The shop is packed with uncomfortable-looking furniture and racks of clothing. It smells of steam heat, damp wool coats, and desperation.
They fit right in, Nick thinks as he shoves through rack after rack of women's clothes before finding the men's section.
"I'm not gonna find a tux at Goodwill," he says.
Cassie glances over from where she's fondling a leather jacket. "Not at this Goodwill anyway," she agrees, surprising him. "Let me pay for this and then I'm pretty sure I know where we should go."
"After you," he says, because he's learned not to argue with her about money. He's the one who loses it more often than not, though he's curbed his gambling habit the past few years. It's hard to justify when that hundred bucks could be the difference between living and dying. When he was on his own he didn't care that much, but he can't do that to Cassie. She's still his responsibility.
He knows she'd disagree; she'd say that they look out for each other and she's not a kid anymore, and anyway, she's the one usually pulling his ass out of trouble, which happens to be sad but true. He just figures it's safer for both of them if he continues to pretend she's still thirteen, because he doesn't want to ruin everything. His track record with relationships is terrible--this is the longest one he's ever had, and while they occasionally share a bed, they've never so much as kissed, and he'd like to keep it that way.
That's a lie.
Nick would give almost anything to kiss and touch and fuck Cassie, but he has some small vestiges of decency and--Okay, no, that's another lie, and he knows it.
He's afraid that he'll fuck her up the way he fucks everything up and while losing her would hurt, probably more than anything (even being beaten and shot by Division goons), he's more terrified of what would happen to her if he wasn't there to have her back. And he knows she'd laugh and say she can see trouble coming, but there have been too many unpleasant surprises in their lives that she never saw coming at all, and if he can keep them to a minimum in the future, he will.
So he keeps acting like the big brother she's never had and never wanted, and she lets him. Maybe his decision to never act on his feelings keeps her from seeing them. Maybe she really does see him like a brother and all of his feelings are one-sided. He knows she could do much better than him, if she ever got a chance to meet someone who wasn't trying to kill them or also on the run from Division.
He sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. He's working on about three hours of sleep and they have to look adult and professional at this thing tonight, which means he probably has to shave, in addition to wearing a tux, and the whole thing is a terrible idea, but they've already had that argument and he lost.
"You keep thinking so hard, you're gonna hurt yourself," Cassie says, startling him out of his reverie.
She leads him down into the subway and then up onto the sidewalk in a much nicer neighborhood. Even when he lived in New York, he didn't spend much time on the Upper East Side. His inferiority complex doesn't like it.
"Come on," she says, threading her arm through his and pushing the door open on a consignment shop on 83rd Street.
"Really?" he says, looking over yet more racks of secondhand clothes.
"This is where rich people donate their clothes," Cassie answers with an eyeroll. "I bet you five bucks you find a nice suit, even if you don't find a tux that fits."
"You're on," he says, because he's never said no to a bet, which she knows. And normally he wouldn't bet against a watcher, but he knows he's harder to read than most people, because he never makes a decision until he absolutely has to, and even after five years together, Cassie still can't always predict what he'll do.
He finds a suit, dark blue, the trousers and jacket a little more snug than he'd normally wear. When he complains, the man behind the counter says, "It's Italian cut. Very stylish. It fits you perfectly."
"He's right," Cassie says. "You look good."
"Is that admiration I hear?" he teases.
"Just the truth," she replies, but she drops her gaze, ruffled.
"Don't worry about finding a dress," he jokes, from the dressing room where he's changing back into his own, more comfortable, clothes, "'cause everyone will be looking at me."
"You're not wrong," she says, and there's the pissy tone he knows and loves, even if technically she's complimenting him. "And I found a dress while you were admiring yourself in the mirror, so let's pay the man and get out of here."
"You're the one with the money," he reminds her, pushing aside the curtain and handing her the suit to take to the counter.
"Right," she says, taking her wallet out of her bag and sticking her tongue out at him while the man behind the counter rings them up.
She's off her game, which could mean anything or it could mean nothing. Maybe it's this plan. It's a terrible plan. He knows it. She knows it. But it's the closest they've gotten to her mother in the last two years, so they've both decided to ignore all the ways it could go wrong and focus on making it go right. He'd like to think that improves their chances of success, but he's never been an optimist.
