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Play the Game Like You Have Nothing to Lose

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Daniel Ocean walks away from Benedict's vault a rich man. He dreamed the perfect con—he saw it through from start to finish—watched the team Rusty chose perform their parts with humbling skill. And in the end Danny still loses. Because this job was never about the money; it was about winning back the only thing Danny ever truly lost.

Knowing Tess doesn't want him hurts like hell, but Danny can't blame her. He only lied about one thing, but he still lied from the start, lied every single day of their marriage. There's no taking back a wrong like that. It doesn't matter if lying is easier than breathing, or if he always promised himself he would tell her the truth someday. Doesn't matter either that Danny would've told her the truth for the rest of their lives if Tess had taken him back.

Sometimes a man fucks up too badly to deserve a second chance.

Rusty drives clear across the country to pick him up the day Danny is released. After five and a half months inside, seeing Rusty is both a relief and a kick to the shins. The shirt Rusty's wearing is truly horrendous, and the convertible he's chosen for the trip is a piece of shit. But he's here. Eating a greasy cheeseburger and loitering in the parking lot as though he's got no better place to be.

Rusty crumples the wrapper around his unfinished burger and tosses it into a trash bin three feet away. "You look like shit."

"You need a shave," Danny counters, following Rusty across the lot. He takes in the landscape without turning his head, but the sun's glare is too bright. "Where are they?"

"Back row. Silver sedan, ten o'clock."

Danny sees them now. The two oversized toughs who escorted him for his scheduled beating at the Bellagio. No wonder Rusty drove such an underwhelming car to retrieve him.

It's not until Danny sees the convertible's empty backseat that he realizes how much he was hoping, against all reason, to find Tess along for the ride. He circles the car to the passenger seat and slides in without a word. He's still wearing his wedding ring.

"I talked to her." Rusty is already behind the wheel, and the slam of the driver's side door is jarring in the noonday quiet. "Twice. I thought maybe I could bring her around." Rusty can be persuasive as hell, and Danny appreciates the effort, but he could have told Rusty not to waste his breath. Tess said everything there was to say outside the Bellagio. She never raised her voice, but it wasn't the kind of goodbye anyone could argue past. Not even Rusty.

"Thanks," Danny says, because he knows Rusty had to try.

The silver sedan follows as Rusty shifts the car into gear, leaving the graveled parking lot for open road. When Rusty picks up extra speed, it's only to toy with their shadows. There's no rush to disappear. Their hard won money's not going anywhere, and Benedict can't make a move without more to go on. That leaves Danny and Rusty all the time in the world.

Neither of them speaks as Rusty merges onto the highway and shifts into high gear. Rusty doesn't ask unwelcome questions like what next or where to. Danny's grateful. For the first time in his life he doesn't have answers to those questions.

Rusty's silence gives him a free pass—at least for now—and Danny settles back to enjoy the drive.

- — - — - — - — - — -

They shake Benedict's thugs just after sunset, then ditch Rusty's clunker in a parking lot behind an all-night diner. Plenty of other cars fill the cramped lot. By the time Benedict's goons track the vehicle down—if they manage to track it down—they'll be hours too late to pick up the trail.

Danny and Rusty take a taxi to the airport and fly business class to Des Moines. Danny's never liked Iowa, but it's low profile. Perfect for staying under the radar and figuring out a next move. Perfect, too, for checking into an overpriced hotel and ordering a bottle of merlot with room service. He drinks to his freedom, and to his failed marriage.

He's finished the food—an uninspired chicken parmesan—and half the bottle of wine, so he's a little unsteady when a knock at his door summons him to his feet. Sloppy, considering the slim but extant chance of Benedict finding him here, but Danny doesn't care. He'd almost welcome a fight.

Maybe he's more drunk than he thought.

There's no particular pattern, no distinct rhythm, but he recognizes Rusty in the persistent tapping anyway. When he peers through the peephole to be sure, he sees Rusty standing there with a fresh bottle in one hand, the stems of two empty wine glasses clasped in the other. The gaudy shirt is gone, replaced with a simple blue button-up that sits snug across Rusty's shoulders.

Danny opens the door and gestures Rusty into the room. Rusty's face is freshly shaved, his feet bare, his expression unreadable. As the door swings shut with a quiet click, Danny stuffs both hands in his pockets and arches one eyebrow.

Rusty shrugs. "Figured you'd be done with the merlot about now. Brought you a pinot noir to chase it with."

