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He rubs his eyes once again.

The image- nightmarish apparition, to be accurate- doesn't dissolve into nothingness as he'd hoped. If anything, it seems even more…real. Either his depth perception is basically set in an underwater frame right now...or Casey McDonald is standing in front of him.

"I heard," she says, barging past him. Into his dorm. Sitting on his couch.

"Uhh…yeah," because this? He has no idea what the hell this is, "did you get lost by any chance? The way to the Princess of Klutzville dorm is the other way."

She looks at him, dripping superciliousness from every pore, "I forgive you, Derek. I know you're not in the right frame of mind at the moment. Although 'mind' might be a bit of an overstatement considering your…"

"Yes," he interrupts hastily, before she can fully climb on to her favorite hobby horse, "Now go."

"I know that deep, deep- deep- down inside you really want me to stay here and be there for you in your heartbreak, so I'm not going to go."

"No," he says (which dimension did he wake up in again?) "Deep down inside I really, really want you to go and not be there…" he stops, registering her words, "wait. What?"

She smiles triumphantly, "I heard about how Carla broke up with you. And I know that you're pretending to be okay, but really your fragile heart is six feet from the edge and thinking that maybe six feet isn't that far down."

He closes his eyes, "Please tell me you did not just quote Creed."

She looks put out, "I thought it was supposed to be…cool."

"By your standards," he manages tightly, "Tinker was Jim Morrison. So no comments. And FYI- that mean 'for your information', by the way, since your sweater suggests it's probably 1934 in your head-broke up with Carla."

"Denial," she says, shaking her head sadly, "the first stage of grief. I knew you'd be shattered. So I bought you something."

She takes her other hand out from behind her back, smiling at him.

Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough.

"No, no, no, no, no," he moves back with both hands held out, "you don't. You don't get to waltz in here and…invalidate my man card."

"Derek," she moves closer, "I know you're hurting but…"

"Casey, just go away, okay."

She stops. Her hand still held out comically.

(Except she's pouting and she's so easy to read and she's actually hurt, and it's not comical at all).

"Fine," he says, gritting his teeth, "fine. Stay. Whatever."

She clasps her hands together in this ridiculous starry-eyed way, like she's three, instead of twenty. He tries to think of an alternate situation, a universe where this would've ended differently. Where he'd have said something mean and they'd have fought and she'd have actually gone away. And he can't. Because it's him, and it's her and there isn't any way this night would've ended any other way.

(And they're a sort of cliché. Except not.)

 

 

-

 

 

See, here's what really happened (he needs to tell the story, because if Casey gets in on it first, she'll somehow make it all about her and this is not about her, so):

Carla was blonde. And hot. And she was smart. And liked sex just as much as he did. And Marti liked her over the phone. She didn't whine and over-analyze. She didn't care who called first. And she wasn't related to Casey in any way. (Wasn't related to him in any way either, just saying.) And she didn't even know Casey. And it was…good, y'know?

And she broke up with him. That's it. The whole story. And that's okay. He isn't heartbroken or anything. He's Derek.

And so what if she broke up with him over a fancy dinner where he used the word exclusive for the second time since he can remember.

It's okay.

Obviously.

 

 

-

 

 

"It's not okay, Derek."

He's trying to tune her out. (He never tuned Carla out. And she left him. Which is fine).

She gets up and switches off the television. "Are you listening to me?"

He thinks of stating the obvious, but this is Casey, she wouldn't accept rejection if it kissed her cousin in front of her.

"How do you know anyway?"

"What?" She scrunches up her face and the gesture, the sheer familiarity of it, makes his insides clench painfully.

"Me and Carla."

"Oh…I heard from…someone," she says vaguely, busying herself with arranging the magazines on his table. It's like she has a post-doctorate in Transparency 101. That doesn't even make sense.

He stands in from of her, arms crossed, "Mind telling me what this is really about?"

