NOTES: ZE END! Gosh. When I started this, I thought..."Five chapters of roughly two thousand words...hmmm, no, better make that FOUR chapters." :)

Thanks so much to everyone who stuck with this, who sent feedback and who bore with me through copious puns, buckets of angst, and the fact that really, this was a very long fic about a very small misunderstanding.

I hopehopehope this last chapter works for you :)

DISCLAIMER: One more time, for the road. LWD - so not mine. Unbelievable as this might be, this story was written for fun (!), not profit.

To his relief, she doesn't play dumb. Instead, she lets go of the book, crosses her arms and asks, "More or less than all those other girls you were sleeping with?"

"One," he says, so fast it overlaps the end of her sentence. He wants to deal with this non-issue fast, push it out of the way (maybe into the path of a speeding car), and get right down to the bones of this fight.

She blinks. "What?"

"One," he forces himself to repeat. "One girl."

She frowns at him, but he meets her eyes steadily. "Well," she says finally, swallowing, "Not that I was keeping score, or anything...but that seems like a really conservative estimate. Based on my calculations."

Yeah, well, math's never been Casey's strong point – and this is advanced problem-solving. (Decode the equation Derek plus Casey, where both variables add up to a value of 'why?')

"It must really suck to be so far off base," he says, staring her down, his words tripping over each other in the rush to get out. Maybe he should feel embarrassed (and maybe he even will, later), but right now, all he's got room for is 'angry'. (There's an unexploded grenade in his chest...and whoops, Casey just reached in and pulled the pin). "Hey – maybe if you weren't so busy dating my room-mate, your calculations might have worked out."

"Yeah, because you seemed so cut up about between all those phone calls and one night stands." She doesn't raise her voice, but she sounds every bit as furious as he feels.

"One," he says again (and this is the last time). "One one night stand."

(Meet Derek Venturi. No-thario).

"And, hey – since you were, you know, dating my room-mate, I don't even see how that counts."

She looks at him, eyebrows pulled together, searching (it's all he can do to stand still and not flinch in the flashlight beams). Even though she starts to shake her head, she must believe what he's saying, because when she opens her mouth, she attacks on a different front.

"Don't pretend you cared about that," she says, fiercely.

(Is that rumbling in the distance?).

"Oh no, of course I didn't care," he snaps back (because come on, isn't Casey supposed to be smart?). "I always pass on my girlfr – girls to my friends. It's recycling, Derek Venturi style."

"Oh, I'm sorry – was I supposed to ask for permission before I moved on from the Great Derek Venturi?"

"You didn't move very far," he says, swinging wildly (he's not entirely comfortable with this new weapon, Truth). "It was more 'moving over' than 'moving on'."

(The noise is getting louder).

"What's that supposed to mean?" Casey's fingers are gripping her upper arms.

"You weren't exactly Sensitive McHelpsaLot," he points out, heat flushing through him at the memory of 'Casey-tries-couplehood – no Dereks need apply'. "You were always..." (waving her relationship in front of his face), "...there," he finishes.

"Oh, was I cramping your style?"

(No, mostly his stomach).

" – or – don't tell me I bruised your ego?"

(Is his ego located in his chest cavity? If so, it explains a lot).

"No – wait. I get it. You're mad because I was supposed to keep pining for you until you got bored"–

"Pining?" he interrupts, "Yeah, because ditching me at super-speed to get all happy-go-coupley with Jerry was a sign of how much you cared."

"Shut up, Derek," she says, tight lipped.

"Of course, you did show up with a 'let's make up' break-up box – that was a nice touch. That made me feel special. Except..." he clicks his fingers, "...wait a minute – that was for Jerry."

(Is it him, or is the ground starting to shake?).

"But I guess the part where you wanted to get back together and said we could 'go the distance' showed your true feelings." He holds up a hand, like something's just occurring to him. "...but. Huh. Turns out that wasn't me either."

Casey's looking at him, fingers white where they're digging into her arms. Her lips are pressed together, and she's breathing in and out fast. (Portrait of a girl-cano, ready to blow).

He scratches the back of his head, miming puzzlement (and keeps stirring the molten emotions). "You know, I think you might be confused. What's that word...sounds like pining, but isn't pining? Oh, yeah, I have it! Not-pining!"

She takes a step forward.

(Evacuate the village – there's going to be an explosion!).

"Oh yeah. Because showing up at your place every evening isn't pining! Jumping at the chance to tutor your friend just so that I have an excuse to come by isn't pining! Letting you" –her voice hitches slightly, "letting you, every time your Girl of the Day didn't work out – no, that's perfectly healthy self-respecting female behaviour and not pining at all!"

