00

Part Nineteen

00

It was dark by the time Derek returned home, damp and cold from the dreary spring rain falling softly outside. He shed his jacket in the hallway and stopped short at the entrance to the living room.

Casey was wrapped up in a blanket in his armchair, laptop at her feet and cell phone in her lap. Her ponytail was a mere suggestion by then, hair strewn across her shoulders and mussed against the back of the chair. One leg poked out from the blanket, bare skin prickling in the cold air from the front door.

He sighed and rubbed his hands to warm them, trailing one hand down her shin. "Casey."

She stirred slightly, murmuring. "Huh?"

"It's me." He bent down to her level, palm stopping on her thigh. "Case."

She blinked her eyes open groggily. "Derek?"

"Hey, crazy girl."

She gasped and sat up suddenly. "Derek!" She grabbed his neck and hugged him with a cry, then pulled back and punched his shoulder. "You asshole. I left you like, eighty messages."

"I know," he said wryly. "I stopped listening after you started quoting Ghandi."

She blushed. "Well – " she huffed. "Where the hell were you?"

He shrugged. "I went to Ben's for awhile, hung out with Haley." He nudged her and she scooted over, letting him slip into the armchair and pull her into his lap. "What were you doing?"

"Writing."

"Really?" His voice was guarded.

She shrugged, tucking her face into his neck. "Yeah."

He sighed. "I shouldn't have yelled at you."

"Well…no, you shouldn't have."

"You just drive me so crazy," he said softly, letting his eyes fall shut.

"Ditto, Venturi." Casey tilted her chin up to look at his face in the dim light from the kitchen. "Listen, about the job."

His eyes flew open. "I didn't mean to – "

"I know." Casey sighed. "Derek, I don't know what to do. I…I want to write, I do. I just…I don't know if I can do it."

"You can do anything you want to do," he said.

She smiled wanly. "I've never put anything I've written up against any real criticism," she said. "I don't have any scale other than…you and Parker."

"You know you're good, Casey."

"Maybe."

He ran his knuckles up her neck, making her shiver. "Look, I know that it's weird and scary, okay? Trust me."

"Yeah…"

"Really. I'd be a sports management major right now if I hadn't taken the big leap, remember?"

She smiled. "I forget about that sometimes. You nearly gave your dad a heart attack."

He smirked half-heartedly. "Somebody has to keep the guy on his toes."

Her smile turned sad. "Derek, I'm not ready yet. I'm just not." She sighed. "Let me see if I can explain this right…" she chewed on her bottom lip, looking decidedly adorable.

"Just try," Derek said, throat tight.

"Okay, well – " she grabbed at the collar of his shirt, smoothing it down absentmindedly, fidgeting with the material. "I don't really want this job, okay? It's a little strange sounding, not to mention the fact that the only reason I'm getting it is because Teddy wants an in with you."

"Not necessarily." Casey gave him a look. "Well, maybe. Partly."

"Yeah, regardless of his motivations, it's just a little too nepotistic for my taste." She paused. "That means I got the job because I'm related to the boss."

"I knew that." Derek frowned at her. "I did!"

"Right." Casey cracked a small smile. "But then there's the fact that the money is fantastic, there's housing included, insurance, vacation, stuff like that. Not to mention the contacts I'd make and the experience I'd get."

"You shouldn't take a job based on how practical it is."

"I know." Casey quieted, chewing on her lip again.

"But you're going to anyway," Derek concluded.

"I just…I feel like I need this, in a way." She screwed up her face. "Remember that internship you had at the NHL office?"

"How could I forget three months of hell?" Derek grimaced.

"Exactly. You hated it there." Casey shook her head. "I remember, later on into it, when it got really bad for you? I'd bring you some lunch every day, and you always looked horrible. Just…slumped down and tired and defeated." She drifted off slightly, eyes growing distant into memory.

Derek shifted uncomfortably, recalling those lunch visits that at that point, had been the only good thing about his days. "Not one of the higher points of my life, no."

"I hated seeing you like that," Casey confessed softly.

"Well, I hated you seeing me like that." Derek sighed. "What does this have to do with you, exactly?"

Casey straightened up slightly. "Well, that internship was a huge part of why you switched majors, right? I mean, you'd been toying with the idea of…well, not going into sports – but that internship really cinched it. You went in to talk to your advisor like, the day after you quit." Casey paused, trying to find a way to phrase her thoughts. "And I – I feel like I need something like that, you know? I need to try it. Because you already sort of knew when you applied that you wanted to transfer."

