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The High Life

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"It's a fake."

Danny tilted his head to one side and considered the painting: a set of ragged red and blue swirls by an obscure local artist. "How can you even tell?"

"I fenced a few of these a couple years ago. Between jobs." At Danny's sidelong look, Rusty shrugged. "It paid the bills."

"Much like this job will not."

"It's a living." Rusty fished in his pocket and pulled out a package of wasabi peanuts, then popped a couple into his mouth. A loud throat-clearing sounded behind them, and Danny and Rusty turned in unison to see a museum guard standing there, cap askew, staring daggers at Rusty's peanuts.

"There's a sign," he said, in a voice like a corroded tin can, as he pointed to the NO FOOD OR BEVERAGES edict decaying over the window.

"A sign," Danny said, lifting his eyebrows.

"Naturally." Rusty sighed, and with a forlorn look, tucked his forbidden snack back into his trouser pocket.

"He should be glad we're sightseeing," Danny said. "Buck fifty donation at the door. I dropped a twenty."

"Is that what this is?" Rusty glanced to the side, where Danny had noticed the lock was broken on the side entry door, and the emergency exit lights were blinking on and off at random intervals.

"Someone should tell them about their little electrical issue." Danny scanned the room, and found the alarm control panel at the right of the information desk. "Since I'm sure they want to retain all these valuable fakes."

"Not to mention that the thing over there labeled as a fake -" Rusty pointed to a paint spill masquerading as a low-rent Pollock - "is real."

"They need a security team," Danny said.

"And an appraiser."

"We could-"

"Not a chance."

"Not even-"

"Nope." Rusty sighed. "We're ruined for everything fun."

"Can't unsee once you learn to see." Danny gave the famous, fabulous family jewels - on loan from the wealthy local widow who obviously didn't know they were paste knock-offs - one last critical glance, and turned his back. "We've got work to do."

"This could be work."

"This is killing time." Danny checked his watch. "We've got ten, twelve minutes tops before the meet-up."

"Who knew rodeo memorabilia could be so lucrative?"

"Cowboys, obviously."

"Obviously."

Rusty snapped a few shots of the half-mastodon, half-lion in the lobby, and the rusted-out Civil War cannon outside the entrance, before he piled into the passenger side of the convertible and slid his shades on. At 1AM, the Great Western Museum of Sheridan, Wyoming would cough up all the chaps, spurs, arrowheads and hides in its vault, and the owners would never know what hit them.

At least, that was the plan.

Of course, they should have known better; nothing had seemed to go to plan since their last big heist. There was the dissolution of their relationships with two wonderful women - which they never talked about - and that thing in prison where Danny had 'slipped' and had earned a pretty scar over his left eyebrow. Rusty thought it gave him character, but Danny thought it looked like the dent on a car not quite old enough to be classic, and not quite new enough to be repairable. Every so often he'd catch Rusty eyeing it, the pad of his thumb moving back and forth over his trouser leg, like he wanted to smooth it away.

The Great Western Museum job had seemed like manna from heaven: skip the fake stuff, go straight to the ancient vault, and deliver the goods to an aging spaghetti Western star with an underground collection of purloined memories. So when they showed up in the middle of the night to break into their wide-open target, they were in cake-walk mode: all reward, no risk. They loaded up bags of sparkling belt buckles and misshapen saddle pommels, and then made for the door - only to be stopped dead by the wizened security guard with a jaw full of tobacco and a gun pointed straight at Rusty.

"Seriously?" Danny asked, slinging one knapsack over his shoulder.

"You'll want to put those bags down now, son, and step away," the guard said. One wisp of his white hair slid down over his eye, like the curls of a mummified Clark Kent.

Danny glanced at Rusty, who nodded, and in unison, they tossed their lockpick gear at the guard. He had to be over a hundred; it shouldn't have been hard to distract him. But then the gun went off, and there was a tussle, and ten minutes later Danny was driving, Rusty was bleeding over the upholstery, and they were both gasping for air over a job gone spectacularly wrong.

"It's not deep," Rusty said, his hand crimson where it rested over his ribs. "It's okay, it's good, let's just...get to the motel."

"You need a hospital," Danny said. His knuckles were white on the wheel.

"It's like old times," Rusty said. "You can sew me up, it's fine. But...maybe hurry."

The roads were empty, the towns asleep, and Danny floored it, screeching up beside the First Rate Motor Hotel with a cloud of dust fluttering behind him like a Bonnie and Clyde reenactor. Rusty pushed open the door and staggered toward the room, but when Danny stepped to help him, he pointed at the trunk. "Get the goods," he said hoarsely. "Make it count."

