Flashfic for the wonderful TheBucketWoman, whose prompt rules all other prompts. Her prompt eats other prompts for breakfast. Other prompts give their lunch money to her prompt, because her prompt wins at life. The end.

Disclaimer: GAH, I own nothing!

Note: HOLY MOTHER OF GOD THIS IS LONG. Ahem. Sorry.

00

Slamming doors, loud footsteps and distant, heated arguing – such were the sounds of morning in the Venturi-McDonald household.

"Derek, you've had it for the past four days, okay? It's supposed to be a shared car. Now, I know you skipped that day in kindergarten, but that implies that I get to drive it occasionally!"

"We're going to the same place, you doof. And I'd rather not end up in a ditch on the way to school," was Derek's reply.

Nora sighed, leaning her forehead against the rim of her coffee cup. "Good Lord."

Lizzie, arms full of laundry, poked her head over the partition to the kitchen and frowned. "Is that Derek? Ask him why his stupid hockey uniform is in my load of whites."

" – a very responsible driver!" Casey entered the kitchen, arms crossed and face set. "Mom, tell him I'm a good driver."

Nora froze. "Uh, honey – "

Derek let out a guffaw, brushing past Casey to reach into the fridge for a carton of juice. "See? Issue resolved. I'm driving."

"That's so not fair. Mom!"

Nora took a fortifying gulp of her coffee. "Derek can drive this morning and Casey can drive later this afternoon, like we worked out in the beginning. Plus, the drive is only ten minutes long, for goodness' sake."

"It's the principle of the thing," Casey said. "How am I gonna get better if he never lets me – Derek, don't drink from the carton!"

"I let you drive!" Derek protested, wiping juice from his chin. "I let you drive to Lizzie's game last weekend."

"You made me pull over halfway there," she replied sourly.

"Well, you ran over a raccoon."

"It was already dead!" Casey stomped her foot petulantly.

"Guys! I have a stress headache already. Does it matter?" Nora set her coffee cup in the sink. "Where's George and Marti? They need to be out of the door five minutes ago."

Lizzie came into the kitchen, scowling at the uniform in her hands. "I think they're downstairs."

"Hey, Liz, thanks for washing that." Derek grinned and slid behind his stepmother, grabbing the coffeepot from its dock. She threw it at him with a frown. "Hey!"

"Derek, you can be such an idiot," Casey said, grabbing the coffeepot from his hands. "Don't drink that, you'll be restless and annoying in class all day."

"Well thanks, Mom, but I think I can handle it." He took it back, rolling his eyes.

Casey opened her mouth to protest, cut off at the knees by Nora. "Don't start. Liz, can you go check on George and Marti? And where's Edwin, anyway?"

"He got a ride with his friend, remember?" Casey grabbed a muffin from the bowl on the counter. "Early morning project, or something." She tore a piece of muffin off and popped it in her mouth, catching sight of the clock. "Oh my God, we're late. Derek, come on."

"But – " he gestured to his coffee cup and Casey glared at him. "Ugh. Fine."

"No fighting in the car, I mean it! I don't care if holding in aggression is bad for your blood pressure, Casey; there will be no high-speed wrestling!" Nora called.

Casey gave a harried smile, grabbing her backpack from the hook by the door. "We'll be fine, Mom don't – Derek! Did you mess with my straps?"

"Now, why do you automatically assume that it was me? Why exactly would I mess with your stupid backpack straps?"

"The inner workings of your mind will forever remain a mystery to me." Casey's voice trailed off as they exited through the back entrance, door slamming shut behind them. Lizzie and Nora let out a collective sigh of relief.

"Hey. They gone?" George popped his head up from the basement room, raising an eyebrow.

Nora glared at him. "Coward."

"I am what I am." He grinned and strode into the kitchen before stopping by the island, grin falling. "Darn it – did that kid drink all the coffee again?"

Nora smiled sweetly. "He is what he is."

00

Derek slid into the driver's seat, coffee cup in hand. "Nice, Case. Way to throw 'em off."

Casey scowled at him. "Who said I was trying to throw them off? You really are a jerk who won't let me drive."

"Now, Casey, I thought we'd discussed this. It is not healthy for you to operate heavy machinery in my presence. It's for both our sakes, really."

Casey shot him a dry look. "How considerate of you."

"I am to please." He struggled with his coffee cup, trying to set it in the cup holder when she huffed and took it from him, cradling it in her own lap. "Thanks."

"I reserve the right to sip freely."

"Sip away." He grinned and put the car into reverse, pulling out onto the street. "Stop fidgeting."

Casey's jiggling knee stopped abruptly. "I'm not fidgeting."

"Uh huh."

She sighed. "I'm nervous. I guess."

"You guess?" Derek reached out and grabbed her knee, stilling its nervous movements again. "Are you seriously still upset about Calc?"

Casey bit her lip. "It's a big test. GPA-destroying big."

"And you've been studying nonstop for a month. Literally, at some points." She looked unconvinced. "Plus, what happens when you worry too much?" He wiggled her knee playfully. "You…"

Casey gave a great sigh. "…stress myself out."

"And what happens when you stress yourself out?"

"I do even worse than I think I will," she recited obediently. "Fine. I see your point."

"Thank you."

"And I'm sorry I yelled at you all morning."

"Well, I'm sorry you did, too." She shot him a glare. "…aaand, I'm sorry I egged you on. Habit."

"You are forgiven," Casey said grandly.

"Well, I appreciate that, dear." Derek quirked a grin. "Besides, if you fail, we can always cheat again."

"Yeah, let's not." Casey took a generous gulp of Derek's coffee and then grimaced. "I don't know how you can drink it black."

"Well, it has something to do with wanting to drink, you know, coffee, instead of caffeinated sugary milk."

"I don't put that much sugar and milk in it," Casey grumbled. "And you know black coffee is bad for…your teeth. Or something."

"Because sugar is so much better for dental health?" She leaned back into the seat and pouted. He looked over at her and laughed. "You're such a drama queen."

"Shut up," she said sourly, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. "You drive me crazy."

"Likewise," he said fondly.

Casey eyed him with a small grin, waiting until he pulled to a stop at a red light before throwing her arms around his neck and pulling him into a kiss. His eyes widened in surprise and then slid shut as he leaned forward over the gear shift to respond.

A honk from behind them broke the charged silence and Casey grinned. "Good morning."

"Uh…morning."

Casey's grin widened. "The light's green."

"Right." Derek blinked and turned back to the wheel, gunning forward as the light flickered to yellow again, causing the car behind them to be stuck on red once more. "Whoops."

Casey laughed despite herself. "You're such a jerk."

"You love it."

Casey leaned her head back against the seat, sighing. "For some reason." Feeling his gaze on her, she turned and smirked. "What?"

"Uh, nothing." Derek shook his head. "Yeah. It's nothing."

00

"You know, I'm really sick and tired of this, Andrew. I am a gift and if you don't see that, it's your problem."

Emily stopped in her tracks at the angry voice, letting her head fall backwards with a groan. Andy Palmer and Maggie Richards were fighting. Again. Not that Emily begrudged them their embarrassing public displays or anything, but did they have to do it on top of her locker every morning?

"Well you've been pretty stingy with your gifts lately, babe."

"Ugh, you pig!"

Emily took a deep breath. "They may take our lives, but they may never take our freedom," she muttered, striding towards the quarreling couple. "Um, hi. Public hallway? Excuse moi? Por favor?"

Maggie turned with a sneer. "Oh, shut up, corkscrew."

Emily scrunched up her nose. "Corkscrew? Really?"

