Double-edged broadsword met cup-hilt rapier in a jarring screech of sliding steel. Parrying, Nick aimed for his opponent, only to find that Rich had chosen to use the move to step further inside Nick's guard and use a previously hidden dagger to slice across Nick's gut.
Hissing at the unexpected pain, Nick stepped back and shot his friend an annoyed glare. "That's cheating," he said, automatically grasping his stomach and dropping his sword.
"So it is," Rich said cheerfully as he backed away far enough to grab a towel from a folding chair on the sidelines and toss it to Nick. "I figured you'd appreciate it if I didn't shoot you."
"Is this how you play the Game?" Nick demanded irritably, catching the towel. Already his Quickening was starting to heal the wound, but Nick wanted to avoid dripping blood everywhere.
"No, but you wanted to practice against a more experienced immortal, didn't you?" Blandly, Rich wiped his blade on another towel and waited for Nick to recover.
Nick rolled his eyes, aware he'd failed to anticipate that his operations assistant had a wicked streak. In the six weeks since Rich had come aboard to help him run Sanctuary and help segregate Nick from being wholly involved in Amanda's less-than-legal operations, in which Nick was tired of being tangled, Rich had proven to be both a valuable asset and a good ally. Nick had been initially wary of Rich's easy charm, recognizing a natural con artist, but had soon realized that Rich used it as a defense.
When Rich had asked if there was anywhere nearby he could work out without questions about swords, Nick had offered the use of the warehouse across the street; Nick largely used it as a garage. The only caveat was that Nick wanted the practice as well. After a moment's hesitation, Rich had agreed. Nick should have realized that Rich was going to test him; he'd have done the same.
"Just how long have you been in the Game?" Nick wondered, wishing abruptly he'd bothered to ask sooner. He'd been so grateful to have help, to have someone who recognized that the stress of trying to balance the legalities of being Amanda's partner, Bert's occasional consultant, and run Sanctuary was killing him, that he'd allowed himself to be distracted from asking certain questions. He tried for an even tone, but knew he was probably sounding accusing.
"Half my life," Rich said easily, unruffled by Nick's suspicion. "I was nineteen when I was shot by a mugger. You telegraphed that last move, by the way. Guys like you tend to rely on sheer power."
Nick studied the other man, hearing and seeing a genuine desire to share knowledge. Rich looked nineteen, but the song of Rich's immortality held a deep bass note, indicating a much stronger immortal than his age or his looks would suggest. "You sound like the voice of experience."
"You could say that." He studied his friend's expression, seeing a kind of wariness. "After Mac's Dark Quickening, when he came after my head the first time —"
Nick's eyes widened. Nick had heard bits of that particular story before, but Rich hadn't said how he'd reacted or why Duncan MacLeod had come after him. "Dark Quickening? What the hell is that?"
Rich let out a breath. "Not something most immortals know about, from what I've gathered. I doubt Amanda would've talked about it; she wasn't affected. It doesn't happen often. If you take too many heads in too short of a time, you can overload. If it's too many evil guys, there's a chance the last one will turn you evil, too. If that happens, and you're normally a good guy, congratulations, you've just experienced a Dark Quickening. Unfortunately for me, Duncan had one."
Nick stared at him, horrified. "No wonder you don't want anything to do with him now."
Rich nodded grimly. "Oh, that's not the only reason, but it was the start. I freaked, as you can imagine. Joe Dawson shot Mac and helped me escape, told me to run as far as I could. I didn't think to call Connor, who really would have helped me if I'd just asked. I wasn't really thinking anything other than someone I looked up to, who'd been a father to me, was going to come after my head and I needed all the advantages I could get, because he knew all my moves already. I figured that was the only way to play the Game. I did things then I'm not proud of, and probably will never be. Going to work with Grace Chandel was part of my self-penance for that."
Nick grieved for the innocence Rich had lost. None of Nick's teachers — immortal or otherwise — had ever tried to kill him permanently or with malicious intent. Nick wasn't sure he wouldn't have come to the same conclusion as Rich had, given the same set of circumstances. Concerned, he asked, "Anyone likely to come after you for what you did then? I mean, I figured you had people hunting you, given that you said you studied under both Highlanders, but I wasn't expecting this."
"A few already have," Rich said quietly, regret coloring his voice. "As for anyone else — I fully expect that they will, someday. Until then, I'll take a page out of Amanda's book and not worry about it." With a small shrug, Rich asked, "So, why'd you assume I'd fight honorably?"
Nick smiled ruefully. "Guess I figured anyone who studied under both MacLeods would."
Rich chuckled. "Then you're not really practicing for the fight of your life, and you haven't spent enough time with Connor," he pointed out. "Let me guess, the friends you usually spar with fight reasonably, and you're the guy going full tilt."
"Usually, yeah." Surprised and impressed by the younger man's insight, Nick went on, "The last guy like you I fought wound up with a shattered arm when I slammed up against his sword. How'd you manage not to flinch?"
"Practice," Rich told him. "And years of fighting against broadswords. It's kind of the default weapon for a lot of immortals."
"I noticed," Nick said wryly. After checking to see if he'd healed completely, Nick tossed the towel aside. "What the hell kind of rapier is that? Most of the ones I've seen would snap after a move like that."
"It's a bit wider than most rapiers," Rich told him. "I couldn't use the one Mac gave me after what happened when he went after my head a third time, so I had to get a different sword. This still has all the lightness and hand protection of a traditional rapier, but better able to withstand the impact of a broadsword, especially a war sword like you've got." Rich flashed him a grin. "Impacts like that still make my wrists ache."
"Makes sense." Nick took a breath, picked up his sword from the floor, and then readied himself. "Walk me through how I defend myself against that move you just did?"
Rich grinned and took up a ready stance, rapier in right hand, dagger in left. "Sure. Didn't you used to take a gun to a sword fight?"
"Not since I learned how to use a sword." Thrown off guard by the question, Nick wondered where the more experienced immortal was going with this question. "Has Amanda been telling tales about me?"
Rich nodded briefly and started to circle Nick. "So how would you disarm someone with a gun? Or who'd be likely to attack you with whatever was handy, just because they think you're stopping them from getting what they want?"
"Block, feint, dodge —" Nick started to say as he turned to follow Rich's path, then realized what Rich was getting at. "In other words, don't get so wrapped up about the weapon or the tactics I'm trying to use. Assume that my opponent isn't going to play fair, even if I will."
"You got this intense look on your face when we squared off," Rich noted as he completed his circuit around the older man. "Which isn't to say you shouldn't take any fight seriously; you should. I don't underestimate other immortals, ever. Look, you do go into a fight with that kind of intensity — but you don't go in with that kind of narrow focus. If you go in trying to prove something, you can get blindsided fast." Rich smiled, softening his harsh words. "And I'd rather not lose the best boss I've had in years. While I enjoyed learning colloquial German, I'm so glad we found Noreen to replace Lucy. Besides, I like you a lot, and I want us to be friends — not just allies like we've been doing."
Surprised that Rich had apparently been holding back his feelings, Nick stared at him, then barked a short laugh. "Now I definitely believe you trained with Connor. You should talk about being intense; I was impressed by your drive to find Noreen. I figured I'd be involved with Amanda in some fashion forever."
"Problem with that is that it creates obligations," Rich said knowingly. "While you're the best I've ever seen at handling Amanda's demands, I could see after a few hours around both of you that it wasn't making either of you happy. You used to be a cop, right?"
"Thought I remembered that right," Rich said. "I've known Amanda since I was eighteen. She's happiest when she can go dancing through the locked doorways of life, taking what she wants, and damn the consequences. You're more rooted; making things work and putting the pieces together is what makes you happy."
"Yeah," Nick agreed. He inclined his head gratefully as he added, "So thank you for coming to my rescue."
"My pleasure. Now, try that attack again."
