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Life Noir

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Nick Halden was sweating, each inhale coming in a short gasp, and he was pretty sure he was going to be incredibly sore tomorrow. He tipped his head back and tried to catch his breath.

Vincent grinned at him and leaned back.

"You okay?" he asked.

"You're gonna give me a heart attack," Nick told him.

"Want me to stop?"

Nick moaned, closing his eyes. "Okay. I give in."

"I warned you it was intense," Vincent reminded him. Nick slitted his eyes open and sighed. Vincent tossed the racket from hand to hand. "You'll think twice next time you sneer at squash, won't you?"

Nick hadn't sneered, exactly. One of the first rules of the con was that you always agreed with your mark. But a fleeting look of dismay must have crossed his face when Vincent mentioned his sport was squash (Neal was a swimmer, Nick a runner -- competitive sports really didn't do it for either of him) and thus a summary challenge had been issued, Halden versus Adler. And, like Mozzie always said, every minute with Vincent was a minute well-invested.

"Yes, sir," Nick exhaled. He pushed away from the wall, trailing out of the warm little room and into the cooler corridor beyond. He lifted his shirt up to wipe his face, and a few women passing by turned to give him flirtatious looks. Nick nodded at them, smiling, and followed Vincent into the locker room.

"The ancient Greeks believed that health of the body signified health of the mind," Vincent said, voice echoing against the tiles as Nick stripped and stepped under the shower spray. The gym was expensive and exclusive, a perk of working for Adler's corporation; most people used it in the morning or evening, and at three in the afternoon they were the only two men in the locker room. "What do you think?"

Neal wasn't accustomed to people talking to him while he bathed, but Vincent liked to talk everywhere and anywhere, at least to Nick.

"I think Plato wasn't much of a realist," Nick answered. "Aeschylus was okay."

Vincent laughed. "Nick Halden's Greek history. Away with Plato! Enjoy your dramatic tragedy."

"What can I say? I'm a romantic," Nick replied, reaching out to turn off the shower. As he passed Vincent, the other man turned and stretched out a hand; he ran his fingers down Nick's skin, chest to flank, and Nick paused, startled.

"They would have sculpted you," Vincent said softly. He gave Nick a small, amused smile, and turned back to his shower. Nick hesitated for the briefest moment and then went back to his locker, drying himself and dressing slowly.

It wouldn't do any good to bolt, and anyway what was he bolting from? There hadn't been anything essentially inappropriate in the touch, and he was learning Vincent's quirks slowly. Maybe he just admired a well-sculpted body, and Nick's was certainly that.

Vincent didn't seem to find anything wrong with what he'd done. He emerged from the shower whistling, dressed without modesty, and clapped Nick on the shoulder. "Early dinner? Let's have some steak."


"I've been thinking, Nick," Vincent said to him, a few days later. "It's hard to find someone who can keep up with me."

"I do my best, Mr. Adler," Nick answered with a smile.

"Vincent," Vincent corrected. "Your best is pretty good. How'd you like to be my squash partner?"

Nick very carefully did not recoil in horror. "I think you want someone to defeat every week."

"Well, maybe. But I'll know if you're not trying. Come on, Nick! It'll be good for you. I even promise not to fire you if you win."

It could have been worse. It could have been golf.

"It would be my pleasure. Vincent," Nick added, and Vincent laughed.

"Good answer," he said.

It became their ritual: every Tuesday and Friday, unless there was some urgent meeting Vincent had to attend, they cut out early and went down to the gym, where Nick got his ass handed to him by a guy twenty years older than he was. It was, in its own way, stimulating -- Neal spent so much time thinking, under Nick's mask, and there wasn't any time to think on the squash court, not like in swimming or running. It was purely physical.

They usually showered off together, but Vincent never touched him again, unless it was to throw a towel at him or clap him on the shoulder in camaraderie. Neal began to suspect Vincent was lonely.

After, they went to dinner together, which was more time invested, more trust built. Besides, Vincent introduced him to amazing food -- rare steak, foie gras, molecular gastronomy in its infancy at the time, pasta so light it almost melted on the tongue. Both Neal and Nick were sensualists, and he reveled in this whole new world he'd barely suspected existed.

Nick always let Vincent pay.


