly from his lips.

“Now can you see why I didn't want you to come? They are cell phone numbers of over 110 girls from Queens campus -- including those living in dorms and in apartments off of school grounds…”

She trails off and he glances up just as she has finished rolling her eyes skyward and shrugging her shoulders

“-and yes, there are quite a few belonging to girls that are a part of the sororities in town. Jesse is quite a smooth talker when he wants to be. I thought it’d would be weird if I was the only one going around asking them for their number so I invited him along with me and we had a blast. If you are wondering about what the sticky notes are for, they are my categories. Orange is bad, as in they are girls who I suggest you mess with at your own risk, but I doubt you’ll heed my warnings. Luckily, there weren't too many of those… Plain yellow are girls who I consider merely ‘friend’ material, pink is for those who I think you’ll really like to date, and the one or two blue ones are those I feel could be your true soulmates once you're ready to settle down.”

All he can do is gawk at her as she continues to prattle, she unaware that he hadn’t said anything for a few minutes.

She was truly unbelievable sometimes.

Did she seriously think she could throw him off so easily like this?

He watches her carefully as she goes on and on -- how she details every, single instant that Jagger would goad a girl into coughing up her number with the gentleness of a thousand lambs, how fucking hilarious it was each time it happened, and how they went out on a coffee date when it was all over and that's why took all day to come home. It’s as sickening as it is disheartening.

It doesn't take long for it to dawn on him that he probably should have showed her his gift first.

“God fucking dammit…”

“Huh? What did you say? Sorry, Der, I was rambling again, wasn’t I? I guess we need to wrap this up.”

He hadn't acknowledged the fact that he'd just cursed out loud, but what was the point anyway? Now he has to do the right thing...and let her go. Once again.

“I just said thank-you. I’m shocked you finally came over to my side of the fence is all. ...Shocked but glad, I guess.”

He holds up the now-closed address book and waggles it before lowering it again. He has plastered another smile on his face; this one more smirkish to make it seem more real than it actually is. Casey stares blankly at him for a bit as if she had doubted that he would answer her in so adequately a manner. Then she suddenly grins widely right back and claps her hands rapidly in glee -- adding in a piercing squeal even -- at his supposed satisfaction with his present.

“Oh, I’m so relieved you like it! I had my worries, of course, but Jesse kept encouraging me and now I’m glad I listened to him. So, what’d you get me?”

She was all but dancing out of her skin as her display of apparent impatience and he can’t help chuckling a little. The necklace feels like it abruptly weighs a ton in his pocket.

“It’s...not as well-thought out as your was, so I hope you won’t be too disappointed…”

He steps forward while she watches him, instant suspicion coming to her eyes like a flip of a switch as the blue irises strain upwards to see what he is doing. He senses rather than genuinely feels her stiffen as he purely lays a kiss on her hairline and she still has her gaze upon him as he backs away again. She’s utterly bewildered.

“Good luck in New York, Sis. Don’t do anything I would do...at least not without me.”

Her tears make themselves known again as she hears what he’d just called her.

“You...you just…”

He shrugs at her cumbersomely, as if boulders were somehow tied to his shoulder blades

Her face is a mosaic of what seems to be turmoil and her mouth has fallen open in...what? Silent protest? He doesn’t know.

And he doesn’t get to find out, either, because before she’s able to find her voice to comment about it, Jaeger pops up again and wraps his hands tightly around her shoulders. She jumps at the contact as if she’s forgotten he existed despite the fact she’d been gushing about him.

“Time’s way passed up, Casey. We’ve got to board now.”

She only spares him a split-second side-glance before going back to looking at her step-brother. Her lips are flapping open and closed like a fish’s.

“U-um, yeah, okay. ...B-bye, Derek.”

“See ya, Case.”

And then Jamil’s steering her away from him and all he can do is mutely spectate as she’s pushed to the gate. Casey keeps glancing over her shoulder at him, her eyebrows furrowed and her lips still parted. The rest of the family surrounds him as if they’d materialized out of a neighboring dimension to wave and shout their final goodbyes, but her eyes only fix on him at each point she turns her head until she at last disappears through the doorway leading to the ramp onto the plane. The gate door is shut tight behind her, severing any chance for her to change her mind and come back to him. Marti begs to watch as the plane takes off, so Dad and Nora walk her to the big window overlooking the runway. Edwin goes with them, leaving him and Lizzie standing by themselves.

