Author's Note: Do you believe I've been working on this fic for OVER TWO YEARS? And some of you have been following along since the very beginning! And here we are now, at the final chapter at last. I hope it's been as delightful a ride for you as it has been for me, and all I can say is thank you for your readership and support. The gist of this chapter was in the plans from the very beginning, and it's absolutely thrilling to finally give you the completed "picture" I've always had in my mind. There's actually a lot more I could say about this chapter...but I won't. I'll just let you read, and assure you that I'm only too happy to answer questions or discuss things in further detail if you're curious.
And now, without further ado, please enjoy the chapter!
Casey pulled his bike into the parking lot of Graham's Goodtime Grill and sat for a moment before cutting the engine, enjoying the temporary reprieve from the wind of the open road. It was almost summer, according to the calendar, but at this elevation that didn't count for much. As soon as the sun began to creep down, so did the temperature, sometimes still dropping into the 30's even though the days were often warm enough for short sleeves.
The sun was just setting now and the air was already turning brisk, but Casey didn't make a move to enter the restaurant. Not yet. Instead his eyes were following the movements of a dark-haired waitress through the windows as she made her way around the floor, refilling drinks, clearing dishes, and putting in orders at the kitchen. And even though he wasn't close enough to actually make out her face, he knew she was favoring anyone who met her eyes with a smile.
She was attractive to begin with—not drop-dead gorgeous, or anything, not someone who stopped traffic when she walked down the street, but pleasant enough to look at. When she smiled at you, though…it was like the sun came out over her features. She just glowed, and for a moment in seeing it, you forgot all about your own problems. Wasn't because she was trying to earn tips, either. That kind of automatic, superficial smile was easy enough to see through. Gabrielle…she just cared about people, and when she smiled at them like that, they felt it. Didn't matter if she hadn't gotten enough sleep, or if the diner was short-staffed, or if she was coming down with a cold, or if she'd just been ditched by her asshole "boyfriend", who by the way was married, because she wouldn't agree to an abortion.
Casey's jaw clenched, his hands curling around the handlebars of his bike as he wished for the hundredth time she'd tell him who the creep was. What he wouldn't give to get his hands on the prick…
In moments like this, he knew he was getting too close, that his detachment towards the world at large was crumbling, had in fact begun to crumble from the moment he'd first stepped into the small-town grill.
"Hey, Cowboy, what can I get you?"
Casey stood just inside the door, water dripping from his sodden clothes to form a puddle at his feet. "Just directions to the nearest gas station'll do it." He shivered as ice-cold rainwater trickled down the nape of his neck. God, he was cold. A few degrees lower, and the rain would turn to sleet. "Ran out of gas," he explained.
She surveyed his waterlogged appearance, and said, "How far'd you walk to get here?"
He shrugged. "A mile or two." Or three or four.
The woman appraised him carefully for a few moments, and finally seemed to reach some sort of decision. "Tell you what—stick around 'til I'm done with my shift, an' I'll give you a lift. No one should be out walking in this," she said, gesturing towards the window.
"Thanks for the offer, but I can manage. Where is it?"
She raised one eyebrow. "The gas station? Five, six miles up the road, on the left. Can't miss it," she answered coolly.
He looked down and flexed his hands to speed the circulation as they began to prickle with returning warmth. Then looked up to meet her eyes. "I, uh… guess I could stand a bite to eat."
"You look it. When's the last time you had a hot meal?"
He considered for a moment. "Utah."
She smiled and picked up a menu. "Right this way."
The plan had been to eat and warm up a little, get some fuel for his bike, and hit the road again. But if recent events had taught him anything, it was that life rarely went as planned. When she'd learned it was a motorcycle he was driving and not a car, she'd insisted he stay the night at her place, claiming he was sure to catch his death of cold if he didn't dry off properly. Casey had let himself be talked into it, secretly relieved to have refuge from the miserable weather.
If he'd known what was in store for him, though, he might've opted to take his chances with the weather.
Gabrielle pulled her truck over onto the shoulder just behind the abandoned motorcycle, and shifted to neutral before yanking up the parking brake, leaving the motor running. She kept her face forward, staring through the windshield at the mountains hunched on the horizon like grizzled old men.
"Look, I'm sorry I unloaded on you the other night," she said slowly. "I'm really embarrassed. I didn't…I just…felt overwhelmed, you know? I'm not exactly in the best control of my emotions right now," she added with a nervous laugh.