The fourth or fifth week in, on a Tuesday, Nick dove for the ball and swung at the wrong moment -- landed hard on his shoulder, and felt something in the joint crackle unpleasantly. He'd broken bones before and it wasn't that -- the pain wasn't bad enough to be a dislocation, either, but it felt like it might be a sprain. Mercifully, Vincent offered him a hand up and said, "I think that'll do for today, what do you think?"

Nick nodded, rubbing his shoulder.

"You should put some ice on that," Vincent added. "You okay?"

"Yeah, it's not serious," Nick answered with a smile pulled up from somewhere, following him into the locker room. Vincent went straight to the shower; Nick eased his shirt off, then stripped the rest of the way and ducked under the water barely long enough to sluice the sweat away. He was studying the slowly purpling bruise on his shoulder in the mirror by the time Vincent walked out. His boss peered at him in their reflection, made a sympathetic face, and reached under the counter where a small, shiny chrome mini-freezer sat.

"RICE," he said, producing a freezer pack from its depths and wrapping it in a towel, pressing it to Nick's shoulder. "Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. Sit down for a few minutes. I need to make some business calls and then we'll get some dinner, huh?"

Nick nodded and sat on the bench in front of his locker, while Vincent dressed and stepped to the far end of the room, phone to his ear. The ice felt good, and then it burned, and then everything went blissfully numb.

"Here," Vincent's voice was in his ear, and Nick startled, looking up. Vincent had a cup of water and two pills in his hand. "Anti-inflammatories."

"Thanks," Nick said, taking the pills, sipping eagerly at the fresh, cool water in the cup.

"Easy, kid," Vincent said, laughing. "You still up for dinner, or you want to head home?"

He didn't want to seem weak -- well, any weaker than he already had -- and those dinners were important. They were the only time he could be sure of Vincent's undivided attention. They talked about philosophy, art, history, literature, lots and lots of finance. Vincent always started them the same way, too, which Nick liked: when they sat down, Vincent said, "You have until the salad course," the way he had when Nick had ambushed him at the charity dinner.

"No, I'm good," he said. "I'll skip the wine, maybe."

"That's the spirit," Vincent told him.


His shoulder felt much better by the time they sat down at Vincent's table in the little cafe near the gym. His tongue felt thick as he ordered, but it wasn't until he dropped his fork that Nick decided something might be wrong.

"Don't worry about it," Vincent said, looking amused. "I slipped you a Vicodin with the anti-inflammatory."

Nick blinked at him, not sure what to say.

"Relax. You're a little stoned, that's all. Eat slowly," Vincent recommended. It seemed like a good idea. "Let me do the talking, okay?"

Nick obediently sat and mostly listened while Vincent talked about -- something, he never remembered what, later. It was all very enjoyable, he did remember that. He had a faintly blurry memory of following Vincent outside and being put in a cab, climbing the stairs to his apartment and falling asleep face-down on the sofa.

He woke around five in the morning with a groan and a spasm. His shoulder ached and felt two sizes bigger than it should be, though when he studied it in the mirror there was hardly any swelling. Mozzie showed up at six, fresh from a night doing something mysterious and iniquitous, clucked over him like a mother hen, helped him ice the shoulder and then wrap it in a sports bandage, and sent him off to work with a bottle of anti-inflammatories in his briefcase.

The pills made the pain bearable, at least, until just past ten when he shifted injudiciously and part of the bandage slipped, cutting into the bruise and sending an arc of pain through the right side of his body. He couldn't help the twitch, or the grunt of pain that got past him. Kate, sitting at her desk across from his, looked up sharply.

"Nick?" she asked, worried. "Nick, are you okay?"

"Yeah, fine," he managed, clenching the edge of his desk with his left hand, trying to rotate the bandage off the bruise. "Sprained my shoulder yesterday, it's misbehaving."

"You want me to call someone?" she asked, getting up from her desk and hurrying over to his. He hissed through his teeth.

"No, it's the bandage -- I just need to rewrap it," he said. "I'll go to the bathroom, fix it there."

"I'll call Mr. Adler -- "

"No! I'm okay," he said, trying to smile and reassure her.

"Wow, that's not a good look on you," she told him. "Are you sure you don't want paramedics?"

"For a sprain?" he asked dismissively, standing up. "I'm okay. I'll be back in ten, fifteen tops. Seriously, Kate," he added, squeezing her hand. "I'm fine. Don't tell Adler, it's nothing."

"Are you two making mischief out here?" Vincent asked, leaning his head out of his office. "Slackers can be replaced, you -- Nick?"

