Nick was in school for three reasons, and only one of them really counted.
Reason number one was that his father thought he should learn business, but business was boring. Nick hated math and he hated stats, and was only moderately passable at English, which didn’t leave a whole lot of hope for his GPA. That lead real nicely into reason number two, which was that Nick was here to wring as much partying as he possibly could out of eight months of someone’s life. Nick’s momma was a straight-laced kind of woman even before the war, so his highschool days (the ones where his school hadn’t been razed to the ground, that is) were sadly devoid of good, solid partying that didn’t end in him being grounded for a month. Nick’s momma wasn’t here now, though, and although she thought he was spending his evenings and weekends and afternoons studying, what Nick was really doing was having the absolute time of his life. When he wasn’t chasing the third reason he was at school, that is.
Because the third reason Nick was in school was to get girls.
And God, did Nick love girls.
In fact, Nick was not surprised that by the end of his first week in residence, he – and his entourage of like-minded fellows – had fucked their way through a good 70% of the girls on his floor. Some of the other 30 might have been in there too, but Nick couldn’t quite remember, and the rest of the 30 was made up of the kind of girls that you couldn’t have paid Nick to fuck, not even drunk.
Except for one.
Except for Cassie.
There was something different about Cassie, and Nick couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She wasn’t particularly striking – she was pretty, in a dainty kind of way. Not really Nick’s type. The girl who had helped move Cassie in on the first day, now there was someone who was Nick’s type, but Long Legged Blondie had yet to make a reappearance, and it was nearing the half-way point of the semester. That wasn’t to say Cassie’s other friends were equally absent, though. In fact, there was almost constantly one of them there, which was maybe why Nick was so drawn to Cassie. Because Cassie may have been quiet and sweet and terrifyingly even and wise – so much like those from the war who had actually seen action, had actually fought against the aliens, except so much more so – and everything that Nick was not normally attracted to, but she had something.
That, and she had four boyfriends.
No man could take that sitting down.
Nick was halfway certain that the first one wasn’t even one of her boyfriends, because he looked about fifteen years old and stared like some kind of creepy animal, but there were touches between him and Cassie that made it infinitely clear that this was not her little brother. The girls’ wing had an open door policy, and sometimes when Nick went striding down the hall en route to somewhere else he’d see the kid through Cassie’s door, tucked across the end of her bed with one of her textbooks while she did her homework, or crouching behind her, working through problems with her in this quiet, even voice that somehow reminded Nick of a beaten animal – quiet, cautious to love, and unmistakably dangerous. He tried to steer clear of the creepy blond kid with uncannily piercing stare – in his head, he called him Creature Freak, but the one time he had let that slip in front of Cassie, she had leveled a look at him that honestly made him fear for his life for a second. He never even saw the kid walk in – he just wasn’t there, and then Nick would walk down the hall and there he would be, his feet tucked under him and a chapter of biology halfway read even though there was no way he could be old enough for school. Nick was starting to suspect Creature Freak helped Cassie with her homework because he liked it. Freak.
Unfortunately, the worst part about Creature Freak was more often than not, he brought Tall Freak with him, who Nick was pretty sure was Cassie’s actual boyfriend. This guy didn’t tend to talk much – even when the other girls on the floor tried to engage him, giggling and coy, he just smiled politely and nodded, and Cassie talked for him. There was something scary about this guy too, though, enough that Nick would never dream of taking him on. For starters, he was a big guy – big hands, big shoulders, and just this look about him, like he was ten seconds away from leaping into a fight at all times. Cagey would have been a good describer word for him, which was odd, because the second word was definitely cuddly. Because when it came to Cassie, he was an absolute teddy bear. Half the time, Tall Freak showed up with study coffee and a gigantic grin, sometimes trailing Creature Freak or Probably Gay Freak – Nick had no other way to describe the third of Cassie’s boyfriends, because no one could be that pretty and that awkward and that immune to social graces and girls and still have a girlfriend – and sometimes just alone. He was the one Nick always saw with Cassie in the cafeteria or walking her through the quad after classes, and if the other three hadn’t been there, Nick probably would have just given up right there. Because Tall Freak, he was definitely Cassie’s boyfriend.
But then, of course, there was the complication of Mouthy Freak.
If Nick didn’t like Tall Freak, he liked Mouthy Freak even less. They guy shouldn’t have been physically intimidating, but he was. And he also, in Nick’s opinion, shouldn’t have been mentally intimidating either, because Nick happened to know that Mouthy Freak didn’t even go to school. But he was that too. He was physically hostile, mentally hostile, and all other types of hostile towards Nick and his boys, and yet, he was the one who got public kisses out of Cassie.
Mouthy Freak was less regular than the other three. He showed up sporadically, sometimes dragging Cassie out of her room still laughingly protesting about homework, sometimes showing up two nights in a row to take her out dancing. He seemed to have an unending supply of comebacks and energy, even if some days, when he showed up, Cassie took one look at his face and let him lock the door behind him. Cassie did that a lot, for all of her boyfriends, and it bugged the shit out of Nick. None of them seemed so special to him. If Cassie was going to share with those four, why not with him?
