They must've looked like a quartet of bloody drunks, staggering and lurching down the motorway, banged up and soaked to the skin, shocky and cold. Charlie put Lyle up front, probably hoping the gash on his forehead would draw sympathy, but apparently no one in Austria wanted to pick up four wet strangers two miles from the Italian border.
Maybe, Rob thought, maybe even in their warm little cars, speeding down the road, they could somehow tell that these four particular strangers were more than a bit dangerous. At the moment.
It was only about a mile down to the first town, situated where the single-lane motorway split into a double handful of roads going off in every direction: high up into the Alps, down into the valleys, north and south along the border. Steve and his damned crew of thugs could have taken any of them. They could be anywhere by now.
There was ice coating Rob's jacket by the time Charlie led them to a small, dingy-white hotel on the edge of town. Rob hung back with the others as Charlie stumbled into the lobby. Watched through the tinted glass windows as he worked his magic, running his hand back through his wet hair and smiling helplessly at the girl running the front desk.
"Two rooms," Charlie said, coming outside again. His fingernails were almost blue as he pressed a key into Rob's palm, but his hands were steady. "You take Lyle, I got Lefty. Get warm, get some food in you, and then we gotta move."
"Sure," Rob said. He didn't think he could eat. Or move. Or take care of anyone. He thought maybe if he warmed up, he'd crack and shatter like thick jagged river ice. Champagne, adrenaline and rage were still battling it out in his veins. Nothing quite seemed real. This was usually the best part of any caper-- living in the afterglow, flying on adrenaline. So alive.
Right now, though, Rob wasn't feeling anything at all. John Bridger was dead. Steve had tried to kill them all. The gold was gone. He couldn't take it in.
"Rob," Charlie said. Rob realized that Charlie was still hanging onto his wrist. He lifted his head and met Rob's eyes with great effort. "You gotta stay with me." Charlie said, squeezing hard. "Take care of Lyle."
Rob shook his head, hard, then nodded. "Right."
The room wasn't much. Plain white walls, pale wooden furniture, carpet and curtains in grimy shades of beige. Lyle stumbled in and then just stood there dripping. Rob hooked his arm around his shoulders and shuffled them both into the bathroom.
"In you go," he said, pushing Lyle into the tiled stall. Kneeling, he cranked the hot water on. It came on lukewarm at first, and Lyle cursed breathlessly, staggering back against the wall.
"Hang in there, kid." Rob stepped back, stripping off his ice-encrusted jacket and waterlogged t-shirt. His hands were too cold to manage his shoes or his jeans, and finally he just stepped into the shower stall with them on.
Lyle whimpered as Rob stepped in front of the stream of water, which was heating up nicely. Rob shuddered at the warmth as it penetrated deep into his aching, tightly wound muscles. He took Lyle by the shoulders, turning him sideways and holding him in the spray. Lyle pulled his hat off, tossing it over the shower door into the bathroom, and twitched as the hot water ran down into his hair. "Jesus, that's good."
"Come on. Get these wet clothes off," Rob grunted, trying to push Lyle's jacket off over his shoulders as Lyle clumsily tried to unzip his thermal sweater. Sleeves still entangled, the jacket and sweater fell to the tiled floor with a wet smack, and Lyle shuddered hard, leaning helplessly into Rob's chest. Skin against skin. The cut on Lyle's forehead was bleeding again.
"Here." Rob murmured, tipping Lyle's chin up with his fist. "Let's have a look." Lyle stared up at him, wide-eyed and pale as winter. He made a funny noise that sounded like a hiccup and pulled Rob down into an awkward kiss.
Rob gasped against Lyle's mouth, the soft wet pulse of heat against his tongue. It *burned*, the hottest thing he'd felt in as long as he could remember. He moved closer instinctively, his feet catching and tangling in the wet fabric of Lyle's shirt. Stumbling, he shot out a hand to try to brace himself, jamming it against the tile, feeling the impact all the way to his shoulder. He grabbed Lyle with the other arm, curling it tight around his waist. The young man was shivering hard now, vibrating against Rob's chest, jolting and pushing him, and Rob knew it was an incredibly stupid idea but he bent his head and kissed Lyle hot and hard.
Lyle clutched at Rob's shoulders, and Rob pulled him closer. This was the first thing that had felt real since he'd felt the motorway drop out from underneath the van's wheels. Since they'd gone over the edge into the water. They'd been betrayed, all of them-- completely screwed-- and Rob hadn't forgotten it for a second. But just for a moment it all seemed distant. Like something that had happened somewhere else, far away, to different people. The water rushed down around them and Rob ran his hands up and down Lyle's skinny back, feeling him shudder. The heat and the sound and the sensation settled down around him like a warm blanket, something to shield him from the world outside. Something to shield both of them. Just for a little while.