Kate turned to Vincent, hapless. "He says it's his shoulder."

"Ah, the squash game," Vincent said, coming forward. He put his hands on Kate's arms, physically moving her aside, and began undoing Nick's tie right there in the office lobby. "Did you ice it again this morning?"

"And wrapped it, but the bandage slipped," Nick gasped. "I just need to wrap it again."

"Masochism is incredibly unattractive," Vincent told him. "And shoulders are hard to wrap. Kate, hold my calls until I get back."

Nick found himself manhandled into the men's room, his shirt unbuttoned and peeled off. Vincent sucked air through his teeth thoughtfully at the twisted, misplaced bandage, then pulled the end free and unwrapped it. The biting pain subsided into a dull ache, and Nick leaned against the sink in relief.

"Swelling's pretty minimal, doesn't look dislocated," Vincent said, running light fingers over the bruising. "You should have taken the day."

"Live to work," Nick told him with a grin that even he knew looked fake.

"You can work from home, you have a computer," Vincent scolded, deftly re-wrapping his upper arm, angling the bandage across his chest and then back again. "However, now you're going to take the day, ice that, take a lot of painkillers and watch some daytime television. No, Nick," he added, when Nick opened his mouth to protest. "You have someone who can come over and keep an eye on you?"

"Yeah, I have a friend I can call -- but it's really not necessary -- "

"Are you going to call said friend?" Vincent asked. Nick's mouth worked as he tried to figure out what to say. Vincent rested a hand on his chest, an almost proprietary gesture, and the hard look in his eyes softened a little.

"You trust me, Nick?" he asked softly.

"Of course I do, but -- "

"Good." Vincent picked up his shirt and began sliding the sleeves up his arms. "Then shut up and do as I tell you."

Nick, feeling worried and humiliated that his boss had to rescue him, let Vincent button his shirt, then followed him back to the lobby.

"Kate," Vincent called.

"Is he okay?" Kate asked, half-rising.

"He'll be fine. Cancel my ten o'clock and email my ten-forty-five to call my cell, not my office line. Nick, my hand to God, if you say anything I'll fire you," he added without even turning around. "Have the car service bring my car to the freight dock."

It was a small mercy that they took the freight elevator, not the regular one, and Nick didn't have to be marched out the front door of the building. They rode in silence until Nick realized they weren't going to either a clinic or his apartment, and then he turned imploringly to Vincent.

"Seriously, I will fire you," Vincent said. Nick kept quiet. "I have a household staff of twelve who are patently unbribable and don't have nearly enough to do. So given you're in pain and that's making you irrational, I'm going to put you in a guest room and make them make you look after yourself. I feel responsible, after all."

Vincent's guest room had the most comfortable chair Neal had ever experienced, or at least it felt that way after he had another dose of Vicodin forced on him. He sat quietly, shirtless, an ice pack on his shoulder, and listened with languid half-interest as Vincent held his ten-forty-five conference call in the guest room.

"Okay, that's done with," Vincent said finally. "Feeling happy?"

Nick nodded.

"Good. I'm heading back to the office. I'll have Kate put aside anything that's high-priority from your assignments, and we can go over them at dinner, when you're feeling better."

To Neal's shock, Vincent bent and kissed his forehead, ruffling his hair. "Rest. I can't have my best brain zonked on opiates for more than a day or two."


Between the ice and the drugs, Nick felt much better by the time one of the staff informed him that Mr. Adler had requested his presence at dinner. The Vicodin had worn off, but his shoulder was back to the dull ache of the day before, and he was able to get his own shirt on, make himself reasonably presentable, and get down the stairs to the dining room without incident.

"There he is," Vincent said, already seated at an exquisite antique dining table -- 17th century, Neal decided, to judge from the acanthus carvings in the legs. "Feeling better?"

"Thank you," Nick said as a butler, an actual butler, pulled out his chair for him. "I am."

"Good," Vincent said. "I've been looking through the files Kate thought were your most vital, and they seem like they're in good shape. Let's talk a little bit about the private equity proposal you've been working on."

After dinner, Vincent took him to the library, poured him a very small glass of brandy, and gestured him over to the windows that looked out onto the street.

"I like to think I'm a pretty hands-on boss," he said, as Nick leaned against the bookshelf below the window, wondering what Vincent saw when he watched people pass outside. Neal saw rank on rank of marks, some easier than others, none more difficult than the man in front of him. "Not that I'd do this for just any employee, but if I can do this for you, why not?"

