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On a chill and waning afternoon, they paroled Daniel Ocean for the first time. Daniel was a good guy, a regular guy, with a flat, calm manner and a heavy, almost lumbering walk. He didn't smile much. He wasn't a victim, but he wasn't a bully, either. He kind of hovered in the upper-middle of the pecking order, for no discernable reason. He helped guys with their appeals, he did the jobs he was assigned, he shot bull about who was gonna win the Super Bowl and the Final Four. He won at cards, but not enough to piss people off. He was never short of cigarettes and chocolate for trading. And when there was trouble, he always seemed to be somewhere else.

God, Danny was going to be glad to get out of this guy's skin.

Sometimes at night he'd lie on his back in his cell, weaving a contraband quarter through his fingers, and seriously wonder if it were possible to die of boredom. Every day had a routine, a march of dead hours from wake-up to lights-out. He could have--just theoretically, mind you--turned the system on its head in any one of thirty ways without even breaking a sweat. Every night during the first year he dreamed up grand escapes, coups of black marketeering, useless escapades of gleeful chicanery. Then the morning bells would ring, and he'd squash those thoughts back down hard; he'd get up and don his baggy prison clothing and lumber to breakfast to play this character for another damn long, ridiculous, flatline of a day. Eventually the inspiration and the ideas slowed...and stopped. By the end he was even dreaming the dreams of Daniel Ocean, Cellblock E.

The guy had gotten him paroled, of course, so he couldn't knock him altogether. But on the afternoon of his release, Danny could feel himself finally waking up, and he felt a rush of relief that almost surprised him. Prisoner Daniel Ocean began to crack like a chrysalis, slow tingles working their way out from his belly and buzzing down his legs and arms. He put on his old tuxedo, the fabric easing smoothly over his shoulders and around his back like an embrace. He put on his wedding ring, though a fat lot of good that did him now. He unleashed his mind from its cramped little doghouse and let it run, barely seeing the bars and gates he was leaving behind.

First he had to get a haircut, a shave, and new clothes. He stood naked for a few minutes before a dressing room mirror--no full-length three-way mirrors and track lighting in the pen, even in these modern times--and with every breath, he felt more of the protective skin loosening. It wasn't coming off, not all at once, not yet, but he could feel the process underway. The man beneath was stiff, a little sore, but intact. As far as he could tell.

Neat and relaxed and occasionally even smiling (the kind of smile he'd never had in stir, not even once), he went to retrieve various caches of money and ID. By evening he was at Frank Catton's blackjack table, and by one in the morning he was at the bar at Caesar's having a drink with "Ramon."

"Seen him?" he asked, and Frank didn't even ask who he was talking about.
 



He'd gotten five pieces of mail during his entire stretch inside:

  1. A postcard from Paraguay, unsigned.
  2. A half-page letter on Mickey Mouse stationery.
  3. A package.
  4. A warm, chatty, magnificently-misspelled letter from Bruiser, who'd asked after some friends in the same cellblock and bragged about his new part-time job as backdoor "security" for three of the biggest casinos in Vegas. He'd enclosed some news clippings. There were photos.
  5. On the morning of his release: a manila envelope from a law firm he'd never heard of.

He'd written two letters, both to Rusty:

  1. A pleasant and eye-gougingly boring note that seemed to go on about the details of the prison rec room and complain mildly about what he was missing on TV. What it really said was: Radio silence--pass the word. Going under for the duration. Is Tess all right?

So much time went by that he thought maybe Rusty was out of the country again and not checking his mail dead-drop. But then the Mickey Mouse envelope showed up, a boring letter with a boring pseudonym. It translated into: She's fine. She's uncomfortable writing letters. She wanted me to tell you she loves you, and she misses you.

After a long and sleepless night, he wrote his second letter:

2. In its entirety: "Are you lying?"

And after another long wait came the package. In it was a slip of paper, with two words--"Of course"--and a box of cookies. The cookies were searched routinely by the prison staff, but since they were clean--weird, but clean--and since Ocean never caused any problems, they let the box go through just as it was. Oreos, of the Double-Stuf variety. Every second cookie had a neat bite taken out of it.
 



