title: then you come crashing in
pairing: Derek/Casey, Derek/OC, Casey/Jesse
summary: It ends like these things always do: with that one guy who's in love with this other girl and first hearing about it from Edwin of all people.
a/n: No, unfortunately for all concerned, you read the word-count right. I've been rewatching a couple of episodes and it reminded me of exactly how horrifically perfect they were. You guys, this is longer than Dissolution. It's almost half of Distraction and those had nine and nineteen chapters respectively. Speaking of, I'm terribly sorry, I haven't updated in, well, ever. I've just written myself in a spot with them, but I'm going to try, I swear. I'm guessing this is the culmination of my Derek and/or Casey get married fics, since it seems I've been obsessed by the idea forever. I don't know why Abby's not in it, since Derek's getting married, but let's assume she's at the bottom of the ocean searching rare phytoplankton and miles from civilization or something. And to think I once said 'bye, I'm outta fandom.' Lord, what fools these mortals be. But this time, I held off posting till the entire thing was done, because I know I've been terrible with the multi-chapters and everyone hates me. So, um, that's it, I guess. I know fandom's kind of dead, so whoever's bothering to read, I hope you like. Written for the fairytale prompt table.
warning: Derek and Casey are dysfunctional entitled assholes with the anti-Midas touch who ruin everything they touch and go around in circles basically. Post Vacation With Derek.
disclaimer: disclaimed. I don't own at all, and I'm sure everyone's really glad about that right about now.
prompt: the practical girl.

You who never arrived in my arms, beloved,
Who were lost from the start,
I don't even know what songs would please you.

- Rilke


It ends like these things always do: with that one guy who's in love with this other girl and first hearing about it from Edwin of all people.

"When are you coming over for the wedding?" he asks, when he calls in the evening, because they do this awkward phone bonding thing sometimes in lieu of the Breakfast Moments. She remembers it in capitals because that's how she remembers every moment from the Time Before.

"What wedding?" she asks absently, only half listening, Jesse's in the shower and she can hear the water pelting the tiles much louder than Edwin's voice. She thinks he definitely needs to change his crappy service provider, but she usually forgets it as soon as she thinks it, so, well.

Edwin laughs, the sound breaking up over the distance and static, "is this one of those 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' kind of things?"

"What," the noise from the shower grows exponentially; it mildly irritates her in the way in the way that little things about living too long with a person do, "what are you talking about? Who's evil?"

"Derek," he says, the note of surprise obvious even over the static.

"That's fitting," she twists the cord around in her hands, she could have gone out and checked on the food if he'd called on her mobile, "considering it's Derek."

"No," he says, and he doesn't sound amused any longer, "I meant Derek's wedding."

Her vision blurs for a moment before it fixates blankly on that spot on the wall that Jesse's niece had colored over with the purple crayon, "what?"

"You knew, right?" Edwin's words are rushed, and it's obvious he thinks he's done something wrong, "I mean— you knew…right?"

"Yeah," she lies, forcing out the words, "of course I knew. Listen, I need to check on the food, so I'll call you sometime over the weekend, okay?"


She cuts the line.

The phone rings resolutely about forty seconds later. She doesn't pick up.


"Derek's getting married," she says, pressing her head against the board. The words don't sound any less wrong on her tongue. They don't quite seem to fit somehow. Like she's mixing up the order of the words in the sentence.

Jesse looks up, towel in hand, droplets of water still trickling from his wet hair onto his bare chest. She stares unabashedly. It's one of those things she never really gets used to and turns her on just as much as it used to in the beginning.

"Oh," he says after a second's pause, and she's oddly disappointed.

"Yeah," she echoes, "oh."

Later, she makes love to him on her study desk. She hasn't done it since she was nineteen and it was new and exciting, and now it's uncomfortable and awkward and clumsy and it's still the hottest thing she's ever done.

(She thinks I could get used to this, and she thinks Derek's getting married, and she thinks I love Jesse and she thinks Derek's getting married and she thinks— god yes, just there, harder— and she thinks Derek's getting married.)


Marti calls two days later.

"Derek's getting married," she says bluntly, "Nobody wants to tell you."

Casey laughs, it's a first cousin to the sound, but it's still recognizable and she's going to be okay, "I know, Marti. Why don't they want to tell me? Sure, he's an immature, unevolved jerk and the possibility of him being ready to start a responsible married life is about just as much as the possibility of him being able to grow wings and fly over the Atlantic, but the McDonald-Venturis aren't exactly known for their secret-keeping abilities."

Marti is silent for a long moment that registers on her wall clock, "you don't want to ask me that because I'll give you an answer."

She laughs again, and it isn't forced. She's getting better, or at least better at this, "what did George say about the piercing anyway?"

It's stupid and the most obvious out ever but she knows Marti'll let her take it and she's grateful, she really is.

She can hear Marti shuffling around on the ground; the phone probably pressed against her ear and shoulder as she paints her nails and keeps her textbook open with the other. In that moment she misses the six-year-old just as fiercely as she does the sixteen-year-old.

"I'm not sure it was any registered language actually," Marti's voice sounds further away, "it sounded like a tribal war cry, but I haven't googled it, so I'm not sure what part of the world it's native to."

"I was expecting the five stages of grief," Casey replies, "good for George. That's almost a normal father reaction."

She looks at the wall clock again, and she's late. Derek's getting married and she's late for work. Obviously.

"For the record," Marti says, just as she's about to hang up, "he's an idiot."

(She doesn't ask.)


"Edwin told me this morning that he told you," Lizzie begins without preamble, "I smacked his head in for him. Just so you know."

Casey smiles, and then remembers her sister can't see her over the phone and laughs instead. She does a lot of that these days. She's probably laughed more in the past few days than in her entire life. "I can't understand why you guys are freaking out about me. Shouldn't Derek's would-be-wife be the one getting the deathbed treatment?"

"She uses an electric dryer," Lizzie says unnecessarily, "besides, she's not that pretty. Sure, the whole big-eyes-and-wavy-dark-hair combination works for some, but it's so systemically defined and conventionally good-looking that it's almost like not being good-looking at all."

That makes her pause for a minute, because she'd been assuming it was Felicia (which would be the oddest thing in the world and vaguely incestuous, to have Derek marry a girl with her grandmother's name), but big-eyes-and-wavy-dark-hair sounds nothing like the poker-straight-blonde Felicia.

"So, who is Derek marrying again?" she asks casually.

Lizzie stops in the middle of an extensive description about the number of minutes the To-Be-Mrs.-Venturi's hair-dryer is on in a day and what it means for the environment, "you don't know?"

"I just haven't talked to him in a while," the defense mechanism automatically kicks in, "it's not like he's Joe Regular in keeping up with the family updates."

"Rachel," Lizzie says finally, "he's marrying Rachel."

She remembers thin hands curled in red-brown hair and dark hair falling over a wide smile, Derek's my college bff. Because he's a jackass and I'm the only one who put up with him all of first year. Now you're here, you can take over handling half of him, I have a lot more work-load this semester and he's more of a long-term project.

And quite suddenly she realizes she'd been wishing it was Felicia. Because Felicia, Felicia's not Derek. Felicia is divorce papers five years down the line and drunken 'I should have never married you' phone-calls. Rachel is Derek. Rachel is close to and they lived—

"How is Rachel," she forces herself to ask, "I didn't know they were still in touch."

"We all are." Lizzie's voice is quieter, like she'd rather not talk about it, "she's been around a lot. Here, I mean. This past year. Simon loves her and kept calling her over to play with him, and well, you know Rachel. She always came. Derek sometimes came too, but even if he didn't, she was still around."

She does know Rachel. And stupidly enough it still feels like betrayal. Simon is her brother.

"Jesse's home," she says; the doorbell rings three seconds after her words and it's like fate or something, "I should go open the door."

"Yeah, okay" the younger girl says awkwardly, "I love you, Casey."

Her throat feels like it's closing up, "I love you too, Lizard."

(It isn't Jesse after all. She looks at the bills the delivery guy hands her and thinks they'd be metaphorical if she could figure out what they're a metaphor for.)


Nora calls when she's at work, and spends half the time reprimanding Simon in the background.

"I know, mom." Casey rubs her temple tiredly, "Derek's getting married to Rachel and we're all very happy for him."

"Oh," her mother sounds relieved for some reason. Then uncertainly, "we are, aren't we?"

"We are," Casey repeats firmly, "and Simon's probably raising Cain somewhere so you shouldn't be on the phone too long."

"Love you Miss Case," Nora says hurriedly and Simon sounds in the distance before the receiver clicks.

"Love you too," she whispers to the dial tone.


"Derek is—"

"Getting married. Now, bye George, I have a lot of paperwork. I told Edwin I'll call over the weekend."

"You should call him sometime." he says easily before hanging up

(She laughs, just for the record, and then rests her head against the pile of papers and cries.)


"I'm sorry," Jesse says, Wednesday night, staring straight ahead at the screen.

She turns around in well-executed surprise, "what for?"

He looks at her and she drops her gaze and she can feel him staring at her bent head for a long second before he turns back to the television, "just."

(– they don't have sex that night, but he puts his arms around her and holds her close and she's so sorry too and she thinks she loves him and thinks she doesn't deserve him and thinks they're both so terrible at letting go and knows she's right on all counts.)


So, here's the division:

Before Derek. During Derek. After Derek.

It's no Gregorian calendar, but she finds it divides her era perfectly. And honestly, she's Casey McDonald; she's nothing if not practical and if her life requires another dating system, then she's damn well going to get another dating system. And anyway, she needed a new system as it is, because hers isn't linear, it's cyclical.

This is how the cycle turns: one step forward, five hundred and seventy two backwards.

That's an exact calculation if someone asks.


In shorthand version, the A.D. period goes something like this:

She does the Disney Princess thing and follows her heart straight to Big City Dreams and Bernard Blue's dance recital.

The competition is way more intense than Sir John Sparrow High has ever taught her to handle, and she's reminded of Sadia from her Dance Mania days, except multiplied by like a million. She's terribly out of practice compared to all the others, and she's somewhere on the left of the stage, behind three other dancers in the first recital, and when she looks at the video later where she's visible for about four seconds, she cries. Till Nora calls, after which she puts on a bright, giddy voice that fools her mother. And then she wants her father because he would know. (And then she wants Derek because he would know too.)

Derek goes to Queen's, and if there are moments when she feels like her life just went backwards, then those moments are far and few and restricted to the times everyone back home makes him call her to ask how she's doing.

The calls aren't actually so 'far and few' unless it's Opposite Day, but it's the McDonald-Venturis, they probably told him they'd cancel his constant money transfers and put the fear of god in him, judging by how often his name blinks across her mobile screen.

He uses up all her old nicknames and she informs him haughtily that she doesn't trip when she likes someone anymore because she grew out of high school unlike someone she could mention who probably still has grandiose delusions about being the big man on campus. He says something wildly inappropriate about seven times per half hour and she shrieks De-rek about thirteen times per conversation. And it's old and familiar and she cramps inside with fierce longing for something she can't define. They talk late into the night most days because they can't stand to let the other have the last word. And sometimes they talk through the night, trading insults till she feels more at home than she's felt in months.

One night like every other night, when she's stifling a moan of pain and her ankle feels like she crushed all the bones with a hammer and then poured kerosene and lit it on fire for good measure—

"You're killing yourself because the fam isn't around to tell you to lay off the crazy perfectionism, and just stop being so Casey for a while, aren't you?" he says suddenly, stopping mid-comeback.

"What?" it's such a personal topic of conversation for them that she's taken aback, and it takes her a minute to come up with, "no."


"Since when do you care anyway," she states instead, because that works every time.

"I don't, obviously," he says immediately, and drops the topic.

(But a week later Nora comes over to visit with Simon and is all wide smiles and watchful eyes, and it's exhausting to try and pretend with every facial muscle than it had been with just the vocal cords and the telephone.

"I didn't think it would be like this," is the closest she gets to admitting the truth.

"Come home," Nora says, her forehead creased in way that immediately makes Casey feel guilty because her mom has enough in her plate without worrying about her.

"No," she laughs and it's sort of real, "I just— I thought I'd be better, but I know I can get better. I mean I love this, so even if I've to practice all the time, it's just like spending time on a hobby. I love this. I honestly do."

The crease doesn't leave her mother's forehead, but she goes does go back home eventually, so there's that.)


"You don't sound heartbroken," she says suspiciously.

He shuffles around, the sound almost drowned by some loud music playing in the background, "what was that, headcase?"

