Disclaimer: I don't own Ocean's 11

A/N: This is a sequel to VK, the fic that no one wanted a sequel to. It is therefore dark and depressing. You have been warned. I strongly advise you to read VK first. And this is set during the last part of VK, but before Saul visits.

A/N2: I originally had planned to write this as part of the Advent calendar in December. Then I ended up thinking that it was too depressing a fic for the holidays. So here it is in January instead.

Hark the Herald

It is the middle of December and the Christmas lights are strung high above the street, like stars tied up in steel. Danny stares up at them with the cold ache of something long forgotten. Stars above him. Almost close enough to touch. But it's rain that's falling, not snow, and the touch is cold and bitter on his face. This is no winter wonderland.

(Nevertheless, someone, somewhere is singing about redemption and miracles and love.)

"I guess it's Christmas," he tells Rusty softly, and Rusty never raises his head.

Christmas. Somehow, it's hard to believe. It's been such a long time since there was anything but an endless parade of tomorrows.

The air is cold and despite the thick coat and the gloves and scarf, Rusty is shivering. One more thing for Danny to feel guilty about.

The house that Danny keeps Rusty locked away in is expensive and well furnished. It has every comfort that can be imagined, and Rusty will never leave it of his own volition. However luxurious, a prison is still a prison, and Danny is jailer, warden and grief-stricken relative, all rolled into one.

Sometimes he can't bear to keep Rusty trapped one second longer. Sometimes the urge for fresh air and sunshine and freedom overwhelm him, and he braves the stares and the pain and takes Rusty into town. Rusty can't walk very well and Danny knows that he should use the wheelchair, but the wheelchair has thick straps and buckles, and the occupational therapists tell him that he mustn't even think of taking Rusty out in it unless Rusty is thoroughly restrained. Each time, Danny kneels in front of him and holds the straps, and somehow his fingers stop working.

There will come a time when he is able to do it with his eyes closed. But that is not today.

Instead they walk and Danny slows his pace to match Rusty's stumbling footfalls.

Rusty does not look at the lights or the people or the decorated windows. There is no curiosity in his eyes.

Danny pauses a moment and gazes up at the mannequin in the shop window. It is dressed in brightly coloured silk, shiny and vibrant and beautiful. When he screws up his eyes and tilts his head to the side just right, it almost looks like it's smiling at him. He glances away sharply. However alive it looks, he knows it is nothing but an empty shell.

He doesn't let go of Rusty's arm for a second.

Somewhere in the distance there are bells ringing. The noise of pain and distress that Rusty makes seems almost like an answer.

Danny looks at him quickly. "Maybe we should go sit down for a bit," he says, and once upon a time it would have been a suggestion. "Coffee and cake. What do you think?"

It is an easy question. A safe question. Danny can listen to the answerechoes of a thousand previous questions and smile like he is understood.

The coffee shop is familiar. They always come here on these little excursions and even if that is only once every couple of months, they are a more memorable pair now than they ever were before, and although the shop is almost full, the owner somehow manages to find them a table and bring them their usual order practically as soon as they are through the door.

Over the past year, Danny has grown inured to pity. Compassion is still a bitter burden – he, after all, knows what he deserves – but he can be gracious and he can be grateful.

Right now though, the shop is full and Danny is all-too-aware of the stares and the whispered curiosity. It does not hurt Rusty. Danny's head aches.

"Tess will be back before Christmas," he tells Rusty, speaking softly into the permanent bubble of silence. "Maybe we'll see about getting some decorations put up or something."

Rusty gazes vacantly at the chocolate milkshake in front of him. He makes no attempt to drink. It is one more detail in an unrecognisable sea.

Danny sighs. "Need to get the groceries sorted at least," he goes on, and he tells himself – as he always does - that he is not talking to himself. "Guess it's going to be harder to get deliveries if we don't get ready in advance."

There was a time when Danny didn't think in terms of the details and the day to day. Now they are all he has. He sips his coffee and ignores the cold.

Gradually he becomes aware of the child at the next table staring at Rusty with open curiosity. He turns his head slightly, hoping that he can just pretend he doesn't see, hoping that today he will be lucky.

It has been a very long time since Danny felt lucky.

"Mommy, what's wrong with that man?"

The question is loud and strident. Danny's knuckles are white around his coffee mug.

There is an awkward hush as a room full of people try to pretend they are not looking. And yet the child's mother does not even look down at her, all attention focused on her cell phone. A thousand things are more important at this moment in time.

"His face is all crackly and yucky," the child informs the world, and Danny feels the weight of the gaze on Rusty's face. It was a mistake to come here, he thinks. All he is doing is inflicting further cruelty. He should take Rusty out of here, but old instinct pins him to his seat. They don't run away...

"His hands are funny too, look, Mommy," the child says, and she stands and before Danny has even realised what it going on, she pushes a finger into Rusty's hand.

Rusty flinches back and Danny cannot tell if the reaction comes from fear or pain.

Of course, that will never matter. He is on his feet in an instant and truly, he does not need to say a word. The expression on his face is enough and the child scurries back to her chair.

That is when her mother gets involved.

Danny does not notice, at first. As ever, he has other priorities, and his attention is with Rusty, huddled on his chair, trying to be certain that Rusty is not panicked enough to run or fight or hurt himself.

"How dare you scare my daughter!" The mother has appeared behind them, and at the raised voice, Rusty shrinks away, confusion and fear apparent in his eyes.

"I'm sorry ma'am," Danny says, his voice low and conciliatory. "Please don't shout. I didn't mean to scare your daughter. She was going to touch my friend, and I didn't want him to be disturbed."

She glances at Rusty, and then she stops and stares, and the expression of shock and horror is no less awful for being familiar. However, she rallies almost immediately. "Well, if your friend isn't safe to be amongst normal people, you shouldn't take him out, should you? So close to Christmas too...you should stay away from regular people."

Someone once told Danny this was the season of good will. Everyone in the shop is looking their way. Everyone is listening. No one makes a move to intervene.

Once upon a time, they would have...

Once upon a time Danny cared about strangers.

"Look," he says, and his voice is trembling. "I'm sorry your kid was scared. Really. But why don't you just sit back down and forget about it, huh?"

"Don't you tell me what to do!" she shrieks, and this is anger for anger's sake, indignation at being caught wrongfooted. "It's a free country! Why don't you take your retarded friend and get out!"

His head is pounding. Right now she is everything he despises. The anger is bright and unfamiliar and so very painful. "Don't say that," he snarls, his voice sharp and loud and just for a second he feels almost alive. "Don't you ever - "

A noise from behind him and he half turns in time to see Rusty stumble off his seat, his eyes fixed on Danny's, fear and incomprehension in his gaze.

In less than a second, the anger withers and dies, and he is cold and empty. He kneels beside Rusty, reaching out his hand and gripping Rusty's forearm lightly, his thumb tracing circles on the crook of Rusty's elbow. "'s okay, Rus'," he soothes roughly. "'m not mad at you." He leans forwards and kisses Rusty's forehead lightly.

"That's disgusting!" the woman says behind them, her voice loud and shrill. Rusty is trembling beneath Danny's hand. "There are children present, you perverts. You're sick!"