"Seen him?" he asked, and Frank gave him a lead and bought him another round. So Danny phoned his parole officer, promised he hadn't been drinking (his mouth still warm with Caesar's top-shelf bourbon), and by the time the sun rose he was breaking parole on a plane for California.

In the hush of the first class cabin, another bourbon perched on the edge of his tray table, he dealt out two hands of blackjack at a time, one for the house and one for himself. Over and over he laid out the cards, quick and precise, hitting and staying by rote. He counted and kept track, he kept a sharp eye on the face cards and doubled down when he could, but the damn house just kept winning. After a few full runs through the cards, he leaned his seat back; his eyes half closed, he practiced stacking the deck during an ordinary series of cut-and-shuffle passes the way Rusty had taught him. By now, he hadn't slept in over twenty-four hours.

He watched his hands, flicking and twisting and sliding the cards in secret patterns and constellations, and the longer he watched them, blurred through his eyelashes, the more they looked like someone else's. His own fingers, strong and broad, turning longer, thinner, quick and deceptively lazy. Golden-skinned. Rusty's hands, Rusty's fingers. As if they'd been inside Danny's hands all along, and now they were emerging, burning with restless skill, to pick him up and save him again.

The cards slowed and settled, his hands automatically squaring and cradling the deck as he fell asleep to Rusty's face, Rusty's mouth, red with blood.
 



The first time Danny lost his nerve, he didn't see it coming. He was just a kid, he and Rusty both, fledgling grifters in their twenties who thought that every game always went according to plan. And this plan was a lot of fun at first. It was Danny's idea, as usual, but if Danny had the vision, Rusty had the nuts-and-bolts planning that could get things done. Danny dreamed it up, and Rusty made it happen.

They'd been touring for a few weeks, taking a simple two-man con on the road through some southwestern colleges. Danny thought of it over a poker game--he had many of his best ideas over poker games. And he'd figured that as long as they were still young enough to fit in with the college kids, they might as well find some of the greediest ones and fleece them for all they were worth. So he brainstormed a variation of the classic gold-brick con and turned it into a fake drug deal, casting himself as the mysterious border connection and Rusty as the local dope fiend-slash-expert on arcane pharmaceuticals. It had gone well, although in their offstage prep time, Rusty made no secret of how much he hated his costume.

"Puka shells?" he asked plaintively. For the thousandth time.

"Puka shells," Danny said. He handed the necklace back to Rusty and knelt to give the package one last double-check, putting the finishing touches on the bundles of sugar pills masquerading as the drug deal of a lifetime.

Rusty sighed and rolled his Tootsie Pop noisily to the other side of his mouth as he put the choker back on. "Maybe next time I can play someone with some taste in clothes."

"Oh, I don't know." Danny stood and dusted off his hands. "Why start now?"

A slanted sideways look. "If I have to wear my hair this long, the least you could do is grow a mustache or something."

"I'll get right on that."

"Would you?" Rusty squirmed inside his tie-dyed T-shirt as if it itched. "I thought drug runners usually had mustaches."

"Maybe on Charlie's Angels." Danny carefully checked himself over in the mirror. Expensive ensemble, a dark turtleneck under a well-cut dark suit, gold jewelry. No puka shells in sight. He looked compact and competent and just a little bit shady. He thought about adding more cologne.

"Don't do it," Rusty said. He didn't always bother to wait for Danny to speak thoughts aloud before he answered them. "That stuff's horrible. You'll choke me to death."

"But that's who this guy is." Danny looked in the mirror again, contemplatively. "Too much cologne. Cream and three sugars in his coffee. And he smokes expensive cigars, even though he secretly hates the taste."

Rusty hoisted the dummy package up and balanced it on his hip. "Hey, I hate to interrupt your sweet love affair, but we have curtain in an hour, and I have to get back to the frat house."

Danny looked at Rusty in the mirror and waved one casual hand, glinting with two thick rings. "Yeah. Stash that in the driver's-side door panel for me, would you?"

