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A Loaded Smile

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September 2012

Cory studied the rusted motorcycle with a critical eye. It was clear that Nick had stumbled across a bike with potential, but how much of it was actually salvageable was debatable. Bullet holes pockmarked the frame, and made Cory remember some of his own escapades.

"What do you think?"

"How'd you get it?"

"Friend of mine found it on his grandparents' farm north of here. The shed it was in was collapsing around it; that's how the frame ended up rusted. I've spent the last few years getting quotes on restoring it, but everyone's been telling me I'd be better off just junking it."

Cory looked at Nick. "Hate to say it, but they're right. You'd have to get new steel for the frame, and do a lot of work to the engine to get it running again. See this here? That's a bent fork. I'll bet anything that the engine is riddled with bullet holes, too. At that point, you're looking at a full restoration, and as good as the work you did on your Harley looks, this is going to need a fully equipped garage."

Nick sighed. "Rich said the same thing when he looked at it a few years ago. I just…"

"Needed an excuse to come back?" Cory asked with a grin. "You could probably still sell it to somebody."

"Nobody's gonna buy it looking like this."

Cory grinned. "Watch and learn, my friend, watch and learn."

To Nick's surprise, within an hour, Cory had a real estate auction house interested in what Cory billed as "possibly belonging to a minor Prohibition-era gangster, in need of some TLC."

"That was creative," Nick said admiringly.

"Well, it looks like a bike I had once," the immortal bank robber admitted with a shrug. "I did ditch a few around this part of the country around then."

Nick groaned. "I shouldn't have asked." He paused. "So when is the buyer coming out?"

"In a half hour, she said," Cory replied, following Nick back into the house. "Did you still want to go to that motorcycle shop?"

"We can do that after," Nick agreed.

Half an hour later, Nick stood in the doorway of his garage and watched a master at work. Cory spun a tale of a story told by his grandfather about the bike, sounding real enough that Nick knew that at least part of the story was from Cory's life. By the time the auction house buyer left, Nick had not only a signed consignment to sell the item at far more than Nick thought it was worth, but the rusty, broken bike was out of Nick's garage and being hauled to the auction house's storage unit. It didn't hurt Cory's story that his vintage British touring motorcycle was currently parked in Nick's driveway, or that Nick's other motorcycle was a 1970s-era Harley he'd restored.

When the buyer and the bike were gone and they were the only ones standing in the alley behind Nick's house, Nick walked over to where Cory stood, grinning, and kissed him. Cory accepted the kiss, but didn't take it any further.

Surprised at the response, Nick stepped back. "I thought you were interested," Nick said warily.

"I am," Cory agreed solemnly. "But I don't want you thinking you mixed gratitude up with how you feel."

Eyes narrowing, Nick started to say something before visibly reconsidering. "Why?" he settled finally.

Cory smiled. "I don't want you to have any reservations about us," he said. "You've had a lot happen to you in the last month. When you're sure it's me you want, and not just any warm body –"

"If I wanted that, I wouldn't have called you."

Cory conceded the point with an incline of his head. "We could go upstairs right now and have a great time," he allowed. "And in a few days, you'd find some reason to send me on my way, and I'd have lost any chance I ever had at being the guy you want to keep around. I'm not Rich, willing to take whatever love he finds in the moment. As fun as that can be, it gets old."

Startled, Nick stared at the older man. "I was hoping to go with the moment."

"Oh, we will," Cory promised. "But I'll wait until you're not confusing me with any other thief you've ever known. I'm not Amanda, who steals hearts for fun and flattery."

Nick considered him a long, wordless moment. "You know her well, then."

"We've been friends for centuries, and sometimes she's been my partner and my lover as well. I know she's a serial monogamist, but she can't stay put with one person for too long; it's not her nature. She lives for the thrill of a good heist; anything or anyone else tends to come second."

"Why aren't you with her?" Nick knew his reasons, but he wanted to hear Cory's. Nick had often thought that a fellow thief would be perfect for Amanda; meeting one who shared a past with her but wasn't with her now intrigued him.

Cory shrugged. "Last few centuries, I've had to compete with Duncan Macleod for her attention, and I decided it wasn't worth the effort. Besides, I've been busy." He shrugged again. "It's not fair to the person I'm with if I can't devote my attention to them, at least when I am with them. Robberies take travel these days." He smiled at Nick's look of confusion. "What, you expected less?"

Nick started to shake his head, then stopped himself. "Every time I think I understand you, you throw me another curveball. Still want to go to the motorcycle store?"

"Sure," Cory agreed. "Want to ride there?"

Nick grinned. "I thought you'd never ask," he said.

