“Oh, wow, I slept really well.”
It all started in December, just before the holidays. Everywhere Derek looked, there were people putting up cheerful decorations, siblings writing gift wishlists as long as his arm, or teachers giving him sadistic exams. Or Casey going out of her mind. The usual.
Although Casey had been… Maybe there had been a little extra something to her general Casey-ness. If Derek had thought about it - obviously he hadn’t, but if - he would have thought that he’d never seen her that stressed before. That she’d, like, levelled up. Which made sense, maybe. It was their last year of high school. That had to be stressful, for keeners.
Also she'd started sleepwalking.
No, seriously: sleepwalking. Actual, genuine, waking-around-while-sleeping sleepwalking. Somnambulism. And as far as Derek could tell, nobody else knew.
And the thing was. The thing was. He couldn’t ask anyone about it (or, for that matter, what to do) because if he had, he would’ve had to explain how he found out that Casey was sleepwalking. And he didn’t want to do that. He couldn’t do that.
The thing was, Derek had found out that Casey was sleepwalking when she sleepwalked (sleptwalked?) her way to his bedroom. And stayed the night. Without asking. She didn’t even disturb Derek’s sleep; he found her there when he woke up and saw her next to him. In his bed. All curled up, still in her clothes from the day before.
“That was such a good night’s sleep.” Casey told the surrounding pillows. Her eyes still shut tight.
If Derek had been fully awake he would have thought it was hilarious. Her hair was tumbling around her shoulders, her clothes were rumpled. She looked like the anti-Casey.
And the anti-Casey was sighing, stretching her arms up above her head, and as Derek watched - completely and utterly dumbstruck - she opened her eyes.
“Casey!” Derek didn’t think, he just launched himself at her. “Casey Casey Casey,” he whispered, covering her mouth with his left hand, catching her flailing hands with his right.
“Dmmmmrhhhhhhhk!!” She wriggled under him and tried to scream through his hand.
“Casey!” He hissed. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want everybody to come running in here.”
She flashed a panicked look at him.
“Exactly! I didn’t think so! So just - don’t scream.”
“I don’t know!” He looked into her eyes. “Just - breathe with me. I…” He took a deep breath, willing her to take it with him, and let it out slowly. He could feel her heart pounding, still, but he started to roll off her. “Take a deep breath. I’m gonna… I’m gonna take my hand off now.”
They both sat up. Casey didn’t say anything, she just sat, shaking her head, looking frightened. Derek suppressed an urge to hug her.
Instead, he made a decision for both of them. Denial. It was for the best. Denial was easy, clean, and straightforward.
“Case,” He whispered.
She looked up at him, scared and belligerent and brave. “Derek?”
“Repeat after me. This never happened.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. Hesitating.
“Case, it’s okay.” Derek said, softly. “Say it. Say: this never happened.”
She nodded. “This never happened.”
Okay, so the thing is, it happened again. And again.
Casey doesn’t put two and two together - as far as Derek can tell - and doesn’t figure out that it always happens when she’s been up late cramming. So it just keeps happening. Over and over. It’s basically a miracle that no one notices.
Derek figures out the pattern pretty much immediately. And he spend a whole minute wondering how to bring it up with Casey, how to tell her to, like, lock herself into her room when she’s studying anytime past two am or something, before he remembers that he’s not thinking about this. Because it never happened.
It never happened, and that’s why he can’t tell her.
So instead Derek wakes up, every time, rolls over, and finds her there. Curled up with her back to Derek, her hands clutching the duvet in a way that’s weirdly poignant, like Sleeping Casey is using bed linen to shield herself against the outside world. Derek kind of wants to tell Sleeping Casey that everything will be okay.
The third time it happens, she wakes up and immediately cringes when she sees Derek. “Oh god.”
“Nah,” he whispers. He’s pretty sure he should be way more horrified than he is. “S’just me. Derek.”
Casey goes from cringing, to rolling her eyes, in 0.25 seconds. “Shut up.”
“Hey, this is my room,” Derek hisses, even though he really doesn’t mind. “You’re taking up my bed space.”
And she’s back to cringing. “I’m sorry,” she whispers.
There’s just something about that face, the one she makes when she’s genuinely upset. When she’s not trying to make anyone else responsible for her feelings, or telling him there’s something wrong with him. Derek can’t - he just can’t.
“Don’t be sorry,” he tells her, softly. “This never happened, remember?”
“Yeah,” she nods. “This never happened. And it’ll never happen… Ever again.”
On the last day of school before the holidays, he wakes up especially early. Derek would never tell anyone, but he keeps waking up earlier and earlier, unable to go back to sleep. He doesn’t tell them because they would probably say that it’s ‘anxiety’ or something like that and that can’t be right because he’s Derek and nothing bothers him. But here he is, awake, so early that the sun hasn’t even come up yet, there is only the faintest reddish-pink light dawning outside.
