For Corbin, the world went straight-up weird. After his hookup with Jessica Nakamura, the campus's hottest senior, he became something of an instant celebrity on his floor, especially after a bunch of guys heard her cries of pleasure. Most of them thought she'd been faking it, that he bribed her to make those kinds of noises, and if Corbin hadn't been there underneath her as she came -- twice! -- he would have assumed the same thing.

But no, he really hooked up with her. It happened. It was real. And some of the guys did believe it, enough that he got high-fives just for walking down the hallway.

Sam, Corbin's roommate and friend, had been a witness to Jessica coming into the room and now looked at Corbin with reverential eyes. The first hookup either one of them had in their dorm room and it was with Jessica freaking Nakamura.

Corbin himself was dazed about the whole thing. Jessica was hot, and the whole thing was unimaginably intense and fun, but she let him peek into a corner of her troubles, and it left him wondering if she'd be okay. He hoped so. She seemed nice, if aggressive. He held out some small hope that weekend she'd come back by or call or text or something, but she told him straight away what they were doing was a one-time thing, and he promised himself and her he wouldn't be weird about it. Corbin intended to keep that promise.

Monday came, and he dozed through his classes, unable to stop thinking about the gorgeous woman rocking on top of him, his cock buried deep inside her tight embrace. She'd been so wild and free. He'd been more shy and awkward, but she made it okay. So distracted by Jessica, Corbin didn't think much about going back to work that night until he sat in his car, his stomach twisting up in knots as he thought about how Kenny was going to make his life a living hell for stopping him at the party.

He wasn't wrong.

* * *

For Jessica, the world was about to go bad again. The euphoria from the good sex with Corbin wore off fast, and thoughts of Lionel getting married the next weekend threatened to sink her into a black funk. Usually friends helped. That was why she threw the party in the first place. So did work, though she didn't have any kids lined up until later that week. She babysat for the upper middle-class in Agramonte. Not the most glamorous job, but she liked it well enough in high school to make childhood psychology her major. She didn't know yet if she wanted to practice or teach, but either way, she knew she wanted to go for her doctorate.

In the short-term, she babysat, and during the summers, Jessica worked for a nanny service. She made damn good money, despite the juvenile title "babysitter," enough to keep her in a two-story house that originally came with a pair of roommates she couldn't stand. Now she lived alone, bought and almost paid for a used car, and with her scholarships, she would come out only fifteen grand in debt. She should have been happy. In her early twenties, and life was already pretty awesome.

But.

But Lionel. But his fiancé and his six girlfriends. But his marriage in just days.

Every minute ticked away with the weight of a brick made from lead. That strange hour or so with Corbin replayed itself over and over, the moment out of time when she could focus on someone else other than herself. It wasn't just about the sex. It was fun helping him through his shyness.

Jessica distracted herself with class on Monday. By that point in her quest for her bachelor's degree, she was pretty much on autopilot until the end of the next semester. The four hundred level classes weren't exactly easy but she knew the material well through practice and other certification courses she took for her jobs. Her professors blessedly saw her As on tests and coursework and knew her well enough to leave her be.

When Jessica finished with her class that day, her friend Brooke waited for her out in the hallway. The sun-kissed tall blonde smiled wide, and Jessica tried to return it. They pulled away from the mass of student bodies around them and Brooke elbowed her.

"I heard a funny rumor about you."

"That got around fast."

Brooke chuckled and they headed out into the fall sunshine, getting away from everyone before they started to talk in earnest.

"I thought you were just going to go over there to say thank you," Brooke said.

"That was the plan," Jessica said. She shrugged. "I needed to get something out of my system, I guess."

"No judgment. I get it. And he's cute enough, if he'd get a haircut and dress a little more... adultish."

Jessica smiled. "You should have seen his room. Action figures. Video games. My little brother would have been in heaven."

"Action figures? Really?"

"Oh yeah. And they had a mountain of snacks. It almost looked like a Christmas tree."

Brooke giggled. "Well, I heard something else. That there were some pretty loud noises going on."

"Yeaaah," Jessica said, blushing hard.

Brooke's smile transformed into shock. "Wait. No. It's true?"

"Yes. Um. Twice."

"Him or you?"

"Both."

Brooke's eyes widened even further. "From Corbin?"

Why the anger rose up in her, Jessica wasn't sure, but it did, and she snapped, "Hey. He's a nice guy. And he is handsome. I mean those eyes, and..."