It's a shot in the dark, but when she sneaks a glance next, there's that guilty look in her eyes. He's been missing all her lying tells. God, he must really be off his game.

"My roommate has someone over," she says in a rushed voice.

"So?" he asks, blankly, "how does that equate to you in my dorm. You could have joined them for a stupid girl-talk session or whatever. Far away."

She blushes and it's not insanely endearing or anything, "it wasn't a girl."

"Oh," he says, comprehension dawning with all the subtlety of Ralph at an Irish Dancing competition, "Oh." And then suspiciously, "So where are you staying for the night?"

She opens her (stupidly blue) eyes wide, "I was just thinking…we don't spend enough time together these days, and the fam keeps calling to ask how you're doing..."

What?

"…and since we've come to a general consensus on our being siblings, I think we should start behaving more like siblings and helping each other out. And I think I can help you here."

He stops for a moment and looks at her not looking at him. And for that split second he's back in their suffocating kitchen. And he doesn't take the bait.

"You're going to give me girl advice?"

"Yes. Since I'm a girl and I obviously know better."

Sometimes she really just asks for it. "That's arguable."

She looks offended, "Of course I know better."

"Not that," he says, "that you're a girl. I didn't know they had genders on your planet. Or is it sexuality? Kristeva doesn't translate well."

She sits (too) close beside him on his couch, and there's really not enough space for her and him and her (too long) legs, "Is that the best you can come up with?" she asks, sympathetically, "You must really be heartbroken." Then, "wait, how do you know about Kristeva."

He ignores her lame barb, "you're admitting I have a heart?" So what if he's not at the top of his game. It happens to the best of them occasionally.

And suddenly, without as much as a preliminary, break-in-case-of-fire warning, her head is on his chest and that debatable organ threatens to take a flying leap out of his body.

She raises her head again (and doesn't look at him and maybe he should tell her that he doesn't need to look into her eyes to know what she's feeling, just the curve of her head. He knows her better than anyone ever will) and says quietly, "sounds to me like you do have a heart. Is that in contradiction to your lifelong beliefs? Did I just shake your faith?"

He doesn't have to answer (he couldn't have, anyway) because:

"Am I interrupting something?"

He looks up, and for a strange, crazy moment he wants to tell Jake that he is interrupting.

"Oh, nothing at all," says Casey McPerky, "Hi! I'm Casey McDonald. Derek's stepsister."

Jake looks at her for a moment and Derek can almost feel his eyes taking her in (blue eyes and long legs and all) and he never quite realized with such alacrity how perfect Jake's face would look with a black eye.

"Dude," Jake turns to him, suspicious, "She isn't cross-eyed."

"Cross-eyed?" He speaks over her exclamation of indignation, "I must've confused that with ugly."

"But," Jake looks confused (it's a well worn-out expression), "She's not ugly. You're not ugly;" he informs her, "don't listen to Derek."

"Oh, I never listen to Derek," she says, and here's what he's also never quite realized before; how annoying that gratified look of hers is. And about this, what any brain-dead moron- so maybe Jake was the right candidate after all- with a half-way functional eye-sight could have told her.

He wonders sometimes what she sees when she looks in the mirror.

Jake, obviously unable to comprehend the simple concept of 'not interested' (so what if she's twirling a strand of her hair and smiling in that inane way, it doesn't have to always mean anything- she's not falling at least, is she) goes on, "So…I was thinking of going out for Chinese…maybe you could join me?"

Fast worker is obviously an understatement.

And he realizes with a sickening lurch that she's going to accept. Not that he wants her here. He'd rather be alone with the remote, his couch (and Carla might call, not that he's waiting, because that'd be lamer than Casey's current smile), but she's never yet left him for anyone else and he's not about to change an order that works.

He takes a long deep sigh, and turns to Jake, "get me a can of beer before you go."

Casey turns towards him uncertainly, "Beer? But when you're heartbroken you always have milk and cookies."