Nick didn't know what to think. He'd thought that if he made the first move, Cory would follow, but Cory had turned him down. That wasn't the way this was supposed to go. It wasn't enough to kiss Cory? What happened to spontaneous passion? Nick had been so sure that all Cory wanted from him was some no-strings-attached sex.

Now, Nick understood that what Cory wanted was nothing less than everything, no hesitation, no excuses. He wasn't sure he could give that. His track record for long-term relationships wasn't good: an ex-wife who'd died just as they'd started getting closer again; three tumultuous years with Amanda; an intense six months with a man Nick had fallen hard for, only to discover the guy wasn't ready to commit to something more permanent. Rich's friends-with-benefits arrangement had been the perfect compromise in Nick's eyes. For the remainder of the afternoon, as they drooled over brand-new bikes and motorcycle clothing with Kevlar reinforcements, Nick considered what Cory had said.

"Why me and why now?" Nick finally asked him when they had returned and stood in his living room. "Surely there are other people –"

"Other people aren't you," Cory interrupted. "You won't take flattery, Nick, so I'm not going to give it to you; you wouldn't believe me anyway. Not right now."

Nick stared at him, taken aback by the insight.

Giving in to impulse, Cory leaned forward and kissed him lightly. "I want you, Nick, make no mistake about that. You intrigue me. I want to know more. But you're standing there, waiting for me to give you that one piece of evidence to show that you shouldn't have trusted me at all."

Uncomfortable at how well Cory saw through him, Nick walked a short distance away before turning. "You're asking me to give you a chance at my heart."

"Yes," Cory agreed.

Nick closed his eyes briefly, mouth compressing in remembered pain. "And here I thought you just wanted fun."

"Fun is fleeting," Cory told him, closing the distance between them. "I've had centuries of fun, but that doesn't mean I don't stop occasionally and get serious. Taking a chance on love is one of the best reasons to be serious and still have a good time. Why are you so afraid of letting yourself fall in love?"

Nick didn't answer. He wasn't sure he had a good one, not with the way Cory was seeing through the excuses Rich had readily accepted. Instead, he headed into the L-shaped kitchen. "I was going to make spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. That okay with you?"

"Only if you answer my question first."

Nick banged the pot he'd pulled out of a cabinet onto the counter. "Because I'm sick of having my heart ripped to shreds, that's why. I figured we'd collaborate on that motorcycle and have some fun sex. If what I have to offer you isn't enough, then you can go back to wherever the fuck you call home and find someone else."

Not surprised by the reaction, Cory leaned against the side wall of the kitchen. "And miss out on figuring out what else we could be doing besides have sex?" he asked with a grin, spreading his hands wide.

Caught off guard by that, Nick goggled at him a minute before laughing ruefully. "Just for that, you're chopping the onion, the bell peppers, and the garlic for the sauce."

Cory smiled. He knew he was falling hard and fast for the ex-cop, and Nick's brand of humor was part of the attraction. "Where do you keep them?"

"Pantry's the closet to the right of the fridge," Nick told him. "I need one large onion, three cloves of garlic, and the peppers are in the fridge."

The kitchen wasn't large, but it was big enough for two people to work in, provided they didn't mind somewhat close quarters. The lack of counter space was offset by a rolling island, which Nick quickly cleared and sanitized for Cory's use before pulling a chopping board from a cabinet and putting it on the island. From the way Nick pulled ingredients from the pantry and opened cans, it was clear to Cory that the recipe was one Nick had memorized a long time ago.

"So where'd you learn to cook?" Cory asked as he dealt with the onion.

Nick chuckled. "My ex-wife thought we needed to do something together – something a friend of hers swore saved her marriage – so we took a few cooking classes together." He shrugged. "Didn't really work out that way for us, but I learned a few things I wish I'd known when I was in college and scraping by on a scholarship. You're a good cook, in case I didn't make that clear when I was at your place."

"Thanks. I still haven't quite mastered a microwave, but a gas stove hasn't been that much of a problem to learn." Cory dumped the onion in the bowl Nick handed him, then started in on the bell peppers.

"How do you cope with changes like that?" Nick wondered. "I can't imagine going from campfires to microwaves in one lifetime." He set the now-opened can of stewed tomatoes on the side of the stove, then grabbed a bottle of olive oil. Pouring the oil in the pot, he turned on the burner underneath the pot.

"You find friends who are willing to teach you, or you try on your own until you figure it out," Cory told him. "Or you read the manual and hope like crazy you haven't misunderstood the language. That's the harder part – remembering what the right meaning for a word is. Hanging around Rich caught me up a bit more with current slang." Cory laughed ruefully. "He asked me if I'd talked to anyone since 1920, since I was apparently out of date, at least with some of the words I was using." Finished with the bell peppers, Cory quickly chopped the garlic. "Do you want the garlic separate?"