Mondays, when Sanctuary was closed, became Rich and Nick's day to spar. The practice reinforced the friendship that was developing between them, as both men learned from each other. Nick leaned heavily on a mix of sheer mass, swordsmanship, sudden quickness, and punches; Rich relied on speed and agility. Rich had the advantage of having been an active player in the Game longer, which resulted in him having a solid strategy in a fight and a tendency towards unpredictability. Nick had the motivation of constantly being underestimated because he lived on Holy Ground; it made him tenacious and occasionally too gutsy for his own welfare. Rich's respect for his friend's skill as a swordsman grew, even as Nick acknowledged that Rich was the better man in that regard.
It wasn't long before they started spending more of their free time together, preferring each other's company over others'. Without conscious decision on Nick's part, he chose to remain unattached after his last girlfriend, Sherrie, failed to pass the "meet Amanda and Rich" test, though he wasn't a monk. Rich meanwhile, spent considerable time going after a series of one-night stands, respectfully choosing to not to bring anyone up to the luxury penthouse he shared with Nick, but by early July, his enthusiasm for the endeavor had seemed to dim considerably.
They liked action-adventure movies, though Rich quickly learned that Nick's knowledge as a former cop often resulted in him mocking the choice of tactics and weapons.
("That is not how you open doors as a cop," Nick muttered one rainy afternoon as they sat on the overstuffed couch in the room Nick had set up as a home theatre.
"Well, of course not," Rich said drolly. "They didn't shout 'Police, we have a warrant!', now did they? They just busted down the door. Of course, this is supposedly set where, again?"
Nick glared at him, aware that Rich was deliberately baiting him. "You just like hearing me rant."
"Hey, it's been educational," Rich offered, grinning impishly. "You're almost as good at ranting as my old parole officer."
"Just how many times were you arrested?"
Comfortable with his past, Rich shrugged easily. "Enough that if Duncan hadn't dropped the charges, I was on the cusp of being looked at as an adult. Prosecutor probably would have, given my history. I'd played the 'I'm young, I can be reformed' card once too often." He shrugged again. "All things considered, I'm glad I met the MacLeods."
"Wait, you met both of them before you were immortal?"
"Saw Connor and Duncan sparring, then saw Duncan take the head of another immortal after Connor got dumped in the river. I was too curious for my own good."
Nick groaned. "No wonder you've gotten along with some of your Watchers."
Rich just laughed.)
Nick introduced Rich to his love of reading folklore and myths; Rich in turn got Nick hooked on graphic novels. Nick bought and installed communication units for their motorcycle helmets so they could go on long motorcycle rides out in the French countryside and still talk to each other.
("Wait, did you just call that driver a camel-stealing son of a shoe?" Nick asked when a driver cut Rich off.
"It's a perfectly acceptable Arabic curse," Rich defended himself as he rolled on the throttle and eased off the brakes. "Shoes are considered filthy in Egyptian Arabic. So what if it doesn't translate well in English? You curse in Russian — and how the hell do you know Russian anyway?"
"Spent a summer working on a freighter with an international crew," Nick told him. "I've always been good at languages."
"Well, in that case, you can talk to the cop who's just flagged us.")
It wasn't long before Rich found an apartment close to Sanctuary, but he wasn't due to move for another week.
"You're looking sharp. Hot date?" Nick asked as Rich walked into the living area where Nick sat, reading a book. Rich had changed out of the Sanctuary-branded polo he'd worn for working in the office and into a dress shirt and slacks.
Rich smiled, but not before Nick caught a glimpse of wistfulness flash across his face. "Night is full of possibilities," Rich said with a grin that didn't quite meet his eyes as he grabbed his well-worn coat. "Unless you need me to help keep an eye on things downstairs?"
Nick shook his head. "No, you've more than earned the night off, between all the office work this week and covering for bartenders two nights in a row. Thanks for fielding those calls from Bert, by the way. He wants to meet you now."
"Something tells me I'm better off keeping Meyers on the other end of a phone line."
"You are. You impressed him; he'll probably saunter in one day and try to steal you away from me."
"Fat chance of that happening," Rich said dismissively. "He can't hold a candle to you. He's not one of us, is he?"
"No. Amanda and I tried to explain immortals to him once, but he thought we were joking." Nick shrugged. "He eventually believed us. All things considered, I prefer to stay put where I'm at, given the level of insanity he'd like to pull me into on any given day."
"When he said he had a job for you, all I could think of was there's no way I could run this place by myself. I'm just glad that he believed me when I said you were so busy, you had to hire me just to help take up some of the slack."
"It's the truth," Nick pointed out. "Which he never believes right off, but when he called back, I confirmed it with him. He'll find someone else; he always does. Probably one of his floating employees — Bailey Dean, if I had to guess. So where are you headed?"
"Eddie from the motorcycle shop wants me to check out this bar up the street. I don't think it'll meet our standards, but —" Rich gestured expansively "— it's hard to compete with the best. Don't wait up; I'll be in late." With that, Rich walked out the door.
Nick stared after him, feeling as though he'd missed something in that conversation. Resolving to pay a bit closer attention to his friend in case Rich needed someone to talk to, Nick went back to reading his book. A few minutes later, Nick tossed the book aside, abruptly restless.
Alone in the generously-sized apartment he called home, Nick found himself wishing for the company of one man. He hadn't nailed down exactly what it was about Rich that made him want, but Nick knew he needed to figure it out.
"That was too close," Rich vented, disgusted and annoyed as he pulled off his full-face helmet. He and Nick had parked in the warehouse across the street from Sanctuary.
Beside him, Nick pulled off his helmet and shut off the engine of his Harley cruiser. "I thought you were going down," he said, admiring and concerned both. "Never seen anyone handle a bike like that and still manage not to drop the bike entirely. That fucker tapped you. You okay?" Nick hung his helmet from his handlebars and quickly dismounted.
Rich winced and offered his friend a rueful smile. "I will be? I landed hard on my left knee when I went low. Thanks for the warning over the comm, by the way." He rubbed the offending joint, aware he'd damaged it further using it to shift gears. With another wince, he reminded himself that the outcome of today's incident could have been far worse. "I tried to pull a racing move. Damn it, I really didn't want to be thinking of my crash today."
"You crashed?" Nick asked evenly as he rounded his bike to stand near Rich's. Healing from joint damage always took longer, Nick knew, and while the Quickening energy would have healed Rich enough to get away from the accident scene, it would be at least a few more minutes before the young immortal's knee was strong enough to function normally.
"Yeah, that's why I had to get out of Paris for a while. The race was on TV. Good thing YouTube wasn't around back then. Mexico wouldn't have been far enough away to escape the attention of the press." Rich flashed Nick a rueful grin. "Saracen Racing's never been the same since the death of Richie Ryan, rising young star," he said, affecting a newscaster's voice.
"I'll take your word for it, since I don't follow motorcycle racing," Nick told him. Seeing Rich wince as he went to dismount, Nick motioned him to stay put, then wordlessly offered to assist Rich off the BMW dual-sport bike. With a nod, Rich leaned forward and to his left. Nick lifted him off the bike the rest of the way, and then braced Rich as he stood upright. Rich gritted his teeth as he put weight on the damaged joint and accepted Nick's assistance to a nearby folding chair. "I'm just glad that I didn't buy that bike we saw this morning."
"So am I; I wouldn't have even tried that crazy stunt. I'd have just dropped the bike and called it a day," Nick said as he knelt at Rich's feet, automatically pulling off the knee pad Rich wore over his jeans. Blood stained the underside of the knee pad and the area over Rich's left knee, and Nick swore as he realized the extent of Rich's injury. "How's it feel?" Nick asked, handing Rich the knee pad he'd removed.
"Like I broke my kneecap," Rich admitted with a groan. "I didn't pull that stunt off as well as I thought I would. How's my bike?"
"I see you have a fine sense of priorities," Nick teased him; relieved to see his usual good humor despite the pain Nick could read on Rich's face.