There was a short knock at the door. Rob woke instantly. He'd cranked up the heat before tumbling into the bed with Lyle, and it was stifling hot in their little room now, dry as a desert with all the moisture baked out of the air. Rob glanced at Lyle, tangled in the thin comforter, his hair sticking out every which way. He jerked his gaze away as the knock came again. Rob tugged the sheet off the bed, hitching it around his waist and holding the knot together over his hip.
When he opened the door, the front desk girl blinked at him, her eyes flickering over his bare chest. Rob returned her smile automatically, leaning against the doorframe. "Yeah?"
"Laundry?" said the girl. "For you?" Almost unconsciously she raised a hand, pulling a pencil from her pinned-up hair. It tumbled around her shoulders, and she shook her head a bit to let the curls bounce free. Tucking her chin down, she smiled up at Rob from underneath her eyelashes.
"Right," Rob said. He glanced back over his shoulder at Lyle, still asleep. "Hang on a second."
He gathered their wet clothes quickly, everything they had, and wrapped it in the blanket folded neatly at the foot of the second bed. "They pretty much just need to be dry..."
She nodded enthusiastically. "Ja, ja. I bring you."
Rob grinned after her as she hurried away, then quickly shut the door. Still colder than brass outside.
"'Ja, I bring you,'" mocked a falsetto voice from the bed close to the door. "Maybe I also bring to you the sex!"
Rob said nothing. Keeping the sheet hitched around his waist, he went and sat down on the bed next to Lyle. He meant to be serious-- it was time to be serious, now-- but couldn't help a smile spreading over his face when Lyle sat up, his hair flattened and plastered out at different angles all over his head. Lyle smiled back, and finally Rob looked away with a sigh.
"Listen," he said, touching Lyle's wrist with two fingers. "Lyle--"
"Yeah, I know," Lyle said.
"Oh, yeah?" Rob glanced back, raising an eyebrow.
"Sure." Lyle stretched, rubbing at a purpling bruise on his arm. "Rule number one: don't get emotional. Right?"
Rob blinked. That actually summed it up pretty neatly. For a moment he was surprised, and then he wasn't. They were professionals, weren't they? They were the best. They both knew how this had to play out.
He nodded, finally. "That's about it."
"Great." Lyle said, his voice perfectly even, maybe even a little upbeat, and for a second Rob almost felt proud-- and underneath the pride there was something else, clutching at him like the inescapable push of inertia, slamming you back into the drivers' seat when you were driving way too fast, rounding curves at unsafe speeds. He looked down at his hands, curling them into fists and relaxing them. Once. Twice.
One time was just foolishness, a mistake that anybody could make, he told himself. Once could be explained: shock, stress, adrenaline, loss. Twice... that was just a bad decision. Stupid. He couldn't. *They* couldn't.
"I mean we're assuming here," Lyle said suddenly, "that we're still. I mean. That Charlie's still--"
"We're not assuming fucking anything," Rob said, his head snapping up. "We're still Charlie's crew. John said it-- there's nowhere Steve can go that we won't find him. We're going to find that bastard and we're going to finish the job."
Lyle's mouth quirked crookedly, and he nodded. "So... let's get some room service," he said, twisting around to grab the phone. Rob watched his shoulderblade work under his skin, and didn't reach out. Didn't touch. "I'm starving."
"Yeah," Rob said. "Me too."
ONE YEAR LATER
Rob and Charlie met up for basketball now and then, nothing regularly scheduled, but often enough to keep in touch. The others were off doing their own thing, flying under the radar, but Charlie made contact with them occasionally, too. They were still his crew, after all.
Tonight's game was a little tenser than usual. Rob was taller than Charlie and used to powering past his opponents. Not above throwing an elbow now and then. But Charlie was quick, and he knew how to fake out with the best of them-- there was a reason Left Ear called him Charlie Hustle. Tonight he was off his game, though, and it was starting to make Rob edgy. Charlie had seemed so sharp, so excited when he'd told Rob that he'd found Steve. Now, just as they were about to get their second chance... he seemed tired. Lost. Or maybe he'd been getting there for a while, and Rob just hadn't noticed it before.
Over the past year Charlie worked his ass off for each of them, getting them work when they needed cash, new IDs whenever they needed to move. Places to stay where they wouldn't be seen by those that were better off not seeing them. They hadn't been working together as a group, but Charlie had kept in contact, let them know what was going on and how close he was to finding Steve. The Italian job still wasn't over. It wouldn't be over till they'd *finished* it, once and for all. Rob grinned, faked past Charlie and shot another basket. It bounced off the rim, but he got it on the rebound.
"Pathetic," Rob taunted as he shot the ball to Charlie. "You're off your game tonight. Nerves?"
Charlie shook his head briefly, dribbling the ball one-handed for a moment. "Went to see Stella Bridger today."
"John's daughter?" Rob blinked. He'd never met her, but he knew Charlie had. Before. "Why?"
Charlie shrugged. "She's good. Always was. We're going to need her with us."
"Should've sent me to bring her in, then," Rob smirked. Charlie grinned back. "Seriously, Charlie-- she works for the cops, doesn't she?"
