NOTES: Set post season 4, when Derek and Casey are at college together. Just a long and indulgent one-shot, really - the idea grew from a conversation with pheobep, so if you like it, you can thank her, and if you don't, you should blame me! :)

DISCLAIMER: I don't own anything LWD. This story is written for fun, not profit.

Ironically, the first time it happens…is the first time.

Okay, it probably isn't ironic according to the bloodless literary definition, which Derek doesn't even know. But it feels ironic, in that painful 'oh shit, a piano suddenly fell on my head' kind of way.

Short version – he opens his door and there's Casey…

…and now you're officially an idiot if you still think the 'short version' is going to cover it. Casey isn't like The Catcher in the Rye. She isn't available in CliffsNotes.

Long version – he opens his door, and there's Casey…

Which, he would grant, sounds like every single day of the last few years of his life – except that they're in college now, and Casey no longer sleeps in the bedroom next door. She doesn't even live in the same building any more.

A rearranging of matters that makes everyone's life much easier, by the way. No more fights over the remote, the bathroom, the unbridgeable gap between mellow and uptight, sane and insane, male and (alleged) female. And, given enough time and distance from Casey, he can even privately admit that the Great War of London hadn't really been anything personal. Mostly. It was more a case of – expecting two different species to make nice in the same cage at the zoo. A nice thought, but never going to happen in reality.

It isn't that he never expects to see her at college. He just doesn't expect to see her under these particular circumstances. Because there she is, fidgeting on his doorstep, and not looking pissed off or angry over something he's done/not done.

Instead she looks at him with an expression of bland interest, and says, "So, this is your room?" She peers over his shoulder and continues, politely, "It probably looks nice under all your stuff."

He squints at her. "What do you want?"

The vague smile remains firmly in place. "I just thought I'd stop by and say hi. Don't you think it's weird that I've never even seen your room?"

"No," he says, and waits for the diatribe/argument/plea. It doesn't come. Instead, Casey just blinks blankly at him.

She isn't yelling, or crying. She doesn't even look sad. She doesn't look much of anything.

"What's wrong?" he asks.

"Nothing's wrong," she says immediately. "Why would anything be wrong?"

He carefully reaches out and puts his arm across the open door, leaning his hand against the frame, and says, "Then I don't know why you expect me to let you in."

Really, it isn't a good way to prevent her from gaining access to his room. Actually, in some ways it makes it easier to get in, because all she has to do is duck under his arm. Which she promptly does.

"So. This is your room," she looks around.

"You said that already," he reminds her.

She nods vaguely at him, then picks a t-shirt off his bed and begins folding it.

He closes the door and decides to enjoy the free cleaning service that apparently occurs pre-freakout. It seems like it's going to happen anyway.

It comes out when she turfs him off the bed, the better to turn it from a rumpled, comfortable dream into an unwelcoming, hospital-cornered nightmare.

He says, "Again, the reason I have the displeasure of your company would be…?"

She pauses, hugging the sheet close to her body. "I guess…Truman just left and I was…" She shrugs. "So I came here."

It takes him a second, because his first instinct is to say, "I didn't know Truman was around," which is duh-obvious and underlines the fact that he isn't exactly up on the dull day-to-day of the Casey college experience. So instead, he scrutinizes her, completely de-pepped and unnaturally unperky, and holding an armful of sheets that only mostly obscures the saggy knee length sweater.

"And, let me guess, his visit ended with 'See ya…but really, really wouldn't want to date ya'?" he says. In spite of the uncompromising words, the tone isn't entirely unsympathetic.

She looks at him. "What? No – Truman didn't break up with me."

He frowns. "So you dropped the bomb." He whistles through his teeth. "I have to say – I'm impressed. I wouldn't have thought you had it in you. I mean, a long-distance dumping, I could see…but to drag the guy all the way to Queens, the better to kick him when he's down…now that is what I call creatively cruel."

He folds his arms, dials the smirk up a notch, and waits for the fireworks.

What actually happens is Casey saying, in that same weird, NyQuil-like tone of voice, "We didn't break up, Derek. Truman and I are in a mature, committed, long-term relationship" –

"I know you are, but what is Truman?" Derek interrupts. Maybe it's a lazy presupposition, but given past history, he figures the odds are good this zombie-Casey's brains have been scrambled by Truman's brand of boyfriend voodoo. "He…run into any cousins on this trip?" he wonders aloud, aiming a glance up at the ceiling. His fingers dig into his thighs.

"Truman and I are in a mature, adult relationship," Casey repeats. "And that means I trust him. I trust him with…" She stops.

And suddenly, he knows.

Ugly-ass sweater, secret Truman visits (yeah, Derek isn't getting the Casey dailies, but he suddenly wonders whether even Nora got that particular update), and loaded words like 'mature' and 'adult'…they all come together in an implosion of irony that sucks the air out of his lungs as Derek realizes that Like a Virgin won't be playing on Casey's personal playlist ever again.

"I trust him," she finishes.

"…oh," he says. It isn't really a word, it's the sound of the last gasp of oxygen leaving the room.

Casey suddenly sits down on his bed, sheet dangling off her lap and onto the floor.

Clearly, he's supposed to step up to the plate. Deprived of more sympathetic, more appropriate people to cry to about bad first sexual experiences – he's obviously supposed to come through and prove he has a well-hidden heart of gold.

But he can't. None of the Very Special Moments he's accidentally (always accidentally) shared with Casey, have prepared him for this. And much as he hates flashing his heart of gold (which he suspects is more gold-plated than solid anyway), he can't do it when simultaneously discovering that his stomach is made out of the thinnest crepe paper and his tongue is made of the finest Velcro.

Except, he can't not do it either. Because, Casey's here, sitting on his stripped mattress. Obviously she has no-one else.

"Uh…" he says, unpeeling his tongue from the roof of his mouth. "He…um. Did…" hating the hesitant jerk of the words, hating sounding like a moron, hating having to ask in the first place…but forcing himself to do it anyway.

She looks up at him for a second and says, "I didn't come here for you to be nice to me, Derek."

This is definitely a relief in one way, more to do with the fact that he has no clue how to be nice to her in this situation than him being the kind of jerk who'd use the opportunity to take potshots at her. But if she hasn't come to avail of his limited comforting skills, then, why did she come?

"I think we should wash these," she says, smoothing the fabric in her lap.

It's only later, when his bed has been re-made with fresh sheets and precise hospital corners, and his laptop is blaring some movie he's certain neither of them is watching, that he understands.

She says, out of nowhere, all the while staring intently at the screen, "It wasn't – what I thought it would be."