"I don't feel like it," he maybe should care a little more that Jake's laughter probably means he's lost his college rep.

"Derek, what's the matter?" She's standing directly in his line of vision and he's too tired to turn his head away.

"No," he says, "go, okay. Whatever, you should go." And means it. He doesn't always need- want- Casey around to deal with everything in his entire damn life. He had a life before he met her, didn't he?

Jake holds the door open for her, "after you."

She glances a moment at the open door and he can almost see her trying to remember how many other guys have held doors for her. Then, she resolutely turns away from temptation and looks at him.

"No, I think I'll stay in tonight, I'm a little tired. Thank you, though."

And he shouldn't. (But he does). Feel an absolute, overpowering sense of victory. Even if he has no idea what the hell he's just supposed to have won here.

Jake's face is a study in disappointment, "so, maybe the…poetry club gathering tomorrow? If that's your thing at all, I mean."

What. The. Fuck.

Her face lights up, and he can see her internal struggle to not show her appreciation, (Faking Casual is one of the mandatory subjects in Casey 101, which he aced), "yeah…maybe."

Jake leaves then, finally, with a last salute, but he's still here in Casey's soft irritating smile.

 

 

-

 

 

"You should have gone," he tells the TV screen.

"Like that wasn't a maneuver to get me out of your dorm," she rolls her eyes, "not like you're too obvious or anything Derek."

"Yeah, whatever."

"I hate that word," she flounces a bit before settling down, "what does it even mean, seriously, whatever. And, well, there's that whole 'blood thicker than water' part, so I couldn't have gone. It's a moral obligation thing."

"Casey," he turns to her "we don't share blood. Your sick family fantasy is out of control."

"And anyway," she ploughs on with a determination worthy of an actual cause, "We've got to stop your vicious cycle. You know, all the girls you like leaving you- Sandra and Amy and Sally and Celeste and Kylie and Carla and…"

"You're really making me feel better here," he retorts sarcastically, "thanks Case."

"You liked Carla a lot, didn't you?" And maybe if she didn't say it in that tone- soft and gentle, like she cares or something. Not Derek Venturi forced (step) brother but...something- someone- else...maybe he'd have more resistance.

He shrugs, expression blank, "girls, they come and go. What's that thing about taxi cabs and traffic lights. I don't really care. You should know that."

And they came and went. It wasn't a big deal or anything. He always got what he wanted, didn't he. Keeping what he wanted wasn't the proverb after all.

She sighs, like she…knows him or something. It's frustrating. He doesn't like being read and slogged over like one of her freaking assignments, with all the highlights and margin notes.

She hugs him- tries to- he pushes her away. It's so scripted he doesn't even need to look any longer. Except she falls on top of him. "Face it, D. Your aim and all those hockey skills are so shot." She strings her fingers through his hair and pulls affectionately, and sighs in exaggerated longing "if only the high school crowd could see you like this. It's the fall of the empire."

He moves away a little, uncomfortable. Earlier, in the beginning, maybe for a year even, he used to think her little gestures and excessive need to hug were in direct, stubborn defiance to his 'no PDA' rule. It was only after having lived with her for a while that he'd realized; she just…liked to touch, being touched. She liked being held, kissed on her cheek or holding hands, or sitting close. It was a Casey-thing, like neurotically submitting assignments before time and wearing blue eye-shadow on first dates.

And sometimes, when he thinks about it, which he doesn't really, he thinks she'd really like sex. She'd like all the slow touching and building and just the feel of tangled bare skin. She'd like exploration and the discoveries. She'd like the intimate feeling of belonging and being wanted.

She never shouts when she's furious with him. She doesn't call him De-rek or refuse to talk to him. In her moments of absolute hurt and anger, she just refuses to let him touch her. She flinches from his hand at her shoulder and subconsciously moves away when he moves a little close. He's not sure she knows this herself; touching to Casey is different kinds of love.

He pushes her again, and succeeds this time.