He resists the urge to flinch as he gets splattered with Casey's feelings ( out of control gush of emotional lava...).

"Are you offended because I didn't shuffle after you on my knees, or something? I guess, come to think of it, I was a little too subtle."

(...sprays of heat that hiss painfully against his skin).

But see – even though he doesn't know much about history...he knows enough to realize when it's being entirely rewritten.

(Plus, scorched into bone-dust is not the most inspiring way to go).

So he takes a breath (the air is full of ash and it catches at the back of his throat) and says, "Yeah – that's why you pulled the stop-drop-and-dump as soon as you got the chance. Because, y'know, why keep seeing the guy you're 'pining for'," he's still holding the book with one hand, which limits his movements – but he'd like to think his voice gets the derisive finger quotes across anyway, "when you can have a meaningful sexless relationship with someone else?"

"Yeah, I could see how much that bothered you in all those heart to heart conversations we never had!"

"Oh, was I supposed to just sit there and have the 'Let's pretend to be friends, Derek' talk? Give you some stupid long speech about why you shouldn't pick him, after you already said yes? Sorry, but I try not to grovel – it wears out the knees of my pants."

He just has time to notice the weird silence before the world suddenly turns upside down.

"You were supposed to say you didn't want me to go out with him," she says, very quietly.

And everything goes completely still. (It's snow-quiet...even the sound of his breathing is swallowed up, muted).

She looks down. "You were supposed to say you liked me."

He shakes his head. (No. That's – not...)

Her eyes flick to his, and she amends, "In a Derek-ish way. You were supposed to..." she trails off, swallowing.

(He's freezing. He can't feel his fingers). That's it happened... (...right?).

She raises her chin and focuses over his shoulder. "You weren't supposed to make some stupid crack about freeing up your schedule. And then hold non-stop auditions for Derek's Sexcapades – the Floozy-cal Extravaganza!"

He's still shaking his head, not in disbelief (the raw scrape of Casey's voice slices right through disbelief) – in denial (because it wasn't like that – and shouldn't he know, since he went through it?).

They stare at each other across the ice-drenched silence (it's so cold, he's half-amazed they're not breathing out white).

"That was you," he manages eventually (usually he's blasé about being the moustache-twirling Bad Guy in Casey's version of events...but not here. Not this time). "I didn't..." He tries again, "That was about you."

"Yeah, I can see how dating indiscriminately was meant to show me how special I was."

It bursts out of him. "You just stopped!" They both start at the suddenness of it. "Like I was..." He has to take a breath (he's fighting his way out of a snowdrift). "– like it was – nothing. And I thought, it wasn' didn't..."

He looks at her, lungs burning, willing her to understand (because his fingers are numb and clumsy and keep dropping the words). He takes another breath and stumbles onward. "And I thought, if I could just – show you – it would be...we would be...okay..."

"It didn't feel like that," she says, slowly (the words shiver out). The deathgrip on her arms has eased. Now it looks like she's hugging herself, holding herself together. "It felt like – you could just...snap your fingers and make me do – anything...and you – you didn't even care, like" –

"Oh, yeah, because I make a point of sleeping with people I don't care about," he snaps bitterly, because Casey's interpretation of events is so far off (she's continents away).

She glares at him. "'That wasn't a big deal, or anything,'" she snaps back, and he blinks for a second before he realizes...she's not making a statement – she's quoting him. "That's what you said, the first time we..." she shakes her head, sharp and fast. "Kind of hard to misunderstand. I wasn't expecting love sonnets" – (her eyes shift guiltily, and the word 'LIE' lights up in neon behind her), "but since when do you say something like that if you don't mean it?" Her voice raises towards the end of the sentence.

"Since when do you let me say stuff like that?" he exclaims, game-set-and-matching her frustration. "Since when do you just let me off the hook?!"

"How was I supposed to know that for once in your life, you wanted to be on the hook?!"

"Well I did!" he yells.

The sudden lightning flash of silence is terrifying. Casey looks dazed. She opens her mouth, then closes it again.

Then there's a flurry of movement behind her and without warning Black Sleeping Mask and Marginally More...Whatever are elbowing past.

"Sorry, don't mind us," Black Sleeping Mask says. "We were going to wait until you guys had completely finished breaking up – but if we wait any longer, we're going to miss the show." She stops for a second, considering. "...the other show, I mean."