He ignores her. Nothing matters now except getting Rusty away from here. Getting Rusty safe. With the ease of practice, he helps Rusty to his feet and guides him towards the door. He can feel all eyes on them.

"That's right," the woman shouts triumphantly as he opens the door. "You'd better run, perverts. You're lucky I don't report you."

They cannot run. But Danny gets them home as quickly as possible, and he locks the door tight and bars the outside world away.

It will be a long time before he even thinks of taking Rusty out again.

The rain is still falling when they reach home, and although Danny turns the thermostat up high, he finds he cannot truly get warm.

They are both soaked through, and Danny's first priority is to get Rusty warm and changed into dry clothes. This is more difficult than it should be. Normally Rusty is pliable to simple direction, allowing Danny to wash and dress him without trouble. Today he struggles and shifts in Danny's grasp, turning even the simplest of tasks into a battle, and it takes almost two hours for Danny to get him stripped, bundled into the shower, and redressed in soft silk shirt, and warm comfortable slacks. All the time Rusty is making those soft, miserable mewling noises.

"I don't know what's wrong," he says, frustrated, as he runs a brush through Rusty's hair. He doesn't know if Rusty is in pain from walking, if he's upset from the scene in the coffee shop, or if this is simply a bad day. Once, he could read even the most complex thoughts in Rusty's eyes. Now, he struggles to understand even what remains.

Rusty raises a hand and bats ineffectively at Danny's arm. He can't tell if Rusty is trying to make him stop, or if it's merely another sign of distress. He lays his hand on Rusty's for a second and Rusty shies away, stumbling backwards out of arm's reach, incomprehensible babble falling from his lips.

"I don't understand," Danny says, and his head aches with it. For a moment the world spins around him, and he pinches the bridge of his nose, shaking his head, trying to clear it.

Rusty is in pain. He almost laughs. Rusty is always in pain, but perhaps this is worse than usual. Outside the borders of acceptable agony.

He carefully gets Rusty sitting down on the chair in the bedroom. "Stay there," he orders, and his voice is hoarse. He walks back into the bathroom, absently noting that his clothes have more or less dried off by this time. Carefully, he unlocks the medicine cabinet, and withdraws a syringe and a vial of Tramadol. He hesitates, for a moment, looking at the sedatives on the shelf below. They are there to be used at his discretion and he only uses them on the very worst of days. Every time he does, he feels a little less like Rusty's friend, a little more like Rusty's killer.

Not today.

He walks back into the bedroom. To his relief, Rusty has not moved. He rolls Rusty's sleeve up and sets about preparing the injection, and Rusty screams when the needle pierces his skin, a high, agonised, mindless noise that cuts through Danny's soul.

He continues to scream as Danny holds him, waiting for the analgesia to take effect.

It doesn't seem to make any difference.

For the rest of the day, Rusty follows him around the house, keeping up a constant stream of soft, incoherent complaint, stumbling away in fear if Danny moves too fast or comes too close.

His head is aching fit to burst, and there is an unpleasant heavy itch in his throat. The first time he starts coughing, Rusty reacts to the noise, whimpering loudly, hitting his head and hands against the wall, until Danny has to push him down to the floor and lie on top of him, holding him still, while he himself holds his breath, trying not to make any noise. Rusty is limp and trembling under his hands. His eyes are blank and glazed, empty of strength and reason and eventually he stops fighting and lies still.

He makes them dinner, talking all the time, narrating everything he's doing in the hope that Rusty might find it soothing. Once upon a time, his voice was all Rusty needed to feel safe. That was long ago, and Rusty hovers anxiously at his elbow, unable to settle, making soft chirping noises until Danny almost longs for silence.

He sighs and wishes Tess was here. She has been away for almost three weeks now and although she calls most nights, he still misses her. Still worries about her. But he doesn't dare call her, because the last thing he wants to do is pressure her. He doesn't want her to feel trapped into returning. He wonders, sometimes, if this is what it was like for her in the old days. Did she spend her time staring at the phone, knowing that he was away having fun, wishing he'd come home to her.

(Was she this lonely? He digs his nails into the palms of his hands. He does not deserve to be lonely. He does not have any reason to be lonely. Rusty is always with him.)

He tries to suppress the cough. His throat feels as though it's made of sandpaper. There is a fire burning behind his eyes.

Rusty tugs at his shirt sleeve.

Danny turns his head. "What is it?" he tries to say, but all that comes out is an angry whisper.

Rusty continues to paw at him and he isn't attempting to speak, isn't making any noise at all. His eyes are vacant.

"Stop it," Danny tries, and he breaks off into another coughing fit, struggling to breathe. This time, Rusty doesn't seem to notice. Pain rips through Danny's chest. He is doubled over with effort and Rusty is still poking at him.

The world is spinning.

Rusty's hand slaps wildly against his face.

"Stop it!" he snaps, shoving Rusty away hard.

Rusty falls backwards, landing on the floor in a heap, his arms covering his head defensively.

There is a second of frozen silence as Danny stares in disbelief, unable to understand what he has done. Then Rusty begins wailing, a high, unhappy keening noise. To Danny, it sounds like betrayal.

"Rus'..." he says, dropping to his knees and holding out a trembling hand. "Rus', I didn't mean it. Are you alright?"

He wants to check Rusty over, see if he has managed to inflict any more injuries, but Rusty will have none of it. He crawls away from Danny and hides under the kitchen table, and Danny is afraid that going after him might do more harm than good. Instead, he crouches beside the table, within Rusty's line of sight, but not too close, and he tries talking again, a constant litany of lies and reassurance.

The doorbell rings. It is loud and unnerving and it makes Danny jump. Rusty screams again, briefly, and buries his head under his arms. Danny curses in that same soothing voice, and doesn't stop talking. Twenty seconds later the doorbell rings again. Ten seconds after that, the caller holds their finger down on the button and doesn't stop pressing.

With each new noise, Rusty grows more distressed.

It doesn't seem that the caller is going to stop. Danny is going to have to answer the door.

Perhaps it is someone who has heard Rusty screaming. Perhaps it is someone who suspects what Danny has done.

Rusty is safe under the table. Danny wants to make the noise stop.

He goes to the door, collecting the gun from the safe in the airing cupboard on the way, and slowly he pulls the door open.

There is a man standing there wearing a Santa Hat and holding a clipboard.

"Good evening," the man says with a plastic smile. "I wonder if you'd be interested in donating money to your local hospice?"

He blinks at the man dizzily. "No," he says simply, and makes to close the door. "Please don't ring my bell again."

The man puts his foot in the door. Danny's hand tightens on the gun behind his back. "Come on," the man said. "Where's your Christmas spirit? You're living in this house, in this neighbourhood...clearly God has been good to you. And He rewards those who think of others. You're not a Scrooge, are you? At this time of year, we all need to think about our lives and how fortunate we are..."

He breaks off abruptly as though he's seen some horrifying vision in Danny's face.

From the house behind him, Rusty starts screaming again.

"I need to go," Danny says lifelessly. "Please don't ring our bell again."

