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Reuben sat at his usual table at Elaines, eating his usual meal, and wondered, not for the first time, what the hell he was doing there.

For one thing, it was a week before Christmas, with a late arriving Chanukah not far behind. Any other self-respecting Jew would have long-since decamped for the condo in Florida, or in Reuben's case, the bungalow in Palm Springs, the mansion in Vegas or a sweet little hide-a-way he still had in West Hollywood. There was absolutely no good reason for him to be freezing his tuchus off in New York, pushing a leaden meatball around a plate of barely al dente pasta.

Nobody went to Elaine's for the food. You went to see and be seen, at least back in the day, but those days were long gone. Elaine, dear soul that she was, was on her last legs, just like the restaurant and maybe a bit like New York. Or even, Reuben thought reluctantly, a bit like him. The ticker was OK, as long as he took his pills and didn't load up on the pastrami at Canter’s too often when he was in LA, but there were various aches and pains and just the sense that he'd been around too long, outlived too many friends and enemies.

The fact that he could still attract a canny young stud now and again probably had as much to do with his bank account and reputation than his personal charisma. Reuben wasn’t about to lie to himself regarding his personal African Queen, as Sinatra and the boys used to refer to Johnny Mathis. Reuben had laughed along with them, even if it hurt his heart a little bit to keep that part of himself under wraps. He did it a lot back then.

With a sigh, he took a bite and remembered a night a million years ago when Sinatra had told him an off-color story about Dorothy Kilgallen and Johnnie Ray, which these days would be considered offensive on multiple levels, and then even then had bothered Reuben, but still not enough to say anything. It was Sinatra after all.

That wasn't at Elaine's though, it was Jilly's.

Almost as if Frank were in the room, he heard the Chairman singing, "Start spreading the news..." Except Frank was long gone and the music was coming from his own jacket. The phone was one of many he'd been given almost as soon as the Iphones were put on the market, each one inevitably set up to interrupt him with a line or two sung by Sinatra.

Self-pity was immediately replaced by anxiety. This was the phone Danny had given him. The only reason Reuben was still in New York, instead of points warmer was Danny's insistence that this was the perfect time to pull off one of his elaborate heists. He hadn’t asked Reuben for money this time, but he had requested a crucial piece of information. Reuben’s instincts told him this job was a nightmare in the making, but Danny, being Danny, couldn’t be convinced.

He’d gotten even more concerned when Basher had signed on. Basher was the best, no doubt, but he’d expressed some reservations, mentioned that he thought Danny was losing sight of the big picture, and while Danny was like a son to Reuben, Basher was something more.

Reuben didn’t want to leave town until he knew they’d pulled it off and gotten away clean. A call from Danny might mean he could be flying out on the next redeye. When did you become such an optimist? asked the voice in his head that remembered growing up in poor in Bayonne, when a phone call was such a rarity that it could only mean death and disaster.

He missed the era when a waiter would advise him that there was a call and he'd be ushered into the back room to receive it. Of course at 21, they'd bring a phone right out to the table on a silver tray. Prestigious, if not terribly stealthy.

He felt the phone vibrating against his chest, near the scar from the heart surgery. Almost three years ago. That miserable goniff Willy Bank. The rage and fear all came back, along with the gratitude he felt toward Danny, Rusty and the rest of the guys.

"Yeah?" he barked into the phone.

"Reuben..." Danny's voice said it all. Hoarse, heartsick, frightened. Oy, gevalt. Reuben knew with a certainty, he wasn’t getting off the East Coast anytime soon. He struggled not to utter the four words that immediately came to mind: I. Told. You. So. Instead, he got the information he needed, left his pasta uneaten and told his driver to take him to Memorial Hospital in Saddle River, New Jersey. Fucking New Jersey? Really, Danny?

By the time he got to the hospital, Reuben had mentally run through several versions of what he wanted to say to Danny. In the end, the look on Danny's exhausted, unshaven face meant he'd already told himself the same things.

He'd had all day to think about what had happened to Rusty, who was currently in intensive care with multiple tubes going in an out and some very hard types keeping an eye on him...and those were just the nurses. The actual security consisted of Danny's people who were doing their best to look inconspicuous, although Reuben recognized them all immediately. Putting Virgil Malloy into pink scrubs was an act of twisted genius.

Basher Tarr and Frank Catton were flanking Danny protectively, as he kept vigil in the hallway outside Rusty’s room. They each took a deferential step to their respective sides, allowing Reuben to give Danny a reassuring bear hug. Even while trying to provide what comfort he could, Reuben caught Basher's eye over Danny's shoulder. Basher’s expressive face radiated anguish, but Reuben wasn't sure exactly other message else his pursed lips and raised eyebrows were trying to communicate. There was clearly something that couldn’t be said in front of Danny. They'd have to talk soon, privately.

In the meantime, Danny had shrugged his way back into an approximation of composure. Even tired, sweaty and distraught something that Basher would call a "massive cock-up," Ocean was still the epitome of well-attired sophistication.

"What the hell happened?" Reuben bellowed, emotions overcoming the need for discretion.

Instead of an answer, he got a typical evasion.

