Work Header

This Is Life With Derek

Chapter Text

"DER-REK!"  Casey screamed while pounding on the bathroom door.  Her hair up in a messy bun as she gripped her fuzzy pink bathrobe closer to her body.  "Open up!  I need the bathroom!"

The door swung open with a bang, leaving a stunned Casey mid-knock.  Derek stood in the doorway, his disheveled head of hair damp from his shower.  Frothing at the mouth, he mumbled around his toothbrush, "Chills, woman.  No need to throw a fit."  Holding the door open for her, he stepped aside to let her in.

Quick to duck under his arm, Casey headed straight to the cabinet for her own toothbrush.  While Casey frantically looked for her toothpaste, Derek smirked slightly as he watched her growing impatience.  Finally, he held out the tube to her, "Looking for this, sis?"

Glaring as she whipped it out of his hand, Casey reprimanded him, "Der-rek!  You're using my toothpaste, again?  Why can't you get your own toothpaste, instead of always using mine?"

He scooted her over, leaning down to spit into the sink.  While he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, he held steady eye contact with her through the mirror.  "What's the matter?  I thought it was all the same difference?"  Derek tossed his toothbrush into the cabinet at random.  He didn't look at her again as he turned on his heel and marched out of the bathroom.

Derek's bedroom door slammed before Casey even realized he had left the bathroom.  Frowning to herself, Casey studied her appearance as she absentmindedly brushed her teeth.  His carefully emphasized words swirled around in her head.

🎵 "It used to be my mother and my sister and me,

A happy little family, and alright with me.

Then Mom got married, that's when everything changed,

Some things were lost, and others were gained.

A new school, a new house,

So many changes make my head spin.

Now I've got a brother who gets under my skin.

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Lizzie, Edwin, George and Nora, Marti, and Casey.

Livin' life with Derek,

Livin' life with Derek!" 🎵 

"Derek and I?  Yeah, we've always had our differences.  I like school; he likes sports.  I like to study; he likes to party.  I like the finer things in life and he likes... well the not so finer things.  I'm mature and classy.  Derek's gross and disgusting.  You get my point.  Same old Casey and same old Derek.  But what I can't figure out is why suddenly, there's a... difference."

Pacing his bedroom, Derek threw his clothes across the room, upset with himself.  He had tried to get over it, really he had.  It didn't even make sense to him why it was bothering him so much.  But as the days went by, his mood grew steadily worse.  Their late-night conversation playing on repeat in his head.

Derek collapsed on his bed, picking up his headphones.  Shaking his head, he threw them back onto his pillow.  His eyes closed heavily.  The last few nights he spent tossing and turning were catching up to him.  After a few moments, he sighed deeply as he fell into a restless sleep.

Stomping down the stairs, Derek raced towards his recliner.  Edwin followed, hot on his heels, carrying a notebook and pen.

"Scram, Ed.  I'm not in the mood."

"Come on, D.  I'm trying to learn from the Master of Pranks, the Lord of Lies, the-

"Beat it, Ed."  Slumping ungracefully in his chair, Derek hastily clicked on the television.  A hockey game roared to life.

Defeated, Edwin sighed before turning and heading into the kitchen.  He found Lizzie at the counter, pouring juice into a glass.  Unhappily, Edwin dropped onto a kitchen stool.

He sighed, holding out his hand towards Lizzie, "Hit me, bartender."

Glancing across the counter, Lizzie slid the poured glass to him, "Rough day, mister?"

Edwin heaved another loud sigh as he took the offered drink, "The worst."

As Lizzie turned to get herself another glass, she prodded, "Care to tell me about it?"

Finishing his drink, Edwin smacked his lips then said solemnly, "Trouble with the wife."  He offered Lizzie an amused smile as she snorted into her glass.  "It's Derek."

"Derek's your wife?"

"Ha, funny, Liz.  I was joking about the wife.  Derek isn't giving me anything to work with.  I'm trying to take notes to follow in his footsteps, but he's not giving me any material!"

"Edwin, maybe you're pushing too hard.  You know Derek.  He's not willing to give when he knows you're waiting for it."

"Ah, Lizzie, what you say makes sense."

Before either one of them could say anything else, Derek stormed into the kitchen.  He glared at them both before barking out orders, "Edwin, sandwich, now.  Lizzie, juice, now."

Jumping up, Edwin rushed to prepare Derek a sandwich.  Lizzie rolled her eyes, but complied anyway, handing him the carton of juice and going to retrieve another glass.  Turning back to hand him the glass, she saw that it was too late.  Derek took big gulps straight from the carton as he made his way to the cabinet to grab a bag of chips. 

Lizzie cringed as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before popping the bag open with his teeth and filling a bowl with the chips.

Derek trudged his way out of the kitchen calling, "I'll be in my chair."

Looking at Edwin as though their conversation hadn't been interrupted, Lizzie replied, "Or Derek is just in a really bad mood."

Pausing his sandwich making, Edwin nodded frantically.  "Ever since the day after graduation.  I don't understand because he was so happy to be done with high school and so proud of the prank we pulled."

"EDWIN!"  Derek bellowed from the living room.

Hastily flipping the top onto Derek's sandwich, Edwin scurried out of the kitchen to an awaiting Derek.

Casey bounded down the stairs, stopping at the coat rack to grab her purse.  Derek looked up from his recliner, feigning disinterest as he said, "Where ya going, Klutzilla?"

Pausing at the question, her hand already turning the doorknob, Casey called over her shoulder, "I don't see how that's any of your business."

Derek snorted, faking extra concern, "As the oldest brother here, I say it is exactly my business."

Her hand slipped off the doorknob as she turned slowly to face him.  "Oh, please, you have never acted like an older brother to me."

The footrest of Derek's beloved recliner slammed as he bailed out of it.  "Ex-actly.  But now I am, my dear sister."  He crossed his arms across his chest and smacked his lips together, "So, where ya going?"

Copying his stance, she countered, "You are not entitled to know my business just like that."  Casey snapped her fingers for emphasis.

"Just like that?  Hell, Space Case, where have you been for the last four years?"

"What does that have to do with you demanding to know my business?"

"So, I'm the oldest!  It's my brotherly duty to know!"

"Brotherly duty to pry into my business?"

"Yes!  Like I would let Marti leave the house without knowing where she's going?"

"How you treat Marti has nothing to do with me!"

Derek's face instantly contorted into a winning smirk, causing Casey to gulp as she steeled herself for his next words.

He advanced towards her.  "Oh, really?  Listen to yourself, would you?  Marti is my sister.  You say you're my sister.  Yet, how I treat Marti has nothing to do with you?"  Derek studied her as she scowled.  "Shouldn't it be the same difference?"

Clutching her purse strap tighter, Casey answered softly, "I'm going to the mall with Emily."  She turned and rushed out the door, leaving Derek standing in the middle of the living room.  A dark look crossed his face as he threw himself back into his chair.

As the day went on, Derek's mood continued to darken.  He snapped at everyone and anyone for no reason at all.  The family had taken to avoiding the living room at all costs.

While they stood in the kitchen preparing dinner, George and Nora discussed the possible reasons for Derek's attitude.

Nora absentmindedly stirred the pot on the stove.  Her other hand trailed along her protruding baby bump as she listened to George speak.

"He even upset Marti!"  George waved his oven mitt clad hands around in exasperation.

Suddenly, the kitchen sliding door burst open and Edwin and Lizzie scurried in.  Quickly shutting the door behind them, they heaved equal sighs and collapsed against the closed door.

Edwin held up his fist for Lizzie to bump, "We made it!"

Returning the bump, Lizzie helped Edwin stand up and they approached the kitchen counter together.

Giving the two an understanding look, Nora asked the pair, "Avoiding Derek?"

Both nodded.  Lizzie grabbed the salad bowl to start preparing the produce laid out on the counter.  As she cut and sorted, Edwin stood next to her, picking ingredients out at random and tossing them aside or taking a bite out of them.  Each time his hand reached in, Lizzie slapped it away with a stern look.

Waving a stray cucumber through the air, Edwin ranted, "I'm telling you, it's been since the day after graduation."  He nodded to himself as if confirming his words and threw the cucumber into a random bowl.  Lizzie fished it out and returned it to its proper place.

Casting his gaze up to the ceiling, looking for the answer he needed, George sighed loudly.  "It's been that long?  I haven't really noticed until today."

Nora looked confused as well.  "Really?  But he was so happy at graduation!"

The middle children rolled their eyes at each other, acknowledging their parents' cluelessness.  Interrupting their silent communication, Marti stomped dramatically into the kitchen.

"Smerek is even worse today!  He clearly needs ice cream!"  Marti tapped a finger against her chin.  "Or something purple.  I'll go draw him a picture!"  Flying out of the kitchen without another word, Marti's purple cape swished behind her.

With dinner finally served, the McDonald-Venturi clan sat around the table in their usual places, but an unusual silence settled over the room.  Confused by the quiet, George and Nora locked eyes across the table.  Having both made several stabs at conversation, they sighed in defeat.

Finally, Edwin was able to capture the table's interest in an elaborate story that had everyone (excluding Derek) laughing and commenting in all the right places.  Chuckling at his own storytelling, Edwin went on, "So I told Teddy, same difference!" 

Instantly bristling next to his brother, it took the King of Cool a few seconds to recover.  However, his reaction had been caught by a pair of observant blue eyes across the table.  With his fork pointed directly at Edwin, Derek spoke for the first time since sitting down.  A cynical tone covered his words, "Ha, as if it could ever be the same difference."

Breaking off in the middle of his sentence, Edwin regarded his brother, confusion plastered across his face.  "What do you mean, Derek?"

Waving his fork around impatiently, Derek ground out, "Are you sure you have all your facts straight, bro?"

Edwin started slowly, "Yeeeeah-"

Cutting Edwin off again, Derek continued waving his fork around.  "Can you honestly just go around saying something is the same difference without the facts to back it up?"  Realizing he was wielding his fork, Derek stabbed randomly at his plate and chomped on whatever it was he had speared.

Various reactions went off around the table.  Nora and George looked at each other, bewilderment evident at their slack jaws.  Edwin turned to Lizzie, whose eyes were wide and still staring at Derek.  Marti continued pushing her vegetables around her plate, looking up between the people at the table.  Her eyes lingered curiously over her oldest brother's tense face.

Meanwhile, Casey's fork still hovered halfway to her mouth, frozen in place at Derek's outburst.  Her eyes danced across his features, analyzing his every movement.

Derek chewed harshly and swallowed.  He opened his mouth again as his fork rose in the air to punctuate his words.  "Better watch yourself, Ed.  Wouldn't want to go off spouting untruths now."

Brows furrowed even deeper, Edwin questioned, "But Derek, it is the same difference, I was just saying how-"

Casey's fork slammed into the table.  Everyone jumped and Derek's startled eyes locked with hers for the first time since she left for the mall.  "Alright, Derek, what makes it not the same difference?"

His eyes narrowed at her, "Besides everything?"

Haughtily, Casey snorted, "That's hardly an answer."

"Then tell me one reason that it is the same difference, Casey."

Opening her mouth to respond, no words came out.  Casey closed her mouth and tried again.  Still, nothing.  Derek smirked triumphantly, while the family eyed them both curiously. 

After several moments, Case spoke quietly, "But it's supposed to be."

Derek leaned forward slightly, meeting her eye, challengingly.  "Says who?  It never has been the same difference, why is it now?  He raised an eyebrow at her.

She didn't answer and they both dropped their eyes back to their plates.  No one else said anything either.  The room filled with a tangible silence.  Silverware clanged awkwardly against plates.

Suddenly, Casey spoke, "Alright then, it's not... the same difference."

Unconvinced, Derek shrugged, "Whatever, Casey."

Casey continued to glare at him, "What do you want me to say, Derek?  I was wrong?"

Raising one perfectly arched eyebrow, Derek responded with a lopsided smirk forming.  "Jeez, keener, don't think I've ever heard those words come out of your mouth, but yeah that would be a start."

A corner of Casey's mouth lifted, "Don't get used to it."

Derek and Casey smiled at each other slightly before returning their attention to their forgotten food.

The rest of the family looked between each other, totally mystified.

After everyone had finished dinner, Lizzie and Edwin cleared the table while Marti took her turn helping George and Nora with the dishes.  Casey made her way into the living room, grabbing the remote off the coffee table and settling into her seat on the couch.  Finding her favorite channel, Casey leaned back into the cushions with a content smile.

It lasted two full seconds before the remote was whipped out of her hand.  "DER-REK!"

But Derek had already found a hockey game and reclined back in his chair.  "No time, Case.  The game's on."

"Der-rek, I was watching that!"

"Too bad, Princess.  There's important things to see!"

"I want to watch TV too!"

"Hey, I'm not stopping you!  Go ahead, watch!"  Derek inclined his head towards the hockey game with a smirk.

Casey made a grab for the remote, but Derek held it above his head.  "DER-REK!"

"Or you could do whatever it is a keener like you does after dinner.  You know, somewhere far, far away from me and this hockey game."

Walking purposely into the room, George scolded, "Derek, be nice to your sister."

In unison, Derek and Casey instantly corrected, "STEP!"

Smirking, Derek turned to Casey as he spoke to his father, "It's step-sister, Dad.  There's no way I'm related to a keener like her."

The corner of Casey's lip twitched as she fought an answering smile.

George ignored Derek's words, throwing himself at the other end of the couch, exclaiming, "Great, the game's on!"

Rolling her eyes, Casey got up from the couch.  Derek's eyes followed her as she stepped around him.  She shoved his shoulder lightly, heading towards the staircase.

Derek's smirk grew to full volume.  His world shifted back into balance.

Chapter Text

"Casey!"  Nora yelled up the stairs, "PHONE!"

"OKAY, MOM!"  Casey ran down the stairs as fast as she could without danger of falling.  She snatched the phone from her mother and turned carefully around to walk back up the stairs.  "Hello?  Oh, hi, Truman!"  Wincing as she listened, Casey tried to explain, "I'm sorry, I was on my cell talking to Emily."

Nora frowned at her eldest daughter's back as she listened to Casey's words, "Yes, I'm sure it was Emily-" Casey's bedroom door closed, drowning out the conversation.

🎵 "It used to be my mother and my sister and me,

A happy little family, and alright with me.

Then Mom got married, that's when everything changed,

Some things were lost, and others were gained.

A new school, a new house,

So many changes make my head spin.

Now I've got a brother who gets under my skin.

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Lizzie, Edwin, George and Nora, Marti, and Casey.

Livin' life with Derek,

Livin' life with Derek!" 🎵

"What is the epitome of true love?  Romeo and Juliet?  No, not a happy ending.  Queen Victoria and Prince Albert?  Cleopatra and Mark Antony?  Casey and Truman?  Why do so many love stories end in tragedy?  How many high school sweethearts actually make it out of high school?  Is it just a schoolgirl fantasy?  Why is it so hard to find the right guy?"

Coming out of her bedroom, Casey ran straight into Lizzie.  "Oh, I'm so sorry, Lizard!"

"It's alright, Case.  Wow, you look happy!"

"Truman asked me out for this Friday night.  He wants to take me to a fancy restaurant so we can work out where our relationship is heading."

"I know you've been worried about it."

Nodding, Casey went on, "We've been having some problems lately, but I really think this is going to help us work them out."

Giving her sister her most encouraging smile, Lizzie reached for Casey's hand.  "Sounds like it'll all work out, sis."

"I hope so.  Hey, what are you doing today?"

Lizzie tossed her soccer ball into the air.  "Not much, I was just going out to practice in the backyard."

"Oh, well, I was wondering if you wanted to go to the mall with me."  Casey trailed off, "I haven't spent much time with you lately and I thought you could help me pick out a dress for Friday night."

Feigning thought, Lizzie teased, "Alright, I'll go with you, but you are soooo taking me to the sport department if I have to go dress shopping with you."

Casey teased back, "I take offence in that.  I'm not that terrible to shop with."

"True... I'll need the food court then too."

With laughter, Casey pretended to look offended.  "Deal.  I'll meet you downstairs in fifteen."

As Lizzie headed to her bedroom, Casey descended the stairs, hearing Marti's begging voice, "Please, Smerek, I can't play nurse without a doctor!"

"Smarti, why can't you be the doctor?"

"Girls can't be doctors, Smerek!  Only boys!"

Casey interrupted, "What?  That's not true, Marti!  Girls can be doctors just as much as boys!"

"Spacey's right for once, Smarti.  Nothing is stopping you from being a doctor if you want to be."

Marti tilted her head to the side, looking between the two teenagers.  Perking up, she exclaimed, "Okay!"  In a second, she was up off the floor and closing in on Derek in his chair.  "Time for you examination, Smerek!"

Derek's hands flew up to protect himself.  "What?  No!  Make Casey be your patient!"

As Lizzie flew down the stairs, Casey sent Derek a smirk.  "Sorry, Der, but I'm off with Lizzie.  Looks like you're the patient!"  She turned dramatically so Derek could watch her pluck the keys to the Prince out of Derek's precious leather jacket.

"Hey!  Put those back!"  He tried to fly out of his chair after her, but Marti held him down.

"Uh, uh, uh, uh, Smerek!  You're in an examination!  You can only leave when the doctor says so!"

While the girls giggled, Derek struggled against a surprisingly strong Marti.  Casey jingled the keys at him mockingly before slipping out the door after Lizzie.

"CASEY!"  Derek bellowed as the door slammed shut.

Arm in arm and shopping bags dangling off their wrists, Casey and Lizzie walked giggling down the mall.  Lizzie amused Casey with the latest Edwin gossip, "So he's staring at Molly with drool running down his chin and our teacher calls out, 'EDWIN VENTURI!' and he falls off his chair.  The chair lands on top of him and all we can see are legs flying through the air as he tries to get up.  Well, he finally manages to stand up and gets wrapped up in the chair again.  He falls down, rolls across the floor with the chair.  He finally comes to a stop just underneath Ms. Sourpuss.  She's glaring at him with her hands on her hips and everything.  But Edwin just looks up at her and cracks this grin and says, 'Nice dress, teach!' and without a word she pulls him up by his ear and hauls him out the door!"

Casey burst out in laughter, her grip tightening on Lizzie's arm.  "Oh my god, Liz!"

Snorting through her words, Lizzie cried, "He sprained his wrist and wouldn't tell anybody!"

This sent the girls into another giggling fit.  When they finally calmed down, Lizzie stretched her arms out and yawned.  "Let's get something to drink, Case.  I'm so thirsty after reliving that."  She laughed again as she wiped a stray tear from her eye.

"Sounds good.  I am too."  Casey steered her sister off towards the food court.  "I could go for some-"  Suddenly, Casey stopped dead in her tracks, her mouth falling open in surprise.

Lizzie stopped, turning to her sister in concern.  "Casey?  What's wrong?"  She followed Casey's gaze, gasping at the couple kissing in front of them.


The boy turned to Casey, recognition dawning as he ripped himself from the girl desperately clinging to his side.  A hand flew to his neck as he awkwardly started, "Oh, Casey!  Um, hey?"  Lizzie glared openly as Truman put on a suave smile as he ran a hand through his hair.  "Yeah, that wasn't what it looked like."

Casey drew herself up to full height, gathering her words.  "And what exactly did it look like, Truman?"  The girl fled the scene, leaving Truman standing awkwardly in front of the two sisters.

Sparing a quick glance towards the escaping girl, Truman tried, "Uh-"

When Lizzie wrapped a supporting hand around Casey's forearm, Casey found strength.  "Cut it out, Truman.  How long have you been seeing her?"

A wide range of emotions crossed his face before he adopted a neutral expression.  Truman pointed in the vague direction the girl had run off to.  "Her?"

"Yes, her.  Who else would I be talking about?"

For a split second, guilt crossed his face, but it was long enough.  Casey gasped, "How many besides her, Truman?"

Truman shuffled his feet back and forth.  "Two?"

Shaking off Lizzie's arm, Casey advanced gradually towards Truman.  Smugness latched itself onto Truman's sharp features while Lizzie held her breath.  As Casey drew closer to Truman's face, his eyelids drooped and he started to lean into her.  When she was close enough to feel his breath ghost across her cheek, Casey shoved Truman's chest as hard as she could.  Barely catching himself before he hit the floor, he found his footing.  But Casey was quicker on the pursuit, shoving a finger further into his chest.  Emphasizing every word with a sharp poke, Casey began, "Listen to me, you jerk.  In case you haven't figured it out yet, we are through!"

Truman started to say something, but Casey cut through his words, "I mean it!  I gave you a second chance and you screwed up!  Again! You're cruel and vile and I was blind to not see it before!  You're a two-faced weasel that only cares about himself.  Well, you know what?  I'm the one who feels sorry for you!  Because no matter what, you'll never change!  You're going to be this way for the rest of your life!"

"Look, Case-"

"Don't 'Look, Case' me, Trashman.  Derek was right.  Don't ever talk to me again."  Casey shoved him one last time before turning on her heel and marching towards a beaming Lizzie.  As she reached her sister, they hooked arms again and took off briskly back through the mall.

It wasn't until they were out of view that Casey broke down in Lizzie's arms.

Derek dropped his hockey bag by the washing machine before stretching his arms above his head and sighing contently from a successful hockey game with Sam.  He froze as two people walked into the kitchen, speaking in hushed whispers.  Out of view, Derek strained to hear.

"She's in bed now."  The voice of Nora revealed.  "She's not crying, but she won't say much.  Lizzie, what exactly happened?"

"Well, we were at the mall and we saw this couple."  Lizzie cleared her throat.  "They were kissing and as they pulled apart, we realized it was Truman."

Inside the laundry room, Derek cringed.

"Truman tried to deny it, but Casey cornered him.  He's been seeing three other girls besides Casey."

Derek's fists clenched as Nora let out an audible gasp.

Lizzie continued retelling the story, "Casey started towards him slowly and I had no idea what she was going to do.  But out of nowhere she started shoving him.  And wow, she told him off!  I've never seen her do anything like it before."  She paused, "Well, to anyone besides Derek."

A ghost of a smirk played across Derek's face.

"She even called him Trashman and told him Derek was right!"

Nothing stopped Derek's delighted smirk now.

Nora let out the breath she was holding.  "So are they finally done for good?"

"That's what she told him!"

"Thank God!  I've never liked him."  

Derek silently agreed with her.  He listened at the door as Marti interrupted the mother-daughter conversation, "Doctor Marti is here!  Who's first?"

Both Nora and Lizzie greeted Marti.  Groaning, Nora pulled Marti up into her lap.  "Well, hello there, Doctor Marti!  Would you like to give the baby a checkup?"

"Yes, please!"

Stealthily, Derek crossed back to the backdoor, opening it, then slamming it shut.  Derek kicked his hockey bag on the floor before waltzing into the kitchen, greeting the girls with a causal, "Sup?"

Beaming up at her big brother, Marti welcomed Derek brightly, "Hi, Smerek!"

He ruffled her hair on the way to the fridge.  "Hey, Smarts."

Smiling at their exchange, Nora asked, "Did you have a nice time at the rink, Derek?"

He tossed a few items on the counter before he nodded.  "Yeah, it was great."  Derek eyed Lizzie, "How was shopping with the princess?"

Lizzie's face broke out into a huge grin.  "Oh, you should have seen it!  You would have been so proud of Casey!"

Feigning disbelief, Derek snorted.  "That would be the day."

She ignored him, bursting with her news.  "She dumped Truman!"

Derek took an exaggerated bite of his sandwich, chewing thoughtfully.  "Well, that's a relief, but it doesn't scream proud."

"She totally told him off and even shoved him a few times.  We found him kissing another girl-"

His hand squeezed his sandwich tighter and he had to catch some of the contents before they fell out.  The action didn't go unnoticed by Nora, who gave him an inquiring look over the top of Marti's head.  Trying to ignore it, Derek focused on what Lizzie was saying.

"-but Casey was so awesome!  She even called him Trashman!"

Finally, Derek let a smirk crack.  Lizzie beamed at him, understanding what he didn't vocalize.

Unsurprisingly, Casey did not come down for dinner that night.  Nora didn't encourage her, knowing Casey as she did.  Curiously, George and Edwin looked at Casey's empty place at the table.

Clearing his throat, George looked to Nora, "Nora, where's Casey?"

Speaking softly, but firmly, Nora answered, "Well, Casey isn't feeling the greatest."

Edwin's brow furrowed, "Is she sick?"

Nora shifted in her chair.  "No, she, um, ran into Truman at the mall today with Lizzie.  They saw him kissing another girl."

Both George and Edwin cringed.  Edwin shot a look towards Lizzie and she nodded in confirmation.

"Anyway, the long and short of it is that he has been seeing three other girls."  Nora couldn't help the happiness leak into her voice as she continued, "So Casey broke up with him."

George smiled freely, "Good for her!"  as quiet cheers went around the table.

Nodding, Edwin agreed.  "It's about time, he was a real jerk."

A snort flew out of Derek before he could stop it.  He murmured under his breath, "Understatement of the year."

"I never liked him."  Marti spoke confidently as if that settled the matter.  Everyone around the table smiled.  After all, she was the best judge of character.

An hour or two after dinner had finished, Casey made her way down the stairs.  Derek was mindlessly watching a hockey rerun, but looked up at the sound of her approach.  Casey walked slowly, fuzzy pink pajamas and overly fluffy bunny slippers and all.  Not sparing him a glance, Casey continued on her way to the kitchen.

A few minutes later, she returned, taking her place on the couch.  Studying her out of the corner of his eye, Derek watched as she picked at her plate of leftovers while staring at the television.  Sighing quietly to himself, Derek picked up the remote.  Staring unwaveringly at the TV, he flipped to a neutral channel.  He ignored the surprised look Casey shot him.

Derek rolled his eyes, but mumbled just loud enough for her to hear.  "It was a rerun."  He also pretended not to see her answering smile.

Bouncing down the stairs, Marti headed straight for Derek and Casey, who were still watching a sitcom.  "Smerek, will you be my nurse?  Sir Monks A Lot has to have surgery!"  She climbed up into his lap and presented him with her monkey.

"Sure, Smarti.  What's the problem?"

"He has to have his tonsils out."

Derek pretended to hand Marti the equipment she needed as she operated.  Casey's spirits lifted as she watched Marti act out her vivid imagination.

Finally, Marti beamed, giving her monkey an affectionate tap.  "And we're done!"

Ruffling her hair, Derek congratulated her.  "Nice job, Doctor Smarti!"  He leaned closer to her to stage a whisper, "Now, can you do me a favor?"

Marti grinned adorably.  "What is it, Smerek?"

"Doctor Smarti, can you take a look at Casey?  I think she has a broken heart."

Casey inhaled sharply.

Undeterred, Marti agreed.  "Okay, Smerek."  She climbed down from his lap and plopped next to Casey.  First, Marti pretended to take Casey's temperature, blood pressure and pulse.  Next, she peered in each ear and made Casey say 'Ahh'.  Finally, Marti put on her toy stethoscope and listened to her heart.

Whispering, Casey asked the girl, "What's the diagnosis, Doctor?"

"I'm afraid you do have a broken heart, Casey."  Marti nodded solemnly and then backed away shouting, "Quick!  We don't have much time!"  She pulled out her toy needle, but looked at it frowning.  Marti cried sharply, "A shot can't fix it, but I know what will."  Jumping up, Marti grabbed Derek's arm and pulled him down onto the couch next to Casey.  "Smerek!  You have to kiss her!"

Both Derek and Casey gaped at her.  Gathering himself, Derek stuttered, "Whaat?  Why can't you kiss her, Smarti?"

Marti stomped her foot, clearly impatient.  She spoke sternly to her brother, "BecauseSmerek, that won't work.  Now kiss her before it's too late!"


"Do you want to save Casey or not?!"

Derek cringed at her tone.

Marti encouraged, "Then do it, now."

Before Casey could say anything, Derek leaned towards her.  She could feel his warm breath on the side of her face, but Casey was not prepared for the lingering kiss Derek pressed to her temple.  Casey's cheeks flushed.

The 'doctor' squealed.  "Do you feel better, Casey?"

Smiling slightly at her, Casey managed a soft, "Yes, Marti, I do."

"It worked!  It worked!  It worked!"  Marti sang, dancing around the living room.

Springing up from the couch, Derek called over his shoulder, "Good, now I won't have to look for a place to hide the body."



Chapter Text

Papers spewed across the McDonald-Venturi dining room table.  Nora held her head in her hands as George frenziedly shuffled through a stack of his handwritten notes.

"Georgie, I don't see any way in which this will work."  Tears formed in Nora's eyes.

Sensing an emotional outburst, George quickly covered her hand with his.  "Nora, it will be fine.  We'll just have Marti move to Lizzie's room and Lizzie move to Edwin's room and Edwin move to Casey's room and Casey move to Derek's room and Derek move-"  George cut himself off, mumbling, "No, no.  We can't move Derek."  He shook himself from his thoughts and returned to fumbling with the papers in his hand with a renewed vigor, babbling to himself.

Nora tried cutting across his rambles, "George.  George.  GEORGE!"

Startled enough to stop talking, George studied her desperate face.

"George, honey, that's just moving everyone around while not accomplishing anything."  A few tears leaked out of the corner of both her eyes.

Quick to cease any tears, George panicked, "Nora, now, Nora, no tears!  We'll work this out."  His words fell on deaf ears as Nora burst into sobs.

🎵 "It used to be my mother and my sister and me,

A happy little family, and alright with me.

Then Mom got married, that's when everything changed,

Some things were lost, and others were gained.

A new school, a new house,

So many changes make my head spin.

Now I've got a brother who gets under my skin.

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Lizzie, Edwin, George and Nora, Marti, and Casey.

Livin' life with Derek,

Livin' life with Derek!" 🎵

"When we first moved into the Venturi household, the only way to describe the unfolding events would be... utter chaos.  So many personalities in such a tiny space was just asking for trouble.  And of course, the biggest personality requires the most space, right?  Derek.  Who could ever forget, 'What Derek wants, Derek gets?'  What were Mom and George thinking?  How could we add yet another person into this overcrowded blended family nightmare of seven?  Where's he or she going to sleep?  The game closet?  Ha, right, Derek would probably make them roll a dice for it!"

The front door slammed shut behind Nora.  As she waddled through the living room, her head barely stuck out over the armful of baby items she was carrying.

Coming out of the kitchen, George stopped in his tracks at the sight of Nora.  "Nora!  You can't keep coming home with all of this stuff!  We have nowhere to go with it all!"

"What am I supposed to do, George?  We can't wait until the last minute to get what the baby needs!"   Nora tried to fight the tears.

"Oh, Nora, come on.  Don't cry.  Please, don't cry."  He brought her in for a comforting hug, but all he could do was pat her back around the towering packages.

A giggle escaped Nora as George tried to awkwardly console her.  She pulled away with a small smile, "Now, help me carry these things downstairs."

"Downstairs?  But, we already can't make it into our bedroom!"

Edwin, Lizzie, Marti and Casey lined the couch, waiting as Derek tucked himself into his recliner.

Casey glared over at him, "You good, now?"

Smirking back at her, he waved an arm through the air.  "Wonderful.  You may begin."

George called their attention back to himself and Nora, who stood in front of the television, by calling, "Kids..."

Nora shifted slightly, "So you see, you may have figured out, we have a slight problem ahead of us."

The kids looked between each other before Lizzie asked, her voice full of concern, "What is it, Mom?"

Trying to smile encouragingly, Nora looked to George.

Clearing his throat, George continued for her, "We have to figure out where the baby's room is going to be."

The immediate response came from Derek, "In the basement, with you."

"George and I already discussed that Derek.  There simply isn't room."

Narrowing her eyes at him, Casey added, "Babies shouldn't be kept in the basement, Derek."

He bit back at her, "I thought that was only for princesses."

George cut in before Casey could reply, "There's really only one option here.  Two of you are going to have to share a room."

His words hit the room like a bomb as everyone spoke at once.

"Absolutely not!"  (Casey)

"Oh, you're kidding!"  (Edwin)

"No way!"  (Lizzie)

"I refuse!"  (Marti)

"When hell freezes over!"

"DEREK!  LANGUAGE!"  George warned his son, but it had no effect on the room as everyone continued ranting simultaneously.

"I cannot share a room with anyone!  I need to study for college!"

"I won't share!  I get enough unfair treatment being a middle child!"

"I already share a room!  With Daphne!  And we're cramped now!"

"You can't expect me to share a room with girls!  Or worse, Derek!"

"You can't expect me to share a room with anyone."

George yelled across the din, "Enough!  ENOUGH!"

Nora crossed her arms over her chest, her forearms resting against her huge belly.  "Now, I don't want to hear another peep out of anyone."  Casey opened her mouth to protest, but Nora punctuated, "An-y-one!"  Casey's jaw snapped shut.

Looking over each of their children with a wild look in her eye, Nora successfully kept them from interrupting her.  "All of you listen, George and I have discussed this quite thoroughly and we're all going to handle this matter very maturely."

"That's right."  George nodded his support.  "We have decided that you will each present Nora and I with your case.  Explaining with detail why you should or shouldn't be the one to keep your room."

The kids visibly relaxed, each confident in their own ability to talk their way out of sharing a room.

However, George continued, "BUT, then you must present a plausible solution to this problem.  Understand?"

Reluctantly, everyone nodded.

Casey reviewed some of her notes, while drinking a glass of juice at the kitchen island.  She was drawn out of her studies as Derek bounded into the room.

"So, Space Case, how are you going to present your space case to Dad and Nora?"

"Gee, Der, funny.  But, also, very strategic and to the point."

He quirked an eyebrow at her.  "Meaning?"

"I don't think so.  I won't be tricked into telling you my case so you can block all my reasons."  She poured the rest of her drink down the drain and slammed the empty glass down on the counter.  Giving him a smirk, she snatched up her notebook and left the kitchen.

Derek snapped his fingers and muttered under his breath, "Damn!"

Calling Edwin into his room, Derek shut the door behind him.  "Look, Ed, I need you to do some digging."

"Forget it, D.  This is serious.  We're talking our own rooms. Every man for himself!"

Derek eyed his brother sternly.  "What did you say to me?"

Edwin melted where he stood, "Um, got to go?"  In a flash, he had slipped out of Derek's door and slammed it shut behind him.

Muttering under his breath, Derek asked himself, "What is going on around here?"

As the clan sat down to dinner, the feel of competition was thick in the air.  Leaning towards her dad, Marti asked, "Daddy, can you please pass Daphne the potatoes?"

George looked at his daughter and then around the table.  He reached for the potatoes and held them in front of him.  "Sure, Marti.  Where exactly is Daphne?"

Marti sighed, indicating the space between them.  "Daddy, she's sitting right next to me!"

"Oh, of course."  Shaking his head a little, George sat the potatoes down next to Marti.

"She almost never leaves my side.  You know, because we share a room and everything."

Nora arched an eyebrow as George gave her an amused smile.

Choking on a chuckle, Derek coughed lightly into his hand.  Marti was his little sister, after all.

"Excuse me, but-"  Edwin cut in, "have I mentioned lately all the gas I pass?  Especially at night?"

Around the table, forks dropped in unison.  "EDWIN!"

Derek grinned as he finished chewing, "At least you don't snore like Casey."

"Der-rek!  I do not snore!"

"That walls are thin, Space Case!"  He imitated snoring sounds, smirking at her.

Suddenly, Casey smiled smugly at him.  "Well then, Derek, if you say I snore, then I wouldn't want to inconvenience anyone.  You know, by keeping them up all night.  Guess I won't be able to share a room with anyone."

The grin fell from Derek's face, leaving his mouth open.

Lizzie all but shouted, "I talk in my sleep!"

Finding a vantage point, Derek piped in again, "Then you and Casey can keep each other up all night.  Perfect, no need to inconvenience anyone else."  He shot a wink at Casey.

The two sisters looked at each other, silently communicating the best way to argue.  Casey gave Lizzie a barely noticeable nod and Lizzie turned to the rest of the table calmly, "That would mean two people wouldn't be sleeping."  She looked at Casey, passing it onto her.

"Therefore, it should be Derek and Edwin sharing a room.  They both stink so it shouldn't be a problem."  She tossed her ponytail over her shoulder as she stared Derek down.

"Hey!"  Both Derek and Edwin shouted as Marti giggled at them all.

Derek argued, "Make Edwin and Lizzie share.  They're practically besties."

"Gross!"  Lizzie cried, "I won't share a room with Stinky!"

Vouching for her sister, Casey added, "She shouldn't have to share with Edwin just because you won't!"

Edwin pouted, "Hey, I take offense in there somewhere!"

Smiling in apology, Casey looked to Edwin, "Sorry, Ed."

"Ha!"  Derek laughed.  "Then Edwin and Casey can share!  Stinky and 'Snorey!'  What a match!"

"No way!  I'm not sharing with Casey and all her girly-ness!"

Casey shot him a scowl.  "Better girly-ness than grossness!"

Marti giggled again, "I know!  I know!"

Nora looked at Marti, who was practically jumping out of her seat.  "What's that, Sweetie?"

"The best couple-"  Marti started as she importantly folded her hands together, "would be Smerek and Casey!"

Derek spat out his drink as Casey choked on her food.  Everyone else sat in stunned silence.  Nora was the first to recover, "Marti, honey, I don't think that's a good idea."

Frowning, Marti considered her.  "Why not?"

Cautiously, George danced around for words.  "Well, Marti, because we don't want the house to burn down."  He cracked a smile and Marti giggled.  It successfully broke the tension around the table as everyone joined in with her laughter.

Edwin snorted through his chuckles.  "You know though, it's not that bad of an idea."  The others looked at him strangely, but he kept laughing.  "I meant as long as the house could stay standing that is.  I'm just saying it would be great for the rest of us since they're the ones that create all the drama around here.  If they share a room, they'd be out of our way!"

Finally understanding, everyone laughed except Derek and Casey, who both sat glowering.  Derek held his hands up as if he could stop their thoughts, "No!  No, absolutely not.  Don't even think about it.  That's not even funny!"

Shaking her head, eyes wide in disbelief, Casey couldn't find words to express her horrification.

George and Nora considered each other before George smiled at everyone.  "Well, then you all have until after dinner tomorrow to prepare your cases."

Nora added, "We'll start with Marti and go through up to Derek.  Got it, everyone?"  They nodded, exchanging eye contact as they sized up their competition.

Marti sat as straight as she could, swinging her dangling legs from the chair George and Nora had placed in front of their basement bed.

Inclining his head to her, George asked, "Marti, do you have an opening statement?"

"Yes, Daddy."

"Whenever you're ready then."

Marti gripped Sir Monks A Lot closer to her chest.  "Okay, first my room is really, really, really crowded!  Daphne and I can barely fit in there with all my animals."  She pointed at her monkey.  "Sir Monks A Lot agrees with me.  He doesn't have enough room to do things.  Same with my bear and my rabbit and my unicorn and my giraffe and my lizard and my tiger and my-"

Nora cut in, "Yes, honey, we know you have a lot of animals."

"Exactly!  There's no room for anybody else!"

Nodding at his daughter, George asked, "Is there any other reasons why you shouldn't be the one to share a room?"

Smiling sweetly, Marti looked up at her dad, "Yes, Daddy."

Winning him over, George smiled, "What is it, sweetheart?"

"I'm the youngest and clearly the favorite."

George and Nora eyed each other, trying not to smile.

Patting her stomach, Nora consoled the young girl, "Well, Marti, you won't be the youngest for much longer."

Marti's smile drooped and she looked up at them through her eyelashes.  "Then the least you could do is let me keep my own room."

Pacifying her, George responded with, "Alright, Marti, you make some good points."  Nora hid a chuckle behind her hand.

Beaming, Marti suddenly turned serious.  "Good, then I want to talk about what we're going to do to get Daphne her own room."

Laughter leaked out of both George and Nora.  Giggling, Nora cried, "Oh, Marti!  What are we going to do with you?"

George spoke to a confused looking Marti, "Right, Marti, so now I want to hear what your solution to this whole mess is."

"That's easy, Daddy.  It's like what I said earlier, Smerek and Casey can share."

As Marti danced out of George and Nora's room, Lizzie walked confidently in and seated herself in front of them.

Nora smiled in welcome and Lizzie returned it calmly.  George nodded at her, "Lizzie, thank you for your promptness."

Folding her hands professionally in her lap, a semi-smirk crossed Lizzie's face, "Of course, George.  Or should I say Mr. Venturi?"

Chuckling, George conceded, "George is fine."  He grew serious, "Do you have any opening statements, Lizzie?"

She nodded solemnly, "I would like to say that my stance comes from my role as a middle child in this blended family.  A middle child, who has been subjected to unfairness after unfairness.  As I have made known before, the demands of the middle children in this household far exceed the demands placed on either of the eldest children or on the youngest.  We already do most of the work, enlist the most time and effort, but get the least out of it.  We pick up everyone's slack, usually without compensation.  Also, being expected to cancel plans for the sake of our siblings or our parents' plans with no consideration as to how it affects us.  Is it not enough, what we put forth without benefit?  Must we have our own private rooms taken from us as well?"  Out of breath, Lizzie took a deep breath.

"Very well done, Lizzie."  Nora congratulated her daughter.

George nodded proudly, "That was a great opening statement.  Now, what do you propose as a solution?"

Shifting slightly in her chair, Lizzie seemed uncomfortable for the first time since she entered the room.  "I don't think it's fair to Edwin, Marti or myself to be forced into sharing a room with each other."

George stood from the bed in order to pace.  "And your reasoning?"

"Casey and Derek leave for college soon and they won't be here much, will they?"  Lizzie didn't wait for an answer.  "One of them should share with someone else.  The three of us plus the baby will be the ones living here.  We should be able to have our own rooms at least during the school year."

Nora smiled in understanding.  George nodded, "And how do you propose we do that?"

Lizzie shifted in her chair again.  "Is this strictly confidential?

Studying each other for a split second, George and Nora nodded.

"Okay, then."  Lizzie sighed, steeling herself.  "As I said in my opening statement, I think we middle kids have suffered enough.  Therefore, I propose that since Casey and Derek are moving off to college in the fall..."  Lizzie winced.  "that Casey should share Marti's room with her when she's home."

After Lizzie was dismissed, she ran into Edwin coming down the stairs.  She stopped in order to eye him up and down.  "Wow, look at you!"

"Is that good or bad?"  Edwin stopped, quickly trying to straighten his jacket.

"That remains to be seen.  Wow, Ed, do you really think the suit and briefcase are necessary?"

"Hey!  This is proper attire for a business meeting!"

Lizzie rolled her eyes at him.  "Sure, whatever you say, Ed."

"So, how did your case go?"

"Pretty good, I think.  I guess, we'll see."  She shrugged it off.

"What route did you argue?"

"Middle child suffrage."

"Solid, very solid.  I touch on that too."

Nodding, Lizzie went for a fist bump.  "Good luck, bro."

Bumping her fist back, he checked his watch.  "I better hurry."

Rapping his knuckles on the doorframe, Edwin stepped inside the room with his briefcase.  Both George and Nora had to stifle their laughter.  Fighting to regain his professional tone, George invited Edwin in, "Come in, Mr. Venturi."

"Thank you, Mr. Venturi."

Nora nodded at the chair facing them, "Please, take a seat, Edwin."

"Thank you, ma'am."  Edwin extended a hand to shake before he settled into the chair.  He sat the briefcase down in his lap and opened it to take out a couple of thick packets.  Snapping the lid shut, he leaned forward to give a packet to each George and Nora.

Grasping the document, George started, "Very well, Mr. Venturi, do you have an opening statement?"

"Yes, indeed, sir."  Edwin indicated the packet.  "If you flip to page three, you can follow along with my research.  As you can see, I have enclosed a copy of the current chores calendar.  A system developed to keep chores of the household equally distributed among the members of the McDonald-Venturi household.  At first glance the system looks unflawed.  As it should, each chore is carefully assigned and scheduled.  However, if you flip to page four, you will see the previous month's calendar.  I would like to point out the red markings in each day's box.  Red markings that were carefully kept by two particular members of this house.  Members with a special interest in the matter.  Can anyone tell me what the red markings indicate?"

Nora winced.  "Is it who actually did the chores that day?"

"Correct, ma'am.  A flawed system, it is.  No one follows it.  People begging out last minute, forgetting their turn, asking for someone to cover for them, parents asking middle kids for favors..."  He trailed off, giving each of them a sharp look.  "To illustrate my point further, I have included a whole year's worth of chore calendars to be read in your leisure time."

Edwin readjusted slightly as he changed tactics.  "Now then, if you turn to page sixteen, I have provided a graph of each McDonald and Venturi child's weekly allowance, also showing monthly totals as well as yearly totals.  Now, please turn to page nineteen.  Here, you can see a chart showing the direct proportion of chores done to allowance earned."  Edwin clicked his tongue at George and Nora's winces.  "Not a pretty picture, is it?"

Not waiting, Edwin, continued, "You can read more detail on the following pages at a later time.  Moving on, if you would be so kind as to turn to page twenty-five.  As you have no doubt figured out, these are the blueprints of the house.  The main floor has no area for a designated bedroom so we'll move on ahead to page twenty-six.  The second floor has four bedrooms as you are aware.  From my calculations, Casey's current room is the largest, just slightly bigger than Derek's.  Then followed by Lizzie's and finally Marti's, weighing in at the smallest.  Flipping the page, you will see my attic bedroom.  I have highlighted actual living space separate from the designated storage space.  A drastic difference, you can see.  Comparatively, making my room roughly the same size as Marti's.

He nodded to himself, confirming his words.  "Please, flip the page to the basement blueprint.  I have sketched in the remodel job with the small entertainment room as you enter the basement and then this-"  Edwin indicated the room they sat in, "closed in bedroom.  According to my calculations, this bedroom is roughly the same size as Derek's room plus the added benefit of the entertainment area.  The said entertainment area currently goes unused by all except the downstairs bedroom residents."  He inclined his head between George and Nora and they nodded their agreement.

Nora's eyes widened, "I must say, Edwin, you have exceptional data and research."  George hummed in approval as he continued to study Edwin's charts.

"Thank you, ma'am."

"Do you have any more information to add, Mr. Venturi?"

"No, sir.  I am ready for closing arguments."

George stood, "Very well, Mr. Venturi, what do you propose as a solution to our issue at hand?"

Bowing his head, Edwin collected himself.  "After analyzing the data, I have the following solution to present.  You can follow along on page thirty."

His father inclined his chin towards him, "Proceed, Mr. Venturi."

"It is my theory that there are two possible options.  The first being that the two least work producing residents share the largest room, while the top three workers receive their own rooms with adjustments in allowance for room size."

"And the second option, Mr. Venturi?"

"The second option being that if either of the top workers are forced into sharing a room, there would be a major compensation in pay."  He looked sternly between the two parents.

Sitting back down on the bed, George dismissed him, "Thank you, Mr. Venturi.  We will take your research and proposed solutions in to account and get back to you."

"Thank you, both."  Edwin stood and briskly shook their hands again before turning on his heel and striding out.

Meeting Casey outside the door, Edwin studied her as she nervously wrung her hands.  She jumped as he closed the door behind him.  Eyeing her competitively, Edwin tipped an imaginary hat to her, "Miss McDonald."  He turned to march confidently up the stairs as Casey continued to eye his suit and briefcase.

With a deep breath, Casey rapped lightly on the door.  She opened it when she heard her mom call, "Come in, Miss Case."

Casey took a few steps inside, "Hello, Mom, George."

George smiled and indicated the chair.  "Casey, please, sit."  She sat, crossing her legs politely and trying to still her wringing hands.  Clearing his throat, George continued, "Alright, let's get started.  Do you have any opening statements?"

Gathering her thoughts and courage, Casey nodded.  "I don't want to beat around the bush so I'm going to say it straight out."  She took a deep breath before spitting, "I think it has to be me that makes the sacrifice."  Casey maintained eye contact with her mom, "I'll give up my room for the baby."

Tears gathered in Nora's eyes and she leaned forward to embrace her eldest daughter.  Casey's own eyes welled with unshed tears.  When Nora pulled back, she dabbed at her eyes.

Coughing, George added awkwardly around the tears, "That's very nice of you, Casey."

Agreeing, Nora nodded, "You've been so understanding, Casey."  She patted her belly, "Now, with the upcoming arrival of your baby sibling and before with the whole move to London."

Blushing, Casey kept her head down.

George turned the conversation back to the intended topic.  "So who do you think you should share a room with, Casey?"

"I was thinking Lizzie.  I mean, we are sisters and we've shared plenty of things in the past without problem."  Casey sighed.  "It's not like I'll be around all the much during college.  She'll have it to herself most of the time."

Both George and Nora nodded and thanked her again.

Standing, George ushered her towards the door.  "You can send Derek in now."

Closing George and Nora's door quietly, Casey composed herself.  As she turned to make her way up the stairs, she ran into Derek leaning casually against the basement wall.  His hands were shoved deep into his pockets, displaying his belt buckle proudly. 

"Lose your space case, Space Case?"

"Clever, Derek, but didn't you already use that one?"

"Just as good the second time, Spacey."  He grinned arrogantly, "So?  How'd it go?"

Flipping her curls over her shoulder, Casey huffed.  "Wouldn't you like to know?"

Derek rolled his eyes dramatically.  "That's kind of the point of asking, isn't it?  No worries, I can imagine your case was nowhere near the level of mine."

She rolled her eyes back at him.  "Whatever."  Casey started towards the stairs again, but Derek's hand shot out to catch her by the elbow.

He grinned haughtily, his voice gruff as she turned to face him.  "Remember Case, what Derek wants, Derek gets."

Holding eye contact for a moment, Casey ripped her arm from his grasp and marched up the stairs.  She called over her shoulder, "I'm surprised you didn't pay Edwin to speak for you."

Derek swaggered into George and Nora's bedroom, calling out sarcastically, "Knock, knock."

George acknowledged him lightly, "Sit down, Derek."  Derek settled into the chair with practiced ease and looked at them expectantly.  George regarded him.  "Derek, do you have any opening statements?"

Crossing his arms over his chest, Derek smirked.  "Just one.  I'm not being forced out of my room."

"And your reasoning?"

"Easy.  It's mine."

"I don't recall you paying for it."

"It's still my room."

"Before you were born, it was my room."

"Then you realized how incomplete you were without me and hello here I am with my own room and everything."

Shaking his head, George inquired, "Then what's your solution?"

Derek shrugged indifferently, "Make the girls share."

"Who's room?"  Nora asked him.

"Don't care.  Just pick one to put the baby in."

Both George and Nora shook their heads.  George stood up abruptly, "Alright, Derek, you may go.

He got up from the chair, dramatically rolling his eyes for his father's benefit.

Dropping heavily into his chair, Derek joined the rest of the lineup of McDonald-Venturi children seated on the couch.  The group did not have to wait long before they heard George and Nora ascending the stairs.

George took his place in front of the television, placing his hands on his hips.  "Alright, you lot.  I'll admit you made nice cases.  You gave us a lot to think about."

Joining him, Nora clasped her hands over her baby bump.  "George and I have decided to sleep on it and announce our decision tomorrow night."  She rubbed her belly absentmindedly.  "So for now, I'm headed to bed.  Goodnight, everyone."

Adding a "Night, kids."  George joined Nora heading back down the stairs.

Edwin watched them disappear before he cried, "What a load of bull!"

Crossing her arms across her chest, Lizzie added, "I'll say.  Now we have to wait to hear who's getting kicked out of their own room!"

As she crawled out from between Lizzie and Casey, Marti huffed, "I have to go tell Daphne the news."  Her tiny body marched angrily up the stairs.

Frowning in confusion, Lizzie turned to Edwin to ask, "Why didn't Daphne come to the meeting?"

"Who knows what goes on in that head of hers."  Edwin stood, pulling Lizzie up with him.  "Come on, I want to show you some of the research I used."

Lizzie cast a look at her sister as she passed.  "Night, Casey."  Then she rapped lightly on Derek's leg, "Night, Derek."

Calling from the stairs, "Night!"  Edwin waited for Lizzie.

Derek nodded at them as Casey returned a soft, "Goodnight."

Observing Casey sit quietly to herself, Derek finally reached through the space between them to swat at her arm.  "What gives?"  Casey shook her head, saying nothing.  He rolled his eyes, "What?  Worried you lost your case, Case?"

She somewhat unfolded her concaving body, "No, I'm upset because I'm pretty sure I won."

Derek's brows furrowed tightly before realization hit him.  "Don't tell me, you did the noble thing."

Her eyes snapped to his, "What do you mean?"

"You gave up your room for the baby."

"How could you possibly know that?"

"Face it, Spacey.  I know you all too well."

Casey glared at him.  "Shut up, Derek."

Once again, the family gathered in the living room, waiting for George and Nora to announce their decision.  Finally, Nora waddled into the living room and took a seat in the chair by the front door, kicking her tired feet out in front of her.

George joined them a minute later, still wiping his hands on the dishtowel.  He stood next to Nora and she reached up to take ahold of his hand.  Throwing the towel over his shoulder, George cleared his throat.  "Alright, everyone, it's time to tell you what we've decided to do."

Leaning forward as far as she could, Nora continued for him, "Although you all presented interesting cases, one particular stood out for us."  Tears welled in her eyes.  "Miss Case has graciously offered up her room for the baby."

Everyone except Derek whipped to face Casey, surprise equally written on all their faces.  Casey managed a sad smile.

"So we decided,"  George went on, "that since Casey will be moving to college soon, she can store her things downstairs and when she's home she can share Marti's room."   Edwin and Lizzie exchanged looks of ecstasy.

"WHAT?"  Marti cried, jumping off the couch.  "But, Daddy!"

"No buts, Marti."

Marti stomped her foot.  "Remember, Daddy?  Everything I said?  I can't share a room!"

Shushing her, Nora explained, "It'll be okay, Marti.  Casey won't be here during the year and when she comes home, she won't have as many things."  At Nora's words, Casey teared up.

Sitting back down, Marti crossed her arms and pouted.

George clasped his hands together, "Well, that's all we had to say.  I'm taking Nora down to bed now.  Goodnight, all." 

He helped Nora out of her chair and she smiled sleepily, "Night, kids."

After they passed through the dining room and kitchen, Edwin and Lizzie jumped up and danced around the living room.

Laughing, Edwin cried, "It worked!  My research worked!"

"Nice going, Ed!"  Lizzie gave him a high-five.

Derek rolled his eyes at their antics.  "What are you talking about?  Casey offered her room up.  It's not like you convinced Dad and Nora."

Edwin grinned at his brother.  "Only partly true, bro."

"If I know my sister, she offered to share a room with me."  Lizzie looked to Casey for confirmation to which Casey nodded.

Leaping up again, Marti stomped to the stairs, mumbling under her breath the whole way.  Everyone winced as her door slammed.

Recovering, Lizzie smiled lightly.  "No offence, Case, but I really don't want to share a room again."

Even though tears welled up in Casey's eyes she answered softly, "I understand, Liz."

Bailing out of his chair, Derek hastily retreated to the kitchen.  "Well, I've got things to do.  Later, losers."

Derek rapped smartly on George and Nora's bedroom door.  A confused George called, "Come in."

Opening the door, Derek strutted in, holding his hands out in front of him.  "Alright, don't make a big deal out of this."

"Derek!  George cried, "What did you do now?"

"Nothing!  Look, you need to be upstairs with the baby and I need peace and quiet so you move up and I'll move down."  Both George and Nora sat in stunned silence so Derek rolled his eyes and pretended to look around.  "Yeah, my stereo will fit nicely over there."  He walked around for a little longer, waiting for someone to say something.  When that didn't happen, he prompted, pretending to knock on his dad's head.   "Hello?  Anybody in there?"

George waved the hand away.  "You mean it, D?"

"Would I say it if I didn't?"


Nora studied him cautiously, "Why, Derek?"

He shrugged nonchalantly.  "Casey offered up your old room so take it back.  Give the baby mine.  It's simple." 

Derek cringed as Nora's eyes became misty.  "Oh, Derek, that is so sweet of you."  He dodged her outstretched arm and backed away, but Nora followed him, latching on tightly to hug him.

Considering his son, George asked, "And you're sure you'll be able to follow through with this?"

"Sure."  Derek hesitated for a brief second.  "And there's no reason to shove Klutzilla on Smarti.  We can co-habitat down here."

Both George and Nora gasped quietly.

Exaggeratedly rolling his eyes, Derek remarked, "I didn't announce the end of the world."

"It sure sounded like you did.  At least, it'll be the end of our house with the two of you down here!"  George cried, studying his son.

Hand on the doorknob, he gave them an arrogant smirk.  "No promises."

As Edwin pulled out his chair at the dinner table, he asked, "So, what's the big announcement?"

Nora unfolded her napkin carefully.  "Well, we wanted to let you know that there's been a change in room plans."

In excitement, Marti dropped her fork.  "Really?  I don't have to share my room anymore?"

"That's right, sweetie."

Casey's brows furrowed as she studied her mother.  "What do you mean, Mom?"

Clearing his throat, George answered her.  "We've decided that Nora and I are going to take our old room back."

Lizzie frowned.  "What about the baby?"

Shooting a quick look at Derek, George stated clearly, "The baby will have Derek's room."  There was a collective gasp around the table, expect Derek, who kept chewing calmly.

Stunned, Edwin shouted, "Bro!  You're okay with this?"

"What Derek wants, Derek gets."  Derek replied around a mouthful of food.  The others stared at him, mouths hanging open.

Being the first to recover, Lizzie clarified, "You mean, you wanted to give up your room?"

"I'm moving out so why not?"  Taking another huge bite, Derek chewed with his mouth open.

After cringing at the food falling out of Derek's mouth, Casey asked, "What do you mean, Marti won't be sharing a room anymore?"

"Well, honey," Nora began, "Last night, Derek pointed out that it didn't make sense to inconvenience anyone since the both of you are moving out for college soon."

George took over, "So, Derek assured us that the two of you can share the basement without incident, right, Derek?"

Smirking around his fork, Derek laughed.  "Right!"

Silence settled over the room.  Casey stared openly at Derek, her mouth hanging open.  Finally, Casey bit, punctuating every word, "I. Have. To. Share. With. Him?"

Derek swallowed dramatically in order to give her an arrogant smirk.  "You're welcome."

Everyone looked between the two, waiting for an explosion, but were only greeted with silence.  Casey seemed too stunned to say anything more and Derek continued to gobble his supper.  Finishing the food on his plate, Derek reached to refill it as everyone watched him.  Pausing mid-scoop, Derek looked around the table, "What?"

It was late that night when Casey walked into the kitchen to fix herself a cup of tea.  Unsurprisingly, the light was already on as Derek rummaged through the fridge.

Rolling her eyes, Casey asked his back, "Didn't you eat enough at dinner?"

He straightened up, arms full of containers and shot her a grin.  "I always have room for more."  After depositing the food on the counter, he went to work fixing a heaping plate of leftovers.

Casey shook her head as she filled a mug with water and stuck it in the microwave.  She pushed a few buttons then turned to watch Derek as she waited.  Derek took a huge bite, causing food to dribble down his chin.  "Der-rek!  Use a napkin."  Casey crossed the kitchen, opened a drawer and drew out a stack of napkins.

"Quiet, Case!  You wanna wake the whole house?"  He accepted a napkin, smearing grease all over it before he threw it at her.

"Gross, Derek!"

With an eyeroll, Derek asked, "What are you doing up?  Isn't it passed the Princess's bedtime?"

"I couldn't sleep."  The microwave beeped and Casey went to tend to her tea.  "So, I thought I'd make some tea."

"Wow,"  Derek drawled, "That's so interesting."

"Well then, Mr. Fascinating, why are you up?"

He indicated his plate.  "Hungry."

"Of course, how silly of me to even ask."

"I thought so, Space Case."

The nickname stopped Casey.  She looked Derek over, who was still devouring his food.  Quietly, she asked, "Why did you do it?"

Opening his mouth around the food, Derek questioned, "What?"

"Give up your room."

Derek rolled his eyes, "I do the right thing and you question my motives?"

"I'm just trying to understand, Derek."

"I gave it up, so what?"

"I thought you and your room had been through so much together."

"You're quoting my fifteen-year-old self.  Things change."

Casey raised an eyebrow, "You've always been so protective of your room and suddenly you just offer it up for the baby?"

He leaned on the counter, pausing to chew as he considered her.  "It's like I said, Case.  I'm not going to be here much anymore."  Derek shrugged nonchalantly.  "I'm pretty much done with it, so might as well let the baby have it."

"I must say, Derek, I'm impressed."

"Yeah, yeah, noble Derek, I know."

She snorted, "I just don't understand why you told them you'd share a room with me."

Derek rolled his eyes sarcastically, "I just couldn't stand the thought of us being two whole floors apart."

"Of course, we wouldn't want that."  Casey shook her head exasperatedly.  "Even though I still hate basements with every fiber of my being.  It was probably the best solution."

He cocked an eyebrow at her as he mocked, "Oh, the Princess finally thinks she can handle the dark scary basement?"  As she shoved his shoulder, he laughed.  "I get it, it's only because you'll have a strong handsome knight to save you from trouble, right?"  Derek smirked arrogantly at her.

Casey pretended to look around the kitchen.  "Does a knight live here?  Hmm, somehow, I've managed to miss him after all these years!  Let me know if you see him, yeah?  So we can be introduced, of course."

Snorting, Derek finally set down his empty plate.  With a charming grin, he held a hand out to her.  "At your service, Princess."

She slapped his hand away, laughing.  "A knight?  I thought you were the court jester!"

Derek winked at her, "Nah, that's Edwin."

Chapter Text

Casey stood at Derek's bedroom door, pounding over the blasting music.

Finally, his door sprang open and Derek emerged, leaning casually up against the door.  He smirked, finding Casey, arms crossed and huffing in all her angry glory.  As he slid his hands into his pockets, his shiny belt buckle glistened.  "You rang, your majesty?"

"Do you think you could turn that noise down?"

Pretending to consider it, Derek held a finger to his chin.  "Hmm, let me think... no!"

Catching the door, before he could bang it shut, Casey stopped him.  "Just a minute.  I'm not done with you, yet."

"What now, Princess?"

"Why are you avoiding Emily?"

"None of your business."

"Derek!  She's my best friend!"


"I don't want you to break her heart!"

He gave her a look.  "Yeah, right.  Like I said, not your business.  This time the door successfully slammed in her face.

🎵 "It used to be my mother and my sister and me,

A happy little family, and alright with me.

Then Mom got married, that's when everything changed,

Some things were lost, and others were gained.

A new school, a new house,

So many changes make my head spin.

Now I've got a brother who gets under my skin.

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Lizzie, Edwin, George and Nora, Marti, and Casey.

Livin' life with Derek,

Livin' life with Derek!" 🎵

"If there's one thing you can count on around here, it's that at some point, somewhere, someone is pulling a prank.  It's been a constant even through change.  When we first moved in, I was totally unprepared for any sort of 'prank war', but now... Now, you could say I'm prepared."  Casey held up a notebook and smirked.  "Better watch your back, Venturi."

George stomped up the stairs and into the kitchen.  He waved a container through the air.  "Edwin!  You replaced my deodorant with cream cheese?"

Almost falling out of his seat, Edwin laughed, "Can't miss with a classic."

Studying his deodorant, George frowned before breaking out into a grin.  "Don't I know it.  I remember once, it was my first year as a lawyer and all the other workers newspapered my entire office."

"That's old news, Dad."

"Punny, Edwin.  Alright, fine, how about this?  I took every roll of toilet paper in my buddy's apartment and hairsprayed them so he couldn't get anything torn off!"

"Ahh, nice!  Bet that was a sticky situation!"

"He didn't talk to me for weeks."  George grinned fondly at the memory.  "I guess it didn't help that he had his girlfriend over at the time he found that out."

Edwin and George looked to each other, both bursting out into hysterical laughter.

Knocking sweetly at Derek's door, Marti sang, "Smerek?  I have something for you!"

"Yeah, Smarts!"

Marti opened the door slowly, carrying in the offered plate.  She approached his bed and handed the plate to him with an innocent smile.  "Look, Smerek, cookies!"

Derek sat up, "Sweet, Oreos!"  He took the plate from her, "Smarti..."

"Yes, Smerek?"

"What did you do to these Oreos?"

Her eyes widened dramatically, "What do you mean, Smerek?"

He picked up an Oreo and quickly held it to her mouth.  "Here, Smarti, have a bite!"

Cringing, Marti pulled away.  "No, Smerek!"

"Ah, ha!"

Marti tried to cover, "I mean, I'm full!  I already had some!"

Derek eyed her.  "A likely story."  Picking up an Oreo, he sniffed it before shooting her a proud grin.  "You toothpasted 'em, didn't you?"

She returned the smirk.  "Yup!"

"Go find an easier target."  Derek handed the plate off to her.

"Okay, Smerek."  She tottered out of his room and out into the hall.  Derek listened as she knocked at Casey's door.

"Come in!"  Casey's voice rang through their shared wall.  The door clicked shut behind Marti and all he heard were mumbling voices.  A few seconds later, Casey screamed, "DER-REK!"

Derek sniggered to himself.  "Classic, Case."

Nora knocked on Derek's door before throwing it open.  "Derek!  Phone!"

"I'm not here."

Cupping a hand over the receiver, Nora hissed at him, "It's Emily!"

"Come on, Nora.  Tell her I'm not here."

Frowning, Nora complied.  "I'm sorry, Emily, but Derek isn't here right now."  She paused to listen to Emily as she gave Derek a scowl.  "Hmm, no, I'm not sure if there's something wrong with his cell.  I'll check with him when he gets home."  She paused again, listening.  "Alright, bye, Emily."  Punching the end button just a little too hard, Nora marched into Derek's room, shutting the door behind her.  She took a seat next to him on the bed, causing Derek to groan.

"Why are you avoiding Emily?"

"Gah, you McDonalds!"

"What was that, Derek?"

"Nothing, nothing."

"So, what's going on with Emily?"

Derek shook his head.  "It's hard to explain."

"Try me."

"It's just..."  He held his hands up while closing his eyes.  "not right, you know?"  His hands fell and he groaned.

Nora smiled at him affectionately.  "I know what you mean, Derek.  Now try telling her that."  She patted his knee as she stood up.

He flipped a page in his comic, studying the picture diligently.  "That's the hard part."

Pausing in his doorway, Nora turned back to say firmly, "The sooner, the better.  For everyone, Derek."

Lizzie strolled up the stairs, repeatedly tossing her soccer ball up into the air.  Heading into her room, she opened the door and was met by a wall of balloons.  Spluttering, she batted at the balloons in her face.

Taking a step back, she analyzed the situation.  Her eyes roamed over the massive collection of balloons from floor to ceiling.  "Whaaaat?"

At her words, several balloons spewed out into the hallway.  Lizzie kicked them in frustration before picking one up and pounding her way to Derek's door.  She barged into his room, crying, "What's the big idea?"

"What are you talking about?"

"How am I supposed to get into my room?"

"Um, walk through the door?"

She threw the balloon at him, but he dodged out of the way as she screamed, "I CAN'T!"

Derek picked up the wayward balloon and examined it.  "What's with the balloon?"

Hovering in the doorway, Edwin asked carefully, "What's going on?"

Lizzie crossed her arms over her chest.  "Ask Derek."

"Derek doesn't know!"  He held his hands up innocently.

"Someone filled my room with balloons!"

Both boys snickered, enraging Lizzie.

"Nice one, D!"

Derek stopped laughing.  "Hey, it wasn't me!"

"Yeah, right!"  Lizzie stomped her foot, before turning her anger on Edwin.  She reached out, grabbing a fistful of his shirt.  "Then it was you, Edwin!"

Edwin clammed up, shaking his head furiously.  "N-no, n-no it wasn't!"

Releasing him, Lizzie shoved him to the side and stomped out of Derek's room.

As Edwin stared after her, he asked, "What was that about?"

"Women."  Derek shot the balloon at Edwin, nailing him in the head.

"I'm surprised you used a prank like that on Lizzie and not Casey."

"Nice ty, Ed, but I know you did it."

"I didn't do it!"

"You're using me for cover, so Lizzie doesn't beat you to a pulp."

"Honest, Derek!  It wasn't me!"

Derek rolled his eyes.

"Oh, I see what you're doing, Derek!  You want me to think you think it was me, but it was really you pretending to think it was me so I wouldn't think it was you when I really do think it was you!"

Derek's eyebrows knitted in confusion.  He shook his head back and forth trying to make sense of Edwin's words.  "Whatever, Ed."

The two brothers eyed each other suspiciously.  Edwin backed slowly out of Derek's room, miming that he was watching him.

Nora sat down at the dinner table.  "So how was everyone's day?"

Glaring between Derek and Edwin, Lizzie answered her mother, "Oh, just peachy, Mom."

Casey glanced sideways at her sister, sounding concerned, "Um, you sure about that, Liz?  Because you sound a little upset."

"Maybe, because I am."

"What happened, Lizard?"  Nora asked her daughter, her motherly instinct taking over.

"Someone filled my entire room with balloons!"

George choked on his water as he laughed.  Nora glared at him and he tried to contain it even as Derek, Edwin and Marti chuckled quietly.  Sobering, George tried, "It was just a harmless prank, Nora."

Clearing her throat, Nora eyed her husband.  "George, I don't think you should be condoning this sort of behavior."

Lizzie piped in, "Yeah!  It took me three hours to pop all of those balloons!"

Derek laughed openly around a mouthful of food, but Edwin's eyes widened as Lizzie glared him down.  Marti giggled quietly and even Casey had to hold back an amused smile.  George and Nora stared each other down across the table.

"George, pranking can be very immature."

"Nora, it's a valued practice for laughs."

Cutting in, Derek added, "Not to mention, a sacred Venturi tradition."

Lizzie turned her glare on Derek.  "I agree with Mom.  It's immature."

Marti piped in, "Not me.  I think it's funny."

Hesitantly, Edwin added, "I agree with Marti."

Derek's fork stilled for a beat.  "What about you, Spacey?  Why so quiet?  You usually jump to the front of the 'destroy everything that's fun' parade."

Casey moved her fork around her plate as she eyed him.  "I think I've said just about all I can say on the matter."

His face showed a measure of surprise before he covered it.  "You're giving up?"

Giving him a sly smile, she answered, "No, just regrouping."

Even after the whirlwind of George and Nora flying out the door for work (a few times for George by the time he remembered everything) was over, the McDonald and Venturi children gathered around the kitchen island, eating breakfast.

"Oh my god!"  Casey cried after spitting a mouthful into the sink.  "Who swapped the orange juice for cheese water?"

Laughing loudly, Derek spewed cereal across the counter as Marti giggled knowingly.

"That wasn't funny, Derek!"

"Hey!  Don't jump to conclusions, Space Case.  It wasn't me."  Derek took another huge bite of cereal as Casey continued to glare at him.

Marti giggled again, causing Derek to turn to her.  "That was you, Smarti?"

"Yup!"  She popped the p just like her big brother.

"Nice one, Smarts!"  He reached over for a high-five.

"Don't encourage her, Derek!"

"She's a Venturi!  It's in her genes, McDonald!"

Casey didn't respond, but she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand in disgust.

 Marti danced up the stairs, twirling a few times before reaching her bedroom door.  As she stepped over the threshold, a loud horn blasted her off her feet.  She screamed on the way down to the floor.  Marti scrambled to her feet, clutching her heart.  Acting quickly, she slammed the door shut.  

She stood outside looking at the door as she gathered her breath and calmed her racing heart.  Stepping forward, she slowly opened the door again.  As Marti took a tentative step in, the horn blew again.  Shrieking, she closed the door and scampered down the stairs.


Looking up from his recliner, Derek studied his angry little sister.  Cautiously he asked, "What's up, Smarti?"

Placing her hands irritably on her hips, she reminded him eerily of Casey.  He was snapped out of his thoughts as she cried, "You put a blow horn in my room?"

"No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did!"

"Really, Smarti, I didn't.  I swear on our secret code."

Tentatively, Marti lowered her hands.  "You mean it, Smerek?"

"Course, I do."  He picked her up, pulling her into his lap to tickle her sides.

She laughed happily.  "Smerek!"

He chuckled, gently setting her down so she could run off.  As she left, he frowned to himself, wondering what was happening.

George strode into the living room, clearly annoyed.  "Derek, this is the third time Emily has called the house in the last two hours."

Derek didn't look up from the TV.  "Yeah, yeah."

"Derek, you need to do something!"

"I am!  I'm watching the game!"

"I meant with Emily!"

"I'm not watching the game with Emily."

Sitting down on the couch, George tried to catch his eye.  George sighed, "Derek."  When Derek didn't acknowledge him, he cried, "DEREK!"

Wincing, Derek asked, "What?"

"Do something about it.  If you're going to break up with her, get it over with already.  The longer you wait, the worse it's going to be."  George got up and returned to the kitchen without another word.

Laundry basket in hand, Nora walked through the living room, humming quietly to herself.  With one foot on the first step, Nora paused, studying the pictures hanging on the wall.  She frowned, examining the strangers that had replaced the family photos.  As she climbed the stairs, she realized that every single picture had been replaced.

After delivering the clean laundry, she descended the stairs, again studying the pictures.  Once she reached the main floor, she walked around looking at all the frames scattered around the house.  Nora sighed, finding that they were all strangers' pictures.

Nora returned to the living room, watching Derek as he cheered for his favored team.  Taking a step to cover the television, she folded her arms against her chest.

"Hey!  Nora!"  Derek tried desperately to look around her.

"Where did you put all the pictures, Derek?"

Still trying to watch around her, Derek asked distractedly, "What are you talking about?"

"The family pictures!"

Derek looked at her for the first time.  "I didn't touch them, Nora."

She tapped her foot, losing her patience.  "Derek, just tell me where they are, and I won't be mad."

Rolling his eyes, Derek spoke calmly, "Nora, I swear, I didn't take them, and I don't know where they are."

"I want them back, Derek."  Nora glared once more before stomping away.

The house phone trilled again.

"SMARTI, PHONE!"  Derek called up the stairs.

"OKAY, SMEREK!"  Marti got up from the hall floor and skipped over to pick up the phone.  "Hello?"

"Hi, Marti.  Is Derek there?"  Emily asked the girl.

"Yeah, but he doesn't want to talk to you."

Marti's reply was greeted with silence.  Finally, Emily answered, "I see.  Thanks, Marti."

"No problem!  Bye!"

Starting the dinner time conversation, Nora eyed the table.  "So, there's something going on around here that has come to my attention."  Everyone looked to her in bewilderment.  Nora continued speaking, "Someone has replaced all of our family photos with strangers."  Pointedly, her eyes hovered on Derek.

"I already told you, it wasn't me, Nora."

"And I didn't ask you again.  I'm simply asking for the return of the pictures to their rightful places."

Derek chomped on his food.  "Right, you heard her everyone."

George stepped in, "Just cough them up, Derek."

"Not you too, Dad!"

"Just return them, Derek, and we won't say anything more about it."

He heaved a heavy sigh, accidently making eye contact with a grinning Casey.  His eyes narrowed as they held hers for several seconds. Cursing quietly, he dropped his eyes back to his plate.

"So how many times did Emily call today?"

Derek's eyes snapped back up to glare at his brother.  He muttered angrily, "Shut up, Edwin."

"Derek, you have to talk to the poor girl!"  George needled.

"I will!"  Derek cried, then he mumbled under his breath, "Eventually."

Marti piped in, "That's okay, Smerek.  I already told her you didn't want to talk to her."

"What?  Smarti, when did you do that?"

"This afternoon when you told me to answer the phone."

Groaning, Derek dropped his head into his hands. 

The rest of the family looked at each other in alarm.  Casey's features showed pure horror as she spoke somewhat to herself.  "No wonder, she's not answering any of my texts or calls."  Then loudly, "DER-REK!"

Derek winced at her tone.

"What's keeping Edwin this morning?  He's usually down here by now?"  Nora asked the bunch.

The others shook their heads not knowing the answer.  A few seconds later, Edwin crashed into the kitchen, hair in upheaval and frowning.

"What's the matter, Ed?"  George asked his son.  "What took you so long?"

Marti cackled, "Nice hair!"

Edwin glared all around.  "Well, I would have been here earlier, but someone covered my door in plastic wrap, and I couldn't get out!"

Holding up his hands, Derek replied, "Don't look at me."  Everyone looked at him suspiciously.  "Why would I do that?  I had to pour my own cereal today."

Casey mocked, "Oh, yeah, because Mr. High and Mighty shouldn't have to make his own breakfast."

"That's right, Princess.  Everything should be handed to me."

She rolled her eyes, depositing her dishes in the sink.  Leaving the kitchen, she threw over her shoulder, "Excuse me, I can't deal with any more nonsense."

Derek rolled his eyes before leaping off his stool to follow her out, unable to resist a good argument.

George shoveled a few more bites of breakfast into his mouth before he jumped up from his seat, grabbing his briefcase.  "Got to go or I'll be late... again."  He hastily kissed Nora and ruffled Marti's hair.  "See you later, everyone."

Nora called after him, "Bye, Georgie."  Then she turned to Marti, "Come on, Miss Marti.  We're going clothes shopping today."

"Ugh, Nora.  Do we have to?"

"Yes, yes, yes!  Now, let's get a move on!"  Nora ushered Marti out of the kitchen.

Edwin and Lizzie heard Marti say as Nora ushered her out the door, "Fine, but I want a purple jacket."

Staring after them briefly, Edwin then turned to Lizzie.  "There's something strange going on around here."

Lizzie refused to acknowledge him.

"Liz?"  After waiting for a reply that didn't come, Edwin asked, "Are you still mad at me?"  Pointedly, Lizzie looked away from him.  "Come on, Lizzie, I swear on middle children everywhere I did not fill your room with balloons."



"Okay, I believe you."

"Now, will you please help me figure out what's going on?"

"I suppose.  You'd be lost without my help."

Edwin rolled his eyes, but smiled, happy to have his partner in solving crime back.  "Whatever you say, Watson."

"As it should be, Sherlock."  She nudged his shoulder as she took her dirty dishes to the sink.  Dropping back down, she asked, "Now, where do we start?"

"Well, first of all, why would Derek not take credit for one of his pranks?"

Lizzie thought for a while.  "Maybe his prank was to let someone else take the fall?"

"I don't see a motive though."

"If that was his reason, his prime target would be you."  She considered that.  "But it doesn't seem like he's trying to pin them on you."

"He thought it was me that filled your room or at least that's what he said.  But I don't think he's tried to convince anyone else that it's me."

"I didn't think much about it at the time, but it really didn't seem like he knew what I was talking about when I confronted him."

"He is the Lord of Lies though."

"True, so why else would he deny it?"

"Trying to avoid punishment?"

"Mom and George don't really do anything about his pranks though."

"Yeah, you're right."

"Could there be more than one pranker?  Was the person that ballooned me the same one that plastic wrapped you?"

Edwin tapped his chin thoughtfully.  "Seems a similar style."

"What about Marti's blow horn?  All three of those pranks have to do with our rooms."

"Ensuring specific targets."

"Where does the family picture prank fit in?"

"That seems like it's targeted at your mom.  It really bothered her."

"Yeah, she'd probably be the only one to really notice."

"Right, so that leaves my dad, Casey and Derek as the only ones not targeted by this 'Mystery Pranker' as of yet."

"Could it be your dad?"

"Not impossible.  He seemed genuinely surprised about your balloons though."

"Was he surprised or amused?"

"I see your point."  Edwin shifted in his seat.  "I don't think he'd continue to do something like this after what Nora said at dinner that night."

"Yeah, that does seem unlikely."  She paused, "So that leaves Derek... or Casey."

Lizzie knocked on Casey's door and entered as Casey called, "Come in!"

She hesitated in the doorway.  "Hey, Case.  What are you up to?"

Casey quickly folded her notebook up and sat it down.  "Not much, just organizing some thoughts.  Did you need something?"

"Oh, I just wanted to ask if I could borrow your conditioner."

"Sure, Liz.  It's on the top shelf."

"Thanks, sis.  I'll see you later."

"Bye, Lizzie."

Screaming, Lizzie ran out of the bathroom in her green and blue bathrobe.  Most of the kids congregated in the hallway in alarm.

Casey was the first out of her room.  "Lizzie!  What's wrong?"

Lizzie tossed the towel off her head.  "THIS!  This is what's wrong!"

Laughing, Derek leaned against his doorway, supporting himself.  Edwin's jaw dropped and he quickly hid his mouth behind his hand.  Casey gasped loudly.

Marti's door popped open.  The girl took a long look at Lizzie and beamed.  "I like it!"

"DER-REK!  You're so juvenile!  I thought you were over putting stuff in my hair products!  Now look what you did to Lizzie!"  Not waiting for Derek to reply, Casey turned to Lizzie and held a comforting hand to her shoulder.  "Don't worry, Liz.  I'll go with you to the hair salon.  You go get dressed and I'll call ahead for an appointment."

At the hair salon, Casey stood with Lizzie, flipping through a magazine as they waited for the hairstylist to be free.  "You know, Liz, I've been wondering... what would I look like as a blonde?"

Taking a few steps to her left, Lizzie reached for a blonde wig, bringing it back to Casey.  She held it close to her sister's head and contemplated.  "I think you'd look really good, Case."

Casey turned to look in the mirror.  "Hmm, you're right."

"Are you going to dye your hair?"

Through the mirror, Casey smiled to herself.  "You know what?  I am!  It's time I be bold and daring and make a change!"

Lizzie smiled in encouragement.  "I think that's a great idea."

"But just highlights.  I'm not going to dye it completely."

"Hi, there, honey.  Are you Lizzie?  Lizzie McDonald?"  The hairstylist asked Casey.

"Oh, no, ma'am.  I'm Casey.  This is my sister, Lizzie."

The hairstylist eyed Lizzie's stocking hat.  "Oh, of course, how silly of me!  You accidently dyed your hair blue!"

Lizzie cringed.  "Yeah, that's me."

"Well, come on to the back! We'll get you sorted out."  She waved for the two girls to follow her.  "The name's JoAnne."

"Hi, JoAnne."  The sisters chimed in unison as they followed her.  Lizzie took a seat in the chair and Casey claimed a metal folding chair in the corner.

JoAnne helped Lizzie take off her stocking hat and gasped at the sight.  "Oh, my.  Now that really is blue!"  She laughed kindly.  "What would you like done?"

Lizzie shifted in the chair.  "Umm, what do you suggest?"

"Well, honey, I think you would look adorable as a blonde."

Studying herself in the tall mirror, Lizzie smiled.  "I think I'd like that."

As JoAnne started prepping her, Lizzie asked, "JoAnne?"

"Yes, honey?"

"Could we keep a streak?  Just, you know, tone it down a little?"

With hair freshly done, Casey and Lizzie stood at the counter to pay JoAnne.  Casey eyed the hair product display, seeing some at home dyeing kits.  "Hey, JoAnne?"

"Yeah, sweetie?"

"Could you add an at home kit to that?  Like the darkest you have?"

Derek knocked at the Davis' door.  After the third knock, the door flew open.  He smiled sheepishly at Emily.  "Hey there, Em."

In reply, Emily crossed her arms.

"Can we talk?"

"Oh, now you want to talk?"

Grimacing, Derek shuffled his feet.  "I'm trying here."

Emily pushed the door open, allowing him in.

"Look, Derek.  I get that you were trying to make sure that I was completely ready to take that step in our relationship, but there was really no reason to avoid me.  I appreciate you trying to make sure I was physically and emotionally ready for that."  Emily reached out a hand to grip Derek's leg.

Derek jumped from the couch.  "Whoa, whoa, whoa!  Back the trolley up, here.  That is not the reason at all."