Neither he nor Casey reply. They don't even acknowledge their appearance (sucks to be a supporting character). Instead, they hold each other's gaze until Black Sleeping Mask and Marginally More...Whatever have disappeared.

He licks dry lips. "Well I did," he repeats, more quietly this time. And again, "You mattered." (And she can take that, or leave it...because that's all he has left).

She looks at him, and everything slows down as she reaches up and tucks her hair behind her ears (and for some strange reason, he's holding his breath).

"I wish..." she says, unsteadily, "...I wish I knew that...before."

It's all in how she says it, small and sad.

He can't speak – even though he never for even a second expected anything different (not even for one stupid hopeful second and no-one can prove otherwise). He pushes the book towards her, and jerks his chin up once, in the closest response to agreement he's capable of.

He walks away without giving her the chance to respond.

(He fucking hates cinema verite).

And that's it.

From awkward beginning, to interminable middle, to inevitable end.

It's not exactly blockbuster material. Turns out he wasn't even filming an eye-catching indie. It was a growth experience, a celluloid sermon, a piece of preachy propaganda...

A Public Service Announcement.

(Well, Casey was involved. Why is he even surprised?).

If he's honest (which he's not. Ever), he doesn't even see how else it could have gone down. Yeah, maybe there had been this moment (somewhere between the first signpost for Stupid-Misunderstanding-City and the last turnoff for Hopelessly-Fucked-Up-Ville), where they could have...fixed things (done the honesty-tango instead of the horizontal-mambo)...

...But he can't imagine it (and it doesn't count as an alternate ending if it was never filmed).

So, really, he can't see how else he and Casey could have finished up.

(He's pretty sure there's a lie in there somewhere – but he's so good that even he can't figure out where).

It's not like the last time, at least. The persistent thrum of pressure underneath his skin is gone. His stomach doesn't hurt. He stops spacing out during conversations – even conversations with Jerry – who, by the way, doesn't hate him anymore. (This might be partly because Jerry has the memory of a goldfish and the grudge-carrying capability of a Labradoodle – but it's also because Derek's no longer Pissy McPokeshisroom-mate).

He even manages to pull it together in lectures, and starts taking notes – since, occasional eye-roll aside, Laura's blanking him so successfully he half-wonders if she's been struck by sudden-onset-amnesia.

So, looking at it from the outside, things are okay. They're so okay that it would be easy to believe that he's over Casey.

(Except that he knows he's not. Not yet, and not for a long time, probably).

See, there are some lies that are just too big, even for him. And some things are just so...obvious, they hardly count as 'truths' at all – they're simple inescapable facts, like gravity.

Stuff happens. Not really to him, general.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. He's tired, and he's seen enough action to last him a lifetime. The weird and creepy sort-of-relationship with Casey had been like a tour of duty (and he's pretty sure he has Post Traumatic Sex Disorder).

So Jerry meets three girls, and ruins his chances with all of them – without Derek's help this time (soon, Derek thinks Jerry'll be ready to tie his own shoelaces). Zimmer spends a few nights on their couch, whenever Baz thinks he has a shot with Gemma (he misses the target three times, but the fourth he finally hits the bullseye). There's an incident involving alcohol, Baz and Zimmer, and Jerry's demonstration of how he would react to being propositioned by a stable-boy, if he were a horse. (This ends with the television being sent away to be repaired).

And then it's two weeks later, and Derek's still treading water, clinging to the wreckage.

(There's no sign of land yet, but he hasn't gone under...and that's something).

His first instinct when he catches sight of her, is to retreat – and his feet are in the middle of backing back through the door of the coffee shop when she looks up and catches sight of him and -

"Hi! Oh wow, this is so – how are you?! Um, I mean, it's Derek, right?" she says, jumping out of her seat and coming closer.

"Yeah," he says. He can feel his expression tilt towards grimace.

"Miranda. I am. I mean, I know you know, but in case you forgot. Not that I'm saying you did – but, you know...just in case. Miranda."

He nods and tries to unobtrusively shift over, but her hand seamlessly changes direction mid-reach, and grips his arm squarely.

"Hey – why don't you join me?" she asks brightly (and tightly).

So he ends up sitting opposite Crazy Cheese Girl, participating in a two-person monologue.

"...friend should be here soon...welcome to stay...sure you...find it interesting...we're studying the mind – you have a session, per se...Not...books and notes...more informal...casual much fun....really!"

She nods at him, and it takes him a few seconds to realize that she's stopped speaking, and is waiting for a reply. Her smile wavers as he searches for something to say (he's almost positive she was saying something about...something).