He half-turned to Nick, grinning. "Even if you're not comfortable accepting it."

"It's not that at all," Nick replied, studying his brandy. "I'm grateful, and it did help."


"Well, it's not my finest hour," Nick said. "You're right, I should have taken the day. It would have been a lot less embarrassing."

"I admire your work ethic. You're young, you've already had to push to get what you want -- I get it. You need to learn to pace yourself, that's all. Walk before you run."

"Look before I leap?" Nick suggested. Vincent laughed.

"That too," he agreed, turning away from the window completely and pushing a button to draw the curtains across the tall windows. "'re going to be amazing someday. I hope I'm there to see the things you'll do in the next ten, twenty years. But right now, let me teach you how to get there."

Nick took a quick sip of his brandy, nodding. "I'd like that."

Vincent smiled. "I wonder what you'd like."

Nick looked up at him, confused.

Vincent set his brandy down, moving a step closer, close enough that Nick could feel his body heat, smell the mixture of dust and ink that came from working in the office all day.

"You could be more than just my acquisitions guy, my right hand," he said in a low voice. "I wonder if you'd like that? No strings, no commitments. Not a relationship. Just...more," he added, running a finger down Nick's cheek when he didn't flinch away from his touch. "A mentorship, if you like."

"The way the Greeks did," Nick said. Neal's head was whirring, turning over his options, trying to decide if this was an amazing opportunity or the worst idea ever.

"Exactly that way," Vincent turned his hand, tracing Nick's lower lip with his knuckles. "I told you they'd have sculpted you. You remember that?"

Nick nodded, eyes wide.

"It's been a long day. You don't need to decide now. But," he added, stepping back, "this is just between us. Because if you tell anyone, I'll make sure you're completely unemployable. That's not a threat, just a little insurance. You understand?"

Nick didn't answer; instead he pushed himself away from the bookshelf under the window, his arm twinging, and leaned in to kiss Vincent on the lips. It wasn't especially passionate, too much hesitance on Nick's part, but it was a clear statement of intent.

"You are marvelous," Vincent observed, when Nick leaned back. "You've never kissed a man before, have you?"

"No, Vincent," Nick murmured.

"Ever wanted to?"

Neal felt a blush rise in his cheeks. Vincent laughed.

"You're not in a very good condition to do much tonight," he said, hovering his hand over Nick's shoulder. "I didn't actually mean to seduce you when you're not fully in the game. But maybe that's just as well. Come here," he said, taking Nick by the arm and pulling him unresisting towards one of the brocaded sofas under the library's glass lamps. He dropped into the sofa with careless grace and then pulled Nick forward, until Nick understood what he wanted and straddled his lap, leaning in for another kiss.

"Just like this, for a while," Vincent said, coaxing, gentle.

Nick wasn't sure how long they stayed there, and it didn't really seem to matter. Vincent held him steady and let him do essentially what he wanted, at least in terms of kissing. Neal would be lying if he said he hadn't felt an attraction to the most powerful man he'd ever met, hadn't felt that there was something in Vincent he wanted to unlock that had nothing to do with bank passwords and cons. It was good, kissing like that -- arousing -- but Vincent kept a steady hand on his hip, which prevented him from moving closer, even as he traced hands over Nick's ribs, fingers exploring each muscle tantalizingly. Nick wanted to bury his face in Vincent's hair and rub up against him, maybe until he came --

And then there was a rap at the door, and the butler entered before either of them could respond. Nick looked up, startled. Vincent's shirt was open and half-off his shoulders, and Nick's was gone entirely, a crumpled heap on the floor.

The butler's expression didn't even flicker.

"Mr. Halden's ice," he said, setting down a tray with an ice pack, a little medication cup, and two coffee cups. "And your coffee, Mr. Adler."

"Thank you, that'll be all," Vincent said, and the butler withdrew. Nick looked after him, worried. "Like I said," Vincent told him reassuringly. "Discreet and unbribable. He doesn't care if he saw us, and you shouldn't either. It's not his business to care, or judge."

He did, however, give Nick a gentle push off his lap, rising unconcernedly to collect a cup of coffee off the tray and rest the ice pack on Nick's shoulder. He offered Nick the medication: one red-and-yellow capsule, one round white tablet.

"Meds," Vincent said, passing him the other cup of coffee. "The NSAID's required. The Vicodin's optional. You'll stay in the guest room tonight, we'll see how you feel in the morning."