Emily's face fell, hurt by his words, but Derek, who had started pacing, missed it.  "Then what is the reason you wouldn't sleep with me?"

His pace doubled time as he took great strides back and forth through the Davis' living room.  Finally he mumbled, "It's not right."

Her entire body flinched.  "What are you saying, Derek?"

Mid-step, he paused.  He heaved a long sigh, "Emily, we're not going any further."

"You're breaking up with me because I tried to sleep with you?"

Immediately, he resumed his pacing, mumbling to himself, "Damn, if Casey heard me now, I'd never live it down."  Then loudly he said, "Contrary to popular belief, I don't sleep with anything in a skirt."

Emily's eyebrows furrowed.  "Then we'll take it slower!"

Before she could finish, Derek was shaking his head.  "Look, I already put this off for too long because you're Casey's best friend..."  Her eyes narrowed, but Derek was oblivious to the look.  "We're just not right for each other."  He let the words hang in the air.  "Look, Case and I are going to Queen's.  You're going to Toronto.  I just don't see the point in continuing when the end is inevitable."

Tears formed in Emily's eyes. 

Seeing the tears, Derek winced.  "I'm sorry, Emily.  Really.  We had some good times."

The tears began to roll freely down her cheeks.  Derek stopped pacing but avoided looking at her.  He shifted his weight back and forth.  "I guess I'll show myself out."  Taking a few steps to the door, he looked back at her.  "Bye, Em."

Casey and Lizzie walked into an empty house.  Looking around, Lizzie asked, "I wonder where everyone is."

"Hmm, I don't know, Liz.  It's kind of odd."

"Well, I'm going to grab a snack.  Do you want anything?"

"No, thanks, kiddo.  I'm headed upstairs."

Climbing the stairs, Casey veered off into the bathroom.  She looked around carefully before closing the door.

George waltzed into the kitchen and greeted Lizzie.  "Phew, what a day.  I'm exhausted."

"Hi, George."

"Hey, Lizzie.  Wow, look at you!"

"Do you like it?"  She asked, holding a hand up to her hair.

"I do, it looks good."  He loosened his tie.  "Boy, sure is a hot one today.  I'm going to go take a load off in the living room.  Maybe even sit in Derek's chair."

Lizzie snorted into her drink.  "Have fun."

Unfastening a few buttons on his dress shirt, George headed for Derek's chair.  Changing his mind, he stood up again and reached for the ceiling fan chain.  He yanked it and as the fan began to spin, giant clumps of confetti came cascading down, spreading in great waves across the living room.  George shouted in surprise, "Ahhhhh!"

Running into the living room, Lizzie cried, "What's the matter?"

George looked around at the disaster.  "Someone had confetti on the fan!  DEREK!"

"Don't bother, George.  He's not here."

"Where is he?"

"I don't know, but he wasn't here when we got home."

"I'm here, Em.  What's the emergency?"  Casey cried as she roughly flung the backdoor to the Davis' house open.

Emily was seated on the counter, eating a spoonful of ice cream straight out of the carton.  Casey took in her tearstained face.  "Oh my gosh, Em.  What happened?"  Approaching cautiously, she pried the ice cream out of her hands.

Not having anything to hold on to, Emily's fists clenched and unclenched.  "Derek."

Casey closed her eyes in understanding before pulling Emily into a tight hug.  "Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not really."

"Well, if you do, I'm here."

Emily's answering laugh was bitter.  "Oh, I know you are."

"Okay?  Are you sure you don't want to talk about it?"

"Don't worry.  I'm sure you'll hear all about it."

Flinching at her tone, Casey took a step back.  "What?"

Emily sighed and wiped furiously at her eyes.  "Nothing, I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Emily.  I understand.  Your emotions are running high right now."

"It's my fault.  I should have known it was coming."

 Derek dropped his hockey equipment off by the washing machine before rounding the corner into the kitchen.  He tugged lightly on the highlighted lock in Lizzie's hair.  "Hey!  You kept a streak!"

"Yeah, I did.  I decided it had a bit of character after I got over the initial shock of it."  She smiled slyly at Derek.

He snorted, grinning at her.  "You're welcome."  Derek threw open the refrigerator door, rummaging around for what he wanted.

Lizzie asked his back, "Have you seen Casey?"

"Nope!  Haven't had the pleasure."

Behind his back, Lizzie smirked wickedly, "Oh, okay.  Guess I'll go look for her."  Thinking to herself, "He won't know what hit him."

Sighing to herself, Casey made her way from the Davis' backdoor to their own.  As she walked, she mentally prepared a list of all the things she wanted to say to Derek.  Opening the back door, she peered into the kitchen, finding exactly who she was looking for.  "DER-REK!"  She screamed.

Startled, Derek cursed under his breath.  "Casey, what are you trying-" He turned to look at her, stopping all words and thoughts.

Casey wasted no time.  "I can't believe you broke up with Emily!"  Derek didn't say anything, just continued to gape at Casey.  "I thought I told you not to break her heart!  I told you!  Did I not tell you?"  She paused, waiting for him to say something.  "Well, aren't you going to say anything?"

Taking a step forward, she split his name again, "DER-REK!"

It did the trick, shaking him out of his stupor.  His voice gravely, he asked, "Did you say something?"

She huffed.  "Really, Derek?  Pretending you didn't hear a word I said?  Real mature."  Turning, she quickly marched out of the kitchen.  Derek's eyes followed her all the way to the stairs, his mouth hanging open.

Not long after Casey retreated upstairs, Nora and Marti walked in the door, arms bulging with bags and packages.  Seeing Derek at the counter, Nora greeted him.  "Hello, Derek."  As she passed him, her nose crinkled.  "Um, Derek, why don't you catch a shower before dinner.  I'm thinking about ordering pizza."

"Sweet.  I'll take beef lo Mein."  Derek wondered out of the kitchen.

Marti watched her brother stumble through the dining room.  "I don't think he was listening, Nora."

Nora shook her head.  "Let's just hope he showers."

Everyone, but Derek sat around the table, waiting for the arrival of the pizza.  Nora's worried eyes darted to the stairs for the third time.  "I hope he doesn't drown himself because of the state he's in."

Marti giggled.  "Yeah, he better hurry.  We wouldn't want his beef lo Mein to get cold."

Smiling slightly, Nora face the table again.

Casey eyed her mom curiously.  "What do you mean, the state he's in?  He told you about Emily?"

"What about Emily?"

"He broke up with her today!"

"Really?  That's wonderful."  The girls looked to George in horror.  He stuttered, "Oh, that's not what I meant.  I'm sorry for Emily.  I, uh, just meant I'm glad he finally took care of the situation."

Thankfully for George, the doorbell interrupted his rambling.  He was quick to jump up with a cry of, "I'll get it!"

After he paid the delivery boy and taken the pizza, he hollered up the stairs, "DEREK!  FOOD!"  George resumed his seat as the family dug in.

Loud stomps sounded down the stairs and the entire table turned to Derek.  In unison, they gasped.

Nora faltered, "What happened to your hair, Derek?"

Derek smirked sarcastically, "Someone put hair dye in my shampoo, and it wasn't me!"  He walked closer to the table.  ""But really, who could it be?"  As he took his seat, he glared at his brother.  "Any ideas, Edwin?"

Edwin gulped.  "I actually have a theory."

Grabbing the back of Edwin's neck, Derek ground out, "I don't want a theory, Edwin, I want the facts."

Lizzie jumped in to save him.  "We can supply those too."

"Derek, let go of your brother."  George scolded.  Derek released him with a shove and Edwin's hands jumped to fix his collar.

"Well," Derek prodded, reaching for the pizza.  "Get on with it, you two."

"Right, well, Lizzie and I have been wondering just who this 'Mystery Pranker' is and-" He stopped to look at Lizzie.

She took over for him, "We think we just solved the identity."

Nora's brows furrowed.  "Who is it?"

"Just a minute, ma'am.  We must first go through the facts."  Edwin stood and started pacing around the table.

Rolling her eyes at Edwin's dramatics, Lizzie humored him.  "There have been several pranks done in the past week, but not all of them have been by the 'Mystery Pranker'.  So first we need to point out the pranks in question."

"Right."  Edwin held up a finger.  "The first one, Lizzie's ballooned room."

"Second, Marti's blow horn."

"Third, Nora discovering the missing family photos."

"Fourth, Edwin's plastic wrapped doorway."

They looked at each other, silently communicating before Edwin continued, "Fifth, Dad's confetti covering."

Lizzie finished, "And, last but not least, the dye job."

Marti interrupted, "So, who done it, Sherlocks?"

Theatrically, Edwin circled the table, finally stopping behind Nora.

"Nora?"  George questioned, confused.

She looked surprised.  "Me?  Why would you think it was me?"

Shaking her head, Lizzie clarified, "No, he doesn't mean Mom."

Casey inquired, "Then who do you mean, Edwin?"

He studied her.  "Ahh, but first we have to point out that there were two dye jobs!"

Smirking, Lizzie added, "But only one of them is the work of the 'Mystery Pranker' and the other was simply a coincidence."

Edwin resumed his circling.  "Exactly.  So, we ask you, which one happened first?"

Marti, clearly into the mystery, shouted, "Lizzie got dyed first!"

"Right, Smarti."  Edwin paused behind her to pat her on the back.  "Lizzie accidently got dyed first.  She was not the intended target."

"Derek meant for Casey to get the dye.  Not me."

Derek stopped munching on his pizza to smirk.  "Guilty."

George looked even more confused.  "So, Derek is the 'Mystery Pranker' then."

"Not exactly, father."  Edwin marched around the table until he stopped directly behind Casey.  She shifted in her seat.

Edwin leaned forward, "The 'Mystery Pranker' is-"

Together, Edwin and Lizzie shouted, "CASEY!"

Nora questioned, outwardly shocked, "Casey?"

The pizza fell out of Derek's mouth.

Casey was entering her bedroom when Derek came up the stairs, calling out to her, "So, now you're a blonde and a pranker?  What have you done with that klutzy keener?  Is she locked in your closet?  Maybe I should check."  He made a move to go through her door, but she blocked him.

Mockingly, she flipped her hair over her shoulder, giving him his smirk.  "The prankee has become the pranker!"

"You've learned well, young padawan."  He pretended to slug her shoulder, then couldn't stop his wayward fingers as they curled around a strand of her hair.

She noticed.  "So, do you like it?"

His hand dropped to his side.  "Like what?"

"My hair."

"I thought my opinion didn't matter."

Casey shrugged.  "You'd give me your candid opinion.  Especially if you didn't like it.  But you haven't said anything."

He avoided it.  "It's surprising.  Not typical Casey behavior."

"I just wanted a change... for college, you know?"  She fingered some strands of her hair, self-consciously studying it.

"Change can be a good thing."

She looked up at him, smiling.  "You do like it!"

Derek gave her a shrewd grin.  "I wouldn't go that far."  He reached up to touch his own hair.  "So, you planned a change for me too?"

Laughing, Casey cried, "No!  That was just pure revenge."

He snickered.  "Yeah, maybe I've overdone the shampoo bit."

"Maybe a little."  She laughed, then sobered quickly.  "Derek, why did you break up with Emily?"

Instantly, Derek's grin fell.  "Casey, really?"

"She's my best friend, Derek!  She's heartbroken."

"She is not heartbroken."

"Der-rek, she's liked you for YEARS!"

"Case-ey, it's none of your business!"

"She's my-"

"I know she's your best friend!  But fuck, Casey, just drop it!"

Quickly, Casey's eyes darted around the empty hall.  She hissed, "Der-rek, language!"  Casey missed the eye roll as she continued, "I just want to know the real reason and I'll drop it."

"Didn't you already talk to her about it?"

Coloring slightly, Casey replied stiffly, "Yes, but that was her point of view.  It was out of the blue for her and you didn't give any reasons!  And-"

"Wait a minute!"  Derek interrupted.  "She didn't tell you what I said?"

Uncomfortable, Casey shifted.  "She wouldn't talk to me about it."

Chuckling darkly, he advised, "Then don't pretend you know everything that's happened."

"Then tell me your reason."

He shook his head, frustration seeping out with every word.  "It just wasn't right, okay?"

She studied him carefully for a long moment.  Finally, she nodded, dropping her gaze to the floor.

Derek reached out to touch her shoulder, saying softly, "I don't believe for a second that she's as heartbroken as you think.  Disappointed?  Maybe.  Surprised?  No."

Looking up at him, Casey asked, "Why do you say that?"

He dropped his hand from her shoulder and took a miniscule step backward.  "There's no way that she and I would have ever lasted."

Casey flared on behalf of her friend, "Der-"

Holding his hands up, he stopped her, "Hey, it's true.  Now, can we drop it?"

Reluctantly, Casey nodded.

Faking enthusiasm, Derek cried, "Wonderful!  If you excuse me, I've had enough girl talk for today."

She snorted, throwing at him, "Too many ffff-feelings for you, Derbear?"

Derek rolled his eyes, but a smirk played at his lips.  "You know, some things never change."  His hand shot through his hair and he released his full grin on her, leaning against his door and shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans.  "But then other things do.  Like who would have thunk you'd be the 'Mystery Pranker' wreaking havoc around here?"

Acting nonchalant, Casey shrugged.  "What can I say?  Change is a mystery.  Besides, blondes have more fun, right?"  She shot him a Derek-worthy smirk, flipping her hair at him as she slipped through her bedroom door.

Chapter Text

"Mom?"  Nora asked through the phone.

"Of course, it's me, Nora."

"Wow, this is a surprise.  Is everything alright?"

"Fine, fine.  Everything is fine.  Listen, how about my grandkids spending a week with me at the lodge?"

"Oh, that sounds lovely, Mom.  I'm sure they would love that."

"I would as well.  It's been ages since I've seen them last.  I'm just dying for a visit!"

"Well, I'm sure that can be arranged.  When were you thinking?"  Nora made her way to the dining room desk, looking for a calendar.

"How about in two weeks?"

"Two weeks?  Yes, um, I think that will work fine."  Not finding a calendar, she threw her hands up in defeat and returned to the kitchen.

"Wonderful!  See you then."

"Uh, okay.  Bye, Mom."

"Goodbye, Nora."

🎵 "It used to be my mother and my sister and me,

A happy little family, and alright with me.

Then Mom got married, that's when everything changed,

Some things were lost, and others were gained.

A new school, a new house,

So many changes make my head spin.

Now I've got a brother who gets under my skin.

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Lizzie, Edwin, George and Nora, Marti, and Casey.

Livin' life with Derek,

Livin' life with Derek!" 🎵

"Webster describes language as a 'method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.'  Well, around here, communication is used in a very unstructured and unconventional way.  Yet somehow, we get by without too many exceptions... and yes, I mean Derek.

But I've been thinking about how there's people who are supposed to love and support you unconditionally, yet sometimes those people... don't.  For example, your parents."  Casey dropped her head, staring sadly at her feet.  "Then there's others, who offer you all the support and affection, even... love that you need.  And it hits you by total surprise."

Moving at a frantic pace, Nora rushed around the kitchen.  "Derek, can you, please, drop Marti off at her dance camp?  I have a doctor's appointment and can't swing it."

Derek didn't take his eyes off the back of the cereal box as he asked, "Why can't Casey?"

"Well, I can ask her, but then she'll have the Prince all day."

Groaning, Derek conceded, "Fine.  I'll do it."

"Thank you, Derek.  I've got to go now, or I'll be late.  Oh, and make sure Edwin remembers he promised to balance our checkbook today."  Nora cringed, mumbling to herself, "It sounds so much worse when I say it out loud."

Derek waved her off.  "Yeah, yeah.  Everything's under control."

Dejectedly, Marti piled into the passenger seat of the Prince.

Carefully maneuvering the Prince out of the drive, Derek asked, "What's the matter, Smarts?"

"Nothing, Smerek."

"Hmm, I don't believe that for a second."

She didn't reply, continuing to stare out of the window.  They traveled in silence for a distance, while Derek shot her concerned looks.  He grasped the back of his neck awkwardly.  Knowing comforting girls was not his forte, he resigned himself to try for his baby sister.  When they came to a halt at the next stoplight, he reached over to nudge her arm.  "Come on, tell me what's wrong."

Shaking her head, Marti continued to watch the scene out her window.  "I'm just tired."

Derek frowned, clueless as to how to proceed.

As they pulled into the parking lot, she shifted uncomfortably in her seat.  Derek picked up on it, asking, "Don't you like dancing?"

"No, Smerek.  I love dancing."

He pulled the car to the curb but stopped Marti before she could climb out.  "You sure, you're okay?"

Marti nodded, grabbing her bag, and bailing out of the car with a hasty, "Bye!"

Inside the car, Derek continued to frown as he watched her run up the stairs and into the building.  He wasn't sure he was going to survive his little sister growing up.

Dropping heavily into a dining room chair, Nora studied Casey over the spread of law books and notes covering the table.

Without looking up from her paper, Casey asked, "How was the doctor's appointment?"

"Good.  Everything's good."  Nora smiled, but Casey was unsuccessful at returning it.  "Why so glum, Miss Case?"

Casey hesitated for a moment before deciding to confide in her mother.  "Emily won't answer any of my calls or texts."

Nora tilted her head to the side, pondering.  "That doesn't seem like her."

"She's not acting like herself lately.  Not since..."



"Give her some time, sweetheart.  It might be hard for her since you're Derek's sister."

Casey looked up sharply.  "Step-sister, Mom."

Pounding frantically on the bathroom door, Edwin shouted, "Marti, hurry up!  I've got to go!"  He danced around outside the door.

"Go away!"

He used both fists this time to beat at the door.  "MARTI!"

"I said, GO AWAY!"

Edwin threw his hands up.  "Fine!  I'll just pee out the WINDOW!  Again!"  Mumbling under his breath, "Three girls in the family and a guy can't even take a leak inside his own house."

"George, can I talk to you?"  Casey asked softly as she stuck her head inside the bedroom.

Covering his surprise, George waved her in as he put aside his work papers to give her his full attention.  "Sure, Casey.  What's up?"

"I wanted to ask you something."

"Then ask away."

"How did you know that you wanted to go into law?"

Taken aback, George thought for a moment.  "Well, I guess it was something I was always interested in.  My dad encouraged it."

"So, you did it for your dad?"

"Hmm, I suppose maybe at first.  At least, I thought it was worth a try.  Then I ended up really enjoying my first semester."

"You liked it immediately?"

George chuckled.  "I wouldn't say that.  The first few weeks were terrifying.  But then, after a while the jitters passed, and I found my niche."

"Do you think I'd make a good lawyer?"

"Of course, Case.  You'd make a brilliant lawyer."

Casey smiled shyly.  "Thanks, George."

He opened his arms awkwardly and Casey approached him to return the hug.

George knocked at Derek's door, not waiting for an invitation to come in as he made himself at home on Derek's bed.

Derek didn't look up from his computer, sarcastically asking, "Something on your mind?"

"Yes, Derek, we need to have a talk."

His eyes snapped to his dad as Derek held his hands up.  "I haven't done anything!"

"I didn't say that you did.  I just want to have a... discussion about college."

"Dad, no.  I don't need another talk about the birds and the bees."

Eyeing him, George stated slowly, "That's not was I was going to say, but now that you mention it-"

"No, no, absolutely not.  What did you want to talk about?"

"Well, for starters, have you decided what you're going to major in?"

Derek snorted.  "Hockey."

"Derek, college isn't all about hockey."


George have him a look.  "You're not taking this seriously."

"Of course, I am."

Sending a glare at his son, George said firmly, "I mean it, Derek.  What are you going to study?"

Groaning in reply, Derek turned back to his computer.

"Look, your sister can help you with the course catalog-"

"Step-sister!"  Derek corrected hastily.  "And I don't need her help."

"Derek, this is not high school.  This is college and you have to take it seriously!"  George stood up.  "You need to make a decision."  He marched to the door, turning back once to say, "Now."

Once the last person had slid into their chair for dinner, Nora hedged, "Your Gran called today."

"Gran?"  Lizzie asked excitedly at the same time Casey asked, "How is she?"

"She's... good.  She's your Gran, you know how she is.  She actually invited you kids to the lodge for a week."

Lizzie squealed, clearly thrilled with the news as Casey smiled softly.

Frowning, Edwin asked, "The lodge?  What is that?  Like a five-star hotel?"

All three of the McDonald's laughed.  Nora explained, "No, it's called the Blue Heron Lodge.  It's a resort on a lake that my mother runs."

"The cabins are amazing."  Lizzie added.

"Cabins?  In nature?"  Edwin asked appalled.

"Count me out!"  Derek supplied.

Nora smiled overenthusiastically, "Come on, everybody!  It'll be fun!"

"Uh, I don't think so..."  Edwin trailed off.

Derek shook his head.  "No way, not my scene."

Marti smiled sweetly, "I think it sounds fun."

Nora sighed her relief.  "Thank you, Marti!"

George looked to his sons as they opened their mouths, "And there's no use arguing because Nora and I discussed it and you're all going."

Edwin carried his dishes into the kitchen, handing them off to an awaiting Nora, who slipped them into the soapy water for George to scrub.  She smiled in thanks, before asking, "Did you get the checkbook balanced alright?"

He cringed, "I haven't exactly done it yet."

George looked up from the sink.  "Edwin!  You promised to do it today!"

"I know, I just hadn't gotten there."

"Well, quit stalling and get it done now."

"Alright, alright."  Edwin picked up the checkbook off the counter and headed towards the dining room.  He paused in the doorway.  "I'll do it if I don't have to go to the lodge."

Not even turning around, George replied, "You'll do it or no allowance."

Snapping his fingers, Edwin grumbled under his breath, "Curses."

After retrieving his calculator, Edwin sat down at the table to get to work.  He worked for a few moments in silence until Lizzie dropped into the seat next to him with a plate of cookies.

He snatched one up rapidly.  "Oh, these are my faves!  Thanks!"

Lizzie nodded, already nibbling on one.  When her mouth was cleared, she asked, "What are you up to?"

"Balancing our 'rents' checkbook."

"They still make you do that?"

Edwin snorted.  "Dad can't be trusted, and Nora doesn't have the time."

"Makes sense.  You're good at it."

Smiling, he knocked his cookie into hers, "Cheers."  They both took bites, munching happily as Edwin continued to work.  The third time Lizzie smiled to herself, Edwin had to inquire, "Alright, why are you so happy?"

"I'm excited about the lodge."

He watched the pure joy radiate from her face.  "You really like it there, eh?"

"I love it.  It's beautiful and packed with nature.  What's not to love?"

Cringing, Edwin disagreed, "That's your thing, sis.  I'm more of a 'stay at home in front of the television while clutching all electronics safely close by' kind of guy."

She shook her head.  "You don't know what you're missing, kid.  Gran's lodge is the best."

Edwin studied her seriously.  "You haven't talked about it before."

"We don't see Gran all that much anymore."  Lizzie dropped her head, fumbling with the cookie plate awkwardly.  "Not since the divorce."

"I getcha there."  He smiled, trying to perk her up again, "Well, hey, at least now you're going to get to spend some time with her."

Distractedly, Dennis answered his phone, "Hello?"

"Dad!  Hey!"


"Yeah, Dad!  How are you?"

"Oh... good.  Working, you know."

"I kind of figured that."  Casey hesitated for a minute.  "Can I talk to you for a minute?"  There wasn't an answer, so Casey prodded, "Dad?"

"Hmm, kiddo?  What was that?"

"Can I talk to you?"

"Oh, sure."  There was rustling in the background and the sound of a keyboard clicking away.

"I just wanted to tell you that I'm thinking about going into law."  Again, Dennis didn't answer.  Casey frowned, "Dad?"

There were more taps on the keyboard.  "Mhmm, sounds great, Case."

"Do you think I'd be good at it?"  Her hands twitched nervously.

"Oh, yeah... the weather's nice this time of year."

Casey stilled, her heart clenching painfully.  "I guess, I'll let you get back to work, Dad."

"Mmm, yeah."

"I'll talk to you later, Dad."

"Uh huh, bye Case."

"Bye.."  The call had already disconnected before Casey got out, "Dad."  Her lower lip started to tremble.

If anything, the call to Dennis had made Casey set out with a new vengeance, determined to be good at law.  She hardly was seen without a book or notes in her hand.  This morning, Casey was focused on a difficult section as she distractedly poured herself some cereal.

"Hey, keener, it's not polite to ignore your dining companions."

His words did the trick, pulling her out of her thoughts.  "And what would you know about proper etiquette, Derek?"

Derek purposely let milk dribble down his chin, making a face at her.

Casey's nose crinkled in disgust, but before she could comment, George butted in.  "You know, Casey, if you're interested you could come to work with me anytime this week."

Distracted from arguing with Derek, Casey turned towards George, her eyes lighting up.  "You mean it, George?"

Shrugging casually, George replied, "Of course."

"I'd love that.  I'll come tomorrow!"

Derek looked between the two, grimacing as they smiled at each other.

George gathered his briefcase and called a farewell out to everyone over his shoulder.

Casey caught Derek's glowering eyes and raised an eyebrow in silent question.

As Casey came out of her room, Derek grabbed her arm.  "Do you have to keep up with the nerd mumbo jumbo around here?"

"There's nothing wrong with being excited about college."

"You've got your priorities all wrong, Spacey.  College is about sports, parties, and girls."  He closed his eyes, happily basking in his thoughts.

Instantly flaring, she scowled.  "There's more to college than girls, Derek."

"Yeah, like I said, sports and parties."

"And what about your studies, Derek?"

"Look, you have your interests and I have mine.  All I'm saying is knock off all that yapping.  You're making my dad take special interest in my college career."

Casey's expression sank.  Adjusting her book in her arms, she turned to walk away, murmuring, "At least your dad cares."

As Casey sadly walked away, Derek watched.  He shook his head, cursing under his breath.  "Damn it, Dennis.  Not again."

Adjusting her black jacket and pencil skirt in the mirror, Casey studied her appearance one last time.

"Casey, come eat your breakfast!"

"Coming, Mom!"  She tucked a strand of hair back into her low hanging bun before turning to hurry out of her room.  Casey had only taken one step when she ran into something solid, letting out a startled, "Umpf!" as the wind was knocked out of her.

Derek's hands reached out to steady her.  "Whoa, Space Case, where's the-" He stopped midsentence, eyeing her outfit.  It took him a minute to come up with a wisecrack, "Who died?"

"Funny, D."

"What?  You aren't going to a funeral?"

"No.  I'm going to work with your dad."

His hands slipped from her arms as he rolled his eyes.  "So, it is a funeral."

Casey returned the eye roll.  "Whatever, can we just go down to breakfast?"

Derek smirked, overexaggerating a go-ahead gesture, then bowing to her.  "After you, Princess."

Sticking her chin high into the air, she continued heading downstairs.  Straightening back up, Derek followed behind her, taking every opportunity to inspect her outfit. 

It was only when they reached the kitchen that Derek shook himself from his thoughts.  Taking a seat, he barked, "Ed, cereal."  As Edwin jumped to prepare his breakfast, Derek's gaze followed Casey around the kitchen as she prepared her own breakfast.

After a few moments, Derek realized his dad had been trying to get his attention.  "What?"  He turned, taking in his dad's angry face and Nora looking worriedly over his shoulder.

"Derek, do I ever yell?"

Closing his eyes and grimacing, Derek repeated, "Only when you're really, really angry."

"Right, so if you want to avoid that, I strongly suggest coming up with something you're going to study seriously besides hockey and girls."  George continued eyeing his son, until Derek nodded.  Satisfied for the moment, George turned back to his breakfast.

Derek's eyes remained on his cereal bowl as an awkward silence settled in the kitchen.

Finally, George stood, "Come on, Casey.  We don't want to be late."  He kissed Nora lightly on the lips.  Casey followed George out, shooting a concerned look back at Derek as they went out the door.

Nora fidgeted around the kitchen, watching Derek eat his cereal distractedly.  When he was almost done, she spoke, "Derek, I have some time this morning for us to pick up some of the things you need for college.  And I know you were looking at a new stereo..."  His head snapped up, in disbelief.  "So, we'll take Marti to dance camp and then head to the mall, alright?"

Suspiciously, he looked her over, but eventually agreed, "Alright."

Peering over his shoulder, Casey watched as George pointed out and explained what he was working on.  He seemed genuinely happy to have her there if the smiles and bad law jokes were anything to go by.

When there was a lull in conversation, she smiled as George leaned back in his chair.  He sighed, "You know, I always wished Derek had more of an interest in law.  Well, more of an interest in anything educational."  George's brow creased as he thought about his oldest son.

"He'll figure it out."

George chuckled darkly, "I don't know, Casey.  Your brother-"

Casey interrupted, "Step-brother, George."

He gave her a look but corrected, "Derek doesn't take much seriously."

She reassured him again, "He will... eventually."

For spending the day doing something he supposedly hated, Derek's mood had picked up considerably.  By the time he and Nora stopped by the food court to get lunch, he was cracking jokes again.

When Derek was halfway through his lunch, he sighed.  "Alright, spill it, Nora."

She shook herself from staring at him.  "Spill what?"

"I know you have something to say."

"Why would you think that?"

He rolled his eyes.  "Well, for one, you haven't taken your eyes off me all day.  I know I'm handsome Nora, but don't you think you're taking it too far?"  She shook her head, allowing a small smile.  Derek smirked back, "And you bribed me to get me here so you might as well say it and get it over with."  He patted the stereo box, proudly sitting in the chair next to him.

"Okay, Derek, I do want to talk to you."

Derek let the victory go silently, waving her to continue as he shoveled more food into his mouth.

"About this morning..."

The fork dropped and he groaned, "Not you too?"

Shifting in her seat, Nora shook her head.  "I'm not going to lecture you.  I just want to talk about it."  Derek rolled his eyes again, but she took it as encouragement.  "Derek, you don't have to have everything figured out right away.  Your dad is just concerned that you're not going to take college seriously."

He didn't meet her eyes, but she knew by the twitch in his hand that he was listening.  Nora continued, "He cares about you and wants you to do well."

"So, you're not worried about me?"

Nora eyed him, "Of course, I worry about you, honey.  But not in the sense that you won't figure out where your passion lies.  You have so many talents, Derek.  I know you'll be okay."

Derek's hand reached for the back of his neck, showing his discomfort.  "What if I don't know what I want?"

"There's nothing wrong with going in undecided."

Snorting without amusement, he bit, "Not according to my dad."

"I went in undecided."

He raised his eyebrows at her.  "Does my dad know that?"

"We've never really talked about it."  At the look on his face, she hastily added, "But I will tell him."

Derek nodded at that.  "Think he'll lay off then?"

She patted his knee.  "If you take him serious and let him know that you're truly thinking it over, he'll understand."

Mumbling, Derek thanked her, "Thanks, Nora."

"You're welcome, Derek.  I'm sure taking your generals this year will help you figure out the direction you want to go.  When sophomore year rolls around, I'm sure you'll have an idea of where you belong."

He took a long time to answer, his head hanging down.  Finally, he looked back up at her, his usual smirk returning.  "What if I fail all my generals?"

Nora chuckled.  "Now, I know that won't happen.  You'll have your sister with you."

His smirk dimmed.  "Step-sister, Nora."

"Marti!  If that's you again, I'm coming in there!"  Edwin yelled angrily through the bathroom door.


Edwin whacked the door.  "I can't go out the window this time, Marti!  I've got to go!"

Peeking her head out her bedroom door, Lizzie asked, "Hey, what's all the racket about?"

"Marti's locked herself in the bathroom again and I've got to go!"  He pounded furiously again.  "I'M COUNTING TO THREE!"


Lizzie's forehead knotted at the small girl's anguished tone.


Stepping out into the hall, Lizzie stopped Edwin.  "Hey, leave her alone.  Something is clearly wrong."


She cut him off, "Go somewhere else!"

Edwin threw his hands into the air, swearing all the way down the stairs.

Tapping gently on the door, Lizzie called, "Marti?  It's Lizzie."

Softly, Marti replied, "I know."

"Can I come in?"  Slowly the door cracked open and Lizzie cautiously entered.  She found Marti leaning against the bathtub, tear tracks stained on her rosy cheeks.  Lizzie took a seat next to her, brushing against her side.  "What's wrong?"

Marti didn't answer for a long time, leaving the two girls sitting in silence.  Finally, Marti began hesitantly, "It's this girl in my dance class.  Her name's Kira and she thinks I'm stupid because Daphne is my best friend."

Wrapping an arm around her, Lizzie pulled Marti closer.  "Oh, Marti, don't listen to her."

"But she's told everyone else in the class and they all say I'm a baby for having an imaginary friend."

"Having an imaginary friend is nothing to be ashamed of."

"Yes, it is!"  The fresh tears leaking out of Marti's eyes escalated into quiet sobs.

Lizzie rubbed her back for a few moments, before revealing, "I used to have an imaginary friend, kiddo."

Pulling away slightly, Marti's eyes lit up as she studied Lizzie.  "Y-y-you did?"

"Sure did."

"What was her name?"


"What happened to her?  Did she leave you?"

Shaking her head, Lizzie replied, "Course not.  She's right in here."  Lizzie held her hand over her heart.  "And she's still my best friend even though I don't see her or talk to her anymore."


"Yes, and you know why?"


"Because Alissa is a part of me.  Just like Daphne is a part of you.  And having yourself as a best friend is the most important thing a girl can have."

Marti looked confused.  "So, Daphne doesn't have to go away?"

"Nope.  But someday, you won't need her anymore."  Lizzie smiled comfortingly as Marti gasped.  "Remember though, you'll always be able to find her in here."  Lizzie's hand pressed against Marti's heart.

Marti flung her arms desperately around Lizzie's neck, pulling her into a tight hug.  "I love you."

Lizzie's eyes closed as she squeezed the girl back.  "I love you too, Marti."  After a few seconds, the girls pulled apart.  Lizzie nudged Marti's shoulder as she wiped her eyes, "So you want to hear about Gran's lodge?"


"You'll love it.  We'll get to see so many animals.  Every year, there's this blue heron-"

As they sat down to dinner, George wasted no time as he lit into Derek.  "So, Derek, have you decided what you want to do?"  Derek opened his mouth to reply, but George cut across him, "Derek, I don't want to hear any of your excuses."  Trying again, Derek was interrupted by his dad, "I mean it, Derek."

Nora came to the rescue.  "George, just listen to what Derek has to say."

George acted like he wanted to argue, but a hard look from Nora stopped him.

Finally, Derek took the floor.  "I'm going in undecided."

Again, George opened his mouth, but Nora stopped him.  "There's nothing wrong with that George.  I was undecided."

Derek smiled slightly at her support.  "I'll declare something by sophomore year and if I don't, you can sic the keener on me."

Across the table, Casey arched an eyebrow, but otherwise didn't comment.

Looking to George, Nora supplied, "I think that is an excellent plan, Derek.  Don't you, Georgie?"

Father and son studied each other.  Finally, George responded, "Alright, Derek.  It's a deal."

Relieved, Nora changed the subject, "So, Miss Case, how was today?"

Casey smiled softly.  "I had fun at the office with George."

"I knew you didn't know the definition of fun, Spacey."

She stuck her tongue out at him and he returned it.

Anxious to keep the peace, Nora continued, "Lizard?  Anything new today?"

Smiling innocently, Lizzie shrugged as she reported, "Not much here."

George turned to Edwin asking, "What about you, Edwin?"

Edwin looked between George and Nora sternly, before he grumbled, "We need to look into adding on another bathroom."

Laughing, George asked, "Why's that, Ed?"

"You don't want to know, Dad."  Edwin cringed to himself.

Still looking at Edwin out of the corner of her eye, Nora continued down the line, "Marti, how was dance camp?"

The girl shot a quick look to Lizzie before she smiled, "It was good.  Learned a lot."

Casey sighed happily.  "I'm so glad you're dancing, Marti!"

"Me too, Casey.  I really like it."

Derek shook his head in false shame.  "See what you McDonalds have done to her?  She should be playing hockey!"

Perking up, Edwin suggested, "Maybe she can figure skate!"  Looking horrified, Derek smacked the back of his brother's head.  Edwin winced, correcting himself, "Uh, kidding!  Just kidding!"

But it was too late as Marti's eyes lit up.  "Wow!  That's like dancing on ice!"

Derek groaned, "Edwin!"

"I think that's an excellent idea."  Lizzie grinned.

"Of course, it is!"  Casey agreed.  "Marti would make a wonderful figure skater!"

"Smerek, will you skate with me?"

Cursing under his breath, Derek addressed Casey, "Look what you've gotten me into, Case."

Casey smiled at him innocently, "Aww, Derry, you'd look so cute figure skating with your little sister!"

A cocky eyebrow arched as Derek grinned wickedly.  "Did you just call me cute?"

Flushing, Casey stammered, "Uh, no."

"Too late, Princess.  The damage is done.  It's already gone to my head."  He winked at her.

Pretending to observe his head, Casey responded, "Funny, but I can actually see it swelling to twice its original size."

Edwin coughed under his breath, "That's what she said."

Lizzie choked on a laugh and Marti stifled her giggles while George and Nora looked on, clueless.

Shifting uncomfortably in his seat, Derek retaliated with a slap to Edwin's arm.  But an almost transparent blush spread across Derek's cheeks.

"Dude, are you blushing?"  Edwin's mouth gaped open.

"I don't blush."

"You are right now!"  Lizzie laughed manically.

"Am not."

Marti continued to giggle as Derek and Casey refused to meet anyone's eyes.

Yanking the light on in the game closet, Edwin stepped aside so Lizzie could slip in.  She peeked out into the hall one last time before closing the door behind them.

Edwin took a seat on the floor and waited patiently as Lizzie propped the notebook open before he whisper-shouted, "I can't believe he actually blushed over a 'that's what she said' joke!"

"This is totally going into the notebook."  Lizzie scribbled furiously into their shared notebook, whose stuffed contents were making it bulge at the seams.

"Don't forget to cross reference it in the 'experiments to use on Derek' category."

"I won't, I won't.  Don't get your undies in a bunch."

He cringed.  "Leave my undies out of the same conversation as Derek and experiments, please."

"It's just an expression, Edwin, geesh."  Lizzie paused to roll her eyes, before she flipped the page and continued writing.

Shaking his head, Edwin muttered, "Bad memories there."  

Lizzie quirked an eyebrow, briefly looking at him as she paused her scribbles.  "Do I want to know?"

"No, and I'll never speak of it again."

Inconspicuously checking his watch, Derek surveyed Casey as she answered the front door.  The delivery man held a plain wrapped package towards her saying, "Package for Casey McDonald."

Startled, Casey stuttered, "Oh, that's m-me."

"Sign here, please."  She signed her name with a flourish before thanking the man and closing the door.  As she turned towards Derek, her brows furrowed as she studied the package.

"Whatcha got there, Spacey?"

"I don't know.  The postmark says it's from New York."  Realization flashed across her face.

"Well, what are you waiting for?  Open it."

Casey carried it to the table before scurrying off to find some scissors.  Derek took the opportunity to rise from his recliner and study the package, hoping Dennis hadn't messed this up somehow.

When Casey returned, Derek held his breath as she unwrapped the package.  Finally, the last of the paper hit the floor and they were greeted with the cover of an aged law book.  She gasped quietly, her fingers reaching out to run across the top.

Studying her face as Casey hesitantly opened the cover, Derek's eyes dropped down, trying to read the inscription over her shoulder.

Her eyes teared up as she read the handwritten note.  "Casey, this was my first law book from University.  I'm honored to pass it on to you.  I know you'll make me proud.  Love, Dad."

Derek pretended to ignore Casey wiping at her eyes.  Reaching out softly, he brushed a hand between her shoulder blades as he passed by her on his way to the kitchen.

She looked after him, a small smile playing at her lips.  Just knowing that he had something to do with this precious gift.

Chapter Text

"DER-REK!  YOU HAVEN'T STARTED PACKING?"  Casey stormed into his room, rapidly picking items up off his floor and sorting them.  "You'll never be ready to leave for university!"

Not looking up from his computer, Derek drawled, "I don't know if anyone has told you this yet, Spacey, but there's like three weeks left before we go to Queen's."  He glanced over the top of the screen, watching as Casey sniffed at his stray clothes before deciding to load everything into his empty laundry basket.  "But by all means, do my laundry.  Just keep in mind that next time I would appreciate the complete maid outfit."

Immediately straightening, Casey cried, "DER-REK, be serious!  You haven't implemented a system of packing!  This will take weeks!  But don't panic, I've already developed a color-coded system."

"Wow, that sounds so fun."

Casey absentmindedly continued filling his laundry basket as she explained, talking rapidly, "So, the stickers work fairly well.  I'm pink, you're blue, Lizzie's green, Edwin's red, Marti's purple, the baby is yellow, and Mom and George are orange."  She took a breath, beaming, "Then I add either a black, white or gray sticker depending on whether or not we're taking it to university.  Black stays, white goes and gray-"

Sometime during her rant, Derek had rose from his desk and approached her, finally cutting her off with a shout of "CASEY!"  Once he gained her attention, he continued at a lower level, "Why does everyone need a sticker if we're the only ones leaving?"

"That way there's no confusion, Derek!"

"Believe me, Case.  I don't think we'd get to Queen's with one of Marti's stuffed animals."

She sniffed, raising her chin high into the air as she snatched up his laundry basket and left his room.

Shaking his head, Derek returned to his desk, flopping into his chair, and pulling up the tab he had quickly minimized when she walked into his room.  Derek returned to work, mumbling under his breath, "Casey, Casey, Casey."

🎵 "It used to be my mother and my sister and me,

A happy little family, and alright with me.

Then Mom got married, that's when everything changed,

Some things were lost, and others were gained.

A new school, a new house,

So many changes make my head spin.

Now I've got a brother who gets under my skin.

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Derek,

This is life with Lizzie, Edwin, George and Nora, Marti, and Casey.

Livin' life with Derek,

Livin' life with Derek!" 🎵

Casey shrugged.  "So, I might be a bit of a perfectionist.  I thrive on organization.  Is that so much of a bad thing?  Entering a new stage of life has particularly increased my need for perfection fighting against the unknown.  My 'University Prep' notebook is organized by dates and items and color-coded by subject and priority.  Also, containing detailed lists of what I have and what I need, as well as, what to leave, buy or rent.  Everything is in its rightful place at the correct time.  So what if I see the world through rose colored glasses?  But in my perfect world, there's always been that one person who never fails to show his true colors... and yes, we all know I'm talking about Derek."

Lizzie climbed the attic steps, pausing at the top to call, "Ed?  You up here?"

"Yep!  Come on up."

Popping into his room, Lizzie looked around whistling, "Jeez, it's a mess up here.  What are you doing?"

Edwin's head popped up from behind his desk to look at her.  "I'm cleaning out my file cabinet."

She sat carefully on his bed, picking up a folder and reading the title, 'Gassy Humor' at the top.  Lizzie snorted, "I hope this is the pile you're throwing away."

He squinted over at the folder, "Nah, that's the save pile!"

Lizzie flipped to the next file, "Red Herrings?"

Peeking over the desk again, Edwin explained, "That's full of cover stories.  I thought it might come in handy for high school."

"Interesting and surprisingly on subject of what I wanted to talk about."

Edwin stood, crossing the room to sit by her.  "What's up?"

"Are you as nervous as I am?"

"About high school?"  Lizzie confirmed it with a nod and Edwin agreed, "Yeah... I'm nervous too."

Lizzie played with a loose thread on his comforter, "Do you feel like we're getting overlooked just because Casey and Derek are going to university?"

He snorted.  "Of course, that's the way it's always been."

"Right.  I just wish everyone would pay attention to what we're going through too."

"You and me both, sis."

Her head drooped.  "When they were going to high school, it was all about them."

Edwin continued for her, "And now that they're going to university, it's all about that."

Nodding, Lizzie pointed out, "They're always going to be one step ahead of us."

Hearing footsteps climbing the stairs, Edwin and Lizzie turned to the door just in time to see Mart's head pop through.  "What's up?"

The two waved her in and she plopped down on the floor in front of them.  Edwin looked to Lizzie before answering his sister, "We were just talking about high school."

"Are you excited?"

Both Edwin and Lizzie cringed, before Lizzie answered her, "I think I'm more nervous than anything, Marti."

"Same."  Edwin agreed.

Marti's forehead wrinkled.  "What are you so nervous about?"

Lizzie hesitated, "Mostly fitting in, I guess."

Scratching the back of his neck, Edwin added, "For me it's living up to Derek's reputation."

Frowning, Marti looked between the two.  "Shouldn't you be yourselves?"

Forcing a laugh, Lizzie cried, "No!  Marti, this is high school!"

Edwin shook his head frantically.  "Nothing is normal in high school!"

"So, what are you going to do?"

"We don't know..."  Edwin started.

Lizzie finished, "Everyone's so involved in Derek and Casey going to university that no one gives us the time of day."

"Have you tried talking to anybody?"  Sadly, they both nodded before Marti continued, "Then try again and tell them how you feel!"  She uncrossed her legs from the floor and stood.  "Come on, I'll show you."  Marti pointed at Edwin, "You be Dad."  Then she pointed at Lizzie, "And you be Nora."  Marti beamed and pointed at herself, "And I'll be you two."

Clearing her throat, Marti took a giant leap to the right.  Lowering her voice, she imitated, "Dad, we need to talk."  Jumping to the left, she raised her voice, "Us too, Mom."  Back to the right, "Lizzie and I want to talk about high school."  A skip to the left, "We're really nervous starting about something new."

Marti came to rest in the middle again, taking a quick bow then standing straight.  "See?  It's that easy!"  Marti clapped once and headed out of Edwin's room, calling over her shoulder, "If you want an encore, I'll be in my tent."

Edwin and Lizzie stared at the closed door for a beat.  Smiling softly, Lizzie laughed, "She is a character."

"That's our Marti.  Never afraid to color outside the lines."

Returning to Derek's room with a basket full of clean laundry and her 'University Prep' notebook, Casey stood in front of Derek's desk until he looked up.

Smirking with arched eyebrows, he took off his headphones.  "I thought I said I needed the full maid outfit."

Casey rolled her eyes, ignoring the blush creeping up her neck.  "Whatever, Derek."  She ripped a piece of paper out of her notebook and thrust it and his laundry basket at him.

Derek barely managed to grab it before she let go.  Fumbling for a second, he finally secured both objects.  Looking briefly at the paper, he asked, "What's this?"

"It's your copy of the things you need to pack.  I think you'll find it's all pretty black and white, so even you can understand it.  Get started and I'll be back later."

Rolling his eyes at her retreating form, he threw the plans over his shoulder before returning his full attention to his laptop.

"Mom?  George?  Can we talk to you?"

Lizzie and Edwin stood in the doorway, watching as their frazzled parents hurried around the kitchen.

"Uh, Lizard, can it wait?  We're kind of in the middle of something right now."

Edwin stood firm, "We've been waiting, Nora."

George looked up from scavenging through a drawer.  "Ed, later, alright?"

Shaking his head, Edwin pursued the subject, "We want to talk to you about high school."

Picking up George's search, Nora dug through the drawer.  "High school?  Yes, yes... okay we can... do that... later."

"Mom, please.  We really need to talk."

"Right now, we have to get this paperwork done for Derek and Casey."

"Dad, really, we-"

Nora cut across him, "George, did you get that bank stuff done for Derek?"

George cringed, "Not yet."

"You were supposed to do that a week ago!"

"I'll get it done... tomorrow."  George added.

"Tomorrow we have to do the paperwork for Casey!"

"Okay, I'll do it after we finish getting the rest of their things out of the vehicle."  The pair walked out the backdoor, forgetting their middle children were talking to them.

As soon as they were alone, Edwin shook his head.  "Unbelievable."

"I feel like a ghost in my own home."

"Same, sister."

Lizzie stared at him, "So, what's our next step?"

"I think I might have an idea.  Meet me in the games closet and we'll work out the red tape."

"Right.  I'll get my notebook."

Stopping abruptly outside her bedroom door, Casey paused to scribble furiously into her notebook.  Unexpectedly, something ran into her and both parties let out a startled, "Ompf!"


"Hey, it's not my fault.  You're the one that stopped."

"Well, watch where you're going!"

"I was going to my room, but you're in the way."

She held up her notebook.  "I just thought of something I had to write down!"

Rolling his eyes, he snatched it from her.  Flipping through it, he jeered, "Tell me, is this 'The Life and Times of Klutzilla' or 'A Day in the Life of Spacey' or-"

Casey snatched to the notebook back, interrupting him, "No, it's my 'University Prep' notebook, the prequel to the classic 'Packing List'.

Derek snorted, "Funny, Case."  He looked her over, commenting, "I'm surprised your notebook doesn't match your first day of class outfit that you picked out three weeks ago."

A flush materialized across her cheeks, much to Derek's amusement.  "This isn't the notebook I'm using the first day of class so it's not a problem."

He laughed, "So, they do match!"  Mocking in his best feminine voice, "Just let me know what color it is so we don't clash!"  He slipped by her into his room still snickering.  As he swung the door shut, Casey caught it and followed him in.

"Derek, why aren't you taking this seriously?"  He landed roughly in his desk chair and ignored her.  Casey pushed, "Why can't you acknowledge that this is hard for both of us?"

"See Spacey, that's what makes us different."

"That I acknowledge my feelings and you don't?"

Smirking, he clasped his hands in front of his face.  "Nope!  You have feelings and... I don't."

"Are you trying to tell me, Derek Venturi, that you feel nothing about packing up your childhood bedroom, moving to another town, leaving your family and friends, going to university, and not having your room to come home to?"

He avoided her eyes, clicking around on his computer.  "Forget it, Princess.  I'm not biting."

Casey paced back and forth in front of his desk quietly for a few minutes.  Finally, she broke, "Well, you're right.  I'm not like you.  I can't pretend I don't have feelings.  Even though, I've only lived in this house for a few years, it's really become home to me.  I know we all had problems adjusting when we first moved in, but I'm really, really going to miss it here."  Her voice wobbled and her eyes welled up with unshed tears.

Derek, sensing trouble, looked up in horror.  "No!  Oh, no!  Absolutely no tears in this room!"

Ignoring him, Casey plopped down on his bed and folded her arms across her chest as the tears ran down her cheeks.

Groaning, Derek covered his face with his hands.  "Case-ey!"  Dropping his hands, he looked at her cautiously as she wiped at her eyes.  "Can't you cry in your own room?"

Suddenly angry, Casey jumped up again.  "Right, Derek.  I forgot you're allergic to tears!  And did you forget that they're not going to be our rooms when we come back?"

Giving in to anger himself, Derek sprung up from his chair.  "How can I forget it, Casey, when you're reminding me every two seconds?"

"At least I'm living in reality!  You think you can avoid it by ignoring it?"

"I deal with it differently!"

"I'll say!  Well, Derek, why don't you just grow up!"

He chuckled humorlessly.  "Me?  Hate to break it to ya, Space Case, but you're not dealing with reality any better than I am!"

Casey bristled.  "And exactly what do you mean by that?"

"The extra keenerness?  The super codes?  The freak-outs?  Yeah, you definitely have everything under control!"

"Excuse me?  I'm planning for the future!  Which is more than I can say about you!"

Derek rolled his eyes, plucking the notebook out of her hand and shaking it in the air.  "Just because I haven't filled six notebooks with plans, doesn't mean I don't have them!"

Unexpectedly softening, Casey asked quietly, "Then why can't you start packing, Derek?"

Calming down as well, Derek snorted.  "When have I ever done anything that far ahead of time?"

Casey stole the notebook back and used it to slap his shoulder.  "DER-REK!  This is serious!"

Angry again, Derek huffed.  "Casey, drop it.  I'm not packing anything."  She opened her mouth to argue, but he cut across her as he hauled her to the door, "No, no, that's it.  You're out of here."

She lingered in the doorway.  "You can talk until you're blue in the face, but you're still going to have to do this."

Huddled together in the game closet, Lizzie stated, "We need a strategy."

"Playing nice isn't getting us anywhere.  I say we confront them... loudly."  Edwin suggested.

Lizzie nodded, hovering her pen over the notebook.  "The time has come for drastic measures.  Now, we need tactics."

"Way ahead of you, sis."  Edwin motioned for the pad and pen.  "Alright, I say we trap them in the kitchen after dinner."

"I say the basement.  There's too many escape routes out of the kitchen.  If we go down and trap them in their room, we can stand in the doorway and block them in."

Edwin scratched out some things and rewrote.  "Good, good.  Okay, now, what things do you want to say to them?"

Lizzie snorted sarcastically, "Let's see, where to start?  First of all, I'm tired of being in Casey's shadow.  I have things going on in my life too!"

"Hear, hear!  Only Derek's shadow is twice as large."

Conceding his point with a nod, Lizzie continued, "That should be our lead.  We're just as concerned going to high school as they are going to university."

"It's not fair that just because they experienced it first, the transition isn't any less serious for us."

"We should get just as much attention."  Lizzie took a deep breath, which served to calm her slightly.  "Let's try once more to talk to them calmly."  Edwin raised a skeptical eyebrow, so Lizzie clarified, "Separately.  You talk to your dad and I'll talk to my mom."

"Divide and conquer?"

"Exactly.  Then if that doesn't work, we'll pull out the big guns."

He stuck out a hand for her to shake.  "Good luck."

"You too, bro."

Lizzie found Nora sitting on a kitchen stool, hovering over a stack of papers.  Nora looked up briefly, "Oh hey, Liz.  Be a peach and hand me those papers on the counter."

Looking at all the scattered papers on the counter, Lizzie asked, "Which ones?"

"The stack by the phone."

She brought them over to her mom before taking a seat across the island from her.  "Mom, I'm not going to beat around the subject.  I'm tired of Casey getting all of your attention."

Nora's face showed her shock.  "Lizzie!  That's hardly true.  You-"

Interrupting, Lizzie gave her a hard look.  "Trust me, it's true.  No matter what's going on, Casey's problems always get top priority."

"Honey, you sound like you have a touch of the green-eyed monster."

"I'm just pointing out how it is.  When Casey was starting high school, it was a big deal.  Now, when I'm starting high school, Casey's starting at university.  So, she gets the attention, and I don't.  Well, I have important things happening too!"

"No one's saying that you don't, sweetie.  But right now, we have to help Casey and Der-"

"See!  That's what I've been saying all along!"

"Look, Liz, you know the saying the grass is always greener on the other side?  I'm sure there's plenty of things you do that Casey wishes she-"

"That's the thing, Mom.  This isn't about how we're different, it's about how we're the same.  We all start high school at some point and-"

Grimacing as she looked at her watch, Nora stood.  "Listen, sweetie, we'll talk later.  Right now, I have to pick up some things for Casey."  She grabbed her keys and purse off the counter and was out the door.

Lizzie let out a muffled scream of frustration.

"Dad, can we talk?"  Edwin dropped down on the couch next to George.

George looked up from his newspaper, "What about, Ed?"

"Well, actually... Derek."

Straightening angrily, George asked, "What's he done now?"

"Uh, nothing.  More along the lines of how Derek is... favored."

"I wouldn't say he's favored, Ed.  He's just... Derek, you know?"

Edwin hung his head, "Yeah, but you do favor him over me."

"That's comparing apples to oranges.  You and Derek are entirely different."

Crossing his arms, Edwin huffed.  "You don't have to tell me something I'm desperately aware of!  I know we're different, okay?  I'm talking about how no one is concerned with Lizzie and me starting high school because Derek and Casey are starting university!  They get the red-carpet treatment while Lizzie and I are invisible!"

George stared at Edwin in shock.  "Easy, Edwin.  You're a little red in the face."

"Really?  Wow, that's surprising, considering I'm not upset at all!"

"I think you need to take some time and calm down, Edwin, before we talk about this anymore."

Edwin huffed angrily again just as Derek flopped into his chair, reaching for the remote.  As a game roared to life, Edwin stood, muttering to himself as he walked around the back of the couch, "Derek's here!  Better roll out the red carpet!"

"DER-REK!  HAVE YOU PACKED ANYTHING?"  Casey flew to his closet, quickly pulling out his suitcase and opening it on his bed before returning to the closet.

Instantly, Derek was out of his chair, tossing off his headphones and striding across the room to block her path.  "Whoa, whoa, whoa, Spacey!  You are not packing my clothes now!"

Crossing her arms, Casey turned away from him.  Noticing his clean laundry still in the basket, she picked it up, crying, "Derek, you haven't even hung these up yet!"  Casey carried it to his closet and pulled out some empty hangers.

Behind her back, Derek rolled his eyes as he took a seat on his bed, watching as she hung up his clothes methodically.

"What have you been doing all this time anyway?"

"Casey, Casey, Casey.  I've been busy."

She snorted, "Yeah, I'm sure.  Drafting emails to all your fan club members?"

Derek snickered.  "Nah, I use a form letter."  Casey whipped around to look at him, making him laugh even harder.  "I'm kidding, Spacey!"

Blowing some strands of hair out of her face, Casey turned back to his closet.  Still laughing, Derek returned to his desk although he left his headphones off.

"Then what are you working on that's so important?"

Smirking, Derek taunted, "That's for me to know and you to find out."

Edwin and Lizzie marched down the basement stairs.  Walking determinedly inside George and Nora's bedroom, they crossed their arms as they stared down their parents.  Lizzie started, "Mom, George."

Finishing for her, Edwin stated, "We have something to say."

"Can this wait?  We're exhausted."  George collapsed backwards onto their bed.

"No, Dad.  You need to listen to us."

Lizzie nodded, backing him up.  "We've been waiting all summer and frankly, we're both sick of it."

"We're tired of being in Derek and Casey's shadows."

"We know they're going to university and that it's going to be hard on all of us for them to leave, but-"

Edwin finished her sentence, "We're going through a transition too.  And-"

"We're both nervous about high school.  We'd like-"

"To be able to talk about it, but-"

Growing more frustrated, Lizzie's voice raised, "All we hear about is Casey-"

"And Derek-"

Together, Lizzie and Edwin shouted, "All the time!"

Continuing, Lizzie ranted, "They're getting all the attention and-"

"New stuff for university, while-"

"We need stuff for high school, but-"

"We haven't gotten what we need!"

Lizzie stomped once.  "Not to mention how we feel-"

"Being ignored!  It's like-"

"We don't matter."  Completing their rant together, they turned to look at each other.  Lizzie nodded and with that they retreated out of their parents' bedroom, closing the door behind them.

Stacks of boxes surrounded Casey as she sat on the living room floor.  She used her notebook as a guide as she sorted.  Sheets of colored stickers fanned out in front of her as she reached for another box.  Casey leaned back against Derek's chair as she flipped through her notebook.

Behind her, Derek turned up the television volume.  Casey tilted her head back, "Derek, do you have to turn it so loud?  I'm trying to concentrate."

Derek rolled his eyes, leaning over the side of his chair to hover over her shoulder.  He studied the stickers sticking everywhere.  "What color means neurotic keener on steroids?"

Casey glared at him but didn't say anything.

Leaning further down, Derek pulled off a pink sticker from her sheet.  "Oh, it's pink, right?"  In one fatal swoop, Derek stuck it to her forehead.


Through his laughter, Derek called, "Perfect!  I've finished my packing!"

Dramatically, Casey peeled the sticker off her forehead and threw it at him.  He deflected it with one hand, still snickering.  Casey huffed, returning to work and Derek rolled his eyes, going back to his show.

Tilting her head to the side, Casey thought for a minute before she shouted, "DER-REK!"

Jumping at her sudden outburst, Derek looked over his chair at her.  "What?  I didn't even do anything!"

"You finished your packing?"

He smirked winningly at her, "Yup, just with one sticker."  Casey's eyes narrowed and Derek winked, "You're the only thing I need, Princess."

Arching an eyebrow, Casey questioned, "Oh, really?"

"Yeah," Derek teased, "Then you can do everything for me."

Casey rolled her eyes.  "I don't think so, Derek."

Hanging over his chair, Derek leaned closer to her.  "Aww, come on, Case."

She pushed his face away.  "Not a chance."

Derek drew closer again.  "We both know you won't be able to resist packing my things in perfect order.  She gave herself away as she shifted back and forth.  He pulled back, smirking.  "That's what I thought."

There was a beat of silence before he asked, "So, why do you have all the baby's things spread across the living room?"  His gaze wondered over the explosion of items on the floor."

"Because, Derek, this is a golden opportunity to sort and label while everyone is in bed."

"And remind me again why you have to do this?"

Sighing, Casey shook her head.  "Everything needs to be sorted and organized before it's packed."

"Oh, right."  He picked up a rattle and a pacifier off the floor.  "I almost forgot that we needed these things to go to Queen's."

Grabbing the items out of his hand, Casey returned them carefully to their places.  "Der-rek!  Be careful!"

"Casey, you're being ridiculous."

Crossing her arms, she glared up at him.  "No, I'm not!  Now, leave me alone.  I have a lot to do tonight."  She started sorting the baby clothes by size and color.  Derek looked to the ceiling, banging his head against his chair.

As she came into the kitchen, Marti folded her arms importantly.  "Dad, Nora, I think you need to talk to Edwin and Lizzie."

George looked up, "Why's that, Marti?"

"They're really upset because no one is listening to them."

"Of course, we listen to them."  Nora assured her.

She was already shaking her head, Marti argued, "No, you haven't been.  They want to talk about high school, but you haven't let them."

Nora winced, "We've been busy, Marti."

Marti eyed them both sternly.  "That's no excuse."

Trying to ease his daughter, George joked, "Anything else we should know, munchkin?"

"Do you know that Casey is color-coding everything because she's so stressed out about leaving?"

The smile dropped from George's face.  "It's not a control thing?"

Shaking her head, Marti sighed before responding, "Yes, but only because she wants to fight against the unknown."

Nora's eyes widened.  "Wow, that's deep, Miss Smarti.  Did Casey tell you that?"

"Nope!"  Marti popped the p.  "I figured it out."

"Thanks for sharing with us."  Nora looked sideways at George.

The little girl wasn't finished, "And you have figured out that Smerek is trying to hide that packing up his room is making him sad, right?"

George and Nora looked to each other, surprised.

Clearing his throat, George asked, "Did Derek say that?"

"Puh-lease, he would never say that.  I figured that out too."  Both George and Nora shifted in their seats as Marti studied them.  Marti chirped, "I didn't think you knew."  Marti danced over to the cupboard, grabbing a granola bar before she skipped to the door.

Turning back, Marti sighed heavily, "I'm too young to be the only one knowing what's going on around here."

Listening to Marti trudge up the stairs, George chuckled, "She's no shrinking violet, is she?"

Nora winced, "I think we better make things right with Lizzie and Edwin."

Cringing as well, George agreed.  "And then do something about Casey."

"And Derek-" Nora started.  They eyed each other before Nora finished, "Well, I don't know what to do with Derek."

"Now that I think about it, he has been acting a little off-color."

"He has been pretty subdued... for Derek that is."

George's answer was cut off by the arrival of Edwin and Lizzie.

Lizzie stepped into the kitchen, immediately complaining, "Mom, we've got to do something about Casey!"

Hastily, Edwin agreed, "Amen!  She stickered my entire room!"

"I know, I know."  Nora opened the cupboard to grab some dishes and gasped.  "Oh my, things have gotten out of hand."  She turned back to them, holding stickered plates and glasses.

"She stickered our dishes?"  George asked appalled.

Sighing, Nora answered, "It seems so."

As Derek walked into the kitchen, the hushed voices immediately ceased.  He looked around at his dad, Nora, Edwin, and Lizzie, who stared back at him wide-eyed before they heaved a collective sigh.

"What's wrong?"  Derek asked as he took a seat.

Edwin answered, "We thought you were Casey."

Snorting, Derek responded sarcastically, "Nope, but if I start acting like her, commit me.  So, what's up then?"

George cleared his throat.  "We were just saying that things have gotten a little out of hand."

"Uh, you think?"

"Derek, be nice."  Nora chided.  "We were just discussing the newest addition of stickers."  She opened the cupboard to show him the stickered glassware.

"She's insane."

"Derek!"  George scolded.

"It's true, Dad."

Nodding along, Edwin filled his brother in.  "Before I could even say anything, she covered my whole room.  All my things have red stickers on them now!"

Lizzie spoke up, "I agree.  This has gone way too far.  But what do we do to get her to stop?"

Before anyone could answer, they heard Marti whine loudly from upstairs.  "Caaaaaaaaseeeey!  Sir Monks a Lot doesn't need to wear a purple sticker!"

Derek choked on his food then jumped as Marti screamed, "SMEREK!  HELP!"

Snorting, Edwin teased, "Looks like you're the only one who can save Sir Monks a Lot, D."

Groaning, Derek left on his rescue mission, "CASEY!  Don't make me come up there!"

Edwin and Lizzie got up, intending to watch the show, but George stopped them by calling, "Wait a minute, Edwin, Lizzie."

"What's up?"  Edwin asked, sitting back down.

"We've been talking and..."  George trailed off so Nora could take over.

"We are so sorry."

George nodded.  "We didn't mean to make you feel that way."

Nora patted her stomach.  "It's been a stressful time for all of us... with the baby on its way and Derek and Casey off to university... I know it's no excuse, but I hope you forgive us."

"We've never had kids going to university before.  It's hard for us as well."  George added.

Nora motioned for Edwin and Lizzie to lean closer and she held out a hand to each of them.  "I'll take you both shopping on my day off."

"And tomorrow after dinner, we'll go to the basement and talk about anything you want, okay?"

Lizzie and Edwin eyed each other.  Finally, Lizzie gave Edwin a miniscule nod and he turned to his dad and Nora asking, "And if you don't follow through with your promises?"

His dad winced.  "You can pick our punishment."

Communicating silently, they nodded.  Lizzie smiled, "Agreed.  It's a deal."

George went back to his breakfast, but Nora stared off into space saying, "Now, if only we could figure out how to handle Casey."

"We need to plan an intervention or something."  Edwin lamented.

Lizzie perked up, "Hey, that's an idea!  We'll all sit her down and confront her!"

George and Nora looked to each other, silently deliberating.  Nora hesitated, "I think... I think we might have to."  She winced at the end of her sentence.

Edwin's eyebrows shot up in surprise.  "Are you serious?"

Picking up his labeled glass and plate, George nodded.  "You plan it out today and we'll implement it after work."

Excitedly, Lizzie asked, "You're really giving us the green light to do this?"

Nora grimaced, "Within reason, of course."  She shot a smile at Lizzie and then told George, "We better get to work, George."

"Right!"  George took a final bite of breakfast before turning to help Nora up.  They gathered their things and headed to the door, calling goodbyes out over their shoulders.

Smirking, Edwin turned to Lizzie.  "Lizzie, it's our red-letter day."

"It's about time!"

"CASEY!  Don't make me come up there!"

Splitting his name from upstairs, Casey's head peaked over the banister.  "I'm not scared of you."  She disappeared around the corner again.

Marti called again, "HELP, SMEREK!"

"Three seconds, Case!"



"Casey, the animals don't need stickers!"




"Please, Casey, stop!"

"TIME'S UP, SPACEY!"  Derek's feet thudded up the stairs.  He rounded the corner, finding Casey and Marti kneeling by the girl's tent in the hall.  Derek hauled Casey up by the arm.

Casey cried, "Der-rek!" as she ripped her arm from his grasp.  "I told you, everything has to be sorted and labeled."

"And I told you, we're not going to end up at Queen's with one of Smarti's animals!"

They circled each other closely, noses almost touching.  "Derek, there's nothing wrong with organizing!"

"Casey, you don't need to organize everyone's things!"


"But nothing!  No one else is involved!  It's just you and me, Case!"

Behind them a small giggle interrupted Casey's comeback.  Both Derek and Casey had forgotten their witness.

"What's so funny, Smarts?"

Giggling again, Marti answered, "You two are cute when you fight like that."  Marti sighed wistfully, "I wish I had a step-sib like that."

Derek forced a laugh, "Trust me, Smarts, ya don't."  He quickly disappeared into his room, both girls staring after him.

Casey walked in the front door, bags of new stickers and notebooks weighing heavily from her arms.  After taking a few steps inside, she stopped dead in her tracks.  Lizzie, Marti, Nora, George, and Edwin lined the couch, staring expectantly at her.  Derek reclined easily in his chair, hands behind his head and looking bored.

Lizzie spoke first, "Hello, Casey."

"Please, take a seat."  Edwin inclined his head to the chair by the door.

Clearing his throat, George added, "We have something we'd like to discuss with you."

Looking between everyone, Casey refused to sit.  "Is this an intervention?"

Nora winced, her voice a wobbly state of nervousness, "Well, no, we just want to... lend some color... to how we're all handling... things around here."

"So, it is an intervention."  Casey sunk slowly into the chair.

Edwin waved a hand impatiently.  "Sure, intervention, conspiracy, tomato, tomato, whatever you want to call it.  Let's just get to it.  Lizzie, proceed."

Straightening in her seat, Lizzie started again, "Well, frankly, Casey, you're driving everyone nuts."

Derek snorted, mumbling, "Nothing new there."

Casey shot him a glare before her mother drew her attention away from Derek.  "Listen, Casey.  The stickers on the dishes were a little much."

"Mom, I'm simply organizing and color-coding to enable a more efficient packing routine!"

George frowned.  "We understand that.  It's just... not everything has to be labeled."

Jumping in, Edwin agreed, "Like my room, for example.  Nothing from my room is going anywhere!"

"Mine either!"  Lizzie added

"And my animals know where they go!"  Marti blurted.

Nora put in, "George and I know what belongs to us as well.  But Miss Case, we really do appreciate you helping out with the baby's things."  She patted her stomach lightly.

Frowning, Casey looked away from everyone.

Lizzie's voice grew more consoling, "We get that organizing is your thing, sis, but it's gone too far."

Frantically, Edwin nodded.  "So, it came down to an intervention."

Wincing at Edwin's choice of word, Nora soldiered on, "You and Derek are the only ones moving so focus on the two of you.  Okay, Case?"  Derek shot a look at Nora but didn't comment.

Trying to appease Casey, George smiled.  "When the time comes for the move, everything will work out."

Casey just barely resisted rolling her eyes.  Instead, she looked down at her hands clasped in her lap.  "Can I go now?"

Slowly, Nora nodded.  "I think that's about everything we wanted to say.  Right, everyone?"  Nods went off around the couch, but Derek only rolled his eyes.

Not waiting for more, Casey jumped out of her chair and raced up the stairs.  Her bedroom door slammed loudly, causing everyone to flinch.

Edwin shook his head.  "I still think we should have done a Godfather move."

Marti knocked softly on Casey's door, waiting for Casey's permission.  She slipped in quietly, approaching Casey and crawling gently into bed with her.  Carefully, she cuddled into her side.  "Are you okay, Casey?"

"I'm fine.  Did you need something?"

"I just wanted to check on you after," Marti held up her hands to make air quotes, "The intervention."

"Aww, that's nice of you.  But I'm okay."

"You don't have to say that, you know.  It's okay to not be okay all the time."

Casey gave the girl a watery smile as she tucked a strand of Marti's hair behind her ear.  "You're too young to understand so much."

Marti smiled, leaning her head against Casey's shoulder.  She waited a moment before she whispered, "You know my brother needs you, right?"

"Marti... he would never say that."

"Doesn't make it any less true."

"I'm not sure I believe that, kiddo."

"Just don't stop trying no matter what he says.  His sorry butt needs you or he'll never make it."

Casey grew quiet.  Several minutes passed before she volunteered, "He makes it so hard sometimes."

"I know.  That's how he is, but he really does care."

"I wouldn't be so sure if I were you."

"Seriously.  He's sad about his room and doesn't want anyone to know.  I'll talk to him about it.  Things will get better, you'll see."

Chuckling, Casey teased, "I think you're chasing rainbows, Marti."

"What's wrong with that?  I love rainbows!"

She pulled Marti in for a side hug.  "You're so sweet, Marti.  Thank you, but you really don't have to talk to him.  I can handle Derek."

Marti smiled innocently up at her.  "Bet I can get him to talk about his ffff-feelings!"

Casey laughed as Marti mocked her older brother.  The two collapsed against each other, giggling.  As they sobered, Marti wrapped her arms around Casey's neck tightly, uttering tenderly, "I love you, Casey."

"I love you too, kiddo."

"Casey, this is your third uninvited visit in the last," Derek checked his watch, "Two hours.  What the hell do you want now?"

She clutched her notebook securely to her chest, holding her chin high.  "I'm double checking my list, Derek."  He rolled his eyes and went back to his computer.  Casey studied him for a beat, "What are you working on so intently?"

Not looking up, he teased, "I thought I'd document 'The Life and Times of Klutzilla' for you, since the fam is going to lock you up... or kill you.  Honest, it's a toss-up between the two."

"You are not."

"Fine, don't believe me.  But I'd take it seriously that you're the star of everyone's annoyment if I were you."

"Annoyance, Derek."

"See, even you agree."

Casey sniffed.  "Whatever."  She snapped her notebook close and left his room.

"You again?"

Casey ignored Derek as she rounded his bed.  She pulled out a measuring tape to measure his closet.  

Derek's mouth hung open.  "Uh, Case?"  Casey didn't answer so he continued, "Do you happen to know the number to call for a straitjacket?"

She turned and glared at him but continued to write down the measurements in her notebook.  Derek watched her take more measurements for a while before he shook his head and returned to his work.

They both worked in silence, Casey having moved to his bed as she glanced around his room and scratched out notes.

Suddenly, Derek belched loudly.

"Gross, Derek!  Don't be disgusting!"

"Hey, if you don't like it, get out."

"I can't.  I have work to do."

"You're spending more time in here than in your own room."

"Your point?"

"What more do you possibly need to do?  Measure the carpet?  Count the dust bunnies under my bed?"

"No, Derek.  And for the record, I wouldn't crawl under your bed even if you paid me."

He rolled his eyes and the two went back to work in silence until Casey crossed the room, opening a drawer in his dresser that caught Derek's attention.  "What do you think you're doing?"  He asked alarmed as she sifted through his boxers.

"Sorting out the desirables from the... undesirables."  Casey threw several articles out of the drawer, turning to add stickers.

Derek bailed out of his chair.  His eyes were wide and movements frantic as he wedged himself between her and his drawer.  "Whoa, whoa, whoa.  I can handle this myself."  He backed into his dresser to close the drawer.

Casey let out a "Hmpf!"  Crying, "I doubt it!"  She tried to dodge around him, but he grabbed her by the shoulders.  As she struggled against him, she split out, "DER-REK!"

"Nuh uh, not a chance.  But it's nice to know you find my boxers... desirable."  He added a cheeky wink as he sat her on the bed.  Derek smirked at the blush creeping up her neck as she huffed and crossed her arms.

Derek had just sat down at his desk when Casey popped up from the bed.  He jumped out of his chair and forced her back down into the bed.  In two strides, he ran to the door, throwing it open and hollering, "NORA!  GET YOUR DAUGHTER OUT OF MY ROOM!  SHE'S COLOR-CODING MY... SOCKS!"

Stumbling into the kitchen, Derek found Edwin and Marti snacking on some cookies and milk.  "Ed, sandwich."  Edwin complied, leaping up.

Derek leaned over Marti and took a bite out of the cookie in her hand.  She giggled, "Smerek!  That's mine!"

"Sorry, Smarti.  Had to make sure you didn't toothpaste them."  All three of them chuckled at the prank.

Marti grinned proudly.  "Not this time."

He ruffled her hair.  Derek took a seat, picking up Marti's stickered glass, "I can't believe her."

Edwin passed the finished sandwich to Derek.  "At least the intervention helped."

"Ha!  For you maybe, but not for me."

"It can't be that bad."

"She's always in my room!"  Derek munched on his sandwich, talking through a mouthful, "You know what she did earlier?  She brought a tape measurer to measure my closet.  What the hell does she need to do that for?"

Shaking his head, Edwin explained, "She's Casey."

Derek grunted.  "She's el nutso."  He hurriedly picked up his things.  "I can't leave her unsupervised."  Derek rushed out of the kitchen.

Edwin stared after him.  Looking at Marti with brows furrowed, he asked, "Don't you think it's out of the blue how he's letting her in his room?"

Marti nodded.  "We've never been able to do that.  Even me." 

"It's weird.  That's got to be some sort of red flag."  Edwin put his finger to his chin, thinking it over.

"It's Casey.  She makes him do things."  Marti shrugged.

Edwin tapped his chin.  "Right, but the question is... why?"

She grinned slyly, "You're the detective... snoop!"

"Not a bad idea, Smarti."  Edwin followed Derek out, stopping in the doorway.  "Although, I've tried to find Derek's weakness before and never proved anything conclusive."  He looked back at her, shrugging before he left.

To herself, Marti shook her head.  "Amateur.  Obviously, his weakness is Casey."

Marti walked into Derek's room unannounced.  "Smerek, do you have the blues?"

"The blue what, Smarti?"  Derek clicked at his computer one last time before giving her his full attention.

"I mean... are you sad?"

He looked at her, face emotionless.  "I suppose... a little.  Why do you ask?"

"Because Casey is... and I just thought you would be too."  His brow quirked and she was quick to add, "And I guess I am too... a little."

Derek pulled her into his lap.  "Okay, let's start with what's making you sad."

"I'm sad you're leaving.  And Casey too."

"Ah, Smarti.  I'm going to miss you.  But you understand I still have to go, right?"

She nodded.  "But you have to pack up your room and everything."  They both paused the conversation to look around his room.

Derek sounded considerably sadder when he spoke again, "It's not all bad, Smarti."

"So, you are blue then."

He hesitated.  "Yeah.  But I'm excited too.  University should be great."  Marti continued to frown, so Derek reassured her, "Hey, before you know it, I'll be back and while I'm gone, we'll talk all the time.  'Kay?"

"Okay, Smerek.  What about Casey?"

Exaggeratedly, Derek rolled his eyes.  "Trust me, Smarts, it'll be hard to keep her off the phone."

"That's not what I meant.  She's sad now."


Marti pulled away to look at him seriously.  "Smerek!  She's having a hard time.  Can't you give her a break?"

Derek pretended to look her tiny body over.  "You okay?  I think you're going soft on me."

"Be serious, Smerek.  She's trying to deal with change.  You know, control things she can so the other stuff isn't so scary."

Avoiding Marti's inquisitive eyes, Derek dropped her gaze.  "I'm not trying to mess anything up."

Smiling lightly, Marti nudged him until he looked up again.  "I know, but you're just... a lot sometimes."

He sighed.  "Case and I will be alright.  You don't have to worry."

"I'm not worried.  I know you care."  She beamed at his grimace.

Trying to lighten the air, Derek joked, "When did you get so smart, Smarti?"

"I've always been the smartest.  You're just now noticing it."

Derek laughed, pulling her closer to him again.  "The rest of us aren't nearly as smart as you.  Guess that makes you the black sheep in this hectic herd."

"Um, I think you mean purple cat, Smerek.  Purple is the best color."

"Right, my bad.  Purple cat then."  He tickled her sides and she cried out happily before jumping out of his lap.  Marti turned to eye him, "Let her help you, Smerek.  We all know you can't do it without her."

He snorted then winced.  "Can't argue that."

Marti beamed and skipped down the hall.

They ran into each other in the hall between their rooms.  Or more accurately, Derek bumped into the box Casey was hauling.  "Easy there, Spacey.  Not looking for a return of Klutzilla, are you?"

Rolling her eyes, Casey ignored his remark.  "Derek, you can't avoid the inevitable forever."

Particularly amused by this statement, he muttered, "Well, that's a pretty big gray area."

Casey arched a perfect eyebrow.  "What's gray about packing up your room?"

Derek closed his eyes and sighed.  "Have you ever known me to do something ahead of time?"

"Der-rek!  This isn't homework!  Packing is going to take time."

He studied her intently as if searching for something.  Finally, he threw his head back, groaning, "Alright, but this is a once in a blue moon kind of thing, got it?  And I'm not giving you permission to go into color-coding keener freak mode."

"You're actually asking me to help?"

After a long drawn out groan, a slyness crossed Derek's face as he leaned closer to her, whispering, "Wear the maid costume this time."

"Der-rek!"  Casey hissed, immediately looking around the hall.

Laughing, he tapped her cheek.  "Gee, Case, you're a little pink in the face."  Casey shooed his hand away, causing her to fumble the box she was holding.  Derek chuckled, "Flustered much?"  Ignoring him, Casey threw open her bedroom door, leaving a smirking Derek in the hallway.

When Casey knocked on Derek's door with boxes in hand, she didn't expect him to go through with it.  Derek opened the door, the picture of casual cool as he leaned against the doorframe.  His sweatpants hung low on his hips as he blocked her way in.

He smirked, taking in her baggy tee and short shorts with her hair falling in soft strands around her face.  "You forgot the maid costume."

"What is it with you and the maid thing?"

Derek shrugged as his smirk grew.  "If you're doing work for me, you might as well dress for the part."

"I'm not doing work for you.  I'm helping, jerk."

"Are you saying you don't have a plan in place?"  He raised his eyebrows at her.

Casey sighed.  "Okay, fine.  But you're not going to sit around and watch me.  You're helping."

He held up a finger.  "On one condition.  Do you promise to listen when I tell you not to pack something?"

Reluctantly, Casey nodded.  "Alright, but you can't wait until the last minute.  We won't have much time left when we get back from the lodge."

Derek held out a hand for her to shake.  "Deal, Princess."  He paused, adding sarcastically, "Anything for you to leave me alone."

She withdrew her hand and ducked under his arm.  Derek grinned as he shut the door behind them.

Tossing the boxes down on his floor, Casey quipped, "I'm tickled pink, D."

Rolling his eyes, Derek sat on his bed.  "Don't get used to it.  So, where do we start, keener?"

"Well, why don't we start with the stuff we know we have to move to the basement?"

"Probs better start in the closet then."  Derek led the way over and opened the door.  Items fell out in every direction.

"Oh my gosh, it's a war zone!"  Derek picked up a piece of pizza and threw it at her.  "Gross, Derek!"

He snickered, leaning against the door, and gesturing to his closet with one hand, "After you, Princess."

Putting her chin high into the air, she declared, "I refuse to crawl down there.  You can do that, and I'll label."  Derek watched her climb into his bed, easily making herself comfortable as she sat on her feet.  She pulled out a sheet of stickers and looked at him expectantly.  He sighed, sinking to his knees.

"So, I take it you've finished your packing then if you're focusing on mine."  They had finished his closet, except for the clothes Derek had refused to pack.  Now, Derek and Casey sat in front of his bed as they sorted the things they had swept out from underneath.

Casey nodded.  "I've packed just about everything.  I keep changing my mind about what I'm taking and what's staying though."

Derek leaned closer, "Did you pack your maid costume?"  He paused to smirk, "You know, for when you do my laundry and clean my room."

Her cheeks grew rosy.  "Derek, I am not doing your laundry."  He raised an eyebrow and she continued hastily, "OR cleaning your room."

"What would you do with the maid costume then?"  He shot her a wink, reclining causally on the floor as he waited for her to answer.

"Der-rek!"  She crisscrossed her legs, causing her t-shirt to inch further up her legs, immediately catching Derek's attention.  He pulled his eyes away as she said, "I still don't understand why you keep bringing that up.  I don't even have a maid outfit."

"Really?  Better fix that then."

She arched an eyebrow.  "Why?"

"I can think of a few reasons."

"Gee, Der, this is quite the shrine to yourself you have going on."  Casey commented as she started wrapping his trophies and awards in tissue paper.

He approached his bookshelf to join her, gazing at his most prized possessions.  Derek reached for a hockey puck branded with 'MVP' and picked it up fondly.  "You should be honored even touching these things."

Casey teasingly covered her heart with fake sincerity.  "I'm truly flattered."