Danny hasn't been working quite that fast, but he still appreciates the gesture and the company. He cocks his head toward the couch, heading that direction himself. The television is already muted; Danny wasn't watching it anyway.

They both kick their feet up on the coffee table when they sit. And even though Danny's half-full glass of merlot still sits near his crossed ankles, Rusty twists the metal cap off the pinot noir and fills the two glasses he brought with him. He pours generously—tomorrow's hangover will be well earned—and hands one of the glasses over.

"Sorry things didn't play out like you hoped," Rusty says, and Danny hears a dozen unspoken sentiments behind the words. Sorry about Tess. Sorry the fourteen million isn't really what you wanted. Sorry you're stuck with me tonight.

"Thanks." Thanks for being here. Thanks for watching my back. Thanks for trying, even if you couldn't convince her to give me another chance.

They drink in companionable silence. Rusty doesn't ask stupid questions. Danny doesn't try to make small talk. Eventually Rusty fishes for the TV remote and turns the volume on. I Love Lucy's a little too incoherent without sound, though even with it Danny isn't really watching. He's busy counting the rhythm of his own heartbeat. He's busy listening to Rusty breathe, lazy and comfortable beside him. He's busy not thinking about Tess.

"I knew it wouldn't work." Danny's voice sounds rough as sandpaper in the laugh track-filled quiet. "Or I should have, anyway." Tess is a museum curator, and an honest one. Danny is a thief. He should damn well have known he couldn't rescue his marriage using the same methods that ended it in the first place. He can't blame Tess for not welcoming a proven thief and liar back into her life. Problem is, Danny's never met a problem he didn't try to con his way out of.

When all you have is a hammer...

"Fourteen million's a hell of a consolation prize." Rusty's eyes are sharp despite the amount of wine he's helped Danny drink, but there's sympathy in them. Not pity—Rusty's too good a friend to offer uninvited pity—but quiet support that warms Danny's chest. Even this simple, honest sympathy would be hard to swallow coming from anyone else, but Rusty is a whole different story.

"It was never really about the money," Danny admits.

The smile Rusty gives him is uncharacteristically sad. "I know."

By the time the pinot noir is gone, they've slumped so far into each other's space that it's like a contest to see who can get closest to center of the couch. They share space easily—always have—and even though this mutual proximity is nothing but wine and laziness, Danny finds it comforting. There's something pleasant in the way Rusty drapes an arm across the back of the couch to steady himself, then doesn't move it when Danny's head lolls against Rusty's shoulder. A car backfires on the television in noisy black and white, and Danny realizes this isn't I Love Lucy anymore. He's got no idea what show they're watching now. But the backfire makes him chuckle with fuzzy memories.

"Remember that time Saul tried to—"

"Yeah," Rusty says, and Danny can hear the smile in his voice. "Only of course he couldn't. He forgot to bring the—"

"Even if he'd remembered." Danny's protest is noticeably slurred. "Wouldn't have worked. And anyway the car wasn't a manual transmission."

"I wonder where Saul is tonight," Rusty murmurs. Danny wonders, too. He wonders where the others have hidden themselves. He hopes they're safe, hopes they're happy, still riding high off the perfect heist. Like Danny should be but isn't.

"I miss her." It aches just how much. Imagining his apology—picturing their inevitable reunion—got him through a lot of low times in the joint. Even at his worst, he never seriously considered the possibility of Tess simply moving on with her life.

"Yeah," Rusty says. Simple. One word to convey that Rusty understands, as completely as though Danny managed to find words for the mess of heartbreak and disappointment in his chest. That's the beauty of this particular friendship: Danny never has to find words when things are too difficult to say. Rusty will meet him halfway no matter what.

- — - — - — - — - — -

Danny doesn't remember falling asleep, but he wakes on the couch. His head pounds and his tongue feels fuzzy, but otherwise he's more comfortable than he should be. Probably because Rusty managed to pry Danny's shoes off and lay him lengthwise across the cushions before disappearing. There are two aspirin sitting on the coffee table beside a tall glass of water, illuminated by a sliver of sunlight that sneaks between imperfectly drawn curtains.

Danny considers moving, but his eyes are gritty and his skull is throbbing, and the water and aspirin will still be there in an hour. He closes his eyes and fades quickly again into sleep.