"Hey, I've had that bike for twelve years. Connor gave it to me as a going-away present; I've ridden it all over the world. It's the reason I know how to ask for parts and gas in five languages." Rich grinned, willing the pain of his injury to fade. "Can't say much else in Arabic, but I've mastered ‘I need gas' and ‘I need parts'."
"I remember you said you rode it from Morocco," Nick said with a nod as he saw from the flashes of lightning over Rich's knee that his Quickening was working. Assured, Nick moved over to where Rich's bike was and inspected it for damage. The left side was freshly scraped where the younger man had tilted the motorcycle over in an attempt to ride out the tap he'd been given by a passing motorist. It was, Nick thought, just another in the series of scars the well-worn machine wore.
"Well, just like you, your bike will survive."
Rich laughed briefly. Deliberately, he used his hands to mash his knee back into place, hissing as his Quickening doubled its healing power. Needing to focus on something else, he said carefully, "You weren't half bad yourself, Nick. You were right behind me; you could've crashed into me, too." Satisfied that his knee would be fine shortly, Rich put the knee pad back on, hoping it would conceal the blood stain.
"Used to ride with my brother when we were kids; learned a few things about how not to get in crashes. I saw you start to go down and got the hell out of the way. Need a hand up or a few more minutes?"
"Both." Nick waited briefly and then stepped over to give him an arm to grasp as Rich stood up. "I'm good," Rich said after stepping forward a few steps.
"Better than I'd be," Nick observed, impressed. "Last time I cracked my knee, I was still limping an hour later."
"You have to will it to heal," Rich told him. "And setting the injury speeds things up."
"I thought it might, but you know how it is when you hurt; stuff you learned about immortal first aid goes out the window. Felt stupid asking Amanda about it when I finally remembered."
Rich flashed him a smile. "That's how I felt the first five years I was immortal, especially since Mac didn't get why I sometimes asked the questions I did. People who grew up when they cut off what hurts tend to forget that we modern folk are quick to reach for the first aid kit. So, do I look presentable?"
Nick studied him carefully. "Not really. You're going to have to replace the jeans and that knee pad, but we should be fine getting across the street."
"Figured as much. I was planning on changing anyway before we headed to the party," Rich agreed and changed the subject again. "You never mentioned you have a brother. Older or younger?" Rich followed the cop-turned-restaurateur outside.
"Older," Nick said, abruptly grateful for the change of subject. He didn't want to dwell on why he suddenly felt the need to do a thorough inspection of his friend, the kind that involved taking off clothes and a much more intimate kind of contact. He hadn't been studying Rich that way, had he? He knew he'd been missing Rich's company ever since Rich had moved out, but this was something else entirely. Mildly uncomfortable with the direction his thoughts were taking, Nick forced himself to focus on the topic of conversation. "Our parents wanted another child, but couldn't, so they adopted me. Grew up thinking Dan could do anything. We used to get into so much trouble, since we were so close in age."
"You still in contact with him?"
"Yeah." Nick grinned briefly. "Dan's the one who figured out Amanda and I needed an operations assistant, preferably one who didn't have objections to swords or the occasional theft. He was also my Watcher, until he realized they would shoot him for getting ‘too involved with his immortal' and quit." Nick let that sink in a minute before continuing, "He met a tourist here and fell head over heels in love with her; they're living in Florida now. I miss hanging out with him, but —" Nick shrugged "— Karen's family is there."
"Anytime you want to head back to visit your brother, just let me know — I'll hold the fort down for you."
"Hey, thanks," Nick said, surprised and genuinely pleased by the offer. "I'll think about it; Dan's been making noises about wanting me back for the holidays."
"So where's this party we're headed to?" Rich asked.
"Over in the 16th arrondissement," Nick told him, "on Victor Hugo Avenue. I figured we'd just take a taxi."
Recognizing the area, Rich nodded. "So who are we meeting?"
Rich frowned a moment, then placed the name. "He's the guy who's been handling all the assignments Meyers keeps trying to give you. I've talked to him on the phone a couple of times."
Nick nodded. "He's a good guy, but like most guys Bert hires, Bert kept sending him around the world. Bailey finally got sick of it and asked Bert to let him settle down somewhere of his choosing, and this party is to celebrate that Bert finally gave in. Of course, there are strings attached, but —" Nick shrugged "— that's always the case with Bert. I much prefer the occasional consultant role, at least when it comes to Meyers Security Consultants International, Limited."
Rich laughed. "Having talked to Bert a few times now, I'm not surprised. That guy can be insistent and maddeningly cryptic. How'd you get involved with him?"
"Bert's an old friend; we grew up together. When he heard I quit being a cop, he offered me a job with his company. That's how I got involved with Sanctuary in the first place; Bert bought half of it and Amanda owned the other half. I bought Bert out five years ago; Amanda gave me her share as a kind of blanket apology."
"For what?" Rich asked, surprised. He waited for Nick to lock the garage door before they headed the half-block down to the building housing Sanctuary.
"For turning me into the guy I am now. I loved being a cop. Now I can't imagine being one and trying to hide who we are. Plus, I really do like running Sanctuary; I feel like I'm giving people like us a place to be themselves and have fun."
"You haven't met Matthew McCormick, then?"
Nick shook his head.
"He's currently a senior FBI agent. He's been a cop for most of his very long life; he's been around since the 1200s."
"May have to look him up if I ever go that route," Nick mused. "Someone that old would know how to work the system."
"I worked for him for a year," Rich volunteered. "He needed someone to answer the door at his house in Virginia while Homeland Security borrowed him for a special investigation. He's got a wicked sense of humor and a real strong desire for justice, especially among immortals."
Nick's eyes narrowed as the implications of that spun through his mind. "He's cleaning up the garbage so we stay a secret."
"As much as he can, yeah," Rich said with a nod. "He tried to recruit me, but the constraints he works with — I can't play the Game that way. Besides, I'm not entirely unsympathetic. I know what it's like to think the only way to survive as an immortal is to take as many heads as you can."
Nick paused to look at his companion as the familiar, distinct surge of hallowed ground filled their senses briefly as they stepped across the threshold of Sanctuary's land. "What Duncan MacLeod did to you was a pretty shitty thing," Nick told him. "You trusted him. Going after you three times — no matter what the excuse — is not something you do to a friend; it's what you do to someone you really want dead."
Rich shrugged. "Yeah, well. Now I just want to live my life, love what I do, and maybe do a little weed control now and then."
"Weed control, I like that phrasing," Nick chuckled briefly, then sobered. "Did Amanda fill you in on me, then? You've never really asked me about my history."
Rich nodded. "I saw Amanda looking at you with regret one afternoon, and it's not a look I've seen her wear that often, so I asked her why. I agree with you, by the way. She didn't have to wait for the poison to really get bad."
"I've mostly forgiven her for it," Nick remarked. "I wish I'd met you back then in ‘99, before I died."
"That was what, spring of that year?" At Nick's nod, Rich continued, "You wouldn't have liked me. Connor was still kicking my ass and my head into shape back then, and I was pretty soured on being immortal by the time spring rolled around. It was only later that year that he declared me fit for re-release."
"Part of that cramming your brain you mentioned?"
"Yeah," Rich sighed. "Amanda probably asked him to help you; he was just too busy with me at the time."
"I didn't really give her much of a chance to foist a teacher on me," Nick admitted as they moved towards the back entrance of the building. "I left."
"So Amanda said. Who'd you find?"
"A very understanding, patient, and beautiful woman who proceeded to teach me that I was being ten kinds of idiot for walking away like that without a sword and without a realistic plan for how to survive," Nick admitted with a laugh as he took keys out of his pocket. "Her name's Ceirdwyn."
"I've only talked to her on the phone," Rich said. "Matthew's one of her students."
"That would explain why she kept muttering about how hidebound a cop could be." Nick unlocked the back door and pulled the heavy fire-rated door open; Rich stepped inside ahead of him, and then waited for Nick to make sure the door was completely shut. "I should call her; it's been a while."
"She's not in Paris anymore?"
