A/N: Okay, so this is the end! I hope folks are as happy to read it as I was to write it. Thanks for sticking with me to the end. And there are references to Labyrinth, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare sprinkled somewhere in here, so I can't lay claim to those gems of witticism :)

Summary: Nora said their summer trip to the country was going to be an adventure. She didn't mean it quite so literally, but when have Casey and Derek ever been any good at doing what they're told?

Rating: T for content, but M for language, so I'm hedging my bets

Disclaimer: I own nothing you see here. Big shock, I know.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation
by: Hayseed

Chapter Thirteen: Was a Stinking Metaphor the Whole Time

She hit the ground hard, whacking her head on a rock or something so badly she saw stars. Fortunately, when she checked the bump, her fingers came away clean of blood. That didn't stop her from letting out a little moan of pain, though.

"Serves you right," Derek said nastily from his position face-down in the grass. "Give a guy some warning next time, Case."

"You were just going to yell at him until he got mad enough he wasn't going to let us back through," she said with a sigh, forcing herself to stand up and ignore the way the landscape started to spin.

"Good point," he told the ground. "So, what do you think?"

Even though she knew he couldn't see her, there was still a great deal of satisfaction in sticking her tongue out at him. "Oh, jeez, where to start..." she sighed. "First of all, you're practically the textbook definition of dumb. And don't get me started on your horrible--"

"Okay, so as fun as this little digression has been," he interrupted, scowling up at her from his sprawled position. "I was actually wondering where you thought we are, superfreak."

And somehow, their eyes locked together, and Casey wondered if Derek realized she was at least twice as scared as he looked.

It was an easy thing; all they had to do was look up. Just that one little thing, and the question would be answered.

But if it was the wrong answer... dear God, if they were still stuck wherever...

Derek's eyes slid lazily shut, and as soon as they opened, she read the resolve written there.

"Please, please, please," she whispered under her breath as they looked skyward at the same time.

With a whoosh of air escaping from his mouth, he let his head fall back to the ground, just as Casey dropped down to her knees.

"We're home," he said, fingers digging into the earth.

Ha. Into the Earth.

A weird, freestanding door, a bizarre hedge, and -- most importantly -- one sun!

"Oh," she gasped, not sure if she was going to laugh or cry, but pretty sure that either reaction would be reasonable. A loud sniffle distracted her, though. "Are you crying?" she asked Derek suspiciously.

"No," he answered quickly, sitting up and scrubbing at his eyes. "I just... got dirt up my nose."

"Whatever," she replied in her happiest voice. "Derek, we're home!"

He grinned. "Yeah, I totally get why people kiss the ground now. The ground is officially the best friend I've ever had. If it were legal, I would totally fucking marry the ground, because it's here, and not in that horrible place."

Shaking her head, she threw a stray leaf at him. "Because that's a nice, normal reaction. Do I need to leave you two alone for a little while?"

"Nah," he said loftily. "I'm pretty sure I can control my baser urges where my ten-trillion-ton ladylove is concerned. Besides, no orifices, you know? Not as much fun as you might think."


Double ew.

"De-rek!" she cried, punching his shoulder. "That's--"

"Sick, depraved, but totally true if you think about it?" he retorted in a flip tone. "Judge away, Case. Me and my woman don't need your opinion on our love, thank you very much."

It was hard to hold a glare when you were laughing so hard you could barely breathe. She was so happy it was clearly making her stupid. Even Derek's lips were twitching with suppressed laughter.

So, really, she had no choice but to tackle him and lean close and...

"What?" Derek asked as she abruptly froze. "What is it?"

With a groan, she let her head fall forward onto his chest. "Did you just get the overwhelming image of my mother leaping out of the trees and screaming her head off at us?"

"Um... no..." he said, clearly confused.

"It just--"

"Got really awkward," he completed, understanding dawning on his face.

"Yeah," she admitted, her stomach starting to feel funny.

He tucked a hand under his head and gave her a thoughtful look. "It's different on this side of the Door," he said. "It feels more real."