Derek huffed, frustration building back up. "Casey, there are so many things wrong with that, I don't know where to start."

"I know I shouldn't be comparing myself to you, but this is how I feel," Casey protested quickly. "I need to do it. I need to prove to myself that it isn't what I want."

Derek shut his mouth abruptly to swallow the nasty retort bubbling up. Smoothing his hands down her shoulders, he tried to remain calm. "Casey. You realize that this sounds insane."

"I know." Her face creased and she eyed him worriedly. "Please don't hate me for this."

"I'm not going to hate you," Derek said, exasperated. "I couldn't hate you if I tried. And believe me, I say that from experience."

She snorted a little, moving her hands to rest on his chest. "I need to at least try it," she said quietly. "I need to prove to myself that I can do it – but that I don't want to do it. Does that make sense?"

"No," Derek said, clenching his jaw. "And…kind of."

"Tell me this is okay." She laid her forehead on his shoulder.

He was silent for a little bit, running his hand up and down her forearm. "It's okay, Case," he said finally, tightening his grip on her.

"Promise me you won't let me forget what you said," she replied. "About the trust-fund brats and the suburbs?"

He winced. "Yeah, that was outta line."

"No, I – " she shook her head. "I won't ever become that, I promise. You have to promise never to let me."

"Never."

They sat in silence for a few moments, and Casey felt her eyelids drooping once more, breath aligning with Derek's until her body was rising and falling in tune with his.

"We'll have to figure some things out," she murmured.

"Later."

She let herself relax, focusing on the feel of his skin against hers. As darkness slowly ascended, she felt one slip of consciousness bubble to the surface, flickering through her mind as fleetingly as a candle's flame. "Mm'love you," she mumbled. She felt his breath hitch, and just as quickly, she fell asleep.

00

"I just can't believe my baby is graduating!"

"Oof." Casey spit out a mouthful of Nora's hair, face scrunching up. "Uh, Mom?"

"Sorry, sorry." Nora stepped back, wiping her eyes. "I'm just so proud of you. I knew you'd make it, but still." She laughed shakily, smoothing Casey's bangs behind her ears. "You're such a wonderful person, Casey. I've always been proud of you and I always will be."

"Thanks, Mom." Casey hugged her willingly this time, laughing as she felt herself tearing up a bit as well. "I haven't cried this much since Degrassi was cancelled," she said, laughing.

Nora pulled back, wiping at Casey's cheeks. "Embrace the mushiness."

"Did someone say mushiness?" Parker showed up, clad in an identical gown as Casey's, hat askew over her mussed, red hair. "Omigod we're done!"

Derek and Tim, behind Parker, threw each other wary glances and stepped back. "They're gonna scream," Derek said, just before both Parker and Casey started to shriek.

Parker grabbed Casey around the neck and the girls jumped up and down, laughing. "Can you believe it?! I can't believe it. Can you?!"

"No!" Casey shook her hair out of her eyes, throwing her hat off her head in the process. "No more papers, no more annoying professors, no more dead weeks – "

"Rub it in, why don't you," Derek piped up. "Some of us still have a semester to go."

Casey stuck out her tongue at him as Nora grappled with her camera. "Derek!" Nora called. "Come here and take some pictures with us. I've got a bunch of Casey, but none with you."

"I'm not graduating," he protested as Casey grabbed his arm.

"Details," Nora replied. "Indulge a mother."

"Strike a pose, dahling," Tim called, affecting a fake French accent. "The camera – it lohves you."

"Never call me darling ever, ever again," Derek warned just as the flash went off right in his face. "Hey!"

"Come on, come on," Nora prodded. Derek rolled his eyes and wrapped his arm around Casey's shoulders, kicking her ankle discreetly. She made a face and elbowed him in response as Nora clicked away.

"Aww," Parker teased. "You guys are just precious, really. Like Troy and Gabriella, but with creepier subtext."

"Wouldn't that just make us Ryan and Sharpay?" Derek asked. "Sexy maraca dance. Am I right?" Parker giggled.

"Let's not go there," Casey interrupted. "Mom, you didn't hear that, right?"

"Hear what?" Nora blinked. "You guys talking about how great it is to be stepsiblings?" She raised an eyebrow and pretended to fiddle with the camera.

"That's it," Derek replied, snorting.

"Oh!" Parker glanced at her watch, jumping up. "Tim, we've gotta go if we don't wanna be late."

"Late?" Derek asked.

"Tim and I are going to lunch with my parents," Parker said proudly.

Derek burst into laughter while Casey froze, expression creased in confusion. "You're…your parents? You want your parents? To meet him?" she stammered.