"No, she moved to Milan a few years ago." Nick paused. "And Rich?"
The younger immortal looked at him expectantly.
"I would've loved to have heard you bitch. It would've been a relief to know I wasn't the only one hating my life back then."
Rich laughed. "Hey, you know now."
Nick chuckled wryly. "For what it's worth." Amused, he headed down the hallway. "Come on, we both need showers after that death-defying stunt."
"Hey, I heard you crashed through a plate glass window, and you weren't even one of us yet," Rich shot back.
Nick groaned. "In hindsight, that was a stupid move. I could have sliced my neck and it would have been game over for good, but all I could think of was that Amanda was in need of rescuing."
"Moves like that tend to be," Rich said cheerfully. "I tried to escape an immortal by going through a second-story window on my motorcycle."
"Oh, so you're trying to tell me you've been there, done that?" Nick teased. Knowing he wasn't the only one to have tried such a stunt eased an old, niggling fear.
"Oh yeah," Rich said with a grin. "And Amanda's a hell of a motivation. I should know; she used to twist my arm pretty easily when I was younger."
Nick laughed ruefully. "I really wish I'd met you sooner, Rich, but I'm glad I know you now." Impulsively, he gave Rich a one-armed hug.
Rich's smile widened as he leaned into the gesture. "Same here. Man, I hate close calls. I don't think I could've pulled that off without knowing my machine's limits."
"That new Honda looked sweet, didn't it?" Nick asked as he led the way to the private, access-restricted elevator that led up to his residence. He released the lock on the elevator with a key card and steered Rich in to the cage. Nick swiped the card again to enable the third floor button. The security was slightly paranoid, but it kept the elevator access down to only the staff who needed to get to the office and furniture storage on the second floor, and ensured Nick's privacy in the rest of the building.
"Yeah, but I'd have to adjust everything on it to get it to fit. I'm surprised you fit on that thing; you're taller than me."
"It wasn't exactly a perfect fit for me either. I'm actually about an inch too tall for it, which is weird considering you're what, five-ten —" Rich nodded "— and I'm six-one? The handlebars would need lengthening, too, plus the lift kit, and at that asking price, the work I'd have to do to make it fit — maybe if I was shorter and richer?" Nick unlocked the intricately carved front door to his penthouse.
As Rich did Nick's bookkeeping, he was well aware that Nick made a very good living between the pub's profits, his retainer as a vice president of Meyers Security International, and what Amanda paid him to manage some of her business. With a laugh, Rich said, "I don't think money's your problem, Nick," pulling a laugh from Nick in return. Crossing the expanse of great room to the gently curving stairs in the corner, Rich bounded up the steps two at a time and headed for the bedroom just to the left of the top of the stairs.
Not for the first time since he'd moved out, Rich wished he could still live with Nick. Nick had offered to help Rich get a bigger place or let Rich stay for as long he liked, but Rich had refused. Being able to afford his own accommodations had become a point of pride. Aside from that, Rich knew his feelings about his friend went deeper than simple friendship. Rich was certain that the other man didn't swing that way, given how many times he'd watched Nick flirt with women over the last five months.
Rich had previously left clothing in the guest room closet, since he sometimes pitched in to help tend bar and there were inevitable messes. Nick had also insisted that Rich leave his nicer clothes in the closet, since Rich's 23-square-meter apartment didn't have much storage space. Now, Rich was grateful for his friend's generosity; it meant he wasn't reduced to a selection of jeans and Sanctuary staff shirts.
Wryly, he reflected on how this super-sized bedroom was bigger than his entire apartment. Maybe in a few years I'll get a bigger place, he promised himself. The king-size sleigh bed looked appropriate in the massive guest suite. A bench sat at the foot of the bed, and Rich dumped his helmet and protective gear there. A sitting area was off to the right of the bed, just before the attached marble-paneled bathroom. Rich admitted to himself that he loved and missed the shower in this bathroom, with its 360-degree spray. If he indulged himself in a fantasy about Nick sharing it with him, well, that was a harmless release of tension, wasn't it?
Stripping out of his clothing, Rich took a moment to examine his knee, which was now completely healed. Wrestling the thirteen-year-old, 1150 cc dual-sport machine back to fully upright after being sideswiped over by an idiot driver had made Rich's entire body ache; the damage to his knee was the worst, but not all of it. A millimeter of hesitation, a rock on the pavement, a second of inexperience on either his or Nick's part, and Rich would be packing his bags to somewhere else, leaving yet another life behind. As he stood in the shower, he silently toasted the combination of luck and skill that had resulted in not only his walking away relatively unscathed, but Nick as well.
If he'd had to leave Nick now…Rich closed his eyes and shuddered at that thought. He wouldn't be able to come back for decades at least, and he wasn't sure he could stand to be away that long from the man he wanted. Rich was biding his time, hoping for the right moment to show Nick just how he felt.
Connor had, in the two years he'd spent with him, had taught Rich more about how to be grounded than Rich had learned in all the years before. Connor understood what it was like to be trapped forever in a teenager's body: his First Death had been when he was eighteen. He'd insisted that Rich find ways to channel his restless energy, his passionate nature, and his need to prove himself, until Rich could be patient, focused, and happy. Connor had asked questions, made Rich think, and had waited out his anger, refusing to believe — as he'd always had from the day he'd met Rich — that Rich wasn't worth saving.
Working for Grace and Matthew, learning from both of them along the way, had reinforced those lessons. He knew now that nothing worth keeping could be gained from impatience, improper planning, or from the heat of the moment. If Nick didn't return Rich's affections to the same degree, Rich knew he could be content with being a close friend, at least for a while. He wanted to see Nick happy.
For a moment, Rich let himself remember another day when he'd crashed and had to start over. Looking back at that awful day, Rich felt a surge of anger when he remembered Duncan's harsh words. Rich hadn't wanted to believe his life was over right then; he'd been so naïve. It had also, he thought now, been the start of a chain of events that had only seemed to prove just how much Duncan hadn't told him — or if he had, Rich hadn't believed could ever happen to him.
Shaking off the sense of regret the memory produced, Rich got dressed in a green dress shirt, black jeans, and dress boots. His sword went into the butter-soft three-quarter-length black leather coat Nick had gifted him with for his birthday two days earlier. The coat was a custom piece, sewn by the same tailor who'd made Nick's coat. Nick had taken advantage of the fact that Rich had left his old dress coat in the closet and used it to figure out the angle of the scabbard Rich preferred; he'd then taken Rich to the tailor on the pretext of establishing an account for dress clothes. Rich admired his friend's sneakiness and loved the new coat.
Dressed in a gray silk shirt, dark blue jeans, and a pair of dress shoes, Nick was on the phone when Rich came back downstairs. Rich took a moment to admire Nick even as he told himself to rein in his desire. Nick's simply-styled double-edged broadsword sat on the coffee table; it looked as though he'd pulled it out from its hiding place when the phone had rung.
From the conversation Rich could hear, he gathered that it had something to do with Sanctuary. Nick completed one conversation, then immediately dialed another number.
"Problem?" Rich asked when Nick hung up after the second call.
"Philippe called and is running late," Nick replied, referring to his manager. "Something about his daughter, the dog, a can of shoe polish, and a babysitter who can't get there for another twenty minutes. I'll get the details later, but he sounded pretty stressed. Renee said she and George can both stay until Philippe gets here. I'm not missing one of the few chances I get to socialize outside of this place."
"You sure?" Rich asked. "I can stay here and manage the place if you'd rather go." Though Rich's official position was that of operations assistant, Nick had trained him to act in his stead, freeing Nick to get away from being on duty all the time.
Nick shook his head and picked up his sword, careful to keep it pointed down and away from Rich. "No, Bailey wanted to meet you, and his parties tend to have interesting people at them. I've been thinking of promoting Renee to co-manager; this is a chance for her to prove she's worth it." Stepping forward, Nick reached into the coat closet near the front door and pulled out a coat that matched Rich's, except that Nick's was brown. Nick's sword went into a concealed scabbard inside the coat.