"Hey, it's okay," he answered, though it had been horribly awkward. He didn't even know this woman, and she'd broken down in tears the previous evening just because he'd offered her a smoke. And that had barely scratched the surface of her woes. "Thanks for, uh, letting me crash on your couch an' everything."
"Yeah, no problem." Her eyes switched to his bike, and she stuck her hands in her coat pockets in what he already recognized as a nervous gesture, automatically seeking the cigarettes she used to keep there. When she found them empty, she exhaled and clutched the steering wheel instead. "Well, good luck, Cowboy," she said, turning to him with a wan smile. "I hope you find whatever it is you're looking for."
Casey wasn't so much trying to find something as he was trying to lose it, but he didn't correct her. "I told you, I'm from New York City. Couldn't find a single cow there, much less a cowboy."
She studied him seriously, eyes flicking back and forth across his face, and shook her head slowly. "No, you're one of the good guys. I can tell."
He wasn't 50 miles outside of town before he turned around.
"Casey?" She seemed genuinely puzzled. "What are you doing here? Is everything okay?"
"Hey. Yeah, everything's fine," he said, raking a hand back through his hair. "It's just, I realized I'm kinda tired of life on the road. For now, anyway."
She looked at him questioningly, and when he didn't continue right away, she glanced back over her shoulder at the waiting customers. The diner was filling up, and she had work to do.
He followed her gaze, and then met her eyes again. "Look, Gabrielle… I know this is gonna sound crazy, but I got sort of a, a business proposition for you."
Her brows furrowed. "A business proposition?"
"Yeah. Like I said, I could use a break from the road. Wouldn't mind spending some time in the mountains, only I don't got a place to stay. An' you need some work done on your house." He wasn't being rude; she'd told him as much the other night. "I can't pay much, but I'm pretty handy, so I thought maybe we could work somethin' out. You rent me a room, an' I'll pay you what I can, and make up the rest fixin' up the house. Plus I can pitch in for utilities."
"Casey," she answered slowly, her eyes wary, "That's really sweet, but I don't think--"
He held out his hands to silence her. "No strings attached. I swear. We'd be like…roommates." When she still looked reluctant, he added, "I can give you some cash up front to cover things for a bit—an advance on the rent. Least I can do after everything you did to help me out."
After her breakdown the night before, he knew just how desperate her current situation was. Her late mother had left her the house, the remaining mortgage, and a host of medical expenses, which meant Gabby was living paycheck to paycheck. She was picking up as many extra shifts as she could for now, but that wouldn't last as her pregnancy advanced. Even the current real estate climate was against her—brand new houses weren't selling, much less a fixer upper like hers. Foreclosure seemed inevitable if things didn't change.
She stared at him for several seconds more, and then looked down, shaking her head slowly. "Look," she said softly. "All that stuff I told you the other night? It was just a, a low point. Happens to everyone. I didn't mean…I wasn't asking for help." She looked up and gave a small, brave smile. "I'll figure something out. You didn't have to come all the way back just because you feel sorry for me. The last thing I want is to be someone's pity project."
"I don't--" he started, but at a look from her, he decided to be completely honest. "…okay, maybe I did feel sorry for you. A little," he said. "Kinda hard not to, under the circumstances, you know? But that ain't the same thing as pity. I don't pity you, okay? Just the opposite."
"What…what do you mean?"
Geeze, did he have to spell it out? "I guess I sorta…y'know, admire what you're doin'," he muttered awkwardly.
She studied his eyes as if trying to gauge how truthful he was being, and then her brow crinkled slightly and she looked down again, blinking a few times in rapid succession. "Admire me?" she answered unsteadily. "For what? For being gullible and naive? For thinking things would end differently for me, just because I wanted them to?"
"No," he said seriously. "For choosin' a tough road, an' havin' the guts to stick with it even though someone else don't agree."
"Maybe I just didn't think it through," she said softly, her eyes still downcast. "Maybe I'll find out it's too hard, and change my mind."
He shrugged. "Maybe. I ain't one to judge. Made my own share a' mistakes, lemme tell ya. But it don't change my offer. Like I said, it's a business deal. If you say no, I'll be on my way. Find someplace else. No hard feelings."
Finally she met his eyes again. "I have to get back to work."
He held her gaze for a moment, and then nodded slowly and began to turn away. That was it, then. Part of him, and not a small part of him, was relieved she'd said no. Things were a lot less complicated that way. But before he could take another step, her voice stopped him.
"I don't get off until after dinner, but there's a spare key on top of the doorframe, left side. Make yourself at home, Roomie."
He turned back to face her. "Sure thing, Pardner," he said in his best western drawl.