It was around the fourth or fifth time Tall Freak had politely – scratch that, motherfucking intensely – informed Nick that no, Cassie does not want to come out tonight, are you sure you haven’t had enough to drink, and maybe the second time Mouthy Freak had wrapped a giggling, tipsy Cassie under one arm and declared that he was going to Whisky Jack’s with Cassie and all the girls were welcome to join that Cassie had moved to the top of Nick’s to do list. And once Nick set his mind to something, that was usually that, but with Cassie it wasn’t. Even when she wasn’t surrounded by a constant entourage of Freak Boyfriends, Cassie didn’t even bat an eye his way. Nick had never been so insulted in his life.
The floor party was going to change that though.
The rules for this particular party – which Nick had not so unselfishly taken the liberty of crafting – were that everyone had to come, and everyone had to bring a member of the same gender, and everyone had to drink themselves stupid. Which, Nick was proud to declare, eliminated the possibility of Tall Freak or Mouthy Freak or – God forbid – Probably Gay Freak showing up (which would completely ruin all of Nick’s chances of getting laid by anyone, because girls literally swooned in his oblivious presence). Which meant Cassie would be drunk – and everyone knew Cassie was a giggly drunk – and alone.
It was almost quarter to ten, and most of the guests were well on their way to plastered, by the time Cassie finally did appear, towing - to Nick’s surprise – Long Legged Blondie by the arm. “Cassie!” he crowed, waving her over despite the slightly-strained she threw in his direction. “’bout time, beautiful!” Nick winked. “Hey, who’s your friend?”
“This is Rachel,” Cassie said, smiling as she sat down on the couch across from Nick and dragged Rachel onto it after her. Rachel looked less than pleased. “Rachel, this is Riley, Chase, and Nick.”
Rachel narrowed her eyes at him, her eyes flicking to his with startling clarity despite the mostly-empty bottle of beer she had clenched in her fist. “So this is Nick,” she bit out, taking a violent swig of beer. “Nice to meet you.”
A frown puckered slightly between Cassie’s brows, and she nudged her friend lightly. Rachel shot her a dirty look, but rolled her eyes and nodded briefly to Riley and Chase when she was met with a look. Rachel finished the beer, reached into her bag and pulled out another, twisting the top off and immediately taking a swig, and Cassie sighed slightly, squeezing Rachel’s arm briefly and turning to chat with one of the other girls from her wing as her friend did her best to merge with the dirty common room sofa.
Nick sat back, taking a satisfied swig of his own beer. Long Legged Blondie might have been a bit of a bust – not totally, though, because what she lacked in personality she sure made up for in shape – but Cassie was looking like an easy conquest. Separating her from her friend was probably going to be as easy as waiting for Rachel to drink herself under the table, and then happy-drunk Cassie was going to be all his.
Rachel, however, proved to have a little more stamina than Nick’s patience, and he found himself drifting between groups somewhere around his tenth beer. The rest of the party started to drift too, and then decided as a group they were going to go out dancing, and when he came back to the couches he found Rachel and Cassie alone, and arguing – very soberly.
“Rachel, come on,” Cassie was saying softly, her hand tight around Rachel’s wrist as the other girl glared at the dark windows. “You’ve gone out with Marco a couple of times, right? It’ll be fun. I promise.” The other girl didn’t move, a muscle jumping in her jaw, and Cassie pleaded, “Please, Rache? Just once?” Cassie set her drink down so she could clasp Rachel’s hand in both of hers, and finally got eye contact as her reward. “You never do anything anymore,” Cassie said softly, and Nick saw Rachel’s angry veneer crack a little. “You don’t even try. You have to move on.” Her thumb started rubbing up and down Rachel’s wrist, probably because the taller girl was starting to get a bit of a panicked, feral look on her face. “Please try?”
“Cassie, I can’t,” Rachel bit out, squeezing her eyes shut in frustration. “You know I don’t like it.”
“Only because you’re not used to it.”
“I will never be used to it,” Rachel snapped, taking a deep breath to even her tone when her friend flinched. “There are too many…people,” she finally stated firmly, her chin taking on a stubborn jut. “I’ll panic. It’s not safe. Not when I’m drinking.”
“You have to try,” Cassie said softly, pulling at Rachel’s hands until she looked at her again. “Please. It’s not that hard, if you can get through it a couple times. Marco got me through the first few, and now its fun. I’ll get you through it.”
“Yeah, well I’m not exactly you,” Rachel snarled, but this time Cassie didn’t flinch. “I have a little more to get through than you di-”
Nick recognized this as his perfect opening, although he did stumble a little as he leaned down to rest his elbows on the couch in front of them. He hadn’t had that much, had he? He’d only had – some. More than some? “Come out with me, if she don’t wanna come,” he drawled, startling both girls – although he got the feeling they had known he was there, they just didn’t expect him to talk.
“Nick.” Cassie gave him a smile that Nick should have known was strained, but didn’t. “Not right now, okay? Me and Rachel are-”
“Aww, c’mon, babe.” He swung himself around the couch, dropping down beside Cassie so he could sling an arm around her waist. She felt good. Smelled good. “If she don’t wanna come, she don’t wanna come. Come out with me.”