Slouching into character, Rusty left. Once he was gone, Danny dabbed a little bit more behind both ears. Just for good measure.

He was relaxed and even a little absent-minded as he sat in the sports car in an isolated parking lot, waiting for Rusty's signal. Every other time they'd done this con, it had gone over smooth as glass. Rusty would show up with one or two of the marks in tow, sheltered rich kids with delusions of courage and an image to maintain. They'd regard Danny's character with suitable and ill-concealed nervousness, hand him the money, Danny would make a big production of giving Rusty the drugs, Rusty and the marks would head back home. Then it was Rusty's job to slip away from the marks as soon as he could (preferably without calling attention to that fact), so he and Danny and the car could be on the way to the next college with the radio cranked up before anybody noticed that the drugs were no more powerful than their morning Froot Loops.

Headlights flashed. There they were, only a little later than the average. Danny flashed his lights back and waited for them to approach.

There were two kids with Rusty this time, and Danny enjoyed his act a lot for a while, letting it roll off him naturally, playing it dark and dangerous and mysterious, watching for the excitement (wow, a real drug runner!) and fear (oh man, I'm talking to a drug runner) to blossom in their faces. Kids this age were so easily read that it was almost a shame--taking candy from a baby. Not that Danny had any qualms about taking this kind of candy from these particular babies.

But then, this time, he finally, finally sensed that something was wrong, and he looked sharply at Rusty. He should have looked him over before, just to check in, but he'd been caught up in his own thing--floating on all their success, drunk on the sense of being someone else. Rusty was still in character, yeah, but to Danny's eye his slouch was stiff, and he kept rubbing at his mouth and chin. He was glancing regularly at one of the kids, the quiet, steady one. And just as Danny belatedly got the signal that this kid was trouble, the kid spoke to his friend:

"Let's open it up. I want to test it before we go."

Unbelievably, nothing like this had happened during their whole tour. All the rest of the marks had been easily led, one way or another. Sometimes it had been downright ridiculous. But this kid was stubborn, and his stubbornness was pressing some spine into his pal. They turned away with the package, the stubborn kid slicing it open with a knife to reach in for one of the capsules.

Danny had the ball. He should have been the one to act, to improvise something in-character that would get him away with the money and still leave Rusty in the clear so he could escape later. But instead--he just froze. He knew he could get away, no problem. But after that, all he could see were flashes of the marks finding out they'd been cheated and turning on Rusty, and the braver of the two had a knife, ready and open in his hand. Danny let his mind reach for a spur-of-the-moment answer, but for the first time there was nothing there. Nothing at all.

He looked away, looked back at Rusty. Rusty was watching him, eyes hollow and shadowed in the parking lot's single sputtering light. And just as the kids got a capsule extracted and were ready to open it, probably taste it, Rusty was turning protectively toward them and holding out his hand.

"Hey, Mike. Careful." He cast a suspicious look over his shoulder at Danny, who still stood frozen. "These guys usually deliver good product, but you never know."

He took the capsule from the stubborn kid's hand and studied it closely. Then he casually held his hand out for the knife. "Here. Let me."

Danny breathed a little easier once Rusty had the knife, but now he was stuck, watching Rusty for any sign of what he was supposed to do in this new offshoot of the old play. He waited for a clue and hoped like hell he'd recognize it if he saw it.

Rusty carefully sliced the capsule open, and as he studied the white powder inside, he absently clicked the knife shut and slipped it in his pocket. Danny kept his character mask on, but it didn't feel natural anymore; now it was impossible to feel right inside this guy's skin. He had no earthly idea why he would be staying here to watch the test. By all rights he should have driven off, leaving the buyers to beware. But he was just Danny Ocean now, he was out of ideas, and he was waiting for Rusty.

"Okay, here we go." Rusty licked the tip of one long finger and gently pressed it to the cut capsule, then touched his powdery finger to his tongue. Mike and his nervous friend watched intently, Mike with a steady, stoic face that left Danny unnerved.

"Well?" This was the other kid, the typical one, who was jittering from foot to foot and obviously just wanted to get the hell out of there, like all the others had. Like they were supposed to.