"It feels more like something we'll both get in serious trouble over," she muttered.

His head tilted to one side. "Casey, maybe it's just--"

Oh, fuck. He was going to say it, wasn't he? He was going to go and do exactly what she'd begged him not to. He was going to rip out her heart and...

"...like you said, we probably don't even live at home," he said.

Wait, what Her brain drew a total blank, so she actually repeated it out loud. "Wait, what?"

"I said," he began, sounding endlessly amused, "that since it's been more than three months since we were gone, we don't have to worry about Nora and Dad caring because we don't even live at--"

Before he could finish his thought and make her world all better again, an eighty-pound whirlwind pounced on them both. "Smerek!" it shouted. "Casey!"

She was so startled she accidentally elbowed him in the gut, but he more than made up for it by yelling in her ear.

"Marti?" she asked in absolute astonishment, staring up at the figure blocking the sun from their view.

"Are you two fighting again?" the little girl asked suspiciously, folding her arms over her chest and giving them a disapproving look. "I'm gonna tell Nora, and then she won't let you have that apartment you wanted. She told us you have to be nice to Smerek."

"Fighting?" Derek echoed.

At the same time, Casey laughed nervously. "We're not fighting, Marti," she said. "We were just..."

She scrambled frantically and came up with nothing.

Fortunately, Derek was a hell of a lot quicker on his feet than she usually gave him credit for. "Didn't you see us fall, Smarti?" he broke in. "That stupid door opened up under us, and we fell down."

The suspicion increased, if anything. "But that was, like, a really long time ago," Marti said. "You've been gone forever, Smerek."

"Forever, huh?' he asked, shoving Casey away and sitting up. "Like, how long is forever?"

Marti grinned. "Hours and hours. You missed supper, and everything. You're gonna be in trouble," she informed them happily. "Where did you go, anyway? You both smell really bad. Did you fall in the Bog of Eternal Stench?"

Okay, so Casey had no idea what that meant, but Derek seemed to, because he just snorted and rolled his eyes.

"Sure, kiddo," he said. "We met the Goblin King and he made Casey the Princess of Stench. But when I made fun of her, she beat me up and dragged me in too."

Still no clue, but whatever it was had Marti laughing her head off, which maybe meant she'd forget that they went missing for a whole afternoon and then suddenly reappeared looking like they'd fought wars.

"And you know what else, Smarti?" he asked, widening his eyes playfully and poking her in the belly. "Casey met a fairy, didn't'cha, Case?"

"It bit me," she said truthfully. "It wasn't a very nice fairy at all."

Squealing with laughter, Marti just threw her arms around them both. "You guys tell the best stories," she said. "Even if you do smell like that time Edwin didn't change his socks for two months."

"Oh, my God," Casey cried, panicked. "It's that bad?"

As Marti dragged them back to the house -- which was secretly awesome, as Casey herself would never have managed to find the damn place on her own -- she kept up a running chatter the entire time. Casey learned that supper had consisted of hastily assembled sandwiches, which Casey felt no remorse about missing, Edwin and George managed to set up the video game system and break a window throwing a football indoors, and Lizzie made friends with a girl from next door whose parents were also on vacation.

Said parents had apparently invited the entire McDonald-Venturi clan into town to check out the local scoop shop, but Marti had declined by telling her parents that she was playing Hide and Seek with Derek and Casey, and "getting in a car would be cheating." Apparently, the next-door family had a little boy approximately Marti's age who she thought was gross for picking his nose and rude for attempting to smear it in her hair. Which also meant that she had no intention of sitting and watching him eat and/or throw an ice cream cone because most boys, but that one in particular, were icky and useless.

"Good girl," Casey said warmly.

"Wait a sec," Derek said in a disapproving voice, "Dad just left you at the house all by yourself? You're, like, a little kid!"

She gave him a well-duh-but-I-meant-for-him-to look that struck Casey as being strangely savvy for a little girl who was best known for having a pet imaginary dragon well-behaved enough to participate in play tea parties. "You and Casey were here," she pointed out. "And I'm nine. Daddy left you alone to babysit when you were nine -- Edwin told me."

