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Five Steps

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“Love doesn’t make sense! You can’t logic your way into or out of it. Love is totally nonsensical. But we have to keep doing it or else we’re lost and love is dead, and humanity should just pack it in. Because love is the best thing we do.” – Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother, Season 9, Episode 22: ‘End of the Aisle’


It was a truth universally acknowledged that Casey McDonald always had a plan.

Whether her plan was actually good was a different story, but the fact remained that she had one to easily pull out and launch into action. And every plan, whether new or old, was treated the same: handwritten neatly on lined paper, slipped inside of a protective plastic sleeve, sorted by subject, alphabetized, hole-punched, and filed away in her black, three-ringed binder, appropriately titled, Plans for Life: A-Z.

Perhaps her enthusiasm could be considered a tad neurotic, but could anyone blame her? Plans brought a sense of relief and security like no other. In a world filled with chaos, unknowns, and things out of her control, Casey desperately needed security.

A single, brilliantly developed plan had the power to alleviate the anxiety that constantly thrummed in her veins and elicit pleasant feelings. She couldn’t explain why, but every time she set pen to paper, she felt deliriously giddy. There was just something so beautiful about the process, from the moment an idea popped into her head to the very end when the plan came to fruition.

While her binder was full of nearly every plan under the sun, she clearly had her favorites. Among them were the Casey Condensation Method for Studying (duh), how to make the perfect green smoothie (the trick was to add a touch of honey to cut the bitterness), and her five-step plan for falling in love.

Yes, she had a strategic plan to fall in love.

Hey, it wasn’t that ridiculous of a notion! Based on all the literature she had read, films she had watched, music she had listened to, and experiences she had witnessed, she knew that love could be the most powerful thing in the world. But, it also had the ability to be overly messy and complicated. To weather that storm, she figured the least she could do was condense it into five (seemingly) easy steps:

Step 1: Meet a charming, handsome stranger in a classically romantic place, such as a coffee shop, a bookstore, a library, an art museum, a theatre performance, an orchestral concert, an opera, or in an intellectually stimulating class.

Step 2: Strike up a conversation with that person and find mutual topics of interest to discuss. Exchange phone numbers, email addresses, or social media information to continue the conversation beyond the initial one. Spend more time together and become friends.

Step 3: After establishing a steady friendship built on mutual respect and trust, disclose feelings and explore where they may lead. Go on a few dates to test the waters. If all systems are a go, define the relationship after the third date to cement the ‘couple’ status.

Step 4: Fully embrace being a couple. Introductions of family members begin here, as well as co-signing birthday cards, being each other’s ‘plus one’ to events, celebrating anniversaries and holidays together, and traveling with one another.

Step 5: These affectionate feelings will continue to grow over time, shifting and morphing into a warm and comforting love. At this point, it is essential to declare this love, in the most romantic and swoon-worthy way possible. This love, when properly nurtured, will last a lifetime. Naturally, the next steps are cohabitating, marriage, and starting a family. The final objective will be to grow old together, just as happily and blissfully in love as those beginning days.

See? Simple. And it was only five steps! (Okay, maybe the first few drafts included upwards of twenty steps, but after many revisions, she shrunk it down to the bare minimum!) The number of steps aside, Casey was positive that anyone could follow this plan and achieve their happily-ever after ending. It was so fool proof that no issues could ever arise.  

At the tender age of twelve, when she first began outlining the details of this masterful plan, she knew that one day, she would meet the man of her dreams, fall deeply in love, and spend the remainder of her life with him.

While she had every intention of following her plan, she never anticipated that it would come with one major flaw.

Apparently, falling in love wasn’t as straightforward as she originally thought.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Oh, she had definitely tried. Every time a new guy caught her eye, she felt her heart stir with hope.

Sadly, that spark of hope tended to fizzle out quickly. She didn’t like to admit it, but none of her relationships had come even close to reaching the requirements detailed in her five-step plan. There were no romantic meetings, no genuine conversations based on mutual interests, no steady friendships that evolved into something more, and certainly no declarations of love.

She knew her plan wasn’t the problem. After all, she had specifically designed it to be infallible.

No, the problem was her.

For some inexplicable reason, she was incapable of falling in love.

And she hated it. She was capable at so many things. Why did this have to be the one thing that she couldn’t do?

She searched high and low for the answer, but could never find it. Even though it killed her on the inside, she eventually realized that it was time to accept that she, Casey McDonald, was never going to fall in love. At eighteen, she already sealed her fate: she’d spend the rest of her life as a sad, lonely spinster.

With abject misery, she raised her white flag, ready to surrender.

But, then…

She accidentally bumped into Evan Lindberg in the library during her first week at Queen’s University.

With a gentle hand on her shoulder to prevent her from stumbling and a softly spoken question, ‘Hey, are you all right?’, he instantly captivated her.