The girl turned with a huff and strode away, quickly prompting Andy to move after her. "Yeah, just walk away, Mags, like always. Just walk – "

" – hey!"

Emily turned and saw Andy heading straight for a short, redheaded girl and winced, unable to tear her eyes away, as if watching two trains colliding, or that time when Sheldon had attempted to break dance. Being about half his height, the girl went down like a rock while Andy barely flinched, racing after the impetuous Maggie, arms waving.

Emily rolled her eyes and jogged over to where the girl was sprawled, extending a helping hand. "Ignore him. His girlfriend's got his leash pulled so tight that he can barely breathe."

The girl huffed, pulling herself up by Emily's hand. "Least he could've done was waited to see if he'd killed me or not."

"Well, welcome to Thompson High. We don't stop." Emily raised her eyebrows. "You're the transfer from the states, right?"

"Dana. From Chicago." She straightened up slightly, shaking her bangs out of her eyes. "How'd you know?"

"Oh, I know everything," Emily commented nonchalantly. "You've been here a couple weeks, right? You liking everything okay?"

"I guess." Dana shrugged. "I'm actually supposed to meet with somebody from the A/V club, though – and I can't exactly remember where the Computer Lab is." Emily gave a great groan. "Why, is there something wrong with it?"

"Not with the Lab. Well, sometimes with the Lab, at least whenever Smoking Gun breaks a new story and the cheerleaders overload the server." Emily frowned and tilted her head. "But I was talking about Erin – the A/V club leader? Two words: B. O."

Dana gave a surprised giggle. "Thanks for the tip…"

"Emily Davis." Emily shrugged and smiled. "You can hang with me. I'm the eyes and ears of this joint, I won't steer you wrong."

"Well, thanks." Dana tucked her bangs behind her ear.

Emily smiled. "You know, you look kinda familiar. Do you have gym first period?"

Dana nodded. "Yeah. And I know Casey McDonald. You're friends with her, right?"

"Oh, yeah." Recognition dawned. "You're her lab partner, right?"

"Yeah." Dana gave a small giggle and blushed.

"Well, cool. Then we're practically friends already." Emily grinned. "C'mon, I'll walk you to class."

"We don't have to dress out today, do we?" Dana groaned. "God, I can't believe they provide gym clothes for you here."

"Yeah. Personally, I think the whole thing is just a little too Pink Floyd for my taste – but for some reason, they want us all to look the same." Emily rolled her eyes. "Just a tad disgusting."

Dana gave a little laugh. "Pink Floyd. Brick in the Wall." She grinned. "I'm keeping up - oh!" She dodged a short, brunette kid, barely missing getting barreled over again. "Jeez."

"Yeah. Big school." Emily winced. "You'll get used to it. I remember when Casey first moved here, it took her ten minutes to get from class to class. Not that it still doesn't, but…"

Dana grinned. "Really?"

"Yeah. She's a special brand of strange," Emily said fondly. She pushed through the double doors into the gymnasium and instantly spotted Casey and Derek, sitting on the bleachers next to a dazed-looking Ralph. "And there she is. You don't know Derek and Ralph, do you?"

"Uh, I don't think so," Dana replied.

"Come on, I'll introduce you."

"New meat?" Derek commented, giving Dana a cursory look as Emily led her over to the group.

"Be nice," Emily said. "She's new. Guys, this is Dana, she's that new transfer from Chicago that Tinker told me about."

"Chicago?" Ralph stopped banging his head against the side of the bleachers and turned to look at Dana, eyebrows raised. "Do you know Oprah?"

Dana blinked. "Uh, no."

"Oh." Dejected, Ralph started banging his head against the bleachers again. Derek snorted.

"Um, well, that's Ralph," Emily supplied, grinning. "This is Derek." Derek gave a perfunctory wave, content to watch Ralph drumming out a beat on the metal with his forehead. "And…Casey. Case?"

Casey, huddled next to Derek with her Calculus book, looked up with a start. "Huh?"

Emily plopped down next to her friend. "Tell me you're not still stressing about that test."

"I'm not," Casey said unconvincingly just as Derek chimed in with, "she so is."

"Casey," Emily said, mock-disapprovingly.

"I just wanna do well, okay? Jeez." Casey looked up and noticed Dana. "Oh, sorry! Hey, Dana."

Dana looked startled, then smiled slowly. "Hi," she said quietly.

"Are you ready for this Calc test?" Casey asked anxiously. "Oh, wait – you don't have to take it, do you? Sheesh…" she turned back to her book and descended into anxious muttering.

"For God's sake Case, the girl just moved here. You could at least wait a few days before exposing her to your crazy," Derek drawled.

Casey frowned in his general direction. "The word is 'unique,' Derek." She turned to Dana. "Ignore him, please. He's grumpy because he doesn't get his requisite dose of running and sweating today."

"Physical Education implies physical activity," Derek complained. "None of this girly ballroom crap."

Emily gasped. "Oh, are we starting swing dancing?"

Casey nodded with a grin. "Alicia's coming in from the dance academy. She told me last week." Emily squealed, bouncing around on the bleacher.

"Swing dancing?" Dana asked. "Cool."

Casey's eyes lit up. "Oh, you like to dance?"

Dana nodded, fiddling with the hem of her sweater. "I was in a few competitions back home."

Casey broke into a smile and set her book aside, leaning closer to the other girl. Derek rolled his eyes. "Here we go."

"Ow." Ralph frowned and rubbed at his head. "What?"

"Dude, you're gonna get a concussion or something. Cut it out."

Ralph sighed and stopped banging his head. "I hate dancing," he said, scowling.

Derek smirked. "You and half the school."

"Casey doesn't." Ralph looked over in the girls' direction, perking up slightly. "Hey, who's the new girl?"

Derek smirked. "You're so with it, Ralphie."

"Shut up, man, I didn't get any sleep last night." Ralph grinned. "Three's Company marathon."

"Obviously," Derek replied. "Don't know why I missed it."

A loud Casey-sounding giggle caught Derek's attention and he turned, seeing all three girls huddled together. He reached out and nudged Casey's knee with his foot, causing her to look back briefly and grin.

"You're so gone, dude."

Derek turned back to Ralph, eyebrow raised. "And the problem with that is…"

Ralph held up his hands, grinning. "Nothing. I think it's cute."

"Shut up."

"No, really. Keep me on the best man list. I'm serious."

"Aw, I love it when you try to be funny," Derek said. "Keep at it, sport. You'll get there."

Ralph gave a 'harrumph' and crossed his arms. "I'm not the whipped one in this conversation."

"Yeah, like you wouldn't jump at the chance to carry Erica Montenegro's books." Derek gave a smirk. "Whyyyy haven't you made a move yet, again? Are you biding your time or just a big fat wuss?"

Ralph flushed. "She is very formable."

"You're looking for formidable, dude." Derek shook his head. "A tip: don't use any more of Casey's words. Never ends well."

Ralph sighed. "Erica's got some boyfriend in Toronto, anyway."

"A boyfriend in Toronto? Yeah, right. Oldest trick in the book, man." Derek shook his head. "I use that one a lot, actually. Sorry, dude."

The drummer shrugged, leaning back against the metal seats and drumming out a rhythm on his thighs. "Maybe I'll ask out the new girl. I need a date to the Springy dance thing."

"The Spring Fling?" Derek said. "Oh crap, I forgot about that. Casey's making me go."

"At least you have a date wrapped up," Ralph complained. He shot a measured look over to the group of huddled girls. "She's kinda cute." He fell quiet. "Uh oh."

"What?" Derek turned to look and nearly choked. "Oh."