- — - — - — - — - — -

Rusty leaves him in peace the entire day. Room service delivers a decent club sandwich when Danny manages to stand and shower and order lunch. But Rusty will have made dinner reservations somewhere extravagant. Even in a relative nowhere like Des Moines, Rusty will hunt up the best steakhouse available. Rusty's not usually picky—his appetite is too insatiable to be a diva about food—but he appreciates a good meal more than anyone else Danny knows.

So when Rusty knocks on his door just after five, Danny's suit is already laid out across the bed.

"What time are our reservations?" Danny asks as Rusty steps into the room.

"Seven."

"We taking a cab?"

"Walking." Rusty grins. "It's only two blocks south."

That night, over an enormous steak (medium rare) and a glass of expensive wine (zinfandel), Danny asks, "What happens now?"

"Now you dream up a fresh job."

Danny takes his time savoring his next bite. He never takes his eyes off Rusty. He swallows, takes an appreciative sip of wine. "A job," he echoes. "You realize our last payday means we never have to work again."

Rusty just watches Danny over the rim of his own raised wine glass. Silence. Synergy. Danny snorts wryly.

"You're right. Stupid thing to say. So what'd you have in mind?"

"You tell me." Rusty's smile is all teeth. "You're the idea man."

Danny raises his glass, but this time he doesn't drink. He rocks the wine gently in his hand, swirling the deep burgundy liquid in slow circles. "Something small for now. Just the two of us. We need to keep our heads down for a while." He's got no doubt Terry Benedict is still looking for them.

Rusty nods. "You'll think of something."

Danny's mind is already racing as he takes another bite of his steak.

- — - — - — - — - — -

"There's this guy in Tampa," Danny announces over breakfast the next morning. He sits across from Rusty in a secluded booth, a quiet corner of the hotel's restaurant on the ground floor. "Cameron Lindt. The guy rear ended me on purpose once, just because I outbid him on a painting at an estate auction. He's not in the game. Just an asshole. But I've always wanted to do something to even the score."

Rusty smirks. "He collect anything disgustingly valuable?"

Danny mirrors Rusty's expression. "Classic movie posters. Rumor says his most recent acquisition cost him around seventy grand, but I know for a fact his prize piece is worth even more."

"It's no Vegas casino." Contagious mischief has spread to Rusty's eyes where they meet Danny's own. "But it'll do. What's this prize piece?"

"Metropolis," Danny says. "The genuine cinema artifact from nineteen twenty-seven. There are fewer than half a dozen of the original posters confirmed to exist, and Lindt's has been appraised at almost two million dollars."

"Insurance?" Rusty checks, though Danny can tell Rusty's along for the ride regardless.

"Of course. You think I'm a complete monster? I just want a little payback, I don't want to ruin the guy's whole year."

Rusty slouches against the tall back of the booth, his shifting weight making the vinyl cushions creak. The glint of anticipation looks good on his handsome face. "Tell me more about Cameron Lindt."

- — - — - — - — - — -

As challenges go, this job is far beneath them, but Danny doesn't mind. It's nice to have somewhere to aim his energies when his mood takes a sullen turn. Rusty seems just as untroubled by the simplicity of their task. They won't need to call anyone else in; any number of two-man cons will be enough to get them into their target's private gallery.

"Will Lindt recognize your face?" Rusty asks as they meander through noisy crowds along Tampa's evening-cool sidewalks. They've already checked into suites at the Waterside Marriott. The streets around them are chilly with wind gusting in from the marina. Every block or so, the waterfront comes visible through the tall gray of surrounding buildings.

"Doubt it." Danny's eyes take in everything as they walk, cataloguing details from the mundane to the useful. "It happened five years ago. I never met him before or since. Like I said, he's not in the game. As far as he knew, I was just some citizen willing to pay more than he was."

"Why were you buying a painting, anyway?"

Danny shrugs, but the gesture isn't half so careless as he intends. It's a fair question. Danny knows art—there are days he genuinely loves it—but he's not a collector. What joy he gets from possessing a fine piece generally comes from the challenge of obtaining it, and is short-lived to boot. A man could drive himself to madness trying to hold on to everything.

Legitimately purchasing a piece of art, that's not a thing Danny usually goes in for. He could try to argue it was cover for a larger con, but there's no point. He's never lied to Rusty, except by omission. Even if he tried now, the lie would never take. His partner knows him too well.

"It was for Tess," Danny admits. "Chen Yanning is her favorite painter, and this piece... It was too good to pass up." He doesn't bother explaining why he bought the painting instead of stealing it. He may have lied to Tess about his occupation, but Tess is smart. If he'd gifted her a valuable painting without being able to prove its provenance, she'd have sussed out who Danny really was a whole lot sooner.

