|Gamble V: Confrontation
Author: Guede Mazaka
Linus finished his little explanation and gasped for air. "Okay. That was actually a lot more complicated than I thought."
Rusty reached out and thumped on Linus' back a few times, then slouched back into his seat. His lips twitched, and he gingerly adjusted his weight distribution. "And…you're telling me everything because…"
"Well, you're the only one that doesn't seem confused about anything. Except for G, but I think she went out." The glasses were crooked again, so Linus took them off and tried to bend the earpieces into shape. It didn't work. Obscurely fed up with the dorky things, he sent them flying over the back of the sofa.
"I hope you don't need those." Something thudded in the room behind them, and Rusty twisted around. "Danny?"
"I hate that suitcase. Why do you still have it?" came the irked reply.
Something very like smugness flitted over Rusty's face, though it disappeared too quick for Linus to be certain. "Remind me to tell you about my day-trip to Mexico."
When Danny spoke again, his voice had deepened and peeled off some of the silk to expose the gravel. "Would that be the same one you got your tattoo on?"
And that was fun to watch: Rusty's eyes flickered, and he unconsciously rubbed fingers over the back of said hand. He shifted, not quite uneasily, but he definitely wasn't as relaxed as he was before. "Uh, Danny. In the middle of a counseling session."
"Oh, yeah. Sorry, Linus." Though Danny didn't sound apologetic at all. In fact, he sounded like a Saturday-morning cartoon villain, plotting to one-up the resident hero. Not that Rusty was hero material.
"No wonder G keeps smirking when she sees you two." Linus let himself slide a little further down the couch. So asking Rusty for advice had been a bad idea. What else could Linus do? He had a bunch of decisions to make, not much info to go on besides gut feeling, and he'd been given a deadline. When theoretically, time didn't have to apply to him anymore.
Apparently, some of that came out in his voice, because Rusty ceased attempting to stare through the door and instead tried to stare straight through Linus. The other man leaned forward, resting elbows on knees and chin on folded hands. "I've just got one question. Are you trying to decide about your life, or about Miguel does-he-even-have-a-last-name?"
"I'm-" Linus had had a snappy answer to that, but somewhere between his vocal cords and his mouth, it'd broken up into unintelligible fragments.
Right. Think. Put things in order, find the pattern, and then suss out its weak points.
It was mostly about his life, about whether he wanted to keep going like he had been or whether he wanted to tackle something now. Permanently, and that was the kicker that sort of put him off. Everyone wanted to live forever, but not everyone wanted to pay its price. And Miguel had made it fairly clear what that'd be. Working the scam forever, with the possibility of a little violence on the sidelines.
Well, that was acceptable. Appealing, actually, since it'd be one way to separate Linus Caldwell from the great Bobby. Being son to a legend was an absolute bitch almost all of the time, and Linus knew that even if he pulled off the Grand Slam of jobs, that wouldn't go away. Sure, people would be saying he wasn't all family coattails, that he was better than his father-and therein lay the string. His father would still be in the picture, as long as they were working the same grounds.
On the other hand, moving into new territory also meant meeting more…whatever…like Miguel and G. And Linus wasn't sure if he should be happy or worried about that. Hell, he wasn't even sure that Miguel wouldn't toss him out a window some day soon, given how much he got under the guy's skin.
Well, that wasn't his fault. Miguel had to help first, and afterward, Linus was making damn certain that he didn't miss a lesson. He'd already gotten caught out once, and he didn't enjoy that experience enough to…huh. He'd decided. "My life, first off. It would be nice not to worry about prison."
"Exactly." Rusty snapped his fingers into a pointing gesture at Linus, then got up and straightened his rumpled coat. "Hey, let me know how it works out. We've still got to teach you to play decent poker."
Linus slanted an inquiring glance upwards. "Let you know?"
Offhand shrug. "G mentioned this friend of hers. Started out human, but now he's a thousand years old. Just keeping all options open."
"So that's why you're being so cooperative." Unbelievable…but understandable, considering the men involved. Though Linus shook his head at Rusty-and by logical extension, Danny-he was grinning, too. "What do you think about Miguel, though?"
