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Falling to Pieces

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Paris, 2006

On a rainy Saturday night in September, Sanctuary was packed with people. The hum of conversation melded with the insistent throb of dance music, and the bartenders never stopped moving as they mixed and poured drinks for all. From her balcony perch, Amanda surveyed her domain with a satisfied smile. Beside her, Nick leaned on the railing and watched the crowd, trying to see who might become trouble when it came time to close. It was their habit, something that had developed gradually and had never been officially agreed upon, yet Amanda counted on its constancy.

Still, he had not said anything since he’d joined her survey of the crowd. He’d been quieter than usual, a sure sign he was getting restless again. Come morning, Nick would likely vanish on a long motorcycle ride, taking advantage of the fact that he took Sundays and Mondays off. Sometimes, he wouldn't be back in town until Monday evening. Not for the first time, Amanda wondered how long it would be before Nick left Paris for good. Silently, she reminded herself that Nick had made it clear he was planning on staying this time, and he never broke promises to his friends.

She’d be more worried about his decision to stay if it weren’t that she knew he honestly enjoyed running the club, and that he had other friends in Paris. What, exactly, he was restless about was still a mystery, though she had a feeling it had to do with the family he rarely talked about — the parents who’d raised him, the siblings he still had. There were still parts of his life he kept to himself, things he didn’t trust her to know. Even as she wished for more of his confidence, she understood he wasn’t ready to give it to her and might never be. That was the price she paid for some of the decisions she’d made with his life, some of the choices she’d made in her own. For the moment, it was enough that he gave her his friendship. He would confide in her in time; he generally did as long as she was patient.

“See anyone you like out there on the floor?” she drawled.

He quirked a quick smile and dropped a careless kiss on her cheek. “No one as lovely as you, Amanda.”

“I’m shocked. You haven’t picked out a companion for the wee hours of the morn?” she said teasingly, knowing he sometimes did.

He pretended to be hurt. “You wound me. You think I’d leave you for another woman?”

She chuckled richly. “Oh, like you didn’t abandon me last week for what was her name, Chantal?”

“Chantal, was that her name?” He feigned amnesia and scratched his head. “I can’t seem to remember. My memory goes in the face of your beauty.”

She laughed again, aware he was teasing her. “Oh, is that it?” She loved this aspect of their friendship, loved that they’d settled into a comfortable space where they were friends, business partners, and sometimes lovers. “I saw you in the crowd dancing with a few starry-eyed women.”

“Yes, but it was a guy who tried to pick me up.” Nick shook his head. “Or did you miss that?”

“I must have. Was he cute? Did he turn your head?”

Nick chuckled, amused at the encounter. “Not for lack of trying on his part. He was most disappointed for about thirty seconds.”

“Then what happened?”

Nick shrugged. “He found someone else to flirt with." He leaned on the railing and looked at the club-goers. "We’ve got a pretty good crowd tonight; seems a shame to have to break up the party.”

“Always is,” Amanda agreed. She loved that their club had become one of the most frequented in the city and not just by Immortals.  “Why did we decide we were going to be the party-enders?”

“Because you decided a life of crime was getting boring,” he reminded her.

“But are you getting bored with this?” she asked with concern. “You’ve been out of sorts lately.”

He chuckled softly. “I love running this club. It’s just…” He let out a tired breath and stared out at the crowd for a moment before turning back to her to answer. “Sometimes I remember stuff that shouldn’t matter anymore. You ever wish you had something you had years ago?”

She nodded, understanding. She remembered food that wasn’t served anymore, dresses that had long been sacrificed to time, and friends she missed dearly. “That why you’re going to go for a long ride tomorrow?”

He smiled. “Something about being on that bike, I don’t know what it is, Amanda, but I come back and things make sense again.”

Reassured by his words, Amanda said firmly, “Then enjoy your ride tomorrow.”

Nick took one last look at the crowd, then at his watch. With a sigh, he asked, “Shall we close this joint?”

She nodded and picked up the wireless microphone that had been clipped to the balcony rail as Nick descended to the main floor to help the staff close up. Switching it on, she said in French, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the voice of Sanctuary. This is last call.  We will be closing in ten minutes.” Just to be sure, she repeated the announcement in English, Russian and Spanish.

Half an hour later, the last of the stragglers had left. Amanda had just moved across the dance floor, intending to lock the front door, when a tall, broad-shouldered man of medium build walked up. He wore a dark blue jacket and worn jeans that clung to his hips and long legs. A gray backpack was slung over both shoulders. Rain had plastered his light brown hair to his scalp. A large, slightly crooked nose bisected deep-set blue eyes and a slightly prominent forehead. A strong jaw and thin lips completed his face. The jacket he wore was open enough to reveal a faded Van Halen T-shirt which clung to his well-defined chest and stomach. Well-worn combat boots completed his outfit. Not only did he look like he belonged in an ad for some rugged men’s cologne, he looked like he’d been walking for miles.

Even as she hoped he had somewhere dry to go (preferably somewhere else), Amanda said firmly in French, “I’m sorry. We’re closed.”

“I’m looking for Nick Wolfe. I was told I could find him here,” he answered in English.

“You can talk to him when we reopen at eleven. We closed at five am.”

“Listen, lady, a few more minutes isn’t going to make a difference unless you’re still selling alcohol,” was the frustrated reply.  “It’s pouring out here, or didn't you notice? I just need to talk to him. I’m his brother.”

“Let him in, Amanda,” Nick said from behind her. She looked at him warily, hearing a note of warning in his voice. “And lock the doors. Trouble might be right behind him.”

The man stepped inside; she secured the doors. “Not tonight, brother. Nobody’s tried to kill me in six weeks. I don’t miss it. Classy joint you got here, Nick. Who’s the beautiful dragon at the door?”

Amanda briefly considered protesting being compared to a dragon, but the stranger had said she was beautiful. His looks intrigued her; despite being soaked to the bone, he still looked good enough to flirt with. She forgave him for the comparison — she had been barricading the door, after all — and waited to see what happened next.

“The dragon, Dan,” Nick said dryly, “is my partner, Amanda. Amanda, this is Dan, my older brother. So if no one’s tried to kill you in six weeks, does that mean you’re out of the Air Force?”

Dan nodded. “Did my twenty years. Got out before they could send me back to Iraq.” He grimaced. “Three tours in that place is too goddamned long. Got a place I can crash, little brother? I’m running on willpower and caffeine right now, and not much of either.”

Startled at the request, Amanda turned to watch Nick’s reaction. From the way he stood, Nick didn’t look inclined to say yes. She knew all too well he didn’t like surprises.

Nick didn’t budge. He crossed his arms and stared at Dan. “You’ve run on far less before. How’d you find me?”

Dan grinned and shifted the load of his backpack so that he had most of the weight balanced on his left side. “Still paranoid, I see. Your old landlord said you’d told him you were moving to Paris and that you’d given him this address in case any mail arrived that needed forwarding. Nice guy — said to tell you hello and he missed having you as a tenant.”

“I’m surprised he even remembers me,” Nick said guardedly as he eyed his brother skeptically.

Dan spread his arms wide, turning his palms up. “He hasn’t had a cop in the building since you left. He liked it. Said it hasn’t been the same since you left.”

“So you just decided to say what the hell and buy a one-way ticket to Paris?” Nick asked disbelievingly.

Dan shrugged. “Not like I got anywhere else to be.  When I got out, I tried the ‘spend a few weeks being a beach bum in Florida’ thing. I lasted six days before I decided I wasn’t cut out for that life and headed back to Torago. I was pretty bummed when I found out you’d moved.” He smiled hopefully. “I was hoping you’d be able to help me get back into being a civilian.” He took a deep breath and said contritely, “I’m sorry I was such a drunk, stubborn, impulsive, belligerent asshole the last time we were together. Forgive me?”

Nick considered his brother’s words. “Maybe,” he said. “It was the last time, and the time before that, and then there was the day you got us both suspended from school.”

“Don’t be such a goddamned prick,” Dan retorted, glaring at him. “And I can’t believe you’re still counting that day at school. That was what, twenty years ago? Mr. Holloway deserved to hear what we told him, and I know you’re not sorry about that at all.”

Nick smiled. “Now there’s the brother I know.” He stepped forward and hugged him. “Welcome to Paris.”

Turning to Amanda, Nick asked, “Amanda, would you please show him to my place and I’ll get the deposit into the safe?”

Surprised by the request and wondering what she was buying time for, Amanda looked at Nick. “I can do the deposit,” she offered.

“You wanted me to make sure that the deposit from Mr. Walker was secure, remember?”

“Mr. Walker deposited something extra?” Amanda asked blankly.

“Yes. That diamond necklace he gave you last night, remember?” Nick said impatiently.

Amanda knew damn well there was no jewelry; the Walker necklace was weeks ago. It was an excuse, plain and simple. It wasn’t the first time he’d used a similar excuse to get her to assess someone. Despite the hug, Nick didn’t trust his brother, and Nick wanted her opinion of Dan before he faced him. “Oh, that!” she exclaimed. “Silly me, to forget about diamonds.” She aimed a killer smile at Dan before she walked over to Nick. “Thank you for reminding me. You will get them all safe and secure?” She leaned over to Nick as if to kiss him on the cheek. “You okay?”

