Chapter 1: HOUSE RULE #4: use the buddy system at parties
So Rachel was at a party, drinking and turning down her fifth come-on of the night and complaining to Cassie about being roomed with her over-responsible cousin, his lunatic best friend, and two total strangers this year.
Well, back up. Rachel was at college. She and Jake went together, because they’d been applying for colleges just as Tom was getting out of a very bizarre cult that had sort of consumed his life for the better part of four years. It wasn’t because Jake had to keep an eye on her, no matter what they told anyone who asked, even if her history buff cousin was currently considered the stable one in the family. (Her parents had never quite gotten over the whiplash when Rachel stopped doing gymnastics and took up krav maga and jiu jitsu. She thought they might never recover from the shock if she admitted it had been Jake’s suggestion.) It was just because they mutually needed to get out of the blast zone while Tom sorted his shit out, and it sort of worked out that way. Over the course of freshman year, their duo expanded to a quartet—Jake picked up a best friend, Marco, who Rachel put up with because Jake liked him, and she had claimed Cassie, the only freshman on campus who had a major and a grad school all worked out, as her own.
And it had all been fine, is the point. Rachel’s first roommate, Taylor, had been…a trip, but for most of the year she roomed with Melissa, who was a sweetheart, if a little timid. Jake had sorted it out so that he had a single, through a minor miracle, and tolerantly turned down the frats who were determined to recruit him. Rachel had fewer issues—the first time a girl got pushy about joining a sorority, Rachel had a very brief, very polite conversation that resolved the entire situation. They were set up for a smooth college career, with no more than the usual underage drinking and good living situations and decent social standing.
And then over the summer the college realized they didn’t have enough housing for their newly-recruited students and panicked.
Which was how Rachel, Jake, Marco, Cassie, and two people whose names Rachel didn’t even know were all going to be living together in one of the houses usually reserved for seniors.
Rachel sullenly finished her tequila shot and bit into her lime slice with more violence than strictly necessary, grimacing as her throat burned.
“I don’t like living with strangers,” she complained. “Look how Taylor turned out!”
“Yeah, I know, Rach,” Cassie said, sympathetic, and took a sip of her own whiskey. It was to their tremendous benefit that Jake knew the frat throwing the party, who had an exceptional liquor selection and believed that any friend of Jake’s was welcome to it. Smirking a little, Cassie added, “Besides, you’re just worried that in a house of six you won’t be able to invite the guy from your Shakespeare class over. For tutoring.”
“Hey, I did great in that class, requirements are my bitch,” Rachel said, brushing her hair back. “But he was definitely the highlight of that class,” she admitted, and tried not to blush—there was a certain level of pathetic in spending an entire semester staring at the one person in her class who never spoke.
“We’ve heard,” Jake said, appearing out of the crowd at the door. “Constantly.”
“Oh yeah, like you and Cassie aren’t all hand-holding and doe eyes,” Rachel snapped, feeling a blush crawl up her throat. “You don’t get to serve me that particular meal, Jake—although you do get to serve me another shot.”
“Jake, my man, why are we in the kitchen?” Marco asked, bouncing into the room and slinging one arm over Jake’s shoulder. Jake didn’t budge, even though a significant portion of Marco’s weight had to be hanging off him, and Marco raised his cup to Rachel and Cassie in a toast. “Ladies.”
“What are you drinking?” Rachel asked, frowning at the deep orange-pink contents.
“Sex on the Beach,” Marco said with a wink and a sly swing of his hips. Rachel arched an eyebrow at him and he relented. “Or some frat guy’s best approximation. It’s pretty good, you want some?”
“I prefer real alcohol, but you enjoy that.”
“Cassie,” Jake said, shrugging Marco off with ease. “Remember that thing we discussed?”
“It had better be going out and dancing,” Rachel muttered, taking another piece of lime and sprinkling salt on her hand.
“Grinding like civilized people,” Marco confirmed.
“Oh my God, both of you are going to hell,” Cassie said as Jake turned brick red.
“Here here,” Rachel and Marco chorused, raising a red Solo cup and a fresh tequila shot in acknowledgement. The second shot burned worse than the first, and Rachel hissed out a breath once she’d swallowed the lime.
Cassie shook her head at them both, swallowed some whiskey, and said, “Almost ready?”
“Yeah,” Jake confirmed, and Cassie smiled.
“Here, Rachel,” she said, swapping Rachel’s empty glass out for a full one. Rachel silently looked at her best friend, attempting to convey what the hell as best she could without opening her mouth. “Liquid courage,” Cassie said with a mysterious smile, walking over to Jake’s side. Rachel considered questioning her further, but sighed and did the shot instead. Lime still in her teeth, she made a sarcastic after you gesture and trailed the three of them out into the living room of the frat.