The first time he and Cassie pretended to be a couple, Nick didn't even know it was happening. Cassie had checked them into a bed and breakfast while he was half out of his mind on painkillers after being shot, and the first he heard about it was when they were checking out and the innkeeper congratulated them on their recent marriage and said she figured he'd enjoyed the honeymoon, since they hadn't left the room in four days. He'd managed a goofy smile--more due to the drugs and his confusion than any tender feelings towards Cassie--and never brought it up again. Mostly, he'd worried about what kind of guy people would think he was, that he'd marry a teenager at his age. Cassie had been sixteen and convinced she could pass for twenty-one, but even stoned out of his gourd, Nick knew that was ludicrous.
All the times after that have been because sometimes they hang out in very dicey places--bars and underground clubs and illegal betting parlors--and many of the men who frequent those places think a single woman is up for grabs. So Nick puts an arm around Cassie's shoulders and sticks close, and she lets him, hooks her fingers into his belt loops or back pocket, because some of these guys, the only thing they understand is another man being territorial. It sucks, and he's listened to Cassie rant more than once about it, but secretly he's glad she lets him protect her like that. Secretly, he pretends it's for real.
He knows that can only lead to tears, but he's never been the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to Cassie.
Tonight, they're not only pretending to be a couple, they're pretending to be married.
"Here," Cassie says, coming out of the bathroom. She's in nothing but a towel.
He keeps his eyes focused on a point just over her left shoulder until she clears her throat.
She holds up the ring she usually wears on her thumb. "Time to get married."
He swallows hard and pretends his heart doesn't leap at the idea. He fumbles the ring when she hands it to him and it drops to the floor.
She sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. "Come on, Nick, stop screwing around."
"I--Yeah. Okay. Sorry."
She ducks her head, and her hair falls in a long golden curtain between them. She's painted purple streaks into it, and it smells like the cheap floral shampoo the hotel provides. He floats the ring up off the floor and into her hand. She closes her fingers around it for a moment, but doesn't look up and meet his gaze. She reaches out and takes his left hand, and his breath hitches when she shoves the ring onto his finger. It's a plain silver band, picked up at a pawn shop in Denver because she liked it and he likes giving her nice things, and the weight of it on his hand feels strange and meaningful. She lets go quickly, and he notices she's already got a matching ring on her left hand. Part of him is disappointed he won't get to put it there, but the rest of him remembers it doesn't mean anything at all.
"We don't have to do this," he says. "Cass? Cassie? Look at me." She finally looks up and meets his gaze. Her mouth is set in a hard line but there's fear in her eyes. "We can case the party from outside the hotel. You don't have to walk into a room full of Division scientists."
She shakes her head. "When are we ever gonna have another chance like this?" Her mouth curves in a wry half-grin. "You just don't want to wear a tie."
He makes himself grin back. "You got me. I'm not really a suit and tie kinda guy." He plucks at the lapels of the suit helplessly.
"You should be," she murmurs on her way back into the bathroom, softly enough that he can pretend not to hear it.
He screws around with his tie for a few minutes. He's never had to wear one regularly, but he still remembers his father standing behind him in the mirror in some hotel room not so different from this one, teaching him how to tie one. His hands had been large and warm around Nick's as they crossed the ends over and looped them under and over until the knot formed. At the time, Nick had thought it was some kind of magic. Now it just feels like a noose.
His hair is gelled and his beard is trimmed and he's jittering with nervous energy by the time Cassie emerges from the bathroom again.
Her hair is twisted up in some complicated way and her dress is a deep purplish blue that she probably knows the name of but he doesn't. It coordinates with his suit, though, well enough that she must have seen them together before she bought it. He focuses on the color so he doesn't stare at all the skin she's showing. He knows better than to comment on that, and his mouth has gone too dry to speak anyway.
"Ready?" she asks, picking up her little matching purse and slipping the room key in beside the pearl-handled pistol he'd gotten her for her sixteenth birthday.