"Marti said—"

He groans, "Marti is the worst. She's doing this because I said I'd visit her last weekend and didn't. Getting you to call me and yap on for ages is the best revenge she could have come up with. I'm almost impressed."

"Oh," she says blankly, trying to figure out inflections. But maybe he got better at the whole displaying-his-emotions thing in college, "who was the girl."

"Some girl," she can't figure out if the nonchalance is fake or real and it bothers her, "I'm not sure I know her name. Why inconvenience yourself with the homework, when baby seems to work fine for everyone involved."

"You're a pig," she says automatically, "what are doing to do to get over this mythical heartbreak?"

"What all great lovers in history have done," she can almost feel him shrugging, "go to the bar with Rachel, get drunk and possibly pick up two girls for three hour time slots."

For some reason she thinks of Jesse, and there's a nagging feeling at the back of her head that she's missing something, but she shrugs it off, "when you develop some sort of emotional maturity that is greater than that of a scavenging rat, call me."

She doesn't keep down the phone, obviously.

And then in the middle, much later, he laughs accidentally at something she says. It's all very sudden and reflexive, and he obviously hasn't had the time to register that he's laughing at something she said. He stops as soon as he's started, and he doesn't even seem to realize it, but it pulls something low in her gut and and she thinks something like— oh.

And then she thinks it's all terribly inconvenient and if she could just rewind a few seconds back to when he hadn't laughed, it would just make life so much easier.

The next time he calls, she doesn't pick up.


This is how it begins:

Jesse is Bernard Blue's golden child and most girls glance at him out of the corner of their eyes at least twice, and she can't help feel that twinge of pleasure each time he seeks her out over all the others he could most definitely be with. Everyone looks at them with curiosity because fourth-dancer-on-left-of-stage and the show-stopper is just bad PR, but Jesse doesn't seem to care so she pretends she doesn't either.

This one night they're back from rehearsals, and he has his arm around her, holding her up because she's exhausted out of her mind, and she thinks she's sprained her ankle again. He takes her back to her tiny apartment that she barely funds, and she thinks this isn't what it was supposed to be and she's so terribly lonely, the word slips out before she's thought about it— stay.

This time Derek isn't around to interrupt mid-kiss and make her join him in some ridiculous dance or whatever, and when their clothes are lying scattered at the foot of her bed and she thinks she they might have left the door open, she thinks this is it. And when Jesse's all around her and inside her, the feeling builds and builds and builds till she's terrified her spine's going to snap with how tautly she's been wound up.

But then she melts instead and it's better than phone conversations, and it's better than any maybe and it's better than all the almosts and it's just better.

They do it everywhere and he laughs and tells her to stop calling it it, but she can't seem to. When they're at the intersection in his car and his hand slides between her thighs, she opens her legs wide and feels no shame when his thumb brushes against the satin fabric that she'd worn just in case, but she still calls it it.

"You're something else," he tells her, his hand traveling down her body with lazy abandon. And there's a Casey McDonald who leaves the building and there's a Casey McDonald who practices much too hard, and there's a Casey McDonald who talks to everyone back home every day and there's a Casey McDonald who's living her dream, and there's a Casey McDonald who stopped dreaming, and there's a Casey McDonald who is something else.


"I didn't know you guys were so close," he's lounging on her single bed, and her legs are between his, her head resting comfortably on his chest, the phone pressed against her ear, "in fact I thought you oscillated between mutual antipathy and outright hostility."

She doesn't tell him they mean the same thing because she's not in high school anymore. Instead, she covers the mouth-piece with her hand and raises herself up on her elbows, "we're not. And we do."

He looks down at her, one side of his mouth turning up in amusement, "you sure talk a lot for people who spend most of the time just describing to the other in excruciating detail how glad you are that you don't have to see each other all the time."

She thinks about that for a moment. There's no real answer to that, "it's complicated," she replies, and she's aware of how lame it sounds. But it is. That's exactly what it is. It's complicated.

He scrunches his forehead and she thinks she falls a little bit in love, "so you hate each other but you can't get through the day without talking?"

"It's— complicated," she tries again.

He kisses the top of her head and she feels loved in the way of kissing in the rain and hot chocolate before she knows she needs it, "when is anything with you not."

When she uncovers the mouthpiece, Derek's gone, the dial-tone sounding loud and much too in-her-face.


He's sitting outside the restaurant, when she finally reaches it, the sorry we're closed sign mocking her, "God, I'm so, so sorry."

He nods, unsmiling, shoving his hands in his pockets with unnecessary force, "where were you?"

She thinks of lying for a moment and then thinks of how utterly ridiculous that is, "I was—"

"—talking to Derek and lost track of the time," he finishes for her. So, well, maybe it's happened more than once and the lying thing wouldn't have worked out anyway apparently.

"He's just—" she stops, "Marti said he broke up with his girlfriend and he's really torn up. Or something. That's hard to imagine, and it's probably just a play for sympathy and license to get drunk but—"

"Why you?" Jesse asks, and he sounds exhausted like he's tired of dealing with complicated, and it terrifies her, "I don't get it. He's a big guy, he's in college, don't you think he has other friends or other people to help him deal now?"

That stops her short; somehow she's always been so stuck in being here that she kind of forgot that Derek may have a life outside her now. A life she knows nothing about. It's a strange feeling.

"Force of habit, I suppose," her tongue feels like cotton wool and much too heavy to allow for words, "I really am sorry."

"Whatever," he mutters, like he never does. Jesse isn't the whatever kind of guy, "a fifth monthiversary is just lame anyway. Nobody celebrates these things."

Except you, she completes the sentence silently, and it stings just a little, and for some reason she thinks of a blonde wig and Sam.

They walk back together but he goes back to his apartment and he doesn't hold her hand on the way back.


He raises his head from where his teeth had been engaged with her collarbone. His hand slides over to her table, the insistent buzzing out of the phone pulling her out of the moment.

He glances at the screen for a moment, "it's Derek," he says flatly, "you should probably take that."

And Jesus, he didn't really think she'd pick up the phone in middle of having sex with him, did he? Then she thinks of him sitting alone on the steps of her favorite restaurant, and her face heats up. (Then she thinks of Derek laughing at something she said, and her insides twist.)

"It's okay," she pulls him back down, stringing her fingers in his hair, "I can call him back later."

And she knows by the way Jesse looks down at her, that it's a moment. She doesn't know why, but she knows it's a moment. And she's made the right decision, even though it shouldn't feel huge, and she doesn't even know what exactly that decision is.

The phone rings till what seems like an eternally long moment, before falling silent.

(She doesn't call back.)


They break up on the day of her final recital.

She's in the front of her line this time, even if she isn't center stage, and she can see mom and George cheering in the audience and she wishes the moment could go on forever.

They come backstage after the performance and there's a lot of backslapping (George) and crying (Nora) and endless repetitions of 'wasn't Casey good' (both in chorus). She sees Jesse staring at them with a half-smile on his face and for a wild moment she wants to stay.

"Hey," he stands in front of her, when he can finally get away from his adoring throngs and most people have already left for the post-performance celebration.

"Hey," she replies, looking straight at him, and memorizes each inch with her eyes as she's done with her hands.

"So," he takes a deep breath, "this is it, then."

It sounds a little like a question even though it isn't, and she feels like crying for some inexplicable reason.

"Yeah," she says awkwardly. And it hits her then: this is it, "maybe we can still— I mean lots of people make it work. It isn't that hard. I had a friend—" she knows she's babbling, her words rushed and uncertain and frantic.

"No," he firmly puts his hand on her shoulder, "you're going to college, Casey. Believe me, you want to have that chance to see, explore and know other people. And you can't do that if we're— I mean, some people might, but you're you and you wouldn't. Maybe afterwards. You can decide afterwards. We have a long time."

It's better this way, she thinks and she kisses him fiercely for the last time, clumsily clashing their teeth together in her hurry. I could love you, she thinks before breaking off.

"Casey," she turns around. He's still standing in the middle of all the glitter, and the mess, "say hello to Derek for me."

They stare at each other a long time. She nods.

George and Nora help her pack, and in the end her apartment looks like she'd never spilt soup on the rug, or written poetry late into the night or twisted her foot trying to pirouette in the cramped space or been made love to over and over or made love over and over and she hates the bareness and emptiness of it.


(This is how it starts over:

Four years later he ends up on her doorstep.

"So," he shuffles awkwardly, his inherent grace unable to disguise the uncertainty of his steps, "did you decide?"

She thinks of college and Derek and everything and nothing and she pulls him inside and kisses him hard.

They have sex on the double bed and nobody falls off and it feels like an unusual luxury.)


"I know," she says, refusing to give the caller the time to speak first, "Derek is getting married. La-di-dah. Play the wedding march, someone. Now, I have a lot of work, so if you'll please excuse—"

"Great, since we're past that, you can dump your lot of work in the trash bin and come over for dinner."

She clutches the phone tighter, "Derek?"

"Is getting married," he says needlessly, "and for some reason the wife-to-be wants to see you. Bonding with the family etcetera. Or whatever. I told her you're not so much family as finally, as in I'm waiting for the time the law finally changes to allow exclusion of unwarranted step members from the family circle, but she didn't listen. Then I warned her that divorces take place on lesser grounds than that, but it didn't seem to matter much to her, so."

"Derek," she snaps, because she'd thought it would be more momentous than it is but he can still make stupid jokes while the hole in her chest is the exact size of a hockey puck and she hates him, "I'm busy, okay."

"What," if she closes her eyes, she can see him on his stupid couch with the stupid remote, watching the stupid hockey game and only half-listening. But he's not home, and it's all different and she doesn't know what he's doing right now, "no 'congratulations Derek!' No 'Rachel is such a wonderful girl'. No 'I hope you'll be very happy together.' Come on, Case, you used to be better at this. I'd expect more from my favorite sister."

"Congratulations, Derek," she says mechanically, it's all the same difference anyway; "Rachel is such a wonderful girl. I hope you'll be very happy together. And, shut up."

"Anyone would think you can't leave aside our differences even on this wonderful occasion," he sighs in mock disappointment, "you know the fam already thinks it's weird that we live in the same city and never meet."

"Okay," she says, "Contrary to your long held belief systems, the world does not revolve around you, Derek. And neither does my life. I have a job and an actual life and a boyfriend who— who's taking me out to dinner. So just, some other time, okay?"

"Cancel your plans," he says easily, and she feels the familiar rush of irritation making its way through her, he always gets under her skin and stays there, "I'm sure you can match your dental plans and figure out the scheme that would save you the most in terms of taxation in the long term some other day."

"My boyfriend and I should cancel our plans to meet you and your girlfriend?" she snaps.

"Fiancée," he corrects, "and yes."

"You jerk—"

"As much fun as this wasn't," he signs off cheerily, and she wishes she could tie the telephone cord around his neck, "we should totally up the suckage factor and meet up. See you at dinner then."

She slams the phone down with needless force.


(So, she has this one dream which is just stupid and mundane and a waste of sleeping; but the phone rings and she doesn't pick up.

It's a different why not each time; she's late for work, she's in bed with Jesse, she's in the shower, she's watching a movie, all lame, boring reasons for something that doesn't even need a reason; phones ring all the time and she doesn't take calls for a variety of reason, it's not a life-altering moment or anything.

But she dreams it over and over, and it's different each time, but it's always the same: the phone rings, and she doesn't pick up.)


Jesse's already dressed by the time she reaches home.

"I thought you'd come back early," he says, as she slings her bag down. She straightens up; watching him run his fingers through his hair, and misses him even though he's right in front of her.

"Why?" she asks, unbuttons the top button of her top, takes the pin out of the bun, and thinks this could be like coming home, almost, "we didn't make plans tonight did we? I'm sorry, I was just—"

"—busy," he finishes, the corner of his mouth turning down and she thinks she's always the one to put that look in his eyes, "We didn't have plans, but Derek told me he'd already spoken to you about the dinner. Didn't he?"

She stares at him, stunned into silence for a full minute, "Derek spoke to you about it?"

Jesse laughs in a way that isn't one at all, "we've been living together since two years, Casey, it can't be that much of a surprise."

"Yeah," she says, "I mean, no. It's just— I thought we could stay in tonight, you know."

She adds a seductive lilt to her voice and unbuttons the second button and somewhere at the back of her mind she thinks the grade-grubbing, klutzy headcase from nine years ago wouldn't recognize her. This isn't who she's always been. She hopes to god this isn't who she's always been.

He reaches out his hand, as if to touch her, and she thinks please. Then he stops short, his hands half raised and her heart clenches at his expression and she's so, so sorry, "why don't you want to go."