“You touch me, you lose that hand at the wrist,” she snapped to a freshman, and he paled.
“Come on, Rachel,” Cassie said, catching her hands. “Dance with me.”
Rachel let herself smile, then, feeling the warm rush of the tequila beginning to hit her bloodstream, and whirled into the crowd. Dancing was fun—dancing was good, she decided at once, feeling the hot press of bodies and the pounding beat bear her up like a tide. The tequila buzzed through her veins and the dancing flooded her senses, and even though she probably hadn’t had enough to be properly drunk—she and Jake had been surprised to discover that, apparently, their family had remarkably high tolerances to alcohol—she could feel the confidence of the alcohol easing through her bones.
“Hey, Rachel,” Cassie called over the music, pulling away from Jake to lean close enough to Rachel to be able to talk. “Look!” She pointed over Rachel’s shoulder, toward the door, well over the height Cassie should have been able to see. Rachel stretched up, peering toward the door at the two boys who had just walked in. One, with curly dark hair and middling-dark skin, was almost uncannily pretty, tall and lanky and bright-eyed. His friend, who looked mildly appalled by the crowded room, was only slightly shorter, about Rachel’s height, with rumpled blond hair and amber skin. His serious dark eyes were wide—and familiar. The unmistakable bubble of a reckless decision about to be made swelled in Rachel’s chest as the blond boy swept a look of alarm across the room, clearly searching for someone he knew. Cassie leaned in again and started to say, “Jake invited our new roo--”
“Dibs!” Rachel interrupted at a shout, tossing a hand up into the air to general applause, and both boys looked to her, startled.
“What?” Cassie asked.
“You heard me,” Rachel said, baring her teeth in a fierce smile and tossing her head. “Dibs. On the blond one.”
“Wha—no, Rachel, those are the two guys who are going to be--”
“Shh,” Rachel said, brushing past Cassie to duck back into the kitchen and emerge with a pair of tequila shots in one hand and a salt shaker and two lime slices in the other. “I’m busy,” she added as she passed Cassie again, and as she left, she saw her best friend throw her hands into the air helplessly.
The blond guy had retreated promptly to the side of the room, close to the door leading to a library-like room that was officially speaking off limits, and was eyeing the party like he was questioning every life choice he’d made leading him to this point. His friend had disappeared in the direction of the food, and there appeared to be a small furor happening in that direction that had already drawn Jake’s presence, but the blond seemed determined to ignore it. He’d already blinked in blank incomprehension at two girls who had tried to pull him into the pulsing crowd of dancers, and hey, Rachel loved a challenge.
“Hey,” she said, sliding into his field of vision with a sly smile. He was about her height at close quarters, and shock flitted onto his face as he looked at her—eyes first, then a quick glance down at the legs on pointed display beneath her skirt, then back up at her eyes, red touching his cheeks. It was adorable. “I’m Rachel,” she said. “We had Shakespeare together last semester.”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, blushing deeper. His voice wasn’t what she’d expected, a little deeper, warmer, although about as shy as he acted. “I know. I’m Tobias.”
“Nice to meet you,” Rachel said, and grinned at him. She flicked her hair over her shoulder and offered him the hand with the shots in it. “Do a shot with me?”
“All right?” Tobias said, visibly bemused, but took the shot out of her hand and cocked his head.
“Like this,” she said, handing him a slice of lime. She brought her hand to her lips and licked a stripe up the skin between her first finger and thumb, watching Tobias through her eyelashes as she did. “Salt,” she said, pouring salt on the glistening line and setting the shaker down on the table. “And then the tequila, and the lime,” she continued. She shot him a wicked glance. “It’s better if you do it all real fast.”
“I believe you,” Tobias said dryly, and followed her example, although a little more hesitantly than she had. Rachel took the opportunity to notice that he had very nice lips.
“Now,” she said once he’d sprinkled salt on his hand. “Cheers. To the new year, yeah?”
“To the new year,” Tobias said, flashing her an outright grin with an edge of wicked humor. It made his dark eyes glint, turned his quiet good looks into something rakish, something that left her breathless and made warmth sweep up her cheeks and throat. Rachel decided that she wanted to see it again. “And all the chaos we’ll inevitably see.”
Rachel laughed, raising her shot to him in a salute, and licked the salt from her hand, then tossed her shot back and bit into her lime all in one motion. Tobias did the same, and she could see the grimace he pulled behind the lime in his teeth.
“That’s godawful,” he said, swallowing again once he’d spit out the lime. He sounded amused, rather than offended the way Jake had when she’d talked him into trying the same thing, and he was grinning at her again. Rachel tore the flesh out of her lime slice and swallowed it, and smirked back as she set the rind in her glass.