Dana was now sitting next to Casey, leaning in as close as she could without falling off of the bench. She had a goofy grin on her face as she watched Casey speak, then gave an overly loud laugh at whatever it was she said. Feeling a mixture of dismay and amusement, Derek let out a pained chuckle that turned into a moan. Of course. Because life just wasn't hard enough.

"There goes my date," Ralph groaned.

00

"All right, grab a partner, everyone!" The dance instructor, Alicia, clapped her hands and smiled brightly at the group of unenthused high schoolers. "C'mon, c'mon, now, don't make me break out my clipboard."

Sliding in next to Casey before one of the football players got any quick ideas, Derek grabbed her hand and led her to one corner of the 'dance floor' – a small space of the gymnasium that'd been roped off for the gym classes slash dance lessons.

"Hey, you," she said, surprised. "Won't this be a bit suspicious?"

"I don't care," Derek said impatiently. "We need to talk – "

"Okay now, let's get into position. Hands held in front of your body, women's turned down and men's turned up." Alicia dragged Emily and Ralph into the center of the space, arranging their hands in the correct position. "See? Wonderful. Keep them raised at a comfortable height for both of you. Men, use your hands to guide your partner – and I know it might be a little out of the ordinary, ladies, but try to let them."

Casey smirked. "Oh, this is gonna be interesting."

Derek grabbed her hands. "Bring it on."

"Okay, let's try out the steps. Remember from when we practiced before – one slow, two slow, then quick back-forward." Alicia guided Emily and Ralph through the step, hands on their shoulders "Slow, slow quick-quick – and, we have our first bruised foot." Emily winced, hopping away from Ralph. "Yeah, get used to that. Okay, everyone else? Some practice for the big dance this weekend, maybe?"

"I'm not sure this is fair," Casey said. "I have such a great advantage over you. Maybe I should lead."

"Dream on." He pulled her closer, picking up on the simple step with ease. "Yeah. Eat your heart out."

She grinned, starting to swing their hands in rhythm to their feet. "Not too terrible."

"It's okay to admit how amazing I am, Case," Derek replied. "I know it's a bit painful for you, but it'll be healthier in the end."

She laughed. "Now you're the one dreaming."

He waggled his eyebrows at her. "Wanna try something really daring?" He swung her around into a spin, catching the delightedly surprised look on her face before swinging her back into his chest. "Who's the best boyfriend ever?"

She laughed and twirled back out to face him. "Okay, color me impressed. Where'd you learn how to do that?"

"Take the Lead," Derek snarked. "I have such a crush on Antonio Banderas, it's not even funny."

"Ha ha." Casey smirked. "You know I'm totally gonna make you take me out dancing, now. You've just made it harder on yourself."

He pulled her close, moving his hands to her hips. "I'm sure it'll be very painful," he said suggestively.

She bit her lip and pulled back. "Derek, we're at school," she said, blushing. She shot a nervous look at the other students.

Derek followed her gaze to see Alicia helping Tinker Tomlin through the steps with a skittish Dana. His mood dimmed slightly and he cleared his throat. "So, what do you think of the new girl?"

Casey looked up blankly. "Dana? She's nice, I guess."

He raised an eyebrow. "You guess?"

She blushed slightly, tilting her head. "She's a little…awkward. Or something. I dunno, there's a vibe."

He chuckled. "Wow. You're not as oblivious as I thought."

Casey shrugged. "We're partners in Chem. She's sweet."

"Sweet on who, exactly?" Casey stared at him blankly. "Whew. Still totally oblivious after all. You are my girlfriend."

She scowled. "What exactly are you talking about?"

"Oh come on. The girl was hanging on your every word."

"So? I'm a very interesting person." He snorted. "Shut up!"

"Casey, please. I'm just trying to give you a heads up before things get awkward."

She huffed. "This is so typical."

"What?" Derek said incredulously. "How is that, exactly?"

She snorted. "Some girl takes an interest in me – oh! She must be a lesbian."

"Oh, please." Derek rolled his eyes. "You didn't see the way she was looking at you."

"Oh, and how was she looking at me, exactly?" Casey asked sardonically.

"Like Marti at Build-A-Bear Workshop," Derek shot back. "Or Ralph at a Nirvana concert. Lizzie at a Greenpeace meeting. Nora at a – "

"I get it," Casey said loudly.

"She likes you," Derek said firmly.

"She doesn't," Casey replied. "And I resent the implication. I can't make a new friend? And how can you tell, anyway, you've known her for twenty minutes."

Derek huffed in irritation. "You're being dense."

"You're being weird," Casey shot back. "Shut up and spin me again."

He complied, twirling Casey beneath his arm and back into the starting position smoothly. Delighted applause met their ears and both teens stopped dancing abruptly.

"No, no, that was wonderful," Alicia said. "I knew it'd be smooth sailing with you, Case, but you didn't tell me your boyfriend was a dancer, too."

Casey blushed. "My stepbrother, actually," she said.

"Oh, bummer," Alicia said sympathetically. Derek snorted. "Well, try the formal position. Go on, lemme see."

Casey sighed and slid her hand up on Derek's shoulder, holding up her opposite hand. Derek rested his palm on her waist and took her free hand, winking. She flattened her mouth against her grin and looked away.

"One-two, three-four, five, six, slow, slow, quick-quick," Alicia guided, grinning. "Okay, do the underarm spin again." Derek complied and led Casey into the turn, fumbling a bit with the new arm position, but managing to fudge it at the end. "Awesome. Seriously. You should drag this loser with you to lessons, Case."

"Oh, this loser has better things to do, I'm sure," Casey drawled.

"Such warmth," Derek muttered, rolling his eyes.

"Well, I hate to break this up, but we're gonna need your expertise, Case. Could you handle the Dynamic Duo over there?" Alicia pointed to Ralph and Emily, still fumbling around.

Casey stepped away from Derek's arms, trying desperately to hold onto her irritation. "Sure, Alicia." She turned and headed for the couple, not looking back once.

Derek sighed, catching Dana's intent gaze on Casey's departure out of the corner of his eye. "Great," he groaned.

00

"Start with your left foot, Em. I start with the right."

"Right. I knew that." They went into the step again but fumbled as Emily stepped too close to Derek's left foot, causing him to stumble. "Damn! I'm no good at this. Sorry."

Derek winced and shook out his foot. "You're fine," he said, grimacing. "I'm used to heels. Really."

She huffed. "It's times like these I miss Sheldon. At least he would've sucked with me."

He grimaced. "You're not gonna get all girly on me, are you?"

She gave a melodramatic sigh. "Maybe."

"Oh, don't start with me."

She shook her head. "Being alone is just so hard…"

"Stop that."

"And you and Casey are just so happy, and it's just tough, you know, being the third wheel and everything."

"I'll make you dance with Tinker. Don't test me."

"I might cry," Emily taunted.

"I might puke."

She shook her head and smirked. "So. New girl."

Derek nodded. "I know."

Emily frowned, staring at her feet as Derek led her through the step slowly. "Does Casey know?"

"Nah. I said something but she got pissed. As usual." He rolled his eyes.

"So I'm up on the chopping block next?"

Derek shrugged. "Something like that."

The stereo that'd been playing big band music softly abruptly switched off, and Derek and Emily ceased their motions. "All right everyone, let's switch up partners again," Alicia called out. Emily turned over her shoulder to see Jessica Nelson and Evan Mosell groping heavily at one corner of the dance floor, Alicia hovering nervously. "Yeah, let's…try dancing with someone you don't know, kay? Sound good?"

Emily snorted. "The wonders of high school."