"She handles customers and staff better than George," Rich observed, naming the other assistant manager. "George gets ruffled sometimes, especially when dealing with one of us."
Nick made a disappointed sound and shut the coat closet's door. "Damn, and here I was hoping I was just imagining things." The two men stepped into the hallway for the elevator and Nick locked the front door behind them.
"No. I wouldn't be surprised if he was a Watcher."
"What? He doesn't have a tattoo."
"That you can see," Rich pointed out dryly. "They've gotten better at being less obvious that way. But George watches people a little too much like Joe and some of the other Watchers I've met. I noticed because it distracts him sometimes and then he has to catch up to himself."
Nick growled, annoyed. "Dan did warn me they'd plant someone eventually. Well, that just means I'll have a talk with George about his job — the one I pay him to do."
"Sorry, man, but I've been around Watchers for longer than you. My last one had her tattoo on the inside of her thigh, and yes, she did get that close to me before I figured it out." Rich slid his keycard into the access slot for the elevator and Nick followed him inside.
Incredulous, Nick shot Rich a glance. "I thought having my brother for a Watcher was too close, but that's enough to make me even more paranoid about who I'm dating."
"Leila wasn't happy when I threw her out of bed. Some things the Watchers don't need to know." Rich's voice was hard, and anger flashed in his brown eyes. "If she'd been up front about it, I don't think I would've minded nearly as much — but I wouldn't have slept with her either. I like Joe Dawson; I owe that man my life. I miss my first Watcher; Mike was a good guy, and he's the one who taught me how to mix drinks. Some of the Watchers I've had over the years have been good people, people I've enjoyed talking to, answering their questions, and I can genuinely call a few of them friends. Others — I know they still see me as a headhunter, as if that's all I'll ever be."
"They don't know you," Nick said firmly. "You didn't have to immerse yourself in the morass of underprivileged humanity that Grace lives and breathes to prove you're not out for all the power in the Game."
Surprised at Nick's words, Rich turned to face his friend more fully. "I could still be one."
"Please," Nick snorted. "We both have the capacity to do so, but I saw you after that Quickening you took two months ago. You weren't jonesing for another one. Anyway, the Watchers have no clue. They wanted to shoot my brother once he revealed he was family."
"So you mentioned. It's not surprising," Rich said. "Some of their policies are out of date with what it takes to really record someone's history."
"Yeah, as I found out from Dan," Nick agreed.
Warmed by Nick's trust in him, Rich changed the subject. "Philippe's doing a pretty good job of being a single parent."
"I'm just glad that I was able to find him a babysitter who doesn't mind his odd hours," Nick replied. "He's a good guy who didn't deserve his wife deciding, two days after their daughter was born, that she hated being a mother, hated being married to him, and would be better off a thousand miles away from them."
Rich winced. "Yeah, well, better that than growing up hearing just how worthless you are and how much trouble you had to be for your mother to drop dead of a heart attack when you were four years old."
Nick shot him a glance. "Not that you wouldn't know anything like that."
"Me?" Rich tried his best innocent expression, aware that the ex-cop saw through him. "I had a perfect childhood. I've never known the inside of an orphanage or a foster home or what a juvenile detention cell is like."
"Yeah, you were the perfect angel," Nick played along. "That's why Amanda admires your ability to charm people."
Rich grinned unrepentantly. "From her, that's a huge compliment. Speaking of, Noreen says Amanda is planning on staying in North America this winter; she said something about a touring exhibit of Egyptian artifacts that Amanda's interested in checking out."
Nick grinned. "Oh, that one. Amanda's determined to see it in every city, just to see if the security's the same for every location."
Rich raised an eyebrow, intrigued. "Anything she wants from it?"
Nick shook his head. "Not in the way you're thinking. The security firm she set up to operate over in the US is on the short list for a museum security contract that's rumored to go up for bid in December. Word on the street is that it's for a new museum in Dubai."
"That would be quite the coup," Rich said, whistling softly. "I can see why she'd want that. They still behead thieves in that country; it's the only chance she'd get to see the place without the usual restrictions."
Nick nodded as they stepped off the elevator. "Is Noreen settling in okay?" Noreen was the young woman they'd hired to be Amanda's traveling companion and majordomo, replacing Lucy, who'd died the previous year.
"Yeah, she says Amanda's been trying to mother her." Rich smiled. "That would be worth seeing on video. Maybe I can get Noreen to set something up and send it to us. I can always use a bit of leverage with Amanda."
Nick laughed, agreeing, and it wasn't long before they arrived at the party, which was being held in Bailey's rented apartment.
Bailey himself answered the door.
"Nick, you old dog," Bailey exclaimed, then hugged Nick, hard. "You had me thinking you weren't coming!"
Rich bit back a smile as Nick did his best not to wince. Taller than Nick by about a hand, Bailey was also built like an ox. He had a long, narrow face with wide brown eyes, an improperly set nose, and a square jaw. Wavy brown hair was cut in a fashionable style. A custom-tailored rust-colored dress shirt and brown khakis snugly fit Bailey's large frame. Rich had to bite back the urge to tell him that so much brown was not good for him.
Nick grinned as Bailey stepped back to allow him and Rich into the room. "Had to keep you guessing, Bailey. This is my friend and assistant, Rich Ryan."
Bailey's gaze swept over Rich. Interest lit his eyes as he exchanged handshakes with Rich. "So you're the one who keeps tabs on our Nick. You're very good at it. So glad to finally meet you in person instead of just talking on the phone. How long have you worked as an executive assistant?"
"Get your own," Nick interrupted. "You're not stealing mine. Besides, Rich works for me, not Meyers International."
Bailey pouted briefly. "Had to try," he told them. "It's hard to find one who understands budgeting, forecasting, and all that number-crunching." He grinned widely. "Especially when he looks as good as you, Rich, and has a sense of humor like yours. You sure you don't want to switch employers?"
"I'm good where I am, thanks," Rich said with a smile.
"In that case, there's food on the breakfast bar —" Bailey gestured to the area currently occupied by a group of people "— and drinks are in the cooler in the other corner, by the balcony. Can I get you anything?"
A glance told Nick and Rich that the party was already in progress. Several couples milled around the great room; a group was clustered around the buffet that had been set up on the breakfast bar, while two other groups split the remainder of the room.
"Not yet," Nick refused.
"I'll wait," Rich added, not wanting to get a buzz until he had the crowd figured out.
"All right, then —" Bailey started to say, only to be interrupted by the doorbell.
Nick and Rich looked at each other and moved out of the way. Nick soon saw someone he wanted to talk to over by the food, and Rich decided to do what he did best: work the room. He drifted in the direction of an attractive couple, and became quickly engaged in a discussion of popular music. He wasn't out of touch with current music, since Sanctuary turned into a top-40 dance club on Friday and Saturday nights.
He made a circuit of the room, talking to various people, flirting without any real intent, eventually picking up a bottle of beer from the cooler and a sampling of the food. It was clear from his conversations that the party was a mix of people Bailey knew and people Bailey wanted to know for professional reasons, which resulted in a large, diverse crowd. Rich noted that Nick wasn't entirely comfortable in this crowd, and the younger man didn't blame him. The machinations of power at work in this room were a perfume Rich could nearly smell. As a former con man, Rich recognized this was a target-rich room. As it filled with people, Rich became slightly disgusted with the way he was being dismissed as unimportant just because of his perceived role and relevance in the Meyers International organization. Needing a breath of fresh air, he stepped out onto the balcony.
As always, the view of Paris — regardless of where he was in the city — was a comfort. Paris would always be home for him, much more than Seacouver, because in Paris no one had looked at him as the hopeless foster kid, unrepentant thief, incapable-of-success Richie Ryan. He'd found pride in what he was here.
"You make quite an impression, Rich," Bailey said, breaking into Rich's thoughts as he came to stand beside him. "You don't look old enough to have worked a decade for the Jereau Foundation and in the field no less. I thought you were only twenty-one."