It had been ten years since a simple heist had gone so badly. Back then it was a warehouse full of sports memorabilia in downtown Phoenix, and a simple plan to gain entry and drive away with three vans full of easily fenced merchandise. But then one of the guards they'd paid got greedy - the price of amateurs - and Danny fell out a window trying to run rather than punch. Nothing broken, nothing bleeding; it had been a miracle.

This time, Danny held Rusty up outside their too-small shower, and Rusty's head rested on his shoulder while Danny cleaned the wound. It was a deep graze, as far as he could tell. No major damage. But Rusty shook in his arms, and Danny clasped the back of his neck, pulling him closer; they stood together in the steam while the water turned lukewarm, and finally grew cold.

With a thick gauze pad stuck to his side, Rusty crawled between the covers of his bed, and Danny sat on the edge of the other, unable to stop listening for the sounds of approaching sirens. Rusty seemed too tired to shake, so Danny's hands had taken over the duty.

"Maybe we need a break," Rusty said, his voice muffled by the pillow.

"I had one. Eighteen months in the federal pen."

"That's not a break, that's appropriate sanctions." Rusty cracked open an eye and peered at him. "When I wake up, we are getting a map. And then we're taking a drive."

"To where, exactly?" Danny gestured up at the ceiling, which he meant to encompass the entirety of the bumfuck nowhere they were occupying.

"Somewhere quiet," Rusty said, his eyes closing again. "Somewhere...safe."

"Somewhere safe," Danny echoed. His gaze dropped to the bandage on Rusty's side, and his heart made a little somersault in his chest.

He sat up all night, googling roadside attractions, making reservations. Every few minutes, his eyes strayed up from his phone to Rusty's sleeping figure, and lingered there.

***

They dropped the goods off at noon the next day, at a filling station in a town so small, it was two clapboard buildings and two gas pumps. Their patron handed over a velvet gift bag, made to hold expensive wine but now misshapen with cash. "Heard you had some trouble," he said, and not for the first time, Danny wondered where the hell Reuben had dug this guy up.

"Nothing we couldn't handle." Behind Danny, Rusty sat in the front seat of their rented Explorer. Danny knew he was watching, without appearing to watch. A paper map was spread out over his lap, and Rusty had doodled a path across it, pen dancing in his clever fingers. Danny was going to follow that path, even if it led into a wheat field.

"Better lay low for a while, just the same. People out here have peculiar notions of justice." Their contact tipped his oversized cowboy hat, then climbed into a beat-up duster and creaked back down the empty road he'd arrived on. Danny watched him go, and couldn't even muster up a smile for the clichés.

When he got back behind the wheel, Rusty slid his shades on. "West 25 miles, then we'll make a turn south," he said, end of the pen stuck delicately between his teeth.

They passed through the open country without the radio, and no conversation. It was the kind of silence Danny had grown to appreciate about Rusty over the years; he wasn't one for idle talk to fill up empty spaces. They'd never needed the words, anyway. The first time their eyes had met over a hand of cards, Rusty had known the rhythm to follow, and they'd shared the take without ever discussing a plan. The synchrony annoyed their teams, and it hadn't pleased their wives much, either.

There was probably some lesson in that for him, but not one Danny cared much about learning.

"This is the place," Rusty said, pointing toward the remains of a rural road branching off from the highway. Danny dutifully rambled down the bumpy dirt path to a rickety building in the middle of nowhere. DINOSAUR BONES! screamed the pink neon over the front door, and Danny tilted his head.

"Think they'll have the whole dinosaur this time?"

"Sure hope not," Rusty said, easing out of the car. Danny didn't like the way he kept one hand pressed to his side, or the tiny spot of blood on his otherwise impeccable shirt. "Not nearly as exciting that way."

Admission was $2 - each - which Danny forked over without complaint. They wandered through the small museum side by side, stopping to stare at decrepit mannequins with flouncy old-time dresses on.

"Miss Havisham wants her lace back," Rusty said, surreptitiously sneaking a potato chip from his inside breast pocket. He sucked on it for a second, the better to avoid attracting unwanted attention by crunching.

Danny pushed the mannequin's glasses back up onto her nose. "Pretty sure that is Miss Havisham." He waved a hand at the variety of crimson corsets on display. "Do you think those things pinch?"

"They don't pinch so much as make it hard to breathe," Rusty answered, popping another potato chip. "Kind of squished me in around the middle."