"Um. How's Laura?" he offers finally.

The smile falls completely off her face at this, and she shrugs. "I don't know. I haven't seen her lately."

"Oh," he says.

"You know," she bursts out suddenly, "she didn't even try the truth journal."

He watches her frown down at the table, and remembers the last time he spoke to Laura (the last few times he'd spoken to her). Yeah, she'd rolled her eyes and made jokes, but...

"She talked about you a lot," he offers.

She stops tracing her fingers through spilled sugar grains, and says (with a common sense that's surprising, given that she's Crazy Cheese Girl), "Talk is cheap."

Which...o-kay. But - see, he doesn't think that's the truth. Or...not the whole truth, at least. Because Laura had talked about her a lot. She'd even tried to share her recipe for Derek au Naturel (minimal preparation – just strip and serve on a bed of crisp laundered sheets) in an attempt to make peace with Miranda.

"Interesting attitude for a wannabe psychologist," he says finally, neutrally. (Between this chick and Casey, headshrinkery just got even scarier).

...that was what she had said she was studying, wasn't it? She had said something about minds...or mines, maybe? But then, she'd said he had one – a mind, not a mine (though of course Casey would disagree and –)

He stops.

There's the distant sound of someone saying, "You think I'm interesting?" but that's not important, because he's got this feeling. It's completely ridiculous (an all-too-convenient plot contrivance), and this is real life, and it's not (he knows it's not)...

...but he's got a feeling.

"This friend of yours...wouldn't happen to be called" – he starts, only for Miranda to wave at someone behind him and call, "Casey, over here!"

It's overwhelming. Everything seems to expand – getting bigger and louder and brighter and more real than it actually is. And suddenly the normality of the last two weeks seems dull and small and insignificant in comparison.

There's this strange frozen moment when their eyes first meet, but it's followed by an even stranger moment, when Miranda says –

"Derek, this is Casey" –

And he has the weird urge to just...go with it. Put out his hand and introduce himself to Casey, like they've never met before (like this is a clean and easy start, instead of an unbelievably messy middle).

But before he even has the chance, Miranda's backtracking. "What am I saying – sorry – duh, you two obviously know each other! Casey only like, dated your room-mate!" She turns to Derek. "I'm not usually such a dipstick, I swear."

He feels something on his arm – he's guessing Miranda's hand (but it could be a disembodied claw for all he knows) because he can't look away from Casey, who's staring back at him.

" – been keeping me company...and I'm sure you wouldn't mind if he joins us, right?" he hears.

"Uh," Casey is still holding his gaze. Slowly, she says, "No, I – that's...that would be – okay."

(The disembodied claw squeezes tighter), and he sits back down.

He's almost certain a conversation happens – he actually hears himself talking about his course (Miranda says something about 'self-actualization' and needing to turn the camera back on himself), but he's on autopilot mode. He just keeps looking at Casey, who just keeps looking back at him.

If she looked away, he'd be able to look away. This is not significant, or important in any way. They're just reheating a leftover urge from B.S. (Before Sex). They've always been competitive – put them sitting opposite one another and a staring match inevitably ensues. They're just...falling back into old patterns.

(Incidentally, he appears to have come into some property lately. Located in Egypt, prime riverside location...).

His eyes sweep her face, and her eyes slide over his features just as intently. Their gazes keep colliding (inevitable) – and every time, it's like an electrical charge (it makes his bones buzz). If Casey finds this awkward, she doesn't show it, and Derek doesn't feel embarrassed – he's too busy missing her while she's right there (which, now that he thinks about it, is a pretty accurate summary of their relationship). So they just go right back to mapping each other's faces (looking at each other like if they stare hard enough, they can develop x-ray vision).

Two weeks – it's been two weeks since they've seen each other...two entirely normal weeks, in which time passed entirely normally...not too fast, or too slow. But looking at Casey now, it feels like it's been much longer. He's staring at her like he hasn't seen her in years.

Maybe Casey feels the same, because she bursts out with, "How are you?"

It's possible (probable) that this comes in the middle of another Miranda-logue, since the annoying background hum suddenly stops.

Casey doesn't seem to notice (and he doesn't really care).

He looks at her for a long moment (considering that this eye-lock started the second she reached the table...a really long moment). "Okay," he says finally. "I'm doing...okay." He clears his throat. "You?"

For some strange reason she seems startled by the question. "I'm...yeah," she says, fingers pushing her hair behind her ears. "I'm...fine."