He makes a sound that's just a sound, that she can take for acknowledgment or agreement or whatever she wants, even if it isn't really any of those things.

And there is it. The inexplicable seeking out of certain people in times of crap – the reason Casey had hospital-cornered him and the reason she had let him know the whole story, however obliquely, and the reason she's currently sitting Indian-style halfway down his bed.


And suddenly all his rationalizations and excuses, the ones that had seemed to make sense in the new space provided by college – nothing personal, two different species, no reason to know every-or-any detail of each other's lives – are crushed in the face of Casey, closing the distance between them and insisting on their connection.

It's dark in the room, except for the flickering of the movie, and he can imagine it so clearly. Truman laying lines on her like, "We're adults now – what are we waiting for?" and, "Don't you think we should move on to the next level?" and maybe even, "If you love me…" It pokes holes in his crepe paper stomach. It's just so…clichéd.

He studies the slight curve of her back as she hunches forward, concentrating on his laptop, and tries to classify the surge of protective exasperation this provokes in him, as brotherly.

The strange part is, he very nearly can.

Casey's always been one to milk the trauma cow for that extra bucket of angst…but the thing is, he can't blame her this time. She flips out over first impressions and first dates and first kisses. The First Time was obviously the highest note in this particular scale of crazy. And the fact that it had been a Bad First Time…

The fact that it had been a Bad First Time evidently turns Casey into Marti circa the learning to ride a bike incident. Except her tent appears to be Derek's room.

So the next day he opens his door, and Casey greets him by saying, "I think we should organise your course reading materials."

She sounds more normal, less Nyquilled, but the usual annoyance is missing from her words. Instead, she sounds focused and a little abstracted, like she's contemplating a capital P Project.

"No," he says. Firmly.

She looks at him. "Derek, you don't have a system – you have anarchy. There's a biography of Gloria Steinem in your sock drawer."

"That's not anarchy – that's my opinion."

There's always an argument. Everyone knows that. Their family, friends, various uninvolved onlookers, hell, he's betting that random people on the internet and Z list celebrities all know that he and Casey interact via argument. Even on those rare occasions when cooperation is called for, it's inevitably preceded and succeeded by disagreement (which makes it even easier to distance themselves from said cooperation). It's like the law.

This time, there's no argument. He tries, but it turns out that without the easily offended shell, Casey's hard to antagonize. He lobs a couple of half-hearted insults, careful to avoid her soft underbelly, and she…

…alphabetizes all his books.

Her cell phone rings, once, but she doesn't answer it. And, once the ringing stops, her shoulders relax again, and she goes straight back to organizing and complicating Derek's life.

He opens his door and she's there with a sample study schedule (for reference), chart paper (for drawing up a study schedule destined for the trash), and a number of coloured pens (for presentation). "I think we should establish a consistent and balanced plan of work for you," she says. Her cell rings twice, which distracts her and causes her to colour code his subjects wrongly. She thumbs it off the second time it rings.

He opens his door and she's there with a container full of quote-unquote healthy cookies, made from whole grain flour and sweetened only with honey. "I think we should have regular energy-boosting, yet nutritional, snacks in order to optimize the benefits of your study plan," she says. Her cell phone rings, but only faintly – like the volume's been turned down, plus it's buried at the bottom of her bag. She gives a long-winded excuse about the undesirability of cookie crumbs in purses. Her cell phone buzzes and buzzes, but eventually stops.

He opens his door and she's there with a basket full of yarn. "I think we should both look into some de-stressing – yet productive – extracurricular activities," she says. "I'm relearning how to knit." This time, when her cell rings and Derek raises his eyebrows at her, she frowns down at the knitting needles in her hands and says, "I'm at a crucial stage – I'm learning the drop stitch and I can't be disturbed."

Yeah – if you ask Derek, something's getting dropped all right…but it's not the stitch.

It's vintage Marti-in-cling-mode, like when she started school, not entirely sold on the whole education concept (thereby proving to Derek her innate smarts), or the time when she had to stay for an extra week with their mom, because George had some case or other tying him up during child-minding hours, and he and Edwin had pre-booked summer camp.

Marti-in-cling-mode he's always been able to deal with. Casey-in-cling-mode is harder. Mostly because he's never expected to be the person she'd be clinging to. That, and, whenever he thinks about the reason why Casey's hiding out in his room, his stomach twists. If her Bad First Time has that effect on him, someone with an unofficial career of being unsympathetic in the face of Casey-overdramatics, then…he can't help but feel she's maybe justified in her reaction.

At the end of the day, though, something tells him that it's the same principle as dealing with Marti. Eventually he's got to take his hands off the back of the bike and let her cycle on her own. Scared or not, it isn't like she can keep the training wheels on forever.

Accordingly, a week later when she says, "Tomorrow, I think we should" – he cuts her off and says, "Tomorrow you should do whatever you want, because I have a date."

She blinks and says, "Oh. That's…nice," and he makes sure to stir some extra insensitivity into his voice when he says, "Yeah, it is. See ya around!" and ushers her out the door.

She smiles weakly. "Yeah. See you around." He carefully doesn't pick up on the questioning tone, or the way she just stands there, outside his room. Instead, he offers her a jaunty little wave and closes his door.

Casey'll get the hang of freewheeling soon enough.

She's there when he gets back from his date the next evening.

She's sitting crosslegged outside his door with a book in her lap and talking to (he squints) the guy up the hall, Alex Rose. They both straighten up and get to their feet as soon as they see him, and Rose says, with a sweep of his hand towards Casey, "Venturi – someone's been waiting for you."

Derek widens his eyes at him, like, 'I can see that,' and Rose shrugs and dusts off the seat of his pants. He's a short guy, shorter than Derek, and, now that Casey's standing, Derek notices that he's shorter than her too, by a couple of inches.

Rose flashes her a smile and says, "I guess I'll head…" and he jerks his thumb over his shoulder, down the hallway towards his room.

"Thanks," Casey says, and holds out – huh, a pillow. "And thanks for keeping me company."

Rose takes it, tucks it under his arm, and says, easily, "No problem – anytime. Seriously. It was nice to meet you." Then he shakes her hand, a firm grip with the textbook recommended eye-contact, before he lopes away.

It turns out that Casey wants to give him a photocopy of some secondary reading for an essay that's not due for weeks. But when he points this out to her, it backfires, because it turns out that that road just leads to a re-explanation of his study chart.

Then Casey pulls out her knitting and it quickly becomes just another evening in Derek Venturi's Room of Emotional Repression.