He rolls over, and finds Casey next to him, but she’s wide awake this time. She’s wearing the huge Christmas sweater she wears when Derek’s dad refuses to increase the temperature on the thermostat. She smells like honey or fruity shampoo or something and she has a little pillow crease on her cheek, and she’s silently, but very obviously, freaking out. Derek can feel her heart pounding and as he watches, she brings her hand up over her mouth, like a stage actress performing ‘shock! Horror!’
And it suddenly strikes him, how funny this is. How funny it is that Sleeping Casey does the exact opposite of everything Awake Casey does. Awake Casey is controlled and structured and organized and constantly angry at Derek… And then she falls asleep and Sleeping Casey turns it all upside down.
Derek can’t help it, he smirks, and then starts laughing. He tries to stop it, but that just makes him want to laugh more. This is just… so… insane. And he finds himself putting his hand over his mouth and doubling over.
Casey hits him with a pillow. “Stop it,” she whispers. But she’s starting to crack a smile.
He laughs harder. The duvet is falling off of him and the mattress is shaking a bit. He grabs the pillow and shoves it in his face to try to muffle the sound.
“Stop!” Casey whispers. “Stop!” But she’s starting to giggle. She pulls the pillow back toward herself to try to muffle her own laughter, and they struggle, which makes Derek laugh even harder. He finally lets her take it, and pulls his t-shirt over his face to use that instead.
When they finally quiet down, he punches her shoulder. “You’re such a freak,” he says, fondly.
Casey grins at him. She’s all fuzzy with sleep, and warm. Her smile is beautiful. And that’s the exact moment Derek realizes he’s in love with her.
His brain goes, ::ABORT::
It’s like a great big flashing road sign pointing away from Casey - who, helpfully, gets up and leaves his bedroom without further discussion - and after that morning he…
He puts it in a box, labels it ‘no’ and doesn’t think about it.
Which works out fine, because exams are over and things go back to normal.
Things go back to normal for exactly five months.
And then June rolls around, inevitable, like it does every year. Sunshine, lawnmowers, summer plans. The usual. Except that this June includes their very last weeks of high school. They just have to get through exams, and then they can say goodbye to high school forever. Just exams. Just… studying.
Derek should have seen this next part coming, but he didn’t.
And the thing is, he told Casey that it had all never happened, hadn’t he? So… so he couldn’t see it coming. Right? Because how could something that had never happened, happen again?
So that’s how he ends up here, late at night, just before final exams, innocently, no, naïvely awake, raiding the kitchen - leftover chicken, score - and hears Casey moving around upstairs.
And it’s like - there is no transition, there is no dawning realization or segue, his heart just starts beating like crazy because if he can hear her at this hour then that means she’s studying late, and if she’s studying late then she’ll be climbing into Derek’s bed at some point during the night.
He puts the chicken back in the fridge and he… he needs to sit down. Derek can’t, he just can’t.
It takes eight full minutes of staring at the kitchen table, for him to end up deciding to just to go to bed. It’ll be a miracle if he manages to go to sleep, but what else is he going to do? Study?
So he goes to his bedroom, spends twenty minutes picking out pyjamas (his heart hammering the whole time), changes the sheets, and lies down on top of them. He catalogues all the nighttime sounds (settling house creaks, leaves rustling outside the window, his own breathing) and counts the shadows on the ceiling (seventy-two separate shadows). He tries to tell himself a bedtime story (it’s terrible). He thinks about jerking off (he decides not to). Then he tells himself, ‘this is ridiculous’, flops around to push his face into the pillow, and forces himself to go to sleep.
When he wakes up, it’s way, way before his alarm clock, and there she is. Sleeping soundly beside him. Everything is quiet, there is dawn light making shapes on Casey’s hair, and oh god, he wants to hold her, he wants it so badly, he wants to pull her into his arms and hug her (among other things a voice in his head whispers), and he thinks, maybe he could put an arm around Casey. Maybe he could wrap himself around her like his brain is telling him to, and he could pass it off as something that happened in his sleep.
Maybe. But then she would feel his… he’d feel him down there and that wouldn’t be okay. Or - would it? No. No no no no no probably not. Derek’s not sure. This - this really isn’t something that came up when his dad was teaching him how to be polite.
This is what Derek’s life has come to: lying awake in the early hours of the morning and thinking about boner protocol.
He listens to her breathe in, and out, and her face is… she looks peaceful. She looks beautiful. And Derek ends up going back to sleep, his body angled as far away from her as possible, but with his face mashed into her shoulder, because there’s something about her skin and he can’t help it.
And when he wakes up, she’s gone.
That weekend, Derek is alone in the house with Casey.
George, Nora, Lizzie, Edwin and Marti are gone. Family trip for everyone but Derek and Casey, because they have exams and they need peace and quiet. And the rest of the family need to put as much distance between themselves and Casey (and Casey’s exam jitters) as possible. (And maybe, Derek’s brain whispers, as much distance between themselves and Derek’s insufferableness.)
Derek and Casey manage to be civilized towards each other for - shock - a full day. Which is much, much more than anyone expected, Derek thinks. He’s really trying, not that anyone is around to appreciate his effort.
