|Gamble I: Assessment
Author: Guede Mazaka
Frankly, there were better ways to wake up. Danny's head still felt like it'd been laced with hangover acid, and his arms and legs had apparently glued themselves together. Wait…no, that was duct tape. His limbs worked fine, within the limits of his restraints.
It took a bit of persuading to get his head to lift against the throbbing pain, but he did it. Besides the mattress, the first thing he saw was Rusty lying beside him, extremely still. "Shit."
Danny hauled himself over by his elbows and gently touched the other man's face. He cupped it and slid his index finger over the bruised temple, which resulted in a groan and weak jerk. "Oh, Christ. That hurt," Rusty muttered, eyelids fluttering open.
He was okay. Something whiplashed loose in Danny's gut, and that was pain he didn't really need, but at the same time, it was an overwhelming relief. Now he could concentrate on the other details, like where they were and who he'd pissed off to get here. "Let me see your eyes."
"Your pick-up lines are getting worse." Rusty gave a feeble smile, but did as he was told. Miraculously, he didn't seem to have a concussion. "And your pupils aren't quite the same size."
Clearly, it wasn't Danny's day; he must have used up all his luck at the poker game in the country club yesterday. Then again, he'd worked under worse conditions-it hadn't been by much, but the time in Miami had been worse. He crawled half over Rusty so he could get a good look at the room, and the other man automatically grabbed onto his tattered coat to steady him.
Very swank room, but the ice bucket was a dead give-away that they were in a hotel. Probably penthouse, and to judge by the decorating scheme, in a place expensive enough that no one would report a few murders as long as the guests took care of the bodies. No luggage, though that might be in the next room. In the doorway to the rest of the suite, a large bowl sat on the floor, with a cloud of purplish smoke swirling above it that didn't look entirely harmless. All in all… "Odds don't appear to be in our favor."
"Do they." Rusty wormed out from under Danny and started picking at the tape binding Danny's wrists. Whereupon they discovered that it didn't seem to be duct tape, after all. No seam or starting point could be found, and although there were layers, it was more like a very large, very tight rubber band than anything else. "Okay. Who'd you get mad that could get this kind of stuff?"
Danny thought, then glanced at Rusty. No names immediately popped into mind. And his dizziness was beginning to blur things quite a bit. "Well, dead end. Next area of explora-shit!"
Climbing off the bed with tied ankles was a lousy idea, made even worse by an off-kilter sense of balance. Luckily, Rusty managed to seize Danny's wrists and, after a lot of awkward maneuvering, pull him back to the relatively stable bed. Then his knee slipped on the silk sheets, and he fell heavily onto Rusty, elbows slamming into the other man's stomach and face pressing hard into Rusty's throat. Danny got off as quickly as he could, but the damage was already done: Rusty half-curled in on himself as soon as he could and wheezed. "You need to lose weight…even buy you those milkshakes…"
"Just remember I hate choco-banana. Tastes like plastic." First Danny had to hunch over and wait for the world to stop spinning, but as soon as that was over, he hooked his hands over Rusty's neck and held the other man up until Rusty stopped coughing. His friend went limp with a last pained grunt, then stared up at Danny.
"I think we're in trouble," Rusty said, eyes wide and deep blue like water beneath a storm cloud.
And that was when Tess showed up. Or, more correctly, was escorted to the doorway at gunpoint. Her gaze met Danny's, and then it shifted to Rusty. She flinched, deep hurt flickering in her eyes, and closed off, vault bolts slamming home.
"Yeah, Rusty, we are," Danny replied. He didn't stop looking at Tess, and didn't stop Rusty when the other man clumsily ducked out of his arms and sat up.
Tess wasn't stupid, or unperceptive. And though it would've saved her a lot of disappointment, she wasn't very fond of denial, either.
So that was why it'd taken so long for her to meet the 'Rusty' Danny had always been talking about. And she couldn't even say he was ugly.
"Oh, fuck. Miguel, you moron," the blonde woman muttered from behind. "Okay, go sit. And don't do anything, or I'll show you why the Vatican burned all those witches."
