|Gamble II: Preliminary Planning
Author: Guede Mazaka
G tossed the purse in a corner and flopped backwards onto the bed, neatly avoiding Rusty. Though judging by the way he slid away, he didn't seem to appreciate the effort. She rolled her eyes and shoved herself onto her stomach, then ran a finger along his jaw. When she checked her fingertip, a little slick of red streaked one side of it.
"Stupid, stupid bastard." She dug into her pocket and rummaged around until she found the right salve. G scooped out a dollop and tried to smear it over Rusty's cut, but he refused to hold still. "Stop flinching. I'm not Miguel."
"I noticed." His eyes still didn't look rightwise at her, but he sat still and let her treat the slice. Hissed a little when the herbs started to work into the blood, but didn't make any other sound. "You're much more reasonable."
She grinned and wiped off her hand on her jeans. "Don't get any ideas. He and I are still working partners, and I've been around too long to fall for that."
"Even if I knew what you were talking about, I wouldn't dream of doing it." The man had a very charming, wheedling smile, which hinted that a little help wouldn't go unrewarded. It reminded G of a nicer version of Dean, when Corso was cajoling some poor victim out of a handsome illuminated text.
"I told you, don't start." But she rebuked him in a half-hearted tone, not really giving a damn. He wasn't going anywhere. And if he had any decent instincts, he'd know better than to try and attack her.
"I'm not." Rusty made an innocently offended face, and draped his wrists over a knee so the tape around them dangled about six inches from G's nose. "Just curious. Seeing as there doesn't appear to be much else to do."
In reply, G glanced at the bed. He immediately stiffened, and she sighed. "Well, it was worth a try. Never mind…actually, I think I have a pack of cards. Poker?"
For a moment, she thought Rusty's brain had disconnected. But then the spark roared back in, and he smiled like a rather lazy shark. "You're on. Texas Hold 'em. What's the stakes?"
"Well, I'll be betting minutes until I cut you loose. You'll be betting pieces of explanation. Preferably about the weirdness between you and Danny and Tess." G accidentally shuffled out a mini-lightning bolt and hurriedly shoved that deck back in her coat. She dug out the normal cards with an apologetic expression. "Oops. Sorry about that."
His eyebrow rose. "If I win more than two hours, do I get to keep that deck?"
"No. You deal those the wrong way, you could end up raising the dead for three counties around." G let him cut the deck, then dealt. She felt like making things interesting, so she purposely didn't use any of her usual tricks or senses.
The first round she lost five minutes from the two hours from which she could to bet. The second and the third she failed to do very well, and her supply whittled down to an hour and five minutes. The fourth round, however, saw her win. G triumphantly tossed her full house over Rusty's pair of twos and propped up her chin on her hands. "Is it one-way?"
Surprisingly, he took the bluntness quite gracefully, with only a small, deeply-hidden flash of anger. Nor did he take the out G had included to test his response. "Yes. He has no idea, and we've never talked about it."
"Of course not." If it was one thing G had learned from watching people, it was that no one ever tried to straighten out matters unless the world was blowing up around them. The few that didn't do that were saints and therefore had short life-spans.
It was clear that Rusty hadn't been expecting that kind of reaction; he probably had her pegged as one of those rabid wannabe matchmakers. Which might come in handy for deception and such, but his polite confusion still annoyed the hell out of her. "Okay, look. I'm not human. One, I'm more pragmatic because I have effectively no morality. Two, denial irritates me."
"You get mad like a person," he observed, reaching out for his cards.
"Well, I've spent a lot of time around humanity. My regular partner-" Rusty perked attentively at that little disclosure "-is a thousand-year-old drop-dead gorgeous Arab who has regular bouts of irrational conscience. Though…" G thought for a bit "…he has gotten better since he got his boyfriends."
"Boyfriends." As he ordered his cards with lips and nimble fingers, Rusty slanted an inquiring look at G. So he'd caught that little nuance in her voice. "Drop-dead gorgeous."
Damn. And she had honestly thought she'd dealt with all of that. She had, in fact, but apparently, even eons of experience didn't make habits easier to break. "Yeah. They're cute. And fun to watch. Ahmed looks a bit like Miguel, only he's got short hair, steady relationships, and bigger muscles. Also, he's slightly more in tune with how people work, given that he used to be one."