From that moment onward, they began a comfortable friendship, tinged with shy glances, blushing cheeks, and playful banter. In a matter of weeks, their friendship blossomed into a lovely relationship.

Over the course of their relationship, Casey learned that Evan possessed every quality she looked for in a perfect mate – intelligence, kindness, trustworthiness, respectfulness, maturity, loyalty, ambitiousness, a sense of humor, honesty, and physical attractiveness.

She was sure this was it – she had found the person who would allow her to check off all the steps of her plan.

Step 1: Check. She had met Evan, a charming and handsome guy, in the most romantic place of all – a library.

Step 2: Check. Their first conversation involved a mutual love of books. As it turned out, they shared many common interests, which were discussed at length through text messages, phone calls, video chats, and social events.

Step 3: Check. The transition from friends to something more was an effortless process. After returning from each of their dates, Casey felt like she was floating on Cloud Nine. Without question, this relationship was the best she had ever had.

Step 4: …In progress. She and Evan were a great couple. At least she liked to think so. Except…if they were so great, why hadn’t they met each other’s families yet? Why didn’t they travel together? Why didn’t they attend events as one another’s ‘plus one’? The only things they managed to do were co-signing birthday cards and celebrating holidays and anniversaries.

To her dismay, they remained stuck on Step 4. She waited and waited, fervently crossing off the dates on her calendar. Six months progressed into a year, which eventually turned into two. Time didn’t seem to make a difference, for she never saw any movement from either of them.

For the life of her, she couldn’t figure out why. By every standard in the book, they were perfect for each other. So, why couldn’t they move past this?

She discovered the answer on a delightfully romantic date in late September of their third year. After two years together, those three words were finally whispered.

But, she wasn’t the one who had said them.

He had.

Evidently, he had moved past this, but she hadn’t.

Suddenly, the cold and disturbing truth hit her like a ton of bricks: she didn’t love Evan, nor would she ever grow to love him.  

The fact that she didn’t love him was bad enough, but the reason why…well, that was an even harder pill to swallow.

It was the reason she had avoided for years, simply because it was too overwhelming and heart-wrenching to face. If she were honest with herself, it was the reason why all her other relationships had crashed and burned as well.

Derek.

The thing was, Casey had a meticulous plan to fall in love with a classically handsome and romantic man who would sweep her off her feet. 

And then Derek, in his typical irritating, good-for-nothing, push-all-her-buttons way, managed to completely destroy it without even trying.

It took Casey a total of nine years, four relationships, countless sessions in therapy, several conversations with her college best friend, one outing with her father, and what seemed like a never-ending waterfall of tears to accept the unfortunate reality: she couldn’t control how she fell in love and with whom because love was unpredictable. It was illogical. It didn’t make sense.

Because if it did make sense…well, she wouldn’t have ended up here.  

In the future, if she ever chose to retell this story, she wanted to make three things clear. One, it wasn’t love at first sight. Two, falling in love was not effortless – she fought it whole way, kicking and screaming. And three, she never intended to fall in love with Derek.

And yet…

She did.  Quite madly, deeply, passionately, and irrevocably, for that matter.


There wasn’t one single, earth-shattering moment that caused Casey to topple over the precipice and fall. Rather, it was a collection of small moments, spread across time. After analyzing, re-analyzing, and over-analyzing those moments, she determined that they fit into four windows of time: the months leading up to Queen’s, Year 1 at Queen’s, Year 2, and finally, the beginning of Year 3. Quietly, she gathered those moments, keeping them safely tucked away in a mental filing cabinet she reserved just for Derek.

And by golly, that filing cabinet was full of information. She catalogued and organized every interaction she had with him – the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between – and shoved them into separate ‘folders.’

Whenever she thought of Derek (which was more often than she cared to admit), certain interactions sprang to mind, like her first impressions of him, all the times they came to one another’s rescue, and anything that reminded her of current (romantic) feelings.

Truthfully, she hadn’t been aware of any possible feelings until the last half of Grade 12. Up to that point, she blamed the random (and weird) flashes of attraction on her fluctuating hormones. It was a completely natural reaction – Derek was a seemingly handsome guy and she was a relatively pretty girl. It was basic biology, for crying out loud: add two and two together and some sparks were bound to fly.

It wasn’t as if she liked those brief (but intense) periods of attraction. If anything, they sent shivers (the bad kind, she swore!) right down her spine. Thankfully, as soon as they appeared, they were gone in the blink of an eye. Despite dreading their occurrences, she figured she could live with them.

 But, then, she and Derek just had to break the status quo by entering Dance Mania as partners. That’s when, she supposed, her journey to hell began. Head bowed in shame, she dutifully paid her toll, climbed aboard the vessel, and waited to cross the River Styx.

 

Chapter Text

It all began with a dance.