He turned his head so his lips couldn’t be read by Dan. “I will be,” he said softly so only she could hear. “Just…God. Surprised as hell. Need a moment. God, I hate surprises, especially ones named Dan.” To cover his words, he nibbled on her ear, causing her to laugh, then drew back. So that Dan could hear, Nick said, “I promise not to lose your diamonds, Amanda, if you don’t mind showing my brother upstairs. Dan, you won’t mind if I let Amanda take you up? I’ll be just a moment.”

“I never turn down the offer of a beautiful woman as my guide,” Dan replied.

Amanda hesitated a moment. She wasn’t quite sure she wanted to leave Nick alone; but she didn’t want to show a stranger where the safe was, either. Going with the flow, however, offered her the opportunity to assess Dan and then check on Nick when he'd caught his breath. She turned to Dan and smiled. “If you’ll follow me?”

Dan glanced at Nick, who was already walking away from them, intent on his task, and then nodded. “Lead on.”

She took him up the balcony stairs and over to the secured elevator marked “Private — Residents and Guests Only”, which was the most direct route to the living quarters. The third floor was their private gym; the fourth was Nick’s space; the fifth was hers. Deliberately, she chose not to share that information with Dan.

“Nick never mentioned a brother,” Amanda remarked, fishing for information as they stepped into the elevator. From the pocket of her skirt, she pulled out a card key and swiped it to unlock the elevator’s controls before hitting the button for the fourth floor. The truth was, he had mentioned a brother, once, but then slammed the lid on the subject when she’d tried to ask more about it.

Dan didn’t look surprised at Amanda’s comment. “I haven’t been a part of his life in a long time. Last time I was, he ended up arresting me.”

“Really?” she asked interestedly.

“Bar fight,” Dan explained. “Someone decided to bash the military, and, well…I was home on leave, and I didn’t like what they were saying.” He sighed and ran a tired hand through his hair. “I was young and stupid, and too proud of what I was doing to let the insult slide. Nick was still a patrolman back then. He was pretty pissed. Nick agreed with me, but it was either arrest me or get in trouble for not stopping the fight.” Dan smiled ruefully. “I suppose Nick looks at me showing up this late as trouble.”

“Wouldn’t you, if you were in his shoes?” Amanda asked.

Dan chuckled. “Hell, yeah, I would. But I didn’t come here to cause trouble with him or anyone.”

“Then why did you come?”

“He’s family; he’s all I got since our parents died a few years ago.” Dan shrugged. “Besides, I suck at being a beach bum.”

“It’s not hard to lie on a beach and do nothing,” Amanda remarked. “Why do you think you aren’t good at it?”  The elevator doors opened and Amanda stepped out, and then waited to make sure Dan had done the same.

“I’m too used to working at something,” Dan pointed out as they walked down the short hallway to the door to Nick’s apartment. “Too many years in the Air Force, I guess. Can’t just lie there on a beach, drink beer and —” he grinned sheepishly “—watch women. Never thought I’d get the point where I was starting to wonder just how tiny a bikini could go and start critiquing how bad it looked on the body wearing it. That’s when I knew I had to go do something else. So, have you known my little brother long?”

“About eight years now,” Amanda told him with a smile. “So how much older than Nick are you?”

“Two years. Mom didn’t think she could have more kids, so they decided to adopt Nick. I don’t really remember that part; he’s always been a part of my life. He was smart enough that we ended up in the same grade together in school. I think we drove our teachers nuts.” He smiled at the memory. “You know, I always thought if he was going to leave the States, he would end up back in France again. Did he tell you about the time he spent as a boxer in Marseilles?”

Amanda nodded. “He said it was a bad idea, but he had a lot of fun.”

“It was my idea,” Dan informed her. “At least the signing up to work on a tanker part was. He was going to have to choose between basketball and being a lawyer anyway. Might as well do something fun. Surprised the hell out of me when he called me from Marseilles, saying he’d just fought this big-ass bruiser.” Dan chuckled. “Told him to quit boxing before it killed him, then you know what he says?”

Amanda paused before the door to Nick’s apartment. “No, tell me.”

“Cocky son of a bitch says, ‘Yeah, I figured you’d say that, so I’m coming home. Are you going to be able to pick me up from the airport?’” Dan shook his head. “Idiot didn’t remember I was stationed in Germany; he was still recovering from a concussion. Had to get one of our friends to pick him up in Torago; there was no way I could arrange to get home that fast.”

“I take it the two of you used to be pretty close?”

Dan sighed. “Yeah, until I pissed Nick off, and then we lost track of each other.” He looked rueful. “Hope he’s still not pissed.”

“Well, I’ve seen him angry, and I don’t think he is now. Even if he was angry with you, I think he’ll at least hear you out before he does anything,” Amanda told Dan. She liked what she’d seen of him so far. He might yet be trouble, but she didn’t think he was going to be a problem if she left him alone for a few minutes. A lifetime of assessing who was an ideal target for theft had given her the ability to figure out who was going to be a danger to her immediate future; Dan wasn’t it.

She unlocked Nick’s door and let Dan inside.  “As you can see, the kitchen’s to your left, and the bathroom’s down the hall. You might want to grab a towel so you don’t drip all over. Refrigerator’s well stocked if you’re hungry or thirsty. Feel free to make yourself at home. Nick will be up in a few minutes.”

“You’re not staying?” Dan asked, surprised.

“Sorry, but a girl’s got to get her beauty sleep sometime,” Amanda said lightly, yawning and heading for the door. She’d done as Nick requested. “I’ve been on my feet since we opened the club at noon.”

Dan did the math. “It’s almost six in the morning now. You’re there the entire time?”

“Absent owners make for thieving employees,” Amanda replied.

“True,” he conceded.  “I think I’d better do as you suggested and get a little drier before Nick shows up. Before I head off to the bathroom and you leave, can I ask you something?”

She paused, her hand on the doorknob. “You can ask, but I may not answer.”

“Are you Nick’s girlfriend?  You seem to know your way around his place.”

She smiled at the predictable question. “Why does it matter?”

“Because the Nick I knew always had a girlfriend around.”

Amanda smiled wider. “Last week, her name was Chantal. Good night, Dan.”

“Goodnight, Amanda. It was nice meeting you.” He headed towards the bathroom, and she waited until he’d shut the door before she walked out the door, shutting it behind her. She walked down the hallway and met Nick just as he was exiting the elevator. She wasn’t worried about Dan eavesdropping; she had no plans on saying anything that he couldn’t hear.

“You didn’t look happy to see your brother.”

Nick sighed. “I haven’t seen him since ’90; haven’t talked to him since ‘96. That was long before I ever heard of you.  Seeing him makes me remember how things used to be.” He shook his head, remembering. “He was such a troublemaker when we were growing up. The Air Force helped him grow up, but if it wasn’t a bar fight, it was some woman he picked up.” Nick half-chuckled. “He had a bad habit of saying anything to get a woman in bed. Made my life interesting whenever he was around.”

Amanda smiled. “I imagine you two had quite a reputation.”

Nick grinned faintly. “Yeah, we did.” His smile, not broad, faded. “It’s been a long time since we were together. I hope he’s grown up a lot more. The last time I saw him, I had to arrest him for being an idiot.” Nick ran a hand through his hair and sighed again. “He’s going to be here a while; I guess I might as well find out who he is now.”

Amanda looked at Nick, seeing the wariness in his expression. Nick didn’t trust people easily, and he’d become even more private since he’d become Immortal. To have family show up out of the blue, when Nick probably had written said family off as being out of his life…She didn’t know what that felt like; she’d always welcomed back whomever she’d considered family. “Is having him around going to be a problem?” she asked.

Nick chuckled wryly. “I don’t know, but…he’s all the family I have. Didn’t think he’d ever show up in my life again, especially since I told him I didn’t want to see him if all he did was cause me trouble.”

“You don’t have to keep him around, you know. He’ll have questions.”

Nick sighed. “And maybe I’ll have the right answers. It’ll be fine. One way or the other. Give me some credit, Amanda, I’ve been hanging around you too long not to learn a few of your tricks.”

“Sometimes I wonder if you’ve changed too much because of me,” she said quietly, reaching out to touch his arm and looking at him. It broke something inside her to see how hard he found it to trust people; he’d become such a different man from the one she’d first met. She’d never meant to turn his life so completely upside down, and yet…for all the times he’d complained about the things she got him involved in, she knew he’d be there for her. Still, she wondered if he was happy. “Among other things, you used to uphold the law, not help me break it on a fairly regular basis.”

He met her gaze. “Yeah, and I used to spend a lot of time nearly killing myself chasing evidence, too. I don’t miss that. I may not like everything about the life I have now, but there were parts of the life I had before that I didn’t like either. I wouldn’t trade the last eight years of my life for the world, and I can’t imagine not having them now.” He smiled crookedly. “Besides, you were right: you did give me a gift.” He kissed her lightly, seeming to take comfort in the simple contact. “Thanks for taking him up. Good night, Amanda.”