“I know, right?” She laughed, shaking her head, and held out her hand. “Dance with me.”
“I don’t know how to dance,” he said immediately, as if he’d already used the line and had it ready.
“It’s not rocket science, even my dumbass cousin can do it,” Rachel said, catching his hand. He looked taken aback, glancing down at her arm and where her fingers gripped his as if expecting a trick. “Come on.”
“I…think I’d need another shot first.”
“That can be arranged,” Rachel announced, smug. “I’ll teach you how to do a body shot.”
Given the look Cassie shot her as Rachel flicked her hair back and bared the skin of her collarbone, she should probably feel guilty for her usual zero-to-sixty method of flirting. Maybe if she’d had less alcohol, or if she’d spent less time lusting after Tobias’ deft hands and lean build, or if he seemed less wholly willing to be caught up in her wake, Rachel would consider it. As it was, she carefully held a lime between her teeth and tried not to shiver as his tongue swept over the line of salt clinging to her skin, and wound her fingers in the soft hair at the nape of his neck as he took the lime from between her lips.
When he leaned back, the amber-brown of his eyes was almost wholly eclipsed by black pupil in the light of the kitchen, and Rachel grinned at him again, slow and wicked.
“So,” he said once he’d taken the lime from his mouth and swallowed. “You said something about dancing?”
Rachel grinned, feral, and dragged him out into the crowd.
If dancing alone had been good, dancing with Tobias was fantastic. His hands—god, Rachel had spent an entire semester falling in love with his hands—slid down her sides and left fire in their wake, settling at her hips, light and almost tentative. She looked up at him over her shoulder, her back to his chest, and hooked her hand back over his neck. So close, she could feel the heat from his skin, feel every hitch in his breath when she pressed back against him. The alcohol was vibrating through her chest, flushing her cheeks and making it seem like an excellent idea to slide their hips together and tip her face back up to him. Tobias looked back down at her, an indefinable expression on his face.
“Is this a trick?” he asked, leaning close so that he could speak under the thudding base of the music.
“No,” Rachel said, smirking.
“How about a dream?” This time it was half a laugh, one that stuttered off into a gasp as she linked her fingers with his and carefully tightened his grip.
“You dream about me?” she asked, winking.
“Um,” he said, sounding dazed. “Gorgeous blonde in my class, smart, mouthy. Yes. Who wouldn’t?”
Rachel turned in his grip, until they were pressed together chest to knee and her arms were draped lazily over his shoulders. “Good,” she said. “Because I’ve wanted to dance with the quiet artist kid all year.” He arched his eyebrows at her. “It’s the hands,” she said, mock-wise, and he laughed again, fuller this time. “So come on, Tobias.” She lingered over his name and smirked again. “Dance with me.”
“Sure,” he said. “Whatever you want.”
“Now that,” Rachel mused as a new song started, “is what I like to hear.”
Dancing was a blur, warm and brightly colored and full of amber eyes as she moved to the beat with Tobias at her back. Whenever the music was quiet enough, he ducked his head down to murmur in her ear, to make cracks about the clothes of the people passing them or tell her bits of gossip he’d gleaned from the art building. It was…really fun, Rachel realized in surprise. She’d picked guys up at parties before, but Tobias was wry and funny, even as the alcohol kicked in, and when his hands wandered up her sides or down to her thigh, it was only after she had moved them there herself.
Obviously she had to kiss him.
Rachel twisted in Tobias’ grip and laced both hands behind his neck. “I’m gonna kiss you now,” she informed him bluntly, and he started to smile, the trace of a laugh on his tongue before she caught it.
Tobias tasted sharp and a little sour-sweet, still tequila and lime, and once he got over the initial surprise—she’d warned him—he kissed her back enthusiastically, hands strong and firm at her back. Rachel tipped her head, parted her lips, deepened the kiss. Heat thundered just under her skin, the trace of his hand along her spine sending bright sparks out from her core. The slick slide of lips and tongue was addictive, and so was the shuddering gasp she tore from him when she tugged at his hair. Rachel was still wondering if she could get the same response again when Tobias’ lips left hers and found her jaw instead, a trace of teeth against her skin, and she was the one gasping.
“Oh-kay,” Rachel breathed when he had retreated, a smug little smile on her face that sent another shower of sparks through her blood. “I was gonna ask if you wanted to go back to my place—or yours, I guess?”
He shook his head. “I got caught up in the housing shuffle. Haven’t moved in yet.”
“Yeah, that,” she said, hoping that she sounded like she’d processed what he said. “But, listen, I know the brothers--”
“You know the brothers?” Tobias asked, arching his eyebrows at her.