"No, no, I..." Brooke waved a hand in a gesture of mild frustration. "I mean... he's so sweet and, and... I just wouldn't expect it from..."

"A nerd?"

"Jess, I didn't mean to press your buttons."

"He is surprisingly good. Maybe a little inexperienced, but the groundwork's there." Jessica shrugged. "And he's pretty, um... hung."

"Wait." Brooke grabbed her arm and they stopped walking. "Corbin?"

"Corbin."

"Jeez."

"Right? When he cleans up and he has a bit more confidence in him, he's going to be pretty damn popular."

Brooke shook her head. "I'd never have guessed. Are you guys seeing each other again?"

Jessica drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly before shaking her head. "No. He's a good guy. But I'm still so fucked up about Lionel. Besides, he's a freshman, and I'm graduating, and..."

"Yeah, but it's not like you're exactly going far," Brooke said.

That was true. Jessica was going to get her Master's there at Agramonte.

"I'm not ruling out hooking up with him again," Jessica said. "But right now, I'm not healthy for anybody in a relationship. It's not him. It's really not him. It's me."

"Sure. I get it," Brooke said.

"How about you? You doing okay?"

Kenny was Brooke's ex-boyfriend. The two broke up over the weekend, after Kenny tried to get Jessica alone when she was drunk.

Brooke soured. "Asshole threw all my clothes out on the lawn. My neighbors gathered everything up but I really did not want Mr. Chin touching my panties."

Jessica snickered. "Aw, but he's nice. I'm serious, though. You okay?"

"Yeah. I mean, it's not like we were living together. But still, you told me he was a douchebag and I didn't listen. That was sucky of me and I'm sorry."

"No, hey," Jessica said, stopping her friend for a hug. Brooke's smile broke, and she cried a little, just a few tears. They rocked together a moment.

When they pulled apart, Brooke sniffed and dabbed at her eyes. "Men are assholes, right?"

"Men are such assholes."

"Except our guy Corbin."

"About that," Jessica said. "Before we really got into it, he said something to me. I kinda mentioned that I was mad at men in general, and one guy in particular, and he stopped to tell me he could have been nicer to his first girlfriend when they broke up."

"Why?"

"Because he thought I deserved to know he thought he was an asshole too."

"Oh, that's the sweetest thing I think I've ever heard."

"Right?" Jessica asked. "He was afraid I'd walk out the door, but he wanted to be honest anyways."

"I swear to God, when he cleans up..." Brooke sighed and smiled. "Corbin Block. Who knew?"

* * *

Kenny Kilton's office was dark. Just a few short days ago that would have disappointed Corbin. He considered Kenny to be his best friend there on campus, right up to the point where he showed his true colors at the party.

Now Corbin felt relief. He'd have to face off with Kenny sooner or later, he knew, but it didn't have to be tonight. He waved his employee card near the digital time clock, and headed into the all-purpose gym to begin cleaning.

The place was busy that night. Corbin did his work tense and uneasy, but letting the worry seep out of him minute by minute. A couple of the wrestlers struck up a conversation with him about a mutual class, and Corbin had the damnedest feeling one of the track women was eyeing him when he wasn't looking, but maybe that was his imagination. He was still punch-drunk after his time with Jessica. Had to be wishful thinking the leggy brunette kept stealing glances.

Right?

The gym started clearing out around seven, a couple hours before closing. By that point, Corbin was mopping the bathrooms, his earbuds in, listening to his favorite video game and tech podcast. He didn't hear the two footballers until they were right up on him, grabbing him by the back of his shirt and slamming him face-first against the cold metal of the stall.

One of them ripped out his earbuds. He was too in shock to realize what was happening before the guy dropped the expensive buds -- a gift from Corbin's parents -- and smashed them underfoot.

"Hey, hey, no-" Corbin started, and a looping fist shut him up. He'd never been in a fight and thought the "seeing stars" thing was just a cliché, but no, it was real, and lights sputtered on and off in his vision. They slammed him again against the metal and he started to flail backwards, trying to hit them, trying to make any contact he could.

"Listen here, you little shit," one of them snarled. It was Lloyd, one of the biggest bruisers on the offensive line, three hundred pounds of muscle and fat. "Kilton told us what happened."

"You fucked with him," the other one said, his voice silky smooth and unmistakable. That was Chris Turner, better known as C-Note, one of the captains of the team. Corbin thought dazedly, no, we're friends, we've worked out together. "Now he told us we should fuck with you."