She was stuck in this convoluted, terrifying mess because of one dance for a stupid competition.

Honestly, Casey shouldn’t have been surprised. In her world, everything always seemed to start and end with dance. 

At the time, she had little choice about partnering with Derek; it was either that or forfeit the competition all together. As tempting as the second option was, she was no quitter. Come hell or high water, she was going to get through thiseven if it meant popping a few pills to alleviate the splitting headaches Derek kept giving her during rehearsals. Really, dancing wasn’t that hard!

Needless to say, the entire experience was overwhelming. Of course, if she had withdrawn from Dance Mania…her life might have been simpler and far less stressful. At the very least, she wouldn’t have had to deal with all of these…feelings.

Apparently, one dance with Derek was enough to change the course of so many events that followed, including those right before she attended university.


With his sickly pale skin, heavily made-up eyes, and torn apparel, Derek looked like a zombie extra in one of those cheesy, low-budget horror films. If Casey hadn’t been the one to suggest the zombie theme, she probably would have laughed right in his face. The ridiculousness of it all should have been a complete turn-off, but as it turned out, his appearance hardly mattered. What did matter was how closely he held her when they moved across the stage. She could feel his muscles flex as he lifted her, twirling her easily in the air.

When did he get so strong? And when did he start to smell so…good? Having lived with him for years, she was accustomed to his sweaty, foul odor, but this aroma was far from unpleasant. Turning her head slightly, she inhaled a mixture of pine, cinnamon, and leather.

Between the feel of his body against hers and his alluring scent, it was a struggle to even finish the rest of the dance without collapsing. Somehow, she managed to fumble her way through it, flashing an overly bright smile to mask her inner turmoil.

Later that night, after a wonderful celebratory dinner, she lay awake in her bed, staring at the ceiling. Gripping the blanket tightly in her hands, she tried to regulate her breathing using the exercises she practiced during her counseling sessions with Paul.

One breath In. Hold for two seconds. Breathe out slowly for three seconds. Repeat.

Despite her efforts, none of it was working. Her breaths felt harsh, while her heart thundered wildly in her chest.

She couldn’t concentrate on anything other than him. Images of her stepbrother kept flitting through her brain at lightning-fast speed.

In her mind’s eye, she could picture the two of them sharing another dance, except this one was far less appropriate than their routine for Dance Mania. Somehow, they’d both learned to tango, for they easily swayed to the tempo of the music in a sultry night club, located somewhere tropical. As the warm, humid air enveloped them, the tension began rising, leaving Casey breathless. In comparison, Derek looked completely at ease. He smirked, lowering his head to whisper something into her ear…

Burying her face in her pillow, she let out a scream.

This couldn’t be happening!  She couldn’t start to think of him in that way. It was wrong. It was immoral. She wasn’t certain of the legal aspects, but it may have been illegal for all she knew.

There was no way that she – goody-two-shoes, little miss perfect, keener Casey – was going down this road. Whatever these bizarre thoughts were, they had to be shut down now.

There, in the privacy of her own room, she silently vowed to do whatever it took to end this madness.

Mark her words, from this day forward, Casey McDonald was never going to think of Derek Venturi in an attractive light ever again! This was it. Period. End of story. Curtain closed.

And she had been doing fine, until…

Derek lashed out at Truman at that awful party in Toronto. Oh god, why did he have to do something so noble? Volunteering to be her dance partner was one thing – even he admitted that the family had guilt-tripped him into it – but this was entirely selfless. He didn’t have to confront Truman. All he had to do was roll his eyes, tell that her she was overreacting, and reluctantly agree to drive her home. Instead, he threw her off balance, like he always did.

As she stood in the corner of the room, watching him angrily approach Truman, her heart soared.  

Stepping closer, she strained her ears to pick up some of the conversation.

No one should treat Casey that way. So, why don’t you go over there and apologize, and then never speak to her again.”

Oh, my.

He was defending her, and pretty adamantly at that.

The fact that Derek – her annoying, skirt-chasing cad of a stepbrother – was the one to swoop in and save the night made Casey’s breath hitch. Her stomach, which had been uneasy all evening, now began twisting and flipping in the most unusual way, almost as if she were on one of those amusement park rides that dropped people from hundreds of meters up in the air.

That feeling only intensified as they waited outside for Vicky. Leaning against the hood of the Prince, Casey turned to Derek to properly thank him for what he had done. Before she could open her mouth to speak, she caught a peculiar expression on his face.

Even in the dim lighting, the gentleness in his eyes was unmistakable.

As the seconds ticked by, she searched his dark irises and discovered a hidden message:

‘I’m sorry he hurt you.’

She swallowed, feeling the weight of Derek’s unspoken words and his previous actions. Involuntarily, her eyes began to sting – a clear indication of what was to come.