As soon as everyone is out of earshot, Lizzie immediately whips a look of anticipation to him. He hedges her off before she can ask her foreseeable question by slapping the small bag with the stupidly expensive necklace inside into the palm of her right hand.

“Here. You keep it. I have no use for it.”

Lizzie glares down at the parcel now in her possession as if she doesn’t quite remember what it is or what to make of it. But then she raises her eyes to him again and he can see she’s disconcerted.

“You didn’t give it to her?”

“Nope.”

“Why?”

He shakes his head, chortles a little under his breath, then lifts the address book again to brandish it in Lizzie's field of vision. Her expression only grew more befuddled and he rolls his eyes.

“This...is a list of the phone numbers of a 110 girls, many of them sorority members. I joked about it the night after graduation and we both found out we had gotten into Queens. I guess she thought it would be the best way to get me off her scent.”

Lizzie’s eyes widened in possibly a little bit of shame for what her older sister had just done. Of course, that doesn't stop her from jumping to Casey’s defense.

“Oh, Derek, don’t take it too seriously. I saw the way she stared at you when you finally showed up and that hug you guys shared. And don’t think I didn't notice her gazing back at you every few seconds until she made it through the gate. She’s in serious denial, we both know that, so don’t think anything abou-”

“Liz, quit it. It’s not about me thinking she doesn't have feelings for me. She does, I’ve never doubted that. It’s her calling my feelings into question that’s the issue.”

The confusion was back on Liz’s face, but only for a millisecond.

“She thinks you're lying?”

“No, she thinks they're replaceable. Which is even more infuriating because I can’t blame her but at the same time…”

He shakes his head again as he lets his sentence die away.

“I just wish she could see that I’m not that easily put off when I know something is real.”

And with that, he turns to begin his trek out of the airport. He halts, though, at Liz’s insistent shout for him to wait. She comes running up, skidding to a stop just behind him in order to be able to talk to him in a low voice so that no else could hear what she had to say.

“Derek! Don’t give up on Casey. Please! I’m aware she can let her worries get the best of her and she lets them cloud her judgement more often than not, but I know you two can work it out like you always do. It’s always been you two against the world. Don’t lose sight of that!”

He doesn’t move for a minute, letting her words sink in and mulling them over. After that moment, however, he continues walking as if the incident never even occurred.

Lizzie observes as her oldest step-brother gets figuratively smaller and smaller until he’s swallowed up by the crowd of the airport. She is still in the same position staring forlornly in his wake when her mother comes up behind and slides an arm around her.

“So, where’s Derek off to?”

Lizzie simply shrugs.

“You know Derek. He doesn’t like to let anyone know he’s human and that he’s probably going to miss Casey more than any of the rest of us will.”

She doesn’t even look as she senses her mother’s hesitantly agreeing nod.


 

She’s sitting in window seat B of row 19 and peering out of the circle pane next to her as the plane climbs ever higher and higher above and away from London, her home.

And she’s crying silently -- has been from the moment she stepped onto the aircraft.

“You okay, Case?”

She starts a little as Jesse whispers to her from her right and she whips her head to gaze at him a tad incredulously as she realizes he used her “Case” nickname. And that there was a tiny bit of shame deep down inside her that didn’t appreciate the way he said it. He didn't quite get the...nuance...of it correctly.

She quickly swipes the tears off her cheeks and clears her throat, hoping she is presenting somewhat of an image of normalcy.

“Uh, um… Yeah, yeah! Yeah, I’m okay. I’m just...seriously gonna miss my family.”

Jesse nods with all the pensiveness of a sage.

“I’m guessing...especially Derek?”

Her eyes widens at these words. Mostly at the fact that they were her truth.

But she couldn't admit that. Not to Jesse anyway.

D-Derek? W-what are you talking about? What about him?”

Jesse smiles patiently, closes his eyes, and shakes his head at her like a parent at his child trying fruitlessly to evade reprimand for keeping a secret that she shouldn’t.

“C’mon. I saw that hug between you two.”