The door closes.

Danny goes back inside to think about his life and how fortunate he is.

The First Ghost

Snow had fallen constantly for the past few hours and it looked like a scene from a Christmas card outside. But the fire was banked up, and there was no place they were planning on going, so Danny was with Dean Martin on this one. Let it snow.

He, Saul and Isabel were sitting in front of the fire, playing cards, drinking mulled wine and eating gingerbread men.

"Where's Rusty?" Saul asked after a moment, looking round.

Isabel smiled from her position on the sofa, her legs curled under her, looking relaxed and so very happy. "He went to see if Tess and Judith needed a hand in the kitchen."

Danny grinned. "To see if they needed help, or to see if there was any food going spare?"

She laughed. "I don't question his ulterior motives."

"Very wise," Saul said, beaming at her approvingly.

They played some more, and on a day like this the stakes really didn't matter, and Isabel was telling him and Saul about ice skating at midnight, beneath the stars, and about running like hell when the security guards showed up.

"Tricky on ice skates," Danny commented.

"It was fine until we reached the stairs," Rusty said seriously, from the doorway, and Danny laughed.

"Thought you were helping in the kitchen?" Isabel asked, her eyes dancing.

Rusty shrugged. "I have grilled pigs in blankets, added rosemary to potatoes, uncorked a bottle of red wine, glazed carrots, and generally been helpful. While you three have been lazing around."

"And did you get a cookie for being good?" Danny asked with interest.

Huh. He really hated that smile. That smile was positively evil. "I got a promise that I'm not expected to do the clearing up after dinner."

Meaning that everyone else was expected to clear up. "We have a dishwasher," he pointed out mildly. "It won't take that long at all."

Okay. He'd been wrong. That smile was evil. "Judith doesn't believe in dishwashers," Rusty explained. "She's been talking to Tess on the subject. Quite enthusiastically."

Danny pursed his lips. "You didn't feel the need to warn - "

" - every man for himself," Rusty said, shaking his head. "You know how I hate washing up."

"I always let you dry," he said with dignity.

"You always broke the cups," Rusty retorted.

"Oh, you are so lacking in the Christmas spirit," Danny complained.

"Arguing over the washing up? That sounds exactly like the Christmas spirit to me," Isabel cut in. "Only thing that would make it more Christmas-y is if we played Charades after dinner."

Danny and Rusty exchanged a long look. Rusty's eyes were gleaming.

"No," Saul said firmly. "Telepathy is against the rules."

Isabel sighed. "We could always put them on opposite teams?"

"Doesn't work," Tess said, coming out of the kitchen behind Rusty. "Trust me."

He looked round at her and she was smiling at them delightedly. She'd barely stopped smiling since last night. Seemed the gathering was everything she'd hoped. He knew the feeling.

Christmas morning with Tess and Rusty and Saul. Life didn't get much better than this. He never wanted this feeling to end.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

It is a good dream. He awakes, smothered in white sheets and the scent of antiseptic, lying in a hospital bed, but his hand is being held and he is safe.

"Rusty," he murmurs contentedly, squeezing the hand tightly.

When he opens his eyes, Tess is crying and she will not look at him.

"Sorry," he says quietly, and his tongue is thick, his voice hoarse. He feels weak and cold and he aches all over. He is in hospital and he doesn't know why.

Tess flashes him a smile that does not reach her eyes. But then, Danny can remember precisely the last time he saw a smile in Tess' eyes. It was outside the bookshop near their old house. Five minutes before Todd walked up behind them and pointed a gun at Tess' head. He remembers; it was raining, and she smiled at him and loved him. That was a very long time ago, in another world. And besides. He was a different man.

He will never see her truly smile again.

He coughs and it hurts. "Where's Rusty?" he asks, and he might wince at the way even Tess' fake smile fades to nothing, but he has to know before anything else. "Is he alright?"

She lets go of his hand abruptly, rubbing at her temples in weary pain. "He's in the short term ward at the rehabilitation centre," she tells him. "When they took you to hospital, they took him as an emergency admission. I've been to see him he's fi..." She stops short and he can see the pain on her face. "There's no change," she says instead. "He's the same as always."

He reaches out and takes her hand again and for a while they sit in silence.

"Do you remember what happened?" she asks in a small voice.

He shakes his head, wincing at the pain. "No," he admits, and Tess frowns and a moment later she is holding a glass of water to his lips, helping him drink. Her hand is cool against his face and he cannot help but lean into her touch.

"You collapsed," she tells him, her voice trembling. "You've been sick for a few days. You've been unconscious for most of it."

"Oh." He looks at her fearfully. "Do they know what it is? Is it contagious?" (Tess...Rusty...)

She shakes her head. "It's the flu."

He blinks, his brow furrowed. That doesn't make sense. "Flu?" he echoes. "But I'm not ...the flu doesn't put people my age into hospital."

There is a pause and she stares at him, her fists clenching and unclenching. "It does if you don't eat, or sleep, or take care of yourself," she says, her voice low and shaking. He can see how scared she has been. How scared she is. He has been unconscious for a few days... With an effort, he manages to sit up, despite her protests, and he wraps his arms around her, ignoring the pinch of the IV in his arm.

"I'm okay," he promises.

She clings to him. If she loses him, she loses everything. "I didn't get here till yesterday morning," she murmurs. "The hospital called me the night before. I couldn't get a flight...I drove all night...oh, Danny." She kisses his face and hair feverishly. He is not deserving.

Her grip does not lessen. "You were in hospital. They said you'd been lying on the living room floor, barely breathing when they found you. Sully had turned up for Rusty's physiotherapy, and when you didn't answer he got worried and called the police. They broke the door down." She gives a choked laugh. "I used to have nightmares about the police breaking down our door. I never thought I'd be glad."

He rubs her shoulder uselessly.

"They said...they said you must have been there at least a day," she finishes, within something that can only be a sob.

He does not remember. But if he had been lying unconscious for a day the he has failed in the only duty he has left. "He must have been so scared."

Tess looks away quickly. He is almost glad. But nevertheless that is a day that Rusty will have spent without food, without water, without medication, without someone to wash him, dress him, take him to the toilet. If nothing else, Danny provides the most basic of needs.

"You saw him?" he asked intently. "You said you went to visit."

She nods tightly. "He was okay," she told him. "They will look after him there, Danny. They know what they're doing."

"Thank you," he says softly. He knows how Tess hates that place. Almost as much as he does. He struggles to sit up further.

"What are you doing?" Tess asks sharply.

"I need to get out of here," he says, though he shouldn't need to. "I need to get Rusty out of there." He tries, he really does. But it hurts, and he is so tired.

Tess grabs his wrist. "You need to stay here."

"Rusty needs me," he argues.

"You need to look after yourself!" He is shocked by the vehemence and volume. She drops her voice almost to a whisper. "Danny. You really think that Rusty would want you killing yourself looking after him?"

He falls back on to the bed. He is exhausted and he does not want her to see his eyes.

He knows what Rusty would want.

"Let me take care of you," she adds softly. "Please."

For the first time in forever Danny needs her and she isn't helpless. Danny is sick and in hospital and she can do more than sit and watch.