Her fingers beat a nervous tattoo on the table top, and she looks down, breaking eye-contact for the first time. (...that's fine with him. It's not like receiving low-level electrical shocks from Casey's eyes was pleasant...exactly).

"Except," she blurts (and something inside him jumps), and she's still watching her fingers tapping, "'s just – things are kind of. Weird. At the moment. Between me and – my room-mates."

Her sentences come out jerky, with pauses in odd places.

"Oh no. Again?" Miranda says sympathetically. (...she's still there?).

Casey doesn't seem to notice. She looks up again, straight at Derek (his hair practically crackles from the eye-lectricity). She continues, with this look on her face that's hopeful and nervous at the same time, "...and. I have this paper to write. And I should be studying – but I can' my place." She swallows. "And I was thinking – wondering...if I could maybe" –

('s where it all clicks into place).

It's like...well, it's not exactly likeanything he's ever experienced (but lining up a shot, taking it and knowing the puck's headed for the back of the net – unstoppable – comes closest).

" – if I could maybe," Casey repeats mindlessly, eyes stroking over his face, "maybe come by" –

(...the crowd falls totally silent, breathlessly waiting for that one-in-a-million goal...)

And –

"Oh, Casey, of course!" Miranda interrupts, putting her hand on Casey's arm.


She stares at the hand on her arm and then up at Miranda, looking confused.

"You know you're more than welcome to study at my place."

(Who the hell moved the net?!)

"Oh. Thank you, that's – that's...great," Casey says. She twists her lips into something that has no genetic relation whatsoever to a smile (it's a step-smile!).

"Great!" Miranda claps her hands. "Okay, so, first of all, I'd like to welcome our new study-buddy!" she smiles at him for a long moment, before clearing her throat hurriedly and saying, "Um – okay! So – today I thought we should start with a discussion of post-decision dissonance. Any thoughts, Derek?"

(...none he can repeat in company).

Things happen after that, of course – boring things, involving words like 'cognitive', 'motivational drive' and 'self-image versus self-concept.'

But the atmosphere between himself and Casey dissolves, due entirely to the talents of Miranda (Crazy Cheese-Lover and Moment-Killer Extraordinaire).

Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter.

He makes his excuses somewhere between 'self perception theory' and 'capuchin monkeys' (yeah, he doesn't know), and he gets up and he walks out, and he doesn't need to analyze the look on Casey's face (but if he did, he'd say it was 'disappointment'), and he doesn't replay the last thing she says ("Oh. Okay. I – guess...I'll see you..." with the upturn at the end, almost a question), over and over in his head.

He doesn't have to.

Because...he gets it.

The weird thing's something he's always known. Because thinking about it – this whole accidental meeting is an eye-rollingly lame, lazy, plot-dictated twist.

It's also his life.

No matter how far apart and unrelated it starts out...everything ultimately comes back to Casey. He met her, and suddenly his life wasn't just his life anymore – it was a cosmic game of Six Degrees of Casey McDonald.

And here's the thing. Even having done their level best to lose the gameboard and toss away the dice...

It still is.

The first thing he says to her is, "Okay."

Standing in her doorway in baggy pajamas, and flanked by Black Sleeping Mask and Marginally More...Whatever (and seriously, it's ten thirty!), Casey blinks.


"I said, 'Okay,'" he repeats, and raises his eyebrows at her.



She rubs her temple and says, again, "What?"

Black Sleeping Mask murmurs to Marginally More...Whatever, "The only reason I haven't killed anyone yet is because Casey rearranged the drawers and I have no idea where the knives are."

(She's obviously not a fan of romantic comedies).

He keeps his eyes fixed on Casey as he reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls out –

"A napkin?" She looks, if possible, even more stupid with confusion. (If he'd known her response would be to imitate a baffled hamster, he would have done this weeks ago).

"I'm awake, right?" Marginally More...Whatever asks. "It feels like I'm awake, but..." she flings an arm towards Derek, handing a paper napkin to Casey.

He gestures at it and she reads the message (...that totally did not take him long to think of or most of a stack of paper napkins to perfect).

"I.O.U 1 Q &A," she reads.

He waits, fingernails digging into his palms, for her response.

She looks up, frowning. "Is that...code?"

"It's a one-time offer," he clarifies. "I'm donating my mind to science."

(Why not? His body already belongs to Casey).

Something he l...ikes about Casey, is that she's a total pro. Because here she is, looking searchingly at him, mind obviously elsewhere, and she still manages an absent, "What mind?"