"Quit, bitch," Lloyd said. "Walk in tomorrow and tell them you want to work the cafeteria or whatever the fuck else. We don't care. Get your ass out of here."

They grabbed one of Corbin's arms and twisted it up behind his back. Any more pressure and it would have broken something. Corbin had to stand on his tiptoes, his head pounding.

C-Note snarled, "This is from Kilton, you dumb-"

"Let him go."

The voice belonged to one of the wrestlers from the gym. Lloyd let go of Corbin's arm but grabbed a fistful of his hair. "This isn't your business, Billy," he said.

"This isn't high school," another one of the wrestlers said. "Don't be a couple of dipshits."

"Or else what?" Lloyd asked.

"Do you really want to know the answer to that question?" Billy asked.

Oh shit, Corbin thought, just a split second before his skull rebounded off the steel again. Stars exploded again and he stumbled sideways, crashing into the mop and bucket and sending water everywhere. Lights in his eyes fluttered as the wrestlers stormed into the room, going after the footballers in a flurry of fists. He heard someone yell in pain -- Lloyd, he thought -- and then he blanked out until someone was standing over him. Corbin flinched, but it was Billy, not one of the football guys.

"Hey, hey man, welcome back. Stay awake, all right? Gotta stay awake. My buddy's going for his car. We're gonna get you to the hospital."

"Hospital?" Corbin asked blearily. He accepted Billy's hand getting up. His vision doubled, tripled, then mercifully settled back into two of the squat, powerful guy in front of him.

"You don't screw around with a couple hits to the head like that. Can you walk okay?"

Corbin took a tentative step forward. He thought he did all right, and Billy must have agreed. The other guy grabbed the door and they made their way out to the hallway. The few people left from the gym stood out in the hallway, watching.

"Oh my God, is he okay?"

"I'm good," Corbin said. He smiled tightly. "Thanks."

He and Billy made it outside. A car waited at the curb and the other wrestler, Jerome, grabbed the passenger door for Corbin. When he collapsed inside and the guys climbed in, Billy said, "Fuck Ken Kilton. This is going to get his ass fired for sure."

* * *

Jessica had a small two-hour window in the morning free of classes. She usually liked to sleep in, particularly since her babysitting kept her up some nights well beyond midnight. But that morning, she woke up to a phone call from an unexpected, painful, but sugar sweet voice that couldn't help make her smile.

"Hey Jessica!" Lionel's son Isaac said.

"Hey yourself," Jessica said, her voice froggy.

Isaac giggled his sweet giggle. He just diving into his preteens, and sometimes seemed so wise beyond his years. But when he laughed, he still sounded like the child he was, and despite the pain his father caused her, Jessica couldn't help loving hearing it. "Are you still asleep? Lazy butt."

Jessica blew him a raspberry. "What are you doing?" she asked.

"Getting ready to go to school."

Jessica smiled despite the well of emotions rising up in her. Throughout all the anguish she felt over losing Lionel, Isaac kind of fell by the wayside. She stopped babysitting him a few months after Lionel's fiancé came into the picture, and she missed the kid with a ferocity she wasn't expecting.

"You keeping your grades up?"

"Uh huh." He sounded distracted. "Jess?"

"Hm?"

"I don't like my new babysitter."

Jessica held the phone away from her face and let out a soft cry into her other arm. For Isaac's sake she fought the tears back, but she couldn't help the stab of loneliness. When she came back on, she croaked, "Is she mean? She doesn't yell or get mad, does she?"

"No. But she's always texting someone and she doesn't like games and..." Isaac sniffed. "I want you to come back."

"Oh honey," Jessica said. "I can't."

"Why not?" He was crying now, and she couldn't fight off her own tears now.

"I wish I had an easy answer for you. Isaac, I love you very much. You're going to be so happy with... with Morgan and all your aunts and..." She broke down. Both of them stopped talking for a while, two messes of snuffling and tears. Then came silence on his end and she thought he'd hung up. "Isaac? Isaac, are you okay?"

Another voice. Morgan's. "Jessica? I'm sorry. He's run off to the bathroom. I... I didn't know he called you."

"Is that okay?" Jessica asked, hasher than she intended.

Morgan sounded hurt. "Well, yes... I know he cared a lot about you and I wouldn't think of coming between you."

But you did.

The thought made Jessica feel like garbage, and she dabbed at her eyes with a corner of her sheets. "I'm sorry, Morgan. I just hate hearing him cry."