Parker shrugged, grinning, while Tim puffed out his chest. "I'm a parent-charmer. Right, Nora?"

Nora snorted. "Do I have to answer that truthfully?"

"Good going, man. It's like you're an actual boyfriend," Derek said, clapping him on the back. "Just don't hit on her mom and you'll be fine.

"Oh thanks a lot, Greg Brady." Tim rolled his eyes. "Besides, I just wanna meet her brother. What's his name again, Parks? Timber?"

"I thought it was Ranger," Derek said. "Or Smokey."

"Ha ha, yes, I have a themed name," Parker said flatly. "Like I haven't heard them all by now. Name a new tune."

"Isn't your brother's name Art?" Casey said.

Derek piped up. "I met him once. One word: repression." Tim guffawed loudly.

"Art Forrester?" Nora shuddered. "What a cruel thing to do to a child."

"Try being Parker Forrester," Parker replied bitterly.

"Yeah, what's your mom's maiden name again? Garfunk – ow!" Tim rubbed his arm where Parker had smacked him. "Watch it, lady love, I have sensitive triceps."

Parker grabbed a scowling Tim's arm and dragged him away. "We'll call you if someone ends up dead," she sing-songed. "Have fun with your family, guys!"

"Bye!" Casey waved, giggling as Parker practically pulled Tim away by his ear. "That's something I never thought I'd see."

"Maybe it's good for him," Nora mused. "Maybe he's maturing."

"Or maybe he doesn't know what he's getting into," Derek countered.

Nora rolled her eyes as her cell phone trilled from inside her purse. She thrust the camera at Derek, digging inside of her bag for the phone. "Can never find this thing – ugh." She pulled it out, scowling, and flipped it open. "Hello? George?" She waved a hand at Derek and Casey. "I can't hear you, honey. George?!"

Nora moved away to yell into her phone, leaving Derek and Casey alone for the first time all day. Casey immediately threw her arms around his neck, dropping her hat on the ground carelessly. He grunted and caught her around the waist, staggering backwards a few steps. "Uh, hi."

"Hi," she replied. "This is crazy."

"Yeah." He sighed and tightened his hold on her waist. "Are you gonna tell them about New York today?"

He felt her nod into his neck. "At dinner, probably."

"Okay."

She turned and kissed his jaw, fisting her hands in his jacket. "I wish things weren't happening so quickly."

"I know what you mean." Derek pulled back, sliding his hands down to her hips. "Listen, Case." He faltered slightly, blowing out a nervous breath.

She smiled comfortingly. "What is it?"

"I – "

"I hate cell phones. Really, I do." Nora came back at that moment, causing the couple to spring apart. "Okay, so I talked to George, and they're still stuck on the freeway. They're all really sorry they missed the ceremony, Case."

"That's okay," Casey assured her, wincing. "You, uh. Taped it anyway."

"Was standing on your chair really necessary?" Derek asked. "You were about five seconds from really pissing off the security guard."

Nora waved a dismissive hand. "I could've taken him."

"I don't doubt it."

"Well, we could all head over to the restaurant now," Nora suggested, glancing at her watch. "Get a table. They should be here in a couple hours and we can…draw on the tablecloths."

"Or we can just eat and let them get their own food," Derek replied.

"That's rude," Casey said. "We'll save them some breadsticks."

"Right. That's much more polite."

"Well, you're the ones who live here," Nora said. "What else can we do to kill a couple hours?"

"Surprisingly, Mom, Toronto is actually just as boring as London. There's just more of it." Casey shrugged. "Unless you wanna go to a bar, then we've got you covered."

"I haven't stepped foot in a bar since my third date with George," Nora replied, a small frown drifting over her face. "Yeah, not an experience to repeat."

"Restaurant it is then," Derek said decisively, pulling Casey along by her waist. "Call Dad back and tell him to stop at Burger King, I'm starving."

"Actually, Derek – " Casey pulled him aside slightly. "I'm gonna tell her now."

"Are you sure?" Casey nodded. "Okay, well. Ride with her then. I'll meet you guys there."

"Thank you." She reached up and kissed his cheek softly.

Derek laid his hands on her upper arms in response. "Good luck."

"You guys are just so affectionate. I'm so glad you're friends now," Nora cut in, grinning in that infuriating McDonald way. "Aren't you guys glad? Now we can finally be one big happy family."

"You're cruel, Nora," Derek said, wincing. "And please don't ever refer to us as family ever again."

"What a mean thing to say." Nora nudged her daughter. "Casey, tell your brother that was mean."