She sits by his bed while he sleeps, and when he wakes she brings him water and juice. She mops his brow and they watch TV together, cooking shows and cartoons and old reruns of Happy Days. She holds his hand and he looks at her like he sees her.

He hasn't looked at her in a very long time.

This is closer to contentment than she ever expected to be again. She almost chokes on the guilt.

It does not last. Danny grows stronger by the hour and she is not surprised when he asks her to visit Rusty again.

She cannot say no. Danny needs her.

The nurse cheerfully tells her that Rusty has had a little accident when she arrives, and she is left to wait in the corridor as they get him cleaned up and presentable. She stares at the wall, unwilling to meet anyone else's eye.

She hates this place. She hates the way it smells, the way it feels. She hates knowing that Rusty is in the next room, stripped of dignity and not even aware of it. She hates everything in her life, except Danny and sometimes she wonders about that.

Danny is in hospital and she didn't know until she got the call and that hurts. She needs to get away sometimes. If she stays, breathing in the ashes of their life, she will die. This is not living. This is not life. She needs to get away, but each time she does she is abandoning her husband and she knows it.

She will run from her resentment for the rest of her life but she will never run far enough or fast enough. It will always be there and she will always be afraid that Danny can see its shadow in her eyes.

"You can go in now," the nurse tells her. She nods like she has been handed a death sentence.

Rusty does not look up when she walks in. He has been sat in an armchair, facing the window. His mouth is hanging open. There is a thin line of drool on his chin.

She picks up a tissue and wipes it away before she sits down. "Hello, Rusty," she says.

There is not even a flicker in his eyes.

Tess wishes that he recognised her. Far more, she wishes that he recognised Danny, just once.

"Danny's feeling better," she says, because once upon a time that is what he would have wanted to know, before anything else. Just as she went to see Rusty before Danny ever woke up. She understands what she cannot understand. "He sends his love. They won't let him visit until he's completely better though. They don't want him getting you sick."

Rusty does not understand a word she says. She thinks that he probably isn't even aware she's here. It does not matter to Rusty whether he is taken care of here, by the nurses, or at home, by Danny. He would be as well looked after if he never left this place.

She will never so much as suggest it to Danny. She will never even suggest that Rusty could be looked after here sometimes, that they could get some time to themselves.

Once upon a time she prayed that Danny choose her over Rusty. She does not have the right to make that demand twice in a lifetime.

She has never been enough for Danny. Not on her own.

With a smile she leans forwards until she is almost touching him. "Let me tell you a story," she says. "It's about two boys who decided to take on the world."

She talks. Old stories that Danny told her, once upon a time. Stories of DannyandRusty, of fun and laughter and adventure. Stories of bravery and immortality. She is not, perhaps, the storyteller that Danny is, but love lends her voice power and the staff linger in the room, listening.

Rusty does not listen. Rusty does not hear.

It is dark when she finishes. She has stayed long enough. She can return to Danny now.

She stoops and presses a hasty kiss to Rusty's forehead. "Goodnight," she whispers as she walks away.

The Second Ghost

Hairmyres awakens in the middle of the night, convinced that he's heard a noise. For a moment he lies perfectly still, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dark. There are no further sounds, and yet he is sure he heard something.

It is Christmas Eve and he has allowed half of his staff to leave to spend the holidays with their families. His two most devoted bodyguards, Todd and Marmaduke, left this afternoon and he is not expecting them back until early tomorrow morning. An outsider might think him vulnerable.

He permits himself a small smile in the darkness. He is never vulnerable.

Leisurely, he reaches up to the canopy above the bed and removes the gun he keeps hidden there. At that exact moment a match flares in the darkness and he blinks against the sudden light, unable to see a thing.

A weight settles on the edge of the bed at his feet. "Good evening Mr Hairmyres."

He did not get where he is today by being slow to react. He points the gun and fires.

It makes a dull clicking noise and he stares at it in disbelief. No one knows about this gun. There is no way for anyone to have tampered with it. Yet someone has.

The man at the end of his bed sighs wearily. "Really, Mr Hairmyres. Please don't make the mistake of thinking we don't know know who we're dealing with."

Surprisingly the voice is old, and squinting into the darkness, he can see that the intruder is indeed an old man. Further, though, he can see other shadowy shapes surrounding the bed. There are perhaps six men in his room. Six men who have somehow managed to get past his high tech security and his ruthless guards. It is an unprecedented insult.

He wonders if they have an idea what fate awaits them. He is almost looking forward to it.

"It appears you have me at a slight disadvantage," he comments, as he reaches out and places his useless gun on the nightstand, calmly activating the silent alarm as he does so. In less than twenty seconds his guards will arrive and subdue these intruders, and he will spend Christmas in the basement with them, finding out exactly who sent them.

There are a few options. Rivals, such as Jones or Mortimer, looking to take over his empire, are the most likely. This is a warning. Someone is trying to make him scared. But he doesn't do scared, and the messenger is hardly intimidating.

"We have you at more than a slight disadvantage," one of the shadowy figures snarls. This one sounds young and hotheaded. Easy to provoke, perhaps.

He inclines his head. "As you say," he says, sounding bored.

"Take this seriously, you bastard," the hothead hisses, lunging towards him, and Hairmyres has it all planned out in a second. He will trip the hothead before grabbing him and forcing him into a chokehold. Then he'll have a hostage, with an easily breakable neck, and everything will fall into place.

But before the hothead moves more than a step, the old man speaks up. "Linus," he says chidingly, and the hothead freezes in his tracks.

"Sorry, Saul," the hothead mutters.

He has heard the two names now, Hairmyres considers. Saul and Linus. Neither is familiar. He would think that he is familiar with most of the people his rivals would send after him. This is becoming a mystery and he dislikes mysteries. Besides, it has the feeling of a personal grudge. He dislikes those even more, but it is rare that anything of that nature gets close enough to trouble him. Most of those who are victims of his business practices are taken care of long before he ever has to know their names.

They are dead men walking and they don't even know it.

"We're going to go for a little drive now," the old man – Saul – says.

He raises an eyebrow. "You think you can take me past my people? I think my men might object."

A soft ripple of amusement runs round the room. "Oh, yeah, right, we hadn't though of that,"" one of the others says, and he notes the British accent with interest.

"Your people were delighted with the case of brandy you got them for Christmas," the old man says and he isn't even gloating. "They won't be joining us. In fact, even if that alarm you pressed was still connected, no one would have heard it."

He looks at the old man for a long moment, considering.

"They're still alive," he states with growing confidence.

The old man inclines his head.

He smiles; this is weakness.

"Frank, Turk," Saul says, and a moment later he is being held down and he hasn't had a chance to fight back.

"You will pay for this," he tells them mildly. "I can make you suffer like you can't imagine."

The punch comes out of nowhere. "We can imagine," the hothead says shortly.

The Englishman lays a hand on the hothead's shoulder. "Come on now, mate."

"I'm fine," the hothead says, but he is accepting the comfort.

