A/N: Going to have three chapters set in the past now. I decided it was too long and busy for one chapter.
They got back from Paris and Tess resumed job hunting, and Rusty was just as caring and considerate and affectionate as ever, and Tess tried her best to return the feelings.
Nothing had changed, not really. She'd always known that Rusty was Danny's friend first. And someday Danny would come back, and Rusty would leave with him and never look back.
She screwed her eyes shut. That was unfair of her. She knew how much Rusty cared about her, and he'd never been anything but open and honest. He'd said time and again that he wasn't going to just up and abandon her and she knew he meant it. It was just she couldn't imagine how it would work.She and Danny...they were divorced. Even thinking about him still hurt, and the hurt was mixed with anger and betrayal, and all the poisonous little thoughts and doubts John had left her with. She didn't want to see him again (she didn't, not even when she remembered the way he smiled, the way he made her laugh) so what would happen? Was Rusty planning on splitting his time between them? She almost laughed at the thought; joint custody with a difference. Selfishly, she didn't want to share him. Practically, she doubted that anything like that could ever last. Whether he intended to or not, he'd end up choosing.
Every time she stacked herself up against Danny, she came up short, even in her own head. It was Rusty who'd have to choose - the best friend who loved adventure, who lived the same life he did, who was brilliant and successful and independent, who made him laugh and answered his every thought...or else her. Damaged, dependent, not even able to get a stupid job in her own field, so frightened he might get hurt every time he went out to work that she demanded to know exactly what he was doing, too frightened to even let him exchange numbers with a guy in a bar like a normal person...suddenly, all she could find were flaws.
There could be no comparison. She remembered the way Rusty looked at Danny. She was going to lose him, and it hurt so much. Danny would say one word, and Rusty would come running. And she thought of them together and she felt like the jealousy was going to eat her alive.
There was nothing she could do to keep him.
Or was there?
There was one thing she could offer Rusty that Danny couldn't, or wouldn't.
Still, she hesitated. She shouldn't be even trying to win this fight unless she could be sure she could make Rusty happy. But he was happy, wasn't he? He'd certainly seemed so this past year. He said he liked spending time with her, he said he was happy living together...she thought of the way he smiled at her when she came home. No one could fake that, not even Rusty.
They were happy together. Was there really anything wrong with making sure that continued, taking it one step further, even?
She started in small ways, taking just a bit more care to always have lipstick on, making sure she wore clothes that were just a bit more dressy around the house. She felt ridiculous every step of the way. Really, she had no idea whether he'd even noticed.
This wasn't something she was used to. Before, John, Danny...they'd always approached her.She'd never really needed to work to attract men's attention, whether she wanted it or not.
Self-consciously, she stared in the mirror, wondering if it was her. She supposed she was physically appealing, maybe even beautiful. And Rusty liked women, she knew. So from a purely physical point of view, there shouldn't be a problem. She just didn't know how to get started.
"Can I ask you a question?" she asked Kat one morning over coffee. "If there was a man you liked, and you were already friends with him, but you weren't sure he thought of you that way, how would you flirt with him?"
Kat's smile was broad and delighted. "Well, well. You finally ready to jump back in the dating game?"
"Maybe," she said, concentrating on stirring her coffee. Not exactly.
"I suppose I'd start with the basics," Kat said thoughtfully. "Lots of eye contact, smile like you're always pleased to see him, casual touching if you think you can manage it."
"I already do all that," she said unthinkingly.
"Oh." The smile vanished from Kat's face. "You're talking about Rusty."
"Do you think it's a bad idea?" she asked, a little hurt.
"No-o," Kat said slowly. "Not exactly. I can see the appeal. He's your best friend, he's safe and he'd do anything for you. Plus he looks like sex on two legs," she added offhandedly, and Tess choked. "Has to help. But Tess - suppose you realise you're not ready after all? What you have is special. It's a big risk to take."
"I hadn't thought of it quite that way," she said, frowning.
Kat gazed at her earnestly. "I just want you happy. Both of you."
She returned the gaze steadily. "That's what I want too," she said honestly.