"She's joking, right?" the purse-thief whispered. He shuffled a little closer to Tess, like a scared puppy, and she reflexively stepped forward. That should've put her through the doorway, but instead, she came up against some kind of invisible barrier
"No." The woman threw a pinch of something into a bowl of smoking green liquid that was on the floor, and suddenly the entire room seemed to ripple. Tess lost her balance as the barrier disappeared, and she and the pickpocket toppled through the threshold. Things quickly settled back into its previous state, but not before everyone else had thrown themselves to the floor. Or on top of a gorgeous man, in Danny's case.
Tess bit down on her lip and tried not to scream, but that was getting increasingly hard to avoid. She glared up at the bed-
--and saw a flash of longing and old pain cross Rusty's face, just as Danny looked at her and said, "My God, Tess, are you all right?" in what she had to admit was either genuine sincerity or the smoothest, coolest lie she'd ever seen.
"I'm…fine. What's going on?" On so many different levels. Just what, exactly, was Danny doing with her? With Rusty?
"My partner is an idiot in good clothing. Males," the other woman answered in a highly disgruntled voice. She kept her gun trained on Tess and the thief while she popped out an odd-looking cell-phone. "Miguel."
"Right here," called a new voice over the sound of automatic dialing. A handsome Hispanic man strolled into the room, apparently unconcerned by the large stains of dark red, black and putrid green that marred his fine suit.
"You-you said good clothing?" the thief shakily muttered.
The blonde woman snapped her phone shut and glared, first at him and then at Miguel, who was casually continuing on to the bathroom. "This is not how we're supposed to-for fuck's sake, we decided to bankroll a human team so we could avoid too much personal involvement. So what the hell is this?"
"Pre-emptive strike," floated out from the bathroom, along with the sound of running water and rustling fabric. "Apparently, they've got the same idea as us, only in reverse. They want to know how to prevent a heist." Strained pause. "Besides, you don't look as if you've done any better. Incidentally, everyone out there, that's G. Say hi."
"That's because Linus says he doesn't know what I'm talking about when I mention his mother." G somehow made the gun disappear and irritably flopped into a nearby chair. On the bed, Danny started to move and her eyes shot up, intensely warning and dangerous. He halted, seemed to realize the lack of weapons, and started to move again. Whereupon she flicked him off with a literal fireball.
Everyone froze. Tess spared a glance at the bed, but only saw Rusty's hands convulsively grab onto Danny's sleeve before she had to look away.
"I don't know what you're talking about," said the thief-Linus. Said Linus. "My mother left when I was too young to remember, and my father never talks about her. Okay? You happy?"
He managed to met G's fiercely irritated gaze for about two seconds before dropping back to the floor. She, however, continued to study him, her expression slowly turning from angry to thoughtful. "That…would explain a lot."
"Good for you," Tess grumbled, her sense of caution temporarily shorted out by too many shocks. She pushed herself up into a sitting position and folded her arms across her chest. "Whatever's going on, I'd like you to know that I had a five o'clock meeting and people will be looking for me."
"Tess, I don't think you should-" Danny started to say, low and tense.
Before the hypocritical, two-faced bastard could go on, she whipped around and did her best to kill him with a look. "Danny, I don't want to talk to you-actually, I do. I'd like to tell you how I'm going to rip out your yellow spleen and spear it on your pathetic backbone for leading me on like that. You-you absolute shit.
He blinked, lips working without producing any sounds and face so genuinely clueless that little pinging alarms started to go off in her head. Next to him, Rusty suddenly focused a narrow scrutiny on Tess, and they tried to stare each other down while she dealt with fast-multiplying butterflies in her stomach. Then Rusty glanced away, bitter ironic smile displayed very well in profile, and shook his head as if having a private joke. The dots began to connect, and Tess suddenly felt guilty.
"I think we're interrupting," G said in measured, careful tones. Well, that made two that got it.
Three, when a perfectly-groomed and -garbed Miguel stepped out of the bathroom. He flicked his eyes about the room, then shrugged and walked further in. "Can't be helped. They've got expertise that's much in demand."
"And I take it you two aren't referring to insurance," Tess said. A lot of little half-remembered incongruities in Danny's behavior abruptly assumed great importance as they slotted together. God, she'd been a fool.