"No. Here, put it all in this bowl." Nick handed him a hastily obtained bowl, then dumped the lot into the pot. As he stirred the mess, Nick asked, "Is that part of the reason why you've stuck to being a bank robber, because it doesn't change that much?"

Cory loved how quick Nick's mind was. "Part of it, yes. Mostly, it's because I've tried being other things, and I keep coming back to what I do well."

"What other things?"

Cory grinned as he went to wash the knife and chopping board he'd used. "Mostly security or short-term jobs so I could learn something new. I was curious about car manufacturing and worked the line in a factory for three months. Fell in love with cars as a result. Before that, I thought they were just too complicated to operate – I could saddle a horse faster than crank that damned engine."

"I have a hard time imagining the things you've seen," Nick said as he started dumping cans of tomato sauce, tomato paste, and the stewed tomatoes into the pot. To the mix, he added Italian seasoning, Worcestershire sauce, salt, sugar, water, and a package of frozen meatballs, before stirring the contents and turning down the heat. "Then again, when I was a kid, I was promised flying cars by the time I became an adult. I'm still waiting."

Cory laughed and put the now-clean knife in the dish drainer. "When the king's men put the hangman's rope on me, I wasn't thinking of the world beyond Nottingham. I didn't even know there was one. Matthew took me to Ireland to train me because it wasn't safe for me in England anymore, and I thought he'd taken me to the end of the world." He shrugged. "I heard someone say that when you stop learning, that's when you start dying. And there are a few flying cars out there."

"True," Nick agreed. "I saw one at a car show in Paris a few years ago." He stirred the sauce before putting a lid on the pot. "That needs to simmer a while," he said. He set the timer on the stove to half an hour. His eyes gleamed as he asked, "So what do you want to do next?"

Cory soaped the chopping board and rinsed it clean before putting it in the dish drainer. "You play poker?"

"Do you cheat at cards?" Amusement danced in Nick's eyes. "I noticed the marks on the deck of cards you handed me while my sight was gone."

Cory smothered a laugh and assumed his most serious look. "You say the funniest things."

Nick laughed. "I'll take that as a yes." He pulled a pack of cards out from a drawer. "Let's see how well I do against you."

Four hands later, Cory discovered he was playing against a fellow card shark, which amused him to no end. Nick could bluff well, no doubt a credit to his years as a cop, but Cory spotted Nick's tell after a few hands, and started to clean up.

"What gave me away?" Nick demanded quietly when the timer on the stove sounded, effectively signaling the last hand.

"Your posture. You try a little too hard to be relaxed," Cory told him as Nick rose to check on the sauce.

Nick stirred the sauce, tasted it, added more black pepper, and then started to heat a second pot of water for the pasta. "So what's the trick to not having a tell?"

"Practice," Cory said with a slight shrug. "But you have to draw the line somewhere, or else you lose your ability to show emotions and be seen as genuine."

"I couldn't do undercover for long because of that," Nick remarked. "I'd forgotten it could apply to poker as well."

"You don't allow poker at Sanctuary?"

Nick shook his head. "Someone suggested it to me once, but it can get pretty wild just having a full bar and a dance floor."

"So you're out of practice. That's number two: play poker, after 'cook together.'"

Nick turned to look at Cory incredulously. "You're keeping a list of what we're doing besides sex?"

Cory grinned. "I don't want you thinking I'm not paying attention," he offered huskily.

Nick inhaled sharply, leaving Cory no doubt that the other man liked the sound of his voice in that register. "Oh, I know you are," Nick returned evenly. He opened a box of spaghetti and poured half the container into the pot of water. Mindful to push the stray ends of pasta under the water, he was silent a moment before he turned to face Cory. "I just wonder what the payoff for you is now."

"Is having another friend such a hardship, Nick?"

Nick focused his attention on the stove, scooping a bit of pasta water into the sauce and stirring both pots.

"Or is it just too soon, after everything that happened last month?"

Nick used the excuse of needing to fetch a colander and put it in the sink before he spoke. "A little bit, but it's more that I look at you, hear what you're saying, and I start thinking I can have things I don't think I should."

Cory's eyes narrowed. "Why shouldn't you?"

Nick checked a noodle to see if it was cooked, then turned the burner off under that pot. He took the pot over to the colander in the sink to drain. "I don't think I can afford the cost. Do you want the sauce mixed with the noodles or just on top?"

Rich wasn't kidding when he said Nick was terrified of falling in love, Cory thought. "Mixed in is fine," he said aloud. His heart ached at the idea of Nick going through the rest of his life with that fear; Nick wouldn't last long, and Cory very much wanted Nick alive, preferably by his side. A change in tactics was in order, he thought.