"I want so much to ask," Danny said, "and yet I lack the courage."

"Just as well. Though it would have been handy if you'd been there to tighten my laces." Rusty turned and headed off into the smallish room to their left, over which the helpful sign labeled PERHISTORIC MEN!!!! hung from one nail.

In their journey to see REGLAR AUTHENTIC STAGE COACHES!!!! and a variety of other things, Danny also noticed two unlocked windows, an exit with a disabled bar lock, a fuse box with a helpful chart on the cover, and the alarm code taped up over the light switch.

"When you feel like going legit," Rusty said, perusing the three varieties of candy bar available for purchase at a 55% markup, "I'll bet we could get them to pay us to protect their corsets."

"Who wouldn't?" Danny agreed, as he paid for Rusty's Mars bar and his own Snickers.

They walked across an open field to a tin-roofed café with six picnic tables, a bar counter, two pool tables with the felt peeling off at the bumpers, and a giant TV on one wall. Rusty polished off his candy bar and ordered a cheeseburger with extra bacon and double fries. Danny ordered a pastrami on rye, against his better judgment, and what came out was more like petrified ham on sourdough.

"No seeds," he said, holding up half the sandwich.

"Tragic." Rusty took a big bite of his burger, sauce and grease smeared across his face, and grinned at Danny, who chuckled and devoured the thing-that-wasn't-pastrami in about six bites. It went down better dipped in the watered-down mustard.

They sat in the half-darkness for a while, Lonesome Dove playing in the background on the TV. Danny watched the patrons watching the TV; most of them were on the high side of seventy, and few of them had their teeth. They were all nursing domestic beers, eating pickled eggs from the bar jar. Danny had the sense that if any of them had ever seen a gunshot wound, it was because they had inflicted it. He was tempted to pull up a bar stool and mine their histories for material, but rain had started to patter its way across the roof, and the trees outside were whipping sideways.

As if it had been planned that way, the door opened and the storm discharged three additional tourists into the café - young men, in jeans and T-shirts, who headed straight to the pool tables.

Danny watched them pick their cues, watched the first one chalk up for his shot, and then he met Rusty's eyes.

Half a minute later, they were on the other table, racking up for an opening shot that Rusty was going to miss in spectacular fashion. An hour after that, they were apologizing for their run of great luck, and pocketing just about every dime those three kids had brought on the road with them. (Plus a $50 Timex Rusty apparently thought might go well with Danny's pale blue dress shirt.)

When the kids had drained their beers and left, Danny leaned a hip on the pool table and settled his cue against his thigh. "Aren't we supposed to be on vacation?"

"You can't really call that work. I'm having fun," Rusty said. He took a long swallow from his beer glass; head tipped back, throat working. Danny's fingers tightened on the cue. Rusty set the glass down and reached for Danny's cue to swap it for his own; his fingers trailed a few inches down Danny's thigh, then brushed back up, light as a feather, to steal the cue.

"I guess it's a way of life," Danny said. He watched as Rusty prowled around the pool table, setting up random shots and killing them; the stretch of his body over the bumpers was as familiar to Danny as breathing.

"Is that an observation or a complaint?" Rusty paused, cue set up, body leaned across for maximum impact. Their eyes met, and Danny smiled, because it was both, and neither. It was who they were. What they'd always been. Rusty made the shot without ever breaking eye contact with Danny.

The ball slipped into the pocket with a satisfying clack.

Rusty returned both cues and took his sunglasses from his pocket. He kept them on through the twenty miles of rain between the café and their hotel - which sported a giant covered wagon over the office. They checked into their spotless room and tossed their duffel bags into the corner, and then Rusty slowly peeled off his wet, wrinkled linen suit, one item at a time, with the bathroom heat lamp the only source of light to see by.

Danny's tie had given up the ghost about the time of his fifth beer and second game of pool. He stuffed it in his pocket and unbuttoned his shirt slowly, tugging the tail out of his trousers with a practiced pull.

With a grimace, Rusty pulled the gauze bandage away from his side, and then returned his attention to Danny, who was unbuckling his belt. His skin felt warm everywhere Rusty's gaze touched him; it had been a long time since he'd felt the force of that desire. His own was always there, tamped down and waiting; it had been banked for years, underneath his love for Tess, and his own fear of pushing too hard at the wrong time.