"Mom, cut it out." Casey dodged out of the way of her mother's elbow, glaring. "Come on, I'll ride with you. You're just gonna get lost anyway."

"You're being mean now, too," Nora said.

"I get it from you," Casey replied. She glanced over her shoulder at Derek, who made a face at her. She grinned and stuck out her tongue.

"Aw."

"Shut up, Mom."

00

"So what's up, girlie?" Nora asked, slipping her sunglasses onto her face.

"Mother," Casey replied, feigning shock. "I just wanted the pleasure of your company."

"And give up time with your dear brother?"

"I beg of you by all that is holy, please stop that."

"It's just fun to see you make that face," Nora replied.

Casey rolled her eyes. "You know about me and Derek, okay? And we're sorry for not telling you."

"Pathetic," Nora said. "But the best apology I can hope for, I guess."

"Are you mad?" Casey asked.

Nora paused. "Maybe a little," she finally said. "I'd be even more mad if I hadn't seen it coming a mile away. And if I hadn't taken out all my freak-outs on George."

"We weren't that obvious," Casey protested.

"You kind of were." Nora smirked. "Shall I bring up your eighteenth birthday – "

"Please don't," Casey interrupted.

"Well, it took you long enough." Nora paused. "But if you have sex in my house, I'll kill you both."

"Fair enough." Casey smiled as Nora took one hand off the steering wheel to shake Casey's. "But that's not what I wanted to talk to you about."

"No, really?"

"I got a job." Casey took a breath. "In New York."

Nora lifted her sunglasses slightly and glanced over at her daughter. "Does Derek know?"

"Yeah. He's known for awhile."

"Huh." Nora turned back to the road. "Well that explains a few things."

"What things?"

Nora cleared her throat. "What's the job?"

"You know Teddy, Abby's new fiancé?" Nora nodded. "His company, Turntable Books. I'd be a publishing executive type…person. Scouting for new authors, mainly."

"That sounds incredibly…convenient," Nora managed.

"Yeah, I'm aware." Casey sighed. "It's…this whole long story that Derek doesn't understand and I don't even really get myself, so don't ask."

"Oookay."

"The thing is that I'm kind of freaking out internally, you know?" Casey laughed nervously, fluttering her hands around her face. "Because Derek's all weird around me, and I can tell he's trying to be all normal and happy and everything, and he's trying to support whatever I want to do and that's really, really sweet – like I can't even believe how sweet he's being – "

"I can," Nora interrupted. "And take a breath, your face is getting red."

Casey paused as instructed. "But…but I can tell that it's bothering him because every once in awhile I'll catch him staring at me with this strange look on his face, or he'll start to say something and then stop, and meanwhile I'm trying to keep calm and work everything out, taking care of graduation stuff and leaving college stuff and moving away stuff, and I'm trying not to completely break down because I feel like he's going to dump me or something, and I – I can't handle this." Casey took a shuddering breath and raised a hand to her forehead, frowning deeply.

"Honey, I'm pretty sure he's not gonna dump you. And I'm also pretty sure that you know that."

Casey sighed. "I know. I think."

"You're moving away," Nora said. "Things are bound to be a little strained, sweetie."

"I know." She paused. "It's not even about that. I don't think."

Nora pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant and pulled into a space and turning in her seat slightly. "Look. I don't know exactly what's going on with you and Derek, but I do know you, and the best thing you can do is keep breathing and try and stay calm." Nora held up a hand to stop Casey's protest. "I love you, but you freak yourself out, honey."

"Well. True."

"Just talk to him." Nora turned off the ignition, smiling slightly. "And remember to leave out the details when you tell me about it later."

Casey took a shaky breath. "Got it."

00

"Remind me why we talk to those people?"

"Family," Casey replied, tossing her jacket on the edge of Derek's armchair. "I'm pretty sure."

"Thank God they're not spending the night."

"At least they took the news well," Casey said.

"Yeah, after my dad stopped crying." Derek rolled his eyes and collapsed onto the couch. Casey sat down next to him, silent. "Hey."

"Yeah?"

"You're a college graduate."

A small smile crept onto her face. "I know."

He nudged her leg. "Don't fight it. I know you want to squeal."

"I do not." She tried and failed to stop the huge grin from taking over her mouth. "Oh my God, I'm never going back." Her face crumpled. "Oh my God, Derek, I'm never going back."

He laughed despite himself, gesturing for her kindly. "C'mere."

She climbed into his lap and sniffled pathetically, burying her face in his chest. "It's so sad."