"Do I hear criticism?" Miguel lounged in the doorway, casually holding Linus by one wrist. Beneath his fingers, the flesh of the other man's arm was beginning to bruise, and Linus was clenching his teeth.
"Yes. You fuck." G paused to make her pre-flop, then glared at him. "Wrecking Danny Ocean's life does mean he doesn't have a choice about coming back, but it also means he and the rest are now racking their brains for a way to screw us over."
Rusty flinched, and both G and Miguel gave him sardonic smiles. "We're not stupid," she said in a sweet tone. "Calling, raising, or folding?"
"I took that into account," Miguel interrupted. He offhandedly shoved Linus into the room, then held up a familiar-looking map. "You busy tonight?"
"For you, baby?" G snorted. "I suppose I've got to go ruin another set of clothes after dinner."
He shrugged and carefully rolled up the parchment, then tucked it under an arm and got himself a cigarette. "I could take this kill, if you'd rather stay in. You've done the last few."
"In that case, I think I'll stay and wash my hair." Though Miguel probably had his ulterior motives for being so generous, he was being…and damn it, that would be the part of Ahmed that'd rubbed off on her. G gritted her teeth and tried not to tear her cards into shreds. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Miguel strolled back to the number-crunching, leaving G with two stone-faced men.
To be honest, Linus looked more like he'd just happened to be wearing that expression when he froze. Rusty, on the other hand, wore a considering blank face, like referee at a particularly nasty grudge-match game.
G glanced at both of them, then tilted her head and flipped over her cards. "Incidentally, that's what I do. Three kings."
At that, Rusty finally stirred to life. He seemed a good deal more wary, but hid it well. "Four nines. Hey, Linus. You know how to play?"
"Ah…I don't think I've learned the version you're playing." The other man gingerly edged over to Rusty's side of the bed, which involved a ridiculously circuitous path. G resisted the urge to pinch his cheeks when he got close enough. "Texas Hold 'em?"
"Know the look of the game, and you're halfway there," Rusty replied in a warmly welcoming voice. He nodded at the mattress beside him. "Come on. I think we could teach you a few things."
The last time Danny had gotten blindsided so many times in such a short period, he'd been in L. A., celebrating the New Year in what had turned out to be the wrong nightclub. And then he'd been just drunk enough to shake it off and move on to the next hot spot. Right now, he was dead sober, in possession of a great deal of illegally-obtained money and two wardrobes of good suits. Also a true behemoth of a car, which was uglier than an elephant's rear and twice as big. He'd never understood Rusty's taste in cars, and he'd lent his own to Tess the last week, when hers had developed a gas tank leak.
He probably wasn't going to get it back. Which, he supposed, was fair.
Danny had been telling the truth when he'd told Tess he hadn't thought of Rusty that way. But she'd given him one hell of a verbal slap in the face, and coming after everything else, it wasn't surprising that his mind would decide to look in that direction while the sting wore off. Nor was it very shocking that he was currently sitting in Rusty's car, twenty minutes ahead of schedule and not quite knowing where to point the steering wheel.
He did have time to call her and try to make up before he had to get back to Rusty. He had time to go get Rusty and drop by Tess' office before she went home, if Miguel was kind enough to let him do that. There were a thousand ways to attempt a reconciliation. Fact was, Danny was beginning to wonder if he wanted to try.
She'd been more upset about the possibility of his and Rusty's non-platonic feelings than about his being a conman, and for some reason, that struck Danny right in the gut.
No, not for some reason. It was because he could've…well, pretended to be normal for her. He had done that, even though every second of faking it without having a job behind the act had been like wearing a shirt collar that was two sizes too small. He might even have been able to give up the con for her, if they'd gotten that serious. And he had a feeling that they might have, after enough time. But he couldn't give up Rusty, and that had been what she'd effectively asked him to do, somewhere during all that arguing and hurt, furious glances.
And that led to the inevitable question of what, exactly Rusty was to him, and what Danny was to Rusty. He hadn't missed the fact that Miguel and G had grabbed both Rusty and Tess; they'd obviously been studying him. Miguel had decided to let Tess go, and keep Rusty.
He'd known about that odd extra spark, way back when, but Danny hadn't felt the same. It was too damned hard to find someone who got him as well as Rusty did, however, and so he'd just pretended not to see the attraction. Eventually, it had dimmed and gone away, and they'd had a very fruitful collaboration without it. Or so he had thought.