"That," he points at the napkin, "is a ticket for one," (he stresses the word 'one'), "completely honest conversation with Derek Venturi."

She stares at the paper napkin and then at him, like she can't believe it (him).

(Roses? Chocolates? Drunken requests for dates? Please – that stuff's for amateurs).

"Don't uh, don't lose it," he warns (he's not melting under the warmth of her gaze), "because you need to hand in the coupon to avail of the offer."

"I won't lose it," her lips quirk up at the edges, into something softer than a smile.

"Good," he says vaguely, feeling his mouth tug upwards (a little).

A few seconds later (he's sure it's only a few seconds), and Black Sleeping Mask breaks the mood by snorting and grabbing Casey's elbow.

"She'll be in touch. Now go away!" she calls, rolling her eyes as she hauls Casey backwards and slams the door.

(He doesn't grin at the closed door – and if he did, it would be a smirk, not a grin).

Of course she shows the next day. He promised her an honest conversation with Derek Venturi (it's like a moth to the blowtorch).

Except – now he has to...have an honest conversation. With Little Miss Psycho-logy herself. From the first, Casey's been down with the 'ask invasive personal questions' aspect of psychology (it just seems to come naturally to her). Even when the possibility of getting an honest answer could only be expressed in negative numbers, it hadn't stopped her from asking.

He can only imagine the stuff she's going to come up with now that she's been guaranteed sincerity. (Isn't he allowed an anaesthetic before he undergoes a truth-canal?).

By the time Casey shows up at his door, he's built it up so much that he's actually surprised she's doesn't stride in wearing a doctor's lab-coat or spectacles.

But instead she edges in, looking like regular-Casey, Nutspotting For Beginners clasped to her chest. And she just stands there, blinking at him.

He waits for her to ask him to lie down on the couch, while she whips out her notebook and quizzes him on his childhood, but she...doesn't.

(Not that he wants the shrink-ray aimed in his direction, but...) Eventually, he starts the ball rolling with, "Uh..." –

"I have a paper!" she says abruptly, and it's his turn to blink. "It's due. Soon. So I should really be working on that."

"O-kay," he says slowly. (Maybe this is an experiment – an emotional maze he's supposed to navigate through?).

"So if you want to..." she makes a weird hand gesture that suggests 'churn butter', "I'll just..." she makes her way over to the couch, opens her book and begins busily flicking through it (so fast she's lucky they don't give tickets for speed-reading).

He stands and watches her for a while, but she keeps her head bent and pretends not to notice, so eventually he settles into one of the armchairs and stares in comfort. He keeps waiting for the Psychological Inquisition...but it doesn't come. He lets himself be lulled by the turning of pages (which grows less frequent), and the way Casey taps her pen against her mouth and the way every time she looks over at him, she comes closer and closer to making eye contact. (Seriously, she starts by darting glances at his feet – fifteen minutes later, she's worked up to his knees...and, bypassing one crucial area, three-quarters of an hour after that, she's flicking glances at his shoulders).

When their eyes finally do meet, the warmth he's already feeling just (boom) explodes into something else, and then Casey's getting to her feet, so he scrambles to his.

"You know, we're studying proxemics," she offers out of nowhere.

"I'm shocked," he deadpans. "Does Nora know?"

She takes a step towards him. "It means personal space," she says, and takes another step. "You see – space is important."

(Well, if anyone would know, it would be someone whose nicknames included 'Space-Case' and 'Spacey'). Though talking about the importance of 'space' as she advances into kind of...odd.

"I mean," she continues, "it varies between cultures and people, but – everyone has a boundary. A comfort zone." Another step. She's travelled the length of the coffee table, and there are (he calculates) roughly three more steps between them.

He swallows.

She takes another step. "If someone invades your personal space, you feel uncomfortable." She looks at him, then steps forward again. There's only one more step between them. "And if you feel uncomfortable, your instinct is to withdraw."

He hears thumping as he waits for her to take the final step. (It's either his heart – or his neighbours have a kicking stereo system).

But she doesn't close the (puts the 'infinite' in 'infinitismal') gap between them. Instead she licks her lips and almost whispers, "Do you feel uncomfortable, Derek?"

"...I'm good," he assures her huskily. His heart is jackhammering in his chest, he can barely breathe, and his skin is tingling like Ed's entire ant farm has been let loose on it (again). (He's more than good – he's great).

"That's weird," she says, in a low voice. Her eyes keep flicking to his and then down to his mouth. She swallows. "Maybe you have a smaller comfort zone than other people."

