It’s not the type of bar Christian usually finds himself in.
Well. Correction: It’s not the type of bar Christian usually finds himself dragged to by his more extroverted friends for a job or ‘for fun, Christian, don’t you remember how to have fun?’”
It’s quiet, for one, maybe unsurprisingly since it’s well past midnight on a Tuesday. The music that’s playing is more of a ‘background-noise’ situation than a ‘deafening EDM with a baseline he can feel in his dick’ situation, which he can’t say he’s complaining about. He’s tired, and parking himself on a bar stool and nursing a drink for an hour sounds about his speed.
He had a flight out of the city scheduled to take off a couple hours ago. Because the universe isn’t inclined to make his life easy, he arrived at the airport to find his flight delayed by a good few hours.
There isn’t much to do in a near-empty airport in the middle of the night, he discovers.
The guy working at the service desk mentioned there was a bar about a five-minute walk away, and it beat going through security and finding a chair to park his ass in for the next few hours.
The bartender—a tall woman with a buzzcut who introduces herself as Jazzmyne, tells him cheerfully that he looks like shit, and adds that she’s got a cocktail called Flight Delay for specifically his type of misery—mentions that the bar pretty much only sees out-of-towners: people waiting out layovers and delayed or missed flights.
“We’re the Two-Hour Hookup destination of the state,” she says, grinning. “Guaranteed to get your rocks off before your plane leaves the ground.”
He laughs, shaking his head. “I think I’ll just stick with the cocktail.”
When he texts Aria about the delay, he gets back a string of angry-face emojis and little else. They’ve got a low-stakes jewelry heist planned, and Aria tends to be a loosely-contained bundle of nerves even when everything goes off without a hitch.
‘The jewelry’s not going anywhere,’ Christian replies. ‘I’ll be there before we need to leave. Stop panicking.’ He tucks his phone into his pocket before he can see Aria’s inevitable message about how he is not panicking, thank you very much, he is just concerned, about the fact that Christian is not here yet, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and—
Christian likes Aria. He really does. Aria’s one of his best friends. But he always gets a little unbearably cagey in the twenty-four hours before a job.
It’s not a big heist, but Aria says he’s got something bigger planned for next month, and they can use the cash from selling the jewelry on this job to put towards making the next one happen.
Aria’s always got something planned. Christian can’t complain. Makes for an interesting life and a full wallet.
He swivels on the stool to aimlessly people-watch—not that there are many people to look at. A handful of people scattered at different tables, mostly alone, all hunched over nursing drinks in the general fashion of I’d rather be on my flight but since I can’t be on my flight I’m going to drink grumpily.
Maybe that’s why Christian notices him almost right away.
The guy leaning against the pool table off to the side looks relatively unbothered. Cheerful, almost. If he missed a flight or he’s waiting out a layover, he doesn’t seem annoyed about it. Looks content enough to amuse himself with the table playing alone.
He’s...not very good, unless he’s trying to miss half the shots he takes, sends stripes and solids alike bouncing off the felt edges nowhere near the pockets of the table.
He’s not bad to watch, though, and that’s not just because the guy looks good, dressed for a casual night out, his shock of black hair in a disarray that somehow complements his haven’t-shaved-in-a-few-days stubble.
Christian might have a thing for hot messes.
When the guy accidentally pops the cue ball into the air and sends it flying off the table, Christian gives in and laughs. He hops off his stool and stops the ball with his foot before it can roll clear to the other side of the bar.
“Sorry!” The guy’s smiling apologetically, rubbing the back of his neck as he walks over. “I was trying to do a trick shot.”
“A trick shot where you cave in someone’s skull with a billiard ball?” Christian asks as he picks the ball up off the floor and hands it over, but he finds himself smiling, too.
The guy scrunches his nose. “No, like— You know, like when you jump the white ball over another ball? I saw it in a movie once.”
“Maybe you should focus on just getting the balls in the pockets before you start getting fancy with it.”
The guy grins. “Oh, okay, and I suppose you’re an expert?”
“I mean, I can keep the balls on the table and get them into the pockets without hurtling them across the bar.”
That gets a laugh out of him. “I should probably just stick to drinking. Not much fun playing alone, anyway.”
“You here on a layover or something?” Christian asks, settling back on his stool. Small talk isn’t his strongest suit, but this beats drinking and sulking by himself for the next few hours.
“Nah, I live on the other side of town. Was supposed to meet a few friends here but they bailed on me.” He shrugs. “Drove all the way out here, though, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to hang for a while. What about you?”
