"You know," he says, "if you wanted to, you could."
The crazy thing is, she does want to.
The even crazier thing is that she doesn't just drive away. Her hands are poised on the wheel, and all she has to do is put the car into gear and leave. But there's a look in Casey's eyes, almost like he's daring her, and Veronica realises she doesn't just want to join him - she really wants to join him, to forget the promise she made (twice, now) to her dad and just give in.
It would be easy to say that she doesn't think about it when she gets out of the car, locks the door behind her (because they may be a bunch of sweet, naive, sixties throwbacks, but trust doesn't come that easily), and walks over to Casey. But it would also be a lie; she doesn't do anything without thinking any more, and she's conscious of every second between when she takes her hands off the steering wheel and when Casey presses a hand to her back to lead her into the farm.
The others are already sitting down to dinner when Casey and Veronica arrive. The greeting she gets is far warmer than she deserves; a chorus of hellos, offers of dinner and to stay as long as you want, really. It's a little unnerving. Holly smiles in a satisfied sort of way, like I knew you'd be back, and Josh looks like he's going to hug her again until she quickly sidesteps, and thrusts her plate out in front of her in a last-minute defensive manoeuvre.
There's an empty table over near Rain, and she waves them over, picking up her plate to come join them. Veronica glances over at Casey, and he shoots her a smile that's almost apologetic, like he knows all the friendliness is probably making her uncomfortable. It should be, but somehow she's kind of okay with it; compared to what she's used to, dirty looks in the hallway and having her clothes shoved in toilets, this is a welcome change.
"I'm so glad you came back," Rain says, and Veronica's almost given up looking for ulterior motives in everyone's words. "Isn't it just impossible not to love this place?"
"Yeah," Veronica agrees cautiously, with what could almost be called a smile. Maybe she has been drinking the Kool-Aid, after all. "It's pretty great."
"So do you think -"
"This is really good," Casey interrupts her, gesturing to the food with his fork. Veronica could hug him, and she thinks that probably means she's been spending too much time here already. "Django's really outdone himself."
Rain nods along, thankfully forgetting her earlier line of questioning. "I know. I don't know how he does it. I can barely make toast without burning it."
"You and me both," Veronica says. Under the table, Casey's foot knocks against hers.
"There's more, if you wanted seconds," Rain offers when they're done, and Veronica shakes her head.
"Thanks, but I don't think I could fit another bite."
She stands up at almost the same time as Casey, who reaches over to take Rain's plate. "I'll do the dishes," he says, and she's kind of surprised a former 09er even knows how. "Veronica, you want to help me?"
"Sure," she says, and he smiles at her in a way she's not sure is just friendly. She follows him past the tables to where most of the plates are already stacked, where Holly and a man she doesn't recognise are scraping off scraps into a compost bin.
"We can take over from here," Casey says, and Holly smiles, wide and genuine.
"Veronica! It's so nice to see you joining in. Are you sure you want to miss the entertainment?"
If the entertainment involves sitting around a fire and talking about their dreams, she's okay with it. "Yeah, I'm sure. I want to help," she says, and she thinks maybe it's the truth.
Holly and the other man leave, and suddenly it's just her and Casey. He hands her a towel, and she sets about drying the dishes as he washes them, taking in the cool air and the quiet. If she and her dad managed to get enough bonuses, she thinks, it wouldn't entirely suck to live on a farm. As long as she didn't have to milk any cows, anyway.
That line of thought hits a little too close to home, though, reminding her all too sharply of why she came here in the first place. Casey must notice her expression, because he stops, setting aside the last of the plates and turning to look at her.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah," she says, and it almost sounds convincing. "I'm fine." She dries the final plate, and lets Casey take the towel from her.
"You want to go join the others?"
"Um," she says, and he laughs.
"All right, fair enough. How about I take you on a tour?"
She could tell him she's already been on a tour, but if the alternative is talking about her deepest fears with a bunch of near-strangers, she's okay with seeing the farm twice. She nods, and falls into step beside him as he starts pointing out the sights, most she's already been shown, some she hasn't.
As they round the corner of the greenhouse, he takes her hand, and she doesn't stop him.
"I'm really glad you're here," he says. She glances over, but his face is unreadable in the dim light.
"Yeah," she says. "This is actually a really cool place."
"I didn't mean for the commune," he says, and she feels her shoulders tense. "I meant for me."
"This is my favourite place," he says, stopping suddenly. They're on a small incline, not large enough to even generously be called a hill, and she thinks that, in the daylight, you could probably see half the farm from here. Casey drops her hand, and she regrets it more than she'd like to.
"It's beautiful," she says, still aware of the half-uttered confessions hanging in the air between them. "I bet it's a great view."
"When you can see it, yeah." He sounds like he's smiling, but she doesn't glance over to check. "I come here sometimes, when I want to be alone. Not that the commune's not great, but ..."
"Sometimes it's a bit too much?"
"Yeah. Something like that." He moves so he's standing a little closer to her, and when she looks over, she's surprised by how well she can see him. "If you want to go back ..."
The offer hangs there for a second, and Veronica considers it. Back at the farm are a bunch of would-be hippies who want to get her to open up about her feelings, and maybe accept her for who she is. Over here is a guy she always thought she hated, who's standing way too close for her to mistake his intentions, asking way more than he appears to be. And she shouldn't want this; any of it, really, but especially this. But -
"No," she says, shaking her head for emphasis. "I don't want to go back."
He kisses her, then, and it isn't a surprise at all, but she still jumps back a little. Casey looks down at her, and she offers him a sheepish smile.