"There, you're on your own. I don't think about Miguel." Rusty's smile widened into something faintly insinuating as he ambled back to join Danny.
He never got to the doorway. Tess appeared at the other end of the room, eyes a little pinkish, but otherwise very well put-together. She had her hands clasped in front of her, and her jaw was hard as vault steel. "Rusty, can I have a word with you?"
"I'm just going to…um…call my father." Linus fumbled his way off the couch and was in yet another bedroom before anything exploded…and honestly, just how big was this suite?
"It's the penthouse. We have the entire roof." Miguel was squatting down over some complex diagram chalked into the floor. He didn't seem entirely pleased to see Linus, and Linus wasn't exactly overjoyed to see him. "Can I help you?"
"Think I'm going with my Mom's side. When do we do it?" A little red wormy thing was squirming in the middle of the circles. Linus leaned in for a closer look, only to have Miguel slam a hand down over whatever it was. "What was that?"
The other man minutely edged over, which seemed to be a hint for Linus to sit down. Miguel eyed him for a few more moments, then turned back to the chalking. "We'll do it in an hour. Now, pay attention, and don't say anything. This is how you talk to minor demons."
Tess wasn't happy.
Therefore, Rusty perched himself on the toilet, right by the tub so he could dive into it if matters got out of hand. She leaned against the door, chin lifted so she glowered down her nose at him. It looked like it was up to him to get things started. "I never expected to get him."
"I guessed." Her voice was very flat, and the line of her gaze could've been used as an engineering ruler. All the little ticks marking out every centimeter and smaller divisions thereof, and nothing beyond the end.
"But now that I do, don't even think about it." And Rusty proceeded to prove that he could produce just as daunting a face.
She snorted and looked sideways, a jeering smile sneaking onto her lips. Its mockery, however, wasn't really aimed at him. Or Danny, he suspected. "I wasn't. I was only wondering…what would you have done if he'd never realized?"
What would he have done. Just showed how much Tess didn't know people yet-their inner surfaces, full of nicks and scratches and old stains, like a bar well-weathered with a thousand gin stories. Rusty propped his arm on the side of the sink and pressed a finger against his mouth, trying to figure out how best to word his answer. "Tess…like I said, I never thought I'd get him."
"So you would've just…" she waved her hands around, as if that was sufficient to express how clearly stupid she thought Rusty was.
As she pleased. He was the one who could still smell Danny on himself. But…he still felt sorry for her. So many things obviously going for her, no idea where to direct them, and G apparently had decided to play it platonic.
"Danny's a grown man. He doesn't need anyone to tell him what to think." His mouth quirked, just a little, in a nod to all the near-misses the other man had gotten them into. And out of, with the assistance of Lady Fortune. "Anyway, I never met the person that could tell him. Not really. Not if he didn't want to see it."
"I think I would've brought it up, if I'd been you," Tess said, pushing.
Rusty didn't give. He ran his hand over his head, feeling the length of his hair-almost long enough to be silky, which meant he needed to get it trimmed. " Not everything's roses, Miss Daisy. Sometimes you get daffodils. But they're still prettier than an empty vase."
"And you're just going to go along with everything he does. Fast and loose with the law, up until it cuts your feet out from under you." Her eyes snapped from opaque to transparent, letting him see the anger all the way back to the root. "Doing whatever you please, never mind consequences or even plain human decency."
"Danny can be a fool, I'll give you that. But he's what he is. And what that is happens to fit me fine." That was the straightest answer she was going to get out of him. For that matter, it was the straightest answer he'd given anyone in a while, excluding Danny. The words felt awkward and stodgy coming off Rusty's tongue, so he got them out as quickly as possible. Then he watched Tess' face.
A kaleidoscope of irritation and resignation, finally ending on dull comprehension. "Do you think we could've worked?"
She was asking him? Just what kind of game was-
--except that was it. Tess didn't really know how to play the game. Actually, Rusty seriously doubted she knew how to play anything more challenging than cheating a few dollars back from the IRS. Which was a shame, because she had the kind of edge that would hold up better than well in the world of the con.