"Nobody was supposed to get hurt."

Reuben barely suppressed a sigh and the impulse to call Danny a schmuck, and maybe deliver a well-deserved backhand to that handsome face. How could he be so brilliant at putting together a team, planning a job, and walking away smelling like a rose without learning the most important lesson of all?

Someone always gets hurt.

XXXXX

Danny wanted to stay near Rusty’s ICU room, but he was jacked up on caffeine and guilt and found himself obsessively looking into every supply closet and bathroom as he paced the ridiculously small environs of Memorial Hospital.

He’d have preferred Mt. Sinai, but they couldn’t risk having Rusty treated anywhere in New York. Luckily, the Malloy brothers knew a diner waitress with an ex-boyfriend who was pharm-tech at Memorial. For a hefty bribe that included a promise to get him and his current girlfriend tickets to see The Lion King, they’d managed to get Rusty in without triggering a full-on police riot. He had to hope that neither the Frick foundation trustees, nor Steve Wynn, were pissed enough to go looking for Danny and Rusty on a snowy night, in the middle of Bergen County.

It was some kind of miracle that Rusty was alive, between the shooting and the fucking three car pile-up on the New Jersey Turnpike. The Frick Trick was supposed to go off easy-peasy. He’d trusted Rusty to make sure that Tess and Linus got away clean while Danny and the rest of the team made all the noise in Atlantic City. He still didn’t quite understand what had gone wrong, so he couldn’t explain it to Reuben. He’d get the answers eventually, but none of that mattered right now.

All that mattered was Rusty. His friend, his partner-in-crime, his conscience, his soul. The guilt he felt over the current mess and Rusty’s injuries was like no emotional pain he’d ever experienced before. He needed Rusty to be ok, so that Danny could apologize for being a jerk.

Why had it taken him so long to realize what Rusty meant to him when even a blind man could see it from the beginning?

Gina had brought a thermos from the diner, so Danny had been spared the indignity of hospital coffee, but now he needed to relieve himself. He allowed Reuben to keep haranguing him until they reached the men’s room on the third floor, at which point he took the privilege of entering the empty cavern of sterile white tiles alone with his memories.

He’d never forget the first time they met...

“I’m telling you Danny, he’s the real deal. Best mechanic in this whole place.”

High praise, considering they were inside the Magic Castle.

Danny had been putting together a job aimed at a Hollywood executive with a bad temper, a gambling habit and a collection of pre-Columbian art that included a gold labret in the shape of a serpent. Tess had been trying to land that pretty snake for the Met, with no luck and Danny had decided to lend a hand. He’d lined up the rags and a roper, but the key to pulling it off was going to be exquisite card handling up close. Danny had tried to recruit Richard Turner himself, but the magician wasn’t interested.

“I don’t need your kind of trouble, Ocean,” he said, casually shuffling a deck of cards in each hand, practically taunting Danny with the level of skill he wouldn’t have access to.

“I haven’t told you how much scratch,” Danny pointed out, not necessarily annoyed, but generally used to being able to charm anyone into anything, with a smile and willing to push just a little. That was how he’d gotten the first date with Tess. Of course Tess could see his smile and Richard couldn’t.

“I can’t afford you and you can’t afford me.”

“Fair enough.”

“Tell you what though, there’s a new kid in town. Nice mug, great moniker. He might go for it. Best pair of hands I’ve ever seen.”

Danny let the last line go, because this was Richard Turner, and if said he’d seen the hands, then so be it.

Which was how Danny ended up watching Rusty Ryan flawlessly dealing one-eyed jacks from the bottom of the deck with his left hand, while fastidiously consuming a slice of pizza with his right. Turner hadn’t been wrong about the looks either. A puss like that could definitely come in handy, along with the blonde hair.

Danny was used to covering that angle himself, but with Tess along for the ride, it wasn’t as easy any more. A golden boy could be just the ticket.

On the other hand…this was still a criminal enterprise and the mark was known to employ Medellin muscle to get his way.

“Sure, he’s fast, but is he tough?”

“Took me down in three minutes at the dojo. Balls of steel.”

“Literal or figurative.”

“I think that’s more your area of interest.”

Danny didn’t mind having people suspect him of those leanings, but he didn’t necessarily want anyone to be absolutely sure either.

Richard had one more piece of advice before Danny formally introduced himself. Something people seemed to be telling him a lot lately.

“He’s hungry Danny. You better know what you’re doing.”

Danny was sure he did; recruiting another asset, nothing more. Rusty met his gaze without fumbling the cards or the food. Impressive. Up close, the looks were truly stunning and for a second Danny wondered what it would be like to kiss those perfectly shaped lips and run his hands through the golden hair. He’d never act on that though. Tess was the love of his life and he wasn’t going to risk losing that.

He needed Rusty’s hands on the cards more than he’d ever want them on his person.

Danny put on his best seduction smile and said the most obvious thing he could think of to say to a beautiful blond in a magic castle.

“Hello Princess, I’m here to rescue you.”

And naturally Rusty had replied, “You’re a little short for a Storm Trooper, aren’t you?” and they were off to the races, and Vegas and Lake Como and all the other jobs they’d pulled together since then.