"And see how well I turned out?" he muttered.

"Smerek, just because I like to play pretend and stuff doesn't mean I'm a little baby," she huffed. "I know not to play with matches or knives, and I even got the cell phone before coming outside to look for you."

Casey couldn't help but be a little impressed at Marti's speech, but Derek looked less than happy. He dropped to one knee and grabbed her shoulder. "Marti, listen to me," he said in the most serious voice Casey had ever heard him use. "I don't mean that you're a baby, but you should be allowed to, like, just be a kid and not have to worry about stuff like matches and emergency numbers. You know what I mean?"

In reply, Marti just got that mischievous little twinkle in her eyes, slapped her hand on Derek's thigh and shouted, "Tag!" at the top of her lungs.

She took off running down the hill and Derek tore after her without a second's hesitation. As Casey followed the pair, she realized that this was probably Marti's way of saying she did know what Derek meant.

There were few modern inventions more spectacular than hot water. Casey now realized she'd taken such luxuries for granted in the past, but no more. She was officially a hot running water groupie. If Derek wanted to have a passionate love affair with a pile of dirt, that was A-okay by her as long as she had unlimited hot water access.

Thank God no one was home yet. Marti had just scampered into the den and turned on the television, leaving Casey and Derek to remember where their bags were -- three months was way too long, and it took her nearly twenty minutes to recall that she'd left everything in the basement -- and have a brief argument over who got what shower.

But it didn't matter, really. After clearing the dirt out of the drain until the water ran clean, Casey was in heaven. For sure.

Too soon, though, there was a rough knock on the door.

"Occupied," she called out dreamily.

"Yeah, I figured," Derek's voice said dryly. "But I wanted to give you fair warning, princess."

Oh, shit. She hadn't bothered to lock the door. "Derek, get out," she said, a ripple of fear running through her gut. "If Mom and George come home..."

"They called a few minutes ago," he said. "They're having such a great time that they wanted us to know they were going to see a movie. Also, we're very devoted to Marti to play with her all afternoon, apparently."

"Oh, yes," she agreed with a grave nod, the fear easing but not disappearing entirely. "You're the very best of brothers to keep her occupied for an entire afternoon, during which you were present the entire time."

"I still can't believe they left her alone, though," he said tightly. "She's too young for that kind of stuff."

She couldn't figure out anything to say that he wouldn't take offense at, so she just shut off the water and snaked her hand out from the curtain to find a towel. She took her time drying off, but when she pushed the curtain aside, he was still standing there.

"Derek, I'm not going to--"

He flapped his hands at her and she realized that they were full of gauze and tubes of that antibiotic ointment stuff. "Relax, Spacey," he said with a teasing smile. "Your virtue is safe. For the moment, anyway."

Sighing, she just tucked the towel more firmly around herself. "Great," she said. "Thanks for the stuff. You can just leave it on the counter."

He saw her sigh and raised her one exasperated expression. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but unless you've suddenly become magically double-jointed in your old age, there's no way you're cleaning and bandaging your own back. Come on, Case, lose the towel."

She glared, but it was weak. He was right and she was going to have to give in. Eventually.

"For Christ's sake, will you just quit it?" he asked, rolling his eyes. "Nothing I haven't seen before and we both know it. So just let me help you and we'll go back to pretending that I shouldn't be dragging your ass to the hospital for stitches."

"They wouldn't give me stitches anyway," she said good-naturedly, wrapping her hair up in the towel and pulling on a pair of panties. "It's been too long since I got cut up."

Oh, damn. Clean underwear. For the first time in three months. She almost moaned in ecstasy.

As she turned away from him, she felt warm hands on her back. "Some of these are bleeding again," he said quietly.

"Figures," she sighed. "Maybe if I can get away with laying around and doing nothing for the next few weeks, they'll be all healed up before we go to school."

He chuckled and started smearing the ointment on her skin. It was cold, and it was all she could do not to flinch at the sensation. "Yeah," he said, "so much for not having to live at home any more. At least, for two more months."