This time, as Danny's mind tilts into memory, he finds it easier to think about Tess without falling into sullen distraction. Maybe it's because he's on a fresh mission, simplistic as it is. Maybe it's Rusty by his side, comprehending without a single unnecessary word. Maybe it's simply the new day, new chapter, new outlook of abruptly letting go. A heavy patch of crowd passes, parting around Danny and Rusty on the sidewalk, and Rusty's arm bumps Danny's shoulder as they continue on. Danny glances over, but Rusty's eyes are facing forward. His expression is watchful, taking in their surroundings with every step, but there's unworried ease in the slow sweep of his eyes. There's carelessness in the way his lips move around the stick of the tootsie pop he's been working since they set out.

Danny turns right when they reach Jackson Street, and Rusty follows without missing a beat. Jackson is a wider thoroughfare, and busier, too. Danny keeps his hands in his his pockets as he walks, letting several blocks pass in uncomplicated silence.

He stops at the base of an enormous building. The edifice takes up a massive corner of city block, and the placard high on the wall of the building reads 303. Several glass doors stretch along the front of the building, people coming and going, allowing glimpses of a marble-floored foyer. At the center of the lineup, a revolving door turns at an automatic, steady pace.

"This it?" Rusty tilts his head back to take in more of the building.

"Yup." Danny keeps his own eyes at street level, constantly vigilant. "He doesn't own the entire high-rise, but he's got a heavy stake in it. It's mostly commercial, but Lindt has a penthouse apartment on the seventy-third floor."

"He keep his collection in the apartment?"

"Gallery on the seventy-fourth. Not just the movie posters, but art pieces and at least one car."

"How's his security."

"Best money can buy," Danny murmurs. "He contracts out to the same security firm that handles the commercial section of the building. They're thorough, reliable, and privately run. There's only one door into the gallery, and there are never fewer than two guards on duty."

"Right." Rusty pulls the sucker from his mouth, taps it thoughtfully against his lower lip. "Well, first things. We need to get close enough to work."

Danny turns once more along the street. He waits until Rusty falls into step beside him to speak. "I've got some thoughts on that."

- — - — - — - — - — -

In the end, getting close to their target looks to be laughably easy. Cameron Lindt may be an asshole, but he's a sociable one, fond of showing off his successes. Danny and Rusty have only been in Tampa a matter of days before they get word of a party he's throwing—in his own expansive penthouse—to show and celebrate his newest triumph. The set of three posters—all original Breakfast at Tiffany's variants—are to be displayed under heavy guard in Lindt's private ballroom.

"He has a ballroom. In his apartment." Danny shouldn't be aghast at the thought. For one thing, Reuben's probably got half a dozen homes just as lavish. For another, with his own carefully stashed winnings from the Bellagio, Danny could certainly afford to make just as extravagant a spectacle of himself. But somehow he still finds the idea distasteful, one gaudy step too far. From the commiserating look Rusty throws him, Danny knows he's not the only one.

But the party locale should work to their advantage, keeping attention—not to mention the most potent security—focused inside the penthouse, while the gallery one floor above sees no traffic at all. It's only a matter of reaching the seventy-fourth floor unnoticed, suckering their way past the security guards, and getting through the door.

"The door can only be opened with a key card," Rusty mumbles around a spoonful of chocolate ice cream, "and Lindt has the only one. Also the elevator won't even stop on the seventy-fourth floor without Lindt's private security code."

"So we'll need both." Danny pulls off his sunglasses and crosses the threshold into Rusty's hotel suite. They've been about their separate business all day, pursuing different tasks in the name of efficiency. Rusty's recon efforts have clearly been successful, but Danny's been busy, too. "I've secured our cover stories, and two invites to Lindt's shindig." The gala will be on Friday night. That gives them five days to square away everything they need. They won't need all five days to prepare, which means a quiet week of waiting. Their roles are parts they've played a dozen times. They won't need to rehearse.

"The code should be easy to get from the building's tech administrator." Rusty drops his plastic spoon in the empty ice cream cup and sets it on top of the dresser. "I'll pay her a visit tomorrow. But Lindt keeps the key card on his person. We'll have to swipe it at the gala."

"Sounds good." Danny nods. "I'm busy tomorrow anyway. Need to pick up a couple props." Then, even though he already knows the answer he asks, "Do you have dinner plans?"