She really hadn't thought of it quite like that. She'd been so caught up in thinking about what she was trying to hold onto, she hadn't given much thought to what it would mean. Was she really ready? The thought of sex no longer filled her with that sickening terror, but she still wasn't sure if she wanted to...
Shivering slightly, she forced herself to imagine it. Imagining Rusty touching and kissing her, and that wasn't so bad, was it? She knew he would never hurt her, and she couldn't imagine he'd ever hold her down, couldn't imagine he'd get...insistent. No, he'd be gentle and loving and considerate, and he would make sure she enjoyed every minute of it, just like...
(Dark eyes focused on her absolutely, like he was trying to make this moment last forever, urgent kisses, heat and movement, his arms wrapped around her, holding her up as the impossible pleasure raced through her body, building to dizzying heights.)
No! She shook her head determinedly. No. That was all in the past. The point was, she could do this. Rusty would be good to her, and she could please him. She could make him happy.
She loved him. Why wouldn't that be enough?
When he came home, she was waiting for him, dressed in a black dress that was long enough that she felt comfortable and short enough that she felt...sexy. She could only hope she looked it too.
There was music playing, and feeling giddy and nervous and daring, she took his hand and pulled him into an exuberant dance around the kitchen.
His mouth twitched with affectionate amusement. "What's the occasion?" he asked, twirling her obligingly.
"I don't need a reason," she said, neatly removing the ID badge that told her that Garret Wright worked for the power company, and dropping it down onto the counter. "I just felt like celebrating."
"Celebrating?" He looked at her thoughtfully and smiled. "Celebrating without a reason. I can get behind that."
(She'd danced with him like this at her wedding. He'd smiled then too, and Danny had been watching, smiling at them both like this was the happiest day of his life. That had been a lie. It had been.)
She'd cooked steaks for dinner, and for a moment she'd found herself thinking about the day she'd left John. She'd been cooking steak then too, waiting for him to come home, desperate to please and ready to do whatever he wanted...
This was different. That had been about fear. This time, she was acting out of love. (But she was afraid of being alone.)
They ate dinner by candlelight. She sat next to him and smiled and talked and laughed. He made her feel warm inside. This couldn't be wrong. It couldn't.
Casually she rested a hand on his knee, and when he didn't object, she slid it upwards, just a little.
He stopped talking, his eyes flickering between her and the candles. "Tess..."
"This isn't about gratitude," she said rapidly, before he got the wrong idea. "This is just...I want you to be happy. I want both of us to be happy, and I don't want to be alone." She stopped, swallowing hard, and she reached out and took his hand"I love you," she said, because maybe that was what mattered most. "You make me feel safe, and you make me feel whole, and I love you, Rusty."
He stared at her for a long moment and his hand was trembling slightly as he reached up and pressed his hand against her face. "I love you too," he said.
She leaned forwards and kissed him urgently, her arms around his neck, her mouth pressed desperately to his. He tasted of warmth and strength and comfort. She could do this. It was Rusty, and she could do this. He was kissing her back and it felt...she felt...loved.
He broke off after what could have been a few seconds or a few hours. "No," he said, his voice unsteady and uncertain. As she moved back, he grabbed her hand, like he was afraid she might leave completely. He closed his eyes for a long second. "No," he said again, stronger this time. "We shouldn't do this."
Oh, God. She felt like a fool.
Immediately he lifted her hand to his mouth, kissing it reassuringly. "No, not like that," he said immediately. "But I make you feel safe and you don't want to be alone...Tess, those aren't reasons for starting a relationship. Can you honestly look me in the eye and tell me you find me attractive?"
"You're beautiful," she said instead, and she should want him. If she didn't, that was a problem with her, not him.
"That's not the same thing," he said gently. "And it matters."
"But don't other things matter more?" she asked in a small voice. "You said you loved me."
"I do," he said at once. "I really do. But there are all kinds of love, Tess. This is the kind that comes without sex."
Instantly she felt a surge of relief, and she wasn't quick enough to hide it from him if she wanted to.
His mouth quirked into a grin. "Yeah," he said, in response to her look. "Exactly."
"I just thought..." she tried to explain. "Love and companionship. It wouldn't be a bad life."
"It wouldn't," he agreed immediately, looking upset. "But isn't that what we already had?"
