TITLE: Bus Rides
AUTHOR: ponderer
SUMMARY: It all started on a bus.
DISCLAIMER: I want for nothing.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is it, folks. Go home, put the kids to bed, click off the TV. However, first I would like to thank all of my reviewers for sticking with me. This was my first short series for LWD and it wasn't easy because this was out of my comfort zone in a way. But, all the same, it means a lot to have everyone read my hard work.

Bus Rides – Part Quatre

It all started on a bus.

This is how silence feels:

Time goes by, and not in that slow motion that's in books and movies because no matter how hard things get, time passes. It doesn't stop by sleeping the day away nor does it stop by working so hard, to make the event forgettable.

Because it won't be.

It'll settle into the back of the mind and rot there uncomfortably (and smelly) and it'll be hard.

Does it get easy eventually? Maybe.

Only time will tell.

Casey takes to writing at every opportunity. Every emotion she keeps logged as a diary of sorts and instead of letting herself fall into a fit of depression (like normal) and trying the whole moving on thing (which she's never been good at) she just exists. She writes her novella that got her into the whole mess and sleeps normally and eats normally and talks normally.

She tells her mother. Which was a huge shocker for Nora, but however weird it could have been, it wasn't. She also tells Lizzie, who's really troubled by it, but Casey figures it's best to let them know why she's been upset. George didn't seem to notice (or at least, he didn't show it) although she knows that Derek talked to him about their "fight". Marti is the only true comforting one in the whole mess (which is surprising, but it's not) because she knows her Smerek like the back of her own hand.

She tries calling him late at night when she can't sleep. He never answers, so she switches to calling him from the payphone, but he's smart and knows it's her and he lets it ring endlessly.

When school starts, she settles into her dorm and acquaints herself with her residents and she tells them that although she's heartbroken over a boy, she will do her job and will be there for them. They accept it and come to her during the night when their roommates stay up too late and don't clean up after themselves. She takes her job very seriously.

She attends classes and hangs out with Kate occasionally. She laughs. She smiles. She's hurting, and she's not afraid to show it. She's brave and she thinks he'd be proud of her.

She finds herself in front of his apartment a lot. She doesn't try knocking, but she sits on the bench outside of it, studying, reading, writing, what have you, hoping for just a glimpse. She never does. (He really is scrappy).

She takes the bus, just because. She rides around the town during her down time (when she's not talking to her residents about roommate drama and stalking Derek's apartment and attending classes) and she enjoys it a lot. It gives her time to think about things.

Important things.

Months go by like this. Derek knows because he keeps the calendar marked in the kitchen. He's managed to outrun her (and by that, he means not leaving his apartment until she does because she works like clockwork and he knows her, god does he know her) and it hurts but he's unsure of how to show people.

He takes his anger and hurt out on the ice. He glides gracefully (with a force) towards his goal and gets it every time. His teammates don't say anything, just give him pity glances and pats on the shoulder of understanding. He doesn't shrug them off because if he's really honest with himself, he feels nothing.

He attends his classes, but only really pays attention to his photography courses. He walks to the park and takes pictures of the trees, how the leaves turn from greens to browns and reds and yellows and oranges. He plucks one from the ground and puts it in his back pocket. He goes to parties but he doesn't listen to his friends talk to him, nor does he feel anything when blonds and brunettes and redheads approach him, looking for a good time. He closes his eyes and sees blue eyes and white teeth and brown hair that twists in his fingers and he remembers, "You have chest hair."

He remembers too much sometimes.

He hates that she's still affecting him without being there and he thinks back to how it was before… everything, and how he managed to live (breathe). It's so meaningless that he can't remember what he wants to.

The bad remembering always sticks.

He wonders briefly if maybe he hadn't touched her laptop that day, would what have happened. He likes to think that maybe they would have worked out, maybe even moved in with each other. But, then with a shake of his head, he remembers he has his first showing in just a week and he needs more photos.

He sticks the now dried up leaf into his jacket and leaves his apartment.

"Hey," she breathes, shocked. He doesn't turn around because he's not expecting her, not now, not on the bus. "Mom didn't mention you were coming home this weekend," she says and he's still standing in the aisle, incredulous. "You should sit down, the bus is starting to move," she commands softly and without feeling, he does so, but in the seat across from her.

He stares straight ahead but he can feel her eyes boring into the side of his skull. He feels naked.

"I brought some cheese crackers," she says but he shakes his head sharply. She hates the silence, and he knows it, but he's not going to break it. "I haven't seen you, for like, six months." He still looks ahead, wanting to correct her (it's been almost seven). "Oh, no, seven months."

He sighs, turning to look out the window. "I won't be in your way," she says finally. "I'll be gone most of the weekend anyway. Mom has a thing for work and she's invited me along."

