. . . . . .

Derek Venturi leaned back against the hood of his car, closed his eyes and turned his face to the warmth of the late-afternoon sun.

He'd raced out of practice to get to the parking lot early, and now Casey was late. Figures.

"Later Venturi"

"See ya D"

"Later D"

He raised one hand to acknowledge the good-byes without bothering to see the people who said them. A lot of the younger grades – freshmen and sophomores mostly—said hi and bye to him when he didn't even know who they were. His popularity sort of bored him now—but maybe he was just weaning himself from it. He didn't have much longer left at J Sparrow Thompson, and he didn't want to be one of those pathetic losers who cling to their old glory days of high school.

"Bye Derek," came a feminine voice, but not the one he was waiting for.

God, what the hell was Casey doing in there? He thought he hated waiting for her before they were …together…. Now that he actually wanted to see her the waiting was about a million times worse.

He squinted towards the back door leading to the school library and his peripheral vision caught Casey's ex, Max, trudging to his own car. Oh God, Derek thought, I so don't need this shit yet. Just get your sad ass in the car and drive away. Derek's jaw tightened and he folded his arms in front of his chest. Max didn't know of course. No one did yet. "We won't flaunt it but we won't hide it," the two of them had decided. Derek just didn't trust his ability to follow the "won't flaunt" half of that policy when it came to Max.

When the shiny convertible –no doubt Max's daddy bought the douche bag the carasshole didn't have a job – when the shiny convertible passed the two boys nodded to each other. Max looked sad, the way he'd been looking a lot of the time lately. Derek did his damndest not to grind his teeth and snarl at the guy. Hell, there wasn't a reason to anymore. But all the repressed emotion from before, when Max still had Casey, just seemed to ooze out now that Derek had accepted those feelings.

Still, he didn't want to blow this thing with Casey. Whatever was between them was new, and awkward, for both of them, but damn, it was good. Derek hadn't ever felt this great before in his life. He wanted to do this right.

. . . . .

Casey McDonald had a pile of books in her hands when she walked out the back doors of the school and into the slanting sunlight of the school parking-lot. The heavy strap to her book bag was biting into her shoulder and her jacket pocket was crammed with photocopies from the three remaining books on British romantic literature that the school librarian had refused to check out to her. Cheerleading hadn't built up the muscles that doing this paper was going to give her.

"Stupid school library and the stupid book limit." How on earth was she supposed to adequately cover the Romantic Era poets with only a measly fourteen books on the subject?

"Jeez, Case, did you leave some for the rest of the school?"

"What?! Oapf!" She slammed into her stepbrother's sweaty chest and promptly dropped the handful of books onto the ground. "De-rek!"

She was surprised, when she dropped to the ground to pick up the books, that Derek was already there stacking them for her.

"Here," he smirked and she could hear the laughter in his voice. But, when their eyes met he sobered up. "Sorry."

Their lips were just inches away from each other and she could taste a little of his breath in hers. Her face flushed red.

"Oh, that's okay," she said quickly.

Lately they were extremely careful about coming into such close proximity of each other, unless they were in one of their rooms with the door closed and locked. Things had a way of getting away from them with only the slightest provocation. Usually they ended up in bed together, naked, sweating and gasping for air without any idea which one of them had "started things" or how loud they had been ending those same "things".

The two teenagers stood and warily took a step back from each other.

Derek broke the tension with a smirk, "Yeah". One hand scratched the back of his head. "Anyway, I'm here to pick you up."

Casey smiled softly at him.

Although nearly everything about the practice of their lives was the same—he always drove her home late on Tuesdays after hockey practice and more often than not she tripped or bumped into things and he made fun of her--everything was also so completely different between them that they almost could be two completely different people who were just pretending at the old routines.

He looked around them—just a few stragglers walking to their cars and none paying attention to the step siblings. He took her books from her. "Okay, let's go."

Inside the car, she fiddled with the radio until he stopped her, "Wait, I like that song."

"Oh yeah. Me too." God, half the time she wasn't sure how to act around him anymore. She didn't feel like fighting with him the way that she had. He wasn't provoking her as intensely either.

"So why all the books?"

"Honors thesis."

"How long is that going to take you tonight?"

"Umm, Derek? I'll probably be working on it for a couple months not just tonight."

"Seriously? Brutal." When he smirked at her she backtracked and decided that things really weren't all that different between them. He was still Derek. She was still Casey. They were just a little more open about what had been there all along.

She leaned back against the seat, staring at his profile. "I told Emily I would hang out. I'll probably have dinner there too."

His eyes cut to her. "Oh, okay. That's fine." He looked back out the windshield and frowned before finishing, "I mean, I guess you don't need like my permission or anything."

"Well, I just wanted to tell you since usually," Casey cleared her throat, "I mean, lately that's sort of been our time," her voice got a little unsteady and she bit at her lip. "It's not like I expect…" her voice got a little high and her eyebrows climbed her forehead. "Umm…should we not tell each other about plans changing or 'not plans' changing? Is that too relationshippy or…"

"No that's fine." He looked a little panicked at her ramble. "I want to know that stuff. I want to do this. I do."

Casey reached out and placed a hand on his thigh. He covered it with his own and drove one handed. She couldn't believe this was them now. It all happened so fast.

One minute, she's making the unsteady decision to break things off with her perfect boyfriend—effectively ending her brief stint with popularity.

The next minute, she's inexplicably leaning against her hated step-brother's shoulder for support.

"Oh god, I've made a horrible mistake haven't I Derek? Haven't I?" Oh by no means was she getting the support, "So let me get this right, Case? You made a decision to be 'yourself' again and you can't even handle one night of 'yourself'! Welcome to my world!" Cue the fight that she really needed to relieve her stress instead of the warm shoulder. And, finally, that third minute…. Oh God!