Tess lifted her chin and didn't take her eyes off Danny, despite the icy roiling in her stomach and the sting at the corners of her eyes. "Danny…"
Rusty felt sorry for her. Truthfully. He hadn't been expecting much, but she was beautiful and smart and classy--in short, everything that Danny would want, all nicely packaged in a spectacular body. Of course, she was also the kind that spelled disaster, so straight-laced that Danny had her on a skyscraper pedestal. So law-abiding that Danny would try harder and harder to be the perfect man, using any and all means necessary, right up to the moment that his split life decided to crack down the center and take everything and everyone with it. He'd be fine-he always was-but she wouldn't. She wouldn't know how to survive that without losing something.
Danny, unfortunately, wouldn't learn that lesson until it was hammered into him. It would have been the friendly thing to have given him a warning, but it was the friend-thing to just let him go his own way and be his own self. Even if sometimes Rusty wished Danny would stop not knowing he was fucking around when he was fucking around. The innocent act wasn't an act. Which made it worse.
Most of the time, Rusty took what he could get. It was what he did for a living, after all, and a few moments feeling the warmth of Danny's body soaking through the fabric over his back was nothing to be sneezed at. Especially when he was trapped in a room with two obviously dangerous and amoral…actually, he wasn't quite sure that they were human.
"Tess, this isn't exactly the best time." Danny kept looking back and forth between her and their captors.
"We've got a proposal for you," Miguel interrupted. He sauntered past her and Linus to take a seat at the head of the bed. Rusty promptly scooted as far away as he could. Which wasn't much, given that Danny was in the way and wasn't moving, despite all the surreptitious elbowings.
Then Rusty got a good view of his friend's face, and he stopped pushing. Good God…he'd never seen Danny so…in fact, he couldn't even remember the last time Danny had been pessimistic, much less what he was now.
"Daniel Ocean." Tess thinned her lips. "What are they talking about?"
"We are interrupting," Miguel muttered, more amused than irked. Fingers suddenly touched Rusty's trouser cuff, and he tried to jerk his leg back, but only got his ankle wrapped in a crushing grip.
"Danny…" Rusty hissed, hooking his fingers into the other man's belt-loops. Before he could get a firm hold, however, Danny rose and shifted away, closer to Tess. And Miguel decided to yank Rusty backwards, so fast he nearly concussed himself on the headboard. "Danny!"
Something very cold and very sharp touched the side of Rusty's neck, and the hand on his ankle slowly slid up his leg. Lingered on his hip-he flinched, and the metal pricked into his skin-then kept going to finally stop high up between his shoulderblades.
Well, Miguel definitely had Danny's attention now; Rusty was mostly trying to pretend the hands and the blade and the breath on his nape wasn't there, so he didn't fling himself away from Miguel and thus cut his throat.
"I'd just like to mention that this is not the most reasonable way to deal with this." G was smoking, gray trails striping each cheek like the whiskers of a particularly disgruntled porcelain dragon Rusty had seen just the day before.
"And I'd like to mention that we have a schedule." Miguel's fingers were long, and they were stretching to play with Rusty's hairline, as if he were some spoiled hairball. Danny's pupils went to pinpoints, and the skin on his face winched so tight it looked like a death-mask. "Mr. Ocean. I need something removed from someone else's possession. You will be compensated, and well, as will any people you may happen to need."
"So you're a thief," Tess said.
Danny didn't look at her. "Tess. Please shut up. I can't talk about that right now." He waited for the outraged squeak, then clasped his hands in his lap and met Miguel's eyes. "Do I actually have a choice?"
"You do, in fact." Cool, confident. Nails were running along Rusty's chin, just a hair from the blade edge, and Miguel had settled a little closer to Rusty's back, so the bastard's shadow completely overlaid Rusty. "The person who's currently holding said disputed object would also like to hire you to thwart any effort I make. Therefore, you can either spend your stay with me productively, or you can rot in tedium."
"Incidentally, that also covers you, Linus, but not Tess," G added, laconically bored.
"Why?" Though Rusty could tell Danny was seething white-hot beneath the calm exterior, the other man kept his voice even and distantly curious.
Miguel exchanged glances with his apparent partner. "Because it appears that she's not particularly useful, after all."
"She happened to be around when I was trying to speak with Mr. Caldwell, and I thought I might as well," G elaborated.