Danny heard the men’s room door open and tensed up for a moment. If Wynn’s people had caught up with them, this wasn’t how he wanted to go out. He didn’t want to go out at all. The Bonnie and Clyde scenario didn’t appeal to him at all, although damn, Faye Dunaway!

“Danny!”

He relaxed slightly. Marginal possibility the Frick people had turned Tess, but she hadn’t known about the Borgata job until the last minute and even though she would have been pissed, he had to trust that she wanted the pleasure of clawing his eyes out herself, rather than just leading the authorities or the baddies directly to him.

Danny finished, tucked and turned in the direction of the sinks, intending to wash his hands. Tess propelled herself toward him, and he held her, because he would never not love her, even if they’d both finally figured out that The Danny and Tess Show wasn’t going to end happily ever after.

If she did claw his eyes out, he’d at least have a last look at the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. She’d been up at least as long as he had, watched Rusty get mauled by uniformed thugs, talked her way out of being held as a suspect and then hidden under a blanket in the back of a pizza delivery truck to make it through a roadblock out of Manhattan. None of it showed as far as Danny was concerned. He stroked her hair and remembered a time when he could while away hours losing himself in her auburn curls, or just feel smug knowing that this long-legged beauty was also a brilliant art curator who had settled on him.

The dress was a vintage Valentino that Rusty had found in a boutique on the Upper West Side and Tess looked every inch the goddess in it. Any man would be lucky to have her and she’d brought the one who currently did.

“Hey Linus,” he said over Tess’ shoulder.

“Hi Danny.”

Linus seemed to be searching for a safe place to put his gaze, as if urinals and the sight of Danny and Tess embracing were equally unsavory to look upon.

“It wasn’t Linus’ fault,” Tess exclaimed breathlessly, clearly eager to defend her new champion. “He did the lift from the security guard, stayed in front of St. Jerome until the art class asked him to move, then something happened...I think they were waiting for us.” Danny pursed his lips. He knew what was coming. “We tried to get Rusty to leave, but he wouldn’t.”

Of course not, he was protecting the haul...and Tess. And Tess was protecting Linus. Great, except for Rusty being down there with those bruises and the tubes and…

“It’s OK, honey. You didn’t know.”

“I didn’t know what? That even though you said we were taking the Frick to get back at them for me, you were really using it as a double bluff to rob the Borgata?”

That was his girl. Straight hit to the gonads with her hands around his neck.

“Yeah. Sorry about that.”

She pulled away and marched over to Linus, planting a juicy kiss right on him, just to let Danny know he’d failed her for the last time. Danny was glad she’d found a man she considered good enough. If she was with Linus, she was still a member of the family, because Linus was loyal that way.

“How’s Rusty doing?” Linus asked. Loyal to the core.

“Let’s go find out.”

XXXXX

Linus poked his head out of the men’s room to find Frank and Basher waiting, along with Reuben Tishkoff. Frank and Basher retook their protective positions around Danny as they all made their way back to ICU in solemn silence, punctuated only by Reuben’s increasingly aggravated and aggravating outbursts of accusation, which were finally cut off when Danny exclaimed, “Put a sock in it Reuben,” and Reuben marched off in a huff, down some hallway that Linus was pretty sure led to a pediatric ward.

This whole thing was ridiculous and never would have happened if Danny and Tess would just talk to each other like normal people. Or Danny and Rusty. Or if Rusty and Tess would stop treating him like an idiot. Clearly everybody knew something that he didn’t, including Virgil and Turk. How was that even possible?

All he knew was that he’d loved Tess from the minute he first saw her coming down those stairs at the Bellagio and he thought he’d never be able to have her because who could compete with Danny Ocean?

Danny had asked him to check up on her while he tied up a few loose ends after the Willy Bank job. He’d been trying to follow her through a marketplace in Montmartre without her spotting him, when she stopped so abruptly in front of a flower stall that he nearly bumped into her.

He didn’t even bother trying to come up with a plausible excuse, since Tess clearly knew what was going on, and had her own plans.

“I’m ravenous. Let’s get lunch and go shopping. Then you’ll be able to tell Danny I’m safe and spending his money on Moules Marinères and a new pair of Christian Louboutins.”

They’d barely ordered appetizers before he was pouring his heart out. It was insane. Danny would kill him. Tess would laugh in his face. Rusty would...he wasn’t sure what Rusty would do, probably just shake his head and smirk. It didn’t matter. He had to tell Tess how he felt. It didn’t actually take that long.

“Um, I’m in love with you.”

She silenced him with a finger to his lips and instead of telling him to stop being an idiot, she started talking and continued through three courses and the walk to the apartment she was staying at on the Rue des Martyrs.

It turned out he didn’t have to compete with Danny. All he had to do was listen, because apparently Danny never did, and be honest, which Danny never could.

And oh yeah, the one thing she said just before she ushered him into her hotel room.

“You better know what you’re doing.”

“Of course I do,” he said, taking her face in his hands and kissing her, the way he’d be waiting to for nearly ten years.