(He's sure his comfort zone is perfectly average compared to other guys his age. Scratch that. His zone is probably above-average. He's a Venturi, after all).

"Or?" he asks.

She looks at him and...

"Propinquity," she says as she.



Her hands have just touched his shoulders, and he's started to mirror the leaning thing she's doing when –

The door wrenches open, and Jerry announces his and Zimmer's arrival with the immortal words, "– killer puts the guy's guts in the blender! It sounds awesome. Gives a whole new meaning to the humble breakfast smoothie."

He stops. "Oh. Hey, D. Casey."

(Politely, Derek refrains from attempting to strangle him).

"Hi, Jerry," Casey greets him from her new position, several feet away from Derek. (His comfort zone doesn't feel quite so cosy any more). Her glance travels between Jerry and Zimmer (who has three DVD cases in his hands), and Derek. "I should probably go," she decides.

Before Derek has a chance to object, she's grabbing her book off the couch. As she brushes past him (totally violating his personal space in the process – score), she says, casually, "I'll see you tomorrow."

He watches the door close behind her, while Jerry calls, oblivious, "Hey, D, check it out – spoof horror movie – soccer player turns serial killer. It's called Blend it Like Beckham. Wanna watch?"

The next day, he fully expects The Conversation.

Instead he gets –

"Cake! I need to make a cake!" as Casey pushes a bag of ingredients into his hands.

"Casey. You're here. Again," Jerry observes from his place on the couch.

"Hi!" she says, and drags Derek towards the kitchen.

"Triple chocolate bliss cake," she tells him, as she starts pulling out bowls and spoons.

He raises his eyebrows. "Let me guess – your room-mates still hate you."

"Not after they taste this cake," she says confidently.

He folds his arms.

"How was I supposed to know it was an art project?" she asks. "It looked like garbage!" She pushes a bowl towards him and hands him a carton of eggs. "Start cracking."

(Some days, it feels like he never stopped).

It's not exactly like yesterday, since Jerry's there, and he keeps interrupting them, wanting juice and cookies, and Derek's help to find that program he wants to watch (and Derek is reminded all over again of why babysitting, good in theory for impressing girls, ultimately sucks as a date-activity).

(He's pretty certain this is a date). Even though Casey doesn't directly mention prox-i-whatsits, there are plenty of opportunities for practical demonstrations, since the kitchen is small. And there's cake, which she allows him to taste – from her fork...though (not that he's complaining) that would have been hotter if Jerry hadn't been in the background, poking around in cupboards looking for batteries for the remote.

Her hand brushes against his when she says goodbye. (It could be an accident...).

"I'll – see you tomorrow," she says at the door.

(...but it's totally not).

He gets it – they're going slow. Casey's testing the waters, dipping her toe in. And as much as he'd like to grab her ankle and pull (he can almost hear the ensuing SPLASH and 'Der-EK!') – given what happened the last time... (yeah – pass him the pen and sign him up for 'slow').

So, day three, and Casey's explaining haptics to him on the couch. He's still listening because anything that allows him to put his hand on Casey's knee (purely in the interests of science), is obviously not as stupid as it sounds.

" – think that could be classified as a 'friendship/warmth' touch," Casey says, clearing her throat, and they both watch as his hand slips a bit higher. It's as much of a surprise to him as it is to her (...the kind of surprise that has a shiny ribbon around it...).

"Derek" – she starts, and he straightens up, because she's practically broadcasting Moment of Truth on every frequency, and –

There's a wrenching at the doorknob, followed by a jiggling of keys and swearing, and then (the cream on the disappointment pie), Jerry appears.

"Dude – why'd you lock the door?" he asks, and crosses over to the couch without waiting for an answer.

He plops down next to Derek, who tries using his newly discovered superpower of sexual frustration (hey, all that energy has to go somewhere), to incinerate him.

It doesn't work. (Lamest. Superpower. Ever.).

And then Jerry's got the remote and is flicking through the channels at a steady, and incredibly annoying, pace.

"We were kind of in the middle of" –

"Yeah, that's cool – don't mind me," Jerry says absently, tilting his head to the side.

Casey responds with the ever popular, "I should probably" –

"Go?" Derek finishes her sentence for her.

"I'll" –

"Let me guess...see you tomorrow?" (Yeah – when he wanted everyone to follow the script...he didn't mean Groundhog Day).

She opens her mouth like she's going to say something (...what's this? An ad-lib?), but Jerry calls out, "Bye, Casey," and the moment is gone.