So he gave her an honest assessment. "If Miguel hadn't come along and dragged us all together, I have a feeling I would've been cold-decking Hollywood hopefuls for their cab fares, so I had something to do."
Tess absorbed that as she stared into the mirror. "He's a really good kisser, isn't he?" she finally said.
And Rusty had to nod.
"And good hands-but I'm guessing that comes with the territory."
"This-I don't think this is my kind of scene. And I think I should leave, before I see something I shouldn't." The side of her mouth tweaked up. "Again."
He got up and held out a hand. "It was nice to meet you, Tess."
After a moment, she took it. "The same, Rusty."
Miguel sat back on his heels and watched as Linus' eyelids slowly fluttered open. The boy had ridiculously long lashes. "So?"
"Well, doesn't feel too different." Linus tried to sit up and promptly laid back down. He flopped an arm over his face. "Never mind. How long did you say it takes to adjust?"
"Another fifteen minutes." So that should give Miguel enough time to finish his phone calls and find someone willing to take in a fledging for training. Caldwell's mother would have decided to take up her old duties outside of the mortal realm. His father was the human parent, but he could've offered some advice if he hadn't appeared to prefer the hands-off approach after his son had reached a certain age. Which left Miguel to make sure Linus didn't cock up the world during his first few months of immortality.
G should be headed back in another hour, and then they could discuss the logistics of assembling Danny and Rusty's team. Come to think of it, they would have to see Tess out by then; it was long past safe for the woman to go, and she wasn't contributing anything to their operations.
Miguel should have remembered that earlier. His wits were either deteriorating, or he was becoming far too prone to distraction. And no, G hadn't been right when she'd said he was nervous around humans. If that had been true, one of them would've killed him by now.
It was just…odd to be around mortals when he wasn't trying to kill them. That was all.
"So now what?" Careful to go slow, Linus sat up and scanned the room. As he did, his eyes shifted from glowing electric blue to whiteless to slate-grey. He squeezed them shut, remained like that for several minutes, then opened perfectly normal eyes.
Quick study. At least that reduced the chances of Linus accidentally wrecking the city. Miguel wouldn't have to spend quite so much time watching him…and he did not think that in a disappointed tone. "Don't do anything stupid. In fact, don't do anything that someone doesn't tell you to do. After we're done here, I'll find you a teacher."
"Thanks." Tone just this side of insolent. It made Miguel wonder if a Linus-sized crater in the street would be terribly noticeable. "Oh, I'm sorry. No one told me to thank you. So I take that back."
Miguel stood up and walked over to the bed, where he sat and reached for the phone. "Do me a favor. Shut up. That way, I don't have to spend-"
"-an hour getting my blood out of your slacks." Linus wasn't intimidated in the slightest.
"You never answered my question," Miguel snapped as he slammed down the phone.
They matched stares for a bit, but Linus eventually dropped his eyes and rolled onto his feet. He unsteadily tried to make it toward the door, but gave up halfway and detoured to the bed, which was closer. "Maybe because it's fun? Knowing that I can irritate an immortal that's lived through epic bouts of human stupidity?"
Insane. That was the only explanation. Completely irrational.
G was never going to let him live this down. At least they weren't regular partners.
Miguel took off his jacket and tie, then undid his cufflinks and set them on the side-table. "You think you annoy me?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I do." With a touch of insufferable smugness.
Right, then. Miguel shoved over the other man and pressed Linus back into the sheets.
G was taking off her coat when the muffled noises started. They weren't coming from Rusty and Danny, who she could see standing in their own room with thoroughly bemused expressions.
Tess was slumped in the sofa nearest the door to the hallway, face a cross between hysterical laughter and quiet tears. She looked up when G came near, then reburied her face in her hands.
"About time Miguel got laid. He's fucking pissy when he's going through one of his celibate periods." Ignoring the choking from the men's direction, G flopped down beside Tess. She held up some tissues and aspirin, at which the other woman glared. "Oh, good. You're not drunk again."
Behind them, Danny quietly shut the door.
"I'm not an alcoholic," Tess muttered. She was twisting the hem of her blouse until it threatened to tear.
"No, that's Fideo." When the other woman gave G an inquisitive look, she waved it off. "Someone you haven't met, and probably won't meet. If I'm guessing right."
