A/N: For InSilva. A very happy unbirthday to you, to yo-ou
There were decisions in everyone's life that could be wondered at, maybe even regretted. Turning points, moments that changed everything, choices that could mean the difference between a lifetime of happiness and a lifetime of regret.
Walking away from a successful career, leaving your job, your friends, your apartment, your entire continent for a man who'd ran out on you three years previously? Oh, that probably qualified.
Even now it wasn't too late to change her mind. She could go back home and try to explain things, try and salvage the mess she'd made by running out on a forged request. There'd be an official enquiry, months of investigation and suspension, but she might come out of it all with nothing more than a reprimand, if her luck held.
That had been door number one. Door two...door two involved a day spent with Dad, another day spent meeting Robert's friends, and then flying with Robert to the states.
She'd never been to North America before. That was half the reason Robert had suggested they fly to New York and drive the way down, turning it into a vacation and seeing the sights. Half the reason. She wasn't quite sure of the other half, but at least a little of it was to do with the blue vintage Mustang that had been delivered to them at the airport. The driver had given the keys to Danny, who had solemnly handed them over to Robert.
"So all the time you were figuring out how to steal a Faberge egg you were also sourcing a new Mustang?" Robert asked, amused.
"Wasn't hard," Danny said, straight-faced. "By this point I got a supply on tap."
"Huh," Robert said, lips pursed.
"Try to be more careful with this one," Danny added, and Isabel blinked, wondering what had happened to the last one. "Else I'll have to buy the factory."
"They don't make them like this anymore," Robert said, smiling, as he ran his hand reverently over the bonnet.
"Accident prone, you mean?" Danny asked innocently.
Robert looked at him sharply. "Hey, this time it really wasn't my fault. Terry Benedict blew it up, you can't blame me."
Danny winced minutely, and Isabel caught a look on Tess' face that suggested this was news to her too.
Robert shot Danny an unreadable look, but she thought there might have been apology in there. She was nowhere close to being able to read what passed between them, but she could at least recognise what she was missing. Some times, anyway. She still wasn't exactly sure how she felt about it.
That had been one of the first things she'd noticed at that poker game, right after she'd realised she was going to have to make sure all of them liked her if this was going to really work, and what's more she'd have to actively impress Danny and Saul. Robert's parents had died years ago, he'd told her, and while that certainly wasn't something to celebrate, she had assumed she wasn't going to have to run the approval-seeking gauntlet.
And then she'd found herself alone with Danny, and Danny had smiled at her calmly. "You know if you hurt him, I'm going to have to be irrational about it, right?"
"I'm beginning to get that," she told him dryly and she'd had no doubt that he meant every word. Though he wasn't the only one – before they'd left yesterday, Dad had taken Robert aside and had a quiet word. She suspected it was much the same thing Danny had said to her.
No pressure, but it seemed entirely possible that if this relationship went sour, it would precipitate some sort of crime war.
She supposed the only up side here was that they had supportive family and friends.
If 'friends' was even the right word...
The first unspoken conversation she'd witnessed, over a bowl of potato crisps, had been an eye opener.
She'd seen the way Danny had looked at Robert, and she'd seen the way Robert had looked at Danny and she'd felt like the biggest fool to ever walk the earth. She knew love when she saw it, and it had taken quite the effort of will not to react there and then.
But acting without thinking, reacting out of emotion...that had always been her biggest flaw, and she tried her best to temper it. She waited. And watched. And she was glad when she saw the way Danny kissed Tess, and the way Robert smiled at her when he dealt her cards.
(And she knew he was cheating, she knew it and she didn't give a damn, and if the Queen of Hearts and the Jack of Diamonds ended up nestled next to each other between his fingers when she was dealing, what did that really mean?)
She didn't understand what was between them, but it wasn't about sex, she was convinced of that. But that didn't mean it wasn't a threat to her. They had their own language, their own history, and Danny gave Robert a new car like it wasn't even a present.
"He got me the first one," Robert explained later, as they drove towards the hotel. "Then he back ended it with a cement truck. So he replaced it, and he's been replacing them ever since."