She smiled a small, lopsided smile. "See? There's a little cowboy in you, after all."
He'd been living there for over a month now, and sometimes Casey wondered just what the hell he'd been thinking when he'd turned around and given up the pressure-free life he'd been living on the road for some chick he didn't even know.
Other times, he wondered just what the hell he'd been thinking when he'd driven away in the first place.
"Here, take a look," he said, leading the way to the bathroom. He flipped on the light as she stepped through the doorway, watching her face as she took in the renovated bathroom, complete with re-finished tile floor, newly caulked shower and bathtub, and a fresh coat of paint over a wall formerly covered in yellowed, peeling wallpaper.
"Casey," she gasped, stepping into the small space and turning around to look at everything. "You did all of this? Today?"
He shrugged. "Wasn't that much. Needs another coat of paint, but I'll do that tomorrow. If ya want, I can even re-finish those," he said, nodding at the basin and toilet. "Cheaper to get the sprays than buy new stuff, if you want a different color."
She turned to him, eyes sparkling. "It's wonderful. Thank you."
"No sweat. Just keepin' up my end of the contract."
She smiled. "I think I got the better end of that deal."
Casey flashed a brief smile in return before looking quickly away, and he rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously as he pretended to admire the freshly painted walls. In the silence that followed, he could feel her eyes on him.
At length, Gabrielle spoke. "Did she appreciate you?" she asked softly.
Casey looked at her in confusion. "Who?"
"The woman in New York."
Hearing those words was like a blow to the stomach--knocked the wind right out of him, and for a moment he couldn't even breathe, much less deny the assumption. But how the hell…? He'd never spoken of his life in New York, much less his reasons for leaving, but she'd obviously come to some conclusions on her own. Woman's intuition, he supposed. He refused to believe he was just that transparent.
"I, uh, I guess so," he stumbled when he was able to get his mouth to work. "I mean, when I like, helped out around the house, or somethin', I know she appreciated it."
Her dark eyes held his, searching, like she was trying to see right into him. "That's not the same thing," she said with gentle conviction. "Those are things you did. I asked if she appreciated you. Who you are, as a person."
He looked into her eyes until he couldn't stand it any more before dropping his gaze. "I don't know."
He'd never thought about it before that day, but he'd sure given it a lot of thought since. He believed April had loved him, but he was beginning to question whether she'd ever truly known who he was.
A vibration next to his rib cage snapped his attention immediately back to the here and now, and he fumbled to retrieve his cell phone from his inner coat pocket. Only three people had this number: his mother, Gabrielle, and the guy he'd talked to the other day about the roof tiles. Since the caller ID said "unknown caller", he assumed it was Roof Tile Dude, hopefully calling to tell him the tiles in his barn were the right color, and Casey could take them off his hands cheap. The phone answered automatically when he flipped it open.
"Yeah," he answered. His tone was short, but polite. No need to encourage small talk.
"Casey Jones? From New York?"
Okay, so probably not Roof Tile Dude. "Depends," he answered guardedly. "Who the fuck is this?"
There was a sigh on the other end that almost sounded relieved. "It's Don. Uh, Donatello," the voice clarified when Casey didn't respond right away.
"Donny?!" Casey answered when he'd found his voice. "Jeezus, man, for a minute there you had me thinkin' you were a cop or somethin'. How the hell'd you get this number? I've only had the fuckin' phone for three days!"
"Well, I was uh, sort of keeping tabs on some of the major cell phone providers, hoping someone with your name would register. Unfortunately, I didn't fully comprehend just how many people in this country have the name 'Casey Jones.' Every time someone by that name registered, I received an alert. You're the 18th Casey Jones I've called in roughly two months. Five of them were women, though, so at least those were easy to eliminate."
This gave Casey pause. Seemed like Don had gone to a lot of trouble to track him down. "Whoa. So if Ma hadn't badgered me into getting this thing, you probably never would a' found me, huh?"
There was some hesitation before Don answered, "Well…I may also have been monitoring a few other…entities."
Casey blinked. "Like what?"
"Well, let's see…I covered most of the major gas, electric, and water companies, cable services, major banks, and um, a few likely magazine publications. But there were too many hits on those to contact all of them, so in cases where other data were available, I weeded out the ones that couldn't have been you based on gender and age."
By now, he sort of regretted asking. "That's…actually a bit creepy, man. Hope I never get on your bad side."
Don laughed a little. "Sorry, I didn't mean to sound like a stalker, but you just kind of…fell off the grid. I didn't know how else to find you. Did you…I mean, were you trying to disappear entirely?"