“Good night, Nick.” She stayed in the hallway long after Nick’s door was shut; shamelessly eavesdropping until she was sure that at least for tonight, there would be peace.

****

Nick walked into the living room where Dan sat drinking a glass of water. Dan had hung his jacket up on the coat rack near the door. “Find everything okay?” he asked. There was a comfort in taking on the familiar role of host; it meant Nick could delay the argument he was sure was coming. He held out a faint hope that, at this late hour, Dan was more interested in sleep than talk.

“Yeah. Running a bar must pay pretty well — looks like you have the entire floor up here. Two bedrooms, two and a half baths — this place is like a penthouse suite in some ritzy hotel.”

Nick smiled. Some part of him wasn’t too surprised at Dan’s reaction. “Pays better than being a cop did, and yeah, I have the entire floor. Amanda and I own the building; we had the top floors as rental units until a few years ago, when someone decided to torch the place. After that, we decided we didn’t want anyone else but us living here.”

“I can imagine. Shit, I’d be like that, too, if someone burnt my property.” Dan paused. “Listen, I didn’t know Paris clubs stayed open until the crack of dawn. Probably a good thing they do, though. Took me half the night to figure out which side of the river was the Left Bank, then trying to find this place in the dark was interesting. I’m pretty tired; I’m sure you are too. I take it the first bedroom down the hall is the guest bedroom?”

Surprised by Dan’s words, since Nick had figured Dan would have wanted to talk more, Nick said slowly, “Yeah. There should be towels and soap and shampoo in the bathroom. Might even be an extra toothbrush or two.”

“Thanks, Nick.” Dan rose. “Thanks for taking me in. And I am sorry I was such an ass the last time we were together. I don’t know why I didn’t realize you could’ve lost your badge if you let the whole incident go until a few years ago. I was talking to one of the MP’s on one of my assignments, and he explained everything.”

Nick blew out a breath. He hadn’t been expecting this. Maybe there was hope for Dan yet. “Yeah, I could have. You’re lucky my sergeant took pity on both of us and didn’t press it further, or you’d have gotten in trouble with the military, too.”

“Yeah.” Dan met Nick’s gaze. “Thank you.” He hugged him briefly, and then went into the kitchen to put his empty water glass in the sink. “What time do you usually get up?”

“Late morning, usually, around 10:00. I need to make sure the club opens on time, and then later, I’ll take a nap if I need it. If you get up before I do, feel free to make anything you want out of the fridge, watch TV or whatever. Just don’t go out; you’ll trip the alarms and I don’t feel like explaining all of them to you right now.”

“Got it.” Dan headed off to the guest bedroom.

Nick was slower to follow. He turned on all the alarms and locked the door before heading to his bedroom. To his surprise, sleep came easily.

He woke to the smell of fried bacon and brewed coffee. Slipping on a pair of jeans, he headed out to the kitchen, where his brother was cooking scrambled eggs while a raft of bacon drained on a paper-towel-lined plate. The sight made Nick blink. Dan had always cooked breakfast whenever he stayed over, a habit left over from Saturday mornings when they’d taken turns giving their mom a break from cooking; Nick had forgotten how much the effort meant to him.

Dan glanced at his watch. “10:00 sharp. I said it last night, but I’ll say it again, bro, you got an awesome place. Want some eggs?”

“Sure.” Nick grabbed two plates from a cupboard near the stove and set them down where Dan could reach them.

Dan dished the now-cooked eggs and bacon onto the plates while Nick grabbed a cup of coffee. They then sat down at the dinner table.

“Sleep okay?”

“Yeah. Nice to not have to find a hotel room. My flight didn’t come in until midnight last night, and then I think I wandered all over Paris trying to find this address. Did you know the Metro stops running at 12:30 and then half an hour later, most of the lights go out?” He shook his head. “Last time I was in Paris, I had directions and it was daytime.”

Nick chuckled. “What happened to that great sense of direction? You always had this uncanny instinct to find your way even without a map.”

“In the dark at past one in the morning in a city where anyone I asked was either a tourist or someone trying to scam me?” Dan countered defensively. “And if someone had explained ‘Left Bank’ meant this side of the river, and if Customs hadn’t been a royal pain in the ass — they didn’t quite believe me when I said I only had a backpack full of clothes and nothing to declare -- I would have been here sooner.”

Nick shook his head. “Yeah, getting through the airport these days takes forever. So how long ago were you in Paris? You didn’t mention that the last time we talked.”

Dan thought while he chewed his breakfast. “It was a couple of months after we last talked. God, I can’t believe it’s been that long. My first assignment as a courier: go here, drop off package, get authorized signature, leave. Wasn’t allowed any time to play tourist. It was literally, get off plane, drive to location, deliver document, drive back, leave.” He shook his head. “I’m telling you, man, being a military courier, you see the world and then some.”

“Is that your way of telling me you grew up?”

Dan laughed. “Yeah, guess so.” He shook his head at the thought. “So much for being a Toys ‘R’ Us kid forever.”

He pointed his fork at Nick. “I never thought I’d see the day you weren’t a cop.”

Nick shrugged. “Wasn’t worth it anymore, and then I had a better offer.”

“From Amanda?” Dan asked speculatively.

Now it was Nick’s turn to laugh. “I guess you could say that. We’ve been running this bar for seven years now.”

“You ever think of going back to the States?”

Nick smiled. “Sometimes. Then I go out riding for a few hours and remember that I can’t live like I do here in the States, and that usually settles the urge. For one thing, I’d have to start all over with a new bar or some other job, and I don’t even want to think about that.” Nick paused. “If it’s not raining, we could ride. I could show you the vineyard Amanda’s trying to convince me to invest in.”

“Vineyard, huh? So does that mean she has a lot of money?” Dan drank coffee as he waited for Nick’s answer.

“She doesn’t have to work for a living, no,” Nick confirmed.

“Is she your girlfriend?”

“Not anymore, no,” Nick admitted. “We do better as friends and business partners.” He saw a look of speculation cross Dan’s face. “And I’m telling you as your brother, you really don’t want to get involved with her. Not even for one night.”

“Oh, come on, Nick. You said it yourself she’s not your girlfriend. Why can’t I have a shot?’

“She’s trouble with a capital ‘T.’ Besides, she’s involved with someone else.”

Dan looked at Nick. “You let a fine-looking woman go?”

Amused, Nick bit into a piece of bacon and swallowed it before responding. “It was more a matter of realizing we weren’t going to have a white-picket fence, happy ending.”

“That sucks. Hey, do you ever wonder what happened to Lauren, your ex-wife?”

Nick took a deep breath as the words triggered painful memories. “She came to Paris looking for answers about her brother, who’d been kidnapped, and got murdered for her trouble. She died in my arms.”

“Ouch. Sorry to hear that. Shit.”

“You didn’t know,” Nick said gently. “Tell you what. We’ll play tourist this afternoon, check out the Eiffel Tower, maybe hit a museum, eat at one of the best restaurants in town, and then you and I can sit at the bar and check out the women who come to the club tonight. You can decide what to do with the rest of your life later. Sound like a plan?”

“I think I can handle that,” Dan replied.

****

“Hey, Nick, is there a Starbuck’s nearby?” Dan asked a day later.

Nick stared at him. “You’re in a city full of sidewalk coffee cafés, and you want Starbuck’s? Plus, you have access to a bar that serves not only a plethora of liquor, but some of the best coffee around? Never mind the fact that you’re sitting a few steps away from the kitchen, where I have not only good coffee, but the tools to make you a good cup?”

Dan shrugged sheepishly. “Give me a break, Nick. I was back in the States long enough to get hooked on Starbuck’s coffee. I’ll learn to love French coffee eventually, but I need my American capitalist comforts. Be glad I’m not asking for the nearest McDonald’s. I made that mistake in Kuwait.” Dan shuddered at the memory. “I don’t think I’ll ever eat at a McDonald’s again.”

Nick chuckled and gave him directions to Starbuck’s, along with a prepaid phone card for making local calls and his cell phone number in case of emergency.

“Thanks, Nick. I’ll be back in a little while — I might spend some time checking out the scenery.”

“Got enough cash?”

Dan checked his wallet. “I still have some francs from when I changed money at the airport,” he told his brother. He grinned. “What, worried that your big brother can’t afford his own coffee?” he teased Nick.

Nick smiled. “No, just checking that you could. One more thing, since I’ll probably be asleep when you come in — here’s your copy of the elevator key card and the key to the apartment. Don’t lose them, and if you do, tell me or Amanda immediately.” So saying, he handed over the items, which Dan immediately pocketed.

“Got it. Thanks so much! See you later, Nick.”

It didn’t take Dan long to find the coffeehouse — or the woman he’d come to meet.

She sat at a corner table, typing away at a laptop, looking for all the world like a student at the nearby university. Her long brunette hair was in a half-ponytail that had been braided. She wore a thick blue sweater, a long suede skirt, and boots. Surreptitiously, Dan pulled out his PDA and checked the picture he’d been sent.