Pretty much all his attempts to encourage, nudge, and/or headbutt her out of the nest end like this, with Casey zooming right back, like a homing pigeon. Whenever he's late and he returns to his room, there she is, back right up against his door, like a souvenir magnet stuck to a fridge.

So, as a weapon, subtle doesn't prove especially effective. But it's the only one he has – since direct confrontation would involve actually talking to Casey about her sex-life. Even though he's the guy who tested out the effectiveness of Edwin's neon green dye on Casey's bras and panties, the thought of having an honest conversation involving her, Truman and nakedness makes him squirm.

It's bad enough that he's aware of it, that Casey's sex-life is the invisible elephant in his room, pinning him to the walls and knocking the breath out of him whenever Casey brushes past, or sits on his bed, or pretends not to hear her cell phone when it rings (which hasn't been happening so much, lately). Starve the Pachyderm for attention long enough, and it's got to die eventually, right? The last thing Derek wants to do is toss it some peanuts.

It's no big deal, really. Honest, open discussion has never been one of his preferred tactics. He sees no reason to switch it up in this case – especially since lately, whenever he sees Casey sitting outside his door, Alex Rose is there too, talking to her about art and books and making her laugh.

It's an expected development, given that the day after he meets Casey, Rose finds an opportunity to say to Derek, "Your girlfriend seems cool."

"She's really not," he says. "Also, not my girlfriend. She's my sister."

"Yeah?" Rose says, but it's not a question, it's an expression of interest.

See, Derek's always been stubborn, but he's not stupid. Casey showing up at his door to cry on his non-threatening shoulder about her mean boyfriend is the straw that breaks this stepsibling's back.

"Yeah," Derek says.

Enough people keep insisting on the same and eventually, there comes a time when you have to let go of the difference.

Of course, because it's Casey, she makes it complicated.

"We should finish this some other time," Rose says, helping her to her feet as Derek pushes past them and opens the door. "Get coffee or something."

There's enough of a silence that Derek turns around. Casey's looking at Rose with this blank, surprised look, and then she blurts, "I have a boyfriend."

Derek closes his eyes. Rose salvages the situation though, tipping his head to the side and saying, "And…he doesn't want you to talk to other guys?" He smiles. "Sounds a little 'turn-of-the-century' to me – I wouldn't have thought you'd be into that."

Casey looks embarrassed. "I didn't mean" –

He holds up a hand. "It's okay, you don't have to explain. But if you ever change your mind..."

He doesn't sound at all dampened or put off by Casey's rejection. The guy's got clearly got an unnatural helping of self-confidence. The stupid last name and the height deficiency don't seem to register with him either. Sure, Derek's got an ego, too, but he can't help but feel that it's nothing in comparison.

In spite of Casey's initial less than encouraging response, Rose keeps sitting next to her on the floor outside Derek's room, too. She doesn't seem to mind.

They're walking across campus when it comes up. Straight ahead of them, there's another girl and boy, and while Casey's talking, the girl reaches over and catches the guy's hand. He's not looking at her when she does it, but he adjusts instantly, tugging her closer and swinging their arms together.

"So, you and Rose thinking about moving the flirting to a new location anytime soon?" he blurts, watching the couple in front stride forward, perfectly in time.

She stops. "What?"

He keeps walking. She'll catch up.

"For your information, we don't flirt. I don't flirt," she says, jogging up next to him.

"Great," he says, "but do you think you could 'not-flirt' with him somewhere private?"

"I have a boyfriend," she says, not looking at him.

He doesn't say anything.

"Truman and I are in a mature, long-term relationship," she insists.

He rolls his eyes. "Yeah. You two are so close you can communicate telepathically now, right?"

Her cheeks go pink but she doesn't answer.

"Face it," he says, "Truman's not your boyfriend. He's a human shield." He quickens his pace a little, but she doesn't match him, and she stays slightly behind him all the way to their class, out of step.

His words definitely have an effect, since the next time Rose makes a move, asking her to see an installation at some gallery, she hesitates, then says, "I guess we could go." She shoots a look at Derek, before clarifying, "As friends."

"Friends," Rose says, one hand still on the small of her back. He smiles. "Great."

"What time should we all meet?" Casey asks politely, eyes darting between Derek and Alex. Derek frowns, and there's a momentary blank look on Rose's face before he recovers and says, "Whenever is good with me."

Because it's expected, Derek kicks up, making noise about the party that he was planning to attend, and the impossibility of anything called an 'installation' proving to be cool.

Casey counters all this with arguments about 'high culture' and 'widening artistic horizons' and 'the inspirational transformation of a physical space.'

He goes anyway, which Casey takes to mean that she's won. What it actually means is that he's tired of being Casey's asexual safety blanket. So when Casey and Rose are deep in discussion about what looks to be a collection of randomly pointed lightsabers, he leaves.

He doesn't wait around for them outside, or tag along after them at a distance to make sure everything's okay. As soon as he gets out of the gallery, he walks home, and he doesn't look back once.

Instead, he goes to the party, and he hits it off with this girl who has unnaturally red hair in two stubby pigtails, and says her name is Hannah. She's wearing this black t-shirt that says Support Your Local Beautiful Losers in white lettering, and after the party, they end up going back to her place.

The t-shirt ends up on the floor, and she breathes hot laughter into his ear as he unclasps her bra and it feels almost like a demonstration. Sex shouldn't be the complicated, awkward thing Casey makes it out to be. It should be easy. Straightforward.

Like this.

The next day, Casey's waiting for him outside his door with her arms crossed, and when he lets her in (only because he has no choice, since she's blocking his entrance), she treats him to a long-winded lecture on boundaries and respect and how people shouldn't ditch other people without warning in art galleries.

She winds down with, "That being said…thank you."

"What for? Hating modern art?" he says, even though he knows already.

She looks down, trailing her fingers across his desk, and admits, "I had a good time. Alex is…nice." She raises her head and meets his eyes. "He's a good friend," she says, with an emphasis on those last words that he'd have a lot more faith in if he didn't know just how into her Rose is, or that Casey sometimes disagrees with him just for appearances sake.

Rose thanks him as well, later, and Derek says, "Yeah…you really don't need to thank me because you have sucky taste in art."

Rose ignores that, and says, "Seriously, Venturi – if there's anything I can do to pay you back…"

Derek considers it. They do have a class together, and he suddenly figures he might as well get something out of this whole thing, so he says, "That essay on the influence of mass media…"

Rose nods, like he's not even surprised, and says, "No problem," and before he leaves, he says, "Hey – thanks again. Seriously."