She looked at him. "How many times?"
He grinned. "A few."
"Benedict planted a bomb in your car?" she asked.
"Yeah," he agreed.
She nodded slowly, absorbing it. "Was it - "
" - he had it set off when he knew I wasn't in it," he assured her.
That was something, but she still wasn't exactly happy. "Did he pull that little trick on anyone else?"
"Nah," he admitted. "Just me."
Really, that made sense from a bad guy's point of view. No matter how blasé Robert was, planting bombs was risky business, and whether deliberately or not, Robert could have been hurt or killed. So even though Benedict needed the threat, he wouldn't have wanted to risk Ocean. If anything went wrong, that would have been an end to his little deal with the Night Fox. He'd probably figured that Robert was more expendable, and she gritted her teeth.
"I think I'd like to meet Mr Benedict some day," she said with deceptive lightness.
"I think I'd like to make sure that doesn't happen," Robert said, equally lightly.
"You must have done something to annoy him," she commented.
He raised an eyebrow. "Apart from...?"
"Apart from," she agreed.
"I might have walked away while he was in the middle of threatening me," he said, glancing at her in the mirror. "Left him talking to dead air."
"Uh huh." She rolled her eyes. "Why am I not surprised?"
"It was on the phone," he shrugged. "Who's threatening over the phone?"
Someone who would plant a bomb in your car, in Isabel's opinion. But she smiled at him anyway. After all, she'd say the same thing in his shoes. "It's a nice car," she commented.
He turned his head and smiled at her. "Yeah," he said contentedly.
The car was part of the reason, but she still wasn't sure of the rest. That first night, spent in the penthouse suite of what she strongly suspected was one of the best hotels in Manhattan, with a complimentary bottle of champagne, an impossibly large hot tub, and a box of chocolate truffles, went some way to make up for it. It seemed Robert hadn't forgotten a thing in the last three years. In fact, she realised, somewhere in the midst of a blissful haze, he'd even learned a new trick or four.
But still, even that didn't excuse the fact that he was keeping secrets from her again.
He drove with purpose that second day and she got the feeling they were heading someplace particular. She didn't say anything about it though, and instead they talked idly about the scenery, and what she really wanted to see on this little trip. It didn't surprise her that Robert had at least a passing familiarity with most of America's most famous tourist spots. Where the pickings were easy, after all.
It was late afternoon when they pulled up on the outskirts of a dull-looking little town she'd never heard of. She found herself staring up at a large, airy-looking complex of buildings, with a freshly painted sign. Crabapple Field Retirement Home.
She turned and looked at Robert expectantly.
"There's a friend of mine I'd like to introduce you to," he said softly.
Another friend. She studied his face carefully, wondering, but he was giving nothing away.
"Okay then," she nodded.
Inside the atrium was newly decorated and there were fresh flowers sitting on the concierge's desk. "Mr Ryan!" the concierge herself exclaimed as they walked in. "Oh, it's wonderful to see you again. Miss Lowrie is in her apartment," she went on. "Do you want me to call up for you?"
"Nah," Robert said, shaking his head. "She's expecting us. Thanks though, Bella. I love what you've done with your hair."
As they walked towards the stairs, Isabel could see Bella touching her hair and smiling to herself.
"You have quite the fan there," she commented dryly.
He looked startled. "What? Oh! Nah, me and Danny tend to be generous with thank you presents and Christmas bonuses. Makes a difference."
Mmm. Personally she thought there was probably a little more to it than that.
"What's that smell?" she asked hungrily, pausing on the first floor landing.
"The kitchen and dining room are just down here," he told her. "Mabel has her own apartment, but there's shared living areas for anyone who doesn't want to cook for themselves."
"Uh huh." She shook her head. "Sometimes I don't feel like cooking."
He grinned. "I have a hotel. Room service."
"I thought you weren't very good at it," she commented.
"Hey, I run a great hotel," he said with mock defensiveness. "I just don't make a profit, that's all."
She shook her head again. "It's a good thing you're pretty, that's all I can say."