Suppressing a sigh at the inevitable remark, Rich turned to face him and flashed him a bland smile. Connor had told him that immortals could age, but the price — taking a Quickening the size of the Kurgan — didn't seem worth the effort.
"I suppose you get that all the time," Bailey mused apologetically. "The Jereau Foundation — that's a pretty amazing organization, providing healthcare to rural communities. I heard that it's hard to get a job at the higher levels. How'd you manage it?"
Rich's smile widened. "Helene Jereau is a friend of a friend," he told Bailey, referring to Grace Chandel's current alias. "I've been very fortunate to be able to leverage my network that way."
Bailey studied him. "Wow," he said, clearly envious. "I've heard of people doing that, but I've never been very good at it. How do you do it?"
Rich chuckled. "I hate filling out job applications and getting judged for what isn't on my resume," he said honestly. "Asking my family and friends if they needed help just seemed a hell of lot easier; they already know that I'm a hard worker, good with numbers, and am willing to do whatever needs to be done. Of course, that means I've done a lot of things that make my resume look schizophrenic."
"I can imagine. So what was your first job?" Bailey moved closer, maneuvering himself into Rich's personal space as he leaned against the balcony railing. Rich had a sudden image of a St. Bernard wanting affection and swallowed a laugh, knowing it wasn't appropriate.
"Besides mowing lawns?" Deliberately, Rich edited his childhood, unwilling to share the truth. "I worked at a pawn shop." He left out the part where he'd been pawning stolen goods instead of being behind the counter. He wasn't sure what made him lie, but as flattered as he was by Bailey's interest in him, something about it left him cold. "What was your first job?"
"I was a bank teller," Bailey told him. "Overhead someone tell a coworker that if she had to do it over, she'd have gotten out before she'd gotten trapped in the system. Worked there long enough to go to college, then went into the Marines." Bailey laughed a bit. "Man, the uniform guys hated me. I was not standard issue." He stopped a moment, then asked, "Does that surprise you? Or is that too cliché, the gay guy going into the military?"
Rich shook his head. "No." He felt Nick's Presence ripple across his skin, indicating that the other immortal was moving closer. "You must've had good reasons to want to serve in the military," Rich clarified, "and clearly your experience has paid off. I'd expect a security firm as big as Meyers International would want people who understand the threats involved and can react appropriately."
"Smart and handsome," Bailey said appreciatively, moving even closer and grasping Rich's hand. "I like that in a man. Nick told me you've been in Paris a long time. Maybe you could show me around, since I've only barely begun to explore the city? He's very proud of the work you've done for him, but he never mentioned how beautiful you are."
Rich sighed tiredly and disengaged Bailey's hand from his. "I'm flattered, Bailey, but I'm not interested."
"I'm not the right gender," Bailey surmised.
"That's not the problem," Rich explained, and Bailey's face fell.
"You're seeing someone?"
Rich shook his head. "I'm not." Not that I don’t wish I was, Rich thought.
Bailey looked resolute. "At least give me a chance, please. Have dinner with me; get to know me a little better. Surely you've gotten bored with the food from Sanctuary."
Rich could feel Nick hovering just on the other side of the French doors, and the sensation was triggering his fight-or-flee response. He fought it, aware that Nick was probably only trying to give him and Bailey some privacy. "Actually, no, I haven't. Tomas is one of the best chefs in the city, and he likes to keep the food interesting."
"I've come on too strong," Bailey mourned, a kicked puppy look on his face.
"No," Rich told him, hating himself. He'd always tried to live in the moment and take love where he found it, but he'd learned, too, that desperation alone wasn't enough. "I like it when people are direct about what they want. You're just not the kind of guy I go for."
Bailey eyed him a moment. "Then who?"
"Someone who's not looking for someone right now, just to avoid being lonely," Rich said flatly, and had the satisfaction of seeing the remark hit.
"Life is too short to go through it alone," Bailey shot back.
Rich eyed him a moment. "So it is," he agreed. Giving in to the instinct to flee, and half marveling at the way he wanted to just run into Nick's arms, Rich headed into the living room, controlling his exit only out of sheer will.
Nick looked apologetic as he met Rich just inside the doorway. "I was just coming to get you," he said. "I think I've had enough of this party."
"Same here," Rich said. "Do you mind if I just wait for you by the front door?"
Nick shook his head, clasped Rich's shoulder briefly in a sympathetic gesture, and stepped out to the patio.
"We're headed out," he told Bailey, who looked crushed. A vicious streak of satisfaction surged through Nick, and he bit back the words nearly on his tongue. Pretending he hadn't overheard, Nick asked, "Something wrong?"
Bailey sighed. "Nothing that you can fix, Nick. Take that handsome, charming, and completely unavailable assistant of yours home. Thanks for coming." He hugged Nick, though with less intensity than his welcome.
"Come to Sanctuary on Wednesday," Nick invited, aware that night tended to be when the GBLT community patronized the pub. "I'm sure you'll find someone there instead. We have a very good karaoke DJ. She's quite attractive, as long as you like drag queens."
Bailey barked out a short laugh. "I might just do that. Good night, Nick. Thanks again for coming."
Taking his cue, Nick moved to where Rich waited. A taxi was easily procured, and both men were quiet during the five-kilometer ride back to Sanctuary. Concerned by Rich's uncharacteristic silence, Nick looked at him. For a moment, he saw Rich's true age reflected on his face and in the way he slouched against the seat. It was easy to forget, looking at Rich, that he was only eight years younger than Nick. Wanting to ease the sadness he saw, Nick leaned over to look at him.
"You gonna be okay?" Nick asked, grasping his arm.
"Yeah," Rich said with a brief smile, but he lapsed back into silence and looked out the window.
Nick slid his hand down Rich's forearm to grasp Rich's hand, squeezing once in sympathy. He didn't immediately let go, sensing Rich needed the contact.
To Nick's surprise, Rich got out of the cab instead of taking it on to his apartment, as Nick had expected. "Mind if I come up with you?" Rich asked as he paid the driver.
"You're always welcome," Nick said immediately, and led the way to the back door. He didn't want to lose Rich's company just yet, didn't want their day together to end. He knew if that they cut through the pub, it would be another twenty minutes before they reached the private elevator.
Nick needed a drink; the thoughts coursing through him were a jumble. Bailey wasn't the first guy to notice Rich since Rich had come to work for Nick. Rich hadn’t hid his bisexuality, but after the first few months when it seemed like he was forever hooking up with someone, he'd stopped. Nick knew his curiosity to find out why Rich had turned Bailey down was a dangerous line to pursue, given the mood he was in tonight.
Once inside Nick's penthouse, Rich dropped his coat on a side chair as Nick hung his coat in the closet. Rich then sprawled across the expanse of leather sofa. He accepted the whiskey Nick poured him with a nod. A matching glass in hand, Nick took a seat on the sofa across from him and kicked off his shoes. A wooden coffee table with a tempered glass inlay sat between them. "Never easy turning someone down, is it?"
"For a moment there, I was tempted," Rich admitted as he unbuttoned the cuffs on his shirt and rolled them back. He took a sip of the whiskey; the liquor was smooth and promised oblivion if he wasn't careful. "Problem is that I could also see just how far Bailey would fall in love with me."
"You could see that?"
"He's not the first person to move somewhere and want someone," Rich said. "God knows I've done it a few times myself. I just have learned how to not to mistake attention for love, or hell, anything other than what you're feeling in that moment." He sighed, sounding wistful. "Aside from that — Bailey's the kind of guy who's gonna want something more permanent eventually; he's like a lost puppy right now. Relationships, especially ones where I might have to explain what I'm doing with a sword and why I'm coming home covered with someone else's blood and guts — those I've tried to avoid, for the most part. I saw what it did to Tessa."