Derek released her hands and gave a short salute, letting Emily slide past him in a beeline for Tinker. Seeing Dana without a partner, Derek quickly moved in before he could change his mind, steadfastly ignoring Casey's laser-gaze on his back.

"Hey."

Dana jerked slightly, as if surprised that he was addressing her directly. "Um, hi. Derek, right?"

"Yup." He held out a hand. "So you wanna swing with me?"

"Okay." She smiled softly and shrugged, taking his hands awkwardly.

"All right, guys, we'll dance out the rest of the period," Alicia called out. She reached down and switched the stereo back on, and Derek started to guide Dana through the steps, moving in tandem with her easily.

"Better than Emily, I must say," he commented. "My feet still haven't completely recovered."

"I'm okay," Dana replied. "Ballroom isn't my favorite, anyway, I was in ballet back home."

"Casey does ballet," Derek said neutrally. "Or she did. She took a break to help out with teaching some of the munchkins."

"Yeah, she told me about that," Dana replied. "That's really impressive. Not that many people our age take the initiative to do things like that."

"Well, that's Casey. Always being uppity with her initiative." Derek looked over Dana's shoulder and grinned to see Casey dancing with Evan, looking disgusted as he kept trying to peek glances over her to his girlfriend.

Dana tilted her head. "You're her brother, right?"

Derek winced inwardly, turning his attention back to the redhead. "Step. My dad, her mom…"

"Right." Dana pursed her mouth. "She talks about you a lot. In Chem, I mean."

Derek nodded. "Only bad things, I hope."

"Sometimes," Dana said blandly.

Derek took a breath. "So, you got a boyfriend back in the states?"

Dana squinted at him. "Is this an opening to you making a pass at me?" she asked skeptically.

He snorted. "No."

"Right." She shook her hair out of her eyes, swinging her hands gently to the beat. "No. Single."

"Bummer." He shrugged. "Ralph's looking for a date to the dance, so you'll probably experience his special brand of seduction in the next few days. Just a heads up."

Dana nodded, keeping her eyes on their feet. "Mmhmm."

"You planning on going?"

Dana shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know that many people around here, yet."

Derek nodded. "Casey will probably drag me there." He paused. "She likes that sort of thing."

"Why would she take her brother to a dance?" Dana asked.

"I'm not her brother," Derek said flatly.

Dana frowned deeply. "I thought…"

"She and I just…do that sort of thing," he said distantly, looking over at Casey across the gym. She was standing as far apart from Evan as she possibly could while still technically dancing with him, a look of extreme disgust spread across her face, and Derek fought the sudden urge to laugh. "I take her to dances. She goes to my games. We're real close. You know?"

Consternation spread across the Dana's face and her movements slowed. "Oh."

"Yeah." Derek grinned. "Hey, I'm glad you're her lab partner, though. She told me you were very studious."

The bell rang suddenly and Dana tore her hands from Derek's grip, stuffing them in the pockets of her jeans. "Well. Thanks."

"You should thank Casey, not me."

Dana gave a stiff smile and turned on her heel, walking towards the gym doors with the rest of the crowd of students.

"What did you say to her?"

Derek turned at Casey's stern demand and shrugged. "Nothing, I swear."

She crossed her arms and glared at him. "If you said something stupid…I'll find out. Believe me, I will."

"I don't doubt it." He glanced around at the rapidly emptying gym and grabbed her hand, squeezing it. "Hey. I love you."

She froze, eyes popping open widely. "Wh – what?"

"Just thought I'd let you know." He kissed her wrist briefly and then let it fall. "See you at lunch, babe." He smirked and jogged off, leaving her standing stock still in the middle of the gym.

00

"I mean, can you believe that? Just out of nowhere, just like that. Then – 'just thought I'd let you know'? What – that's so – "

"Romantic," Emily finished wistfully.

"No," Casey denied sourly, practically slamming herself down into her desk.

"Spontaneous? Passionate? Completely typical of Derek?" Emily tried. "Come on, you gotta admit he's smooth."

"Too smooth sometimes," Casey grumbled. "Then there was that stupid Dana thing – that's probably the only reason why he said it. Classic Derek, to get some kind of absurd idea like…" she trailed off awkwardly, shooting a look at her friend.

"What, that Dana has a crush on you?" Emily giggled at Casey's agog face. "Oh, please."

"That's ridiculous," Casey said. "Dana does not – "

"Talking about me?"

Casey jerked in surprise, accidentally knocking her planner off her desk and onto the floor. "Dana! Um…"

"I do not what?" Dana asked, sliding into her seat next to Emily.

"Uh, want to go to the dance with Ralph," Emily supplied. "Word in the halls is that he's itchin' for a Spring Fling date."

"I thought he liked that Erica girl," Casey said, picking up her planner. "The one on the tennis team?"

"She shut him down," Emily said. "Hey, we should set him up with someone! I heard that Melissa Howe's single again."

"Ew, not Melissa. She's too mean for Ralph." Casey scrunched up her nose. "Remember when she turned Tinker down? He wouldn't look anyone in the eye for a week."

Emily got a vaguely dangerous look on her face and turned to Dana. "Well, we've got a single gal right here," she said, grinning. "What do you think of Ralph? He's cute, in a sort of awkward, teen-sitcom sorta way."

Dana laughed, shaking her head. "What is it with this school? You're all pushy as hell."

Emily quirked an eyebrow. "Are you going to the dance?"

"I dunno." Dana shrugged. "Probably not."

"Oh, you have to go!" Casey said. "It's gonna be so much fun. I got this fantastic dress for it – did I tell you that?" Emily grinned and shook her head. "It's awesome. On clearance, too."

Dana cleared her throat. "So…you're going stag, then, Casey?"

Casey shrugged. "Um, technically. I think."

"Well…maybe we could go together, then," Dana said. "Feminine solidarity, and all that."

Emily's eyebrows shot to her hairline and she turned to look at Casey, eyes wide. Casey frowned at her friend.

"Derek's, uh, giving me a ride," she said. "But maybe we can hang out there?"

Dana scrunched up her face in thought, nodding distantly. Conversation ceased as the teacher entered the room, calling the class to order, and Dana moved to her regular seat across the room.

Leaning across the aisle, Emily narrowed her eyes at Casey. "Um, hello?"

Casey glared at her. "What?"

"Well, are you gonna tell Derek that you've got a second date for the dance, or should I?"

00

"Okay, buddy. We need to talk," Casey announced matter-of-factly, plopping down into the seat across from Derek.

"Did you just call me buddy?" Derek asked incredulously. "How endlessly romantic."

"What was that all about this morning?" Casey asked, face set.

"The swing dancing?" Derek popped a Dorito into his mouth and shrugged, face carefully blank. "I told you. Take the Lead is a gift to humanity."

Casey huffed impatiently. "Derek, come on. Please be serious."

"I am serious. Antonio Banderas's hips are both magical and seductive." He held up his bag of chips. "Want some?" She batted it away angrily. "Guess not."

"If it was some kind of joke, I don't find it very funny," she hissed. "In fact, I find it pretty cruel."

"What makes you think it was a joke?" Derek asked, dropping the act. "I meant it."

"Oh really?"

"Uh, yeah. Really."

"Oh. Well – " she deflated. "Oh."

He shook his head, grabbing the bag of chips again and shaking it to dislodge the crumbs at the very bottom. "Your verbosity, Case. It astounds me." She bit her lip and suddenly looked very interested in the surface of the table. "And…your silence is very inspiring. I must say." He gave an empty chuckle.

"I…don't know what to say."