“Well, my cousin knows them and they think he’s great,” Rachel said, waving a hand dismissively. Tobias’ hands were still tracing up and down her spine, sending heat crackling through her skin, and it was seriously impairing her critical thinking processes. “The point is that the library is officially off limits, but I know where the back door is.”
Tobias hesitated for a moment, then laughed and shook his head. “What the hell. I was going to say I don’t usually do that, but I don’t usually do drinking and dancing either.”
“It’s good for you,” she said solemnly, and kissed him again, slow and deep and breathless. She thought she heard Jake say something in his best exasperated voice, but honestly to hell with him. She was busy. He could be busy too if he and Cassie got their shit a little more together.
Parting, she and Tobias grinned at each other for a moment before she linked her fingers back through his and towed him toward the hall. Passing a basket of condoms—helpfully provided by the brothers—Rachel grabbed one and palmed it before taking a couple of turns and ending up at a plain wooden door. She pressed Tobias against it and kissed him, pressing against him shamelessly and relishing the feel of his shoulders under her hands, his hands at her back, his hips hard against hers, among other things.
“Door, Rachel,” he murmured against her throat as she tipped her head back and let him nip at the soft skin there. She muttered something indistinct and curse-filled, but fumbled for the doorknob and sent them both spilling into the library.
Tobias cocked his head and looked toward the far wall with its door, clearly listening to the loud beat of the music. “That sounds like…”
“The party’s right through that door,” Rachel said. “That one’s locked, but the walls are pretty thin.”
Tobias shook his head. “You are a crazy woman.”
“But you’re here anyway,” she pointed out, kicking the door shut behind her and prowling toward him.
He caught her and spun them both, so that, this time, it was Rachel pinned against a long side table against the wall. She hopped up on it and tugged him forward, ignoring the way her skirt hitched up around her thighs as he stepped between them. “I didn’t say anything about me. I’m weird, ask anyone.”
Rachel shrugged and pulled his lips to hers without another word.
“God,” Tobias said on a shaky breath when she moved down his jaw to his throat. His skin was dark amber, the legacy of sun on some shade darker than Rachel’s pale, and it flushed beautiful red when she put her teeth against the tendons. The hands at her hips tightened convulsively and she grinned, laving her tongue over the mark once before moving down to his fine sharp collarbone where it showed through the collar of his t-shirt. Tobias’ hands moved up from her hips to the skin under her shirt, and she hummed approvingly against his skin.
“You have no idea how much time I spent thinking about this,” Rachel said, raising her head with a laugh, shaking her hair back, and laced her fingers into his wild hair.
“Still pretty sure this is a dream,” Tobias said, ducking his head down to press lips and teeth to the place just under her jaw that had made her shudder before. She clung to his hair, legs tight around his hips, and tipped her head back to give him better access. A sound almost like a moan strangled on her tongue as he worked his way down her throat, across her shoulder, to the smooth skin of her chest revealed by her shirt. His hands were broad and firm on her back, bending her into a smooth curve. Rachel didn’t think he was working from a vast well of experience so much as he was just extremely observant, paying close attention to the places that made her gasp in a breath, the way that teeth made her grip on him tighten, the sharp cry—unsuccessfully muffled—when he pressed his hips forward. He hushed her, half-laughing.
“Oh, go to hell,” Rachel said, grinning herself, and leaning back until her shoulders hit the wall at the back of the shallow table. Tobias made a sound almost like a groan as her legs closed around his hips, tugging him close enough to bend down and press biting kisses across the skin of her chest. “The music’s too loud for them to hear us anyway.”
“Did you have a plan for—Jesus,” he swore, muffling the word in the curve of her neck as a deft hand slipped under his shirt, finding the button on his jeans and sliding two fingers beneath. His skin was warm, smooth and flushed, and Rachel snickered in triumph. Tobias slid his hands up her thighs in revenge, until her skirt was bunched around his wrists and his thumbs could inscribe tantalizing arcs at the soft skin inside.
Rachel was reluctant to let him go, to loosen her grip and lose the solid press of him against her, but she did, and his fingers slid higher. He paused, thumb tracing a gentle line at the crease of her thigh, and looked at her, head cocked and dark eyes serious.
“Yes,” Rachel said emphatically. Tobias smiled at her, almost shy again. And she had to drag him down into a kiss, then, lifting her hips to shed her underwear and tangling her fingers into his hair as his fingers slid up higher. Tobias still had that air of near-obsessive observation, pressing lingering kisses to her throat and jaw and watching for the faintest twitch as his fingers explored her slick folds, noting the way she gasped as he circled her clit and the clutch of her nails when he slid a finger inside. His focus was…novel. It wasn’t that Rachel was in the habit of having bad sex—it was just that she was used to having sex with college guys. Her limited sex life had revealed to her the absolute truth that college guys who thought they knew what they were doing most certainly did not. This…was something else, being the object of so much concentration. Tobias’ methodical touch, mixing with the golden thickness of the alcohol, sent coiling waves of sensation crashing through her, and it was good.