“Are you Emily Loden?” he asked in French.

She looked up and smiled. “Oh, good, you made it to Paris! Did you have a safe trip from America?”

Dan slid into the seat across from her. “Not bad.” From the backpack he carried, he pulled out a leather-bound journal. “Could’ve done without getting hassled in Customs. Apparently, having a backpack full of clothes, no contraband and the ability to speak fluent French is impossible to believe, especially when I have an American passport.  As we discussed in email, I am here to deliver the Chronicle of Kurt Mahron and am requesting reassignment.”

Emily picked up the chronicle and put it into her laptop tote. “Thank you. I’ll be in touch with your new assignment; it’ll be a few days.” She shook her head. “The wheels of bureaucracy move slow. You didn’t have any problems with your visa?”

Dan shook his head. “No, they didn’t seem to blink at my permanent resident visa. Should they have?”

Emily waved off his concern. “No. It means that the administrative assistants who take care of travel arrangements at Headquarters still do what they’re supposed to do. Did they at least book you a hotel?”

Dan chuckled. “If they did, I didn’t get the email. I haven’t had Internet access since I left the States. Anyway, my brother lives here. I’m crashing with him until I can find a place.”

“Oh, good. If they get your visa right, it usually means they didn’t get your hotel right.” She looked at him with a kind expression. “Welcome to Paris. If you get bored, you might want to drive out to Headquarters; it’s in Lyon. The library there is open anytime. If you can’t make it there, the Paris office is in the Westmore Tower, suite 1500.”

“Thanks, I might just do that. Do you need anything else from me now that I’m here? I know your email said Headquarters was questioning some things in my file.”

Emily tapped a few keys. “Ah, here we are. They need to confirm a few things. You received your Watcher training in the field rather than at the Academy, correct?”

“Yeah, my senior Watcher couldn’t figure out how to get me to Geneva without the Air Force questioning what the hell I was doing there, so he just went over the basics.” Concerned, Dan looked at Emily. “Is that a problem? I don’t understand why they’d be questioning it now, after nine years. I did eventually go to the Academy.”

Emily rolled her eyes. “You’re coming up on your ten-year review. They like to make sure their records are straight. Next of kin is not listed. Did you want to change that? It’s not critical unless you’re Watching a high-priority Immortal.”

“Well, when that happens, I’ll provide that information,” Dan told her. “I don’t know if my brother wants to get that kind of call or not.”

She looked at him sympathetically. “My sister would kill me if she did. That’s why I listed our mother.”

“And you think your mother could handle it better?” Dan questioned dryly. “If my mother was still alive, she’d probably have a heart attack.”

Emily shrugged. “No, but my sister would be worse; she doesn’t want anything to do with the organization. At least our mother was a Watcher; she understands what it’s like.” She returned her focus to the screen. “Oh. One more thing: there are a lot of Immortals in Paris. You should have an email with the list of known residents in your inbox by now.”

“Like I said, I don’t have Internet access set up yet.”

“Oh.” Emily considered this a moment. “Do you think you’ll have it soon? Otherwise, you’ll have to go to the Paris office to pick it up.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Dan assured her. “Anything else?”

“No, that’s it.”

“Good. So tell me, is the coffee here bad or is it just me?”

*****

With the ease of a week's practice, Dan made his way through the bar and up to the living quarters. He headed straight for the bathroom, wanting to shower before dinner. A note was taped to the bathroom door that read, “Dan: come up to Amanda’s after you’ve showered and we’ll have dinner. Amanda picked out your clothes — don’t blame me.  They’re on your bed. Don’t worry about socks or shoes unless you want to wear them.”

Intrigued, Dan backtracked to his room. There on the bed was a pair of new blue jeans, a vintage Aerosmith concert T-shirt (and one he thought was impossible to get), and a pair of dark blue low-cut briefs. One eyebrow went up at the thought of Amanda figuring out just what size underwear he wore.

This is going to be an interesting dinner, Dan thought. What is that woman up to? Hell, for that matter, what is my brother up to?

As he showered, he considered. If I don’t wear what she got me, Amanda will be disappointed. But it’s not like I wasn’t going to show up in jeans and a T-shirt anyway. Damn. She’s not playing fair. I like what she got me. Then again, from what I’ve seen, Amanda lives life on her own terms, not anyone else’s. Is this what attracted Nick to her? I know they’re not dating each other, but there’s definitely a friends-with-benefits thing going on. Nick never says, but I know there’s been at least one night this week he’s slept upstairs.

So what do they want from me now? I like Amanda. She’s easy to flirt with, easy to talk to, taught me to dance without laughing too much over my two left feet, and acts like she really likes me. This is be the third dinner I’ve had with her and Nick, but it’s the first one where she’s picked out my clothes, and the first one we’d had at her place. Maybe she meant it when she said I needed a better wardrobe — one that isn’t ripped jeans, old Air Force sweatshirts, and nearly threadbare T-shirts.

It was a plausible idea, and besides, it wasn’t like it was a tux. He knew, however, there was no way he was going to go barefoot; he didn’t like showing off the tattoo on his ankle unless it was absolutely necessary.

Showered and changed, Dan headed upstairs. He wasn’t surprised to discover that the clothes fit perfectly; it would have been easy for Amanda to get Nick to tell her what size he wore. It felt odd, somehow, to see Nick and Amanda together, to watch how close they were. Dan couldn’t remember when he’d seen his brother so comfortable with a woman. Women had always been attracted to Dan and Nick equally; they’d gotten used to dealing with the opposite gender early on in life and had often double-dated. Still, Dan could see that the connection Nick shared with Amanda was something completely unique. It made Dan wish he had something like it for himself.

Nick opened the door in response to Dan’s knock. Nick grinned, pleased, when he saw what Dan was wearing. “Come on in.”

Like Dan, Nick was wearing jeans, but his were a darker blue than Dan’s. He wore an old Harley T-shirt and was also barefoot. Watching Nick as he led the way into the apartment, Dan wondered why he seemed so energized, as if he’d had a great workout or had gotten laid. Deciding it was probably a combination of both, Dan buried the quick pang of jealousy and decided to look around.

He’d never been up to Amanda’s place before. It was a more open space than Nick’s floor, combining a simple kitchen, spacious living room, and formal dining area into a great room with a patio full of plants. Tropical plants mingled with teak furniture and antiques. Books surrounded the entertainment center, warring for space with a collection of what Dan assumed to be very high-end ceramics. Farther down the hall, two large decorative fans hung on the wall surrounded by a collection of smaller fans.

The display triggered a memory. There was some Immortal, Dan knew, who was deadly with fans, but he couldn’t remember which one. Not for the first time that week, he wished for his PDA and Internet access. Undoubtedly, there was a pile of email from the Watchers he needed to read, but living Nick’s hours was playing hell with Dan’s plans. So far, Nick seemed only to hop on the Internet when he needed to for business, and then only in the office for the club. Dan didn’t dare use the club’s computers for something as confidential as Watcher business. Since he’d seen Nick bring up a laptop, he assumed that the apartment had Internet access, but between hanging out with Nick and trying to get his body used to sleeping in the middle of the day, Dan hadn’t yet found the energy or the time. He knew he needed to get online soon, if only to do research.

Amanda set a plate down on the table and hurried to greet him. Tonight, she wore a short suede skirt and a green, cleavage-baring camisole top.  “You look handsome, Dan,” she said as she hugged him. The hug went on a heartbeat longer than was proper for just friends, and Dan eased back, suddenly unsure of where this was going.

Amanda just smiled. The look in her eyes told him she’d caught his movement, and didn’t take offense. Easily, she moved away. “Have a seat, everything’s ready. Can I get you anything to drink or is the wine sufficient?”

“That’s fine. Knowing you, it’s probably something from fifty years ago.”

Amanda laughed. “No, it’s younger than you.” She took the seat at the head of the table as Nick positioned himself on her right, one seat removed, and Dan took the seat to Amanda’s immediate left.

“That only rules out anything under the age of 40,” Dan objected as Nick topped off the glasses of wine and then handed Dan the bottle. “Oh, so it’s only twenty years old. My God, Amanda, do you just have old Rieslings and chardonnays stored in a cellar somewhere?”

Nick chuckled. “Actually, she does. Remember the vineyard I took you to?”

Defensively, Dan answered, “Yeah, but you were like a maniac on the bike that day. I think we flew past the vineyard.”

“He’s always a maniac on that bike,” Amanda put in. “He crashed it through a car dealership once.”

“That was a different bike,” Nick argued.

Hiding a smile, Dan turned his attention to the plate of grilled swordfish, mashed potatoes, and steamed asparagus before him. It all looked good, and smelled heavenly. He took a bite of the fish, and nearly purred at the way it tasted. “Amanda, if you cook like this all the time, marry me.”

Amanda laughed. “Hate to burst your bubble, but your brother cooks better than I do. He did this.”

Dan glared at Nick. “So why are we always going out to eat if you cook like this?”

“Because we live in Paris, and I hate grocery shopping?” Nick replied, donning an innocent look.