Derek smirked, "You should be.  I don't share, you know."

She rolled her eyes.  "Yeah, I think I may have picked up on that once or twice over the years."

Chuckling, he grabbed some tissue paper.  "Hey, I can share.  I just choose not to."

"And what Derek wants, Derek gets."

His twinkling eyes jumped to hers.  "Not always."  He nudged his shoulder into hers lightly.  "You've stopped me from getting... everything."

She snorted.  "Hardly."  Casey picked up another trophy and wrapped it carefully.

"Exhibit A."  Derek held up a hockey card in front of her face.

"What's that?"  Realization flashed across her features.  "Is that..."

"Yup.  The one you tried to flush."

"You kept it?"

"Duh."  They locked eyes.  "I'll hold it over your head for eternity."

Casey rolled her eyes, swiping it out of his hand.  "It was your own fault.  You couldn't just share the house like a normal human being."

"Like you can talk."  He poked her side, teasing, "Did you remember to pack the pink and blue tape?"

She tried to keep the smile off her face.  "No, Derek, I didn't because I won't be living with you."

"So, what happens when you get the roommate from hell and wish you were living with me instead?"

"Like that will happen."

"Don't discount it, Case.  Could happen."

"I highly doubt it, Derek."

After they took the last of his posters down, Derek studied the bare walls.  "No posters, no signs, no records.  How depressing."  He sat down on the floor, leaning back against the bed beside Casey. 

She faced him, studying his face.  "Is this hard for you?  I know it's different for you than me.  You've lived here your entire life."  Derek shrugged, so Casey continued, "It makes me sad.  I don't want to leave the family behind."  They made eye contact briefly before Derek dropped it.

Casey plowed on, "I'm nervous moving to a new city again.  Starting classes and trying to make friends... Aren't you nervous at all?"

"I don't remember signing up for a shrink session."

"Come on, Derek.  It's us.  We're going through this together.  You can tell me how you feel."

"I don't do feelings, Case."

She studied him.  "You don't fool me, you know.  You may be able to deceive everyone else, but I know better.  You're a good guy, Der."  Casey drew her legs up to her chest and Derek's eyes traced the movement.

Derek scratched the back of his neck.  "Sure, it's a little sad.  But there's got to be bigger and better things ahead of us, right Princess?"  He grinned confidently.  "At least for me.  I don't know what happens to keeners like you at university."


After they had been through every nook and cranny, the two sat in the middle of Derek's floor as they labeled and packed.  "See, D.  We work well together.  At least when you're not being such a jerk."

Derek laughed.  "Spacey, I think you're getting punchy."

She smiled back at him, "I don't see why, we've only been at this for hours."

He rolled his eyes as he folded up a full box, silently requesting the packing tape from her.  Casey complied before turning back to her own box.  "Der-rek!" 

Jumping at her outburst, Derek questioned, "What?"

"You're not taking your trophies to Queen's!"  Casey ripped the white sticker off the box.

"Casey, those are my prized possessions!"

"Derek, they're going to stay in the basement!"

He grabbed the box from her.  "No!  We've never been apart!"

Casey's face softened.  "It's time, Derek.  Besides, there won't be room for them with all the new ones you're going to get."

Derek looked at her, slowly releasing his hold on the box.  "Well, when you put it that way."  He turned his back on her and the box, working on filling the next with comics and magazines.  Derek only turned back around after Casey had successfully relabeled the box and taped it up.

They worked in silence as Casey started in on carefully folding his clothes.  "Oh my, when is this from?"  Casey held up a small hockey jersey with 'VENTURI' boldly embossed across the back.

"Third grade.  We were league champs that year."  He smiled genuinely as he reached for it.

"Aww, it's sooo cute!"

He smirked at her comment then looked back to the jersey in his hands.  "I should give this to Smarti."

Casey smiled.  "That's sweet, Der.  She'd love that."

Tossing it to the side, he went back to his comics, thumbing through a couple until she interrupted again, "It's hard to believe you were ever this small."

Derek raised an eyebrow up and down.  "Wow, thanks, Case."

A hint of pink dusted her cheeks.  "Do you have to turn everything into an innuendo?"

Still smirking, he shrugged.  "You bring it up."  He snickered at her widened eyes and the new flush his comment brought to her features.

Shaking herself, she held up the sweatshirt in her hands.  "I meant this, you jerk."  

Before Derek realized what she was doing, Casey had slipped it over her head and walked to his mirror.  He watched her study her reflection, turning this way and that.  His hand reached up to grasp the back of his neck on its own accord as Casey turned back to him, expecting him to say something.

Derek shrugged.  "I grew out of it."

Casey turned back to the mirror.  "That's too bad.  It's really nice.  So soft."  Her fingers traced the Maple Leaf emblem before she bounced back to her place on the floor, taking a seat to fold the rest of his clothes.  Derek watched her silently as he returned to his own box.

Casey scanned through a folder.  Her eyes narrowed as she studied the handwriting.  "Derek, did you write this music?"

His head whipped to see what she had before he ripped it out of her hands.  "Never go through a musician's unfinished work, Casey.  That's like a crime."

She snorted.  "Pardon me, I didn't know I was living with Mozart."


"Derek!  You don't know who Mozart is?"

"Isn't he a drummer?"

"No!  He's-"

"Relax, Case.  I was just winding you up."

Her eyes narrowed.  "I think you were just trying to distract me.  So, did you write that?"  Casey indicated the folder in his hand.

Casually, he shrugged.  "I was just playing around with some things."  He dropped it into a box.  "Hand me that stack of CDs."  Casey followed through with his request and Derek sat down on his bed to sort through them.  She watched him until he spoke, "Well, don't just stand there.  Bring some more over here and get to work."

Rolling her eyes, she carried the rest of the CDs over and dropped down next to him.  "Are you taking all of these?"

Derek opened a case, studying the inside cover.  "Nah, only my faves... and the ones that drive you crazy."  He laughed as she split his name.

"Do you really live just to irritate me?"

"Yup, that's why we have to go to the same university."

She pushed him and he laughed.  Sarcastically she commented, "Lovely.  I feel so special."

"Hey, you should.  It's you and me, Case, off into the wild blue yonder."  He gestured crazily into the air, causing her to laugh.  "We'll need a playlist."

"You make it sound like such an adventure."

"You bet, Princess.  University with me will be a blast."

Casey teased, "I'm not sure that's quite the word I would have chosen."

He smirked, pulling gently on the sleeve of his old sweatshirt she was still wearing.  "I'll keep you on your toes."

"I have no doubt about that."  She laughed then sobered as she glanced down at his hand pulling her sleeve.  Sighing, she started to pull her arms out.  "I can take a hint."

Derek reached out to stop her as Casey started pulling it up.  "No!"  Casey raised a surprised eyebrow.  Derek winced.  "I mean... I can't use it, so... you can have it."  She stared in shock, but he wouldn't meet her eyes.  Casey shrugged back into it, smiling. 

He finally looked at her, smirking.  "Just do me a favor, yeah?  Don't contaminate it with any keener germs."  She laughed, shoving him gently.

"So, tell me more about this so-called adventure playlist."

"Well, better start with the classics."  Derek held up a Proclaimers CD.  "No road trip is complete without 500 miles."

"Of course."

"We can go into White Stripes later."

They laughed together.  "I can't believe we missed out on that concert."

He snorted, "You and me both."

"Will it contain any preppy pop?"  She teased.

"Hell, no.  Any playlist of mine has to be fantastic and preppy pop doesn't fit into that equation."

Edwin sprawled back into his pillows as Lizzie continued to scribble furiously at his desk.  Suddenly, she spoke, "Promise me something?"

He rolled over to face her.  "What?"

"We won't let any high school drama come between us."

His brows knitted as he took in her worried features.  "Why would it?"

She shrugged.  "Casey and Derek always had drama."

Snorting, Edwin pointed out, "Yeah, but we're nothing like them."

Lizzie agreed, smiling.  "True, we're besties."

"That's right.  No matter what, we've got each other."  He stood and approached the desk, leaning over to read her work.  "What are you working on?"

"I thought I'd write down some of my goals for high school."  She handed the sheet to him.

Edwin nodded, reading out loud, "Win a soccer championship.  Try hockey again."  His eyebrows shot up to his hairline.  "You want to play hockey again?  You hated it!"

"Yeah, I know."  Lizzie gritted her teeth as she bit out, "Because I couldn't stop."

He shrugged.  "Your bruises."  Edwin handed the list back to her.

"What?  You don't have goals?"

"I suppose..."

"Well, then add them!"  Lizzie thrust the list back into his hands.

Taking a pen out from behind his ear, he pulled up another chair.  "Alright, I will."

Leaning over him, Lizzie read out loud as he wrote, "Join the science club.  Make people laugh.  Pull the prank.  Have a steady girlfriend."  Lizzie laughed.  "If it wasn't for the first one, I would have thought this was Derek's list."

"Derek wouldn't be caught dead in science club... unless it was for a girl."

They both chuckled.  Eventually, Lizzie drew his attention back to their list.  "Do you have any more?"

"I suppose what I'd really like to do is..."

"Yes?"  Lizzie prompted.

"Be the school mascot."

Lizzie busted out in laughter, covering her mouth with her hand.

"I know, you wish you were as cool as me."

"Yeah, Edwin, I'm just green with envy."

"You got something better, sis?"

"Sure do."  She turned the list towards her.

Edwin read out loud, "Start an environmental club.  Well, you'd be the one to get it done."


Edwin reached for the list.  "Alright, let's sign it."

"Wait!"  Lizzie stopped him.  "First, let's make a pact at the end."  She wrote, "On this day, we, Edwin and Lizzie, promise to put forth our best efforts to accomplish the above high school goals and any others we add henceforth.  We will hold each other accountable and assist the other in any way possible to achieve said goals."

"Looks good, but I think it needs a bit more."  He reached forward to write, "As best friends, we will stick together, promising never to let any high school drama come between us.  We will look out for each other against all harm and danger."

"That's nice, Ed.  But we have to have a clause."  She added, "If one of us should make any breach of this pact, he or she will be subjected to any means of punishment determined by the other."

He gulped.  "Right.  Now can we sign it?"

Lizzie nodded, signing her name with a flourish.  Edwin took the pen and added his untidy scrawl at the bottom.  When he finished, Lizzie leaned back, "I'm not as nervous anymore."

"Me either."  Edwin agreed.  "I'm actually getting excited."

"Same here.  It should be fun."

Smirking, Edwin added, "Lizzie, we're going to paint the town red... or at least the high school halls."

"No thanks!"  Lizzie snorted.  "I don't want to end up in Derek's chair."

"Ha!  It's my chair now, Liz!  Come on, I need you as my partner in crime!"

Shaking her head, she laughed again.  "Where would Sherlock be without Watson?"

"Probably dead."

The two laughed together before Lizzie grew serious again, smiling softly at him.  "So, everything worked out?"

He grinned back, nudging her shoulder, "With flying colors, Liz."

"I better get to bed.  Night, Ed."

Stowing their pact in his file cabinet, Edwin called, "Night!"  Lizzie disappeared down the stairs.

"So, if you wouldn't let me touch anything at your desk..."  Casey leaned closer to him, teasing, "Just what is it that you're working on that's so secretive?"  With a devious smile, she jumped off the floor towards his desk.

Derek sprung up after her, stepping between her and his computer.  He wiggled a finger at her, mocking, "Nuh, uh, uh, uh!  Curiosity killed the Casey!"

Casey pursued it, trying to spin around him.  They struggled, pushing, and shoving the other.

"Okay, I warned you!"  Derek lifted her up, tackling her backwards onto his bed.

"Der-rek!"  Casey shrieked through her laughter as he tickled her sides at a frantic pace.  Gasping, she tried to swat his hands away.

He laughed as tears rolled down her cheeks.  Caught off guard, he flinched as her hands reached for his sides, nailing one of his ticklish spots.  Casey took advantage of it, increasing her tickling.  Derek inhaled deeply, collapsing on top of her as he gasped for breath.

Giggling, Casey flipped them over, using the momentum to climb on top of him to continue her actions.  Her hips straddled him, hopelessly pinning him to the bed.  Hitting a particular spot, he spasmed underneath her.

"Ca-Ca-Case!"  She giggled as he squirmed.  Trying to hold him still, she tightened her thighs around him, causing her to bounce as she traced her tickling fingers up and down his sides.

His eyes widened as he stuttered, "Ca-Ca-Ca-Cas-sey-ey!"  Growing tired, but not wanting to give up as she was clearly winning, Casey dropped more of her weight against him.

"Case-y-y-y!  St-st-STOP!"  He finally got the last work out in desperation, trying to catch her wandering hands.

She slowed her movements, still giggling as she rested against him.  Casey taunted, leaning over him, her curtain of hair framing them.  "What's the matter, Der?  Not getting what you want?"

Gulping for air, Derek reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose.  Casey leaned back on her haunches, giving him room.  She watched him for a few moments, her concern growing.  She rocked forward to check on him, "Der-"

"Stop moving!"

Startled, Casey angled back again.  "What?  What's wrong?"

Derek couldn't answer, his chest heaving as Casey kept shifting.  Groaning, Derek's hands shot up to grip her waist, urgently trying to stop her fidgeting.  Finally, he whispered, "Just don't move, okay?"

Clearly confused, she studied his closed eyes.  His fingers dug into her hips as he tried to move her.  Stubbornly, Casey held her ground, sinking further into him.  "What are you doing?"

He kept his eyes close, but his voice was hoarse.  "Trying not to shock you."

Growing frustrated, Casey crossed her arms causing her to rock firmly against him.  Derek's grip tightened at her waist as he sat up as far as he could with Casey in his lap.  Struggling against her, Derek pulled her one way and Casey fought to go the other.

In the struggle for dominance, Casey cried, "DER-REK!" just as things shifted.  He moaned loudly as she split his name, body falling back into the pillows, taking Casey with him.  She caught herself with both hands on his chest.

Understanding hit her as his firm member pressed into her.  Her eyes widened and she blushed furiously, frozen in place as she straddled him, thighs clamping around him in shock.

Derek panted, his fingers leaving bruises on her hips.  She stared disbelieving down at him as her hair brushed against his face.  A quiet gasp escaped her as his hardness twitched against her.  His eyes blinked open, locking onto hers.  Mouth parting, he huskily whispered, "Surpri-"

With a bang, Derek's door flew open, causing both Derek and Casey to jump.  Edwin stood in his pajamas, astonishment across his features as he turned beet red.  His jaw opened and closed comically.  He finally managed, "What's going on?"

His words broke them out of their state of shock.  Casey realized she was still straddling Derek and abruptly threw her leg up and over so she could sit down on the bed.  Behind her, Derek shifted uncomfortably.

Even though he cleared his throat, Derek's voice came out gruffly, "We were packing, Ed."

Edwin shook his head as if to clear it.  Then a Venturi smirk appeared on his face.  "That did not look like packing.  That looked more like-"

Derek didn't let him finish, cutting across him, "Doesn't matter, Edwin."

Losing some of his confidence, Edwin dropped the smirk and the subject.  "Right, well, you woke me.  Whatever you're doing, keep it down.  It's three in the morning!"

Quietly, Casey shrieked, cheeks tinted pink.  "It's what?  Oh my gosh, I didn't know it was that late!  I need to go!"  She leaped off Derek's bed and scurried past Edwin.

"Not a word, Edwin."

Raising an eyebrow significantly, Edwin maintained eye contact as he slowly backed out of Derek's room, closing the door as he went.

After the door clicked shut, Derek pulled a pillow over his face, groaning loudly into it.  Frustrated, he threw the pillow across the room before sitting up and grumbling, "Shower.  Now."

Toweling his hair dry, Derek stepped out of the bathroom, muttering, "Gotta love blue ball-" He cut himself off, spying Marti in the hallway, "Balloooooons."

"Smerek?  Why are you showering at four in the morning?"

"I got really dirty packing, Smarti."

Her tiny brow knit in confusion.  "How?"

Derek chuckled somberly, "Casey."

Chapter Text

Casey fell dramatically onto Derek's bed, her limbs dangerously close to smacking into the bed's other occupant.  A startled expression stretched across Derek's face as he scanned her figure, hovering significantly over where their arms rested a breath away from the other.

At her sigh, he glared sternly.  Gaining no response, his look softened into curiosity.  Clearing his throat, Derek spoke casually, "What the hell are you doing?"  Casey stared up at his ceiling silently.  Derek flipped a page of his magazine nonchalantly.  "Have you finally lost your mind, Space Case?"

Out of the corner of her eye, she quickly glanced at him, then resumed her staring contest with his ceiling.  Uncharacteristically quiet, Casey asked him, "What would you do?"

Before she could notice, Derek swiftly studied her.  Determinedly, he focused on his magazine, his face adapting a neutral expression.  "I'd get off my bed, if I were you."

"If it was hockey."  Casey's eerily subdued voice emphasized.

His magazine sagged slightly.  "Remember who you're talking to."

She rolled to face him, her hands supporting her head.  "So, you'd choose hockey?"

"I didn't say that."  Derek raised his magazine, blocking his face.

"You wouldn't take the hockey offer?"  Her eyes narrowed as she greedily studied the parts of his face peeking out above the vehicle on his magazine's back cover.

"Didn't say that either."

"Der-rek."  Casey grumbled quietly.

Throwing his magazine to the floor, Derek stood and stalked to his door.  "You have to figure this one out on your own."

Casey flipped onto her back again as she listened to Derek running down the stairs.  Her eyes wandered around Derek's barely recognizable room.  Her gaze swept across his disarrayed desk briefly before it stalled on the carefully packed stacks of cardboard boxes that littered his room.  The brown of the cardboard contrasted sharply against the striking bare walls.

Absentmindedly, she fondled the familiar comforter on his bed as her brow furrowed in thought.  Her body relaxed as Casey inhaled deeply, breathing in Derek's scent.  Soon, her eyes drifted shut and Casey fell into the first restful slumber she'd had since returning from the lodge.

🎵 "It used to be my mom, sis, and steps with me,

A happy blended family, yeah, reluctantly.

Then we left London, that's when everything changed,

Some things have gone, yet others remain.

A new town and new friends,

So many changes make my head spin.

Still got a step-brother who gets under my skin.

This is life with Derek... AGAIN!

This is life with Derek... AGAIN!

Going to miss Lizzie, Edwin, George and Nora, Marti, and the baby.

Now, I'm stuck with Derek,

Now, I'm stuck with... DER-REK!" 🎵 

"Oh!"  Casey cooed as she studied her surroundings.

"This is a different blue than I usually see.

It's a lot dark, yet it's somewhat familiar.

But I can't quite place it."

Casey held her arms out, testing the area.  

"And, wow, this is a smaller space too."


"What the hell?

Where am I?

Why is everything gold?"


As she faced forwards again, Casey huffed.

"Anyway, back to my point.

I managed to get through life with

Derek once, but I never thought I would be

facing the possibility of life with Derek... again." 


Derek glared, staring straight ahead.

"Nice try, but it's not going to work."


"I always thought that I would be the one attending

a proper and pristine university with organized study

groups and challenging coursework while..."


"I'm not going to talk about it."


"Derek went to some stinky school with a

stinky gym and stinky hockey players."


"I won't.  You can't make me."


"I didn't count on us ever choosing the

same university."


Clasping his hands on the top of his head,

Derek closed his eyes.

"No way.  Not a chance."


"But now, I have an opportunity to dance

in New York.  Maybe even spend time with

my dad."  


"I can't have feelings."


"And this is a once in a lifetime kind of deal.

Something I won't ever be able to get back if

I don't take it now."


"I don't do feelings."


"This is a major life decision that I have to make

in days.  How can I even make all the necessary

lists in that amount of time?"  


"Get a grip, Venturi."


"Gran said, 'Opportunities like this come along

once in a lifetime'... but which one is the

biggest opportunity for me?"


Derek covered his face with his hands.

"Noooo, this can't be happening."


"I have to choose between dancing in New York

and going to Queen's... with Derek."


"Great.  Now, she's got me talking to myself."


Derek barged into his room, only to stop dead in his tracks as he spied the sleeping brunette in his bed.  His jaw slackened as Casey stretched in her sleep, slowly rotating to face him.  Her bouncy curls brushed across her face, causing her nose to crinkle slightly.  He took a step back, creeping out of his room carefully and closing his door quietly as he went.

"What are you doing?"  Marti sang from behind him.

Startled, Derek faced his little sister.  "What are you doing?"

Marti quirked an eyebrow, resembling her big brother.  "I asked you first."

"I asked you second."

She giggled, "Smerek!  That doesn't work!"

Derek grinned back, throwing her over his shoulder as her tinkling laugh intensified.  "Sorry, Smarti!  Can't hear you!"

"Hi, Georgie."  Nora greeted, wrapping her arounds around his neck from behind.  She pressed a kiss to his temple.  "What are you working on?"

George laid the ads down on the kitchen counter so Nora could peer over at them.  He chuckled, "Well, actually, I'm looking for a beater."

"A beater?"

"Yeah.  You know, an old car?"  Nora looked at him uncomprehending.  George clarified, "For Edwin and Lizzie."

Panic crossed her face.  "Oh, no.  I completely overlooked the fact that Derek and... hopefully Casey will have the Prince in Kingston!  George!  We need another car!"

"I know, Nora.  I realize that."

"George!  This is bad!  What are we going to do?"

He tapped his finger against the newspaper.  "We're going to go to these used car lots."

Sighing, Nora shook her head.  "I can't believe I didn't think of this earlier!"

George rose from his stool.  "I know, Nora.  We better get a move on if we want to visit them all today."

Still chattering, Nora grabbed her purse from the hook beside the door and hurried out the door.  George gave an exasperated shake of his head, but followed his wife anyway.

Casey stared intensely at herself in the bathroom mirror, distracted as she washed her hands.  Splashing cold water on her face, she rubbed at the creases that had appeared from her nap.  She toweled herself dry as she whispered to herself, "Opportunities like this come along once in a lifetime.  Opportunities like this come along once in a lifetime.  Once in a lifetime."

Taking a deep breath, Casey continued to talk to herself, "I can star in a Broadway musical.  Go to New York and see my dad so much more than I do now.  Maybe he could even come to my performance.  And there could be a relationship with Jesse in my future.  He's a really nice guy and attractive.  Who knows, that could lead somewhere."  Frowning, Casey trailed off.

"But I've always wanted to go to university.  What happens if I defer for a year and something happens, and I can't go?  Then if my dancing career doesn't take off, I'll be on the streets and homeless!  I'll have to rely on Derek because he'll be the one with the degree!"  Her own horror reflected at her through the mirror.

"If I go to Queen's, I'll have to spend at least four more years with Derek.  And this is university.  We won't have anyone to pull us apart when things get too... intense.  We'll fight all the time.  He'll prank me and expect me to help him with his coursework.  I'll have to put up with all the hockey stuff and the parties he'll no doubt try to drag me to and all of the girls he'll parade around.  It'll be worse than high school."

Disdain flashed across her features before she relaxed again.  "But at least I would have someone I know there.  We're the only graduates from London going to Queen's.  And no matter his faults, if I really need him, Derek is there for me.  It couldn't be all bad, right?"

She moaned, "I wish someone would just tell me what to do."

Suddenly, someone pounded on the bathroom door, efficiently startling Casey from her thoughts.  "Casey!"  Edwin called, "Hurry up!  You've been in there forever!"

Hastily, Casey apologized, "Sorry!  I'll be right out!"  She hung the towel carefully by the sink and flew across the bathroom to open the door, revealing Edwin's puzzled expression.

Sticking his head in the room, Edwin peered around her.  "Is someone else in here?"

"What?  No!"

He quirked a suspicious eyebrow.  "I thought I heard you talking."

Casey blushed.  "Oh, um, I was."  At her words, Edwin looked around again.  She rushed to add, "But I was talking to myself!"

Putting on a Venturi smirk, Edwin laughed.  "If you say so.  Now, out!"  He pushed past her into the bathroom, closing the door in Casey's face.

As they walked onto a used car lot, Nora asked, "Do you think this one is going to have something in our budget?"

"Well, the other three didn't so maybe the odds are in our favor."

"I hope you're right."

"Come on, Nora.  Let's get started."  The two crossed to the east end, walking down the first line of cars.

"George, look at this one."  Nora lingered in front of a silver beater.

Approaching them, George studied the outside of the vehicle before consulting the tag.  "Hmm, a Volkswagen."  He read on, "Nora!  That is way out of our budget!"

Nora read the tag and cringed.  "You're right.  Let's keep going."

Leading the way this time, George came to a stop in front of a dark broken-down car.  "Hey, this is cheap!"

"Um, George?  It smells like rotten eggs."

"Nothing a little tree can't fix."

Wrinkling her nose, Nora shook her head.  "I don't think a forest of little trees could cover that up."  She withdrew several steps away from the repulsive odor.

They continued down the line of cars, occasionally stopping to take a closer look at vehicles that caught their attention.  At the end of the first row, the pair paused, revolving on the spot in order to decide which way to go.  "Well?"  Nora inquired.

George pointed to a car down the line.  "Let's look at that Volkswagen Passat."  he guided Nora the direction he wanted ago.  As they reached it, George went along the outside, tapping along the car.  "Not too bad, but there is a little rust."  He peered at the tag.  "It's a 1992.  Reasonable mileage.  Okay, now for the deal breaker... the price."  Consulting the tag, he let out a low whistle.  "Not bad.  Let's test drive it."

Nora relented.  "I'll go get someone."  George waited, continuing to circle the Volkswagen.

A few moments later, Nora returned with a salesman.  The gangly man, his wispy blonde hair blowing slightly in the breeze, strode directly to George, extending a hand.  "Rick Roberts.  Pleasure to meet you."

"George Venturi."  He grasped Rick's hand firmly.

Rick nodded in acknowledgement and released George's hand.  "So, your lovely wife said you'd like to test drive this old girl."

Humming, George confirmed his words.  "That's right."

Reaching into his pocket, Rick pulled out a ring of keys.  "Here you are, sir."

Nora pulled open the passenger door as George thanked him.

"That went well."  George exclaimed excitedly as he climbed out of the car.

George and Nora met at the front of the car and he opened the hood.  She waited until he stood again to ask, "What do you think, Georgie?"

He wrapped an arm around Nora's shoulders.  "Nora, I think we've found the one."

"It doesn't seem to be emitting any toxic fumes."  Nora looked skeptically down at the vehicle.

"And it's in our budget!"

"Georgie, let's not be hasty.  Let's look at the rest of the cars before we make a decision."

Calming himself, George took a deep breath.  "You're right."  They took a final walk around the car, running into the salesman.

Rick Roberts smiled brightly.  "Well, what did you think?"

Nora offered a smile in return.  "It's nice, Rick.  We're just going to check out the rest of your cars before we make a decision, alright?"

"Of course, of course!  Let me know if you need anything."

Both George and Nora thanked him before turning to walk down the rest of the line.  George leaned closer to Nora to whisper, "Nice guy.  Not your typical used car salesman."  He winked at her.

"Oh, George!"  Nora laughed, "Stop it!"

"Marti?"  Lizzie questioned timidly as she cautiously peered around Marti's open door.  "What's with all the banging around?"

Her small head popped up from behind her bed.  "Hey, Lizzie!"  Marti scrambled to her feet, welcoming Lizzie inside.  Looking around at the disaster of items scattered across the floor, Lizzie carefully stepped through the mess towards the bed.  Dresser drawers were hanging open with clothes oozing out of them and her closet was wide open while various items erupted out from within.

"Uh, what's going on?"

"I'm flipping my room!"

"You're... flipping it?"


Lizzie picked up Gomer the Gecko off the bed.  "Care to explain that, Smarti?"

"I'm taking everything that was here and putting it there."  Marti's hand waved wildly through the air as she explained.  She sang, "And then taking everything from there and putting it here."  Marti finished with a proud beam.

Arching an eyebrow, Lizzie inquired, "Why?"

"Because I can!"

Chuckling, Lizzie shook her head.  "Can't argue with that.  Guess I'll leave you to it.  Later, gator."  She tucked Gomer under Marti's blanket.

"After 'while, crocodile!"

"Aww, what's this cute little thing?"

George laughed, "That, Nora, is a Geo Metro."

"Oh!  Aren't they supposed to get really good gas mileage?"  Nora stepped closer to the vehicle, examining it closely.

"Well, yeah, but that's hardly a manly car."   George hastily added at Nora's look, "Not that a car has to be manly."

Satisfied, Nora turned back to consult the tag.  "Georgie, this is a great price."

He peered over her shoulder and whistled.  "That's what I like to see.  Looks like it's a 1994."  Freshly motivated, George turned with a new vigor to look over the Geo.  He tapped around.  "There's no rust."

"Definitely needs a paint job though."  Nora flicked the burnt brown flaky paint.  "This color is a little less than desirable."

"We could fix that though."

"I'll go tell Rick and we can test drive it."

"No need, Nora.  He's on his way over."  George inclined his head at the approaching Rick.

Stuffing his hand deep into his pockets, Rick announced, "So, I saw you eyeing this little lady.  Pretty good deal, I have to say."

"We'd like to test drive it, Rick."  Rick nodded, procuring the keys from his pocket, and handed them over to George.

Rick asked with a suave smile, "So, have you made a decision yet?"

George and Nora looked at each other.  "Well," George started, tapping the hood of the Geo, "We've definitely narrowed it down between this one and the Volkswagen Passat."

"Both good choices!"

"I think we need a moment to discuss it, Rick."

"Of course, ma'am."  He tipped his head to her and walked off.

"Which one are you leaning towards, George?"

He glanced between the two vehicles, a finger tapping alongside his cheek.  "Well, I do like them both.  The Passat has way more room than the Geo.  However, the Geo is cheaper."

Nora nodded along.  "Price is a huge factor here."  She chuckled, "I think Edwin and Lizzie could handle the size.  Derek and Casey on the other hand..."

George guffawed, "That would be downright dangerous to confine those two in this small of area."

They shared another laugh before Nora continued, "I think the gas mileage for the Geo would be a selling point for Lizzie."

"I'd hate to see her reaction if we came home with a gas guzzler."  George winced.

Biting her bottom lip, Nora studied him.  "So, did we make a decision?"

"I think we did."

She looked down at the car between them.  "It's too bad about the paint though."

Out of the blue, George snapped his fingers.  "You know what, Nora?  I just remembered that Terri from work was saying how her fiancé does body work.  I could call her and ask if he could give the car a paint job!"

Puzzled, Nora squinted.  "Isn't he a doctor?"

"Yeah, that's him."  George chortled, "Turns out that isn't the only type of body work he's interested in."

Nora returned the laugh.  "Punny, George.  But do you think he'll have time?"

Shrugging, George pulled out his phone from his pocket.  "We won't know until we ask."  His fingers punched a few buttons, and he held the phone to his ear, waiting for Terri to answer.  "Hey, Terri!  How are you?"

He paused, listening to Terri on the other end as Nora waddled around the car to stand next to him.  "Yeah, we're all great.  Actually, I was calling for a favor.  Well, actually a favor from George."

Listening to Terri, a smile grew on George's face.  "He is in town?  That's wonderful!  Listen, Nora and I are buying an old car for Edwin and Lizzie and it's in desperate need of a paint job.  If it's not too much trouble, we'd like George to do the work before we give it to them."

Nora hovered impatiently as George waited for Terri's response.  "Thanks, Terri!  We'll be over with the car shortly.  See you then."  He ended the call and turned to face Nora, a huge smile on his face.  "He'll do it right away!"

Clapping her hands in front of her, Nora cried, "That's perfect!  Then none of the kids will find it before it's time to give it to Edwin and Lizzie."

"Alright, everyone.  I need your attention and participation."  Casey declared from her spot at the dinner table.

Derek groaned, "I'm dying from anticipation."

"Wow, Derek!  That's a big word for you!  Congratulations!"

Taking a huge bite of meatball, Derek mocked her around it, "Thank you for your appreciation, Case."

She rolled her eyes at him, the two sharing a look.  "Anyway," Casey continued, addressing the rest of the family, "I'd like everyone to give me a few pros and cons as to why I should or shouldn't go to Queen's or New York."

"Oh, yay."  Derek moaned sarcastically.

Nora shot a sideways look at Derek and rushed to avoid the coming confrontation, "Alright, I'll go first!"  She folded her hands in front of her.  "A pro for Queen's is that you have always dreamed of going to university and you have a scholarship!  I suppose a pro for New York is that it's a once in a lifetime opportunity."  She paused, waiting for Casey to finish jotting her answers into a notebook she had uncovered from below the table.

Casey nodded, urging Nora to continue, "A con for Queen's... I can't think of anything other than missing an opportunity to dance on Broadway.  But you've always been more focused on your studies than dancing.  So, a con for New York would be that you'd be behind in your education."

As she finished scribbling, Casey thanked her, "Thank you, Mom."

"Of course, honey."  Nora turned to George significantly, "Georgie, you go next."

Nervously, George cleared his throat.  "Right, well, I stand that going to Queen's for a stable education outweighs the unsteadiness of having a dancing career."

"I'll keep that in mind, George."  Casey wrote it down and turned to her sister, "Liz?"

Lizzie pushed the noodles around on her plate.  "Well, if you were to go to New York, you'd see Dad a lot more."  Across the table, Derek snorted disbelievingly, but tried to cover it with a couch at Nora's sharp look.  Undeterred, Lizzie went on, "But you'd be further away from all of us."

"Thanks, Lizzie.  Ed, what are your thoughts?"

Edwin held his fork importantly.  "Well, without extensive research, I can only give my preliminary thoughts."

"That's fine.  Go ahead and tell me what you think."  Casey encouraged him.

"Right, well, school is school and all, but an opportunity like this in New York could lead to a full-time pro job.  Seems like a more exciting field than what you could get from university.  But I guess it just depends on what you want, doesn't it?"

Nodding, Casey wrote it all down.  "Thank you for your input."

"No problem, Casey."

"What about you, Marti?"

Marti wiggled in her chair.  "Well, dancing is fun, and school is dumb."  Everyone coughed a laugh at her reasoning.  "I'd say go dance-"

Casey started to thank her, "Thank you, Mar-"

"No, no, I'm not finished yet!"

Surprised, Casey apologized, "I'm sorry, Marti, continue."

"I'd say go dance, but then you'd leave Smerek all alone."

Silence fell upon the table.  Finally, George spoke, "He wouldn't be all alone, Marti.  Derek will make lots of friends at university."  He smiled encouragingly at his daughter.

"I know that, Daddy, but it wouldn't be the same.  It's Smerek and Casey!  They do everything together."

Nora looked to Derek, who was stuffing food into his mouth at a rapid pace.  "What about you, Derek?  Do you have some pros and cons for Casey?"

He answered through a mouthful of food, "Nope."

Shifting, Nora looked to George, who sighed, "Derek, I'm sure you have tons of reasons."  Derek shook his head.

"Derek, just give Casey one reason each way."  Nora encouraged.

"Fine."  Derek straightened in his seat as he pushed his empty plate away.  "Don't care and don't care."

Jumping up from the table, Derek was upstairs before George could finish, "Derek!  Get back here!"

Casey stared after him for a beat, until his door slammed.  She turned her attention back to the table.  "It's okay, George.  I'll wear him down eventually."

A fuzzy towel covered Derek's head when he popped out of the bathroom.  He attempted to dry his hair as he stalked to his room, but suddenly warm hands were pushing against his chest, forcing him back into the bathroom.  Startled, Derek cried, "What the fu-"

"Der-rek!  Language!"  Casey hissed as she slammed the door shut behind them.

He groaned, "I should have known it was you."  His hand snapped up to whip the towel off, splattering Casey with water droplets as he shook his wet hair.  Realizing she was still clenching his shirt with her fists, he asked impatiently, "I take it there's a reason you're assaulting me and my shirt?"

Casey's bright blue eyes stared fiercely up at him, some of the water droplets clinging to her long eyelashes.  At his taunting leer, she released him, but then reached back up to run her palms across the fabric of his shirt to smooth out the wrinkles she'd created.

Barely audible, Derek let out a tiny release of air.  Her eyes snapped up to meet his and simultaneously they stepped away from each other.

"Right, so..."  Derek cleared his throat.  "You going to say something, Spacey?"

"Queen's or New York?"

Cursing violently under his breath, Derek sidestepped her.  "I'm not doing this."  He roughly threw open the door and rushed to his room.

"Emily?"  Casey questioned as she picked up the phone.

 "Hi, Casey."

"Oh Emily!"  Her enthusiasm spiked and Casey's words shot out like rapid fire.  "I've missed you so much!  Why haven't you answered your phone?  Are you okay?  I've been trying so hard!  And-"

"Case..."  Emily tried to cut in repeatedly, finally managing a breakthrough as she yelled, "CASEY!"  Casey quieted and Emily started over, "Hello, Casey.  I've missed you too."

Barely above a whisper, Casey asked, "Are you okay?"

Emily thought the question over for several seconds before she uttered quietly, "I'm better now, yeah."

"Oh, Em.  You could have talked to me.  I could have been there.  I could have helped you!"

"No, Casey.  You couldn't have.  You- I just needed some... time to... sort things out."

Casey breathed, "I'm so glad you called."  A few tears leaked out of her rapidly blinking eyes.

Sniffing on the other side of the phone, Emily agreed, "Me too."

"Can we meet up?"  Casey cringed.  "I know, you're still emotionally raw and I totally get it if you don't want to even talk.  But Em, I really have a lot to tell you."

Cautiously, Emily consented, "Sure, Case.  Come over any time before dinner."

"Okay.  See you later, Em."

"Bye, Casey."

"Sup, Dad?"  Derek greeted as he answered his phone.

"Derek, can you take Lizzie to soccer practice?"

"Ask Casey to."

"She can't, Derek.  It's on you."

Groaning, Derek grabbed his keys and yelled up the stairs, "LIZZIE!  We leave in two!"  He turned back into his phone, "Later, Dad."

"Thank you, Derek."

Derek slid his phone back into his pocket as Lizzie's feet thudded down the stairs.  She tossed her ball into the air and caught it.  As she passed Derek, she bumped her shoulder into him and offered a winning smile.

The corner of his mouth lifted, creating a small lopsided smirk as he followed her out.  "At least I don't have to wait for you like I do your sister."

Rolling her eyes, Lizzie chuckled, "I was already ready."

They piled into the Prince.  "Yeah, Case says she's ready, but then it's been ten minutes and I'm still waiting."

Turning in her seat, she eyed him seriously.  "What do you think she should do?"

His brow crinkled.  "Uh, hurry up?"

"I meant if she should go to New York or not."

"I don't care."

"You don't want her to go to New York, do you?"

"Her choice.  I couldn't care less."

Lizzie studied him while he maneuvered a turn, a look of nonchalance across his face.  They drove in silence for a several long miles before Lizzie spoke again, "You know, you don't have to tell me, but you should at least be honest with her... actually you better start with being honest with yourself."

Humorlessly, Derek snorted.  "I think you forgot who you're talking to, kid."

Facing her window, Lizzie stared at the scenery.  "Oh, I know exactly who I'm talking to."

He cocked an eyebrow even though she wasn't looking at him.  Derek opted not to reply as he turned into the parking lot.

Lizzie turned back to him with a smile as she unbuckled her seatbelt.  "Thanks, big bro."

Her words brought a genuine smile to his face.  "No prob.  I'll pick you up, 'kay?"

"Okay.  Bye!"

"Later, Liz."  He watched as she ran off to join several girls and together, they jogged onto the field.  The girls chatted excitedly, tossing a soccer ball back and forth.  He shook his head to himself, shifting the car back into gear and switching on his favorite radio station.

Traveling a distance, Derek bobbed his head to the beat.  Just as he was ready to take the exit home, a head popped up in the backseat, screaming, "University or dance?"

"Jesus Christ!"  Derek swerved, missing the exit as several horns blared around them.  "What the hell, Casey?  Are you trying to kill us?"

"Der-rek!  I just want you to answer the question!"

"And killing us is part of that plan?"

She glared at him through the mirror.  "You won't answer me any other way!  I was trying to surprise you!"

"Well, you did that.  You're just lucky I have stellar reflexes."

"Oh, please.  Your reflexes are not stellar."

Making eye contact in the mirror, he rolled his eyes for her benefit.  "Oh, really?  Care to explain how I managed to avoid wrecking the car?"

Casey returned the eye roll.  "Derek, you're avoiding my question."  He didn't respond.  "Der-rek!  Talk to me!"

"I am not talking to you through the rearview mirror like some creepy shrink chauffer."

Huffing, Casey tried to maneuver herself into the front seat.  But unexpectedly, her foot caught on the driver's seat and she went sprawling upside down into the Prince's passenger side.  Her arms barely managed to keep her head from hitting the floor.

Derek snickered at her wildly flailing feet.  "Gee, nice skirt, Case.  Really quite the view."

Casey flushed, immediately clamping her legs together and trying to keep her skirt in place.  "You could help me!"

"Where's the fun in that?"  His eyes strayed back and forth between her and the road, a smirk dancing across his face.


He laughed again.  "As much as I'd love to help you, you're going to have to wait until I pull over."  Derek glanced over at her predicament again, erupting in fresh snickers.

Painstakingly slow, Derek finally managed to pull the car to the side of the road.  He lingered in the driver's seat still chuckling.

"Well?"  Casey's muffled voice asked.  "Are you going to do something?"

"You mean besides take a picture?"

"DER-REK!  You wouldn't dare!"

Amusement danced in his voice, "Of course, I'd dare."

There was a click as Derek snapped the picture, causing Casey to split angrily, "DER-REK!  DELETE THAT RIGHT NOW!"

"No way, Klutzilla!  This is pure gold."

Casey whimpered, "Just help me up."

"Relax, I'm coming."  Derek checked his side mirror before he bailed out of the car, jogging around to open the passenger door.  At the sight that greeted him, Derek doubled over, cackling loudly.

"Just get me out of here, Derek!"  Still snickering, Derek tugged on an arm and a leg until she fell out of the vehicle, sprawling into the grass.  "Ouch, Derek!"

Clutching the Prince for support, Derek wheezed, "What's the matter, Case?  Feeling a little topsy-turvy?"

She huffed as she climbed right side up into the front seat.  Not bothering to answer, she slammed the door shut on Derek.

Still chuckling, Derek circled the car, shaking his head to himself.  As he got in, he noticed Casey's rigid stature and crossed arms.  Derek shot her several looks as he started the car and pulled back onto the road.  He reached for the dial, turning up the volume.

Her hand shot out to turn it off.  "No, we're talking about this."  He reached for the knob again, but her hand batted his away.  "I mean it, Derek."  Derek watched the traffic, ignoring her.  "I'm really torn.  I don't know what to do.  My world is spinning."

"I'd say it's more... upside down, wouldn't you?"  He chuckled at her expense.

"Der-rek!  I'm being serious!"

"And I've told you, I'm not having this conversation."

"But Derek-"

"No, Casey."  His eyes darkened angrily, and they traveled the rest of the way home in silence.

Joining Nora in the laundry room, Casey picked up a shirt to fold.  "Mom, can we talk?"

Nora looked up from pouring detergent.  "Sure, Miss Case.  What's up?"

"I know you gave me pros and cons each way, but what do you think I should do?"

Studying her daughter for a moment, Nora turned away to start the washer.  "Honey, I think you have to work this through without me interfering."

"But, Mom, you've always given me your opinion before!"

"I know, I know.  But this is different."


Bobbing her head side to side, Nora picked up a blouse to hang.  "This is your future, Casey.  You're going to have to live with this decision for the rest of your life."

"Exactly why I need your help!"

She shook her head.  "This isn't something I can decide for you.  It's entirely based on what you see yourself doing."


"In twenty years, when you look back at this decision, I want you to know that you made the best choice."

"Can't you at least tell me what you'd do?"

"I'm staying neutral, sweetheart."

Casey groaned, "Please?"

Nora reached out, gripping Casey's shoulders with both of her hands.  She planted a kiss on her forehead.  "You'll make the right decision."

Biting her lip, Casey perched uneasily on the coffee table, her notebook balanced haphazardly on her knee as she stared at Edwin and Marti sitting on the couch.  Edwin's eyes didn't waver from the cartoon as he asked, "Something on your mind, Case?"

"I'd really like to talk."


"I know we talked about your initial thoughts about Queen's and New York, but I really need to talk about it some more."

Marti leaned around Edwin to look at her.  "What's wrong?"

Casey wrung her hands.  "Tell me everything you can think of about New York."

Frowning, Marti supplied, "It's far away.  Clear in another country!"

Not taking his eyes off the screen, Edwin blurted, "New York is expensive to live in.  Prices are inflated.  There's so many people in a small area.  That's stressful.  You'd have to commute most likely and rent would be high."

"Gee, Edwin, can you think of anything positive?"  Casey pulled a face.

Half-heartedly, Edwin shrugged.  "Hey, it's a beautiful city.  Real glamourous if you're into that kind of thing.  Personally, it's too city for my liking."

Sending Edwin a look, Casey turned to Marti, "What do you know about New York?"

"Well, there's lots of zoos in the area!  And Madison Square Garden would be cool to see.  And Times Square and-"

"I get it.  There's lots of nice places to visit.  But what else, Marti?"

"It's the city that never sleeps!  But we all know you need at least eight hours a night, Casey, so I don't think that matters to you."

Edwin chuckled, "Good one, Smarti."

Casey glared at both of her step-siblings.  "If you two aren't going to take this seriously, I'll-"

Cutting her off, Marti explained, "I am taking it seriously.  You asked me what I know and I'm telling you!"  She crossed her arms grumpily.

Sighing, Casey gave in.  "Go on then, you two."

"There's lots of songs written about it.  So, it must be a great place."  Edwin tried to amend.

Marti shook her head, "I don't care what Frank Sinatra says, I don't think you should be a part of it."

Finally, Edwin broke his eye contact with the television to quirk an eyebrow at his sister.  "You know the song, Marti?"

"Duh."  Marti exasperatedly rolled her eyes.  "Cynthia in my class was from New York.  She's a huge fan of ol' Frankie.  I know all of his songs."

Astonished, Edwin studied her.  "You know, Marti, sometimes your memory scares me."

Shrugging, Marti flashed a smirk as she sang, "It should."

Interrupting the debate, Derek trotted down the stairs.  "Gonna pick up Liz.  Any takers?"  Derek held up his hand sternly.  "Anyone 'cept the keener."

Casey rolled her eyes.  "Why not me?"

"One car ride today was more than enough."

"Der-rek!  That was all your fault!"

"Sorry, but that statement has been overturned!"

"Are you ever going to give this up?"

"Hey now, don't flip out, Klutzilla."

"Shut up, Derek!"

"Gee, Case.  You sound upset."

"Derek, I swear-"

He cut Casey off as he turned to Edwin and Marti and asked, "Well?"

Both siblings hopped off the couch.  Marti's eyes widened, "Can we get ice cream?"

"Sure, Smarti."  Marti jumped up and down and followed Edwin to the door.  Derek threw a look over his shoulder at Casey, "Later, Klutzy."

"Shotgun!  Edwin called as he and Marti raced to the Prince.  Marti pouted briefly before shrugging her shoulders and climbing into the backseat.  Grinning triumphantly, Edwin threw open the passenger door and jumped in.

Strutting around the vehicle, Derek slid casually into the driver's seat.  He silently backed out of the drive.  They drove down their street for several blocks without anyone speaking.  As they went, Edwin observed his brother from the corner of his eye.  Derek sat rigidly, opposite of his usual relaxed posture.  He gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands as his eyes darted back and forth on the road.  Without Derek realizing it, a frown materialized on his face as his hand drummed restlessly on the steering wheel.

Frowning himself, Edwin took a deep breath and plunged for the question, "So, why are you in such a mood?"

"I'm not."  Derek continued tapping his fingers.

"The casual observer may believe you, but not your brother."

Marti stuck her head into the gap between Derek and Edwin.  "Or your sister!"

"You're both ridiculous."

"Thank you, Marti."  Edwin nodded to her.  He went on as he turned back to Derek, "Come on, D.  We've known you our whole lives.  You're in a mood."  Not offering a reply, Derek hummed to himself.  Edwin pursued it, "Is it Roxy?  Do you miss her?"

Even the Lord of Lies couldn't keep the surprise from his face.  "What?"  Derek snorted, "No."

"You're acting like it's a girl problem."

Derek frowned as he manipulated the Prince into the parking lot of Lizzie's field.

Marti piped up from the backseat.  "Stop pushing, Edwin.  Derek's in a bad mood because of Casey."

Through the rearview mirror, Derek regarded his sister.  She gave him an all-knowing look before she turned to watch out the window.  Meanwhile, Edwin's head had whipped around to gage his brother's reaction. 

"You're crazy, Smarts."  Derek didn't look at anyone as he concentrated on searching for Lizzie.  Finding her, he honked the horn.  Lizzie looked up and waved and signaled for a minute.  Edwin opened his mouth to say something, but Derek cut him off.  "Don't even think about it."

In the backseat, Marti rolled down her window.  Leaning out, she shouted at Lizzie, "Get in loser!  We're getting ice cream!"

Several of the girls around them laughed, including Lizzie.  "Mean girls, Marti?  Really?"

Throwing in a hand flip, Marti simpered dramatically, "It's just so fetch, I can't help it."

Both Derek and Edwin groaned.  Marti scooted over as Lizzie hopped in and the two girls laughed together.  When she sobered, Lizzie inquired, "So, what's this about ice cream?"

Twisting his head behind to look at Lizzie, Edwin informed her with a smirk, "Derek's buying us ice cream."

"Ha!  Keep dreaming, Ed.  I said I'd take you for ice cream."

Frowning, Lizzie consulted her watch.  "But dinner is in two hours."

They eyed each other before Derek asked the car, "Sworn sibling secret?"  Smiles grew as everyone nodded their agreement.

Marti bounced in her seat.  "YAS!"  Exaggeratedly, Marti gestured them to move forward as Derek shifted the car into gear.  "To the Ice Cream Company!"

Linda opened the Davis' front door after Casey knocked.  She greeted her with a soft smile.  "Hello, Casey.  Emily's up in her room.  Go on up."

"Thank you."  Casey smiled politely as she hurried upstairs.  When she reached Emily's door, she knocked gently.

"Come in!"  Emily called.

Casey pushed the door open and took a few timid steps inside Emily's room.  Emily looked up from her desk and offered Casey a shy smile.  Standing, Emily held open her arms and the two girls met in a fierce hug as tears flowed freely down their cheeks.

After several moments, Emily pulled back and both friends wiped at their eyes.  Pulling Casey by the hand, Emily sat them on the edge of her bed.  "So, fill me in on your news, Case."

Hesitating, Casey asked, "Are you sure, Em?  Do you want to talk about-"

Emily cut her off by shaking her head frantically.  "No, I don't want to talk about any of that stuff."

"Okay, but if you want-"

"I promise I'll let you know if I change my mind."

"Alright, if you say so."

"Go on, Casey.  I want to hear about you."

Before she launched into her story, Casey took a deep breath.  "So, Gran invited us to her lodge.  Well, Mom thought she invited all of us, but she only meant Lizzie and me, not any of the Venturi's.  So, everything started off on the wrong foot.  Then we found out that Mom hadn't even told her that she's pregnant.  And apparently Gran didn't take that too well either.  But it didn't help matters when Derek and I arrived running through the grounds fighting and screaming."

Casey stared off into space as she concentrated on retelling the events and missed Emily flinching.  Looking back at Emily, Casey sighed, "Then we all had to share a one room cabin with two bunk beds and a couch.  Everything just turned into chaos from there.  Dinner was a disaster with me throwing a bun at Mr. Sampson and Derek wanting to dance with me..."

As Casey trailed off, Emily's head dropped, staring at her hands clasped in her lap.  Her voice shook slightly when she asked, "Then what happened?"

Frowning, Casey went on, "After dinner, Gran tried to send the boys home on the bus and Marti thought she should leave if they were.  Lizzie was really upset about anyone going home.  She manipulated Derek into staying by telling him Gran thought the Venturi's were inferior to the McDonald's and that if he left it would mean Gran won.  But she really sealed the deal when she told him that I wanted him to leave."  Casey sighed, "So, everyone stayed."

Emily nodded, but didn't offer any comment.

"Lizzie and Marti went to the marsh and I was trying to study so I sent Edwin off to hang out with two 'extreme sport' enthusiasts and he almost hit Mr. Sampson with a croquet ball while Derek went off with the neighbor's daughter."

Casey stopped as she realized Emily's face had turned green.  She gasped, "Oh, Em!  I'm so sorry!  I should have skipped over-"

Sadly, Emily shook her head.  "No, Case.  It's alright.  I need to hear the truth.  Go ahead."

She plunged on, "Derek almost killed Edwin with a jet ski.  I jumped in to try and save Derek, but the jerk was fine.  Gran had it at dinner that night though when Lizzie and Marti's snake, Mikey, got out and caused a riot.  Derek and Edwin freaked out and created a huge scene.  Gran asked the boys to leave again."

"Did they?"

"Long story short, Derek told me I had to pick a side.  Either Gran or them."  As Casey took a deep breath and closed her eyes, Emily studied her intensely.  "So, the next morning we all packed up to head home."  Voice filled with pain, Casey whispered, "But we couldn't find Marti."

Emily gasped, "What?  What happened?"

"Between us we figured out that she had gone back to the marsh to release Mikey.  She took a canoe and rowed across the lake by herself.  Derek and I went after her.  We saw the canoe overturned in the water and we just panicked.  But then we saw her on the bank jumping up and down trying to get our attention.  Derek actually scolded her.  I was so relieved I could only hug her, but he just took charge."  Casey sighed.  "When we brought her back, Gran apologized and said everyone could stay."

"Oh my god.  I'm so glad Marti wasn't hurt."

"Me too."  Casey started breathing easier and chuckled slightly, "So, throughout all of that I found this handsome waiter, who was a dancer.  He asked me to practice a routine with him."

"Ooh!  What's his name?"  An ecstatic smile appeared on Emily's face.

"Jesse.  He's a wonderful dancer and choreographer!  It was so amazing dancing again.  I've never really had a guy partner before, you know except-" Casey cut herself off, looking sideways at Emily's expression.  "Anyway, it was exhilarating."

"Soooo, did you get anywhere?  Did he kiss you?"

"Em!"  Casey's cheeks colored.  "Yeah, but Derek pulled me away."  Casey took Emily's look as confusion, so she elaborated.  "It was after the talent show Lizzie organized to try and save the lodge."

"To save it?"

"Yeah, when Derek was at the neighbor's with Roxy, he found out that her dad, Dumbarton, he had been trying to buy the lodge from Gran, was planning to drain the marsh.  Well, Lizzie rallied the troops and after some... persuasion, we all pitched in to help with the talent show.  Jesse and I taught a bunch of kids a dance routine and then he and I danced for the finale."

"Did it work?"

"Well, in the middle of rehearsing, Gran found out that the zones changed and that he could legally build whatever he wanted.  She decided to sell the lodge and canceled the show.  She and I had a huge fight, and I left the next morning to take the bus home.  I had left a letter for Lizzie explaining what I did, but the next thing I know Gran was at the bus stop and we're heading back to the lodge and the show's back on."

Emily listened attentively as Casey explained, "So, when Gran was coming after me, everyone else was trying to get ahold of Roxy's grandpa's environmental report he commissioned.  They needed it to send to George.  Roxy ended up giving it to Derek and they sent it to George, who got a judge in Montreal to put a stop to it.  George and my mom barely got to the lodge in time to keep Gran from signing the paperwork.  He presented the injunction to Dumbarton, which stopped all construction."

"So, you saved it?"

Casey nodded happily.  "Yes, the Blue Heron Lodge is alive and prospering."

"That's great, Casey.  I'm happy for your family."

"Thanks, Em.  But I have a huge dilemma."  Casey bit her lip.

Her brows knitted, "What's wrong?"

"Turns out that one of the guest's son is a Broadway choreographer.  He came to see his mom perform and after the show he offered Jesse the lead in the next show!"

"Wow!  Good for him!"

"I know!  And you'll never believe it, but he offered me a lead role too!"

Emily's jaw dropped and the girls squealed together.  "Casey!  That's unbelievable!  Are you going to take it?"

The smile fell off Casey's face.  "That's my problem, Em.  I don't know what to do.  There's so many things to take into consideration.  Like Gran said, opportunities like this come along once in a lifetime."  Casey started to pace through Emily's room.  "On one hand, I can take an opportunity of a lifetime and dance on Broadway.  But on the other, I can go to the university of my dreams and get the education I've always wanted.  Two unbelievable opportunities."  Stopping, she turned to Emily.  "What do I do?"

With wide eyes, Emily asked, "What do you want to do?"

As she ranted, Casey resumed her pacing, "Mom told me she's staying neutral and refuses to tell me what I should do.  George says university.  Marti says Queen's.  Edwin thinks dancing is more exciting, but Lizzie thinks being closer to my dad would be great.  But Derek has refused to tell me anything about what he thinks."

Casey missed Emily's flinch and subsequent crease that appeared on her forehead. 

"He's just been so quiet ever since he found out about the offer to New York.  No matter what or how I ask him, he won't say a word.  It's almost like he's mad at me."

This time Casey caught Emily bristling and immediately apologized, "Oh my gosh, Em.  I'm sorry, I know you don't want to talk about him.  It's just-"

Emily waved an irritated hand through the air and frowned.  "Well, it's like you Gran said, isn't it?  You don't get an opportunity like this very often.  I think you should take it."

"You think so?"  Casey's eyes widened significantly.

"Yeah, I mean... Queen's will always be there if you decide to go."

"But my scholarship and-" Casey clammed up as she looked at Emily.  "I see what you mean, Em."  She clasped her hands nervously in front of her.  "Thank you for telling me what you think."

"Of course."

"Nora!"  George bellowed as he marched in the back door.

"What?"  Nora hurried as fast as she could up the stairs.  "What's going on?"

George looked around frantically, dropping his voice to ask, "Are the kids home?"

Nora shook her head, "No, nobody is here right now."

He grinned brightly.  "Perfect!  George has the Geo ready.  We've got to go pick it up."

"Already?  Wow, that was fast!"

As Nora went to grab her purse, George exclaimed, "I know!  And great news, it won't cost us a cent!  Terri said they want to pay us back for how considerate we were before George moved to London."

"Aww, they didn't have to do that!"  Nora smiled warmly as she followed George out the door.

"Ugh!"  Edwin groaned, clutching his stomach.  "Defs ate too much."

Derek shoveled more ice cream into his mouth then tried to talk, "Come on, Ed.  Man up!"  He nudged another bowl towards Edwin, who moaned, but picked up the spoon and took another bite.

Lizzie shook her head, "Boys."  She patted her own stomach.  "I'm not going to be able to eat my dinner after all that sherbet."

Pointing his spoon at her, Edwin stated, "You got to admit, it was a great idea though."

"Yeah, until none of us eat our dinner.  Then Mom and George will know something is up."

Marti tinkled a laugh, "Best ice cream ever."

"You McDonald's worry too much.  Besides, I could eat."  Derek mumbled through another mouthful.

Looking disgusted, Lizzie shot at him, "You're a bottomless pit."

"I'm a man."  Derek shrugged.

The kids laughed.  Edwin shook his head, "Yeah, sure, D."

Looking fondly at the ice cream on her spoon, Marti beamed, "I love sworn sibling secrets."

Nora sighed as she sunk into her place at the table.  As she passed the potatoes around to Casey, Nora asked the table, "Anybody do anything special today?"

Immediately, Marti raised her hand, shouting, "Oh, me!  Pick me!"

"What did you do, Marti?"  Nora chuckled.

"I'm flipping my room!"

"What a coincidence, Smarti.  Casey did some flipping today too."

"Der-rek, shut up."  Casey muttered warningly.

"If you insist.  But I should remind you that a picture's worth a thousand words."  Derek started reaching into his pocket, taunting her.

"No!"  Casey aimed a kick at him underneath the table.

Edwin clutched his leg in pain.  "OUCH!"

Derek sniggered as Casey grimaced, "Sorry, Ed."

Glossing over the approaching argument, George announced, "Well, Nora and I have big news."

Marti brightened, "Are we finally getting a pony?"

Derek cast a long look at Nora, "You can't get pregnant again, can you?"

"Derek!"  George chastised.

Nora ignored them both.  "Edwin, Lizzie... we have a little surprise for you."

Surprised cover both of the their faces.  "What is it, Mom?"  Lizzie asked excitedly.

"George and I bought you two a car today."

A chorus of "What's?" went around the table.

"Are you kidding?"  Edwin asked in awe.

George amusedly answered, "Seriously, Ed."

"What kind?"  Derek questioned cautiously.

"It's a 1994 Geo Metro."  George supplied.  "I had Terri's George give it a new paint job."

Beaming ear to ear, Nora elaborated, "Now it's a beautiful blue!"

Lizzie turned to her mom.  "What was it before?"

"A hideous brown."  Nora's nose wrinkled.

Curling her nose as well, Lizzie stated, "I'm glad you had it painted."

Derek snorted, "A Geo?  Really, Dad?"

"Hey, we got a great deal.  Don't diss the Geo, Derek."

Edwin sat up straighter.  "Yeah, D.  Don't diss our Geo!"

Waving his fork through the air, George grinned at them all.  "We'll go look at it after we finish eating.  Digging back into his food, George turned his attention to his daughter.  "So, munchkin, what's this about your room?"

Folding her hands importantly in front of her, Marti answered, "I'm flipping everything.  Completely reversing it!  I'm taking all of my things out of my room and I'm putting them back backwards!"

"What made you decide to do that, Marti?"

"Because I can, Daddy."

Nora laughed softly.  "Sounds like a good reason to me, Georgie."

"Alright, gang!  Let's go!"  George gestured for everyone to follow as he led the way to the back door.  Edwin and Lizzie rushed to follow him while Nora beckoned for Marti to join her.  Marti complied, grasping Nora's hand and the two swung their clasped hands happily back and forth as they followed the teens out the door.

Casey lagged behind the rest of the group, trailing closely behind a dawdling Derek.  Just as he was ready to open the door, she roughly yanked him back by the arm.  Derek let out a hiss of surprise.

With astonishing strength, Casey jerked him around to face her.  "Is there anything you want to say to me?"

"Nope!"  He popped the p.

"Are you sure?"  Casey pressed.

"Well, now that you mention it, let go of me."  Her eyes jumped to where she was clutching Derek's bicep.  She hastily let go and he rubbed the sore muscle tenderly.  He drawled, "I'm probably bleeding now."

Ignoring him, Casey pushed, "There's nothing else you have to say?"

Rolling his eyes, Derek leered, "Gee, no."

"You've never been this quiet before!"

"You've never left the country before."  After the words left his mouth, Derek instantly made for the door.

Quickly jumping forward, Casey seized his arm with both of hers.  "Whoa, you're not going anywhere!" 

"Casey.  Let go."

"Is that really why you've been so quiet?"


One of Casey's hands dropped from his arm to wave wildly around as she fumed, "So, you decided that-" She dropped the register of her voice as she mocked him, "Oh, hey, I'm just going to clam up for a week now that Casey really needs to hear my annoying voice telling her exactly what I think!"  Glaring, her voice returned to normal, "Is that it, Derek?"

"You're insane.  Do you know that?"

"Look, I understand that you're probably upset about Roxy, but is that really any reason to take it out on me?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa.  Back the assumption truck up.  I'm not upset about Roxy."

Confusion crossed Casey's face.  "But-"

Derek cut her off.  "I'm not going to pieces over a summer fling.  You know what those are, right?  What normal teenagers do in the summer?  Maybe they didn't have those things on your mother planet, Spacey."

"Der-rek!"  Casey irritably spit, "Then just what is your problem?"  He laughed humorlessly, causing Casey to cry, "Well?  I'm waiting!"

Instead of answering her, Derek forcefully shook his arm out of her clutches.  He marched the rest of the way to the door.

Casey's soft cry of, "Derek!" stopped him, his hand gripping the knob.  He looked over his shoulder, his darkened eyes taking in her pleading expression.  He shook his head slowly.  Without another word, he hurled the door open and stormed out, leaving Casey blinking after him.  Her exhale echoed in the empty room.

George led them to the shiny Geo in the driveway.  The new blue paint caught the setting sun, reflecting it back at them.  As George stepped aside, Edwin and Lizzie finally laid their eyes on the Geo.

Edwin let out an ecstatic laugh followed by, "She's a beaut!"

"Wow!"  Lizzie gasped, "I love that color blue."

Nora nodded happily.  "I thought you'd like that, Lizard."

"Come on, Ed.  Let's look underneath the hood."  Edwin followed his dad to the front of the car.  George popped the hood and their two heads disappeared behind it.

The girls shook their heads, smiling at each other over the boys' enthusiasm.  Marti continued to hold Nora's hand as the two circled the vehicle.  Lizzie followed at a distance, inspecting it from every angle.  Eventually Nora and Marti stopped, but Lizzie kept going until she returned to the driver's side.  Carefully, she opened the door and climbed in.

Following Lizzie's lead, Nora opened the passenger door so she could ask, "Do you like it, Lizzie?"

Ignoring the question, Lizzie climbed out, asking, "What's the gas consumption like?"

George, having finally pulled his head out from beneath the hood chuckled, "You called that one, Nora!"  He directed his next words to Lizzie, "It has great gas mileage."

"Well, if you couldn't swing an environmentally friendly car, I'm at least glad you got a Geo."  Lizzie beamed at her mom, "I love it!"

"Me too!"  Marti supplied, "It's a cute little thing!"

Nodding, Edwin stood up from under the hood, smiling from ear to ear,  "I like it too."

Both George and Nora let out relieved sighs.  Nora patted the top of the Geo fondly as she spoke, "I'm so glad you all like it."  She grew serious, "Now, you both understand that there will be rules."

At the teens' nods, George picked up, "You'll share the cost of the car equally.  That means insurance, repairs, and all of that, understood?"

Again, Edwin and Lizzie nodded.  "Sounds reasonable."  Edwin consented.

Lizzie chimed in, "We can do that."

"We'll add on some gas money to your allowances for school and errands we ask you to run, but anything else will be at your expense."

"Awesome!"  Edwin and Lizzie uttered together.

"And," George looked to Nora, who nodded her agreement.  "There will be a slightly extended curfew."

Letting out equally loud cries of praise, Edwin and Lizzie glanced at each other grinning like mad.

Marti pouted, "That's not fair!"

George smiled at his daughter.  "When you start driving, Marti, you'll get the same treatment." His words did little to comfort her as Marti crossed her arms and stomped.  Turning back to Edwin and Lizzie, George teased, "Now, you have to promise us that you won't turn out to be like Derek and Casey."

All five of them laughed.  Still chuckling, Lizzie assured him, "Don't worry, George.  Ed and I are nothing like those two."

"Hey, where are they anyway?"  Marti inquired, raising her eyebrow as her arms fell from her chest and her stance relaxed.  The family looked around the driveway as if expecting them to materialize before their eyes.  Suddenly, the back door banged open and Derek emerged in a huff.  Marti exclaimed, "There you are!"

Clasping the back of his neck, Derek joined Marti and Nora at the side of the car, mumbling, "Yeah, here I am."

"What do you think of the car, Derek?"  His father asked him, smiling widely.

"Not as classy as the Prince, but she'll do."

"You really think so, D?"  Edwin asked hopefully.

Derek shrugged half-heartedly, "Yeah, bro."  Edwin's smile doubled at Derek's words of approval, no matter how lackluster his words had been.

Again, the door slammed open as Casey finally joined them.  She walked briskly around the Geo to stand next to Lizzie, refusing to glance at Derek over top of the car.

"Oh, Casey!"  Nora trilled happily, "Well, what do you think?"

Casey took half a second to glance at it before she tried to put on a voice of enthusiasm, "Oh, it's wonderful."  Her eyes immediately dropped to the ground, avoiding Derek's eyes as they snapped to look at her.

Lizzie's brow furrowed and she tried to catch Casey's attention even as their mother asked, "Everything okay, Case?"

"Fine, Mom."  Casey told the rear tire.  Across the driveway, Derek's own eyes locked onto a tire.

Ever clueless, George proclaimed, "This house can now handle two more drivers!"

The McDonald and Venturi children separated from George and Nora at the basement steps as they collectively headed for their bedrooms.  Edwin, Lizzie, and Marti tossed lighthearted words back and forth, but Derek and Casey were silent.

Derek slipped into his bedroom without a word, his door thudding close behind him.  Edwin and Marti called their goodnights, each heading into their rooms.  Lizzie and Casey returned their wishes before Lizzie seized Casey by the arm and hauled her into the bathroom.

Once Lizzie secured the door, she fixed her attention on a wary Casey.  "Are you okay, Casey?"

"Hmm?  Oh, yeah, fine.  Just fine."  Distracting herself from her sister, Casey opened the cabinet, searching for her toothbrush and toothpaste.

Lizzie raised a disbelieving eyebrow.  "It doesn't sound like it.  What happened with you and Derek?"  She approached the sink as well, freeing her hair of its braid and reaching for her hair brush.

Casey's voice rose in pitch, "What do you mean?"  Frantically, Casey shoved her overloaded paste filled toothbrush into her mouth.

With wide eyes, Lizzie watched as Casey literally foamed at the mouth.  Tentatively, Lizzie started brushing a section of her hair.  "You guys didn't come outside for a while and then Derek stomped out looking upset and then a couple minutes later you followed looking pretty dejected if I'm honest."

She brushed for a moment before Casey spit and wiped at her mouth.  "Don't worry about it, Liz.  Just one of our typical disagreements."

"If you say so."  Lizzie studied her sister's reflection as they both went back to their tasks.  Silence settled between them for a few seconds before Lizzie broke it, "You know, if you ever wanted to talk about it, I'd listen.

Softly, Casey smiled at her through the mirror.  "I know."

Smiling, Lizzie dropped the subject.  "Will you braid my hair like you used to?"

"Sure, kiddo."  Casey put her things back into the cabinet and took the offered brush from Lizzie.

"Miss Case?"  Nora called as she knocked on her daughter's door, carry two mugs of tea.  "Are you awake?"

"Yeah, Mom.  Come in."

Nora pushed the door open and slipped inside, finding Casey stacking notebooks at her desk.

"Good morning, sweetheart.  What are you working on?"  Nora asked as she passed Casey a cup.

Casey accepted the tea then shrugged.  "Morning, Mom.  Just organizing some things."

Hesitantly, Nora perched on Casey's perfectly made bed.  "Casey, sweetie, I know this is a hard decision, but you really need to make it."

Suddenly, Casey spun her chair to face her mother, shrieking, "Mom!  How can I do this?  This decision is major!  It will change my whole life!"

"Casey-" Nora tried to calmly cut through.

"I mean, this isn't just a 'do my shoes match my shirt' kind of question!  This is HUGE!"


"Someone just needs to tell me what to do!"

"Casey, no one can make this decision for you.  You have to make it yourself."

"Oh my gosh, Derek said the same thing."

"You asked Derek for advice?"

"Well, not specifically."  Casey looked down, fiddling with her mug.

Nora eyed her carefully.  "Take the rest of the day to think about it, but by dinner tonight you have to have made her decision.

Wincing, Casey hedged, "Can't we just take a vote?"

From the door, Nora sent her a small smile.  "Goodbye, Miss Case."

Abruptly, Casey stood from her desk and marched to the door.  Stretching out, she flipped the lock.  Then she flopped onto her bed, rapping her knuckles against a notebook as she thought.

Taking a deep breath, she clutched her phone in both hands.  Her fingers hovered over the button before she finally pressed it.  She tensed as it rang, waiting anxiously for an answer.

"You've reached Dennis McDonald."



"Yeah!  Hi, Dad!  You'll never believe what happened!  We had a talent show at Gran's lodge and one of the guest's has a son who's a Broadway choreographer and he wants me to be a lead in his next musical!"

"Mhmm, mhmm, that's nice Case."

"But, Dad, do you know what this means?"

"Hmm?  What's that?"

"I can stay with you in New York!"

"Uh huh, yeah, good."

"Dad?"  Casey tried again, "Dad?  Did you hear what I said?"

"Huh?  What was that Casey?"

"I said that I have an opportunity to live in New York with you."

"Oh, that's nice.  Real good."

"Yeah, I think so too."  Casey paused, "Well, that is if I decide to take it.  I'd have to defer from university for a year.  I'm not sure I'll be able to keep the scholarship."  Her dad didn't respond.  "I guess I haven't decided anything yet."  Casey waited a little longer then stated, "I'll let you know what I decide, Dad."

"Sure.  Yeah, Case."

"I'll talk to you later.  Bye."

"Mhmm, bye, Casey."

"Lizzie, do you have a minute?"

"Sure, Case."  After closing her book, Lizzie moved to set it on her nightstand.  Then she shifted in bed, sitting up and giving Casey her full attention.  Casey looked around the hall then slipped into the room, closing the door behind her.  Raising an eyebrow, Lizzie asked, "What's going on?"

Casey's hands fluttered in front of her as she began pacing back and forth in front of Lizzie's bed as her sister tracked her movements.  "I really need to run through everything that's going through my mind with someone."

"Alright," Lizzie placed a pillow behind her back and leaned against her headboard.  She folded her hands in her lap.  "I'm ready."

Taking a deep breath, Casey began, "I'm either going to New York to star on Broadway or I'm taking a scholarship to Queen's."

Barely resisting an eye roll, Lizzie managed, "Yes, those are your options."

"But if I go to New York, I have to defer and possibly lose my scholarship."

Lizzie nodded along, "Could happen."

"And that could be a major issue.  What happens if I never go to university?  Then what if I can't dance anymore?  I could end up on the streets!  Then I'd have to rely on Derek for everything!"  

Confusion overtook Lizzie's features.  "Why Derek?"

Casey's voice rose in pitch, "Because he will have gone to university and earned a degree!"

"Okay?"  Lizzie's forehead creased deeper, "Where's Mom and George in this scenario?"

"Too disappointed in me that they won't even be talking to me!"

"Casey, I think you're overreacting a bit.  Mom and George wouldn't leave you on the hypothetical streets."

Taking frenzied breaths, Casey's pace increased.  "I'm not overreacting, Lizzie!"

"Alright, breathe, Casey and redirect.  Let's talk about the good things about going to New York."

Casey did as her sister asked and took a couple breaths.  "Well, the obvious.  Starring on Broadway.  How many people actually get to do that in a lifetime?"

"Not very many, that's for sure."

"People would do anything for this opportunity!"

"But the question is... would you?"

Her strides faltered.  "I'm not sure, Lizzie.  That's my whole dilemma!"  Casey was off and ranting again, "Mom claims she's staying neutral, but I feel like she wants me to go to university.  George outright said he thought university was the better choice.  Edwin thinks dancing on Broadway is more exciting than university.  Emily thinks I absolutely need to take the opportunity in New York.  Meanwhile-"

Quickly, Lizzie bolted upright, interrupting Casey, "Emily thinks you should go to New York?"

"Yes, she does.  Why do you sound so surprised?"

"Hmm, interesting."  Lizzie reclined backwards again.  "Just shocked me, that's all."

"She seemed pretty adamant."  Frowning, Casey continued where she left off, "Meanwhile, Marti just wants me to go to Queen's to be with Derek, but Derek won't even tell me what he thinks!  And-"

"Casey, why are you repeating what everyone else thinks?  Shouldn't you be the one to make the decision based off what you want?"

Casey's voice quieted, "Because I don't know what to do.  New York holds some wonderful opportunities, but so does Queen's."

"Yeah," Lizzie mumbled, picking up an old family picture off her bedside table.  She studied their dad's smiling face.  "You could see Dad a lot more."

At her sister's words, Casey's face crumbled.  "Oh, Liz."  She wouldn't meet her sister's gaze.  "I wasn't going to say anything... but I talked to Dad a little earlier... and..."

Lizzie's eyes widened in surprise.  "You did?  What did he say?"  As Casey's bottom lip disappeared and her eyes welled up with unshed tears, sadness spread throughout Lizzie's expression.  "Oh.  You don't have to explain, I know."  When a tear streaked down Casey's cheek, Lizzie went on, "In theory, that would be the best part about New York."

"There's still the dancing on Broadway part."

Lizzie shrugged.  "Is that really what you want to do though?  You'd already given up dance to focus on your studies before we left for the lodge."

"So, you think I should forget about the offer and go to Queen's?"

Again, Lizzie shrugged.  "Would you be able to live with yourself if you didn't take the offer?"

"So, you think I should take it and go to Broadway?"

"What I think doesn't matter, sis."

"Lizzie!"  Casey called out in frustration, but Lizzie only wavered her hands in front of her.  "Please, Liz, tell me what I should do."

"Casey, you have to follow your heart."

"My heart?  My heart?  Why not my head?  Hearts are illogical.  They don't follow reason!  My head plans things!  We make lists and schedules and everything together!  My head lives in the real world!  My heart can get stuck in fantasy land!  You think I need to put aside reason to make the most important decision of my life?"

Panicking at Casey's tone, Lizzie cried, "I don't know!  That's what people say in these situations!"  Casey flopped down in a mess of limbs at the bottom of Lizzie's bed, finally giving in to her tears.  Reaching out a supporting had, Lizzie rubbed Casey's back soothingly.  "No matter what you decide, Case, I'll support you."

"Thanks, Lizzie."  Casey sniffed.

"I just know I'm going to miss you so much."

Fresh tears welled in Casey's eyes.  "Oh, Liz.  I'll miss you so much.  I don't know what I'm going to do without you."

Lizzie wiped at her own eyes as a small smile danced across her lips.  "I don't know what you're going to do without me either."

Laughing lightly, Casey pulled her sister into a fierce hug.

"I love you, sis."  Lizzie whispered.

The tears fell down Casey's cheeks.  "I love you too."

Derek threw open the front door, "Sammy!  Ralphie!"

"Sup, D?  Sam greeted with a fist bump as he let himself in.

"D-man!"  Ralph slapped a hand to Derek's shoulder as he passed.  Both guests collapsed on to the familiar couch.  Grinning, Ralph asked, "Ready to raid some babes?"

Sam pumped a fist into the air.  "You bet!"

Quietly, Derek agreed with a low, "Suh-weet."

All three of them reached for a controller as Derek flipped on the TV.  As the game loaded, Sam quizzed his friend, "So, D, how've you been?"

"Fine, Sam."

The grin left Sam's face.  "What's wrong?"

"Who said anything's wrong?"

"You don't seem like yourself.  And you just dodged my question with a question."


Sam sent Derek an understanding look.  "You'll talk about it eventually."  Derek rolled his eyes, and the boys started their game.

"Hey, Liz!  What's up?"  Edwin asked as he popped his head into her room.

Again, Lizzie dropped her book down.  "Not much, Ed.  What about you?"

He jingled something in his pocket, a sly smirk on his face.  "Care to take the maiden voyage with our car?"

Lizzie beamed.  "Totally."  She was halfway off her bed when her smile fell.  "Edwin!  We don't have a license!"

"I know, I know!  Dad's coming home early and said he'd start teaching us."

"You sure you want George to teach you how to drive?"

Edwin winced.  "Yeah, good point.  But at least we get to take the car out!"  His grin returned, "You in or what?"

Jumping up frantically, Lizzie turned to throw her book down on her bed.  "Duh!"

As they strolled out to the hall, Edwin slung an arm around her shoulders.  "That's what I like to hear!"  He dropped his arm, allowing Lizzie to go down the stairs first.  Together they descended the stairs, Edwin teased, "I get to ride shotgun first!"

"No fair!  Why do you get first dibs?"

"Because I called it!"

"Edwin!"  Lizzie called as they hit the bottom of the stairs, "That's not fair!"

Sam and Ralph twisted their attention to the ruckus.  "What's the haps, honorary sibs?"  Ralph's voice was filled with fondness.

Both Lizzie and Edwin smiled ear to ear, shouting happily, "Ralphie!"

Lizzie caught sight of Sam on the couch.  "Hi, Sam."

"Lizzie.  Ed."  Sam greeted the teens.

"Hey, Sammy."  Edwin nodded at him.  "Did you boys hear the big news?"

Ralph looked confused.  "What big news?"

"Lizzie and I got a car!"

"Wow!"  Ralph clapped his hands excitedly.  "That's awe-some!"

Sam dipped his head to the side, "You're in the big league now, kids."

They chuckled together, Edwin and Lizzie looked sideways at each other before Edwin revealed more, "Did Derek tell you the other big news?"

At the same time, Sam and Ralph's foreheads wrinkled.  Sam scrunched his lips together, "Um, no?  He didn't tell us?"

In his chair, Derek tensed.  "There's nothing to tell."

Lizzie shifted her stance, interjecting, "Casey has an opportunity to dance on Broadway."

"Whoa."  Sam breathed in as his eyes jumped to his brooding best friend.

"Holy sh-" Ralph altered his words, "Holy shin guards, Batman!  That's insane!"

Edwin added, "She hasn't made up her mind what she's doing yet."

Ralph whistled lowly as Sam validated, "That is a big decision."

Nudging Lizzie, Edwin told the guys, "We better head out.  Dad's taking us out in our car!"

Waving excitedly, Ralph called, "Have fun!"

"Good luck!"  Sam wished them.

They made their way into the kitchen and Edwin picked up where they left off, "Do you have a better way?

Lizzie squinted at him.  "Let's not argue.  We can settle this like mature adults."

Edwin raised an eyebrow in response.  "How?"

"I'm going to..."  Lizzie trailed off as she tackled him to the floor, screaming, "Pummel you!"


"Say uncle!"  Lizzie commanded.


She stood, adjusting her shirt.  "Well, I think we have a clear winner here."

"That wasn't fair either."  Edwin tried to get up from the floor, but Lizzie had to help him to his feet.  He pretended to dust off his shoulders.  "You clearly have the advantage."

Gleaming, Lizzie shrugged innocently, "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Okay, sis.  I'll pretend I believe that."  Edwin snorted.

Lizzie punched his shoulder.  "Shut up."

"Why don't we just flip a coin?"

Staring him down, Lizzie finally relented, "Okay, that's fair."  Lizzie opened the back door, stepping back for him to go first.  "Babies first."

Edwin mocked a bow and strolled through the door.  Abruptly, he stopped in his tracks, causing Lizzie to run into him with a cry of, "Oof!"

"Oops, sorry, Liz."

"Oh, no problem."  Lizzie's voice was laced with sarcasm.  "Just what is it you're doing?"

"I'm taking in the view!"


"Our car!"

She joined him staring at the Geo in the driveway.  "It's a car, Edwin."

"It's not just a car!"

"Uh, yeah it is."

"Lizzie, you know what she looks like?"  He waited for her to answer, but she only shrugged.  "Freedom.  She looks like freedom."  Even though Lizzie rolled her eyes, she shot him an eager smile.  Edwin consulted his watch as George pulled up to the curb.  "Right on time."

George parked the car and climbed out, joyfully waving at the pair in the driveway.  He called to them, "Hey, kids!  Ready to go?"  At their nods, he explained, "Just let me put my briefcase inside.  Do you have the keys?

Pulling them out of his pocket, Edwin rattled them.  "Right here, Dad."

"Great!  Be back in a flash."  There was a brief struggle as Lizzie and Edwin fought over the passenger seat.  Lizzie came up victorious, which sent Edwin pouting into the backseat.  Unaware of the battle, George popped into the driver's seat, exclaiming, "Where to?"

"Anywhere!"  Edwin and Lizzie chimed together.

Starting the car, George announced, "Now, kids, always remember to check the mirror before you back out.  Wouldn't want to dent any cars now, would we?"

"Gee, Dad.  Way to be passive aggressive."