Now, he was thinking about it, and about the way Rusty's eyes had gone bruise blue when that long knife had been at Rusty's throat, and about the way Rusty and he just knew into which frequency they needed to tune whenever one of them was rattling off a wild idea: background noise or a low, eager voice. The precise movements and the coolly brilliant mind and the tattoo on the back of one hand, which added just enough street grit to keep Rusty from looking like another pretty but flat picture.
The skin just under his chin was beginning to warm, and his fingers had locked themselves around the steering wheel. On the other hand…he had the same reaction when thinking about Tess. If his life were a racy novel, there'd be a nice, tidy solution to his dilemma. Unfortunately, he wasn't living like that, even if he did dress better than the long-haired muscle-men on the paperback covers.
Fifteen minutes to go. Danny put his key into the car and eased it into the road.
Tess had made up her mind rather quickly once she'd managed to stop crying and fix her make-up. She didn't waste any time, either. Thirty minutes, and everything was settled.
When she reached the hotel, however, the plan began to go awry. An elevator was just closing, and Tess dashed across the carpet to slide through at the last moment.
"I didn't know high heels could do that," Danny said, startled.
"Oh, God," Tess said. She jerked back against the doors, which had luckily finished closing, and pressed a hand to her heaving chest. "You…you…should've waited for another elevator…"
"What are you doing here? They let you go." Danny lifted a hand toward Tess' face, and she reflexively flinched. His expression briefly hardened, then smoothed into his trademark easy pleasantry. "I'm sorry. That wasn't what I should have said. Would you like to start over?"
The corner of her mouth twitched in a partial grimace, and she hugged herself as she glanced away from his soft, opaque eyes. "It's not that simple. I…I'm here for my purse. That woman still has it."
"Oh." He sounded disappointed. They carefully avoided glances for a few moments, and then he stooped to shift one of the many pieces of luggage on the bag-carriage beside him. The glorified cart was all brass curves, so gleaming that the only way to directly look as it was to keep the eye constantly moving, following the reflected light. She could see an extremely skinny Danny in it, as if he had a twin trapped inside the metal. A more considerate, less secretive, honest, truly unattached-
--and Tess cut herself off before she started drowning in her own bitterness. She bit down on her lip, and tried not to notice just how many bags Danny had. Far too many for only one man.
For the first time in her acquaintance with him, he looked nervous. "Tess, listen. I want you to know that I…"
"You made me cry," she blurted out. Then she silently cursed him for getting so far under her skin, and her for letting him when she knew better. "I haven't cried over a man in years. It was-do you know how embarrassing and frustrating that is?"
"I'm sorry." The words were taut with strained nerves and heavy with sincerity so pained that even Tess couldn't fault him. "I…I am. Really. I didn't mean to…I don't even know what I did!"
A clean break. That was what she needed. A clear delineation, so she could point to bits of her cracked-mirror life and say that this was before, and that was after. Deep down, a part of Tess was hoping that it would be her and Danny, starting on a slate that they both recognized, but she wasn't going to pretend that the other possible outcome didn't exist.
But even that would be better than the limbo in which she currently was.
The elevator quietly chimed as they reached their floor, and Danny started to move forward. When he was almost past her, Tess grabbed his tie and yanked him down into a kiss. She put everything in there: her liking, her hoping, her fears and her disappointment. It still might not have gotten through, but she made sure that the break in transmission couldn't be laid at her doorstep.
And then she backed off. Danny's face was open as she'd never seen it, and her heart gave a lopsided lurch that did peculiar things to her sense of balance. Tess steadied her voice as best she could, and told him what she'd decided. "Danny, if you can do that to Rusty, and then come back, we might be…we can…"
She stopped, because his expression had shuttered as quickly as a beetle tucking its gossamer wings under their hard covers. "Tess, if you have to ask me something like that-Christ."
"Well, I needed to know," she snapped, yanking herself away from him. "And how else are you going to decide? You can't compare something that's only a maybe with something that's real."
"And I wouldn't even do that for someone that insecure. You just don't trust me, do you?" He hauled the carriage out of the elevator with one fury-fueled effort and started to wheel it away. Thus turning his back on her. As if she was the one who'd been the goddamn liar.