“You’ve been holding out on me, brother. I’ll figure out how to get you for that, after dinner.”

Nick chuckled and exchanged a quick, private smile with Amanda. “I’m sure you will.” He raised his glass. “Till then, happy birthday.” Nick smiled at Dan’s look of shock. “What, you thought I’d forget your birthday?”

Stunned, Dan could only raise his glass. “Thank you,” he managed, and completed the toast with a shaking hand. He sipped the Riesling, barely tasting it. “Hate to say this, but I almost forgot today was my fortieth.” He shrugged. “Last few years, I didn’t feel too much like celebrating it.”

“I don’t remember my exact birthday anymore,” Amanda told him. “I think I decided on April 19.”

“No, it’s March 19,” Nick corrected. He started to say something else, visibly reconsidered, then changed it to, “Or so you told me when you were showing me that painting.”

“Ah, yes, that’s it.” Amanda smiled and ate a piece of fish.

“Then again, you’d throw a party and call it your birthday party,” Nick added. “Last year, you threw three.”

“You were counting? Oh, how sweet of you.”

Amused, Dan continued to eat even as his brain raced as to why Amanda wouldn’t know what day was her birthday. He kept coming up with ‘Immortal’, and yet…he couldn’t quite see Amanda being one. Oh, he knew there were female Immortals, but Amanda came across as being, well, more interested in shopping and dancing than swords.  Then again, there was one female Immortal in Paris he knew he should know, but the only one he could think of was Ceirdwyn, and he knew that wasn’t right.

Damn, of all the times to be without my PDA and an Internet connection so I can look up the Chronicles! I know the Immortal I’m thinking of is a thief, but other than that, I can’t remember a damned thing. Something about one of the MacLeods? Fuck. I so would flunk any test of memory the Watcher Academy would be giving right now. God. Why do I remember the stories but never the faces or the names, or the names but not the rest of it? I need to ask Nick about Internet access ASAP. Or call Emily.

He used the excuse of eating to buy himself some thinking time. After sipping some wine, Dan finally responded to Amanda. “My brother was probably counting to make sure he didn’t buy you more presents than one birthday warrants,” he informed her. “I don’t think you’re Alice in Wonderland, celebrating un-birthdays.”

Amanda feigned hurt. “But I like getting presents,” she declared. “Can’t a girl celebrate every day?”

Abruptly, Dan was aware that Amanda’s foot was pressed against his. It couldn’t be his brother’s. Judging by the way Nick sat, his feet were propped up on the chair next to Dan. Hastily, Dan glanced down to make sure Nick’s feet were still in said chair. When he looked up, Nick smiled at him in an amused way that told Dan he knew exactly what Amanda was doing. Suddenly, the air seemed electrified.

“Amanda, unless I’m somehow mistaken, that’s your foot that’s on my foot,” he said mildly. He watched her don an innocent expression, and chuckled. “And unless I’m also mistaken, your dance card is full. As flattering as your sudden interest in me is—” he took a deep breath, not quite believing he was saying this “—I’m not interested.”

Nick laughed and shot a look at Amanda. “Told you,” he said.

“I love a good challenge.” Unfazed by the rejection, Amanda removed her foot, and sipped her wine. “Why?” she asked, curious.

“Because you are — were — maybe still are, I don’t know — my brother’s. It would be weird.” A little unnerved by Amanda’s steady gaze, Dan added, “I’d feel like I was encroaching, somehow.”

She smiled. “Fair enough. Would you pass me the bread? Nick was saying you were thinking about getting your French driver’s license?”

Dan handed her the basket of bread and answered her question. Just like that, the tension in the air was gone, and they were just three friends having dinner and celebrating his birthday. Later, in the privacy of his bedroom, Dan wondered if he’d been imagining that Amanda was Immortal. Certainly, her apartment reflected a measure of wealth that Nick hadn’t yet explained, but Immortal?

That just seemed ludicrous.

*****

Two weeks later
Tuesday

Dan sat at the end of the highly polished bar and watched his brother play chess against an Irish priest named Father Liam. Dan hadn’t understood the game at first, but after three weeks of watching Nick and a few of the other bartenders play, Dan could see that Nick was going to checkmate the priest in a few more moves. A chess set in a bar had initially seemed to be an odd choice of game, but now Dan knew it was a way to while away the slower afternoons with a crowd that seemed more content just to sit and drink and watch the world go by than the after-work crowd.

So far, Dan had learned that Sanctuary attracted all types of people, and that the composition of the crowd tended to vary from night to night. Bikers and businessmen mingled with Goths and gays mixed with straights; no one crowd seemed to dominate entirely. From what Dan had been able to gather from talking with both the staff and patrons, people came to Sanctuary because it was the one bar in the city that had it all: music, liquor, food, dancing, billiards, great staff, and oh, yeah, you could challenge the owners to a game of chess, and you could wager your bar tab. At the very least, you were guaranteed a dance, and hey, they were great dancers.

Naturally, hearing the latter from more than a handful of people over the last two weeks left Dan feeling like he had two left feet. Even with Amanda teaching him, he knew he was still a rank beginner. Nick had already promised to teach him how to mix drinks and tend bar.  So far, Dan had spent most of the last week observing his brother and the other bartenders, and feeling seriously outclassed.

At least, he thought sourly, I don’t have to learn French, too. Thank God the Air Force felt I needed to learn another language or three.

From what Dan had observed, it was pretty clear that Sanctuary didn’t really need another bartender, much less a former military man. What was equally clear was that there was something else going on at the club that Dan wasn’t yet privy to, a certain tension that screamed that everyone else on staff knew a secret they weren’t telling him. The amount of security protection equipment that had been installed and was in use qualified as excessive paranoia. Dan could easily attribute it to Nick’s past as a cop and to the fact that Nick had said that Sanctuary itself had been an arson target before, but even that didn’t account for the fact that there was always a bouncer on duty, or that Dan had seen some folks wearing heavy coats coming into the bar and acting very strange — almost too polite -- towards each other and both Nick and Amanda. If he wasn’t imagining things, he’d almost swear the bar was a magnet for Immortals.

If it was, he could be in a lot of trouble. As he’d always been on the move, couriering documents all over the world, part of his responsibility had been to keep an eye out for any Immortals in transit. The problem was, after so many years, he’d learned not to trust his memory. He’d found he remembered fragments of information — the favorite food a particular Immortal loved, the sword another favored, or the name but not the face. It was why he had a PDA…which, he’d discovered, he didn’t have the right charger for; he had apparently left it in the hotel he’d been staying at in Florida.

At this rate, Dan thought, annoyed, I’m going to stumble across my assignment and not know it. I have got to do something about this before Emily decides I suck at being a Watcher. Hell, some Immortals even know about the Watchers; staying here with Nick might turn out to be a problem if they patronize this bar. Fuck. If that’s the case, I’m going to be glad I decided to not go with the wrist tattoo. I need to get with Emily, get a replacement charger for my PDA, and get back on track ASAP.

He had been playing phone tag with Emily for most of the week. For her part, Emily didn’t seem too worried about Dan’s inability to get connected with her or with the Watcher information network; she’d been in and out of touch due to meetings with other Watchers and the sheer factor of the times of day at which he’d tried to reach her. Dan understood he wasn’t the only Watcher she supervised, but he missed his former supervisor, who’d been far more reachable.

If he couldn’t get a hold of Emily soon, Dan was going to have to break down and find out how much a cell phone cost rather than wait for the Watchers to spring for one like they had in the past. Living the same long hours as his brother was also playing hell with Dan’s ability to find out where in Paris Raoul Norte lived, so he could start doing what he was supposed to do. What he did know was that Raoul worked at the bar, but the Watchers couldn’t confirm what he did. Plus, Dan needed a cover job, something to keep him occupied when he wasn’t slipping out to track an Immortal he wasn’t sure existed, and Nick had insisted that Dan hang out in the bar, supposedly so that Dan could get an idea of the club’s processes.

“Are we boring you again, Danny boy?” Father Liam asked, amused.

Deciding that whatever was going on was either the product of an overactive imagination or not enough sex, Dan brought his focus back to the present. “Nah, just wondering when my brother’s going to remember he promised to teach me what he knows.” Dan looked at the chessboard, missing the rather startled look the priest shot Nick. “He’s got you checkmated, Father Liam.”

“So he has,” Liam answered. “Maybe that’s why I became a priest instead of a warrior, eh, Nick?”

“You just hate the sight of blood,” Nick replied dryly.  “Do you surrender the game?”

Father Liam chuckled. “This one, certainly. One of these days, I’ll beat you at chess, Nick. Till then, I’ll see you at Mass on Sunday?”

Nick grinned. “I’ll think about it, Liam. Sunday’s my day off.”

“Aye, that’s why I keep asking,” Liam said with a smile as he rose and put on his coat. He laid a bill down on the bar to pay for the beer he’d drunk. “Thanks for the pint and the game. God bless you both.”  He then walked out of the bar.

Nick cleared the pieces and reset the board. Once he’d done that, he moved in front of Dan and said, “Well, tell me what you know from what you’ve seen.”