"Wait…Bobby Caldwell's son?" For a moment, Rusty forgot about his current situation in his surprise. The kid on the floor flinched so hard his glasses nearly fell off, then gave a short nod.
"So what are the details?" Danny asked, still focused on Miguel.
The other man patted Rusty's cheek and sat back, although the chilly metal remained in place. "Later. Right now, you have exactly three hours to wrap up your current operation, gather your belongings, and come back here. G'll show you and Tess out; I trust you'll know better than to discuss this with any form of authority."
Fingers quickly wound into Rusty's hair, and before he knew what was happening, hurt lashed down his jawline. An instant later, a body-warm trickle followed.
Danny's hands shot down to the sheets and clenched them so tightly his knuckles seemed about to pop from his skin. But his expression didn't change. "You've got a deal…Miguel?"
Who tilted his head and smiled, uncaringly polite. Then he gestured for Danny's hands. When the other man held them out, Miguel clamped one hand around Rusty's throat, smearing blood from the cut all over, and sliced through Danny's wrist-bindings. He then did the same for the ankle-tape, and waved Danny off the bed.
Rusty's stomach had disappeared the moment Miguel had grabbed him, and he was wondering how long he could last before his lungs decided to give out from lack of air. He did not want to be left with this…eerie, frightening son of a bitch, and he definitely did not want Danny to walk out that door. It wasn't based on anything, but he had a feeling that the minute Danny did, nothing was going to ever be the same.
And then Danny looked at him, and Rusty remembered how to breathe. Okay. They were good-that was why they were here, anyway. Danny would think of something, and Rusty would fill in the practical details. Waiting was…possible.
"Three hours?" Cocky smile, as if they were in some cocktail bar, and Danny was going off with another flighty bimbo. The kind that he always left to come back to Rusty.
"Get a new watch, while you're out. That one's so tacky they'll throw you out for being a walking eyesore when you try to get back." Rusty ignored the blood still dripping down his chin, the fingers around his throat, and grinned back as best he could.
The worst sight in the world was Danny's back as he was walking away with Tess. So Rusty closed his eyes to that, and yanked himself from Miguel as soon as the other man would allow.
"Touchy." But Miguel didn't seem inclined to play around anymore; he merely gave Rusty a condescending smack on the shoulder and went over to a dead-scared Linus Caldwell, seizing the poor kid's arm in a hold that came pretty damn close to the Vulcan Death Grip. "Come on. We're going to call your father."
The door locks clicked shut behind them. Rusty briefly considered trying to pick those, but Miguel didn't strike him as the type to slip up on something like that. And the man had used the bathroom…so washing his cut there was probably out of the question, if he didn't want to run into a nasty surprise. So Rusty stayed on the bed and pressed a corner of the comforter to his jaw, staring at the clock on the opposite wall.
Danny would be back in two hours and fifty-three minutes.
Linus stared at the phone he'd just hung up with only one thought running through his head: holy shit.
"He can't get you out of this," Miguel said. Seated on the far side of the table, the other man was doing something bizarre with a mini-pendulum and a map so old it was brown, not yellow.
"I heard. Because, you know, I was the one talking to him." That had to be the weirdest family revelation yet. Linus didn't know whether he should punch the wall, curse his parents to hell and back, or be proud of them. He decided to just kick himself for giving in to the urge while in the museum, instead of waiting till he'd gotten to the subway to do a lift.
Then again…"How long have you been watching me? My father said…"
"A while. We try not to lose track of our own-especially since it's extremely rare for any of us to have offspring." Without looking up, or even seeming to move, Miguel suddenly had the biggest gun Linus had ever seen pointed at him. "The poker would be a bad idea."
"Ah…yeah." Linus eased his hand off said object. The gun didn't go away. He lifted both hands and rested them flat against the table. Air went sideways, and the pistol abruptly vanished.
They sat there, Linus completely terrified and Miguel unconcerned, until finally the other man sighed and favored Linus with a weary, annoyed look. "If you stay like that, you'll cramp. Slouch. I'm not going to kill you."
"Could've fooled me," Linus mumbled as quietly as he could. But he did relax the ramrod pose.
"I am fooling you." Miguel flipped over another map, which was full of strange monsters and wriggly silver lines and many tiny Latin inscriptions. "You think I'm something you should be afraid of."