"We're not..." Words failed her for a moment as she realized that Derek was basically giving her a back massage as she stood topless in the bathroom, but her resolve kicked back in after a while. "We can't, can we?"

A loud ripping sound as he tore a length of surgical tape off the roll. "It would be a bad idea, wouldn't it?"

"Well... we're not walking hormones or anything," she said, biting her lip as his fingers smoothed over her skin. "We have self-control, don't we?"

His lips moved against her ear and she felt her knees buckle at the sensation. "Sure you can keep away from my hot sexy man-bod, Case?"

"If you keep calling it your man-bod, then I think we're pretty safe," she said with a dry chuckle.

As he finished up with the bandages, he slid his arms around her waist and pressed a kiss to the back of her neck. "Well, if you can restrain yourself from my man-bod, then I guess I could attempt to stay away from your chickie-bod."

"Oh, was ever a woman so wooed?" she asked sarcastically. "I can't believe I went three whole months without killing you. Mom doesn't just owe me an apartment, she owes me a rent-free, fully furnished condo complete with a pet kitten named Mittens."

He smiled and kissed her neck again. "I believe Marti said the stipulation was that you were nice to me, and I don't recall three months of niceness."

Her eyebrows shot up even as she shivered under his touch. "Hey, I'm pretty damn nice to you."

"I fail to see how threatening to shoot me at least twice a week constitutes being nice," he said, absently toying with the elastic on her underwear.

"Well, I didn't actually shoot you, did I?" she pointed out. "See? Nice."

"And by the way, you are so not allowed to give your imaginary kitten a dorky name like Mittens. A name defines a pet, and a name like Mittens is just cruel and unusual. You're basically condemning your imaginary cat to imaginary outcast-hood. None of the other imaginary cats want to be imaginary friends with someone named Mittens," he said snottily, hands sliding up to tickle the skin just under her breasts.

"Oh," she managed to gasp. "And what should I name my imaginary cat, then?"

There was a short pause and a kiss to her earlobe. "Killer Dimitri," he said with certainty. "It's got badassery and mystique all wrapped up in one awesomely cool name. If you're going to have an imaginary kitten, it has to be named Killer Dimitri."

"Badassery is so not an actual word," she said, trying and failing to ignore the pleasant tingle of his breath on her neck. "And by the way, if you're trying to keep your hands off my chickie-bod, I gotta say that you pretty much suck at it, D."

"Guess I don't have as much self-control as I thought," he said, all false apologies. "Whatever will we do, Casey?"

She rolled her eyes and tugged her shirt over her head, careful to avoid the gauze -- no bra for her tonight. "Well, I'm sure we'll think of something," she grumbled teasingly.

The second she pulled the towel off her head, Derek's hands were in her hair and his lips were on hers. Her own hands found convenient belt loops on his jeans, and she gave them a little tug, pulling him flush against her. They were really beginning to get pretty comfy against the bathroom wall there when...


They broke apart, blinking. "Um, hey, Marti," Derek said weakly. "Sup, mi hermana?"

"What were you doing to Casey?" she asked incredulously.

Okay, Marti was only nine. So maybe that meant she didn't quite...

"I was checking her for ticks," Derek said as Casey attempted and failed to collect her thoughts.

"Ticks?" Marti echoed doubtfully.

"Ticks," he confirmed in a firm voice. "We were out in the woods for a really long time, and I thought I saw a tick on her shoulder. It would suck if she got bitten by a tick, right?"

She wrinkled her nose. "Well, yeah..."

"So it was really important that I check it out and make sure she doesn't have any ticks," he said. Casey was pretty sure she was the only one who could see the desperation in his eyes.

After a long pause, Marti shrugged. "I guess so. Boy, I hope I never get ticks."

Oh, she couldn't resist that. "There's always someone around to help out, Marti," she said with a wry grin in Derek's direction. "Most boys are pretty good at finding ticks."

It was totally worth baffling a nine-year-old to see the horror blossom on Derek's face. "Marti," he said sternly, "you don't ever allow a boy to check you for ticks, you understand me?"