"She doesn't work *for* them, she works *with* them." Charlie said, like it made a difference. He stilled, then faked past Rob, their shoulders bumping. Rob shoved, trying to push him off-balance, but Charlie was too quick.
"Besides," Charlie said, dropping his eyes to the court for a second as he dribbled, "I owe her. I owe her this. She wants to be a part of it. She just doesn't know it yet."
"You asked and she turned you down," Rob translated, slapping out a hand to try and steal the ball, but Charlie twisted away. "Maybe you really should've sent me to fetch her in. Is she pretty?"
"Please." Charlie shook his head. "You think you've got any tricks Bridger's daughter wouldn't know?"
"Suppose that's the trouble," Rob said. "She knows yours, too."
Charlie shook his head. "No. I was straight with her."
"And she'll call."
"Sure she will." Rob nodded, smirking. He stepped back a bit, tired of dancing, giving Charlie an opportunity to advance down the court. "Come on, then, come on," he said as Charlie moved forward.
Charlie shot from the three-point line, making the basket, just as his cellphone rang. He hurried to answer it. Rob watched idly. The conversation was short, but Charlie seemed newly energized as he jogged back onto the court. "She's in."
Rob dribbled the ball once, waiting for Charlie to get back into position. "And that's a good thing?"
"Very good thing," Charlie said, ready again. "She can crack a Worthington 1000 without even flinching."
"I'm not sure having a civilian on the crew is a good idea, Charlie," Rob passed him the ball, breathing deeply.
Charlie shrugged it off, his eyes already distant, planning. "She's got the skill and she's got the motivation."
"Exactly," Rob said. "She's emotional. You know what happens when emotion gets into it."
Charlie's eyes narrowed. "Look, don't kid yourself, all right?" he said, and Rob blinked, startled at the roughness in his tone. "We're all emotional on this one. Now come on, let's go."
Rob frowned. It was true enough. Emotion never caused anything but trouble on the job, but sometimes it happened, and there was nothing you could do about it. Nothing *Rob* could do about it. The crew still had business to take care of.
Rob still had a job to do. He'd stay focused, he'd stay in the game. He owed John Bridger that much. When the crew re-united, he wouldn't be distracted. He'd be ready.
"Come on," Charlie taunted, trying to fake him out. "Come on, you ready?"
"Of course I am," Rob said with his best grin, and Charlie leaned right, laughing when Rob jerked off-balance to follow his movement.
"Oh, you're not ready."
They reunited a day or two later, under the California sun. All four together for the first time since Austria. Charlie looked good, easy in his skin, embracing each one of them with an arm around the shoulder and a pat on the back. Left Ear looked smooth as ever. Lyle had grown his hair out a bit, and he was wearing a battered brown leather jacket that made his hair look darker, his skin paler than usual-- though Rob didn't really know what was usual. He hadn't seen Lyle in too long, and it wasn't as if the little genius had ever gotten much sun. But the jacket was a good look for him. Made him look... well. Almost cool.
Bridger's daughter hung back, on the periphery of the group. Rob grinned at her once, and she smiled back, but there wasn't any heat in it, just a shivery sort of nervousness. She kept her distance, and she backed away, ready to leave as soon as Left Ear handed out the phones. She wasn't sure about any of them yet, not even Charlie.
It wasn't a good sign. On a job, you had to be either in or out. There was never room for halfway. It made Rob nervous.
"Hey Charlie--" Lyle called as the group broke up, beginning to scatter.
"Handsome!" Charlie said, without waiting for Lyle to finish. "Can you help him with the bike?" He was getting to be good at that, Rob thought. Fixing problems before you really even brought them to his attention. Just like John had been.
Rob crossed over to Lyle, standing there for a moment and grinning. Charlie and Bridger's daughter got back in her little car and scooted away, and Left Ear honked once before pulling away. The sound of the traffic on the overpass fifty feet overhead was strange, something like the ocean, lulling and soft. Rob took a short breath. Alone with Lyle. First time in a long time.
Lyle stood calmly, waiting. Rob approached, leaned over and pulled Lyle's bike upright, running his hands over the body. "Maybe a little too much power for you there, kid?"
A short laugh escaped Lyle's throat. "Don't call me kid."
"Hey," Rob said, reaching out and catching him by the shoulder. The leather of Lyle's jacket was hot under his hand, warmed by the sun. "I didn't mean anything by it. All right?"
Lyle stood still, staring at Rob until he took his hand away, and then he shrugged. "Sure. Sorry. Guess I'm just a little edgy." He looked away for a second, then back at Rob, his eyes dark and shadowed. "It's good to see you, man."
Rob nodded. "Been looking forward to working with this crew again."
"So I guess-- I guess I'll see you later, then." Lyle shifted awkwardly, then climbed clumsily onto his bike.
"Sure," Rob said, looking away, giving Lyle a little space. "Later."