"Yeah, George!  We didn't have anything to do with that incident."

"So, D, how was the action at the lodge?"  Ralph winked at him.

"Yeah, man, I want to hear about the chicks."  Sam agreed.

Derek thumped his hand against the armrest.  "Chick.  As in singular."

His friends whistled.  Sam inquired, "Only one?  Wow, she must have been special."

"Not a lot of options in the middle of nowhere, Sammy."

Ralph's eyebrows went up and down as he asked, "Was she hot?"

"Duh.  Can we go back to the game, now?"

"In a minute, boys."  Ralph stood from the couch, dancing around.  "Gotta relieve some pressure."

Sam snorted, "Take your time, dude."  Ralph trotted up the stairs, two at a time.  Sam kept his eyes forward, gently prying, "Does this girl have a name?"

"Roxy."  Derek muttered.

"Is that why you're in a shitty mood?"

Derek groaned, "Come on, man."

"Seriously, dude.  What gives?  Is it something to do with Roxy?"

"Sam."  Derek looked at him sharply.  "She was just a girl.  A summer distraction."

"Distraction from what?"

An unamused chuckle slipped from Derek's lips.  "Everything.  Now, drop it."

Silence settled for a few seconds until Sam shot, "There's something bothering you, D."

Ralph bounded down the stairs.  "Phew!"  He plopped down in his spot between his friends.  "Game on, dudes!"

"Took you long enough, Ralph."  Derek drawled.

Sam continued to eye Derek as the game started back up.

"AHHH!"  Marti screamed as Casey tripped over her.

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Marti!  I was reading my notes and didn't see you!  What are you doing out here?"  Casey answered herself, "Oh my gosh, you have your entire room out here in the hall!"

Marti shrugged her shoulders pathetically.

Casey frowned, "Why so glum, ladybug?"

"I was just thinking."

"About what?"

"How things... are changing."

Sinking to her knees in front of her little step-sister, Casey nibbled at her bottom lip.  "Yes... they are.  Does that make you sad, Marti?"

"I guess..."  Marti picked up a stuffed moose and fiddled with it.

"You want to talk about it?"

The young girl shrugged.  After a moment of silence, Marti whispered, "You're leaving, Smerek's leaving, Edwin and Lizzie are going to high school and Dad and Nora are having a baby."  Tears formed in her eyes, causing Casey to instantly reach out to her.  "Then there's me.  Nothing is happening to me."

Casey's keen eyes took her in.  "Is that why you're changing your room?  So, there's something happening for you too?"

Marti tilted her head to the side as she considered Casey's words.  "I guess so."

"There's changes happening for you too, Marti.  You don't have to invent any."  Casey forced Marti to look at her with two fingers underneath her chin.  "You're going into a whole new year of school.  That's exciting.  You'll do tons of neat things and meet new people.  AND you're going to be a big sister!  That's a full-time job, you know.  You'll be a wonderful at it too."

"But everyone is still leaving me behind."

"Marti," Casey consoled, stroking her cheek, "No one is leaving you behind."

"Yes, you are."  Marti sighed.

Casey leaned in closer.  "Distance won't change how much we love you, Marti."  She grasped Marti's hand firmly.  "If I could take you with me, I would."  Marti didn't respond.  "And your brother would too.  You know how much you mean to him."

Her glistening eyes turned up to investigate Casey.  She breathed, "I know.  I've been trying not to cry in front of him, but I miss him already."

"You don't have to do that.  Derek's your brother.  He needs to know how you're feeling."

"Smerek doesn't do tears."

Interjecting as much humor as she could, Casey squeezed Marti's hand as she lightly teased, "Derek can't run from tears forever."  Marti gave a half-smile before the corner of her mouth dipped back down.  "He can handle it, Marti.  He loves you."

Marti took a deep breath and wiped at her eyes.  Then she threw her arms around Casey's neck.  The pair embraced for several minutes before Marti eventually pulled away, sitting back and smiling up at Casey.  "Have you decided what you're doing yet?"

Picking up her forgotten notebook, Casey frowned.  "I was just going over my lists."

Marti nodded her understanding as she hugged her moose tighter against her chest.

Casey eyed it, "I don't remember seeing this little guy before."  She reached out to pet it.

Perking up, Marti beamed.  "This is Merrick.  Smerek gave him to me when I was born."

"Aww," Casey cooed, "How sweet.  Merrick the Moose!  I didn't know Derek did that."  Casey stroked Merrick's antlers softly then offered Marti a tender smile.

"Merrick only comes out when I'm scared.  Otherwise, he's too busy being my guard-moose.  He protects me from all the monsters and bad things from getting in my room."

"And did Merrick tell you that?"

"No, Smerek did.  Merrick is too modest."

"Of course."  Casey smiled amusedly.  "And Derek clearly doesn't have that problem."

Marti tinkled a laugh, but quickly went back to being serious as she fondly rubbed Merrick's hoof.  "Smerek said Merrick would protect me when he couldn't."

Casey's breath hitched and she patted Marti's knee before she stood, offering the girl a watery smile.


Turning back to face Marti, Casey answered, "Yeah?"

"He'd give you a moose too."

Marti hung over the back of the couch in between Sam and Ralph, "Hi, Sammy!  Hi, Ralphie!"

Sam smiled warmly, "Hey there, Marti!"

"Marti!"  Ralph cried happily, reaching backwards to ruffle the girl's hair.  "What's poppin'?"

"I'm flipping my room, Ralphie!"

Ralph tilted his head to the side.  "Cool, cool.  Sounds fun."

She nodded enthusiastically before turning to Derek, a pout already in place.  "Smerek?  Will you help me move my furniture?"

"Right now?"

"Yes, Smerek."  Marti stomped an impatient foot.

Derek groaned, but threw his footrest down and followed Marti up the stairs.  As they reached the upstairs hall, Marti turned back to him to warn, "Be careful, Smerek.  Don't step on anybody."

He looked around at the literal zoo spread across the carpet.  "Um, Smarti?  I think we should tell everyone to stop giving you animals."

Outraged, Marti's jaw dropped.  "That was the worst idea you've ever had."  She threw open her door loudly and stomped inside.  Shaking her head, she put on a mysterious tone, "I'll pretend like it didn't happen."

Used to her dramatics, Derek rolled his eyes.  "It's a valid suggestion."

Marti sent him a glare, then clapped once, pointing to her nightstand.  "Alright, Smerek, this needs to go there!"  She indicated a place across the room.  Derek did as she requested.  "Okay, now put this," Marti swept a finger from her dresser to the opposite corner of the room, "Over there!" 

Groaning, Derek shoved the dresser across the room.  He straightened, puffing as he asked, "Anything else, boss?"

"My bed!"

Derek gaped at her, "Who do you think I am?  Iron Man?"

"Quit being dramatic, Smerek.  I'll help you!"  Marti giggled.

"You?  You're as light as a feather!"  He tickled her side and she squirmed away, laughing.

She rolled her eyes.  "We can do it together."  Beaming, Marti sang, "Teamwork makes the dream work!  Just think of me as War Machine."

"You've been spending too much time with Spacey.  You're picking up her thinking."  Derek snorted and pretended to shiver.


Rolling his eyes, he quipped, "Alright, alright.  You win."

They crouched down and pushed the bed.  After a few tries, Marti was finally happy with the placement.  Derek leaned back to catch his breath as Marti sniffled.

Alarmed, Derek asked, "Marti?  Are you hurt?"  Fighting the tears, Marti shook her head.  "What's wrong?"


"Bull.  Come on, what's wrong?"  Marti avoided his eyes as she burst into sobs.  Immediately, Derek started twitching, his eyes darting around his sister's room.  "Whoa, whoa, whoa!  Smarts!  Don't cry!"

"B-b-b-but Smerek!  I have to.  I can't hide it anymore."

His hands fluttered uselessly at his sides until he grasped Marti around the waist, picking her up and settling them both on her recently adjusted bed.  He tightened his grip around her, and his voice softened, "Smarti, it makes me really sad when you cry."  His fingers sank into her soft hair as he continued to hold her.  "Tell me what's wrong."  Marti shook her head frantically against his chest.

Derek whispered, "Please."

She pulled back, her teary bright eyes studying him intently.  "You mean it?"

"Of course, I do."

"O-okay."  Marti sniffed, turning herself in his lap to look in his eyes.  "I don't want you to leave me."

"Smarti."  Derek breathed, closing his eyes.  He opened his mouth, but words failed him.  Gulping, he tried again, "I don't want to leave you either.  You know that, right?"

"But you still are."

Softly, Derek groaned, "This is hard for me too, Smarts."

Marti's miserable eyes glistened as she sniffed.  "But you don't do feelings."

Pretending to wince, Derek wiped a tear from her cheek with his thumb.  "I might occasionally do the ffff-feeling thing, but only for really, really, really special people.  But shh, that's a secret just between you and me, 'kay?"

A watery smile appeared on Marti's face.  "Am I special?"

He smiled back.  "The most specialest."

Giggling, Marti corrected, "That's not a word, Smerek!"

Derek ruffled her hair affectionately.  "Course it is."

Marti turned somber again, "What about Edwin?"

"Special, Ed?"  They laughed together quietly then Derek answered, "On occasion."

"Is Dad special?"

"It's been known to happen."

"How about Nora?"

"You could say that."

"The baby?"

"With Venturi genes?  No doubt."

"And is Lizzie special?"

"I'd consider it."


"In the head."  Marti shot him a look, making Derek mumble, "Sure."

Marti beamed like she won the lottery.  She looked him dead in the eye and whispered, "I knew it."

"Are we done with the..."  Derek dropped his voice, "Ffff-feeling talk?"

She popped off the bed, chirping, "Yepperoni!"

"Good.  Iron Man needs to recharge."

"Smerek!"  Marti's tinkling laugh rang out.

Derek sprang from the bed.  "Later, War Machine!"

As Derek turned to leave his sister's room, her whisper stopped him.  "Thank you, Smerek.

He shot a genuine smile over his shoulder.  "You're welcome, Smarti."

"Derek left you guys?  How rude!  He should be nicer to his company."

Ralph quickly straightened in his seat.  "Whoa, Casey!  Your hair!"

Casey fingered a lock of her hair as she perched on the edge of Derek's vacant chair.  "Do you like it?"

"I love it!"  Ralph reached across the space between them to pat the top of her head.  "You look sexy and wild."

Sam gawked at her.  "Blonde?  You went blonde?"

Eyes still bugging out, Ralph remarked, "Yeah, that totally wasn't part of our news bulletin!"

Suddenly self-conscious, Casey fidgeted.  "I decided to try it after all."

"I thought you said you'd never do that."  Sam raised an eyebrow at her.

"I think I remember saying don't get your hopes up."

Something made him grin.  "Right, that was it.  Funny how things change, eh?"

"What do you mean by that?"

He teased, "You never went blonde for me."

She quirked a perfect eyebrow back at him.  "I still don't see your point."

Sam shook his head, "Forget it, Case."  Ralph looked between them, confusion tinting his features.

Giving a one shoulder shrug, Casey cleared her throat.  "Listen, guys, can I talk to you for a second?"

Reclining comfortably on the couch, Ralph crossed his arms behind his head.  "Sure thing.  Shoot."

"Well, I have this huge decision to make and..."

Sam interjected, "About Broadway?"

Casey regarded him carefully.  "How did you know that?"

Snapping his fingers, Ralph exclaimed, "Now, that was in the news bulletin!"

"What news bulletin?"

"Edwin and Lizzie."  Sam quickly explained.

"Oh."  Casey eyes went downcast as she asked delicately, "Derek didn't tell you?"

Both boys shook their heads.  Sam glanced at Ralph quickly then focused his attention firmly back on Casey.  "You were saying?"

"Well, I have to make my decision by tonight whether I'm taking the opportunity on Broadway or the scholarship to Queen's."

Ralph sucked in a breath, the air whistling between his teeth.  "Yikes."

Sam's eyebrows shot to his hairline.  "You don't have any idea what you're going to do?"

Dejectedly, Casey shook her head.  Her thumbs twiddled around each other and she stared intensely at the motion.  "No idea.  What do you guys think I should do?"

"New York, baby!"  Ralph cried.

Sam slapped Ralph's arm.  "I don't think our opinions matter here, Ralphie."

"Du-ude!"  Ralph rubbed at his arm.  "She just asked us!"

Casey nodded along.  "Please, Sam?  I've been asking everyone what they think and writing down their answers so I can think about them."  She held up a notebook from behind her back.

Fixating on the notebook, Sam pried, "Have you gotten anything good?"

Slowly, Casey nodded.  "Some things to consider, definitely."  She sighed deeply, "Except from Derek.  He's been no help.  He won't say anything."

Sam's forehead creased.  "He hasn't told you what he thinks?  Well, that's un-Derek-like."

"Totally, dude."  Ralph agreed.

"Yeah, that's what I thought too.  Why do you think that is?"

"Beats me."  Ralph shrugged, holding both hands palm side up into the air.

"Sam?"  Casey prompted.

He scratched at his cheek.  "I'm not sure, Casey."

She heaved a heavy sigh.  "I just wish someone would tell me what to do.  I've never been more torn in my life."  She held up her right hand.  "On one hand I have an opportunity most people would jump at."  Casey's left hand joined her right.  "On the other, I can attend the university of my dreams."

Derek groaned as he flew down the stairs.  "She's bothering you guys with this crap now?"

"Der-rek!  This isn't crap!  This is a life changing decision!"

He stood beside his chair with his arms crossed as he glared down at her.  "That the guys want no part in.  Right, guys?"

"Actually, D, I'd be happy to talk to Casey about her decision."  Casey smiled gratefully at Sam.

Ralph piped in with his hand covering his heart, "I too would be happy to talk to Casey."  Casey turned her radiant smile on Ralph.

"Traitors."  Derek grumbled under his breath.

"Thank you, boys."  Casey chirped happily, sending a triumphant look towards Derek, who returned it with a glare.

Derek's face darkened as he turned to Sam.  The two friends studied each other for several beats as an awkward silence began to fill the room.  "Sam," Derek bit, "Are you sure you want to go down this... road, again?"

Sam looked between Derek and Casey slowly until comprehension flickered across his face.  His gaze settled on Casey.  "Casey, you know I consider us good friends.  I'd be happy to listen to what you need to say."

"Well then, my good friend, Sam, could I talk to you in the kitchen?"

He nodded sincerely, standing to follow Casey.  Ralph made to join him, but Derek shot him a warning, "Ralph."  Ralph sank slowly back into the cushions as Derek moodily threw himself into his chair.

Sam stared at Casey from across the kitchen island.  "Have you considered that maybe Derek doesn't want you to go to New York?"

"Why wouldn't he?  He's been trying to get rid of me from the moment my family moved here."

"Is that what you think?"

"Sam!  That's what I know!"

"Look, Case," Sam attempted tentatively, "I don't pretend to know the innermost workings of D's head," Casey snorted, but Sam plunged ahead, "But, he has been my best friend since we were ten, so I get him."  He shrugged nonchalantly.

Casey urged him on, "Sam... exactly where are you going with this?"

Sighing, Sam rubbed tiredly at an eye.  "He won't talk about something until it's really bothering him, or he's pushed into it.  And then it kinda just spews out like a volcano erupting."

"Are you telling me..."  Casey lingered over her next words, "To push him until he erupts?"

Sam winced, "I don't know if that's the smartest move, but I'm sure you'd get some answers that way."

"I see what you're saying."  Casey propped her head onto her folded hands, studying the ceiling.

"I think you better ask yourself if that's really what you want before you try anything like that."

"Why is that?"

Calmly, Sam tilted his head sideways as he considered her.  "Lava."

Casey paused behind the couch, reaching out a hand to stop Sam.  "Thanks, Sam."

Sam offered her a lopsided smile and Casey stretched onto her toes to wrap him in a warm embrace.  When she pulled back, she smiled sweetly before turning on her heel and dancing up the stairs.

As Sam circled the couch, he met Derek's stormy eyes before Derek ripped his attention back to the television screen.

Picking up the discarded controller, Sam settled back into his spot and hurried to jump back into the game.  Barely a few seconds had passed when Derek jabbed, "So, Sammy boy, have a friendly conversation in the kitchen?"  Derek fiercely hit a few buttons.

"I did.  Thanks for asking."  Punching a few crucial buttons, Sam passed Derek's high score.

Under his breath, Derek cursed.  "What did you tell her?"

"Isn't that my business?"


Utterly perplexed at the sudden hostility in the air, Ralph took his eyes off the game to look between his two friends.  "Hey, what's going on?"

Sam shot a look at Derek.  "Ask Derek."  Slack jawed Ralph turned to Derek as he waited for an explanation.

Derek ignored them both.  "What did she say?"

"Yeah, man."  Ralph turned back to Sam.  "Did she decide?"

Also ignoring Ralph, Sam answered Derek, "If you want to know so bad, why won't you talk to Casey about it?"  Derek scowled, but Sam trudged on, "Yeah, I know you won't talk about it with her.  She told me so."

As he slouched further into his recliner, Derek aggressively punched the controller.  "Whatever."

"My question is why are you holding back?  You like never hold back what you think."

"Gee, I don't remember asking for your opinion."

"Just think about it, D.  If you don't tell her, how is she supposed to know?"

After a few moments of silence, Sam relented the subject.  The three friends finished out their game, but Derek never regained his lead.

"Come on, Ralphie.  I think it's time to go.  See ya, D."  Sam stood from the couch, pulling Ralph up and hauling him to the door.

Cheerfully over his shoulder, Ralph shouted, "Hasta la vista, baby!"

Derek snorted, not bothering to get up.  "Later."

Turning off the gaming console, Derek swiftly switched over to the sports channel and burrowed deeper into his recliner.  He groaned to himself as he heard Casey distinctively striding down the stairs.  True to his ears, it was Casey that appeared in front of him, picking up a rapid pace in front of the TV.  "Won't you give it a rest?"  Derek dodged around Casey as she repeatedly interrupted his line of view.

"Derek, I have to make a decision by tonight!"

"So?  Go make your decision and leave me alone!"

"Why are you refusing to talk about his?"

"Why am I the one that has to talk about it?  Don't you have friends for that, Spacey?"

Casey squared her shoulders directly in front of him.  "Because Derek!"

Derek rolled his eyes.  "Well, that clears things up."

"Just tell me what you think!"

"How about... NO!  There, that's what I think.  Good talk.  Now, go!"  He gestured a hand to the stairs, impatiently.

She folded her arms tightly across her chest.  Derek looked away at the action and refused to look anywhere near her.  "I'm not moving until we talk about this."

"Casey."  He growled at the ceiling.  Derek huffed, dragging his eyes back down to glare at her.  "Move."

"No."  Casey hissed back, stepping closer to his chair.

Suddenly, he was out of his chair and toe to toe with her, angrily biting as he glared down at her, "Why won't you just give it up?"


He took a deep breath, striding several feet away from her.  Derek met her flashing eyes with his own, "Why?"

Her body followed his change of direction as she watched him with a weary look, "Why what?"

"Why does my opinion matter?"

Casey pursed her lips and Derek's eyes dropped to the movement before he made sharp eye contact with her again.  "Because I've asked everybody and-"

"Bullshit, Casey.  Try again."

They stared each other down until Casey cracked, glancing at the fireplace behind him before meeting his eyes again.  "In the last few years, we've been through everything together.  You know me."  Casey whispered, "I just want your input."

Derek held her eye contact until she finished speaking.  Then he shifted his attention on the forgotten game running across the television screen.  He let several seconds pass before he quietly spoke, "I can't give it to you."

Taking a miniscule step towards him, Casey gently pressed, "Why not?"

There was a tiny waver in his voice.  "It won't be what's best for you."

Confusion knitted at her brow.  "What do you mean?"

He chuckled wryly, "You know I'm selfish."

Casey looked stricken.  "You want me to go to New York just because you don't want me at Queen's with you?  Wow, Derek."  Her voice dipped into heavy depths of sarcasm, "Thank you for showing me how thoughtful and considerate you are.  I had almost forgotten."  Her trembling feet made for a quick getaway.

Frantically, he closed the distance between them, his hand shot out to catch her around the arm before she could make it two steps.  Derek heatedly asked, "Is that what I said?"

She glared at him, ripping her arm out of his grip.  "You didn't have to!  I got the message loud and clear!"

Without warning, his anger gushed out in waves.  "I didn't fucking say that!"  Both his hands sprang up to clutch desperately at his hair.  "Damn it, Casey!"  He treaded furiously back and forth in front of the couch, fuming.  "We're supposed to be going to Queen's together.  It's absolutely crazy, but I got used to that.  Now, I don't even think I can do it without you!  I'm not a keener, I can't get through classes on my own.  And if I can't do that, I won't be able to stay on the hockey team.  Then I'll get booted out because hockey is the only thing I can do!"  He let out a frustrated yell, "Fuck, Casey!  You have to be there!"  Derek picked up a pillow out of the chair then threw it fiercely down.  "This is us!  We haven't been apart.  We fight, we argue, I prank you, you yell at me, but we've always fucking been there."

He stopped pacing unexpectedly and stood the farthest away from her that the living room would allow.  Derek kept his back to her as he went on at a lower volume, "Who's going to keep the losers away from you?  Or bash in some scum's head when he hurts you?  Or bail your ass out of whatever jam you've managed to put yourself in?  How about talk you out of a case of keeneritis?"  His voice contorted, "Who, Case?  Jesse?  He doesn't even know you!"

Sluggishly, he revolved towards her, refusing to meet her eyes.  Derek marched to his chair and threw himself into it.  Casey gazed down at him, "Why couldn't you tell me that earlier?"

"It's your decision."  He picked up the remote, turning up the volume.  The sound of distant cheering filled the room before the commentator announced the current score of the game.

She studied Derek for another moment, a tiny smile appeared at the corner of her lips.  "Thank you for the honesty, Der."  With one last appreciative glance thrown his way, she mounted the stairs.

George pulled into the driveway with two ecstatic teenagers yapping rapidly back and forth.  Edwin hopped out of the passenger seat, before diving back in to lower the seat for Lizzie to climb out.

She thanked him, wearing a matching grin.  "This is so exciting, Ed!  We're driving now!"

"I know!"  Edwin stopped George from heading inside.  "Dad, take a picture of us."  He handed his dad his phone before grabbing Lizzie by a shoulder and posing beside their car.

"Edwin, I'm just as thrilled as you are, but aren't you taking it a little far?"

"Come on, Lizzie.  This is symbolic."

"Smile!"  George ordered unnecessarily.  Lizzie rolled her eyes at their antics but beamed for the picture.  "Great shot!"  George complimented them as he passed the phone back to Edwin.  "Well, kids, I'm off to pick up groceries.  Any requests?"

Edwin's eyes lit up.  "Popsicles!"

Both Lizzie and his dad let out a chuckle.  George shook his head.  "Alright, Ed.  I'll get you popsicles."

"Yes!"  Edwin punched a fist into the air excitedly.


"No thanks, George."  Her eyes grew mischievous, "I'll just steal some of Ed's."


Chortling, George walked down the drive to his car, calling over his shoulder, "I'll leave you two to work it out on your own."

Edwin and Lizzie waved George off before they approached the back door.  Nudging Lizzie's shoulder, Edwin declared disbelievingly, "I can't get over the fact that we have a car."

"Yeah, even for an environment dooming mechanical monster, she's not bad."

"Like our family can afford something eco-friendly, Liz."  Edwin shook his head.

"I know, but a girl can dream."  Lizzie sighed wistfully.

Opening the door, Edwin gestured for Lizzie to go ahead of him.  She nodded a quiet thank you and hung her purse on the hook.  Edwin tapped his chin thoughtfully, "You know I think she needs a name, don't you?"

Lizzie raised one eyebrow.  "Such as?"

"What about Stacia?"

"Absolutely not.  That's far too hip for this car."


She winced at the suggestion.  "Isn't that what Derek called Max?"

"Oops.  Forgot about that."

"How about Polly?"

Edwin paled, "Eh, I have a bad experience with a Polly."


"Sounds too young for our girl."


Laughing, Edwin shook his head.  "Makes me think of a big woman.  We need something tiny."

"Lil' something then?"

"Lil' Berniece?"

Lizzie wrinkled her nose.  "Too fierce.  Lil' Barbara?"

"Too long.  Doesn't trip off the tongue."

Her eyes brightened.  "What about Lil' Carley?"

"Ha!  Car-ley?  I see what you did there!"

"You like it?"

Edwin beamed, "I think it's perfect!"  He held out a hand for Lizzie to shake.  "Here's to Lil' Carley."

She took his hand, smiling.  "Let's add our car to the pact!"

Gesturing towards the stairs, Edwin suggested, "Come on, let's go work on it."

Lizzie followed him through the living room.  "Hey, Derek."  She greeted.  Derek stared into the television, unresponsive.  She turned to Edwin, whispering, "What's up with him?"

"Hard telling."  They mounted the stairs, quickly ascending into the attic.  Edwin crossed the room to his file cabinet, rummaging around for their pact.

Grabbing a pen, Lizzie made herself at home at his desk.  Edwin tossed it down in front of her and pulled up another chair.  "What are you going to write?"

Her pen hovered over the paper.  "Edwin and Lizzie hereby swear to share Lil' Carley equally.  Making sure to respect the other's time and needs."  Lizzie's pen stopped and Edwin took it from her.

He read out loud as he wrote, "We promise to communicate and follow all agreed upon rules of the road."

"Looks great, Ed."

Edwin snorted before he teased, "Well, we're not going to be like Derek and Casey."

She laughed.  "That's for sure!  We can actually share."

Derek watched Lizzie descend the attic stairs, veering off into her room and closing the door softly.  He waited a few beats before he quietly jumped the stairs to Edwin's room.  Not bothering to knock, Derek barged in and immediately began pacing.

Surprised, Edwin looked up from his filing cabinet.  "To what do I owe the pleasure, D?"

Twisting to look at Edwin, Derek demanded, "I need answers, Edwin."

Immediately, Edwin innocently held his hands up.  "I didn't do it!"

"Relax, Ed.  I- wait, didn't do what?"

Edwin winced.  "Nothing!  What were you going to say?"

His eyes narrowed, but Derek went on.  "I need to borrow your brain to run over a few things."  The look on Edwin's face was a perfect mix of concern and interest.  Turning away to resume his pacing, Derek dropped on his brother, "I'm thinking about deferring for a year."

"What?  Why?"

Collapsing on Edwin's bed, Derek closed his eyes.  Suddenly they popped back open, intensely staring Edwin down.  "This doesn't leave the room, understand?"  With wide eyes, Edwin nodded.  "No game closet meetings.  Got it?"  Again, Edwin nodded.  Groaning, Derek ran a hand roughly down the side of his face.  "If Casey decides to go to New York, she shouldn't go alone."

Edwin's mouth fell open, but Derek didn't notice as he jumped up, wildly striding in random directions.  "She's innocent.  A real guppy.  And what do we know about this Jesse character?  She's going to dance off to New York with him?  How many weeks ago was it that Nora wouldn't let Casey go to a party in Toronto by herself?  That's her hometown.  And her cousin was going to be there."  He huffed to himself, "Okay ,so it was Vicky, but still.  And now we're talking about another country?  Her dad's there, fine.  But is he really going to be around?  Ha!" 

His laugh turned manic and Edwin interrupted, "Derek, calm down.  You're ranting and... well, it's kind of scaring me to be honest."  Derek sat on his brother's bed again, staring determinedly at his hands.  Edwin finally pulled some words together, "What about hockey?"

Cringing, Derek revealed, "If I defer, I'd have to try out as a walk-on next year."

"Bruh, you'd do that?"

Derek deflected, grumbling, "Are you doubting my hockey God abilities?"

He tried to keep his jaw from hanging, but Edwin failed.  "You've never taken a year off before."

"I'd still train on my own."

"That's not the same as competing."  Both brothers were silent for several minutes.  Edwin was the one to break, "I just don't understand why you're willing to do that for... Casey."

"It's not like anybody else could."

Opening and closing his mouth a few times, Edwin settled on, "Have you talked to Casey about this?"

Like a shot, Derek was off Edwin's bed again.  "No!  Absolutely not!  She can't know any of this, Edwin."  Derek lowered his voice, "She would flip shit if she knew."

Edwin shook his head.  "I'm sure Dennis would pay more attention if Casey was in the same state and everything."

Derek gave him a look.  "You have met Dennis, right?"

Shrugging a shoulder, Edwin defended, "Well, yeah, but she's his daughter."

Frustrated, Derek paced a few more strides.  "Ugh!  I didn't want to go through this, but you're just not getting it."  He closed his eyes, cringing, "She called her dad today and it did not go how she wanted it."

"He ignored her?"

Derek nodded then groaned, "Edwin, the tears.  They lasted hours and they just... get to me."

"I know, D.  You can't do tears."  Brows wrinkling, Edwin asked, "She told you about it?"

Running a hand through his mess of hair, Derek tossed a look at Edwin, "Not exactly.  I may have accidently discovered the information."

"The vent?"  Edwin questioned.

He breathed, "Yeah, the vent."

"Derek, I know you're... concerned."  Edwin ignored the glare Derek shot him.  "But do you really think changing your plans is the answer?"

Throwing himself back first on Edwin's bed, Derek heaved, "If she goes, I go."

Casey was the last one to arrive at the dinner table.  She sat down in her usual preppy manner as she chirped, "What's for dinner?  I'm starving!"  Pulling her plate towards her, Casey began dishing out of the casserole dish in the middle of the table.

Everyone, excluding Derek, watched her with varying degrees of surprise.  Stabbing harshly at the food on his plate, Derek ignored her completely.  Casey had a piece of chicken pierced on her fork and halfway up to her mouth when she realized the stares she was receiving.  She looked around at everyone, questioning the attention, "What?"

George cleared his throat awkwardly.  "Well, Casey, we just weren't expecting you to be so... cheerful."  The others winced at his word choice.

"Am I not usually cheerful?"

"Casey, honey, that's not what Georgie meant."  Nora pacified her, "He just meant that you've been under a lot of stress lately and that you seem awfully cheerful for someone who had to make their decision by tonight."

Smiling at her mother and then George, Casey assured them, "It's alright, George, I understand.  And I am, Mom.  I think I've made the right decision."  Casually, Casey went back to her casserole.  Across the table, Edwin kept shooting anxious looks at Derek out of the corner of his eye.

Nora bounced her head from side to side.  "Well, are you going to tell us, Casey?"

Casey spoke slowly, one word at a time as she locked eyes with each person around the table, starting with Nora, "I've,"

Before turning to Lizzie, "Decided,"

She moved towards George, "To,"

Making eye contact with Marti, Casey smiled, "Go,"

Then moving to Edwin, "To,"

Her eyes roamed Derek's features before the word escaped from between her lips, "Queen's."

However, brief it was, relief flashed through his expression before he smoothed out his features, raising his head to finally meet her eye.

Nora squealed, "Oh, honey, I'm so glad you made that decision!"

The tension left Edwin's shoulders as he exhaled deeply.  Lizzie and Marti exchanged an eyebrow raise.

Casey reluctantly pulled her gaze away from Derek to look at her mother.  "I thought you were staying neutral, Mom?"

"Well, I was trying to because I wanted you to make your own decision, sweetheart.  But I really thought university was what you needed."

George let out a relieved breath as well.  "Congratulations, Casey."  He raised his water in salute, "To Queen's!"  The rest of the family joined him, raising their glasses to clink together, echoing his sentiment, "To Queen's!"

They all lowered their glasses and took a sip.  Over the rims of their glasses, Derek and Casey locked eyes again.  Finishing his sip, Derek inclined his glass towards her again in mock toast.  The corners of Casey's mouth tipped upwards behind her water glass.

"I have an announcement too."  Marti's composed voice silenced the table.

"What is it, munchkin?"  George encouraged his daughter.

"I've finished flipping my room!"

"That's great, Marti!"  Nora praised her, "Job well done!"  She began to raise her glass for another toast.

"Wait!"  Marti cried out, "I have another announcement."

Edwin prodded, "Go on."

"I'm flipping it back to normal again!"

There was a fragment of silence around the table before Lizzie inquired, "After all the hard work you put in to flip it completely around?"

"Yup!"  Marti bounced happily in her seat.

"Why, Smarts?"  Derek asked around his fork.

Marti kept her eyes on Casey as she shared, "I decided that I didn't need to change it just to change it."

Casey proudly commended her, "I think that's wonderful, Marti.  Very perceptive of you."  The two shared a secret smile and Casey sent her a discrete wink.  To the side, Derek scrutinized the interaction.

"Thanks, Casey."  Marti directed her attention back to Nora.  "Okay, you can totally toast me now."

Laughing, Nora raised her glass high into the air.  "To Marti!"  Clinking their glasses, they all echoed, "To Marti!"

Later that night, Casey got out of bed and made her way into the kitchen, finding it already occupied.  "Cuttin' it a little close, eh, Case?"  Derek asked from his spot at the counter.

"It was an important decision, Derek!  I had to think it through from all possible directions."

Derek finished dousing his bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce and whipped cream and pushed it towards her.  Casey's eyes widened at the unusual gesture, but it was lost on Derek as he turned to grab another spoon from the drawer.  She made herself comfortable on a stool. 

Leisurely, Casey reached for the spoon and took her time gathering the perfect ration of ice cream to toppings before she took a bite.  Derek returned, diving his spoon into the bowl, and taking a monstrous bite.  Casey laughed as chocolate ran down his chin.  She tossed him a napkin, "You pig!"  Through a mouthful of ice cream, he oinked.  Casey giggled and he smirked as he watched her.  At the same time, they put their spoons in for more.  "Der-rek!"  Casey laughed as their spoons battled.

"Case-ey!"  Derek mocked as his spoon came out with a heaping helping of victory.

Pouting, Casey prepared her own spoonful.  "You're eating all the chocolate."

"You snooze, you lose, Spacey."

When she looked up at him, she couldn't help but laugh again.  "At least get it in your mouth.  You're wasting half of it running down your face!"  He wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand, causing her to squeal, "Gross, Derek!"

Derek pointed his spoon at her, tapping it to an unknown beat.  A small smirk played at his lips, "You know, you'd miss me."

Casey smirked back, "Not a chance."  He chuckled to himself, diving for the ice cream bowl and knocking Casey's spoon out of the way, causing ice cream to splatter across her pajama top.  "DER-REK!"

"Gee, Case, if you wanted more ice cream, all you had to do was say so."  He snickered, loading another spoonful.  "Open up for the choo-choo train!"  Dramatically, Derek waved the spoon through the air as me made train whistles.  She watched him suspiciously as he reached her lips.  Hesitantly, she opened her mouth just before he dumped in on her nose.

"DER-REK!"  He doubled over, grasping his sides.  Despite herself, Casey laughed, "You want to play dirty, huh?"  Unknown to Derek, Casey dipped her hand into the melting ice cream, gathering a hefty amount into her palm.  Slyly, she brought her hand up before slapping it on to his cheek, ice cream comically sliding down his face.  Casey tried to stifle her giggles to no avail.

Derek's own laughter ceased, but his eyes twinkled mischievously.  "Casey, Casey, Casey."  He snatched the chocolate sauce up off the counter.  "When are you going to learn?"

"Derek, no!  Derek!"  Casey warned as she backed away slowly from him, holding her hands in front of her.  He pursued her, matching every one of her steps with his own.  They circled the island slowly.

Daringly, Casey lunged, trying to dance away, but Derek beat her.  Squeezing the bottle, chocolate sauce erupted everywhere, thoroughly covering her pajamas.  She gasped in shock, frozen in place with her mouth hanging open.  Snapping out of it, Casey reached for their ice cream bowl and before Derek could do anything, she emptied it over his head.  They stood there looking over the damage for a few seconds before simultaneously bursting into hysterics.  Together, they sunk to the floor, each leaning against the cabinet as they tried to catch their breaths.  As soon as they began to calm themselves, one of the would snort and they would dissolve into laughter again.

Shooting her a look, Derek chuckled, "I can't believe you dumped ice cream on my head."

"I seem to remember a time you dumped ice cream on my head."  Casey taunted.

He smirked back at her.  "Oh, yeah.  Good times."

Together they burst into a fresh round of laughs.  Casey clutched at his forearm and Derek allowed it for a moment before he nudged her.  "Hey, you're giving me keener cooties."

Her eyes glistened, several unidentifiable emotions dancing together in her irises.  Suddenly, she reached out for him, pinning his arms to his sides, and hugged him.  Her breath fanned across his cheek as she whispered a tiny, "Thank you."

Derek inhaled sharply, struggling to get away.  "Hey, strict no hugging policy, remember?"

She pulled back, wearing his smirk.  "Oh, I remember.  I thought I'd bend it though.  Doesn't count if you can't hug me back, right?"  Standing, she fixed her ponytail, ignoring the chocolate smeared in it.

"That was a definite break, not a bend."

"Hmm..."  Casey pretended to think it over.  "I'm starting to like your way of thinking."

Derek's quirked eyebrow rose dangerously high.  "Did you hit your head, Space Case?"

"Nope!"  She imitated him, popping the p.  "I just decided to be an exception to all of your rules."  Sarcastically, she flipped her ponytail at him, calling over her shoulder, "Night, Der."

As her figure disappeared up the dark stairs, Derek repeatedly banged his head against the counter.

When Casey reached the top of the stairs, a triumphant smile broke across her face.  Satisfied, Casey crawled back into her warm awaiting bed.  Within seconds, she drifted into peaceful sleep, the corners of her mouth still tilting upwards.

Chapter Text

The cupboard doors clanged loudly as Edwin searched for cereal.  Dejectedly, he shook several empty cereal boxes.  “I see no one has done the grocery shopping yet.” 

Lizzie’s spoon clinked against the side of her bowl as she rattled a box in his direction.  “This is all that’s left.  Sounds like a full helping if you hurry.”

He grimaced.  “Greeeeeat.  Healthy cereal.”

“Take it or leave it, kid.”  Lizzie munched happily.

Pulling a bowl towards him, Edwin reluctantly emptied the box into it.  As he poured his milk, he inquired, “Where’s everyone else?”

She stifled a yawn.  “George said he had an early meeting and Mom took Marti with her to pick up the trailer.”


Rolling her eyes, Lizzie sighed, “For Derek and Casey?  Honestly, Edwin, pay attention.”

“Oh, right.”  He took a bite, chewing with his mouth open widely.  “This stuff is terrible.”

“It’s good for you!”

Edwin gulped loudly.  “I think I rather starve.”

“You can’t live on sugar and junk food forever, you know.”

His chin pointed towards the sky as he snarked, “Sure I can.”

Lizzie was in the middle of an exasperated sigh as Derek strolled into the kitchen, hair tousled from sleep, but whistling merrily.

Casting each other a significant glance, Edwin and Lizzie observed Derek as he took a seat across from them.

“Wow,” Lizzie sang, “You’re sure in a good mood.”

Derek shrugged, but his grin stayed firmly in place.  “Ed.  Cereal.”

Lizzie shook her head.  “We’re all out.”

Waving a hand at his abandoned bowl, Edwin added, “This is it.”

“Guess I’ll just take yours then.”  Derek snatched the bowl away from his brother.

“Be my guest.”

Derek loaded a huge spoonful into his mouth, and instantly gagged on it.  Edwin sniggered, falling into a giggling Lizzie.  Glaring, Derek warned, “Shut up.”

🎵 "It used to be my mom, sis, and steps with me,

A happy blended family, yeah, reluctantly.

Then we left London, that's when everything changed,

Some things have gone, yet others remain.

A new town and new friends,

So many changes make my head spin.

Still got a step-brother who gets under my skin.

This is life with Derek... AGAIN!

This is life with Derek... AGAIN!

Going to miss Lizzie, Edwin, George and Nora, Marti, and the baby.

Now, I'm stuck with Derek,

Now, I'm stuck with... DER-REK!" 🎵

"I can't even think the word g-goo-good-b-bye.

Just the thought of saying it to my family, Emily...

and Ralph and Sam could bring me to instant tears." 

Casey fanned desperately at her watering eyes.

"Alright... leaving for Queen's...

is kinda... well...

Sam and Ralphie, the fam..."

"I'm going to miss this crazy, insane, messed-up...

wonderful, amazing, sweet, blended family so much."

"Living with this bunch of baboons wasn't

entirely bad.  With one minor exception."

Derek smirked.  "But she's going with me."

"This is the hardest thing I've had to do,

leaving everyone behind that is.

Well, I guess I am taking someone with me.

But do I really have to count Derek?"

"Hey, at least I'm leaving behind my legacy."

A few stray tears rolled down Casey's cheeks.

"But it's almost time."

"And things at Queen's should be... interesting."

Athletically, Derek flew up the attic stairs, barging into Edwin’s room unannounced.  His brother jumped, quickly stuffing some things into his file cabinet, and locking it.  Edwin held up his hands defensively, “I didn’t mean to laugh!  I just couldn’t help it!  The look on your face when you took a bite—”

Derek cut him off, “Relax, Ed, that’s not why I’m up here.”

Edwin sobered and cautiously asked, “Then what do you want?”

Approaching Edwin’s desk, Derek leaned threateningly over the top of it towards Edwin.  “I need something from you.”


“Yeah, I know you have home video stuff that you’ve been hoarding for blackmail.”

Edwin’s voice cracked as he answered, “I don’t know what you mean.”

Derek’s eyes narrowed as he leaned further down.  “Wrong answer.  Try again.”  Edwin gulped, and Derek carried on, “I need them.  All of them.”

“You can’t delete them!”

“I’m not deleting them.”

“But I need them!  It’s my life’s work!”

“I’m not going to do anything to them.”  Digging a hand into his back pocket, Derek pulled out a thumb drive and tossed it at Edwin, who caught it sloppily.  “Copy them onto there.  You can keep the originals.”

Puzzled, Edwin looked up at his brother and fumbled with the thumb drive.  “What are you going to do?”

Derek straightened, “Classified info.”  He backed away, an arrogant smirk firmly in place.  “Oh, and that’s on the double, Edwin.”

“How much further, Nora?”  Marti crossed her feet impatiently on top of the dashboard.

“Not far, sweetie.  Terri lives on the outskirts of London.  And feet off the dash.”  Marti sighed, but did as she was told.  Nora squinted, consulting the street sign as they passed it.  “We should be close.”  She pumped the brakes, slowing down as she watched for the right address.  “Here it is!”

Nora maneuvered the vehicle onto the curvy lane, tall trees surrounding it on either side.  They drove slowly up the incline until the trees faded out, opening to reveal a broad white house, beautiful plants on the expansive front porch.

“Whoa.”  Marti breathed as she studied Terri’s fancy house and the slopping green hills in the background.  “I think I’ll get engaged to a doctor too.”

“Oh, Marti.”  Nora chuckled, “You marry for love, not for money.”

Sighing, Marti gazed out her side window, “There’s plenty of room for a pony or five.”  Marti gave another hard look over the terrain, mumbling under her breath with a whistle, “Or ten!”

Clutching her phone to her ear, Casey paced around her room, tidying things as she waited for an answer. “Hey, Em!”  She chirped as soon as the call picked up.

“Hi, Casey.”  Emily deadpanned.

Casey frowned. “Is everything alright?”

“Oh, yeah.  Just tired.  You’re calling early.”

Casey glanced at her watch and cringed.  “Uh, sorry.  I’ve got a lot to do today so I wanted to update you.”

“What’s up?”

“Well, last night at dinner, I finally announced my decision.”


“I’m going to Queen’s after all.”

The line was silent for a beat.  “I can’t say I’m surprised.  I knew that’s what you’d decide in the end.”

Some of the happiness faded from Casey’s expression.  “What’s the matter, Emily?  Aren’t you happy for me?”

“Sure, I’m thrilled.”

“You don’t sound like it.”

Emily exaggerated a yawn.  “It’s early, I guess.”

“I see…”  Casey trailed off.

“So, how did Jesse handle the news?”

Casey heaved a heavy sigh, “Well, let’s just say there’s no romance with an attractive waiter dancer in my future.”

“He was upset?”

“You could say that.”

“What did he say?”

“Basically, that I have my priorities all wrong, etcetera, etcetera.  But after a few seconds it was all about him.  Seems like he wanted me to choose dance so that I could help him.  He wasn’t concerned about what was best for me.”

“Well, you probably did hurt his feelings.  He wanted you in New York with him.”

Again, Casey frowned at her phone.  “How do I know he wasn’t just interested in me just because of how I helped him calm his nerves and land a part?”

“Even if that was true, why not give him a chance?  It could go somewhere.  You seemed to like him a lot this summer.”

“I did like him.  But what kind of foundation for a relationship would that be?  I don’t want a relationship based in convenience, Em.”

“I’m just saying, maybe his feelings for you are real and you’re dismissing them.”

Casey quieted, gathering her thoughts as she played with the spiral of one of her notebooks.  “I think he made it quite clear last night how he felt.”

“What do I know then?”

“Why does it matter so much?”

“It doesn’t.  If you’re sure you know everything.”

“Emily, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.  How did the fam take it?”

“Mom and George were clearly relieved, and the kids were supportive.  Derek seemed—"  Casey cut herself off as she spied movement in the hall.  “Just a second, Em.”  Casey covered her phone with her hand and hissed at a grinning Derek, hovering in her open doorway, “What?”

“And good morning to you too, Princess.”

“Der-rek,” Casey whisper shouted, “I’m a little busy right now.  What do you want?”

“I can’t stop to exchange morning pleasantries with my favorite keener?”  He covered his heart, faking hurt.

Casey rolled her eyes.  “I’m surprised you even know what the word pleasantries means.  I wasn’t aware Neanderthals had those types of customs.”

His grin grew, and his eyebrows twitched up and down.  “I’m quite familiar with pleasantries, thank you.”

“Funny, I must have missed that fact somewhere in all these years.”

Now, leaning casually against her doorframe, he buried his hands deep into his pockets.  “Doesn’t surprise me.  You’ve been known to overlook my best qualities.”

She stood up from her desk, rolling her eyes, the phone falling from her ear as she approached him.  “So, just what is it that you want?”

He shrugged one shoulder.  “Just keeping track of the count.”

“Count of what?”

“How many times you’ve checked your lists today, Spacey.”

“Shut up, Derek.”  There was no bite to her words as she smiled back at him.

Derek shot her a grin.  “Oh, and a pleasant reminder… you better finish packing my clothes today.”

“Der-rek!  I am not your maid!”  Horror flashed across Casey’s face as she realized what she said.  A hand shot up to cover one of her red cheeks.  “No, no.  Forget I said that.”

Sniggering, Derek held up his hands defensively.  “You said it, not me.”  He pushed off the doorframe and drew nearer to her.  “But now that you mention it… That’s not a pleasantry, but it’s a pleasure.  Maybe even a guilty one.”  He winked and turned on his heel, striding to his room.  Casey watched as he paused in the doorway and turned back.  He gave her a Derek patented grin as he shot, “And Case?  You’re on the phone.”  He pointed to her hanging hand, where she gripped her forgotten cell.

Her jaw dropped and he laughed as she hastily flew the phone to her ear.  With a snap and a finger point in her direction, Derek ducked into his room, the door slamming behind him.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Em!”  Casey cried.  “I got side-tracked—"

“Yeah, I heard.”  The tone of Emily’s voice was sharp as she snapped, “Better go, Casey.  You have a lot to do.”

“Emily, I—"

“It’s fine.  I have to go too.”

“Wait!”  Casey took a deep breath, “Are you sure you’re not ready to talk about—"

“Definitely sure.”

Casey gave the buzzing line a quiet, “Bye then.”

Terri greeted Nora and Marti before the second chime of the bell sounded.  Her face split open in a wide grin as she threw the heavy wood door open.  “Nora!”  She pulled Nora into a welcoming hug before leaning down to Marti.  “And Marti!  I’m so glad you could come too!”  She straightened, beckoning them in.  “Please, come in!”

Nora guided Marti in front of her as they followed Terri over the threshold into the colossal front hall.  Marti instantly looked up, taking in the sparkling chandelier.  “It’s so shiny.”  She whispered happily.

Terri chuckled, glancing up herself.  She smiled back at Marti.  “Would you like a tour?”  Marti nodded and Terri reached for her hand, walking them down the hall as Nora waddled behind them.

“You have a beautiful home, Terri.”

“Thank you, Nora.  You’ll have to pardon the mess.  George has been moving his things in when he has the weekends off and neither one of us have had time to properly put things away yet.”

Chuckling, Nora reassured, “You don’t have to explain messes to me.  We have five kids and one on the way, remember?”

Shooting Nora an amused smile, Terri laughed, “Of course, how silly of me.”

“And we’re very thankful that George left his trailer here this weekend so we can borrow it to move Casey and Derek.”

“Oh, no problem.  It’s the least we can do after your family was so kind to us.  Although, I must say I am anxious to meet those two.  After what I’ve heard, I’m surprised they decided to go to the same school.”

Nora laughed awkwardly, “Yeah, we were all a little surprised as well.”

Marti shot a look at Nora.  “I wasn’t.”  Changing the subject, Marti turned to Terri excitedly, “I’m so excited for the wedding.  I love weddings!  Are you using enough purple?”

“Well,” Terri hesitated, “Our colors are mostly in the blue realm, but there’s a little purple.”

Shaking her head, Marti replied, “There’s never enough purple.”  There was a tiny beat of silence before Marti chirped, “So, have you ever considered buying a pony?”

“Marti!” An exasperated Nora sighed.

Edwin knocked lightly on Derek’s door before he warily slipped into the room.  When Derek looked up from his screen, Edwin held up the thumb drive between two fingers as he inquired, “So, why do you want these?”


“Uh?  Okay?”

“Just give them to me, Ed.  Or I’ll be forced to—"

“Okay, okay, here!”  He hurriedly tossed the drive to Derek, who effortlessly snatched it out of the air with one hand.

Edwin followed the path of the projectile, stepping around Derek’s desk.  In a flash, Derek was up and hauling Edwin by the back of his collar.  In a few broad strides, Derek was at his door and throwing Edwin out.  Behind the slammed door, Derek called, “Later, Ed.”

Glaring at the closed door, Edwin’s hands flew up to fix his mangled collar.  His foot was on the first step of the attic stairs when Lizzie’s door opened softly.  “Hey,” She whispered, “Game closet in five?”

Edwin stepped down as he turned to her.  “You bet.  I’ll get the stuff.”

“Okay, this has to be perfect.”

“Relax, Lizzie.  We’ll nail it for sure.”  Edwin tucked his pencil behind his ear as he shuffled through their papers.

Lizzie watched him attentively, “This really means a lot to you, doesn’t it?”

Shrugging, Edwin fumbled with his pencil.  “For as much as I complain about Derek, I’m going to miss him.”

“Same.”  Lizzie sighed.  “I want this to be perfect for Casey.  She puts 110% into everything she does, and I just want her to know that I’m really going to miss her too.”

Edwin reached for the light chain as he spoke, “I’ve never experienced life without Derek.  I don’t know what to expect.”

Lizzie nudged his knee with her foot.  “Well, speaking as someone who has known life without Derek…”  She paused to smile at him.  “It’s a lot quieter.”

He chuckled lightly.  “I can only imagine.”  He sobered.  “I have a hard time believing life with just Casey was that much quieter.”

Laughing, Lizzie set down her notebook.  “It really was!  The three of us were just so… mellow.  Sure, Casey could be dramatic, but it wasn’t so… loud then.  Derek changed that.”

“I guess I can see that.  Here it was always assumed Derek ran the show, no questions asked, you know?  But when you guys moved in, everything just… exploded.”

Lizzie pretended to plug her ears.  “Yeah, I know.  I was there.”  They laughed together.  Suddenly, Lizzie quieted.  “You know, I was so anxious to be out of the shadows when they left for university, but now when it’s so close to actually being here—"

“It makes you sad?”

“Yeah.”  Lizzie breathed.  “Like I’d give anything for another week of the craziness.”

“I feel the same way.”  Edwin fiddled with his papers again.  “Which is why I’m putting everything I have into this thing.”  He sent a tentative smile at Lizzie, which she returned before going back to her notebook and picking up her pen.

They worked in silence for a few moments before Lizzie voiced, “I just hope Mom and George have their parts ready.”

“Better remind them.  You know how they get.”

“Do you think Marti has her part ready?”

Edwin shrugged.  “Who knows?  But I wouldn’t worry about her.  Marti will do this like she does anything.”  He allowed space before he delivered his line, “Completely random and entirely magical.”

Giggling, Lizzie agreed, “That’s true.  Just where is Marti?  She should be here by now.”

Consulting his watch, Edwin frowned.  “Give her some time.  She probably got distracted by a pony or something.”

“Nora, are you crying?”

Nora laughed through her tears.  “Yes, Marti.”

“Are you sad?”

Nora laughed again and Marti shot her a concerned look.  “I am, honey.”

“Then why are you laughing?”

Her words caused Nora to laugh again. “It’s because of the baby.”  She patted her bump fondly.

Shaking her head, Marti sighed, “I hope this baby doesn’t make you crazy forever.”

Tears rolled down Nora’s face as she giggled.  “Oh, it will.  Your children make you crazy no matter how old they get.”

Marti turned back to Nora and studied her profile.  “This isn’t about the baby anymore is it?”

“No, I guess it isn’t.  It’s not easy when your little birds leave the nest.”

“Just because they fly away, doesn’t mean they won’t fly back, Nora.”

Nora wiped a tear off her cheek before she looked over at Marti, a small watery smile directed at her.  “You’re right, Miss Smarti.”

Marti nodded importantly.  “I know.”  She looked out her side window for a long moment.  “But if you want to know the truth, I’m sad too.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

She offered Nora a small shrug.  “I’ll miss them a lot.”

Sighing, Nora reached over to hold Marti’s knee as she watched the road ahead of her carefully.  “I will too, sweet pea.”

“Then we better give them the absolute biggest, bestest send-off!”

“That’s right, Marti.  We will.”  Nora smiled.  All traces of tears gone from her face.

“And no crying, Nora.”  Marti warned.  “It’s supposed to be funny.”

“I’ll try my best, Marti, but the baby may have other ideas.”

Marti’s hand covered Nora’s belly and she leaned as far as her seatbelt would allow to talk to the baby.  “I mean it, baby.  NO crying.  Got it?”

Nora chuckled, covering Marti’s hand with her own and giving it a gentle squeeze.

Without so much as a knock, Casey burst into Derek’s room.

“Always a pleasure, Princess.”  Derek drawled sarcastically without looking up from his work at his laptop.

She gave him a sharp look.  “Must you?”

“Hey, just keeping up with my pleasantries.”  He looked up to send her a cheeky grin, then returned right back to his screen.  “I’ll stick with the obvious then… What the hell are you doing in my room?”

“As much as I hate doing what you asked, I also don’t want to be behind schedule.”

Derek finally looked up at her to find her hauling his suitcases out of his closet and throwing them onto his bed.  She turned back to face his closet, hands gripping her hips as she considered the job before her.  He smirked to himself and then resumed clicking.

After several moments, Derek took a break, reclining in his chair, crossing his arms behind his head as he watched the methodic way Casey took his clothes out of his closet, matching them according to a mystifying system she had devised in her head.

She folded his shirts carefully, smoothing out the wrinkles and gently stacking them into piles.  Derek saw as Casey found his orangutan shirt, smiling softly to herself as she held it against her to neatly fold.  Four folded shirts later, Derek turned away.

Casey’s voice broke the silence.  “What do you want me to leave out for tomorrow and Saturday?”

“Don’t care.”  He rapidly typed away.  “Just pick something.”  Derek studied his screen, missing the startled look Casey sent him.

Her hand trailed across the stacks of shirts as she bit her bottom lip, considering the options.  Hesitantly, she thumbed through a pile, pulling out his orangutan shirt and setting it aside and laughing under her breath.  From a different stack, she picked a soft gray, running her fingers tenderly across the top as she set it aside as well.  With the rest of the shirts, she organized them carefully into an open suitcase, zipping it up and then turning to her next task.

Casey separated his jeans and khakis from his sweatpants and shorts.  She put a hand to her chin, turning to him to ask, “Jeans?”

He murmured, “Sure.”

Humming to herself, she selected two pairs of jeans and placed them carefully next to the two shirts she had picked.  It took her several tries to fit the rest of his pants into a suitcase before she was happy with the arrangement.

She bit her lip, glancing at Derek before crossing to his dresser.  He didn’t stop her this time as she emptied the contents onto his bed and started refolding his undershirts and socks, placing them into a bag.

Casey cast a nervous glance at Derek, who didn’t even look up as he concentrated on his screen.  Taking a deep breath and holding it, she reached for his boxers, a blush darkening across her cheeks as her hand hovered over a pair of black boxer briefs.  Her eyes flickered between the boxers and Derek on rapid repeat.

As Derek began to speak, her hand snapped back, taking refuge on her frantically beating heart.  “If you’re waiting for me to stop you, you’re in for a long wait.”

Her breath caught, then she breathed in a rush, “Why?”

Typing away on the keyboard, he attempted a shrug.  “Why not?”

Tentatively, she began making neat creases and placing the boxers into his bag as well.  Quietly she asked, “What changed?”

Rolling his eyes, he countered, “Gee, Case, I wonder.”  Clapping his hands in front of him, he pretended to gush in his most girlish voice, “We’re just so much closer now.”

Her eyes narrowed as she scrutinized him.  “I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or actually being honest and hiding it with a joke.”

Derek cut off the short laugh that escaped him, covering it with a cough.  “Guess you’ll never know then.”

Casey sighed, “There is no pleasure without pain.”

Derek snorted, a lopsided grin lighting his face.  “What part of this gives you pleasure?”  He inclined his head to her as she clutched fistfuls of his underwear as she sorted.  
“Do tell, Case.  I’m… intrigued.”

Casey gasped in shock.  “Oh my god, how do you always get to me?”  She covered her face, trying to reign in her blush.  “You just suck me right in!  Every time!  You do stuff like the pleasure/pleasant—” She gestured wildly through the air, now a pair of his favorite silky red boxers forgotten in her hand.  “Thing and it gets stuck in my head until you have me doing it too!”

Derek sniggered, watching his flying boxers dangling from her flailing hand.  “It’s all part of the Venturi package, Princess.”  He pointed to himself, smirking charmingly.  “I get to you.”

Looking at her hand, Casey realized what she was holding and blushed.  Biting her lip, she turned away from him, returning to the task.  He watched her fumble for a few beats then still grinning, returned to his work.

The room was silent as she sorted out a couple pairs of Derek’s boxers, matching them to the outfits she had picked out for him, spreading everything smoothly on top of his now empty dresser.

“Done!”  Casey chirped as she zipped up his last suitcase and plopped down beside it on his bed.


Casey rolled her eyes.  “You’re welcome.”  She replied pointedly.

With his eyes glued to his screen, Derek only hummed in response.

“What are you working on?”  Casey asked as she edged closer to him.

Derek raised a taunting eyebrow, making steady eye contact with her as he held up a hand in front of her.  “You want to go there again?” 

Casey blushed scarlet and stuttered, no words forming.

“Fair warning, Case, but you know I’m not bluffing.”

She gave an awkward laugh.  “Um, better go check my lists again!”  Casey scurried out of his room without a backwards glance.

Skipping quietly, Marti hurried up the stairs and looked around before opening the games closet.  “Calm down.  It’s just me.”  Marti reassured them as she sunk to the floor between a startled Edwin and a frazzled Lizzie.

“Where’s everyone else?”  Edwin looked towards the door.

“Nora went to the basement and I could hear Casey and Smerek in his room.”

Lizzie’s wide eyes lifted to study her step-sister.  “Again?”

Crossing her legs underneath her, Marti picked up Edwin’s clipboard and studied it as she hummed, “Yeah,” She flipped the page.  “I’m sure they’ll be occupied for a while.”  She returned the clipboard to Edwin.  “How’s it going?”

With a groan, Lizzie threw her head back into her hands.  “We’ve got some good stuff, but we’re having trouble tying everything together.”

Marti silently asked for Lizzie’s notebook and she passed it over.  After she flipped through the pages, Marti leaned back and tapped a finger to her chin.  “Well, let’s think about it.  They’re going to Queen’s… and they’re taking the Prince there.”

“And?”  Edwin pried, “What’s your point?”

Suddenly, she sat up leaning towards them excitedly.  “And Smerek is the King of cool and he calls Casey Princess!”

Lizzie’s head tilted to the side.  “Where are you going with this, Marti?”

“Let’s make it a royal theme!”

“That’s an idea.”  Edwin studied his notes.  “I think we can definitely work with that.”

“It’s great, Marti.”  Lizzie agreed.  “Really brilliant.”

Marti reclined backwards onto her hands, a smug smile in place.  “It does make sense.”

“Go get your markers, Marti.  We’ve got work to do.”

Beaming, Marti saluted Edwin and slipped quietly out of the games closet.

Derek stood up from his desk and headed downstairs.  He just reached the bottom step when the doorbell rang.  Groaning, Derek went to answer it.  He opened the door to find Emily.  “Oh… Emily… Hey.”  He scratched his head.  “I’ll get Case.” 

Rushing to stop him, Emily cried, “No!”  She took a deep breath.  “I mean, I actually came over to talk… to you.”  Derek winced, the color draining from his face.  “Look, you dropped all that on me and I was too shocked to respond.  So, the least you could do is let me say my piece.  I have literal years to work through.”

Derek cringed, closing his eyes, but didn’t argue.  He cast a look up the stairs and then gestured to the kitchen.  “Can we at least take this somewhere else?”  Emily consented with a nod and led the way to the kitchen and turned to face him.  However, Derek didn’t stop there.  He veered into the laundry room.  “I meant somewhere not here.”  He gestured wildly in a circle around him.  Emily’s brow knitted as she followed him into the garage.

“Derek, why did we have to come to the garage?”

“There’s a lot of ears inside.”  He answered distractedly as he walked around the Prince, peering inside all the windows.  Suddenly, he thrust open the back door and ruffled through the blanket in the back seat.

“What are you doing?”

He chuckled, unamused.  “People pop up everywhere.”

“Derek, the least you could do is be serious.”

“I was being serious.”  He grumbled as he straightened up, turning towards her reluctantly.  “So, what did you want to say?”

“Oh, I have several things to say to you, Derek Venturi.”

Wincing, he reclined against the Prince, propping himself up with his arms on the trunk and crossing his legs at the ankle.  “Get it over with.”

Emily took a deep breath, steeling herself.  “I think a part of me knew that you were going to break my heart, but the other part refused to acknowledge it.”


“Please, don’t interrupt, Derek.  I’m just getting started.”  Derek gulped and closed his mouth.

“For years, I waited for you to see me.  Years of waiting and hoping.  Watching for any sign that you had noticed me.  I spent hours watching... watching the boy next door play between our houses, just trying to work up the nerve to even talk to you.  But back then you thought girls had cooties and ran away anytime I got too close.

A few years passed and you were everywhere.  I’d go to school and there you were in all my classes.  I’d come home and see you in our shared driveway or in your yard form my room.  You and Sam were inseparable, and I still never got a scrap of your attention.

You talked to all the other girls, flirted with them, and kissed them, but never me.  In your eyes, I didn’t exist.  I was invisible.  Not worthy of your time because I wasn’t cute enough, popular enough, or whatever enough for the Derek Venturi.

I didn’t know what to do.  I didn’t know what I could do.  And then suddenly, you were paying attention to me.   You were seeing me for the first time, and I was over the moon.  I thought I finally had a chance.  A chance to show you that I could be the girl for you.  But you weren’t treating me like the other girls.  I still wasn’t a datable option.

It meant everything to me when you called and asked me out.  I was so nervous and so excited I couldn’t even speak.  My dreams were finally coming true.  You saw me.  I was finally a girl in your eyes.”

Her hands shook in front of her and she folded them together, gripping fiercely.  She laughed shortly, “But it really wasn’t about me even then, was it?  Because I found out that you only asked me out to annoy my best friend.  I was hurt to say the least, but I was able to tell myself that I still had a chance to show you me because at least I knew you were seeing me if only as a friend, I was still a real person to you now.  And it was okay.  I was able to get over being starstruck by you and just… exist, I guess.

I thought in time that I’d get another chance… and I was right.  You kissed me.  Unexpectedly, I found myself as your girlfriend.  Everything I wanted was suddenly a reality.  Prom, graduation, everything as Derek Venturi’s girlfriend.  To say that I was on top of the world would be an understatement.”  She sniffed and wiped at her eyes.

“Finally, finally, finally.  I was comfortable with where we were at and I was ready to be more.  I wanted to take the next step of commitment… of intimacy.  And then you shut me down.  I thought, ‘Oh okay, he just wants to make sure I’m ready.  I can understand that.’  But then you left, and you were ignoring me and then downright avoiding me.  First, I was confused and then hurt.  And then I was just angry.  I wanted answers.”

Emily turned away from him, staring out the window as she continued, “You showed up at my door and I thought, ‘Wow, he’s wanting to work things out now.  We can get through this.’  How wrong I was.  I was blindsided.  I sat in my living room in shock.  My dreams were crushed again.  And this time it destroyed me.  I couldn’t even get out of bed.  I couldn’t pretend I was okay.”

Turning back to face him, Emily kept her head down as she crossed her arms.  “Then you left for vacation and I was able to get out of bed.  Spending time alone without the fear of running into you, I was able to slowly start piecing myself back together.  But your family came home, and I started getting… triggers again that would send me spiraling.”

Emily sighed, dragging her eyes back to Derek.  “I needed to tell you that.  To get everything off my chest.”

Awkwardly, Derek clutched the back of his neck.  “Listen, Em, I didn’t mean to hurt you.  I didn’t think about any of that… stuff before.  So, I’m… sorry.  Really.”

Emily nodded slowly.  She mumbled quietly, “Thanks.”

Derek shifted uncomfortably against the Prince.  “So…”


“I don’t know what else to say.”

Frowning, Emily took over, “Well… are we going to talk about the elephant?”

He twitched again, his fingers drumming anxiously on the top of the trunk.  “Elephant?”  He wildly looked around the garage.  “I don’t see an elephant.”


“I think the nearest elephant is probably at the—"

“Was the second time you asked me out just because you needed a prom date or was it to annoy her?”

He pointed out the garage window, spying his dad as he walked up their shared drive.  “Oh, there’s my dad.  Must be dinner time.”

“You could at least answer me honestly.  Did you really want to be my boyfriend?”

He raised a hand to his ear, listening off in the distance.  “What?  What was that?”

Emily tried again, “I think we should talk about this, Derek.”

“Yeah?  Dinner time?  Alright!  Got to go!”  He busted out of the garage like his life depended on it.

Emily’s lips narrowed into a thin line as she watched the backdoor into the McDonald-Venturi house bang on its hinges.  She whispered to herself, “That’s what I thought.”  Her head lowered as she walked slowly back to her own door.

“George!”  Nora greeted happily as he walked into the mud room.

Setting his briefcase down, he gave Nora a peck on the lips then squatted down to kiss her huge belly.  “And hello to you too, little one.”  Standing, George inquired, “Did I see Derek in the garage with Emily?”

“What?”  Nora shook off the oven mitts and took a seat on a stool sitting next to the stove.  “What do you think that’s about?”

“Dunno.  But it looked like he was in pain.”  George winced on behalf of his son.

“Well, I hope he’s working things out.  Emily has been really… odd lately.”

George raised an eyebrow at his wife.  “You’re counting on Derek to work things out?”

Wincing, Nora shook her head.  “I have high hopes, I know.”  George chuckled, unknotting his tie.  Smiling again, Nora ordered, “Go change your clothes, dinner will be ready shortly.”

He leaned in for another kiss.  “Yes, dear.”

Nora watched George descend the basement stairs, perching on her stool as she stirred the sauce.  Suddenly, the door slammed open and Derek sprinted through the kitchen not stopping as Nora called out a questioning, “Derek?”

Edwin checked his watch.  “Guess, we should break this meeting up.  It’s almost dinner time.”

“Right.”  Lizzie checked her lists.  “I think we’ve just about covered everything anyway.”

Marti started gathering her things, capping her markers carefully and lining them in her box in a precise order.

“Okay, troops, everybody have their assignments?”  Edwin winced as he straightened his legs out in front of him and rubbed his thighs.

“Yup!”  Marti cried.  “I’ll finish making the decorations tonight after dinner.”

Lizzie nodded, “I’m working on the rest of the skit.  You’ll get the special surprise ready?”

“Will do, sis.”  He peeked out the door.  “Coast is clear.  Let’s go.”  Cringing, he grabbed his leg.  “Okay, you’re going to have to pull me up.  I’m too old to sit on the floor all day.”

Together, Lizzie and Marti rolled their eyes before heaving Edwin to his feet.

Marti patted his shoulder comfortingly as he gained his balance.  “Feel better, old man?”

Lizzie covered her laugh with her hand.

Edwin glared between them.  “Thanks for your concern, both of you.  I’m truly touched.”  He mumbled under his breath, “Sisters.”

“Dinner, kids!”  Nora shouted up the stairs.

Innocently, Marti and Lizzie came out of their rooms, hands behind their backs and whistling.  Edwin stomped down his stairs stiffly, still cringing with each step.  Lizzie sent him a glare and slid a finger across her neck.

Drawing even with her, Edwin hissed, “I can’t help it.”

“Well, knock it off.  Someone is going to notice!”

Edwin grunted.  “In this family?  Please, my pants could be on fire and no one would notice us.”

Marti piped up, pushing past them to lead the way down the stairs.  “He’s got a point, actually.”

They plopped down in their seats, the others already sitting around the table.  Nora began to pass the food around.

As they dug in, George asked his son, “So, Derek, I saw you and Emily in the garage.  Did you work things out?”

Casey coughed, choking on her food as her startled eyes popped to Derek’s.

Derek cringed, his fork drooping as he mumbled under his breath, “Thanks a lot, Dad.”  Louder, he responded, “Uh, no.  She wanted to talk.”

Both George and Edwin groaned.

Nora frowned.  “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to talk, Derek.”

“What did she say?  When did you talk?  How did she look?  Why didn’t she tell me?”  The whole table turned to Casey, inquisitive looks on their faces as she threw questions left and right at a panicked looking Derek.

He dug back into his food with renewed gusto, taking a huge bite he chewed forcefully before pointing his fork across the table, swallowing hard.  “Is it really your business?  What does it matter?  How would I know?  And why do you care?”

She glared, slamming her fork down.  Nora stepped in, “Derek, I think all of us here care about Emily’s welfare.  Did you talk things through?”

Derek glared down at his plate, stabbing harshly around with his fork.  “If by talk things through, you mean she gave me a piece of her mind, then yes, we did.”

“What did she say?”  Nora pursued.  Derek shrugged not looking up.

“I’m 99% sure you deserved to hear it, son.”  George shook his head.  “What else did I miss today?”

“Isn’t it past the keener’s bedtime?”  He shoved her shoulder as he passed Casey sitting on a kitchen stool. 

She caught herself from toppling off by gripping the counter.  “Hardy har, Derek.  I wanted to finish this.”  Her fluffball of a pen tapped sharply against her journal.  “And I needed tea to relax.”  She picked up her warm mug and held it in her hands.

Derek glanced at it shortly, groaning, “Not more lists?”

“No, Derek, not a list.  I’m trying to tell my diary exactly how I’m feeling right now.”

“Joy.  Sorry I asked.”

“I like to share things, Derek.”

“Of course, Miss Feeling-sharer can’t go more than two seconds without broadcasting—" He waved his hand in a half-hazard circle, “Her emotions all over the place.”  He shivered dramatically before he ducked into the fridge.

She slammed her teacup down.  “What’s got your undies in a bunch?”

“I’ve had it with all this touchy feely shit today.”

Casey’s voice grew consoling, “You know, I’d listen if you wanted to talk about it.”

“I’d rather stab my eye out.”

“Derek—" Casey tried to comfort.

At the same time, they started, “Don’t be—"

Casey finished, “Bitter.”  As Derek cringed, “Sweet.”

Casey gasped, “Derek, that’s it.  Bittersweet, exactly the word that describes how I feel right now.”  Her fluffy pink pen danced across the paper as she wrote.

He rolled his eyes, groaning.  “Not another one of your oxymaroons.”

“Oxymoron, Derek.  Moron, that should be a word you can remember since you are one yourself.”

“Ha, funny, Case.  A real knee slapper.”  He threw the container with their dinner leftovers onto the counter and sat down beside her.  “But I do know what bittersweet means.”

She turned her head to watch him, propping her head on her hand.  “You feel it too?”

He took a huge bite and shook his head.  “I didn’t say I feel anything.”

Casey rolled her eyes.  “Excuse me for not conforming to your illusion of not having feelings.” She dropped her arm, picking her fuzzy pink pen back up and doodling on the edge of her journal.

Derek observed her as he munched on his food.  “There’s something bothering you.”  It was a statement.

“And you definitely don’t want to hear about it.”  She twirled her pen around.

“I can always read it in your diary later.”  He tapped the hard cover with a knuckle.

“Der-rek, that’s snooping!”

He shrugged.  “I call it fact finding.”  Shoveling another helping into his mouth, he mumbled, “Might as well tell me now.”

She turned away from him, fiddling with the ribbon on her journal.  Softly, she revealed, “Emily is upset with me.”

Derek snorted.  “Join the club, Space.”

“That’s different.”

He stopped chewing.  “How?”

“She’s my—"

“Best friend.  I got that the first hundred times.  Let’s move on, m‘kay?”

“Derek,” Casey whined, clearly frustrated.  “You’re the one that broke up with her.  She’s obviously going to be upset with you.  But why is she so angry at me?”

 His lips pursed as he looked sideways to study her sad eyes.  “Maybe that’s why.”  Derek’s fork dove hastily into his food and he shoved it into his mouth.

Casey turned towards him.  Her eyes roamed furiously over his face.  “She’s taking what you did out on me?”  Casey frowned.  “Emily’s not like that.”

Derek shrugged, but didn’t say anything.

“I don’t believe that.”

“Got a better reason?”

The look on Casey’s face grew sadder.  “No.”  Suddenly, Casey threw her head into her hands and cried, “Why is everything so hard right now?”

Panic flashed across Derek’s features as he heard the tears building up.  “Whoa, Case.  Calm down.”

Her head whipped up to glare at him, tears welling in her eyes.  “Calm down?  Don’t tell me to calm down, Derek!  We’re leaving our family and friends, our home and everything as we know it in two days!  And my best friend is mad at me because of you!”

Derek blinked.  “Okay,” He slowly began.  “Don’t calm down.  Rant away.”

The corners of Casey’s mouth betrayed her as they twitched, but then she grew serious again.  “I don’t want to rant.  I want to fix the problem.”

Turning back to his leftovers, Derek’s fork stirred around absentmindedly.  “Maybe it’s not your problem to fix.”

Casey chewed her bottom lip as she thought about his words.  She picked up her teacup up and took a small sip.  Unexpectedly, she slammed her cup down and dived for her pen.  Derek watched attentively as her pen darted across the lines as it filled in the words that suddenly came to her.

He turned back to his food and they sat in compatible silence as she continued to write.  Derek finished his food and took his dishes to the sink.  He grabbed a glass from the cupboard and poured a glass of milk.  Derek downed the entire glass in one gulp and placed the glass in the sink as well.

Casey’s small voice stopped him from leaving the kitchen.  “Derek?”

“Hmm?”  He slowly revolved to face her.

“You know I really would listen, right?”

His lips twitched as he thought of how to respond.  “Don’t sweat it, Case.  You personally smoothed out all of my undies earlier today.”

“DER-REK!”  The blush blossomed across her face and down her neck.

Laughing, Derek sent her a wink and swaggered to bed.

Derek’s dark blue robe hung off his shoulder’s sloppily as he stumbled through the kitchen.  His baggy nightshirt was twisted crookedly on his neck.  His green and blue flannels fell down his hips as he stumbled over the ends.

“Derek?  You’re up early!”  George called out in surprise as he set his coffee cup down.

He yawned widely again, trying to speak through it, “Ca-Case-ey.”

“She woke you?”  George asked him.

Sleepily, he nodded.  “At the butt crack of dawn.”  He propped his head up in his hands, but he slipped off and he had to try again.

Nora frowned, “Why so early?”

Pulling a bowl towards him, he shrugged as he blinked bleary-eyed around the counter looking for the cereal.  “Beats me.  I fell asleep three words in.”  He finally found the cereal and overfilled his bowl, cereal spewing out over the counter.

“Where is she now?”

He shrugged, milk slipping from his spoon.  “Shower?”

She nodded, seemingly satisfied.  George watched his son, amused as Derek struggled to get his cereal into his mouth.  He chuckled as milk sloshed down Derek’s front.  “I must say, Derek, morning looks good on you.”

“Har, har, har, Dad.”

“Edwin!”  Lizzie hissed through the darkness as she stumbled into his attic bedroom.  She approached his bedside, hissing again, “Edwin!”

He mumbled under his breath as he tried to burrow deeper under his covers.  “Shh, Mr. Fuzzy.”  Edwin’s arm tightened around his bear.  “Eddy… is… sweeping.”  A loud snore rumbled out of Edwin.

“Sweeping?”  Lizzie questioned under her breath.  “Edwin!”  She shook his shoulders until he jumped awake.

With wide eyes, he exclaimed, “Merlin’s beard, Lizzie!  It’s morning!”

She snorted, “Galloping gargoyles, Edwin, I know.  And you promised me we would finish the rest this morning!”

Edwin grunted, rolling away from her to face the wall and his tiny nightstand.  His arm reached out dangerously as he fumbled for his alarm clock.  He managed to pick it up, squinting disbelievingly at it.  “This is before morning time.”  As he slammed the clock back, the stand wobbled back and forth.

Up, Edwin.  You promised.”

Sighing, Edwin removed his covers and slid to the edge of his bed as Lizzie took the two steps to his desk, spreading her things out and taking a seat in his chair.  With a huge yawn, Edwin stretched his arms above his head, shaking his head back and forth.  Finally, in a seated position, Edwin cast a glance at Lizzie to find her watching him and twiddling her thumbs exaggeratedly.

He rolled his eyes, raising his hand to his forehead in a two-finger salute.  “Permission to use the latrine, General?”

“Make it fast, soldier.  We have work to do.”

George clutched his coffee cup between his hands as he watched Derek retreat through the living room, tripping on the first step as he tried to climb the stairs.  Sniggering to Nora, George teased, “That boy never could handle his mornings.”

A smile radiated from Nora as she chuckled.  “I never had that problem with the girls.  They were up and functioning before I could get a few moments to myself in the mornings.”

“Not around here.”  George laughed again.  “It was always brutal in the mornings.”  He paused, thoughtfully putting down his coffee cup.  “Although it was quieter.”

Nora looked at him surprised.

“No, really, it was.  No one talked.  They just grunted.”  He nudged her shoulder.  “Until the McDonald’s moved in.”  Both George and Nora chuckled.  “Now we have the traditional morning squabble.  Der-rek!”  George mocked.

Covering her mouth, Nora hid her laugh.  But she pulled it away to imitate Derek, “What now, Spacey?”  Suddenly, the smile was wiped from her face and tears began to well in her eyes.

It took George several beats before he looked at his wife in alarm.  “What?  What’s wrong, Nora?”

She sniffed.  “I was just thinking that we only have one more morning together as a family.”

George reached up, gently brushing the tears from Nora’s cheeks.  “We’ll have more mornings together.  They won’t end because Derek and Casey are going to university.”

“But they’ll be different.”

“But it won’t be completely different.  I’m sure we can still count on tension filled morning arguments from those two.”

Nora offered him a small smile.  “I guess some things won’t change.”  She brushed the remaining tears from her face and stood, suddenly all business.  “Come on, Georgie.  Let’s get this house whipped into shape.”

Startled at the mood shift, it took George a few seconds to follow a determined Nora down the basement stairs.

Wordlessly, Edwin reentered his room, stumbling sleepily as he walked around his desk, motioning Lizzie out of his chair.  Although she jumped up at the request, it was accompanied by an eyeroll.

Bleary eyed, Edwin clicked open his computer, taking three tries to type in his password.

“Is it there?”  Lizzie questioned over his shoulder.

“Give a man time.  I can barely see the screen.”

Huffing, Lizzie turned away, studying the scenery out of the tiny oval window behind his desk.  “How do you stand the lack of light up here?  I’d go crazy.”

He shrugged, not looking up.  “You get used to it.  Besides, it really helps a guy sleep in, you know?”

“Give it up, Ed.”

Ignoring her, Edwin yelped, “Ah ha!”

Instantly, Lizzie was over his shoulder again.  “Did he send it?  Did he send it?”

A grin broke out across Edwin’s face.  “Yes sir re bob!  It’s here!”

Lizzie let out an enormous sigh of relief.  “Thank God!”  Lizzie picked up her notebook and made her way over to sit on Edwin’s bed, flipping through the pages and reading her notes.

Under his breath, Edwin mumbled, “Way to go, Denny.  Just under the wire.”

Bursting into Derek’s room, Casey abruptly stopped two paces inside the doorway, catching Derek pulling his orangutan shirt over his head.  Derek turned to face her as he straightened the material over his chest and tugged it down over his abs.  “Well, if it isn’t the royal pain of the house.”

Casey didn’t respond as her eyes refocused from where the last bit of his skin had disappeared to the old shirt stretching tightly over his developing pectorals.  A cocky smirk was growing on Derek’s face.  As Casey finally made eye contact with him, Derek quirked an eyebrow.  “You… want something, Case?”

Shaking her head slightly, she crossed her arms over her chest.  “Yes, actually.  Your help loading the trailer.”

Derek groaned, stepping backwards away from her and further into his room.  “Oh no, no, no.  I’m no moving man.”

Casey rolled her eyes.  “Oh, come on, Derek.  Put those muscles to good use.”

Immediately, Derek straightened from picking up his discarded pajamas, his hands coming up empty as he looked at her disbelievingly.  “What?”

Ignoring him, Casey surged forward, taking hold of his wrist, and backing them slowly from his room.  He followed her instinctively, his feet moving on their own accord.

“Good luck getting out of this.”

“Is the death grip really necessary?”

“I’m not letting you make a break for it, Venturi.”

“Now would I really do something like that, McDonald?”

Casey snorted, spinning so she could descend the stairs forwards as her clasp on Derek’s wrist tightened.  “Duh.  Wherever there is work to be done, Derek is not.  It’s like your second motto.”

“And what’s my first motto, Miss All-Knowing?”

“Ha!  Too easy.  Ask me something more difficult.”  Reaching the bottom of the staircase, she resumed walking backwards, maintaining eye contact with him as their arms stretched out between them. 

An adorable smirk illuminated Derek’s face, his eyes crinkling with mirth.  “What’s in it for me if you get it wrong?”

She tossed him a playful look, “What do you want?”

“Hmm,” Derek put his unoccupied hand to his chin, pretending to maul it over.  “I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

The pair disappeared into the kitchen.  Unknown to them, a curious Marti followed their exchange from behind the back of the couch.  She sunk back into the cushions humming to herself, then singing quietly, “Kay eye ess ess eye en geeeee.”

She put the baby’s song book back in the box and folded the lid in.  Struggling slightly under the weight, Marti hauled the box up into her arms and headed for the staircase.

“EDWIN!  George shouted up the attic stairs, “GET DOWN HERE!”  Edwin came stomping down his stairs.

Nora waddled up from downstairs, puffing when she got to the top, “Georgie, have you seen Lizzie anywhere?” 

Edwin’s eyes darted guiltily to the attic stairs and George noticed, “Lizzie, get down here, now!”  Lizzie padded down the stairs, glumly.