“Flight got delayed.” Technically, Christian lives around here, too, but the only reason he’s at the bar is to stave off the boredom before his plane takes off.
The guy gives him a mildly sympathetic look. “Sucks. You gonna be late for something?”
Christian shakes his head and lies easily: “Just visiting family for the week. Could be worse.”
There’s the dull sound of a full glass against polished wood. “Hey, here’s your drink.”
Christian turns in time to see Jazzmyne sliding a frighteningly green cocktail down the bar towards him. “Jesus Christ.”
“That’ll be ten bucks.”
She shrugs. “You’d be paying like fifteen at the airport bar.”
“The airport bar wouldn’t give me something that looks radioactive.”
She laughs. “Just drink it. You’ll like it.”
“You can put it on my tab,” the guy says suddenly.
Christian looks over at him, brow furrowing. “What? No, it’s fine, it’s not like I can’t afford it.”
“C’mon, I insist.” The guy gives him a charming smile and hands him the pool ball. “One drink in exchange for a lesson in how to ‘keep the balls on the table and get them into the pockets without hurtling them across the bar’.”
He can’t help but laugh. It doesn’t take long to make a decision, and to be honest he wouldn’t mind a harmless, better view of the guy bending over the pool table.
It’s late, he’s had a rough night, he wants to look at a cute guy’s ass for an hour. Sue him.
“Fine,” he agrees, sliding off the stool.
The guy picks up the cocktail and takes a sip of it before handing it over to Christian, eyebrows raised almost in challenge, biting down on a smile. “I’m Eric. By the way.”
Christian takes the glass and eyes the print Eric’s lip balm left on the rim. Laughs. “Christian,” he says in reply, and knocks back half the cocktail in a few neat swallows. Jazzmyne’s right—it’s not bad. “Grab a pool cue.”
Eric’s not totally hopeless, but it’s a close goddamn thing.
“No, that’s the eight ball, you’re not supposed to—” Christian breaks off with a laughing groan. “Of course you actually managed to sink that one.”
“You said I’m playing solids!” Eric looks affronted.
“Yeah, but not the eight ball, you’re supposed to leave that one for last, that’s the whole point of the— You know what, don’t worry about it. You got it in, congratulations. I’m very proud. I have no idea how you even did that, with the way you’re holding the cue stick.”
Eric furrows his brow. “What’s wrong with the way I’m holding it?”
“Other than the fact that you look like you’re about to use it as a weapon? Nothing.”
Eric laughs and jabs the stick in Christian’s direction with mock forcefulness. “En garde?”
“That’s not the way you’re supposed to hold a fencing foil, either.”
Eric stares at him and laughs again. “Pool expert, fencing master— Is there anything you can’t do?” He bats his eyelashes dramatically.
“Shut up and let me show you how to hold it right, oh my god.”
Eric looks smug, which Christian doesn’t understand until Eric’s somehow managed to idiot himself into forcing Christian to press up against his back and reach around to show Eric exactly how to hold the stupid thing, like this is a Dirty Dancing knockoff and Christian has to fucking hold him tenderly.
“I feel like you could’ve figured this out without me having to dramatically embrace you.”
Christian can feel him laughing.
“This is more fun,” Eric says, and Christian can’t really argue with that. He’s a few drinks in at this point and the closeness isn’t exactly unwanted.
Proper form doesn’t seem to help much, though; Eric’s still missing a sense of aim or care or patience or all three, and he can’t manage to sink a ball more than once in a blue moon.
To be fair, Eric’s had a few drinks, too. Christian discovers he’s an energetic, playful, giggly drunk, and all the laughter isn’t doing much for his aim.
Or his decision-making, as it turns out.
“C’mon, c’mon, I get it now! Watch. Watch me sink that one. The eight ball. Uh, right corner pocket.”
Christian blinks. “You’re pointing to your left.”
“Left corner pocket. Two hundred bucks. Bet you I can make it.”
Laughing, Christian shakes his head. “Bullshit.”
“You don’t think I can do it? Are you doubting your teaching skills?”
“I think my teaching skills are great. But you don’t even know right from left right now.” Christian sets his own pool cue down and checks the time on his phone. “I gotta get back to the airport, anyway.”
Eric clutches at his chest dramatically. “You’re doubting me?”
“Christian!” Eric struggles to put on a sulking expression, but he’s laughing. “C’mon, instill some confidence in me. There’s two hundred dollars on the line.”