Every time he'd seen Lyle, over the past year... he'd thought it would be different. Somehow it never was. Rob wasn't the type to get sentimental about a bit of fun, or a bit of comfort for that matter. But every time Lyle looked at him with those quick, dark eyes, Rob was back there in that little room, first so cold and then so *damned* hot. He could feel Lyle's muscles straining under his skin, feel the younger man's bitten nails digging into his shoulders and the pinpoint bruises that had risen afterwards, the pain sharp and then fading. Lyle had been holding on so tightly...
Lyle revved the engine on his bike, and Rob stepped back and gave him room to pull away. He watched as Lyle rode off. He really wasn't so bad on the straightaway, it was just the curves that were giving him trouble. He'd have to give the kid some tips later-- no, *Lyle*, Rob reminded himself. He'd have to give Lyle some tips later.
The planning went smoothly, day by day, as Rob had known it would. Charlie was brilliant with details, and good at the big picture, too. Even Stella seemed to be settling in, starting to toss around sarcastic insults and carry herself like one of the boys. She was still a bit edgy, but she was new. They'd all been green once. Rob thought she'd do all right.
It was late, and he was watching TV with his feet up when the knock came at the door. It was Charlie, and something about him snapped Rob to attention at once. "What the hell's wrong?"
"Nothing," Charlie said, "nothing," but he went straight to the minibar and pulled out a beer. Then he changed his mind and went for the Scotch. Rob raised an eyebrow.
"That's expensive stuff, you know," he said carefully as Charlie slugged back the contents of one of the tiny bottles.
"Hey," Charlie said, and pointed at him, twisting the top off the beer for a chaser. "You remember John's rule, right? About drinking alone. So I'm not alone, okay? But that doesn't mean I want to hear another lecture about getting emotional--" He snapped his mouth shut, but it was too late.
"Oh son," Rob said, scrubbing his hand over his face. "Oh, christ. You-- what did you do? Did you try to kiss her?"
"No!" Charlie said frantically, which made Rob sit up; this sounded like something even worse than a bad pass, and he didn't want to think about what 'worse' might actually be. Charlie paced towards the French doors that led out to the balcony of Rob's hotel room, then stuck his hands in the pockets of his pants and stared down at his shoes. "I just went to see her, to talk to her. She's going to go in and get us the video blueprint."
Rob nodded. She was Bridger's daughter, after all; he wasn't surprised. "And?"
"And... she was cracking a safe." Charlie said. "With her shirt off."
Rob blinked. "I hereby withdraw *my* objection to having her on the crew--"
"Jesus, Rob, grow up, would you? I didn't see anything, she was wearing a bra!" Charlie returned to the minibar, pressing the beer against his forehead. "It's just, she's so... She's gonna go do it, you know? This guy killed her *father* and she's going to go into his house."
"Oh, fucking hell," Rob groaned. He let himself fall back on the bed, reaching for a pillow to press over his face. "Charlie. Come over here. Take this pillow. *Kill* me, all right? But don't tell me you're falling for her."
"Look, you don't have to tell me," Charlie began. Rob just laughed, talking over him.
"I don't have to tell you? I think I do. *Somebody* does. It's going to distract you, and it's going to distract *her*. You know we can't afford that." He stood up and went to the minibar himself. There was only crappy American beer but god, *anything* to dull this ache in his head. He twisted the cap off, flicking it at Charlie. "Did you stop to think that if you break her heart, if you disillusion her in any way, she now knows enough about all of us to make things rather uncomfortable?"
"Stella wouldn't. She wouldn't do that to us."
"You don't know her!" Rob insisted. He grimaced at his open beer and left it on the counter. Stepping forward, he pushed his way into Charlie's personal space. He had three inches on Charlie, and maybe twenty pounds; it wasn't much help on the basketball court and it wasn't much use at the moment, either. Charlie glared back, not giving an inch. "Distraction. Emotion. Risk." Rob counted off on his fingers. "These are things we *don't* need--"
"Yeah, I know-- that's what John would say, if he were here. But he's not here, okay, Rob?" Charlie said. It came out rough and uneven, with absolutely none of his usual practiced cool. "And I don't need you pretending like you're him." Charlie swallowed hard, then turned away, unlatching the French doors and going out to stand on the balcony.
Rob sighed. He rummaged in the nightstand for his cigarettes and a lighter. Then he went out to join Charlie in the cool Hollywood night.
"Maybe I am and maybe I'm not," he said after a while.
Charlie glanced at him sideways. "What do you mean?"
"John was the best. Nobody doubts it," Rob said. "But he was also just a guy, you know?" Rob lit his cigarette, took a slow drag and let the smoke escape into the night. "If John were here?" he told Charlie quietly. "Don't hustle yourself, Charlie boy. He'd tell you to stop being such a puss about this and go get the girl."
Charlie blinked, and his eyes went distant for a second, like he was remembering something. "You think?"
"If he thought it would make you happy?" Rob stared out at Hollywood, at the lights glimmering in the darkness. "Hell yes, my boy. He'd tell you to grab on to her and not let go."