Patience would have to substitute for knowing what he was doing, because with Tess, he never had a clue. Within a week of becoming lovers with Linus, Tess had insisted on what she called a “family dinner” at The French Laundry, in California, which turned out to be the longest and weirdest meal of his life, with the crazy menu actually being a relief from the tension he felt being at the table with Tess, Danny and Rusty.

Danny seemed to be OK with the whole thing. He jokingly offered to throw them a giant wedding and volunteered himself as the best man with Rusty as the maid of honor.

Linus had thought that was pretty funny. He saw Tess smiling, but it was her “not really smiling” smile. He caught Rusty and Tess looking at each other and wondered if maybe they’d had a fling when Danny was in jail. He tried to sort out a scenario where Rusty and Tess were trying not to hurt Danny, while also attempting to eat a soft-boiled egg with white truffles, which probably cost as much as the take from Danny’s heist of the American Express Tower.

If Rusty had been in love Tess, he’d done a damn good job of covering it up. In fact, as far as Linus could tell, Rusty was the only guy in the crew who thought Tess was less than an angel. He remembered the fight Danny and Rusty had staged for his benefit during the first Vegas job. Sure, it had been part of the con, but Rusty sold it like he was making commission. Like he honestly cared so much about Danny that he couldn’t stand to see him get hurt again.

Oh shit.

Dinner was even weirder after that and it wasn’t because of the Jus Aux Quatre Epices.

Danny kept making toasts to the happy couple, Rusty kept eating the crazy food and Tess looked like she either wanted to cry or throw up. He waited until they were alone in the hotel to demand some kind of explanation.

“What the hell is going on? I thought Rusty was the one who tried to get you and Danny back together after Danny got out of prison.”

“Because he wants Danny to be happy.”

“But he doesn’t like you,” Linus winced. Tess only shrugged. It wasn’t exactly a secret and Tess wasn’t an idiot.

“He wants Danny to be happy,” she repeated, slowly.

“Ummmmm….so Danny and Rusty….all those jokes….ummmmm….are they…..do they….?”

Linus had never been so embarrassed in his life. Because if he thought about this too much he might get aroused at the thought of Danny and Rusty together. It might explain how they always seemed to know what the other one was thinking. Maybe they’d be good together, if they could somehow get through all the emotional havoc of admitting their feelings.

Once again, Tess was way ahead of him. “My darling ex-husband doesn’t know what’s good for him.”

“Right.”

“But we’re going to help him find out.”

Oh shit!

“You know this job Danny’s planning to pull in Atlantic City?”

The one that everyone had been under strict orders NOT to tell Tess about.

Linus nodded.

“It’s about to get a lot more exciting.”

XXXXX

It hadn’t been easy; nothing with Danny ever was.

First she had to convince Linus. That was almost too easy. The guy was just so sweet. He deserved the best and she was willing to be that person, just as soon as she knew that Danny wouldn’t try anything. Linus was no Terry Benedict, thank God, but Danny’s possessive streak might just flare up and the only way to prevent it was for him to realize that he already had what he needed, rather than thinking he’d lost something he wanted.

For a change, Danny had been fully upfront about a heist. He and Rusty had outlined the Frick job to Tess over tea and scones at Argo Tea. It was the perfect Christmas present to an ex.

“Lovely parting gift,” Rusty had quipped. Everybody knew how much it had hurt Tess when the Frick collection passed her over for the curator job and made it public that she was considered a risk because of her association with known criminals.

Of course the Frick Collection was a completely impossible target. Reuben had already tried to dissuade Danny before telling him the name of the octogenarian safecracker who’d been brought in by the heirs of Henry Clay Frick back in 1935 to create the state-of-art, uncrackable safe, which still had the accounts of gilded age financial chicanery that would be a scandal even in 2010.

Tess had smirked slightly about being asked to charm the old coot into giving up the secrets.

“Can’t you get someone else to wear the short skirt for a change?”

“Well there’s always Rusty, but he’s a little wobbly on high heels.”

It was a joke, but it reminded her that from the day Danny had met Rusty Ryan, there’d be a little piece of him that would never completely belong to her. He’d come home almost besotted with the card talent and good looks of his new recruit. Tess had smiled indulgently, at first thinking nothing of it. She even thought it was sweet that her husband was confident enough in his own masculinity to openly admire another man’s physical attractiveness.

It was only years later that Tess became aware of the disconnect between what Danny treated as casual attraction and Rusty’s deep-seated devotion.

The tricky part was getting Rusty on board. He had the most to lose and was the most likely to rat her out for even thinking it. Yet he was the one who’d tipped his own hand by tracking Tess down just before Danny got out of prison.

She’d needed some time alone after learning that Terry Benedict was a lying bastard who’d seen her as a possession, and a negotiable one at that. Or if she were being honest, after admitting to herself that she was hopelessly attracted to a certain breed of man and it was only a matter of degrees how much they were destined to betray her trust. Danny was a better man than Terry, but by no means a good one. Or one she’d ever have completely to herself.

Not that she thought he’d cheat on her with another woman. Flirt maybe, especially if it would help him pull off one of his jobs with more savoir faire than a quick grab-and-dash. Danny wasn’t a hound, but he was definitely a charmer. He concentrated an enormous amount of that charm on keeping his teams loyal to him. And no one was more charmed or more loyal than Rusty Ryan.