"Me too." Silence, then, "Jessica, I..."

"I need to go," Jessica said. "Give him a hug for me, okay? Just do that."

"Yes. Of course."

Jessica hung up. She grabbed one of her pillows and sobbed into it, great big ugly tears jerked out of her by the fistful. She cried and cried, and when it was all out of her, she showered, and dressed, and thought about the wedding that weekend. She thought about the invitation she tore up and dumped in the garbage, and about Isaac in a tiny tux, and Lionel and Morgan in front of the altar.

She couldn't go. She knew that. But maybe she could do something for Isaac, something little. The thought brought a warmth to her, an honest one free of the poison of her jealousy, and she hurried to snatch up her car keys and her purse. A present, she decided, something to cheer him up. But what?

She drove downtown, passing by the walking malls, the big clothing stores, the gift shops. Nothing struck her as right. Frustrating, but pleasantly so, and she decided to pull into a coffee shop for some go juice to help fuel her creative fire. As she waited in line, her phone rang. Nia, her friend from Student Services.

"Hello?"

"Hey Jess! What are you up to?"

"Grabbing a coffee way up in Haller. Doing some shopping. What are you up to?"

"Did you hear about Corbin?"

"Um..." Jessica said. "What about him?"

"Oh my God. You didn't. Brooke asked me the other day for his room here on campus for you and I thought maybe you heard. He's in the hospital."

Jessica shot away from the line, clutching her phone hard. "What?"

"Yeah. It's crazy. A couple football guys beat him up in the bathroom at the gym. Billy and Jerome stopped them. It's bananas. Kenny Kilton was just walked off campus by security. People are saying he might have been involved."

"Oh my God," Jessica breathed. "My party."

"What?"

"I was really drunk the other night and Kenny tried to get me upstairs. Corbin stopped him. I'd bet you anything Kenny sent those guys after him."

"Are you serious?" Nia asked, her voice low. "Screw him."

"No kidding. Where's Corbin?"

Nia filled her in, and Jessica flew out to her car. She raced out of the parking lot so fast she nearly rear-ended a truck and forced herself to calm down. Kenny Kilton. Burn, motherfucker.

Corbin was in a post-critical care unit, which seemed like good news. Well... better than the ICU or the emergency room, anyways. Jessica called a friend from classes and asked her to explain to their professor that she had a friend in the hospital. Since Jess's attendance was nearly spotless, she didn't think it would be a problem, but it didn't hurt to keep her bases covered. At the hospital, she found a space roughly a bajillion miles away from the building she needed and hurried inside. A friendly receptionist pointed her in the right direction, but it was redundant. Already headed towards her was Billy Calcagni.

They knew each other -- had, in fact, gone on a couple dates as freshmen -- and his smile was wide and honest. She tried to return it but he saw the fear in her. "Hey Jessica. You here for Corbin?"

"Is he okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I think so. They were worried last night about a concussion but he seems okay. They're gonna hold him until tonight and then he should be good."

"Who did it?"

"Lloyd Heffernan and Chris Turner. And get this-"

"Ken Kilton sent them after him."

"Yeah, that's right. How'd you know?" Billy asked. They stopped outside Corbin's room. Jessica peeked in and saw the freshmen in bed, a remote in hand. His eyes were glued on a TV screen. That had to be another good sign. Jessica pulled Billy away from the door and filled him in. He whistled low. "Bastard. That's not the first time I've heard something like that. Wish I could stomp his balls to a pulp. The assholes did some damage to Corbin's car, too. They slashed the tires, broke his windows. Me and some of the other wrestlers, we're going to raise some money for him. A mechanic we know is going to do the work and we can pay him back later."

"Good. From what Nia said, Kenny's done at the school, but those two assholes might not be the only ones he convinced to go after Corbin. I need you and your friends to keep an eye out for him. He's a really good guy and I just want to make sure he's safe."

Billy nodded. "Yeah. Whatever you need." He blinked and smiled. "You like him."

"What?"

"You do. You can't stop looking in his direction."

"I'm worried about him," Jessica said, her voice way too defensive and she knew it. She scowled at Billy and he held his hands up defensively. "He's... a nice guy. You and Bethani doing okay?"

Billy's sly grin changed to something more honest. "Oh yeah. Don't let it get around, but I'm taking her up to the falls in a few weeks before it gets too cold and then I'm going to propose."

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