Christian smiles and rolls his eyes. “I’d feel bad taking money from a drunk man.”
“Confidence, Christian, please.”
Christian throws his hands in the air. “Fine! Fine. Your loss. Go for it.” He leans against the wall and folds his arms over his chest, watching, appreciating the way Eric stretches and bends over the table.
And that’s when Eric seems to find his talent.
Meaning he sinks the eight ball into the left corner pocket like it barely takes any effort at all.
“Oh, holy shit! Did you see that?” Eric says, straightening up and turning around, eyes bright with excitement.
Christian’s staring, stunned. “Yeah, I saw that.” He’d be suspicious, but Eric looks genuinely delighted. He reaches into his pocket for his wallet.
“What? No, no, c’mon, you don’t have to do that.”
Christian shrugs. “You said two hundred bucks and I agreed.” They’re starting to get looks from the few people in the bar, anyway, and Christian doesn’t want to look like the jackass who skipped out on a bet just because he lost.
He hands over a bundle of twenties and Eric takes it hesitantly.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, of course. Glad my teaching skills actually got through to you.”
Eric laughs. “Well, hey, thanks. This was fun. You said you have to get back to the airport, so—as much as I want to, I won’t take any more of your time.”
“Or my money?” Christian puts in, but he’s mildly amused.
Eric grins at him, looks him up and down. “Maybe next time you’re in town.”
Christian doesn’t get the chance to say he only lives about a fifteen minute drive from the bar before Eric’s paying off his tab and ducking out with a cheerful wave.
The second the door swings shut, laughter erupts from behind the bar.
Christian turns, frowning a little, to see Jazzmyne shaking her head, still grinning. “What?”
“Boy,” she says, “you just got played hard.”
Jazzmyne leans against the bar, amused. “Eric’s in here every week taking money just like that from guys just like you.”
“Are you serious?” Christian turns towards the door, but. What the hell is he gonna do, chase down the kid and mug him for his own money back?
“Don’t bother,” Jazzmyne says, as if reading his mind. “He always leaves in an uber.”
Christian, embarrassed and frustrated, turns his irritation on her. “You couldn’t have told me?”
She raises an eyebrow at him, unimpressed. “Alright, one, it’s not my fault your dick clouded your judgement, and two, that’s the most entertaining thing that’s happened here all night, so you can’t blame me for sitting back to watch you trip over yourself.”
Christian blames the heat in his cheeks on the alcohol. “I wasn’t— My dick didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Jazzmyne looks, somehow, even less impressed. “He had you wrapped around his finger.”
He did. Christian’s really annoyed about it.
Jazzmyne can tell, and that only seems to make her more amused. “You’re not the first or the last to empty your wallet to him. No shame in it.” She pauses. “Two hundred bucks is a lot more than he generally tries to get out of people, though. Maybe a little shame in that.”
Christian frowns at her. She laughs. Frustrated, he downs the remainder of his last drink and sets it on the bar. Takes a moment to debate. The money, that’s not a huge deal, but the fact of the matter is this kid hustled a seasoned con artist out of two hundred bucks and got away clean. Christian’s embarrassed, sure, but he can’t say he’s not at least a little curious, too. “You said he’s here every week?”
“Mhm. Usually weekends, but sometimes in the middle of the week.” She looks entertained. “What, are you gonna fly back into town over two hundred dollars?”
“I’m gonna make a fifteen-minute drive over two hundred bucks. I live here in town.”
Jazzmyne sobers slightly. Seems to consider him for a moment. “Yeah, okay, I’m gonna have to get in your business for a second, then. You planning on hurting him?”
“What? Christ, no,” Christian says, taken aback. “I’m gonna talk to him. Why, does he— Has he gotten into shit before?”
“He’s hustling people on a regular basis. Take a wild guess.”
Christian throws up his hands. “Why are you letting him do this? Can’t you kick him out?”
Jazzmyne laughs. “He’d just go to some other bar. Eric’s my friend; at least I can keep an eye on him here.” She leans forward conspiratorially, eyes bright with mischief. “Plus, I get a cut of the profits.”
“Hey, man, I’ve got rent to pay! Morals don’t pay rent.” She picks up his cocktail glass. “You wanna come talk to him, go ahead, but I’m gonna suggest you don’t put a hand on him.” She says it casually, but her expression makes Christian put his hands up in surrender.
“I don’t want to hurt him. Just wanna talk to him.”
Jazzmyne shrugs. “Be my guest, then.” She pauses. Grins. “Just don’t let your dick think for you again.”