"But, Smerek, you just said--"

He frowned at her. "I don't care what I just said. No ticks, ever."

Still obviously puzzled, she just shrugged again. "Okay, Derek, but I don't see what the big deal is. I just wanted to see if you would play Smash Brothers with me."

"Go set it up," he said, smiling at her. Marti visibly relaxed as she ran down the hallway. But as soon as she was out of sight, he tapped Casey's nose and scowled. "You? Are evil."

"Ticks, Derek?" she asked, folding her arms over her chest and stifling a snort of laughter. "Really?"

"So you decide to retaliate by giving me a heart attack by suggesting that one day a... male will attempt carnal knowledge of my baby sister?"

Grinning up at him, she just giggled. "I only wish I'd had a camera. I'll just have to remember to keep one around for when she decides to tell you about her first boyfriend."

"He's dead," he growled. "I don't know who he is yet, but I'll hunt him down and murder him as soon as I get the name."

"What, without your sword?" she teased.

His hands went back around her waist again, and she didn't resist as he pulled her forward to rest comfortably against his hip. "Do you know, I'm sort of going to miss that stupid thing," he admitted. "It wasn't all bad over there."

"There were good moments," she agreed. "I liked being able to kick your ass just by thinking about it."

"Hey, I wonder..." he said thoughtfully, trailing his fingers through her wet hair. "The Keeper took away all of our shit, but I wonder if he really took everything, if you catch my drift."

"Everything?" she asked, confused. "But, Derek, he did--"

And it clicked.

"I don't know," she said quietly. "I didn't think about it."

"It would be pretty easy to check, wouldn't it?"

Pulling out of his loose embrace, Casey focused all of her attention on the bottle of shampoo she'd left on the ledge of the tub. Move, she thought fiercely at it. Come on, move, you stupid bottle. All of the concentrating techniques Magic Man taught her, all of the breathing exercises, her world slowly reduced to a single bottle of shampoo.

It toppled off the edge and hit the floor with a thud.

Derek stared at her with wide eyes. "Was that... was that you?" he eventually asked.

"I think so," she said. "But it's a lot harder than it was over there. I don't think I could summon light or anything."

They continued staring at each other in silence.

"Well," he said, breaking the quiet, "maybe that's a good thing. I mean, I bet some, like, men in black would kidnap you and make you do magic tricks in a lab or something if they knew. So we should probably just forget about it, right?"

"It just... Derek, that means it was all real," she said. "Tomorrow, when we wake up, we'll still have scars, and I'll still be able to push things around without actually touching them. It was real."

He just shook his head. "Wild."

"Smerek!" Marti suddenly yelled from the den. "Smerek, you promised!"

"Casey," a voice said urgently in her left ear. "Casey, wake up."

"Derek, go away," she moaned.


Wait, that wasn't Derek. That sounded more like...

"Mom!" Casey all but shouted, eyes slamming open. "Mom, you're home!"

Somehow, she and Derek had fallen asleep on the sofa, Marti's video game in their ears. What was worse was that her hand was halfway up Derek's shirt and one of his hands was wrapped firmly around her hip, not to mention the fact that she was sprawled on top of him just like, well, just like she'd been doing for the last few weeks.

"Casey, shut up," Derek said, making a weird snuffling noise. "I'm having a good dream."

"Derek," she whispered, trying to ignore her mother's impatient stare, "everyone's home. They went out for ice cream and a movie, remember?"

He was instantly awake and staring up and over her. "Oh, um, hi, Nora," he said lamely. "Have fun?"

"Casey, the back of your shirt has red spots on it," her mother said.

Derek's expression went dark, and she twisted her neck around to assess the damage. Looked like she'd bled through some of the gauze. "Shit," she swore without thinking.

"Cassandra Ann!" Nora exclaimed sternly.

Even through the obvious worry, Derek gave her a sly smile. "Your first name is really Cassandra? How could I have not known something as blackmail-worthy as that?"

She glared at him and continued to try and look at her back. "Don't even think about it, Venturi," she said off-handedly.