"As I'll ever be," he replies, fingers curled up into fists so he doesn't reach out and touch her.
She smiles and there's a knowing glint in her eyes as she leads him out the door.
The reception is not officially for Division scientists--it's technically some kind of Big Pharma awards gala--and their invitation was addressed to a fictitious scientist named Dr. Carl Conway, created as a stalking horse by Kira when they told her they needed a way into the party. Nick's never pretended to be a doctor before. At least, never in public.
The scientist they're looking for, a Dr. Dora Smith (if that is her real name), is the one in charge of Cassie's mother. Supposedly she's being given an award for advances in the treatment of memory disorders and dementia. Nick stopped being shocked a long time ago at how Division hides itself under layers of seemingly well-intentioned science.
The plan is to kidnap Dr. Smith and force her to tell them where Elizabeth Holmes is being kept. They'd missed her in Buenos Aires, and again in Caracas, but Cassie's pretty sure she's in the continental US at the moment, possibly even in New York somewhere, hidden right under their noses. Nick's not sure if that's something she's seen or just something she's hoping for. He hasn't had the heart to ask.
They circulate around the ballroom, smiling and drinking champagne, and Nick keeps his mind on the mission rather than the sway of Cassie's hips or the deep V of her cleavage.
"She's not here," Cassie says after their third trip through the crowd, the stem of a champagne flute clutched tightly in her fist. "How can she not be here?"
"Are you sure?" Nick asks. He takes her hand and peels her fingers off the glass before it breaks. He sets it neatly on a passing tray and replaces it in her grip with his own hand.
"No. Yes. I don't know." She shakes her head. "She's supposed to be here."
"Do you wanna find a quiet spot, see what you can see?"
"Yeah," she says. "Yeah, I--Let's do that." She grabs a new glass of champagne and knocks it back like a shot before he can stop her, and then leads him out of the ballroom and into an alcove in the hotel lobby. It's garishly carpeted but hidden from view by ornately filigreed screens, and more importantly, there's a small love seat that they can sit on, because his feet are killing him in his stupid new dressy shoes.
He reaches into his jacket pocket and produces a pen and the small notebook she uses when she can't carry her usual sketchpad. Her drawing has barely improved since she was thirteen, but her ability to see the future is excellent.
The noise of the reception and the lobby itself is muffled here, and Cassie closes her eyes and clutches the pen like a lifeline. Five minutes that feel like eternity pass while Cassie does her thing, and then she tips sideways into his lap with a low curse, the page in front of her still blank.
Cassie shakes her head. "Nothing relevant. Fuck."
"We were so close this time. I saw her up on that dais before, but now, I don't know. It's different. She's gone. Maybe she really did have a family emergency. Or maybe someone sold us out and they knew we were coming."
"So we should get out of here while the getting is good?"
She purses her lips. "Yeah, I think so."
He stands and offers her a hand, because he's a gentleman, or at least he pretends to be one occasionally. She stands and sways towards him, unsteady on her heels or because of the champagne, and he slips an arm around her waist. She's gotten tall, and the heels make her taller, make it hard to forget that she's eighteen and more grown up than he's ever been. He swallows hard and tightens his fingers on her hip.
She gives him a veiled look beneath her lashes and bites her lower lip, but doesn't comment and doesn't shrug him off. For now, he'll take it.
They stop off at a liquor store on the way back to the hotel, and Nick cleans his guns while Cassie drinks herself to sleep. She doesn't even take off the dress before she's out cold, which can't be comfortable, but he just tucks the comforter over her, strips off his suit, and climbs into the other bed.
He's not sure how long he's been asleep when he wakes to Cassie crawling into bed next to him. He squints into the darkness, and by the sliver of streetlight leaking into the room, he can see her pale face. Her eyes are ringed in smudged makeup and her hair is a wild tangle around her shoulders.
"Hey," he says, as if he's just run into her on the street, "what's up?"
She takes his left hand. "You're still wearing the ring."
"And you're still wearing that dress."
"Nick. You're still wearing my ring."
"I forgot to take it off."
"You're a terrible liar, Nick."
"I am an excellent liar," he replies, truthfully. "You're just wise to all my tricks."