"It's this floor," he said, looking towards the door, and she followed him around to apartment 3F and waited as he knocked on the door.
"Are you planning on telling me who we're visiting?" she asked in a low voice.
He glanced at her and opened his mouth, but a moment later the door swung open and they were being greeted by an elderly black woman wearing a floral apron and a large smile.
"Rusty," she said happily, leaning forwards and embracing him. "Oh, it's so good to see you. Come in, please, both of you."
The apartment was small but warm, bright and cheerful, and there was a smell of fresh baking coming from the kitchen.
"Isabel, this is Mabel Lowrie," Robert introduced them. "She's a friend of mine from way back when I was a kid. Mabel, this is Isabel Lahihri. My girlfriend."
"It's lovely to meet you," Mabel said, shaking her hand. "Come on through to the sitting room."
"You been practising that?" she murmured amused, to Robert as they sat down and Mabel vanished to get them coffee.
"A little," he grinned. "In front of the mirror in the airport bathroom."
She almost believed him. 'Girlfriend' was not a word she'd ever heard him use before. Certainly not in relation to them.
"This is a beautiful place you have," she said, as she sprang up to help Mabel with the coffee and the tray of little sandwiches and cakes.
"Thank you," Mabel said with a smile, sitting down. "Help yourselves, you must be hungry," she said as an aside, then "I moved in about two years ago. When I couldn't manage in my own place anymore. It was very different then," she added. "Everything was clean, but it was all broken and rundown."
She blinked. She didn't think she'd seen a single stick of furniture in this entire complex that wasn't brand new. "That's a big change in two years."
"Oh, yes," Mabel agreed. "Anyway, I was happy enough with the way things were. It wasn't great, but it could be a lot worse. And it was all I could afford." She swallowed, and didn't even glance at Robert. "But, as...luck would have it...an anonymous donor gave a massive sum of money to the home, on the condition that the rent didn't go up for residents."
She blinked. "Wow," she managed.
Mabel nodded. "Exactly. So we got all new...everything, really. You name it, kitchen, bathroom, a new activity room and they're building a health club in the basement."
"All from that one donation?" she asked incredulously.
"There's been a few," Mabel said, and now she was looking straight at Robert. "Someone is very generous. And," she added, her voice wavering slightly. "Very stupid."
"Mabel," Robert said with a gentle sigh. "Whoever donates the money probably just wants to make sure that...people here are comfortable in their retirement."
"Whoever donates the money should have better things to spend it on," she retorted strongly. "Both of them."
"I can't think what," Isabel cut in softly, and Robert flashed her a smile that made her feel warm inside. But it was obvious that Mabel mattered to Robert, and she liked that. She wondered if Mabel had always known, and if she knew where the money actually came from. It had the ring of a discussion that had happened before. Maybe often before.
Mabel looked at them both for a long moment, her lips pursed. "Eat the cookies," she said at last. "I made them for Vivien next door's grandson, but I made too many."
That did at least explain the smiling faces picked out on chocolate icing. Although maybe not, she considered, as she watched Robert eat one.
She took a bite herself. "These taste like the cookies you make," she exclaimed.
"Mabel's the one who taught me to cook," Robert explained, smiling fondly. "I never messed with the recipe. Why change perfection?"
"Oh, really," Mabel protested, but she was blushing lightly.
"So you've known Robert since he was little?" Isabel asked curiously.
"Yes," Mabel nodded. "I used to own a diner in town, and Rusty and Danny were some of my best customers."
She thought about the way Robert ate. "I can believe that," she smiled. "How old was he?"
A shadow crossed Mabel's face. "Seven," she answered though. ""Bright as a button and cute like you wouldn't believe. He and Danny came in, ordered some food - "
" - got tricked into free dessert - " Robert cut in affectionately.
" - and most weeks after they that they'd come by at least a couple of times."
It felt like there was something Isabel was missing. Something important. She had fifteen years worth of police instincts to draw on, she knew when someone was trying to hide something. She just didn't know what and she didn't know why. If Robert had some awful secret, it seemed unlikely he was about to share it here and now.