"Mm-hmm." Rusty cocked his head, licked his lips. "It's been cut with something...uh, something sweet. But otherwise it seems fine."

The other kid jumped like a spring had come loose, and he was already two steps back toward his car before he said, "Come on, you guys, let's go."

For a second, it looked like the old game was about to get back on track. But before Danny could take a breath, just as they seemed on the cusp of complete recovery, Mike said, "Great. Now let me try one." And he reached into the package for another capsule.

Danny stared at Rusty, that frozen feeling still clamped on the back of his neck. But Rusty just nodded affably, rocking on his heels. Then he cleared his throat and spat to the side. Then he frowned. And coughed. And rubbed his mouth hard.

"Shit," he said hoarsely. And again, his voice gravelly now: "Shit." This finally made Mike look up from the package, eyes narrowing as Rusty took a step and swayed.

The other kid, still making a beeline for his car, called out in a high, thin voice, "What's the matter? Hey--Is something--?"

Rusty doubled over suddenly, his body shaking with muffled coughs and sounds of choking. Mike frowned, watching him closely, the capsule in his hand temporarily forgotten.

When Rusty stood, wrenching himself upright with a quick and obvious effort, his eyes were wide with fear and fury. He staggered, and bloody foam leaked from his mouth and down his chin. "You," he croaked, fixing his watery gaze on Danny.

Danny shook his head once, hard, and retreated. It was as if Rusty had slapped his face and woken him up. He knew he was supposed to get in the car, though he was damned if he knew how it was all going to turn out in the end. All he could do was follow Rusty's lead and obey the bright command of his eyes. He jumped in the car and cranked the engine.

"Shit!" wailed the other kid, yanking at the door of his own car. "Oh, shit! Mike, come on! Come on!"

Rusty went down on one knee, and then lurched up again. He headed directly for Danny's car, shouting and strangling at the same time, obviously maddened by pain and rage and poison. Mike watched him for one more moment, and then began to back toward his friend's car. Slowly, though. Too damn slowly.

With a thump, Rusty fell across the hood of the sports car. And as their eyes met through the windshield and Rusty curled one hand tight around a wiper blade, Danny knew all at once what he was supposed to do. He stifled reluctance and rebellious thought, and stomped hard on the accelerator. Tires squealed; the car roared away across the lot with Rusty clinging to the hood in his death throes, spitting and choking for revenge. Danny spared one glance in the rear-view mirror and saw, thank God, the marks finally getting while they thought the getting was good, pulling away hastily in the opposite direction.

Once well out of sight, Danny slowed as gradually as he dared, turned in a gentle curve to nose the car into an alley, and stopped. His hands trembled on the steering wheel.

Rusty scrambled into the passenger's seat and crumpled unceremoniously to the floor. Danny stared down at him.

"What?" Rusty said lightly and impatiently from the footwell, his tall frame folded at ridiculous angles. "Drive, would you?"

So Danny drove, his mouth cottony dry, back out of town to the motel. Hidden parking around back, in through the back door, hurrying up to the room with the cheap college duffel bag full of money. Danny fumbled the key into the lock, threw the Do Not Disturb on the outer knob, and slammed and bolted the door behind them.

They stood in the utter dark, breathing hard, Danny's heartbeat rushing in his ears. Over his thudding pulse, though, he could hear something else: the soft, husky sound of Rusty's laugh. Very close.

He started to speak and had to clear his throat; he hadn't spoken since before he froze up, since he'd handed the package over to those dumb kids, and the gears seemed a little stuck. "Are you okay?"

"Hell, yeah." Rusty tugged him by the lapels, gently shaking him. "Wasn't that great?"

"No."

"Oh, come on. Admit it: that was fun."

Danny sucked in a breath through his teeth and let the duffel drop. His eyes were slowly adjusting, and he could see Rusty's faint silhouette. "I screwed up."

"Yeah. So?" A shifting, rustling sound, and Rusty's hand groped its way onto his shoulder, curving warmly around the muscle. "Hey. Shake it off. It's done, touchdown, we win in overtime."