"Maybe you should stop trying to…I dunno…fix me or something, and go out with someone yourself."

"Like the poetry club with Jake?" She bites her lip in thought (she does it a lot. It's annoying, has he mentioned.)

"Yeah," he says seriously, "you should go out with him. He's perfect for you."

She glances at him guardedly, "really?"

"Yeah," (sometimes he wishes he didn't know her like he does), "it's like that made for each other shtick. He likes everything you like. He's a nice guy. Decent. Polite. You should really get to know each other better."

Her glance turns to a full-blow glare of suspicion, "You think so?"

"I know so," he says sagely.

(Here's what he does know; she won't be listening to any poetry tomorrow. He's not exactly sure what he got out of it.)

 

 

-

 

 

She stays over and talks about Carla and feelings (and love, like she knows what it is) and he laughs. She talks about same differences and shared siblings and duties and responsibilities and he laughs harder. She gets mad, and he does everything he can to make her keep the look (it's entertaining). She threatens to leave (he opens the door).

(She still sleeps on the couch and he doesn't offer her the bed and he doesn't get up thrice in the night to get drinks of water that he doesn't need).

 

 

-

 

 

 

Here's what you should really know about his crazy (step) sister:

She hasn't ever known when to leave well enough alone.

 

 

-

 

 

 

Their table is secluded and she's exactly his type. (She's redheaded and hot, right?) And he has expectations from the evening. He's not going to spend his entire life in his dorm waiting for Carla to visit.

He's leaning in…and his mobile beeps.

"Excuse me," hey, he can do polite (it's not like it'll be Carla or anything, it might be an…emergency).

Message received at 10:25 pm
Go for it, D!
-Casey

And maybe he should be appalled he can recognize her in a blonde wig, with her back towards him, but he's Derek and he doesn't overanalyze (that's her territory, her side of the pink-and-blue lines, and boundaries, those he keeps.)

He pays the bill and seats the redhead (she has a name, which he knows, he's just…tired) in a cab. (Maybe she'll think he's a gentleman and doesn't kiss on the first date. It's all good).

He goes back. "You're unbelievable. What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

"You didn't kiss her," she says, sounding strangely…dissatisfied.

"Yeah, I would have and maybe have gone further if my certifiable stepsister hadn't taken it in her insane head to stalk me. You can't find a guy so you're going to live vicariously through me? Because I gotta tell you, this feature presentation isn't always PG-13. So be my guest, but don't expect me to pay for the psychological trauma and Paul Whatsizname's services."

She blinks at his use of the word and he can almost feel her biting back retorts on his general IQ, "you should have kissed her. It would've shown Carla you're over her."

"Yeah," he looks at her in disbelief, "except she isn't here."

"Derek, she's just a girl," she's frustrated, "you don't have to be faithful to her memory."

"Are you serious?"

"Do you generally pick up your mobile in the middle of an anticipated make-out scene?"

He suddenly has trouble looking at her, he wasn't being faithful or anything, he would have kissed his date. He really would have. If she hadn't been here and watching him. After all he…hates PDA, right?

"And I missed out on research," she says, "I thought maybe there was something wrong with your kissing style and that's why they all keep leaving you."

She's taken off her wig and taken out a notepad instead and three different colored pens and she's wearing her reading glasses and it's all so achingly Casey, that he just stops for a second. Breathing.

"There's nothing wrong with my kissing style, thank you very much," he informs her, and to be honest, he's a little amused.

"They all think that," she mutters and she's holding the pen in her hand at an odd angle.

He pulls her hand closer and observes a jagged cut till her wrist, "what the hell happened?"

She flushes, "I accidentally…the knife was a little sharp."

"Klutzilla," he looks at her hand again, "and why haven't you bandaged it?"

She flushes even more (he'd have thought it was an academic impossibility), "because it just happened and you were going to kiss her and I didn't want to go away during that." And she glares at him, "and then you didn't kiss her, so it's all your fault that I have an injured hand and no research material."