The jewelry heist goes off without a hitch.
“There hasn’t even been enough time for anything to show up on the news yet,” Christian says, amused and exasperated.
Aria’s sitting on the edge of the couch, leaning forward towards the television of their hotel suite with a remote in his hands and flicking through channels. “You never know!”
“At least take the night off to celebrate and, you know, breathe,” Christian says, opening the bottle of champagne they got from room service with a satisfying pop.
Aria laughs, tossing the remote down and walking over to grab one of the champagne flutes Christian fills. “I’m breathing. I’m celebrating. I feel great. I feel so great I wanna talk to you about this next job.”
Christian groans, setting the bottle down, and gives in.
The main issue with the job, he discovers, is that it’s not a two-person thing. Aria says they need at least two more people. He’s bringing in his friend Fernando, but they need someone to come in and be a combination distraction, grifter, and honeypot—someone that can keep people distracted and happy even as they’re getting robbed blind.
Christian snorts. “From what you’ve told me, Fernando’s, like, the ultimate honeypot.”
Aria waggles his eyebrows and grins. “He knows how to catch an eye, yeah. But I need him for something else. Which is why I was wondering if you know anybody who’d fit the bill?”
Christian doesn’t know too many people in this business. Hell, the people he does know, he met through Aria in the first place.
That being said...
“Actually, I may know a guy that could help us out.”
Aria perks up. “Really?”
“Yeah.” Christian laughs a little. “He owes me, anyway.*
“Owes you for what?” Aria asks, looking mildly intrigued.
“For not chasing him down and kicking his ass after he hustled two hundred bucks from me in a stupid bet.”
“Don’t ask. Give me like a week and I’ll let you know if he can work with us.”
Christian’s back in the bar a few days later. It’s a weekend, so the place is a bit more packed this time, but he spots Eric seconds after walking through the door.
The kid’s mid-hustle and the sucker he targeted doesn’t have any clue, if the scene Christian’s watching is anything to go by.
The guy is almost a stereotypical college jock, hair gelled to shit and in a tank top that shows off gym-earned muscles. He’s drunk, or at least getting there fast, and Christian’s too far away to hear them but it looks like he’s making fun of the way Eric’s holding his pool cue.
Eric laughs along and holds the stick out, and the guy takes it and shows him the proper form. God, Christian hopes he wasn’t that much of an oblivious idiot when Eric was pulling the same thing on him.
He watches them for a few minutes, trying to decide how to best approach Eric—and then Eric does him a favor by handing off the pool cue again and gesturing towards the bathroom with a smile before heading in that direction.
Eric looks over his shoulder when Christian enters the bathroom, shuts the door, and slides the lock into place with a snap of finality. Christian’s caught him at nearly his most vulnerable, hands on his fly as he’s settling in front of a urinal—his eyes land on Christian’s face and widen in recognition a moment later.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Christian says mildly, leaning against the door and folding his arms over his chest. He doesn’t often like to play the ‘stoic, muscley asshole’ card, but then he’s not often put in a situation like this when he isn’t working.
He’s got to give Eric some credit—the kid doesn’t immediately fold under the first sign of pressure.
“Christian!” he says, smiling widely and turning towards him completely. “Back in town so soon?”
Christian can’t say he’s in the mood for small talk. “Your hustle looks like it’s going well. Dude was staring at you more than the table.”
Eric blanches slightly. “Uh, hustle?” he repeats, smile tightening a little at the edges.
“We can play the ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’ game if you want, man, but it’s gonna end with you giving me my two hundred bucks back either way.” He can’t say he’s not curious as to how this’ll play out, but he keeps his expression even regardless.
Eric laughs, a little too high-pitched to be anything but nervous. “C’mon, Christian, I thought we were friends.”
“Oh, we are. Which is why I’m not gonna kick your ass and you’re gonna hand over the money before I have to get mean about it.”
“Whoa, whoa, okay, calm down.” Eric puts his hands up in surrender and takes a couple steps towards him—
Which is ballsy. Christian’s kind of impressed.
“Look, I don’t...exactly have the money, like, on hand.” Eric takes a couple more steps towards him, laughs a little. “If I did, I wouldn’t be here in the first place. But…” And a couple steps more. Christian could easily reach out and touch him. “I bet we could figure out some kind of...arrangement, don’t you think?”
Oh, the kid is good. Aria’s gonna love him.
Christian takes a moment to give Eric a self-indulgent once-over, then huffs out a quiet laugh. “Yeah,” he says. “I think we could.”