Blinking back the tears that threatened to spill, she tried to express her gratitude once more, but couldn’t get past, “I –”

He interrupted her with a shake of his head. “You don’t have to say anything,” he said softly.

In the next moment, he drew her into his arms in a tender embrace. Closing her eyes, she breathed in his comforting scent. A million thoughts cycled through her mind, each one becoming louder and more insistent. Before she could process what was happening, he released her quickly to retreat to the inside of the Prince.

Rendered speechless, she remained in her spot, blinking owlishly. Just as she was about to ponder why in the world Derek – a guy with a huge aversion to public displays of affection – would hug her, Vicky came barreling down the steps of the house, fastening the buttons of her black pea-coat.

“I can’t believe you’re making me leave this party! You two are so lame,” Vicky fumed, knocking her shoulder against Casey’s on her way to open the door to the backseat. 

Ignoring her comment, Casey slid into the passenger side of the vehicle.

Luckily, no one seemed to be in the mood to talk. Casey, lost in her own thoughts, chewed nervously on her bottom lip, while Vicky huffed in irritation. Derek, on the other hand, seemed somewhat jovial as he tapped his fingers on the steering wheel to match the rhythm of the song on the radio.

Lip biting, sighing, and tapping became the monotonous pattern that continued until Derek reached Vicky’s home.

As soon as he parked the Prince, Vicky unbuckled her seat belt and hissed, “See you losers later.” With unnecessary force, she slammed the door shut and walked away briskly, heels clacking harshly against the pavement.

Rolling his eyes, Derek grumbled under his breath, “She’s more dramatic than you.”

Casey sniffed at the insinuation, but otherwise said nothing.

Once they were safely on the highway, she hesitantly squeaked, “Why did you hug me?”

With his eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead, he waved a dismissive hand in her direction.

“You were about to cry again, so I did the only thing I could think of to stop you. Don’t read too much into it,” he answered gruffly, reaching forward to crank up the volume on the radio.

Metallica’s ‘Nothing Else Matters’ suddenly blasted through the speakers, the sound of wailing guitars drowning out any further questions she could have asked.

Reflexively, she clenched her jaw. Derek’s avoidant behavior had always frustrated her, but now even more so. Damn it, she just wanted an honest answer – not the poor excuse he had given her.

If she were in a feistier mood, she would have rounded on him, pushing him to tell her what was going on in that incredibly irritating head of his. As much as she wanted to get to the bottom of this, the events of the evening had taken an emotional toll on her, leaving her without any energy to fight.

With a resigned sigh, she turned toward the window. Her eyes traced the line of stars that winked at her from the inky black sky. 

Even though they spent the remainder of the car ride in silence, she could feel something shifting between them. What exactly shifted, she wasn’t sure, but something certainly had.

Whatever had changed that night continued to pull and nudge her. It was subtle at first – a barely noticeable thing. Over time, it became more pronounced as it grew, spun, and transformed into something so obvious that she couldn’t ignore it.

That was why she found herself leaning across the kitchen island on the night of her high school graduation, gazing meaningfully at Derek.

Derek, you are the most annoying brother –” she started, gearing up for another argument.

Stepbrother,” he corrected.

That, right there, was what was so terrifying. There was a difference between the two – there always had been. In the years since moving to London, she had never seen him as a sibling. It was quickly becoming evident that she would never see him that way, no matter how much time passed.

 The thing was, that mere difference afforded her the opportunity do something, if she were brave enough to step through that doorway to see what was on the other side.

But, Casey was not brave. How could she be when she was frightened down to her very core? And she had every right to be frightened. There was no easy way to cope with these…alarming feelings. They couldn’t be real. She and Derek could never be real.

So, like the coward she was, she took the easy way out. 

Shrugging delicately, she mumbled the first thing that came to mind, “Same difference.”

Eyes flickering to meet his, she gave him a hopeful, pleading look, silently asking him to drop the subject.

He stared back at her with eyes that burned with an unrecognizable emotion before muttering, “Yeah…all right.”

Just like that, all was forgotten as they launched into a verbal sparring match about the rules against dating sorority sisters and fraternity brothers.

After that night, they fell into to their usual routine – bickering, mocking, and pranking. While it may have seemed exhausting to be constantly at war with one another, Casey secretly relished the return to familiar territory. This she could handle. This was safe. Comfortable. Easy.

As the days of summer dwindled down, those topsy-turvy feelings just…vanished. Finally, she could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing she was in the clear.

If only she were so lucky. Every time she thought she could get off this god-forsaken boat ride to hell, there she was back on it. This time, though, she could place the blame on someone.  

It was her grandmother’s fault, really. The batty woman had been the one to suggest a visit to the Great Blue Heron Lodge, after all.