“That I’d suck at being a bartender,” Dan replied bluntly, “not that you really need one. God, Nick, you and Amanda have a well-oiled machine here, especially when it comes to keeping track of who ordered what and who needs cutting off. I’d come in, and mess up that magic. Put me up at the front door, let me check ID’s, and I think I’d be able to handle that a hell of a lot better. ”

“You’re safer behind the bar, trust me,” Nick told him. “And you can’t mess up anything back here. If there’s a drink you don’t know, ask me or Julie or Pierre to tell you how to make it, or what it is. The rest of it just takes practice.”

Dan opened his mouth to protest, but his brother held up a hand.

“I know you talked to Marcus,” Nick said, referring to the head of security for the club. “I know you think you’d be better at it than bartending, but I don’t agree.”

“What’s so hard about security here? It’s not some Iraqi camp, and you’re not trying to secure military mail.”

Nick sighed. “No, but it is neutral territory for a lot of people, since the ground and building are dedicated to the god of wine.”

Dan considered this information a moment. It sounded plausible, and he decided it must be some New Age trend. God knew, there were a lot of quirky things that were only to be found in one area of the world, and Dan had seen more than his share.Then again, it sounded like a pretty good description of Holy Ground. If it is, Dan thought, the Watchers would kill to be able to have somebody working here, keeping an eye on what’s going on. “Okay, that sounds a little weird, but no weirder than some of the shit I saw overseas. So these guys literally see this place as a sanctuary?”

“Yes.”

“Got it. So the extra security is to make sure everyone plays nice, huh?”

Nick nodded.

“Okay, then. Is it the kind of trouble where people can get seriously hurt?”

“Lauren got caught up in it,” Nick answered quietly, referring to his ex-wife. “I’ve had enough of people dying. You survived Iraq and God knows what else. Last thing I want is for you to have to worry about your head in my own bar.”

The intensity in his brother’s voice made Dan pause. Dan’s mind raced with the implications of Nick’s statement. Fuck. What does he know about Immortals? Dan skittered away from the idea that Nick was one; he didn’t want to think about that just yet. Carefully, he asked, “How’d you get mixed up in it?”

Nick hesitated. “It’s complicated,” he answered finally. “But some of the people Amanda and I deal with aren’t afraid to kill people who get in their way.”

Dan narrowed his eyes. The more he heard, the bigger the sinking sensation in his stomach grew. “No way. You’re involved in, what, some kind of Mafia?”

“No. But the Russian Mafia does frequent this bar.”

“I wondered why I heard Russian.”

“Just make sure that their drinks are accurate and pretend you don’t hear them discussing anything and they’ll leave you alone.”

“So what’s really going on?” Dan asked, sensing there was more.

Nick glanced around the bar. Wondering why it mattered, Dan did the same, seeing the bar was empty of patrons. Marcus, the big hulk of an African who was the bouncer on duty, lounged casually by the front door on a high-backed bar stool, apparently deep in a sci-fi novel, but Dan knew that pose well. Marcus was ready to move in a heartbeat if need be.  Tina and Rachel, the two servers on duty, wiped down the tables and rolled silverware, chatting easily about some film they’d seen. They, too, were ready to move, but they were more oriented towards customer service than defense.

Appearing reassured, Nick proceeded to make two drinks and set them on the bar. One was a blue Curacao martini; the other, a red vodka concoction. “Dan, you and I might not share the same blood, but you’ve been the only brother I’ve ever known,” Nick told him. “In the three weeks since you arrived in Paris, you’ve shown me that you have grown up, that you aren’t the impulsive asshole you used to be. Therefore, I’m going to offer you a choice. Pick the red sunset cocktail, and I’ll use my connections to get you a job and an apartment here. Pick the martini, and you’ll not only have a place to stay, but you’ll have a job here at Sanctuary, and you’ll be introduced to the world I live in every day.”

“What, is this The Matrix?” Dread slithered up Dan’s spine as his mind spun with implications.

Nick grinned and lounged on the bar. “Seemed as good an analogy as any.”

Dan looked at him. He knew that he’d spent too much time away from his brother, and the last few weeks of hanging out with Nick, flirting with the women who patronized the bar, getting to know Amanda, seeing how incredibly happy the two were with their friendship, feeling included in their plans, and simply being a part of something again, had made Dan crave more. In the past few weeks, Nick had treated him almost as if he’d never been gone, as if the years of separation didn’t matter.

For the moment, Dan could almost forget about the Watchers, and yet…Everything Dan had known for the past nine years was tangled in his involvement with the organization. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Watchers had recruited his brother; there were a lot of former and current police officers in the organization. It would make sense that a club like Sanctuary was a meeting ground for Immortals; even more sense if the Watchers had placed one of their own on staff as a roving field reporter, someone who could collaborate what happened on a piece of particularly intriguing Holy Ground.

Nick didn’t wear the traditional Watcher tattoo, but a lot of newer Watchers didn’t either, preferring use a signet ring or other, easily removed, jewelry out of fear for personal safety. Out of paranoia, Dan had chosen to get his tattoo done on his right ankle. It was conceivable that Nick had done something similar.

Please, God, Dan prayed silently, please don’t let him be anything other than someone who knows about Immortals. I know I can’t protect Nick from the world, but, damn it, he’s my little brother, the one Mom always said was meant to be a part of our family even if she didn’t give birth to him.

Nick waited for Dan’s answer, but Dan could tell he wasn’t entirely calm; his fingers kept digging into the cleaning towel he held wadded in one hand.

Dan took a deep breath. Not knowing what Nick wanted to tell him was going to drive him crazy. He couldn’t just let it sit there, aware he’d willingly remained ignorant. He raised the blue martini. “Lead me down the rabbit hole, little brother.”

Nick stared at him, taking his measure. Reflexively, Dan straightened his spine and met his brother’s gaze, waiting with military-honed patience. Finally, Nick said, “Drink that martini after I’m through. I don’t want you thinking you heard me while drunk.”

Dan sniffed the glass, smelling the high alcohol content. The potency made his eyes water and he set the glass down. “I see your point.  Okay, shoot.”

“There are some people who can live forever, as long as they don’t lose their heads. They fight a game to the death with swords. Holy Ground is their only refuge — and that includes any ground dedicated to any god.” 

Dan stared at him. Fuck, he is talking about Immortals. “They want their beer blessed before it’s served, or what?”

Nick chuckled. “No, but they’re likely to be armed and dangerous, and possibly hunting other Immortals. We tell our senior staff about Immortals because if you don’t know who you’re serving, why they’re able to keep on drinking when others would be dead, why they’re hassling you about some guy you might have seen, you risk getting hurt or worse.”

Dan nodded. “Makes sense. But, fuck, Nick, if you and Amanda started this bar together, how’d you find out about Immortals?”

“Amanda told me.” Nick took a deep breath. “And I’m one of them.”

Dan stared at his brother, not sure what he’d just heard. “No fucking way. You can’t be Immortal.”

Nick narrowed his eyes. “By all rights, I should have died of poison eight years ago.”

“You must’ve had a really good doctor.” Dan didn’t want to believe. Oh, sure, he’d known Nick was adopted, and the Chronicles were full of stories of Immortals growing up with families but — this was Nick. Nick had always believed in the law. Nick wasn’t the kind of man who’d murder other people for some crazy-ass prize. Was he? Oh, sure, Dan knew there were Immortals who weren’t headhunters; the last Immortal he’d Watched had been one of them until a roadside bomb had blown his head off. Still, Dan couldn’t see Nick playing the Game.

I don’t want him to be playing the Game, Dan thought silently. I want to keep on thinking he’ll never kill anyone except perhaps in the line of duty. Damn it, he’s my little brother. He’s the lover, not the fighter, not unless some law was broken. Of the two of us, he’s the one who loved enough to marry someone. Does he love Amanda? He certainly acts like it. I wonder if she had anything to do with his getting poisoned? If he was in love with her then, that would kill him if she did it deliberately. I can’t see him hanging around after something like that. Hell, I know I wouldn’t. God, I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I can’t believe what I’m thinking.

“No, no doctors. No known cures to what some madman concocted.” Nick chuckled sourly. “So Amanda decided the best thing to do was to shoot me.”

“What the fuck? She shot you?” Dan demanded loudly. He didn’t want to believe. It seemed too incredible to think he’d just second ago been wondering if Amanda had been responsible…and now, a part of it was true. The idea freaked him out. For a moment, he cursed his need to know everything.

To Dan’s surprise, Nick just looked at him with a too-calm expression. “Yes. She knew I was going to be Immortal. And a minute later, I woke up, healed of everything.” He stood still, neither resigned to his fate nor entirely happy about it.

“The fuck? You died and no one told me?” Dan gestured wildly, nearly tipping over his glass.

Nick caught the glass before it could spill. Dryly, Nick replied, “You weren’t exactly in my emergency contacts, brother. I had no idea how the hell to get a hold of you; I’d have needed to use the Red Cross to find you. Besides, I never made it to a morgue. Amanda made sure of that.”