Afterwards, he grips the back of the couch with both hands and glares at the back of Jerry's head. (It doesn't explode). His fingers start to twitch. (A jury of his peers? He'd walk – no question).

Jerry twists around on the couch. "Hey, D – I'm sorry. I know this is kind of awkward for you, and – dude, I really don't mean to put you in the middle."

"You...noticed the awkwardness?" Derek says, and he doesn't know whether to be impressed (at this display of Jerry's well-hidden observational skills), or homicidal (...more homicidal).

"Dude – I'm not blind!"

(Homicidal. Homicidal definitely wins out).

"I mean – every time I open the freaking door, there she is. Hanging around. Baking. Can you spell 'hung up on me'?"

Derek blinks. "I could," he says carefully, "...but it's not a word. And," he continues, "about Casey being interested in you...I'm thinking – not-so-much." (He's not being rude, he's refreshingly honest).

"Dude. Come on," Jerry insists. "Look at what she was wearing today. That skirt –with the..." he gestures at his thighs. "It's so obvious. I mean – what's next? A bikini-top with the words 'Do me!' across the cups?"

(...Derek can hope...).

"I'm telling you something, though – she is wasting her time." Jerry shakes his head. "I'm not getting on that Crazy-Go-Round again."

(Meanwhile, Derek's already bought tickets and is waiting impatiently for the ride to open).

"I mean, dude, there's crazy, and there's Casey. Which is like, the next level of crazy."

He totally agrees. (But say what you will about 'safety' and the mental health of the girl operating the controls...the ride is a no holds barred thrill fest).

"Man, I hope she gets the message soon," Jerry says. He shakes his head, "It's getting kind of embarrassing."

Day four, and something's different. It actually takes Derek a second to figure it out as he ushers Casey inside, but then, as he stands next to her and waits to be interrupted, it hits him.

"Practice!" he says. "Jerry has practice this evening."

"Oh," Casey says. Then, as a determined look spreads across her face, "Good."

(He never noticed before...but good – is a four letter word).

She opens her bag and takes out – the napkin. "I think the time has come to redeem my truth-coupon," she says dramatically, and holds it right up to his face (presumably so that he can mentally rubberstamp this exchange). He pulls back, to avoid going cross-eyed, and grimaces. Of course Casey's going to make a ceremony of it. (Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth...).

"There are some questions that I feel need to be answered," she says, rooting in her bag. She pulls out –

"Some questions?" he asks in disbelief. She has a sheaf of paper, dark with single-spaced text.

"Is this valid - or not?" she asks, brandishing the napkin challengingly.

He stares at it, then at her. She's staring back at him, lips pressed together.

"...I get power of veto," he says finally, because he always suspected it would be bad, but this...this surpasses his wildest expectations. (This isn't a moment of truth. This is hours of honesty).

Her eyes narrow. But she nods, once, and hands over the bundle of papers.

He scans through the questions as quickly as possible. Then, "Pencil?" He puts out his hand.

She looks at him for a long moment, and her mouth twists. "Pencil," she says dully, and she pulls one out of her bag.

He draws a line through three questions. (One – because there is no way on earth he can ask his mother if he was breast-fed, two – because even if he ever had those kind of dreams, he's thankfully repressed all memories of them, and three – because...Sam? Really?).

He hands the questionnaire back.

She blinks. "That's it?" She flips through the papers, searching out the vetoed questions.

He holds his hands out at his sides. "Do your worst," he says, and closes his eyes.

He opens them at the sound of ripping paper. Her eyes meet his, and she looks...

He only has a second to figure it out – before the torn sheets even flutter to the floor, Casey's launching herself at him.

Happy, he thinks. (Based on the evidence of his lips opening under hers – he's going with 'happy').

He's on the couch, and Casey's on top of him and kissing him frantically when –

"Derek," she pulls back slightly, "Derek, listen."

She kisses him again (funfair music is pulsing in his head), and she keeps kissing him in between words (he can practically taste the candyfloss) as she says, urgently, "This is important."

He slides his hands up her thighs and tries to look attentive.

"Seriously," she says, running her hands down his shoulders, past his stomach and –

(He breathes in sharply).

"This is crucial," she insists breathlessly, as her fingers start fumbling.

(He couldn't agree more).

And then he hears it – the sound he's been waiting for.

"Derek – a relationship is defined as" –

(But if anyone asks, it's the sound of his belt being unbuckled).

Plot summary: it's him and Casey. That doesn't sound like much, but trust him, it's all in the delivery.

(It's a classic).