It started out innocently enough. For a majority of the vacation, Derek had been a massive thorn in her side – constantly prickling and needling at her to the point where she wanted to throttle him with her bare hands. But, when she least expected it, the softer side of him – the one that lurked just below the surface – emerged out nowhere and reignited those feelings. It happened when they frantically searched for Marti. Then again when he agreed to help save the marsh. And finally, when he ripped her away from Jesse to dance with him.

As he spun her around the dance floor, flashing a cheerful smile and throwing his head back to release a hearty laugh, she felt a familiar flipping and twisting sensation in her stomach.

That feeling never went away, even as he found her hours later, sitting on the dock that overlooked the beautiful lake.

“What are you doing out here?” he asked, crouching down beside her.

She turned her head to glance at him, lazily taking in his appearance. Apparently, he hadn’t bothered to change after the party. The only difference now was that his signature leather jacket had joined his light green shirt and black vest, presumably to shield him from the chill in the air.

“I couldn’t sleep. There’s a lot on my mind,” she sighed, absentmindedly pulling on the strings of her hoodie.

“Nothing new about that. You always have way too much going on up there,” he chuckled, tapping the side of her head with his index finger.

“Oh, shut up,” she bit back playfully.

Anticipating some wise crack in return, Casey braced herself for Derek’s usual onslaught of teasing.

When she was met with silence, she raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

“What—” she started to say, but the words died in her throat when she saw a look of understanding on his face.  

“You’re thinking about the dancing gig, aren’t you?”

Well, he was partially right. She had been extensively pondering the idea before his arrival, but that wasn’t the only thing troubling her. Of course, she would never tell him what else was occupying her head space – even she couldn’t sort through that.

She must have zoned out because the next thing she registered was Derek’s hand waving in front of her face. 

 “Earth to Space Case?” he called, barely concealing his amusement.

 “Sorry,” she giggled nervously, shaking her head to clear it. “Yes, I’ve been thinking about it. It’s hard not to, when it’s possibly the biggest decision of my life.” She paused, frowning. “There’s just so much to consider. On one hand, dancing in New York is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On the other hand, attending Queen’s has been my dream for the longest time. As if this wasn’t difficult already, I only have a week to decide. One week. How am I supposed to make this life-changing decision on such short notice?” She buried her face in her hands and groaned, “I don’t know what to do.”

Again, he didn’t immediately respond.

Disturbed by his silence, she peeked through her fingers to find him looking almost…contemplative.

After a moment, he said, “I get it. If I had been offered something similar, like playing professional hockey, I’d have a tough time deciding between that and going to Queen’s.”

She blinked, momentarily taken aback by his answer. “Really? I thought there was no contest. Hockey beats everything in your world.”

He shook his head. “Not true. I love hockey, but it’s not the only thing that matters.”

She snorted. “Sure. The list of things that matter to you besides hockey is very limited.” She held up her hand, displaying a finger for each point. “Food, girls, watching TV, throwing or attending parties, anything film related, and sometimes all of them at once.”

He smirked. “Hey, look at that. The keener knows me pretty well.”

Rolling her eyes, she gently shoved him. “I sure do, you big buffoon.”

It was his turn to snort. “Buffoon, really? That’s the best insult you’ve got for me?”

With a wink, she confessed, “No, of course not. I’m saving the nasty ones for later.”

Even though he narrowed his eyes at her, they shined with mirth. “Bring it on.”

She matched his intense gaze. Dropping her voice an octave lower, she declared, “Consider it brought. When you least expect it, I’m going to tear you a new one, Venturi.”

Right. You keep telling yourself that, McDonald.”

Grinning smugly, she decided to kick it up a notch. She squared her shoulders, announcing boldly, “Fuck off.”

The second the words left her mouth, Derek let out a dramatic gasp, hand flying over his heart. His eyes darted back and forth worriedly.

“Do my ears deceive me? Did the Casey McDonald use a swear word? Have we entered the apocalypse?”

Lifting her chin at him, she replied indignantly, “I do curse. It’s just usually never around anyone else.”

He made a tsk-ing sound. “Seems like I’ve been a bad influence on you.”

“Oh, you’ve been a terrible influence since the moment I met you.”

 “Touché.”

“Speaking of your unsavory influence and behavior, I assume you’re excited about all the college parties that Queen’s has to offer? Knowing you, you’ll flock to them as soon as you set foot on campus.”

Duh,” he shamelessly admitted, grinning wickedly. “There’s no downside to college parties. They’re full of cheap beer, loud music, people doing stupid shit, and hot girls looking to hook up. Plus, no party is complete without the Great Derek Venturi.”

Despite the crudeness of his words, she could feel the corners of her lips curling upward into a tiny smile.

“Well, they’d certainly be less…entertaining without you,” she agreed with a laugh.

“Obviously.” 