Danny just shook his head. He stared at the living shadows before him, lifted one hand and gripped a fistful of T-shirt.

"Danny?"

He leaned in partway, pulled Rusty in partway, his mouth pressing awkwardly onto the downy stubble of Rusty's chin before finding the right angle. He kissed him, breathed, and kissed him again, tasting the slick sweetness of powdered sugar with an undertone of metal. Then all he could do was unlock his fist. Let go. He bent his head, closed his eyes.

Rusty didn't step away. His thumb started moving, easily, rhythmically, stroking the side of Danny's neck. "What's all this?" he asked, and his voice was light and chiding, even as his body was slowly arching into Danny's and pressing him back against the door.

"I don't know," Danny said. "I didn't know what was going to happen."

Silence for a moment, Rusty's thumb never pausing. Then: "In the game?"

Danny nodded, his breath coming short and shaky at the feeling of Rusty's body slowly pushing and settling against him, warm and lean.

"It's a game," Rusty said.

"I know."

"It's supposed to be fun."

"I know." He put his hands on Rusty's narrow hips. "It is. It was, before. I just..."

"Lost your footing for a minute." One of Rusty's knees lazily pushed Danny's legs apart, eased between them.

Danny gasped: "Yeah."

A shrug rippled against him. "I took care of it."

"But I--"

"--I took care of it." Rusty's other arm slipped around Danny's waist under his jacket. "That's why it's a two-man game."

"Your mouth was full of blood."

"Mm-hmm." Rusty's voice was faint, preoccupied; the hand on Danny's shoulder traced upward along his throat and the side of his jaw, around to cup the back of his neck. "Bit my lip hard when I bent over. Mixed with spit, it goes a long way. Looked pretty good, huh?"

"Looked great," Danny managed.

"You bet your ass," Rusty said in a whispering growl. And Danny kissed him again, pulling him in tight, feeling his stomach muscles jump and shiver. Rusty's lips were as agile as the rest of him, and his hands and body and mouth all moved with the same endless scattered energy. Especially his hands, caressing and exploring and touching a dozen places at once.

Eventually Rusty burrowed into the crook of Danny's shoulder, sucking and nipping at the side of his neck. Danny groaned, and Rusty slowly trailed his hands down Danny's hips. When he finally brushed his thumbs tantalizingly across Danny's inner thighs, Danny twitched, grabbed Rusty by the arms and swung them both around, pushing Rusty back against the door with a muffled thump. Rusty's teeth showed in the dimness in a wild, open grin, his breath coming heavy.

Danny leaned into him. "Okay."

Rusty, still panting, said, "What?"

"Give it back."

Rusty's ragged breath deepened into a soundless laugh, thrumming against the front of Danny's body. Freeing one arm, he reached into the pocket of his tattered jeans (vintage stoner costume, though he'd balked at iron-on peace signs) and retrieved Danny's gold money clip, fat with bills. He held it up, lightly tucked between two of his long, slender fingers.

Danny looked at the money clip, thick, tooled gold for the drug runner character, a smug and ostentatious guy, someone who took himself very seriously. He looked at Rusty, his friend and fellow thief, game-player, tousled and laughing. And at last, at long last, he started to grin himself, and then to laugh outright. They wrestled, cursing and laughing and gasping, scattering the money clip and all the bills in a crooked path across the floor to the bed farthest from the window, followed by tie-dye and turtleneck and shoes and everything else flung this way and that. Someone yanked at Rusty's necklace, and puka shells pattered down like rain.

Hands trained in picking pockets were good for many other things. Many other things, Danny thought hazily as his back was pressed down into the mattress and he was covered with Rusty's eager warmth. Rusty licked his neck in cadence with one stroking hand, and Danny sighed. His world narrowed to the touch of those fingers, the talented passes of Rusty's thumb--oh, God--he pressed his hips upward.

Rusty's fingers paused in their ministrations; the rhythm of his stroking faltered. "Jesus."

"Mmm." Danny arched his back, his breath hitching. "Ah, come on, don't--"

"Danny." Rusty's lips brushed against Danny's ear, his hand wandering up over abdomen and chest.