They're close then, his adversaries. A tightly-knit group with a grudge. Competent enough to take out his guards and get through his security. He feels a frission of unease, but he is not unduly worried. He has faced far more alarming opponents, and he has never, ever lost.

"Livingston," the old man directs, and another man steps forwards, a hypodermic needle in his hand.

"Uh, you mind, Frank?" this Livingston asks, and a second later the sleeve of Hairmyres' silk pyjama shirt is carelessly torn away. "Don't worry," Livingston smiles. "You won't be needing it again."

There is a sharp prick in his arm and the world goes dark.

The next time his eyes open he finds himself lying in the back of a van. He is bound hand and feet, and the ache in his back suggests he has been lying here a while. Thrown, perhaps, like so much garbage and for a moment the indignity of his position fills him with cold rage. But he is, at heart, a practical man and he forces himself to remain calm. There will be time for anger later. Anger, and of course, vengeance.

The ropes are tight enough to cut off circulation but more than that there is a heaviness in his limbs, a weakness that suggests that even if the sedative properties of whatever he was injected with have worn off, there is still a muscle-relaxant working on him. His mind is clear. It is an ingenious compound, which suggests this operation is more professional than he first thought.

They have abducted him out of his own bed in the middle of the night. He would not have thought that possible. It should not be possible. Assuming he has been out for a couple of hours, Todd and Marmaduke will have returned to find him missing. As humiliating as the thought is, he is confident they will waste no time in tracking him down.

And before it gets to that, he will see what deals there are to be made. He is a man of wealth and power and these things are enough to turn any head.

He is surrounded by eleven men, sitting on narrow benches on each side of him. He recognises the six from his room. Saul, Linus, Frank, Turk, Livingston and the Englishman who remains unnamed. Their eyes are hard and bleak. The other five do not appear any more friendly. He gazes at each in turn, considering, committing each face to memory. An older man with thick framed glasses, holding an unlit cigar. A small Chinese man. A large slab of muscle with a tattoo on the back of his neck. Another older man who holds himself like a cop. And the tall dark haired young man in the driver's seat of the van who, as he looks, vaults over the seatback, his boot landing inches from Hairmyres face. He does not flinch.

"Oops," the driver says insincerely as he sits on the bench next to Turk.

"You missed," Turk says. "Asshole," he adds, like an expected afterthought.

The driver shrugs and his eyes are fixed on Hairmyres' face. "I won't miss when it matters."

"You better not," the Englishman warns, and the Chinese man says something in malevolent-sounding Chinese that has Livingston laughing darkly.

"What?" the cop asks.

"He said it depends how much Virgil misses by," Livingston explains.

They aren't hiding at all. Not their names and not their faces, and still he has no idea who they are.

"As interesting as all this is," he says, his face relaxed and bored. "I wonder if you might want to get around to telling me just what this is all about." He is looking at Saul as he speaks. For some reason, this tired-looking old man seems to be their appointed spokesman.

For a long moment the old man stares down at him and says nothing. "Does the name Rusty Ryan mean anything to you?" he asks eventually, studying Hairmyres face closely.

The name is faintly familiar but nothing springs to mind, and he almost smiles at the absurdity of it.

"He doesn't even remember!" the hothead bursts out, jumping to his feet, his fists tightly clenched. "He...and he doesn't even remember!" He aims a kick at Hairmyres head, but before it connects, the cop is there, his hand on the hothead's shoulder, lightly holding him back.

"Sit down, Linus," the cop says with soft authority, and Hairmyres eyes narrow. The tone, the body language...

"You should listen to your father, Linus," he urges. "Act rashly and someone gets hurt."

The cop looks at him thoughtfully for a moment, then deliberately turns and kicks him in the ribs, and for a moment it's all he can do to keep breathing.

"So," Saul goes on, as if nothing has happened. "You don't remember, Rusty."

"No," he admits. "But I'm sure you're going to enlighten me."

"How about Danny Ocean?" Saul presses. "That name ring any bells?"

Danny Ocean...for a moment he struggles to remember, then it comes back to him. Ocean was a thief. One of the best around, and years ago he'd stolen some gold from Hairmyres, and he'd been foolish enough to boast about it later. That hadn't been business, it had been revenge. An amusing diversion, nothing more. Rusty Ryan was Ocean's partner, he remembered. He'd offered Ocean a choice between his partner and his wife, and Ocean had chosen his partner. There had been nothing terribly remarkable there. Both men had been stubborn and defiant, but they'd crumbled in the end.

As he remembered, the follow up report that had crossed his desk a few weeks later had Ryan a vegetable and Ocean practically catatonic with guilt and grief. Mission accomplished.

But of course, Ocean had a gang of sorts, didn't he? In fact, his men had spoken to several of them while he was doing background research on Ocean. Saul Bloom...Reuben Tishkoff...Linus Caldwell. He hadn't imagined for a second they would be foolish enough to come after him. They were on a different scale. Insignificant.

Looking at them now, he feels he might have made a miscalculation.

He nods slowly. "I remember Danny Ocean."

The smile is entirely without warmth. "Good. Then you know what you did."

He takes a deep breath and the confidence never fades from his smile. "Come now. Let's talk. You know who I am. You must be aware of what will happen to you if you take this any further."

"You really think you're in any position to be making threats?" Reuben asks.

"Oh, Mr Tishkoff," he says, not looking away from Saul. "I think we both know that truths are not the same as threats." He shuffles his shoulders back like he's just trying to get comfortable. "But I don't see why we have to resort to threats. You know who I am, maybe you should stop thinking about what I can do to you, and start thinking about what I can do for you. There's no reason why we can't all walk away from here with what we want."

He will offer them money. Power. Anything they like. And then when they are off guard, he will act without mercy.

"What I want?" Saul says slowly. "I want my son back, you bastard. Can you make that happen?"

He has seen hatred far too often to be intimidated by it. He has seen men who would gladly die to kill him, and he has watched the light fade from those who try. But what he sees in the old man's eyes is something else. Something older, something colder, something bleak and something terrible. This is not a man who wants to kill him. This is a man who knows that he is already dead.

"Can you do that?" Saul asks again.

"No," he says, his mouth dry.

Saul smiles darkly. "Then it would appear, Mr Hairmyres, that we have nothing further to discuss."

The van doors swing open and he is looking out at a construction sight.

Frank and the heavy with the tattoo seize his arms and drag him up and out of the van.

"We wanted to make sure that you knew what you were dying for," Linus murmurs, directly behind him, and he is shoved forwards into a deep pit. He lands on something soft, and he manages to shove himself up far enough to see that he's looking at Marmaduke, his eyes open, fixed and staring.

From above, he hears the sound of eleven guns cocking.

Todd is lying next to Marmaduke, just as still, just as dead.

His life ends tonight. Over something so stupid. So unimportant.

He closes his eyes and makes his peace with God.

Bells are ringing out in the distance. It is Christmas Day. He never hears the shots that kill him.

Saul stands by the pit and watches as Turk and Basher pour cement into the pit, as Virgil drives the bulldozer. The bodies are hidden where no one will ever find them.

He glances down at the phone in his hand. It's almost three o'clock on Christmas morning.