Nora having caught her breath slightly, started explaining, “Okay, Lizzie, go down to the basement and help Marti.  She’s bringing the baby’s things up to Derek’s room.  But you can start hauling our stuff up to Casey’s room.  Edwin, can you help George carry Derek’s things that are staying here down to the basement?  Ah, Casey labeled them all.  I think she said they’re the ones with blue stickers followed with a black label?”  It sounded more like a question than a statement.  Then she turned to Lizzie.  “And Liz, you’re looking for the boxes with the orange stickers.  Make sure Marti takes the yellow ones.”

Edwin rolled his eyes.  “Why do we have to haul their sh- stuff around?  Why can’t they?”

George sighed, “Edwin, we’re a family.  And they are working too.  They’re in the garage loading stuff in the trailer.”

Lizzie and Edwin both looked at him before Lizzie asked, “Derek’s… working?”

Snorting in disbelief, Edwin added, “Yeah, I’d believe it if I saw it.  And even then, I don’t think I would.”

Nora heaved another sigh.  “Well, I imagine right now Casey is panicking and Derek is watching.”

George clapped Edwin on the shoulder.  “Alright, the sooner we start, the sooner we finish.”

All four of them groaned, disappearing to their assigned tasks.

Derek was reclined in the passenger seat of the van, watching Casey have a panic attack.  “Come on Spazy, calm down.  We’ve already got a trailer full, anymore and we’re going to have to ask if we can borrow your mothership for the move.  Eh, Space Cadet?”  He crossed his arms across his chest, once again highlighting the tight shirt.

“DER-REK!”  He grinned at her screech.  “The least you could do is help me haul these boxes inside the trailer.”

“Believe me, I can do less than that.”  He smirked cockily at her, propping his feet lazily across each other on the dashboard.  He held that position for only a second before he jumped up and walked over to her.  He shoved her shoulder as he bent down and picked up a box at her feet, stowing it in the back of the trailer.

They shot each other annoyed looks as they passed each other on the ramp.

As Derek reached for a box, Case cried, “No, Derek!  Not that one!”

Derek flinched, startled at her outburst as his hand withdrew rapidly.  “What?  What’s wrong with that one?”

She tapped her clipboard irritably.  “You have to follow this order!”

He rolled his eyes.  “Excuse me, Control Keeper Casey.  Which box can I take?”

Pacing a few steps to their left, she pointed out a stack.  “These, but make sure you keep them on the right side of the trailer.”


“The right side is mine.”

“I must have missed the pink tape.”  He dramatically looked around on the ground.

Huffing, Casey crossed her arms.  “This way it will be much easier when we unload!”

Derek sighed to himself before lugging one of her boxes up into his arms.  “Gaaaah!  What do you have in here?  A safe?  A piano?  A fucking anvil?”

“Der-rek!”  Casey hissed through her teeth as she hurriedly looked around them.  “Watch it!”

He slammed the box into place on the trailer before he clutched at his thighs, looking up at her to roll his eyes.  Suddenly, Derek straightened, his mouth falling open.  “Those were books, weren’t they?”

A blush blossomed up her neck as she looked away from him.

“Queen’s does have a library, you know.”

 Indignantly, Casey snatched a box from the ground and loaded it into the trailer, mumbling under her breath as she passed him, “Jerk.”


Lizzie made her way into the basement, looking around at the boxes stacked on every available surface.  She whimpered before she called out, “Marti?  You down here?”

“Over here!”  A muffled cry sounded from inside George and Nora’s bedroom.

Carefully, Lizzie tiptoed through the scattered piles, cursing under her breath as she knocked a box over, its contents spilling out over the carpet.  Hastily, she ducked down to pick up the wayward toys and stuff them back into the box.

In the meantime, Marti met her in the doorway of the bedroom.  Setting the box back in place, Lizzie faced Marti.  “Where do we even start?”

Marti maneuvered her way through the room cautiously, carrying the box to the stairs.  “I’ve been taking the baby stuff up to the living room just to make more room down here.”

Lizzie nodded.  “Right, good idea.  Mom told me to take their stuff up and Edwin’s bringing Derek’s stuff down.”  Wincing, Lizzie looked around the basement again.  “Oh, this is going to take a small miracle to get this right.”

Brightening, Marti chirped, “Don’t worry, Lizzie.  Casey has this all worked out.”  She pointed at the bright yellow sticker on the box she was holding.  “These will tell us everything we need to know.”

With a sigh, Lizzie looked over the stacks, finally finding the orange stickers she was looking for.  She hauled two light boxes up into her arms and nodded to Marti.  “Lead the way, kiddo.”

“Absolutely not, Nora.  You’re not hauling things up and down the stairs in your condition.”

Nora let out a frustrated sigh.  Taking a seat on the edge of Casey’s bed.  “You’re right, Georgie.”

George picked up a pink and black stickered box.  “I’ll take these down.  You take from the kids coming up.

Nora nodded as Lizzie walked in, two boxes teetering in her arms.  She smiled at Lizzie, carefully taking them from her as George disappeared down the stairs.

“Mum?  You okay?”

Reaching out a hand to grasp Lizzie’s shoulder, Nora smiled sadly.  “I’m fine, Lizard.  This is just emotional for me.”

Lizzie nodded in understanding, offering a smile.  Unexpectedly, Lizzie leaned in for a hug, kissing her mother’s cheek as she withdrew.

On the fourth trip to the basement, George leaned against the wall, trying to catch his breath.  He jumped as Marti popped out from behind a stack of boxes.  She giggled lightly as she watched him puff for air.  Patting his shoulder, she spoke, “You know, Daddy, this would go a lot faster if you took an orange one up as you go to bring a pink one down.”

A gust of air whistled between his teeth.  “Huh.”  George panted.  “You.  Have.  A.  Point.  There.”  Grinning widely.  Marti snatched up a box and ran up the stairs.  George watched her wistfully.  “I.  Wish.  I.  Had.  Her.  Energy.”

Abruptly, Edwin ran into Lizzie’s back with the box he was carrying.  She let out a cry of “Umpf!” as she caught herself on the rail.  Glaring over her shoulder she asked, “What gives?”

“We should have invited their friends!  They’d have really good material on them.”

Climbing the stairs behind them, Marti supplied, “It’s not too late!”

Nodding, Lizzie agreed.  “We could call them…”

Lizzie trailed off as Nora’s impatient voice cut her off, “Kids!  What’s taking so long with those boxes?”  With a groan, Lizzie turned back around, and they continued their journey upstairs.

After depositing their loads, Edwin grasped Marti’s elbow as the three of them descended into the living room.  He whispered quietly, “It’s up to you, Marti.  Make a break for it.  Use all your powers of persuasion.”

Marti gave him a Venturi smirk.  “Roger, roger.”  She scurried down the rest of the stairs.  As she snatched the portable phone off the stand, she shot them a wink before slinking out the front door, edging around the corner of the house away from the driveway.

Finding a safe place behind the house, where she wouldn’t be overheard, Marti dialed the number from memory.

“Hello?”  Sheila answered the phone politely.

“Hey, Sheila!”  Marti chirped happily.  “Is Sammy there?”

“Just a second, I’ll get him.”  There was silence as Sheila went to retrieve Sam.

A minute later his smooth voice asked, “What’s up?”

“Sammy!  I need your help!”


“It’s really important, Sam!  You see…”

Sam listened to Marti jabber away, an elated smile spreading across his face with every word.  “Count me in, Marti.”

Edwin cast a quick glance at Lizzie as they continued their route from the basement through the main floor and up the flight of stairs to find her lips moving silently to herself.  “Are you practicing your part?”

She laughed lightly, looking guiltily at him.  “Yeah, are you?”

“Ha, yup!  I keep going over the delivery in my head.”

“I just hope it all goes according to plan.”

“It will.  I hope Marti’s having good luck.”

“Marti!  What’s crack-a-lackin?”

“Hi, Ralphie!”  Marti giggled.  “I need a favor.”

“Name it, sister!”

Beaming ear to ear, Marti explained the situation.

Ralph laughed, “I’m all over it!  See you then!”

“Don’t touch me.”  Casey warned Derek, a hand preventing him from stepping closer to her.

He leered at her.  “What’s the matter, Casey?  Afraid of my rugged good looks?”

“Puh-lease.”  She thrust a box into his arms.  “You’re all sweaty!”  Casey made a noise of disgust in the back of her throat.

Derek rolled his eyes.  “Can’t imagine why.  You have me doing all the hard labor here.”

“Just take this into the trailer.”  She passed a box off to him.

“Yes, ma’am.”  Derek mocked, turning to make his way up the ramp.  She watched him, rolling her eyes.  Leaving the boxes in their intended places, he bounded down the ramp towards her again, pretending like he was going to run into her.

She blocked him with her arms again and he laughed twisting away from her.  He lugged a box onto each shoulder and stood looking at her.  “You going to help or just stand there all day?”

Shaking her head, Casey bent to retrieve another box, mumbling under her breath, “If only you were this helpful all the time.”

He shot over his shoulder as she followed him up the ramp.  “I heard that.  Don’t press your luck, Princess.”

Dropping their latest load in front of their parents, Lizzie and Edwin huffed in sync.

Edwin’s hands gripped his hips as he quipped, “Do we get lunch in this man’s army?”

“Don’t be so dramatic, son.”  George shoved his shoulder teasingly before he turned to his wife.  “Do we, Nora?”

She rolled her eyes good-naturedly.  “I’ll make us all some sandwiches.”  Holding her belly, she waddled down the stairs.  Reaching halfway, she paused.  “Will you help me, Georgie?”  George groaned but trailed obediently after her.

Edwin took a heavy seat on the top step, slinking tiredly down the wall.  Lizzie joined him, leaning exhaustedly against his shoulder just in time to hear him mumble, “And that was a lot.  Pause for laughter from the audience.”

Snorting, Lizzie withdrew from his shoulder to look up at him.  His eyes were closed, the corners crinkling as he concentrated on his private rehearsal.  “How can you be so sure, funny man?”

“Puh-lease.  I have only the best Derek material.”

“Just don’t get yourself killed, yeah?”

He looked at her seriously, “I said I have the best, not that I’d use it.”

“Emily, phone.”  Emily hastily withdrew from her window as Linda strolled into her room, presenting her with their landline.  An eyebrow rose in confusion as she took the phone from her mom.  Linda didn’t wait before retreating from her daughter’s room, pulling the door softly closed behind her.

“Hello?”  Emily questioned into the phone.

“Emily!  I need to ask you something important!”

“Marti, is that you?”

“Uh huh!  So, we wanted to know…”

Pulling back the curtains, Emily returned to her observation of the scene unfolding in their shared driveway as she listened to Marti’s incessant chatter.  She watched as Derek chased her best friend around the obstacle course of boxes in the drive.  Narrowly missing her each time Derek reached out, Casey danced carefully between the stacks, avoiding catastrophe.   She hesitated only slightly, but it was enough for Derek to grab hold of her, pulling her body into his.  Her hands went up to block him, pushing forcefully against his chest as she tried to squirm away from him.

Emily could hear the distant cries of, “Der-rek!  Stop!  STOP!”  Casey managed a small break from him, but Derek caught her again by the shirt, leaning down to wipe his forehead on the material.  Casey’s shrill shriek was loud and Derek’s answering smirk was prominent even from the distance.  She slapped at his hands to release her from his clutches, but it was to no avail.

“Pleeease, Emily?”

“I don’t know, Marti.  I don’t think I’m the right person for this.”

“But you’re Casey’s best friend!”  Biting her lip, Emily forced herself away from the window as Marti plowed on, “Plus Sammy and Ralphie are coming.”

With a sigh, Emily gave in.  “Okay, Marti.  I’ll be there.”

“Yay!  Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“Kids!”  Nora shouted from the kitchen.  “Lunchtime!”  Edwin and Lizzie descended the stairs just as Marti snuck in the front door, giving a sneaking okay signal to Edwin and Lizzie with a proud grin.  The pair returned the gesture, quickening their pace to the kitchen.

Smiling, Nora waved a hand at the spread of sandwiches and chips on their kitchen island.  “Help me carry these things outside and we’ll have a picnic.  George is setting the lawn chairs up.”

Edwin’s hand sunk into the chip bowl, extracting a huge handful, and shoving them hastily into his mouth before Lizzie could slap his arm.  “Wha?”  He tried to say through his mouthful.

Rolling her eyes, Lizzie picked up the remaining chips, saying, “I’ll take these.  Apparently, you can’t be trusted.”

He mocked her behind her back, making Marti giggle as she swept up several plates to carry.  “Come on, Eddy.”  Edwin followed his sister out the back, his eyes squinting at the sudden brightness of the afternoon.  Stumbling over the threshold, he managed to secure the plate of sandwiches just before Derek swooped in, stealing two sandwiches in one go.

With a smirk, Derek ruffled Edwin’s hair as he teased, “Well, look what the cat dragged out.  Where’ve you been all day?”  Derek took a huge bite of his sandwich as he waited for Edwin to answer.

“Hauling your shit around, bro.”

Derek snorted at Edwin’s hostility as they walked over to two lawn chairs.  “At least you haven’t been with Sergeant Spazy all day.  I hope keenerism isn’t contagious.”

Across their informal circle of chairs, Casey sent him a glare.  “I heard that, Derek.”

In reply, Derek stuck his tongue out at her.  “Good.”

She laughed mockingly.  “That’s your best retort?”

George groaned, effectively cutting off Derek’s reply, “Guys, can’t we just enjoy our lunch break?”  He wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.  “I can’t deal with the bickering.”

Tinkling a laugh, Marti piped up, “Yeah, thou shall not bicker while on lunch break!”  She nodded importantly “Amen?”  She looked around the circle, a silly grin spread from cheek to cheek.

There was a resounding chorus of “Amen!” that left even Derek and Casey hiding smiles.

“Sammy boy!”  Derek greeted his best friend strolling up their driveway with a huge grin, sailing down the ramp of the trailer to give him their special handshake.

Sam grinned back.  “Sup, D?” 

Derek pointed a thumb over his shoulder.  “Oh, just dealing with Casey the Keener.  You know, typical day around here.”  Derek spoke casually, but there was a tinge of sadness in the air.

Sam picked up on it, looking around at their boxes dejectedly.  “Wow, D.  I can’t believe this is really happening.”

Derek winced.  “Don’t get mushy on me, dude or I’m going to start questioning your manhood.”

“Mighty tough words coming from Dereka.”

Derek smirked cunningly before he launched himself at Sam.  Sam let out a surprised, “Oof!” before he started to fight Derek’s arms wrapped around his shoulders.

The pair crashed to the ground, laughing as they each struggled to gain the upper hand.  They rolled into a stack of boxes and tipped it over, causing Casey to cry, “Hey!  Watch it!”  Derek and Sam ignored her as they continued to wrestle.

“Boys!”  Casey called sternly, which gave way to a laugh as Sam flipped Derek over onto his back.

“Say uncle, D.”

Pretending to give up, Derek sighed.  Sam let up and Derek took the opportunity to toss Sam onto his back.  They laughed together as they stood, shoving each other gently on the shoulder.

Casey rolled her eyes, a small smile on her face.  “I’m going to go get some lemonade.  Do you want any, Sam?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.  That’d be great, Case.”

Casey turned their back on them, heading inside.

Derek called after her, “What’s that, Spacey?  Oh yeah, I’ll take some too.  Thanks for asking.”

She spun on her heel to glare at him.  “Do I look like your slave?”

Slowly, he appraised her body, drawing every second out, a tension rising in the air as his eyes traveled down and back until they locked eyes again.  He smirked crookedly at her.  “Extra sweet, slave girl.”

Her eyes narrowed before she disappeared into the house, Derek grinning after her.

“Nice.”  Sam brought him back to the present.

“What?”  Derek asked as he turned back to his friend.

Sam glanced down, a grin rising unabashedly as he complimented, “Nice shirt.”

Ignoring him, Derek leaned casually against the trailer, stuffing his hands deep into his pockets.  “So, Sammy… what’s up?”

“Well, when you didn’t answer your phone, I figured I’d just drop by.”

“Pretty sure her royal highness hid my phone.”  He rolled his eyes.  “Something about no distractions, Der-rek, we have to concentrate!”  His voice returned to normal, “What’d you need?”

“Well, I was originally going to ask about what Casey decided but a little birdie told me that answer already.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on here.”   He smiled humorously.

Derek looked around at the piles of boxes around the garage and driveway.  “Because we need an eighteen-ton truck to move all our shit?”

“More because you’re speaking.”

Derek glanced at his friend, mumbling, “I was speaking before.”

Sam rolled his eyes, clasping his friend on the shoulder.  “Angsty brooding Derek doesn’t count.”

“Whatever, man.”

Smiling, Sam pulled back from him.  “Forget it, D.  I’m not going to argue.  I’m just happy it all worked out for you guys.”

Derek quirked an eyebrow.  He opened his mouth to retort, but the sound of the back door opening, diverted their attention.  They watched as Casey made her approach, hands full, as she tiptoed carefully around the boxes towards them.

“Here’s your lemonade, Sam.”  Casey offered the glass to him.  Sam wiped his hands on his pants before he took it from her with a smile.

Turning to Derek, she raised a glass to him as well.  “For you,” She curtsied in front of him, “Master.”  Over her shoulder, Sam snorted into his drink, pulling away with a cough.

With a smirk, Derek accepted the cool glass from her.  His twinkling eyes held hers as he gradually took a sip.  As soon as the liquid touched his tastebuds, he instantly jerked the glass away, his cheeks puckering as he spluttered for air.

Amusement and pride danced across Casey’s features as Sam hooted behind them.  She smirked his own grin at him.  “Oh, my bad.  I thought you said extra sour.”

When he recovered, Derek gasped, “Great gag, Case.”

Sam continued laughing.  “Ah, man.  The look on your face, D!”

Casey teased, “Yeah, Der.  It was priceless.”

“Ha, ha.  I hate you both.”  Derek set his lemonade glass down on a box with a huff.

She rolled her eyes at him and turned to Sam.  “No offense, Sam, but I’m going into the house to double check my lists.”  She scooped up her forgotten clipboard off a pile of boxes.  “Let me know when Derek is ready to work again.”

Sam mocked a salute.  “Will do.”

“Don’t you mean quadruple check?”

Casey glared at Derek before she marched to the door.   Her hand rested on the door frame as she turned back to stare at him, finding Derek already watching her.  They eyed each other until Derek sent her a wink.  The corners of her lips tipped upwards before she disappeared into the house, the door swinging shut behind her.

Casting his eyes down, Derek watched his shuffling feet.  A hand came up to run through his hair as he cleared his throat.  “It’s true, you know.”

Studying his friend, Sam murmured, “Yeah, I know.”

Marti’s eyebrows shot to her hairline as she watched Edwin and Lizzie fumbling around the boxes in the basement, searching for any remaining items that had to be moved.  “Why do you two keep mumbling to yourself?  You’ve been doing it since lunch!”

“We’re practicing our parts for tonight.”  Edwin reassured her.

Lifting a box up into her arms, Lizzie turned to her, a frown forming on her face.  “Don’t you need to practice your lines, Marti?”

Rolling her eyes, Marti heaved her own box up.  “Who needs to practice?  If there’s one thing a Venturi knows how to do, it’s telling a story.”

Behind the girls, Edwin snickered, picking up his own box and following them up the stairs.  “Proven fact, sis.”

“Come on, Derek.  We’re so close!”  Casey pulled at his arm, trying to get him off the box he was sitting on.

“Relax, Space Case.”  Derek drawled.  “These boxes aren’t going to run away.”  Mumbling under his breath, he added, “But I might.”

Casey shoved his shoulder hard enough he had to grip the box to keep from falling off.  She crossed her arms, causing her skin to brush against his shoulder.  Rolling his eyes, he nudged her, then patted the box next to him.  “One minute is not going to hurt.”

Reluctantly, her arms fell from her chest and she took the offered seat next to him.  Together, they sat in silence staring back at the house.  Unexpectedly, Casey’s breath hitched in her throat and Derek cast a side glance at her.  He murmured softly, “You okay?”

The air shifted as Casey breathed in unevenly.  “Yeah.”  Silence stretched between them once again as they stared at the house.  Barely audible, Casey’s voice broke, “I’m going to miss it.”

Derek’s fist brushed against the side of her knee just once before it disappeared.  “Me too.”

Casey wiped beneath her eyes and Derek pretended not to notice.  Calmly, he rose from his seat, bending slightly as he offered a hand to her.

Surprised, she stared at his open palm before carefully sliding her own into it as he helped her up.  The contact didn’t last long.  As soon as she was securely on her feet, Derek dropped her hand, stooping to pick up his makeshift chair and lugging it up the ramp.

Nora revolved in a circle, studying the walls of Casey’s room.  She breathed, “I can’t believe this is our room again.  It seems like ages ago since we were in here.”

George smiled, coming to stand behind her and wrapping his arms around her bulging belly.  “When we were first married.  Good times, eh?”

Giggling, Nora snuggled into his embrace.  “It’s all been good, Georgie.”

He dropped a kiss on her temple.  “Mmm, even the bickering?  The arguments?  The feuds?”

“Those were hardly ever between you and me.”

A laugh split out of George.  “Ah, that’s right.  We have quite the temperamental children, don’t we?”

Sighing, Nora revolved in his embrace, her arms circling around his waist.  Resting her cheek against his thudding heart, a tear escaped, cascading down her cheek.  “They’re hardly children anymore.”

Sensing the mood shift, George tightened his hug.  “They’ll always be our children, Nora.  No matter how old they get.”

She began to cry in earnest.  “This time is so emotional for a mother.  And look at me!  Pregnant!  Pregnant as my oldest goes off to university!”  Nora gripped at George’s shirt.  “My hormones are making me a weeping mess at every turn.”

George pulled back slightly so he could meet her eye.  She refused to look at him.  Cautiously, he placed a finger beneath her chin, bringing her eyes to meet his.  “There’s nothing wrong with being sad about the kids leaving.  I’m sad too, Nora.  It’s been so long since I’ve had a life without Derek.  And I don’t know what we ever did before Casey lived here.”  He chuckled, eliciting a small watery smile from Nora.  “It’s going to be hard at first to adjust, but we will.  It doesn’t mean we won’t miss them, but we’re going to make it through this, Nora.”

Nodding, Nora wiped at her eyes.  “You’re right.  I just don’t know how I’m going to keep up with it all.  The new baby…”  She trailed off as fresh tears welled in her eyes.

Enclosing her face gently between his two palms, George kissed her forehead.  “Whatever happens, we’ll make it through together.”

“Phew!”  Edwin let out as he collapsed on the floor next to Lizzie and Marti.  He moved his head around looking at the basement.  “Tell me, exactly how are Derek and Casey going to share this place?”

“I don’t know, Ed.”  Lizzie shook her head.  “But it’s not our problem.”

“At least we won’t hear the noise.”  Marti piped in.  She bit her lip.  “Maybe.”

Edwin snorted as he folded his arms behind his head.  “I’m exhausted.”

Sitting up and tucking her legs underneath her, Lizzie spoke anxiously, “So, is everything ready?”

“My parts are.  Edwin?”

“Yeah, I got it done.”

“Great.”  Lizzie nodded, letting out the breath she was holding.  “I can’t believe it’s our last night all together.”

“Don’t cry on the parade, Liz.  This is supposed to be fun.”

She bit her lip.  “I know, that’s why I need to talk about this now.”

“It sure is going to be different around here.”  Marti agreed.  “It’s sad.”

Edwin and Lizzie both nodded their agreement.  Sighing, Edwin rolled to his side, running his hand over the carpet.  “Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to miss both of them, but I think there’s going to be a lot of good things too.”

“Yeah,” Lizzie breathed, “The three of us will have the focus for a change.”

“That would be nice.”  Marti sighed.  “But it’s still sad.”

Humming his agreement, Edwin sat up.  “True.”

“I feel guilty, guys, for feeling that way.”  Lizzie admitted.


“I don’t want to say goodbye to Smerek and Casey.”

Lizzie scooted over to Marti and threw an arm around her shoulders.  Marti rested her head on Lizzie’s.  They sat in silence, the girls pretending not to notice as Edwin dug the heels of his hands into his eyes.

After several beats, Edwin shook himself, glancing down at his watch.  “We better get ready.”

Squeezing Marti one last time, Lizzie stood.  “Marti, can you set up the decorations?”

“Absolutely!”  Marti jumped up, excitement taking over her features as she mounted the stairs.  “This is going to be so kewl!”

“And we’re done!”  Casey chirped as she checked the final item off her list. 

Derek secured the door of the trailer with a dramatic eyeroll.  “It’s about time.”

She folded her arms over her clipboard, hugging it securely to her chest.  “Oh, come on.  It didn’t take that long.”

His eyebrows shot to his hairline as he slid down the ramp towards her.  “All damn day, Case!  You don’t call that long?”

“Could have been worse.”  Casey shrugged.  “And language, Derek.”

“Unbelievable.”  Derek mumbled under his breath.

Casey ignored him, flipping the page on her clipboard and reciting, “So, tomorrow we just have to—"

Derek cut her off, gripping both of her shoulders as he bent over her.  “Oh, no!  I don’t want to hear any more of this tonight!”

Her brow knitted as she looked up at him.  “Derek, ignoring it won’t—"

His grip slackened on her shoulders.  “I’m not ignoring it.”  The look on her face made him reiterate, “I’m not.  Really.  I’m just fucking exhausted and don’t want to hear about any more work right now, ’kay?”

A teasing smirk pulled at her lips.  “Oh, my bad, Derek Venturi isn’t used to hard work.”

Rolling his eyes, a grin rose unwillingly to his own face.  He replaced the grip on her shoulders, with a casual arm pulling her into him as he started to slowly walk them to the door.  “I might need extensive therapy, Casey.”

She laughed.  “Poor, Derry!  Can you even make it inside?”

At her words he feigned a limp, halting them in their steps.  She looked down at his feet as he pretended to hobble.  Then her piercing gaze met his as she bit her lip in barely concealed mirth. 

“You might have to carry me, McDonald.”

Casey snorted, “That’ll be the day.”  But contrary to her words, her arm smoothly laced its way around his waist as she leaned into him.

Ignoring his stuttering breath, he readjusted his arm wrapped around her shoulders as he reached for the door with his other hand, quipping, “You’d let an attractive guy like me fall?”  He paused, preventing her from going in as he looked down at her with a smirk.

“You’d be perfectly fine if you landed on your enormous ego.”

He laughed.  “And if I didn’t?”

They slid through the open door without breaking their hold on each other.  She squeezed his side, sighing, “I suppose I’d have to catch you.”

Nodding arrogantly, Derek teased, “Admit it… you’d miss me, Princess.”  He reached up with his free arm to squeeze her cheeks into a comical fish face.

“Der-rek!”  She giggled, stopping them in the middle of the mudroom as she tried to fight off his hand.

Chuckling with her, he prodded, “I didn’t hear you admit anything, McDonald.”

Her hand at his side, sunk underneath the hem of his shirt as she tickled his flesh.  Derek jerked his hand away from her face to stop the tickling as he involuntarily started laughing as he tried to smack her hand away.

“Ha!”  Casey cried triumphantly, rubbing her cheeks with her free hand.  “You first, Venturi!”  Derek tried to stop the attack, taking several steps into the kitchen to ward her off.

“Ne-ne-never!”  He spluttered between laughs.

Suddenly, a throat cleared, and Casey’s hand immediately withdrew from Derek’s skin as she met the pale face of her best friend sitting at the end of their dining room table, clearly having heard the entire exchange.  Emily’s gaze dropped from Casey’s eyes, then shifted to Derek, taking in his orangutan t-shirt with a subtle glare before she faced determinedly away from the pair.

Derek looked up confusedly as his father cleared his throat again.  “Uh, what’s all this?”  Derek asked eyeing their family and friends sitting around one side of the dining room table.  His eyes fell on the podium situated between Sam and Nora.  His eyes followed the movement behind the stand to see Edwin and Lizzie sitting on kitchen stools, grinning from ear to ear.  “Don’t’ tell me…”

Beside him, Casey gasped, “Oh my gosh, those pictures.”  Taped to the front of the table was a plethora of Derek and Casey’s school pictures ranging from all ages.  “Oh no, they have nameplates.  This can’t be good.”  They both eyed the beautifully decorated nameplates that Marti had clearly colored.

“We thought we’d surprise you with a little university send-off.”  Edwin smirked.  “McDonald-Venturi style.”

“Meaning we’re totally going to make fun of you as we kick you out the door.”  Lizzie laughed.

“So, take your thrones and get ready to be roasted.”  Marti gestured at the side-by-side desk chairs on wheels that had been made to look like thrones.

As they made their way to their seats, Derek drawled, “Hey, I’ve already gone through this once!”  His ego-filled smirk lit up the room.

Marti jumped up from her place at the other end of the table, reaching underneath it and grabbing several items as she rushed over to Derek and Casey.  “Well, too bad because this is the ‘Royal Farewell Roast’ that we’re throwing for two very special members of royalty!”  Marti flounced about in front of them as she threw makeshift mantels over each of their shoulders, fastening the pieces of fabric securely at their necks.  Next, she pulled out a glistening gold crown with stunning rubies and placed it snuggly on top of Derek’s messy locks.  She sloppily kissed each of his cheeks, earning a playful grin from Derek. 

Turning to Casey, Marti uncovered a dazzling silver tiara from her bag of tricks and carefully positioned it on Casey’s head, fluffing her ponytail, and kissing each of her cheeks with a loud smack.  With one last grin, she bounced back to her seat.  Next to her, George reached over to pat Marti’s leg.

Beaming up at Edwin, Marti cried, “Let the roast begin!”

“I’m your host… Edwin Venturi and it is my pleasure to introduce my co-host—"

“Co-hostess,” Lizzie corrected, “Lizzie McDonald.”  Everyone applauded politely.

Edwin clapped his hands excitedly.  “Welcome, roastees and roasters to the Royal Farewell Roast!”

Lizzie elegantly took over, “Here, we are honoring the wonderfully beautiful and brilliantly talented, our favorite Princess, Casey McDonald—"  

Derek snorted and Casey sent him a half-hearted glare.

“And the ‘Lord of Lies’, the ‘Master of it All’, the ‘King of Cool’ himself, Derek Venturi!”  Edwin announced loudly.

Casey chuckled lightly under her breath at Edwin’s words and Derek nudged her with his leg.  The rest of their family and friends hooted and hollered for the man and woman of the hour.

Lizzie waited for the applause to stop.  “As they prepared for their Queen’s destination—"

“Sure to be filled with a lot of education.” Edwin cut in.  Sam and Ralph snickered, and Derek smirked at his two best friends.

“We all prepared witty words to roast them.”

 “Finding the material was no such problem.”

“But we asked ourselves how to make it all fit?”

“We came to the conclusion… with a little skit.”  Edwin finished, a proud smirk splitting his face.  The people around the table ‘Oooohed’ appreciatively.

As Marti made her way to the podium, Edwin and Lizzie ducked beneath the table.  When they emerged, Edwin was wearing Derek’s leather jacket and a fake crown on his head.  Lizzie surfaced a second later in Casey’s purple feather boa and an imitation tiara that matched the boa.

With her, Marti carried a jumbo-sized book.  Reaching her stand, she flashed the cover of her book around the room, showing them all the purple construction paper taped to the front of it.  On it she had written, ‘THE ROYAL STORYBOOK’ in huge block letters.  She smoothed it open, leaning forward excitedly, Marti cleared her throat and began in a perfect narrating voice, “Once upon a time, there were two separate families, each with their own kind of royalty.” 

As she spoke, Edwin and Lizzie turned their backs on one another.  Lizzie pretended to fluff her hair then haughtily wrapped her boa around her.  At the same time, Edwin was slouching, his hands deep in his pockets before he reached up to pop the collar of his jacket, a look of pure suaveness across his face.  The audience tittered approvingly.

“Then one day, there came a proclamation.  There was to be a merger, a blending of the two kingdoms, forever becoming one!”

Lizzie waved her feathers through the air, imitating Casey’s voice at an unnaturally high pitch, “Oh, Queen Mother, why does thoust have to be the one to uproot for thy kingdom?  We have such perfect people and a perfect castle with perfect help and a perfect schedule!”

With a frown, Edwin took over, “But father!  I am thee ruler of this kingdom and what I declare is law!  Under no circumstance shall that change!  Argh!  I shall remain thee tyrant of the castle!”

Marti stifled her laugh as she continued her story, “But to no avail, their words did little to stop the impending union.  However, one last chance remained to break their parents’ resolve…”  She trailed off, grinning evilly at Derek and Casey.

Muttering under her breath, Casey fidgeted, “Oh, no.  Are they going to bring up... that?”

As Lizzie and Edwin turned to face each other, Derek mumbled back, “That would be a yes.”  Together, Derek and Casey hid their faces in their hands, and they slouched in their seats.

“They had yet to meet.  Without being able to prevent it any longer, the king and queen arranged the day for the inevitable to happen.”

Simultaneously, Edwin and Lizzie crossed their arms defensively over their chests and glared harshly at each other.

“Alas!  Not able to face her, the Prince arranged for an imposter to take his place!”

Leaning sideways towards Sam, Ralph snickered, “I remember this part.” 

Sam shot a look at Ralph in disbelief.  “You do?  I’ve never heard this before.”  Over Ralph’s shoulder, Sam caught Emily’s distraught expression as she listened, unable to tear her attention away from the information being presented to them.

Meanwhile, Edwin mimed spying as he dodged and darted around, covering his face with his hands, and peering around them at Lizzie.

“Confusion ensured, tempers flared, but the truth was eventually revealed.  Unlikely allies emerged as ‘Operation Disengagement’ commenced.”  Marti snapped her fingers then pointed towards Lizzie and Edwin.

Lizzie struck an angry pose, her hands on her hips as Edwin gave her a sheepish shrug and smirk.  Finally, he stuck out his hand for her to shake.  Tapping her chin in thought, Lizzie considered his offer.  Hesitatingly, she reached out and placed her hand in his.  The pair looked down at their clasped hands for a beat then hastily withdrew them as if they had been burned.  Hurriedly, they turned their faces away from each other.

“However, as chaos unfolded once again, they couldn’t go through with the operation.  With their diabolical plan on the brink of success, the strings of their hearts were tugged in yet another direction.”

Dropping to her knees, Lizzie grasped Edwin’s hands in her own.  “Who are we to stand in thy way of our parents’ love?  Please, Sir Derek, grant thou father’s permission for my mother’s hand in sacred matrimony!”

Edwin sighed deeply.  “Tis time I stand aside and accept on my father’s behalf, the joining of our families.  May true love prevail!”  Edwin dramatically fell to his knees in front of Lizzie, gripping her by the shoulder to his leather clad chest.

Clicking her tongue, Marti marched on, “But all was not to the point of happily ever after.  Living together proved to be… well, a royal pain.”  Marti paused for the audience to chuckle.  “The kingdom remained on a tension filled peak as certain royalty struggled to merge together."

“Der-rek, you pranker!”  Lizzie shrieked.

Edwin dropped in a deep imitation of Derek’s voice, “What do you want now, Lady Space Case?”

“You’ve stolen all my undergarments… again!”

Edwin snickered.  “Don’t get your bloomers in a twist, Princess.”

Immediately flaring, Emily’s back straightened involuntarily as her hands clutched the edge of the table in a death grip.  Sam watched her inquisitively, but Emily never noticed.

“Days and days… and days and days...”  Deeply, Marti heaved a sigh, “Days and days… and days and days went by in the same manner.  Dramatic declarations, explosive arguments, and ragging wars…”

Next to Marti, Edwin and Lizzie forcefully shoved each other back and forth, each trying to rip the other’s crown off their head.

“Eventually led to fierce competition and witty banter that created a tentative truce, forging the foundation of our kingdom.”

From underneath the table, Edwin and Lizzie each pulled gold goblets, clinking them together in a silent toast.  Staring at each other over the rims, they each took a gulp.  Comically, Lizzie’s eyes widened as she pulled a face of absolute disgust as she pretended to spit out the drink.  She wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand as Edwin grabbed his belly, laughing loudly.

“Der-rek!”  Lizzie split his name in perfect imitation of her sister.

“You should have seen your face, Case!”

Glaring at Edwin, Lizzie set the goblet down and crossed her arms in a huff.

“The power struggle over, the kingdom prospered.  Through ups and downs, the family changed, growing together, yet one thing remained.”

Lizzie stomped her feet, crying, “Der-rek!”

“Case-ey!”  Edwin mocked.



Pointedly, Marti cut across them.  “If you’re looking for an ending, it’s not going to happen.  The story will continue, just not here.”

Facing Derek and Casey, Edwin and Lizzie shouted in sync, “We’re going to Queen’s!”  Theatrically, they whipped to face each other, slapping their hands to their faces in surprise.

Their audience snickered.

“Hard for them to live together.”  Marti paused, smiling tenderly at Derek and Casey.  “But even harder to tear them apart.”  Smirking, she teased, “Makes it rather difficult on the rest of us.”

She grew serious again, “But our part is over, now it’s their story to tell.”

Edwin cast an arm around Lizzie’s shoulders, pulling her heavily into his side as they beamed happily at each other.

All around the room, cheers rose as members of the audience clapped their hands.

Marti gestured with both hands to Edwin and Lizzie, who proceeded to take several bows before pointing back at Marti.  The storyteller took a dramatic bow and gave the crowd a silly wave before she skipped back to her seat.

In the meantime, Edwin had de-Derekized as Lizzie un-Caseyfied, and they both returned to the podium as themselves. 

Grinning to the still thundering applause, Edwin began again, “So, what can we say about my brother—"

“And my sister, that no one has said before?”  Snorts went around the room as they considered Lizzie’s words.  “Well, we’re going to find out!”

Edwin turned to Lizzie, saying, “You think it’s possible, Liz?  I mean, we’ve had a lot of things to say about Derek and Casey over the years.”

Holding a finger to her chin, Lizzie feigned thought.  “Hmm, well, since Casey and Derek provide the material, maybe we can get the people who know them best to divulge some of their best kept secrets?”

A grin stretched from cheek to cheek as Edwin looked around the room.  “You think they know something we missed?”  He pulled out a massive binder from below the podium.  Edwin stood it on end so the room could see the cover as he pretended to ruffle through it.  In Edwin’s untidy scrawl, he had written across every surface of the binder, “Top Secret!  Classified Research!”

Lizzie hovered over his shoulder as she too scanned the pages.  “They might be able to fill in some gaps!  I’ll get my notebook while you introduce the first informant, I mean, guest!”  She scurried back to her seat and picked up a notebook and pencil, sitting quickly, poised to take notes.  The audience chuckled, not believing their charade.

“Alright, can do.”  Edwin turned back to the audience.  “Let’s royally get this roast going!  Introducing the man… the myth… the legend, Geeeeeorge Ventuuuuuri!”

Standing, George waved modestly to the crowd as the room cheered for him.  At the podium, he spread his arms across the podium as he gripped the sides, comfortably looking around at them all.  “I’ll never forget the day Derek was born.  I had just gotten the Prince.”  George sighed, “What a wonderful car.”

George waited for the audience to stop snickering.  “I’ve always known Derek was a handful.  After all, I raised the little monster.  So, to say I was a little worried about bringing a new wife and two girls into this bursting house would be an understatement.  From what Nora told me and after meeting her, Casey without a doubt would be yet another handful.”  He smiled at Casey teasingly, “Sorry, Casey.”

“No, you’re not, George.”  Casey laughed back.

“No, I’m not really.”  George chuckled, “Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yes, Derek and Casey living in the same house!”

George reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of ear plugs.  “I quickly learned where to invest my money.  I bought stocks in this company just trying to earn back a small amount of what I’ve spent on these wonderful little ear plugs!  Good news is that I also recommended them to everyone who knows Derek and Casey and… I’ve earned seven times my payout!” 

Their family and friends thoroughly laughed as they observed Derek and Casey’s sheepish smiles.  Laughing, George pulled a second set of ear plugs from his pocket, tossing both pairs at Derek and Casey.  “Here, these are for your roommates.  No doubt they’ll need them.”  Derek ended up catching both sets, handing one off to Casey with a sly smirk.

As George returned to his seat, Lizzie approached the stand.  “Thanks, George.  There was deafening truth to that.”  Smiling at her own pun, Lizzie turned to her mother.  “Now, I’d like to introduce the ‘Norganizer’ herself, give it up for Nora McDonald-Venturi!”  The cheers continued as Nora waddled to the front to take Lizzie’s place.

“Ah, being Casey’s mother was a rare treat.”  Nora sighed dramatically, “I lost count of how many times she told me to clean my room and eat my vegetables.”  Giggles erupted and Derek let out a loud snort before Casey glared at him.

“Casey always had a knack for perfection.  She was a force to be reckoned with… and then… she met Derek.  Her perfect match.”  In the back, Edwin and Lizzie exchanged cheeky eyebrow raises.  But Nora continued, “Where Casey was organized, Derek was a disaster.  Where Derek was easy-going, Casey was… well, a little high-strung.”

Derek staged a mutter under his breath for them all to hear, “That’s an understatement.”

Nora covered her mouth to hide her giggle.  “Well, you get the picture.  They were opposites.  At the time we decided to merge these two families together, we really had no idea what was in store for us.”

“Whatever Casey had, Derek wanted and vice versa.  It was like two toddlers fighting over the same toy.  There were fights and tears, screaming and yes, even wrestling.”

From the end of the table, Emily hitched a breath, earning a curious look from Sam and Ralph.  She waved them off and Ralph returned his attention to Nora, Sam hesitating slightly before following his example.

“But there were also smiles and laughs…”  Nora’s voice teetered as she was overwhelmed with sudden emotion.  “Hugs and—"

Edwin gently prodded her, “Nora this is a roast.  The only people crying should be the roastees from all the heat in their seats!”

“Right, right.”  Nora wiped at her eyes then smiled.  “Well, I hate to think about all the pain meds I’ve consumed because of Casey and Derek.”  She held her head.  “The headaches of pregnancy have nothing on those two.”

At Casey’s wince, Nora laughed, patting her belly.  “Thank you both for preparing me for the upcoming wailing of a newborn.”

“No problem, Nora.”  Derek grinned at her.  She blew them both a kiss, heading for her seat. 

Lizzie returned with a smile.  “Painfully perfect, Mum.”  Looking down at the platform, she read, “Next up is a man who is clever, witty, and charming… I could go on, but I’m having trouble reading his handwriting.  Just get up here, Edwin Venturi.”  The group hooted and clapped their hands as Edwin confidently took Lizzie’s place with a playful shove.

“You may be wondering what am I going to do without Derek?  Derek the older brother I both know and fear.  Well, first, I’m going to throw a huge celebration!”

“Ha, funny, Ed.”  Derek drawled as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Kidding, just kidding.”  Edwin winked significantly at his family.  “Nah, but really, my big brother has taught me a lot about life.”  Building the suspense, Edwin finally dropped, “Mostly what not to do, but it was still a lot.”  Approvingly, the audience chuckled.

“With Derek at university, I’m going to be a much richer man… since he won’t be dipping into my piggy bank!”  George and Nora gasped, and Derek shot Edwin a warning glare.  Edwin quickly held his hands up, “But I’m not bitter!”

Quickly, Edwin shifted subjects, turning to Casey.  “And then Casey arrived, and I learned a lot from her too.  I can now safely say that I know exactly what color eye shadow goes with my complexion.”  He pretended to pat his face as everyone laughed.  “And that there is a difference between fuchsia and hot pink.”  Smirking at the audience reaction, Edwin waited for the noise to die down again.  “But the best thing I learned from Casey was that I wasn’t Derek’s main target anymore!”

Edwin winked towards Derek and Casey before he went into host mode again, “Please, welcome back to the stage, Lizzie McDonald and her brutally true honesty!”

Rolling her eyes, Lizzie replaced him at the stand.  “Casey, oh dear sweet Casey.  Casey was so sweet to me growing up.”

The crowd jumped in, “How sweet was she?”

“Casey was so sweet that she saved me from ever having to go shopping.  I wore her hand-me-downs for yeeeears!  I was eight years old before I knew clothes other than cotton candy pink even existed.”

“Excuse me, that was champagne pink!”  Casey interrupted.

Edwin tittered, “Told you.”

“Anyway,” Lizzie silenced Casey, “Casey was such a sweet sister that I thought all siblings were like that.  Then Mum married George and I found out that wasn’t always true.” 

Lizzie smirked as she teased the Venturi’s who all let out an indignant cry of, “Hey!”

“I quickly learned that Derek not getting his way was the worst case of sour grapes ever.  But, over time we adapted to the sweet and sour flavor explosion of the Casey/Derek combination.  When I first found out that they were going to Queen’s together, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s going to be so much quieter around the house.’  My second thought was, ‘Oh, my gosh!  Their poor neighbors!’  Between Casey’s shrill freak-outs and Derek’s booming music, and not to mention their earsplitting bickering, the entire campus will be able to hear them!”  The audience giggled and nodded their agreement.

Grinning once again, Lizzie teased, “Those poor suckers!”  She sighed dramatically, “And poor us, because I’m sure we’re still going to be able to hear them all the way from Kingston.”

George cut in, “I’ll let you borrow my ear plugs!”

“Thanks, George!  We’ll make a huge profit marketing to all of Kingston!”  Turning back to the front, Lizzie flipped a page.  “Now, it’s time to welcome a girl who needs no introduction, the ‘Smarti’ of the bunch, Marti Venturi!”

Marti bounded up front to thunderous shouts and claps.  She let the applause fade.  “I don’t really remember all that much about the time before the McDonald’s moved in.”  Her gaze drifted over every member of her family before she locked back on to Derek and Casey.  “But I think this was always meant to be.”

Everyone shifted in their seats as the mood suddenly turned serious as Marti continued with purpose, “My Smerek was always special… like peanut butter sandwiches.  I love peanut butter!  But I also discovered jelly and then I wanted jelly sandwiches.”  She smiled like she was letting them all in on the secret of the universe. “Until I put them together and had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Peanut butter is wonderful, and jelly is yummy, but together, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are magic!  That’s what happened when we became one family.  Sure, it took a lot of loud, mad, sad, shouts, screams and tears, but we still got to the awesome, happy, exciting, laughs and hugs!”

Nora and George looked to each other, intwining their hands together against the top of the table.

Marti plowed on, “The number of times Casey saved my brother is unreal.”  Casey shot a proud smile at Derek at his sister’s words.  He pretended to roll his eyes, but a smile tugged at his lips anyway.  “He defs wouldn’t have graduated without her.”  Their friends and family chuckled.  “And I’ve lost count of the number of times Smerek helped Casey out, even if she didn’t know it.”  Casey searched Derek’s expression, but he avoided her eyes.  “He’s stopped a lot of losers from hurting her.” 

Half of the crowd chuckled, and the other half shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

Undeterred, Marti went on, “As sad as I am that they’re leaving, I’m super happy Casey is going with Smerek because if she wasn’t it… it’d be like peanut butter without jelly.  Cookies without milk.  Ice cream without hot fudge.  Smerek without his Smasey would just be wrong.”

The room was engulfed in silence.

“Thanks, Marti.  That was… er, enlightening.”  Edwin clapped for his sister and everyone else joined in at different levels of enthusiasm as they continued to mull over her words.

Together, Edwin and Lizzie returned to the podium.  As Edwin set up his computer, Lizzie explained, “We have a special little surprise for our roastees.”

Finishing his set up, Edwin grinned.  “I think I’ll let her introduce herself.”  He jabbed the play button, and a video filled the screen.

“Hello, everyone!”  Abby waved at the camera as she sat nestled on her couch in her home, clutching a cup of tea.  “Edwin asked me to record some material for the roast that you all are throwing in honor of Derek and Casey.  And I asked him if he had enough time for everything I had to say.”  She smiled teasingly at the camera.  “Oh, Derek.  Dear Derek.  It’s extremely hard to choose exactly what stories to use for this occasion.  You’ve always been a rather… intense boy.  In your youth, obsessed with superheroes as you and Sam conquered the evil villains as Derek the Dynamo Dude and Sammy of Steel.”

Derek and Sam groaned, covering their faces as everyone else guffawed.  Beside him, Casey nudged Derek, teasing, “Aww, D, that’s so cute.”

Picking up steam, Abby continued, “I’ll never forget when you wanted me to sew that ‘D’ on your rocket ship onesie when you were ten.”  Nothing could be heard over the giggling in the room.  Sam snickered the loudest as Ralph asked, clearly miffed at his friends, “How come I never got a cool superhero name?”

“Zip it, Ralphie.”  Derek mumbled.

“But teen Derek had nothing on our little Dynamo Dude.”  Abby sighed heavily, “You tried our patience, tested the limits, and broke every rule with increasingly extraordinary ability.”  He was back to his usual smirking self as Derek snickered. 

Shaking her head, Abby teased, “How I longed for the days before hockey, food, and girls were your constant focus.  It’s a wonder how you were even able to graduate.  Well, fortunately you had Casey to whip you into shape.  Good thing we didn’t send you off to private school without her!”

George and Nora chuckled in agreement as they watched Abby on screen.

“But now, my little boy is off to university and I grimace to think of it!  Thank God, Casey is going with you.  I’d hate to think what would happen to you without her staying on your case.”

Derek shot a sideways look at Casey and she smirked back at him.

“Of course, I have nothing but sweet things to say about you, Casey, even though Edwin gave insistent instructions that this is in fact a roast, I can’t find one thing to stay about you, Stinky Feet.”  Abby shot a wink at the camera as Derek doubled over in laughter.  Casey smacked his arm as she tried to hide her own laugh.

“Good luck to both of you!  I wish you both success in all your endeavors.  Love you!”  Abby blew a kiss to the camera before the screen went black.

Around them, enthusiastic claps sounded.  Edwin rushed over to the computer, “And thank you, Mom, for that super material!”

“And now,” Lizzie beamed, “For one more special surprise!  Go ahead, Ed.  Bring him up on the screen.”  He clicked play and backed away.

Casey gasped quietly as her dad’s smiling face stretched onto the previously dark screen.  Dennis sat behind his desk.  The backdrop was filled with shelves upon shelves of thick lawbooks.  “Casey, my little girl.  I can’t believe you’re off to university.  I am so proud of you, honey.  But as Edwin quite explicitly informed me, this is a roast and not a sappy sendoff video.  So, I guess I’ll get on with it.” 

He smiled charmingly up at them all through the camera, “Casey, even from a young age, I always knew you’d do great things.  At three years old, you had an answer for everything.  At four years old, you alphabetized your books by genre.  At five years old, you coordinated all our schedules and left us reminder notes so we wouldn’t forget things.  By the time you were six, you were following me around making sure I was hanging my ties according to color and checking to see if my socks matched before I left for work.”

Beside Casey, Derek snorted, flicking her knee with his pointer finger.

Chuckling to himself, Dennis shook his head.  “Honey, you’re picture perfect in every way.”  Casey discreetly wiped at the corner of her eye as her dad turned his attention to Derek.

“And Derek,” Dennis parroted Derek’s smirk back at him.  “You are unbelievable.  I knew this from the moment I met you.”  Dennis chuckled again.  “This smooth-talking, sharp-minded young man marched up to me with all the confidence in the world as he made it a point to get to know me.”

“Even hours after just meeting, he was giving me a piece of his mind as he protected my own daughter.”  The others looked confusedly between the screen and Derek as he scratched the back of his head and avoided everyone’s eyes.  Beside him, a small smile lit Casey’s face.

Shaking his head, Dennis eyed the camera seriously, “It takes a special kind of man to do that and I will be forever grateful to you for being that kind of man.”

“Even though, I imagine it’s quieter inside a jet engine or calmer in the middle of an anthill than it is being around the two of you together, it’s considerably less exciting.”  He laughed to himself.  “No doubt you’ll keep each other on your toes at university.”

“Watch out for Derek, Casey.  I have a feeling he’ll need your help.  And Derek, I know you’ll take care of my little girl.  I don’t think anyone else could handle the job.  She is quite the handful.”  He winked at the camera.

In the dining room, Derek clasped the back of his neck.

“Have fun you two, and be safe, study hard.  And let me know when you want to go to that Rangers game, Derek.  Bye, sweetheart.  Take care.”

As Edwin took down his equipment, Lizzie stepped to the podium again.  “Thank you, Dad.  That was most charming of you.”

Finished packing away his electronics, Edwin joined Lizzie.  “Now, let’s turn to the people who know Derek and Casey even better than their family—"

Lizzie interjected, “Their best friends!”

“Let’s start with Sammy of Steel, shall we?”  Edwin snickered.  “He must be made of steel if he’s been able to tolerate Derek as a best friend all these years!  Samuel Richards, come on up!” 

Sam laughed nervously, shooting a wink at Derek as he steeled himself against the podium.  “Wow, this is really something.  I’ve known D since we were 10 and I just never thought this day would come.  We’ve been best friends all this time and like, the thought of us separating wasn’t real.  No matter how hard I tried to get rid of him, D always found his way back.”  He smirked as the audience snickered.

“It seems like just yesterday we were kids wrestling over the things we wanted.”  Sam paused, a playful smirk appearing, “Oh, right that was actually today.”  Everyone chuckled amusedly.  Casey rolled her eyes, a soft smile on her features.

“As a best friend, Derek found it his duty to teach me the things that having all sisters had kept me from learning.  Everything from ‘Male Codes’ to pick up lines, Derek had the answer for everything.  Might be why I don’t have a girlfriend now.”

“Please, Sammy boy.”  Derek interrupted with a smirk.  “I did my best with what I had to work with.  The rest is up to you.”

“Hardy har, D.”  Sam laughed for real.  “But if there was one thing that’s always been true about our friendship is that Derek always won.  We were kids wrestling over the things we wanted.  Who got to be the superhero and who was stuck as the sidekick?  Who had the best slapshot and who got to go first down the new waterslide?  Then we grew up and we didn’t have to wrestle anymore.  Derek just won on default.  Yet suddenly we were wrestling again.  But now, it was because of something that had never came between us before.”  Sam shot a significant look at Derek as Derek sent a warning look back at his friend.

“But I’m sure it was a one-time thing.”  Sam winked cheekily at Derek.  The others looked confusedly around at each other, but Sam offered no further explanation.  “D’s always had a knack of getting us into trouble.  It was his idea to ride our bikes to the next town just to say we did.  And it was Derek’s plan that ended with us having poison oak in places I’d rather not discuss.”  A few snickers went around the table.

Beaming widely, Sam spoke directly to his best friend.  “I don’t know how we did it, but we survived it all, man.  We made a heck of a team, Scrappy.”

“Sure did, Sneaky.”

Sam turned to Casey, smiling.  “Don’t think I forgot about you, Casey.  Now it’s your turn.”

“Oh, no.”  Casey pretended to grimace as she slunk slightly in her seat.

“Casey is one of the most confusing females I’ve ever met.”  His tone was light and teasing, “Everyone in this room knows we had our ups and downs.”  The audience grumbled, making Sam laugh.  “Me trying not to cause conflict ended up causing more conflict than real conflict would have.  I was observed, analyzed, and prodded more times in the short months we were together than most animals born and died in captivity.”  Titters sounded and Casey covered her mouth to hide her smile.  “Well, good news, Case, D goes looking for conflict.”  Everyone chuckled, except Emily.  Sam spoke directly to Casey, “You can’t take my place, but you’re in charge of him now.  Make sure he gets his afternoon naps and no sugar before dinner.”

“Hey!”  Derek cried indignantly.

Laughing, Casey agreed.  “Alright, Sam.  I got it.”  Sam took a deep bow as the crowd clapped him back to his seat.

“And thank you, Sam for those truly kind words.”  Edwin grinned at Sam and Sam sent a salute back.

“I’d like to introduce now,” Lizzie took over, “The woman with the hardest job in all of Ontario, Casey’s best friend, Emily Davis!”

There was a trace of a smile on Emily’s face as she took the center of attention.  She clasped and unclasped her hands awkwardly in front of her.  “Well, I haven’t known Casey as long as Sam has known… Derek… or as long as I’ve known Derek for that matter… but I like to think I know Casey just as well.”

Silence stretched as Emily gulped and gripped the podium.  Taking a deep breath, she tried a larger smile.  “Lizzie’s right.  I do have the hardest job in all of Ontario.  I think we all know that Casey is the master of freak outs.”  The audience hummed their agreement.  “There hasn’t been a day since I’ve met her that there hasn’t been at least one crisis a day.  To say Casey is a drama queen is an understatement.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to calm her down or refocus her or whatever else a best friend has to do.  That girl….”  Emily trailed off, smiling fondly at Casey as their eyes met.  “That girl is my best friend, but gah, she makes me crazy.”  Real chuckles went around the room and Casey blew Emily a teasing kiss.

Picking up steam, Emily continued with unexpected enthusiasm, “And in all honesty, Casey should probably come with a caution sign, labeled, ‘Danger Zone’ for all her countless acts of clumsiness.  I hope you get good insurance, Casey.  You’re going to need it, girl.”  Casey bit her bottom lip as George laughed the hardest.  “And as your best friend, when we’re old, wrinkly and gray, I’ll personally make sure that all your socks have little grippers and there’s hand bars on every available surface.  Actually, you might want to look into Life Alert, today.  You know, just in case.”  Emily smiled as she waited for the audience to simmer down.

Heaving a playful sigh, Emily joked, “The stress has probably taken years off my life, but someone has to take care of her.”  Suddenly, Emily’s smile drooped, and she focused on the surface, running her hand distractingly across the wood.

“I – I suppose Casey will be okay.  She’ll have plenty of attention at least.  De-Derek will make sure of that.  Oh, boy, the things I could say about Derek…”  Emily trailed off again.  The room dropped their heads to their laps, nervously looking up at the people next to them.  Derek’s leg bounced up and down anxiously in front of him as a sense of uneasiness filled the room.

“Chase girls, eat food, prank Casey, eat food, tease Casey, play hockey.  Then eat more food while pranking Casey.  Girls, Casey, hockey, and food.  The only things Derek thinks about.”  Though true, no one laughed.  “Maybe university will change that, but somehow I think not.”

Emily still refused to meet anyone’s eye as her hand tracing patterns on the podium.  “Broken bird baths, secret swims, covert operations, fake dates…”  Taking a tiny breath, Emily’s voice lowered, “Prom, graduation… But I guess it all leads us here.”  Hesitantly, she looked up but made no move to make eye contact.  “Well, what Derek wants, Derek gets.  I guess we’ll see what happens.”  She gave a small one shoulder shrug.

Her fingers rapped against the wood as she attempted to smile again.  “I don’t know if Queen’s can handle you two together.  But if London can take it, hopefully Kingston won’t explode on impact.”

A few awkward chuckles came from George and Edwin as Emily pushed herself away from the podium and retreated to her seat.  Ralph stared open mouthed at her as Emily sat back down beside him.  Her eyes immediately went to her lap as her hands determinedly folded in front of her.

“Well…”  Lizzie trailed off as she searched for words.  “Thanks, Emily for that… um, intriguing insight.”

Edwin hastily rushed into his introduction.  “And last, but certainly not least, everyone’s favorite honorary brother, Ralph Papadapolis!”

As Ralph swaggered to center stage, his eyes darted back and forth between his two best friends.  “Hey, guys, can I be…”  Ralph dramatically threw his arms up in the air hitting a double bicep pose.  “IRONSIDE?”

Smothering their snickers, Derek and Sam looked at each other, answering together, “Sure, Ralphie.”

“Suh-wheet, dudes.”  Ralph whistled between his teeth, nodding to himself.  There was silence as the audience awaited.

“Um, Ralph?”  Lizzie spoke up from behind him.

Jumping at her voice, Ralph cried, “Oh, right!  Well, Triple D is defs a legend before his time.  I met D the first day I moved to London all the way back in Grade 8.”  Ralph nodded, a happy go lucky grin spread across his face.  “Good times.  I was checking out the rink and the ladies, when I saw D in the middle of all these high school chicks.”  Winking, Ralph gave Derek a nod that Derek returned.  Sam snickered in the background.  “I walked over to introduce myself all proper like, but on my way this guy the size of King Kong shot a puck across the ice and beamed me in the forehead.  When I came to, D was slapping my face and hauling me up.  The first thing he said to me was, ‘Way to make a pucking first impression, man!’ and I mean that was hilarious.”  Snorts and chuckles varied throughout the room.  “Then he asked if I played hockey and then we were on the ice playing within a minute.”  Ralph smiled fondly as he reminisced.

“And then the first time I saw Casey, I was Derek.  And I thought, ‘Damn, that girl is hawt!’ and then ‘I wonder if she’d give me a shot?’ but then Derek told me I couldn’t and then it got really confusing from there.”  All but Derek, raised their eyebrows, exchanging confused looks.  “I mean Casey is great!  She can take names and kick ass!”  George cleared his throat, gesturing to Marti beside him.  Ralph quickly corrected himself, “Oh, right.  She can take those things we’re called and kick major ass!”

Sam cut in, “Ralph, I think you mean kick butt and take names.”

A frown crossed Ralph’s face as he pondered, “Isn’t that what I said?”

Sniggering, Derek saved him.  “It’s all good, Ralphie.  Continue.”

“Eh, alright.”  Ralph shrugged then grinned again.  “And she’s totally hot doing it!”

A blush tinted Casey’s face and she tried to cover her cheeks with the back of her hands as everyone turned to look at her, except Derek, whose leg was bouncing furiously in front of him again.  When he accidently knocked into Casey’s knee, he instantly stilled, moving away from the contact.

Undiscouraged, Ralph elaborated, “It’s too bad I don’t understand more than half of what she says.  She uses such big words, and she gets so mad all the time.”  This time Derek snickered wholeheartedly.  “I mean it’s usually at D, but still.”

“But it totally makes sense ‘cause D and Casey are kind of a package deal, you know?”  His face lit up.  “They’re a lot like Twinkies!  They come in two’s whether you want them both at the same time or not.  Like it’s a lot if you’re only looking for a little pre-snack snack, but if you’re ready for gooey goodness it’s like no big deal.  I like my Twinkies with-“

“Ralph, don’t you think you’re getting a little off subject?”  Sam reminded him.

“Oh, right.  D and Casey just go together so it makes total sense they’re going to Queen’s together.”  He suggestively raised his eyebrows up and down at the pair.  “What happens at Queen’s stays at Queen’s, am I right?”

Casey turned away from Ralph’s eye contact as Derek gripped the side of his neck.  Noticing nothing, Ralph slid back into his chair.

“That was delightful, Ralph.  Thank you so much.”  Lizzie turned back to Derek and Casey.  “And thank you to all our wonderful guests.  I certainly learned a lot.  How about you, Ed?”

“Absolutely, Liz.  And I’m sure our roastees can still feel the burn!”  Edwin laughed at his own joke.

Rolling her eyes, Lizzie smirked.  “Do you think it’s time we turn down the heat?”

Edwin pretended to sniff the air.  “Nah, I think they can roast a little longer.”

“Hmm,” Lizzie looked around the room.  “What else can we do?”

“Oh, I know exactly what we’re going to do, now.” Grinning evilly, Edwin looked between Derek and Casey.  “It’s time we get the man and woman of the hour up here.”

Lizzie copied his smirk.  “Of course, it’s their turn to roast each other.”  She winced.  “But do you really think it’s a good idea to actually ask them to bicker?  Seems like we’re asking for trouble.”

Appraising the audience, Edwin asked, “What do you say, everyone?  Should we take our chances?”  The room cheered and clapped their approval while Derek and Casey overexaggerated eyeing each other as smirks pulled at their lips.

“Think you can handle the fire, McDonald?”

“You forget, Venturi, that I have loads of material just waiting for this occasion.”

Derek snorted.  “Sounds like all bark.”  He gave her a cheeky wink.  “Where’s your bite?”

“I’ll give you bite.”  Casey gracefully rose from her seat, flipping her hair proudly over her shoulder, narrowly missing smacking Derek in the face as he followed closely behind her.  They made their way to the stand, shoulders brushing lightly as they squeezed into the tight space together.

Casey looked to each side of the stand, staring at the smiling faces of her family and friends.  “Wow, guys.  We…”  Casey trailed off, angling herself towards Derek as he did the same to her.  She looked up at him with a smile tugging at her lips.

Derek grinned down at her.  “Don’t know what to say.  That was…”

“Something.”  Casey supplied.  Casey placed her hands on her hips, causing her left arm to press into his side.  He shot her a challenging eyebrow raise, which sparked her into words.  “To think I’ve spent years trying to get away from life with Derek.  And now here I am, riding off to Queen’s with this massive thorn in my side.”  She intentionally pressed her elbow further into his side.

His hand slid down to grip her stabbing elbow, relieving some of the pressure from his side.  “And to think I’ve got another four years to torment this keener.  Doesn’t get much better than that.”

Casey’s eyebrows hitched higher up her forehead as they considered each other.  "Are you going first, or am I?"

"Ladies first."

“Oh, now you’re being chivalrous?  Where has that trait been hidden?”

“Chivalrous shmrivalrous.”  Derek snorted.  “It’s all part of strategy, Case.”

“Typical.  I shouldn’t have expected anything different from a skirt chasing cad.”

“Ooh, Casey McKeen-a-lots is showing off her dictionary again.”

“And Derek the Doorknob is jealous.”

“Nice try, but I wouldn’t be jealous of a preppypants like you even if you paid me.”

“Oh, right because Mr. Cool is too cool for school.”

“It’s King of Cool.  Get it right, Princess.”

 “Yeah, well, I may be a Princess, but at least I’m not a jerk, jerk!”

“Wow, and I thought your insults could get no lamer, Geek-a-Freak.”

“Oh, please.  I have plenty of things I could say about you, Dereka.”

“Spacey, Spacey, Spacey.”  He shook his head, bending closer to her face.  “You got nothing.”

Lizzie jumped in before Casey could reply, “Guys!  Instead of arguing over it, why don’t you actually roast each other. 

The pair stood blinking at each other before Derek smirked.  “Go on, Head Case.  Don’t leave our audience in suspense.”

Casey took a deep breath and began, “No matter what I do, Derek always comes out on top.”  Derek smirked as Casey went on, “And he even gets credit for my accomplishments.”

Derek laughed, “Are you talking about your… credenza creds?”

“Yes!”  Casey stomped her foot as he continued to laugh.

“Funnily enough, Princess, I can think of a time that you were… on top.”  His eyebrows rose suggestively.

Casey’s mouth snapped shut as a blush took over her face.  Behind her, Sam and Ralph covered snickers.

Taking the opportunity to take the lead, Derek jumped in, “No matter what I do, I always have to step in and rescue Casey from her latest disaster.”  Derek rolled his eyes. 

“Oh, please, name one time!”

“McLame Camp?  That was going nowhere fast before I joined the Alpha Force.”  Marti giggled and the rest of the audience looked at her, confusion painted across their faces.

Casey bit her lip.  “Yeah?  Well, you’d be lost without my planning and preparation!”

He gave her a look of disbelief.  “Yeah?  Like with Purple Fog?”

“That was your fault!”  This time Edwin chuckled, quickly turning it into a cough.

“My David Snip card?”

“What about ‘Sisters of the White Cave’, Derek?”

Over Derek’s shoulder, George leaned closer to Nora.  “Do you understand what they’re talking about?”

Nora shook her head.  “It seems like they’re speaking in riddle.”

Derek snorted.  “Well, the Fergus was your fault.”

Ficus.  And that was purely your fault.”

Turning to George, Nora hissed, “What does my Ficus have to do with anything?”  George shrugged, equally confused.

“You poor delusional Space Case.”  Derek bumped his shoulder into hers.  “I think your memory has been tampered with.”

Casey rolled her eyes, bumping him back.  “The only thing that has been tampered with is my shampoo!”

Snorting, Derek combed a hand through his dark hair, “Hmm, seems like that’s a little hypocritical of you.  Eh, Case?”

She stuck her tongue out at him.  “Yeah, well it was time you got a taste of your own medicine.”

Derek slowly licked his lips, Casey’s eyes following the movement before they snapped back to his twinkling eyes.  “Not bad… for a keener.”

Looking away from him, Casey crossed her arms.  Her forearms brushing against Derek’s chest in the confined space.  She took in her mom, George, and Marti, who were staring at her expectantly.  “I think we should just stop there.  You guys hear us on the daily.”  She smiled shyly, “We should probably just thank you.  Right, Derek?”

“What’s the matter, Princess?  Can’t take my heat any longer?  Or are you just afraid of what I might say?”

Ignoring her flaming cheeks, Casey bit, “No, I know that we could do this all night.  But can you at least try to be sincere for a minute?”  She dropped her arms to her side and took a step away from him.

“With pleasure, Princess.”  He smirked cheekily at her as his hand trailed up her arm and over her shoulders, pulling her tightly into his chest.  She let out a small huff of air at the impact, then tried to pull back to put space between them.  Derek’s arm prevented her from retreating far.

Behind Casey, Sam murmured across the table, “You okay, Em?”  Emily nodded tightly, her eyes returning to her lap as her interwoven fingers fidgeted.  Unconvinced, Sam kept watch on her out of the corner of his eye.

Fighting the blush rising on her face, Casey addressed the rest of the gathering.  “We really want to thank you all.   The work you’ve put into preparing this is certainly obvious.  Wow, I can’t get over it!” 

She looked up to Derek as he smiled charmingly around the room.  “It was pretty awesome.  We should leave home more often, Case.  I could get used to all this attention.”

Rolling her eyes, Casey smacked his arm.  “You’re such an egotistical jerk.”  His free hand reached up to rub where she hit, and his eyes widened innocently at her.  Ignoring him once again, Casey spoke, “This was perfect, everyone.  I know this is supposed to be fun, so I don’t want to—" Her breath hitched as unshed tears welled in her eyes.  “Cry, but this is such a rollercoaster for us.”

Against his control, Derek’s arm tightened over Casey, causing her to bring her watery eyes up to him.  “Derek helped me figure out what I’m feeling.  This is such a bittersweet moment.  We’re looking forward to going to Queen’s to study—" She pretended not to hear Derek’s snort even as they maintained steady eye contact.  “But we’re both really, really going to miss you.  It’s hard to leave.  But Derek keeps reminding me that it’s going to be okay.”  Casey sighed, “And he’s right.”

An unidentifiable look crossed his face, torn between smugness, amusement, and sincerity as they regarded each other closely.  Unknown to either of them, there were massive looks of disbelief being exchanged behind their backs.

Her voice was barely above a whisper. “We’ll be okay.”

Slowly, a genuine smile touched Derek’s lips before it morphed into his usual cocky grin.  “I’m always right.”

Her eyes twinkled as she teased, “Hardly.  Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”

Funny!  Did you practice that one in the mirror, Princess?”

She opened her mouth to respond, but Lizzie nudged her away.  “Yeah, yeah, we’re past the bantering part now, sis.”

“Yeah!”  Edwin agreed, clapping Derek on the back.  “And past the mushy gushy time too!”

“Well, it’s been a real honor being your co-hostess—"

“And your co-host for the evening.”

Lizzie’s eyes gleamed as she locked gazes with her sister.  “We have the best sibs in the whole world.  Don’t we, Edwin?”

“Eh, I’ll get back to you on that, Lizzie.”  He winked at Derek and they shared a brotherly smile.  Edwin picked up his water glass, “To Derek and Casey!”

The others followed his lead, picking up their glasses and echoing, “To Derek and Casey!”

At the first opportunity, Emily bailed out of the McDonald-Venturi house.  Sam came rushing out the door, Ralph following close behind.  “Emily!  Wait!”  Sam led the way as they jogged over to her.

Emily stopped in her tracks but didn’t turn around to face them.

Gently, Sam tugged her arm until he could look at her face.  “Hey, are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Ralph frowned, studying her face as well.  “You don’t look like it.”

“This has got to be hard for you.”  Sam commented quietly.  Emily sniffed and then nodded.  “I know we’re D’s friends and all, but you can talk to us.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“We won’t say anything, Em.  Come on, it might do you some good.”  Emily hesitated again.  “I know it’s probably hard to talk to Casey.”

“Ha, you have no idea.”

“Let us help.”

Reluctantly, Emily consented with a nod.

“I’ll drive!  Have you officially met Venus?”  Ralph threw an arm around her, steering her towards the curb.  Sam fell into step with them, sandwiching her between them. 


“Yeah!”  He indicated the bright red jacked-up jeep they were headed towards.  “Venus.  She’s a babe.”  Ralph helped Emily up into the cab, jumping joyfully into the driver’s seat behind her.  Sam edged himself into the passenger seat.  Waiting for Sam to settle in, Ralph asked, “Where to, children?”

As Derek helped himself to another slice of pizza out of the box, Lizzie’s eyes went wide.  “Derek, that’s your ninth piece!”

His cheeks bulged as he defended, “What?  I’m hungry!”  Derek flopped his half-eaten slice at Casey as he pointed.  “She worked me to death today!”

Casey rolled her eyes.  “A little hard work never killed anybody, Derek.  You’d know that if you tried it more.”

“Ah.”  Edwin sighed, leaning back in his seat, and patting his full belly.  “Sure am going to miss the dinner disses.”

Giggling, Marti teased, “Well, now you and Lizzie are going to have to act like them!”

George quickly jumped in, his beverage stilling in midair, “Oh, no!  Oh, no!  We will have no more duos of sibling rivalry in this house!”


Ignoring Derek and Casey’s correction, George went on, “Edwin, Lizzie, you stay how you are.”

Marti nudged her Dad with her leg, a teasing smile on her face.  “What about me and the baby?”

Horror crossed George’s face.  “That goes for you too, Marti.”

Nora looked fondly around the table, emotion suddenly welling deep in her eyes.  “I’m going to miss this so much!”

Every eye turned to Nora, a spectrum of expressions across their faces.  Anxious to divert the tears, Derek mentioned casually as he reached for another piece of pepperoni, “Oh yeah, after dinner, everyone has to meet in the living room.”

Nora blinked curiously at Derek.  “Why, Derek?”

Derek shrugged indifferently.  “It’s a surprise.”

Marti jumped up and down in her chair.  “Oh, a surprise!”

George and Nora eyed each other nervously from opposite ends of the table.

Grabbing the remote off the coffee table, Derek eyed his dad, Marti, Nora, Lizzie, and Casey lining the couch.  All had varying looks of skepticism painted across their faces.  “Ed!  Hurry up!”

There was grumbling from the kitchen.  “I’m coming, I’m coming!”  He slumped into the room, the dish towel still hanging from his shoulder.  “Easy for you to say.  It’s not your night on dish duty.”

Marti rolled her eyes from her place in George’s lap.  “Build a bridge and get over it, Edwin.  We had takeout.”

Derek snorted at his little sister as Edwin mumbled to himself, settling on the arm of the couch next to their dad.  Satisfied, Derek swaggered to his chair, throwing himself into it and popping the leg rest up with a loud snap.  He pointed the remote at the television in an overdramatic fashion and pushed play.

The black screen was slowly filled with the bold white words, “The Kingdom As We Know It” set against a purple banner on a black background.  Completing the look was one of their first pictures together after the McDonald-Venturi merger.  The audio began with Derek dramatically clearing his throat, “The kingdom as we know it."  Then he mumbled into the microphone, "No matter how crazy it gets.”         



There was a rollover transition, and the title was replaced with the words that Derek narrated, “Written, Filmed, Edited and Produced by DEREK VENTURI.”  In tiny print, a few more words flashed quickly at the bottom in parenthesis, “with a little help from Edwin.”



An electric guitar began to strum to a mellow upbeat tune as Derek’s voiceover continued to read as the page flipped, “Starring the McDonald-Venturi’s.”  There was a silly group picture of them from a few years ago that made the people on the couch giggle appreciatively.

Lizzie pointed at the screen, crying, “Oh my gosh!  Look at us all!”



Riffing, the guitar amplified as a video began to play of George and Nora standing together at the stove, cooking dinner.  Derek narrated through the unfolding scenes, “George and Nora, the king and queen of the castle!”  Suddenly, the George at the stove bent down, stealing a quick kiss from Nora.  Her answering radiant smile sent the girls on the couch cooing.  On the television, a loud gagging wretch cut through the guitar music, causing the McDonald-Venturi’s watching to laugh.  The video changed to a shot of Nora waddling towards the camera, her pregnant belly emphasized by the angle of the camera.  She was beaming over her shoulder at an equally happy George.

The video rolled offscreen, quickly being replaced by a little Marti in her pink tutu, pirouetting on the bottom landing of their staircase, twirling Sir Monks A Lot above her head.  When she finished the move, she winked cutely at the camera.  Derek’s voice was filled with fondness as he spoke, “Smarti!  The best little fairy in all the land.”  The video changed, the camera sticking through the open door of the bathroom, discovering Marti mixing ‘potions’ in their shared bathroom.  A look of intense concentration etched across her extraordinarily young face.  It morphed into a colorful tent set up in the upstairs hall.  As the scene developed, Marti’s face poked out of the tent flap, giggling ecstatically before ducking inside once again.

The picture exploded as Derek cried, “Lizzie!”  A tiny version of Lizzie was studying at the dining room table, writing intently on her poster while referring to various textbooks spread around her.  Her head popped up, sticking her tongue out at the camera before immediately going back to work.  The voiceover resumed, “The royal advisor, because this group always needs a voice of reason.”  Derek’s movie viewers snickered as onscreen Lizzie dressed in her Taekwondo uniform stood in the driveway, staring down a board.  Out of nowhere her hand smashed through the board and Lizzie grinned triumphantly at the camera.  The final scene blossomed onto screen as a revolving Lizzie bounced a soccer ball on her head as she rotated in a circle around the living room.  Every time she faced the camera, she would pull a funny face and wave.

The shot shrunk then bounced slowly off to the side, quickly being replaced with the view of the attic stairs.  Edwin materialized at the top, fixing the collar of his suit and adjusting his briefcase before he strutted slowly down the staircase.  Derek’s voiceover sniggered.  “Edwin!  No castle would be complete without the court jester.”  Professional Edwin transformed into a pajama clad version, sprawled comfortably across their couch as he watched cartoons.  A huge bowl of chips rested in his lap.  As the video played, the Edwin onscreen reached up to pick his nose and the family members watching turned to the real Edwin in disgust, shouting collectively, “Edwin!  Gross!”  Edwin shrugged, a grin threatening at the corner of his mouth.  As the audience turned their attention back to the TV, Edweirdo darted through the living room, his cape billowing wildly behind him as he flew towards the kitchen.

The picture slid off screen as another fell in from the top.  The camera captured Casey practicing her dance routine in the living room in her black leotard.  She twirled and leaped for several beats before Derek’s narration teased, “Casey, Casey, Casey.  I suppose every kingdom has its Princess… no matter how annoying and needy she can be.”  The camera had been slowly and quietly descending the stairs, still focusing on Casey as she continued her dance routine.  When Derek reached the bottom stair, it caught Casey’s attention.  She stopped mid-spin, shouting, “DER-REK!”  The camera shook slightly as Derek responded happily on tape, “Hey, Princess!”  The dancing Casey transformed quickly into studious Casey as she sat quietly at her desk in her room.  Casey nibbled lightly on her bottom lip before she reached up to adjust her ponytail.  The camera crept closer to her as Derek tiptoed stealthily into her room.  The mirror above Casey’s desk showed Derek’s grinning face behind the camera.  Her arms dropped back to her work, picking up her pencil.  Derek knelt closer to her mumbling in her ear, “BOO!”  Onscreen Casey shrieked, throwing her pencil high into the air as she turned around to face him.  Both movie Derek and Derek in his chair cackled, tears of mirth running down their faces.  Casey on the couch sent him a half-heated glare, her own amusement betraying her as she watched him laugh.  Fading out, the scene changed to Casey, now dressed in her pink fuzzy pajamas, standing in front of the bathroom sink.  The background music cut completely out, and the sound was amplified as Casey gargled loudly.  Realtime Casey, shot over the couch to slap Derek’s arm.  “You were supposed to delete that!”  Derek snickered.  “It’s gold, Case.”  He nodded back at the television set.  “Pay attention.”

Casey turned back just in time to see Derek appear onscreen, chomping his way through a huge sandwich as he screamed at a hockey game on television from the comfort of his chair.  Derek’s narration was exuberant, “Aaaaand Derek!  The star of the story, the handsome and charming knight!”  It switched to a sweaty Derek, skating across the ice towards the family, an enormous grin spread across his face as he held up a massive trophy.  The setting switched to the living room again as D-Rock loudly played their instruments, banging their heads to the beat.

The scene suddenly disappeared, and the music cut off, showing only a black screen.  Derek’s narration cut through the silence as a picture of the outside of their house whipped into view, “Our story begins.  The McDonald’s and the Venturi’s… seemingly normal on the outside, but on the inside…”  The black screen exploded into one word as Derek screamed it, “WAR!”



Heavy metal music blared loudly out of the speakers as the words disappeared and the video played of absolute mayhem unfolding in the upstairs hall.  A tiny Marti was screaming at Casey and Lizzie for touching her things.  Ignoring Marti, Lizzie was yelling at Edwin for the ‘tinkle sprinkle’ he left all over the bathroom.  Avoiding Lizzie in his face, Edwin leaned around her, hollering at Casey that he couldn’t even find his toothbrush because of all the ‘girly things’ littering the bathroom.  Trying to cut through everyone, Casey shouted, “There’s nothing wrong with a little organization and basic hygiene!”  Behind the camera, Derek mumbled, “Does this look like a well-blended family to you?”

To the relief of everyone, the scene faded.  A round table in the corner of a dancefloor came into focus.  “Derek can you please get that camera out of my face?”  Casey’s annoyed voice spoke from the table.  From behind the camera, Derek’s voice bit, “What’s the matter, Drama Queen?  Not ready for your closeup?”  Casey slammed her hand down on the fancy tablecloth, tearing her gaze away from the revolving couple on the dance floor.  “You’re supposed to be getting shots of the wedding couple!  Try focusing on Mom and George!”  The camera twisted to face the newlyweds and then it was instantly blocked by a little smiling Marti.  “Hi!”  She chirped as she waved adorably into the lens.  “Smarti!  Anything to say to Dad and Nora?”  Holding a tiny pinky to her chin, Marti beamed.  “MEOW, MEOW, MEOW!”  Derek chuckled, “Hmm, interesting, but can you translate that?”  Marti gave a hiss with pretend claws scratching at the camera before she bounded away.  Mumbling under his breath, Derek turned the camera to follow her, “And that’s my normal sibling.”  Present day Edwin and Marti both whipped their heads to him and hollered, “Hey!”  Back on the television, Lizzie returned to the seat beside Casey, sitting heavily and sighing.  They gave each other tiny sad smiles.  Marti popped in between the sisters, asking, “Will you dance with me, Casey?”  Derek snorted, “What a great idea!  Let’s get little miss clumsy on the dance floor.”  Determinedly, Casey stood, squaring her shoulders off against him.  From behind her, Lizzie frowned.  Casey annunciated through gritted teeth, “I.  Am.  A.  Dancer.”  She strutted to the dance floor, the camera following her faithfully.  Twirling elegantly, Casey looked pointedly towards the camera before grabbing Marti’s tiny hands in her own and swinging them around to the beat.  To the side of the screen, Edwin approached their table, carrying a plateful of food in front of him.  He sat the plate down, but it was instantly snatched back up by Derek.  “Hey!”  Edwin mumbled, his shoulders slumping as he sulked back to the food line.