He catches a brief flicker of smugness on Eric’s face, and that just won’t do. Time to burst his bubble.
He puts a hand on Eric’s chest before he can move any closer. “You don’t have the money? Fine. You’re gonna go out there and make some.”
Eric blinks, thrown off. “I— What?”
“You’re gonna go out there and finish your hustle, and then you’re gonna give me the money you cheat out of him. And if you don’t get enough from him, well. I don’t have anything going on tonight. You can go ahead and move onto the next sucker. And the next. Until I’ve got two hundred bucks in my hands and you’ve learned a lesson about sloppy conning.”
That seems to make Eric pause. He gives Christian a once-over of his own, like he’s really reading Christian for the first time. “Yeah? What do you know about sloppy conning?”
That’s not a conversation Christian’s ready to have yet. “Enough to get you cornered in a dirty bar bathroom.”
It looks like Eric’s holding back a grin. “That’s a nice watch,” he says, gesturing to Christian’s left wrist. “Where’d you get it.”
From a pile of jewelry he and Aria lifted from a mansion in Hollywood four days ago. “I inherited it from my grandfather.”
Eric doesn’t bother to hold back the grin this time, like he doesn’t believe a word of it but is willing to play along. “So you want me to hustle people for you.”
What Christian wants is to see what Eric’s capable of, how he works, if he’ll be a good fit for this job Aria’s planning, but he nods anyway. “You’ve got until the bar closes. Five hours.”
Eric laughs. “I’ll do it in three.”
Jazzmyne wasn’t lying when she said Eric’s gotten into shit before.
The con looks like it’s going to run clean, but either Eric isn’t smooth enough, the guy isn’t drunk enough, or the guy just doesn’t want to swallow his pride and give up his cash.
Christian’s watching from less of a distance now, so he gets there just in time to intercept the guy before he can grab Eric by the collar, grabbing his wrist neatly as his hand stretches out.
“Everything okay over here?” he asks conversationally, even as he squeezes the guy’s wrist tight enough that he winces before turning his pissed off gaze on Christian, who just smiles at him pleasantly. Squeezes a little harder.
Eric is staring at him, wide-eyed in surprise and confusion.
The guy doesn’t seem keen to back down. “This little fucker hustled me.”
“Did he?” Christian raises his eyebrows. “Looks like you agreed to a bet. And he won. I was watching,” he says, and then gestures with his free hand towards the rest of the bar at large. “Plenty of people were watching.”
That seems to get through to him. The guy scowls, but drops his gaze, and stuffs his free hand into his pocket and shoves a fistful of bills in Eric’s direction, drops them at Eric’s feet. “Here,” he spits. “Take it. You’re lucky I’m late for a flight.”
Christian wants to gently insist that the guy pick the money up and hand it over like a fucking gentleman, but Eric’s already kneeling down and gathering it. He still looks a little shaken, more at Christian’s interference than the threat itself.
With a growl, the guy wrenches his wrist from Christian’s grip and storms out of the bar.
“I could’ve handled him,” Eric says quietly, smoothing out the crumpled bills and organizing them into a stack, evidently over his shock.
Christian snorts. “I think you meant, Thank you, Christian, for saving me from getting my ass kicked in public.”
“I could’ve handled it!”
“He had fifty pounds and half a foot on you. He would’ve crushed you like a bug on a car windshield.”
“Whatever,” Eric huffs. Christian’s hesitant to label a grown man as ‘sulking,’ but. Eric’s definitely sulking. He holds out the money to Christian dramatically, hand out flat with the bills laying across his palm.
Taking mildly exasperated pity on him, Christian reaches out and closes Eric’s fingers shut over the money securely. “I don’t want it.”
Eric stares at him. “What do you mean, you don’t want it? What the hell was all that for, then?”
Christian pauses. Considers his options. “Follow me outside.”
“Ohhh, no, I’ve fallen for that before, nuh-uh, I’m staying right here where there are witnesses.”
“I’m not— Eric, for fuck’s sake, I’m not trying to kill you, I’m trying to talk to you, just—” Patience thin, he snags Eric by the collar and drags him through the bar to the door.
He stumbles along, protesting the whole way. “Hey— Hey— Jazzmyne!” he calls out, waving frantically. “Jazz! Help!”
Jazzmyne looks up from where she’s wiping down the bartop. “Yeah, I would, but I’m totally swamped over here,” she says, looking entirely unconcerned—and not swamped in the slightest.
“You are not!”