"I know." Derek crumpled up the chip bag, throwing it in a half-hearted attempt to make it into the trashcan at the end of the table. Catching sight of Dana at the other end of the room, he sighed. "Your friend's here." She turned and saw the redhead, who gave a shy wave, then blushed and turned back to the lunch line. "I'll see you after school, okay?"

"Wait – Derek – "

He took her hand and squeezed it briefly, then arose from the table and walked out of the lunchroom stoically. Casey watched him go sadly, alternately fighting against feelings of relief and dismay.

"Hey, are you okay?"

Casey sniffled, wiping at her eyes quickly as Dana took the seat across from her. "Dana. Hey…"

"You look sad," Dana commented. "What happened?"

Casey gave a shaky laugh. "Nothin'. Just…I'm kind of a jerk sometimes. I'm working on it."

"You, a jerk?" Dana gave an incredulous laugh. "I'll believe that when I see it."

Casey sighed. "Well, believe me. It's an issue."

Dana gave a soft smile. "Wanna talk about it?"

"No." Casey shook her head vehemently. "No, no. This is a…" she shrugged, trying to articulate. "Not something I can talk about."

"Okay." Dana dragged a fork through the food on her tray, grimacing. "Is this edible?"

Casey smiled half-heartedly. "We're never sure."

"Tyah." Dana stabbed the brownish blob that passed for meat and grimaced. "Getting that."

"Bring your own lunch," Casey commented absently. "Oh – lunch! Crap, I left it in the car."

"Share mine," Dana said immediately. She pushed it towards her. "Really. Please."

Casey grabbed a fork and started in on the potatoes, grimacing slightly. "Better than nothing."

Dana steepled her hands beneath her chin as Casey ate, eyes narrowed slightly. "I was dating somebody back in Chicago, you know."

"Mmm?" Casey swallowed. "I thought you said you were single."

"I am. Now, anyway." Dana winced slightly and unfolded her hands. "It was this guy I grew up with…he lived in the same building as us. We were always really close, and a couple years ago, we decided to take it to the next level." She sighed. "It didn't work out so well."

"Oh, that sucks," Casey said. "That's the danger of dating somebody you're friends with, isn't it?"

"Yeah." Dana watched Casey carefully from beneath her bangs, hands deliberately folded on the tabletop. "I was trying to force something that wasn't there because I thought it was what I should do, not what I really wanted."

Casey nodded, eyes growing distant. Her break up with Max was still fresh in her mind, even after several months, and she remembered vividly how boxed in and trapped she'd felt by the guy – and the life – that she'd supposedly always wanted. "I know exactly what you mean. I…really, really do."

Dana reached out and laid a hand on Casey's wrist. "If I can give you some advice…you should do what you feel is right. Don't worry about hurting someone else; you have to take care of yourself, first."

Casey blinked rapidly, breath catching in her throat. Derek loved her. Derek loved her. And how had she reacted? His face flashed in her mind and an overwhelming mix of regret and tenderness swept over her. She dropped the fork with a clatter. "Um, sorry Dana, but I gotta go. I have to…go…do something."

She rose from her chair abruptly and left the lunch room without looking back, wringing her hands nervously. Dana watched her go, then turned back to her lunch with a satisfied smile.

00

"Derek?"

Not missing a beat, Derek took the shot, watching with a raised eyebrow as the basketball sailed cleanly through the hoop. "Hey."

"Hey." Casey tossed her messenger bag on the bleachers. "You up for some one-to-one?"

Retrieving the ball from the corner of the gym, Derek snorted. "One-on-one, sweetheart."

"Right. That's what I meant." She held out her hands, eyebrows raised. "Come on."

He smirked. "Fine." He passed her the ball, sighing as she instinctively jumped out of its path and let it bounce behind her into the wall. "Nice."

"Shut up." She jogged over to the wall and picked the ball back up. "Okay, so teach me how to do this."

He sighed. "Do I have to?"

"Yes."

"Fine." He gestured. "C'mere." She obeyed, moving to stand in front of him, brow furrowed. "Okay, first, don't strangle the damn thing. Hold it. Elbows further in." He moved her hands further apart on the ball and pushed her elbows closer to her torso. "Bend your knees a little – that's it. Now, aim and shoot."

She squinted and propelled the ball toward the basket, letting out a cry of triumph as it hit the rim, bouncing off to the side. "Hey! I hit it!"

"Sorta." He laughed. "At least you didn't hit me. It's an improvement."

"Oh, I dunno," she replied. "I think I hit you pretty hard back there."

He ran a hand through his hair, looking away. "Really."

"Look." She grabbed his hand, stopping his movement away from her before it started. "I'm sorry. You caught me off guard."

"That was the point," he said. "The whole 'take you by surprise' thing. I enjoy it."

"I know," she said ruefully. "And that issue that comes with that is that I say stupid things. Or don't say anything at all."

"I don't expect you to say anything. You don't have to," he said.

"No," she said firmly. "I want to. I will, I just…" she trailed off.

He sighed and laid his hands on her shoulders. "Casey, stop."

"No! I don't know why I'm having so much trouble with this!" She rubbed her hands over her eyes, exhaling sharply. "I'm so sorry…"

"Okay, okay." He stepped in closer and rubbed her shoulders briskly. "Let's just forget about it for now. No more L words. Of any kind."

"Dana's really nice, too," Casey said weakly.

"I know."

"She doesn't have a crush on me."

"Whatever you say."

"You're humoring me."

"A little bit."

She leaned her forehead on his shoulder. "Jerk."

"Thank you."

00

"Hey, girlie."

Casey found Emily sitting on the hood of The Prince, filing her nails nonchalantly. "Hey, Em. Do you need a ride or something?"

"Nah, I'm waiting for my dad." Emily quirked a smile. "Pull up a seat, friend."

Casey threw her bag in the backseat and slid up on the hood next to Emily. "I feel so rebellious," she said. "If Derek saw us sitting on his car, he'd go postal."

"Embrace it," Emily teased. "You need a little more rebellion in your life."

"Yeah. Right."

"Did you guys fix things, by the way?" Emily asked. "I saw him earlier. He looked…okay, I guess."

"Yeah, we fixed…something. I think. I mean, I hope." Casey groaned. "I have no idea."

"What?" Emily frowned. "He told you he loves you. What could possibly be wrong?"

"Me. I'm wrong!" she replied. "I'm just a big, messy pile of mean, insensitive wrong."

"Aw, Case," Emily soothed. "You're not…messy."

Casey snorted. "Thanks."

"Okay, what happened, exactly?"

"I just froze," Casey said sadly. "I don't know why. I mean, I feel it – I do. I just can't…say it. And I don't know why."

"Oh, honey." Emily scooted over and rubbed Casey's back. "It's hard to do sometimes. Especially with someone that you're not used to sharing things with, maybe?"

"Maybe." Casey sighed. "I feel so horrible. He really is amazing."

"Yeah, I know." Emily smiled. "But you didn't always think that. Maybe you're just having trouble because you guys used to fight all the time?"

"Maybe." Casey frowned. "But I trusted him, though. Even when we would fight, I still trusted him with things."

Emily shook her head. "You should just talk to him about it. Tonight, when you have actual time to talk."

"Yeah." Casey cleared her throat. "Yeah, I will." She leaned in to a half-hug with her friend, smiling lopsidedly. "Thanks, Em."

"No problem." Emily threw her arm around Casey's neck. "Least I can do. Gotta say, never thought I'd be the one living vicariously through you."

"Aww, you'll find somebody," Casey said. "Hey, maybe you should take Ralph to the Spring Fling."

Emily laughed. "Yeah. Sad thing is? Already thought of that."

"Hey, guys." Both girls looked up to see Dana exiting the school, backpack slung over her shoulder. "Waiting for someone? Not me, I hope."