"He would," Charlie said, very quietly, and then something that sounded almost like, "he did."
"Right then," Rob said. He still wasn't sure it was such a good idea, but then, he wasn't a hundred percent sure that they were going to get the gold back from Steve, either. If Charlie and Stella could grab a little happiness from the wreckage of the Italian job, then... well, at least something good would have come from that utter fiasco.
"You know," Charlie said, and then stopped.
Rob exhaled smoke. "Yeah?"
"You know he'd say the same to you," Charlie said carefully. He didn't look over at Rob. His voice was under control again, and Rob took a second to marvel at Charlie's soft, casual tone. Talking like that, Charlie could lay out any crazy plan and make it sound like it made all the sense in the world.
"Dunno what you mean," he finally said.
"Yeah you do," Charlie said, still not looking at him.
"No, I don't." Rob said, his hand locked around the balcony's iron railing. He stopped when Charlie turned to look at him, eyebrows slightly raised.
"Hey," Charlie said. "I know you. You like to play it cool. I'm just saying..." He studied Rob for a moment, and Rob wondered what he was seeing. "I guess I'm just asking... how that's working out for you."
"It's working fine," Rob said flatly. Except that it obviously wasn't. Not if Charlie could tell. He cursed silently.
"Good," Charlie said. "Well, good." He slapped Rob's shoulder, turning to leave. "Thanks for the drink. And get some sleep." There was a slight smile on his face as he turned away.
Rob figured out what that smile was about the very next morning, when Lyle showed up at his door. "Didn't Charlie tell you?" he said, blinking. "You're with me today. We're gonna head over to the cable company, snag some gear for Stella."
"Didn't say anything about that to me," Rob said, but when he checked his messages, there it was. Damn Charlie. He didn't bother protesting further; that would've looked suspicious, now wouldn't it? And he had nothing to hide. They were just two members of Charlie's crew, going out on a job. There was no problem here.
There was no reason for Rob to have trouble focusing on the job. No reason for him to be irritable. *Rob* was fine. It was just that Lyle couldn't seem to shut up, chock-full of nervous energy for some reason, rattling on about Shawn Fanning and Napster and being on the cover of Wired magazine.
It wasn't like the little geek didn't do the same thing every day, sitting still in front of a computer for hours at a time, and by choice. So Rob didn't see why Lyle couldn't pull it together for a simple surveillance job.
Unless, he thought, the same thing that was getting to *him* was also getting to Lyle.
But that couldn't be. Could it?
"I think it's time you moved on. Don't you?" Rob finally broke into Lyle's tirade, and their eyes locked. He hadn't meant it to be anything but a jibe, but Lyle's eyes were narrow and knowing, and for a moment Rob was sure that Lyle could see everything he wasn't saying. "They shut him down-- wish they'd do the same to you," he muttered, and it broke the spell, Lyle turning away in irritation.
"Hah, Becky," Lyle focused his camera in on the cable girl's chest. "Nice name-- wonder what she calls the other one."
Rob kept the binoculars in front of his eyes. All right, he'd said move on, but not this *second*. "And it's such a mystery why you don't have a girlfriend, Lyle."
He saw Lyle twitch in his peripheral vision. The younger man started mumbling again, this time talking strictly business about the van, the surveillance. Rob felt guilty again, a tangled morass of emotions pulling him in ten different directions at once. He *did* want Lyle to move on, didn't he? He'd said so, hadn't he?
Felt wrong, though, having to listen to Lyle appreciate a woman's charms. Christ, Rob was sitting right *next* to him. You wouldn't say that kind of thing in front a woman you'd... well. That you'd been with.
At least Rob wouldn't. He didn't know about Lyle.
"You think Stella can pull it off?" Lyle asked him.
"I have my doubts," Rob said. He certainly hoped so, of course, but you couldn't expect the girl to stay completely on her game with Charlie pretending this was some kind of romantic comedy they were all involved in. "No talking to Charlie, though."
"You think he's..." Lyle trailed off, grinning, and slipped into another of his silly accents. "Mixing business with pleasure?"
Rob grinned back, but he felt cold inside, his gut twisting as he reached for the handle of the door. "He should know better, shouldn't he? Only I'm allowed to do that."
Lyle acknowledged him with a tip of the head. "Right... Hey, where you going?"
Rob shook his head. He had to get out of the car. He had to get *Lyle* out of his head, out from under his skin. And if it helped the job along-- all the better. "To get a work shirt and a service truck."
And to get a memory of heat and touch and connection that didn't have anything to do with *Lyle*.
The next day, as they were all about to load into the van and head out to Steve's, Charlie stopped him with a hand on his arm. "How'd it go yesterday?"
Rob raised an eyebrow. "We got the van, didn't we?"
"Not what I meant. You all right with Lyle?" Charlie asked.