“Amanda. We are talking about the same woman, right? The one who wears the skimpiest outfits known to man, can dance with someone like she’s having sex with them, and seems more concerned with shopping and flirting than anything else? I can’t see her even holding a gun, much less knowing how to use it. How the hell does she know about these Immortals?”

“She’s one of them. She’s over a thousand years old.”

“Thousand?” Dan croaked, truly shocked. He’d heard of long-lived Immortals, but had never dreamed he’d ever meet one of them. “She doesn’t look a day over thirty.” Of all the times my memory decides to connect the dots, it has to be now, not earlier. Fuck. Those damned fans in her place should have been clue number one. She is the same woman as the Amazing Amanda, the world’s oldest thief. Looks like she stole my brother’s heart and then some. Shit.

Nick laughed softly. “Yeah. She turned my world upside down.”

“So did she tell you were going to be like her before she shot you?”

“No. It wouldn’t have mattered if she had. I’d spent enough time around her to know I didn’t want to be Immortal.”

“What? Are you crazy? You didn’t want to live forever?”

Nick just stared at him, calmer and colder than Dan had ever seen. “Ask me that again after you’ve worked a couple of shifts behind this bar.”

“Fuck. Nick, you can’t be serious. I know you’re not serious. Tell me this is just some crazy joke you and Amanda are playing on me.”

“You see anybody in this bar laughing?”

Dan looked around. No one seemed to have even noticed their conversation, save for Marcus, the bouncer on duty, who seemed entirely too intent on reading a book. Marcus looked up, met Dan’s eyes, and nodded once, then returned his focus on the book. Fuck, that means Marcus was briefed on Nick’s decision to tell me. What would happen if I ran screaming out of here? Dan wondered. Would Marcus stop me, make sure I didn’t tell anyone? Even if I did, who’d believe me? Fuck, freaking out isn’t going to get me hired. Shit, Nick and Amanda have the angles figured out. Unemployment’s so high here that you’d do anything to get employed. Shit, shit, shit. They know this. They know I need the job, and the Watchers probably have tried to get staff hired on here before. I wonder if they know about us, too? If Amanda’s as old as Nick says — and damn it, I need to look her up in the Watcher records and confirm she is the same woman I think she is — then she might know. Whichever way I slice this, not only is no one laughing, but Nick and Amanda hold all the cards. I don’t see a way out of this. There’s no way I’m going to tell him I’m a Watcher, not now. I trust he’s telling me the truth, but I need verification before I do anything.

“No,” Dan answered Nick finally. “All right, if you’re Immortal, then show me.”

Nick took an ordinary steak knife from the bar and sliced his hand. Blood welled in the palm and then the wound was instantly knit together by little bolts of lightning. “Immortal, unless I lose my head,” he told Dan. “Believe me yet?”

Dan glanced around the room. Again, no one seemed to have reacted to Nick’s little show, not even Marcus. Dan couldn’t believe what he’d seen, and yet, no one in the bar seemed to think this was unusual. That reinforced the notion that the staff — or at least the senior staff — not only knew about Immortals, but that Nick was one. From what Dan had seen so far, the staff was immensely loyal to both Nick and Amanda. “Holy shit.” Stalling, Dan asked the question he knew Nick was expecting to ask. “Do you still get sick?”

“Depends on what it is. Generally, if someone has a cold, I’m over it in three minutes.”

“Holy mother of fucking God,” he said, exhaling sharply as he spoke. “You heal everything? Except, you said, a beheading. Holy motherfucking shit. You died?”

“Yeah. Hurt like hell. Waking up is worse — it’s dying in reverse. In my case,” Nick added sourly, “I got to experience both a gunshot wound and poison gas all at the same time. I don’t recommend that to anyone.”

Dan picked up the martini again, needing the smell of the alcohol to ground him in reality. “Okay, so I’m not drunk, and you’re not drunk, and no one here seems to think you’re crazy.” He took a deep breath as the implications raced through his mind. He knew he needed to ask the obvious questions; Nick wouldn’t expect him to already know the answers. “So there are people after you to take your head? That’s why you’re paranoid with the security?”

“Yes. There have been some who don’t believe in Holy Ground, who come in here looking for certain Immortals, hunting.”

“But why? I mean, you could live forever. You could find cures to everything. Do great things.” Even after nine years as a Watcher, Dan didn’t quite understand that part. “Except there’s this war going on between Immortals, right? That’s why Father Liam said he’d surrender the chess game, but not the other Game…. That means he’s Immortal, too.  Damn, unless you told someone, they’d never know you were one. How can you tell if someone’s Immortal?” Dan already knew, but he needed to hear Nick say it. Despite the wound healing, the truth wasn’t real until Nick gave him this last confirmation.

“We just know. We can sense each other. It’s this massive, sudden migraine that is unlike any other pain I’ve ever felt.”

“Okay, that makes sense. What’s at stake in this game?”

“Power. Enough to rule the world. The more heads you take, the more you can sense other Immortals, the more knowledge you amass. When you take someone’s head, you know everything they knew, everything that they were. You feel more alive than you’ve ever felt, more connected to the world. Taking a head…the rush of power can be addicting.”

Now Dan did drink. The smoothly mixed drink was potent, but not as potent as this discussion. “Fuck. You have any insane people like Hitler and the Rev. James Jones among the Immortals?” For half a minute, Dan wanted to break his Oath, scream at the utter sham of asking questions for which he already knew the answers, but he couldn’t find his way past his growing fury. Finding out about Immortality had been a shock the first time; finding out his own brother was one was turning out to be even harder to digest. The Watchers should have told him. There was no way the organization didn’t know Nick was Immortal; not when Nick and Amanda were so close.

“Unfortunately, we’re just like the rest of the world in that respect.”

“Fuck. No bullets would stop you if you wanted to take over the world. Bombs might, but you’d have to be very, very sure. Do you die if you’re burned?”

Nick stared at him, clearly disturbed by the thought. “I knew you were fascinated by horror stories, but damn, Dan, do you have to go right to the sickest thing you can think of?”

The complaint steadied Dan in a way little else would have. He offered his brother a rueful smile. “Sorry, but my brain, my questions.”

Nick shook his head. “The answer is yes, but not permanently, and you’re not likely to be sane afterwards. Or so I’ve been told.”

“And you’re telling me this because these are the kinds of people who frequent this bar. People who hunt other people for fun. No wonder you live above this place. Hell, I’d want the best security money could buy just so I could sleep.” Dan thought for a minute. “You are one of the good guys, right?”

Nick chuckled. “I don’t fight unless challenged, and even then, I try to walk away.”

“So becoming Immortal doesn’t change someone’s basic nature.”

“Not usually, no.”

Dan heard the note of sadness in Nick’s voice. Damn it, Nick, when did you grow up so much? I thought I was the older one. “You sound like you knew someone who changed after they…died.”

Nick lifted his shoulders in a rueful shrug. “Only in the sense she came after my head, trying to get back at Amanda and my teacher. I never knew her as someone who was sane, but they told me she was, before she died.”

“Damn.” Dan the Watcher wanted to know more; Dan the older brother recoiled in horror at the thought of being hunted as a tool of someone’s backhanded revenge. He looked at Nick and settled on splitting the difference. “Was this a long time ago?”

“Yeah.”

Nick didn’t look like he wanted to elaborate, and Dan bit back the urge to ask. He settled for, “So if you manage to keep living, you get to watch me die.”

Nick glared at him. “God, Dan, anyone ever tell you that you’re fucking morbid?”

Dan chuckled. “Yeah, you, back when we were kids and I used to dare you to watch horror movies with me.” He sobered, suddenly aware that Nick lived with death as a constant possibility. “Sorry.”

Humor paid a fleeting visit to Nick’s mouth and was gone. “You’re right, though. All Immortals are foundlings. If your mother has pictures of your birth--”

Dan grimaced. He remembered the carefully labeled Polaroid pictures his father had been so proud to show. “Dad was so fucking pleased that he’d gotten the medical staff to let him take those pictures.”

“Yeah, they were pretty gross,” Nick agreed. “But as far as anyone knows, if you know your mother birthed you, then it’s not likely you’re going to be Immortal.” He said it gently, as if he hated to disclose that part.

“Live fast, die young, isn’t that what we said we were going to do when we were sixteen?” Dan reminded him lightly. “Besides, Mom always said you were the odd one, showing up practically on our doorstep like you did.” Dan raised his glass and toasted his brother as Nick chuckled. More seriously, he asked, “Are you sure you want me around? I can see where someone might want to use me as leverage against you.”

Nick shrugged. “They’d use you even if you knew nothing about Immortals. Better you know so you have a better chance at fighting them.”

“Got it. All right, little brother, you’ve pulled me into your Wonderland. I assume outside of this bar, the whole Immortals thing is a secret?”

“Yes.”