Please don't, "It's not that I don't want to go," her voice falters, Derek is right, she used to be much better at this, "it's mostly—"

She stops and stares blankly at him, and he doesn't turn away, he stares right back, and it's the longest silence she can remember.

"Tell me," he says quietly, "why not. Just say it, and we won't. We won't go. We'll make love against the wall, stay in tomorrow. Hook the phone off. Buy tickets for vacations that we'll cancel later. Have all three meals in the bed. And I'll clear it afterwards, I promise I will. Just tell me why not, and we won't."

He's as messed up as she is, she knows, and she knows she does this to him every single time, and she almost says it then. Why not.

"Maybe we should go," she says instead, the coward ringing at the back of her head sounds like this boy she knows with red-brown hair and smile like a gut punch, "I mean, he's getting married. And as much as I don't like him, I suppose he's family."

Because he's getting married and maybe, maybe if she doesn't say it, it's almost like she doesn't think it. Hasn't ever thought it every day since as long as she can't remember.

She uncrosses her arms and moves towards the closet, unable to acknowledge the disappointment in Jesse's gaze.

They drive in silence.

The radio station seems to pick and choose all the songs she hates. She doesn't change it.


Rachel opens the door in slacks and an oversized Queen's shirt that is clearly Derek's by its size and Casey immediately thinks something bitchy like god, doesn't she have her own, because apparently that's the kind of girl she is now.

A second later she immediately feels overdressed in her best cocktail dress and expensive heels that she's been saving up and decided to wear tonight because— well, because.

Rachel lets out a sound that is most definitely in the neighborhood of a squeal and engulfs her in a cloud of dark hair and perfume, "Casey!"

The she steps back, "oh wow. You look gorgeous. And now I feel like a dowdy Mrs. Jones. I wish Derek had told me he didn't tell you it was just an informal thing; I'd have dressed up, and tried to and failed miserably at out-staging you."

The thing is, in the middle of all the not thinking, she'd forgotten how much she liked Rachel, "I knew it was just informal," her face flames, "I don't know why—" she does know why.

"For Derek obviously," Rachel says unconcernedly, and Casey feels Jesse shift behind her.

"No," she says, the words tumbling out before she's thought them out, "I mean, why would I— I obviously didn't—"

Rachel waves her words with an offhand gesture, "shush. Of course you did. Your sibling rivalry thing is very cute and massively annoying. And it's totally working, by the way. I can't imagine even he'd be able to find fault, even though he's going to try very hard."

She feels the tense line of her shoulder relax, "yeah, that's pretty much it."

Rachel shoos her in and pulls Jesse inside by the hand, "and you must be Jesse."

"I must be, mustn't I," he smiles, all charm and grace and at the back of her eye-lids there's the image of the girls who used to look at him out of the corner of their eyes, all the girls he left for her. And she knows; in his way he's just as lost as she is.

"It's strange we haven't met before," Rachel continues, "since you're a handsome guy and I like handsome guys, but it's a miracle I managed to get Derek and Casey under the same roof even today, and I don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

She can feel Jesse's eyes at the back of her head as surely as if she were looking at him "miracle, yes," he replies in a monotone.

"Didn't anyone tell you it's rude to hit on the host's fiancée?" Derek's voice floats from behind, "I mean sure, you're here with my sister, which, my condolences. But this one's taken."

He's dressed casually too, in a button down and jeans and she hasn't seen him in over six months since the last family gathering and something inside her clenches to the point where it almost hurts. Or stops hurting. Either way.

"The hooker heels really complete the look," is all he says about her dress. Obviously.

He shakes Jesse's hand and she thinks he holds it tighter than necessary and knows she's just imagining it, "Good to see you again, mate."

"Likewise," Jesse nods his head, and she's definitely not imagining the straight set of his jaw.

She reaches out her hand, for what, she doesn't know, and he pointedly avoids it, pulling Jesse inside.

Rachel smiles brightly and takes her hand.


The most awkward thing about the dinner is how it isn't awkward at all.

Derek insults her with the kind of breathtaking élan and creativity that suggest he's been storing up the insults, all the while they've been avoiding each other, and Rachel oscillates between trying not to laugh and punching his arm. Jesse smiles politely, and sometimes even genuinely grins and she just sits in the middle and doesn't know why, but she feels like she just stepped into a time warp where all those years in college hadn't happened. Where the campus hadn't been so big, and he hadn't been so far away. Like she's home again and everything's the same as it's always been, except different.

She'd always thought that meeting him for the first time in college after all the phone calls and almosts would be huge. Something out of a book even, the kind she and Emily used to read behind newspaper covers. She hadn't allowed herself to completely think it out in her head or ask the why of it, but she'd been sure there would be musical accompaniment. Something soft, haunting. Something that would say we can't and can't we all at once.

The first time she actually sees him, it's something out of a primetime family drama. The kind where the father threatens to cut off the son's allowance if he doesn't show his sister around, and the brother sighs and waits till the father leaves before shoving her off on the first person he recognizes and gives them a pittance to 'take her to the library or something'.

(She doesn't remember much of that day, but he doesn't look back. She remembers that.)

There's only this one moment, when she's in the kitchen, keeping her plate and he's setting the desert on the tray and it's ridiculously domestic and she wants so much, so hard, that if she gets everything she wants, there'll be nothing left for anyone else in the world to want ever again. So she turns to move away, while he pretends she isn't there at all.

She doesn't know exactly what she'd expected, but it was something along the lines of long silences, biting words, avoiding glances; something out of a script that Julia Roberts probably rejected thrice and Derek would mock mercilessly. But she knows what she hadn't expected: this. It wasn't Derek's 'Venturi's Back in Town' one-man performance. Which just goes to show that she's an idiot of a hitherto undiscovered order and should probably give back her Valedictorian cap out of sheer decency.

She vaguely notices he has a sprinkling of ground sugar at the corner of his mouth and absently raises her hand to wipe it off, and he steps back sharply, his face set in hard, unsmiling lines that has nothing of the guy from two minutes before, "don't."

"Jesus," she moves her hand back immediately, embarrassed at the lapse, "I was just trying to— you don't need to be such a dick about it."

He stares at her for a good long while, taking in the dress and heels and her hair, and she feels ridiculously obvious, and angry that he can make her feel that way. Angry that he can still make her feel that way.

"Take a picture," she snaps, "lasts longer."

"You still need to dress up for him?" he asks instead, shoving his hands inside the pockets of his jeans, and leaning against the kitchen counter in a way that's so familiar, it almost makes her heart stop short of a full beat.

"For whom?" she's still snapping with way too much intensity, because she genuinely doesn't know, and she's an idiot and she wants to get out of here as fast as she can and she wants to stay here forever.

"Your boyfriend obviously," he drawls, stretching out the word mockingly, "you'd think after two years of living together, he'd have seen it all—"

"— he has," she adds in hastily, just in case, there is any confusion on the matter, she hasn't been faithful to anyone or anything. She has no reason to be.

Derek looks at her with the kind of inscrutable gaze that he definitely developed sometime in the A.D. period, because she used to be good at this. Him. She used to be good at him. She didn't like it— like physics or P.E. or something— but she was good at it.

She used to be a lot of things.

"And yet you're wearing low cut dresses and first-date blue eye-shadow," he points out, "which probably means you still need to do that to get any."

She flushes with partial annoyance and embarrassment, she hadn't even noticed; it's like she's been on autopilot all night. And she'd forgotten he'd remember.

"How I dress up, and how much I…get or do not get or when or how or what I need to do for my boyfriend is none of your business, so stay out of it" she retorts.

He raises both his hands in silent surrender, "don't need to go queen bitch on me. Can't a brother be concerned about his sister? Especially when the sister in question clearly needs to get laid to even be able to function as a semi-acceptable member of society."

"Don't call me that," she stops, and wishes she could take it back. She's not going to do this. Not while his fiancée is sitting in the next room and laughing over something her boyfriend just said.

The noise from the other room stills, and both Rachel and Jesse have obviously heard and are probably debating whether to come in and break it up or call an ambulance or the fire brigade or something, and equally obviously the other two won't do anything because it's them.

"Call you what?" she can tell he knows exactly what and she should just go out and not allow him to do this to her. Not anymore.

"queen bitch," she mutters instead, lamely, and avoids his eyes, and then continues because she never really learned to stop when it's him, "I wear blue eye-shadow everywhere now, okay, because every date with Jesse is like the first date. And everything we do, it's like the first time. Each time."

"Ain't love grand," Derek clasps his hands in a melodramatic gesture, "and you think you're in love with this guy?"

"Why not?" she asks, instantly on the defensive, even though she knows all she should really be doing is leaving.

"Because—" he stops short, and rubs the side of his neck like he does when he's feeling awkward, she remembers that, "it's about the learning and knowing which buttons to push and taking time out to learn each gesture and how to make love and how to annoy the hell out of them and what to fight about and what never to say in a fight. It's about building on every second together, not first dates over and over. They're not exciting, raw or anything, they're mostly just excruciating and uncomfortable and there are too many silences. First dates are the worst on the entire roster. You've only forgotten because you haven't actually been on one in forever."

She stands blankly at him in his new kitchen with his new fiancée on the other side of the wall and the dessert on the plate and his grand love speech and thinks something like when did you become this guy?

"Are we always going to be like this?" she asks instead, tiredly, "we were never like this."

"We were always like this." He looks at her like she's crazy, "were you not there for, like, five years of your life?"

"No," she says, because this is important, for some reason, this is important, "we were family, and sure we hated each other or pretended or whatever to but we were something, not- not whatever this is. What changed, Derek?"

He finishes setting the dessert and picks up the tray, "I decided to stop playing Happy Families. So obviously you decided to stop picking up the phone."

He leaves her then, standing and she thinks this may be the closest they've gotten to it. Which, when she thinks about it (she doesn't, she doesn't) is just a little sad.


"It's an open invitation you know," Rachel's head falls on Derek's shoulder and Casey's grip on her clutch tightens.

"We might just take you up on the offer," Jesse looks more relaxed than she's seen him in days and it makes her want to smile.

"What is with the flirting thing," Derek asks pseudo-suspiciously.

"Well someone has to balance out karma for how much you and Casey fight," Rachel replies, the corner of her mouth quirking, "not gonna lie; I was on verge of dialing the dry-cleaners just in case. Getting blood off the kitchen rug is a bitch and a half."

She can't look up suddenly, it's probably grandly ironic that their epic tragic romance is neither epic nor tragic and most definitely not a romance; in fact, it's more kitchen sink drama of the '60's variety if it comes under any literary genre at all.

"I had a wonderful time," she lies, and whispers as she leans down to hug Rachel, "and I'm glad you're marrying Derek." That isn't a lie.

It's raining as they make their way to the car and in minutes their clothes drench the upholstery. The drive back isn't as silent because of the accompanying thunder. This one time she glances at his profile out of the corner of her eye, and puts her hand on top of where his is resting on the clutch, but he shrugs it off without consciously attempting to do so. Twenty minutes later, he's stopped the car below their apartment, and is staring straight ahead.

And all she wants in that moment is for him to look at her.

She climbs on his lap in the cramped space, the dashboard digging uncomfortably into her back and thinks something like: she's way too old for this; and then thinks that's just sad. She unbuttons the top three buttons of his shirt, swiping her tongue along his collarbone. He sits still, gripping the armrest and why won't he look at her?

"Let's get married," she says desperately, clenching, unclenching her fist against the material of his shirt, "run away. Or something. To a place with a beach because there won't be as much trouble in taking everything off later. I don't even need a ring. I mean, I do. Because who doesn't. But we'll figure that out later. I just need you, okay? Just you."

Jesse's eyes shift from the front window to hers, and she almost wishes he'd look away again, because she can't stand the godforsaken look in his eyes, stand knowing she was the one to put it there.

"Let's get married," she whispers again.

He rubs his forehead wearily, his elbow catching her ribs accidentally and the ache is outside then, and that's better. That's always better.

"I don't think we should be together anymore."

She thinks it'd be poetry if the thunder could just crash then because she's the sort of girl who thinks of things like these at the worst possible moments.

(It doesn't, obviously.)


He's moved out within a week.

She doesn't say thank you and I'm so, so sorry and you'll find someone who deserves you and all the things she should because they're both so terrible at letting go, and she's letting him be the one to do it for the both of them.

(Except he's going to move on, and she's going to still be here, like always, and just this one fucking time, she'd like to be the one who moves on.)

She sends everything back; the pressed rose in the notebook, the notebook, even the tiny Cinderella glass slipper she loves to distraction, because theoretically this is how the moving on thing goes. She knows this stuff, she's Casey McDonald. All she's ever done is try to move on. She keeps the ring though. So obviously she's failing at the one thing she's been trying to do since ever. That would've totally helped her get over the grade-grubber rep in high school.