Meaning, was Casey mad he'd been found. "No, no," he said, turning his face away from a particularly sharp gust of wind that found its way around the building. "Wasn't like that. I mean, at first I didn't wanna talk to anyone, but the only reason I didn't have my phone when I left town was cuz it, uh, broke." Actually, he'd thrown it out into the street when he saw Raph's name on the caller ID for the hundredth time, and it had been run over by a car. And then a bus. And then another car. At least the poor thing hadn't suffered—the first car had done it in, for sure. "I didn't have any contacts in it written down, so that was that." And the few numbers he did have memorized were ones he had no urge to call.
"Ah," Don said slowly, as if aware some things were being left out. "So where the hell have you been all this time?"
Casey shifted a little on the seat of his bike. "On the road, mostly. Headed south from New York to escape the cold, an' took up with a group of bikers in Florida who were headed to California. Hung out there a while, then took off solo an' headed up the coast a ways before turnin' east to see the Rockies."
"And that's where you are now? The Rocky Mountains?"
"Yep. Goat Head, Colorado."
"Goat Head, huh? That sounds…interesting."
"Ain't much here, besides mountains. And cattle," he added as an afterthought. "But it's growin' on me."
"Gotcha. So where are you headed next?"
"Dunno. Kinda takin' a break from traveling at the moment. How's, uh, how's everything with you?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Not bad," Don responded. "I mean, different, you know? But they're okay. I, uh, I have my own place now."
"No shit," said Casey. "That's cool. Still underground, or what?"
"Yeah, it's in the sewers, a fair distance from the lair. Nothing fancy or anything. Mikey's been calling it 'The Cubicle,' which gives you an idea of the size, but it's big enough for me. I actually just officially moved in. In fact, that's one of the reasons I've been trying to get in touch with you. Once I'm settled in a bit, I wanted to have kind of a housewarming thing—order some food, hang out, play some games, stuff like that. And it'd be cool if you could make it. You know, if you're around."
"Thanks, man, that's…I appreciate it. I dunno if, you know, I'll be around or anything, but yeah. Thanks."
"Hey, no problem. It probably won't be for a few weeks, so you can think about it and I'll let you know when we have a firm date. And um…if you don't want to come when everyone else is here, I understand. When you get back into town, I still want you to come see the place. And just to warn you? I'll know when that is, because I promised Mikey that as soon as I found you, I'd give him your number. So you can expect him bug…I mean call you all the time."
Casey smiled a little, his short laugh forming a puff of vapor in the crisp air. "Thanks for the heads up." Then his frown returned. "So how's…everyone else?"
"Fine, more or less. Splinter's working us pretty hard, but that's not really anything new. And um, let's see…Mikey's been a huge help getting everything ready at my new place, and Leo's been kind of taking over at the lair as the security system expert. Raph…well, things have been rocky between us, but it's going better now. He helped me do some of the wiring here—understands electric better than Mikey, who still thinks a 'transformer' is a sentient robot. And April…"
Casey's stomach rolled a little at actually hearing her name, even though he'd known it was coming.
"We talk on the phone now and then, and she seems to be doing fine, got another commission to track down sthese elusive art pieces for some law firm, or something. So yeah," he summarized. "I'd say things are going pretty well."
"That's good," was all Casey could say. He didn't know how he felt about it, really. On one hand, it was comforting to hear about everyone after being out of touch for so long. He could almost pretend nothing was different.
Except that everything was.
There was a pause on the line, and Don took an audible breath before continuing. "Look, Casey, I don't know how to say this, but…I'm really sorry things went the way they did."
"You got nothin' to apologize for," Casey managed, his voice gruff. As soon as he said it, he knew he still wasn't anywhere near ready to forgive Raphael. Wasn't sure he ever would be.
On the other hand, until Don called him, he hadn't realized how much he'd missed everyone.
"I know," Don answered. "What I mean is, I'm sorry we didn't contact you sooner. We tried, once we found out what happened, but by then you had already split. April told us that you guys broke up, but she didn't tell us she and Raph…well anyway, they kept things from all of us for quite some time. We all just assumed when Raph was gone, he was off with you."
Casey shrugged. "Don't matter. I wouldn't a' had my phone anyway."
"Right," Don said with a note of hesitation. "I guess I just want you to know that, um, even though you mostly hung out with Raph, that doesn't mean the rest of us don't, uh, consider you a friend. It's kinda weird without you around. So whenever you get back…even if you don't want to hang out everyone right away or whatever, that doesn't mean you can't hang out with me or Mikey. Or Leo."