"Well, how am I supposed to? Was anything you told me true?" she called after him, feeling the rage lash into the hurt. Tess wanted to hit him, to curl up in a big blanket and cry, to go out and pick up the first guy she saw.
He halted and looked back over one shoulder, strangely regretful. "Yes. Most of it. You know, Rusty believed I'd come back, and I did."
"Fuck. You." Tess enunciated the words in her best uptown accent, then slumped against the wall as he knocked on the door at the end of the short hall.
So he did have priorities, if not moralities. Well, she obviously didn't number among them, and forget his little attempts at making up. She wasn't buying into that anymore.
Even if a big piece of her still wanted to.
Someone coughed, and Tess reluctantly looked up. G was standing in the open doorway, dangling Tess' purse from one hand. "You forgot this."
"I did," Tess acknowledged. She suddenly felt faint-or perhaps it was the world that was fading, slowly disengaging from her. At that thought, irritation flared up, weak but enough to get her moving. She uncrossed her arms and stalked over to the other woman, who was lacking her previous barely-concealed amusement. "Do I get it back now?"
A hand reached up, and Tess stiffened but held her ground. G's thumb swiped at the caked gunk that was slowly sloping down Tess' cheek. So much for waterproof mascara. "Would you like to borrow the sink, too?"
It wasn't condescending, or disgustingly sympathetic. It just sounded as if G had noticed a problem, and was offering a solution. And company that wasn't Danny, or male, or…hell with it. Tess' work had kept her too busy to make any close female friends; G wasn't really that, but she was close enough. At least Tess wouldn't have to suffer the indignity of having to explain the whole mess.
"How about some whiskey?" Tess asked, her voice getting a little hoarse.
G blinked, then stepped back. "Let me look. I think we still have some left."
Whatever kind of tape it'd been, removing had ripped off a thick layer of skin along with it. Rusty gingerly rubbed the red rings on his wrists, wincing whenever he hit a really sore spot.
"Hey…you okay?" Linus pulled at his nose, then fidgeted with his hands as if he wanted to tap Rusty on the arm, but didn't quite dare. Well, he had been getting his ass pretty well kicked, after G had rustled up some odd-looking licorice candies for poker chips.
"Yeah, I'm…" A familiar voice was rumbling along with Miguel's just outside the door. Rusty put down his cards and nodded to the other man. "Well, been a pleasure. Remind me to get to lesson three later. And practice."
"Sure." The poor kid's voice dropped back to blatant anxiety crisis, but he'd handled himself all right against G's off-color commentary, so Rusty figured he'd be fine.
The moment Rusty came out of the door, Danny's face lit up. And Rusty's chest did that annoying cramp that he'd thought he'd finally trained out of himself six months ago.
"Brought your clothes, so you can donate that one to the homeless guy on the corner." Danny spared one last glower for Miguel, who silently padded off to another room, and led Rusty into another bedroom. Their belongings were already half-unpacked, and clothes were in neat stacks over the bed, which resembled a three-dimensional patchwork quilt. Or a very bizarre piece of Modernist Art.
"The one that thinks he's Dick Clark's illegitimate granddaughter?" Rusty was too busy changing out of his ruined clothes and into fresh ones to watch Danny, which was what he probably should have been doing. But it'd been such a relief to get some kind of normality, in order to help back up the act he'd been putting on. The act that had begun to wear under G's too-clever gaze and Miguel's periodic appearances.
Killer angels. Oh, fuck. This was going to take some doing if they were going to extract themselves with all pieces intact.
"You look worried." Danny was leaning back against one of the suitcases, one arm elegantly draped over it. His regard was oddly intense, and every two seconds it'd flick to the tattoo on Rusty's hand.
And Tess. Sure, Danny looked a lot more together than when he'd left, but how much of that was propping up the façade, and how long did they have before she started to throw off Danny's game?
"I'm thinking we take the job, but turn it back about halfway through."
They didn't even know the details, and with…whatever…like Miguel and G, God knew what they'd be asked to take. Also, they clearly wouldn't have the element of surprise, which meant that if they were to pull a fast one, they'd have to be at the top of their game. Always have their eyes on the goal, because everyone else was going to be watching them. It was damned hard to produce a rabbit from a hat when there was a distraction going on somewhere else, and even harder to do it when there was no distraction.