"Casey, you're bleeding!" her mother cried. "What did you two do out there? Is Marti okay? And what happened to Derek's face?"

Absently, Derek's hand went up to touch the scar on his cheek. "Oh, yeah," he said. "That's old, Nora."

"It wasn't there at lunch time," she said pointedly.

With a sigh, Casey pushed herself up to a seated position. "You totally wouldn't believe us even if we told you, Mom."

"Try me," she said. "I can be pretty open-minded when I need to be. About lots of things." She raised an eyebrow and looked meaningfully at the hand still under Derek's shirt.

Blushing, Casey snatched her hand away like it had been burnt. "Uh, Mom, it's not... that is... I can explain..."

She squeaked as Derek slid out from under her to sit up as well. "Casey and I were out in the woods, and we got lost, and sort of fell down one of those big rock pile things we saw when we were driving up here. That's how her back got all cut up -- show her, Case."

But she didn't have a chance; as soon as Derek mentioned it, Nora reached out and yanked Casey's shirt up. "Oh, sweetheart," she said sympathetically, completely distracted from the where and the how by the overwhelming and apparently bleeding what.

"It's not as bad as it looks, Mom," she said, almost meaning it.

"It looks like those rocks jumped out and attacked you," her mother said, laying a gentle finger against one of the gauze-covered wounds. "My goodness, darling, don't you think you should go to the hospital?"

"Mo-om," she wailed. "I don't want to ruin our vacation. Just give it a couple of days and I'll be fine."

Derek smirked. "Very convincing, Spacey, but we just have to face facts -- you'll never really be fine."

"I swear to God, Derek..." she said through gritted teeth.

"Hah, not so good at empty threats without the deadly weapons to back it up, are we?"

Nora blinked. "Deadly weapons?"

"Inside joke," Casey said quickly. "You know us kids today, Mom."

Derek shot her a disbelieving look, and her mom just frowned. "Uh-huh," she said, sounding unconvinced. "Are you two sure you're okay? You both look, well, awful."

"Like that's anything out of the ordinary," Edwin said companionably as he shuffled into the room. "Hey, Derek, why does your hair look like it got caught in a weedwhacker?"

He glared over at Casey, who promptly threw her hands up in the air. "I warned you," she cried. "Didn't I warn you?"

After a minute, he just sighed. "It'll grow back."

"That's the spirit, champ," Edwin said with a broad grin, turning his attention to the television. "Marti, can I play too?"

"I've got winner," George said, bounding into the room. As soon as he saw Derek and Casey together on the couch, he grinned. "Well, if it isn't the two prodigals, returned from a rousing game of, what was it, Marti? Hide and Seek? I just figured Derek had finally driven Casey to the point of no return and she spent all afternoon trying to find a good place to hide the body."

"Sorry, Dad, no such luck," Derek replied unapologetically. "You're still gonna have to put up with me for the next couple of months."

Nora sighed and waved a hand at George. "Derek and Casey apparently had an accident out in the woods today. George, take a look at this."

At the sight of Casey's bandaged back, he sucked his breath in through his teeth. "Man, Casey," he said in a gentle voice, "looks like you took a beating out there."

She shrugged. "Couple of aspirin and some bed rest, and I'll be good as new in no time. Don't worry about me, George."

"Well, anything you need, kiddo," he said, patting her shoulder. "I officially assign Derek to be at your beck and call."

"Hey, why me?" Derek asked, sounding wounded and put-upon.

"I figure it's probably your fault in some roundabout way," George said lightly, absolutely failing to notice the frozen look of agony on Derek's face.

Leaning into him as much as she dared, Casey allowed her fingers to tickle his side. "It wasn't his fault at all," she said, causing everyone in the room -- except Derek, who was too busy studying his bare feet -- to stare at her in shock. "He saved my life," she told them all in a firm voice. "He pulled me back up from the edge."

"And he made sure she didn't get ticks, too," Marti piped up, not taking her eyes off the television screen.

"Ticks?" Nora echoed.