Casey half-smiled at the though of "hanging out" with Leo—what the hell would they do, meditate? But he sobered quickly when he thought about the rest of what Don had said. "So they're, um, are they still…?" He couldn't finish the question, much less say their names, and he hated himself for it.
"Yeah. They're still together," Don answered.
Casey closed his eyes and nodded, squeezing the phone hard. He didn't know for sure whether he was disappointed or relieved, but something was making his throat lock up tight. Fortunately, Don must have taken his silence as encouragement to keep talking.
"It's not as weird as I thought it would be, though. Well actually, last week during movie night was the first time I was around the two of them together. I thought it was gonna be…awkward, to say the least, but they were actually pretty cool. Probably because they were so afraid of making anyone uncomfortable that they barely looked at one another. Didn't even sit together during the movie. But the thing is…" Don halted abruptly.
"What?" Casey asked.
Don hesitated, and then said, "The thing is, even when they're trying to act all cool and casual, you can still tell they're crazy about each other. I didn't want to see it, at first…but there it is."
Casey swallowed hard, and at last found a way around the lump in his throat. "There it is," he echoed. He didn't have any other words.
Don sighed. "I'm sorry. I know it's gotta be hard. I just thought, if it were me…it might help to hear that."
Casey cleared his throat. "It's okay. I'm movin' on, you know? Not there yet, but…yeah. Movin' on."
"I know what you mean," Donatello answered solemnly.
They both went silent then, and it wasn't until Casey looked up to the diner window again that he realized how dark it had gotten. An elderly couple was just exiting the building, bringing a tantalizing waft of greasy food with them as they shuffled through the door. All at once, the diner looked irresistibly warm and appealing.
"Listen, man, I gotta get goin'. But uh, thanks for calling. And thanks for, uh…just, thanks," he ended lamely. But he figured Donny would get it.
"No problem. I should get going, too."
"Hey, good luck with the new place," Casey remembered to say. "I'll hafta come check it out. You know, when I'm around."
"Thanks. Good luck to you, too. And stay in touch, huh?"
"Ain't like I got a choice, if you're gonna sic Mikey on me," he answered, the smile on his face apparent in his voice. "But yeah," he continued reflectively. "I'll be in touch."
They exchanged brief goodbyes, and Casey flipped his phone closed and tucked it back in his jacket before dismounting his bike. He blew into his hands to warm them as he made his way to the entrance of his diner, pausing just inside the doorway to bask in the warmth for a moment before proceeding over to the hostess station. A broad woman with weathered skin and a good-natured faced smiled when she recognized him.
"Hi Hon. Stayin' for dinner tonight?"
"Hi Peg. Actually, I—" He was mid-sentence when he spied Gabrielle making her way over, beaming, and the polite decline he'd been on the verge of uttering never made it out of his mouth. "…think I will. Thanks." He was pretty hungry, come to think of it.
Peg turned to follow his gaze, and her smile deepened when she saw who he was looking at. "I guess Gabby can show you to a table." Then she peered around him at the family that had just entered, and Casey stepped to the side to clear the way as he waited.
"Hey you," Gabrielle said when she reached him. Her smile was even brighter than he remembered. "Glad you finally made it. Did you get lost trying to find the door, or something?" she asked teasingly.
He gave a small half-smile. "I take it you saw me pull in."
"Yeah, like fifteen minutes ago. What was the hold up? Find another damsel in distress out there, or something?"
"Nah. I was on the phone."
"Oh! Was it the guy about the roof tiles?" she asked eagerly.
Casey rubbed the back of his neck lightly with one hand. "Nope. Haven't heard from him yet. It was, um, an old buddy a' mine, actually. From New York."
Her face fell, but she caught herself almost immediately and switched her expression to one of casual interest. "Oh yeah? What's, um, what's going on?"
Casey wasn't fooled. She didn't voice it, but he knew she was already bracing herself for the day when he would announce he was leaving.
You can't keep doin' this, Case-man, he admonished himself. He kept telling himself he'd just finish this next project and then he'd be on his way, but somehow he always found a reason to put it off, and although he only wanted to help her, he worried he was only making things worse for her by staying.
He worried that deep down, his motives in this were purely selfish, that he'd merely seized on her problems as a way to distract himself from his own.
He worried that maybe he was falling in love with her.
"Casey? Is everything okay?"
"Yeah," he answered slowly. "Yeah, everything's okay." And as he looked at her, he felt for the first time since leaving New York that maybe it was.