And then Tobias curled two fingers forward inside her, pressed a thumb down on her clit, and Rachel shouted in surprise, hips jolting up into his hand as sparks rained down her spine and scalding hunger shivered through her nerves.
“Fuck,” she panted, dragging his lips back to hers with her fingers still tight in her hair, and when she kissed him, she could feel the smug grin on his lips. Rachel’s fingers fumbled this time, tugging at Tobias’ jeans until the button popped and the zipper slid down, and she reached inside to close her hand around his cock. He was hard, feverishly hot against her skin, and he muffled a moan in her shoulder as she pushed down the offending fabric of his jeans enough to roll the stolen condom onto him.
“You’re so…” Tobias trailed off, shaking his head as she pulled him close.
“So what?” she breathed, feeling his breath stutter under her hands as the head of his cock brushed against her.
“So much,” he said, and Rachel felt something unfamiliar and warm flush under her skin, and dismissed it almost at once. Closing her eyes, she tipped her head back and relished the push, the stretch, as he pressed forward. Tobias’ breath shook against the skin of her jaw, and when she gave an aborted rock of her hips, tugging at his hair, he made a low, punched-out sound deep in his throat. His hips gave a shallow jerk, sending a sweet burn up Rachel’s spine.
“Yes,” Rachel hissed, and Tobias groaned, his head tipping back, eyes closed. Rachel pressed her lips to the strong line of the tendon curving up his throat, applied teeth and tongue to the hollow behind his jaw until the skin went from red to purple. A groan shivered through Tobias’ chest as she pulled with her legs, and she laughed against the salt of his skin when he withdrew, thrust forward.
She set the rhythm, fast and shuddering, making the long side table rattle as she gripped his shoulders and his hands left bright aches on her hips—she hoped, through the thick haze, that they would bruise. He murmured words into her neck like they would leave tattoos, visible marks of his praise: beautiful, strong, incredible. Rachel heard compliments all the time, but his voice carried something more, something powerful, in the cracks between syllables. Tobias slid a hand down from her hip, found her clit again, and she gasped, cried out unmuffled as her fingers clawed down his shoulders. A liquid weight trickled down her bones to coil as feverish heat beneath her skin, making her breathless, helpless to do anything but toss her head back and cling as it built. Every pass of his finger, every thrust—focused, so focused on her—dragged a sound, more than a moan but not by much, out of her throat, the whole world flushed and close and tequila-gold.
It took Rachel by surprise, when she came, a burst of white light behind her eyelids and a choked cry that couldn’t pass the unfurling tension in her chest and throat. She felt Tobias shudder against her not moments later, dimly aware of her nails biting into his skin below the sleeves of his t-shirt, deep enough to mark. But mostly she was aware of the riptide shuddering through her bones and the heat of skin on skin and the feeling of Tobias’ heart, hammering against his ribs and echoing through her chest.
She remembered only flashes after that, dizzy and warm with the glow of orgasm. Kissing Tobias, laughing with him as they righted their clothes. Dropping a lazy wink to a handsome blond guy (his name was something alliterative—JJ? TT? Who cared? Not Rachel) who was clearly aware of what had been happening in the library. Tobias being swept up by his tall friend. Scrawling her cell number on the back of his hand in pen, with a remark about doing it again sometime. Exchanging some words with Cassie and Jake (Holding hands! Progress!) to ensure that she wasn’t presumed missing.
She didn’t remember taking the campus shuttle back to their new shared house, but she did remember stripping out of everything she was wearing in favor of an overlarge shirt and collapsing, makeup barely stripped from her face, in bed.
* * *
Her door slammed open to admit both Cassie and Cassie’s heartlessness far too early. The brisk way Cassie yanked open the curtains to let light spill onto Rachel’s face—God Almighty, she had chosen an east-facing room to make school days earlier but this was hell—was a personal affront, and Rachel grabbed the closest object and threw it blindly at Cassie’s shadowed figure.
“Very intimidating,” Cassie said mercilessly as she dodged the book. There was a quiet chink, and Rachel scowled, but took the offering of Advil and water without protest. “Come and meet our new roommates. They’re here to unpack.”
“You’re evil,” Rachel said politely, swallowing the rest of the water. Cassie gave her a grin.
Rachel paused, blinking in the bright sun. “Not as bad as I’d expected, actually,” she admitted, and it was true. She had a headache, but it wasn’t splitting, and she wasn’t nauseated. “I’m just really not a morning person.”
“That sucks,” Cassie said, dry. “Come on. Not all of us look perfect just out of bed, so the least you can do is make it snappy and come meet the others.”