"I'm sorry," he says, and she can't tell if he's embarrassed or just confused. She doesn't blame him for being either; apparently she's the queen of sending mixed signals.
She reaches up to kiss him, and maybe it's supposed to be friendly, or reassuring. But then his arms close around her waist, and he pulls her closer, and suddenly it isn't safe or reassuring at all.
She thinks she likes it better that way.
Casey pulls back after a minute, resting his forehead to hers. She's all but leaning on him, his hands pressed into the small of her back, and his breath sounds a little heavier than it did before.
Not that he's the only one.
"What?" he asks, and she realises she's smiling. She pulls herself together, shaking her head.
"Are you okay with this?"
She responds by pulling him back down to kiss her again, her hands winding around the back of his neck, gently teasing his tongue with hers.
"Yeah," she says, in between kisses. "I'm okay with this."
"And this?" he asks, moving one of his hands up to palm the edge of her breast over her shirt.
"Yeah," she says, smiling as she kisses him again.
"And this?" His hands are edging their way under her shirt, brushing against her bare skin in a way that makes her shiver.
"Mmm," she agrees, as he dips his head to kiss her neck. "Definitely with that."
A part of her expects him to push her further, to keep going until she stops him. The old Casey would have; the old Casey wouldn't have bothered to ask if it was all right. The new Casey seems content to just keep kissing her, his hands pressed flush against her skin, even if they're close enough that she can feel he wants to do more.
It's a little surreal, kissing Casey Gant in the middle of a farm belonging to a commune she's supposed to be investigating. But not, she thinks, the bad kind of surreal.
She smiles against his lips, then, and he laughs, his chest rumbling against hers. She twists in his arms, leaning her head back to rest against him, his hands clasped over her stomach. It's almost unbelievably peaceful here, serene in a way that can't entirely be put down to the space and the quiet, and she guesses she can understand why people would want to live like this. It's not for her - she doubts she could be comfortable around this many people for long, and she'd really miss Cinnamon Crispas and fake cheesy dinners - but each to their own, she supposes.
"I should get home," she says finally. The words sound strange in the darkness, and Casey releases her as she turns back around to face him.
"Are you sure?" he asks, smiling faintly. "You'll miss the singing."
"I'll live," she says. She kisses him, quickly, one last time, and he takes her hand as he guides her back to her car.
She isn't sure what she expected. That deprogrammer guy was pretty scary, and she isn't naive enough to think he'll still be the same (different) Casey Gant once they're done with him.
Still, when he pulls up in a car he would have sold for flower money a week ago, and nods at her like they barely know each other, her heart drops out of her chest a little.
She tries not to think about it as she goes to her locker, gets her books, goes to class. She tries not to think about it all through first period, when she barely registers the inane comments of her classmates over whatever brilliant text they're supposed to be memorising this week.
She's still trying not to think about it when Casey grabs her in the hall and pulls her into an empty classroom. She looks up at him, surprise and confusion and curiosity all warring for dominance, and he kisses her, his hands circling tightly around her waist.
"What -" she tries, before he kisses her again, sliding his tongue past her still-parted lips. Of all the things she was expecting, this certainly wasn't it, and she thinks - hopes - that maybe the deprogramming didn't take, after all. It's a long shot, but maybe that scary-looking guy isn't as good as he thinks he is. Maybe Casey's a better actor than she gave him credit for. Maybe -
Then his hand dips to the front of her jeans, twisting open the top button, and she stops coming up with maybes. Because this, this is the old Casey Gant, through and through.
"Casey," she says, pulling back to look at him, and he gives her an almost blank look, like he doesn't understand what the problem is.
"What's wrong?" he asks, tugging her back towards him. She ducks her head to avoid his kiss, and he drops his hand. "What, you liked me better when I lived on a farm?"
Yes. She doesn't meet his eyes, and takes a step back. "They got to you."
"Who, my parents?" He laughs, as if this is all some kind of huge joke she's not in on. "Veronica, just because I don't want to waste my life sitting around a campfire eating s'mores and listening to bad folk music, doesn't mean I'm a totally different person."
Yes it does, she thinks. She glances up at him reluctantly, and he's looking back at her the same way he had when they were alone on the farm, when s'mores and bad folk music were all he thought he needed to be happy. It's more than a little disconcerting, and she looks away again, trying not to remember the person he had almost been.
"Is it the car?" he asks, and she could almost believe he's joking, but there's an edge to his voice the laughter doesn't quite conceal. "Do you really hate it that much?"
"Yes," she says, because maybe making light of this whole thing is the easiest way she's going to get out of it. "I'm sorry, but I just hate the colour."
He grins, and reaches out for her. Okay, so maybe that wasn't the best move.
She steps back again, and his smile is gone almost before she can blink. He takes a step forward, carefully not touching her.
"I could get rid of it," he says, but the game isn't quite working any more. She thinks of the farm, of the hospital, of his grandmother's funeral, and she can't quite make herself believe he's still the same guy standing in front of her.
Trust doesn't come that easily.
"I should get to class," she says, and even if she isn't looking straight at him, she doesn't miss his reaction. He shoves his hands in his pockets, outwardly nonchalant, smirking as if the flash of hurt and genuine emotion was never there to begin with. If she tries, she can almost believe it.
"Yeah," he says, and now he's the one not quite looking at her. "Whatever."
"Yeah," she echoes dully. She still doesn't move.
"I'll see you around," he says, and brushes past her on his way out the door. She waits a few minutes in the odd silence of the room before following him back out into the hallway, squaring her shoulders in resolve.
Thinking about what might have been is for suckers, anyway.