“So busy, very unfortunate, bye Eric, have fun.”
Grumbling, Eric allows Christian to pull him out the door and around the corner into the alley. “If I die, I’m haunting your ass. You’ll never have a moment’s peace. I’ll—”
“Jesus Christ, Eric, shut up, I’m trying to give you a job offer!”
Eric falls silent and blinks at Christian in surprise. “Wait, what? You are?”
“If you’d shut up for five seconds, yeah.”
“What kind of job offer?”
Christian huffs and rolls back his left sleeve up to his elbow—trying to ignore how Eric stares unabashedly. He lifts his wrist up to Eric’s face, nearly touching his nose. “You pointed out my watch earlier.”
Eric goes a little cross-eyed trying to look at it. “Uh-huh.”
“It probably costs more than your car.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“You don’t have— How broke are you?”
“Plenty of people don’t have cars in this city! That doesn’t make them poor!”
“Then you’re not broke?”
Eric shifts. “Well—”
Christian waves his free hand dismissively. “Never mind. Point is, I didn’t inherit the watch from my grandfather.”
“I mean, that was kind of obvious.”
“I stole it. Along with enough jewelry to buy a jet.”
That seems to get Eric’s attention. He tears his gaze away from the watch and looks at Christian, brow furrowed. “No shit?”
“I pull jobs a lot bigger than that, too. I’ve got something lined up, but we need another guy.”
“And I’m your guy?” Eric looks baffled.
“I’m thinking about it. I want to see you do your thing a few more times—but not here. A place with higher stakes, with people who don’t fall for that kind of shit so easy. I need to know you can handle yourself under pressure and talk your way out of a tight situation.” Christian raises an eyebrow. “And not by offering sexual favors.”
Eric grins at him. “You were thinking about taking the offer, though.”
“Consider this an...extended job interview. I’ll pick you up tomorrow night—since you don’t have a goddamn car—and take you somewhere you can really spread your wings. Show me what you’re capable of.” He backs out of Eric’s personal space and shrugs. “If you’re interested.”
Eric looks a little dazed with all the information, but to his credit seems to take it well enough in stride. That’s good; they need someone who’s quick to react. “Interested? Dude, this is the best offer I’ve gotten in my whole life— I could kiss you.”
“Take it easy.” But Christian’s struggling not to smile. “You have to show me you can handle the kind of work we do. I can’t be there to save your ass. Do a good job tomorrow, and I’ll introduce you to the guy planning the heist.”
“The heist,” Eric echoes, voice dramatic. “Is this gonna be some kind of Ocean’s Eleven deal?”
“Ideally, it’ll be even bigger.”
“What are you wearing?”
“What are you wearing?” Eric is gaping at him.
Christian looks down at himself. “A suit? I told you to wear something nice.”
“This is nice!”
“Eric, those jeans are so tight they look like somebody painted them on.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“This is a black tie event.”
Eric frowns and looks down at his outfit, twisting this way and that in the doorway. The jeans are a deep, almost black blue, and he’s sporting a leather jacket that looks like it was thrifted from the 1980s over a grey shirt. He doesn’t look bad, is the thing. He looks good. It’s a perfect outfit for an off-the-highway bar or casual club.
But they’re going to a formal event uptown, and he’s going to stick out like a big, flaming hot thumb.
“Change. Right now.”
“Yeah, no, trust me, I don’t have anything like that in my closet.” Eric jabs a finger at Christian’s suit.
“It’s just a suit!”
“No, it’s like. It’s a Suit, capital S.” Eric draws the letter in midair with his finger. “You look like— James Bond’s American cousin or something.”
“Say ‘shaken, not stirred.’”
“Just once, just humor me—”
“Eric, go change.”
“Fine! Fine. Fun-sucker.” Eric turns and walks back into his apartment, leaving the door open. Christian takes that as an invitation inside, and follows behind him awkwardly. Eric disappears down the hall and Christian waits in the living room on a misshapen but surprisingly comfortable couch.
Ten minutes later, Eric returns, looking frazzled.
“I can’t— This is so stupid, how— I haven’t worn a tie since my bar mitzvah.”
“Jesus,” Christian says, getting to his feet and struggling not to laugh. “Okay, stop— Stop, you’re gonna mangle it, just let me do it.”
Eric’s sulking again. He lets his hands drop to his sides as Christian settles in front of him.
“Chin up,” Christian says.
Eric offers him a weak smile.
Christian snorts. “No, I mean— Literally, lift your chin up, look up so I can fix your tie.”