Rusty grins, because it's nearly six p.m. and even though he's just eaten an enormous scoop of ice cream, he's clearly onboard for something more substantial. Danny wonders what would happen if Rusty tried to go a day without constantly eating, but he can't picture any such world. Rusty's metabolism would probably put him in a coma.

"There's an Italian place up the street I wouldn't mind trying."

"You're buying," Danny says, and turns for the door.

- — - — - — - — - — -

Danny expects the excess of downtime before the job to make him antsy, but somehow it doesn't. Maybe it's because the 'job' is more like a cake-walk, direct and simple as they come. Maybe it's the change in scenery. Maybe it's the company he's keeping.

Maybe it's the way Rusty is always underfoot, nudging past Danny's personal space, breaking into his hotel room, stealing his television remote. Kicking his legs across the couch so that his feet land in Danny's lap like they belong there. Rusty's never had proper boundaries where Danny is concerned, and Danny's never wanted them anyway. He looks at Rusty now, catching his profile. Rusty is smiling, a reaction to whatever nonsense is playing across the TV screen, and Danny is surprised at the kick of warmth he feels in response.

Rusty may be his best friend and partner, but Danny's never been one to wallow in sentiment. Maybe he's overdue. It's significant that Rusty is here, that Rusty is pulling an idiotically easy con with him, for no other reason than Danny's own spite and need for distraction.

If Rusty notices Danny's close perusal, he gives no indication.

When Rusty finally leaves, it's well past midnight and neither of them says a word.

- — - — - — - — - — -

The con itself is disgustingly simple: Danny is a former Air Force colonel with connections in the private sector, a friend of a friend of a friend with tangential overlap into Cameron Lindt's social circle. He doesn't attend the party in uniform. He does carry an elegant cane on which he leans only occasionally, when the old bullet wound in his left leg makes it difficult to stand at length. The cane is simple beechwood with a gold handle—nothing ornate—graceful and functional and easy to ignore.

Rusty is his mysterious but well-dressed companion: Danny's ambiguous Plus-One. Friend or lover, the point is meant to be unclear.

"Here." Rusty reaches for the bow tie at Danny's throat, once they're alone in the elevator that will carry them to Lindt's event. Pride makes Danny want to swat Rusty's hands away, but he resists the urge. Never mind that he did a perfectly respectable job tying his own damn tie; Rusty will certainly do better. Rusty's own ensemble—a tuxedo nearly identical to Danny's—gives off an aura of impeccable perfection. Rusty's fingers brush Danny's throat as he fusses with the tie. By the time he retreats, the elevator doors are open.

A handful of people fill an otherwise empty hall, meandering toward the open door at the far end. Danny surreptitiously taps his cane against the floor as he and Rusty move the same direction, both of them capturing data with subtle glances. They exchange a wordless glance of agreement: if this entry hall doesn't clear in an hour or so, they'll have to find some other way into the gallery above.

"Did you take care of the cameras?" Danny leans in to put the question directly in Rusty's ear.

Rusty's nonplussed look eloquently conveys, of course I did, do I look like an idiot? But all Rusty says aloud is, "Ten o'clock." The hour Lindt's surveillance system will malfunction, giving them a brief window in which to work. It's too bad they couldn't use the same weakness to short out the locking mechanism above, but the two systems aren't compatible. Rusty bribed a building employee to tamper with the cameras—a trick that could go unnoticed for days, and will look like a glitch in the aftermath—but the gallery's lock is a different matter. Managed by the same security firm that supplies Lindt's guards, any interference would set off automatic alerts and give them away. Not ideal.

But then, it doesn't slow them down much. Five minutes after being formally introduced to Cameron Lindt—a stout, squirrely man who clearly doesn't recognize Danny—Rusty is crowding close to slip the key card into the inside pocket of Danny's tuxedo jacket.

Danny's never found Rusty distracting before, but now he's blindsided by the urge to lean closer and breathe in the subtle smell of Rusty's aftershave.

When Rusty retreats with a conspiratorial wink, it's all Danny can do to stand his ground for a moment before following.

They mingle with Lindt's guests until the appointed hour, making affable but forgettable impressions on the rich and self-important. They improvise stories to fit their cover, but are careful not to get carried away. They could certainly spin more elaborate lies, purely for the sake of the challenge, but why risk it? Their goal isn't far off now.