"Nah, this is Derek's car," Emily said. "Ooh. Dana, meet The Prince. Prince, meet Dana." She patted the hood. "This is a valued thing of royalty round these parts."

Dana grinned. "Looks more like a valued thing of junk."

"We all like to pretend," Casey said. "I close my eyes and think of England."

Emily giggled. "Casey! You just made a semi, vaguely, kind of an innuendo!" She wiped away a fake tear. "I'm so proud."

"Don't tell anyone." Casey mock-glared.

"Oh, I'll tell everyone," Emily said. "Derek first. Where is the scoundrel anyway?"

"Oh, look, it's your dad!" Casey said gaily, waving. "Hey, Mr. Davis!"

"I'll get you sooner or later." Emily grabbed her back and nudged Casey's leg playfully. "See you, Dana."

Dana laughed. "Bye, Emily. Nice meeting you!"

Emily turned back as she jogged towards her dad's SUV. "You too!"

"I like her," Dana said, hopping up next to Casey. "She's fun. You told me she was, though. I should've known."

"Yeah, Em's great." Casey grinned. "So, Miss Dana. You finally met everyone. I don't know why I didn't introduce you before, I guess I spaced a little on that front."

Dana shrugged. "That's okay. I know it's not my fault you're spacey."

Casey gasped. "Hey!" Dana giggled. "You sound like Derek."

Dana sobered slightly. "Oh. How are things with him, anyway?"

"What…do you mean?" Casey said slowly.

"Oh, please. Like I don't know you were talking about him at lunch."

"I…" Casey sighed. "Things are okay, sort of." She shrugged. "We'll work it out."

"Is that what you want? To work things out?"

"Yes," Casey said, surprised. "Of course."

Dana sighed. "Casey, I thought we'd talked about – "

"What are you doing on my car?"

Casey jumped a little, swiveling around to grin cheekily at Derek. "Huh? What'd you say? I had my rude-boy-filter on."

"You get off right now. The Prince doesn't deserve your abuse. Or your backsides." Derek walked up behind them, throwing his bag in the backseat next to Casey's. "What do you think this is? Grease? Cars are not to be sat, walked or danced on, Miss Casey."

Casey rolled her eyes at Dana. "He seems to think this is a car and not a broken down rust bucket. Silly boy."

"You – " Derek grabbed her around the waist and hoisted her off the hood. "Ha!"

"Derek!" Casey burst out laughing. "Put me – oh!" He sat her down near the backseat, grinning. "Yeah, that's what I thought."

"Get in the car, Princess. We've got siblings to pick up." He shot a salute at Dana, who smiled weakly.

Casey rolled her eyes as he slid into the front seat. "No bother! I'll open my door myself!" Derek scoffed and pulled his door shut. "Such a gentleman."

Dana slid off the hood. "Well, I've got a bus to catch."

Casey shook her head. "Sorry about him. He's weird." She smiled, moving around to the passenger side. "Catch you tomorrow?"

Dana shrugged and smiled. "Yeah, sure."

"Bye!" Casey waved and slid into the passenger's seat. Dana could see them start to bicker back and forth through the windshield as Derek pulled out of the parking space.

"Bye," Dana replied.

00

"Hey, sleepyhead."

Casey jerked her head up. "I'm up! What?"

Dana laughed, sliding onto her bench at the lab table. "Someone didn't get much sleep last night."

"Oh. Sorry." Casey rubbed at her eyes. "Yeah…Marti got a Hilary Duff CD…badness."

"Hey, don't apologize. I remember when my sister discovered Justin Timberlake…" Dana shuddered. "Those were dark days."

Across the room, Emily entered with Ralph, giggling. Waving at Casey and Dana, she sat down at her own lab table, laughing as Ralph continued to gesture at her. "Well, well," Casey said.

"They seem pretty cozy," Dana said, mock-pouting. "My fake date is cheating on me."

"Hey, at least Emily has a friend to go with to the dance tonight," Casey said. "She's had it pretty rough lately. Her boyfriend moved away a couple months ago."

"Oh, that sucks."

The class fell quiet as the teacher entered, passing out instructions for their lab. Casey looked over the packet, then headed to the front table to grab the materials they needed, meeting Emily on the way. "Hey, stranger," Casey hissed. "You and Ralphie look pretty cute."

"Oh, don't start. I told you last night, we're dates of convenience." Emily grinned. "How's your real date, anyway? Did you get a chance to talk to him after we hung up?"

"Nah, he and Edwin played basketball until like, nine o'clock. I think he was avoiding me." Casey sighed. "I'll talk to him at the dance. Hopefully."

"Good." Emily sidled up next to Casey at the table, throwing a look over her shoulder. "You might wanna tell Dana that."

"Tell Dana what?" Casey frowned. Emily raised an eyebrow, gesturing with her chin back to Dana, who was checking her reflection in a compact mirror. "Oh, what? The girl can't check her make up?"

"Oh please, Case, it's so obvious."

Casey's expression darkened. "This is ridiculous. Dana's my friend and nothing else."

"Yeah, is Dana okay with that?" Emily tsked. "You're gonna have to deal with it sooner or later, Case."

"There's nothing to deal with!"

"Ladies? Something you don't understand about the lab?" The teacher cut into their conversation, raising an eyebrow.

"No, sir," Emily said, turning on her heel back towards her lab table. Casey smiled nervously and grabbed the materials she needed, walking back towards her own table with Dana.

"Hey. Ready to rock this thing?" Dana asked as Casey approached the table.

"Uh, sure." Still a little disconcerted from her encounter with Emily, Casey went through the motions of the assignment blandly, lost in her own thoughts.

"Hey," Dana said after awhile. "You okay?"

Casey shook her head. "Yeah, I'm fine. Sorry, I'm a little distracted."

"That's okay." Dana shrugged. "So – the dance is tonight. Still planning on going?"

"Yeah." Casey nodded. "What about you? I hope you will."

"I was thinking on making an appearance," Dana said. "So…maybe I'll see you there?" she said hopefully.

"Probably," Casey said nonchalantly. "Derek wants to leave early, though, so I'll be sure to catch you right away to say hi."

"You're – " Dana cleared her throat. "You're still going with Derek?"

Casey shrugged. "I think so." She frowned. "I hope I am."

Dana frowned deeply and opened her mouth to say something, only to be cut off by the teacher. Frustrated, the redhead turned to the font of the classroom and sighed heavily.

00

"So does this count as 'taking you out dancing'?" Derek lounged on Casey's bed, flipping through one of her fashion magazines idly. "I'm pretty sure it should."

"Yeah, taking me to a school dance under duress. The stuff of daydreams," Casey called from inside her closet. "This would be so much easier if you just went into the hallway to let me change, you know."

Derek smirked. "Lizzie's out there. You don't want her to get suspicious, do you?"

"Ass."

Derek shook his head, flipping to a new page in the magazine. "Oh, Case. Your celebrity best friend is Amanda Bynes? Sheesh."

"I was going for Zooey Deschanel," Casey called. "Stupid quiz."

"Marginally better."

"Okay." Casey slid out of the closet, spreading her hands out. "Ta da!"

Derek threw the magazine aside. "Wow."

"I know." She twirled, grinning broadly. "Right?" She was dressed in a pink and white polka-dotted number, tied with a red sash at her waist. The skirt fell down to her calves lightly, held up with a halter strap at her neck.

He arose from the bed. "You look like a cupcake." He grinned and slid his arms around her waist. "Good enough to eat."