"What?"

"That cologne. Really. It's killing me."

Danny jerked his head up, staring at Rusty in the semidarkness. Then with one sudden effort he scrambled up and lunged, toppling Rusty over, pinning him, and putting his own talents to work for awhile.

When the sky outside started to filter pale dawn around the edges of the curtains, Rusty was draped sleepily across Danny's chest, his hair shaggy and tickling. Danny watched him, studying the dark crescent bitten into his lower lip until Rusty opened one eye and caught him.

Rusty yawned. "Quit it."

Danny shrugged, which was no mean feat given his position.

"Seriously." Rusty's tongue flicked out across the gash. "I've had worse cuts shaving."

"Shave your lips often, do you."

Rusty smiled in return, and the smile turned wicked--as, shortly, did his behavior.
 



Danny woke as the plane was making its final descent into Los Angeles. His hands hadn't budged in his sleep, the cards still stacked smooth between his palms. At an airport payphone he made call after call, people who knew them both, people who owed him a favor here and there. He narrowed it down to a few choice hotels, and just for kicks he dialed each of the front desks.

And there he was. Rusty Ryan. Not only in their favorite L.A. hotel, but registered under his own name, in front of God and everybody. Man, he thought, as he waited for his new suitcase to come rolling out of baggage claim, the guy must really be bored if he didn't even have a cover job going. Card sharping was fun and all, but he could do it in his sleep. Had done it in his sleep, if you wanted to get technical.

It took very little sweet talk and trickery to get them to let him into Rusty's room, but it was a nice short exercise, limbering him up after the long flight. He poked around the suite, idly rifling through suitcases and closets, and then stripped off his jacket and shoes and sat on the bed. Ordered room service, tipped generously, charged it to Rusty's bill. Lay back flat on the bed and dozed on and off. The sun set and the streetlights outside cast a glow into the sky, and Rusty didn't come. So Danny showered, changed, and called a taxi to the club.

Charming his way into Deep wasn't hard, either, just like the hotel. He wasn't sure if that meant standards were slipping or that his old luck was finally coming back. He hoped it was the latter--his luck had stopped running the day of his conviction, and he missed it like a friend, like a lover. He sat nursing a drink in a concealing crowd along the side wall, politely deflected a few attempted pickups from several pretty boys and girls, and waited.

Out of the back room, at last, came Rusty. Lean, elegant, impeccable as always--if you considered shiny shirts impeccable. Danny made a point of passing as close behind him as possible as he cut through to the back room to poach the game; Rusty never twitched. He just slumped on a barstool, oblivious, cheek pressed to his glass like it was the only thing holding him up. Card kindergarten was obviously not agreeing with him. But then Rusty had always been quickly bored by easy money.

The look on Rusty's face when he found Danny in his poker game was food for the soul. Danny could scarcely keep from grinning outright--even though with this bunch of dizzy newborn rubes it wouldn't have mattered if he had. Rusty dealt him two nines and an ace to start, with the other two nines on the draw, and mesmerized all but one of the kids into drawing out Danny's bluff. Very neatly, very thoroughly, he helped Danny turn the marks upside-down and shake them until their pockets were empty. He could be merciless when he put his mind to it.

"It's not even taking candy from babies," Danny said on their way to Rusty's car, breaking the silence between them at last, as if they were picking up a conversation on hold for minutes instead of years.

"No," Rusty said, shrugging. "It's more like--"

"--taking socks from puppies." Danny spared a glance back over his shoulder for pursuit. There wasn't any, of course.

"Is that prison slang for something?"

"Look: a puppy will fight you for a sock, but only if you make it obvious you're attacking. Then he'll jump on it, and he knows how to protect it. If you don't make it obvious, if there's a distraction, then you can just pick it up and walk away. And in the end, the puppy's better off. What does a puppy really know about socks? Nothing. He has no idea what they're for. He just causes more damage."

Rusty eyed him sidelong. "You've had a little too much time to think about this. You do a lot of solitary?"