Marti calls the second after the last of the boxes has been loaded into the mover's van, and Casey doesn't know how she knows, but it's probably that she's psychic; anyway, even if she could muster up the strength to, it's still best not to ask just in case there are hidden videocams involved. She's related to Derek by blood.

"He's a cocksucker," are the first words out of her mouth.

"Marti—" Casey admonishes half-heartedly.

"No," Marti interrupts, all sixteen-year-old soothing charm, "I don't mean that as an insult. That would be politically incorrect and retarded anyway. Which would also be politically incorrect, but I mean, like, literally. He likes to suck dick, he's gay, he plays for the other team, etc."

She has this unholy image of Jesse on his knees with the guy from Blue's recital who was usually fourth on the left, and it makes her giggle slightly, even if it's mostly just hot. And then stop because she is not giggling at her sixteen-year-old stepsister name-calling her ex-boyfriend of less than a week ago.

"How do you figure?" she asks, drawing her knees to her chest. It's mostly just to prolong the conversation, even though the younger girl probably has better things to do.

"He left you," Marti says, simply, "so, obviously."

The tears are unnecessary, unwarranted and totally lame and god Casey, where is the ten second warning? This is so not cool. She gets that from her brother.

Marti sighs dramatically through the phone, "kindly register and store this supreme sacrifice in your photographic memory for further favors but— you wanna watch The Notebook together?"

"But," it's enough to make the tears stop, "you hate The Notebook."

"Ergo that part about the supreme sacrifice," Marti says, sounding like she can't believe Casey manages to get through the days with approximately three functional brain cells (she gets that from her brother too), "come on, Casey, work with me here!"

"You're also in a different city," she continues, uncomprehending.

Marti sighs again, "was the rock comfortable? Y'know, the one you were living under when the y2k revolution happened? Just, put the damn CD in, attach your pendrive to the T.V. or whatever and tell me when to press play. Your other two boyfriends, Ben and Jerry are welcome to join us, because I bet those poor bastards feel left out after I basically took over their jobs for them. Because I'm nice like that. And I need money for a new dress for the dance next Friday. Which are totally unrelated things, but the human mind thinks in a stream-of-consciousness. You minored in Literature, you know this stuff."

Casey smiles, and five minutes later, she's settling back in bed, pulling the blanket up till her chin, remote in hand, "now."

Marti stays on the other end the entire time, moaning about the stupidity of the direction and dialogues and fuck, what the fuck just happened. While she gushes about the gestures and did you see how he just looked at her? And oh my god, she loves him so much. And it's the best day she's had in a long, long while.

The movie is also actually better than she remembers, which she'd have thought impossible.

"You're golden, you'd know that," Marti says fondly just before she hangs up, with the kind of affection she usually reserves for Derek and small furry things, "you're the only person in the world who breaks up with a guy after years and then watches a movie that custom sells true love like its weed and, instead of the splashing-cold-water eye-opener, this-shit-is-stupid-bro, love-is-a-hallmark-myth thing, still buys it by the bale. I mean, you're a moron. But an adorable moron. Like that annoying kid from that one show about something not very interesting."

She bangs the phone down unusually hard, which Casey knows is the symbolic explication of Marti's opinion of her taste in movies. And even though George is probably going to end up in the hospital when faced with the monthly bill for the phone, she feels a little less melodramatic. And a little less alone.


She'd almost forgotten that feeling of being home. Like stepping into the London Asylum.

"Casey!" Nora exclaims with a smile that possibly eclipses the sun, because she can't see anything, but that may also be because Simon's thrown himself at her and is currently obscuring her vision and pulling at her hair with a concentration worthy of a greater cause.

"Mom," she exclaims in return, wrapping her arms around Nora, and this is being sixteen all over again, and always.

She can almost see Lizzie and Edwin hatching secret middle-children schemes in the games closet, while her mom tries to coax Marti from under the table. The sound of the shower drowns out all the other voices, and she's there, banging on the door, knowing with absolute certainty that he'll use up all the hot water just so he won't have to give her a ride to school in the Prince which George would force him to if they both manage to get ready at around the same time. Please, like she even wants to, like she'd allow even her corpse to be carried to the morgue in that heap of junk where car parts go to wither and die. But when they're both late, he'll wait for her anyway, because she's the one with the gas money.

This is being home.

And then she's twenty-five again because when she looks up, Lizzie's hair has more than a streak of blue and Edwin's carting around college books and lining them in clear sight just in case someone's missed them and Marti's high school leather pants exactly match George's 'this is not a mid-life crisis' leather pants and Nora doesn't ask her about Jesse because Simon's refusing to eat his peas. (Nobody says De-rek even once, because well, he's not here, and he's getting married and somehow he's the one who apparently went and did the Growing Up and Moving On thing without her and she hates him a little for it).

"Where's Derek," she asks casually, at exactly thirteen minutes past nine, when they're sitting down for dinner, because that would totally be a reasonable time for her to start wondering.

"He and Rachel will be here tomorrow," Nora says distractedly, trying to get Simon to eat his peas, "It's unmotherly, but I can't help but be glad the kids will be leaving for the hotel to look after the guests and make room for the 'closest friends' group'. And see if you believe this; Derek wants his room. I don't know how to get it through his head that it'll be impossibly cramped, not to mention they should really be behaving themselves till after the wedding."

Marti giggles and involuntarily she thinks of Jesse and the single bed and all the times she fell off and how nothing had felt better than when that was all there was; just a single bed and him.

"Nora," Edwin drops his fork with a loud clatter, "not while I'm eating."

Lizzie snorts into her spaghetti, and Marti's still giggling, while also managing to stare at her with a sharp look that has her picking up her fork and transferring food to her mouth just to do something.

Marti confronts her after dinner, hand in pocket, which looks like an Olympic feat all on its own. She blocks the staircase with practiced ease, dripping casual menace as Casey tries to sidestep her and fails miserably.

"So," she stops, taking the time to chew her gum and stretching the tension (and maybe she learnt the creation of perfect frames from her brother too), "are you planning on speaking now or forever holding your peace?"

"What," she involuntarily meets the younger girl's indecipherable gaze, "I don't know what you're talking—"

Marti smacks her gum with extra decibels, "…no," Casey ends lamely. Doesn't know how it answers the question, but it's the only answer she has.

Marti stares at her for a long moment, which smacks of melodrama and just a shade too much truth, "for the record? You're an idiot too. You guys suck at the role-model, teach the kids to follow-their-hearts thing. I hope you know that if I grow up to be a cynical, cold-hearted bitch who doesn't believe in anything, it'll be on you and that stupid guy you're totally, completely, utterly not in love with."

She takes the stairs two at a time, and leaves Casey standing there, holding onto the bannister till the color bleeds out of her knuckles.


Even the pictures are the same, even though she'd imagine the people in them couldn't possibly be.

The office looks exactly like she remembers, with the overflowing wastebasket and Paul's trophies and it's ironic how much this feels like home.

"Casey?" Paul's face lights up with something that is part terror and part pleasure and come on, she wasn't that bad.

"I thought you might not remember me," she slings her bag down on the old chair, "I mean, you've got to have a lot of students in here every year."

"Believe me," Paul straightens one of the pictures, and she has a distinct feeling it's to avoid looking at her, "you have nothing to worry about on that count."

"How are the computer science kids this year?" she asks awkwardly, "you still teach that, right? Part-time, I mean?"

"Yes," he begins, "they're—"

"Derek's getting married," she interjects.

He's either really good or she's really predictable, "congratulations!"

She stares at him, disconcerted, "I'm not getting married, Derek's getting married."

Paul's lips have a suspicious twitch about them, "it's a common custom to congratulate the family in such matters."

"Oh," she looks at the slight crack on the edge of the frame. "Please. Like I could be related to him. No single gene pool deals in that sort of mutation. We're not family." She feels like she's had this conversation before, sitting on this very chair, over and over, but she's too exhausted to care that after all this time it's still always him.

Paul, to his credit, doesn't so much as blink an eye, instead clasping his hand on the table, "only technically," he points out mildly.

"Only technically," she echoes.

He conspiratorially leans forward, "how have you been?"

"She's not blonde," she answers, although she doesn't know what the question is.

"Why would you think she'd be blonde?" he easily continues, leaning back in his chair, crossing his arms. The pose is so familiar, she automatically answers with the truth.

"Because of Sally," he looks a little lost so she persists, "you remember, his girlfriend Sally? The one who moved to Vancouver?"

His eyes light in understanding, "the girl was going to quit high school for, if I recall correctly."

He does, "yeah, he was in love with her," out of nowhere she thinks of the refrain of that one song from so long ago, something like and I blame you. She doesn't remember the entire song, but she remembers that, remembers singing it, "the kind of love where pizza tasted better with her and he played harder when she came to watch. She was blonde, you know. Sally. Rachel's not."

"But why," Paul resumes lightly, "would you think Rachel should necessarily be blonde because Sally was?"

"Because," she says, and how is he not getting this? "he was in love with Sally. That kind of love where she could break his ten second tear warning rule and he let her and she could get past his no hugging rule and he tried writing poetry for her and held her hand in public and wanted to leave school, of all the senseless, irresponsible decisions in the world—" she stops,

"And?" Paul questions quietly.

"And," she's never noticed the criss-crossings over the wood of the frame before, it's so tiny, if she wasn't staring so hard at it, she'd probably have missed them. "and, it's just— it's Derek. He has the emotional range of a brick wall. It's like— he exhausted everything he had to give there. With her. What more could he possibly know about being in love?"

"So," Paul begins slowly, "you're mad because he fell in love with a girl who wasn't Sally. Because you'd thought that that was it for him, and it turned out it just…wasn't. That he could love more, could love again, harder perhaps."

"No," she replies hastily, and then laughs for good measure to reiterate how ridiculous that suggestion is, because it is. Ridiculous. "I'm not mad, obviously. It's just illogical."

"Because you thought you'd be the first to move on, get married."

"Yes," she answers absent-mindedly, still fascinated by the wooden markings "wait, what? No."

Paul gives her that look where he does that thing with his eyebrows that lets her know she's not fooling anyone, except perhaps herself, "yes," she admits again in a small voice.

There's a silence in which she thinks of picking up her bag three times and finally picks it the fourth time, "I should really be going. There's so much work to be done at home. It was nice seeing you again."

She's almost at the door, when Paul's voice stops her, "didn't you fall in love with someone else?"

She turns around, holding the strap tightly, "I beg your pardon."

"Didn't you," Paul gestures in a way that takes in the whole room and could mean anything; it's probably the computer science in him, "ever fall in love with anyone else."

"I wasn't ever in love at all," her forehead creases, thinking back.

"Of course," Paul says mildly, eyes guarded, "well, then didn't you fall in love."

"I dated this guy called Jesse for close to four years," she offers, "met him in the year I took off before college, but that didn't—" she falters, and hopes he doesn't ask the why of it, "work out."

"You took a year off before college?" Paul asks, and this time he sounds genuinely surprised.

She nods, "to pursue ballet. It was good while it lasted, but I'm glad I took up Law at Queen's, even though the working hours are insane."

"You're a lawyer?" Paul asks, again with the note of astonishment.

She nods again, turning to leave, "I'm really getting late for—"

"And that," it's the gentleness in Paul's voice that makes her still, "all that stuff. That wasn't important?"


"You," Paul does his universal gesture thing again, "told me everything about Derek and nothing about you."

"Well, his marriage is kind of the Big Deal around these days." she snorts, "hard to concentrate on anything else within the McDonald-Venturi madhouse."

"Yes," Paul says, like he's leading somewhere and she keeps missing the point, "for him. And it's important of course, to all of you. But— you said at the beginning yourself— you're not the one getting married, so why is it the most important thing in your life?"

"It's not—" she begins, and then stops at Paul's resigned expression, "I don't know."

Paul leans back further, almost toppling over, and this is something that didn't change, "Derek isn't all who you are, Casey."

"I know that," she insists, because how is that even a statement at all. Of course she knows that. He's not even an iota of her.

"Do you?" is all Paul says cryptically, before she finally closes the door behind her.


She opens the door, and there's Sam.

"Hi," she tucks a stray strand of hair behind her ear, suddenly feeling self-conscious, even though she isn't quite sure why.

"Hi," he repeats, staring at her, absently running his thumb over the handle of his suitcase.

"Are you—" she begins, the same moment he start with "how are—" and they both burst out laughing, and suddenly it's not awkward anymore. It's Sam.