The video zipped off the screen and at the transition, the buzzing camera focused on the Venturi’s front door from the top of the staircase as George hastily threw it open, greeting a beaming Nora, whose green jeweled necklace reflected proudly in the glistening sun.  George pulled her inside, placing a chaste kiss on her lips.  Edwin’s voice sounded from the side of the camera, “Blech!”  Stepping to the side, Nora revealed Lizzie, who followed her in shyly, a timid smile on her face as one hand firmly grasped the strap of her backpack, the other desperately clutching the handle of her hamster’s cage.  Stepping closer to George, Lizzie gave him an awkward one arm hug.  Then she looked towards the camera, giving it an odd look and a little wave.  From behind the camera, loud steps thudded down the stairs, pausing behind them as another person came into view of the front door.  The third McDonald appeared as Derek mumbled, “There she is!”  Meanwhile, Casey struggled to pull her rolling luggage over the threshold, causing her to trip into the room when it gave way.  Both suitcases tipped over, creating a loud crash.  The camera shook as Derek chuckled, calling out loudly, “Smooth, klutzy!”  Casey glared at him and the camera.  “Der-rek!  Do we have to have record of this unfortunate event?”  Realizing what she said, Casey shot a look at George, whose arm was still wrapped around Nora, a blissful smile on both of their faces.  “No offense, George.”  He returned her smile, “No offense taken.”  Marti finally pushed between her two brothers with a rough shove, causing the camera to shake once again.  Marti approached the new arrivals in two large bounds, freezing right in front of them.  “MEOW!  I’m a cat!”  Laughing, Nora bent down to greet her, “And what a cute cat you are, Marti!”  Nora opened her arms and Marti happily ran into them.  When they released each other, George picked his daughter up and Marti cuddled into his shoulder.  “Well, what do you say we get you unloaded into your new house?”  Nora beamed back, “Excellent idea, Georgie!”  At the same time, Derek and Edwin let out a barely audible, “Yay” under their breaths.  Again, Casey glared at the camera.

There was a brief flicker before the scene faded back into a flurry of moving colors.  “You know, it’d be a lot more helpful if you put that camera down and actually hauled a box or two.”  Derek’s smooth voice taunted, “You’re new here.  So, I’ll let that one slide… for now.”  Casey glanced back at the camera as they made their way into the house and rolled her eyes.  As the door swung open, George and Nora could be seen in the living room, hugging warmly.  Derek made a sound of disgust as he focused the camera on them for a brief second.  It swung back to Casey as she ascended the steps.  He quickly caught up to her as they met Marti, hopping down the stairs like a bunny, not even acknowledging them or the camera.  Casey hit the landing only to be met by Edwin and Lizzie.  Edwin was turned towards Lizzie as he complained, “I don’t see why we have to do all this work.”  Lizzie rolled her eyes good-naturedly, “Because we’re kids and they’re the parents.”  Offering a dry chuckle, Edwin shook his head.  “Nah, that’s not it.  Welcome to the middle child club, Lizzie.”  Lizzie’s eyes widened as she breathed, “No!”  Edwin patted her shoulder briefly, quickly withdrawing his hand.  “Afraid so, sis.  You’ll see.”  The camera left them as it followed Casey into her and Lizzie’s shared room.  There was a hefty number of boxes piled around the room as Casey set her load onto a bed.  She peeked at the label before taking it to the right side of the room, carefully stacking it onto another box.  As she turned to face Derek, she placed her hands on her hips.  “You’ve been following me around with that stupid thing all day.  Isn’t it getting a little old?”  His grin was evident in his voice, “Nah, I need material.”  Casey’s eyebrow quirked, “For what?”  The camera rose slightly as he shrugged, “I’m starting a special collection.”  Casey squinted at him, “And that would be what, exactly?”  His voice was playful, “You’ll see.”  Casey’s glare slowly faded away.

Next, came a view of the empty living room as Derek and Edwin sat behind the camera at the kitchen island, eating their breakfast as they waited.  Edwin’s voice was impatient, “What’s taking them so long?”  Derek reassured his brother, his voice a deep murmur, “Wait for it, Ed.”  Suddenly, Casey and Lizzie stumbled into the kitchen, straight out of bed, their pajamas wrinkled and hair in disarray.  Unaware of the camera, Lizzie yawned widely, failing to cover her mouth.   Derek shouted, “Ahhh!  The bride of Frankenstein!” as he highlighted Casey running a hand through her messy hair.  Snickering, Edwin added, “Do all girls look like this in the morning?  It’s terrifying!”  Both Casey and Lizzie glared at the boys.  Lizzie relented quicker, plopping down on a kitchen stool, and grabbing a granola bar.  However, Casey remained standing, her arms folding over her chest as she refused to back down from Derek’s eye contact.  The transition zoomed in on Casey’s angry gaze before giving way to the next video.

Laughter filled the audio before the scene focused on Edwin ready to descend the staircase.  Derek’s dramatic dialogue filled the shot, “Now, presenting Klutzilla-The Revenge of the Stairs!  Starring Casey McDonald!”  Casey interrupted him with a cry of “Der-rek!”  He rushed to cut her off, “No, no, no!  No talking Klutzilla!  This is a silent film!  Now, in our first shot we see the innocent bystander walking down the stairs and as he encounters the dreaded Klutzilla, their eyes meet, and he FALLS!”  Derek continued shouting as Edwin theatrically stumbled down the stairs, falling to the bottom.  An angry Casey rose from the couch, shrieking, “That’s it!”  Derek backed away, the camera going with him as he hollered, “Oh, no!  Klutzilla is getting up!  She’s going to fall on us all!  Run for your lives!”  Casey yelled as she chased him around the living room, the view became blurry as Derek mounted the stairs.  Suddenly, Casey’s angry face was back in the shot as she cried, “Give me the camera, now!”  Derek laughed manically as he shot into his room.  He closed the door, leaving a gap so he could still point the camera out to focus on an angry Casey, who was trying to bust her way into his room.  She kept shouting over his laughter, “Der-rek!  Give me the camera!”  Derek was still laughing as the scene faded out.

The next video appeared, Casey sitting on the living room couch, a book in her lap.  Behind the couch, Marti crouched, sneakily reaching up to tug on Casey’s braid before ducking back down into her hiding place.  Casey turned around, trying to find the little girl with an angry burst of “Marti!”  The scene continued in the same way until Derek laughed, “That a way, Smarti.  Good job annoying the ugly step-sister.”  Glaring, Casey reprimanded him, “Derek, you should be setting a good example for your baby sister!”  Marti stomped her foot, immediately yelling, “I’m not a baby!”

The Venturi-McDonald front door bounced into view with the transition.  It was quiet before Edwin’s voice asked, “What are you doing?”  Derek’s voice held barely repressed glee as he answered, “Waiting to film Casey’s reaction when she finds out.”  The two brothers didn’t have to wait long as the door burst open and an angry Casey screamed, “IT’S SATURDAY!”  Ecstatically in the background, Edwin cried, “That’s genius!”  Casey gave way to the chase as she rushed at the camera with a “DER-REK!”  The camera focused on Casey as Derek mocked her while they ran, “How was school today, Casey?”  She caught up to him, still spluttering as she shoved him into the hallway wall.  Derek held the camera above his head.  Casey jumped for the camera, her furious face coming in and out of view as she huffed and puffed with intermingled cries of “DER-REK!  YOU!”

It cut off suddenly, the scene snapping to an empty upstairs hall, the camera focusing on the closed bathroom door.  From within came a piercing scream.  The door flew open as Lizzie emerged, wearing her soccer uniform, and scratching like crazy.  Edwin snickered behind the camera, alerting Lizzie to his presence.  She spun on the spot with a ferocious cry of “EDWIN!”  Still chuckling, Edwin asked, “What’s the matter, Lizzie?  I know you’re just itching to tell me.”  Accompanied with another cry of absolute misery as she gave in to the scratching, Lizzie screamed “You better run, Edwin, before I catch you!”

The video changed again, with a page flip transition.  There were a couple of throw pillows surrounding the frame of the camera.  Lizzie was in the middle of the shot, seated at the dining room table, intently coloring a project.  From behind, Marti crept up, slipping a marker from the table without Lizzie noticing.  She continued her work, not noticing as one by one Marti snuck a marker off the table until there was only the one in Lizzie’s hand left.  As Lizzie turned to fetch a new color, she hollered, “Marti!  Give me back my markers!”  In a flash, Marti took off, pounding her way up the stairs, cackling, “You can’t catch me!”  Furiously, Lizzie threw herself from the table, knocking over the chair in the process as she chased after her step-sister.  Once they both disappeared, Edwin chuckled, “Classic.”

The frame scooted offscreen, being replaced by blackness.  Lizzie’s voice asked, “How do you work this thing?”  Casey spoke irritably, “Come on, Liz.  You said you knew how to run it.”  Lizzie defended herself, “I do.  It’s just—" Casey’s face came in to view as she continued speaking, “Hurry up.  I need to make sure my campaign speech is perfect.  I want to beat Derek so bad.”  Giving a cry of delight, Lizzie informed Casey, “I got it!”  Casey straightened her stance, snapping her handful of papers in front of her importantly.  “Good afternoon, students of Thompson High.  I am Casey McDonald and as you know, I am running for student body president.  It is my goal—" Casey suddenly cut herself off with a cry of frustration.  “What’s the use, Lizzie?”  Casey began to pace as she ranted, “Stupid Derek will have a stupid counter for everything I say, and it will make me look so…”  Lizzie supplied, “Stupid?”  Casey shot a glare towards the camera and Lizzie hastily apologized, “Sorry, it seemed like you had a theme going there.”  Ignoring her sister, Casey continued, “Derek can talk himself into anything.  That captivating mouth and charismatic swagger and the entire school will fall at his feet!  Ugh, as if they’re not already lapping up every bit of smoothness and wittiness that oozes out of him.  How can someone so annoying be so…”  Casey threw her head into her hands.  “Why is he so cool and charming?”  Real life Casey was red in the face as she turned to her sister beside her on the couch, hissing, “I thought I told you to get rid of that!”  Lizzie winced, “I couldn’t figure out how to do it.”

Saving Casey further embarrassment, the scene switched to a closeup of Lizzie and Edwin as he held the camera, so they were both in the shot as he spoke, “Go on, Liz.  Document how your coach is making you feel.”  Lizzie heaved a sigh, “Well, my coach is so wrapped up with beating Casey that he’s not listening to a word I tell him!”  Clenching her teeth, she bit, “I.  Still.  Can’t.  STOP!”  Shaking her head, Lizzie turned to Edwin, “And how is your coach making you feel, Edwin?”  His eyes narrowed, “Oh, my coach is also entirely focused on winning against Derek that she doesn’t even realize that I don’t like Tanya anymore!”  Together they grumbled, “Worst coaches ever.”  They glared at the camera until it faded into nothingness.

The heavy metal music slipped into a lyrical acoustic guitar, strumming tenderly as the screen spelled out, “Peace” as Derek’s voiceover provided, “Then, there was a tentative peace.  Emphasis on tentative.”



As the chorus of “She said it was over and it was not over” rang out over the speakers, Casey turned to Derek, her eyes twinkling as she gasped, “How did you get a copy of our Clash of Bands performance?”  He smirked, his legs crossing cockily in front of him.  “Turns out Tinker had a copy.”  Casey’s eyebrows shot to her hairline, “Why?”  He gave her a look that said, ‘Really?’ before he turned back to watch the performance.

The next video slid in rapidly from the left.  “Derek, why do you have to record this?”  Casey asked the camera impatiently.  Derek drawled from over top of the camera, “Because, Casey, I want you to see your tells.”  She squinted at him, “My tells?”  Exasperated, Derek responded, “How I know you’re lying.  Now, say it again with real emotion this time.”  Casey took a deep sigh then stared the camera down determinedly as she did what he asked.  “My dear dog… Bob… passed away.”  The camera dropped as Derek cried, “Cut!”  His feet approached Casey, hers shifting nervously as he spoke, “I said with emotion, Case.  You sound like you’re discussing the weather.  That’s not acceptable!  Try it again and this time give me some tears.  Now is not the time for your well to run dry.”  The camera picked up again in time to see Casey gasp, “You, Derek Venturi, are asking me to… cry?”  Frustration was clear in Derek’s voice, “No, I’m asking you to act.  Now, action!”  This time, Casey’s hands covered her face and when she pulled them away, there were tears glistening in her eyes.  “Bob!  Bob, oh my dear, dear dog!  I can’t believe you’re really gone!”  Derek yelled, “Cut!”  Her head shot up, asking hopefully, “Well?”  He snorted once, “Better.”

When the next scene phased in, everything was green before Lizzie popped into view, passing a soccer ball to her teammate.  The girl scored a goal and cheers erupted as Edwin shouted from his place with the camera, “Way to go, team!”  At the edge of the camera screen, Casey popped into view, clapping loudly, and screaming, “Nice job, Lizzie!”  Lizzie waved towards them before she was off chasing the ball again.  Edwin redirected the camera as George and Nora approached, a skipping Marti dangling from both their hands.  George looked around before asking, “Where’s Derek?”  With an evil laugh, Edwin answered, “Oh, he’s keeping an eye on Snot.”  The camera whipped through the air to point across the field at a frustrated looking Scott.  His arms were folded across his chest, his shoulders tense as Derek stood behind him, muttering in his ear.

A party scene appeared at the next transition.  Edwin and Lizzie were in the middle of the room, dancing with their friends as lanterns and balloons hung above them.  Shifting, the camera focused on a dancing Casey, Max occasionally popping into the edge of the shot as they rotated around.  Suddenly, a young Marti interrupted them with a happy shout of, “I want to dance with Max!”  Casey smiled down at her and then at Max.  “It’s alright with me if it’s alright with Max.  Max smiled handsomely down at Mart, extending his hand, and stating, “It would be an honor, Marti.”  Marti squealed and the two started to dance together.  Casey approached the camera, settling just out of view as she said, “We did good.”  Derek focused the lens on Edwin, who alternated spinning two different girls around.  Derek laughed arrogantly, “We?  Don’t you mean me?”  Casey groaned, “You are such an egomaniac.”  Derek sighed, teasing, “I suppose you played a small part.”  The view of the room was jostled as a smack rang out.  “Ouch, Case.  Watch the merchandise.”

As the last scene bounced away, the screen was left black.  Derek’s voiceover spoke, “Buuuut, the peace didn’t last long.”  The word "Harmony" materialized on the screen, flickering on a ribbon of purple.  He questioned, “War and Peace faded into… Harmony?  No, that can’t be right.”  Suddenly, in massive letters the word "CHAOS" exploded onto the screen.  “Eh, that’s more like it.  Chaos.  Now, we have chaos, featuring rivalries and some very reluctant alliances.”  Background music started again, a quick happy tempo filled with guitar riffs and drumbeats.



The words were replaced with a view of George and Nora sitting calmly on the couch.  George’s arms wrapped around Nora as they watched with a neutral expression as Casey, Lizzie and Marti chased Derek around and around the couch, all three girls screaming at an alarmingly high pitch.  Edwin’s snickers could be heard behind the camera before he said, “Behold the chaos, everybody.” 

Videos played like rapid fire now, one shot fluently transitioning into the next.  Edwin and Lizzie poking their heads out of the game closet morphed into Derek and Casey wrestling in front of the television before it immediately changed to George tickling a giggling Marti in his arms.  It flowed into Edwin wincing as Nora supervised him doing his laundry, then Casey and Lizzie painting each other’s nails until it faded into Derek running at the camera hollering, “Edwin!  You little twerp!  Get back here!”  A frustrated Derek was replaced by Lizzie coloring with Marti at the dining room table.  They calmly switched colors, smiling at each other as they showed off their work.

Suddenly, Marti and Casey were having a tea party, wearing fancy hats as they sipped elegantly from their little plastic teacups before the scene switched to the backyard where Nora, Casey, and Lizzie were planting flowers, their hair in equal states of disarray.  Then there was a closeup of Derek and Marti’s smiling faces as they took turns making animal noises at the camera.  Their faces faded and George and Edwin were lounging on the couch in rumpled pajamas, deep within a cartoon marathon with various junk food items spread around them.

Next, Lizzie and Marti hurried around the kitchen, flour on every surface as they frantically baked.  Lizzie pulled a batch of cookies out of the oven just as Marti knocked the bag of flour off the counter and the pair disappeared behind a cloud of white dust.  When the white cloud cleared, Casey was cheering beside a football field with her fellow cheerleaders.  They finished the cheer and Casey high-fived the bulldog mascot and they both turned to wave at the camera.  Then Nora was in the kitchen, watching amusedly as Derek stuffed a sandwich down his throat at a frantic pace.  Nora’s smiling face disappeared as the camera watched George backing out of their shared driveway and ramming right into the Davis’ car.

Edwin and Marti were at the dining room table, serious expressions on their faces as they considered the cards in their hands.  Marti swept a stack of chips into the middle of the table, giving Edwin a competitive eyebrow quirk.  He winced before calling her, pushing all his chips into the middle.  Grinning triumphantly, Marti laid down her hand and Edwin’s shoulders slumped before he proceeded to bang his head against the table as Marti swooped in to collect her winnings.  The shot switched to Lizzie standing by the sink, repeatedly throwing pieces of cereal at Derek, who caught them easily in his mouth, munching contently as he waited for a giggling Lizzie to throw another.  When the scene transitioned, Casey and Marti were dressed in their stunningly pink tutus, elegantly pirouetting as they worked through a routine together.  It dissolved into another scene of George wailing on his guitar as Nora cringed and covered her ears behind him.

The next scene featured Edwin, Lizzie, and Marti in the upstairs hall playing an intense game of Monopoly as Lizzie rolled the dice and moved her dog token six spaces.  She groaned, smacking her forehead with her hand as Edwin beamed, holding out a hand, “Pay up, sister!”  As they faded out, Derek and Casey faded in.  Their laughter deafening as they stood at the sink throwing soap bubbles from the dish water at each other.  Casey launched an attack on Derek, nailing him on the cheek, bubbles comically running down the side of his face as he countered, his bubbles connecting with Casey’s forehead.  Her mouth opened in shock, but then she giggled, and they were shoving each other back and forth as they turned back to the dishes. 

And then, Edwin was working behind a huge volcano sitting on the kitchen island.  An excited looking Marti hovered over his shoulder as she kneeled on a kitchen stool.  Edwin grinned at the camera before handing Marti the button to push.  She smirked, punching the button and lava erupted in great waves, spewing out across the counter, and seeping on to the floor.  Identical looks crossed Edwin and Marti’s faces and Edwin groaned, “Nora’s going to kills us.”  The camera shook as Derek snickered, “I’d be more worried about Casey if I were you.”  With that, the scene morphed into George in front of a griddle, trying to flip pancakes high into the air as Casey and Lizzie stared horrified at him when his last attempt stuck to the ceiling.  Their looks of horror turned into Nora’s happy face as she scrubbed the outside of the windows, waving inside at the camera. 

Derek appeared, holding a ping pong paddle at one end of the table as he teased the camera, “Marti, hold the camera really still.  I want to see Edwin’s face when I crush him.”  Marti readjusted the camera and Edwin came into view as he retorted, “We’ll see about that.”  The transition brought in Casey and Lizzie curled up on the couch underneath a fuzzy blanket.  Lizzie’s head rested on Casey’s shoulder as the sisters stared unblinkingly at the movie playing on the television, small smiles on both of their faces.  Marti’s face was suddenly on screen, wincing slightly as Nora tugged on stands of her hair, creating an elegant French braid cascading down her back.  It transitioned to a hooting and hollering George as he beat Derek’s toy car around the racetrack set up in the living room.

A bunch of young girls in tutus danced across the stage before the camera zoomed in on a radiant Marti, who twirled and twisted to the music.  It faded into a shot of Lizzie and Derek on stage at Gran’s lodge, Derek’s arm wrapped around Lizzie as he smiled down at her.  Then Casey and Edwin were huddled on the couch, controllers in their hands as they taunted each other during a spirited game of Babe Raider.  As Casey and Edwin disappeared, Marti appeared clutching desperately at her monkey as Derek repeatedly tossed her into the air, tickling her sides when he caught her.

A familiar scene emerged, Casey holding Lizzie’s rainforest diorama as Edweirdo thundered down the stairs, smashing the rainforest to the ground and Edwin falling on top of it, mumbling, “Ay, caramba.  To save the rainforest from an uncaring world.”  Horrified disbelief crossed Lizzie’s face as she shouted, “YOU DESTORYED MY DIORAMA?  I HATE THIS FAMILY!”  Lizzie fled up the stairs, ignoring Casey’s attempts at apology. 

The scene length was increasing again as the mood began to shift slightly.  Anticipation building in the background guitar.  Blurry colors started to show up on screen as the camera attempted to focus from the back of the theater.  When it focused, Thompson’s High stage was lit as Pirate Pete made his entrance.  Behind the unfolding scene, Edwin snickered, whispering, “I have to get this on tape!  Derek in a musical!  Insane!”  Lizzie hissed from beside him, “Edwin!  We’re so going to get in trouble for this!  You’re not supposed to be recording!”  He pointed the camera into the darkness as he responded to her, “Relax, Liz, we’re fine.  I still think—" Whatever Edwin thought was cut off as the scene changed.

After the quick transition, Derek held the camera, capturing the tiny faces of the Alpha Force as he called enthusiastically, “Alpha Force!  Say hello to the civilians!”  Their beaming faces replied, slightly stuttering over the word, “Hi, civ-il-ians!”  Derek gave a short laugh, “So, today’s the last day of our Mission Camp.”  The kids moaned, but Derek asked over them, “Did you have fun?”  Jumping up and down, the Alpha Force screamed, “Yes!”  From the background, Casey emerged, and the camera focused on her.  Shaking her head, she joked, “I think that’s enough videoing, Captain.  Let’s get back to our educational activities, yeah?”  Marti approached the camera, “Captain Venturi?”  The camera dropped as Derek crouched to her level.  “Yes, Private Smarti?”  Her sad face came closer to the lens.  “Is this really our last mission?”  Derek’s smooth voice reassured her, “Course not, Smarti, we’ll have loads more missions together.”  As Derek picked her up, the camera rustled and only showed part of Marti’s small frame and the arm Derek held her with.  Sadly, Marti asked, “What about the rest of the Alpha Force?”  Derek bounced them, “You’ll have more adventures together in school.”  Marti pulled a face and Derek laughed setting her down, her spirit renewed as she ran off to play with the rest of the Alpha Force.  Derek brought the camera up to record them playing catch as Casey edged closer to him.  She told him lightly, “I’d say you did a great job, Captain Venturi.”  Derek’s smirk could be heard through his voice, “Not a bad job from you, Lieutenant McDonald.”  There was a quiet smack then Derek sniggered, “Who knows?  You might even get a promotion.”  The camera shook as Casey cried, “Der-rek!”  Derek was still laughing as the shot faded out.

Empty Chinese containers littered the next scene.  Derek was walking around the living room, camera in hand as he explained to his captive audience, “Since Christmas is overrated, all charades will be related to the Festival of Derekus.  Aunt Madge, since you’re our honored guest, you get to pick the teams.  The scene cut for a second and when it reappeared, there was a clear divide of two teams while Edwin acted out ‘Girls’ to a guessing Marti and Aunt Madge.  Derek sniggered at Edwin’s waggling hips.  Then Nora was pretending to hit a hockey puck with a stick as George shouted, “BROOM!”  Casey whipped her head to look at him, “George, if this has anything to do with Derek then broom would be nowhere on his radar.”  Nora continued to make the motion of shooting until Lizzie shouted, “Hockey!”  The scene faded out as Casey congratulated her sister.

Derek was behind the camera again as he captured his brother and sister arguing in the hall.  Edwin taunted, “Bet I can.”  Marti returned, “Bet I can do more.”  Crossing his arms, Edwin responded, “Bet you can’t keep up.”  Huffing, Marti stomped, “Bet you’re going to lose.”  Derek snickered, a sense of pride laced his voice as he stated, “Bet these are my siblings.”

The shot morphed into Derek skating onto the ice followed by his teammates.  Edwin narrated for the camera, “And here comes Derek Venturrrrrri!  The captain leading his team into battle!”  Just then, Derek looked up and nodded at the camera before fluently maneuvering into their warmup drills.  Edwin fumbled before he turned to the side to show Lizzie beside him, standing and clapping as she watched the team.  “And here’s Lizzie, supportive step-sister.”  Lizzie acknowledged him with a slight wave.  The camera pointed around her to find Marti, jumping up and down, waving a glittering pom-pom through the air.  “Good luck charm, Smarti, of course.”  Dodging around them both, Edwin got a shot of George and Nora sitting quietly together as they conversed with easy smiles on their faces as their eyes followed Derek across the ice.  “The ‘rentals watching their star player.”  Suddenly, the camera flipped wildly to show a closeup of Edwin.  “And me, brother, former good luck charm turned camera boy.  Much more exhilarating if you ask me.  I’m just here for blackmail really.”  Edwin shrugged then said, “Oh, I almost forgot!”  The camera circled around to face the back of the arena.  Near the door stood a girl in all black, wearing a carefully placed hat and sunglasses.  “That’s Casey.  Derek thinks it’s bad luck for her to be at his games so sometimes she sneaks in and hides in the back.  Oops… Um, if you see this, Derek, I know nothing.”  Live in their living room, Casey clenched her jaw, looking at Derek out of the corner of her eye, finding him looking expectantly at her with a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.  She gave him a look that clearly said, ‘Oopsy!’ as she lifted one shoulder up to her ear and smiled tentatively.

When the screen focused again, it was from the back of a theater.  Several girls danced across the stage as the camera zoomed in closer, Derek adapted an Australian accent, whispering into the camera, “Aye maties, here we have a rare sighting!  The dreaded Klutzilla being… graceful!  Who knew!”  Despite his teasing tone, the camera followed her faithfully across the stage.  As Casey’s part finished, Derek zoomed back out, capturing their family members cheering loudly for her before everything turned black.

“Aww, you guys recorded it?”  Casey cooed as their performance from Dance Mania filled the television.  Nora smiled, reaching over Lizzie to pat Casey’s knee.  “Of course, honey, it was a big deal for you and Derek.”  Casey shot one last smile at her mom before her eyes glued themselves back to the screen, her body moving to the beat as she watched the routine unfold.

The camera poked through the crack in Derek’s bedroom door, spying Derek in his flannel pajamas sitting on the edge of his bed, leaning back on his hands as he watched a pajama clad Casey with her beloved bunny slippers pace in front of him, reading off her cue cards.  Suddenly, Casey whipped off her bunny slipper and chucked it at Derek’s head.  Laughing, Derek snatched it out of the air, clutching it to his chest as Casey tried to get it back, her hands pushing and pulling at him as he hung on to her slipper for dear life.  She smacked him with her cue cards once before sitting down beside him and asking him another question.  Derek relaxed, her slipper still in his hand as he flopped backwards onto his bed.

Slowly, the next scene faded in, showing the Thompson High graduates slowly milling out of the double doors.  The crowd parted slightly, and Derek could be seen approaching them with a smiling Marti on his back.  George beamed as he greeted Derek, “Ah, there’s my high school graduate!”  Derek flashed his diploma and Nora tackled him in a hug.  Edwin and Lizzie offered him their congratulations while Derek continued to beam.  He reached over the camera, clapping Edwin on the shoulder as he told him, “Ed, I officially hand over the reins of Thompson High.”  Edwin’s voice cracked as he asked, “To me?  Really?”  Derek threw an arm around Lizzie’s shoulders as he replied, “Really.”  They separated as a voice spoke from behind them, “Lizzie, I wish you better luck than I had with him.”  Casey’s smirking face came into the picture just before it disappeared again behind Lizzie’s enthusiastic hug.   George joined in, “Congratulations, Case!”  Tears flowed down Nora’s cheeks as she cried, “My daughter is a high school graduate!”  Marti wiggled her way down Derek’s back and over to Casey, who beamed at her family’s enthusiasm.  From behind the camera, Edwin told her, “Way to go, Casey!”  His hand obscured the scene for a second as they exchanged high-fives.  As the family stepped away from her, Casey and Derek regarded one another with twinkling eyes, each trying to keep the smiles off their faces.  Casey gave in to her smile as she teased, “Always the stupid, cool guy.”  Derek’s face broke into his typical smirk, retorting, “Always the drama queen.”  Contrary to his words, he weaved an arm around her shoulders as he led Casey down the hall.  Their family followed them slowly, Edwin bringing up the rear with the camera.  As Derek and Casey disappeared around the corner, the scene faded out.

The strumming guitar turned sad, the rich beautiful chords setting the tone.  Various shots of Casey sitting among piles of boxes with stickers spread across the floor flashed across the screen as Derek’s smooth voice told the audience, “Everyone has their special place at the royal castle.  But the kingdom as we know it is about to change.  The Princess and the Knight must journey to a faraway land, leaving the royal family behind.”  The color disappeared slowly from the screen, and when the upstairs hallway came into focus it was in black and white.  Slowly, the camera edged towards Casey’s open bedroom door, finding it mostly empty.  The camera span around showing every nook and cranny before backing out and turning the corner into Derek’s own empty room.  He hovered in every corner, before walking back out and closing the door with a soft snap.  Throughout the tour, Derek narrated, “The Knight must keep the Princess safely guarded in her tower and maybe teach her a thing or two about letting her hair down, while the Princess admittedly keeps the Knight from failing his jousting courses and possibly getting himself killed.”  A picture of the trailer in the driveway stretched across the screen.  “And the royal pains begin!”

Gran’s dock materialized on screen.  Derek and Casey were visible at the end of it, arms stretched out behind them, supporting their reclined bodies as they watched the sun set ahead of them.  Her shoulders shook as Casey laughed, and Derek turned to look at her, a smirk evident in his profile.  After several beats, Derek faced forward, his hand creeping closer to hers until he was close enough to knock her arm out from under her.  Casey fell clumsily onto her back.  There was a distant cry of “DER-REK!” and his arms flew up to defend himself against her attack.  They shoved each other back and forth, laughing as their attempts grew weaker.  Eventually, they stilled, their shoulders brushing as they faced the setting sun once again.

Deliberately slow, the sunset faded away and their recent family picture spread across the TV as the guitar hummed along in the background.  Across their picture, the words “The End” stretched, hovering for a second before two lines struck the words out.  At the bottom of the screen, the animation typed, “To Be Continued…” in neat white letters.



As the guitar melody ended, the frame disappeared.  A beat passed before one last recording began in slow motion.  A hidden camera at the top of the stairs, captured the McDonald-Venturi’s as they ate dinner around the table.  Edwin made a joke and the table erupted in laughter.  The scene stilled, the color fading out until the picture dissolved, leaving the screen pitch black.

At first there was tangible silence as the movie viewers continued to stare numbly at the black screen.  Derek anxiously gripped the back of his neck, looking out the corner of his eye towards the people on the couch.  He winced at the sniffling noses and watering eyes, determinedly facing forwards again.

“Oh, Derek!”  Nora wept, tears pouring down her cheeks as she tried to speak.  “That was so-so-so beautiful!”

George nodded beside her.  His eyes were misty, and his breathing was labored.  “Wonderful job, son.”

Furiously scrubbing at his eyes, Edwin cleared his throat.  “It’s ironic, we all used the royal theme.”  He grinned proudly at his brother, which Derek returned.

“Great minds think alike apparently.”  Lizzie sniffed her agreement.  After wiping her eyes, she turned to face Derek, announcing, “I loved it, Derek.”

“Thanks, Liz.”  Derek scratched the top of his head awkwardly.

Wordlessly, Marti crawled down from George’s lap, taking several steps before leaping into Derek’s chair with him.  She burrowed her face into his chest as she openly cried.  Derek’s hands reached out, holding her steadily to him.  “Aww, Smarti.  You don’t have to cry.”  She nodded frantically, great huffs of breath billowing her hair away from her face as she gripped his t-shirt.  He leaned down, kissing the top of her head.

“Case?”  Derek prompted.  She shook her head, silently sobbing, both hands covering her mouth and refusing to look his way. 

He continued to shoot her concerned looks even as Edwin exuberantly discussed his favorite scenes.  “I especially loved the entire ‘War’ sequence.”  He laughed out loud.  “Those were the days!”

Lizzie leaned forward to look at him.  “Are you kidding?  I much prefer the ‘Chaos’ or in other words, the way things are now.”  She shook her head, grinning.

George joined in with a laugh.  “I think I grew more gray hairs just reliving it all.”  He draped an arm around a still weeping Nora. 

She gave a watery chuckle at his joke.  “It was all so good.  I loved every minute of it.”

“Anyone count how many times Casey screamed ‘Der-rek!’ by chance?”  Edwin teased.

Marti peeked out from Derek’s chest.  “My favorite was when Smerek scared Smasey at her desk and her pencil went flying so high into the air.”  Marti gave a watery giggle as the others chuckled. 

Derek ruffled his sister’s hair.  “That was pretty funny, eh, Marti?”  She nodded, resting her head back on his chest.  “You know that’s why I made the movie, right?”  He smirked towards Casey.  “I didn’t want anyone to forget how much of a keener you are, Case.”

Something in his words made her withdraw from herself.  She came up swinging at his arm closest to her, her hits growing softer and softer. “You big great buffoon!”  Suddenly, Casey stopped smacking him, her hands gripping his forearm as she squeezed tightly.  “How dare you do something so incredibly sweet and leave me absolutely speechless!”  Releasing his arm, she fell back into her cushion, covering her eyes as fresh tears streamed down her face.  Beside her, Lizzie comfortingly patted her shoulder.

Sadness settled upon them once more until George cleared his throat, saying quietly, “It’s getting late.”

Nora straightened up, wiping her eyes.  “Bedtime, everyone.  We have a big day ahead of us.”  George helped her to her feet and the pair made their way to Derek.  Bending at the waist, Nora kissed the top of his head as George clasped Derek’s shoulder affectionately.

George nudged Marti.  “Bedtime, munchkin.”  Marti sighed, but flung her arms tightly around Derek’s neck in a vicious hug.  He returned it with a small chuckle.  Pulling back, she gave him a sad smile before George helped her climb down out of the chair.

Rising from the couch, Edwin and Lizzie followed.  Stopping at Derek’s chair, Edwin and Derek exchanged a brotherly handshake, giving each other a look only they understood.  Lizzie smiled at him, reaching down for a fist bump as she uttered, “Night, big bro.”

“Night, little sis.”

The family started to disperse to their respective staircases when Casey called frantically, “Wait!”  Everyone stopped in their tracks, turning to watch as she hurriedly crossed the room and pulled out a secret stack of envelopes from underneath the window seat.  She sheepishly held them in her hands.  “I wrote everyone a letter because I knew I could never get through saying these things without—" Tears gathered in her eyes and she gestured unnecessarily to herself. “Crying.”

“Mom?”  She handed the top letter to her Nora, who got choked up as she took it from her.  “George?” 

He smiled kindly.  “Thank you, Casey.”

She gave him a little nod before calling, “Edwin?”  Edwin jumped down two stairs to take the envelope from her.  He offered a lopsided smile and nod.

“Marti?”  Marti approached Casey, pulling her into a brief hug as she took the letter.

“Liz?”  Lizzie’s eyes sparkled with unshed tears as the sisters exchanged a look for a long minute.

“What no letter for me, Princess?”  Derek called from his chair.

Casey narrowed her eyes at him as she walked towards him.  “And Derek.”  Casey stretched the hand grasping the last letter out to him.

Derek raised an inquisitive eyebrow.  “Wait, you really wrote me a letter?  Did you forget I’m going with you?”

She half-heartedly rolled her eyes.  “I wrote yours before… you know.”  He shot her a look.  Casey hesitated, shifting her weight back and forth.  “Before I made my decision.  I figured you should have it.”  Gently, he took it from her, as he continued to study her.

Casey refused to meet his eyes as her hands folded and unfolded self-consciously as she sat back down on the couch.  “They’re nowhere near the caliber of Derek’s sendoff, but it’s from my heart.”

“Oh, Miss Case.  We appreciate it.”  Nora waddled over to her and hugged her tightly.  When Nora pulled away, she asked, “Are you headed to bed now, sweetie?”

Shaking her head, Casey wiped at her eyes again.  “No, I think I’m going to stay down here a while longer.  I don’t think I’d be able to sleep just yet.”

Nora nodded her understanding, uttering softly, “Goodnight.”  The others chimed in their goodnights as well, finally making their way out of the room.  Casey rejoined a quiet Derek, settling into the couch as he flipped through the television channels.

As they climbed the stairs, Edwin murmured excitedly to his accomplices, “I can’t believe we pulled it off so perfectly!”  Hitting the top landing, he held up both hands for them to high-five.  Simultaneously, Lizzie and Marti slapped his hands and then turned to each other to do the same. 

“The look on their faces!”  Lizzie whispered back, “I’d say we surprised them.”

Marti bounced up and down, babbling quietly, “I’m way too wired to sleep yet!”

Lizzie cast a look down the stairs then motioned for them to follow her.  “Let’s talk in my room.”  Lizzie opened the door, allowing them in and then quietly shut it.  When she turned to face them, she was wearing a proud grin.  “We did good!  I don’t know how I kept a straight face through that skit though!”  She laughed out loud and the others joined in.

“Same!”  Edwin spoke at his normal volume again, turning to Marti.  “Your storytelling was awesome.”

She rolled her eyes but took the compliment.  “I told you a Venturi could tell a story.”  Edwin and Lizzie chuckled before Marti went on, “Yeah, we all were amazing, but let’s talk about how awkward Emily was.”  Their smiles were wiped off their faces as all three of them cringed.

“Yeah, that wasn’t so pleasant.”  Edwin rubbed at his knees awkwardly.

“I was catching a lot of bad vibes there.”  Lizzie agreed, “I’m just not sure what all that was about.  I get that they broke up, but she seemed so… hostile, I guess.”  Edwin shifted on the bed to make room as Lizzie crawled between him and Marti.  She fluffed a pillow and put it behind her, leaning against the headboard.

Nodding, Marti added, “And she ran right afterwards.  I don’t think she said anything to anyone.”

“Something is definitely going on.”  Edwin put a finger to his chin.

Drawing her feet underneath her at the end of Lizzie’s bed.  Marti looked between them.  “Did it seem like she felt… jealous to you?”

“Yeah, I thought I was picking up on that too.”  Lizzie consented.

“Hmm, I don’t know…”  Edwin trailed off.  “It’s been such a long day.  So much happened.”

Lizzie agreed, “No kidding.  And I’m still having a hard time getting over that movie Derek made.”

“Whoa, same.  That was unexpected.”  Edwin ran a hand through his hair.  “I had no idea that’s the kind of thing he was working on when he asked for my videos.”  He smiled sadly, “I thought he was just getting rid of blackmail material before he left for uni.”

“Who knew Derek could be so sweet?”  Lizzie teased.

Marti giggled softly, snuggling deeper into Lizzie’s bed.  “He talks big but he’s a huge softie.”

Closing her eyes, Lizzie admitted, “That end part really got to me.”

Edwin scratched his cheek.  “With him and Casey on the dock?"  Not opening her eyes, Lizzie nodded.  Gulping, Edwin revealed, “He really went all out, didn’t he?”

Both girls nodded their agreement.  Marti’s voice was shaking when she asked, “What about scratching out ‘The End’ and adding ‘To Be Continued…’, eh?  That’s the part that really hit me.”

“Agreed.  And then to fade back in with us all laughing like there’s no tomorrow…”  Edwin cut himself off when his own breath hitched.  Lizzie reached up to hold his shoulder.  He took a few deep breaths before he opened his eyes again.  Lizzie waited for him to nod before she took her hand away.

Silent tears slid down Marti’s cheeks as she looked between Edwin and Lizzie.  She crawled up the bed and pulled them both in for a hug, keeping them there for several minutes.  When she pulled back, she wiped at her eyes.  “Thank you for being my sibs.  You’re the both the best.”  Marti made her way off Lizzie’s bed as she spoke, “I’m leaving now or I’m going to cry all night.”  A watery giggle escaped her as she looked back at them, each wiping their own eyes.  “See you later, alligator.”

A true smile crossed Lizzie’s face as she answered back, “After ‘while, crocodile.”

Rolling his eyes, Edwin asked, “Why do you two have to do that all the time?”

The girls giggled, saying at the same time, “Because it’s fun.”  Marti winked and slipped out the door.

“This is our last night down here, Nora.”  George turned back the bedspread before looking to her sitting at their tiny dresser.  Nora was still staring at her unopened letter and failed to answer him.  Slowly, he approached her, grasping her shoulders, and rubbing down her arms.  “Are you ready to read it?”

Her lip trembled, but she nodded.  George waited patiently for her to finish, keeping up his soft, soothing stroking until she rose and folded herself into his embrace.  Nora’s tears began to soak through his pajamas as he asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Shakily, she withdrew slightly, allowing him to lead her to the end of their bed.  Barely audible, she mumbled, “Can I read it to you?”

“Of course, Nora.”

She reached for his hand as she began to read,

“My mom, my friend,

            What do you say to someone who means so much to you?  I know I didn’t always make things the easiest for you, but you have always supported and loved me unconditionally.  You gave me everything I needed to become the person I am today.  So, thank you for raising me to be a strong, independent woman.

            I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what you said, and you were right.  I was the only one that could make the decision to go to Queen’s with Derek.  No one else could have done it for me.  I really appreciate how you held your opinion back, allowing me to decide for myself, yet still helped me work through the pros and cons of each choice.  You gave me exactly what I needed even if I didn’t know it at the time.  I realized that’s what you’ve done for me my entire life.  So, thank you, Mom, for everything.

            I love you so very much.  And I’m going to miss you a ton.  It’s going to be so weird being on my own.  I’ve never been without you and for as long as I can remember, without Lizzie either.  At least, I’ll still have Derek.  But I’m not sure if that’s more comforting or terrifying.  I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

            You’ll probably be annoyed with how much I call.  Please, tell me everything that’s happening at home.  I can’t imagine not being a part of it all.  We’re going to miss so much!  Ed and Liz going to high school, Marti growing up, and the baby’s first everything!  I don’t know how I’m going to handle it, because I want to be there so bad.  Make sure Edwin records the monumental moments!  Send me pictures all the time, okay?  I love you, Mom.

            With all my heart,


After she was through, Nora took a shaky breath, looking up at George.  He was smiling sweetly at her, but his own tears were welling in his eyes.  He squeezed her hand, and she gave him a wobbly smile in return, asking, “Will you read me your letter, Georgie?”

Nodding, he pulled the envelope out of his pajama pocket.  Ripping through the seal, George pulled out the letter, reading for the first time,

“Dear George,

            You welcomed my family into your home with open arms and an open heart.  I will always be grateful to have such a wonderful man as my step-father.  Your family is so special (We can just gloss over Derek here). 

            George, you are truly a kind human being and you make my mom the happiest I’ve ever seen her.  That alone makes my heart soar.  We all know it wasn’t easy to convert two families into one huge happy (omitting Derek, again) blended family. 

            I really do look to you as someone I can confide in and who will support me wholeheartedly.  You’ve been there for me when I’ve really needed it the most.  I love being part of this family and I’m proud to be your step-daughter.  Thank you for everything, George.  I’ll miss you.

            Much love,


P.S. I’m sorry, George, if you ever thought my faith in you was nonexistent, especially in the early days.  It was just my doubts in a certain son of yours, who shall remain nameless.  And I don’t blame you for his shortcomings.  You did your best with what you had to work with.”

George chuckled even as he brushed his thumb underneath each eye.  “She really knows just what to say to get to you, eh?” 

Nora brought her hand up, cupping his cheek lovingly.  “That’s Casey alright.”

“I’m glad she doesn’t blame me for my nameless son’s shortcomings.”  A true laugh escaped him, and Nora joined in, covering her mouth with a hand as she giggled.

They sat in silence after Marti shut Lizzie’s door.  The third time Edwin caught Lizzie eyeing her untouched letter with a sad look on her face, he inquired, “You want to read them together?

Lizzie cast a hard look at the letter like it might bite her before she nodded, “Okay.”  Hesitantly, she picked it up and held it in her hands.  Nibbling at her lip, she looked at him.  “You go first.”

He reached for his own letter, balancing precariously on Lizzie’s nightstand.  Running his finger underneath the flap, he popped it open, withdrawing the letter quickly.  He took a deep breath and read,


            Growing up, I had never wished for a younger brother because I was scared that I wouldn’t know how to relate to him.  Girls I understand, but little boys?  I was very thankful when Lizzie was born.  It was easy with the two of us.  Then suddenly we merged families and we were all thrown together… and it… wasn’t so easy.  Yes, we struggled and fought like cats and dogs, but eventually things smoothed over (ignoring Derek).  Now, I can’t imagine life without you as my brother, Edwin.

            You are an amazing person.  You’re kind, funny and an excellent friend.  I’m so glad that I’ve gotten to know you over the years.  I can’t even begin to express how much I’m going to miss you.  Not being able to see you at months at a time is crazy.  Just know that I’m one phone call away if you need me. 

            I know I don’t have to say this but take care of Lizzie and Marti.  I know you will.  You’re a good brother, Ed.  And make sure you document all those moments Derek and I are going to miss while we’re away with that camera of yours.  I’ll be waiting for hilarious and heartfelt material.

            Good luck in high school!  Please, please, don’t follow in Derek’s footsteps!  One Derek is MORE than enough.  You be you, Edwin Venturi.

            Love always,


Edwin sat stunned for a second.  “Wow,” He breathed, “I don’t think anyone has ever said those things to me before.”

Smiling, Lizzie confirmed, “She’s right, you know.”

“Thanks, Liz.”  Edwin mumbled, inconspicuously rubbing his face.  “Now, read yours.”

Lizzie steeled herself, carefully unfolding the paper and reading quietly,

“Hey kiddo,

            Bear with me, I have a lot of things to say.  You know me, I need to talk about my feelings, but I have no idea where to start.

            I guess a good place to begin would be to tell you that I’m going to miss you.  You’ve always been by my side.  What am I going to do without you?  You’ve always supported me, Liz, through thick and thin and everything in between.  It’s always been us, united as sisters.  We were there for Mom through the divorce and then trusted allies in the McDonald-Venturi merger.  Now, I’m going to have to deal with Derek and his… Derekness all on my own.  I have no idea how I’m going to do that.  It might take a small miracle.

            You have no idea how much I wish I could be there for you as you start high school.  It’s a hard transition, but I know you’re going to be okay.  You have things that I didn’t have… confidence, strength, positivity… the list is endless.  But most importantly, you can be completely honest.  Not only to others, but most importantly, to yourself.  You’ll excel at everything you attempt to do, Lizard.  And you will be able to get through the hardships as well.  Just know that you have me to support you no matter what happens.

            Oh, Lizzie, I’m so scared of leaving.  I’m worried about the family and I’m worried about being on my own for the first time.  What if something happens to Mom and the baby?  What about George?  What about you, Edwin, and Marti?  What if someone needs me and I’m not there?  Or what if I fail all my courses?  What if I don’t make any friends?  What if I can’t get along with my roommate?  What if Derek never leaves me alone?  What if Derek completely ignores me?  What if I’m forced to spend all my time with Derek?  What if I never see Derek?  What if Derek and I fight all the time?  What if Derek and I don’t fight at all?  Seriously, what am I going to do?

            Please, Liz, promise me we won’t grow apart.  I can’t stand the thought of us not being best friends… confidants… sisters.  Call me at least a billion times a day, okay?  I’ll be counting the days until I see you again.

            All my love,

            Your sister,


Tears streamed freely down Lizzie’s cheeks as she finished reading.  Edwin wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and they sat there for several long moments, Lizzie heaving silently as she sobbed.  Patting her shoulder, Edwin mumbled, “It’s alright, sis.  I got you.”

Derek had settled on a neutral station and they sat in silence as the laugh track sounded yet again.  Looking around the dark living room, Casey mumbled, “These are our last moments, Derek.”

“Casey.”  He gave her a look that said, ‘cut the crap’ before he continued, “How many times do I have to tell you?  We will be back.”

“Not in the same way.  We come back adults.  We make our own decisions from now on.”

He held her serious eye contact for a moment before a grin slowly crept up at the corners of his mouth.  “Hate to break it to ya, Case, but I’ve been doing that my whole life.”  He shot her a teasing wink.  “But I get that it’s a new concept for a goody-goody like you.”

“I am not a goody-goody.”

He snorted.  “Nice try, Spacey, but you’re still no alpha dog.”

Crossing he arms, Casey glared at him.  “I can be when I want!  I just don’t think it’s right to bark to get my way!”

“Eh, I don’t know, Case…”  He trailed off, giving her a challenging eyebrow raise.  “Face it, you won’t ever be top dog.”  His smirk grew as he inclined his body towards her, crossing his legs cockily in his chair.

Muttering under her breath, Casey defended herself, “I can bark.”

He relented, “Alright, so maybe you’ve learned to bark a little, but you’re more of an itzy bitzy dog like a chihuahua or a tiny fluffy poodle.  Not a big striking, dominate husky or a Doberman like me, the alpha.”

Casey huffed again, “Why would I want to be a dog like you?  You’re hardly even paper trained!”

“Ha!  Big words from such a little yappy doggy!”

“Der-rek!”  She crossed her arms as he snickered at her.

“Did you yap something, Case?”

“You think you’re so funny.”

“So do you.”

“Do not.”

“Do too.”

“Do not.”

“Do too.”

Closing her mouth determinedly, Casey turned back to the television.  The silence extended until the program finished, and Casey stretched, rising from the couch.  She stepped around his chair, hesitating slightly before she knelt beside him. 

Derek tilted his head to the side, silently asking her what she was doing with a quirked eyebrow.

Casey sighed faintly, “You told them everything I wanted them to know.”   She stretched slowly upwards, pressing a tender kiss to his cheek.  Breathless, she whispered, “Thank you.”

At the brush of her lips on his skin, Derek’s eyes snapped shut.   Distantly he heard her retreat, padding softly up the stairs.  Derek pulled himself back to the present, gazing up the stairs.  Leaning over the upstairs railing, Casey’s eyes locked on to his, smiling sweetly at him.  He barely managed to return it before she disappeared down the hall.

His head fell heavily against the back of his chair as he closed his eyes again.  Derek’s hand twitched around the envelope still clutched in his hand.  After taking a few moments to compose himself, he stared at his name in her curly script.  Painstakingly slow, he opened it, scanning the number of pages, he murmured, “Jeez, Princess.  Write a freakin’ book.”  Derek began to read quietly to himself.



Derek stared unblinkingly at the page as he studied the divide between the first section in her girly pink ink that often accompanied her diary entries and the next part that was written in dark pen.  He took a tiny breath as he started in on the next part, his lips moving along to her words.


Derek stared at her hand drawn heart, his thumb brushing over the top of it repeatedly even as he read the letter from start to finish again.

At the sound of Casey’s bedroom door closing softly, Marti peeked out the crack in her door and tiptoed across the hall, knocking lightly on her door.

Casey offered a gentle smile to the girl as she opened it.  “Hey, what’s up, Marti?”

“Can I come in?”

“Sure.”  Stepping aside, Casey allowed her entry, closing the door behind them.  Marti made her way to Casey’s bed, hopping up on the edge and waiting for Casey to sit beside her.  “Did you need something?”

Marti revealed her envelope from behind her back as she looked up at her.  “Will you read it to me, Smasey?”

Casey’s breath caught at the use of the new nickname.  “I’ll try, Smarti.”  She took the envelope, carefully sliding it open and unfolding the letter.  Nudging Marti’s shoulder with her own, she began to read,

“Special Marti,

            My little bug, you mean so much to me.  I will forever be thankful that I have the honor of being your big sister.  Your warm hugs and sweet smiles mean the world to me.  I don’t know how I’m going to go months without them!

            It makes me sad that I’m going to miss days and days of watching you grow and learn.  Make sure you call me a couple hundred times, okay?  And keep up with your studies!  Don’t take after your brother!  Learn lots and let me know if you need anything.  I will always be there for you.

            You’re the best little sister Lizzie and I could have ever asked for.  Keep the family in line.  We’d all be lost without you.  You are so special.  Derek and I are both going to miss you to the moon and back.

            Love you tons,


Without missing a beat, Marti tackled Casey in a fierce hug.  “I love you, Smasey.”

Casey stroked her back as she hugged Marti to her.  “I love you too, Smarti.”

Marti’s tear-streaked face pulled back, examining Casey.  “You’re crying.”

“So, are you.”  Casey gave a wobbly chuckle as she brushed her fingers over Marti’s face.  Marti returned the giggle, sweeping both her thumbs along the traces of Casey’s tears.

“Can I stay with you tonight?  One last sleepover?”

Nodding, Casey stood them both up from the bed and folded back her covers.  “Come on, snuggle in.”

Groggily, Derek made his way down the stairs, stumbling to the door and letting his two best friends inside with a sleepy yawn.  “Sup?”

They nodded at him, both Sam and Ralph looked tired as they exchanged handshakes on the way through the door.  “Come on up.”  Derek gestured for them to follow him up the stairs, which they did dutifully.

Derek opened the door to his room, crossing the floor and leaning casually against his empty desk.

“Whoa!”  Ralph cried as he stepped foot inside, his mouth hanging open.  “It’s empty!  So weird!”  His eyes continued to roam the room as he plopped down on the empty bed.

Sam followed Ralph through the door, his mouth gaping as well.  “Dude!  You’re taking all of your things with you?”  Sam gave a wry chuckle, “You’re not leaving for good, are you?”

Derek rolled his eyes.  “’Course not.  I told Dad and Nora that the baby could have my room.”

“I can’t believe your dad is having another kid!”  Ralph snickered, “Dude, a baby!”

Studying his best friend, Sam gawked, “I can’t believe you’re giving up your room.”

Derek shrugged, feigning casualness.  “No big deal.”

“Yeah, right, D!  Your room means everything to you.”  Sam reasoned.

“It just wouldn’t be the same now.” 

Sam raised an eyebrow, but Derek didn’t elaborate.  Before he could pursue the subject, Ralph butted in, “So, this is it?”

Flinching uncomfortably at the sudden tense feeling that encompassed the room, the three friends winced.  Sam cleared his throat, “Yeah, Ralphie.  This is… it.”

Derek snorted, trying to relieve some of the tension.  “It’s not like it’s for forever, guys.  Seriously, you’re getting as bad as Space Case.”

“Yeah, you’re right, D.  But it’s going to be different.”  Sam shrugged.

Ralph cut in, “I mean, yeah, totally different, man.  You’re going to be all the way out at Queen’s and it’ll just be Sammy and me around here.”

Derek perched on the edge of his desk, “You guys will be fine without the ol’ D-man!  You’re going to take Western by storm.”  He grinned, but it wasn’t up to his usual standards.

“D, we know you’re just trying to be tough and cool about saying goodbye.”

“Sam’s right, man, we know you’ll miss us.”

His shoulders slumped, but Derek gave his friends a genuine smile.  “Of course, I will, you guys.  But you know I’d never say those kinds of things in a million years, right?  Don’t want that to get out, you know?  Might damage my reputation.”

Sam busted out laughing and Ralph looked back in forth between them, confused.  Sam took pity on his friend and said, “He means, he’ll miss us, Ralphie.”

“Ohhh, gotcha!” 

They laughed together, before Sam brought something else up.  “Well, I’m just glad that Casey finally decided to go to Queen’s.”

Derek dropped his eyes down, but a small grin was still present on his face.  Sam watched his friend carefully as he asked, “What do you think, D?”

“Couldn’t have cared less.”

Ralph coughed, “You sure, D? 

Ignoring Ralph, Derek looked down at his watch.   “We’re supposed to be leaving in a little bit.”

The three friends looked at each other for a few seconds trying to read each other.  Finally, Ralph crossed the bedroom floor to Derek and pulled him into a bro hug, slapping his back hard.  “Bye, D, say hi to all the pretty ladies at Queen’s for me.  Don’t forget the ‘Nice Shoes’ bit!”  Ralph grinned widely at Derek as he let him go, walking to Derek’s door and waiting for Sam.

Derek laughed, scratching at his chin.  “Thanks, Ralphie.  And don’t worry, I won’t forget that one anytime soon.”

Sam stared at Derek, their eyes never breaking contact.  Derek smiled, lifting his arms up to allow a hug.  Sam smiled back, taking the few steps to him.  The two gripped each other firmly, saying nothing for several seconds until Derek broke the embrace.

“Well, Sammy, what do you say after all these years?”  Derek asked grabbing the back of his own neck.

“Probably nothing we wouldn’t get in trouble for.”  Sam grinned as Derek snorted at his lame attempt at a joke.

“Sad, but true.”

A seriousness came over Sam.  “Bye, Derek.  Good luck with… everything.”  Curious, Derek raised an eyebrow at him, but Sam didn’t elaborate.

“You too, Sam.”

Sam joined Ralph at the door and Derek smiled, grabbing at his neck again.  “Bye, guys.”

“Bye, D.”  They echoed together.

As Sam and Ralph were leaving his room, Sam dropped back for a second, a hand gripping Derek’s doorframe, “D?” 

Derek looked up, “Yeah?” 

An all-knowing smile crossed Sam’s face.  “Take care of her, alright?” 

Derek opened his mouth ready to argue, but his face suddenly relaxed.  He looked his best friend in the eye and nodded.  “I will, Sam.”

Casey ran into Sam and Ralph as they walked down the stairs.  “Hi, boys.”

“Hey, Casey.”


“Is Derek up there?”

Ralph smiled, “Yep.  In his room.”

“Figures he’d be hiding from the work.”

Sam chuckled, “We were just saying goodbye.  He’ll be down shortly.”

Her smile faltered.  “Oh, okay.  Well, I guess this is… goodbye for now then?”  Casey looked between Sam and Ralph.

Ralph swept her off her feet in a giant hug, causing all three of them to laugh.  When Ralph sat her down, he reached out to steady her as she became reacquainted with the floor.  “Easy, Casey.  Don’t want you to tumble down the stairs… you know, again.”

She snorted, reaching out a hand to swat him.  Ralph hooted, pulling away.

Casey faced Sam, who was smiling sweetly at her.  He pulled her into a gentle hug.  She returned it, closing her eyes, and smiling.  “We’re going to miss you guys.  Good luck at Western.”

Sam pulled back, returning her look.  “I know.”  He teased her, “I guess we’ll probably miss you guys too.”

She slapped him as well.  He dodged the hit with a laugh before he grew serious again.  “Casey?”

“Yeah, Sam?”

He studied her for a beat.  “Take care of him.”

One of her eyebrows rose.  “Derek?”

“Yeah.”  Sam gave her a look.  “He needs you.”  Gently, he patted her shoulder, following Ralph down the stairs.

Ralph jumped off the last three steps, hollering, “Later, Casey!”

Standing in the middle of the front lawn, Casey and Emily took turns looking at each other.  After several moments, Casey sniffled.  “I think it’s time.”

Emily’s lips disappeared as she watched the rest of Casey’s family load into the van.  “Yeah, Case, I guess you’re leaving now.”  Shuffling her sneakers in the grass, Emily looked down at her feet.  “It’s not like we’ll never see each other again.”  Emily tried to smile.

“You’re right.”  Casey’s eyes threatened to leak.  “Em, I just want to thank you.”

Emily looked up at her in surprise.  “For what?”

“For being my friend since I moved here.  For the big things.  The little things.  Everything.  I’m glad I found you here.”

They both smiled genuinely.  “Me too, Case.  We’ll keep in touch, right?”

“Of course!”

“Okay, text me when you get to Queen’s and settled in.”

“I will.  And let me know when you get to Toronto.  I think you’ll really love it there.”

“I think I will too.”


“So, this is…”

“Goodbye?”  They both asked at the same time, forcing back tears, they fell into each other’s arms, squeezing tight and allowing the tears to flow freely.

Derek stood lazily leaning against the side of the Prince, hands shoved deep within his pockets as he waited for Casey to say goodbye to Emily.  “Yo, Princess!”  Derek cried, startling the two girls.  They pulled away from their embrace as he called, “Your chariot is waiting!  Get a move on!”

Casey shot a glare at him, calling back, “I’m coming, Derek!  Hold on!”  He rolled his eyes, sinking deeper against the Prince.  Turning back to her friend, Casey bit her lip.  “I better go, Emily.”

“Yeah.”  Emily breathed.  They clutched each other in one last desperate hug.  Emily pulled away first and gave Casey a little shove towards the Prince.  “Go, Case.”

Smiling sadly, Casey slowly began to back away from her best friend.  “I’ll miss you so much.”

“I’ll miss you too, but you’ve got to go now.”

Casey nodded, turning around as Derek hollered, “It’s about time!”

“Der-rek!”  Now stomping, Casey crossed the lawn.  “I’m saying goodbye to Emily!”  She drew even with him and he followed her gaze as she looked back at Emily.  “Bye, Em.”

“Bye, guys.”

“Later, Em!”  Derek called over his shoulder as he directed his attention at Casey, rolling his eyes at her as he casually threw the passenger door open with a sarcastic little bow.  Casey shoved his shoulder before she climbed in.  He shut the door for her, and his eyes never left Casey’s as they stared each other down through the windshield as he walked around to the driver’s side.

Seconds after Derek’s door closed, the family van and trailer maneuvered its way onto the street.  With a small rev, Derek pulled the Prince away from the curb and was off following their family down the road.

Emily watched the small convoy until the Prince’s taillights disappeared around the corner.  Shoving her hands deep in her back pockets, a tear escaped her watery eyes.  Emily whispered, “Bye, Derek.”

Chapter Text

"Der-rek!  You're taking up both cupholders!"  Casey screeched, holding her steaming travel mug.  "I don't have a place for my tea!"

"Why, excuse me, your majesty.  I must have missed the declaration of your queenship over the cupholders."  Derek's eyes widened as she picked up his drink.  "Hey, hey!  What are you doing?"  He made a wild grab for it and the Prince swerved onto the shoulder with a loud grumble.


"Give me back my coffee, Casey.  Now."

"You're going to kill us over coffee?  I'd like to actually get to Queen's for at least a day before you inevitably finish me off."

"I'm not going to kill us, drama queen.  Just give it back."

Casey huffed but shoved the cup into his hands.  "Jerk."

"Driver gets cupholder preference.  Now move that damn tea."

Muttering under her breath, Casey removed her tea from the coveted spot.  "You win, but you don't play fair."

"That's why I win, Princess."

🎵 "It used to be my mom, sis, and steps with me,

A happy blended family, yeah, reluctantly.

Then we left London, that's when everything changed,

Some things have gone, yet others remain.

A new town and new friends,

So many changes make my head spin.

Still got a step-brother who gets under my skin.

This is life with Derek... AGAIN!

This is life with Derek... AGAIN!

Going to miss Lizzie, Edwin, George and Nora, Marti, and the baby.

Now, I'm stuck with Derek,

Now, I'm stuck with... DER-REK!" 🎵

"Aaaaaaaand we're off!"

"It's time.  We've left.  We're on our way."

Casey openly choked on her words.

Derek slipped on his Aviator sunglasses.

A lopsided smirk lit up his face.

"Oh, it's on."

The tears rolled freely down her damp cheeks.

"Look out Queen's!  Here we come!"

"Cut!  Just cut!"

Casey held her hands up, signally a time out.

"I need another moment."

He slid his shades down his nose, giving a roguish grin.

"Let's roll."

Derek dashed offscreen, a spring in his step.

"Wow, we're only twenty kilometers down the road and the kids are out already."  George glanced in the rearview mirror, amusement dancing across his features.  "Poor guys."

Nora chuckled.  "Bless them.  They're still on summer hours."  She watched as Marti's small frame tipped over in her seat, landing heavily against a slightly drooling Lizzie.  Their heads knocked together, but neither woke.

"Georgie, look.  Aren't they cute?"

"When did Ed get so big that he takes up the entire backseat?"

"Our kids are growing up so fast."  Nora sighed.

Anxious to prevent Nora's building tears, George cut in, "Nora, there's no way you can miss this photo opportunity."

"You're right!"  Quietly, but quickly, Nora reached for the bag at her feet, fumbling for her camera.

"You know, Edwin and Derek are more alike than I thought.  Derek used to sleep all sprawled like that in the back too."  George shook his head, reminiscing.  "Used to look like he had eight limbs."

"Thank God he doesn't.  It would mean double the trouble."

George snorted.  "Too true."

Nora clicked the camera then stowed it away with mom stealth as George hit a harsh bump.

"Oopsie daisy!  Did I wake them?"

"No, they're still fast asleep."

"Good."  George exhaled.  "We can take this time to prepare ourselves then."

"Why do I feel like this is the calm before the storm?"

"It probably is."  George looked sideways at Nora.  "Let's enjoy it while we can."

"I wonder how Casey and Derek are coping in the Prince."

"We probably don't want to know, Nora.  Let's just hope it's still in one piece by the time we get to Kingston."

Casey turned the radio on, dialing in her favorite station.

"Oh, no!"  Derek whipped towards her.  "I'm not listening to preppy pop all the way."

"Derek, you got to drive!"  Casey added under her breath, "Not to mention the cupholders."  Louder she declared, "I get radio control."

"Over my dead body."  He slapped her hand away from the knob.

"That can be arranged."

Suddenly, Derek smiled, digging into his pocket.  "Here, Spacey.  Plug this into that speaker."  He gestured to what he wanted her to do, forcing the contraption into her hand.

"What's this?"

Rolling his eyes, Derek mocked, "Surely even you can recognize an iPod?"

"I realize that.  I meant why?"

"To play music?"

"Really?"  Casey bit, "I thought it was to communicate with your long-lost family.  Tell me, are they all ape-men too?"  She fumbled with the cord, finally managing to plug it in.

"Nice to know the sarcastic little princess is awake this morning."  He gestured to her tea.  "Better drink some more of that so control freak Casey can come out and play."

Casey rolled her eyes, waving his iPod in the air.  "What do you want me to do with this thing?"

"I want you to play music.  Come on, Case, get with the program."

She let out a muffled screech of annoyance but pushed the play button.

"No, no!  Not this one!"  Uncharacteristically soft chords filled the Prince.  As Derek hastily reached to stop the music, the vehicle jerked off the road.

"DER-REK!  Watch the road!  I've got this!"  She easily stopped the song.

His hands settled over the steering wheel.  "Find our playlist."

Her fingers stilled instantly at his words.  Casey looked up at his from underneath her lashes, voice soft, "What did you say?"

Not paying attention to her, Derek checked his mirrors before pulling into the passing lane.  "It's called CD-Rocks the Road."

"May I ask what this is about?"

"It's our adventure playlist."

Silence rang through the vehicle.  "You mean... you really made us a playlist?"

"Duh.  We're starting our adventure."  They shared a serious look.  "Play it, Case.  And no skipping allowed."

Her thumb hovered over the play button before she hesitantly pushed it.  A strumming guitar filled their space as Derek bobbed his head along to the catchy beat.

Casey watched him silently as he mouthed along to the lyrics until the music intensified and Derek burst out with the chorus.  "But I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more just to be the man who walked a thousand miles to fall down at your door!"

Shaking her head, Casey watched the scenery past by her window.

Derek smirked as Casey fought a smile, her foot betraying her as it tapped steadily along to the beat.

"Come on, Case.  I know you want to sing."  He nudged her leg, poking until she whipped her head to him, her hair flailing out around her as she pierced him with her stunning blue eyes, a full smile on her lips.

Simultaneously, the duo erupted, "DA DA DA DUN DIDDLE UN DIDDLE UN DIDDLE UH DA!"

Casey continued, "Da-da da da!"

Derek echoed her, "Da-da da da!"




They laughed manically together as the next verse played in the background.

As the chorus approached, they united again, "But I would walk five hundred miles and I would walk five hundred more just to be the man who walked a thousand miles to fall down at your door!"

Eventually, the song faded out and Casey wiped the tears of laughter off her face.  "Oh my gosh!  What's next?"

Derek's grin lit up the Prince.

"Dad?"  Edwin croaked from the back, rubbing his sleep-filled eyes.  "I'm starving.  When are we eating?"

"We'll stop soon, Ed.  Be patient."

"I'm a growing boy with a healthy appetite.  I need nourishment."

George suppressed an eyeroll.  "Soon, Edwin."

Marti jolted, startling Lizzie awake as well.  With a few grunts and groans, the girls sat up, stretching their sore muscles.

"Daddy, I'm hungry too."  Marti licked her lips, beginning to chant, "Mac and cheese!  Mac and cheese!  Mac and cheese!"

Nora patted her bulging belly.  "Relax, kids.  We're all hungry."  She cast a smile to the back of the van.  "Now that you're awake... are you ready for school?"

The kids groaned loudly.  Edwin's head slammed backwards against the headrest, sinking in his seat until he was horizontal.

"Mom, did you have to remind us?"  Dismally, Lizzie shook her head.

"What?"  Nora gasped, "I just want to make sure everyone is ready!  Any last minute supplies?  Clothes?"

Edwin, Lizzie, and Marti covered their faces in unison.

"I think you killed the mood, Nora."  George drummed his fingertips on the steering wheel, chuckling.

"Well, tough.  They can't ignore the fact that they start school on Monday."



"Shh!"  Marti cried, "That's unspeakable today, Nora!  We already have to say goodbye to Smerek and Smasey.  Do we have to talk about school too?"

The mood shifted in the van.  Nora nodded.  "Okay, Marti.  Agreed."

Marti leaned back in her seat again, blinking back her watering eyes.  "Thank you."

"I'm impressed, D.  First the video tribute, now the adventure playlist.  How did you have time to do all this?"  Casey nodded along as the music played in the background.

"I told you I was busy, Spacey."

"This is what you were doing when—” She blushed, clearing her throat.  "Um, that night, wasn't it?"

His voice strained slightly, "The night we packed, yeah.  But I started a while ago."

"Aww, Der."

"Don't get mushy on me.  There's been enough sappy this week to last a lifetime."

"Whatever, Derek.  You're just as sensitive as I am."

A look of outrage crossed his face.  "Blasphemy, Casey!  Blasphemy!"

"How do you even know that word?"

It took Derek a beat to sheepishly answer, "It was in a video game."

"Ha!"  Casey snorted, "God forbid, you actually read a book!"

Ahead of them, the family van pulled off the road, turning into the parking lot of a small diner.

With a relieved groan, Derek followed, maneuvering the Prince into the first available space.  "Finally, I'm starving!"

Rolling her eyes, Casey mocked, "Aw, poor little Derry is hungry."

"You laugh, Case, but I'm wasting away."  He pulled the hem of his t-shirt up to reveal his taunt stomach.  He patted it wistfully.  "We need fooooood!"

At the sight of his abs, Casey adverted her eyes.  "I highly doubt you'll waste away.  Now, pull your shirt down!  People might see!"

Grinning at her red cheeks, Derek complied.  "Yes, your highness."

"Seven, please."  Nora volunteered to the frazzled looking waitress, whose eyes widened comically before she scurried to the back of the restaurant.

Nora's brow knitted.  "Okay?  I guess we wait here?"

Edwin stood on his tiptoes to peer over the divider.  "I see an empty table in the back.  Let's grab it!"  He and Derek started to make a break for it, but Lizzie latched on to Edwin before he could take two steps.

"Don't be rude, Edwin.  They'll seat us when they're ready."

Pouting, Edwin returned to slumping against the wall.

Casey strained against a struggling Derek.  "Derek!"




"Kids!"  George reprimanded the two eldest, his eyes wide in embarrassment as he glanced wildly around the restaurant.  "Act your age!"

Realizing the entire restaurant was watching their scuffle, Casey's hand slipped from Derek's arm with a thud.

Marti slithered in between the two, successfully diffusing the tension as she attached herself to them.  "No fighting today.  I say so."  She stared stubbornly up at them, suddenly smiling as she rocked on her feet.  "I hope they make a mean dish of macaroni."

The weary waitress returned, grasping for menus, and gesturing over her shoulder.  "This way."

Taking the lead, Marti slipped behind the waitress, dragging Derek and Casey along with her.  The rest of the family shrugged at each other, filing in behind the trio.

"It's the same table, Lizzie!  We could have nabbed it!"  Edwin muttered.

"It's still rude, Edwin."  Lizzie hissed back.

The waitress threw the menus down in the center of the table and rushed away.

Settling in her seat, Marti forced Derek and Casey into the chairs on either side of her, humming happily to herself.

Confused at the displaced seating arrangement, the others fumbled to sit down.  With another shrug, Edwin claimed the seat across from Derek as Lizzie slid gently in beside him. 

She took one look across the table as Casey and mumbled sideways to Edwin, "Well, this is weird."

Snatching a menu from the pile, Marti propped it open, crying, "Macawoni and cheese, pwease!"

"Marti, I thought we heard the last of the baby talk."  George frowned at his daughter.

Crossing her arms over her chest, Marti pouted.  "I'm still the baby of this family.  I can talk however I want."

"But honey," Nora stepped in, "We've talked about this.  Just because you're the youngest, doesn't mean you can talk like a baby."

Without answering, Marti's frown disappeared behind her menu.

"Mmm!"  Edwin smacked his lips together.  "Look at this!  A triple bacon cheeseburger!"  He snapped his menu shut and tossed it on the table in front of him.  "Well, I'm ready!  Bring it on!"

"Um, Edwin—” Nora faltered, "Don't you think that's a little excessive.  I mean, think of the calories."

"Not to mention the poor little animals!"  Horror showed on Lizzie's face.  "Have a little respect, Edwin."

"Lizzie, I'm a man.  I need my meat!"

Huffing, Lizzie crossed her arms and turned her back to Edwin.

Suddenly, the waitress appeared at Nora's elbow.  "Ready to order?"

Nora glanced quickly around the table.  "Oh, I think so."  She pointed delicately at her menu.  "I'll have the summer berry salad, please."

When she was done scribbling, the girl looked to Lizzie.

"The veggie burger, please.  With a side salad, no dressing."

Not waiting, Edwin announced determinedly, "Triple bacon cheeseburger, hefty on the meat."

Her forehead creased, but the waitress wrote it down anyway.

Smiling politely, George ordered, "Chicken fried steak with plenty of gravy, please.  What's your vegetable today?"


George's nose scrunched.  "I'll pass, thanks."

At the other end of the table, Nora sighed in frustration.  "Way to set an example, George."

Interrupting, Marti punctuated her order by clapping her hands.  "Macawoni and cheese, pwease."

When the waitress looked to Derek, a blush blossomed across her cheeks as she faltered over her notepad.

Smirking, Derek smoothly requested, "Barbequed ribs.  I like things... saucy."  At his wink, the blush on the waitress darkened.

Not replying, the waitress turned to Casey, who was sending a glare to Derek over the top of Marti's head.  She prompted, "Miss?"

Casey's eyes snapped back to her menu.  "Oh, I haven't decided yet.  Can you give me a moment?"

The waitress nodded, already stepping away when Derek cut in, "She'll have the avocado grilled chicken sandwich.  No onions, extra lettuce, and the tomato on the side cut into three pieces.  Oh, and substitute the fries for a cup of fruit with extra grapes and one strawberry on the top, placed exactly in the middle."

Scrambling for her notebook, the waitress rapidly took down the special instructions.



"I can order for myself, thank you very much!"

"Come on, Case!  You're going to spend seven years looking at the menu and then order exactly what I said.  So, save our starving stomachs the wait and get on with it!"

Casey's lips pursed as she stared determinedly at her menu.

The waitress shifted back and forth on her feet, glancing around at the crowded diner.  "Miss, would you like to change your order?"

"No, no.  It's fine."  Sheepish, Casey smiled at the fidgety waitress.  "Go ahead and place the order.  I'll be okay."

Wasting no time, the waitress scurried away.  A look of triumphant flashed across Derek's features.

Casey bit at him, "It's not that you won.  I just didn't want to waste any more of her time."

"Whatever you say, Spacey."  Derek happily leaned back in his chair.

"CWAY-ONS!  CWAY-ONS!  CWAY-ONS!"  Marti's small fists pounded on the table, rattling the salt and pepper shakers.  "I need the cway-ons, now!"

Seeing the look on Lizzie's face, Marti coughed into her hand.  "I mean, Father, at your earlies convenience, will you please pass me those sophisticated things that people use to color?"  As she spoke, her hand latched on to Casey's below the table.

Not waiting for Marti to receive her crayons, Lizzie rounded on Edwin.  "Really, Edwin?  You had to order that?"

"Lizzie," Edwin sighed, "Saving a cow's life is not going to keep me from my burger."

"What kind of attitude is that?"  Lizzie asked, scandalized.

"It's a carnivore's way of life!"

"What if we all acted like that?  What about the animals?"

"Hate to break it to you, sis, but most people eat meat.  Back me up here, Dad, Derek."  He looked between the two desperately.

Derek raised his water glass in lazy acknowledgement.  "To carnivores... whatever that means."


George winced, shuffling in his seat.  "Sorry, Lizzie, but men need meat."

"Hear, hear!"  Edwin cheered.

Lizzie came unglued.  "Do you know exactly how many animals are sacrificed each year so you can stuff your greedy faces?  No!  No, you don't because you Venturi's never think of the environment!"

"Oh, so now this is a McDonald versus Venturi thing?"  Edwin crossed his arms.

Breaking from her coloring, Marti piped up, "I take offense in that.  Don't lump me in with them!"

Casey gave an apologetic smile as she squeezed her hand under the table.  "Sorry, Marti.  We're not including you with them.  Just the boys."  She shot a glare around the table.

Nodding, Marti acknowledged the correction with a loud, "Thank you!"

"I support you, Lizzie.  The boys should be more environmentally conscious.  Just think of the number of animal lives one person could save in a year if only they would take a step back and think of the impact they're making on the environment."

"Casey, you have no room to talk.  You ordered chicken."

"YOU ordered me chicken, Derek!"

"Because YOU like chicken."

Marti's hand crushed Casey's underneath the table, instantly stopping the comeback on Casey's lips.

Nora attempted to calm the group.  "I think everybody needs to settle down."  She glanced around at their growing audience.  Nora added under her breath, "And they wonder why we don't eat out more often?"

"Mom!  You agree with us, right?"

"Of course, Lizzie.  I'm a huge animal rights activist."  Her hand reached across the table for Lizzie's, and she patted her knuckles.  "Everybody could stand to be more aware of the environment."

George snorted.  "So, what was that huge hamburger I saw you chow down yesterday?"

"George!"  Fury flashed across her face.

He held his hands up defensively in front of himself.

Nora's nose went high into the air as she sniffed.  "That was a pregnancy craving."

"Sure, dear, whatever you say."

Hesitantly, Nora peeked at Lizzie, cringing.  Lizzie's face showed every bit of her outrage.

Thankfully, the waitress cut in with their tray of food, serving Edwin his triple bacon burger.

Lizzie watched it mournfully.  "Speak of the crime."

Edwin licked his lips in anticipation.

Marti broke her firm grasp on Casey's hand, grabbing for her spoon.  She sunk into her macaroni with a huge bite.  "Mmmhmm mmmhmm mmmhmm!"

After everyone was served, Nora turned to Casey.  "So, Miss Case, are you ready for your classes?"

Casey glowed.  "I'm so excited, but I'm really nervous.  There are so many wonderful courses to choose from.  I don't know how I'm possibly going to be able to fit them all into my schedule."

Smiling affectionately, Nora encouraged, "I'm sure you'll find a way to make it work."

"Thanks, Mom."

"Puh-lease."  Derek spoke through a mouthful, barbeque sauce smeared across his face.  "I'm eating.  Can we go one meal without the school talk?"

"Again, I say... hear, hear!"  Edwin raised his burger into the air, grease running down his arm.

The four girls' noses wrinkled in disgust at the sight.

"Okay, Derek, why don't you tell us what courses you're taking then."

"How about... nah?"

"It's been ages since we've signed up and you still haven't told me any of the classes you're taking!"

He shoved a handful of friends into his mouth before answering, "Don't 'spose there's a reason for that, eh?"

Casey pouted.  "I've told you about all of mine!"

"At nauseum."  Derek made a face.  "I didn't ask for any of that Casey chaos going on in your old noggin."  He reached over Marti to thump Casey lightly on the head.

"Why won't you tell me your courses, Derek?"

Heaving a sigh, Derek explained, "You're not going to keener all over me, Case.  If I tell you, you'll be color coding this and that and matching my socks to my notebooks."

Edwin snorted into his burger, choking himself.

Nora leaned forward, focusing on Derek.  "She's right.  You have been rather secretive about the courses you're taking."

Panic crossed George's face.  "You did sign up, right?"

Waving his dad off, Derek sighed, "Unfortunately.  But only after they told me I couldn't play hockey unless I took classes."

"Oh, please, Derek.  I saw you studying the course book.  You're just as excited as I am."

Derek gave her a 'yeah, right' kind of look.

Edwin sniggered.  "Somehow I can't see Derek being excited about school.  School girls, maybe."

Everyone chuckled except Casey, who rolled her eyes.

"Believe whatever you want, but none of you saw him that night."  Casey pierced her fork through a grape before sending a glare over Marti's head.

With a look as if solving a puzzle, Derek held her eye contact until Casey broke it, dropping her eyes to her fruit cup and stirring its contents absentmindedly.

Picking up a rib, Derek taunted, "Still not telling, oh great keener."

Shaking her head, Lizzie pushed her lettuce around.  "I'm glad you two have to work this out long after we're gone."

"No kidding."  Edwin agreed.  "I wouldn't want to be in your shoes when Casey finally finds out your classes."

"He's right, Derek."  Casey quickly agreed.  "Might as well get it over with now."

"Ha!"  He threw down his bone, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.  "Nice try, Case."

George grimaced.  "All I ask is that you don't kill each other."

Happily patting his full stomach, Derek reached over Marti's head again.  This time to ruffle Casey's hair.  "Nah, Case and I are going to be best buds."

Casey pshawed.  "I'm going to pretend I've never seen him before in my life."

"You can't get rid of me that easy, Princess."  His nose scrunched up as he grinned.  "Besides, you've never been a good liar."

"I said I'd pretend, not lie, Derek."

"Ooh, I stand corrected by the walking dictionary."  He pretended to quiver, earning a giggle from Marti.

"Thesaurus, Derek.  It's a thesaurus."

"Is that in the same family as the stegosaurus?"

"That's a dinosaur, smart guy."

"You're related to the dinosaurs?  All this time I thought it was the aliens.  Why didn't you tell me, Space Case?"

Sarcastically, Casey sighed, "I didn't want to burst your bubble."

"Well, it explains the scaly skin."

"My skin is NOT scaly!"  Anger rolled off Casey.

"Uh, yeah it is."

Crossing her arms in agitation, Casey cried, "Is not!"

A mocking smirk played across Derek's lips as he reached around Marti again, pinching Casey above her elbow.  "See?  Right here."

Her hand smacked him away, defensively covering her skin with her hand.  "DER-REK!"

Lizzie came to her sister's aid.  "You don't have scaly skin, Casey.  Don't listen to him."

"Thank you, Lizzie."  Casey shot another glare at Derek for good measure.

"Ugh, I can't believe I ate the whole thing."  Edwin groaned as they stepped back out into the heat of the day.  He shaded his eyes as he looked across the parking lot.  "I don't think I can even make it to the car.  Dad, pick me up."

George chuckled, patting his son on the back as he strode past him.  "Sorry, son, but you should have thought of that before you ate all that."

Crossing her arms over her chest, Lizzie quipped, "I told you so."

Moaning again, Edwin held his stomach as he began to take tiny steps towards the vehicle.  "Not now, Lizzie."

She walked backwards in front of him, a smile pulling across her lips.  "So, now wouldn't be the time to remind you about those three huge beef patties, crisp hearty bacon, and melted cheese that had grease running down—”

"Stop it or I'll barf."

Rotating, Lizzie fell into step with Edwin.  "Perhaps next time you'll think before you eat.  If not for the animals, then for how it makes you feel."  She received a grunt in return.  "Come on, grumpy.  I'll help you to the car."  She wrapped his arm around her shoulders, supporting his extra weight.