The most she receives is a nod from his direction. For the rest of the bus ride they stay silent. This is what they always wanted; the silence. It's the most uncomfortable conversation they've ever had.

Casey's gone, like she promised, but she's never really left him. He finds her in the bottom of his bag when he finds one of her stray bobby pins and then when he enters his childhood bedroom and sees the stack of CDs that he had let her borrow and finally, he sees her empty chair at the dinner table.

George tries to comfort him, but it's useless. He's useless.

Except when he's on the ice. It's become the only time that he can think of how hurt he is without having to question it. Also, his professor is loving his photos. He wants to run them at his own show at the end of term. Derek should feel smug (because everyone else is) but he can't seem to feel anything.

But being home, really being home, he finds it to be the hardest, because it was the beginning. It was the end.

It was everything.

She comes back home with Nora late Saturday night. Instead of heading to bed, she feels a pull to the back porch. She stands at the back door and sees Derek's silhouette in the dark, a puff of smoke blowing from his lips. She opens the door, hearing its creak, but when he turns around, he doesn't move (because he can't) so she figures its okay for her to continue forward.

She sits next to him and he can see her bare legs and it's chilly outside and he wants to offer his hoodie to her, but he can't for so many reasons. He's still, except for exhaling the smoke from his cigarette. "I'm transferring next semester, to Italy. It's a really good opportunity for me, as a writing major and everything. The Chair picks a small group of juniors to go, and I'm one of them."

He doesn't reply, doesn't look in her direction, doesn't make any acknowledgement. But because he doesn't stop her, she goes on. "I knew about it, for awhile. I put in my application last spring. I'm sorry I never told you, but I was worried that if I told you about it, I would never have the strength to leave you behind. And I wouldn't have. I would have stayed.

But now, with this, with everything, I know I need to go. For me, just as much for you. I know I hurt you. And I'm sorry. I wish I could say that if I could take it all back, that I would. But honestly, I can't say that I would. This, whatever it was, I don't know, it scared me. It really scared me, Derek. I wish I was strong enough to tell you why, but I'm not." She shrugs, looking down at her hands. He looks off in the distance, staring at the cloud filled sky. She doesn't sniffle, because she's all cried out. She nods to herself. "Okay," she says after his silence, simply, and she stands up, rubbing her cold arms. "Okay."

Then she's gone and he can smell her perfume after she closes the door behind her. It's not enough, but it is, but he's sure that it won't ever be the same again.

This is not the cliché ending:

Derek shows up at the airport (like Ross when Rachel was leaving at the end of Friends) with a bouquet of yellow tulips and he's out of breath and Casey is just about the board the plane and he yells out her name and she stops and turns and there he is. (It's slow motion.)

She runs to his arms and they kiss and they make up and they talk about everything over a coffee and she moves in to his small, messy apartment and they live happily ever after.

Curtain Falls.

Derek doesn't go to the airport. Casey doesn't expect him to. She doesn't even think about it happening. She keeps her head held high and pulls her small carryon suitcase behind her, hands her ticket to the stewardess, and boards the plane.

She doesn't look back in regret because she doesn't believe in it.

During the flight, instead of sleeping or watching the movie, Casey writes on her laptop. When the battery dies, she finds a spare notebook and writes there. Her hand cramps but she can't stop. (She won't ever stop.)

She has fun during her semester abroad. She learns a new language and meets new people with similar interests and goes skinny dipping for the first time in her life and she breathes in and out. But, he's always there, no matter what she does. He's there sitting in the back of the classroom, laughing at her poor accent. He's there in the dining halls smirking when she spills her milk on her shirt. He's there at the edge of the water with those eyes, smoking a cigarette, watching her nude form dip into the water.

She's gotten used to him being there. It's a shame to let him go now.

She talks to Nora when she can, always asking about Derek. Nora doesn't say much, saying that he's okay, that he comes home once a month at least, and he seems to enjoying his semester. She gives Casey his new number (he lost his old phone) and she practices the number over and over again in her mind.

It's her last week in Italy when her email alerts her with a new message. It's from Derek and it's subject line is blank, but in the message it holds his new number.

She calls it (not caring about the international fee) and he answers almost immediately (it's not like he's been expecting it). She doesn't say anything, just lets the static of the call be their conversation. She can hear his even breathing and it's the most exciting thing about Italy. Finally, she says, "I'll be home in a few days."

Casey gets off the plane, exhausted (and tan) and doesn't look up to know that he's the one that will pick her up where her luggage awaits. He doesn't say anything, just tugs on her two large suitcases and they pile into his new car and drive to his apartment. They are both silent, carrying her things up the two flights of stairs and he doesn't laugh when she trips over her shoelace and she doesn't yell his name when he throws her backpack (that's way too heavy to carry anymore) onto the floor.