Of course, the entire exchange was quite a bit more than three minutes. The fighting part alone lasted for a good 2 hours. There were a lot of sneering lines about being 'yourself' and being 'real' and a lot of accusations thrown in both directions before…just…Oh God!

She had been building so slowly in the whole physical aspect of her relationship with Max. She had wanted her first time to be something special with champagne and soft music – graduation night was what she had been aiming for…

That sort of all went out the window with Derek. What he brought out in her was completely insane. Casey let out a little snort of laughter. And, even though he had no idea what she was thinking, Derek laughed a little too. There was something a little self-conscious in his smile—maybe he knew what she was thinking after all.

They both relaxed just a little from the tension that had been stalking them.

. . .

"Okay, I need to tell you something important," Emily's voice rose into her pre-squee chirp. Obviously she wanted the important thing she had to say to end with Casey and her clasping hands and doing the happy scream that drove Emily's father nuts. "Something I've decided…"

They were both sprawled lazily on Emily's bed. Casey had been flipping through a magazine, not really scrutinizing the clothes and hair styles the way she usually did because her mind was off day dreaming – a common problem these days. She bit back the sigh that threatened to leak out. "What was that Em?"

"Hello?" Emily waved a hand in front of Casey's blissed out face. "Did you miss the word important and the scream-priming bounce here?"

"I'm sorry Em," Casey wiped the absentminded smile off her face and crunched her eyebrows together. "You've decided something important…"

Emily gave the bed another bounce as she sat straighter. "Ever since Sheldon left I've been a little down in the dumps, you know."

Casey nodded and her forehead creased in sympathy. "Are you worried that you might not meet anyone that you like quite as much?" When Emily twisted her hands together, Casey sat up next to her friend and put an arm around her.

"There is, however, ever been only one guy that I could ever like more than Sheldon," Emily said and Casey stiffened.

"Emily…if you're thinking what I think you are…" the warning trailed off. She wasn't sure if her friend was going back to the same torch she'd carried for all the years before Sheldon. Casey didn't want to say Derek's name if she didn't have to because it was still so damn new – she wasn't even sure how to think about her stepbrother anymore let alone talk about him. For sure she couldn't handle another girl, her best friend, getting all ga ga over him.

"I just want to try and go for it one last time, Caseeeey." Emily dragged her hands, clasped like in prayer, in-between them, "and I want you to help me…pleeeeese Casey?!"

"You mean Derek, right?" Casey just wanted to clarify; in case there was any chance at all she was getting that sick feeling in her stomach over nothing.

"Of course I mean Derek!" Emily nearly shouted and did her own little half of the happy squeal that the two of them usually shared.

"I think that's a terrible idea, Emily" Casey couldn't believe that was her own voice sounding so harsh against her friend's excitement but she couldn't stop herself either. "He doesn't like you. He's never liked you. Nothing's changed on the Derek front, Em, and …and…" her voice was getting a little breathy and shrill… "Sheldon is barely…I mean…he's barely like…moved…barely cold in the grave... and here you are back to…" She was going to hyperventilate. She really was. Emily was looking at her bug eyed—as she should be!

Casey took a big breath.

"Emily, I have to tell you something. I wasn't really prepared to tell anyone yet but…"

Emily just stared back. Mouth opened and eyes bugged. "Did you just say Sheldon was cold in the grave?"

Casey could tell that she hadn't appreciated the brutally honest approach at all and Casey couldn't even lie to herself that the brutal honesty wasn't actually more of a possessive rant in the first place.

"Listen Em, I'm really sorry." Casey deflated a little because she knew that what she was going to tell her friend next was going to really hurt.

Emily laughed a little "Oh Casey, I know…it's an expression…" she was ready to chalk her friend's extreme reaction off as just another quirk.

Casey cut her off first, "But the thing is that I—oh God—I don't want to tell you this but you need to hear it – um" Casey took another big breath "Derek and I are together." Casey paused to register the blank expression that Emily gave her. "I know it's hard to believe. It's hard for me to believe. But…"

"You're together?" It was like Emily had no idea what Casey was telling her, like the concept of her best friend and her step brother being "together" was so foreign to her that it was nonsensical.

"It's only been about a week." Casey wasn't sure what would make this easier for her friend to accept without twisting the knife in her life-long crush.

"I'm so sorry that I never really knew so I could warn you…we've had feelings all along."

Emily just shook her head and clamped her mouth shut.

Casey was floundering now, "Of course you must have seen it? I hope you did at least. Even a little? Derek and I are so stubborn—we sort of wondered if everyone knew already? Maybe was just waiting for the two of us to realize..." her voice trailed away self-consciously.

Damn she was just making it worse! She couldn't shut up though. She wanted to erase the look of horror and blame on her best friend's face. "The whole thing just seems so obvious to the two of us, me and Derek, now that we acted on it." She wanted Emily to hug her and tell her that of course she had always seen what was between the two step-siblings and wasn't it about time that they all acknowledged it. But it didn't look like that was going to happen.

Emily stood up and put her hand on the door. "I'm sort of freaking out here, Casey." She held the door open and Casey stood. Obviously, Emily wanted her to leave. "This is just such a shock and …" Emily almost looked like the old Emily for a minute. "I just need to get used to it I guess." Casey watched her friend's eyes fill with tears and her heart broke for her.

"Emily, I'm so sorry about this. I didn't have any idea that you still felt so strongly about…"

"Would that have made a difference?" Emily scoffed. And the tears were spilling on her cheeks now.

"No. I guess not." Casey's throat was so dry that the words were rough. She thought about saying sorry again but then realized it would be better to leave and give her friend some privacy.