She links her arm with his, and pulls him inside after her, "So, Mr. Richards, how have—"

"Dude," Derek's voice calls from the staircase, interrupting her, because obviously.

He's down in seconds, elbowing her aside, as he pulls Sam in for a manly handshake because he still has his stupid 'no hug' policy and doesn't do the manly one-armed hug thing unless it's Sally or Rachel or her when she's pissed off and wants to be touched the least.

"Insane man," Sam clasps his shoulder with a free hand, keeping his suitcase down with the other, "you're getting married."

"That is insane," she mutters darkly, idly rubbing her arm, which still stings a little with the force of his collision into it, "we're all very happy for him, and all very sorry for Rachel."

"She's just jealous," Derek dismisses her with a wave of his hand, the idiot, "because who would let that marry them."

She squeaks indignantly, "you're just lucky you found that one girl in the entire world who'd even so much as consider—"

"I'd marry her," Sam suggests, mildly, obviously trying to ease the tension like he used to before, and they fit so easily into before, it makes her ache a little, "she's smart, beautiful and passionate— about what she believes in," he continues hastily, as both of them turn to look at him.

"Dude," Derek raises an eyebrow, "this is so not cool."

"What did I say," Sam stretches his arm in silent defense, "I was just saying."

"If I want to sleep with Sam, I'll sleep with Sam," she declares heatedly. For some reason she can't force out the word marry.

Derek immediately rounds on her, "you seem to be under the mistaken assumption that anyone, let alone my Sam wants to sleep with you."

"He isn't your Sam, and he can decide for himself. Isn't that right, Sam?"

"Sam, is my best friend and I know everything there is to know about him and I can give you a signed and sealed paper testifying to the fact that he's only capable of making that kind of mistake once."

They both turn to him, looking for all intents and purposes like a civilian caught in a cross-fire; "you're…both right?" he tries, as usual. And in trying to please both, pleases neither, as usual.

"I know it's considered traditional," Derek stretches out the word to make his opinion of the tradition clear, "for the best man and one of the bridesmaids to hook up. But Casey? You're my best friend, Sammy boy, and I like to think I have a certain standard in that category. We don't go in circles around here."

"Don't we?" there's this moment when he's just watching Derek with this unreadable expression on his face and she has the oddest feeling she should turn away. This is between them.

"But you've nothing to worry about, dude," Sam continues, and he's not laughing, "after all, I'm guessing the Male Code still applies, yeah?"

They stare at each other for what seems like several eternities and she's almost at the point of wishing she'd never said anything. It's not like she wants to sleep with Sam.

Or something.

(She doesn't know what it means, but Derek looks away first, and that always feels a bit like winning.)

Dinner that night is a bit like a stock reel with snapshots put together to make a film. It's odd how cramped she feels with Edwin and Lizzie and Marti away with their friends to make space. Because they'd understand, she knows that, they'd know. Nora's smile seems too bright, George's jokes too loud and it's an unconnected montage and she doesn't seem to remember how to hold the fork.

Rachel is all dark hair and bright smiles, and she's sort of getting the stepsister role down again, but because she hasn't played it in so long, her line delivery is weak. And this one time Sam's hand brushes hers accidentally, as he reaches across to pick up the table salt, and she's furious to find herself blushing. She's not that girl anymore. She is not.

And obviously Derek notices, because that's like his life mission or something. To catalogue every single humiliating moment of her existence and then note it down for the comic, side characters in his films. It's not like she hadn't noticed the nerdy best friend who fell a lot when she was crushing on someone, or that girl who used too much blue eye-shadow or that girl who declaimed at length on the pig-skin in fling flong, or that girl who thought ballet was a competitive sport and tried to get the high school to transfer the hockey money into holding tournaments, or the unpopular girl who ran for student council or that clumsy waitress who got fired after her first job or that girl who compulsively sent back everything after each break up or the girl who dressed up in superhero costumes to 'play' at feminism.

(It's a bit like watching pieces of herself scattered all over the screen. Just there, for everyone to see. And even if they don't know, she does. And it's embarrassing and it's invasive because it's all those little things in shadows with different faces and different words and different smiles that she thought no one knew, and sometimes it doesn't even seem like it's deliberate and it's terrifying. The camera is his battle-field these days, hers is mostly torn pieces of paper in the trashcan.)

At first, it's an accident. She's sure of it, because Sam looks at her with a wide-eyed apology and she smiles in the it's fine and this is not weird at all and stuff like this happens and don't worry about it sort of way. Because it isn't. At all. Weird, she means. But then he does it again— just for the briefest moment, his leg tangles with hers, and she looks up to see the same expression on his face from before.

She pulls her foot back immediately, biting her lip hard, because of course, she won't. Not all over again. But Derek has his hand in Rachel's on the table, and if he can, she can. She's a grown up girl okay, and there's a frisson with Sam. And she doesn't know. Doesn't know if it's nostalgia, or loneliness or something else, and she won't know till she's tried.

So she drops the sandal, allows her foot to slide back, touch his jean-clad leg for just that one second. He doesn't look up, and her heart sinks. Maybe it had been an accident the second time round as well. There's no giant sign that the universe is building from these could-be moments. God, she's so stupid.

Her glance inadvertently slides from Sam to him. For once, he's looking back, and even though she can't read his expression, these days, she knows, with absolute certainty that it wasn't Sam's foot at all. And she thinks something like it's not fair, even though she doesn't know what it is. Even though she doesn't know why. But this is what she does know: it's not, not, not fair.

He holds her gaze for longer than necessary, and then deliberately looks at Sam, before turning back to her, his lips curling in something close to derision. And suddenly that's what it feels like; Derek's getting married to his best friend from college, and she's on the verge of getting back together with her first high school crush. For every one step he takes forward, she takes thirty seven back.

"So, Casey," Derek says with false brightness, and she can feel everyone tense, hold their spoons a little tighter, their smiles get a little more fixed, and she can't remember if it's always been like this, "you never did get around to telling us what happened with Jesse. You looked so happy together that night you visited us, Rachel was almost ready to print out two separate set of wedding cards in bulk."

She reels back, stung. Sam puts his spoon down carefully, like he's trying especially hard to not allow it to make any sound that might betray what he's thinking, while Rachel shoots her an apologetic look.

"Derek," George's voice sounds harder than usual, "I can't see how that's appropriate dinner-time conversation. Casey's relationships are her private business, which means you need to stay out of them."

"Come on Dad," says Derek, "I would never interfere in Casey's oh-so-private life, but then again, that clause would hold only if there was a relationship to begin with."

"Derek—" Sam and Rachel begin simultaneously.

She follows her first instinct, "Derek kicked me," she says, childishly, to Nora.

Nora turns the glare she'd been shooting at Derek on her without missing a beat, which she thinks is rather unfair. She's the real daughter here, while he's the evil stepbrother from what he'd probably think is Snow White, "Casey," her voice is light, but the warning undercurrent is unmistakable, "you're too old for this."

"Tell Derek that," she mutters.

"So it's my fault she's trying to play footsie with me under the table?"


Her face heats up, as he stares at her unabashedly, only partly with annoyance, "and this guy thinks he's mature enough to be getting married? For your information, Derek, I was playing footsie with Sam. Which I'm free to do, because I'm old enough to make my own decisions about what to do, when and with whom, okay."

"I'd prefer it," his grip on the corner of the table tightens and she's so mad right now she could hit him, nobody can get under her skin like he does, not even now, maybe not ever, and that'll never be anything but sad. And by sad she means lame, obviously. "if your what-when-whom didn't involve my best friend."

"God," her laughter has an edge of hysteria to it, "Like me liking your best friend is so threatening to you."

She freezes then, and across the table he does too, because how did they get all the way back here?

Rachel's smile is a little less bright, a little more glassy, and she can tell by both her parents' looks that there's this one line they both crossed twenty steps back. There's no poetry here.

"That was me," Sam chimes in, and she shoots him a grateful look, "I was trying— I mean, it was just—"

"You don't have to explain, Sam," Nora says kindly, "Casey, Derek, you can do the dishes, since obviously you haven't had time to catch up. It seems the wedding planning is taking its toll on both of you."

That is the official and only explanation, her mother's tone says, and there is always an official explanation, she knows that.

"I'm so disappointed in both of you," Nora whispers as she passes them by, not looking at either of them, and somehow, more than Derek being a bastard or Derek getting married, or the freshly re-opened wound of Jesse leaving her, that's the worst of all.


"What is your problem?" she hisses, as soon as they're alone in the kitchen.

"You," he replies, without missing a beat, "don't think I don't know how this is going to go down."

"Please," she crosses her arms over her chest, leaning against the sink, thinks they've been here before, always end up here somehow, "enlighten me. Since you so obviously know everything there is to know in the world."

"I don't want to see him get hurt, okay," he runs his fingers through his hair in frustration, "he's my best friend and you're like— the Queen of Breaking Hearts in the deck or whatever."

She uncrosses her arms instinctively, the surprise lining every single curve of her body, "what?"

"Casey," he sighs, and somehow he sounds as tired as she feels, "you're going to play footsie under the table, have sappy sex in your room, and it'll be all sunshine and roses and purple unicorns. Till one day, he's just not good enough. And he won't know why, and you won't know why, but he just won't be. Nobody ever is."

She keeps her eyes fixed on the plate, he just won't be, nobody ever is. "You can't know that, okay, Derek. Nobody can. Maybe it just wasn't the right time last time. Maybe this time—"

"—maybe this time," he cuts in smoothly, "it'll last longer than a month. Maybe this time, you'll break his heart slower."

"I don't—" she protests, and stops, because this one time she doesn't know what to say. Her head is throbbing for some reason and she mostly just wants an aspirin and to go to sleep.

"Don't you?" Derek asks slowly, like he needs her to get this and she won't if he's too fast, which is ridiculous because he's the one who was failing English in high school, "you remember Alex? From college?"

She looks up at the abrupt change in subject. Of course she remembers Alex; wild, beautiful Alex, dancing on bar tables till the break of dawn and still managing to hand in every assignment in time, double spaced and justified. With an actual list of every eligible guy on campus and a mission to sleep with every single one before college ended. Alex's List was infamous. Irrelevantly she wonders if Alex ever managed to work her way down to the bottom of the list.

Maybe her look of recognition is enough, because he's continuing, "I was in a relationship with her."

"You mean you slept with her more than once," she corrects sarcastically, "using the definition from the Derek-dictionary, special edition, version two point oh."

He rolls his eyes, like she's so predictable and she hates that look. Like he knows her, or something. "No, we were in a relationship. The watching-Oprah, day-in-bed, sitting-together-in-class, plans-for-the-evening, what-you-would-call-it kind of relationship."

"Oh," she absently picks up the washcloth, twisting it in her hands. She doesn't know why she remembers it, but she does, she always does, "was Alex—" she stops, clearing her throat uncomfortably, "was Alex the girl Marti called about that time?"

"Yeah." he's still composed and it's so annoying because she learned to read him by heart; every phrase, every word, every glance and then he went and…translated it all in a language she doesn't know. In her head, that metaphor totally works.

"I don't see how that's related to, well, anything." Need a hug is what the sixteen-year-old version of herself would have said, because the sixteen-year-old version of herself was horrifically obvious and setting herself up for a fall at every given opportunity. He would have refused if she'd asked anyway. Because he always does. And somewhere along the line she stopped asking.

"Alex made it clear she didn't want anything serious," he says, looking straight at her. She can't quite meet his eyes for some reason, so she looks at a point slightly left to his head, "and it ended exactly like it was always going to. That very evening, I got over it."

"Clearly," she adds in, just for the sake of saying something. She's fidgeting she knows, because nothing's broken yet and nobody's screaming or running off and Derek's telling her his deep, dark secrets like they do this confession stuff all the time.

He ignores her, "I got over it, because I'd always known. She'd wanted what I wanted and it was easy and uncomplicated. But you, you're confusing and crazy and completely messed-up."

She makes an indignant sound of protest somewhere at the back of her throat. From the corner of her eye, she can tell he's looking at her expectantly, like he expects her to just get the whole point in a pointless story which he'd presumably only recounted for the sake of insulting her in the last line. It's Derek.

"If we can't have a conversation like mature adults," she says petulantly, childishly, "then I don't have to listen to you, so there."

He stares calmly at her for a beat, "you don't get it, do you?"

She snorts indelicately, "like there was anything to get. You're just trying to get around the Sam issue. And badly, I might add. You used to be better at this."