He touches Derek's upper arm, as he walks past, like he's really convinced of the sincerity of Derek's goodwill. It makes him feel nauseous.

Ladies and gentlemen, Derek Venturi, matchmaking eunuch.

For whatever reason, it doesn't happen as fast as he figures it will. Casey still finds plenty of time to infiltrate his room, adding misshapen rows to a purple thing that seems to have trouble deciding whether it should be a scarf or a ritual headdress – but she takes frequent breaks from performance art with yarn to do things with Alex. "As friends," she says every so often, with a challenging tip of her chin in Derek's direction.

Anyone with eyes can see the way it's eventually going to shake out, and Derek has never believed that guys and girls can be friends in the first place.

So Casey goes on these dates that only she believes aren't dates with Alex, and she knits herself back to something resembling normal in Derek's room. But for some reason (probably because he's new to the whole 'sibling-hold-the-step' thing when it comes to Casey) it just seems so…fragmented to him.

He doesn't even really understand what he means by that – it's a feeling, vague and blurry, and he's never been on the ball when it comes to those…

…but sometimes it flashes across his mind, that couple walking ahead of them that day, moving in step with hands joined, like a two piece jigsaw puzzle, solved, complete…

It's the closest thing to an explanation that he's got.

Inevitably, it ends with a Casey conniption as she finally catches up with the rest of the world.

"Still not seeing the big deal," he says, flipping through a magazine while she paces by the side of his bed. Shouldn't Casey have someone to talk these things through with by now? Someone with ovaries? Even when she was Keener Queen of London she'd had Emily, and Emily wasn't an idiot or anything…therefore, judging by past evidence, Casey should be able to net a BFF in college to talk her through her romance-related hyperventilations.

So, shouldn't she have someone by now? Someone who isn't Derek?

"It's our first date," Casey explains. "Of course it's a big deal."

"Newsflash," he says, dropping the magazine onto his chest and fixing her with his best 'cut the crap' look, "You've been dating the guy for at least a month. Even I know it, and I don't exactly keep track of who's currently wearing the McDonald choke chain."

She frowns at him, but because she's Casey, she's got an answer. "That's different," she says finally, "Before, we were going out as friends. Now – it's different."

He's only starting to learn what it's like to live like that – with clearly delineated boundaries, with relationships that always fold up neatly into the assigned boxes, and categories like 'friend' and 'boyfriend' that never overlap.

The thing is, he's only overhauled one small section of his life to fit those requirements, and it's already exhausting. Plus – it's a Casey operating system, and his instinctive reaction is to place himself in opposition to it – like a Mac vs PC debate of interpersonal relationships.

So when Casey frets her way off to a spontaneity killing First Official Date, Derek stays in his room…for maybe a half an hour. Then he realizes that his inability to keep his feet still and his fingers from twitching means that he should go out. So he does – he finds a party and he bumps into the same red-haired girl – now with some regrowth and a different t-shirt (a green one decorated with a complicated landscape of intersecting rainbows).

"Hannah," she reminds him, and he tells her he remembers – "Be nice to beautiful losers, right?" he says to make the point, and she tilts her head and asks, "You have any suggestions?" with a grin.

Afterwards, when he's zipping up his pants and pulling his t-shirt over his head, Hannah jokes, "We need to stop meeting like this."

He stops. "Or maybe we could – hang out sometime, instead." On her wall, she has the same poster Edwin has in his room, the one with people walking up all these crazy staircases at impossible angles, the one that doesn't make any sense if you look for more than a second. He stares at it.

"Or we could do that," she agrees.

Sometimes people just move from one category to another – and it doesn't have to be as complicated as Casey makes it out to be. It doesn't have to be complicated at all.

Casey keeps track of every meeting and every cup of coffee, because for her there's a specific moment where semi-formal dating turns into official coupledom. Weirdly though, it seems to work in this case. Rose might just be the one guy in the history of ever to thrive on frequent performance evaluations, like he views dating Casey as a long-term target that needs to be constantly monitored and updated to ensure success. Official coupledom is a given for them, in spite of Casey's ridiculous standards.

Derek just meets up with Hannah a few times. She doesn't seem any crazier than anyone already in his life, plus she collects shot glasses and doesn't understand hockey, so they have stuff to talk about. Basically, this means that he ends up in the same kind of relationship as Casey, but backwards and without expending any effort. Which is kind of how things usually work out when it comes to him and Casey anyway.

Casey's still around, obviously, but more tied up with the demands of official coupledom, so the wholescale invasion of his personal space turns into more of an occasional intrusion into his orbit kind of affair. Like Marti post the imaginary land dwelling octopus crisis.

In other words, things go back to nearly normal, and two weeks later Rose hands him an essay on the influence of mass media. Derek doesn't bother to read it, but he bets it's a balanced, considered piece, properly footnoted and researched. More than that, it's probably not going to raise any red flags if he hands it in, because Rose is a smart guy, and Derek's sure one of his long term goals doesn't include being one of the central figures in a plagiarism scandal.

It's safe, an easy grade. But for whatever reason, he ends up writing his own essay. He gets okay marks, though, other than the obvious, he's not entirely sure what that proves.

Casey leaves her stupid purple people eater in his room. He doesn't know if that's deliberate, and it doesn't matter. He's not a safety net, so he ends up sliding the yarn off the needle, pulling the thread and watching all the knitted rows move backwards into nothingness, stitch by stitch.

They go home for the holidays, and it's like simultaneously taking a step backwards and forwards. Backwards because, y'know, life before college and everything, and forwards because…he and Casey hadn't exactly had much time with the newest addition to the McDonald-Venturi bunch, so they come back to a whole new routine that's old news to everyone else. Diaper duty, feeding schedules, naptimes…

Home, yeah, but not exactly as they know it.

Once, he overhears a conversation between Nora and Casey when he's raiding the fridge. They're out the back, sorting laundry, and Nora says, " – have to say, I'm relieved. I never liked him, anyway, Case."

"I remember," Casey says.

"So…what happened?" Nora says, with that tone that's sympathetic mother, shot through with badly disguised overpowering curiosity.

"I don't know. It just…kind of – faded out," Casey downplays. "You know, long-distance, never seeing each other…all that stuff. No big deal, really."

He gets the same strange unbalanced feeling of everything having changed as he realizes that she's not going to tell Nora the full story and cry on her shoulder – that he's the only one who's going to know the truth…

Nora obviously can't taste the weirdness in the air, like Derek can, because she moves on, "And this new guy – he sounds nice. Details?"