Besides, she had other questions she wanted answered. "So what was Robert like as a child?" she asked.
Mabel laughed. "Oh, he was a handful," she declared. "The stories I could tell you. I remember one Halloween when Rusty was dressed as the Fonz and..."
The stories flew thick and fast and funny. She heard a dozen little anecdotes that she doubted Robert would ever have thought to tell her, and in turn she shared some of her own childhood memories, and Robert and Mabel were laughing along with her, and then they were talking about some of the more ridiculous customers Mabel had seen over the years, and Isabel told them about some of stranger things people asked the police. It was fun and time sped by.
"I should get these plates cleared," Mabel said at last, making as though to stand up.
"Let me," Robert said, getting to his feet and taking them through to the kitchen. He never normally thought to clear up. Mabel was obviously a good influence.
"He's a good man," Mabel said as they watched him walk away.
"Yes," she agreed.
"You said you were in the police?" Mabel asked with a false air of nonchalance that did little to hide the anxiety.
"Yes," Isabel smiled. "But I have no plans to arrest him."
"Good," Mabel said with a sigh of relief.
"You know what he does, then?" she asked.
"Not the details," Mabel said cagily. "I know they're outside the law...Danny was in prison a few years ago."
She could hear the pain in Mabel's voice. "I'm sorry," she said inadequately.
"It's in the past," Mabel said, waving the concern away. "You know, I told them I was moving in here and they both came to see me. They offered me money to move somewhere better. Rusty even offered to let me stay at his hotel, free of charge, forever, can you imagine that? Ridiculous boy," she added in a fond whisper. "Of course I couldn't accept."
"So they gave the money straight to this place instead," she dared say.
Mabel looked at her sharply. "They both deny it, you know. I asked and they said they knew nothing about it. What am I supposed to do? Ridiculous boys."
"Robert obviously cares about you a lot," she said gently. "Danny too," she added.
"Yes," Mabel nodded slowly. "They've been through so much. And they've always been close. Inseparable."
Yes. She understood that now. She'd seen it at the poker game, and then Tess had seen her watching and walked up to her in a quiet moment.
"Don't try and split them up," she'd murmured earnestly.
Isabel looked at her. "What?"
"Danny and Rusty," she said, like Isabel maybe didn't know who she was talking about. "Don't try and split them up. You'll only end up losing him, one way or another."
"Are you speaking from experience?" she asked dryly.
Tess shook her head, looking almost amused. "Observation. I never tried." She looked over to where her husband and Robert were standing, listening to something Linus was saying with identical expressions of muted glee. "They need each other, that's all. Danny isn't a threat to you."
"They're not sleeping together," she said, curious to see how the blunt statement would be received. From what she'd seen, Tess was a nice woman, but naïve. Removed from the world her husband lived in.
If anything, Tess just looked even more amused. "I know," she said with absolute certainty. "I've never doubted it."
Never? Isabel had certainly wondered. She looked at Tess curiously, and mentally revised her opinion a little. Maybe there was more to Tess than she'd thought.
"Listen," Tess said, looking at her intently. "I'm sure you've already heard this from Danny, and maybe Saul, but if you hurt him, eventually you'll have me to answer to as well."
"Really," she said slowly.
"I like Rusty," she said. "And what hurts Rusty hurts Danny."
Maybe a lot more than she'd thought.
"I know they're close," she said to Mabel. She just hadn't completely figured out what that meant, let alone what it meant for her.
"We should probably be heading out," Robert said, appearing in the doorway. "'s getting late."
Standing up, they said their goodbyes, and to her surprise Mabel embraced her briefly. "I'm glad he's found you," Mabel whispered. "Come back and see me again soon," she said out loud. "Both of you."
"She likes you," Robert said as they headed out to the car.
"I'm glad," she said, smiling and she meant it. "I like her."
Robert smiled at her briefly, and there was no more talking until he drove to a hill on the outskirts of town, looking down over the spread of lights below.
"Local makeout point?" she guessed, as he turned the engine off.
"Yeah, actually," he said surprisingly seriously. "Not why we're here though."