When Danny's watch ticks over to ten o'clock, he catches Rusty's eyes in eloquent silence. Time. Together they move for the entry hall. It's empty now, and with all of Lindt's heavy security inside guarding his expensive acquisitions, there's no one around to question why Danny and Rusty pull on smooth black gloves, or why they press the wrong button to call the elevator.

Where the seventy-third floor is simply one straight hallway from elevator to penthouse, the seventy-fourth contains more galleries than just the one belonging to Cameron Lindt. The hall turns several times before the final approach to Lindt's gallery, giving Danny and Rusty plenty of room to maneuver.

There's nothing elegant about the sedative darts Danny uses on the two guards. He fires the tranquilizing shots from a small gun, smuggled in beneath ankle of his dress pants. The doses will keep the guards unconscious for at least two hours, giving Danny and Rusty all the time they need.

It's Danny who slides the keycard into the slot, and a moment later the lights on the panel change from harsh red to inviting green. Inside the gallery, overhead fluorescents trigger automatically to reveal a vast space full of gaudy luxury. The floors have been done in black stone, smooth and reflective, but the walls are pale green and gold. There's no particular theme to Lindt's collection, though his partiality for film posters is evident from the dozens mounted behind UV-filtering glass. It's an impressive spread, for all its tasteless presentation. Cameron Lindt clearly enjoys spending money.

Rusty takes the lead now, navigating between gilt frames and freestanding glass cases. Danny follows past the sleek lines of a classic muscle car; the vehicle has been restored, and painted a garish mint green that clashes with the gallery walls.

Their prize is dead ahead.

"Here," Rusty announces

Danny catches up in two quick strides, and for a moment they both simply stand in front of the framed poster. The image is stark and dramatic, a grayscale painting that is compelling in its way. Lindt is going to be furious when he discovers it missing.

They work quickly but cautiously—careful of their delicate prize as they remove the poster from the heavy protection of its frame. They take extra care in rolling it up tight enough to fit inside the hollow length of Danny's beechwood cane.

The party is still going strong when they return—as formal and noisy as it was before they left. Danny and Rusty mingle for another hour and a half, solidifying their alibi—because surely whoever stole the poster would have departed immediately once the job was done—and then make their own goodbyes once the first of Lindt's guests begin to depart.

- — - — - — - — - — -

They catch a cab to South Franklin, and it's not until their feet hit the pavement again that Rusty speaks. "That wasn't very satisfying, was it?" He's teasing, though. There's humor and mischief in his eyes, impossible to mistake in the glint of streetlights and passing traffic.

"Speak for yourself," Danny retorts. "I just wish I could be there to see Lindt's face."

Inside the hotel, they ride to their floor in companionable silence. When Rusty stops at the door to his room, something in his stance makes Danny pause, too.

"I know it's not much to celebrate," Rusty says wryly, gesturing toward the cane with its valuable cargo, "but you should come in for a drink."

Something unexpected tightens in Danny's chest at the words, but he answers steadily enough. "Sure. I've got nowhere to be in the morning."

Rusty holds the door open and follows Danny through, then flips both switches beside the door as he lets it swing shut. Somewhere between Lindt's high-rise and the Marriott, Rusty has removed his tie and undone the top few buttons of his shirt. With his hair a mess from the wind—from traveling the last block of their journey on foot at midnight—he looks energetic and disheveled, and suddenly so appealing Danny's heart nearly stops.

Danny's a coolheaded guy. He works through all the angles before making any move, because whatever move he makes, he needs to know it's the right one. He's not a man of snap judgments and split second decisions.

Which means he's got no explanation for why he moves now, dropping the hollow cane to the floor, careless of its valuable cargo. Two steps and he's in Rusty's space, ignoring widening eyes and wordless questions as he takes Rusty's face between his hands. He closes the distance, thoughtless and impatient, and kisses Rusty hard.

Danny's heart is a tumult in his own chest, his eyes firmly shut. It's not that he's scared; this is Rusty. But he's out on a hell of a limb here. He's hopeful and unsteady and has no idea what to expect. All he knows for sure is that Rusty's mouth is soft with surprise, and when Danny uses his weight to crowd closer, Rusty lets him, falling back against the door as Danny presses full against him. When Danny's tongue teases at the seam of Rusty's lips, they part for him, more curiosity than heat but willing just the same.

Somewhere in the past several seconds Rusty's hands have slipped beneath the jacket of Danny's tuxedo. They rest at Danny's hips like a question now, motionless even as Danny's own hands slip and settle—one sliding into soft, spiky hair, one bracing against the door by Rusty's shoulder.