"Not all of them." She shifts closer, the soft curves of her body pressing warmly against him, and dips her head to kiss him.
He puts his hands on her shoulders and stops her. "You're drunk."
"I was drunk," she says. "Now I'm just sad."
He blinks at her. "I'm not sure that's any better."
"Why are you still wearing my ring?"
He sighs and scrubs a hand over his face. "You know why."
"I really don't."
"Now who's lying?"
"Maybe I just need to hear you say it." She huffs softly. "This would have been easier if you'd just let me kiss you."
He lets out a bark of laughter, which sounds loud in the otherwise quiet darkness. "You're right."
"I usually am."
"You're not drunk?"
"I'm not drunk."
He chooses to believe her. He pulls her closer, tips his head up for her kiss.
"Nuh uh," she says, stopping before their lips meet, but close enough that they're breathing the same air. "You have to say it now."
"Cassie." His voice is pleading.
"I don't make the rules," she replies, her lips curving in a tiny, pleased smile.
"Yes, you do."
Her smile widens. "Yes, I do."
"I like to pretend it's real," he confesses, his gaze dropping to her mouth so he doesn't have to feel like she's looking right through him. "That we're really together."
"Stupid," she says. His heart drops, and then lifts when she continues, "We are together, or we could be, if you weren't so--" She flutters a hand at him.
"Stupid?" he repeats hopefully.
"Yeah." She sounds ridiculously fond. He knows the feeling.
She kisses him, her mouth warm and tasting of toothpaste, and his whole body lights up with desire.
"Cassie," he murmurs against her cheek, one hand tangling in her hair and the other skimming down her back, her skin softer and silkier than the velvet of that damn dress. He pushes the straps off her shoulders and lets out a small groan when he discovers she's not wearing a bra underneath.
Her tits are small, but they fit his hands perfectly. It's her turn to moan when he palms them. She arches into the touch and he grins before capturing her lips for another kiss, this one full of tongues and teeth.
She grinds down against him, and he can feel the wet heat of her cunt through the layers of her underwear and his.
"Wanted you for so long," he says the next time he has air enough to speak.
"Me too," she says, as sincere as he's ever heard her.
It's too much, the steady honesty and desire in her gaze, and he tries to put everything he feels into his kisses, because he knows he'll just fuck it up in words. He ducks his head so he can suck at her nipples, first one and then the other, using the sound of her gasps to guide him.
"Nick," she says, tugging his face up so she can kiss him again.
"I'm here," he replies, nipping at her lower lip and rolling them over and settling himself between her legs. His cock is hard and aching, but this isn't about him. Not yet. Not until he's kissed every inch of her and made her come at least once.
She touches his cheek, his shoulders, his arms, like she wants to do the same to him. The thought makes his whole body feel like it's on fire.
He shoves the dress down and kisses all the skin he can reach--her throat, her collarbones, her tits--and slides a hand up her thigh beneath the skirt. He pushes her underwear aside and slips two fingers inside her, his thumb circling her clit. Her hips buck up into the touch and he smiles against her mouth. This has been one of his jerk-off fantasies for a while and the reality--the slick heat of her, the little breathy sounds she makes--is even better than he imagined.
He swallows down her moan as she comes, clenching tight around his fingers, and he strokes her through it until she pushes his hand away.
He licks his fingers clean and then reaches down to get himself off.
"Can I?" she asks, curling her fingers around his dick.
"Yeah," he says, showing her how he likes to be touched. They trade wet, open-mouthed kisses while she strokes him, and he makes a low, guttural sound when he comes, spilling himself over their joined hands.
They lie there quietly for a few minutes, the only sound in the room their ragged breathing and the air conditioning cycling on and off.
When he's capable of thinking again, he grabs some tissues to clean up and winces when he looks at the mess they've made.
"I ruined your dress," he says.
She shimmies out of it and tosses it to the floor beside the bed. "You can pay for the dry-cleaning," she says, and then yawns widely.
Well, if she's not upset, he won't feel too bad about it.
"Okay," he replies, pressing a kiss to the top of her head and settling in behind her to sleep. "Square deal."