"You are." Tess drew in a long, hissing breath, then leaned her head back until it was resting on the top of the couch. "Can I leave now?"
G nodded. "You can. Now it's whether you want to that's the question."
"I'm leaving." The other woman stood up, buttoned her jacket, and ran fingers through her hair so it was passable. She kept glancing at G, then quickly looking away. "This isn't what I want."
Which was reasonable, and fair. It wasn't the kind of lifestyle that anyone could or should embrace if they weren't going to do it wholeheartedly. If they weren't doing it because they damn well liked living that way and not because someone else liked it. Because anything less and the things that went bump in the night wouldn't bother with chewing.
Still, G was a little disappointed. But that was how life went.
She'd just massacre some nasties later. And maybe stock up on cute tops. Self-therapy through shopping was one human habit with which she completely agreed.
"So…thanks." Tess suddenly looked very shy, hands knotted together and face slightly downturned. "For…well, listening and putting up with everything."
G raised an eyebrow. "I knocked you out and kidnapped you."
"Look, do you want to remember me in a nice or a bitchy way?" the other woman retorted. Then she blushed and took a step back. "That's not exactly what I wanted to…"
Muffled yell. Danny suddenly whipped out of his room and glared at Miguel's. "I'd rather not make phone calls with porn as my background noise."
Tess' lips twitched, and then they parted in a wide smile. The white flash caught Danny's eye, and they grinned at each other for a moment, easy as breathing. Then the awkward underlayer of tension kicked in, and G figured she should step onto the balcony. She started to do that, but Tess lifted a hand, eyes starting to become moist.
Oh, what the hell. G pulled out a scrap of paper and a pen, and scribbled down a phone number, which she handed to Tess. "You ever change your mind, I might be willing to have a coffee with you."
"Thanks." Tess stared at the paper as if she didn't quite recognize the numbers as numbers.
"Good luck." Then G was out on the balcony, breathing fresh air. Smog-tinged, unhealthy, and real. She grinned down at the antlike specks bustling about on the sidewalks, and waited for the next surprise to come around.
For once, Danny was at a loss for words. He checked for eavesdroppers, scratched his ear, adjusted his cuffs. Finally, he settled for making an observation. "You look better."
"I feel better." Tess smiled wanly, then fell silent.
She was so beautiful, inside and out, that for an instant, he almost wondered. Key word being almost, of course. If Danny had been an ordinary guy, or even one with any kind of urge to be ordinary, she would've been the perfect person for him.
Except he wasn't. He could've given up the game for her, but not without losing some of himself by the wayside. At the end of the day, Danny Ocean was a grifter, with one eye on the roll of the dice and the other on his neighbor's wallet. Conning was like breathing to him. Being with Rusty was like breathing to him. Being with Tess had been like a lovely waltz in a gala ballroom full of the rich and famous.
He could see that she knew that. He could also see now that Tess wasn't nearly as straight as she would have liked to be, but she wasn't going to be tempted in that direction. Not now. Some day, maybe…but it hadn't happened in time for them. And honestly, Danny was a little relieved by that. It made giving up gracefully a lot easier.
"Danny," Tess said.
"Tess," he replied. Then he bent forward and kissed her softly on the cheek. She turned into it, her eyelashes grazing his skin, but it only stung a little to pull away. Because no matter how empty the doorway looked, he knew Rusty's eyes weren't missing a single nuance. He knew he didn't want Rusty to miss a single detail. "You be good."
"Right." Neutral answer, but her expression was…forgiving. And that was great, because when he'd been with her, he'd been with her, and that hadn't happened with any other woman. In fact, he still liked her…just not quite like that. "See you around."
"You won't tell on us?" He tried out an impish smile, and in return, she smacked him on the arm.
Then she backed away. When she'd gotten to the door, however, she paused and turned. "Don't-don't get caught, all right?"
He watched until the door closed, and then he reached behind himself, catching Rusty's wrist. The other man was a lean warmth against his side, comfortable and content.
"Five she shorts it," Rusty murmured into his ear.
Danny grinned and glanced toward the balcony. "I'm not taking that bet."