"You mean the Napster?" Rob said. God damn Charlie. What did he think he was playing at? The afternoon Rob had spent in Becky's bed hadn't done a thing to dull the memories of Lyle in Austria. It had been easy with Becky. Playful. They'd left emotion out of it, and it had been... fun, and that was that.
Nobody had gotten bruised. Nobody had gotten hurt when Rob left. *Rob* hadn't had any second thoughts about leaving. Los Angeles and the Alps had never seemed so far apart.
Charlie grinned, as if reading Rob's mind. "I know he can get a little intense--"
"He's fine, I'm fine. We got the job done, didn't we?" Rob said.
"Yeah," Charlie said. "Just like you always do." He smiled, and for once Rob didn't know what to say... except that later, of course, he did. He was watching Charlie take the flag pin from Lyle's hands and pin it on Stella, and those perfect hands, the hands of a master card shark and a pickpocket and a thief-- they were shaking. Just the slightest bit. Lyle and Left Ear didn't see, but Rob was watching, and he did.
And Stella-- Stella was looking back at Charlie, his head bent as he worked, carefully, to fasten the pin at just the right angle, and Rob saw a tenderness there that made him grit his teeth. He knew what it looked like when a woman decided to trust you. He saw it all the time, usually right before he skipped out on the check.
Stella Bridger wasn't a mark, though. She knew Charlie, knew he was a hustler, and she was trusting him anyway. Working with him. And more than that. That look in her eyes...
"Just want you to know," Rob said quickly, surprising even himself. "I think you're very brave, going in there." Stella looked up at him, startled, and he met her gaze. "I know it won't be easy."
"I second that," said Left Ear, but it was Charlie that Stella looked to, Charlie that she smiled at.
"It's going to be fine," she said, and Charlie smiled back, and they laughed together, stumbling over John Bridger's old joke about what it really meant to be 'fine.' And for just a blink Rob knew what Steve must have felt like, standing there in the Alps with his fucking black heart. The liar, the outsider, who'd never have what John Bridger's crew-- his *real* crew-- had grown to have with each other. It was easy enough for Stella and Charlie to make a connection, wasn't it? Not so easy for Rob to have what he wanted.
And he wanted it, he realized, as Lyle moved over to sit next to him so that they could all see the video display from Stella's camera. Lyle smelled like sweat and like old leather, like the seats of an Aston Martin Vanquish, and in that moment, Rob had never wanted anything more.
Over the next few days, of course, he realized he'd been wrong. It wasn't easy for Stella and Charlie. Nothing was ever easy in the life they lived-- worth it, sure, but never easy. It was just that Stella was damned *brave*. She didn't flinch when the plan fell through and she had to go to dinner with Steve. She went through with it. She went in. Watching from behind a convenient corner, Rob thought that a woman who could sit and flirt with a monster like that... she could, and probably would, do just about anything.
And that, he supposed, was the difference. She'd been willing to join their crew; she was half in love with Charlie already if Rob knew the signs, and he thought he did. She'd made the choice. She'd let emotion in, no matter the risk. Maybe he could learn a little something from a woman like that, even if she was a civilian.
When things went south and Stella signaled them to step in, Rob wanted nothing more than to pick up a knife from the table and cut out Steve's lying tongue. He wanted it even more when Steve called John Bridger a coward, but he followed Charlie's lead and pulled Stella back before she could do any damage to her hands. He guided her away, leaving Charlie at the table with Steve, and Left Ear hanging back to watch out for him.
Stella was silent as Rob steered her out of the restaurant, but she stopped him just as they stepped outside, under the awning decorated with a thousand tiny lights that led out into the parking lot. The lights sparkled in her hair as she folded against him, and Rob sighed. He put his arms around her. Stella didn't cry, but she shook in his arms, churning like an engine, fueled by grief or fear or rage. Or all three. He stroked her hair, reflexively, and Stella took a deep breath, pulling herself together. She stepped away, pasting on a smile like a mask. "Thank you."
"I see you're fine?" Rob said, only a slight lilt on the last word to let her know he was teasing.
"Yeah," Stella said. "Fine." She pressed her lips together, eyes bright. "We're going to get him. Tell me we're going to get him."
"We are," Rob said. "Charlie said so, didn't he?"
Stella nodded to herself. "Yeah. Charlie said so."
A car door slammed out in the parking lot, and Lyle dashed up to them. "Hey, what's going on?"
Rob glanced at the valet, close enough to overhear, and the three of them moved down along the sidewalk outside the restaurant. Tall trees in wide clay pots provided some privacy, and Stella shook her head again. "I blew it. I blew it. *Stupid*..."
"No. No you didn't," Rob said. He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "Come on. You did great. Take it from a master, I know."
She gave him a half-smile, but it wobbled. "I'm going to go back to the hotel. Tell Charlie I'm-- I didn't mean--" She shook her head, and the smile slipped further. "I'll be at the hotel."
She disappeared around the curve of potted trees again. Lyle stared at Rob, wide-eyed. "So?" he said under his breath, waiting for Stella to get far enough away. "What? What?"