He followed Rusty into the bathroom, and into the tiny shower that was never meant for two grown men. Rusty put a hand on his chest and held him at arm's length; he picked up the soap and began to wash, lathering his side carefully, his neck, his torso. He passed the soap over to Danny, and the scent of eucalyptus surrounded them, bringing a flood of memories from their first few jobs together. Always in places like this; always the cheap soap and the rough wash cloths.

Rusty's gifted hands cupped his face, and they traded long, deep kisses, before Rusty backed away and stepped out of the shower. By the time Danny had finished, Rusty was in bed, still with a scratchy motel towel wrapped around his waist; his soft snores were a signal that everything would, eventually, be fine.

Danny rubbed his hair with a towel and sprawled out on his own twin bed. He fell asleep with the sound of gunshots echoing in his mind.

***

They slept in late the following day, and Danny picked up a dog-eared brochure in the lobby which helpfully suggested a picnic at Prairie Town.

"Is there a right way to do a picnic?" Danny asked at the convenience store, as he puzzled over the five-dollar twist top bottles of wine.

"I realize that was a rhetorical question, since you're used to talking to yourself in my absence," Rusty said, stuffing a package of Twinkies and two bags of Chex Mix - original flavor - into a brown paper bag, along with beef jerky and some gum. "But no."

An hour later, after downing the contents of the reddish wine on the way to Prairie Town, they sprawled out on the car cover they'd lifted from the rental car's trunk, and gazed up at the stormy sky. Rusty bit off half a Twinkie and passed the other half to Danny. Overhead, a large cloud formation blew in from the west, and if Danny squinted, it was definitely Basher in full-blown rant mode.

"That looks like-"

"Yeah."

"The nose is wrong though. It gets all scrunchy when he's grumpy."

"I wonder how he's doing."

"He's doing three to five somewhere in Michigan, last I heard."

"That's a waste." Danny finished the Twinkie, then licked the sugary filling from his fingers. He turned his head to find Rusty staring, and then Rusty was kissing him, licking the rest of the filling from the corner of his mouth. He liked these lazy kisses, soft, like they had all the time in the world. He was used to working on a clock.

Danny flopped down on the blanket and turned his attention back to the clouds, though it was difficult with Rusty's fingers sliding across his palm, over and back again in a gentle pattern. Eventually the clouds started to look like the plans for the main Lindeman vault in the basement of the private collector's museum in Denver, a spot Danny had been contemplating for some time. It had taken a few months to pry the plans out of a sympathetic architect, when sympathy had to be acquired through the copious use of bribes and champagne.

Vault #1 was calling to him. It wasn't a big job, but it had potential.

He fished a pen from his pocket and sat up, propping himself on one elbow. "Hold still," he said, and pushed Rusty's shirt up over his flat, beautiful abs. No gauze over the graze this time; it slashed across Rusty's skin, a visible reminder of how quickly their luck could change. Danny covered it gently with his left hand.

"There's this thing called a smart phone," Rusty said, as Danny quickly drew a square map on Rusty's stomach, then sketched out a route through the sensors.

"You're telling me," Danny answered. He clicked the pen closed with his teeth, pulled his phone out and took a shot of his sketch. Then he sat up all the way and took another shot - this one including Rusty's amused face, and his half-closed eyes.

He flipped back to the diagram and held the phone up to Rusty, who said, "That's-"

"Yep."

"Are you thinking-"

"It's the easiest way."

"Huh." Rusty took the phone and examined Danny's handiwork, while Danny bent down and kissed his way around the exit route he'd just diagrammed. Rusty dropped the phone in favor of sliding his hand around the back of Danny's head to press him closer.

Later, Rusty took a shot or two of the prairie dogs watching Danny at work. Then he reached for the paper bag and retrieved a bag of peanuts.

"We could probably get some dinner," Danny said. He licked the lingering taste of Rusty from his lips.

"I need my strength," Rusty said. Danny watched the movement of his mouth, the way he sucked salt off his fingers, until the peanuts were all gone. He was hard, had been hard since he got close enough to smell Rusty's skin. His body was tuned toward Rusty in every way. Even in darkness, he would always know where Rusty was, and where he would move next.

"I guess we're going now," Danny said, as Rusty quirked a smile at him. He collected the paper bags and their makeshift blanket, and they loaded the car in silence.

It wasn't a long drive back; Danny kept his hands to himself, watching the countryside go by, but aware of Rusty, of the fresh-grass smell of him, and the heaviness of rain in the air all around them. Rusty parked perfectly in the space just outside their motel room door and said, "Leave the bag."

Danny had forgotten it even existed, by that point.