"And what happens when Danny comes back?" she asked, and another thought occurred, hitting her hard. "Is that...is that why you turned me down?" She hadn't actually thought before, but now she wondered if he'd have slept with Danny's wife, even if he wanted to.
For a long moment he didn't say anything. "I don't know," he said finally, his voice cracked, and just for once, she almost wished he'd lied. "And I don't know what will happen. But I'm not going to lose you, Tess. Not as long as I can help it, I swear."
"But Danny's your best friend," she pointed out unwillingly. "And I'm just..." She didn't compare.
He grabbed her hand again. "You're my best friend too," he told her firmly, and with a complete lack of logic. "I told you; I love you. You really think I say that lightly?"
In spite of herself, her lips twitched. "I don't think you can have more than one bestfriend," she murmured.
He shrugged. "Like I care about the rules." He grew serious again. "We'll find a way to make this work, Tess. I swear it."
She believed him, really, she did. And it wasn't as if anything changed between them. If she'd thought, she would have expected things to get awkward, but somehow, the next time she took his hand as they were walking down the street, she didn't even consider that it should have been strange until the moment was long past.
They loved. That didn't stop.
But somehow, she was left with...something. A feeling of dissatisfaction, or maybe insecurity. Maybe this wasn't forever, or maybe she was just too dependent on Rusty. At any rate, she felt like she had to start building more of a life apart from him, because if Danny came back she wanted to feel like she didn't need him, and she redoubled her efforts to find a job, even starting to apply for things she was completely overqualified for.
And she got a few responses, and some of them wanted references, and reluctantly she found herself calling the gallery in Philadelphia, hoping she could beg them to overlook the last few months of her employment.
Angelica said she'd pass the message on, but she was coldly discouraging, and Tess felt herself wither in the face of the hidden glee she could hear, like Angelica was glad she'd come crawling back.
"Oh yes," Angelica said just before she hung up. "A man came by looking for you. We told him we didn't have any contact details."
She froze. "A man?" she said, and she already knew the answer but she still had to ask. "D-did he leave a name?"
"Let me see," Angelica said uninterestedly. "I wrote it down. He insisted. Ah, yes. John Ross."
Her mouth was suddenly impossibly dry. "This must have been months ago, right? Last year."
"Of course not," Angelica said scornfully. "You remember how busy we are, do you really think we'd have kept it all this time? No, this was just last week. Unfortunately we didn't have any way of getting in touch with you."
Thank God. "Well, that's fine," she babbled. "It's been very nice talking to you again, Angelica, if I'm ever back in town we should get caught up - "
" - he left his number," Angelica interrupted implacably. "Let me give it to you."
She did. And Tess wrote it down without even knowing why.
"Thank you," she said numbly, staring down at the seven digits like they were the road to hell.
"Oh, there was something else," Angelica added. "Even when we said we couldn't get in touch with you, he said we should tell you he was sorry." She unbent just a little and laughed, a knowing little giggle. "He was very good looking you know. And whatever he did, he seemed very upset about it. I think you should forgive him."
Forgive him. She felt the tears threatening to fall. "Thank you, Angelica," she said hoarsely. "You've been very helpful."
She hung up, and sat huddled in the chair, staring vacantly into space.
He was looking for her. John was looking for her. After all this time...she felt sick. Why now? Surely he hadn't still been searching all this time. No, something must have changed.
Angelica had said John was sorry. Maybe...maybe he really was. She pressed her hand against her mouth hard, so she could barely breathe.
(Maybe John was really sorry.)
Rusty had said sorry only counted if he wasn't going to do it again.
(Maybe John had really changed.)
She shook her head unconsciously, trying to concentrate. Rusty. She shouldn't tell him about this. If he knew John was looking for her, he'd worry. Even now, she knew, he could barely think about John without wanting to punch a wall. There was no need to tell him anyway. It wasn't like she was going to call him. She didn't need to call him. There was no way John could find her, and why would she want to talk to him? Even if he was sorry... Even if he had changed.
This didn't mean anything. She wasn't going back to John. She wasn't even going to think about John. It was over.
Without knowing why, she folded up the paper with the phone number and placed it carefully in her purse.