He’d walked in on her meditating at the ashram in Taos. It was a very Danny-esque move, which had probably involved a mixture of stealth and brazen lying, or just using those movie-star good looks, which Danny was prone to mentioning at random moments. He certainly hadn’t bothered trying to blend in. No robes, not even Yoga pants. The suit was one of his Savile Row specials. Danny didn’t mind a bit of outlet shopping on the off-chance of scoring a discount classic. Rusty disdained bargain hunting. "Only the best for the best," she'd heard him say numerous time.

Tess tried to ignore him, concentrating on her breathing, on her mantras, on the smell of incense, on her belief that she deserved a life where her reputation in the art world wouldn’t be constantly under threat because she’d fallen in love with a man with exquisite taste in art and a passion for elaborate plots to obtain it.

“Danny needs you.”

He doesn’t need me. He needs you.

She looked up from her Lotus position and when she saw Rusty’s eyes she was grateful that the breath practice had given her enough of a pause not to say the first thing that had come into her head, because Rusty might have believed he was getting that much closer to Danny’s heart until he found out why Danny had targeted those specific casinos.

“Come on, Rusty. This is Danny Ocean, we’re talking about. All he needs is a sharp suit and a good cup of coffee.

“He robbed three fucking casinos and did six months in Rahway, just to get you away from Benedict.”

He had done that for her. She owed him one more chance, despite her doubts.

“We’d better go then.”

She reached out a hand for Rusty to help her up, and being a gentleman, he did.

The drive to Santa Fe airport was exceedingly uncomfortable, including a stop at Café La Cueva for lunch. They walked around Taos Plaza together in silence. Tess was moved by the scenery that had inspired so many of the artists she loved. As far as she could tell, Rusty felt nothing but hunger and the desire to get to Rahway, New Jersey, and make sure Danny and Tess were safely reunited, regardless of what was actually best for any of them, including himself.

She couldn’t really blame him. Danny Ocean’s gift was making people fall in love hard enough to do anything to stay in his orbit. Tess had actually taken up with Terry Benedict hoping that he’d be a force strong enough to pull her away from Danny.

The first night back together was amazing. The proverbial trip to the moon on gossamer wings. She’d even managed to forget that Rusty was probably in an adjacent room, hearing everything. After that, well Danny was still Danny.

Now it was time to do what she hadn’t been able to do before; make sure everybody was happy. It was a con worthy of the great Danny Ocean himself. He had to be convinced that the Frick caper, which had originated as a scam to keep Tess from finding out about the Borgata job, was actually the main target and the Borgata heist was a distraction to keep anybody from realizing they were going after Frick. Because if they were going after Frick, then Tess had to be in on it, and if Tess was in on it then Rusty had to be there to protect Tess, because Danny wouldn’t trust anybody else.

She’d tempted Rusty to meet her by inviting him to dinner at Del Frisco’s steakhouse. Initially Rusty had been unwilling to entertain her idea, even in the face of a rare rib-eye with herbed butter, fearing he could lose everything if Danny figured it out to soon. Luckily Tess had the killer blow ready when he started throwing out objections.

“Danny needs you.”

The flash of raw need and vulnerability in place of the usual smirk almost made her regret playing that particular card. Was it possible he didn’t realize that Danny was never happier than when the two of them were alone, working on a caper, talking shop or just sitting in a coffee shop riffing on the world going by? Tess had gone in on the Night Fox job trying to be a part of the gang and sat out the Willy Banks heist because she’d realized she never could. The Rusty and Danny club was too exclusive to include her or Isabel Lahiri, or any other woman, for that matter.

“You’ll need to get to Reuben. He’ll tell Danny it can’t be done and then Danny will insist on doing it,” Rusty suggested, using a roll to sop up the last of the juice from the steak.

“I wouldn’t have thought of that," she replied.

“Bullshit. You already have.”

Tess closed her eyes and sighed. When had she become such a liar? Probably when she remarried Danny, already knowing it was over. She had to pull this off to regain her self-respect.

“I’ll take care of Reuben.”

She took a final spoonful of panna cotta, enjoying the sharp tang of vanilla within the dense cream, thinking she was keeping one more secret to herself.

“Basher, right?”

She opened her eyes and found Rusty in full smirk, with maybe a hint of admiration.

“Want to drive me to the airport?” she asked, playfully.

Rusty shook his head.

“Not just that. “I’m coming to London with you.”

XXXXX

 

It’s not like Danny Ocean wasn’t a decent bloke; man could put together a gang of tea leaves like no-one’s business and Basher’s own coffers had certainly been enriched by his participation in Danny’s schemes.

He could pack it in right now and piss off to San Tropez for the next few decades, if he were so inclined, but he still loved the sound of breaking glass during a job and the feeling of cold, hard cash under his fingers afterwards. That’s why he’d signed on for the Borgata job; nice chunk of change that would be, and the plan seemed airtight. The Bobby Dylans would be so busy with what they thought was happening in Manhattan that Atlantic City would go unnoticed until it was too late.