But then on Saturday night, Derek goes to the fridge to scrounge for dinner, picks up the container of leftover chicken, and just…
“Hey Casey, want some chicken?”
She’s walking into the kitchen. “I… sure.”
“Great,” he says, and throws the container at her. “Catch!”
She ducks, and the container hits the wall behind her. Cold chicken and tupperware go flying. “DEREK!”
Derek hasn’t the faintest idea what possessed him to throw the chicken at her. No idea. He just… did it.
Dumbstruck, he watches as she shouts at him, at the ceiling, at the kitchen table, at the sink. She tells him everything that’s wrong, everything that’s ever been wrong, and everything that will ever be wrong. And she just… keeps… going.
He’s still trying to comprehend what he just did, and trying to think how to apologize - because throwing something at her, that’s not okay at all, he could’ve hurt her - but. Her hair looks really nice, all wild and undone, and her hands are… they’re graceful. Even when they’re in his face, like now, like -
“Derek!” Casey waves her hands just a couple of centimetres in front of his eyes. “I can’t… You’re not even listening!”
“I can’t believe… I can’t believe you would - what if you’d hit me with it?” She takes a few steps towards him as she says it. “Why would you…”
He lifts his hands, placating. “Hey, I said -“
“You’re so awful sometimes, Derek” she says, taking another step towards him. “But you’ve never tried to hurt me before. Not with cold chicken, not with anything.”
“I didn’t try to…” Everything’s a jumble in his head. “Look, I said I’m sorry.”
“You’re not sorry! I can see it in your face!” She looks genuinely upset. “You’re the worst brother.”
Everything snaps into focus.
"Brother,” he says. “Sure. That's... what I am." And he gets down on his knees, starts picking the chicken up from the floor.
"Derek," she says.
"I got it, Case!” He says, piling drumsticks into the container. “I’m the bane of your existence, and you’re probably right about that because I just threw something at your head, and even if I apologize I can’t go back to undo that so I’m the worst…” He can barely make himself say it. “Worst brother ever.”
“Oh, Derek! You…” He voice softens just a bit. “You’re not trying to hurt me, are you? You’re just being weird.”
“I meant it when I said I was sorry, Case, can we stop talking now?”
“Yeah, ok, but…” She crouches down next to him. “Derek. That's not the first time I've heard you... I don't know."
Derek ignores her, gets up, dumps the whole chickeny mess in the garbage - Nora is going to be mad at him for throwing out a perfectly good container, but whatever - and grabs a kitchen rag. He looks at Casey, opens his mouth, realizes he has no idea what kind of response she’s looking for, closes it, and then crouches down to wipe chicken slime off the floor.
“Every time I call you my brother,” Casey says, softly, “you always correct me, you always say ‘step-brother’ like it means something.”
Derek stands, goes to the sink, washes his hands, and turns to look at her. She’s standing close enough that he could reach out and touch her. “So?”
There is a long, suspended moment. Casey looks at him “So… Does it mean something?”
Derek takes a deep breath, then another. He feels reckless and provoked and she’s looking at him like, like she really wants to know. She makes him crazy.
His eyes never leaving hers, he nods, slowly. “Yes. It means something.”
"Derek!” Casey exclaims, and her cheeks turn bright red.
"I -" Derek's voice cracks embarrassingly. He coughs. “I’m…"
He waits for her to say something, something banal, something to change the subject. But she doesn’t.
“I’m.” He takes a deep breath. “I’m ready to have this conversation if you are,” he tells her.
She opens her mouth like she's going to say something, but then she doesn't. She just - they're locked there, staring at each other, unblinking.
Then she takes one step back, and another. And then she turns. And then she runs away.
Derek thinks about making an emergency call, any emergency call. Like to a youth hotline. Or something. That’s what they’re for, right? For dealing with emergencies? And this is… Or maybe he could go to the computer, type “I’m in love with my stepsister” into a search engine, see what happens. He thinks, he would have to explain that he needs advice, and he’d have to explain about the way Casey smells (apricots and textbooks), about the way she gets so angry at him and her eyes flash a little, about the dreams he has of backing her into a wall and putting his hands on her, and maybe someone, somewhere out there, would know what to do. Because there’s got to be a solution. There’s got to be. Otherwise he’ll have to keep feeling the way he feels right now, and he can’t keep feeling this way, he can’t, he can’t.
He goes to his room, putting one foot in front of the other, heading in the right direction, but feeling like if someone asked him what day it was, who he was, where he was, or what he was doing, he’d have trouble responding. He would need to think about it.
He feels increasingly numb. When he reaches his room, he opens the door, takes one step, but doesn't get any further.
Behind him, Casey appears, running, and collides right into him. And when he turns around, she kisses him.
It feels like falling. Like tumbling down, losing your breath, desperate, wild and epic and this is what kissing is supposed to be like, isn’t it.
“Maybe,” she says, “maybe this never happened either… right?”