"Want me to kiss it and make it better?" Hey, he does it for Marti, right? It's all the same difference.

And it's sarcastic but he knows it's a challenge. And she knows it too. (Challenge is practically the defining word for their…whatever it is).

She raises her head a little higher, "yes please, o' brother of mine," she says in quiet defiance. Because backing down, that's losing, that's admitting something that isn't even there to admit.

He looks at her all the while and trails close-mouthed kisses along the cut. It's soft and something else and a punch to the gut and she snatches her hand back almost immediately, holding it against her chest. And he feels an odd discontentment of having missed out on something in the moment. Like an irritating tune at the back of his mind that he just can't place.

"It's all better now," she says breathlessly, childishly.

"Yeah, well, my kisses are mind-blowingly numbing." It doesn't really have the same kick to it.

She rolls her eyes, exaggeratedly, "Yeah, whatever."

"I thought you hated that word."

"It's the only one I can think of when I think of you."

They say a lot and they don't say a lot and they still know it. And when he thinks about it (which he doesn't) it's a little sad.

 

 

-

 

 

 

Here's something that everybody almost always gets wrong:

He knows he doesn't think of her as his sister and 'same difference' is laughable. But that's okay, it doesn't mean anything. It doesn't have to mean anything. There are a lot of people in his general vicinity at all points in his life, whom he knows and they're not friends or enemies (or siblings), they just are. They exist and he exists and breathe the same air on the same planet, and that's it. Not every relationship has a title. She might not be his sister, but that isn't to say she's anything else.

He almost believes it himself, sometimes.

 

 

-

 

 

 

"You do realize you spend more time in my dorm than you do in yours," he informs her, just in case she's missed out on it.

"It's all your fault."

"Because I stand here breaking out the red carpet for you, princess," hadn't the whole point of the college thing been to get away from each other?

"No," she glances briefly from the book she's reading on the other side of his bed, "it's just that I wouldn't put it past you to slash your wrists or something. You're melodramatic enough for it. And originality is definitely not one of your strong points."

"You're saving me from myself," he mutters mockingly, "very original."

"And now that you've reminded me, I do have somewhere to be tonight. So if you'll excuse me," she gets up from his bed, her body imprinted in the dent.

"Where," he asks, unconcerned. He couldn't care less, he's just making conversation.

"Somewhere dressy. So if you could go out, I can change." She makes a shooing motion with her hands. (And maybe he should be worried her 'dressy' clothes are hanging in his closet).

"No." Simply.

She sighs, and he knows she hadn't expected him to listen, "fine, whatever. Where's the common bathroom?"

He doesn't think about it, "you can change here."

Her face scrunches up in confusion for a second and then her eyes widen with implications (it's all semantics), "what the hell Derek."

"No, really" his hands are cushioning his head, watching, waiting, whatever, "I don't mind."

"I'm not going to change in front of you," she doesn't raise her voice.

"Why, Casey," mocking tenderness, it cuts, "same difference, right? What kind of siblings would we be if we don't even see each other change? That's practically the foundation of siblinghood."

He keeps his mind carefully blank and he's not going to think it out or acknowledge crossed lines and betrayals. He's not going to think at all.

"Derek…" her voice shakes a little.

"What's the matter Case?" It's point blank, no evidence of mockery, "you've established it. Now prove it. Or is it easier to string words together than to actually create any meaning?"

She stares directly at him, "I dislike you intensely."

He shouldn't notice she doesn't use the word 'hate', but he does.

Her hand is at the top button of her shirt and he'd been absolutely sure she wouldn't do it. That had been the whole point. She wouldn't do it, and he would be one up in some twisted way in a game he's not even sure either of them are playing.