"What, you think I was in Alcatraz?"

"Come on, Danny, you can talk to me about it. I saw Cool Hand Luke once."

Danny gave Rusty's same old piece-of-shit convertible a gimlet stare, just on principle, then slid into the passenger's seat and watched Rusty's hands meditatively as they turned the key and shifted the car into drive. Every minute, every second, he was getting closer to feeling comfortable in his own skin again. "Buy an ex-con a drink, sailor," he said. "I have this little idea."
 



Danny gave him the pitch, which was a thousand miles from boring, and definitely not easy money. For good measure, he threw in the speech. Rusty clearly knew it was a line. He obligingly swallowed it anyway.

"Where are you staying?" Rusty asked once they were back in the car, copies of blueprints stacked in the back seat. He leaned over at a stoplight and dug a box of Good & Plenty out of the glove compartment.

Danny held up Rusty's own hotel key card, in its little paper envelope with the room number on it. He'd lifted it from Rusty's pocket while slipping past him in the club.

"What a coincidence," Rusty said, chewing.
 



Danny let them into Rusty's room, put out the Do Not Disturb sign, and locked the door. When he turned, Rusty was there, arms crossed.

"You were right," Danny said.

"Not a big surprise. About anything in particular?"

Silently, Danny raised both hands, palms out, and then laced his fingers together behind his neck.

"Yeah, maybe." Rusty pulled his discarded tie out of his pocket and draped it around his neck. Shiny tie, to match his shirt. "We knew there could be trouble once a fence got involved. You just rushed it. It happens."

"Something else happened, too."

Rusty looked at him, frowning slightly. And then he stepped in close and put his arms around Danny for a moment. Danny kept to his arrest posture, closed his eyes in a long blink, opened them. When Rusty moved back, he was holding the slim manila envelope from Danny's inner pocket. He opened it and took out the divorce papers.

Danny lowered his arms and walked around Rusty into the bedroom, to the telephone on the nightstand. He made plane reservations for Vegas, placed a wake-up call. He heard Rusty come in behind him, crunching on something from the minibar.

"You told me," Danny said without turning around. "You said marrying her without telling her who I was would just be going into a full-time con. And a full-time con on your own is no good. You get tired. Scared. You make mistakes."

More crunching, an audible swallow. "God, I talked like a big damn know-it-all, didn't I."

Danny dropped his head, smiling slightly. He heard Rusty come up behind him--bringing the faint scent of peanuts--and he turned to meet a big, rough hug. The shirt was just as slippery under his hands as you'd expect a shiny shirt to be.

"Like it or not, she knows who I am now," he mumbled into Rusty's shoulder. "Maybe that finally puts us on a level playing field--if we were starting over."

Rusty patted his back a couple of times. "Sure," he said softly. "Sure."

Danny let his hands slide down, sweeping slowly along Rusty's back to rest on his hips. All he had to do was turn his head to the side, and he did so, very very slowly, feeling his breath warm on Rusty's skin. Rusty tipped his head just right and their lips met, barely touching. Danny sighed.

Rusty squeezed tight, held him, and let him go. Danny stepped back to pull down the bedspread and sit heavily on the bed.

"Want some?" Rusty asked after a moment, offering the little packet of peanuts still crumpled in one hand.

"No thanks." Danny untucked his shirt, kicked off his shoes, and stretched out comfortably on one side of the mattress.

Rusty shrugged. "So," he said, watching him settle in, "are you planning to give it back?"

Danny tucked one hand behind his head. "Give what back?"

"The key." Rusty emptied the last of the peanuts into his mouth.

"You mean the key in your pocket?"

Rusty paused mid-chew, then dipped his hands into each pocket in turn until he came up with the little card, still in its envelope.

"Huh," he said, flipping the key between his fingers like a playing card, palming and backpalming. "You know, they say there's only one way to be completely safe from a good pickpocket."

"Don't ever kiss anybody."

"Nice try, but no." He tossed the card onto the nightstand and started unbuttoning his shirt. Quickly, neatly, he stripped down and set his clothes aside, shiny shirt and tie and slacks and all, until he stood there wearing nothing but two silver rings and the tattoo twining up his left wrist. He gave a long, sinuous stretch and scratched his ribs.