It was only after Rusty had shown up at his flat in Soho with Danny’s missus (or ex-missus, it was hard to keep track; even Tess and Danny seemed a bit confused) that things got truly mental. Rusty laid out the “adjustment” he wanted to make to the plan. Basher couldn’t believe his King Lears, especially coming from Rusty Ryan. Why would Rusty want to throw that kind of spanner into one of Danny Ocean’s jobs? Thick as thieves those two were, an especially meaningful bond considering they were actual thieves.

“Say that again. Slowly.”

“It’s just a little tweak, Basher,” Tess purred. “You’ll get your cut and nobody ever has to know.”

That Tess was a proper one all right, the kind of bird who could make a man do crazy things, but Rusty was no slouch in that department either, especially when he looked at Basher through slightly lowered eye-lashes, while offering him an extra ten grand.

Between the money and the thick air of flirtation it was getting hard to tell how far either Tess or Rusty would go to get him on board. He didn’t even know which one would be more tempting, although he was leaning toward Rusty, both literally and figuratively, when he shook himself out of the spell of Rusty’s eyes and Tess’s smile (not to mention the tatty-bojangles, might as well be honest) to ask what seemed like a rational question.

“Wait a minute here, luv. You and Danny; still a couple, right?”

“Couple of somethings,” Rusty interjected, gaining himself a fierce glare from Tess and for a second the two of them had some weird vibe going on that made Basher think he should go out for some Lisa Tarbucks and leave the hate-birds alone to work it out between themselves.

He didn’t need this bollocks. Bad for business. All he wanted was to take home enough cheddar for a nice winter stay in Ibiza, especially if he could convince Reuben, or as he sometimes called him, Mr. T, to don a pair of swim shorts and slather some sunblock on his silver-haired torso for a fortnight.

“I’m with Linus now.”

He tried not to laugh out loud, but still let out a snort of derision. The kid had skills; always came through in a pinch, but him and Tess Ocean?

“You’re having a bubble!”

Tess was smiling again and Basher could feel that one deep in his trousers. Or was that Rusty’s after shave? Not easy going both ways when everyone around you looks like they just walked off a bloody movie set.

“Do you know what Ava Gardner always said about why she divorced Frank Sinatra?”

He did in fact, because it was one of those stories Mr. T liked to tell about three Napoleon Brandies into a late night of Rat Pack reminiscence. In Reuben’s rendition, Ava used the expression "schtupping", which seemed unlikely, but so did Tess’s more demure “love-making.”

The gist was that the sex was great, but they always got into a fight on the way to the shower. Knowing it about Frank and Ava was one thing, but imagining Tess and Danny in the act or anything that went on afterwards wasn’t good for his well-being.

“Point made.”

Tess and Danny were kaput and Tess wanted to make sure that no animal heads showed up in a honeymoon suite if she and the kid got hitched.

“Fine, then. I’m in. I just hope you two know what you’re doing. I don’t need the New Jersey families, the Frickers and bloody Danny Ocean on my arse.

“I knew we could count on you.” Tess twinkled, smoothing her skirt as she rose to leave.

“Uh, Basher, Just one more thing…” said Rusty

Here we go

“Yeah, mate?” Basher said, steeling himself for some ridiculous demand, and ending up totally gobsmacked by Rusty’s next words.

“Don’t tell Reuben.”

XXXXX

It had been a long day. Rusty wasn’t sure exactly what time it was. He could hardly play his designated role and keep the Rolex on, but not having it made him feel even more naked than the ridiculous hospital robe.

Twenty-four hours or so since the job was supposed to start, most of the day setting up the illusion that they’d been caught in the act of robbing the Frick collection, including Tess’s panic-stricken call to Danny, the arrest report and the staged car accident. Rusty had been impressed when Tess had the nerve to impersonate Julia Roberts during the Night Fox caper, but her performance on the phone for Danny's benefit, including hyperventilation and crying was truly academy award caliber, especially since she was also in the process of putting on the make-up Rusty was wearing to make the whole thing plausible.
He’d had to caution her not to over do it.

“It a beat-down and a three-car pile up, not a zombie apocalypse.”

“He’s not going to be able to come in right away. Things are very serious. He has to look through the glass and know what you’ve been through for him.”

“You’re good,” he’d said, with genuine admiration. “Are you sure…”

“Oh for god sake, Rusty.”

“Yeah, for god’s sake Rusty,” Linus chimed in.

“All right, all right.”

He still thought this was crazy and hadn’t figured out what he would do if it didn’t work, or for that matter, if it did. He only knew what he’d wanted from Danny Ocean since the moment he laid eyes on him and how much more he wanted now, after everything they’d been through together.

The last piece of the puzzle was how long to let Danny worry before giving him the reassurance that Rusty was out of the woods medically. It was Rusty’s call and frankly he just couldn’t lie in that bed anymore. The tubes were fake and he was getting hungry.

Frank had recruited some theater students from Bergen Community College to play the medical staff. “Dr.” Matt was dispatched to tell Danny that the patient was conscious.