And quite suddenly it's hard to swallow. He can't tear his eyes from her hand moving down her shirt, exposing, the only outward indication that she's affected in any way is the slight trembling of her hand. And till that very moment he'd been sure he wouldn't be involved in it. It had just been a culmination of the straight month in which Carla hadn't called and her constant presence which meant he couldn't even pretend to himself because of her uncomfortable habit of calling him out.

He hadn't ever really thought of her as anything. She was related to him by paper and lived in his house and he sort of, grudgingly, cared for her, and couldn't bear to see her cry. But that had been it. For some time, that had truly been it.

But seeing her vulnerable, he can't stand it. Four years of blue and pink lines and high walls dissolving. Before she reaches the last button, he rushes out of the room and sinks against the door, sweating, his heartbeat alarmingly erratic.

It could've been minutes, hours, (years) before she comes out again. She's still wearing the same shirt, buttoned again, buttoned wrong he's tell her, if he could speak, steadily avoiding touching him, and there's this moment where he thinks she's going to walk out without looking back at him.

She holds the door knob in her hand and looks at him tiredly, "You know what, Derek. I've never left-"

Fuck.

"…but maybe I should have too."

And leaves.

 

 

-

 

 

Carla calls three nights later (remind him to laugh at the irony sometime).

He listens to her apologies, because this is what he wanted and he's (once again) going to get it.

"…so sorry, I don't know what came over me. I just…got scared and…"

He can't hear her for the most part over the sound of his own pounding heartbeat, and in between all the not remembering.

"De-rek, are you even listening to me?"

And for a moment it's all white noise rushing past and, "say…say that again."

"What," she snaps, exasperated, "I'm sorry okay, baby, I…"

"Not that," he cuts her, "Say my name."

Her voice softens noticeably, "Derek."

"No," he says in frustration, "not like that. Break it."

"De-rek?" she offers, confused, "but it's my mad-at-you thing, and I'm not mad at you right now so-"

(Carla is blonde. And hot. And smart and intelligent. And likes sex just as much as he does. And Marti liked her over the phone. And she isn't related to Casey in any way. She doesn't whine and over-analyze. And she doesn't even know Casey. And it is…good, you know.

She's nothing like Casey but- god, he's an idiot).

 

 

-

 

 

He's smashing stereotypes here, but you should really know this:

So he lies a lot and he doesn't realize things half the time, but he's not stupid.

Well, not most of the time, anyway.

 

 

-

 

 

If he'd been the director of this ridiculous tableau, he'd have kept the library out of the entire equation. But she isn't given to following his stage directions anyway.

And maybe the costumes would've been different. She's wearing her stupid glasses and those bunny slippers which should be made illegal for their crimes against the human vision. Like, what has humanity ever done to them anyway?

He shoves his hands in the pocket of his leather jacket, awkward, for some reason, "I'm not going to write you any love songs."

She snorts and doesn't look up from How To Be Lame(er) or whatever the hell she's reading, "I can do without odes to my knees and sneezing habits. I've seen your efforts; they're not pretty. In fact it should be made criminal for you to write romantic songs. A strict liability, non-bailable offence with a mandatory sentence of rigorous imprisonment for seven years."

He rolls his eyes, "okay, everyone within the five mile radius gets that you're majoring in Law."

"And I would rather tap-dance naked in front of Truman than wear that hygiene disaster you call a jacket."

"Don't tap-dance naked in front of Truman," he says, automatically- which- what the hell even-

She turns to hide a smile, he rushes in to cover.

"Whatever. And you're out of your mind if you think I'm going to eat rabbit food for you."

She snorts again, flipping the page, "believe me, Derek; I stopped believing in miracles the day I met you."

 

 

-

 

 

So anyway, the point is that this story is not about her. Anyone telling you otherwise is either selling something or is Casey McDonald. And fine, he's kind of forgotten what it's about for the moment, with his mouth against hers, and her hand on that damn button again, but whatever, he'll just edit this part out whenever he remembers what this story is actually about.

It's called creative license. He's a director. He knows this stuff, after all.