Their room was dark and quiet, and they stripped down and slid between the sheets, grinning at each other like kids hiding secrets from their parents. It was familiar and new, expected and surprising, all the contradictions that had kept them bonded together for so many years, closer than two thoughts from the same mind. Danny explored all the slopes and plains of Rusty's body, which had changed enough to be entirely new territory; Rusty chuckled and wriggled and tried to twist away, and Danny hid his smiles against Rusty's skin, careful of his wound.

Eventually, Rusty turned the tables, pushing Danny flat on his back. "Ease off there, tiger," he said, setting Danny's hands aside, and then he took Danny into his mouth, holding him to the bed with hands that had never tended toward violence, but which understood strength all the same.

When Danny came, he lost all sense of time, until he felt Rusty's teeth biting gently at his hipbone. "Come here," he said roughly, and when Rusty settled beside him, he took his cock in a sure hand and watched Rusty's face, the slide from smug satisfaction to ecstasy, before Rusty spilled over his fingers and turned his face blindly to Danny, looking for quiet kisses.

For a while, neither of them spoke. Eventually Rusty turned on his belly, face pillowed on his arm, the same way he'd slept since the first time they'd shared a bed. He was still as beautiful as he'd been when they first met. More so, Danny thought, because now he knew all the inner workings of the criminal machine beneath.

Danny pulled his pillow closer. "The first time we did this, I sent Reuben a fruit basket, after."

"Subtle."

"Well, you know. Apples, plums, peaches. It was on my mind." Danny rested his hand on the curve of Rusty's ass, and watched the slow smile blossom on his face. The smile hadn't changed much, even though the face was a bit more weathered, and the creases at the corners of Rusty's eyes had known some stress and damage.

"What's on your mind right now?"

It was more an invitation than an actual question; it was an answer Rusty already knew. When Danny kissed him, the world narrowed to what was important, and all of it was within the confines of their room.

***

"It's raining again," Rusty mumbled, as he groped around in the bedsheets for the TV remote and pulled it out from beneath his hip. Sometime in the early morning, Danny had switched it on, and an excitable infomercial announcer had awakened Rusty from his slumber. After that, the night had become a blur of intense, intimate pleasure, with Rusty inside him and Danny's back arched off the bed.

Danny was pretty sure he'd never hear a food processor whirring again without feeling some residual arousal.

He pushed the sheet down to his bare chest and glanced over at the window. "That is a terrifying amount of water."

"It's like that movie," Rusty said.

"With the-"

"Right, and the dad with the snowshoes."

"They burned the tax code to keep warm."

"Naturally, that would endear them to you."

"Greater love hath no man than to give a friend a brain injury to save his life," Danny pointed out.

"Uh-huh." Rusty rolled to his side, stretched, and closed his eyes; he slid one arm around Danny's waist, and Danny relaxed under the weight of it. "I'll look for a hole to throw you down later. How long do we have this room?"

"Saturday."

"Great. Friday is hereby cancelled on account of lack of motivation." A minute later, Rusty's breathing evened out, and he was asleep again. Danny could feel Rusty's heartbeat throbbing against his back; slowly, the rhythm of it lured him back to sleep, Rusty warm along the length of his body.

***

On Saturday morning, Danny rolled out of bed and shuffled into the shower, feeling some of the years falling away as the water sluiced over him. On bad days, he couldn't shake the damage of every one of his years behind bars, and all his unfinished heists weighing down on him besides. But this day he felt new again, like he could shoot the moon and win. It had been a while since he knew that feeling. Too long.

His thoughts drifted back to the Lindeman vault as he stood under the spray. It wouldn't be a tough job, if all he wanted was the old main vault. The trick might be to get into the two supplemental vaults, which were state of the art, and then possibly to slip next door into the Metropolitan Bank and the reserve cash stored underground. Which just so happened to be adjacent to Lindeman vault #3, separated by some concrete and security measures.

Danny was pretty confident he could get ahold of those plans, too.

He got hard using the motel soap, with a vivid vision of Rusty's ink-smeared abs in his mind, and laughed quietly to himself as he jerked off before he stepped out of the lukewarm water.

Rusty was dressed and sitting at the tiny desk, bunched up at its threshold like a man at a child's tea party. Before him was Danny's phone, and a few pieces of motel stationary, littered with Rusty's trademark scrawl. Vaults #2 and #3 were small squares at the corner of the paper; Danny recognized them from the blueprints.

"Been thinking," Rusty said. He glanced up at Danny with a sly smile.

"Sun's out," Danny said, and smiled back.