Rusty heard Danny’s footsteps, sensed fear, hesitation, worry, concern….all natural, but was there more, was there enough to make it all worthwhile?

He shifted in the bed, made sounds of discomfort that weren’t all a show. He’d been lying there for a long time. Even though the apparatus wasn’t doing anything, and there were no actual needles inserted, there was still a lot of tape that was going to have to come off.

Rusty let his eyes open slowly. Danny needed a shave, sleep, food, and probably caffeine. His eyes were bloodshot and his lower lip looked like it might have been chewed in lieu of expressing emotion.

He felt Danny pick up his left hand and gently brush his thumb over the tape that held a bogus needle affixed to his wrist. Then he bent down and grazed Rusty’s knuckles, which had been scuffed against a brick wall to create a better illusion of the fisticuffs that took place in the wake of the failed Frick theft with his lips, as if he could kiss Rusty’s damaged hand back to the perfection of that first encounter at the Magic Palace.

Rusty let out a sigh, or maybe it was a moan. The gesture was so delicate and intimate. He was officially awake, but not yet ready to break the spell of tenderness that seem to encircle him and Danny. He knew Danny’s back was to the window, and wasn’t sure how much could be seen from outside. Rusty didn’t give a damn anymore; he hoped Danny didn’t either. Just putting this thing together had taken every bit of trust Rusty had, which wasn’t much to start out with.

“I thought I was going to lose you,” Danny murmured, before kissing the inside of Rusty’s palm, and then it happened. The moment when whatever Danny suspected about the whole set-up, maybe some slip-up in Tess’s delivery, or just disbelief that the best crew in the business could have things go that badly wrong, all clicked into place.

Rusty screwed he eyes closed tightly, prayed to a god he didn’t believe in, and whispered back, “Never.”

Then he opened his eyes and found Danny staring at him intensely, exhaustion and desperation, making him look close to his actual age than the image he usually projected. Names and dates on birth certificates were things they never discussed, but Rusty had gone to the trouble of investigating and assumed Danny had done the same. Getting a loan from Chase Manhattan was a piece of cake compared to the background check for a spot on a Danny Ocean crew.

Now it was Danny’s turn to sigh before returning his attention to Rusty’s hand. He continued to nuzzle the palm and wrist with his thinly bearded face, blowing warm air against the spaces in between the fingers and eventually, slowly, deliberately, took Rusty’s index finger into his mouth.

What emerged next was definitely a moan and not one that could be explained away by the alleged injuries. If Danny could do that much with a finger and his mouth, it explained a lot of what he’d heard at the Loop Inn Motel in Rahway, and validated the dreams he’d had about it ever since. Tess had been one lucky woman and Rusty would be one lucky man if…

It was a good thing he wasn’t actually injured as he could no longer hold still. Arousal surged through him, pushing back fear, fatigue and especially self-consciousness. Danny didn’t seem particularly prone to discretion either as he’d reached down to fondle Rusty’s crotch through the thin hospital blankets. Rusty inhaled sharply wondering just how far Danny intended to go in this public setting, but apparently he was just verifying Rusty’s overall well-being and returned his focus to the right hand and specifically the index finger. His mouth was so hot, his suction and lapping so deliberate, his intentions so obvious, that Rusty briefly wondered why he’d ever wasted money on blow-jobs from hookers when there was a source of stimulation at his very…fingertips.

He gave himself up to the sensations and the belief that this heralded a new life for himself and Danny. Sure he’d told a few lies to get here, but if Danny forgave him and he got to see that billion-dollar Danny Ocean smile aimed at him instead of anyone else it would all be worth it.

When he came back from his dizzying release enough to form coherent thoughts again, he used his first breath to say what he’d wanted to tell Danny Ocean for nearly 10 years:

“Fuck me like you just got out of prison.”

He watched Danny digest this and waited. Then waited some more. And tried not to panic.

“Not tonight, Josephine.”

What the fuck…now he’s gonna back off?

“We got St. Jerome and the ledgers.”

“And I’ve got blue balls from how bad I want you, but I’m not really up to giving a full Cirque du Soleil in front of those guys.”

Tess, Linus, Basher, Reuben, Frank and one of the Malloys. Yen was probably hanging from the rafters somewhere as well.

“I could really go for a sandwich,” Rusty admitted. “There’s a diner about a half mile down Saddle River Road?

“What kind of cheap date do you think I am? I’ve been drinking diner swill all night. You at least owe me a decent cup a coffee. ” After everything you’ve put me though. The words were unspoken, but Rusty head them loud and clear. Well what about everything Danny had put him through? Such as more fun than he’d ever had as a lone wolf and more pain than he’d ever wanted to admit he could feel over another human being.

“I’ve got a hotel room with a Nespresso Machine.”

“So what are we waiting for?”

“I need to know this is for real. That you won’t change your mind. That I’m not the one being conned here.”

He honestly didn’t know where that had come from, but it couldn’t be taken back. Rusty didn’t want to end up where Tess had. For one thing, Linus wasn’t really his type.

Danny stood there, clearly flummoxed and trying not to let it show. He put his hands in his pockets, cocked his head to one side and took them out again.