"Well, okay," Danny said at last. "We might have a little trouble with the airline, though."

Rusty left the lights on and sprawled next to him, burying his face in one of the pillows. Danny unbuckled his belt, eased out of his jacket, peeled off his shirt, all the while watching the tawny skin of Rusty's back rise and fall. His clothes fell to the floor, piece by piece. He rolled onto his side, and at his first touch, Rusty turned to meet him.

It had been a long time since Danny had held anybody in his arms like this, let alone Rusty, and at first he was nearly overwhelmed. Rusty, quite possibly absorbing these thoughts through his bare skin, said absently, "Okay. It's okay," and seemed content to trail his fingertips slowly down Danny's shoulders, his back, his sides.

Danny struggled to control his breathing, and put his hands against Rusty's chest, pushing him flat on his back. He lowered his head and kissed him again, firmly this time. Their mouths coaxed one another's open. Then Danny broke away, and loosely holding Rusty's forearms, moved down along his body. He learned Rusty again by touch and by taste, following minute twitches of muscle and hisses of breath to get him where he wanted him. He took his time.

"Turn around," Rusty eventually gasped. Danny only closed his eyes, concentrating. "Turn around. Danny, come on." His voice caught on the last word, broken on a sharp intake of air.

"Don't rush me." He hummed thoughtfully against delicate skin, which made Rusty writhe and clutch at the bed. "Just relax. Sometimes I wonder if you have an oral fixation."

"You think?" Rusty's voice was ragged.

When he had reduced Rusty to wordlessness, to rhythmic, plaintive gasps of "Oh--", Danny finally took pity on him and turned around on the bed so they were head to foot. Rusty took him urgently in hand, in mouth, and for some time Danny lost his mind and his attention to tempo. He held on and breathed hard. The sweet mouth of a liar. The kind hands of a thief.

Rusty teased him, touched him, devoured him, and whenever he lost control, Rusty was there to ease the throttle back. He paid Rusty attention in return when he could, struggling to focus. But when at last Rusty bowed his head low and swirled his tongue and swallowed, urging him on, Danny's eyes rolled back and fluttered closed, and he gave himself up entirely. As he came, he reached down blindly and touched Rusty's head, fingers curling helplessly in his hair.

"Been a while," Rusty said quietly against his thigh.

For a moment Danny could only breathe in answer, blinking his eyes open to the sting of sweat from his forehead. Then he tugged Rusty around to lie against him and kissed him, hungry, grinning. Rusty gripped Danny's shoulders; his skin was damp and flushed, smooth and slick and hot to the touch. He bucked against Danny's palm.

"Easy," Danny said. "Easy." And he bore Rusty down with his mouth and his body, remembering what that felt like, remembering such sureness, remembering how he was and who he was. A gift, another gift from Rusty's hands, one in a long line of unpayable debts.

At last Rusty's eyes were wide and glazed, and he trembled at the barest brush of Danny's lips along his neck. "Are you ready?" Danny whispered. He worked his fingers, as deft as he'd ever been, and Rusty came with a hard, guttural sound and bit at the side of Danny's jaw.

They rolled apart, hot and sticky, and Rusty gave a long, fading sigh. "Yeah," said Danny, and got up to turn off the light. He climbed back in, tugged the sheet and blanket up to his waist, listened to Rusty's breathing even out beside him. Every muscle in his body felt warm, loose, and ready for a good night's sleep. The first good night's sleep he'd had in years.

"Tomorrow..." Rusty murmured.

"Mm-hm?"

"...let's see if Reuben will give us some lunch."

Danny smiled. "He will."

He was sure of it. Reuben would give them lunch, and they'd reel him in and get him to sign on as the backer. They'd cast a team--with Rusty's head for details and Reuben's deep pockets, they'd cast the best team. They'd play the game. And Rusty would uncover the secret Danny still kept, of that he had no doubt. But he was ready. They were ready.

This was going to be fun.