"We blew it," Rob said with a shrug. "We're fucked. Wasn't her fault. It all happened too fast, right? Charlie's in there talking to him now."
"Shit," Lyle said, taken aback, his eyes wide and flickering back and forth in sudden thought. "So basically, we lost our one advantage. Goodbye element of surprise."
"Hm," Rob said, "You think that really helps?"
"What are you *talking* about? Of course it--" Lyle broke off as Rob put his arm around Lyle's shoulders. Pulling him close, he bent his head to kiss him there in the dark, with the twinkling lights from the awning glittering in through the thick mesh of the trees.
Lyle was tense in his arms, and then he jerked his arm up and hooked it around Rob's neck, holding him there with their mouths pressed together. It was slow only for that first second and then the kiss turned hot, desperate. It was the way they'd kissed in Austria near the border, like they'd been dying, like they were freezing to death. Lyle tasted of coffee and spearmint gum, and Rob bit at his lip gently, inhaled and pulled back.
"So," he said. "How long have you been tapping my phone?"
"What?" Lyle said, and then laughed. "Oh, come on. No. No, I said I tapped my ex's phone. Why would you think that meant you? We never. I mean we didn't. We didn't *date*. It wasn't serious. No emotion, right? You don't... I..."
Rob just smiled, very slowly, and waited for him to run down.
"So we... I... Okay, all right, okay." Lyle flipped a hand casually in the air. "Just recently. Just the last couple of weeks, before we got back together for job. Maybe a month or two--" he said, and snickered under his breath as Rob put a hand on the side of his head, pushing him playfully away. "I just, I..." He caught Rob's wrist, stopping him. "I wanted to hear your voice. I missed you."
"You're such a girl," Rob teased, sliding his hand down to cup Lyle's face.
"You missed me," Lyle said, his whole face alight with victory. "Since that time, that time in Austria. You missed me too."
Rob tipped his head back, staring up at the smoggy night sky. "Maybe a bit."
"Maybe a bit," Lyle mocked, tapping Rob's ribcage with his fists. "Whatever you say, Mister Handsome."
They both fell silent as they heard the restaurant doors swing open wide, and the footsteps of two men in a hurry burst out onto the sidewalk. "Hey," Charlie said as he rounded the corner, "where's Stella?"
"She went back to the hotel," Lyle said. "Said to tell you, uh, something or other. She was kinda upset."
"You'd best go after her," Rob said. He stepped close, looking Charlie in the eye. "Go and tell her, Charlie. Tell her what John told you."
Charlie blinked at him, and then his jaw firmed, and he nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I think I will." He looked over Rob's shoulder at Lyle. His mouth quirked, and he looked back at Rob. "And you remember what I told you."
"Piss off," Rob told him. Charlie mock-saluted and headed for his car.
"Suppose that means you boys are riding with me," Left Ear said, turning to head for the last vehicle the crew had taken to back up Stella. "You guys should've seen Charlie in there, man."
"Yeah?" Lyle said. "He still didn't tell me what happened-- what happened?"
Rob reached out as Left Ear took the lead, curling his hand around Lyle's neck as they walked. It could've just been a friendly gesture. Didn't necessarily mean Rob was letting emotion dictate his actions.
"Shoulda seen it!" Left Ear crowed. "Our boy's got a hell of a right hook. Either that or Steve's just a weak-ass little man."
"Oh, you're kidding me. He *hit*--" Lyle started, but the words wobbled out of his mouth unevenly as Rob stroked his thumb up the side of Lyle's neck. Lyle turned to him, startled. Rob grinned.
"Quit playing footsie and get in the car, loverboys," Left Ear said.
Rob froze. "Very funny, Lefty."
Left Ear turned, smirking. Rob supposed his challenge would've been more believable if he'd taken his hand off Lyle's neck first, but Left Ear didn't look surprised at all. "Please," he said. "I'm half deaf, not completely blind. You two think you're keeping it on the down low? Yeah, right."
"Huh," Rob said.
"Oh," Lyle said.
"In the car," Left Ear gestured impatiently.
They got in the car.
"This is stupid," Rob said, backing Lyle into his room at the hotel.
"Your mom's stupid," Lyle retorted. Rob shook his head and pushed Lyle back onto the bed. Lyle bounced, laughing, and started to unzip his jeans.
"Hey now." Rob took his jacket off and dropped it over a chair. "Slowly, hey? We have time. We're not gonna freeze."
"I might explode." Lyle said.
"If I wanted explosions, I'd fuck Left Ear," Rob said crudely. Lyle snickered, kicking off his shoes and letting them fall off the end of the bed.
It was like Austria and it was nothing like Austria at all at all. Rob didn't wait for Lyle to take off anything but his shoes, just pounced him, pushing him down. They wrestled for a bit, and Lyle's chuckling laughter was the loudest thing in the world. Rob ended up on top, Lyle face-down beneath him, his hand locked around Lyle's wrist, pinning it down to the small of his back.