"Piggyback, Smerek!"  Marti warned right before she pounced onto Derek's back.

"Umpf!"  Derek wrapped his arms around Marti.  "Where to, Smarts?"

"Aruba!  Just kidding!  Take me to the van."  She ordered with a point of her fingers.

"Alright, hang on!"  Derek prepped for acceleration.

"WAIT!"  Marti tightened the hold around his neck.

Coughing, Derek asked, "What is it?"

Ignoring him, Marti nabbed Casey's hand as she walked by them.  With a stumble, Casey halted, barely catching herself by latching on to Derek's forearm.

"Whoa there, Klutzilla!"

"Marti!  What did you do that for?"

"No, Smasey!  Stay back with us!"

At the use of the nickname, both Derek and Casey stilled.  Derek's face was unreadable as he strained his neck to look at his little sister.

Casey beamed at Marti.  "If you say so, Smarti."

Squealing excitedly, Marti strengthened her hold on Casey.  "Okay, Smerek, continue."

"All set, Smarti?"  Derek asked.  He grinned over his shoulder at both girls.  "You think Smasey can keep up?"

Marti shot Casey a cunning smile as Casey's breath caught in her throat.

"Of course, Smerek.  She's Smasey.  She can do anything!"

"You sure, Smarts?  'cause Smerek is going into turbo mode in five, four, three, two—” Derek shouted, "One!"

Like a shot, they were off.  Derek raced towards the van, passing the rest of the family, who looked bewildered as the trio speed by.  In hysterics, Marti dragged a giggling Casey along with them.

The clan reached the van, collapsing against the side.  They took deep gulping breaths as a shocked George, Nora, Edwin, and Lizzie caught up with them.

Marti slid down Derek's back and into Casey's arms, squeezing tight as they laughed together.  When they caught a glimpse of their family's faces, it sent them into another peal of laughter.  It wasn't long before all the McDonald-Venturi's were chuckling.

George shook his head.  "I'm not even going to ask, but we better get a move on if we're going to move in."  Snickering at his word choice, he opened the driver door and climbed in.  The others followed suit, Marti giving Derek and Casey each a fleeting hug.

Her breathing uneven, Casey sighed.  "Why did you have to park so far away?"

"It was closer to the food at the time."

"You and your stomach."  She rolled her eyes as they started their journey through the parking lot.  "Do you always let him do the thinking for you?"

A leering grin spread across his face as he bumped their shoulders together.  "Nah, other body parts tend to takeover."

"Der-rek!"  Casey shoved him away.

He sniggered, drifting back to her until their shoulders were knocking against each other again.  "What?  I meant my head.  What were you thinking?  Gee, Case.  Get your mind out of the gutter!"

She smacked him, but Derek braced himself, forcing the momentum backwards.  They collided, sending Casey off course.

"Derek!  Stop it!"  She sprung back, pushing against his back with both hands.

Skidding across the pavement, he laughed as Casey tried to steer him towards the Prince.  He dodged away, making Casey lose her balance.

Snatching her arm, Derek caught her before the inevitable fall.  "Face it, Case.  You don't have the muscle."

Casey ripped her arm from his grasp, taking the last few steps to the car and flinging herself inside.

Still chortling, Derek dived into the driver's seat.  Sliding his seatbelt on, he turned to Casey, "Not gonna lie—"

She cut him off by raising a perfectly arched eyebrow. 

"I never lie about my Smarti."  The lines on her face softened, so Derek continued, "I'm torn between being impressed and dare I say... jealous?"

Casey smirked at him.  "About what, Smerek?"

He grinned back at her, "You tell me, Smasey."

"You better watch out or I'll be the favorite soon."

Derek pulled out of the parking spot, following the family van.  "Keep dreaming, Case.  Now hit the tunes."

With an eyeroll, Casey pushed play.

"Loving you... isn't the right thing to do."

Derek's hand shot to scratch the back of his neck.

"Oooh!  I like this song!"  She reached forward, turning the volume up as she began to sing in harmony, "Go your own way!"

Focused on his driving, Derek let out a sigh.

"Wow!  Look at all these people!"  George stared out his windshield, slack jawed 

Nora confirmed, "It's move-in day, Georgie."

From the back window, Edwin eyed a group of girls, letting out a low whistle as Lizzie and Marti rolled their eyes.

"Pig."  Lizzie muttered under her breath.

"Ooh!  Look at the pretty artwork!"  Marti nudged Lizzie, pointing out the window.

Lizzie leaned over to look, sighing wistfully, "Do you think they have environmental clubs here?"

With a smile, Nora declared, "I think there will be endless opportunities here."

"Oh my gosh.  Oh my gosh.  Oh my gosh.  We're here."

"Casey."  Derek shot her a look.  "Take a deep breath."

"Wait!  Why is George turning there?"  Casey's voice hit another octave as she pointed.  "Ban Righ is that way!"

"Relax.  He'll figure it out."

"Derek!  You missed the turn!"

"It's better if we stay together in this traffic."  He studied her out of the corner of his eye as her breathing accelerated.  "See, he's turning now.  Everything will be fine.  We're just going around the block."

Casey slumped in her seat.  "Where's a paper bag when I need it?"

Derek reached into the compartment in front of her, presenting her with a pristine paper bag.

After a few deep breaths from the bag, Casey stared at him.  "You prepared for that?"

"Hey, I'm just looking out for the Prince."  Derek assured her.  "There's tissues in there too in case you decide to have another go at the upholstery."

"Gee, thanks, Derek."

"Wow!  Look at all the girls!"  Edwin stood at the base of the trailer, scanning Queen's campus.  "There's even more here than when we came into town."

Casey's voice echoed off the inside of the trailer as she called, "This is an all-girls residence, Ed."  She consulted her clipboard, then handed a few boxes out to George.

"Where can I sign up?"

"Edwin!"  Casey hit him over the head with her clipboard.

"Ouch, Casey!"  Edwin rubbed at his head, staggering over to Derek.  "Sooo, which one do you think I have a chance with?"

Derek snorted, arms uncrossing to mess Edwin's hair.  "You're way out of your league here, Ed."  He put a foot up on the trailer, starting to climb inside.

Edwin gasped his outrage.  "What?  I bet—”

His foot slipped off the trailer as Derek whipped his head to his little brother.  "You bet?"

Drawing himself up to his full height, Edwin's voice wobbled, "I bet... I bet I can get... six phone numbers... by the end of the day."

A goading smirk slipped onto Derek's face.  "Oh, yeah?"  Derek crossed his arms, confidence oozing from him.  "What're the stakes?"

"Stakes?"  Edwin gulped.  "No!  Wait!  I—"

"Too late!  Time to put your money where your mouth is, Ed.  Name the stakes."

"How about bragging rights?"

"Ha, that's a laugh."


"No good."

"Um—" Edwin winced.  "Cash?"

"Now you're talking!  How much?"


"You've got to be kidding."




Derek made a noise of disgust.

"Twenty... five?"

"Come on, I won't go lower than fifty."

"Fifty?"  Edwin's voice squeaked.

"Fifty it is!"  Derek clapped Edwin on the shoulder.  "Better get a move on, Eddy.  Time's a-ticking."  Hopping into the trailer with a single bound, Derek lugged two of Casey's boxes up, one on each shoulder.  He jumped out smoothly, following George as he trekked towards Ban Righ.

Grumbling, Edwin grabbed Casey's suitcases, faltering under the weight.

"Edwin!  Be careful with that!"  Casey rushed over, checking the luggage for damage.

"I'm fine, Casey.  Thanks for asking."

Ignoring him, Casey ordered, "Hurry up and catch the others!"

With a huff of annoyance, Edwin sassed, "Yes, ma'am!"  He set off at a snail's pace, mumbling, "I really shouldn't have had that triple burger."

"Did you have to land a fourth story dorm, Case?"

"It was randomly assigned, Derek.  I can't help it."

"My legs are going to fall off."

"Oh, stop.  Stairs are good for you, Mr. Hockey Star."

"I skate, Spacey.  Not climb."

"A workout's a workout."

"How did I get roped into carrying your shit anyway?"

"Language, Derek!"  Casey reprimanded.  "And it's the gentlemanly thing to do."

"Do I look like a damn gentleman to you, Princess?"

"A girl can dream."  She sighed and he cocked an eyebrow.  "It's the least you can do after I packed all of your things."

Derek groaned.  "How long are you going to hold that against me?"

She hummed.  "At least until you give me new material."

Struggling under the weight of his load, Edwin readjusted his arms.  They passed families after families rushing this way and that.

Lizzie bounced along beside him, effortlessly carrying two boxes stacked on top of each other.  She smiled at everyone they met.

"Do you see how these girls are looking at Derek?"  Edwin huffed, a tinge of jealousy as he stared ahead at Derek.

"Do you see how they're glaring at Casey?"  Lizzie countered.

Marti skipped between the two, whispering, "I wonder if they realize they look like the new 'it' couple."

Cocking her head, Lizzie observed Casey and Derek as Marti hummed happily.

Edwin reasoned, "They're bickering, Marti."

"Exactly."  Marti began whistling her happy tune, twirling Casey's reading lamp like a ballerina as she danced ahead.

"She's right.  That's probably what everyone's thinking."

Chuckling, Edwin shook his head.  "If they only knew."  Suddenly, Edwin winced.  "How many flights left?"

"Just two."

"Oh, just two."  Edwin mocked with a groan.  "No big deal."

"Takes you back, doesn't it, Nora?"  George puffed.

"Too far back, George."  Nora's eyes roamed the staircase, taking in the people.  "I couldn't survive university again."

They came to a landing and George motioned for Nora to stop.  Stepping out of the line of traffic, George set his box down.  "Not me."  Inconspicuously, he leaned on a window frame as he tried to catch his breath.  "I'd love to go back in time."  He rubbed at the stitch in his side.  "I was in better shape back then."

Nora shook her head with a teasing smile.  "Honey, you'd be in better shape now if you didn't think cardio consisted of a walk to the refrigerator."

"Nora!"  George's jaw dropped.  "I'll have you know I get plenty of exercise at the office!"

With a nod, Nora responded, "Oh, yes.  Of course!  How silly of me!  I should have known that you get plenty of exercise at your desk job."

George hmphed.  "You have to be physically fit to run Bertha."

Her eyebrows knitted.  "What?"

Grimly, George shivered.  "Don't ask."

Shrugging her shoulders, Nora eyed him.  "Shall we get on with it then, Hercules?"

"I suppose."  He heaved a great sigh, which turned into a groan as he picked up the box.  "Oh, to be young again."

 "404... 405... 406!"  Casey paused outside her door, taking a steading breath.  Unlocking it, she swung the great wooden door open.

Nora followed her in, the pair halting in their tracks as they peered around the room.  "I thought you said you have a roommate, Casey?"

"I do."  Casey frowned.

"Then how come there's only one bed?"

Casey shuffled through the papers on her clipboard.  "406B."  She set her backpack down, walking further inside.  "We have to go to the left."  She peeked around the large wardrobe, instantly freezing.  "Oh."

"What is it?"

"Looks like the bed and things in this back corner are mine."  Her brows knitted as she talked to herself, "Alright, Casey, relax.  You can work with this."

She stepped into the nook, her hand trailing first across the wardrobe then the desk, which together created a makeshift wall within the room.  Casey faced her bed, hands on her hips as Nora squeezed in and settled Casey's special pillows onto the bed.

"I like it!"  Marti chirped, suddenly appearing, and brushing past Nora.  She flopped easily onto the bed.  "It's like a little room within a room."

"You'll be able to do lovely things with this, Miss Case."

"You think so, Mom?"

Nora patted her daughter's pale cheeks.  "I know so."

Lizzie nodded her encouragement, settling on the edge of the desk.  "You should be able to really focus back here."  She patted the wood underneath her.  "This is nice.  Plus, it has plenty of shelves for your books!"

Her remark earned a genuine smile from Casey.  "That will be nice."

Finally catching up, the Venturi boys poked their heads around Casey's new closet. 

"Wow, this is..."  George whistled.  "Private."

"Yeah!"  Edwin chuckled.  "If you don't like your roommate, you won't even have to see her!"

At Edwin's words, Casey pouted.

Derek shoved Edwin.  "But, Ed, the princess wants to braid hair and sing Kumbaya with her roommate."

"Derek!  I never said that!"

Rolling his eyes, Derek retorted, "You didn't have to.  I know that's what you planned."

Proceeding with her inspection, Casey's hand trailed across her nightstand, bed, and dresser.  As she went, Casey muttered a mix of Kumbaya, Derek, and jerk under her breath.

The whole family waited with batted breath as she completed the loop in front of George and his sons in the walkway.

"Well," George smiled sweetly.  "What do you think?"

"It wasn't what I expected, but I think I'll survive."

Derek snorted.  "It's about time someone put the keener in a corner.  I've been trying for years."

Lizzie jumped in, reprimanding, "Derek, be nice!"

He held his hands up defensively.  "Hey, don't blame me.  I had nothing to do with Casey's Corner!"

Marti giggled.  "Casey's Corner?  That's awesome!  I want a Smarti Spread!"

George shook his head at his little girl.  "You already have a Smarti Spread, Marti.  I pay taxes on it every year."

"Good one, Dad!"  Edwin held out his fist for a bump that George enthusiastically returned.

Approaching Casey, Nora grasped her daughter's shoulders.  "Well, if everyone is finished telling jokes, I think it's about time we get the rest of Casey's things up to her new home."  She patted her bulging belly.  "I'll stay up here and unpack boxes."

Sighing, George clasped his sons' shoulders.  "Come on, men.  The sooner we start, the sooner we finish."

"Last one there carries the books!"  Edwin darted from the room before the last word left his lips.  Derek raced after him.

Marti's eyes widened as she sprang from the bed and chased after them.  George turned on his heel, rushing after his children.

Laughing, Lizzie leisurely rose from her perch on the desk.  She rolled her eyes good-naturedly.  "Honestly, they act like a little hard work might actually kill them."  Lizzie sighed, "Venturi's."

Both Casey and Nora giggled as Nora professed, "Love them or leave them, I suppose."

"Is your bedding up here yet?"  Nora braced her back with one hand as the other rubbed circles over her tummy.  "That's something I could do."

Casey nodded distractedly, focused on hanging clothes into the wardrobe.  "Um, yeah, I think it's over by the door."

Nora waddled away, returning with two huge sacks, and plopping them down next to Casey's bed.  "I'm glad you went with the lavender and gray color scheme.  Seems more like you, sweetie.  Sophisticated, yet fun."

"Thanks, Mom, but I don't think everyone would describe me as fun."  Casey hung the last item, swinging the doors shut soundly.  Her hands found her hips as she huffed, "What's taking them so long?"

Flawlessly slipping a pillow into its case, Nora soothed her daughter, "It's a long trip."

From thin air, Lizzie popped around the corner.  "I'm here."

"You were the last one that left!"

"I know."  Lizzie sent her sister a grin.  "The others haven't found the back staircase that's closer to your room."

Slightly out of breath, Marti rounded the closet.  She dropped her load on the floor before collapsing next to it.

Nora smoothed a corner of the bedsheet.  "What's keeping the others, Marti?"

"They're trying to each figure out how to be the one that does the least amount of work."

"That doesn't surprise me in the slightest."  Nora rolled her eyes, fluffing a pillow.

"Figures."  Casey frowned.

Lizzie pulled Marti away by the arm.  "Come on, Marti.  I'll show you a shortcut."

"Oooh, I like shortcuts!"

The pair ran into Derek in the walkway.  He deposited the boxes roughly to the floor.

"Der-rek, be careful with that!"

"How come you're not making all of these trips, Princess?"

"That's what I have you for, Derbear."  Casey patted his cheek smartly as she stepped past him.

"Gee, use me for my body, Case.  I see how it is."

Nora interrupted, "Where's George and Edwin, Derek?"

"Let's just say I'm in better shape than some of us, Nora."  He nudged into Casey as he leaned against the wardrobe.  "Right, Case?"

"Yes, Derek."  Casey deadpanned.  "You're one chromosome away from an ape."

"Wow.  You didn't have to pull down my genes."

Casey shoved him off her.  "Just go get my books.  I want to do my desk next."

He tweaked her red cheek.  "Yes, Colonel Keener."  With a mock salute, Derek was off.

Touching her face, Casey returned to work.

"Are you French?  Because Eiffel for you."

"Must you, Edwin?"

"Shh, Lizzie.  You're messing up my vibe."  Edwin whispered sideways.

As the newly arrived university blonde scowled and hurried away, Lizzie muttered under her breath, "You should thank me.  This one didn't even say 'eww' and run away like the last twenty-three."

"Quiet!"  Edwin mumbled as he stared down another potential.  Louder, he stated, "It's a good thing I have my library card because I'm totally checking you out."

"Edwin."  Lizzie hissed through her teeth, trying to be discreet.  "You're embarrassing these poor girls almost as much as you're embarrassing yourself."

The girl in question stuck her nose in the air and sauntered down the hallway with her parents and little sister.

Ignoring Lizzie's advice, Edwin blocked a brunette, who was walking alone.

"Hey, there's something wrong with my phone.  Can you help me?"

"What's wrong?"  The girl's dimple disappeared as she frowned.

With a smirk, Edwin leaned against the wall, drawling, "It doesn't have your number in it."

"Oh, sweetie—” The girl covered her smile with a manicured hand.  "Try me in four years, alright?"  With one last smile over her shoulder, she pranced away.

"Be still, my heart!"  Edwin clutched his chest, sinking down the wall.

Lizzie gripped his arm, hauling him up.  "Come on, Romeo."

Edwin pulled out of her grasp, dashing up to a perky looking girl, who was talking to an older woman.

"Excuse me, do you know CPR?"

The young lady broke off her conversation, addressing Edwin with concern.  "Yes, I do!  What's wrong, honey?"

"You took my breath away with your beauty."

Chuckling the girl shook her head.  "I haven't heard that one before.  I like it!  I'm going in to nursing so I'll have to remember that one."  Gently, she touched his arm.  "But sorry, kiddo.  You're a little young for me."  She pointed inconspicuously at Lizzie.  "That girl over there looks interested."

Whipping his head, Edwin grimaced realizing it was Lizzie.  "Her?  That's my step-sis and she is a terrible wingman."

The girl laughed, her arm flailing through the air.  "Oh, you're funny!  The girls in your grade better watch out for you."  Taking a few steps back, she called, "Best of luck!"

Edwin shook his shoulders out, muttering to himself, "Alright, Eddy.  You got this.  You've just got to up your game."  He cleared his throat as he slithered up to a voluptuous blonde.

"I've been blinded by your beauty.  I'm going to need your name and number for you know, insurance purposes."  Edwin winked.

Her button nose crinkled in disgust.  "Um, excuse me?  Who do you think you are?"  She threw a handful of hair behind her shoulder and marched away.

"Tough luck, Ed."  Lizzie wrapped an arm around his shoulder, steering him away.  "Let's call it a day and head back to Casey's room."

"I don't understand.  These lines always work."

"No, they really don't."

"One more?"  Not waiting for an answer, Edwin peeled out of Lizzie's grasp.  He approached a redhead in the middle of the hall.  "I don't know your name, but I bet it's as beautiful as you are."

Startled, the girl answered, "Paige Turner."

"Ahahaha!"  Edwin doubled over.  "Good one!  That's hilarious.  A page turner!  I get it!"

Her brow knitted together as she frowned.  "What do you mean?"

"Baby, if you were words on a page, you'd be fiiiiiiine print!"

The girl glared, spinning on her heel, and storming away.

"Wait!  I'm sorry!  I didn't think that was your real name!"

"Good job, Ed."  Lizzie leaned into his side.  "I think you've officially hit on all the girls on Casey's floor."

"Dang, I'm going to have to try another floor then."

"What you need is a new approach."

"Like what?"  Edwin moaned pathetically.

"Why don't you actually try talking to them?"

Surprise showed on Edwin's face.  "How would I do that?"

Lizzie shook her head, sighing, "Boys."

"Phew!"  A sweaty George leaned heavily against Casey's wall.

With sympathy, Nora looked up from Casey's desk.  "Aww, Georgie!  How much is left?"

Wiping his brow, George answered, "I'm not sure.  It's hard to tell since we don't know where Casey's things end, and Derek's stuff starts."

Casey dropped a heavy textbook with a loud bang, startling George and Nora.  "I've told Derek a hundred times!  My things are on the right and his are on the left!  He should know this!  We loaded the trailer according to a system!"

George's mouth hung open.  "Uh," he stammered, "I'll check with... Derek then."  Uncomfortably, George backed away, pointing over his shoulder.  His mouth hung open even as he turned on his heel and jogged from the room.

His pace slowed considerably as soon as he was out the door.  George strolled leisurely down the halls, taking in the details he failed to notice.  Meeting several fathers, he gave them nods of encouragement as they passed by with armfuls of heavy items.

By the time George reached the parking lot, he was puffing again.  He found Derek sitting in his brand-new beanbag chair in the back of the trailer.  Making a gesture, George panted, "Move."

Derek rose, allowing his dad to sit with a heavy sigh.  George reclined his head as he caught his breath.

Stretching up on to his toes, Derek asked, "Where's Ed and Liz?"

"Haven't seen them."

"Those little rats, making us do all the work."

Raising an eyebrow, George didn't comment.

When he regained his ability to speak, George began awkwardly, "Eh, Derek?  Casey said you know the... system here."  He motioned around them.  "How much do we have left?"

"Oh, right."  Derek paused, scratching the back of his head as he gazed around.  He pointed to each side of the trailer.  "We had to have his and hers."  Rolling his eyes, Derek explained, "Just take from the right and you'll be fine."

"Are you sure?"  George looked concerned as he stepped out of the trailer.  "I don't want to be the one that takes Casey a wrong box."

Derek snorted, handing a box out.  "Don't worry.  Even if you did, she'd still blame me."

George sniggered as Derek heaved two boxes up into his arms.  The pair traveled side by side through the parking lot. 

"Get used to it, son.  Women are like that."

"Oh, I'm well aware."  Derek imitated, "DER-REK!  It's your fault I got a 98 on my test!  DER-REK!  It's your fault my outfit doesn't match!  You stole my br—” Derek abruptly changed tactics, "DER-REK!  It's your fault I got a hangnail!"

"Don't let her hear that or you'll be in the doghouse."  George chuckled.

"I'm always in her doghouse... but I'm still alpha dog."

George cast a look at him.  "You sure about that, D?"

Derek sputtered, "Of course I am!"

Shaking his head, George smiled.  His box slipped, but he recovered it with a gasp.  "I can't wait to find Edwin and Lizzie and make them finish unloading these damn boxes."

Sniggering, Derek opened the door for his dad.  "Oh, they'll pay."

"Why do we have to be the ones to unload the rest?  It's not our shit we're hauling."

Lizzie rolled her eyes for the umpteenth time.  "They made several trips without us while you were off being ridiculous, Edwin."

His shoulders sagged as he allowed Lizzie to fill his arms with items.  "That one girl almost have me her number."

"Sure, Ed.  Whatever you say."  Lizzie squatted, hauling a heavy box up with her.

"Is that the last of it?"

"Yup!"  Lizzie smiled excitedly, jumping out of the trailer.

Edwin's smile was short-lived.  "Great, now we'll have to do the same thing for Derek."  He veered away from Lizzie.

"Whoa, wait!  This way!"  Lizzie nodded her head in the direction she wanted to go.

"The door's this way, Lizzie."  Edwin's forehead puckered as he glanced from Lizzie to the door.

Lizzie shook her head, walking the opposite way.  "This is a shortcut."

"You're telling me this now?"  Edwin's mouth fell open.  "On the very last load?"

"Be thankful I told you at all."  She called over her shoulder, "Come on, Sherlock."

Grumbling, Edwin trailed after her.

Derek lounged, completely at home in Casey's bed.  He watched Casey scurry around the room with his hands behind his head.

"George?"  Casey called, "Can you hang my bulletin board above my desk?  Right here."

Nodding, George set to work.

"Mom, can you hang the curtains?"

"Of course, sweetie."  Nora looked excited as she picked up the material.  "I just love these so much."

"Smarti?  Will you sort my highlighters and pens into the drawer?"

"Roger, Smasey!"  Marti mocked a salute.

"What?  No job for me, Princess?"

Casey shot a glare Derek's way.  "Just stay out of the way, jerk."

"Aye aye, cap'."  He sunk deeper into her pillows, smirking.  "Sure you don't need help with any... desirables?  You know I'm rather good at tying them together... among other things."

Hands covering her pink cheeks, Casey turned away.  She sniffed, "No, thank you."

"How about sorting?  I know this crazy method of color-coding.  Might take four weeks, but I can sticker everything."

"Must you mock the system?"

"The system deserves a mocking."

"The system does not!  It helped you and your sorry butt!"

"My butt is anything but sorry."

"Stop relating everything to your butt."

"You're the one that brought it up!"

"It's an expression, Derek!  I wouldn't bring it up."

"It's not the only thing you can bring up, is it, Case?"

Casey's jaw dropped and Derek's tongue poked at the inside of his cheek as he appraised her blush.

Lizzie interrupted Casey's fumble for words with a shout, "This is the last of it!"

"'Bout time too."  Edwin added as the pair set their boxes down in front of Casey's closet.

Nora consulted her watch.  "I know you're anxious to get everything in place, Miss Case, but we really need to get Derek unloaded."

A pout sprang to Casey's lips, but she nodded.  "You're right, Mom."

Smiling, Nora scanned Casey's dorm.  "I'm excited for you.  I think you're going to have an excellent time here.  And this room is really coming together.  Before you know it, it'll feel like home."

"I hope so."  Casey bit her lip as she studied her new room.

Giving Casey a one-armed hug, Marti giggled, "I love Casey's Corner, Smasey.  It's like your own secret hideout."

"I think it's neat."  Lizzie agreed, "You can have a roommate, yet still have your privacy."

"It'll be great for studying."  George encouraged.  "You'll have your own space."

Beaming, Casey agreed, "You guys are right.  It'll be private and I'll enjoy that."  Her brow suddenly knitted.  "Although, I'm not looking forward to sharing a bathroom with the rest of the floor."

"Yeah, there was only seven of us."  Marti agreed.  "Now you have an entire floor of girls to share with!"

Edwin shuddered.  "And it's girls!  They take up more bathroom time."

Lizzie retorted, "Maybe, but we're cleaner."  She looked pointedly at Edwin.  "No tinkle sprinkle to deal with."

"Hey!  My aim has gotten better!"

"Kids!"  George interrupted.  "Nora's right.  We need to get moving."  He beckoned at the rest of them to follow him.  "We've got to get Derek unloaded."

Nora ducked under his arm and the pair led Edwin, Lizzie, and Marti out the door.

Derek bumped his shoulder into Casey.  "Come on.  I have a load that needs unloading."  He raised an eyebrow suggestively.  "Now you get to work like a dog for me, McDonald."

"In your dreams, Venturi."

He waited for her to finish locking the door.  Locking eyes, Derek drawled, "Get ready to sweat, Princess."

The first step inside the door, Edwin whistled, "Wow!  Leggett is a lot different than Ban Righ."

"It should be."  Casey reluctantly agreed.  "Leggett is the newest residence hall.  Ban Righ was built in 1925, making it the oldest."

"Look at that TV!"  Edwin pointed.  "Alright, I'm officially a Leggett fan."

At Casey's frown, Lizzie countered, "I like Ban Righ better.  It has more charm and a rich history."

"I'd rather have modern day conveniences like flat screens and ping pong tables.  Right, D?"

"Yeah, Ed."

Edwin nodded like Derek's agreement meant everything.

"It figures."  Casey shook her head at Derek.  "Even with a lottery, you come out ahead.  The newest building?  A single room?  I can't believe your luck."

Derek winked at her.  "Some guys got it."

George, Nora, and Marti joined their cluster by the door with George mirroring Edwin, "Wow!  Look at this place.  Is that a ping pong table I see?"

"Wow, Smerek.  You get to live here?"

"That's right, Smarts.  I do."


"You took the words right out of my mouth, Smarti."  Derek chuckled.

"Alright, gang."  Nora strode forward.  "Let's find Derek's new room."

Together they set off for the large staircase, George and Nora falling behind as soon as they began climbing.

At the top, the hallway split off into two directions.

Stumbling under the weight of a box, Edwin questioned, "Which way do we go?"

"What's the room number, Derek?"  Lizzie asked as she marched over to the first room on the right, peering at the numbers fastened on the wall.

"Eh... I don't... know?"

"It's 238."  Casey supplied.

Derek gaped at her.  "How do you know that?"

She flushed, avoiding his gaze.  "I may have snuck a peek at your room assignment."

He faked an appalled look.  "I'm utterly shocked at your behavior, Miss McDonald."

"Shut up."  Casey muttered under her breath, turning away from him.

Lizzie paced ahead, watching the numbers.  "Okay, guys.  It's this way."

Marti raced ahead of them, joining Lizzie on the search.  Derek's hockey stick swung dangerously back and forth as Marti ran.  They turned a corner, and the stick barely missed the jaw of a young man carrying a stack of empty boxes.

His eyes widened as he dodged out of the way.

"Oopsie daisy!  Sorry!"

The guy smiled down at Marti, a prominent dimple forming in the corner of his mouth.  "No blood, no foul."  He held out a fist for her to bump.  Marti returned it with a giggle and with a nod at Derek, the guy continued down the hall.

Lizzie pulled Marti to the far side of the wall.  "Here, Marti.  Walk over here so you don't kill someone."

"Maybe Marti should play hockey."  Edwin supplied.

Together, Lizzie and Marti pointed to a room on the left, shouting, "Found it!"

"Do you have your key, Mr. I Came Prepared?"  Casey taunted.

Rolling his eyes, Derek pulled the key from his pocket.  "Sure do, Keener Queen.  Stand back."  Dramatically, he pushed her away and cleared the space around his new door.  He popped the door open with a flourish, winking at Casey before he went inside.

Marti rushed in behind him, smiling.  "It's no Casey's Corner, but it's nice too."

Derek snorted.  "Thanks, Smarti."  He set his bag down on the bed and took his hockey stick away from Marti, propping it against the window.

"You're welcome!"

"Marti, you should stand in the hall so Mom and George can find us."  Lizzie suggested.

"Roger, roger!"  Marti skipped out of the room.

Edwin popped inside, stating excitedly, "You're smack dab in the middle of all the action!  I took a walk down the other way and after you hit the corner, there's a whole 'nother section after it."

"Suh-weet."  Derek put his hands on his hips, facing Casey.  "Well, Princess?  Any judgements from the throne?"

Casey bit her lip as her eyes traced the room, taking in the closet by the door, the shelves, and his double bed before jumping over to the desk and then the door into the bathroom.

"A double bed?  Really?"

"I need to snooze in comfort, Case."  His eyes twinkled.  "Jealous?"

"You can get no luckier."

"We'll see about that."  Derek smirked.

Edwin and Lizzie popped out of the bathroom.  "Oh, man!"  Edwin exclaimed, "I'm jealous of your bathroom."

"It's not that exciting, Edwin."  Lizzie rolled her eyes.

"Yeah, but it's attached to his room!"

"He still has to share it."  Lizzie countered.

"Yeah," Edwin retorted, "But only with one person!  Think of all that private time!"

"Gross, Edwin."  Lizzie's nose crinkled.

"Alright, enough dawdling."  Derek caught Edwin's arm.  "Go get my shit."

Edwin sighed, "Yes, Derek."  He slumped out of the room, Lizzie trailing behind him.

Casey hesitated in the doorway, looking back at Derek.

He smirked, "Ah, ah, ah, ah!  You too, Princess."  He gripped her shoulders, turning her around and pushed.  "It's your turn."

Before Lizzie and Casey could take the last curve to Derek's room, a guy with strategically mused hair stopped Casey.  An arm resting on the wall in front of her, he leered successfully displaying his pearly whites.

"Nice to meet you.  The name's Anthony."

Casey gulped as she took a step back.  "Casey."

"Casey."  Anthony repeated, offering his hand.

She grasped it, shaking once before releasing it.  Casey's hands clasped behind her back.

Up ahead, Lizzie stopped in her tracks, realizing that her sister wasn't beside her.  Lizzie frowned as she made eye contact with Casey.

"So, Casey," Anthony continued, "You live on this floor?"

"No," Casey shook her head, "I'm helping my—”

Anthony cut her off, "Well, that's too bad.  A girl like you would add a lot of charm to this place.  Will I see you around?"

"Um, well—” Casey hesitated, "I doubt it."

"I can fix that.  Maybe you and I can get to know each other better.  A little welcome to the neighborhood for both of us?"  He winked, reaching for her arm.  "You look pretty inviting."

Casey ripped herself away from Anthony with a glare.  "How dare you."

The shock showed on Anthony's arrogant face.  "Excuse me?"

"I said, how dare you!  Implying that I'm a cheap, easy time!  Well, newsflash, buddy!  I'm anything but easy!"  With a final, 'Hmpf!' Casey stomped away with her head held high, Derek's hockey bag swinging precariously on her shoulder.

Lizzie beamed.  "You tell him, Casey!"

"Where do you want it, bro?"  Edwin swayed under the box.

"Anywhere, I don't care."

"Der-rek, you need a system!  The room is filling up and we don't have anywhere to go with the rest of your things!"

"I have plenty of systems!"

"Useful systems, Derek.  Useful!"

"Alright, Edwin.  I changed my mind."  Derek clapped.  "Stack all those boxes over there."  at the look on Edwin's face, Derek shouted, "Come on, get to it.  Time's a-wasting."  Derek turned on his heel.  "Lizzie, unpack my hockey things.  Smarti, make the bed.  Casey, hang up my clothes."  Derek lounged on the edge of his desk, his hands behind his back.  He sighed, "You're right, Princess.  Life is better with a system."

Casey rolled her eyes but fished his clothes bag out from a pile of things.  "Do you get off to barking orders?"

"Careful, Case."  Derek warned with a grin.  "Don't ask a question, you don't want the answer to."

George and Nora interrupted Casey's comeback as they stepped through the door.  Straining, George carried Derek's fridge through the door, Nora guiding him.  "Ed, help me out here."

"I got it!"  Lizzie called, gripping the other side of the fridge, and helping George lower it.

Sighing, George wiped his forehead with the inside of his shirt.  "Thanks, kiddo."

"Come on, Georgie."  Nora pulled him out the door.  "Let's go sit in the lounge and you can cool down."

"Sounds heavenly, Nora."  George allowed Nora to steer him away.

Edwin scooted the last box across the room and took a seat on it.

"I don't think so!"  Derek jumped off his desk and hauled Edwin up by the back of the shirt.  "There's more stuff downstairs."  He shoved Edwin towards the door.  "Bring my beanbag next."  He smirked at Casey, "So, I can bark orders in comfort."

"Come on."  Lizzie led Edwin out the door.  "There's another staircase that's closer."

"How do you find shortcuts so fast?"  Edwin gaped at his step-sister.

"They don't call me Watson for nothing."  Their voices tapered off as they made their way down the hall.

"Why are you even here?  This isn't your room to organize."

"Oh, please.  You lack basic organizational skills.  You need me."

"Casey... I know you can't help your 'Princess Perfection Principles', but why won't you step foot outside my door?"

Casey hesitated, "Alright, so I might be avoiding someone."

Derek's brow crinkled.  "Huh?"

Wringing her hands, Casey trailed off, "There's a guy on your floor I rather not see again..."

A beat passed before Derek muttered, "Typical.  You've been here an hour and you've already got admirers."

Casey shrugged as she carefully shelved his books.  "I wouldn't call him an admirer."

"Well, if it's the choice between dealing with your keeneritis or taking out your trash later—” Derek pretended to think on it, his pointer finger drumming a rhythm on his chin.  "I guess you can stay."

Rolling her eyes gently, a shy smile peeked from the corner of Casey's lips.  She held up a textbook, "Well, if I don't then who's going to explain to you what these foreign objects are?"

"Har har, Case."  Derek rolled his eyes back at her.  "But if you stay in here, you're doing things MY way, capeesh?"

Ignoring him, Casey sat in his desk chair, already refiling his notebooks.

"Nora?"  George questioned, "What are you doing out here?"

"I felt like I was intruding in there."  Nora winced, wrapping her arms around herself.

"Nonsense, Nora.  You know Derek things of you as a mother figure."

"Oh, I know that, George.  I meant—” She inclined her head to the open door, where Derek and Casey were bickering.  "It's pretty crowded in there."

A crash rang out, followed by a loud, "DER-REK!" and a "CASE-EY!"

George chuckled.  "Alright, I see what you mean."  Sobering, George asked, "Then what's bothering you?"

"It's silly."  Nora looked down.

Lifting Nora's head up by a finger under her chin, George locked eyes with her.  "Nothing you feel is silly."

Nora lowered her voice, "The more I stay here, the more self-conscious I feel."

His forehead puckered.  "What do you mean?"

With a quick glance around, Nora elaborated, "All the other mothers... we're sending our babies off to university... and here I am pregnant at my age!"

"Oh, Nora."  George wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to his chest.  "Nora, this baby is nothing but a blessing.  It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks."  He pulled back to look her in the eyes.  "I love you and I want the whole world to know it."

"Georgie."  Nora sniffed, throwing her arms around his neck, and burying her face against him.  "Thank you.  I love you so much."

He rubbed his back soothingly.  "What do you say, we take a break?  Let the kids deal with the rest?"

Nodding her agreement, Nora found his hand and squeezed.

"My love for you is like diarrhea... I just can't hold it in!"

Lizzie cried disgustingly, "EDWIN!"  She grabbed him by the arm and dragged him forcefully down the hall.  "Alright, that's it.  I can't take this any longer!"  Edwin's feet flailed as he tried to catch the rest of his body.  She didn't let up her pace until they were in the parking lot.

As they drew even with the trailer, Lizzie rounded on him.  "I don't get you, Edwin.  Why are you embarrassing yourself like this?"

Edwin looked down, shuffling his feet.

Her voice softened.  "Okay, what is it, Ed?"

"I have a... bet with Derek."  Edwin mumbled.

"A bet?"

He nodded solemnly.

"You're embarrassing yourself for a bet?"

"I'm not!"  Edwin drew himself to his full height.

"Surely, even you can recognize that—” Lizzie pointed over his shoulder towards the building.  "All those girls are laughing at you."

Edwin deflated.  "That's who I am, Liz.  People laugh at me."

Lizzie shook her head.  "There's a difference between cracking jokes and allowing yourself to be degraded.  And I won't watch you let yourself be used."

Not meeting her eyes, Edwin sighed.  "Alright, I'll tone it down."

Suddenly, Lizzie punched him in the arm.

"Ouch!"  Edwin shouted, face filled with surprise.  "What was that for?"  He gripped his arm in pain.

"Just checking something."

Grunting, he massaged his injury.  "Well, that was uncalled for."

Lizzie beamed.  "Oh, good!  You passed the test!"

"What test?"

"I was checking to see if you were ready to stand up for yourself."

"Well, next time just ask me, alright?"

"Will do, bro."  Lizzie whistled a tune to herself as she crawled into the back of the trailer.  She threw some things out to him before she jumped down.  "That was the last box."

"Hallelujah, I'm exhausted."  Edwin leaned heavily against the trailer.

"Ditto."  Lizzie rested beside him.

"I'm not going to university."  Edwin stated, "That way I don't have to haul any boxes."

"Are you going to live with Mom and George forever then?"

Edwin pretended to think about it.  "Yup!  I'll live in the attic for eternity.  Maybe even become a recluse.  That's some quality goals right there."

Laughing, Lizzie shoved his shoulder.  "Just grab a box and let's finish this.  Alright, funny man?"

With a smile, Edwin bumped her back.  "We got this, sis."

George, Nora, and Marti lined Derek's royal blue bedspread.  Nora wrapped an arm around Marti as she sat dangling her feet off the bed.

"I still think Casey's Corner is cooler, Smerek."

Derek chuckled, closing his closet door, and crossing the room to perch beside Casey on his desk.  "Well, that's not something you hear every day."  Derek teased, bumping into her.  "Casey and cool in the same sentence."

Casey tossed him a glare.  "I don't know, Smarti."  She sighed wistfully.  "A double bed and a semi-private bathroom?  I think I'd trade."

"So, you'd give me the room in an all-girls residence hall?"  Derek stuck out his hand to shake hers.  "Deal!"

Rolling her eyes, Casey smacked his hand away.

Interrupting the inevitable battle, Nora mediated, "I think both of your rooms are lovely."  She eyed George over Marti's head.  "What do you think, George?"

"Oh," George fumbled on the spot, "Great, really great."

The group turned towards the door as something heavy ran into it.  From the other side, Edwin's muffled voice hollered, "Ouch!  Hey, who closed the door?"

Marti sprang from the bed, swiftly opening the door to reveal Edwin and his red nose.

"Edwin!"  Marti asked, "Did you run into the door with your nose?"

He huffed.  "No, I'm trying out for Pinocchio."

Not missing a beat, Marti sang, "I think you'd have better luck going for Rudolph."

Lizzie's voice rang out from behind Edwin, "Hurry up, Ed.  This box is heavy."

He shuffled forward, allowing Lizzie into the room.  The pair deposited their armfuls onto the floor.

Straightening up, Lizzie sighed, "Well, that was the last of it."  She rubbed her back.  "Thankfully."

Edwin sunk to the floor, spread eagle.  "It's too late.  I'm dead."

George stretched his back, looking around the room.  "Well, Derek.  I think your dorm suits you."

"Yeah—” Derek smirked.  "It's pretty cool."  He elbowed Casey.  "Unlike Casey."

Casey rolled her eyes.  "I'll have you know—”

"No!"  Marti hopped in front of them, holding her hands up.  "Not happening!  You're not arguing."

"Well, I suppose we better be on our way home."  Nora suggested with a glance at her watch.

Derek looked around his new room.  "One last din-din for old time's sake?"

Edwin's ears perked up, his head lifting slightly off the floor.  "Chinese?"

"YAS!"  Marti jumped up and down happily.

George laughed.  "Chinese it is."  He stood, pulling the keys from his pocket, and twirling them around his fingers.  "Load up, kids."  He held a hand to Nora, helping her up carefully.  She offered him a smile in return.

As Nora paced by Casey, they linked arms, making their way out into the hall together.

George clapped Derek on the back as he locked up.  "Good idea, son."

"Thanks, Dad."  Derek sent him a genuine smile.  "And you know, thanks for everything else too."

Wrapping an arm around Derek's shoulder, George beamed as he led them down the hall.  "Anytime, Derek."

Up ahead, Lizzie laughed as they watched Edwin running through the hall.  "That's the fastest he's moved all day."

Marti giggled.  "Maybe we should have dangled an eggroll in front of him sooner."

Lizzie shook her head.  "Is the secret to all Venturi's through their stomachs?"

Her head cocked to the side as Marti thought about it.  "Pretty much.  At least the ones I know."

"Sweet and sour pork."

"Szechwan vegetable."

Edwin rolled his eyes, grabbing a plastic cup and heading to the pop machine.  Lizzie followed his example, pushing him aside so she could get to the lemonade.

"Lizzie!"  Edwin battled for dominance but was no match against Lizzie.  Reluctantly, he backed away and waited for her to finish.  She sipped delicately at her drink as she picked out a large rectangular table.

Simultaneously, Edwin and Lizzie sunk into chairs across from each other, sharing a glare before sitting in silence. 

Marti slurped noisily at her drink as she slipped into her traditional seat next to Edwin.  "Can you believe they have grape?"  She asked the pair excitedly.  "New favorite place!"

"You haven't even had their food yet, Marti."  Lizzie shook her head, bemused.

"I have faith."  Marti shrugged.  "If they have grape pop, then they have great taste."

Together, Derek and Casey slid into their usual seats, throwing a look at each other as they set their things on the table.

"Smerek, can we come here when I visit?"

"Sure, Smarts."

"Actually, scratch that.  I'm coming to live here.  Smasey, can I live with you in your corner?"

Casey smiled, leaning towards the girl.  "But Smarti, what about school?"

Marti's nose crinkled.  "Screw that!"

"Marti!"  George reprimanded as he sat down next to her.  "Language!"

Pouting, Marti went back to her grape pop.

"Beef lo Mein?"  The waitress asked.  Derek raised his hand in acknowledgement as Marti and Nora sent each other significant looks, failing to hide their giggles.

Derek rose an eyebrow into the air.  "What's so funny?"

"Nothing!"  Nora and Marti sang in harmony, causing them to burst into another round of giggles.

Shaking his head, Derek dove into the heap of noodles.  "I'm too hungry to question it."

The waitress was back with another plate, successfully cutting off Nora's giggles when she questioned, "Broccoli chicken?"

"Mmm!"  Nora hummed, "Looks delicious.  Thank you."

Nodding, the waitress spoke to George, who was the only one yet to receive their meal.  "I'll be right back, sir."

"No problem."  George assured her before turning to Derek and Casey.  "So, are you two ready for the big day then?"

Derek swallowed loudly and Casey paused, a piece of tofu halfway to her mouth.

Once again, appearing at George's side, the waitress cut through the growing silence.  "Pepper steak?"

George thanked her, picking up his utensil and glancing expectantly at Derek and Casey.

Casey answered first, "I'm excited for classes."

"And I'm ready for hockey."

Edwin laughed, "That's the brother I know!"

"When's your first practice?"  George asked excitedly.

"There's a freshmen only practice tomorrow morning and then starting Monday, we join the rest of the team conditioning in the morning and practicing in the afternoon."

"You remembered all that, but you didn't know your room number?"

Food leaking out of his mouth, Derek retorted, "Priorities, Spacey."

"Gross."  Casey mumbled back.

Lizzie's brow creased.  "Why just freshmen on Sunday?"

Chuckling darkly, Derek replied, "I'm pretty sure it's our initiation into university sports."

"Ouch."  Lizzie winced.  "Good luck with that."

"I'll be fine."  Derek puffed out his chest, smirking.  "I'm a hockey stud, you know."

"Ha!"  Casey mocked, "But you're a lazy hockey stud."

Derek's eyebrow raised dangerously high.  "What was that, Case?"

Casey cleared her throat.  "I said you were lazy."

"That's not what you said."

"Sure, it was."

"No, it wasn't."



"Casey.  Derek."  Nora warned.

Immediately, Casey looked down at her dish.  "Sorry, Mom."

Nora stated, "Well, I, for one know you'll both do great things whether it's hockey or courses or anything else that comes up in your lives."

Edwin piped up, smiling from ear to ear.  "Casey's going to be the first in their class!"

Casey smiled her thanks at him.

Lizzie jumped in, "Derek's going to be team captain!"

Derek offered Lizzie knuckles across the table, and she happily returned them.

George nodded, rice falling from his fork.  "They're going to make a lot of friends."

Marti added, "And Smerek and Smasey are going to be best friends."

"But Derek's going to play a lot of pranks on Casey."  Edwin countered.

"But Casey's going to help Derek pass his classes."  Lizzie predicted.

"But they're both going to miss us more than anything."  Marti proclaimed.

"They're going to do their best and make us so proud."  Nora teared up.

"And we'll all be there to support them every step of the way."  George finished.

Swallowing his mouthful, Derek held up his glass.  "Cheers to Queen's!"

The rest followed suit, echoing his statement as they clinked glasses.  "Cheers to Queen's!"

"And cheers to the best family in Ontario!"  Casey supplied before they could lower their glasses.

"Cheers to us!"

"Hear, hear!"

The McDonald-Venturi's sipped from their beverages, completing their toast.

"It sure would be nice if I knew what courses you were taking, Derek."  Casey tried again.

Marti piped up, "Give it a rest, Smasey.  You can hound Smerek after we leave."

"Amen, sister!"  Edwin gave his little sister a high-five.  "I think we've had enough Derek versus Casey for one day."

"No fair, guys."  Derek protested.  "Then it'll be one keener to one slacker."

"Scared, Venturi?"  Casey taunted.

"Nah."  Derek leaned his chair back, smirking.  "We'll be best buds, Princess.  You'll see."

Casey rolled her eyes.  "Doubtful, D."

"Well, here we are."  George gazed around the parking lot near Leggett.

"I guess it's time to say goo-goodbye so we can get home."  Nora choked on her words.

Heeding Nora's words, Derek turned to Edwin, the beginning of a grin in place.  "Final count?"

Edwin hung his head, mumbling, "Three."

"Sorry, didn't hear you."



"Okay, none."

Derek snickered, holding his palm out.  "Pay up!"

Reluctantly, Edwin pulled his wallet out and emptied its contents into Derek's waiting hand.

"Pleasure doing business with you."  Derek smirked, tucking the money into his own wallet.  He grew serious, "Hey, listen.  You're the Venturi of the house now... at least when I'm not there."  He hit Edwin's shoulder fondly.  "Make me proud, bro."

Edwin smiled widely, ignoring his own tears.  "Will do, D.  But isn't Dad the Venturi of the house?"

With a great guffaw, Derek retorted, "Really?  Where have you been your whole life?"

Laughing, Edwin nodded.  "Alright, you've got a point."

They looked at each other for a beat before Derek opened his arms and Edwin dove inside.

Derek smiled as he ruffled Edwin's hair.  Edwin shook his head, laughing as he pulled away.  Holding up his fist, Edwin waited for Derek to return the fist bump.  After impact, they both exploded in rocket sounds, pretending to blow up their hands.

"Miss you, D."  Edwin began to retreat, but Derek stopped him.



Reaching in his pocket, Derek pulled something out and held his closed fist out to Edwin.  Confused, Edwin fist bumped him again.

"No, Edwin."  Derek rolled his twinkling eyes.

Cautiously, Edwin held out his palm and Derek pressed the cool item into his flesh.  Edwin's eyes widened as he delicately picked up the coin.  "Your lucky loonie?  The one Mom and Dad gave you after you scored your first goal?"

"Yeah."  Derek clasped the back of his neck awkwardly.  "Figured you'd need it more than me.  Gotta keep Thompson High in shape and everything."

Leaping forward, Edwin smothered Derek in a bear hug.  "I love you."

Derek clasped Edwin's back, voice gruff, "Love you too, Ed."

"Smasey?"  Marti tugged at the older girl's sleeve.

"Yes, Smarti?"

"I made this for you."  Holding out a folded piece of paper, Marti explained, "It's us."

Casey took it, unfolding it and holding it for both to look at it.

"See?  That's you in pink, me in purple, and Smerek in blue and gold.  And this heart here is for our special club."

Blinking back tears, Casey thanked her.  "I love it.  Thank you."

"Will you hang it up?"

"Of course, munchkin.  I'll look at it first thing every morning."

Satisfied, Marti threw her arms around Casey, who desperately clutched her step-sister back.

When Marti broke the hug, she smiled sadly.  "Now it's time for the princess to ride off into the sunset with her prince."

Casey laughed through her tears.  "I don't think the writers meant for the prince to be a car, Smarti."

Marti's brows furrowed.  "Who said anything about a car?"

Before Casey could respond, Lizzie interrupted, quietly joining Casey by her side.  Casey's lip trembled as she looked at her sister.  Marti gave Casey one last squeeze, sliding away.

Lizzie held out an envelope, a sheepish smile etched on her face.

"What's this?"  Casey questioned.

"I wrote you back."

"Oh, Liz."  Tears leaked from Casey's eyes.  "Really?"

"It was the least I could do."

"That is so sweet.  But you already did the roast and everything—"

"I wanted to, Case."  Lizzie held up a hand.  "No buts!"

Casey gave a watery smile and opened her arms.  Lizzie met her halfway and they snuggled into a warm hug.

"Good luck."

"You too.  I love you."  Casey gripped Lizzie's back fiercely.

"I love you too."  A special smile worked its way onto Lizzie's face.

"Derek—" George sighed.  "Just behave yourself."

"Dad!"  Derek gave his father a shit-eating smirk.  "Have you no faith in me?"

"No, Derek.  I really don't."

"Wow, thanks a lot.  Really nice on the ego there."

George shook his head, a smile creeping up the corners of his mouth.  "Your ego can take it."

Derek snickered, giving his dad a small shove.

Holding out a hand for Derek to shake, George chuckled.

Derek grasped his hand, and they shook firmly.  Simultaneously, they pulled the other into a hug, their hands still clasped between them.

"Thanks, Dad."

George landed a kiss on Derek's head before he pulled away.  "Love you, son."

"Love you, Dad.  Now stop it.  You're making me look uncool."

Laughing, George clasped Derek on the shoulder.

At the sound of Nora's voice, the pair looked up.  "Hold on to that boy, George.  It's my turn to squeeze him."  Nora smiled playfully, but there were tears in her eyes.

George pretended to tighten his grip, crying, "I've got him, Nora!"

The trio laughed together as Nora stopped in front of Derek.

"Good luck, Derek."  Nora reached in for a hug.  She embraced him as she reminded, "Do your work.  And make sure you call home.  Keep up with your studies.  Don't get into trouble.  Be careful.  And for goodness' sake, don't forget to do your laundry, Derek."

Derek released their embrace, drawling, "Nora, don't worry.  That's what I have the keener for."  Derek shot a wink at Casey over Nora's shoulder.

"Der-rek!  I heard that!  You can do your own laundry!"

With a chuckle, Nora patted Derek's cheek lovingly.  "Good luck."

She waddled away as Lizzie took her turn walking up to him.

Derek bumped his shoulder into Lizzie's.  "Hey, look after everyone 'kay?  You are the only sane one in this bunch."

Lizzie smirked a Venturi worthy grin.  "I know."  She turned serious.  "Take care of my sister."

He winked.  "I'll do my best to keep the keener on a leash."

Amused, Lizzie bit the inside of her cheek.  "Let me know if you need reinforcements."

His grin broke out.  "I'll keep you on speed dial, kid."

A gentle laugh slipped out of Lizzie, her eyes dancing with mirth as she reached for him, her arms encircling his waist.  Derek chuckled, mussing her hair, and gripping her around the shoulders.

Lizzie pulled back and smiled.  "Good luck, Derek.  I expect a full hockey recap."

"Will do, Liz.  Good luck at Thompson and with soccer and everything."  He held up a fist for her to bump.

"Aye-aye, captain."  Lizzie returned the bump with a grin.  "See you, D."

Awkwardly, Edwin stood in front of Casey, his hands dug deep into his pockets.  "Oh, screw what Derek says.  I'm the sentimental type."  He threw his arms around Casey, fiercely hugging her.

Surprised, Casey hugged him back, settling into his arms.

Edwin whispered near her ear, "Love you, sis."

Her eyes misted over.  "I love you too, Ed."

"Thanks for the letter.  No one's ever done that for me before."

Casey squeezed tighter.  "You deserve it and more."

He pulled away, patting her back.  "I'll document everything."

"You better.  I can't believe I'm going to miss so much."

"Hey, it's good."  Edwin gestured around.  "You've got bigger and better things now."

Her lips wobbled, but Casey smiled.

Edwin grinned back.  "See you at Derekus?"

Casey chocked on a half-laugh/half-sob.  "Derekus it is."

Marti's eyes pooled with unshed tears.

"Oh, come here, Smarti."  Derek picked her up, her legs wrapping around his waist as he carried her a few meters from the family.  He set her down, his back to the group as he squatted down.  "Smarti, don't cry... please."

"I can't help it, Smerek.  I'm really sad."

"Hey, chin up."  He took her chin in hand.  "You have to keep everyone on their toes, you know."

A smile slowly spread on Marti's face.  "I can do that in my sleep."

Derek smiled, reaching to nudge her shoulder.  "That's my little sister."

She bumped him back.  "That's my big bro."  Marti grew serious.  "I have something for you."

"Oh, yeah?"

Reaching in her pocket, she held out her hand to him.  Derek placed his hand under hers and clasped the object as she dropped it into his palm.  He uncurled his fingers, revealing a blue and yellow beaded bracelet that spelled out 'SMARTI' in bold letters.  "You made this for me, Smarts?"

Marti nodded, holding up her arm, a similar purple bracelet with a matching 'SMEREK' embossed across her wrist.  "I don't want you to forget me."

Pulling her into a desperate hug, he mumbled into her hair, "You know I could never forget you."

They held tightly to one another for a few more seconds before Marti pulled away to look at him.  Her eyes widened.  "Smerek?"  Marti's eyes frantically scanned his face.  "Are you crying?"

Derek closed his eyes, but a tear leaked out anyway.  "Yeah.  Swear on the secret code you won't tell anyone?"

Reaching out a small hand, Marti gently brushed the tear off his cheek.  "I promise, Smerek."  She kissed where she wiped the tear away.

Sniffing, Derek kissed the top of her head.  "Love you to the moon and back, Smarti Smarts."

"Love you more, Smerek."

"Casey."  Without another word, George opened his arms, encircling Casey in his strong embrace.  Casey rested her head on his shoulder as he rubbed her back.  "You'll do brilliantly."

With a sniff, Casey thanked him.  "Thanks, George.  I'm so nervous."

"Try not to be, dear.  And Derek will be around if you need him."

Wiping at her eyes, Casey pulled away.  "I know."

George patted her back as Nora approached.  They reached out for each other at the same time.

Together, they cried.  Nora caressing Casey's hair as Casey gripped onto her mother.  After several moments, Casey pulled away, covering her eyes.

"Mom, I—” Casey choked.

Nora shushed her, a sad smile forming on her lips.  "You don't have to say anything, Miss Case.  I know."

Casey blinked away the tears, nodding as she went in for another hug.

This time when they parted, Nora spoke, "I love you.  Call me whenever you can, honey."  She wiped the tears from her daughter's cheeks with the pads of her thumbs.

"I will."  Casey whispered.  "I love you too."

With a kiss on the cheek, Nora stepped away, joining George by his side.

"Come here, Derek."  George indicated the space next to Casey.  Derek strutted over, bumping shoulders with Casey as the rest of the family gathered around them.

"We got you a little going away gift."  Nora gave the pair a watery smile.

"I hope it's cash."

Casey slapped Derek's arm.  "What is it, Mom?"

Nora reached into her purse, pulling out two identical wrapped packages.  She handed them over with a smile.  "Open them."

Derek messily ripped his open while Casey popped open the seams.

"Aww, Mom!  A family picture!"  Casey cooed.

"It's nice, but I like the one with the finger up Edwin's nose better."


"Just saying."

"And—” Rolling his eyes, George reached for his wallet, handing them each a wad of bills.  "Here.  This is for you too."


"Thanks, George!"

"You're welcome.  I guess we should get on the road."  He wrapped an arm around Nora, who nodded.

"Come on, Casey."  George wrapped his other arm around her.  "If you want, we'll drop you off at your dorm on our way out."

Casey nodded, wiping her tears as she allowed George to steer them to the van.

Marti leaped across the parking lot into Derek's arms for a final hug.

Derek pulled her closer, mumbling into her ear, "Remember, Smarti, the moon."

She nodded weakly into his chest, repeating, "Moon, Smerek."

Unlocking her door, Casey anxiously looked to her right.  Taking in the empty bed, Casey's shoulders slumped as she sighed.

Dejectedly, she traveled to her desk, sinking into the chair, and experimentally sliding back and forth on the wheels.  Casey straightened a few items on the desk absentmindedly before tucking Lizzie's letter safely in her journal.

Casey reached for her phone, quickly typing, "I'm here and settled.  Miss you tons, Em."

Her eyes watered and she blinked rapidly.  "Okay, Casey.  Pull yourself together."

Wiping at her eyes, she stared determinedly at the unpacked boxes.  Hastily, Casey jumped up, already reaching for her clipboard.

Three sets of sniffles came from the back of the van.  Nora lowered her visor, peering inconspicuously at their children from the mirror.  Tears welled in her eyes as she watched the trio wipe their faces.

Nora started to say something to George but stopped after seeing his own tear streaks.  She bit her lip, croaking, "Georgie?"

With one hand clutching the steering wheel, George rubbed desperately at his leaking eyes.  "Later, Nora."

Nodding, Nora watched the setting sun.

At the knock, Derek picked his head off his pillow, curiously studying his door.  He sprang up, kicking boxes out of his way as he rushed to the door.

"Miss me already, Prin—” Derek cut himself off.  "Who are you?"

"Cameron Pearson."  He smartly held out a hand for Derek to shake.  "Next-door neighbor.  We share a bathroom."

Derek grasped his hand firmly.  Cameron winced, withdrawing his hand quickly.


"Nice to make your acquaintance."  Cameron nodded.  "I'm hoping this arrangement will work out for both of us.  To prevent any unfavorable outcomes, I've come up with a list of rules.  Here's your copy of the contract."  He held out a thick packet of papers.

"Hey, man."  Derek smirked easily.  "No one's probably had a chance to tell you yet, but I'm not one for rules."

A deep frown creased the corners of Cameron's mouth, his arm still holding the document out to Derek.  With the other hand, he adjusted the collar of his polo.  He sniffed, "It wasn't a suggestion.  I expect you to follow these simple bullet points."  Clearing his throat, Cameron flipped open the rulebook, reading, "For instance, rule number one is no entering the washroom before explicitly knocking.  Rule number two—”

"Listen, buddy.  I'm going to stop you right there.  Here's how this is going to work."  Derek crossed his arms.  "You stay away from me, and I'll stay away from you.  Understand?"

As Cameron opened his mouth to argue, Derek cut across him, "Great!  Adios!"  Derek shut the door on Cameron's outraged face.

Derek paced around his room, looking in the boxes as he mumbled to himself, "Alright, Case, where did you put it?"

Bending over a box, he pulled out an object with a shout of 'Aha!'  Crossing to his desk, he ripped open a drawer and seized a roll of tape.  Derek marched to the bathroom door and hurled it open.

With his teeth, Derek tore off a piece of tape, smacking it over the sign.  After he was finished securing the edges, Derek stepped back to admire his work.  His beloved 'Keep Out' sign proudly stood out against the wooden door.

"Much better."

Casey tucked herself into bed, the large lavender and gray Aztec flower on her comforter forming to her body shape.  She laid alone in the dark, staring up at the ceiling until her phone dinged.

Rolling for her phone charging by her bedside, Casey did a double take as she squinted at the notification.

"Finally brushed my teeth without scaly elbows in my side."

Chocking on a part laugh, part frustrated sigh, Casey typed out, "Enjoy it while you can!"

Before she could set her phone down, it dinged again.

"Beware of your shampoo..."

"DEREK!"  Casey pushed send.

"Night keener."

A smile grew on Casey's face.  "Goodnight... jerk."

Derek smiled down at his phone, tossing it on to his nightstand.  He ripped his shirt over his head and threw back the covers.

His necklace dangled on his bare chest as he carefully slid Marti's bracelet off and placed it gently beside his phone.

Jumping into bed, Derek instantly cuddled into the cool sheets and sighed.  Suddenly groaning, he sat up, grasping around in the dark for his alarm clock.

Grumbling under his breath, he furiously pushed the buttons before slamming it back into place and falling backwards into bed.

Nora led the bleary-eyed family into the house.  They dropped their things by the coatrack, too tired to hang anything up.

George came inside last, locking the door behind him with one eye shut.  He yawned, "Bedtime, kids."

"I think you'll have to carry me, Daddy."

"Aww, munchkin.  I can't even lift my arms tonight."

Pouting, Marti sighed dramatically, "Then I'll have to sleep on the couch."

Everyone laughed softly.

Lizzie wrapped an arm around Marti's shoulders.  "Come on, Marti.  I think we can make it upstairs if we do it together."

"What about me?"  Edwin whined.

Marti offered her hand.  "I'll pull, you push."

Edwin accepted his sister's hand.  "Alright.  On the count of three."




With moans and groans, the trio set off up the stairs.

Chuckling, George shook his head.  "They're something."

Concealing a massive yawn, Nora nodded.

"Come on.  Let's get to bed, Nora."  He wrapped an arm around her shoulder, pulling her towards the kitchen.

With eyes barely opened, Nora sunk into him.  "I could sleep for a whole day, George."

Approaching the locker room, Derek groaned, "It's way too early to be awake."

"Amen."  A guy nodded at him.  "It's only been a few weeks, but I'm beat."

Raising an eyebrow, Derek asked, "What sport?"

"Rugby.  You?"

"Hockey.  Today's my first day."

The guy chuckled darkly.  "I've heard horror stories about Coach Wilson."  They reached the fork between their respective locker rooms.  "Good luck, man."

Wincing, Derek gave a little wave as he ducked into the locker room.  He stopped a few feet inside reading the sign, 'Freshmen lockers on east wall.'  Derek followed the arrow to the right, heading to an open locker in the middle of the set.

Passing by other players, Derek mumbled, "Sup" several times.

As Derek threw his bag down, someone clasped his shoulder.  "Hey, dude.  Aren't you from Leggett Hall, second floor?"

Derek turned to find a muscly tanned young man, his dark textured hair brushed back and peeking out from underneath a Queen's hockey cap.

"Yeah, I am."

He nodded.  "I thought so."  Offering his hand, the guy explained, "That's my floor too.  Jay Sutherland."

"Derek Venturi."  They shook hands firmly.

"So, that was your little sister that tried to take me out with this?"  He nudged the hockey stick propped against Derek's locker.

"I thought I recognized your from somewhere."  Derek chuckled.  "Sorry about that.  My sister's... well my sister."

Jay chucked his bag onto the floor next to Derek's.  "It's all good.  To be fair, I recognized your hockey stick before I recognized you.  Something tries to take out your face, you don't forget it too soon."  Jay's dimple deepened.

Derek cracked a grin, starting to change out of his street clothes.  "Nah, I suppose not.  What position you play?"

"Forward."  His shirt flew over his head as Jay elaborated, "I prefer right wing, but I'm willing to play anything as long as I play.  You?"

"I've always played center, but hell, I'll be goalie if I have to."

Snickering, Jay pulled his pads out of his bag.  "Cheers, man."

Derek glanced around the locker room as he searched for his pads.  "Know anybody here?"

"So far only one."  He gestured to a burly guy.  "That's Saunders.  He goes by Rock though.  Pretty tough goalie.  My team played his in high school.  You know anybody?"

"Nah, I think I've seen a couple of these guys on the ice before, but I don't know anybody."

Fully dressed, Jay sat down on the bench.  "I'm sure it'll be an interesting few days."

Behind Jay's back, Derek rose an eyebrow.  "You on scholarship?"

"Walk-on.  You?"

"Scholarship... for now.  Doubt I'll be around for long if I have to keep my grades up."

Snorting, Jay looked at Derek as he sat beside him.  "Doubting your ability already?"

"On the ice?  Never."  Derek made a noise.  "In the classroom?  Well, that's what my little brother's for."

"You get your brother to do your homework?"

Derek chuckled.  "Yeah, he knows a lot more than me."

Jay laughed.  "Is he ready for university work?"

"We'll see."  Derek smiled easily.  "If not, I'll have to look for new recruits."

"What's your major?"


Nodding, Jay volunteered, "I'm a Software Design major."

Instantly, Derek quirked an eyebrow.  "You game?"

Jay's dimple appeared.  "Does a bear shit in the woods?"

"You bring it with?"

"Of course, man."

"Dude, yes!  I'm coming over."

Snorting, Jay asked, "You not bring yours?"

Derek was already shaking his head.  "Games, yeah.  But no TV."

"I think I can help you there."

Before Derek could respond, the coach slammed into the locker room, his assistant trailing faithfully behind him.  The discrepancy between their statures looked comical.

"Welcome to your first practice, fresh meat!"  The coach's jaw tightened.  He placed his hands on his hips, highlighting his tall frame.  "The name's Coach Wilson.  I'm the boss.  It's my job to whip your sorry asses into shape so we can win a championship.  My word is law.  And that's all you need to know about me."  He clapped his assistant on the shoulder, the sound echoing throughout the locker room.  "This here is Coach Smith."

The short and squat man nodded stiffly, the lines of his mouth never changing.

Coach Wilson bit, "We're not here to hold your hand or wipe your snotty noses.  You can go home to your mommies for that!"  He scratched his crooked nose.  "Don't break team rules and you sure as hell better keep your grades up and stay eligible to play or we'll be having words.  And trust me when I say, fresh meat, you don't want to have words with me."

He stared the freshmen down, eyes squinted as he looked each one in the eyes.  "Are we clear?"

"Yes, Coach."  Various players mumbled around the room.

"I didn't hear you, fresh meat."


"That's better."  Coach Wilson inclined his head to Coach Smith.  "Coach Smith will do rollcall."  Backing out of the room, Coach ordered, "Be on the ice in three minutes."

Stepping forward, Coach Smith cleared his throat, adjusting his thick glasses as he looked down at the clipboard.  He grunted, "Alexander!"

A confident young man with a firm jaw raised his arm.  "Yo!"


The player on the other side of Jay, raised a finger, a sober expression etched on his face.  "Here."

As Coach Smith continued the rollcall, Jay leaned closer to Derek, muttering, "I'm starting to get the impression that this won't be fun."

"You think?"  Derek snorted.  "I'll be surprised if we make it out alive."

"Last survivor splurges for a funeral?"  Jay held out a hand to shake.

"Deal."  Derek took the offered hand.

Jay pulled away just in time to shout, "Here, sir!"

Coach Wilson hovered in the middle of the rink as Coach Smith led the players out.


Fanning out, the freshmen raced to the end of the rink.

Drawing himself up to his impressive height, Coach Wilson hooked his fingers in his pockets.  His whistle clenched between his teeth as he ordered, "If I have to explain this concept again, you might as well get your ass off my ice right now."  He pointed a fat finger behind him, barking, "Blue line, goal line, center line, goal line, blue line, goal line, goal line, goal line!  On my whistle!  THREE— TWO—"

The shrill whistle rang out and the freshmen took off down the ice.  The 'kish-kish' sound deafening as the players rushed to the next line.

"I want to see some hustle under those skates!"  Coach Wilson taunted as they ran their lines.

Puffing, the last player returned, supporting himself on his knees.


At the sound of the whistle, the freshmen took off again.

"I said hustle!  My granny moves faster than that!"

Completing their second round, several more players slumped against their pads.

Not giving them any recovery time, Wilson counted, "THREE— TWO—"

As players passed by him, he yelled in their faces.  "I better hear you pant!"

Several whistles later, their coach allowed them a moment to catch their breath, using the time to jeer at them, "Walk-ons?  I'd be surprised if you'll be able to crawl-off!  You want to play for this team?  You better show me in blood, sweat and tears, mama's boys!  THREE— TWO—"

Shards of ice flew as players doubled down.

"Come on, fresh meat!  I don't think we're keeping any of you at this point!  Scholarships or not!"

The whistle blew continually as Wilson snarled at regular intervals.

As the players crumpled, barely keeping themselves from faceplanting into the ice, their coach grinned.  "Gooood.  Now we can start the real conditioning.  Smith!  Give them their line assignments!"

"LINE A!"  Coach Smith rumbled, "SUTHERLAND!  VENTURI!  MONETTE!"

At the incessant beeping, Casey reached a blind arm out, smacking thin air where her alarm clock used to be.  She gasped, bolting upright, and looking around.  Realizing her clock was on the other side of the bed, Casey dove to shut off the alarm.

She unplugged her phone from its stand, inhaling in shock as the screen lit with unread notifications.  Tapping a few buttons, Casey read,

"Four years ago, I wouldn't have predicted that the new girl starting at my school would have to share my locker.  And I would never have thought that girl would become the bestest friend I've ever had.

But here I am, all these years later, waking up in my childhood bed for the last time before going out on my own.  I'm sad, I'm nervous, and I'm upset.  But at the same time, I'm excited and hopeful for my future.  All these feelings are swimming around inside me and I don't know what to do.

At a time like this, I would skip across the yard to visit my best friend... I was halfway to your house when I realized you weren't there.  You're already gone, Casey.  I broke down in our shared driveway.

Your mom saw and came out to give me a hug and I realized that she has that same special kindness that's in you.  And I take that for granted.  I'm lucky to have a friend like you, Casey.

This... period of transition has been really hard on me, and I know that's no excuse for how I've been acting.  I'm working through it and I'm trying to be better.  It's going to take some time.

I love you.  You're the best friend a girl could ever have.  I wish you all the best at Queen's.  I'll carry your friendship with me as I set out on my new start in Toronto.

Thank you for being a shining light in my life.

I'll let you know when I'm settled.

Bye, Case.

Love, Em."

Tears welled in Casey's eyes and by the end of the text, they spilled over.  She sat in her bed for a long time, rereading Emily's words for what felt like forever.

Eventually, Casey got up, opening her closet, and retrieving her toiletries, phone still in hand.

Numbly, she made her way towards the community bathroom.  Still sniffing, Casey didn't notice anyone else in the hall.

"You okay, girl?"

The kind voice broke through Casey's thoughts as Casey stilled in front of the bathroom door.

"Oh, I'm sorry!  I wasn't watching where I was going."

Smiling, the girl reassured her.  "It's fine.  Are you?  I couldn't help but notice you seem a little... distracted and quite possibly... upset."

"I'm fine—” Casey sheepishly cut herself off, not knowing the girl's name.

"Dawnesha.  Dawnesha Watts."

Casey gave Dawnesha a timid smile.  "I'm Casey McDonald."

Dawnesha looked genuinely into Casey's eyes.  "Are you okay, Casey?"

Hands fluttered uselessly with her toiletries bag as Casey stuttered, "I'm— Well— I've been better."

"I understand.  The first year of university can be overwhelming."

"This isn't your first year?"

Shaking her head, Dawnesha answered kindly, "No, I'm a junior this year.  Would you like to talk about what has you upset?  I promise, I'm a good listener."

"It's just... my best friend from high school sent me a message this morning and it made me feel a lot of things."

"What kind of feelings?"

Rubbing her forearm, Casey exploded, "I think I'm more nervous than anything.  I want to do well in my classes, and I'm worried about not making any friends.  Emily was really my only friend during high school, and I depended on her a lot when I changed school systems and everything.  She was my guide and now I don't have her by my side during all these changes.  And then her and Der— We didn't leave on the best of terms, and I really don't understand why.  I don't know what I did, but then I got this message from her this morning and—”

"Casey."  Dawnesha soothed her, "It's not your job to fix everything."

Casey blinked at the girl.

"I'm guessing your friend is having a hard time with the changes as well.  Maybe she just needs some time to think things through.  If she's really your friend, she'll come around."

"Yeah," Casey breathed, "I'm sorry for unloading all of that on you."

Dawnesha smiled, her pearly whites on display.  "Don't worry, Casey.  I'm here to help."  She placed a comforting hand on Casey's arm.  "I don't think I mentioned that I'm the Residence Don."

"Oh!"  Casey cried, taken aback.  "I didn't realize!"

She waved her off.  "Let me know if you need anything or if you just need to talk.  This is my room right here."  Dawnesha gestured behind her.

"Thanks, Dawnesha."

"Anytime, girl."  With one last smile, Dawnesha backed into her room.  Casey slipped the opposite way into the washroom, her steps a little lighter.

George sloppily flipped the bacon, saving it from the floor at the last possible second.  "Phew!  That was a close one!"

Nora turned from the fridge with her arms full of juice cartons.  Her nose crinkled.  "Ugh, that smell is killing me today."

"Don't look at me."  George joked.  "Blame the baby."

Laughter bubbled out of Nora as she plopped the cartons on to the island.  "Actually, I do blame you for that, George."

He snickered.  "It's just as much on you as it is me, Nora."

Shaking her head, Nora gestured to the juice.  "Why do we have so many of these anyway?"

"Because last week you kept changing your mind from lemon juice to apple juice and back."

"Nonsense.  I don't change my mind like that."

George's jaw dropped as he gaped disbelievingly at her.

Shuffling came from the living room and all three kids appeared, dragging their slouching bodies to the kitchen stools.

"Morning kids!"  Nora chirped, "Happy last day of summer!"

Everyone groaned, their heads falling into their hands.

"Ready for some breakfast?"  George asked from the stove.  He paused, his spatula hovering in the air.  "Well, I guess it's more like brunch now."

Edwin reached for a fork.  "Bring on the bacon and eggs!"

Rolling her eyes, Lizzie hopped off the stool, heading for the cereal cupboard.  "None for me, George."

Serving Edwin his plate, George questioned, "Munchkin?"

"Sure, Daddy."

"Here, kids."  Nora passed brim full glasses of juice out to everyone.  "There's plenty of juice to go around."

Marti eyed the cartons lining the counter.  "Did they have a juice sale, Nora?"

"I don't know, honey."  Nora's forehead wrinkled.  "I'm still trying to figure out how we acquired so many."

Behind her, George slapped his forehead.

Lizzie took a sip, pulling away with a pucker.  She gasped, "Is that... lemon?  Like pure lemon juice?"

Eyeing his glass suspiciously, Edwin took a tiny swallow.  "Hmm, mine tastes like apple."  Happily, he went to devouring his bacon and eggs.

With a stern glare at his plate, Lizzie took the moment Edwin turned in his seat to exchange their juices.

Digging her spoon into her cereal, Lizzie jerked to look at the clock.  "Hey, before Taekwondo, can I have everyone's help with something?"

"What's up, Lizard?"  Nora asked as she wiped up the counter.

"I got some new school clothes with Casey and well... she said they weren't over the top girly, but..."

Edwin snorted through a mouthful, "But it's Casey."

"Exactly."  Lizzie took a bite, chewing quickly and swallowing.  "I want my look to be a little more girly than last year, but not like... in your face."

"Sure, honey."

Marti looked up from her plate.  "Are you going to give us a fashion show, Lizzie?"

"I suppose so, Marti.  I have to have the look nailed down by tomorrow."

Nora's eyes widened.  "Which reminds me.  Edwin, you are wearing a—” Nora cleared her throat, "Clean shirt tomorrow, correct?"

Edwin sighed exasperatedly.  "Yes, Nora.  I swear, a guy does something in his youth and it haunts him for life."

Chuckling, George came up behind Nora, wrapping his arms around her bulging tummy.  "The same is true in marriage, Ed."

Covering her laugh with a gasp, Nora spun in his arms with a cry of "Georgie!"

George ducked as Nora slapped at his shoulder.  He smiled brightly as she planted a kiss to his cheek.

"Ew, gross."  Edwin put his fork down, reaching for his juice.  "Make a guy want to vomit at the breakfast table."  He took a large swig, instantly spluttering, "LIZZIE!"

Beside him, Lizzie gripped the counter to keep from toppling off her stool as she laughed.  The rest of the family joined in as Lizzie chortled, "The look on your face!"

"I'm getting you back, Lizzie."

"I'm worried sick."  She winked at Marti behind Edwin's back, causing Marti to erupt into fresh giggles.

 "Time to switch, fresh meat!  Let's see how pathetic you are on defense!  Smith!"

Smith scurried to join Coach Wilson.

"Well, don't just stand there, Smith.  Give them their partners."

Hastily, Coach Smith flipped the page on his clipboard, calling out, "Andrews and Alexander!"

"Wiebelhaus and Heffner!"

"Monette and Venturi!"

"Gubbels and Sutherland!"

Jay gave Derek a reluctant pat on the shoulder pads before skating away to join his partner.

Derek's partner approached him, sweat dripping from his trim, lean frame as Coach Smith continued reading the pairings.



They bumped gloves.

Taylor's blue eyes twinkled.  "Ready to smash shit up?"

"You know it.  Right or left?"

"Right.  You good with left?"

"Abso-freakin-lutely.  Let's get it."  Derek smirked.

Coach Smith looked up from his clipboard.  "Right, let's see what you're made of."

They skated over to join the rest of their teammates in the line facing their coaches.

"Alright, so what do you think of this?"  Lizzie swirled in front of the television set, showing off her new jeans and top.

Edwin shrugged.  "What about it?"

"Edwin!  Were you not paying attention?  I said at brunch I wanted everyone's opinion on my new look."

"Oh, right.  That was before you pucker powered me!"  Edwin sat up on the couch.  "Twirl, sister."

Lizzie rolled her eyes, muttering under her breath, "I.  Just.  Did."  She spun again, slowly.  "Right, so I don't want to lose my sporty vibe, but does this say, 'high school' to you?"

Exaggeratedly, Edwin put a finger to his chin, tapping.  "I think this is out of my league.  NORA!"

George strolled into the room, the dishtowel hanging off his shoulder as he leaned on the back of Derek's chair.  "What's all the shouting about, Ed?"

"Lizzie's showing us her new look."

Taking in her outfit, George whistled.  "Cute, Liz."

"Cute?"  Lizzie winced.  "I was hoping for a more... sophisticated sporty look."

"Oh, Lizard!  I love the skirt!"  Nora's eyes sparkled as she joined them.  "I could never get you to wear them when you were little!"

"Great."  Lizzie palmed her forehead.  "How would you define this look?"

Nora's mouth opened and closed.

Edwin jumped in, "I think this needs an expert opinion.  MARTI!  HELP!"

Footsteps thundered down the stairs.  "What is it, Edwin?  Did you get your head caught in a bowl again?"

A blush blossomed on Edwin's face as everyone gaped at him.  "That was ONCE, Marti!"

Marti giggled, plopping next to him on the couch.  She patted his knee, consolingly.  "Thrice, but who's keeping track?"

Huffing, Edwin crossed his arms over his chest.

"Priorities, people."  Lizzie reminded.

Twisting her attention to Lizzie, Marti wiggled her fingers together.  "Accessorize, Lizzie!"

"I'm not a big fan of jewelry, Marti."

Marti was already shaking her head.  "Ponies!"

George's head snapped to his daughter.  "Marti!  We've talked about this!  NO ponies!"

"No!  I mean po-nies!"  Marti snapped the one on her wrist for emphasis.  "But thanks, Daddy.  Now's a good as time as any to remind you that I still want a pony."  She sent her dad a Derek-worthy smirk.

Groaning, George rubbed his forehead.

Turning back to the matter at hand, Marti explained, "You can keep it sporty, but still accessorize."

"That's true... I hadn't thought of that.  I have plenty of ponies.  Thanks, Marti!"

Marti waved off her praise.

"Well, one down and four more to go."  Lizzie sighed, climbing the stairs to change.

George leaned over the couch, whispering to Edwin, "Is it my imagination or didn't she go through this last year at this same time?"

"Oh, she did."  Edwin grimaced.  "I hope this isn't going to be an annual freak-out."

Shuddering, George replied, "Don't tell me Marti is going to be the same way."

Edwin shook his head.  "No worries, Dad.  Marti won't want anyone else's fashion advice."

"Thank God."  George relaxed.  "I'm saved."

"Too bad your checkbook can't say the same."

Horror crossed George's face.  "Oh, no."

Wincing, Edwin agreed, "Speaking as your accountant, I concur."

Coach Wilson slid to a stop at center ice, joining a fit-looking man, standing with his hands behind his back.  "Take a knee."  Coach ordered his team.

Quickly, the players circled around him.

"Listen here, fresh meat.  This is Coach Ramsay.  He'll be in command of the weight room."  He shook his head at Coach Ramsay.  "Pathetic!"  He spit, "They're soft!  Every one of them!"

Coach Ramsay snuck a quick look around at the players as Coach Wilson threw his hands in the air.

Sneering, Coach Wilson rounded on the team.  "You will get in shape.  You can bet your flabby ass on that!"  Crossing his arms over his chest, Coach Wilson gestured to Ramsay.

Taking the cue, Coach Ramsay stepped forward.  "As Coach said, I'm Coach Ramsay.  I'm overseeing the weight room for him.  We have a straightforward routine here at Queen's.  All sessions are seen as an extension of practice and failure to attend will be treated like a missed practice.  Sessions start at zero-six-hundred hours.  Start.  That means be in the weight room and starting the first lift at precisely zero-six-hundred hours."