She especially doesn't say his name when he pulls her to him and kisses her so passionately that she can't breathe. He especially doesn't laugh when she rips her buttons on her shirt from trying to pull it off.

In fact, they don't say anything for a long time.

This is what you call the conclusion:

Casey moves in with Derek and it shocks the whole family (but it doesn't, not really). They clash over his furniture choices (although she was there when he picked most of them out) and they get a new bed, one that fits both of their egos.

It's hard, but it's easy (but mostly hard). They fight still, because she's still scared and he's scared that she's scared and it's just this catch 22 situation that they can't seem to escape from.

Except it's them. They are inevitable. A disaster. A blessing. Everything.

Casey goes to his games when she can. He plays almost every game now, being a star senior and all, and she wears his practice jersey over a thick sweatshirt and she yells his name when she thinks he did something right. Kate comes once in awhile, but she's almost always bored (almost as much as Casey is) but it's mostly because she wants to puke at the way Casey is so proud of Derek.

"What are you so scared of?" she asks her friend just as the home team scores. The crowd erupts into cheers, blow horns echo off the ice, and Casey is motionless. Kate's watching her frown. "I know you love him, Case. I don't want to see you like you were last year, not again. So please, don't do something stupid."

Later, after the game when Casey meets him outside of the locker room, she ponders Kate's words. Determined, she meets Derek's gaze when he comes out, showered. He smiles and kisses her mouth chastely. "What did you want to do today? The team asked us to go for pizza, but I'm kind of getting sick of it," he says, holding her hand and leading them to his car outside. She shrugs.

"I think we should go for a ride," she says and he's unsure but he accepts the proposal.

Not twenty minutes later, they are sitting on the bus. She hands him a small bag of cookies she baked earlier and he immediately begins eating them. When he's done, they are halfway to their childhood home. He looks out the window, surprised. "We're going home?"

She nods. "It's where it all started." It's so simple, really.

Nobody's home (Lizzie's out and Edwin's out and their parents and Marti are out) and it's just them. Holding hands, they walk around the darkened house and perch themselves on the back porch. He knows she's going to talk, and he feels like he should say something, anything, but again, it's all that feelings talk that he doesn't know how to act around.

"Kate asked me what I'm so scared of today at your game."

"Yeah, I can't say I haven't been wondering that, myself," he says, shaking his head, a sad smile on his face (one that she's seen too often on his mouth, she doesn't like it; especially because it was because of her). She frowns, eyes furrowed. He looks so honest, the way the moon is shining in his eyes.

"It's because, I guess, things between us have always been complicated. And for once, everything was going okay. And I panicked."

"You panicked because we were getting along?"

"I panicked because I was waiting for it to break," she shrugs. He looks shocked, eyes wide. "Stupid reason, I know."

"You were right," he says finally, after a few moments of silence. She looks up in surprise. "About Italy. You wouldn't have gone. I would have blamed myself for it, but I know you, you wouldn't have blamed me. I'm glad you went. I needed you to go."

"I didn't break up with you because I wanted to go."

"You didn't break up with me. I broke up with you," he reminds her.

"It doesn't matter now." He nods, smiling a little. "I'm still scared."

"I am, too, Case. But, that's a good thing, I think."

"How is that a good thing?"

"Because it means we're worth the fight."

She's reminded of his switching of majors and how he had told her he needed to know if it was worth it. "I should have talked to you."

"I shouldn't have read it."

"No, but in a way, I'm glad you did."

He leans in and captures her lips in a kiss, wrapping an arm around her waist, his hand skimming up under her shirt to touch her back and the soft skin there. She moans, twisting her fingers in his hair, tugging gently.

He pulls away, smiling. "I've quit smoking."

She's dazed for a moment, but then her grin is so brilliant that he has to close his eyes; it's so bright.

It's so simple, elegant, that she can't find the words to reciprocate.

"Good." And then she kisses him.

They finish the school year together (because they are officially together, exclusive and all that "wearing his varsity sweater" bologna) and they move into a different apartment that's actually big enough for both their egos (and all their other things like her books and his hockey trophies) and his photos are framed on their painted walls (she chose yellow, because it's calming) and her acceptance letter to graduate school is hung on their fridge door with a big smiley face sticker (from Marti) on the top corner.

They find jobs (his – working for the local paper, because he has to start somewhere; hers – writing travel articles for a magazine) and sell his car because they've (she) decides to go green and they take the bus and she packs a snack (and he does seldom) and they share his headphones.

Sometimes they go to their childhood home but their two bedrooms there have morphed into one (but they don't mind). They often find themselves sitting on the back porch (him taking pictures of the moon and the stars and the way the light hits her face and her typing up her thesis).

It's not perfect.

It is what it is.

It all started on a bus.