Tilting her head to the side, she considered his words. “If I’m understanding this correctly, if you were forced to choose between Queen’s and professional hockey, you’d pick Queen’s because of the parties?”

He shrugged. “Not necessarily. There’d probably be some sweet parties after each game, especially if the team wins.”

She glared at him. “Come on, Derek. Be serious.”

He scoffed, “I am being serious. There’d be parties at both, which I’d enjoy. As far as I can tell, the only difference would be the quality of alcohol. Since NHL players have more money than college kids, I’m pretty sure the booze would be better at post-game celebrations.”

With a roll of her eyes, she ignored the latter half of his comment.

She pursed her lips. “All right, I’ll bite. So, if it’s not the parties, then what is it? What would make you choose Queen’s over hockey, or vice versa?”

 “Nice try. I know what you’re doing, and it’s not going to work.”

 “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

 “You suck at lying. Your face gives you away.”

Instantly, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment at his words.

“Argh,” she cried in frustration, slapping the side of his arm. “I hate that you know that about me.”       

His only response was a loud snicker.

Raising her hands in surrender, she sighed. “You caught me. I was trying to establish a baseline of things to consider, so I thought it might be helpful to hear your reasons for selecting one option over the other, if you were in my position. Clearly, that method isn’t working, so I guess we’ll have to discuss this in a different way.” She pointed her finger at him, a determined look on her face. “What do you think I should do?”

While she hoped for an answer that would lead somewhere, all she received was his typical derisive attitude.

“Why are you asking me? I’m the least helpful person when it comes to these things. You should know that by now.”

It was obvious what ‘these things’ meant. Despite his occasional kind gestures, Derek still couldn’t handle or discuss anything emotional or serious. Even though she was desperate to press the issue, she knew it was useless. In the end, it was simply going to frustrate the both of them. And honestly, she didn’t feel like engaging in another knock-out, drag-down fight with him. Especially not now, when she was already facing a huge dilemma.

As a result, she decided to give him an easy way out.  

Playing it off like it didn’t bother her, she replied with a forced laugh, “I do know that. Forget I said anything.”

Rather than toss her a haphazard, ‘Will do, see ya!’ and hightail it out of there, he remained seated. He rubbed his fingers against his temple, as if he were experiencing a headache, and released an exasperated groan.

 Through clenched teeth, he griped, “I would, but it’s obvious that you want to talk about this. If you don’t get your way, you’ll sit here and pout for the rest of the night. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I’m going to have listen your constant whining during the car ride back home. I don’t want to deal with any of that shit.”

Evidently, they weren’t going to escape this conversation. It loomed over them, its presence large and intimidating.

She sighed. “I gave you the easy way out, but you didn’t take it. So, we’re going to do this right here, right now.”  

 “Fine. I still don’t know why you’re asking me. You dropped the news to the whole family. Why don’t talk to Nora or Lizzie? Their opinions would be way more valuable than mine.”

She paused, surprised that he had made a fair point. Normally, she wouldn’t have hesitated to run to her mother for help. Nora was usually the first person she consulted before making any major decision, followed by Lizzie. But, this wasn’t a standard, run-of-the-mill situation. As much as she valued the thoughts of both women, she wasn’t in the mood to create a pros and cons list with her mom, or endure Lizzie’s consoling hand pats and words of sympathy.

For some unfathomable reason, there was only one person whose opinion she wanted at the moment.

She just needed to express it in a way that would get through his infuriatingly thick head.

“Under normal circumstances, Mom and Lizzie would be the two people I’d lean on the most, but not this time. I don’t want their opinions right now. I want yours,” she insisted, trying to place as much emphasis as she could into the last word.

The emphasis was apparently lost on him because he continued to ask inane questions. 

“Why do you care what I think?”

Frustration, which had been simmering inside of her, reached a boiling point when she snarled, “I just do, okay?!”

Derek hadn’t anticipated her outburst, for his eyes widened in complete bewilderment.

“What the hell was that?” he asked warily.

Grinding her teeth, she snapped, “I don’t know. Just give me a minute, will you? I need to collect my thoughts.”

Without waiting for a response from him, she started to practice her breathing exercises.

One breath In. Hold for two seconds. Breathe out slowly for three seconds. Repeat.

When she felt calm enough to address him, she said, “You drive me insane, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear what you have to say. You’re the only person who won’t sugar coat things. You just say it how it is, no matter how terrible or cruel. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes I need that – a realistic opinion that challenges my idealistic one. So, do me favor and tell me what you think, no holds barred.”

Scratching his chin, he appeared to mull over her words. She was suddenly struck by the resemblance he bared to Don Corleone in The Godfather. Given his posture and the expression on his face, she half expected to hear him speak in a gravely, mobster accent.

Thankfully, in the next second, he slouched slightly, looking more like his normal self.