Ramsay paced as he spoke, "Our first session will start tomorrow at what time?"  His firm jaw chomped on his gum as he waited for an answer.

"Zero-six-hundred hours, sir!"

Satisfied, Coach Ramsay nodded, finally smiling.  "Work hard and we won't have any issues.  I look forward to getting to know you all."

Behind him, Coach Wilson scowled as he marched forward.  "Right, enough Ramsay.  I'll take it from here."

"See you tomorrow morning, men."  With a wave, Ramsay exited the rink.

"I'll make cuts in two days' time.  Those of you who don't make it will be back on the road to mommy faster than you say, 'Mommy, I have an owie!'  We will practice at 3:30 every day without fail.  Don't ask me how long practice will be.  We will work until we're done.  You'll meet the rest of the coaching staff tomorrow at practice.  Don't be late for you first training session or there will be consequences.  Get some rest, you're going to need it."  Surveying the players, Coach Wilson gave a jerky nod.  "Dismissed."

With several grunts and groans, the freshmen slowly made their way to the locker room.  The sweat dripped off Derek as he glided across the rink, his hockey stick trailing behind him.

Jay rushed to join Derek's side and the pair made the trek together.  "Every part of me is numb."

Agreeing, Derek cringed.  "My blisters have blisters."

"I think I should have done more this summer than sit around and game."  Jay rubbed his shoulder.  "Left wing is going to be harder than I thought."

Derek nodded.  "You did great though.  I chip a lot.  Probably should have warned you about that."

"Yeah, I figured that out pretty quickly, funny enough."  Jay sent him a dry grin.

"I'm used to my high school wing.  We've played hockey together since we were ten.  I don't think we've even looked at each other to pass for about five years now."

Jay's grin grew.  "Sounds about right."

Stepping inside the locker room, Derek confided, "I was just surprised they kept me as center."

"I thought you never doubted your ability on the ice?"

"I didn't say I doubted my ability."  Derek smirked.  "It was the coach's ability I doubted."

He laughed, "Of course, Venturi.  My bad."  Jay sat heavily on the bench, ripping off his pads.

Plopping beside him, Derek joined in the laughter.  "You think we can make it as linemates?"

"Oh, no doubt.  I just worry about the poor sucker stuck with us."

Derek stopped untying his laces to look around the room, spotting Taylor Monette.  "I think Monette handled it alright.  He's aggressive.  Maybe a bit out of control, but we can work on that."

"You think Monette has a scholarship?"  Jay asked.

"Dunno.  He seems pretty confident."

"That could just be who he is, man."

They watched across the locker room as Monette cracked a joke and his neighbors snickered.

"We'll find out."  Derek shrugged his shoulders, pulling pads off left and right.  "Seems like a fun guy."

"Coach Wilson sure is a peach."

"Yeah, a rotten one."

Jay's lopsided smirk spread.  "You'd think someone would have tossed him out by now."

"I'd do it.  And I complained about taking out the trash at home."

"Well, I don't care as long as I make the team."  Jay disappeared under his shirt.

"You heading back to the dorms?"  Derek asked as he fastened his belt.

Checking the time on his phone, Jay answered, "Yeah, I think so.  You?"

Derek nodded, hauling his bag up over his shoulder and waiting for Jay to do the same.  "You drive over?"

Jay shook his head.  "Nah, didn't want to lose my parking spot yet."

"It's all good.  You can catch a ride in the Prince."

"The Prince?"

"That's right.  He's royalty."

"Well, then I'm honored."

"You should be."

They made their way through the parking lot.  Derek stopped short to gesture grandly to his car.  "This is the Prince in all his glory."

Jay raised an eyebrow.  "What's with the stickers?  You a flower child, Venturi?"

"Make love, not war!"  Derek chirped, climbing into the driver's seat.

Following his example, Jay sank heavily into the passenger side.  Jay studied Derek as he backed out of the parking lot.  "So, there's got to be a story there.  You don't strike me as they type of guy that would willingly flower his car."

"Entirely uninteresting story.  Nothing to wonder."

"I don't buy it."  Jay shook his head, still staring out of the corner of his eye at Derek.

"Sooo," Derek drawled, "More important... Playstation or Xbox?"


"Whaaaat?"  Derek jerked to look at Jay.  "Seriously?  You're the coolest person I've ever met."  Derek maneuvered the corner leading back to their dorm.  "Next to me, of course."

"No doubt."  Jay let his words hand for a second.  "My car doesn't have flower decals."

The corners of Derek's lips twitched.

"Hey, dudes!  Come back here!"

"Get in here!"

"Where've you been?"

Jay hovered in the doorway of the social room.  "We had hockey practice this morning."

"You're hockey players?"

Derek stuck his head in the room.  "Yup."

"Hey, I know you!"  One of the guys hollered, "You're Triple D!"

Easing his smirk on, Derek waved.  "The one and only."

The guy laughed, turning to his friends.  "This guy is famous on and off the ice!"

Cocking an eyebrow, Jay nudged Derek.  "You didn't tell me you were a celeb."

Derek shrugged.  "Thought I'd let you figure it out on your own."

Chuckling, Jay shook his head.  "Thanks, Venturi.  Make me the fool."

"Yeah, I'm a real buddy that way."  Derek clapped Jay across the back.

"Come in and join us!"

"Yeah, men.  We're just getting to know each other."  The freshman perched on the back of an armchair, gestured below him at the informal circle, looking like he was holding court over his peers.

Jay and Derek looked to each other, shrugging shoulders.  They slinked into the room, collapsing in easy chairs.

The guy who recognized Derek spoke again, "I'm Tyler."  He indicated his friend on the throne.  "That's Anthony."

Anthony waved cockily from his perch on the back of the armchair.  "Sup, lads?"


Eric raised a hand, which instantly settled on the back of his head as his eyes shifted around, refusing to meet theirs.


Enthusiastically, Chris waved at them.  "Hey!  Nice to meet you!"


Logan didn't bother to look up from his cell.

Undeterred, Tyler finished, "And Timothy."

Timothy gave a shy little wave.

Anthony smirked with thin lips.  "Well, now that you've met the gang, let's hear about you."

"Hi, Casey."  Dawnesha looked up from her notes, greeting Casey as she walked through the door of the social room.  "You're the first one here.  Go ahead and grab a seat."

Casey smiled shyly.  "Thanks."  She picked a seat towards the front of the room, folding her hands neatly over the blank notebook in her lap.

"Are you feeling better?"

With a quick nod, Casey assured, "I am."

"Good."  Dawnesha's answering beam was genuine.  "I'm glad to hear that.  Have you gotten to know your roommate yet?"

"No, she hasn't arrived yet."  Casey's smile faltered.

The corners of Dawnesha's mouth turned down.  "Oh?  I wonder what's keeping her?"  Smiling again, Dawnesha encouraged, "I'm sure she'll be along in time for the meeting."

Casey smiled and Dawnesha returned to her notes.

Soon, other girls began to file in, mostly in pairs and picking seats together.  A beautiful vanilla blonde sashayed into the room with a toss of her locks.  Another girl trailed faithfully behind her, a strawberry blonde with a doe-eyed expression.

The first girl took in Casey and the poised pen over her notes with a sneer.  She turned on her heel and strutted the furthest distance away, nose high in the air.  After casting a disgusted look of her own at Casey, the other blonde hurried after the first.

Sinking in her seat, Casey determinedly didn't look their way again, choosing to keep her eyes on the door.

Several moments passed, quiet whispers filled the room as everyone waited for the meeting.

Suddenly standing, Dawnesha welcomed them with opening arms.  "Hello, girls.  I'm your Residence Don, Dawnesha Watts.  Welcome to Ban Righ!  I'm glad you all chose Queen's.  I hope you'll find that Queen's is a home away from home."

The door banged open, revealing a girl, bags hanging off her arms and pulling suitcases behind her.  Her dyed black hair was as dark as the eye makeup painted on her face and matching the rest of her clothes.  Tossing her things down on the floor, she plopped into the chair beside the door.

"Don't stop on my account."  With a little wave, she kicked her feet over the arm, propping herself comfortably in the chair.

"I thought we could start by introducing ourselves.  We'll be getting to know each other quite well since fourth floor is smaller than most."  She beamed proudly around before settling on the tardy girl.  "Why don't you go first, sweetie."

The girl rolled her eyes.  "I'm Meg and I'm anything but sweet."

"Can you tell us something about yourself, Meg?"

Meg sighed, looking down at herself before making eye contact around the room.  "Yes, I'm goth and no, I won't kill you in your sleep.  The end."

Taken aback, Dawnesha turned to Casey.  "Casey, you go next, alright?"

Shyly, Casey waved.  "I'm Casey."  She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.  "Casey McDonald.  I'm from London."

"What are some of your hobbies, Casey?"

"Well, apart from school, I like to sing and dance."

Dawnesha smiled.  "Very nice, Casey."  With a wave she asked the next person.  "You next, honey.  Tell us about yourself."

Patiently, Dawnesha went around the room, visiting with each girl.  Finally, they reached the back corner, and it was the strawberry blonde's turn to introduce herself.

She stood, flipping her locks over her shoulder, and smoothing down her tight pink skirt.  "I'm Kimberly Reynolds."  She trilled, "I was homecoming queen four years in a row."  She fluffed her hair, sitting down and crossing her legs.

"Um—” Dawnesha looked baffled.  "Very good, Kimberly.  And last, but not least—”

The other blonde sprang out of her seat, her bouncy blonde locks fanning out around her.  "Chloe Wheeler."  She gave a practiced pout.  "I've been a queen all my life so it's natural that I would wind up at Queen's."  A faux giggle fell from her lips.  "I just know we're all going to be the best of friends!"

Chloe looked to say more, but Dawnesha interrupted, "So lovely to get to know you all.  Thank you very much for the introductions."  She straightened the notes in front of her.  "Now on to some policy and regulations that I have to go over."

"Oh, Lizard!  What a pretty dress!"  Nora simpered.

"Is it too girly to be sporty?"

Marti provided her feedback, "More purple!  Less green!"

"But I like green!"

"Well, excuse me.  I thought you wanted to be sophisticated.  That means MORE PURPLE!"  Marti clapped her hands together before pointing at the staircase.  "Chop chop!"

"Yes, ma'am."  Lizzie mumbled, heading up the stairs.

Her small hands clasped behind her head as Marti reclined on the couch.  "You'll thank me later!"

Edwin furrowed his brow.  "Why is purple sophisticated?"

Marti's jaw dropped as she gazed at her brother.  "Purple is the color of royalty, Edwin."

"Sure, Marti.  Whatever you say."

"No, she's right."  Nora defended.  "Purple was the color only kings and queens wore.  In some places, if peasants were caught in purple, they were punished.  Sometimes the penalty was even death."

"Seems like a lot of fuss over something as simple as a color."  Edwin looked to his dad for support.

"It seems a bit ridiculous."  George agreed.  "Now, I'd understand if it was red..."  He trailed off mid-laugh at the look on Marti's face.

Lizzie returned with a purple patterned tank top paired with denim shorts, complete with a matching purple headband.

"Are you happy now?"

"Now, we're talking!"  Marti clapped.

Biting her lip, Lizzie asked, "Does it make me look smart?"

"Well, duh.  It's purple."

With a sigh, Lizzie looked at the ceiling.  "I'm losing faith in you, Marti."

"Your loss."  Marti quipped.

Lizzie rounded on Edwin.  "Edwin, do I look like the rest of the girls in our class?"

Startled, Edwin dropped the magazine in his hand.  "What?  No, you look like my sister."

"Ha!"  George chortled.  When Lizzie shot a glare his way, he sobered.  "You look like a smart sophisticated sport star, Lizzie."

"Alright."  Lizzie let out a long sigh.  "One left."  She spun on her heel and marched up the stairs.

George mumbled to Nora, "Did I say something wrong?"

Nora shook her head, patting his cheek.  "She just wants you to be honest, George."

"Women."  Edwin shook his head.  "How was I supposed to know if she wanted me to say yes or no?"

"Edwin!"  Nora reprimanded.  "Just tell her the truth!"

Both George and Edwin's eyes widened as they looked to each other and shrugged.

Returning, Lizzie swished her pink skirt.  "Okay, I'm not sure about this one, but Casey insisted.  What do you think?"

"I love it!"  Nora beamed.

"Wear your favorite locket with it and it'll be perfect."  Marti nodded her head.

Lizzie looked between Edwin and George, waiting for their input.  Hesitantly, the boys looked at each other.

"Um..."  Edwin faltered.  "Nice."

George jumped in, "Very, nice."

Her forehead puckered as she looked at the skirt again.  "Do I look like I could still beat the crap out of somebody?"

"Absolutely!"  Edwin quickly agreed.

Nodding, George added, "Without a doubt, kiddo."

"Alright."  Lizzie beamed.  "Then I'm good.  I better get changed for Taekwondo."  Skipping, Lizzie raced up the stairs.

"So that about covers it for policy."  Dawnesha gently shut her notebook and smiled around.  "Now, I'd like to extend this meeting to outside our floor.  Let's take this time to get to know each other.  Those of you with roommates, find your roommate and those of you in singles, find your neighbor.  Grab some lunch and take a tour of campus together!"  Excitedly, Dawnesha clapped her hands, watching as the girls found their partners.

"Hi, roomie!"  Casey greeted the goth girl enthusiastically.

The girl rolled her eyes.  "Sup."  Her voice cracked.

"I'm so excited to meet you!  My name is Casey McDonald."

For the first time, the girl turned her heavily outlined make-up face to Casey.  With sarcasm, she drawled, "Charmed.  Meg Stephens."

"Can I help you with your bags?"

Meg shrugged.  "Be my guest."

Casey chatted as they made the trek to the end of the hall.  "We're the end room on the right.  Farthest from the washroom and the main staircase, but there's another exit right by our room.  It should be handy though since it's closer to the parking lot.  Did you drive here, Meg?"

She answered with a single nod.

"I don't have a car.  Well, I do, but my—” Casey paused, unlocking the door.  "It's complicated, I guess.  Here it is!  Our new home!"  She stepped back, allowing Meg to enter first.

Barely looking around, Meg roughly threw her bags down.  Casey winced as they flew in all directions.

"Where would you like these?"

"Anywhere, I don't care."

Carefully, Casey lowered Meg's bags on her dresser next to the door.

"Don't you want to organize your things?"

Meg rose an eyebrow.  "You're joking, right?"  Not waiting for an answer, Meg kicked a few items out of her way as she headed for her bed.  She bounced as she sat, reaching for her black graffitied backpack.  Fully absorbed, Meg typed away at her phone.

"Well, um, should we go to lunch now?"  Casey clasped and unclasped her hands in front of her.

Shrugging, Meg rose slowly from the bed, head still in her phone.  "Might as well get it over with."  She started towards the exit.

Casey cringed behind Meg's back and rushed to catch up with her, carefully locking their door behind her.

Lizzie bounded down the stairs to find the rest of the family in a heated discussion.

"Who's taking me to bowling then?"

"I can, Edwin."

"You're taking me to dance, Nora!"

"Oh, right.  George, can you drop Edwin off too?"

Lizzie cut in, "I can't be late for Taekwondo again!"

"And I can't be late for bowling!"  Edwin countered.

George whistled above the noise.  "Everyone, calm down!"  He glanced at his watch.  "We can make it if we leave right now."

Chaos erupted as everyone dove for their things.

"No, Marti, you're with me!"  Nora called, grabbing her hand as she went to get in the van.

"Oh, okay!"  Marti called, stopping halfway there in a panic.  "Wait, Dad!  My bag is in the van!"

Edwin poked his head out of the house.  "Has anyone seen my bowling shirt?"

"I washed it, Edwin!  It's in the laundry room!"

His jaw dropped.  "You washed my lucky shirt?  Great!  I have a bet with Jason that I'll score higher than him!"

Nora maneuvered her belly underneath the steering wheel, waving frantically at Marti.  "Hurry up, Marti, or we'll be late!"

Marti raced around the vehicle, popping in the passenger seat, and fastening her seatbelt in one fluid motion.  Rolling down her window, Marti called, "See y'all later!"

A brief scuffle broke out as Edwin and Lizzie fought over shotgun.  Lizzie shoved Edwin away, victoriously claiming the front seat.

Grumbling, Edwin climbed in the back.  "Just wait 'til I can drive."

The two sat at a table in the Ban Righ dining hall, Casey picking at her salad as she attempted to make small talk with Meg.  Meg slouched in her chair, alternating between tapping away on her phone and taking large bites of her sandwich.

Casey tried, "So, what's your major, Meg?"

Meg looked up at her briefly.  "Art."

"Oh, I love the fine arts!  I'm a dancer and a singer.  And I've been in a few play productions!"

Mumbling under her breath, Meg replied, "Zippidy do dah, what a surprise!"

"What kind of art do you do, Meg?"

"I paint."

Discouraged, Casey slouched in her seat as Meg continued to click around on her phone.  Casey looked shocked as Meg leaned across the table to show her a picture of a graffitied building.

"Oh, that's pretty, Meg!"

She rolled her eyes, taking another huge bite.

"What do you want to do?  Do you want to be an artist?  Have you sold any of your work?  Do people hire you to paint artwork on their buildings?"

Meg's eyes widened at the onslaught of questions.  "Uh... I guess I haven't decided yet.  It's just something I do with my time."

"Oh, I see.  How interesting."

They sat in silence, Meg shoving parts of her sandwich into her mouth and Casey picking awkwardly at her salad.  When Meg finished, she pushed her tray away, consumed in her phone.

Casey glanced at the time.  "Shall we take a walk around campus?"

Without a word, Meg stood, picking up her tray and heading to the nearest trash bin.

At the table, the lines of Casey's mouth turned upside down.

As Meg dumped her tray, she called, "Yo, Mary Poppins, you coming?"  She wiped her hands and made for the exit.

Springing from her seat, Casey threw away her trash and followed her roommate out the door.

"I'm starving!"  Derek patted his stomach.  "Who's down for some grub?"

"I'm in."  Timothy hastily agreed.

Logan shrugged, finally looking up from his phone.  "I could eat."

"Let's go, dudes."  Derek stood and the others quickly followed his example.  He bounded down the stairs and down the hall.

As the bright sun blinded them, Tyler asked, "What's closest?"

"Leonard?"  Chris suggested.

"Nah, man."  Derek shook his head.  "Ban Righ."

"Where's Ban Righ?"  Jay frowned.

"I think it's this way."  Anthony made to go left, but Derek pulled him back by the collar.

Anthony scowled, ripping himself out of Derek's grasp and straightening his shirt.

Eric's brow knitted.  "You sure, D?"

"Positive."  Derek set off, the others filing in after him.  "It's like less than five minutes."

Jay hitched an eyebrow in the air as he stayed by Derek's side.  "You didn't strike me as someone who studied the campus map before arrival."

The corner of Derek's mouth quirked.  "You're not so dumb after all, Sutherland."

"Hidden talent.  Keep it under your hat."

"No prob.  I've got my own rep to protect."

With a glance at their following, Jay drawled, "I think they've elected you king."

Derek rolled his eyes, a good-natured smirk in place.  "Hey, don't feel bad.  It follows me wherever I go."

"Don't look at me."  Jay held his hands up defensively.  "I don't wanna be king!"  His hands lowered as well as his voice, "But I'd look out for that Anthony character.  He doesn't look too pleased with the mutiny."

"Great."  Derek groaned.  "That's all I need."

There was a new hustle and bustle in the air as students scurried around the campus.  As the group entered Ban Righ, girls stopped and stared.

"Sweet."  Anthony whistled.  "Girls everywhere!"

"I'm definitely eating every meal here."  Eric sighed.

Dumbfounded, Logan asked, "Why are there so many girls?"

Derek rolled his eyes, knocking Logan on the side of the head.  "It's an all-girls residence, numbskull."

Timothy lit up.  "Now I know why you wanted to come here, D.  Nice!"

Again, Derek rolled his eyes as he set off down the hall.  Suddenly, Derek stopped causing several members of his group to run into him.

"Whoa, get a look at that girl!  She has legs for days."  Tyler pointed down the hall.

"Eyes off, Tyler."  Derek growled.

"Are you calling dibs just because you saw her first?"  Tyler pouted.

"Ha!  Good luck with that one, D."  Anthony smirked.  "She's an ice queen."

"Don't say that about her, Cunningham."  Derek's eyes narrowed.

Chris asked Derek in awe, "You know her?"

"Maybe... maybe not..." Derek's face broke off in a winning grin as he took two steps forward.  "We'll see."

Derek reached out an arm, halting the girl.  With a gasp, Casey stumbled.

Realizing Casey wasn't beside her, Meg looked up from her phone, eyeing Derek's hand gripping Casey.

Derek's group of guys kept a few steps between Derek and Casey, but they stared unblinkingly at their interaction.

Smiling charmingly, Derek held his other hand out to Casey.  "Derek."

Surprise filled her features.  Slowly, Casey grasped his hand, lightly squeezing it.  "Casey."

"Casey, it's a pleasure to meet you."

"Likewise, I'm sure."  Casey deadpanned.

"What's a pretty girl like you doing in a place like this?"

"Really?  That's the line you go with?"

Derek's eyebrows disappeared under his hair.  "Do you have a line you want me to use?"

"Absolutely not.  I know exactly how you operate, Derek.  You treat all girls the same."

Chuckling, Derek's hand tightened around the hand still in his grasp.  "I wouldn't be so quick to judge if I were you.  We just met."

"Ha!  Well, let's just say I know guys like you."

"Let's just say I'd treat you like a princess."

Casey shifted uncomfortably, forcing her hand out of his as color rose rapidly to her cheeks.

Derek deepened his voice, "So, babe, what are you doing later?"

Ignoring her blush, Casey tried to disconnect their arms.  "Nothing that involves you."

He allowed his hand to drop from her arm.  "I wouldn't be so sure of that."  Derek's hand reached out, fondling a strand of her hair.  "I'm told I can be quite persistent."

She lightly slapped his hand away from her hair, rolling her eyes.  "Are you sure they didn't say quite pathetic?"

"Nah," He chuckled.  "It was definitely pleasant— I mean persistent."  He shot her a wink, reaching for her arm again.

She shifted uncomfortably as his hand wrapped around her wrist, pulling her closer to his warm body.  Casey yanked her arm away, crying, "DER-REK!"

Derek beamed.  "Screaming my name already, Case?  We've barely been here a day!"

Blushing scarlet, Casey turned away pointedly.  "Goodbye, Derek."

He grinned cheekily at her as she grabbed Meg's arm and stomped away.

Jay approached Derek and slapped him on the back.  "Tough luck, Venturi."

"Just wait, Sutherland."  Derek's eyes twinkled.  "She won't be able to stay away."

"Awful confident there, dude."

"Experienced is more like it."  Derek corrected, a new spring in his step as he led the group towards the dining hall.

Jay's head tilted to the side as he pondered Derek's words.

The girls took three steps before Meg ripped her arm from Casey's firm grip.  "So clearly, you two have fucked."

"What?"  Casey wailed, mortified.

Meg took one look at Casey's beet red body and rolled her eyes.  "Well, that answers that.  The vibes y'all were sending could give bystanders third-degree burns."  She nodded to herself, "S'alright, he looked really fuckable.  Not my type, but I bet he's good in bed."

An unidentifiable sound came from the back of Casey's throat.

Eyeing Casey up and down, Meg chattered away, "And here I was thinking you were a strait-laced goody two shoes fairytale princess.  So, is he a good screw?  Or is he all talk and no cock?"

"Me-MEG!  How can you say those things?"


Casey covered her face, whimpering, "Can we, please, please, please, not talk about that?"

Under her breath, Meg muttered, "Alright, fine.  But if I were you, I wouldn't be embarrassed about fucking him."  Meg stared at Casey.  "You could do a lot worse, Snow White."

Derek and Jay wormed their way into the overly crowded meeting room.  Jay whistled under his breath, "Thank God for co-ed dorms."

"See any you like?"

"Can't.  I've got a girlfriend.  Just appreciating the view."

"Well, there is plenty of them."

"I think I'd rather hang out with them than our posse."  Jay shook his head.  "Scratch that, I know I would."

"Ditto, man."

"Yo, D!  Over here!"  Tyler waved happily from his perch on the back of a couch as he spotted the pair.

"Speak of the devils."  Derek groaned.

"We saved you a spot!"  Chris patted the couch between him and Logan.

Under their breath, they both groaned.  Jay shrugged.  "Better do it."

Together, Jay and Derek sunk into the too soft couch, bunching up as much as they could in the tight space.  Logan made a face as Derek accidently elbowed him.  Not saying anything, he returned to the game on his phone.

Anthony smirked, leaning backwards on the coffee table to talk to them.  "I wish they'd get this over with.  I've got a lot more important things to do if you catch my drift."  He winked suggestively.

"Oh, I'm sure you do, Cunningham."  Derek's voice filled with sarcasm.

Not picking up on it, Anthony winked again and faced forwards.

Jay muttered to Derek, "Yeah, with his left hand."

The pair snickered to themselves before a throat cleared at the front of the room.

"Right, so this is our first meeting of the year."  A chill-looking redheaded young man explained.  A hand danced through his messy locks.  "I'm Shane O'Keefe, one of the Residence Dons."

A bubbly, deeply tanned girl introduced herself next.  "I'm Stacia Castle.  Also, a Residence Don."

The Residence Dons took turns going over rules and regulations, consulting packets of papers occasionally.

Looking up from his notes, Shane sighed, "Guys, just don't do stupid shit because I don't want to have to do anything."

Chuckles went around the room as Stacia stared appalled at her partner's words.

"Well," Stacia pulled herself together.  "There's a little more to it than that."

Climbing the stairs of Ban Righ, Casey and Meg headed towards their room.

"Hey, Meg?"  Casey revealed, "I'm going to stop in the restroom.  I'll meet you in our room."

Meg shrugged, fishing her keys out of her pocket.

Casey used her time in the washroom to collect herself.  She stood at the sink staring at her reflection.  "Relax, Casey.  Everything is going to be fine."

Repeating her mantra, Casey exited the bathroom, running into two people in the hall.

"Look, Kimmy.  It's the girl taking notes at the floor meeting."  Chloe's nose crinkled.  "You must think you're really special or something."

Kimberly jumped in, "What a nerd!  Who takes notes at their floor meeting?"

"Weirdos and freaks."  Chloe fixed her hair.  "Not people like us."

Casey opened her mouth, but Chloe cut across her, "No, I don't give away my secrets for free.  If you want to be like us, you have to work for it."

Giggling, Kimberly covered her mouth.  "Yeah, you have to do what we say."

Casey drew herself up as tall as possible.  "Why would I want to be like you?"

Kimberly enunciated slowly, "Because we're pop-u-lar, duh."

"I bet you've never been popular a day in your life."  Chloe pretended to look sad.  "Have you freak?"

"Ooh, look at her blush!"  Kimberly cried.

"I think we hit a nerve, Kimmy."  Chloe leered.  "What's the matter, ickle nerdy?"

Holding her head high, Casey pushed past them.  The girls' giggles sounded down the hall long after Casey slammed her door shut.

Derek blinked wearily as he tried to adjust to the bright weight room.  He stood with the other fidgeting freshmen gathered by the door.

"Morning, men!"  Coach Ramsay smiled, pulling to a stop in front of them.  Heavy on sarcasm, he drawled, "Glad to see you all looking bright eyed and bushy tailed this morning."  He chuckled under his breath.

Sobering, he asked, "Everybody here?"

Everyone looked around until a small-statured player spoke, "Monette isn't here, sir."

Ramsay frowned, checking his watch.  "He only has a minute left."

The heavy door thudded open, and Taylor Monette rushed in puffing, his spiked hair out of control.

"Just under the wire, Monette.  Hope you don't make a habit out of it."  Ramsay looked sternly down his nose at Taylor.  "Alright, partner up.  Someone of like size and ability."  He sauntered away from them, beckoning them to follow.  "It's time to meet your new best friend... the rack."

He led them through the weight room, their eyes hovering over machines and equipment, the smell of metal and sweat heavy in the air.  They rounded a corner and the space opened, multiple rows of power racks lining the room.  A group of bulky men gathered against a wall.

"Yo, Rams!  It's 6:01!  You're late, Coach!"  A lean guy with a roughish smile taunted, "We've been waiting an eternity."

The corners of Ramsay's mouth turned upwards.  "Don't get your quads in a knot, Nicholson.  God knows your squat needs all the help it can get."

"Oh, burn!"

"Tough luck, Nate!"

"Ha!  He got you!"

The team hooted and hollered.

Ramsay smacked Nate Nicholson on the back as he drew even with him.  They smirked at each other as Nate returned the punch to Ramsay's shoulder.

"Hey, look who finally decided to join us!"  One of the veteran players pointed at the freshmen group.

"'bout time, freshies!"  A broad-shouldered upperclassman added.

"Aww, look at these little pipsqueaks!"  The veteran nudged his buddy.

"They're so cute."  The brawny guy spoke again, gesturing with his hands.  "They're pintsized!"

"Enough, Martin.  Wallace."  Coach Ramsay fondly chided, chomping his gum.  "As you can see, the freshmen are joining us now."  Serious, Ramsay turned to the freshmen.  "I want it understood that I run my weight room just like I did my squadron.  That's right, I was military, so I mean business.  You will do as I command.  You will be disciplined, orderly, and punctual."

He eyed them all gravely before he smiled.  "Work hard and there's no reason why we can't have fun doing it.  I like fun just as much as the next man but understand that our work comes first."

Ramsay clapped his hands together.  "Right then.  We have a lot to get done today.  I'll go over the fundamentals, but then I want every upperclassman pair to adopt a freshmen pair so to speak.  Show them how we do things here, understand?"

The upperclassmen nodded dutifully.

"Freshmen, gather round!"  Ramsay ducked under a barbell.  "We'll start with the basics.  The squat, the bread and butter of strength training, so to speak.  Now we don't have all day, so pay close attention."

"Good luck, Miss Case!  Have a wonderful first day of class! Xoxo"

Smiling, Casey set her phone down, hopping out of bed and stretching on her tip toes as her hands reached for the ceiling.  Immediately, Casey trotted to her bookbag hanging off the back of the desk chair.

Unpacking it, she laid her color-coded notebooks across her desk, studying the labels.  Nodding to herself, she carefully restacked the pile and slipped the whole stack into her bag.

She grabbed her shower caddy from her closet, ducking around it, singing, "Good morning, Meg!  It's—” Casey frowned at Meg's empty bed.  Dejectedly, she dodged around Meg's suitcases littering the floor.

Outside her door, Casey instantly collided with something solid.  "Umpf!"

The object squealed.  "How dare you!"  Chloe's lip curled.

Casey hastily began to apologize, "I'm sorry!  I just opened my door and didn't see—”

"Oh, it's you."  The blonde's eyes narrowed.  "Think you're going to get to me?  Think again."

"No, really, I—”

Chloe held up a hand.  "Save it for someone who cares."  She tossed her wavy long locks over her shoulder and marched down the hall, Casey gaping after her.

"Okay... notebooks?  Check.  Folders?  Check.  Pens and pencils?  Check."  Lizzie muttered to herself as she paced the kitchen.  "Good.  Did you get dressed?  Did you—”

"I'm sorry," Edwin interrupted, "Did you just ask yourself if you got dressed?"  The corners of his mouth wiggled as he tried not to laugh.

"Hardy har, Edwin."  Lizzie's voice laced with sarcasm, "We can't all be as put together as you."

Marti giggled.  "Leave her alone, Edwin.  It's the first day of school."

Nora turned from the stove, spatula in hand.  "Are you sure you have everything, Edwin?"

"Of course."

She gave him a disbelieving look.  "If you say so.  But I better not get any calls asking me to bring you something you forgot."

With a hand through the air, Edwin responded, "Under control, Nora."

Leaning closer to Lizzie, Marti whispered, "He's going to be the first one to forget something."

"I heard that!"

Nora interrupted Marti's comeback as she passed out plates.  "Here you go, kids.  A nice plate of breakfast to start the day off right."

The sounds of stools sliding filled the kitchen.

Lizzie turned green as she stared at her plate.  "I think I'm too nervous to eat."

"Not me!"  Marti chirped, picking up her fork and diving in.  She took a big bite.  "All I'm worried about is if school is ready for me!"

George laughed as he came into the room.  He stooped over by Marti's stool, trying to pick her up.  "That's my little girl!"  He grunted, "Or my not so little girl!  When did you get so big?"

Marti thumped his cheek with a wink.  "When did you get so weak?"

"Oh, you little smartie, Smarti."  Smiling, George slid onto the stool across from her.  "Looks delicious, Nora."

Nora hummed her appreciation as she sat down beside him.  "Georgie, can you pass the apple juice?"

He quirked an eyebrow.  "Apple juice, eh?"

She took the bottle from him, nodding enthusiastically.  "Eat up.  We have to leave soon so we can get everyone to school."

Edwin sighed, "Only two months until I can drive."

"You have to pass your test first."  Marti reminded with a grin.  "And if you're anything like Smerek that could take years."

Lizzie's eyes widened.  "You better pass it, Edwin.  Even if I have to help you study 24/7.  I don't want to be riding to school with Mom every day."  Lizzie winced, smiling apologetically at her mother.  "No offense, Mom."

"None taken."  Nora beamed, holding her glass up.  "I don't want to drive you every day."


Edwin shook his head.  "You got burned by your own mom, Liz."

"Is that the time?"  George sprang from his seat.  "We've got to go!"

The kids leaped from their stools, chaos erupting as everyone sprung in circles.

"Where's my shoes?  NORA, HELP!"

"Mom?  Mom?  Have you seen my soccer ball?"

"Honey, where's my briefcase?  I swore I put it on the counter!"

"Nora!  Where's my purple backpack?  It's not on the hook!  That's where I put it last year!"





Nora drained her apple juice in one fatal chug, took a breath and yelled, "Edwin, you left your shoes under the coat rack!  Lizzie, your soccer ball was at the bottom of the stairs!  George, try underneath the phone!  And Marti, look behind the laundry baskets!"

There was suspenseful silence.

"What do you know!"  Edwin called from the living room.  "My shoes!"

"You were right, Mom.  It must have rolled down the stairs."

"Thanks, honey.  I found it."

"Wow, Nora!  How did you know my backpack was there?"

George appeared at her elbow, planting a kiss on her cheek.  "I've got to go, or I'll be late... again.  You got the kids under control?"

"Of course, Georgie."  She returned the kiss before she shoved him towards the door.

He laughed, calling, "Bye, kids!  Have fun at school!"  George raced out the door.

"Okay, kids!  Van, now!"  Nora grabbed her keys and purse off the counter and waddled after them.

As Edwin taped his new schedule to the inside of his locker, a shadow fell over him.

Turning, Edwin adapted a Venturi smirk, "Hey there, Lassie!"

Lassiter frowned.  "That's Principal Lassiter to you, Mr. Venturi."  Suddenly smiling, Lassiter inquired, "Enjoying your locker placement?"

Edwin's brow creased.  "Eh, sure?"

"The problematic students get placed right outside my office."  Lassiter tapped the 'Principal's Office' sign next to Edwin's locker.  "Your locker has been assigned since last year."

"Guess we're going to be besties."  Edwin gave a charming wave as he tried to make a getaway.  "See ya!"

"One moment, Mr. Venturi."  Principal Lassiter folded his arms across his chest.  "I'm also here to inform you that you will serve your suspension with Señora Sanchez.  However—” He looked regretful.  "After due consideration, I have determined that your absence from the first week of classes is unfair—” At Edwin's smirk, Lassiter clarified, "To your teachers."

Smiling sheepishly, Edwin shuffled back and forth.  "I was kinda hoping your forgot about that over the summer."

"I forget nothing, Mr. Venturi.  You will do well to remember that.  Report to my office Monday morning!  Now, get to classke!"

Bolting away, Edwin glanced over his shoulder, finding Lassiter staring after him.

Clutching the paper, Lizzie studied her schedule, occasionally looking at the locker numbers as she passed.  At the end of the hall, someone darted out of a room and collided with Lizzie.

"Yikes!"  The tall man cried as droplets from his coffee mug sprayed down around them.  "Sorry about that!  Are you okay?"

Lizzie checked her clothing over.  "Yeah, I'm fine.  Thanks."

The man offered a friendly smile.  "Are you a new student?  What's your name?"  He took a swig from his cup.

"Lizzie McDonald."

With a gurgle, the man choked, "Lizzie?  You're Lizzie McDonald?"

"Have we met?"  Lizzie frowned.

"No, no, we haven't."  Laughing, he assured her.  "But it's wonderful to finally meet you.  I'm Paul Greebie, the guidance counsellor."

Comprehension flashed across Lizzie's face.  "Ooooh, you're Paul!  I guess you know my sister, Casey."

Laughing easily, Paul answered, "You could say that.  How's she doing?"  Trying again, Paul took a drink.

"Well, it was totally crazy for a while, but her and Derek made it to Queen's."

Coffee splattered out of Paul's mouth, and he quickly tried to cover it.  Paul coughed, "Wait."  He held out his hand, his voice hoarse, "You're telling me... they're going to the same university?"

Lizzie nodded.  "Mhmm, we didn't think Derek was going to university and Casey decided she wasn't taking the scholarship, but then they both announced they were going to Queen's."

Paul looked at her like she told him the cheat code to life and Lizzie waivered under the intensity.  With a delayed response, Paul nodded.  "Interesting."

"And then Casey had an opportunity to dance on Broadway, but in the end, she decided to go to university instead."

Still gaping, Paul clarified, "Broadway?"

"Yeah, a talent scout saw her dance."

"She is a wonderful dancer."

Lizzie beamed.  "She is, but I think her heart belonged at Queen's."

Paul's fingers tapped a melody on his coffee mug.  "I would tend to agree with that."  Smiling, Paul told her, "Well, Lizzie, I look forward to getting to know you."

Skeptically, Lizzie replied, "Umm, I'm not like Casey..."

His smile grew as he pointed a thumb behind him.  "This is my office, so I'm sure we'll run into each other.  Hopefully not literally."

"Oh, in that case."  Lizzie chuckled, "I'm sure we will."

"Welcome to Grade Three, class!  I'm Mrs. Appleton!  Hello!"

She beamed around at them as they echoed her greeting.

"Looking around, I think you'll find mostly familiar faces, but we do have a new student joining us this year.  Her name is Coralie Finnigan and she's come all the way from Nova Scotia!  Everybody say hi to Coralie."

Mrs. Appleton waited as the class repeated the greeting with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

"Alright, first thing we need to do is get into our seating arrangement."

Simultaneously, the students groaned.

Undiscouraged, Mrs. Appleton smiled as she paced over to the front row.  Placing a hand on the double desk she called, "Cynthia Campbell and Zach Belanger."

At the side of the room, Marti hissed, "Dang it."

Their teacher continued the desk assignments, weaving back and forth around the room.

"Dimi Davis and—”

"Not me, please.  Not me."  Marti chanted, crossing her fingers.

"Cindy Bouchard."

All the air rushed out of Marti's lungs as her shoulders sagged.  "Thank you, thank you, thank you."  Relief flooding her, Marti waited patiently for her name.

Mrs. Appleton started the back row when she called, "Coralie Finnigan and Marti Venturi."

Marti skipped to the back of the classroom, sending a grin at the new girl as she dropped heavily into a seat.

Shyly, Coralie approached, her hands trembling as she set her things down on the desk.

"Hi!"  Marti chirped.  "Do you go by Coralie, or do you shorten it?  Marti's short for something unspeakable, but all the teachers in the district know not to mention it.  I have a few other nicknames though.  My big brother calls me Smarti, but that's not on the table for just anybody.  Dad's called me munchkin for as long as I can remember.  So, what about you?  Ever go by Cora or Lee?  Or is it always Coralie?"

Overwhelmed, Coralie stuttered, "Um, well, Coralie, I guess.  I haven't really thought about nicknames before."

Marti put a finger to her chin, mulling it over.  "Hmm, I'll see what I can do."

"Alright, class!"  Mrs. Appleton interrupted.  "Take out your math books!"

There was a collective groan before a mass movement of desks opened.

Lizzie sat in her desk, waiting for class to start.  "I can't believe we're in high school now, Susie."

The petite girl smiled nervously.  "It doesn't feel real yet, does it?"

Shaking her head, Lizzie stared at the door as the classroom filled.  She watched as Edwin popped into the room with Jason, immediately spotting her.  Lizzie made a face, crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue.

Snickering, Edwin ducked into a seat in the back of the room.

As Lizzie laughed with him, the bell rang, and their teacher slipped into the room.  Her silver hair hung in ringlets, framing her face.  "Welcome to second period English class!"

She perched on the edge of her desk.  "I'm Mrs. Kane.  I've been teaching for about a hundred years now."

The class tittered, glancing around at each other.

"Introductions are in order!"  She pointed to a girl in the front row.  "You start, dear."

Hesitantly the girl introduced herself, her knuckles turning white as she gripped her desk.

By the time it was Lizzie's turn, Mrs. Kane was commenting on all their introductions.

"I'm Lizzie McDonald."

Mrs. Kane's face lit up.  "Ooh!  Casey's sister?  What a delight!"

Shrinking in her seat, Lizzie winced.

Susie came to her aid, jumping up frantically.  "I'm Susie!  Susie Baldwin."

"Do you have any siblings, Susie?"

"No, ma'am.  I'm an only child."

"Ah, I see."  Disappointed, Mrs. Kane pointed to the next person.  "Go on."

Edwin was the last to introduce himself.  He stood with a theatric bow, "Edwin Venturi's the name.  Jokes and gags are my game."

The class laughed, but Mrs. Kane's eyes narrowed.  "Another Venturi?"  She straightened.  "I seem to recall that your brother had a certain proclivity for 'jokes and gags' as well.  It appears your father has passed down his unruliness to the next generation."

"Wait 'til you meet my sister."

Mrs. Kane's eyes widened as the class giggled behind their hands.  "There's more of you?"

Edwin leaned onto the back legs of his chair, popping the p as he shouted, "Yup!"

Marti made her rounds, happily skipping around the playground.  Teachers and students beamed at her as she passed.  Humming to herself, Marti stopped to exchange greetings.

"How was New York, Cynthia?"

"Hey, Zach!  Did you catch any big fish at the lake?"

"Wow, Heidi!  Your hair is so pretty!"

"How's Squiggles, Katie?  Did she have kittens?"

"I'm sorry about your dog, Ernie."

"Are you excited for gym class, Tony?"

"Can't wait for French!  Right, Alena?"

"What's up, Reese?  How was your summer?"

"Hi, Axel.  Did you get to visit your grandma this summer?"

"Kesha!  Let's catch up, okay?"

"Awesome shirt, Inez.  That color looks great on you."

Suddenly, Marti stopped dead in her tracks.  Her face sobered as she came face to face with a boy.

The boy shuffled his feet, studying his shoes.  "Hi, Marti."


He winced.  "Can we talk?"

Frowning, Marti took a step back.  Her voice barely reached a whisper, "I don't think I'm ready to talk yet, Dimi."

His shoulders slumped.  "Alright."  Dragging his feet, Dimi backed away.  "See ya around, I guess."

Marti stood in place, tears welling in her eyes as she watched Dimi kick a rock across the playground.

The redhead mumbled, "I'm not too good at regular classes, so I hope I'm good at this."

"I'm sure you will be.  Welcome to Computer Science, Jason."  Paul smiled encouragingly.  Turning to Edwin, he asked, "Why don't you go next.  What's your name?"  Paul picked up a full mug of coffee, blowing on it before taking a sip.

"Edwin Venturi."

Coffee spewed out of Paul's mouth again.  "Ven-Venturi you said?"  Dabbing with a tissue, Paul brushed the spillage off his black slacks.  "Derek's brother?"

"Don't hold it against me."  Edwin smirked.

Flustered, Paul absentmindedly wiped his hands.  "No, no.  I wouldn't do that.  You can't judge a person by their siblings."

Edwin gave Paul a genuine smile.

"I was just surprised... I never knew Derek inside the classroom."

"Did anyone?"

Paul cracked a grin, chuckling to himself.  "No, I suppose not."

He gestured to the girl behind Edwin.  "Why don't you go next?"

Redressed in their street clothes, Derek and Jay strolled down the sidewalk, their backpacks hanging heavily off their backs.

"My ass is dragging.  Literally."  Derek grimaced, rubbing his hindquarters.

Jay massaged his chest.  "It's my pecs, dude.  It's hard to breathe."

"Least you'll be able to sit."

"Ramsay was considerably nicer when Coach Wilson wasn't around."

"Wouldn't you be?"

Snorting, Jay agreed, "Yeah.  Wonder if there's a Mrs. Coach Wilson in the picture."

"Who would marry him?"  Derek asked, appalled.

"She'd have to be just as... unpleasant."

"That's an understatement."  Groaning, Derek wondered, "Do we have to go to class?"

"You heard Coach Wilson."  Jay glanced at Derek.  "You have more than this one today?"

Derek nodded.  "Unfortunately.  At 12:30."

"Wanna grab lunch between?"

"Yeah, man."  Derek stopped in front of his building.  "Meet back here?"

Jay held out his fist for Derek to bump.  "Sure.  See ya, dude."

"Later."  Derek hitched his bag up his shoulder as he strode into the building.  He found the lecture hall easily and nabbed a seat immediately inside the door.

A couple of girls down the row giggled when he looked at them.  Derek smirked, causing another ripple of giggles.

"Attention class!"  The severe looking woman at the front of the room called out.  "My name is Jean Thatcher.  I am head of the Psychology Department here at Queen's.  I am pleased to be your Principles of Psychology professor as well."

She picked up a remote and the screen overhead transitioned.

"I must implore you to take diligent notes.  You will be tested quite thoroughly on lecture material.  We'll start with the syllabus.  Pay close attention.  It will be hazardous to your grade if you neglect something."

Edwin leaned on the locker next to Lizzie's.  "Hey, Lizzie... just the sister I wanted to see."

"What do you want, Edwin?"  She slid her books and folders around in her locker, choosing a blue folder/notebook combo complete with matching dolphins.

"I'd like to borrow a wee bit of your locker."  Edwin held his thumb and pointer finger a millimeter apart.

"Sorry, my locker is taken.  Use your own."

Wincing, Edwin explained, "Gee, I'd like to, but turns out my locker is in a not so... ideal locay.  And it would be quite problematic if some of my more... sensitive items would be discovered."

"Edwin!"  Lizzie hissed, "I'm not hiding your prank material in my locker!"

"Come on, Liz!  You're my partner in crime!"

"I'm your partner in solving crime, not creating it—" Lizzie bit her lip.  "Usually."  She shook herself.  "But either way, I'm not going to be an accessory to your crime."

"Shh!  Keep your voice down!"  Edwin frantically looked around.  "But Lizzie—"

"No, Edwin.  And if you're going to argue with me, do it at home.  I don't want to be late for Geography."

"You have Geography now?  Excellent!  Me too!"

She shut her locker door with a snap, striding off down the hall. 

Edwin trotted behind her.  "So, about that prank—"

"No, Edwin!"

"Hear me out..."

Their voices trailed off as they journeyed through the halls of Thompson High.

"Hey, Mom.  What's up?"  Casey pushed her lunch tray away from her to prop her elbows onto the table as she held the phone to her ear.

"Oh, just staring around an empty house, sipping my lemon juice."

"Lemon juice, Mom?"

Nora hummed.  "Orange juice sounds better.  I should have George pick some up on his way home."  Sighing, Nora asked, "So, how's your day?  Have you had class yet?"

"Literary Study this morning.  Professor Nevin's lectures are fascinating.  I know I'm going to love his classes."  Casey gushed, "And my Intro to Theatre class is amazing.  Madam McCoy—” With a giggle, Casey explained, "That's what she wants to be called, is definitely dramatic, but she's hilarious."

"Sounds wonderful, sweetie."

Casey frowned.  "What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing."  Nora sniffed.  "I was just thinking about how my little girl has grown up."

"Mom... don't cry."

"I've been crying all morning, honey.  I'm sick of these hormones.  It's so much worse than when I had Lizzie or you."

"Maybe you need to focus on a project."

"Like what?"

"Well, you have the baby's room to work on.  And you'll probably have to fumigate it."

"Casey."  Nora warned.

"I know, Mom, but it's true!"  Casey sighed.  "You could make some curtains and things for it."

"Say—” Nora perked up.  "That is a good idea.  I could pick up the material tomorrow morning when I take the kids to school.  Oooh!  And we could pick a theme and paint and everything!  I'll talk to George tonight.  Good thinking, Casey!"

"Listen, Mom, I have to go now.  I have Intro to Canadian Law coming up and I have to be prepared.  I begged the department to let me into this class even though I'm a freshman."

Nora gave a watery chuckle.  "Sounds like you, sweetheart."

Casey smiled.  "Bye, Mom.  Love you."

"Love you too, Miss Case."

"So, you're my locker neighbor."

Lizzie turned to see a richly tanned girl giving her a friendly smile.

"Bailey Rae."  The girl held her hand out to Lizzie.  "Um—” Shyly, she looked down.  "I saw that cute boy with you earlier.  Is he your boyfriend?"

A laugh escaped Lizzie.  "Edwin?  Nah, he's my step-brother.  I'm sure you'll see him hanging around here a lot.  He's trying to stash his prank material in my locker."  Lizzie rolled her eyes, clearly amused.  "And as far as him being cute, I know too much about his hygiene habits to even consider it."

Color rose on Bailey Rae's neck as she giggled.  "Boys make me so nervous.  I'm not very good at talking to them or even being around them."

"No worries.  If it'll help, you can practice on Ed.  He's not great talking to girls either no matter what he thinks."

Bailey Rae touched her blushing cheek with the back of her hand.  "You think that'll help?"

"Of course.  Tell you what, next time I see him, I'll introduce you."  Lizzie shut her locker, asking, "What's your next class?"

Consulting her schedule, she answered with a grimace, "P.E."

"Hey, me too!"  Lizzie smiled.  "I'm glad our day ends with an easy class."  She fell into stride alongside Bailey Rae.

"You sound considerably more confident about it than I am."

"Who doesn't like P.E.?"  Lizzie gaped at her.

"Those of us who look like a baby deer on ice when we try to move."

Lizzie stifled a giggle behind her hand.  "I'm sure it's not that bad."

Bailey Rae nodded solemnly.  "You'll see for yourself."

"Hey, D!  Jay!"

At the sound of their names, Derek and Jay looked around, finding Tyler, Eric, and Chris racing to catch them.

Puffing, Chris pulled to a stop at Derek's side, an excited smile spread across his face.  "Where ya headed?"

Shrugging, Derek continued walking.  "Killing time before practice."

"Oh, right."  Chris mirrored Derek, shoving his hands deep into his pockets.

From behind the trio, Eric asked, "Are there a lot of freshmen on the team?"

"Dunno yet."  Jay answered, "Coach hasn't made final cuts yet."

Eric panicked, "Oh, so you might not be on the team then?"

Derek snorted.  "Thanks for the vote of confidence, man."

Stuttering, Eric backtracked, "Sorry, I just meant that it wasn't a for sure thing... yet."

Tyler reached forward, patting Derek on the back.  "Don't worry, you're Triple D!  You'll make the team!"  As an afterthought, he added, "And I've never seen you play Jay, but I'm sure you'll make the team too."

"Gee, thanks, Ty."

Suddenly, Derek stopped in his tracks, staring off ahead.  Tyler and Eric slammed into the back of him, but Derek cut off their apologies.

"Catch ya later, dudes.  I've got to make a quick trip to the... bookstore."

"The bookstore?"  Jay questioned in disbelief.

"For what, D?"  Tyler followed Derek's gaze.  "Ah, never mind.  I understand."

Eric's forehead puckered.  "Isn't that the Ban Righ girl?"

"Better luck this time, man."  Chris encouraged.

"I don't need luck."  Derek smirked, setting off quickly down the sidewalk.  By the time Derek entered the bookstore, Casey was deep in the aisles of books.

"Hey, Princess."

Instantly, Casey froze, taking her time to turn around.  "Oh, so you're not going to pretend we haven't met this time?"

His hands sunk into his front pockets as he snorted.  "Nah, figured we were alone now.  Wouldn't hurt."

Casey spun on her heel, marching away.


Ignoring him, she set off down another aisle.

Derek rushed after her.  "Case?"  His voice grew stern, "Casey."

Rounding on him, Casey spit, "Are you trying to give me whiplash?"

"You're the one that told me to act like I didn't know you!"

"So, that means you have to hit on me?"

"What else did you expect me to do?"

"I don't know."  She bit sarcastically, "Maybe act normal?"

He gave her a look.  "I did."

"How was that anywhere near normal?"

Throwing his head back, Derek groaned, "Casey."

Casey turned away again, browsing through the merchandise.

He followed her, trapping her between two sections.  "Which is it, Case?  Are we just meeting?  Or do we have—” Derek licked his lips.  "History?"

She hesitated, "Can't we have something... in between?"

Derek quirked an eyebrow.  "You don't want us to have a fresh start?"

Her eyes dropped with her voice, "I don't want to go back to square one with you, Derek.  We hardly tolerated each other back then."

"You think this would be the same?"  Derek's voice filled with disbelief.

With a tiny shrug, Casey trailed off, "I don't know..."

He raised an arm above her head, effectively pinning her to the wall.  "Case— Casey, look at me."

Hesitantly, she met his sparkling eyes.

"What do you want?"  Gruffly, Derek's voice barely reached a whisper.  When Casey didn't answer, he repeated even lower, "What do you want, Casey?"

Biting her lip, she shifted her eyes away from him.  "Us."

Derek swallowed, his eyes tracing every line of her face.  "Us?"

Casey nodded quickly.

"I'm going to need some clarifications here, Princess."  Derek murmured.  "Us—”

"Us as we are, Derek.  No pretending we don't know each other or acting like anyone other than ourselves."

"Who's acting?"

She cocked her head to the side.  "You know very well what I'm talking about."

"Yeah?"  Derek challenged.

"Yes.  Just be real with me, Derek."

"I am real with you, Casey."

Dramatically rolling her eyes, Casey tossed, "I don't believe that for a second, oh Lord of the Lies."

"Oh, please."  Derek rolled his eyes back at her.  "Again, you're the one that said to act like I didn't know you!"

Her voice shrilled, "And you said we would be best buds!  You didn't say the first thing you were going to do was hit on me!"

He heaved a sigh.  "This is why I don't follow your orders.  It only gets me in trouble."

"Excuse me?  You're the one that's always getting us into trouble!"

"Alright, Miss Innocent, how about the Bob incident?"

"You made it worse!"

"I helped you!"

"And then you made it worse!"

"And the Snot escapade?"

"You dated a soccer sister!"


"So—” Casey lost her words.  "So!"

Derek snorted.  "You're the one that dated that creep in the first place!  That one's on you!"

"It wasn't my fault he was a creep!"

"Right, because you have a stellar track record with guys."

"Oh, whatever, Derek."  Casey huffed, "It doesn't matter, that one doesn't count."

"Fun Camp?"

"You got paid!  And I didn't get us in trouble!"

"The point is you got in too deep, and I had to save you!"

Casey pouted.  "That doesn't count!  Everything turned out fine and we had fun."

"Fine."  Derek wet his lips.  "Then Purple Fog was on you."

"What?  No!"  Crossing her arms over her chest, Casey stomped.  "You hit the car!"

"You left evidence!"

"I will not claim fault there!"

"It's at least 90/10."

"Then you're the 90!"

"Wrong!  And I helped you with that math test!"

"Uh, yeah!  By cheating and you got us into even more trouble!  AND you're the one that switched the tests in the first place!"

"Oh."  Derek scratched the back of his head.  "Well, shit."

"Language!"  She tapped her toe against the hard floor.  "Should we list all the trouble you've gotten me into?"

"Hey!"  Derek rushed to defend himself, holding his arms out in front of him.  "I didn't make you do any of that!"

"Oh, really?"  Casey countered, "How about my surprise, surprise party?"

"You're blaming me for your apparatus?"

"Appendix, Derek.  And yes!"

Rolling his eyes, Derek retorted, "Even I don't have that kind of power, Casey."

"And it was because of the bet I made with you that I lost a good friend!"

"You could have been honest with Trevor from the beginning, Case."

"Then you would have said the bet didn't count!"

"Is that all you got?"

"No!  One word... merchandising."

Derek held up a finger.  "I didn't say anything about getting caught!  And I bailed you out of that!  And you were compensated!  Very well I might add."

"What about Cory Plunkett's butt?"

He snickered, his nose crinkling.  "All you, Klutzilla."

"No, it wasn't!  You're the one who insulted me on the stairs!"

"Interesting you should say that, Case."  Derek cocked his head sideways.  "Because I thought we solved that one already."

"What?"  Her brow knitted.  "What do you mean?"

"Never mind."  Derek shook his head, a grin growing on his face.

"And let's not mention how you ruined my prom dress!"

"Your handsome coachmen showed up!  And we had a great time, Prom Queen."

Against her will, the corners of Casey's mouth turned up.  "Yeah, I suppose we did."

Suddenly, a laugh fell from Derek.  "Are you sure you don't want to start over?  'Cause we just laid down a lot of history here, Princess."

Her face softened and the fight left her.  Casey's volume lowered considerably as she answered, "No, Der.  Let's just... be.  Alright?"

Derek sighed.  "Alright, fine.  But you better hope these books don't spill.  I don't want word to get out that I agreed with Queen's newest keener."

A soft smile appeared on her face before Casey raised a suspicious eyebrow.  "And what exactly are you doing in the bookstore anyway?"

"You know, I am a student here too.  Why can't I be in the bookstore?"

"Derek Venturi in a bookstore?  Excuse me while I write this moment of history down in my calendar."

"Har har, Case."  He rolled his eyes.  "I needed something."

"Oh, yeah?"  Casey challenged, "Like what?"

Derek studied her intently as he reached over her shoulder, coming back with a teddy bear wearing a Queen's hockey jersey.  "Hmm, this little guy's wearing a promising number."

"You came here for a teddy bear?"

"Ya never know."  He wiggled the bear in her face.  "He's almost as cute as me."  Setting the bear back, Derek revealed, "I want a flag."

"A flag?"

"Yeah, you know those things that blow in the wind?"  He wiggled his arm, imitating a rippling flag before he wrapped it around her shoulder.  "You probably have this place memorized already.  Show me the way, keener."

She shot him a glare, but suggested, "You'll want to try that back corner."  Stepping out from underneath his arm, Casey led the way.

"There!"  Casey pointed at the selection of flags, a pleased smile on her face.  "Well, have fun!"  She spun on her heel.

"Whoa, where's the fire, Princess?"

She jutted a hip out, teasing, "I'm sure the great Derek Venturi can pick out a flag by himself."  She smirked.  "Later, D."

For several beats, Derek stared after her.  Shaking himself, he selected a flag and took it to the register.  Derek tossed the package lightly on the counter, already reaching for his wallet.

The clerk took it, the beep of the scan ringing out loudly.  "Anything else?"  The young woman inquired.

Startled, Derek tore his eyes away from the display shelf next to the register.  "What was that?"

"I asked you if there was anything else you needed."

Derek hesitated before his hand shot out, nabbing the object of his fixation.  "Yeah—” He plopped the teddy bear next to the register.  "This little guy."

Biting back a smile, the clerk rang up his purchase.

After Derek paid, the lady handed him his bag, a knowing smile on her face.  "Good luck, honey."

"My step-mom is going to be awhile.  Want to swing with me?"

Nodding, Coralie followed Marti to the swing set.

"Race ya to the top!"  Marti hollered, getting a strong push off and kicking her legs as hard as she could.

Coralie smiled, following Marti's lead.  Giggling, they swung as high as possible.  After a few moments, Marti slowed her swing, so they were in sync.  "So, tell me about yourself, Coralie."

The girl bit her lip.  "What do you want to know?"

"First things first."  Marti rounded on her new friend.  "What's your favorite animal?"


Beaming, Marti asked, "Do you have any cats?"

With a nod, Coralie answered, "Three."

"Really?"  Marti perked up.  "I'm coming over!  What are their names?"

"Biffy, Babzy, and Rita."

"I.  Love.  It!"  Suddenly, Marti whipped around so she was sitting sideways on her swing.  "What's your favorite color?"

Coralie thought for a moment.  "Blue."

Marti sighed.  "I won't hold it against you."  Smiling, she sent a wink.  "Mine's purple."

"I like purple too."

"I think this is the beginning of an awesome friendship, Lee-Lee."

Coralie's head tilted to the side, then a beautiful smile spread across her face.  "I think so too."

Jumping from the swing, Marti pulled on Coralie's arm until she stood.  "Come on!  I want to introduce you to some people!"

Marti dragged Coralie from group to group until someone stepped into their path.

"Aren't you forgetting someone?"

"This is nobody, Coralie.  Don't pay any attention to him."

He stepped forward, holding out a hand to Coralie.  "Dimi.  Marti's best friend."

"Former."  Marti corrected, "You forgot the former part."

"Marti," Dimi groaned, "Please, listen to me."

"You lost that right, Dimi."  Reaching behind her, Marti searched for Coralie's hand.  "Let's go, Lee-Lee."  Marti fled, Coralie stumbling after her.

"Ready to go home?"

"I have soccer practice, Ed."

"What?  Since when?"

Lizzie concentrated on stacking her books in her locker.  "You knew this.  We talked about it."

Edwin slumped against the neighboring locker.  "Well, I forgot.  Am I going to have to wait for you every day then?"

"Afraid so, mister."  Lizzie patted his shoulder.  "Mom said she wasn't coming to pick us up until practice is over."  She shouldered her bag, scurrying off.  Not slowing down, Lizzie shouted over her shoulder, "Join a club or something!"

Walking to the bulletin board, Edwin mumbled under his breath, "Join a club she says..."  He studied the notices, reading aloud, "Camera club... stamp club... newspaper staff... tutoring... Spanish club..."

"Right, fresh meat."  Coach Wilson glared at the circle of players.  "This is Coach Gibson, offensive coordinator."  A fit man with an easy smile stepped forward, giving them a two-finger salute.

"You already met Coach Smith, defensive coordinator."  The expression on Smith's face never wavered.

"Goalie coach, Coach Bennett."  Coach Bennet, a tall burly young man, nodded at them.

"They'll be putting you through your paces when we break off by areas."  Coach Wilson placed his hands on his hips.  "Enough chit chat, on the goal line."

Someone collided with Derek's shoulder, sending him back a few steps.  The lean, mean machine growled, "Watch it, rookie."

Shaking it off, Derek took his place on the end line.  The whistle blew and they were off, ice chunks flying every which way.

After several blows of the whistle, Derek ended up next to the same guy.

"You better know your place, fresh meat."  The upperclassman growled at Derek.  When Coach Wilson blew the whistle, the player checked Derek roughly on the shoulder.

Clutching his arm, Derek chased after him.

Eventually, Coach Wilson stopped the conditioning and broke them into their positions.  Coach Gibson greeted the forwards with a smile and immediately set them to work.

After some time, Gibson called for a five-minute rest period.  Groaning, the forwards made their way to the bench.

The lean, mean machine tripped Derek, who fell heavily onto the ice.

"Why don't you just go home?"  The player sneered at Derek below him.

"You wish."  Derek scrambled up, knocking into the guy as he pushed on to the bench.  He flopped heavily down on the seat, glaring after the jerk.

"You okay?"

Derek looked to his right.  "I'm fine."

"The name's Nate.  We haven't been properly introduced."


"Nice to meet ya, Derek.  Don't worry about that guy.  He's an ass."

"Who is he?"

"Perry.  Brian.  He thinks he's God gift to hockey and well everything else."

"It seems like he's out to get me."

"He must see you as a threat."

"Is that good or bad?"

"I guess we'll see."  Nate gave Derek a hand up off the bench as Coach Gibson signaled for them to resume practice.  "You don't look like a guy who'll take much trash talk."

"You're right."  Derek gave him a lopsided smirk.  "But I don't think I better get kicked off the team before I'm officially on it, you know?"

Nate laughed.  "Yeah, Coach doesn't tolerate fighting.  Best retaliate on the downlow if you catch my drift."

"Oh, I can do downlow."  Derek clapped Nate on the back.  "Thanks, man."

Nodding, Nate smiled.  "Anytime.  And let me know when you plan to get him.  We'd all love to see it."

"Sammy!"  Derek exclaimed as he answered his phone.

Chuckling, Sam greeted, "Hey, man!"

"Miss me already?  Can't say I'm surprised."

With a sigh, Sam drawled, "I couldn't go one more minute without hearing your voice."

"I don't blame you.  It's sexy."

Sam laughed.  "How you holding up, D?"

"Dude, this schedule is hard.  Practice, workouts, practice, class, practice."

"Sounds gruesome.  I guess maybe I am glad I'm not playing hockey right now."

"I'd rather practice all day than go to classes."

"Nah, man.  Mine aren't so bad.  It's just beginner stuff.  I won't have anything hard until next year."

Derek groaned.  "I have to make it that far first."

"Is it really that bad, D?  Or are you using your Venturi exaggeration skills?"

"I'm not exaggerating, Sam."  Derek whispered, "I have to... study."

Sam erupted in teasing laughter.  "Wow, how the mighty have fallen!"

"Shut up, Sam.  It's not funny."

"Sorry, D, but it is."  Sam's voice turned away from the phone.  "What's that, Ralphie?"  After a pause, Sam came back, "Ralph said to tell you hi and that he hopes you remember that you have to open the book to read it."

"Good old, Ralphie."  Derek chuckled, "Thanks, man.  I'll try to remember that.  So, you guys rooming together?"

"Yeah.  It's pretty nice.  Wait a sec, D."  Sam snickered.  "I'm supposed to tell you that there's a volleyball court outside our window."

"Oh?  Lots of action?"  Derek teased.

"Not for us."  Sam joked.  "Guess we don't have the same appeal without Triple D."

Laughing, Derek agreed, "Yup, it's just not the same without me."

"So, what about you?  Get a billion phone numbers yet?"

"Nah, man.  I've been busy."

"Right."  Sam's smile appeared in his voice, "So, how's Casey?"

A moment of silence spread over the line.  "Are you going to ask me that every time you call?"

The humor radiated through Sam's voice, "That's up to you."

Derek groaned.  "Goodbye, Sam."

Sam signed off with a laugh.  "Later, Derek.  Good luck with everything, man."

"Thanks, Sammy.  Night."

"Women, Gender, and Differences?"  Jay read off Derek's schedule, gaping at him.

"Mhmm."  Derek mumbled as they rushed across campus.  "Never mind the class, just tell me where the building is."

Speechless, Jay pointed off to the side.

"Thanks, dude.  I'll catch up with you later."  Derek dashed away, leaving a gawking Jay in the dust.

Outside the lecture hall, Derek took a second to catch his breath as his eyes scanned the front row.  Without warning, a smirk broke across his face and he quickly set off down the slanted aisle.

"Is this seat taken?"  Derek inquired, a teasing tone to his voice as he slid into the seat.

Casey looked up, her mouth falling open.  "You were serious?  I can't believe you really took this class!"

"I knew you'd be here."  He smirked arrogantly.

"So, you only took it because I was?"  Her brow furrowed.  "Derek, you need to take the courses that interest you!"

Derek held his hands up.  "I wouldn't miss an opportunity like this."  He poked her side.  "To get your notes."

"Der-rek!"  Casey squealed.

He laughed.  "And you can write my papers!"

"I will not!"

"And we can study together."

"No— Okay, yes, we can do that."

"That's the spirit, McDonald!"

Her eyes narrowed as she fought a smile.  "Alright, but one slipup and you're out of here, Venturi."

The lights suddenly dimmed as their professor stood, starting her lecture.

Out of the side of his mouth, Derek whispered fondly, "Keener."

Casey smiled to herself as her pencil hovered above her notebook.

Their professor dismissed the class, and most students were instantly out of the room, except Casey, who methodically packed away her things.

Derek stood over her, waiting with a roll of his eyes.  "If the keener would hurry up, she could walk with me before practice."

"And why would I want to do that?"  Casey mocked, zipping her bag shut.

Smirking, Derek hauled her up by the arm, leading her out of the lecture hall.  "Because it'll be the best part of your day."

"I was doing perfectly fine until you assaulted my Tuesday."

"Is this only Tuesday?"  Derek groaned.  "It seems like we've been here two weeks.  Tuesdays will be hell."

"What's so hard about today?"

"Besides having class with you?"  He winked.  "Early workout, three classes, and then I have practice right after this and God only knows what else."

"Aww, poor Derry has to work."

"Casey, it's not even 3:30 yet and I've been up for ten hours."

She staged a gasp.  "Oh, my!"  Casey beamed.  "I only have two classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays!"

Derek sent her a half-hearted glare.

"But I'll probably be up half the night making flashcards."

"I have a study method I could show you."  Derek teased, "It's called the 'Derek Downsizing Method.'  It's so famous you've probably heard of it."

Casey tapped her chin.  "You know what?  It rings a bell.  But I bet I know something better.  It's called the 'Casey Condensation Method.'  It has rave reviews."

"I'm sure it has nothing on Derek Downsizing."

"Keep dreaming."  Casey snorted.

They made it to the outside door and Derek reached ahead to open it, allowing Casey to go first.  Shocked, Casey's eyes widened before she stepped through the doorway.

The pair strolled out into the afternoon sun.  A soft smile appeared on Casey's face.  "So, has your day really been that bad?"

"I've had better."

She studied him.  "Do I get to know what classes you had today or are you still going to keep it secret?"

"I suppose I can let you in on it now."  He smirked down at her.  "I had Social History of Popular Music and Digital Recording, Editing and Mixing today."

"I'm sorry, did you say pop music?"

"Yeah, yeah.  Don't rub it in.  It was the best of the bunch."

"If you say so."

"Wipe that smirk off your face, Princess."

Casey pretended to check her mouth, asking, "What smirk?"

Derek pinched her cheek.  "That smirk."

Laughing, Casey batted his hand away.

"So, what classes does a keener take at uni?"

"I had Economics this morning."  She chirped.  "Yesterday it was Literary Study, Theatre, and Law!"

Snorting, Derek bumped her shoulder.  "Sounds like you."

"Gee—” Casey rolled her eyes.  "Thanks, Der."

They exchanged lighthearted banter until Derek pulled to a stop in front of Ban Righ.  "I've got to get to practice, Case."  Derek clutched the locks at the base of his neck.  "Catch ya later?"

Casey tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, looking up at him timidly.  "Sure."

With a lopsided smirk, Derek ruffled her hair before sprinting away.


Jogging backwards, he smirked.  "Later, Princess!"

"Finally!"  Edwin stomped.  "I've been to every club meeting at least twice!"

Lizzie rose an eyebrow, adjusting the soccer ball on her hip as she emerged from the girls' locker room.  "Edwin, when I said join a club, I meant pick one and go to the meetings.  Not go to all of them!"

"Well, I have to shop around."  He fell into pace beside her.  "It's not like you buy the first pair of pants you see.  You have to—” Edwin gyrated around.  "Get jiggy with them.  You know, see if everything fits right."

"Eww, TMI."

"I'm only telling it how it is, Liz."

"So, are you going to pick one?"

"I haven't decided yet."  Edwin beamed.  "They all want me to join!  I might have to stick with a rotation after all."

Lizzie shook her head.  "Just never use that expression again, alright?"  She threw an arm around his shoulders and steered him down the hall.

"Nora!  I'm home!"

Nora materialized into the kitchen.  "Hey, Georgie.  What are all those sacks?"  She eyed the counter full of brown grocery bags.

George smiled.  "Oh, just a little surprise."

"A surprise?"

Nodding, George reached into a sack.  "I thought I'd be proactive for once."  He revealed a bottle, announcing, "Apple juice."  His hand sunk into the bag again.  "Beet juice."


"Just wait, Nora."  He continued pulling items out as he listed, "Carrot juice, cranberry juice, grape juice, grapefruit juice, lemon juice, lime juice, mango juice, pineapple juice, pomegranate juice, strawberry juice, and last, but certainly not least, orange juice!"  George unveiled the last jug with gusto.

A tear escaped Nora's eye.  "Oh!  You did all this for me?"  Her eyes roamed the counter as she gave in to her tears.  "That was so sweet."  Wincing, Nora apologized, "I guess maybe I have been having a few cravings lately.  I'm sorry if I've given you a rough time."

His smile spread from ear to ear.  "Don't worry, Nora.  I came up with a solution for that too."  Reaching below the counter, George came up with another brown paper sack that thudded as he set it carefully on the counter.

"For when your cravings get to me, I got a little juice for myself."  George yanked the large glass bottle from within.  "Wallah!  Rye juice!"

Giggling, Nora covered her mouth with a hand.  "George!  That's—”

He cut her off, "But just in case I have a different craving, I also got some barely juice!"  George's other hand grasped a bottle as well.

Nora approached him, still laughing as she fell into his arms.  "Did I really drive you to drink, George?"

George pulled her closer.  "Nah, not yet."

With a laugh, Nora hugged him tighter.  "You're too good, honey."

He rested his cheek against hers before kissing Nora's forehead.  "I love you."

"I love you too."

Casey looked down at her ringing phone.  Sighing, she answered, "Yes, Derek?"

"Gee, don't act so excited.  It's just me."

"I know, that's why I can hardly curb my enthusiasm."

He snorted into the phone.  "Witty."

"Did you need something or are you just calling to bother me?"

"Well," Derek paused, "Hypothetically, if one accidently deleted his meal plan... what would he do so he doesn't starve?"

"Derek, it's only the second day of class!  How can you have managed to mess this up already?"

"I don't know, Case, but you got to fix it, or I'll never eat again."

She rolled her eyes.  "Fine.  I'll talk you through—"


"What do you mean, no?"

"I may need some other... help as well."

"Aww, does the big, strong Derek need little Casey's help?"

Silence rang until he answered, amused, "It's nice of you to admit how big and strong I am, Case.  Real touching."

She let out a chuckle.  "More like scrawny little Derek and smart brilliant Casey to the rescue."

He cursed under his breath.  "Scrappy, I'm scrappy."

Casey laughed.  "Whatever you say, D."

"Are you coming over or what?"

"Alright, alright.  I'll be there in ten."

"It's only a five-minute walk, Princess."

"I have to put clothes on, Derek."

Another beat of silence.  "Not for me, you don't."

"Ha.  Funny, Derek."  Casey took a breath.  "I'll be there in ten."  With a snap of her phone, Casey ended the call.

Derek reclined casually against the outside of Leggett Hall, his arms crossed over his chest and smirking at the girls who eyed his figure.

As Casey came within range, they locked eyes and Casey shook her head as he grinned confidently at her.

She stopped in front of him, rolling her eyes.  "I swear, you'd be on the street if it weren't for me."

Snorting, he opened the door for her.  "I'm not sure even the Lord of Lies could deny that right now."

Laughing, Casey paused inside, letting him take the lead.  "Finally, I got you!"

"Oh, please.  It's not like you had anything better to do."

"I was settled in for the evening!"

Derek made a noise through his teeth.  "You were curled up in your jammies and bunny slippers making color-coded notes."

"So?  I was busy!"

"Yeah, yeah.  Whatever, keener."

"Where are we going?  I thought your room was the other way?"

"We have to get my laptop from the social room.  The guys are having some type of tournament that I haven't figured out yet."  Derek rolled his eyes.  "They're not exactly the brightest."

"Wow."  Casey mocked, "That means a lot coming from you."

"Ouch, tough words, Case."

Without hesitating, Derek burst into the social room as Casey tiptoed to the doorway, peeking shyly inside.  She listened as some of the guys heckled Derek as he collected his things.

"Where you going, D?"

"Derek!  You can't leave yet!  Our turn is coming up!"

"Sorry, Chris.   You're going to have to go on without me."

"What?  Aren't we good enough for the mighty Triple D?"

As Derek strode across the room to fetch his laptop off the table, one of the guys noticed Casey at the door.  "Hey, I recognize you!  You're that girl from Ban Righ!"

Every head whipped to look at Casey and she blushed to her roots.

"Yo, D!  Nice!"

Derek raised one hand in lazy acknowledgement as the other worked to shove the laptop in his bag.

"Aren't you going to introduce us?"

Rolling his eyes, Derek drawled, "Guys, Casey.  Case, the guys."

Various greetings sounded from around the room.  "Hey there, Casey."  Anthony waited until everyone focused on him.  "I'm surprised to see you here... again."

Casey shuffled awkwardly.  "Hello... everyone."

Backpack over his shoulder, Derek joined Casey's side.  He gripped the underneath of her arm, leading her away.  "Come on, Case.  My room."

Behind them, the guys catcalled.  Derek flipped them the finger with his free hand.

Casey studied the outside of Derek's dorm.  "No keep out sign?"

Chuckling, Derek swung the door open and motioned her in.  "Wow, someone sure is witty today."  He threw his bag down.  "And it's around here somewhere.  Don't worry."

"Hmm, Derek Venturi asking me for help and inviting me into his room, all in the same day?  Yeah, I might need to see some identification because you seem like an imposter to me."

He nudged her side with his elbow.  "If I was an imposter, I would have gone through the necessary means to get identification."

She rolled her eyes, looking around his room.  "So, you really did get a flag.  And here I thought it was an excuse to talk to me."

"Technicalities, technicalities."  Derek plopped down on his bed and patted the space beside him.  "But there are other ways to prove identity."

"Such as?"  Casey carefully settled beside him.

"Security questions."  At her eyebrow raise, he elaborated, "Like things only that person would know.  Come on, keener.  I know you've read mystery books."

"I know what you're talking about!  You want me to ask you a security question?"

"You're the one questioning my identity.  You tell me."

"Hmm."  Casey tapped her cheek as she thought.  "Sister's middle name?"

"No good.  An imposter would have fact checked that."

"Hockey position?"

He raised an eyebrow.  "All of Canada knows that."

"Cocky jerk."  Casey mumbled, then quickly changed tactics, "How about deepest desire?"

Stunned, Derek's eyes widened before he collected himself.  "Newsflash, Spacey.  For it to be a security question, you have to know the answer."

Casey pouted.  "I have a pretty good idea of your answer."

"Doubt it, Princess."  Derek murmured under his breath.  He opened the lid of his computer, the screen reflecting in his fiery eyes.

"How was everyone's day at school?"  George asked as he passed Marti the meatloaf.

"I made friends with the new girl!"  Marti exclaimed excitedly.

"Good for you, Marti."  Nora smiled brightly.  "I'm sure she appreciates having you as a friend."

"Who wouldn't?"  Marti winked as she handed the meatloaf off to Edwin.

Edwin laughed as he took the platter.  "Well, it's not always fun and games having you as a sister."  As Marti punched his arm, Edwin cried, "Kidding!  Just kidding!"

Quickly sending the meatloaf across the table to Lizzie, Edwin rubbed his sore arm.

Lizzie rolled her eyes at him.  "Edwin went to fifty club meetings."

"It wasn't fifty.  It was... fifteen."

"Ha!"  Lizzie guffawed as she passed the meatloaf on to her mom.  "I told him he'd better pick one."

"Um, maybe Lizzie's right, Ed."  George stared at his son.

"That's an awful lot to keep up with, Edwin."  Nora agreed.

"I know, I know."  Edwin took a huge bite.  "I'm just... trying them on for size, you know?"

"Edwin!"  Lizzie groaned, covering her face.

Snickering, Edwin waved his empty fork at her.  "I didn't use the expression!"

"Okay, where do you go for your assignments?"

"The portal."

"And how do you get there?"

"Like this."

Several clicks later, Casey exclaimed, "Very good, Derek!  I think you're finally getting it."

"It's about time.  We've been at this forever."

Casey rolled her eyes.  "One more thing.  Where do you go for email?"

"Right here."  With a click, Derek opened the service.

"Good job!"  Casey ruffled his hair teasingly.  "I'm so proud of you, Derbear."

Shaking his hair back into place, Derek retorted, "Yeah, I'm amazing.  I know."

Cutting off Casey's reply, her phone rang.  Casey rushed to answer it, "Emily!  I'm so glad to hear your voice!"

Emily's excited voice answered, "Casey!  Oh, Casey!  I can't wait to tell you this!"

"Tell me what, Em?"

"You'll never believe who's in Toronto!"


"SHELDON!"  Emily squealed loudly as Casey cringed away from the speaker.

"Sheldon?"  Casey's mouth fell open.  "Sheldon Schlepper?"

Derek snorted in the background.  "You're kidding."  Casey swatted his arm before repositioning herself.

"Yes!  Oh my god, Case!  I can't even begin to say how happy I am."

"That's great, Em.  Maybe you two will get back together."

"Maybe!"  Emily's voice evened out.  "I just don't want to rush into anything.  Make sure I have a clear head... and heart after... everything."

"That would be the best for everyone."

"But then again, maybe I just need to... lose it, you know?"

Casey frowned in confusion.  "Lose it?"

Beside her, Derek looked up, his interest perking.

"Lose what, Em?"

Emily sighed, "Lose it, Case."

"I still don't understand."

"My virginity."

Blushing furiously, Casey cried, "Oh, oh, oh!"

"I mean after everything I just went through, I kind of want a no strings attached kind of deal... and I mean I already have a past with Sheldon.

"Em... I just don't want to see you hurt.  Or Sheldon."

"I know, I know.  I'm just talking about it, you know?  I mean, we're at university, now."

"Yeah, I understand."

Gushing, Emily asked, "So any ideas who you want to lose it to?"

Casey flushed, shifting uncomfortably on Derek's bed as Derek scooted closer, leaning his head down next to her ear.  "Derek!"  Casey yelped as she shoved him further across the bed.

Emily's stunned voice spoke through the silence, "Derek?"

"Oh, no Emily!"  Casey's eyes widened.  "I didn't mean that!  I'm in Derek's dorm and he just—"

"You're in Derek's dorm?"


"Alone with him?"

"Yes, and—"

"No, I get it.  Listen, Casey, I've got to go.  I'll talk to you later."

"Okay, I'll—" Casey didn't finish her sentence before the phone call ended with a beep.

Derek stared at Casey as she lowered the phone.  "Everything alright?"

"Um... I'm not sure."

"Hey, Case?"

Meeting his gaze, Casey hummed, "Yeah?"

"Thank you—" Derek clutched his neck, wincing.  "You know, for your... help."

A genuine smile lit Casey's face.  "You're welcome, Derek."

Their homework done, Edwin and Lizzie retreated from the dining room table.  Sighing, Lizzie collapsed headfirst onto the couch as Edwin plopped heavily into Derek's chair.

"Boy, I can't get used to the fact that Derek isn't going to bound down the stairs and pound me for sitting in his chair."

"And Casey isn't going to demand that I move over because I'm in her spot."

"Lizzie, can you feel it happening?"  Edwin asked excitedly.

"Feel what?"

Edwin whispered, "We're in charge now."  Startling Lizzie, he bellowed, "MARTI!"

"WHAT?"  Marti called from the top of the stairs.


Manic giggles rang from upstairs.  "HA!"


"HA... HA!"

"Marti?  Will you, pretty please, make me a sandwich?"

"I don't think so, Edwin!"

Lizzie tried to hide her snickers in her shoulder.

Edwin shrugged his shoulders pathetically.  "I guess I'm happy with just the chair."  He grinned at Lizzie.  "How you holding up, sis?"

"I hate to say it, but—” Lizzie smirked.  "I feel like a queen."

His hands folded behind his head as Edwin reclined in the chair.  Edwin crossed his legs, lounging deeper into the soft material.  "And it's only just begun."  His grin stretched from cheek to cheek.

Lizzie held out her fist for Edwin to bump.  "Cheers."

"Cheers, Liz."  Edwin laughed.