When Danny breaks the kiss, he doesn't open his eyes and he doesn't retreat far. He doesn't let go. One of Rusty's hands presses flat over Danny's heart, and Danny can feel the unsteady warmth of breath along his jaw.

"Danny, what the hell?"

Now Danny's eyes fly open, and even from too close he deciphers disbelieving shock in Rusty's stare. Rusty's mouth is ajar, his lower lip slick, his eyes too bright. He looks so good Danny's chest hurts.

"Fuck." Danny drags his hands back, moves to step away. "I'm sorry."

"Hey." Suddenly Rusty is grabbing for him, hands twisting in the fabric of his tuxedo, tugging Danny to a stop before he can get more than a foot away. Exasperation mixes with bemusement on Rusty's face. "I didn't ask you to leave. I just want to know what the hell—and since when?"

"Come on," Danny tries to shrug off the question. "You know I've always been interested in men." He's a versatile guy, even if being with Tess did stop him looking for a while.

"Sure," Rusty agrees amiably. Up close like this, his mouth is distracting as hell. "But I'm not just some guy. And neither are you. So what gives?"

Danny just stares helplessly. He's not accustomed to being lost for words. He's the smooth talker. He always knows what to say.

For the first time in his life, he doesn't even know where to start.

Rusty's shoulders loosen as sympathy softens the sharp curiosity from his face. "I know you miss her. But this won't help. Trust me."

Rusty's words rankle along Danny's spine like a physical chill. His whole body rebels at the idea of using his best friend and partner that way, and for a moment Danny stands frozen, stunned and hurt that Rusty thinks he could. But then, Danny has to concede what this looks like. The timing is suspicious at best, damning at worst. A week ago Danny was drinking away his heartbreak with Rusty at his side.

"This isn't about Tess." Steel and certainty echo in Danny's voice.

Rusty blinks away some of his visible skepticism. "This whole job was about distracting you from Tess."

"What can I say?" Danny gives a shrug that's far from careless. "It worked a little too well."

Rusty's startled laugh is low and warm.

"Look." Danny makes no effort to keep the sheepishness from his tone, or the deprecating smile from his mouth. "I didn't exactly think this one through, and I won't hold a grudge if you kick me out. I'm sure as hell not going to get all weird on you just because I lost my head. But I would really, really like to kiss you again and see what happens."

Rusty snorts. "See what happens, he says." But there's fondness in his eyes and a tentative smile on his lips. It's enough to light a spark of hope, and Danny edges forward, near enough to press both palms to the door on either side of Rusty's head.

"So?" Danny does his best not to sound smug—Rusty could still kick him out. If he takes Danny's tone as a challenge he might do just that.

But Rusty only breathes a dry grunt of laughter, and the tentative smile breaks across his face into something wide and humoring. "C'mere already. Fucking asshole." He tugs Danny close as he says the words, dragging their bodies flush together.

There's no surprised stillness in this second kiss. Now that Rusty knows the score—now that he's along for the ride—his hands are restless as Danny's weight presses him against the door. Danny's own hands take this as license to explore, and he grasps Rusty tighter.

Danny is already overheating in this tuxedo; they're both of them wearing too many layers. Rusty must read his mind, because he reaches for Danny's tie just as Danny is about to, dextrous fingers tugging at the knot and then throwing the bow tie aside. The kiss has turned to something more frantic now, messy and deep, and they fumble each other out of their jackets, letting the expensive fabric crumple to the ground.

They're still wearing too damn much clothing as they finally retreat from the door, past the couch, toward the open arch of the suite's enormous bedroom. When Rusty breaks the kiss to struggle with belt and buttons and cummerbund, Danny follows Rusty's lead. His eyes keep straying to Rusty's progress, and he nearly trips more than once, distracted by the sight of those long legs and smooth chest coming bare.

Rusty reaches the bed first, naked, having kicked off his pants and socks and shiny dress shoes along the way. "Get the fuck over here."

Danny's still wearing his trousers when he reaches the edge of the bed, but Rusty doesn't complain—just sits on the edge of the mattress and swats Danny's hands away, unzipping Danny's fly himself.

Danny has only a moment to appreciate the warm smirk on Rusty's face—to process what it means—before Rusty tugs the fabric down his hips and Rusty's clever mouth closes around the head of Danny's cock.