“Let’s say I agree to tell you what my opinion is – which, by the way, will never leave this area. The last thing I’d want is for someone to find out that I’ve been discussing your future with you.” He pulled a disgusted face before smoothing the expression into a devious one. “What do I get if I tell you?”

Ah, there was the catch. There was always one when it came to him.

Even though she despised the idea of bargaining, she knew it was the most effective way to motivate him to act.

Shooting him a withering look, she sneered, “I promise to never bring this up again and you can drive back tomorrow without any interruptions from me. I won’t comment on your driving, your music choice, or where you choose to stop.”

He bit the inside of his cheek, in a vain attempt to control the laughter that was ready to burst out of him.

 “Your offer is all right, but I know you can do better than that.”

 “What more do you want?” she yelled, gesturing wildly with her hands.

His answer came instantaneously, almost as if he had waiting for the right moment to bring it up. Knowing him, the idea had probably been festering in his brain for the last few days, or maybe even weeks.

“I want the Prince for the rest of the summer. As soon as we’re back in London, I’m picking up Sam and Ralph for a trip of our own.”

All things considered, it wasn’t the worst thing he could have requested. There was only one week of summer left, so it wasn’t as if he were borrowing the car for that long. Plus, she was fairly certain she wouldn’t need to drive anywhere since the following week was going to be spent packing…for either Queen’s or New York.

Sighing heavily, she agreed. “Okay, fine. You can take the Prince.”

His eyes sparkled with delight at having gotten his way yet again.

“Awesome,” he whistled. 

Impatiently, she waved her hand at him. “Now that we have that settled, go on.”

In his typical theatrical fashion, he cleared his throat loudly before beginning.

“Look, this dancing gig is a great opportunity, but it’s not the only shot you’re going to get. Even I can admit that you’re a talented dancer. Eventually, your talent will impress some hotshot in the dancing world. This exact opportunity probably won’t come back around, but something else should. And who knows? Maybe the next one will be even better.

Frowning, Casey tried to piece together Derek’s words. For someone who was normally so blunt, he was being rather…vague. She was about to comment on his evasiveness, but he gestured with his hand, indicating that he wasn’t finished.

“Before you jump to conclusions, no, I’m not saying you should turn down this gig. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t worry that this will be your only chance to dance professionally. If you decide that dancing is really what you want, there is something you should keep in mind, though.”

She rested her hand in her chin and leaned forward, clearly intrigued. Finally, they seemed to be getting somewhere!

“And what is that?”

“You contract will be up at the end of the year, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be ready to pack your bags and come home. A lot can happen in a year. Maybe you’ll get an extended offer, or maybe you’ll get scouted by someone else. Either way, you’d have a reason to stay.”

She eyed him suspiciously. “You’ve made some interesting points so far, but what’s the catch? I know there is one.”

“Moving to New York means launching your dancing career, but you’d still be giving up a lot for it.”

She swallowed, feeling goosebumps dot along her skin.

“What would I be giving up?” she asked quietly.

“You’d give up the real college experience. For a keener like yourself, that’s a big risk.” He paused to snicker. “You know you’d miss the classes and the homework. Not to mention, you’d miss out on the friends you could make and the clubs you could join. Sure, you could defer for a year, but it wouldn’t be the same, would it?”

She shook her head. No, it really wouldn’t be. She’d fall behind, both academically and socially, which was a deep seeded fear of hers.

“Beyond that…we both know how much you’d miss the family.” He gave her a knowing look. “Kingston isn’t that far from home. If you needed to come back for any reason, you could. It would be harder to visit if you lived in New York, especially if you’re booked for back-to-back performances during the season.” He stopped to take a breath before delivering his final words. “No matter which option you choose, you’re going to have to make sacrifices. It’s up to you to figure out which sacrifices are worth it and which ones aren’t.” He tapped her knee, indicating that he was done. 

At the sudden end to his spiel, she blinked, mouth falling open.

“Wait, that’s it?” she questioned, eyes widening. “That’s all you have to say?” 

With a roll of his eyes, he drawled, “Wasn’t that enough for you, Princess? I think I said plenty.”

She jabbed her finger into his shoulder. “No, you played devil’s advocate! You were supposed to tell me whether you think I should pick Queen’s or New York – not give me positive and negative points for both!” she screeched, wringing her hands.

He shrugged unapologetically. “Hey, I just did what you asked me to. I shared my opinion, which happens to involve things to think about on both sides. I never said I’d give you actual advice. Even if I told you what to do, you wouldn’t listen to a word of it anyway.”

Damn it. He made another fair point.

She opened her mouth to concede, but something strange flashed in Derek’s eyes. She searched them, knowing she’d find what she was looking for in there.

Even though he tried to hide it, she could tell there was one piece of information he was purposely keeping from her. Rather than letting it slide, she was determined to weasel it out of him.