"Casey," Derek says, and she can tell that exasperation is the predominant emotion in his voice, even though he probably can't even spell the word, "you're insane. Every guy who, and as much of a mind-fuck the concept is—" he stops for a moment, then continues with an inflection that suggests that he's forced to use the phrase for the lack of a better option (and a limited vocabulary, she would say), "falls…in love with you, knows exactly what you want out of it. A picket fence and undying romance and three children with fifty seven percent shade of the color of your eyes and figures and probabilities that the middle child will graduate with a degree in Economics and the youngest girl will need braces."

"So?" she asks bluntly, she doesn't know what it's leading to. She doesn't know if it's leading to anything at all. Or if it's one of those moments that seem so much more and then just aren't. Like stupid hula hoops and zombie dances and phone calls and driving lessons that seemed to mean something till she was old enough to know that all meaning is defined as the space between two objects.

"So," Derek looks at her calmly, "they fall anyway. They know you and they still fall. Even over the crazy and the freaking out about sex or the holding off of sex entirely, because god knows you're the promotional poster for the 40 Year Old Virgin, and the obsessive compulsive cleaning and those control-freakish, neurotic tendencies of yours. Alex, it's easy to fall for. There's nothing you're particularly asking for, and she won't give any more than that, but you already know that. But you? You ask for everything it's possible to ask for and it'd take someone exceptionally stupid and hard-headed to fall that low, that hard, that deep. They're the ones falling into picket fences, and then it's always easy for you to do the un-falling first. To just pick up your bags and walk out the door and send each memory back as a giant, unmistakable fuck you."

She smiles, almost; she can't help it, "are you saying I'm a hard person to get over?"

He backtracks immediately, "I didn't say that."

"You did," the hard knot in her chest loosens a little, just a very little, "you totally just did."

"I'm just saying," he says defensively, "don't do that to Sam, okay. Not again."

She turns back to the sink, picking up a plate. He'll forget all about the dishes and leave her to do them, she knows. They're kind of a cliché that way. She can feel him staring, but she doesn't turn around.

"Tell me that's not what happened with Jesse," he says quietly, "go ahead. I dare you."

Like Derek of all people has a right to assume the high ground in this conversation with his track record. And anyway, that's not what happened with Jesse, she wants to say, he walked out first She's not a…a chronic heartbreaker or anything. (Just tell me why not. Just say it, and we won't.)

"Why aren't you helping Casey with the dishes?" Rachel's voice calls from the doorway, cutting off any answer she might have wanted to give. (There was no answer, and she's sort of glad she doesn't have to make up anymore. Mostly.) "Derek, don't be an ass."

Rachel's voice is different. The brightness seems almost unnatural, like the harsh brightness of a naked bulb, she thinks, because she thinks in poetry. Only sometimes. But sometimes.

When she turns around, Rachel's arms are wrapped around his waist, as he holds her shoulders in an awkward one-arm hug, their heads together. And quite suddenly she thinks something ridiculous like the kids should have his hair. And Rachel's eyes, because Rachel is beautiful. But his hair. She doesn't even like his hair, but, still.

"I apologize on his behalf," Rachel smiles at her, "for his appalling behavior tonight. And I promise to reconsider the whole wedding thing." From beside her, Derek snorts, he's still looking at her for some reason.

"That's okay," she says lamely. She has this distinct feeling she should be saying something brilliant to highlight the welcoming-sister-in-law, bonding-over-the-immaturity-of-the-brother/husband, why-do-we-love-this-idiot-except-in-totally-different-ways sort of vibe, but she can't quite seem to get it right. She's the dancer, okay, Derek's the actor. Director. Whatever.

She finishes the last dish, and wipes her hand, brushing past them into the dining room, just as Rachel turns back to him, "what am I going to do with you," she sighs in mock exasperation, before leaning in to kiss him.

It's sort of fascinating, she thinks in some hazy corner of her mind, like a train-wreck which is disturbing and depressing and fascinating all at the same time. She wants to look away but it's like all her motor functions went and died on her without the requisite two week notice.

"Casey," Sam's voice calls softly from behind her, and she looks back, unseeing, before she blinks and he comes into focus.

"Hey," he says, all over again, his eyes darting between the scene in front of him to her.

"Hey," she says, mechanically, all over again.

He's looking at her like he understands. Something. She doesn't know what. But he understands, "you wanna go up to Edwin's room and catch up maybe? We didn't really get the time earlier."

"Um," she dimly registers that Derek's pulled back and is observing them while Rachel's still looking at him with an expression that isn't particularly one. She tries not to, but she unintentionally catches his inscrutable gaze anyway, before breaking off and looking back at Sam, "yeah. Okay."

Sam nods, and links his hand through hers as she'd done earlier in the day. It feels like a lifetime ago for some reason.


"I'm kind of tired tonight," she says awkwardly, "what say we postpone the talking thing for tomorrow?"

"Sure," he nods immediately and in this moment she can't remember why they ever broke up, "I bet the wedding preparation's starting to take its toll too like Nora said."

There's something strange in his voice; like he's not exactly saying what it seems he's saying but that's all he's going to say about it.

She nods, and clumsily puts her arms around him, "good night."

"Night," he echoes, pressing her tightly once.

She's halfway through the door, when she's turning back and she'd like to say she trip and fell because she can't actually be kissing Sam.

It feels a little like relief. Like maybe she can do this too. The whole moving on thing.

"Good night," she says again, when she's finally pulled back, and he's staring at her with a slightly dazed look.

And smiles.


"Space case?" his voice calls from outside, before the knob of her door turns and a shaft of light breaks the darkness for a second as he enters without knocking.

"What?" she snaps, her voice muffled by the covers, annoyed by his constant use of those old nicknames he used to all the time, like everything isn't different and won't always be, "and knock."

He's silent for a moment, like he hadn't expected her to be here. Which is ridiculous. Where else would she be anyway, Sam's room? Her face heats up, as it strikes her that that's probably exactly where he thought she'd ended up.

"You left your ring downstairs," he says abruptly. She probably took it off while washing the dishes. It's the toy ring, the one she didn't return. The one Jesse had pulled out of a cracker and dramatically proposed to her with, going down on his knees. She doesn't know why she didn't just send it back with the other stuff, or why she still wears it sometimes, "and since you'd have found some way of blaming me for it and gone into tear-jerking throes of theatrics, I got it back. Don't leave your shit lying around, if you don't want it falling into the sink."

He throws it on the bed, the jerk.

She keeps it on the dresser, the covers falling down, when she notices he still hasn't left.

"Derek," Rachel's voice sounds from outside, "are you coming in?"

"Just a second," he calls back, not moving.

She deliberately looks between him and the door, "actually, you don't need to wait a second, please feel free to leave three minutes ago."

"What," he says grimly, "no 'thank you, Derek', no 'I would have totally lost this if it weren't for you, Derek', no 'you're such a good brother to me, Derek'?"

She fakes surprise, "what's the matter, Derek? Can't script real life like one of your movies? We were waiting to tell you this but I think you need to hear it now— there's no Santa Claus. It was George and mom all this while. Now get out."

"Why did you keep it," he asks gruffly, "the ring."

"I fail to see how that's any of your business whatsoever."

"It's a toy ring." He points out, like she hadn't noticed.

"I am well aware," she replies, "and as much as you don't know and can't understand symbolism because you failed first grade, it means something."

"What—" he says, "that your boyfriend wanted a constant out? Or couldn't afford a real one? Or just didn't want to be bothered."

"You wouldn't understand," she says dismissively, "when you're in love, it doesn't matter. It could be a paper ring and it'd mean more than anything money could buy."

He laughs, he actually laughs, "where did you get that from— the MasterCard 'some things money can't buy' commercial? You've always wanted the most expensive ring in that display downtown in Toronto. The one that doesn't even look like it'd likely make you sell a house to be able to afford half the price."

It's a beautiful ring okay, very subtle, with a ring of emeralds encrusted in a gold setting and—and subtlety costs money. And it's not like she thinks she'll ever get it, it's been absent from the display since a long time anyway. It's just— she just wants it, that's not criminally culpable.

She flushes, "I'm not materialistic."

"You're— you," he says cryptically. Although it's Derek, whatever that means, it's probably insulting and nothing she wants to hear elaborated.

"How do you know…about that anyway?" she asks tersely.

"Derek," Rachel's voice calls again and it strikes her that she sounds tired, so very tired, "it's really late."

He leaves then, shutting the door behind him. Doesn't answer.


She opens the door and she's engulfed from two sides before she's had any time to register.

"Casey—" Ralph and Emily shriek together.

This is something she knows: things change. But right now, this is something she's willing to forget.


Emily watches knowingly, as she inconspicuously links her hand through Sam's.

"So," she says, when they're alone in the kitchen, "you and Sam, huh?"

She blushes, "yeah, I mean, just, sort of. Only since we've been back here. Nothing's really…happened yet."

Emily wisely changes the subject, "so who is this Rachel girl anyway? Should we be starting the bitchfest?"

"She's very nice, very pretty and much too good for Derek," she replies on autopilot, before registering, "wait— the bitchfest?"

"Oh, you know," Emily looks at her significantly, and it strikes her then. She's so stupid.

"God, you and Derek had— this must be hard for you," she says, stumbling over the words, "I'm so sorry. I just didn't realize it. We can totally have a bitchfest, I swear."

Emily looks at her blankly, "me and Derek?"

"Yeah," she says, "I mean, you guys were together, right? And you— I mean he— both of you, had liked each other from before and everything. I don't know how I missed that."

Emily looks mystified, "that was a long time ago, Casey. I've been dating someone since the past two years."

"Oh," she starts, confused, "I just thought, because you said—"

But Emily only laughs, something like realization coloring her eyes, "you haven't changed at all, have you."

And when she thinks about it, she thinks it's kind of sad that's not a question.


"Casey!" Ralph says enthusiastically, before engulfing her in another bear-hug, "smashing to see you again."

She grins widely, "smashing to see you again too, Ralphie."

Rachel smiles at them indulgently from where she's reclining on Derek's Chair. Absently, Casey wonders if the Rachel knows that it took a broken leg for her to get the Chair, even for a day. But obviously, Rachel is marrying Derek; it's a whole different thing.

(If you ask her, this is what doesn't happen:

"It's so strange, Derek getting married. Always thought you and him would get it on," the words sound muffled against the food, he's shoving into his mouth. Maybe he said something else. She hopes to god he said something else.

He turns to Rachel and smiles openly, "no offence, of course." She sneaks a quick glance; the other woman's smile seems frozen on her face.

Her throat closes a little with something close to panic, "um, Ralphie, we hate each other, remember?"

"Really?" he looks at her, surprised, "I thought that was to hold off admitting you were madly in love till the end. Like in the movies, you know. Amanda watches a lot of those kinds."

"How is Amanda?" she asks brightly, conscious of changing the subject in the most obvious way possible, but that's a ridiculous line of thought and that way lies madness so she'll cheat if that's what it takes. Rachel leaves halfway through her question, and she heaves a sigh of relief.

His face lights blissfully and hers softens watching him, "smashing. As always."

"What is that," she laughs, "you word of the day or something?"

"Yeah," he says simply. "I've used it eleven times already. There's nine left now. So you hate Derek? I know he can be a little mean sometimes. But he's a nice guy, I swear. You just have to get used to him."

"We're stepsiblings, you know," she wishes she could go back and erase the entire conversation so this can be her first objection.

He thinks about that for a minute, "oh, yeah. I forgot. That would be weird, wouldn't it?"

"Yeah," she says dully, "it would. Very weird."

"But," Ralph says, settling down into the couch, "it would also kind of be smashing."

If this actually happened; that would be number twelve.)


There are things she doesn't do now. Like use the words 'destiny' or 'fate' or bullshit like that. Stuff doesn't happen for a reason, it just happens. God, even LOST taught her that, don't mistake accidents for fate or something of the sort.

"Um." she says, articulately, unconsciously holding Sam's hand tighter.

Jesse looks uncomfortable, "hey."

So obviously, Derek chooses that moment to walk in from the kitchen, a bag of chips in hand (seriously, this guy is getting married?), stopping abruptly, his gaze travelling from one to the other.

"Don't mind me," he drawls, "there's nothing good on the television right now, so I'll just sit here."

She glares at him, before turning back, "um, hi."

Jesse scratches the back of his neck in a gesture she remembers, "Rachel called and invited me over. She just said—"

"No," she says, hurriedly, "no, I mean, yeah, that's totally fine, of course. You were always invited for the wedding."

Jesse looks at her hand clasped in Sam's, and she removes it as discreetly as she can. She doesn't know why, but it's weird. Like she owes him that much.

Derek laughs from behind, bringing attention to her gesture, and all three of them turn to look at him.