"Aren't you?" So the…well, man was the most convenient word…had better-than-normal hearing. That might be something Linus wanted to remember.
"Not really. You're more dangerous, at the moment." Dark eyes swept over Linus, making him feel hot and cold all at once. "You don't truly know what you're doing. Whereas I do."
Tess waited until they were in the cab before she spoke again. "Danny, I think we should stop seeing each other."
"What-wait-for God's sake, Tess, now?" He jerked his head sideways and pressed his fingers to his mouth, then glanced back. "Listen. Rusty's-"
"Exactly. Rusty." When he continued to look blank, she dropped her head into her hands and did her level best not to throw a fit. Because yes, she knew there were other things going on and she didn't want anyone to die, but that was another reason they needed to have it out now. She'd seen it back in the room, when Danny had been trying to deal with too much at once.
Because she'd liked Danny. She really had, and she'd thought…at any rate, she couldn't blame him for the conflict between her and Rusty, because he obviously didn't know. Consciously, at least; the way he and Miguel had been staring each other down over Rusty had set the air between them to boiling. And Tess had known enough men to know the difference between anger and jealousy. There'd been a lot of both in those looks.
Miguel had played on that instead of threatening Tess, which told her all she needed to know about her role.
Danny laid a hand on her arm, his eyes liquidly pleading. "He's my friend. I have to…"
The strange thing was, his lie about his job didn't surprise her very much, now that she thought about it. He'd always been a little too silken, the glint in his eyes a little too razor-sharp, and if she were honest to herself, that had been why she'd kept seeing him. She liked the aura of menace mated to the lovely manners and boyish smile.
His lie, however unknowing, about being single hurt more than that one. She could understand pretending to be better than one actually was, but she couldn't comprehend wounding a friend like that.
Tess laid her head against the back of the seat and clenched her teeth. "Danny, are you straight?"
A beat of silence. Then, incredulous shock: "What?"
"You heard me. Are you?"
He started to laugh her words off, but then he must have seen the bullshit filter in her eyes, because he quickly sobered. "I'm…open-minded. But I know you don't have a problem with that."
"No, I don't. Have you and Rusty-"
"No!" Much too fast, much too forceful. "Tess…"
She glowered at him. "Let me finish my question. Have you and Rusty ever considered the possibility that you two might…I don't know, hook up?"
Danny opened his mouth, probably to deny it just as vehemently as before, but he stopped halfway through the first word. Then his gaze dropped to his wrists, which were still reddened from peeling off the black tape. "We're friends," he finally said, low and tight.
"My God. You never have noticed. You never did, and I only had to walk in and look for two minutes-" Tess cut herself off and fixed her eyes on the scenery rushing by. It was drizzling, and the droplets broke up the already-blurred images into silver-edged fragments. Silver lining, her ass. "He…"
"I know he did." The words dropped heavily into the space, like coins sinking through extremely clear water. "But he got over it."
"And how the hell do you know that?" Tess demanded, about ready to start banging his head on the window. "Did you two ever talk about it?"
At the same time, Danny abruptly stilled, apparently realizing something. "Wait. You said you saw…back there in the room…" He slammed his hand into the car door, and the driver twisted about to bitch him out. Of course, it being Danny, a bare two seconds later and they were joking like childhood buddies. Then the driver turned back to the road, and Danny's face resumed its wary, almost bitter expression. "We're not women, Tess. Stop acting like we are. I didn't think of him like that, and he knew that. Neither of us wanted to mess up the deal we already had, and the issue never came up."
"Well, what about now?" His gaze tried to bore through her skull, but Tess refused to look away. She held back a sigh and clutched the doorhandle. "Danny, I don't want to date you because no matter what you say, it's still too tangled. I'm not going to get involved with someone that's a thief and a liar, and above all, so confused they can't answer a simple question."
"I haven't thought about it in a while. I thought he didn't…" he said, clipped and furious. Then he fell silent, and they didn't speak to each other for the rest of the ride.
Tess was dropped off first. She ran up the steps to her office, swiftly dealt with the instant blizzard of concerned queries that descended upon her, and excused herself to the bathroom, where she locked herself in a stall.
God help her, but she still wanted Danny. And she wanted to know what was going on.
Then she realized something, and laughed until the tears came.
G still had her purse.