“That was not a conversation for you,” Rachel practically snarled at him, and he could literally see the fury boiling out of her, but Cassie put a hand on her arm, and she slammed back against the couch.
“Nick,” Cassie said calmly. “-I’m here with Rachel tonight. We might come out later, okay? So I’ll see you-”
Nick laughed. “Nah, sweetheart, you’re gonna see a lot mora me than that,” he drawled, ignoring her when she pushed against the hand he had wrapped around her waist, searching lower. He pressed his mouth against her bangs and she pushed harder, hissing, “Nick,” and he murmured, “’f you’re gonna skip the club, how bout me and you skip the club, hmm?”
“No.” Cassie declared firmly, and Nick let go of her for a second in surprise as pain flared up in his wrist. Cassie was off the couch in a second, eyes wild, but she composed herself. Rachel was slightly less composed, and Cassie grabbed her by the arm, dragging her back. “Good night, Nick,” Cassie said tightly.
Nick wobbled to his feet. By now, Riley and Chase had noticed the commotion and had come over to help, accidentally but efficiently blocking off both routes of exit with their approach. “C’mon, Cassie, don’t be like that,” Nick cajoled, leaning closer even when the backs of Cassie’s knees hit the other couch. “We’re survivors of a war, babe.” It was his one line that always worked, his last resort, and it had never failed him, but Cassie’s brown eyes shuttered to it almost instantly. “You know the city they destroyed? ‘s my home town. I lived through that. If you live through that, y’can handle anything, right? One night a fun ain’t gonna hurt ya.”
Cassie was holding her friend back with two hands now, muttering something at her desperately, and Rachel snarled, “She said no you useless shit,” in a voice that no longer sounded human to his ears.
A challenge was a challenge to Nick, even one uttered by a girl. “You don’t like one on one, issat it?” he asked, his grin growing. “You like two of them boys at once?”
“Nick,” Cassie spat in fury, her eyes flashing, but it only proved to spur Nick on. “I am not available.”
“That what they tell you to say, sweetheart? Not available. That why you always talk nice when them boys are around? They rough you up a little? Keep you quiet?” His smile grew more toothy. “We can do two at once without none a that,” Nick promised, his voice low, and he took another step closer. “You like that? Me in the front and Riley in the back? That’s the way you wanna get fuck-”
Touching Cassie was what did it, Nick would later decide, when he was sober enough and awake enough to remember. Because his hand came forward to find her shoulder at the same time as Riley’s drunken, wavering hand landed on Rachel’s arm, and something snapped.
He was on the floor with a broken nose and a shattered collarbone before his drunken mind could even register his hand might have been a little lower than he was aiming for.
“No means NO, you piece of SHIT,” the blond Amazon holding him to the floor with one hand hissed in his face, and for the first time in his life, Nick knew true terror. “You think you can talk to her like that? You think anyone can talk to her like that? You know the only reason you’re alive right now is because Cassie doesn’t want me to kill you? She could kill you in a fucking second, don’t you EVER talk to her like that again!”
“Rachel…” There was someone standing over them, but Nick could barely hear through the blood pounding in his ears and pouring out of his nose. His world had narrowed to the scent of blood and the cold fury of the animal he could see in the blue eyes boring into his. “Rachel, come on, he’s had enough.”
Hands he hadn’t registered before released him, and Nick took a deep gulp of air, rolling onto his side to cough painfully. Riley was blinking up at the ceiling through an equally-broken-looking nose, dazed, and she seemed to have felled Chase with a single punch, because he was out for the count. Cassie pulled Rachel to her feet, and he glared up at the two of them, only to be met with equally steely glowers. “Maybe that’ll teach you to keep your damn hands off of someone who is taken,” Rachel snarled, her hand protectively tight around Cassie’s arm.
“Tall Freak couldn’t do his own business, huh?” Nick managed to choke out around what felt like the broken pieces of his face. “Hadda send a girl to keep his bitch in line?”
Rachel’s eyes widened in fury, and for a minute Nick was expecting a kick, but Cassie stopped her.
By grabbing her face.
And kissing her.
It was clear, within seconds of the kiss beginning, that this was not a new experience for either of them, and Nick could only gape as Rachel got what he had been dreaming about getting for weeks right before his eyes.
Cassie glared down at him again when they finally broke it off, and she said coolly, “I can do my own business, thanks, Nicholas. And I can do it with whoever I want.” Her eyes narrowed. “And that’s not you.”
“You know what, I think I do like this clubbing stuff,” Rachel declared, sliding an arm around the shorter girl’s waist. “Cassie, do me a favor?”
“Mmm?” Cassie asked, looking up and wiping a smudge of blood off of Rachel’s cheek like it was nothing.
Rachel grinned at her. “Take me out?”
Cassie didn’t even bother answering that, and as the two of them disappeared down the hall to the elevators, hands untwined, Nick had the brief attentiveness to think, four boyfriends and a crazy girlfriend.
No man could take on that at all.