"It's over," Livingston says with an exhausted sigh. Saul just looks at him and smiles. He doesn't say anything. This revenge has been more than a year building and he will not say now that it was all for nothing.

The smile fades as Livingston walks away. It isn't over. It will never, ever be over. What they have done today was necessary, but it hasn't changed anything. Saul still feels the crushing weight of the void in his soul. He wants his son back.

"Hell of a way to spend Christmas," Bobby says quietly, coming up behind him.

"Yeah," he says quietly, and for a second he thinks of apologising, but he knows it would be an insult.

"Hey." Bobby's hand is laid gently on his arm. "At least he's dead."

Hairmyres is dead. This is the end of the most important job he will ever pull, and he does not feel like celebrating.

Bobby clears his throat. "You want to come over for Christmas?" he asks casually. "Molly would love to see you."

For a moment, he considers pointing out that he is Jewish and it shouldn't matter how he spends Christmas. But Bobby knows full well that for most of the last two decades, he has spent Christmas with Rusty and Danny. This year, he will be alone.

"Reuben already asked me," he says, not looking at Bobby. "And Basher and Livingston. And Frank. And the twins." No one wants him to be alone. And he is grateful, but... "I don't think I'd be very good company."

Bobby snorts. "You think anyone's going to be?"

They have committed murder, cold blooded and without remorse. None of them will ever regret it. None of them will ever be the same again.

There will be no more fantastical plans, no more impossible heists. They have seen the very worst that can happen even to the very best, and one way or another, they are left to play on the safe side of the street.

"I'd rather just be by myself," he tells Bobby, looking down at his phone. There is no call. There is no message. He will spend the rest of the day hoping. And he will be disappointed.

"How much longer are you going to give him?" Bobby asks.

He shrugs. He does not know. He knows where they are, but he wants to respect Danny's need for space. Danny left for a reason, after all. "He'll come round," he says, more out of hope than anything else. He is not going to live the rest of his life without seeing them again.

He stares at the phone. "I can wait a little longer," he murmurs, and he is more talking to himself than to Bobby.

Later, when he is alone, he will look up to the cold stars. "Happy Christmas," he will whisper, and he will pray that somewhere, somehow, he is heard.

In the Bleak Midwinter

It is Christmas Eve when Danny is finally released from the hospital. He goes straight to the rehabilitation centre, needing to see Rusty, longing to take Rusty home.

It isn't as simple as that. There is paperwork. There is always paperwork. Forms that require his signature. Reports that must be read. He has absolute power over Rusty – in every way – and there is a rigmarole of paperwork that needs to be completed to acknowledge this fact, like Rusty is some errant package.

He sits opposite the large cheerful Christmas tree and tries to ignore the stereo on the reception desk, blaring out a selection of cheery Christmas tunes.

"...he knows if you've been bad or good..."

Yes. Many people did.

"Hello there, dear."

It takes him a second to realise he is being addressed. Truthfully, he isn't that used to being talked to these days. He looks up to see Ivy Gillespie leading her son out of the ward area.

"Hi, Ivy," he says. "Hello, Ben." He makes a point of smiling and Ben smiles shyly, hanging back behind his mother awkwardly.

Ben is perhaps ten years older than him. Ivy is in her seventies and sometimes Danny recognises the look of utter weariness in her eyes.

Now, she is looking at him critically. "Forgive me for saying so, dear, but you're looking a little sickly. Are you sure you're alright?"

He shrugs. "I've been ill. I'm better now. Just out of hospital today. That's why I'm here, in fact, got to pick up Rusty."

When he phoned the centre to let them know he was coming, they had suggested he might be better to take a few days to make sure he was fully recovered. Ivy just smiles. "At least you'll be together for Christmas. That's good, isn't it?"

"Very good," he agrees fervently. The alternative is unthinkable.

Ben tugs at his mother's sleeve. "Baby Jesus," he says, pointing at the nativity scene at the other end of the lobby.

"Alright, sweetheart," she says indulgently. "But don't wander off anywhere else, okay?" He makes to move off and she lightly grabs his chin and brings him down to face her. "Don't wander off," she emphasises, and he nods and runs down the hall, before gazing in awe at the nativity scene, crooning to himself as he does.

Danny watches the awareness and the curiosity, and he wonders if that would be better or worse. To be so close and yet so wrong. Hope is the cruelest gift.

"You need to look after yourself," Ivy tells him worriedly, bringing him back to himself in a moment. "Rusty depends on you. You can't take care of him when you're sick."

He thinks of Rusty, helpless and alone, and this is nothing he didn't already know. From anyone else, this would be a reprimand, a painful reminder of his failure. But he knows Ivy's story. Ben was twenty three when he had his accident. Ivy has been living this life for over thirty years. She knows how it is, and she does not pity him.

"I know," he says tiredly.

"I start taking medicine the second I think I might be getting sick," she says. "Cold and flu things, and I have a supply of antibiotics I've saved up." She looks a little guilty. "I know I'm not supposed to, but I can't afford to get sick."

Neither could Danny. He nods slowly. "I'll bear that in mind," he says, quietly grateful. "So what are you doing here anyway?"

"Oh, I send Ben here for a few days respite care every couple of months," she says, looking down the lobby towards her son. "I...have to think of the future, you know. One day soon I won't be around to take care of him. I think maybe if he's used to other people looking after him, it won't come as quite as much of a shock."

Danny's eyes are blank. He doesn't shiver. And he doesn't think. "I see," he says, his mouth dry.

"Have you thought any more about coming along to the carer's group?" Ivy asks, her hand lightly on his forearm. "I think it would be good for you. It helps, you know, to talk to people who understand. People who know what you're going through."

He wonders if any of these people understand what it's like to sit in comfort and ask politely for their loved ones to be stripped, beaten, raped and tortured.

Besides. "I'm not the one who's going through anything," he says levelly. He's not the one who's lost everything. He's not the one who's hurt, he's the one who did the hurting. The one who is still doing the hurting. Last week he shoved Rusty simply because Rusty was annoying him. He wonders if Ivy would be so quick to offer compassion if she knew about that. He can never be forgiven. He will never be forgiven.

"It's a hard life, dear," Ivy says gently. "Don't be afraid to ask for help."

He is not afraid. "I'm fine," he says.

She sighs. "You're a good friend, you know. You should remember that. Benny had lots of friends before the accident. He was always a very popular boy. Most of them stayed in touch for the first few years, but after that..." She sighs again. "They all had their own lives to live. I can't blame them. Friendship isn't a lifetime commitment."

"It is to me," Danny says simply.

"I know, dear. I can see that." She reaches down and squeezes his hand. "You're a good man. Don't ever forget it."

She lets go. "I'd best let you get on with it. Happy Christmas to you, and Rusty. And think about trying the group, won't you?"

"I will," he lies. He won't. Not for a second.

He closes his eyes. He is not a good man. He is not a good friend. But he will never abandon Rusty. Never.

The air tastes of heat and disinfectant. It makes his skin crawl. The corridor is brightly lit, painted in neutral colours, as though even bright paintwork could be a stimulus so far. They say taupe is very soothing.