Nick looked at the cup, then tossed both pills back and washed them down with coffee. Vincent seemed approving.

"And to bed with you," he added, passing Nick his shirt. Nick began putting it on slowly, trying to sort out the various stimuli of the evening. "Problem? Second thoughts?"

"You have a girlfriend," Nick said.

"And she still looks better than you in a cocktail dress, but I'm sure you've heard the phrase 'of convenience' before?" Vincent said, his tension easing a little. "I need a regular date for various functions, she likes to go to those functions. My extracurriculars are not her concern, and hers aren't mine. Besides, Kate has a boyfriend, and that doesn't seem to bother you."

Nick carefully didn't look at him.

"If you want to chase my assistant, be my guest, and I wish you luck," Vincent said. He swept Nick with his eyes, like there wasn't anywhere on his body Vincent didn't want to touch. "I don't see the need for relationships, Nick. That extends to you as well. When I said no strings, I meant it."

Nick nodded. Vincent cupped his face, a little forcefully, and kissed him.

"Goodnight, Nicholas," he said, and gave him a gentle shove towards the door.

Neal went upstairs, to the guest bedroom he'd been in earlier, and found a pair of blue linen pajamas sitting on the bed. They smelled, very faintly, like Vincent. He put them on and crawled between the covers, confusion and exhaustion and the drugs conspiring to put him under before he could even process everything that had just happened.


The next morning, a maid woke Nick at seven and brought him breakfast and a note from Vincent: he was instructed to go home so he could change, then meet Vincent for his nine-thirty with the Wells Fargo people at their offices.

When Neal walked into his apartment, Mozzie was waiting, arms crossed.

"Do you have any idea how long it took me to figure out where you went when you didn't come home last night?" he demanded, as Neal rubbed his face in anticipatory misery. "Two hours! Hacking into the phone company to trace your cellphone's GPS isn't easy, you know! I thought I was going to have to start..." he shuddered, "...calling hospitals."

"I'm sorry, Mozzie," Neal said. "I should have called."

"What the hell happened, man?"

"Long story," Neal told him, digging a fresh suit and shirt out of his closet. "I can't stay for long, Vincent wants me back at nine-thirty."

"You spent the night at his house, Neal!"

"You should be happy. Quality time, right?" Neal asked, looping a tie around his neck and buckling his belt.

"Outside of work, quality time means you have to make sure he doesn't catch on to the fact that you're not who you say you are," Mozzie answered.

"Relax, I got it covered." At Mozzie's skeptical look. Neal sighed. "My shoulder started acting up. He sent me to his place because he didn't trust me to look after myself unsupervised. We talked, we went over some paperwork, had dinner, and then he let me crash in his guestroom. Hey, have you seen his place? It's amazing."

"Floorplans," Mozzie said dismissively. "So that's all. Out of the goodness of his heart...?"

"Hey, I'm his brain trust, what can I say?" Neal asked. "Look, I'm sorry I forgot to tell you but I wasn't feeling so hot. Won't happen again."

Neal felt a little guilty not telling him everything, but he really didn't have time for one of Mozzie's apoplectic lectures. Moz would assume he was falling for their mark; maybe he was, just a little, but it wasn't going to stop him from getting that money. Vincent had plenty of money already, so it wasn't like they were going to put him out on the street with this scam. Why not have some fun in the meantime?

When he presented himself at the meeting later that morning, smartly dressed and dutifully obedient, Vincent leaned over and murmured, "How's the shoulder?"

"Better," Nick answered in a low voice.

"Fine. Today's a busy day, but only for me. After this you can head back and work on your assignments. Dinner tomorrow? I think we can skip the squash."

Nick laughed, low, just loud enough for Vincent to hear. "I'd like that."

After the meeting, while Vincent was chatting with one of the portfolio managers, Nick found himself cornered by the branch CFO.

"So you're Vincent's new shark," she said, with an insincere grin. "You screwed up a major merger two weeks ago when you stepped in and tattled on us."

"I'm pretty sure you screwed it up by not telling him you were buying out his competition as well," Nick replied. He remembered that one; Vincent was almost ready to sign the papers when Nick produced evidence the bank was going for a monopoly. Mozzie had weaseled it out somehow.

"That deal wasn't going to go through until the day after he signed the papers."