"He is nice," Casey says, and he can hear the smile in her voice. "I like him."

But she stops after that – no long-ass descriptions of how she knows that he's the one, or how they met, or how freaked out she got when she first realised they were dating. Like she's finally worked through the Disney Princess phase and emerged into adulthood.

Or like Derek's her family confidant of choice for that crap – a twist of fate other people would probably refer to as 'changed circumstances', but one he prefers to think of, in all its piano-dropping glory, as 'irony'.

Back at college, and presumably Rose continues to fulfill all of Casey's ridorkulously high expectations. Derek doesn't see as much of her, anyway, and this restores some much-needed equilibrium after the unsteady, lopsided holiday period.

He keeps hanging out with Hannah. She's cute and she's funny and they fit together well in the naked sense – which he guesses qualifies as a shared interest. It's all good. She usually has leftovers in her fridge and the girls she shares with don't make him want to drive a spork through his ears, and she always has her nails painted these bright lollipop colours because it reminds her of when she was a kid and her grandmother used to paint them for her on sleepovers – so when it's her birthday he gets her a mini four pack of nail polishes, because he hears her, he listens when she talks, because that's what boyfriends are supposed to do, and that's what he is. Her boyfriend.

And one time when they're walking, he catches her hand in his…

…but that's not quite it, either.

It's all mostly fine though, or it is until he finds a note from Casey pinned to his door. He reads it – something about talking and mutually suitable time and at the bottom there's a little timetable that Casey's already filled in. All he has to do is choose a corresponding period of free time that matches one of Casey's, and she'll show up at his door.

He considers this, and crumples up the note.

Unfortunately, she catches him two days later by chance.

"Thanks for filling out my note," she says, crossing her arms.

"You're talking to me now, aren't you?" he shoots back.

"No thanks to you," she points out. "It's not like you've been around much lately."

He works his mouth into a lascivious smile and says, innuendo thick in his voice, "Yeah, but I've got a really good reason for that."

"I know," she says. She doesn't sound annoyed or outraged, and he blinks. "Actually, that's why I'm here."

He frowns at her.

"I think we should double date."

"You think we should what now?"

"Double date," she repeats.

"Right," he says, nodding, "And after dinner, the four of us can have a group purge session. Right before the two of us audition for The Canadian Bradys: In Real Life." In case she still doesn't get it, he says, "No."

"I don't see why not," she says, "I mean – don't you think it's weird that I've never met your girlfriend?"

"You say 'weird,' I say 'lucky,'" he says. He should never have mentioned the girlfriend thing to Edwin.

"I just mean – it's obviously going really well for you two. Obviously," she repeats. "And everything is working out for me and Alex too, and – and I just think it would be nice if we all got together."


She huffs out an exasperated breath. "Because I think it would be nice! Everything's going well and I think it would be nice!"

He stares at her as he Gets It. She wants to introduce Rose to her family, aka him, despite the fact that he's already met Rose. He doesn't know if there are words for this kind of crazy.

"No," he says again.

Hannah wears her formal t-shirt, the one with the picture of a red striped tie hanging around her neck – as a joke. Except it turns out to be not so much of a joke, as they face Casey down across a small table with a vase of flowers in the middle.

It's not the restaurant, which is on the same level as Smelly Nelly's. It's more Casey's attitude and demeanor. "So, what are you studying, Hannah?" she asks when they all sit down, and even though that's not exactly an odd question, the way she asks it, overly formal, sets the awkward tone for the night. It sounds like she's Derek's mom and moments away from quizzing Hannah on her intentions towards him.

She keeps asking those kind of questions, regular words weighed down and heavy with expectation, and she ignores Derek's glares and attempted kicks under the table. Hannah doesn't loosen up until dessert, when she obviously just decides 'fuck it', and she sticks two of the straws from their milkshakes into her mouth like impromptu fangs and waggles them in Derek's direction, goofing around. It's classic immature fun, and across the table Rose half-smiles dutifully, but Casey doesn't seem amused at all. She glares at Derek when he laughs, like he's betrayed her or something, and he guesses maybe he was supposed to be pretending that he lived in the eighteenth century too, and asking Rose about his prospects or whatever.

He mentally shrugs. Just because Casey lives her life like a formalized freak-show doesn't mean that she has to inflict her standards on everyone else.

There's still a touch of annoyance about Casey by the time they finish up. She and Derek stand just inside the door, waiting for Rose, who's still at the table settling the bill, and Hannah, who's still in the toilets, and Derek says, "I'm not getting what your deal is – I mean, you just totally embarrassed me, so…shouldn't you be happy?"

She stops staring at the glass of the restaurant door, and finally looks at him. "I embarrassed you?"

"More than usual, even," he agrees.

She shakes her head. "How could I possibly embarrass you, when you never took this seriously in the first place?"

He rolls his eyes. "You're right – I should really shape up. My double dating grade is really going to drag down my social GPA."

She turns her whole body to face him. "It is important," she says, with Casey-type conviction, "Just because you don't see it…this is a vital stage in any relationship" –

He snorts and her voice raises slightly as she persists, "It's an important step in the development of a mature, adult, long-term commitment" –

In his stomach, the milkshake turns over in a thick goopy wave. Because Casey and Rose have been dating for – okay, he doesn't know (he doesn't even know how long he's been seeing Hannah, so he's very much not keeping count when it comes to Casey), but they definitely entered the actual long-term commitment zone a long time ago.

" – part of proceeding to the next step in a truly serious" – she continues, and if 'long-term', 'mature' and 'adult' didn't crack the code for him, 'next step' tells him all he needs to know.

Apparently, while Casey was pretending to be his great-aunt, he should have been digging out his pipe and giving Rose his brotherly blessing to bone her.

He wonders if Casey realizes that's what her traditional 'meet the family' get together boils down to. Then he wonders if it's normal for any brother to know so much about his sister's sex life. He can't help but think that it's out of the ordinary, except maybe on some HBO shows.

Then Rose shows up, and Hannah reappears and he finally gets to stop thinking about this stuff.

"No offence, but your sister's a little…" Hannah says, smiling and making a vague hand gesture.

"No," he says, moving closer to her, "Actually, she's a lot…" His hand gesture is much less ambiguous.

She laughs, and it ends up the same way as usual. Her jacket comes off, and the formal t-shirt, and she wiggles out of her jeans while he pulls off his sweater. And they're on the bed, legs tangling and hands touching, and Casey doesn't get it, but this is how sex is supposed to be, without all these rigid rules and suffocating expectations. He kisses her neck and it's easy and Casey probably isn't even –

– and suddenly she's scooted up to the head of the bed, leaving Derek to deal with the sudden pain that came from being kneed in the chest.