"Duncan's girlfriend when I moved in with them. She was always terrified he’d not come back from a challenge." Rich stared at his drink, not really seeing it. "Man, I think about long-term relationships, and I remember her. She was so strong, so fiercely protective, such an amazingly talented artist — her sculptures are scattered all over Paris and Seacouver. I owe her so much for teaching me French and convincing me to get my GED. But she spent fifteen years of her life with a man who didn't want to marry her, for fear that she'd get hurt or she'd find someone better and want out. She was so ecstatic when Duncan finally proposed, and I was so happy for them both. She was talking about the wedding and what she'd wear, how she'd finally get to see me in a tux." Rich laughed briefly, tears welling in his eyes. "God, I miss her. We'd moved back to the States and were getting ready to reopen the antique store Duncan owned. The wedding was going to be in a few days, as soon as the license could be ready — just a simple justice of the peace thing, nothing too fancy."
Nick sipped his drink. Rich didn't talk often of his early days as an immortal; this was the most Nick had heard of it. "The wedding never happened," he surmised.
"Shot by the same mugger who killed me and triggered my immortality." Rich toasted Nick's insight, then downed his drink. "Duncan felt so guilty about not protecting both of us — he's the one who told us to go outside; long story, but it involved some bad Watchers — and he couldn't, wouldn't, reopen the store after that."
"Too many memories?"
"Reopening the store was her idea," Rich said, and Nick's heart ached at the thought. "I was nineteen and Mac dumped the responsibility of selling it, getting rid of everything in it, on me. Thank God I knew the number of his lawyer; I didn't know much else. We lived above the store, so I was selling my home, too. For a month, I wasn't sure where I was living; didn't know what was going on except that I had to get rid of everything I'd come to believe was home."
Sympathetically, Nick offered more whiskey, but Rich shook his head and set his glass down on the coffee table.
"You never had one like that before?" Nick asked carefully.
Rich shook his head again. "No. For the first time in my life, I had somewhere to belong, and losing it made me doubt I was good enough for anyone. I know differently now, but back then, it messed me up."
"Have you ever tried to be in a relationship?" Nick wondered.
Rich laughed shortly. "Yeah. I've tried four times — two women, two men. The one guy who didn't want to kill me wanted me to marry him. I refused, and I couldn't tell him anything other than I had secrets I wasn't willing to share."
"Better that than having her find out what you are and then deciding she can't live with it," Nick said roughly, finishing his glass.
"I saw that happen with Duncan, too," Rich said with an understanding nod. "Anne asked me once if I was just brainwashed into thinking our way of life was right."
Nick winced. "Ouch. In hindsight, I should've not pursued the cop who kept coming into the bar, wondering why there was such a distinct lack of crime for a two-block radius all around. But Emmeline was — is — so pretty, so vivacious. I couldn't resist. Plus, I wanted to see if I could hide what I was from a trained detective." Self-deprecatingly, Nick shrugged. "I'm not good at resisting a dare."
"How long were you together and how long ago was your breakup?" Silently, Rich offered to pour Nick more whiskey, and Nick let him pour half a glass. "I remember you broke up with Sherrie after introducing her to me and Amanda. Sherrie was nice, but I think she would have fainted when she saw your war sword."
"I thought maybe it was just me that saw her that way, which is why I invited her to dinner with you and Amanda," Nick said with a nod. "Emmeline and I were together two years. Amanda was teasing me that Emmeline was going to expect a wedding ring next. Then Emmy was threatened by an immortal and saw me take a head to save her life… We broke up last January. Emmy told me that she not only felt threatened by the violence in my life, but that she hated knowing that Amanda and I had been lovers and were still business partners. Emmy didn't want to share me with anyone. I still don't know what to say that."
"Nothing you could say," Rich told him. "She wanted you to give up one of your oldest friends, for what? The assurance you'd be faithful? Next thing you know, she's telling you how to dress, who to talk to, and what to say."
"Not that you'd know anything about that," Nick surmised, taking a sip of his drink.
Rich laughed shortly. "One of my first relationships was with another immortal. At first, it was nice — she was suggesting things to make me look and act better. Then she turned out to be crazy. She even wanted me to forget all about carrying a sword, calling it an unattractive fashion accessory, which should've been my first clue that she wasn't really concerned about how long I'd live." Sighing, Rich said, "I'm getting tired of hiding who I am, why I'm keeping the secrets I am. I'd love to be with someone who understands where I'm coming from."
Nick studied Rich a moment, seeing the longing in Rich's eyes, reading the way Rich leaned towards him. "You're not here just to vent about Bailey," the former detective guessed, sudden hope surging through him as he realized what — or more precisely who — Rich wanted. "Or to drink all my liquor and crash in your old bedroom."
Rich shrugged slightly, a smile coming to his lips. "Whatever police force you left, Nick, lost a great detective. Something Bailey said got me thinking about just how much time we have. You and I have a lot in common, Nick. We've both gotten the short stick when it comes to getting introduced to immortality, but it's more than that. We've learned how to get past it and start living, and I really admire how you've done it." He took a deep breath and met Nick's eyes. "First time I met you, I couldn't stop thinking just how attractive you were, inside and out. You had Amanda's number, and you didn't let her run you over. I was so glad when I found out you and Amanda weren't together anymore, but then I saw you liked women more, so I put that thought out of my head. Tried to, anyway. I'm in a mood to explore…possibilities, if you're game."
"I see," Nick said, and set his glass down on the coffee table. The alcohol in his system was making him consider things he didn't normally; he didn't need any more whiskey. He took a breath, then admitted, "I heard you talking with Bailey. Made me jealous, thinking you might accept."
Interest lit Rich's eyes. "Really. So you'd be up for some experimentation?"
"I could be persuaded." Deliberately, Nick sprawled back in his seat. He was curious to see how far Rich would take this. Nick had flirted with men before, but aside from one enlightening encounter, he hadn't gone down this road. "I watched you work that room tonight. You had everyone charmed, and all I could think about was you were going home with me." Nick shook his head wonderingly. "Never looked at you the way I did tonight."
"What way is that?" Mindful of the glasses and liquor bottle, Rich moved to sit on the coffee table, facing Nick. The move might have made a lesser man feel threatened, but Nick appreciated Rich's initiative. He needed Rich to be closer, still, but Nick felt a little graceless; all his usual seduction maneuvers seemed abruptly awkward.
"Like someone I want," Nick admitted, and watched delight blossom on Rich's face. The air suddenly felt heavy with expectation and promise. "I…I'm a little nervous. I've seen the guys you go for, and I'm not as experienced as you."
"Don't worry, I'll be gentle," Rich said as he leaned forward. "That is, if you're willing."
"Oh, I'm definitely willing. Maybe if you get a little closer?"
In reply, Rich moved to straddle his thighs. Rich kissed him coaxingly, tenderly, making Nick want to kiss him back, so Nick did. Desire, so long banked in favor of other things, simmered to life, then flared white-hot as Nick gave himself freely to the passion of Rich's kiss. Rich's hands stroked Nick's neck and shoulders, adding to the heat. By the time Rich pulled back, both men were aroused and breathing heavily.
"That…" Nick tried to gather his scattered thoughts. "God, Rich, you should be registered as a lethal weapon."
Rich grinned, but concern muted his appreciation of the compliment. "I was motivated. I've wanted you a while."
"You hid it well, but —" Nick swallowed, then deliberately breathed deep. He was crossing lines again, mixing business and friendship with intimacy, but he wanted this with Rich. "I've only been with one guy. I don't want to screw up our friendship, either. I don't trust a lot of immortals. You're one of the few."
"I don't want to fuck our friendship up, either," Rich told him, leaning back slightly to give Nick room. "I care a lot about you. Do you want me to back off or do you want me to continue?"
Nick thought about it a moment, certain that if he told Rich to back off, the younger man would do just that. "I like what we just did, and you're not Amanda," Nick said as he drew Rich closer to kiss him again, more deeply this time.