Rachel paused halfway through pulling on a pair of pajama pants to narrow her eyes at Cassie. “What are you scheming?”
“Me? Scheming? Never,” Cassie said immediately. Rachel settled the soft black pants at her hips and swept her hair up into a ponytail without deigning to reply, and Cassie didn’t bother to pretend not to give a pointed look at Rachel’s collarbone. “Come on,” she repeated once Rachel swept a hand down herself as if to say satisfied?
The new arrivals, the last pair to finish out the six occupants of the house, had been waylaid by the boys at the door, and Rachel knew this for certain because Marco—who got hideous hangovers but somehow always powered through—had probably never heard the words ‘inside voice’ in his entire life.
“—you fucking joking, what do you mean you’re already in a 400 level CompSci class, Jesucristo, I give up, I’m dropping out,” Marco was saying as Rachel and Cassie descended the stairs.
“Your mom would never forgive you,” Jake said, the tolerant amusement almost palpable. Jake, unlike Marco, didn’t need to raise his voice to be audible—Jake’s voice carried. Rachel’s mother called it presence and tried to talk him into a law degree.
“My mom loves me, because I—news flash—am lovable.”
“Yeah, and Eva strikes fear into the hearts of men, women, and everything in between,” Rachel said as they rounded the last corner to the entryway.
“Ah, Xena, you grace us with your annoyingly faultless presence,” Marco said, squinting at her through his sunglasses. He had a mug of coffee in one hand, so strong that Rachel could feel herself getting wired off the fumes.
“Hey, cousin,” Jake said with an easy grin, because of course he and Cassie were the textbook responsible drinkers and therefore perpetually hangover-free. At least he had the common decency not to report back to Rachel’s parents, and only told them about how Rachel made sure he didn’t forget there was a wider world outside the library and the gym. “Have you met our new roommates?”
“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” Rachel said, looking at the pair of figures blocking the sunlight from blinding her properly.
“Well, this is Axima—Axim—he said we could call him Ax, which I intend to continue doing even when I have full control of my body again,” Marco said, gesturing to the taller of the two. Something sank in Rachel’s stomach as she glanced over a remarkably familiar figure, wild curls and bronze skin and intelligent eyes, before sliding to the one beside him.
They evaluated each other for a moment, his eyes catching on the pearl-string of faint red marks, not quite bruises, framing her collarbone, as hers did on the purple bruise in the shape of a mouth at the tendon of his neck. His lips quirked up into the same self-deprecating smile as last night, and Cassie said, voice very even, “And I think you’ve already met Tobias.”
Chapter 2: HOUSE RULE #3: rich boy pays for breakfast
Hey wow, I bet y'all thought I was lying about having ideas for more of this, huh? Ya boy hasn't touched this in two and some years, in which time I have discovered that being genderfluid is a thing that exists, that I have a chronic illness, and that giving up seven years of my life with my three beautiful partners probably isn't how I want to spend my time. The more things fucking change, the more Animorphs fic I write, I guess.
No idea how frequent updates will be/how many will happen, but this is a very low demand fic, which is why I wrote a whole chapter between the Reading and Writing sections of my GED test today. Long story. Please enjoy this offering.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Helping the boys move in was quick—Ax had three boxes and a duffel bag large enough to fit a body in, and Tobias had one milk crate full of books and a kitchen-sized garbage bag that apparently contained the remainder of his possessions. Tobias was quiet, and Cassie kept her amusement to the occasional snicker as they toured the boys around, and if Jake or Marco was aware, they kept it to themselves.
Rachel volunteered to help Tobias unpack while Marco hounded Ax about his classes, and the door to Tobias’ room, which he was sharing with Ax, closed with a click, leaving the two of them studying each other silently. Tobias’ room was the smallest, and even with him sitting on the bed that would be his and Rachel leaning against his bookshelf, there was only about a foot between their knees.
“Well,” Rachel said dryly, breaking the quiet at last, and Tobias cracked a smile, hesitant. “Turns out we’re going to be living together this year.”
“Yeah,” Tobias said. He paused, lacing and relacing his fingers as he watched them move, and finally said, “Um, what do you want to…do? I don’t expect anything,” he added on quickly. “And—and I can see if I can move, but I’d really rather not because Ax is my best friend and I don’t know anywhere else we could still live together--”
“Stop, take a breath,” Rachel ordered, and Tobias shut up at once. Rachel chewed on her lower lip. “I mean…” She smiled, slow and wicked, and Tobias watched her with something approaching alarm. “What I kind of want to do is see if getting off might cure my hangover. But,” she conceded, “the others are probably going to come bursting in to see if you want to go get food soon, so we can leave that experiment for another day.” She took a moment to grin at him, then added politely, “If you’re comfortable with that.”