"Good thing I caught it then, isn't it?" Nick said. "Look, your investors can sulk, or we can all move forward. Don't blame me for doing my job. He pays me. You don't."

"That could change," she said. "What would it take to pry your leash out of Vincent's hands?"

"Sorry," he said with a smile. "I'm not for sale."

"Nick!" Vincent called across the room, summoning him with a wave of his hand.

"Excuse me," Nick said, gave her a slight nod, and went to follow Vincent out the door.

Once he got back to the office, he spent the day alternating between working quietly on his assignments and goofing around with Kate, still trying to impress her. It was true that he didn't really care that she had a boyfriend, because he was reasonably confident in his abilities as a thief, and stealing Kate was just a matter of skill and time. He'd worried about Vincent's girlfriend because she had the power to really mess his life up if she wanted; Kate's boyfriend didn't have the intellect to see what Nick was doing, let alone do anything about it.

Vincent showed up at the office that afternoon with two new research projects for Nick, plus a conspiratorial grin. Neal found himself whistling as he left work.


Neal was very good at compartmentalizing, most of the time, and working for Vincent had honed his skills. Nick wasn't exactly calm about having dinner with him on Friday, because he was pretty sure dinner wasn't all Vincent had in mind. But he could segment off his nervousness, lock it away in a corner of his mind, and go about his work normally, that Friday.

"You seem peppy," Kate observed, as Nick returned from a coffee run, presenting her with her latte. "Big plans for the weekend?"

"Maybe. I don't know yet," Nick answered, leaning on her desk. "What about you?"

"Nah. Staying in," she said. "What do you mean, you don't know yet?"

Nick shrugged. "I'm waiting on a few investments to pay out," he said with a grin. "I'll let you know how it goes."

"Cryptic yet alluring," she remarked, giving him a shove. "Okay, now butt out, I have proofing to do."

"Your wish," he told her, bowing as he backed away.

Vincent sent Kate home a little early. She went happily -- "I can catch the early movie!" -- and Nick, in the old tradition, hated to see her leave, but he loved to watch her go. Vincent caught his glance and gave him a knowing look.

"Tidy up what you're working on," he said. "I have one more call and then we'll take off."

Vincent took him to a French fusion place, probably because he knew it was one of Nick's favorites -- the food was always so different. Neal spoke French pretty well, self-taught but grammatically impeccable, and he'd been surprised that Vincent knew none at all. It seemed like a language a poised, wealthy, fashionable man would speak. (Kate said she'd heard him speaking what sounded like German on the phone, once.) It became a game with them, Nick translating the menu and Vincent deciding whether he was translating truthfully or not.

They lingered over dinner, enjoying the quiet restaurant and the food. Nick didn't want it to seem like he was reluctant, but he didn't want to be overeager, either. Vincent, chewing on a bite of sake-poached pear, studied him across the table.

"Are you nervous, Nick?" he asked.

"No," Nick said with a smile. "I trust you."

"That's very good, but a little bit of a lie. Oh, I have no doubt you trust me," he added, when Nick opened his mouth to protest. "But I think you are nervous. Which is to be expected; it's a new experience. Whatever your past, Nick, I think it's undeniable that working for me has opened new vistas to you, things you could hardly have imagined."

Nick sipped his wine. "That's why I came to work for you."

"Courage does not imply fearlessness, I know," Vincent continued. "But you like risk, don't you? Approaching me the way you did was risky. Some of your analysis work in the less...well, what do I call it -- less interesting asset classes -- favors risk somewhat strongly. If the thing itself is boring, then the handling of the thing should be made more interesting, right? That Raphael you like so much is pretty, but it's much more interesting if you know the symbolism, if you know how it was created."

"There's not a lot of risk in art history," Nick pointed out.

"No, but there is in art theft."

"Sorry?" Neal asked, feigning confusion.

"To most thieves, art is a capital asset. It's just there to make money. Not a lot of money, because it's hard to sell on the black market. I should know -- some of my purchases have been in the grey area, a little. Anyway, they don't understand its worth. It's boring to them, but the risk to get it is a little fun, anyway. Why else do we work? To make enough money to indulge our pleasures. You and I have expensive pleasures, so we need a lot of money, and that requires a lot of risk."

Neal relaxed back into Nick, less vigilant now that it appeared Vincent was being theoretical, not baiting him.

"This is a risk, but you've risked more for less before. It's fine to be nervous. One reason I gave you two days to consider this was to see how you'd react in the office -- just how big a risk you were. You trust me, that's fine; do you trust yourself?"