Then he put a hand out for Rusty to shake, something they hadn’t done since they were introduced by Richard Turner at the Magic Castle. Then it had been a tentative beginning to a criminal endeavor, now it was a bargain meant for life, with a well-known liar, con-man and all around heart-breaker.

“Not changing my mind. No way, no how.”

It would have to do.

XXXXX

“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?” Reuben bellowed, punching the air inside the limousine with an unlit cigar.

“I tried to mate,” replied Basher, only somewhat defensively. He didn’t seem overly intimidated by Reuben’s bluster, one of the reasons their arrangement worked so well. Reuben had enough yes-man who were willing to cower every time he raised his voice; he didn’t need another one for more intimate activities. On the other hand, he’d been played, and that showed a lack of respect. In his line of work, that could be lethal.

“You tried to sell me a plate of steaming bull-shit cooked up by Tess Trueheart and Pretty Boy Floyd.”

Basher shrugged.

“They told me not to tell you, so I figured I should probably tell you, and then I decided it was a double bluff Jedi Mind Trick and that you already knew. And if you knew and I told you, then I was being disloyal to them and if you knew and I didn’t tell you, then you’d take me for a mug, and if you didn’t know and I didn’t tell you then…”

A glick hot dich getrofen! Reuben barked, not bothering to translate.

He wasn’t sure how much Yiddish Basher actually knew, any more than Basher ever seemed worried about whether Reuben was understanding his half-baked Cockney rhyming slang. Somehow they understood each other.

“It’s like The Big Sleep,”

If that was supposed to mean anything beyond the name of a book and movie, Reuben was at a loss, but not inclined to say so. Bogart, Bacall, fedoras, cigarettes.

“You think you’re Bogart in this scenario.”

“No man, he gets way too many unscheduled meetings in that one.”

“You’re the femme fatale?”

“If you’ll let me finish…I’m the bloody director who couldn’t figure out who actually killed the chauffeur and sent Raymond Chandler a telegram asking. Turned out he didn’t know either.”

“You lost me,” Reuben admitted.

“Exactly,” Basher replied triumphantly. “Nobody knows who’s conning who anymore. Right now Tess and Rusty and Danny and Linus and you and I think we know what really happened, but none of us know all of it. It’s the perfect con!”

Basher looked ridiculously pleased with this cockamamie conclusion. Reuben wanted to continue his tirade against the insult to his dignity and intelligence, but honestly, he was just too tired.

He leaned back against the upholstery of the Rolls and felt himself being lulled to sleep by the voice of Sinatra on the car stereo crooning, “All My Tomorrows,” and Basher singing along, although he sounded more like Sammy Davis imitating Tony Newley.

As long as I've got arms that cling at all
It's you that I'll be clinging to
And all the dreams I dream, beg, or borrow
On some bright tomorrow they'll all come true…

Then Frank was singing alone, and Reuben felt the weight of Basher leaning against him, pushing hands to Reuben's shoulders and kissing him, with a lazy, casual, didn’t really give a fuck feeling that made Reuben absolutely feel like fucking, at least in theory. These days it took a bit of preparation and more sleep than he’d had in the last 24 hours, but with Basher’s tongue pressing into his mouth and hands moving under his shirt, gripping chest hair with one hand and rubbing a nipple with the calloused thumb of the other, there was definitely life in the old schvantz yet.

The hell with Danny and Rusty’s mishegos. Who needs that much drama to figure out they belong together? He lost himself in kisses and hands against hair and skin and the fleeting thought that he might have to kill his chauffeur. Oh well, apparently it was hard to find out who murdered those guys anyway.

“Bloody hell,” Basher exclaimed, finally pulling away.”

“Not bad for an alter kocker.”

“Dirty old man.”

“No lectures from you.”

The limo was taking them back to Manhattan, and Reuben had every intention of being the hell out of Dodge by the following day. The question was where and with whom.

“Sure I can’t talk you into Ibiza?” Basher muttered, as he leaned against Reuben’s shoulder, seemingly willing to fall asleep there himself.

“What’s wrong with Miami?” he huffed in return.

“Let me count the ways.”

Reuben hated to lose any argument and he was still miffed about the evening’s events, but the only real argument for Miami was familiarity and a shorter flight.

“My Spanish sucks," he muttered one last hurrah.

“So do I," Basher shot back.

Reuben felt a shiver go through his body.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “You can pay then.” He considered that for a second. “You can pay, right?”

Basher’s rolled eyes said he was offended that Reuben would even ask.

“Already got two first class seats booked out of JFK for 7AM. We’ll be oiled up and lying on our Simons, before the Early Bird starts at Jimmy’s Eastside in Miami.”

Reuben shook his head. Was he that much of a pushover or was Basher bluffing? Who was conning who?

“I need a drink.” There was a minibar in the limo, of course, but somehow he felt a need to go out in public and have a decently made Manhattan.

“I could use a nice plate of pasta. Right peckish, I am.”

Reuben felt a smile coming to his lips. It was nearly 1AM, but once they got over the GW Bridge, they’d be back in the City That Never Sleeps, and Reuben knew just the place to go.

“You ever been to Elaine’s?”