“Oh.” Going faintly pink, Eric tips his head back.
Christian tries to focus less on the bare expanse of his throat and more on making him look presentable. It’s not a bad suit; it’s not high-quality by any means, but Eric’ll blend in, and that’s what matters. There’s a time and place for standing out and tonight isn’t it.
“Okay,” Christian says, sliding his hand down Eric’s chest over the tie to smooth it out. “All set.”
Eric steps back and strikes a pose. “How do I look? On a scale of one to James Bond.”
Christian shakes his head and laughs. “You’ll do in a pinch.”
When they finally get out the door, Eric’s gaping again.
“Is that your car?”
“Are you kidding? It’s a rental. We’re literally going out to commit a crime. You think I’d take my own car?”
“Oh.” Eric deflates a little, but he’s still looking at the car in awe. “If it’s just a rental, can I drive?”
“I’m a good driver!”
“Just around the block?”
“Eric, just get in the car.”
Eric starts the drive looking relaxed enough, but by the time Christian’s parked on the street where the party’s happening, he looks more than a little cagey.
“You good?” Christian says quietly, walking shoulder to shoulder with Eric up to the house—not quite a mansion, but probably the nicest house Eric’s ever been in.
Eric nods. It’s not super convincing, but Christian’s not going to press it. Everybody in this business has their own way of dealing with nerves.
He gets a little more concerned when they’re waved into the house and Eric practically suction-cups himself to Christian’s side.
“Christian,” he says lowly.
“Take a deep breath,” Christian says, voice even, smiling at a small group of people they pass by as if it’ll distract them from Eric’s wide-eyed, nervous expression.
“I can’t— I hustle pool, I don’t do this, this is way out of my comfort zone—”
Christian slips his hand into Eric’s and pulls him from the main entrance into a side corridor, gets his back against the wall and brackets him in, arms on either side of him. To anyone passing by, hopefully it’ll look more like a tipsy tryst than a pre-job pep talk.
“Look at me.”
“Uh, kind of hard not to,” Eric says, laughing, but his tone is pinched and anxious even still. “Are we about to make out. Like, I’m totally down for that, but give a guy some warning—”
“I know you’re out of your comfort zone,” Christian says, steamrolling over Eric’s babbling before he gets too carried away with himself. “That’s why we’re here. This is low-stakes. A practice run. This can become your comfort zone.”
For once, it seems, Eric has nothing to say. He looks at Christian, expression unreadable, for a long moment, then takes a breath.
“Yeah,” he sighs out. “Yeah, okay.”
“I’ll be watching the whole time,” Christian reassures him—and isn’t that weird, how quickly he’s gone from wanting to hit the kid over two hundred bucks to automatically trying to reassure him.
It seems to help, regardless. Eric takes another breath and seems to mentally shake himself off. He gives Christian a grin. “Then I’ll be sure to give you something worthwhile to look at,” he says, and gives Christian a delicate little push away.
Christian watches him walk back into the main room and shakes his head with a smile before following.
With a confidence boost and some reassurance, Eric does just fine, melding into the crowd and schmoozing like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth just the same as all the people he’s charming. Christian’s feeling increasingly more certain about him.
The goal is for Eric to lift the VIP pass off one of the guys at the party—Jordan Mahoney, a trust fund kid whose last name alone gets him into places like these. It’ll test a small handful of Eric’s skills, and Christian has to admit to being eager to see him perform on a stage that’s really worth his time.
Maybe a little too eager.
Eric approaches him after maybe twenty minutes. At first he thinks something’s wrong, but Eric’s fighting back a smile.
“Christian,” he says, “you’re making it really hard for me to work.”
That’s admittedly not what Christian was expecting to hear. “What? How?”
“Half the people here don’t want to talk to me, let alone Mahoney.”
“How is that my fault?”
“Because you’re standing in the corner staring at me intensely like a spurned, brooding boyfriend.”
Eric’s outright laughing at him now. “I thought you said you’re a professional.”
Christian can feel his face going hot. “I am a professional, you ass—”
“Then give me some space so people don’t think you’re gonna throw hands if they even look at me.” Eric gives him an annoyingly charming smile and walks off again before Christian can think of a reply.
“I’m not staring at you like a brooding boyfriend,” he mutters to no one in particular.
Even so, he makes a point of wandering to the other side of the room and making agonizingly boring small talk with a group of people he has next to nothing in common with. He goes through a few glasses of champagne and a few fancy hors d'oeuvres before Eric appears at his side again.