There's a second of silence before she breathes out hard and fast, and says, "Get out."

He stares at her. "What?"

"You heard me," she says, arms crossed over her torso and legs drawn together. For the first time, she looks uncomfortable being naked in front of him, and he can't wrap his head around the split second change.

"What is it?" he asks – a not unreasonable question in his opinion, since his ribcage is still sore from that knock-knock joke she told with her knee. "Two minutes ago you wanted" –

"Yeah," she interrupts, "And now I want you to get dressed and leave and never talk to me again. Funny how that works."

He's still confused. Even Casey doesn't whiplash like this. "But" –

"Are you fucking stupid?" she asks, voice rising. "Get the fuck out of my room, you fucking perv!"

It only occurs to him later that when having sex with someone else, thinking about Casey (even though that's obviously not the same thing as fantasizing) might not be 'multitasking' so much as, like Hannah said, being 'really fucking stupid.'

So thanks to Casey, he has to cop to the fact that sex is a lot more complicated than he was letting on. He doesn't call Hannah again, and Hannah definitely doesn't call him. Which is okay, because if this experience has taught him anything, it's that when his sex life and Casey's have become tangled up together like two of his mom's silver chains…it's probably time to take a giant step back.

Meanwhile, in a related twist of irony that weighs about as much as a baby grand, Casey appears to have come to the conclusion that sex is a lot easier than she's been assuming. And it's all linked arms and coffee dates and the kind of coupley harmony that makes it obvious that any physical aspect of togetherness is straightforward for her and Rose, easy.

Until one day, when it isn't anymore.

The second time it happens, it's obviously not the first time. It's not even the second time…and that's about as far as he wants to go with that particular thought.

He opens his door and there's Casey, who says, "Oh – I didn't think you were in."

"Then why did you knock?" he points out.

She frowns then non-sequiturs, "Are those your coursebooks on the floor?"


"Derek, we agreed that physical surroundings are a key factor in creating a quality learning environment." She looks at him. "Are you even following your study plan?"

"Following it – why? Is it going somewhere?"

She sighs. "A good study plan is one that reflects your current needs, and as such, it should be frequently updated. Tomorrow I'll bring over some chart paper, and we can draw up a new plan."

He squints at her. "Don't you have something to do with Rose tomorrow?" he asks, because she always has something to do with Rose.

"No," she says, and doesn't elaborate.

"Because you usually do," he says, trying to meet her eyes.

"Well, luckily for you, tomorrow, I don't." She keeps her head down, frowning into corners like she's looking for something.

He has to ask, even though he's pretty sure. "Why?"

She finally looks at him. "Because in a mature, adult relationship, people don't have to be together all the time."

Yeah, she and Rose are toast.

"Sometimes a couple needs space to develop as individuals and to grow as people," she continues. Derek refrains from pointing out that if she 'grows' any more, Rose will need a stepladder to kiss her. She's not using the Nyquil-voice, but her tone does have a strong tang of the deluding-herself-kool-aid.

"Did I leave my knitting here?" she asks, suddenly.

It's not like the first time, mostly because, through an unholy and fuzzy series of events involving a late-night party and some serious sleep deprivation (on his part), Casey finagles a key to his room. Because the Casey version of 'giving each other space' appears to translate into 'avoiding any opportunities for possible contact with my supposed boyfriend, especially the communal hallway'.

So, he opens his door, and Casey's in his room reorganizing all his course materials. "I think we should try arranging by topic this time," she says, tapping the cover of his media studies textbook.

He opens his door, and Casey's in his room, sitting at his desk and writing a heartfelt expose of how modern society indoctrinates individuals to hold a false idea of love. "I think it's psychologically dishonest," she says. "I mean, one person can't be everything to you, and it's damaging to even expect that."

He opens his door, and Casey's sitting cross-legged at the foot of his bed, knitting needles in her hands as she fails to teach herself something called the slip-stitch. "Slip needle through fold of opposite edge for approximately one quarter of an inch, then bring needle out and draw the thread through…okay – where's the thread gone?"

The Invisible Girl Schtick obviously does what it's supposed to, because a week later, Derek's the one who Rose stops and hands over a small box of Casey-crap to in the hallway.

"Not to be awkward or anything," Rose says, "But I thought that if I gave it to you, at least it'd be done with."

Derek can get that. He's always been a 'cut your losses' kind of guy himself.

Rose just stands there for a second, clearly feeling like he needs to say something else, tie everything up, express a 'good game/no hard feelings' type of sentiment. It's bullshit, obviously – Derek's never played a sport where a 'good game' made up for the inherent suckiness of losing – but Rose seems to be one of those by-the-book types, so go figure.

He watches Rose turn over possibilities in his mind. Finally he settles on, "Say hey to your step-sister for me."

Casey keeps the little box of crap in his room. She takes out various bits and pieces, but then she leaves them around his room, because they're " – so useful." Like the bookmark Derek can't touch because it's a picture of some chick in a silver dress with sparkly stars around her head and he feels fifteen times more feminine just by looking at the thing, the hand cream that smells like lemon meringue, the stack of multicoloured post-its, and the stuffed cat with the bell around its neck. Yeah. Useful.

The closest she comes to talking about the whole thing comes one evening when she's assiduously slipping stitches and he's watching a DVD on his laptop. Out of nowhere, she says, "I thought it would be different." Her eyes flick to his and she says, "Go on. Laugh at me."

He figures this is an opening gambit, a careful nudge towards the classic Casey solution of Talking Things Out, with possible room for a feelgood family moment post conversation.

He ignores it, deliberately missing the point as he says, "Yeah – I prefer to laugh at people who are this thing I like to call 'funny'. Which, in case you haven't realised, Frowny McNoJokes…isn't you." Because he just doesn't do feelgood family moments with Casey, especially when they involve open and honest communication about Casey's sex life.

Weirdly, she leaves well enough alone after that.

She's here, in his room, isn't she? And that's –that's something. Not the feelgood part, but – the other word. Right? It has to be something, because even he feels it. Sometimes he looks at her, untangling yarn or moisturizing her hands or whatever, and it's like…

…it's like getting a gift of the most phenomenally complicated, delicate piece of machinery in the world, but being expected to assemble it without instructions. Huge and kind of frustrating, because no matter how many ways he tries to piece it together, it always feels like there's one small component missing.