"Please don't cry," he groaned. "Seriously. I cannot handle a Casey freakout tonight." He rubbed her back briskly and she burrowed into him deeper, muffling sobs into his shirt. "Casey?"

She gave a small hiccup, pulling back slightly to wipe her face on her sleeve. "Sorry."

"It's okay," Derek said uncertainly. "Tears wash out of my shirts pretty easily, I've found." Casey's face crumpled again. "Hey, hey, you're supposed to laugh at that, not cry more."

"I'm sorry," she said fervently.

Derek studied her face. "What's in your head, Case?"

She wiped at her face again, eyes wide and red. "I…there's just so much going on and I…"

"Hey." He grabbed her hands and brought them away from her face so he could capture her gaze. "Just breathe, okay?"

She gave a choked laugh. "Everyone keeps telling me that."

"It's good advice."

"I don't wanna leave you," she said, crumpling into tears again. "I'm sorry."

He paused, slightly taken aback. "Oh."

She buried her face in his shoulder, shoulders hitching. "I'm sorry."

"Okay. Shh." He smoothed his hand up her back to her neck, sliding his fingers through her hair. "Listen, there's something I've been meaning to talk to you about – or tell you. I guess."

"That I'm a horrible girlfriend who deserves to be miserable the rest of her life?" mumbled Casey. "I already know that."

"Hey, you called yourself my girlfriend."

"…did not."

"Shut up. I so heard you."

He felt her smile into his neck. "Lapse in judgment."

"Look at me, crazy girl." She sniffed and sat up, moving her chin to his arm. "You're…um. Okay."

Casey wiped at her face again, still flushed and wet from the tears that were slowly dying away. "Is this you comforting me?"

"Cut me some slack here, I'm trying to be all meaningful and stuff." He knocked her hand away from her face again and wiped her cheek with the back of his hand, smoothing away the last vestiges of her tears. "I know I freaked out about the New York thing, but if it's something you need to do, then…you should do it."

Casey sighed. "Derek…"

Derek slid his hand over her mouth. "Just hush for a minute." Casey nodded. "The thing is…I don't know if you've noticed this, but you're kind of important to me, and…as horrible as the idea is of you living in another country is, I really don't want to mess this up, okay?"

"You're not messing it up," Casey said quietly. "I think you're doing better than I am."

"I'm serious about this, okay?" Derek said, looking at her intently. "I just need to make sure you know that."

"I do." Casey nodded.

"Okay." Derek moved his hands to the sides of her face, brushing his forehead against hers. "We're gonna be okay, Case. As long as you just…breathe, and try not to freak out. Okay?"

"Yeah. I hope so." She threw her arms around his neck. "I love you, Derek." His breath caught and she babbled quickly, hugging him tightly, not daring to pull back and look at his face. "I just – I'm leaving pretty much in a couple of days, and I wanted to say it to you before I left, and – I don't want it to be weird, I just wanted you to know. So – I don't want to pressure you or – "

"Casey." He stopped her flow of words. "Breathe, remember?"

She laughed nervously. "Sorry."

"Don't be sorry." He pulled her back, prying her arms from around his neck. "Kiss me."

She giggled in relief and obliged, letting him press her down into the couch cushions, entangling his legs with hers. She squirmed beneath the weight of his body, trying her hardest to be as close to him as possible.

Finally pulling away to breathe, Casey quickly pressed her face into his collarbone, squinting her eyes shut. "Love you," she murmured.

He shuddered. "Say that again."

"I love you."

He gave a low growl and shifted downwards, laying his head down on her shoulder. "Casey."

"Mmm." She twined her fingers through his hair, feeling his head rise and fall with her breath. "We're gonna be okay," she said, repeating his earlier words.

He relaxed at her words, eyes falling shut. "Yeah." He swallowed thickly, feeling a little dizzy from the intoxicating warmth of her body. "We'll be fine." They lay there in comfortable but loaded silence, each wrapped in their own thoughts, both of them slowly drifting off into a heavy sleep.

00

You guys are fantastic for sticking with me all through this. This was my first LWD fic and it's been a constant throughout the entire time I've been in this fandom. It's a little weird to think of it ending, since when I started this we had what, fifty stories in our section? Now look how huge and wonderful we are.

This is one of the best fandoms I've ever had the pleasure of being a part of. It just makes me happy in this really great, pure way, and I love that. So I thank you all from the bottom of my fangirl heart. Love and solidarity, you guys. That's what it's all about.

The last chapter's still to come. And again – you all make this fandom such a fun place. Keep it up.