“Guess who has two thumbs and someone else’s special access ID?” Eric says, a little giddy, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
Christian resists the urge to cover Eric’s mouth with his hand. “Go ahead and say it a little louder, why don’t you.”
Eric ducks his head apologetically, but he’s laughing, high off the energy of a successful lift. “Sorry, sorry.”
Maybe it’s the champagne, but Christian’s a little giddy, too. He’s proud of Eric, eager to tell Aria about him, excited about what this means for the future.
They leave through the back, walking past a few people sneaking puffs of cigarettes and joints on the porch, and head along the side of the house through tall, wet grass towards the street.
“That was— I mean, that was a rush,” Eric says a little breathlessly. “I haven’t felt like this since I first started hustling people at the bar.”
“I told you there was nothing to worry about,” Christian replies—a little too soon.
Christian spins on his heel, fight-or-flight reflexes kicking in automatically. He hears Eric swear quietly next to him.
Mahoney’s storming through the grass towards them, four other guys following behind like some kind of tipsy, angry parade procession.
“Whoa, hey, what’s the problem?” Christian says, forcing himself to look bewildered and concerned.
Mahoney jabs a finger at Eric, ignoring Christian completely. “You think you’re funny? Think this is some kind of joke? Give me my shit before I kick your goddamn teeth in.”
Eric fumbles for the pass immediately. “Okay, okay, take it easy! It was just— I was just messing around, I was gonna give it back—”
Mahoney steps forward and snatches the card from Eric’s hand the second he gets it from his pocket. Eric stumbles back, and Christian’s holding his breath, praying that’ll be the end of it.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Christian says calmly. He doesn’t like their odds; it’d be five drunk, angry guys against him and Eric, and he’s pretty sure Eric isn’t exactly a brawler. There’s a chance they can get out of this if they stay relaxed and non-confrontational and—
And of course that’s when Mahoney grabs Eric by the lapels of his suit and slams him up against the side of the house.
Christian sighs. “Okay,” he says evenly, and makes damn sure he throws the first punch.
“So, uh. That could’ve gone better.”
Christian huffs out a laugh, wiping at a still-bleeding cut on his lip. “Probably, yeah.”
They’re back in the rental car, assessing the worst of the damage from what was, admittedly, not Christian’s best fight. They’re both a little banged up, but luckily most of the guys were too drunk to put too much effort into it, so other than some scrapes and bruises, there’s not much to worry about.
Eric can handle himself in a fight better than Christian anticipated. He’s not big, but he’s scrappy, and gave as good as he got. He’s rubbing at a bruise on his jaw and his suit’s ripped in a couple of places.
“Wasn’t a total loss, though,” he says suddenly.
Christian snorts. “How was that not a total loss.”
“I mean,” Eric says, and Christian looks over to see him pull something leather and bulky from his suit pocket. “He got his pass back, but I grabbed his wallet, so.”
Christian stares at him. “What.”
Eric’s going through the contents of the wallet cheerfully. “There’s like five hundred bucks in here. And a gift card to Lush!” He looks over at Christian and waves the card at him. “You like bath bombs?”
Christian keeps staring, exasperation building alongside begrudging but intense fondness.
Eric furrows his brow. “What?”
“You are,” Christian says, “fucking unbelievable,” and he grabs Eric by the lapels of his torn suit and hauls him in and kisses him breathless.
Eric goes still in shock, then practically climbs over the center console in his eagerness to kiss him back. Which is—entirely unsurprising, really.
Christian has to pull away sooner than he’d like, wincing and touching his tongue to his split lip. “You got the job,” he says, voice a little rough, still catching his breath.
“Huh?” Eric looks dazed and giddy and hungry and it takes a lot of effort not to drag him back in.
“The heist. You’re in.” God, Christian’s hands itch to grab him again. He grabs his phone instead, sends Aria a quick text to let him know they officially have a fourth man for the job.
It takes Eric a moment to catch up. “What, even though I fucked up?”
“Are you kidding? You charmed half the people at that party, blended in perfectly, did a nearly flawless lift, then managed to steal a guy’s wallet while he was beating the shit out of you. That was amazing.”
“Okay, well, that’s a little harsh, I got a few punches in—”
Christian raises an eyebrow at him.
“I did! Sorry if you didn’t see because you were too busy getting hit in the face—”
“Okay, smartass, I took on four guys at once—”
“Go ahead and call me names; you still kissed me, so what’s that say about you?”
“That I have horrible taste.”