"We take the job, but play it straight. Even though that does prick at my sense of professionalism as a two-faced son of a bitch."
Great. Tess was already messing with Danny's head. He almost never insulted himself, unless he was playing up to a mark. And Rusty had better not be that, or Tess wouldn't have a Daniel Ocean to scream at.
"Okay, we'll take the job, be nice, and then get out of town." Danny's hands abruptly appeared before Rusty's face and took hold of Rusty's tie. "Hey. Don't make me put you under suicide watch. You know they don't let you drink during that."
Rusty looked down and saw to his consternation that he'd unthinkingly knotted his tie like a hangman's noose. Then he looked up and had a tongue in his mouth. And lips on his own, and hands smoothing over his chest, pressing warmth through the silk. His knees suddenly melted, and he fell even farther into the kiss.
Danny. Holy…it was Danny. And-Rusty clamped down and pulled away, as fast as he could. Which was molasses-slow, but that was a fairly respectable speed considering he couldn't quite focus his eyes. "Danny," he said, fighting his breathlessness, "Tell me you know what you're doing."
The other man met Rusty's eyes, pupils shrinking and expanding. Something like realization flashed through, followed closely by a shadow of comprehension. Danny's voice didn't waver when he spoke. "I know what I'm doing."
He moved in, but Rusty stopped Danny when their faces were an inch apart. "Tell me…" Rusty's mouth dried out, and he had to lick his lips to work up enough saliva for speech. Which turned Danny's eyes an entirely new shade of smudged brown. "Tell me this isn't about Tess."
"This isn't about Tess." The brown went clear, and Rusty bit down on the crushing feeling in his gut. He started to climb off, but Danny grabbed his arms and held him down. "This isn't entirely about Tess. It's mostly about me finding out that you taste like my favorite coffee blend."
"I…might have stolen some this morning. When you were lifting that portly gentleman's wallet." The longer Rusty watched, the more the world seemed to wave into heat shimmers, like summer rising off newly-tarred roads.
"I liked her, a lot. I might have even loved her. But, you'll notice, I'm not going back to her. To some, that might indicate a clear preference." Danny tilted his head, like he always did after making a little glowing-ember speech. His eyes sparkled with barely-suppressed mischief, which almost obscured the nervousness. And that was what actually decided Rusty.
Danny was worried. About losing him. Holy…there weren't words for that. Luckily, Rusty didn't necessarily have to directly address it. "That's a nice paraphrase. From the Regency romance you were "not reading" two weeks ago?"
"Yeah. You think it was all right?" The other man pursed his lips. A palm rippled silk up Rusty's back, and he abruptly remembered why he liked wearing silk shirts. "I don't think I modernized it enough."
"No, it was good. I really liked it." Rusty carefully put his fingers on Danny's shoulders, then let them wrap around the curves. He shifted his hips until he was straddling the other man, far enough on the bed so that he wouldn't fall off. Danny's other hand glided down to the side of Rusty's waist and helped with that.
The other man grinned. "Good. So can we try that again?"
Stupid question. So Rusty didn't bother answering it with words. He leaned back in, and nipped at the edges of Danny's mouth, just delicately enough so Danny couldn't catch him and turn it into a real kiss. Then he allowed himself to be held still and plundered of air, while fingers stroked over his back, tugged up the neatly tucked-in shirt and tickled along his skin.
"Okay, definitely know what I'm doing." Danny slid his mouth over Rusty's jawline, carefully working his tongue over the half-healed cut, and then lifted the back of Rusty's hand to those collapse-inducing lips. And he kept his eyes fixed to Rusty's while his tongue assiduously traced every single line of the tattoo there, laving the skin until red heat seemed to glow through the solid black.
The door opened.
"Today is a lousy day," Tess pronounced, like a grim traffic-court judge, and walked straight out. She was listing a little to the side, and her words weren't quite as crisp as before.
"Oh, damn it." But as concerned as Danny looked for her, his hands didn't move from Rusty.
"If you two don't mind, we'd like to discuss the job now," G drawled, looking far too interested. "Incan matrimonial masks."
Rusty ran that through his internal pricing catalogue. "Incan matrimonial masks."
"At least, that's how they're labeled." She flipped them a limp wave and backed out of the door. "Come on."