She nodded and hit enough buttons on her controller to make something on-screen explode. "Sure," she said. "I saw him checking her hair and neck and ears and stuff in the bathroom. I don't know how she would have gotten them in her mouth, though."

George grinned again, even wider this time, and Casey felt a blush spread across her whole face. "Ticks, huh?" he asked. "Derek, you understand that I have to ask in the interest of full disclosure: did you really pick Casey's university because she's going to be there?"

He gave her a sideways look and she responded with a resigned shrug. "Nope," he said blithely. "But it's going to be a lot more interesting than it would have been otherwise, don't you think?"

"De-rek!" she said, embarrassed beyond belief.

"What?" he asked, all injured innocence. "I was talking about the non-stop pool tournaments we're going to have. I mean, I'll go easy on you and everything, because everyone knows that Venturis are veritable gods of the pool table, but--"

"Oh, you are so full of crap," she interrupted. "I could beat you with one hand tied behind my back. Even my imaginary pet kitten could beat you, Venturi."

Laughing, he shot up from the sofa and offered her a hand. "It's on, McDonald. Winner gets permanent imaginary kitten-naming rights."

"I'm not letting you name my imaginary kitten," she argued. "But pick whatever stakes you want, because I'm beating the pants off you."

They were just far enough away from Nora and George that he was able to give her a sly smirk. "Promise?" he whispered.

"Oh, grow up," she snarled.

As they descended down the stairs, still bickering, she could hear their parents talking in the den. "Did what I think happened just happen?" Nora asked, sounding amused.

"You owe me fifty bucks," George replied. "I told you they would start getting along before we shipped them off to university. I didn't know they'd start... tick-hunting, but--"

"George!" Nora scolded, before Casey could pick her jaw up off the ground and march back upstairs to defend herself. A glance at Derek told her that he was pretty much thinking the same thing.

"I just have one question, though," George continued, seemingly unfazed. "Why were they talking about imaginary kittens?"

Derek waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "So, Case, you want to shoot pool or what? Your cat's honor is at stake."

"You're about to make an awful joke about a pool stick, aren't you?" she asked with a sigh.

"First of all, I'd like to point out that they're more correctly called pool cues. But also, I think I'm insulted a little bit," he said with a hand to his chest. "Just because I appreciate a well-placed sexual innuendo as much as the next guy, you assume that I'll take advantage of any opportunity, no matter how idiotic. For your information, I have every intention of taking our game of billiards quite seriously."

She raised her eyebrow and pulled a cue from the rack on the wall. "It's billiards now, huh?"

"It is," he agreed solemnly, pulling balls out of pockets and beginning to set up the game. "Although, if we were to decide on a... more R-rated set of stakes than kitten-naming rights, I might be open to suggestions."

"In a house with a nine-year-old and two fifteen-year-olds?" she countered. "Not to mention my mother and your father?"

He shook his head. "You're never going to give me any credit, are you?"

"Absolutely none," she said cheerfully. "But I might be convinced to make a list of our 'winnings' for later. You know, for when we're at school and stuff."

"I don't..." She could practically see when he got it. "Oh. That sounds... fun." With a cocky leer, he handed her the cue ball. "Hey, I'll even be generous and let you break first. After all, it's the only time tonight you're gonna have a chance to sink a shot."

Smirking, she started chalking her cue tip. "I am so going to make you eat your words."

"Pool god, remember?" he asked, pointing at himself. "You don't stand a chance."

It turned out they were pretty evenly matched, although by the end of the week, Casey started using her... concentration skills to give her the winning edge. And the list of wagers, fairly long and astonishingly creative, was tucked away in her suitcase for safekeeping.

Two months and six weeks later, as Derek triumphantly crossed the last item off their list and locked the freshly adopted kitten out of their newly rented off-campus apartment bedroom for the whole afternoon -- they'd compromised and named the poor thing Killer Mittens, giving it a permanent identity crisis -- Casey had to admit that it was sort of a win-win situation.

Not, of course, that Derek needed to know something like that. He'd never let her live it down.