He has spent too long in this place. A few months ago it was so very possible that he would be here every day for the rest of his life. He doesn't want to be back. He is afraid.

"Rusty is in the small day room today," the nurse tells him in a hushed voice. "I'm afraid he had an unsettled night, and he's been rather quiet this morning."

Danny nods, understanding that rather quiet translates to withdrawn and non responsive. He thinks maybe Rusty dreams. Perhaps that is because he remembers nightmares in days past, quiet, absent stoicism that gave way to comfort sought and accepted.

He never stops trying to piece together Rusty's behaviour. Never stops searching for the familiar amid the ashes that remain. But instinct is long dead now. It died in an opulent room with a blazing fireplace, withering away in the face of betrayal.

He is led into an unlit room, and he peers into the gloom. He can see a man sitting on the armchair by the window, and for a moment he is uncertain.

Light floods the room. It is painful. "That's better," the nurse says brightly. "We don't want you sitting in the dark, do we Rusty?"

Rusty sits unmoving. He doesn't react to the light or the voices. He doesn't react to Danny.

He has been dressed in a jumper knitted from dirty grey wool. There are little pale blue reindeer and pink snowflakes scattered all over it, and twisted tassels around the hem and sleeves.

Once upon a time Rusty would have looked on a garment like this with glee. He would have whispered to Danny, delighting in the hideous, and Danny would have laughed.

He is not laughing now.

There is a Santa hat on Rusty's head. The bell is ringing faintly.

He crosses the floor and silently removes the hat.

"We like to encourage our clients to celebrate the holidays," the nurse says, reproach in her voice.

He doesn't say anything. He feels the humiliation as clearly as if it was his own. They share everything.

Kneeling before Rusty, he puts his hand on Rusty's cheek, making eye contact. "Hey," he says. "'s me. Danny. I've come to take you home."

Rusty looks straight through him. Danny feels unreal.

He leans forwards and pulls Rusty into a tight embrace, holding him close as he has so many times, as though he can chase the demons away.

Rusty's hair has been flattened and combed neatly to one side. The jumper feels bulky and unfamiliar beneath his arms. The shampoo and soap that has been used to wash Rusty are not the brands he used before and Dann still buys, and as Danny breathes in, Rusty smells wrong.

It is like hugging an unresponsive stranger. He struggles to find the familiar and for a moment he panics. "I've come to take you home," he says again.

He is waiting for Rusty to come home. The light in the window grows duller by the day. Danny fears the day he no longer hopes.

It is late now. He's got Rusty settled down to sleep at long last and he's sitting on the chair by the bed, as he so often does.

The night before Christmas...

He is so tired. He has been so very tired for so very long, and he doesn't think that will ever change.

He gazes up at the window. "When I was small I always watched the stars at Christmas," he says. "My grandmother used to take me to the midnight carol service. She stopped soon after I started school. I don't know why. But as we were walking home, we'd always stop and look up to the sky. She told me God was in the stars."

Rusty is quiet. Perhaps he is asleep. Danny doesn't know. He doesn't look.

It is a clear night, but there is nothing to be seen. The lights from the city have smothered the stars. Or maybe there are no stars.

"I told you that before," he goes on. "I don't remember exactly when. Some other Christmas, back when we were kids. Must've been very early on...I remember we were broke, and it was just the two of us. We were breaking into a store to steal Christmas dinner." He smiles. "Saul would never have stood for that." Thinking about Saul made his chest ache. "We were on the roof and the stars were out. 's beautiful. We were talking..."

He swallows hard and shakes his head quickly. "It was a long time ago. It doesn't matter."

But it does matter and the silence is unbearable, and when he lets himself, it is all too easy to pretend that Rusty is looking at him.

"I think that might have been our first Christmas, maybe," he says, after a moment. "I can't remember..." He should be able to remember. It is wrong that he can't remember. He should be able to hold every detail in his head. Keep them safe. Keep them alive. But he cannot, and this is yet another way he betrays Rusty. "That was the year I decorated," he says. "While you were out. I was bored. It wasn't much. Candles and little paper snowflakes. But I remember the wonder in your eyes. You looked like you'd never seen...like you'd never imagined..."

He stares dizzily up at the sky.

"'s been good though," he says, lost in memory. "We've had some good Christmases, the two of us." He grins. "Remember Phil Turrentine's Christmas party? All those balloons. And that year you got the bubble bath, and you insisted on using it all at once and flooded the bathroom. I remember the look on your face when Saul handed you the mop..."

There is no response. The memories are agony incarnate. But if he can't feel pain, he can't feel anything, and the stars will burn out above him.

"Doesn't matter what we did, as long as we were together, we could have a good Christmas. Even that time we were stuck at the airport until the 28th, living on caffeine and fast food, trying to make sure that Franklin didn't see us..." He swallows hard remembering. "Didn't matter. None of it mattered. Cos we were together. You were..." He clenches his fists tightly, driving his nails deep into his palms in brutal self punishment for his slip. "You are all I ever needed. You and Tess."

A noise in the doorway and he turns to see Tess standing in the doorway, an unreadable expression on her face. He doesn't know how long she's been there. He doesn't ask.

"I want to decorate for Christmas," he says instead.

Tess nods wearily and still she doesn't say anything.

He looks away, looks back to where Rusty is sleeping peacefully.

All he wants is to make Rusty happy.

The mug of coffee is warm in Tess' hands. If she focuses all her attention on it, she doesn't need to watch Danny hanging the Christmas decorations.

She hates this. She is angry and she hates herself for being angry.

It is Christmas and it is very early. Rusty is still in bed. Danny wanted to have all the decorations ready before he got Rusty up. He started to ask her if she wanted to help, but he looked away quickly. She is grateful. This is a mockery of Christmas. It hurts to even contemplate celebrating. What do they have to celebrate?

Christmas morning used to be for the two of them. She remembers making love for what felt like hours, remembers champagne breakfasts, giddy laughter, and then later spending the rest of the day with Danny's friends...Danny's family. All of that is a lifetime ago. It is a dim memory and she sometimes wonders if anything could ever truly have been as wonderful as she remembers.

Her fingers are burning on the mug. She holds it all the tighter. The awful truth is she wishes Rusty was back in the rehab centre. She doesn't want to go through this. Danny is hanging decorations like that's somehow going to solve everything and she can see hope shining in his eyes. The anger is dark and savage. It's like he really believes that Rusty will see a few strands of tinsel and smile and be himself again. She hates him for it a little and the guilt chokes her.

She wishes Rusty was still in the centre. Maybe if she and Danny had a break, things would be different.

She is guilty. Guilty for wishing Rusty away, guilty for wishing Danny was still sick, guilty for not being there when Danny got sick, guilty for hating everything about Christmas...

"I'm done," Danny announced.

Tess looks up at the decorations and manages to smile politely. She knows she should say something, but she can't quite manage to form words.

It doesn't seem to matter. Danny disappears upstairs and brings Rusty down a moment later, showing Rusty the decorations with a desperate air of anticipation. "Happy Christmas, Rus'," he whispers.

Rusty stands in the middle of the room, his mouth slack, his eyes unseeing. He doesn't care that it's Christmas. He doesn't know that it's Christmas. He might as well be made of clay.