"Sorry," he says unapologetically, "but you really shouldn't be breaking the fourth wall. It's a mood-killer."

"shut up," she exclaims in exasperation. Jesse's not looking at her anymore; he's looking at Sam with the oddest expression on his face; part sympathy and something she can't define.

"I just wanted to—" he clears his throat, "I just wanted to ask you if that's okay. With you."

"Of course," she says, a little too loudly, "that's totally okay."

"I should be going," he says awkwardly, "I booked a hotel in central London."

"That's good," she nods her head like a clockwork piece, "that's really…good. You sure you don't want to talk to Rachel. She's in the shower right now; but she'll be downstairs in a bit."

"No," he says definitively, "I'll catch up with her later."

"Okay," she says, nodding her head again for good measure.

"That's the ex," Derek stage-whispers, as Jesse disappears out of sight, "you sure you want to be in that category, Sammy boy? He teaches dance. What if it's catching?"

She turns on him furiously, "ballet. And it's an art form, but you've to be higher up the evolutionary ladder to actually develop any sense of culture. Maybe your great-great-great-great grandchildren will get there someday."

"Oh, buuuuurn," Derek drags out the word, "Did you pick that out from the list of insults you make in all that time you spend not living?"

"Please, you guys," Sam cuts in, sounding drained, "I have a headache."

"That's code for you're not getting any tonight, if you have, in fact, been getting any all this while." Derek informs her.

"Derek," Sam's voice holds a clear note of warning.

"Just saying," he shrugs.

"I'll get you aspirin," she says. If there's anything she's learnt since then, it's how to ignore him. She's practically completed a doctorate in it by now.

She leads him up the stairs by hand, and it feels nice, just holding hands. Love, love comes later. Maybe it doesn't even exist. Who knows. But holding hands is good.

"Casey-" Derek calls, once, voice low.

She turns back, even though she shouldn't, even though she needs to goddamn stop, "what?"

He looks like he wants to speak for a moment, before his face goes blank, "nothing."

She doesn't ask again, like she would have, once upon a time. Just this once, she'll try something else. Just this once, she won't pass go or collect two hundred because she's done running around in circles.


Sex with Sam is old and new all at once.

It's knowing and remembering and discovering and it's coming home and it's moving away.

Do you like this, he asks once.

Yes, she says, yes.


The banging on the door wakes her up first. Sam rolls over with a grunt, and she smiles affectionately.

"Sam," she whispers, "the door."

He makes an unintelligible sound before sleepily putting on his robe. She lays back down, pulling the covers over herself. She could get used to this.

She's wide awake a second later when his voice floats through the door, "rise and shine, Sammy boy. Get your hockey gear on."

"I didn't get hockey gear, Derek; I'm here for a wedding. This guy I know, maybe you've heard of him."

"You didn't get hockey gear?" Derek sounds stricken, and she snorts softly, "'whatever, the show must go on, you can wear mine."

"Derek," Sam says patiently, "I'm a foot taller than you."

"Those delusions of yours speak of a very sick mind; Casey's obviously gone to your head" Derek says in pretend concern, "speaking of the she-devil. Where is she? Nora's going spare and I'm the one who gets blamed around here," he puts on a high-pitched voice that sounds nothing like her mom, "it's not like Casey to be so irresponsible when she knows she has work to do, Derek. What did you do this time, Derek. Find her before I get back home, Derek. I tried to explain that her mothership probably came and took her back, but Nora was singularly uncompromising on her—" he stops abruptly.

She looks up, heart sinking. The guilt rising up in her throat like bile is unpleasant and unwelcome and fucking unfair. She has nothing to feel guilty about.

"Oh." he says, standing straighter, voice hard.

"I'm here," she says unnecessarily.

"I see," he says, eyes fixed at a point on her collarbone. She resists the urge to cover herself further, "my apologies for the interruption, I wasn't aware Sam was…otherwise occupied."

She hates him, hates him, "oh, he was occupied last night," she says airily, "he's free now, you can take him for your hockey game or whatever." The look in his eyes almost makes her falter for a second, but only for a second, "of course, he might be too tired to play, but—"

She watches his knuckles on the doorknob turn white and feels a vicious kind of satisfaction. She doesn't know when she became this person. Doesn't particularly want to know.

"You better stay, Sam," Derek looks at his best friend with mock seriousness, gaze darker than usual "it might seem like she's willing to let you go, but she's just cataloging it for later so she can bring it up as an excuse, for why not when you break up."

Dimly, though her fury, she registers he said when. Not if you break up but when you break up. Because apparently he's the only one who's allowed to do this.

She wears her robe in hurry, past caring that it's turned inside out. The girl she was at sixteen would have stopped. Thought it out. Possibly drawn color-coded charts and complicated pie diagrams. But that's exactly who she's not. The girl she was at sixteen.

(She leaves Sam behind, still standing at the door, but she won't remember it till later.)

"What the hell, Derek."

He doesn't turn around, and she sick and tired of this. Whatever the hell this is. Whatever the hell it is that this has always, always been.

She blocks his way, hands on hips. He looks at her through shuttered eyes, like he couldn't possibly be any more bored of the proceedings.

"You sure you're doing the whole fucking thing right?" he asks crudely. Pretenses are pretty much the only thing they've ever been good at together. "because I'm pretty sure your astronomical level of frustration is sucking a giant black hole in the room."

"Very good Derek," her lips stretch with difficulty into a wide smile, "that's a whole metaphor carried through! Can we have the canned applause please."

"Whatever," he mutters, slinging his stupid leather jacket over his shoulders and he does not get to do this every single fucking time.

"Don't you dare walk away from me," she hisses, clutching her robe tighter, "don't you dare."

She doesn't know what she wants. Never has. But right now all she wants is for him to stop, stay, whatever. She's reaching out for his leather clad arm, and then he's pinned her against the wall in a trice, his hands on either side of her.

She stunned for a long second, staring at him wide-eyed, "Derek?" she didn't mean for it to be a question. She didn't mean for it to be that soft. There are so many, many things she didn't mean.

His mask slips off and in that split instant she knows this guy. He's the one who ruined her life and destroyed her dreams and then danced on-stage with her to un-ruin it. And then he's buried his head in the crook of her neck, where her robe's slipped open a little through her yielding, startled hands, his lips motionless against her skin in a way that makes her heart give a threatening warning. (This is what doesn't happen because her life's not a paperback: her heart doesn't skip a beat, and her pulse doesn't slow down. Really.)

He says something then, maybe, because his mouth moves, possibly forms words against her bare shoulder. She closes her eyes against the sound.

"Derek—" she doesn't hear the door open. Just like she doesn't believe in fate.

He raises his head from her shoulder, and he looks. Exhausted. He looks exhausted.

"It's not—" she swallows hard, her eyes fixed on Rachel, unable to look at Ralph, Emily, Jesse. Oh god, Rachel, "it's not what it look like. At all. I mean— obviously. That's…obvious." Because they're stepsiblings, and nobody can even possibly think that it could be what it looks like. She doesn't know what it looks like, but she remembers how it feels. And it can't possibly be what it feels like.

Rachel's gaze slides between them before settling on Derek, "say it isn't, and I won't," she says quietly, "just say it."

She inadvertently catches Jesse's eyes, just say it, and we won't.

She nudges Derek because she couldn't that time. She couldn't say it. But this time, maybe he can. He has to.

He looks at her briefly, and even though her life's not a paperback her heart skips a beat. He hasn't ever looked at her like that before. Never when she's been looking back. She drops her gaze, staring at the floor instead.

God, this is so stupid. Nothing happened. Nothing was going to happen. They'd had one of their heated fights and maybe, maybe it was nostalgia. Or something. For some long ago time when they weren't so bitter, both of them. She's dressed wrong, but that's for Sam. And okay, he had his head on her shoulder, so fucking what? They're almost family. Family does this all the fucking time. Why won't he say something. He's going to get his heart broken and break Rachel's in return for nothing at all.

He stays silent.

"You bastard," Rachel reels back, like he's physically hurt her, "you fucking bastard."

"Rach—" he begins, maybe to apologize, and the shuts up, like he's just realized he can't possibly.

"God," Rachel says, half laughing through watering eyes, "you fucking, selfish assholes. We get it, okay. You're messed up. You're fucking Freud's wet dream or whatever. But god, can you for a second stop messing everyone else along with you."

When she looks up Jesse's looking straight at her, an unreadable expression in his eyes, while Emily is studiously avoiding her gaze. She thinks of let's get married, she thinks of a blonde wig and Sam (Sam whom she left alone upstairs, just got up and left) and "Derek's only dating you to get to me," and she feels slightly sick.

"Just, stop making us fall in love with you," Rachel whispers, "when you've nothing to give. Please, just, stop."

She wishes she could. Stop. But then of course, that's kind of what they taught in eight grade geometry about circles; they don't.


The thing is: it was always complicated. From the first first time at the school when he wasn't who he was and she was exactly who she's been ever since. It was always going to be complicated.

This is what she thought would happen; they'd move on, find someone else and maybe sometimes, at family dinners they'd look at each other for a beat longer than necessary, but then they'd look away, and it'd be one of those things she wouldn't write in her diary and he wouldn't strum on his guitar.

It wasn't supposed to be this. She doesn't know exactly what it was supposed to be. But it wasn't supposed to be this.


"I'm leaving tonight," Rachel says, expression carefully blank as she closes the door behind her, glancing at the Swan Lake poster before turning around to look at her.

I'm sorry, she thinks, "oh," she says. She hadn't even been able to speak at all with Sam, but he'd known. Let her go just like that because he'd always known.

"Maybe you should talk to Derek," Rachel says, coldly, "just so the whole thing isn't an entire waste, you know."

It stings more than it should, because Rachel wasn't just Derek's would-be-wife, Rachel was her friend. The one who'd waited outside the bathroom door after that one drunken mistake in college, and heaved the same sigh of relief when the line didn't turn pink. God, what did he even look like, she can't remember.

"Where are you staying," she asks, for the sake of asking. Of ending the long silences.

"With Jesse," Rachel says bluntly, "for the while."

Maybe her face is more transparent than she realized because Rachel snorts, "wouldn't that be convenient."

She flushes, because she'd been thinking just that. Then it could be the start of a love story. Then it wouldn't have to end this way, with heartbreak all round. But maybe that's the thing about growing up; facing consequences.

"I—" she begins, just as Rachel says "you—" before stopping and staring at each other. And then she's crying, and what the hell is wrong with her. She's not the one who just had her heart broken along with the dissolution of herwedding plans. She has no right here.

For a moment, she's alone, then—

"God, you're a fucking tragedy," Rachel sighs, before pulling her into her arms, and she doesn't deserve this. She's the evil witch in the scenario.

"I'm sorry," she says over and over, because she is, she really, really is, "you should hate me."

"I do," Rachel admits, "a little. But, Case, I'm going to move on. It's going to take time, but it will happen. Because I wanted him, but I never needed him. You, you need him, you've always needed him, and that's got to suck. And I want to hate you, I do, but then I think of that, and I can't. Not as much as I'd like to anyway."

It hits her then; she needs Derek. Her heart hammers against her chest, because that's terrifying. That's the most terrifying feeling in the world. Needing Derek. Needing Derek.

"He loved me you know," Rachel says, after a moment, almost inaudible, "he was good at it. When you weren't around, he was good at it. Because he wanted to, so badly. And I knew it. I think I always did, even before you came to college, when you were just the occasional voice on his answering machine. But fools in love and everything."

She nods, like she understands. She doesn't. (Since when has Derek ever had to deal with the same thing. Since when has he not been shuttered eyes and a sharp tongue.)

"He couldn't hold it up as well when you were around though," Rachel continues, her mouth curling upwards, even as a slight tinge of bitterness lines the edge of her lips, "maybe that's why he never wanted to be around you. Why he kept putting off every dinner, every meeting. Because he just wanted to go on for a little while longer. Like maybe it would all go away or something if he just kept his distance long enough."

All they've really known is distance, she knows, and it never helps. For some reason, it just doesn't.

"I wish I didn't love him," she says wearily, resting her head against Rachel's shoulders. It wasn't supposed to be like this.

"I know," Rachel says quietly, holding her tightly, "that makes two of us."

She doesn't know if that means it makes the two of them in loving Derek or wishing she didn't love Derek, but she doesn't suppose it matters either way.


She trips as soon as she reaches the door and it's so ridiculously high school it makes her flush with the ridiculousness of it.