Tobias stared at her, flushing red, for a moment before he took a deep breath and almost visibly steeled himself to say, “Sure.”
“Good,” Rachel said. “You don’t have a girlfriend, right? Boyfriend? Any significant others I should know about?”
“Ha,” Tobias said dryly. “No.”
Rachel nodded. “Really good. I don’t sleep with taken guys.”
“And me what?” Rachel asked, bemused.
“Do you have a—a--” He gestured vaguely at the space beside her.
“No,” Rachel said, and straightened up, starting for the door. “I don’t do the dating thing at the moment. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but college guys are.” She shrugged with a wry little hand gesture, and Tobias grinned up at her from the edge of his bed.
“Mostly, yeah,” Rachel agreed, and swooped down on him to kiss the rise of his cheekbone, there and gone so quickly that it left him blinking. “Come on. If we suggest breakfast, we get to pick where we go. I am dying for some diner food. Hashbrowns, eggs, bacon, the whole works.”
“You might regret that,” Tobias said, unfolding himself from the bed and trailing after her. “You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the Ax-man in a diner.”
After their breakfast—which was every bit the spectacle Tobias promised, and Rachel learned that apparently, yes, it was physically possible for a human being to eat two entire cinnamon buns in addition to a complete eggs-toast-and-hashbrowns meal—Rachel knew several things about their newest roommates.
Tobias was an English major, and self-deprecating about it. Ax was majoring in computer science and physics, and was the darling of the department. They had met by coincidence on the very first day—Ax had managed to get locked inside the Student Union after closing, and Tobias had called Security to let him out. They had managed to have a whole conversation through the double-paned plate glass doors while they waited, in pantomime and lip reading, and had been inseparable since. Tobias liked fantasy books and Monet and Star Trek, Ax liked commentating on the science in Star Trek.
Tobias liked birds. Rachel had known that already, of course, from watching him draw, but she couldn’t seem to get the thought out of her head.
“Cassie’s a vet,” Rachel said, pointing with her fork as Cassie ate the last bite of pancake off Jake’s plate. He didn’t even put up a token protest and Rachel, heroically, did not roll her eyes at them. “She works with birds sometimes, at the rescue center in town.”
“I’m not a vet,” Cassie said after she swallowed. “I’m a volunteer.” She smiled at Tobias, friendly and amused, dimples forming at the curve of her cheeks. “But you could come by sometime if you needed something to do.”
“Something else to do,” Marco drawled. He had popped a pair of sunglasses on when they left the house, but after three cups of coffee he seemed to have mostly conquered the hangover—at least, to the point where he let his sunglasses slide down his nose so that he could wink at Rachel. Rachel made a mental note to kick Jake’s ass next time they went to the gym, purely on principle.
Beside her, Tobias studied his glass of water like it might hold the secret to eternal life, endless riches, and world peace. It was a little unfortunate that he bruised so easily, Rachel thought ruefully. The flush creeping up his throat made the mark on his skin stand out like a splash of purple paint.
“What about you, Ax?” Cassie asked—because Cassie, unlike some, couldn’t really bring herself to make someone uncomfortable for the fun of it. “Do you even have free time?”
“Some,” he said, wiping up the last of the icing on his plate with a fingertip before popping it in his mouth. Marco turned his stare on Ax, almost awestruck. Rachel couldn’t blame him. “My brother comes to visit on weekends, sometimes.”
“His brother is imaginary,” Tobias said, still staring at the ice in his glass. Ax made an offended sound, and Tobias cracked a smile.
“My brother is not imaginary!”
“I have literally never met the man. I’ve seen exactly one picture and you absolutely could have photoshopped it.”
Ax scowled at him, less menacing than it could have been if Rachel hadn’t just witnessed him eat two cinnamon rolls with the enthusiasm of a six-year-old set loose on an unsuspecting candy store. “Elfangor doesn’t like to have his picture taken. And,” he added, glancing away from Tobias to the rest of them, “he’s not imaginary. He lives about an hour away, he’s a software engineer, and he likes to make sure I’m doing all right.”
Jake tossed Rachel a wry glance. “Yeah, I’ve got an older brother too. But, uh—he’s the family fuckup right now, so when we go home for winter break, it’s going to be us checking up on him.”
“Us?” Ax asked, cocking his head.
“We’re cousins,” Rachel said. “Grew up down the street from each other and bailed out together when Tom got in over his head. Remember that cult that got taken apart by the news a couple years back? The Sharing?”
A dark look passed over Ax’s face. “I remember.”
“Yeah, Tom was pretty high up. He got out about a month before everything went to hell.”
“My brother had…issues with the Sharing.”