The yarn turns into something resembling a giant sock, or maybe a half-complete cactus cover, and Casey doesn't seem traumatized by the loss of Rose or anything, but she also doesn't show any signs of removing herself from Derek's general space anytime soon.

But the thing is – it's not a sustainable situation.

It's not a sustainable situation because all this asexual, family-friendly 'being there' for Casey is necessary because of her breakups…but these breakups posit her as a sexual being. Which totally and utterly contradicts the asexual aspect of the 'being there' for her.

It's not that he wants to see her as a sexual being…it's just that she makes it really hard for him not to. Because she's there in his room because of sex, and okay, the non-sexual nature of their connection is stressed – but negation is just way of drawing attention to something, when everything's said and done.

Basically, it comes down to this – if she wants him to be there for her, then she really needs to leave. Because otherwise, it's just him and her, two bodies in a small space that's bursting at the seams with his awareness of sex.

It's manageable for a short time period, but long term? Long term, it's a recipe for disaster-cake.

He can't believe she's not conscious of it, on some level. It's like this annoying constant buzz, getting louder and louder with every passing evening. Also, it sometimes feels like the room is shrinking.

But then, Casey tends to see things as she wants them to be, not as they really are.

He figures it's a good sign when she starts mentioning some guy in the drama group who keeps asking her out for warm water with honey and lemon (good for the voice), and giving her these please-be-my-girlfriend gifts – a tiny pink plastic microphone key chain, and a bottle of Entertainer's Secret throat spray.

He sounds like exactly the kind of guy for Casey – from what Derek's heard of him, he even comes pre-emasculated for her pleasure. But Casey, for Caseyesque reasons, seems hesitant.

Clearly, she's interested, and just as clearly, she's nervous about actually following through and giving it a shot. She spends an amount of time known as 'too long' agonizing over various courses of action in Derek's room, until every y chromosome in his body is curled up in the fetal position and begging to be put out of its misery.

His room smells like lemon meringue and the stuffed cat looks smug in its assigned spot (the top right corner of his desk), and Casey's pacing back and forward and he swears he can feel her movement – like there's an invisible cord connecting them, so he's always conscious of exactly how many steps away from him she is, and all of a sudden, it's just too much.

"Okay – you need to get over this," he says, interrupting her in the middle of worrying whether going to a concert together would give the guy 'the wrong impression.'

She stops. "What?"

He sits up on his bed, and enunciates clearly. "Go out with him."

She stares at him, at a loss. Unfortunately, she scrambles a defence together all too soon. "It's easy to say 'go out with him' – not that it's any of your business who I go out with, but what if" –

"Casey. You want to go out with him. Go out with him. Get over it."

"Get over what?" She looks at him like she really doesn't know, and he just can't take it, because Casey's oblivious, yes, but she has to at least realize the deeper issue behind her extended stay in Derek's Bolthole, right?

And if by some freaky chance she doesn't – then she needs to be enlightened asap, because there is just no way – no way – that he's going to be the only one doing the heavy lifting work on her issues.

"You need to get over whatever problem you have with sex," he tells her.

Her mouth drops open (so apparently, she really didn't know) - but in apparently instinctive kneejerk opposition, she hisses in a scandalized voice, "I don't have a problem with sex!"

"Then stop doing it wrong!"

She stares at him. "You don't get to tell me I'm 'doing it wrong'," she says, shocked outrage outlining each and every word.

"Since hiding out in my room every time something doesn't go according to plan is pretty much the definition of 'doing it wrong' – yeah, I think I do."

Casey looks at him for a moment in silence, before she says, icily, "I don't have a problem with sex," and leaves.

She doesn't come back.

It's better like this, obviously. He's just not equipped to function in a world where he can mark on a calendar the exact day and date Casey starts sleeping with her boyfriends.

That said, it's a little unsettling to be thrust onto the opposite end of the spectrum –total information blackout. It's like his words are the cattleprod Casey needs to spur her into complete self-sufficiency, and she doesn't even come back for her bookmark, or her cat, or her cactus-cosy/sock.

It's better like that. But he still goes to the drama society's spring production of Godspell, and he recognizes the guy Casey was talking about within the first five minutes. Tall, unfortunate chin, powerful set of pipes. Walter Langdon it says in the programme.

And that's it. He feels a little bit of contradictory irritation, like sand in a shoe, at not knowing, at the total and sudden radio silence from Station McDonald, but mostly…mostly it's a relief.

It's while they're home for the Easter break that he finds out Casey, to all appearances, has gotten over her problem. Or at the very least, she's dating Walter now.

"Wow – you two seem pretty serious – how long have you two been going out again?" Nora says, then without waiting for an answer, "You should invite him down during the summer."

Partway through the dinner discussion, Derek realizes that Nora is under the impression that Walter Langdon is the same guy as Alex Rose. No big deal, it just gives him a jolt of that feeling, of being the only one who knows important stuff about Casey. It doesn't feel any less weird this time.

Edwin cuts in with, "That invitation goes for Derek's girlfriends, too, right?" clearly contemplating the enticing prospect of a bevy of hot college-girls wandering around the house.

"Yeah – I don't know if we're equipped to handle an invitation on that scale," George says dryly, obviously contemplating the same thing.

"Yeah – where would we sleep?" Lizzie wonders.

"And it's not fair. They get Derek all year – so I vote we get Derek for the summer," Marti chimes in, waving her fork.

Timmy doesn't seem to have much of an opinion, but he pushes away the spoon Nora's aiming at him, and he squeals. Derek decides to take this as a positive sign.

Casey's eyes flick towards his and away again, but he lets Edwin keep his illusion of National Lampoon's Derek Venturi. No harm in letting him live a little vicariously, right?

Plus, it'd probably even be true, if Casey hadn't kept barging into his room every single day and making sex all…


The third time it happens is a couple of weeks later, when he's back at college, and finally adjusted to the sudden Casey-less space more commonly known as 'normality.'

He opens his door, and there's Casey.

He can tell just by the brave little not-quite-a-smile on her face.

"Hi," she says.

He blinks.

"I was," she clears her throat, awkward. "I'm not – and I was thinking…we could" –

"I'm going out," he says suddenly.

"Oh," she says.

It's self-preservation. He can't go back to being Casey's weird codependent breakup buddy. It's just not an option anymore.

"So I'm going to go," he says, pointing the index fingers of both hands left.

She nods very fast, and says – with the kind of forced cheerfulness that induces guilt in anyone with even a passing acquaintance with a conscience, "Okay."

"Great," he says, and goes.

He stays away for a couple of hours, just in case, and when he comes back, the hallway is empty. He breathes a sigh of relief, and unlocks his door.