Danny sags, hope dying in an instant.

Tess finds it harder and harder to remember what Rusty used to be like.

The Last Ghost

There will always be another tomorrow.

There will always be another Christmas.

However unbearable, life goes on, and an endless parade of empty Christmases awaits them.

Danny will never decorate again. But for a few years at least, he will engage in perfunctory celebrations, acknowledging the date as a sign that another year is behind him. He will set a table and they will eat and drink and be unmerry. Sometimes Danny will look at the rich food and the glass in his hand, and he will look at Rusty, and he will feel Hairmyres shadow over him, revelling in the face of the trapped and suffering.

In a year or two he will stop talking to Rusty about the past. In a decade or two he will stop talking to Rusty.

Tess will never miss Christmas, no matter the temptation. Over the years she will run further, but she will never find what she is looking for. She will meet people in the course of her life that might have been friends. She will not stay in touch with any of them. And at Christmas she will sit with Danny and she will pray for this to be over.

She will make many wishes and none of them will ever come true.

Oh, she will be in love with Danny until the day she dies but that will not be enough. When she closes her eyes she still hears Rusty screaming, Danny pleading. This too will continue until the day she dies.

Three years from now, to the day, Saul will die on a cold, rainy, Christmas Wednesday. It will be peaceful. He will nod off in his chair and never wake up. There are worse ways to die. There are worse ways to live. But he will be alone in the end, and he will never get to see his son again.

Danny will get worried when he doesn't arrive for Christmas dinner. Tess will offer to go round to check on him. She will come back crying.

Danny will tell Rusty that same day. He will sit Rusty down at the table and take him by the hand, and whisper what he's lost. He will watch Rusty's eyes for even a flicker of grief absolute.

The funeral will be unbearable.

After that, the years will creep by. Christmas is just another day, not something to look forward to. There will be nothing to look forward to.

They will grow old together, the three of them, their existence an endless relay of silent suffering.

Every morning Danny will brush the hair off Rusty's face and kiss him good morning.

Nothing ever changes. And it never will.

Silent Night

It's late. Tess has gone to bed. Christmas is almost over and Danny is glad.

He is sitting next to Rusty on the couch, just as he has a thousand times before. The news is playing quietly in the background. He pays it no mind. Candles flicker away on the mantlepiece and two mugs of hot chocolate are cooling on the coffee table.

"So that's it then," he says quietly. "'s over."

Rusty is pulling aimlessly at the button on his shirt cuff. He doesn't react.

"Tess thinks I'm trying to give you what you would want," he confides softly. "She thinks I'm trying to make you happy." He almost laughs. "We both know that's not true, don't we?"

The silence is long and dark.

"I always wanted to make you happy," he says at last. "But I know what you want."

He closes his eyes for a long moment and anger bites at him. Rusty can be so unreasonable. "How exactly would you want me to do it?" he demands. "We've probably got enough drugs upstairs to kill half the neighbourhood. Do you want me to mix you up a nice cocktail? Inject you and sit down to watch you die? Or would you prefer it if I smother you with a pillow? I could hold it over your face and hold you down till you stopped struggling. Or I suppose we could keep it simple. The gun's in the next room, after all. You'd never even feel it."

He mimes holding two fingers against Rusty's head. His hand jerks.

The anger burns out. He is exhausted. Unconsciously, he brings the same two fingers under his own chin, nestling against the base of his jaw. "I know," he says after a second. "But I can't kill you, Rus'. No matter what. I guess we live."

He reaches across and takes Rusty's hand, and Rusty seems content to suffer the gesture, his cold and limp in Danny's.

"I could have died this week," Danny says quietly. "And what would have happened if I did?" His grip on Rusty's hand tightens. "Might have been better for Tess. But what would have happened to you?" He is whispering. The thought is the stuff of nightmares. "I wouldn't expect Tess...she couldn't, and you'd never want that. But where does that leave us?" He looks at Rusty helplessly.

("Would you even notice if I died?" He does not even ask the question.)

"Saul would do it," he says hurriedly. "Saul would want to do it." He thinks of Ivy. "But that's not the way it's supposed to go."

It's not like it was ever said aloud, but that doesn't mean Danny isn't aware. Saul is an old man, and if he ever got to the stage where he was sick or struggling, Rusty would have been there. This is not the way it's supposed to be.

He regrets shutting Saul out. Truth be told, he knows it was an awful thing to do. But he has seen the look in Saul's eyes, and he has imagined how Rusty would feel to have Saul looking at him that way, and it has been more than he could bear.

And sometimes, when he is turned away, he imagines the accusation in Saul's eyes. He has done this. He has brought them to this. It is his fault that Rusty is crippled. It is his doing that Rusty will never be whole again.

And still he misses Saul.

He thinks of Ivy, preparing her beloved son to be looked after once she is gone, and he imagines Rusty being taken care of by strangers. People who didn't know him before. People who would only ever see what was left, who would never know Rusty's brilliance, wit and charm, his stubborn independence, his fierce loyalty, his ridiculous tendency towards self-sacrifice, his quirks and expressions, his heart, his soul. People who would never see him smile or laugh, or deal cards, never know the way his eyes shone when he looked at Danny... People who would would care for him, but who would dress him in a hilarious Christmas jumper, and talk to him like he couldn't possibly understand because they didn't know. They didn't know Rusty.

(It would be better if Rusty dies first.)

He shakes his hand quickly, clinging tight to Rusty's hand.

On the TV a cathedral bell is ringing. To Danny, it sounds more like the toll of mourning than the peal of celebration.

"Everytime a bell rings, an angel gets his wings," Danny quotes softly. There is an angry lump in his throat. "Where's Clarence when you need him, huh?"

The candles on the mantle piece flicker and die. Danny watches as they burn out, smouldering away to nothing.

"If Clarence was here right now, I'd wish I'd never met you. Or Tess."

Rusty is silent.

"I wish I'd never met you!" Danny repeats stridently.

Rusty stirs, whimpering slightly, reacting to the raised voice.

Danny lets go of his hand. "Thing is, I know you'd wish the same thing. It really wasn't worth it." His voice is filled with wonder. "All those years we spent together. We were so happy...and that doesn't come close to balancing this out. And there's nothing any fucking angel could show me that would make me change my mind."

He reaches out and cups Rusty's cheek, gently tracing his thumb over the ruined mouth, and he looks deep into Rusty's empty eyes.

"I wish I'd never met you," he whispers fervently.

No bells ring. There are no angels.

"There are no angels," he says, his voice soft and angry. "God isn't in the stars, watching over us. You were right. You were always right. We're just cells and chemistry and electricity and shit, and when that stops...when that's broken...we're gone."

The silence threatens to deafen him. He needs to keep talking.

"There's no happily-ever-after where we'll be reunited. You're not waiting for me somewhere. You're gone. You're gone and you're never coming back."

His chest aches. His hand falls away from Rusty's face. He feels cold and old and alone.

"Happy Christmas, Rus'," he whispers.

There is no God. Rusty is gone. There is no one to forgive his sins.