Dan exhaled. “Got it. So now that I know your great big secret, when do I learn to be a bartender?” And when can I stop freaking out about this? Dan wondered. Fuck. I wonder if the Watchers know Nick’s Immortal? And why the hell didn’t anyone tell me about my own brother? Does the organization even know we’re brothers? Granted, I was in the Middle East for the last five years, but communication to that part of the world can’t be that bad. Or did the war just mean we lost more people faster? I know I was Watching more Immortals than I expected to — they kept getting blown up, or challenging each other, or doing some stupid-ass shit where someone noticed who they were and decided to play the Game. I know there are Immortals who don’t fight, but I never really gave them much thought. They were just faces and names, nothing personal. Hell, the whole thing was nothing personal, until now.

Fuck. Now I have to rethink everything.

Nick didn’t seem to notice Dan’s introspection, and Dan nearly missed the answer to his question about when he was going to learn how to tend bar. “In an hour, when Julie comes in for her shift. She’s the staff trainer; I’d probably nitpick you to death about how to tend bar.” 

“Oh, and she won’t?” Telling himself he’ d have plenty of time later to finish freaking out, Dan forced himself to concentrate on the here and now, to keep it light.

“Trust me, Julie will be kinder as your teacher than me. Remember the day I tried to teach you how to ride a motorcycle, what a disaster that was?”

Dan chuckled. “Hey, at least I didn’t drop the bike. You were convinced I was going to. Remember, after I learned to ride, how we used to race, and you were following me down Old Highway 37, and we wiggled out of that speeding ticket?”

Nick shook his head at the memory. “Yeah, but only because you claimed you were learning to ride and you forced me to try and catch up to you. I still don’t know why that cop believed us that day.”

Nick glanced over the bar, seeing that Tina and Rachel were taking care of customers, and then looked at Dan, considering. “You still willing to work here? Not every Immortal who walks through that door looking for a drink is going to be a good mood.”

Dan looked at Nick. Raised his glass. “Here’s to working at possibly the craziest bar in town.”

Nick chuckled dryly. “Welcome aboard. We’ll fill out the government paperwork next.”

“Great.” Dan sipped the martini one last time. “I think,” he said carefully, “after that drink, I’m ready to get started on that paperwork.”

Nick smiled. “Sounds like a plan.”

“I do have one more question, though. When I was joking with you about liking older women the other day,” Dan said slowly, “you and Amanda just looked at each other and laughed so hard, I thought you were going to bust a rib. That’s why you were teasing her about liking a much younger man, weren’t you? I just can’t see her being a thousand years old.”

“Ask her about the Black Plague sometime, or what a bitch Marie Antoinette was.”

Speculatively, Dan asked, “So is it true? Older women make better lovers?”

Nick laughed. “She certainly expanded my horizons.”

“Damn. Think you could set me up with somebody like her?”

Nick laughed again. “I don’t think you’d survive the experience, Dan.”

“Ah, but I’d die a happy man.  Back to this bartending gig, though:  when do I get paid, how much, and do I have health insurance?”

“Every two weeks, whatever I decide you’re worth, and no, you don’t have health insurance. You’re not a citizen, so you aren’t eligible to get reimbursed by the state for your health care.” Nick smiled. “This is where you get to take advantage of the fact that, as my brother, you’d be covered anyway.”

“Right. Got it. We’ll discuss this in depth later, I think.” Dan rose from his seat. “Anything I can do while I wait for Julie?”

Nick pulled out a clipboard from underneath the bar and handed over a pen. “Let me know if you have questions on the paperwork.”

“Joy.”

~*~*~*~

“So you told Dan?” Amanda asked Nick the next evening, after dinner in her suite.

“Yeah. He took it pretty well, I think.” Nick leaned back in his chair and sipped his wine. “Yelled at me for dying, then asked the usual questions.”

“Feel better for having told him?”

Nick sighed unhappily. “Some. Jury’s still out on the whole ‘ignorance is bliss’ concept. I don’t regret telling him, if that’s what you’re asking. If anyone found out we were brothers, he was going to find out sooner or later.”

“Could have just as easily been later,” Amanda pointed out calmly.

“Come on, Amanda, he’s not stupid. He was asking Marcus questions about the security. Marcus said he was getting tired of having to say ‘your brother’s the boss, ask him’.”

Amanda chuckled. “I would have come up with a better answer than that.”

“Oh, like you did when you tried to convince me you were wearing a bullet-proof vest?” Nick asked dryly.

“How was I to know you wouldn’t accept that answer?” Amanda shot back, mildly irritated at the reminder her plan hadn’t worked. “Other people have.”

“Well, I didn’t,” Nick reminded her gently. “You forgot I was a detective, and trained not to accept the truth at face value.” Ignoring Amanda’s pout at his words, Nick continued, “And while Dan’s spent enough time being told how to think and what to think courtesy of the military, I don’t see him accepting a half-truth or a lie as an answer, either. I’m glad I told him, but at the same time, I worry what kind of trouble that’ll get him.”

“Well, he hasn’t caused any since he’s been here,” Amanda noted. “And he’s a good dancer as long as he doesn’t get distracted by looking at my breasts. Plus, Julie said he seemed to pick up on mixing drinks pretty well. He’ll do fine here. I do like your brother, Nick. He’s very much a flirt.”

Amused, Nick said, “So says the woman who flirts like she breathes?”

“I haven’t noticed you complaining,” Amanda parried. “So has anyone come in looking for Raoul Norte yet?”

“Not yet. I’m a bit disappointed. I was looking forward to meeting my new Watcher.”

Amanda laughed. “You just like telling them to go spy on someone else. Besides, you hated to see Miri leave and go to Thailand.”

“Hey, at least she didn’t pretend she wasn’t Watching. Came right up and said who she was and demanded to know if we were going to have a problem with her doing her job.  Remember?”

Amanda smiled, nodding. “I do miss her. She didn’t seem to blink an eye when Mac and Connor were here, arguing over the chessboard.”

Nick grinned at the memory. “More like arguing who was going to buy her a drink. She was a pistol. I wonder if I can get my new Watcher to tell me how she’s doing? Besides, I refuse to believe my life is that interesting. I mean, seriously. I meet more Immortals than I challenge.”

“What about the twins who challenged you in the market last week?”

Nick chuckled. “I told them no, thanks, I was late for a dental appointment. They looked at each other, said they’d been dental assistants before, and wished me a good day.” He shook his head, grinning. “Plus, I told them I wasn’t Nick Wolfe.”

She laughed. “You didn’t!”

“Hey, it’s not like they had my photograph, and I wasn’t interested in fighting them. They were looking for information on a friend of theirs; thought I might know what happened.” He shrugged. “Challenging me is not the way to make me feel inclined to give anyone information, no matter what the circumstances.”

“Who were they looking for?” Amanda asked, curious.

Nick shrugged. “They weren’t inclined to tell me, once I told them that Nick wasn’t a friend of mine, just someone whose bar I patronized. If they really want to find me, it’s not like someone won’t point them eventually to Sanctuary.” He grinned. “I took a page out of your book: I’ll deal with them later, not then, when I really would have rather picked up groceries than anything else, and you know I hate shopping.”

Tartly, Amanda replied, “Take it from me: avoiding other Immortals only works for so long.”

“So says the woman who managed to avoid her husband for over a century…and then forgot to mention she was the one who got him locked up in the first place.”

“See what I mean? A hundred years just gone, in the blink of an eye. I’d totally forgotten he might actually be let go.”

Nick shook his head. “Which only proves your point.” He sighed. “If they come around, I’ll deal with them. I doubt they really wanted my head; if they had, they would have pressed harder, not let me go so easily. Besides, it’s Raoul Norte who needs the reputation, not me. That reminds me, we should practice two against one again. Know anyone who might want the practice?”

“You just want to see my Spanish rapiers again.”

“And?” Nick prompted, raising an eyebrow. “You were the one who suggested it yesterday morning.”

“Darling, you get entirely too serious about practicing sometimes.”

Nick shot her a look. “And you don’t? I saw you’re taking martial arts classes again.”

“The instructor’s so handsome.” She pressed a hand over her heart and tilted her head dramatically as if she was about to swoon.

Nick laughed at the predictable excuse. “Tell that to someone who doesn’t know you half as well as I do.”

Amanda widened her eyes. “Really, Nick, someone should talk to you about being so cynical.”

Nick rose and started to clear the debris of their dinner, loading plates in the dishwasher and tossing the takeout containers in the garbage. “Yeah, and someone should talk to you about trying to look innocent when you’re far from it, ‘Manda. Give it up; I’ve known you too long.”

She tried for a moment to look hurt, but she gave up; Nick was grinning too much. She stood and carried over the wine glasses to the sink. “Just for that, you get to sleep alone tonight.”

He chuckled. “I sleep alone most nights we have dinner, sweetheart. You’re losing your touch.”

She slanted a look at him. “Oh, really? Well, then, I guess I’d better practice some more.” She waited a beat, then added, “On your brother.”

“Hey, you leave him alone. He doesn’t heal as well as we do.” Nick stepped around the kitchen island, and closed the distance between them. Embracing Amanda, he kissed her deeply. “Besides, I saw you first.”

Smiling, she returned the kiss, then stepped back. “Good night, Nick.”

“Good night, Amanda.”