"You wanna do me?" Lyle breathed, and Rob's grip tightened despite himself.
"Hey," Lyle said, wriggling underneath him, "you don't actually have to twist my arm."
Rob muffled his laugh in the short hair at the back of Lyle's neck. Last time everything had happened too fast, too hard, their muscles tight with cold and aching from their unplanned crash into the river. He'd actually been tenser then, even though then Steve hadn't been coming for them then, and he would be now. There was actually something kind of calming about being totally and completely screwed.
"Steve knows we're alive," he murmured in Lyle's ear.
"Aw, c'mon," Lyle said. He was still lying obediently under Rob, not trying to get away, but his tone was pure dismissal. "Is that what this is about? You wanna have sex 'cause you think we're gonna die?"
"He can pay off every snitch, every connection, every fucking thug and hit man--" Rob began.
"You are such a pessimist. You never think it's gonna work, and it always does. You gotta trust Charlie," Lyle said breathlessly into the pillow, and then he twisted around for real until Rob let him go. Lyle wrapped his arm around Rob's neck again, the way he'd done before, and didn't let him look away. "You gotta trust *me*."
"Ah," Rob said. "I see. You're going to stop Steve all by yourself, then?"
"I'm not talking about Steve any more," Lyle said. "And you know it. Do you trust me?"
Rob didn't say anything, just laid a soft kiss on Lyle's mouth, pushing him down into the softness of the bed. Lyle was warm underneath him, startlingly so. Rob half expected the younger man's breath to puff into steam when he breathed hot over Rob's skin.
"Charlie knows. Left Ear knows," Lyle said. "They don't care."
"Sure," Rob said. "Nothing left to worry about. Except the fact that we've blown our cover and we're probably all going to die. We're done."
"Your pessimism is oddly sexy." Lyle groaned. Rob slipped his thigh between Lyle's, rubbing up against his lean body, feeling him hot and hard against his own hip.
"Thanks, that's what I was going for," he said, gritting his teeth.
"Charlie will think of something!" Lyle said. Rob's free hand slid up under Lyle's shirt, finding his right nipple and twisting it, sharply. Lyle cut himself off with a hiss. "Now let's stop talking about the job."
"Yeah," Rob said. "Yeah..." He meant to say something else, something cynical, but he ended up saying "So fucking sexy," as he stroked down over Lyle's belly, feeling the muscles over his stomach contract at his touch. Lyle groaned as Rob thrust against him burying his face in Rob's shoulder.
"Just like this, huh?" Rob murmured.
"Yeah," Lyle said, squirming, desperate now. He tried to scoot back, probably wanting to get his clothes off-- Rob's own jeans were starting to pain him. But Rob held him down, kissing him hotly.
"Wait," he said. "Wait."
He put his mouth to Lyle's throat, sucking a hot kiss into the skin, and Lyle jittered helplessly underneath him. Rob was incredibly hard, and he dragged his hips against Lyle once, again. He wanted it just like this, like a couple of teenagers. Like something that wasn't planned, wasn't even very *smart*. Something desperate. Raw emotion. He wanted something that would shake him down to his bones. Something he'd feel for weeks. Less like a bruise and more like a fracture.
He ended up flat on his back on the bed, shirt half-open, pants unzipped just enough for Lyle to suck him off. Lyle worked his cock with wicked expertise and the playfulness that had always been the sexiest thing about him, and Rob tried to hold out, tried to make it last, and then Lyle's eyes flickered up to his and that was it, total goddamn crash and burn, waves of heat and electricity rippling up his spine.
"Come here," he said, when he could breathe again, and Lyle finished stripping off his clothes and landed on top of him. Rob slid his hand down, finding Lyle's cock and working it fast and hard, the way Lyle had liked it in Austria. Lyle flushed and turned his head away, just like before, screwing his face up as he got close. This time Rob let himself do what he'd wanted to do, even then-- he took Lyle's face in his hand and turned it back, tapping his cheek slightly to make him open his eyes. To make him look at Rob. They both knew who was doing this, who they were touching and what it meant. There'd be no hiding, no going back now.
"Rob," Lyle gasped, and came in his hand, shaking. Rob kissed him until he made a tiny yawning noise and fell asleep in the middle of a kiss, head tucked into Rob's shoulder. Rob stroked his back, and thought about going out for a cigarette.
Finally he just leaned over and turned off the lamp next to the bed. Their plans were ruined, Steve was tipped off, and tomorrow everything might change... but right now, in this moment? He couldn't really make himself care. He'd let Charlie worry about tomorrow. Charlie had a good head on his shoulders, didn't he? When he said something would happen, he was usually right, and it usually went off like clockwork.
Rob pressed a kiss to Lyle's forehead, feeling Lyle breathe soft and warm against his neck. Everything would work out for the best, he thought. And even if it didn't, they'd still have each other. People they could trust. People who'd watch their backs, no question. Charlie and Stella and Left Ear and Rob and Lyle.
Just like the Italian job.