Nick swallowed.

"I suppose we'll see," Vincent said with a smile, and signaled for the check.


Vincent's driver took them back to his brownstone, and Vincent put his hand in the small of Nick's back as he guided him inside, through the foyer and up the stairs. They passed the guest room where Nick had stayed, and Vincent keyed a code into a door down another hallway, pushing it open when it beeped.

"My private room," he said. "You'll have to forgive a little disarray. The staff don't come in here very often. It's where I keep my secrets."

Nick smiled and let himself be drawn inside.

The room was dim, not big but spacious, with surprisingly simple furniture. Neal had been in a lot of rich people's houses, usually in the dead of night, and he knew the wealthy tended to cram countries and eras together carelessly, as long as everything looked like it cost a lot of money. He should have known Vincent better.

The bed, the chest at the foot of it, the wardrobe and chest of drawers, the writing desk and chairs were all in unity -- German, Early Biedermeier, clean lines and delicate elegance. Vincent took off his suit jacket and tossed it carelessly across the back of a chair that couldn't have been made after 1850.

He turned back and smiled at Nick, offering one of his wrists. Nick glanced down and automatically raised his hands, unfastening the plain square cuff link, then the other one when Vincent held it up. He undid Vincent's tie without asking or having to be asked, absently laying the cuff links on the dresser, among cologne bottles and trinkets, a stand with a pocket-watch hanging from it, a small case with a tie-clip lying on top.

He considered going for the buttons on his shirt, but instead he found himself grasping Vincent's wrists, turning them over so his hands were palm-up, sliding his own hands up under the sleeves to explore the muscles along his arms, learning by touch in a way he hadn't thought to, two nights before. He pressed his thumb into the soft skin at the elbow, and Vincent leaned forward, kissing him, distracting him.

"Trust me," Vincent said around the kiss, and Nick felt him pull his arms away, raise them and ease Nick's jacket off his shoulders.

"I do trust you," Nick replied, cupping one hand behind Vincent's head, the other resting on the side of his throat. His shoulder twinged, but he ignored it. Vincent began unbuttoning his shirt.

Undressing was awkward and confusing, mainly because neither of them seemed to want to stop kissing and every time Nick even tried, Vincent caught him again and pulled him close. His shirt was still around his shoulders, though the rest of his clothing was in a heap of shoes and belt and fabric on the floor, when Vincent -- naked, with his usual careless lack of modesty -- finally let him go.

"Shoulder okay?" he asked, pushing the shirt back, inspecting the shoulder as his shirt fell to the floor. The way he looked at the bandage still wrapped around it made Nick feel suddenly vulnerable, made him feel like Neal was rising to the surface. "Leave it on?"

Nick nodded, and Vincent kissed the join where shoulder met throat, breath warm on his skin. He leaned back and touched Nick again, the way he had that first time -- down the side of his chest, over his hip and across his thigh.

"Your body is a work of art," he said, like an interested appraiser. Nick smiled.

"Here I thought you wanted me for my brain," he said.

"I hired you for your brain," Vincent murmured absently. " altogether different from that. Perfection in every line. My newest sculpture," he added, smiling with pleasure at Nick, meeting his eyes again. "Does it unsettle you? Some people aren't used to being admired."

"Not anymore," Nick said.

"Good," Vincent replied. His knuckles brushed Nick's cock, already hard, and Nick sucked in a breath. Vincent repeated the motion, then ran his fingers along the warm skin, like he was exploring it.

"Perfect proportion," he said, without looking at it -- holding Nick's gaze. "Vanity is underrated, when you have reason to be vain."

Nick swayed into him, rubbing his cheek along the late-day stubble of Vincent's jaw. "Should I compliment you?" he asked in Vincent's ear. "Flatter you?"

"Have I ever wanted flattery from you, Nick?" Vincent asked.

"No. I don't think you have."

"I have power, which is better." Vincent's fingers were still stroking up and down his cock. Nick's hips twitched forward, his left arm rising to wrap around Vincent's shoulders, restricted right arm slung around his waist.

"That's it," Vincent said, petting him, but then he pulled away -- stopped touching, gently disengaged Nick's arms from his body. He backed up, tugging on Nick's wrist to bring him along, and settled on the edge of the bed. "Kneel."

For a fraction of a second, Nick thought he'd said Neal, but the look in Vincent's eyes was expectant, not vindictive. And his legs were spread wide, erection curving dark against his skin.