"Oh, that's romantic, I guess." She smiled and tilted her chin up to kiss him briefly, pulling away before he could pull her in too deeply. "Come on, it's dance time. I figure we can have approximately three dances together without looking too obvious. Four or five, if the floor's really dark."

Derek let her pull her out into the hallway and down the stairs by one hand, rolling his eyes. "Ah. Well, I'm glad you cleared that up. How lost would I have been if I'd gotten there and suddenly not know how many dances I'm allowed?"

Casey scowled at him from over her shoulder. "Being prepared is always a good idea, Derek."

"No, it's always a lame idea."

"Conscientiousness is lame?!"

"Uh, yes!"

Nora rolled her eyes as the two teens argued their way out the door, shooting a look at George, sitting next to her on the couch. "If those two ever start to get along, I'll eat my foot."

00

"Casey!"

"Emily!"

Derek winced as the two girls let out ear-piercing shrieks, jumping up and down on the steps of the school and giggling. "Please. Try to keep it at a decibel that can be heard by humans." They ignored him.

"You look amazing," Emily gushed. "That dress is absolutely adorable, you look like you just walked off the set of Hairspray!"

"I know, it's so cool, isn't it?" Casey grinned. "And look at you, not too shabby yourself."

Emily was dressed in a blue dress with a black shawl, her hair pulled up in a bun on top of her head. She gave a little twirl, throwing her hands in the air. "Why thank you."

Casey giggled. "You look so classy."

"Yeah, okay. Now that we've established that everyone is super cute, can we head inside?" Derek asked.

"Aw, someone's feeling left out," Emily said. "You look delightful, Derek. The jeans and shirt combo never seemed so appealing."

"These happen to be slacks," Derek said. "Sort of. And a very nice shirt."

"It's true," Casey said sadly. "This is Derek's semi-casual."

"Simply stunning," Emily replied. "Ooh, look. There's Ralph."

Derek burst out laughing. "Tuxedo shirt! You owe me ten bucks, Case."

"Hey guys," Ralph said. "Wow, Em, you look like you should be on the cover of a magazine."

Emily giggled. "Thanks Ralph. Maybe you and I can appear on the cover of 80's Throwback Magazine together."

"That's what I'm talkin' about!"

Derek and Casey followed Ralph and Emily up the steps and into the gymnasium doors of the school, the thumping bass of the music making the streamers on the doors rattle. "Ah, the school dance. Wonderful," Derek drawled into Casey's ear, the music making it too loud to speak normally.

Casey wrinkled her nose at the tacky decorations, shifting in closer to Derek. "It's the thought that counts," she said loudly.

"Guys!" Emily turned back and motioned for Derek and Casey to follow, leading them to the tables set up at the opposite end of the gym, away from the speakers. "Whew. What's the theme for this thing again?"

"Spring Fling," Casey said, picking up a paper bunny from the table. "Stylish."

"Man, you think they have Easter candy somewhere?" Ralph asked. "My little cousin stole all of mine."

"Oh, Ralph. Never change." Emily chuckled. "Let's go look. We can dance on the way."

"Cool!" Emily gave a wink as she pulled Ralph away, disappearing into the crowd.

Casey grinned, pulling up a seat at the table. "So was anyone else coming tonight?"

"Sam said he might stop by, but he's got some family thing. Kendra's bringing the new exchange student."

"You mean Rolfe? From Germany?" Casey shook her head. "Can she even understand what he says? I couldn't."

"Don't think she's after him for his speech skills." Derek looped an arm around the back of Casey's chair. "Unlike me, cuz lemme tell ya. If your oration skills start to slip, I'm so outta here."

"My oration, huh?" Casey leaned in, one elbow on the plastic grass-clad table. "Not sure exactly what you mean by that, Der."

"Could you figure it out?" He closed the space between them, kissing her quickly and pulling away just as fast. "Whoops. I think this is a bit obvious, Case. What's our oration quota for the night?"

"Um." Casey swallowed. "I forget." She grabbed his collar and pulled him back in for another kiss, deepening it before he could protest.

Derek pulled away slowly, tightening his hand on her shoulder. "Mm. You look amazing, did I tell you that?"

"Yes. You could tell me again though, I won't protest," Casey replied.

He brushed her hair away from her neck gently. He leaned his chin on her shoulder, blowing on her neck teasingly, causing her to giggle and squirm against him. "Amazing."

"Now this," Casey declared, snuggling up as close as she could without falling off her chair, "is very obvious."

"Dark gym," Derek replied. "Everyone else is too focused on making out. Or trying to make out."

Casey grabbed Derek's hand and started playing with it idly, lightly running her fingers over his palm. "Do you think we should start telling people?"

"People know. Emily and Ralph know. Sam, Kendra, that lady at the mall that kicked us out for groping in the dressing room…"

"I mean like, family people. Our parents people."

"If you want to tell them, then we'll tell them," he said simply, after a moment of silence.

"Do you want to tell them?"

"Do I want to sit down and explain to your mother what is exactly that we do when we close your bedroom door? No. But I don't want to keep hiding, either." He sighed. "What do you want?"

"I don't know." Casey scrunched up her face. "Is that bad?"

"No."

The couple sat in silence, watching their classmates on the dance floor dancing rabidly to the quick beat.

"I've been meaning to talk to you," Casey said, turning slightly in her seat. "About…"

"You don't have to," Derek said quickly, looking away.

"I want to. I've been trying, we just kept getting – "

"Hey, guys!"

"…interrupted," Derek finished flatly as Casey abruptly untangled herself from him, moving backwards in her chair.

"Hey, Dana," Casey said, smiling weakly. "You made it after all."

"Yeah. Wow, you look beautiful," Dana said. "Very retro."

"Thanks." Casey glanced at Derek, who was looking fixedly at the dance floor, eyes turned away from both girls. "You look nice, too."

"Aw, thanks. I'm recycling. This is my Homecoming dress from last year." Dana gave a little twirl, the bright red of her skirt flaring out. "Hey, we match. Sorta."

Casey giggled. "Right."

"Well, this is cute," Derek said. "But if you'll excuse me." He stood up and walked toward the gym doors hastily.

"Did I…interrupt something?" Dana asked.

"No. Yes. Sorta." Casey sighed. "I've gotta…" she gestured and followed after her errant boyfriend, not sparing Dana a second glance. "Derek. Derek, wait up!"

Derek stopped as they reached the exit doors that led out to the parking lot, one hand on the bar. "What?"

"Why did you just leave like that?"

"Well, I felt just a little like the third wheel in that conversation." Casey frowned and laid a hand on his forearm, but he pulled away, frustration written all over his face. "Just – give me a few minutes. Okay?"

Biting her lip, Casey nodded and clenched her fists as Derek pushed out through the doors, the cool night air sweeping in and sending goose bumps down her skin.

"Casey?"

Startled, Casey jumped back, one hand flying to her hairline. "Dana! Hi. We have to stop meeting like this." She wiped at her eyes quickly, sniffling slightly.

Dana smiled kindly. "Are you okay?" Casey gave a short laugh, then shrugged pathetically. "Here. Come sit down."

Leading her back to their previously occupied table, Dana pulled out a chair for Casey, leading her into it gently. "Thanks," Casey said, laying her hands on the table top evenly with a sigh.

"I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what? It's my fault, not yours." Casey shook her head, smiling bitterly.

"It is not your fault," Dana said vehemently. "You can't control what's happening any more than Derek can. Or I can, or anyone else."

"What do you mean I can't control it? Of course I can control it," Casey said, frustrated. "That's what he's waiting for, anyway, me to take charge. He doesn't want to do it, because he's afraid he'll like, hurt me or something – I don't know, the way his head works just baffles me sometimes – but he always follows my lead with the important stuff."