To find Casey on the other side, curled up inside a sleeping bag on his floor and pretending to be asleep with so much concentration that she practically vibrates.

She brought a sleeping bag.

This is just massively fucked up.

He stares down at her for a long moment, before giving in. Which is how he ends up getting ready for bed while Casey conscientiously feigns sleep. He slides in under the covers and switches off the light. It's almost peaceful, because he keeps his head resolutely empty of thought.

Then Casey's voice floats up out of the darkness, sounding small. "I think I'm going to follow a strict no-dating policy from now on."

He stares up at the ceiling, fingers laced across his chest, and considers faking sleep himself – it's not like Casey can call him on it, after all. Instead he says, expressionless, "Yeah, that'd probably be better for all mankind."

Given Casey's forswearing of dating, and Derek's less official break-taking from the complications of sex, the next couple of days resemble nothing so much as Couples Celibacy Club. Minus the couples part, of course.

Casey digs out her knitting and his room starts to smell like lemon meringue hand cream all over again, while he watches DVDs - and Casey, out of the corner of his eye - and waits for it to be over.

As wholesome and calculated to win the approval of conservative religious groups as this whole 'abstinence' thing is, Derek just knows it's going to blow up in their faces. He's just not cut out to love someone with gloves on.

So sure, he's inadvertently working those olde tyme values, but at the end of the day, he's got the dip of his sister-type-person's spine branded into his brain.

Ladies and gentlemen – Derek Venturi, Amish pervert.

With all the anticipation, you might imagine it's a relief when the breaking point comes.

It's really not.

Casey's sitting in his chair and fidgeting with her cell phone, absently tapping it off his desk, and he wishes she'd just come out with it already.

Until she says, "Walter wants to meet up this evening." She taps her phone again. "He might want to get back together. Maybe," she qualifies quickly.

Great – this is exactly the kind of thing that should be encouraged, the kind of thing that leads to Casey leaving his room and this funhouse mirror version of life sliding back into something that more closely reflects reality.

"So?" he says. It doesn't come out so much 'encouraging' as it does 'hostile.' "Not really seeing why you have to clear it with me."

"I'm not 'clearing it' with you," Casey fires back immediately, getting to her feet. "I'm mentioning it."

He ignores this. "Listen, I really don't know why you feel the need to 'get my permission' to date, or get back together, or have sex or whatever," he swallows, "But I have to tell you, it's really not necessary." His stomach turns over again at the memory of the double-date/brotherly consent-seeking to sexual intercourse.

"I'm not asking for your permission!" Casey tells him, tone tight and offended.

"Good," he says. Point made, so it's strange to find that somehow, he's got Casey backed against the wall, with so little space between their bodies her girly bookmark would hardly fit between them. "Because it's actually really easy."

Casey looks at him, confused and shifting a little, awkward. "What?"

"Sex," he says, and the word curls salaciously in his mouth. "You don't have to plan for it, or ask permission, and you don't even have to freak out about everything being perfect."

He stops and the silence stretches out between them.

"…and then?" Casey asks, soft and hesitant, eyes locked on his.

"It just happens." He pushes his body away from hers and turns away. Seriously, the sooner she gets back together with this Walter guy, the better.

He doesn't know if this time counts, but…

He opens his door, and there's Casey.

"We're not getting back together," she says, brushing past him, and he contemplates the hallway for a moment, before closing the door and turning around.

He's going to be a pile of Venturi-flavoured ashes by the time summer rolls around.

She's already sitting at the foot of his bed, when she meets his eyes and says, slowly "I mean, I figured that no matter what happened...I'd still end up here, eventually."

She shrugs, a little self-deprecating, and he stares at her as those words echo around in his brain.

All of a sudden, he's got a horrible sinking feeling that no matter where he goes, Casey's going to follow him, and crash on his couch, talking about all the guys that got away – and reminding Derek of the fact that he will never, ever be allowed to have sex with her.

Apparently, she wants to do thisforever.

He grabs her arm and yanks her to her feet. "Okay – you need to leave, right now," he says, trying to keep the panic down. The Apocalypse has nothing on The Future According to Casey.

"What?" she pulls her arm out of his grasp. "What are you talking about? Why should I leave?"

Because it's his room. Because Derek Venturi has never been a safe space. Because, seriously, shouldn't she have some other friends by now? There are lots of reasons, but he doesn't cite any of them.

Instead, he takes her face firmly in both hands and kisses her – because the more he tries to fold Casey up inside the Marti box the more he draws attention to the fact that he just can't make her fit there.

Also, he's always been better at 'showing' than 'telling.' If Casey doesn't get it now, he's going to have to invest in a shotgun.

He's actually thankful when he feels her hands curl around his wrists, and he braces himself for the horrified shove backwards, but instead, her fingers just stay there, brushing against his skin, while her mouth opens – and she kisses back.

In the end, he's the one who pulls away. This seems to restore some semblance of order, and when her eyes flutter open, the first words she says are, reassuringly, "I think I should…"

He waits expectantly, but this promising beginning trails off into nothingness. He tries to prompt her, "…go?" he suggests, while his fingers flirt with the skin just below the bottom of her shirt. In the process, she somehow ends up standing even closer to him.

"I think," she tries again. One of her hands is still around his wrist, and she keeps absent-mindedly stroking her thumb across his pulse, which makes it that much harder for him to concentrate.

"I think," she repeats, inching infinitesimally forward, and tilting her body slightly to the side, so her cheek grazes his. "I think…" He closes his eyes.

Suddenly, she takes a step back. His eyes snap open and onto hers as she says, still sounding slightly offended, "I don't have a problem with sex."

She bites her lip before stepping forward again, and whispering, almost reluctantly, right into his ear, "I have a problem with you."

He can't identify the feeling this provokes – it's more explosion than emotion, anyway.

His hands slide around her waist, pulling her body right against his, and he rests his chin in the crook of her neck. "Good," he says, and he almost doesn't recognize his own voice, it sounds so relieved. "Because you have no idea of all the issues I have with you."

The sex is inevitable, and easy, and good.

And complicated.

Afterwards, lying awake, the difficulties creep up on him slowly, and then suddenly swarm him without warning, terrifying, overwhelming. He has to take a deep, slow breath in to calm himself.

The brother dearest thing he had going on with Casey was fucked up, yeah, but at least it was a known quantity. But this relationship…he swallows. This is limbo – no precedent, no certainty, too new to calculate or even predict.

"I don't know what happens next either," Casey admits suddenly.

But then in the darkness, her hand reaches out, and catches his.