Nick knelt, slowly, and rested his cheek on Vincent's thigh. "I've never -- "

"I know," Vincent said. "No time like the present to learn, though, is there?"

Nick laughed, kissed his skin. "You have high expectations."

"For you? Always." He felt Vincent's hand in his hair, reassuring. "Don't tell me you've never had one, Nick. Reverse-engineer it. You're good at that."

Vincent's hand tightened enough to hurt, tugging his head forward. Nick struggled for a second but as soon as he stopped fighting, he found himself guided -- into what Vincent wanted, into the right angle, the right rhythm. He'd never done this; men were more perilous than women, more difficult, so he'd never sought it out. The opportunity had never really presented itself on its own.

But he'd wanted to. Wondered what it was like, how it felt, and Vincent seemed aware of that. His voice was a low rumble, soothing and encouraging, occasionally amused, his hand now cupping Nick's head instead of controlling it. He wasn't sure how long it had been or how close Vincent was when he was tugged back again and then up.

"Come on, come up," Vincent said, and Nick knelt up to kiss him, breathless, his whole body sensitive to touch.

"How'd I do?" Nick asked, grinning, when Vincent let him go.

"Sloppy," Vincent said, grinning back. "I'll expect more diligence next time."

"Yes, sir," Nick teased, but a spark of something crossed Vincent's face. Ah, so that was what his powerful boss wanted, and why Nick was so appealing. Someone to do as he was told.

Vincent tugged him down onto the bed and then turned, rolling so that Neal lay on his back, looking up at him.

"Well, boss?" he asked. Vincent looked momentarily startled, then he laughed.

"You're a unique man, Nick," he decided, and grasped one of Nick's thighs, pulling it up against his hip. It brought their bodies into sharp contact, the rub of Vincent's erection against his own. Nick arched, groaning.

He'd seen enough porn in his life to know where this was going, but Vincent didn't seem in any hurry to get there. Nick, being honest, wasn't either -- he liked this, the pressure of Vincent's body, the rough rub of skin-on-skin, the sound of their breath. Vincent fucked like he did everything, elegant and controlled, but when Nick slid his good arm around and pulled him up a little, adjusting the way they fit together --

"Oh fuck, you bastard," Vincent said, into the skin of Neal's neck. "You like that, Nick? You'd like more?"

The profanity was unexpected, but more unexpected was Vincent's body uncoiling from him, Vincent bucking his hips against him as he pushed himself up, both hands on Nick's chest. The pressure made it difficult to breathe for a moment, and the vindictive pleasure in Vincent's eyes made him afraid. Panic shot down his spine and he almost tried to throw Vincent off him -- but the shock of the sudden assault made him buck one more time and then he was coming, helpless and nearly breathless. It felt like it went on forever. It felt like he was going to pass out.

When he opened his eyes again, the pressure was gone from his chest. Vincent's arms were braced on either side of his shoulders, head bowed, breathing heavy. His come was all over Nick's stomach. Nick brushed his fingers through Vincent's hair and kissed him, warmth flooding him.

"Got there a little early," Nick said, making a regretful face. Vincent kissed his temple, tongue flicking out to taste his skin.

"Who says?" Vincent asked, tumbling into the blankets next to him. Nick turned his head, frowning. "Why do you think I did that? I came too. We have all the time in the world to teach you the gentle art of sodomy, Nick. Tonight I just wanted to have some fun."


"You, my boy, are very fun indeed," Vincent confirmed. "Happy now you've had your pettings?"

"Yes, Mr. Adler," Nick told him. Vincent laughed. "You want anything? Glass of water, the Carlson Holdings file...?"

"Whelp," he said, resting his arms behind his head, a faint smile on his face. "There are tissues in the drawer."

Nick leaned up, careful of his shoulder, and opened the drawer, cleaning himself up with less care than he could have. There were a few white streaks on Vincent's stomach; daringly, Nick leaned over and licked him clean, pleased when one of Vincent's hands came down to rest on his head.

"That's not sanitary, you know," Vincent said.

"I trust you," Nick answered.

"Hm," Vincent grunted, thoughtfully. "There's something to be said for blind faith. Another risk you seem willing to take."

Neal cautiously slid upward, under the curve of Vincent's arm, and rested his head on his shoulder, nuzzling a little into his skin. Vincent seemed content to let him.