He's lying on his old bed with his headset on and some comic that he'll vociferously defend as a graphic novel, how illiterate are you if she mentions it. The room's a mess; his clothes half hanging out from the drawers, magazines strewn over the bed and she's pretty sure she'd find a three day old pizza slice under his bed if she bothered to look.

"I'm leaving." she begins unceremoniously, standing next to his drawer, arms crossed.

He looks up, apathy coloring each line of his face into a study in indifference. She doesn't know how he hears her at all and it strikes her that maybe he's just sitting here with blank headphones on, for the same reason she's wearing her bunny slippers. Because it used to mean something, and she wishes so hard it still could. But she dismisses the thought as soon as she thinks it. It's Derek.

"I'm leaving," she says again, louder, because her palms are sweating and maybe it's the slippers but she has the strangest feeling of being fifteen all over again and she doesn't know what else to do.

He has the audacity to laugh, as he turns back to his stupid comic almost immediately, "of course you are."

"It's not you," she continues determinedly, even though he's a jackass and she wants to hit him over the head with something hard almost as often as she wants to kiss him, "it's me."

"Is that what you came up with after an entire night of practicing in front of the mirror?" He looks at her pityingly, and she flushes with annoyance because he doesn't know, he's just guessing, but he's right anyway.

"Shut up," she snaps aggressively, losing all semblance of dignity, "it's—"

"Can't be much left for you to do here anyway," he interrupts her pleasantly, using the tone he would to talk about the weather, "my was-to-be wife hates me and thinks I'm a cad of the highest order, the fam's mad at all the shenanigans and the expenses and all you had to do was just show up to prove once again that it's still you every single fucking time. I'd call that a good week's work. And since we're unfortunately stuck here together, without the convenience of a phone you can refuse to pick up or doors you can refuse to open, you'll have to settle for leaving as a suitably dramatic mode of action."

"What," she says startled, "it's not that. It wasn't ever that. I don't even know what you mean."

"Don't you?" he asks casually, "do you want me to go there. Draw you a picture perhaps?"

"I thought we could do this differently, this time," the weariness lines her words before she can help it, "from how it usually is."

"How should we do it this time then? I just thought it would be such a waste of time to go through the entire script when everyone already knows there's only one way this ends, with you walking out the door. But, go on; don't hold back, since you're obviously dying to complete the speech you spent so much time practicing."

He's looking at her with polite interest like he's waiting for her to blow his mind with her presentation and excuses, arms crossed, (and it's like they never get over the pretenses, over and over and over) and suddenly it's all too much at once, "I have to leave," she says in a rush.

"You've already said that," he points out, "also the part about how it's you. Which, well, overstatement doesn't make for strong speeches. Just a friendly, familial tip."

"I just— I have to leave," she repeats, lamely. Thinks of Paul's sympathetic look, Derek isn't all you are, Casey. Thinks of you need Derek, you've always needed Derek.

"So you keep saying, and yet—" he looks pointedly at the door.

She doesn't answer, instead opening his drawer violently to shove the hanging clothes back in, just for the sake of giving her hands something to do, to just prolong the moment a little longer. The glint of green catches her eye before she's fully shut it again and she absently reaches out for it. Her back hits the handle hard, and she lets out a small sound of pain.

He looks up then, and something flashing in his eyes as they snap from the ring in her hand to her. Something she can maybe define if he gives her the time. She's almost read his expression when it slips back into his usual mask and she can't anymore.

"When did you buy this?" she asks, wide-eyed, mouth dry.

She expects him to lie, so obviously he doesn't. Maybe predictability is just her thing.

"Three years ago," he shrugs, like he doesn't understand why she'd bother him with such a trite question.

Without warning, the panic swells in her throat. "I need to— I have to leave, to—"

He nods his head in mock-understanding, picking up his comic, "Of course."

She drops the ring back into his drawer among his shirts. For a brief moment, she considers asking him where the box is. But knowing him, there probably isn't one. It's just the ridiculously expensive ring carelessly thrown among half-laundered shirts. It makes her ache a little, the thought. Because it's just like him to do that. To do this.

She stumbles on her way out, just as she'd stumbled on the way in and if she was that sort of girl anymore, she'd have thought it meant something.

"Just," he starts, when she's almost out, "just for the sake of argument; nothing I say will make you stay. Obviously."

He's staring at the comic too hard to actually be reading, "no," she whispers, honestly.

He smiles widely at the book, "good. Close the door on your way out then."

She waits far too long at the door, twisting her shirt between her fingers. He doesn't look up.


This is how the leaving thing goes:

She takes up the three semester course over in England that the office offers each year and nobody applies for because it pays far less and involves even longer working hours and they're not stupid. The whole family comes to drop her off, slightly subdued, stiff, but it doesn't last the long wait and the flight delay and when they're finally leaving, she cries, and thinks it's a good thing Derek isn't here. (Because Derek isn't here. He isn't coming and she isn't searching.)

It's like being in college all over again, except not. Because this time she has these stories of staying awake too late for exams, but also of drunk dialing that guy from three desks across who she thinks is cute.

She still thinks of him far too often, but over the months, that tight feeling in her chest lessens to a dull ache, till one day she wakes up and it's gone, and she finds herself laughing over that time she single handedly saved him from expulsion. Her roommate thinks she's certifiably crazy but puts up with her regardless, so there's that. This one other time she sees a boy in the distance with this particular shade of reddish-brown hair and it doesn't remind her of anything or anyone till much later, and she takes out her color coded charts at night and puts in under the 'progress' category.

She works too hard and too late and is exhausted about seventy percent of the time because there's no one around to stop her, but six months later, Ray drags her to gay bars instead where he drools and gets numbers of drunk strangers and she bitches endlessly about all the things that are wrong with the world, starting and ending with the sexual orientation of that guy with those fucking arms oh my fucking god sitting on the other side of the dimly lit room, with the world economic crisis thrown in for good measure. Tanya steals her books and hits her over the head with alarming frequency and tells her to stop being such a bloody moron in a very English accent about thrice a day and in time, the migraine pills lessen to about one in a week.

("He didn't love me enough to ask me to stay," she slurs, sadly resting her head on the table. Everything seems sadder after four tequila shots.

Ariane laughs, which Casey thinks is completely not the right real-life emoticon to choose for the occasion, "you idiot, he loved you enough to let you go.")

Everyone in the family calls about twelve times in so many hours per day till she threatens a restraining order for everyone, accompanied by a piercing in a wildly inappropriate place to Nora, a shoe shopping spree debited to George's account, the cancellation of Lizzie's weekly subscription to the Environ-Mental and the hacking and subsequent shutting down of Edwin's fake sales' website because she's Casey McDonald okay, and she can totally do that. (She doesn't threaten Marti and picks up the phone all twelve times, but shhh, that's a secret.)

She goes blonde for one week because she's always wanted to, and it's a no-good, very bad, ghastly idea, and there are enough pictures to last a lifetime, which is just major suckage. She sometimes glances at the phone too many times in too short a while and he still doesn't call, but eventually? That's okay.

She does the growing up and moving on thing that everyone in the world seems to have tried at least once except her and this is what she discovers: she doesn't need Derek. Won't ever need Derek.

(This is what she also discovers: she loves him anyway.)


The truth is; sometimes she falls, still. Just as much as she ever did. But these days it's mostly on the inside. This is something that changed.


"Since when do you smoke?" she wraps her shift around herself tighter, the night air raising goosebumps on her skin.

He glances at her disinterestedly, before turning around and going back to blowing white smoke rings, which would totally be cool if those rings weren't symbolic of the noose around his neck, which is further symbolic of lung cancer; she minored in English, okay, she knows symbols when she sees them, "you don't know every single thing about me, you know."

She sits beside him, a little further away because she doesn't yet know how close to sit. She stretches out her arm and snatches his cigarette from his hands as he turns to stare at her with questioning eyes.

She brings it to her lips, "you don't know every single thing about me, you know" she answers his unspoken question.

The dramatic effect is rather spoilt by the fact that she's coughing out her lungs less than three seconds later. She's done this twice before, but she'd forgotten how vile this stuff is; she can't believe he likes it. He's such an idiot. But then again, the only surprising thing about that would be if it were a surprise.

He thumps her back a lot harder than necessary as his lips curve, and she glares at him, "not a word."

"God, I really hate fish," he says instead, stubbing the cigarette under his foot. He rubs his head tiredly, spreading his legs wider as he leans back against the hard step, staring at the back of her head or the sky, whichever.

She thinks about that for a moment. God, I really hate fish. "I— really hate fish too," she says carefully, still primly sitting with both legs together and the shift wrapped around her in an iron grip. They suck at this more than most people.

He stares at her blankly for a moment, before realization and a tinge of something close to amusement color his gaze, "that wasn't a metaphor. I was talking about the fish at dinner."

"Oh," she says stupidly. Of course it wasn't, "well, I bet Gorge paid a fortune for that and you could at least be grateful. But I'm not sure the word exists in your dictionary. Or if the dictionary itself exists at all because your two-hundred and fifty word vocabulary definitely doesn't make a good case for its existence and—"

"We screwed up;" he looks back up at the sky, "messed up too many people because we're selfish and stupid and— stupid."

That's probably the extent of his vocabulary. She thinks of Sam and Max and Emily and Jesse and Felicia and ohgodRachel, doesn't stop him because it's always a pleasure to hear him talk about himself like this. Even if the five down in the crossword fits her name equally well this time.

She's selfish and stupid and— stupid. Has been since she turned fifteen.

"I know," she twists the napkin in her hands; this moment should feel bigger, more momentous than it does. And it's further proof that she's a terrible, horrible, no-good person because all she really feels is relief.

"Didn't think you'd come back," he raises his arms as if to gesture and then let's them fall, "I wouldn't have."

She doesn't answer, she doesn't need to, because she's here and he's here and that's its own kind of answer.

There's silence for a long moment, where she debates turning around just in case he's fallen asleep and left her to freeze out here which would be totally like him—

"I love you," he says quietly, his breath hot on the side of her neck, steaming up the winter air, "Do you know how exhausting that is?"

She doesn't say anything for a moment, "can't be more exhausting than it is to be in love you."

If this is a competition she's totally winning here, because, hello.

His mouth quirks at the corners, "it's not a competition, Casey."

Oh, well.

They let the quiet in for a while, the lamplight casting shadows on the other side of the road across the fence. She thinks of silly little things that always mattered too much even when they shouldn't have; camp-outs with her dad, when Lizzie was too young to care that Casey was her dad's favorite because she got to stay with mom and watch T.V. all by herself. He'd mostly burn the chicken while trying to grill it, because he could go to court and file drafts like he was one of those hot-shot lawyers from all those law movies that she secretly watched because she wanted to see what her dad did and he only let her in so much, but he couldn't grill chicken and it was one of those little secret things that she knew about him and made her feel warm and hapy.

And then she remembers that much later time; crying in the kitchen and Derek calling her dad and he does this all the time. Just when she's almost over him, he's there with his stupid smirk and his stupid hair and stupid calling her dad and stupid— him and then she's just so stupid too, she just falls over for the same stupid pranks and his stupid—

"I tried, you know" he says abruptly, startling her out of her thoughts. He's still staring straight ahead, "not to."

"I know," she admits, because that's all she's ever done, "I tried not to too."

"I'm only going to break your heart," he says, voice low, and she doesn't quite catch it but it's something about breaking hearts and well, everything she learned about heartbreak, she learned from a broken heart, so really, she's had a better teacher than most if you think about it.

But then, as if he can't seem to help himself, he's turning her around, and bending down and kissing her as desperately as she's kissing back and something clicks inside her head. Like in one of those old video players that George keeps around because all his 'George of the Jungle' performances are on the VCR.

She doesn't know what it is yet, but she's willing to find out. And he's the only one who ever could, anyway. Break her heart. She's never allowed herself to think that before. She thinks it comes under either the 'growing up' category, the 'facing your fears' category or the 'how to be in love with your unevolved stepbrother' category. Maybe all three. She counts back years and ends up exactly where she started.

One of his hands is clumsily wrapped around her waist, while the other has a much-too-hard grip in her hair and her heart trips, even though he's mumbling something over and over about how he can't be whom she's always needed and he'll just break her heart or whatever, when she pulls away from him without preamble, and he falls back.

And then she's laughing; high, bright, too loud, and he's looking at her with his usual expression that signifies that he thinks she's a basketcase and should be locked up within steel grips at the earliest opportunity.

"Who knows," she says, and smiles wide, so wide, because it strikes her then that she can too, and maybe she's the only one who ever could, "maybe this time, I'll break yours."

It starts like these things always do: with that one guy, this one girl and a story.


(So anyway, she has this dream: the phone rings, and she picks up).