"Oh, fuck." Danny sways forward at the rush of sensation, braces a hand on Rusty's shoulder to keep from falling over as Rusty bobs forward and takes him deeper. Rusty's skin is warm beneath Danny's palm, but his mouth is a super nova. Exactly what Danny needs. Rusty works him with determined skill, taunting with his talented tongue, swallowing deep before sliding his lips along Danny's length in retreat.

Danny's hand tightens on Rusty's shoulder to warn him at the precipice, but Rusty keeps right on, working him over the edge and swallowing without protest.

When Danny's head climbs down from the disjointed clouds of his post-orgasm haze, he finds he's fallen to his knees. The thin carpet is rough through the rumpled fabric of Danny's dress pants, and Rusty peers down at him with smug amusement tinting his heated expression. Rusty's arousal still stands at stiff attention—damn right it does. If Rusty had finished himself off while Danny was too out of it to enjoy the view, Danny might never forgive him.

Even though his chest still feels loose and warm, his body boneless, Danny edges forward and sets his hands on Rusty's knees. "You want a hand or something with that?"

"Or something," Rusty echoes wryly, but his expression has softened with uncharacteristic sentiment. Then, a moment later in even drier tones, "Sure. If you're not too busy."

Danny grins and leans in.

- — - — - — - — - — -

He wakes to a glare of sunlight slanting directly into his eyes, perfectly aligned from the sliver of space between curtain and window sill. He's too warm, but it's a pleasant sensation, because even as he drifts grudgingly conscious Danny remembers why. He can feel the weight of Rusty's arm across his flank, the warmth of Rusty's chest along his spine. Rusty is soundly asleep; his breath ghosts steadily over the nape of Danny's neck, easy and soft.

Much as Danny would like to stay and enjoy the lazy moment, his usual morning restlessness goads him from the bed. The clock reads seven o'clock. Rusty won't wake for at least two hours—and he won't be coaxed out of bed for at least an hour after that. He'll rouse a little sooner if Danny brews some of the room's complimentary coffee—or better still, if Danny orders up room service to include a carafe of the hotel's best dark roast—but even coffee can't work miracles.

Rusty loathes mornings; Danny's had damn near a lifetime to learn just how much. Better to enjoy the quiet without expectations of company. An unconscionably long shower should make for a good start.

By the time Rusty finally joins him in the land of the conscious, Danny has dressed, transferred the stolen poster from the hollow cane into a secure transport tube, and put breakfast several hours behind him. He's had no trouble filling the time between—success and satisfaction have left him inspired, and he's conjured up a dozen more ambitious jobs. They still don't need the money, but the challenge calls to Danny anyway.

The game is in his blood. It's in Rusty's, too. There's no point pretending either one of them will retire just because they've made their fortune.

They don't exchange any words as Rusty hauls his bleary self up from the bed, or as he disappears into the bathroom for a shower significantly shorter than Danny's. Rusty doesn't bother closing the bathroom door, which leaves the sound of running water loud in the quiet hotel suite. When he emerges, he's wet and naked, using a small towel to rub himself down and then scrub at his hair. Danny savors the view as Rusty crosses the room to the wardrobe in the corner.

"Any thoughts on lunch?" Danny asks lightly as Rusty tugs a pair of slate gray trousers over his hips.

Rusty grunts noncommittally, which Danny takes to mean, Yeah, some. A moment later Rusty fishes a dress shirt off one of the hotel hangers and shrugs his arms into the sleeves. By the time he slips into the chair opposite Danny, he looks as buttoned-up and professional as ever. Even his damp hair manages to achieve the artfully disheveled look that always makes Danny roll his eyes.

Rusty's foot knocks into Danny's beneath the table in greeting. "What're you working on?"

Danny closes his computer and sets it aside. "Nothing big. Just a couple job opportunities we can discuss over lunch."

Rusty grins wide and rolls his shoulders. "Sure. I vote sandwiches. I could kill for some pastrami."

Danny stands, offers a hand to tug Rusty up from his seat. He captures a quick kiss before retreating from Rusty's space—fleeting but deliberate—more a confirmation of understanding than a testing of the waters. He's pleased when Rusty meets him halfway, swaying after him for a moment when Danny retreats.

Rusty recovers quickly as Danny moves for the door, and there's humor in his voice when he says, "You're buying."

"Sure," Danny agrees as he reaches for his coat. "Come on. I know just the place."

- — - — - fin - — - — -