“You played a good devil’s advocate – I’ll give you that. But, there’s something that you’re not telling me. Spit it out,” she demanded.

He shook his head no.  

“Derek, I’m not playing your dumb games. Come on – out with it.” 

“Do I have to?”

The glare she aimed at him was razor-sharp. “Yes.”

With concerted effort, he grunted, “I don’t see how this even matters, and if you ever bring this up again, I swear I will deny it…but…if you left to go to New York, I think…I’d…” he trailed off, struggling to articulate his thoughts.

She nodded in encouragement. “You’d what?”

“I think I’d miss you,” he huffed under his breath.

She’d heard him, but she wasn’t about to let it go that easily.

Cupping her ear, she leaned forward into his space. “What was that? I didn’t quite catch what you said.”

“Don’t make me say it again.”

“Well, I guess it wasn’t that important if you’re not willing to repeat it…”

Fine,” he barked in frustration. A second passed before he blurted, “I’d probably miss you. There I said it. You happy now?” 

With a reassuring smile, she whispered, “Yes.”

Before she could get another word in, he pointed a finger at her, narrowing his eyes.

“Don’t ask me why. I don’t even know the answer myself. You fucking irritate me all the time, but I guess I’ve just gotten used to life with you. It would be weird if you were suddenly…gone.”

Perhaps it was his words, or the way that he was looking at her, or the general shift in the mood, that caused her to lower her guard, ever so slightly.

“I understand that. For what it’s worth, I’d probably miss you, too.”

He shot her an amused smile. “Nah, I don’t think you would. If I weren’t around, you’d love the peace and quiet.”

She shrugged. “Oh, I’d definitely appreciate the peace and quiet. But, as tough as life is with you… it would be even stranger without you.” She grinned then, nudging him softly. “If you were feeling generous, I could really use some peace and quiet from you every now and then.”

He snorted. “Not gonna happen, McDonald.”

“It was worth a shot,” she laughed.

He followed her words with a chuckle of his own. After a moment, a comfortable silence settled between them. Turning their attention to the lake, they watched it shimmer and glisten under the moonlight.

 A while later, Derek mumbled, “You good, Case?”

“I think I am. I just need time to process everything. You can go, though. I know it’s getting late.”  

“Yeah, I should head to bed. Gotta rest up for the trip back tomorrow.” He smirked at her. “Remember, no commenting on anything during the drive, or I’ll be forced to retaliate in the worst way possible.”

She wrinkled her nose. “I don’t even want to know.”

He rubbed his hands together gleefully. “I already have something in mind, in case you break your promise. And trust me, you’re going to hate it.”

Der-ek!” she shrieked.

Case-y,” he replied mockingly.

“You’re such a menace.” Even though she intended to hurl the malicious words at him, her tone came out much fonder than she anticipated.

With a wink, he stood up and began heading in the direction of the cabin.

“Right back at ya,” he called over his shoulder. He only made it a few steps before the sound of his name caused him to turn around. 

 “What?” he asked.

“Why did you come over here tonight?”

He shrugged. “I was on my way back from dropping off Roxy when I saw you sitting alone on the dock. You looked like you needed some company, so I just…came over. It’s not a big deal.”

Despite the nonchalance of his words, it was a big deal. Anything Derek ever did for her was always a big deal. And they both knew it.

Of course, just because they knew it, it didn’t mean that it had to be acknowledged or discussed.

“No, I suppose it’s not,” she agreed quietly.

Based on the look of relief on Derek’s face, she had said the right thing,

She considered ending the conversation there, but then thought better of it. Instead, she murmured, “Thank you for talking to me. It helped.” 

He nodded at her in a way that said, ‘It’s fine. Don’t mention it’ before slipping away.

As soon as he left, a radiant smile – the one that she called her Derek smile – bloomed across her lips. She hated whenever that stupid smile appeared, but it wasn’t like she could control it. At least she excelled at hiding it. God knows what would happen if he ever found out that she had an entire smile reserved for him.

Without the fear of anyone seeing her, she allowed the smile to linger for a while longer. Once it faded on its own, she closed her eyes and forced herself to imagine two different scenarios – one where she was in New York and one where she was at Queen’s.

As she played the events of each scenario in her head, she could hear the faint echo of Derek’s voice: ‘No matter which option you choose, you’re going to have to make sacrifices. It’s up to you to figure out which sacrifices are worth it and which ones aren’t.

The truth of his words seemed to haunt her. In the end, it really was about what she was willing to sacrifice. 

She had no idea how long she remained on the dock, but eventually, the sharp, clear images of both scenarios dissolved. All that was left was a single answer full of perfect clarity.   

That night, surrounded by the orchestra of cricket chirps and frog bellows, and under the iridescent light of the full moon, Casey made her decision.