“Don’t we all,” Tobias said, and raised the glass he had been staring at, in a salute. “Maybe since we actually live together I’ll finally meet him. He’s like twice our age,” he added to Rachel. “Allegedly.”
“No wonder he has a real job,” Marco muttered, pouring the rest of the coffee down his throat with a grim little chuckle. “Speaking of which. Jake. My buddy, my guy.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jake said, with a little roll of his eyes, and flagged down the waiter to pay the bill.
“Jake has a job?” Tobias asked Rachel, and a deep crease appeared between his brows when he was confused. It was—cute.
“Mm,” Rachel said. “No. Jake is paying full tuition, if you catch my drift.”
Tobias’ eyebrows rose a little. “Jesus.”
“Rachel would be, if she hadn’t graduated with a four-point-fucking-oh,” Jake said amiably. “But she did.”
“I’d still need a scholarship,” Rachel said. “Mom wants to be able to help pay for Jordan’s college and law school so that she can go out and make her enemies cry with justice. And whatever Sara decides to do with her life when she gets out of her emo phase.”
“Sisters?” Tobias asked.
“Yeah,” Rachel said, smiling. “Two of them. I’d have dropped them off the roof if it got them out of my way when we were younger, but we Skype a lot.”
“That must be nice,” Tobias said, and smiled back. Looking at him in full daylight rather than the half-light of the party, Rachel was taken aback by how soft the line of his mouth looked when he smiled. His eyes crinkled at the corners, and there was something strangely honest about the expression, like he didn’t take the time to make his face lie for him very often.
“Yeah,” Rachel said, and blinked, looking away. “Yeah, it is.”
On the drive to the diner, the six of them had been comfortably distributed among Ax’s second-hand hatchback and Cassie’s pickup, which had been repaired so many times that Rachel had taken to affectionately calling it the Franken-truck. But with Cassie taking her truck to work, that left five people wedged into a car that was really only built for three, maybe a generous four. Jake was the tallest, so he got shotgun, which left Rachel and Tobias to decide how to fold themselves into the backseat with Marco.
“You know,” Rachel said, looking at the tiny car with a frown. “I think I’m going to ride on the roof.”
“It’ll be fine, Xena,” Marco said.
“Yeah, you should feel right at home,” Rachel sneered. “It’s a fucking clown car.”
“What, you don’t want to sit on my lap?”
Rachel smiled, her biggest, most model-perfect smile, the one that made pushy makeup counter workers and door-to-door salespeople take a quick step back. “That sounds fun,” she said. “Let’s try it. Five dollars on me being the one to live to the end of the drive.”
“Hey!” Jake rolled his window down as far as it would go—five inches—and hit the roof hard enough to make them all jump. “Just get in the car!”
Rachel stuck out her tongue at Jake, but she slipped into the back, all the way through until she was shoved up against the driver’s side door, and made a broad gesture to the others. “Your chariot awaits.”
“I think I’ll sit in the middle, actually,” Tobias said, and blocked Marco with an arm. “I want to live to unpack my books.”
Rachel prodded him in the ribs as he folded his knees up to fit behind the center console, until they were almost at his elbows. “You’re no fun.”
“You and Marco can have a sarcasm cage match later,” Jake said dryly from the front. “We can charge admission. Ax, you’re good at math, right? Do you want to be a bookie?”
“Oh!” Rachel could see Ax considering this in the mirror as Marco forced the door closed behind him. The tight fit meant that seatbelts were out of the question—Rachel could barely take a deep breath, let alone wiggle her hand down to reach the latch—but on the upside, she was pretty sure that they wouldn’t budge even if they hit a bus. “I would be a bookie,” Ax decided. “I think Rachel would win.”
“How could you do this to me?” Marco demanded, clapping a hand to his chest. Jake had the decency to cover his mouth and not laugh too obviously at his best friend’s near-howl of outrage. “Ax, my man, I thought we were friends! How could you betray me!”
“Tobias says that Rachel is intimidating,” Ax said blithely. Beside her, Rachel watched as Tobias’ cheeks flushed red again, but his face didn’t even twitch. Not a bad poker face, she decided, even if his blush gave him away.
“She is intimidating,” Tobias confirmed, voice flat. If she hadn’t been looking directly at the mark on his throat and remembering the taste of his skin, she would have thought he was talking about a stranger. “Everyone says so.”
Rachel grinned. “Nice.”
She loved college.
The next chapter will have more smut, I promise. Also I will eventually compile all of the house rules, which will be out of order in the chapter titles. Shoutout to the person who commented on this a couple days ago and gave me the idea to work on it today.
ᕕ( ᐛ )ᕗ See you fools later, I'm gonna go reread the Animorphs. Also they got audiobooks coming out, please buy them if you've got a couple spare bucks so that we have a chance at getting more than the first dozen or so.