Rich took Nick through a series of scorching kisses, making Nick ache for more. His hands undid the buttons on Nick's shirt, fondling his chest before Rich licked a trail downward, teasing Nick's nipples. At Nick's groan of pleasure, Rich pulled back. His eyes glittered with passion as he let out a careful breath and then inhaled just as slowly. "As tempting as you are, Nick, I don't want you regretting this in the morning." Deliberately, he eased himself back onto the coffee table.
Unable to resist the urge, Nick caught Rich's hands in his. Seeing the resoluteness on the other man's face, Nick willed his own breathing to calm. "I won't."
"Then there's no rush," Rich said firmly. He stared at Nick a moment, then said roughly, "Gonna probably hate myself for this, but —" He kissed Nick hard, then rose. Grabbing his coat from the chair where he'd dropped it, Rich headed for the door.
Alarmed, Nick followed him. "Rich —"
Hand on the door knob, Rich stopped and faced Nick. "You may not have regrets, but I like to think I've better control than to do this when we're both feeling a little drunk. I'll see you in the morning."
Nick stared him a moment, vividly aware that his friend wasn't as drunk as he claimed. Taking a step closer, Nick said quietly, "Liar. I saw you fight someone after drinking far more than you did tonight." He closed the gap. "I've seen you go after people you've wanted in the bar; you know exactly what — or maybe I should say who — you want. You bided your time because you weren't sure I was into guys." He paused, trapping Rich against the door. "Now you know I'm into you." Well aware of the power of the dare, Nick kissed him challengingly, then stepped back.
For a long, wordless moment, Rich eyed him. "Tell me that again, tomorrow. Right now, you’re trying to goad me into something, and we both know we do stupid things when we're pushed too far."
Nick closed his eyes briefly, aware that the younger man was right. "At least stay the night in your old room," he pleaded. "I don't want to worry about you getting home right now."
Rich smiled wryly. "I was hoping you'd say that," he said, moving to envelope Nick in a tight hug. The two men stayed wrapped in each other's strength for several minutes before Nick reluctantly let go.
Rich was already in the breakfast nook just off the kitchen, sipping coffee, when Nick came downstairs at his usual 10 am waking time. At Nick's approach, Rich looked up warily. Hating that he'd put that look on his friend's face, Nick stepped closer, and then removed the mug from Rich's hands to set it on the table. Tugging gently, Nick maneuvered Rich until he could face him fully, without the table in the way, without making him leave the chair.
"I want you," Nick told him, pulling up a chair to face him and putting their hands together as Nick sat down. Certain he'd never wanted to kiss someone so much, Nick leaned forward and did so. For a moment, he felt Rich's hesitation before Rich returned the kiss with as much emotion as he'd shown the previous night. Desire ignited like wildfire, and Nick forgot everything except he wanted more.
With obvious reluctance, Rich broke the kiss, panting heavily. "Please tell me this isn't just something you're curious about, and I'm the lucky candidate."
Nick shook his head. "I can't put it into words, Rich," he said. "Not yet. All I know is I started to watch you, realized I was starting to do things to make you happy, and started thinking about what I wanted. I don't buy custom coats for just anyone, especially ones that allow the wearer to hide his sword." He shrugged awkwardly. "I don't do alone too well, but when Amanda shot me, all I could think of was how the hell could I love someone when we're both in the Game." He sighed. "Turns out it hurts just as much to love someone who's not in the Game; Emmeline proved that in spades." He looked at Rich. "Can we do this? I've never been in a relationship with a guy. The most I've done is Amanda liked playing with toys with me and I once let someone suck me off. I liked it, but I missed the cuddling and the kissing."
In reply, Rich leaned forward, put his arms around Nick, and kissed him gently. "Anytime you want more," Rich offered with a smile as he pulled back.
"Oh, hell yeah," Nick said, and drew him back for just that. Aware they still needed to talk, Nick eased out of the kiss. "But that's not enough, is it?"
Rich shook his head. "Not for the kind of relationship we both want. We both know how easy it is to pick someone up for a night's pleasure."
Needing something to do while he thought, Nick walked into the kitchen, then picked up a skillet from a cupboard and set it on the stove. Rich rose and followed him, then leaned against the short wall that connected the nook with the kitchen.
"Eggs okay?" Nick asked. "I know you're always hungry; hasn't your body figured out you're not nineteen?" He reached into the fridge to pull out the ingredients for an omelet.
"Not when it comes to food or sex." Rich waited for Nick to turn to face him, then leered deliberately.
Nick stared at him for a minute, then laughed. "You're going to kill me," he said.
"Only with pleasure," Rich said firmly, grinning until Nick came over to him.
"Don't make me drop the eggs," Nick warned, his lips hovering over Rich's in the promise of a kiss.
"Then put them down," Rich suggested with a smile. "Or cook them. You can kiss me later; I'm not going anywhere."
Nick met his eyes, understanding abruptly that Rich was talking about more than that moment. "True." He kissed Rich briefly, then backed away to cook their breakfast.
"So when did you learn to cook?" Rich asked as he finished off the omelet Nick had made. "Funny, I feel like I should have asked you all these questions already, but somehow, I figured you'd guess my intentions if I did."
Nick chuckled softly. "You're not nearly as transparent as some people, but yeah, I'd have wondered sooner what you wanted from me. Not sure I would've taken it the way I did last night."
Nick shrugged awkwardly. "I've been accused of doing grand gestures impulsively," he said. "Usually whenever my heart's tangled up in what I'm doing." Aware of his soon-to-be-lover's eyes on him, Nick took a careful breath and let it out. "I wasn't sure until just now that it was."
Rich reached across the table and clasped Nick's right hand. "That's not entirely a bad thing," Rich felt compelled to point out. "I've been falling for you since we met. When you asked me to spar that first day, I knew you had no real idea of my history, and you had no expectations of how I'd react. That hasn't happened in my life for a very long time."
Nick smiled at the memory. "No, I didn't. In hindsight, I should have." He shrugged slightly. "I guess I've just assumed anyone who's been in the Game longer is going to have secrets they're not willing to share."
"Meanwhile, I just figured you were a guy," Rich said with a grin. "As in, talking about you isn't something that you do."
Nick laughed. "Point. But to answer the question you asked earlier, I don't really remember not helping my mom in the kitchen. By the time Dan and I were teenagers, we were doing either Friday night dinner or weekend breakfast or both. Did any of your foster parents try to teach you?"
Rich shook his head. "I was too busy trying to avoid being anywhere around them. Grace thought it was criminal that I'd managed to hit twenty-five and didn't know how to boil water, so she taught me how to cook. I didn't have the heart to tell her that one of the reasons I didn't learn while I was with Duncan and Tessa was because they sometimes got so caught up with each other, they forgot about cooking, period. I'm not anywhere near your level of expertise, though."
"It just takes practice and a willingness to experiment," Nick told him as he sipped coffee. "We can figure out stuff to cook together, if you like."
"That would be cool," Rich exclaimed. More seriously, he said, "We can do this, Nick. You've met the de Valincourts, haven't you?"
Nick smiled. "They make staying together look easy," he said.
"They do, but…" Rich paused and struggled to find the words. He couldn't quantify the lessons about loving a man for centuries he'd absorbed in a Quickening. "Look, what I'm trying to say is that I know it can be done; we just have to take it slow. I've been enjoying the things we've been doing together. So we get to kiss each other while we do it; I'm looking forward that. The rest…we'll figure it out."
Nick reached across the table to grasp Rich's hands. "You've been honest with me when it's mattered. I don't know where we're going with this, but I want to try."
Rich lifted Nick's hand to kiss it. "One day at a time, Nick."
"So how do we make it work?"
Rich laughed. His eyes gleamed with amusement. "You act like you've never dated anyone before, Nick, and I know you're much more experienced at that sort of thing than I am."
Chuckling, Nick shrugged helplessly. "Never dated a guy before. Okay then. Rich, want to check out the new exhibition at the Louvre next Saturday morning?"
Rich smiled. "Sure."