Her face fell and it feels like her whole body is deflating as the embarrassment grows and she attempts to lower herself farther into her seat to hide. And she knew she was blushing something fierce.

This is it. She’s going to have to confess she’s got unholy feelings for her step-brother -- who she thought she hated for the three and half years since she’s known him -- and that she’s slowly beginning to accept them. All to the guy she would’ve ended up with if her life resembled anything ordinary.

“Oh.”

She spoke this single, pathetic statement on a tinny thread of air; most of her oxygen having left her lungs.

“Well, yeah, we all did -- the other members of your family and I. Your mom and step-dad seemed so relieved and couldn't stop talking about how they always knew you guys were closer than you were willing to concede. And something about how they were glad a fight between you guys last night didn’t irreparably damage it. I mean, I’m happy for you, too. I can only wish I that I was as close to my siblings like that -- especially to my older sister.”

She blinks.

“O-o-oh! Yeah, Derek and I are actually...really complicated when it comes to our relationship. The two of us argue -- a lot -- so much so it’s embarrassing.”

She pauses to laugh in a hiccupy way, her emotions and nerves still running haywire, but then she quietly turns thoughtful.

“We’ve honestly been through so much to get to that hug today. For long time since I met him, he wouldn’t even allow me to touch him, much less embrace him. Specially not in the way we did in the airport.”

Jesse guffaws, but he makes sure it is at a respectable volume. She can’t help thinking that, if it were Derek himself next to her right now, he would have cared less about bothering those around him when something he found humorous got him going.

“Well, at least it appears that you guys are on the same page now. How did Derek like his gift? Did it knock him for a loop like you predicted?”

She shrugs.

“You could say that. ...He was definitely shocked, I imagine, since he never would have expected me to basically give him permission to hit on girls that I hand-picked out. I usually look down on him for doing that kind of thing.”

“I guess that just goes to show him that you are full of surprises.”

Jesse then flirtily picks up her right hand from the armrest and raises it to his puckered lips, bestowing a sweet kiss on the back of it. It leaves her feeling jittery and a bit mushy, but her heart does not thump like it would have when she’d first met him at her grandmother’s lodge.

“Try not to worry too much about your family. They’re proud of you and I’m sure Derek is with them, even if he doesn’t say so. You can always go visit them and they you. And don’t be scared about the city. Bernard Blue has us all set up in a safe area and I’ll be right by your side the entire time. Our careers are about to blow doors to the world wide open for us.”

With one last, conclusionary grin, Jesse pulls out a thick book from his carry-on under the seat in front of him and opens it to begin reading and she knows she is now left to her own devices for the rest of the flight. She inhales and then lets it loose in a soundless whoosh! in relief as she goes back to watching down upon the alternating patchwork of fields, trees, towns, roads, cities, and bodies of water below. After a couple of minutes of silence, she absent-mindedly lifts the fingers of her left hand to her hairline, flashing back to when Derek had laid his kiss there and she ponders on whether that was genuinely what he had wanted to give her. For how he had phrased his words earlier in their parting conversation, she had expected his present he’d mentioned was supposed to be more...substantial.

She might have to pester him about it at some point in the future, whenever they saw each other during a break in their respective lives.

...It had been kind of symbolic act of letting her go, that kiss, or she thinks maybe that is what it was. She’s uncertain why she isn’t more relieved that perhaps he did finally give up that farcical dream of them being together. It was the whole objective of compiling the address book in the first place, wasn’t it? So why did the idea disappoint her instead of elate her? Is she anxious that possibly it had actually been a way to screw with her mind in this strange, new game of feelings and emotions that they had begun (something that was totally his fault by the way)?

Attempting to grasp at any understanding of her step-brother’s warped mental state is starting to make her head hurt and her teeth clench, so she decides to put it to rest at the time being. After all, she isn’t planning on having any contact with him unless absolutely necessary while in New York. For now, she has a whole year of dancing on Broadway to look forward to and she truthfully could not be more excited about it.

The sun is filling up the room,
And I can hear you dreaming.
Do you feel the way I do, right now?
I wish we would just give up,
'Cause the best part is falling.
Calling anything but love.
-- “Distance” by Christina Perri ft. Jason Mraz