Dana frowned. "Um, okay…"

"Which is so weird, because I'm used to him being in charge with everything else, so it's just strange to be the one in control without having to fight for it, and now it's like he's just following me, except I don't know where to go and he won't tell me where to go, so I'm just completely without any idea of what I'm doing, and it sucks." Casey took a deep breath, clenching her fists into the fake grass on the table. "Sorry. You probably don't want to hear me venting all this."

"No, no – "

"And you're not weirded out? You know with…" Casey gestured vaguely. "God, that's what I'm afraid of the most, I think. People thinking that we're disgusting or something."

"It's not disgusting," Dana said firmly. "It's completely natural. Believe me."

"Really?"

"Totally!" Dana gave a tentative smile. "People just fall in love, Casey. It's the same as with anyone else."

Casey gave a shaky laugh. "I really needed to hear that. From someone other than Derek."

"Derek…" Dana's eyebrows furrowed. "Derek knows?"

"Um, yeah." Casey frowned. "He's sort of pretty heavily involved."

"He…" Dana stopped. "What?"

"I should just tell him," Casey said, almost to herself. "Yeah. Yeah, I should just say it."

"But I thought he already knew…"

"He deserves to hear it, I mean he told me without any trouble – "

"Wait – Derek too?" Dana blurted out incredulously, eyes wide.

"I just can never seem to say the words. But…I have to. I'm gonna lose him, otherwise." Casey shook her head, eyes bright. "Thanks, Dana. Really, this helped. I think I know what I have to do now."

"Wait, wait – " Dana grabbed Casey's arm, stopping her from rising from her chair. "Just think about this for a second. Does Derek know or not?"

Casey frowned, freezing in her halfway-standing position. "Um, know what, exactly?"

"That you're gay," Dana said matter-of-factly.

"That I'm what?!" Casey's eyes widened and she moved to sit back down, missing the seat of her chair and falling onto the ground in a heap. "Oof."

"Jeez, Case! Are you okay?" Dana leapt up and grabbed Casey's elbow, helping her to her feet.

"I'm – I'm fine, I'm – what were we talking about?"

"You coming out to Derek," Dana replied. Casey gave a small squeak. "I know it's tough, and I know that you just wanna get it over with, but trust me. It's a big deal, and you shouldn't rush into it without thinking."

"I – Dana – " Casey blushed bright red, fidgeting with her hands. "That's not what I was talking about."

"What?" Dana frowned. "What were you talking about, then?"

"Me and Derek," Casey said, wincing. "Me…being in love with Derek."

"You – " Dana stopped. "Oh."

"I'm sorry," Casey said. "Oh God, I'm such an idiot. I let you think – man!" She shook her head. "This has not been my week."

Dana sat down slowly, one hand on her forehead. "I can't believe I…"

"No, it's my fault. Totally and completely my fault." Casey sat down next to Dana, hands fluttering anxiously. "Derek and Emily both warned me, and I didn't listen, and I'm – I'm really sorry."

"Don't be." Dana gave a little laugh. "Wow. I'm off to a great start."

"No, don't think like that." Casey smiled. "This was completely all on me. I'm kind of a ditz." Dana gave her a look. "No, really. I can be surprisingly stupid about certain things. This, apparently, being one of them."

"And Derek being another?" Casey shrugged, smiling apologetically. "Okay, well, you're straight. You are straight, right?"

"Yes."

"Okay, so we're clear on that. Now you should go find your straight boyfriend before your gay friend here feels anymore awkward."

Casey winced. "I feel bad that you feel bad."

"Don't." Dana smiled weakly. "I'll get over it."

Casey stood up, backing towards the direction of the doors. "See you in class?"

"Yeah." Dana sighed as Casey waved and smiled earnestly. "Whatever."

00

"Derek?" Casey shivered against the cool wind, wishing she'd had the foresight to bring a jacket along. Spotting The Prince in its parking space, she squinted, spotting Derek sitting in the driver's seat. Letting out a sigh of relief, she jogged over to the passenger's side, sliding into the seat and shutting the door firmly against the cold, outside air. "Hey, you."

"You found me." Derek had one knee propped up against the steering wheel, reclining back in the seat.

"Yup." Casey rubbed at her bare arms, shivering. Derek turned the key in the ignition so that the heater sputtered to life, expelling warm air onto her skin, and she smiled. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

"I'm sorry," she said.

"You're sorry?" Derek shook his head. "I went all pissy and stormed out. Why are you sorry for that?"

Casey looked down at her lap. "I don't know."

He sighed. "I'm just trying to figure things out here, Case. I don't want to mess this up."

"Neither do I."

"Okay, then." He flipped his seat back up, sitting upright and letting his knee fall from the wheel. "Then if telling Nora and George is the right thing to do, then let's do it. If hiding it is right instead, then let's keep hiding."

"That's just it, I don't know what the right thing to do is," Casey said. "I'm so confused, I just…" she trailed off.

"What?" Derek prompted.

"I feel like I'm supposed to know what we should do," Casey confessed on a sigh. "Like you're waiting for me to tell you what to do, and I just don't know. And then I feel like I'm letting you down, or that I'm hurting you, and I can't – "

"Oh, Case." Derek grabbed her hand with both of his. "No, no. I didn't mean to do that."

"I'm sorry," Casey said, sniffling.

"You're always sorry," Derek said fondly. "You're sorry for everything that happens to everybody."

"Is that a compliment?"

"Yes." Derek pushed her hair behind her ear. "How do I explain this? Um…" he sighed. "I just don't want to…pressure you, I guess. With you and me, it's different, and I – " he shook his head, fighting to find the right words. "I care more. And you spend so much time trying to make other people happy, Case, but I don't want you to do that with me. I don't want you to do something because you think I want you to."

"Like saying – "

"The L word." Derek cut her off. "Yup."

"I want to say the L word," Casey said, smiling. "Honest."

"Right." Derek shook his head. "Yeah, see, I don't want to hear it if you don't mean it."

"I do mean it." Casey reached out and traced the line of his cheekbone. "I'm just nervous."

"You don't have to be."

"I know." She took a deep breath. "I love you, Derek."

"I love you, too."

She gave a watery laugh. "Wow. Easier than I thought."

"Yeah." He tugged her forward by her wrist, kissing her softly. "Easy."

She leaned her forehead against his, sighing. "I have something to tell you, and you're going to laugh. But you need to promise not to say 'I told you so.'"

"Dana tried to kiss you, didn't she?" Casey pulled away and blushed. "I knew it!"

"She didn't try to kiss me as much as she tried to counsel me through my coming out," Casey said. "She was really nice about it, too. It would've helped me a lot, if I'd been, you know. Actually coming out."

Derek laughed. "There's still time, you know. I won't judge you."

"Don't start," Casey said warningly. "One slumber party joke and I'm outta here."

"Okay, okay. No jokes." Derek wrapped one arm around her shoulders, grinning. "I'll just take this as fair warning should you one day decide to run off with Dana to Chicago. Seeing it coming from a mile away, and all."

"So not happening," Casey said. "Sorry, hon. Stuck with me."

"You're sure?" Derek raised one eyebrow. "Me? Really?"

"Positive." Casey scooted closer, swinging her legs up beneath her so she could lean into his shoulder over the gearshift. "I'm all yours."

"Finally."

00

The prompt of win from TheBucketWoman: A cheerleader or girl from Casey's dance class has a thing for Casey. Does she even notice? Does someone have to tell her?

I'm sorely tempted to ask you to do your own version. Or anyone to do their take on it. Because it is, in fact, that awesome. Hope you enjoyed it!