She hadn't thought it was. "Is this the part where you tell me why we're really here?" she asked, trying to sound as non judgemental as she could.
"We're really here to see Mabel," he returned. "And as I thought it might be easier to talk about...other things."
There was a strain in his voice she'd never heard before. Even the night he'd left he'd been cool and collected, and she'd had no idea what he was thinking until it was too late.
Concerned, she reached out and laid her hand on his. "What things?" she asked gently.
He didn't look at her. "I grew up here," he said vacantly. "We both did, me and Danny. Danny lived about a mile that way. One of those big houses on that hill there."
She looked but she couldn't see.
"I lived in an apartment building down there," he said, pointing. "The cheaper side of town. I don't know if it's still there."
"We could go and see?" she suggested hesitantly.
He shook his head immediately. "No. No, definitely not." He paused for a long moment, struggling to find the words and she waited patiently. "D'you remember when I told you about my parents?" he said in a rush.
She stared. "Of course," she said. Their second date. Small talk had given way to real things, things that mattered, and she'd told him about Dad's 'death' and how much it had hurt, and how Mum had been so angry for years afterwards. Through most of her teenage years she'd felt like she was raising herself, and yes it had made her tough and self sufficient, but she'd been so alone. Even now, she still resented Mum, just a little.
(And now she knew the truth, there were so many more reasons for resentment.)
She shook her head, angry at herself. This wasn't the time for that. She remembered the conversation, remembered asking Robert about his parents, and the fond smile and the stories about simple small town life. She'd envied him. "Your Dad was a cab driver and your Mum worked in a diner," she remembered.
His knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel. "I lied," he whispered.
"What?" She stared, not able to take it in. "About what?"
"Everything," he said miserably.
"You lied?" she said incredulously. "I don't...why would you even lie about that?"
He stared blindly out the window. "My childhood was..." He took a deep breath. "My father was an angry, bitter drunk. My mother was...sick...and she'd self medicate with anything she could get her hands on - alcohol, heroin, crack...it didn't matter."
She listened with horror. This wasn't the secret she'd been expecting. And with every word she could see him drawing further away from her, getting lost somewhere in the past where she couldn't follow.
"He was ten years older than her and he knocked her up when she was fourteen," he said. "He whored her out, when I was a kid. For drug money. I don't know if she even noticed." He shuddered, still turned away from her, watching some distant memory play out, and listening to the pain in his voice, she could almost see it too.
"Robert..." she said, her voice hoarse.
He carried on like he hadn't heard her. "They didn't look after me," he went on, his voice blank and mechanical. "They often forgot to feed me. They'd lock me up and leave me alone for days at a time. They'd call me stupid and weak and a sissy, and they...and they..."
Heart in mouth, she reached out and laid her hand on his shoulder and she could feel him trembling beneath her. "It's okay," she murmured, and it was a promise and a plea. She knew where this was going.
"They hit me," he said numbly. "Both of them. A lot."
Yes. She could see it now, although she'd never imagined it before. All the little behaviours she'd observed that had first hinted to her that he might be a thief now took on darker meaning. His ability to fade into the background and pass unnoticed. His way of immediately looking to all the exits in any room he walked into. Even his easy, deflecting charm. Take away the joy and the confidence and she could see where he came from.
She squeezed his shoulder tightly. "Oh, Robert," she murmured. "It's okay." And he was strong and he was tough; he'd healed long before she ever met him and she still wanted to take care of him.
"That's his name you know," he commented vacantly. "He named me after himself. Before he knew I was always gonna disappoint him, I guess."
"What?" She froze. He'd introduced himself and she'd always used his real name. It had started as a game and she hadn't meant...she'd never dreamed... "I'm sorry," she said tentatively. "I could start calling you Rusty. If you like." It felt strange to her.
"No," he said quickly, looking round at her, his eyes haunted, but somehow reassuring. "No. It sounds different coming from you. 's like a nickname. Besides, Saul uses it too. Mostly when he's angry with me."
She smiled slightly, relieved. "Alright, then." She squeezed his shoulder again, and he brought his hand up to hers, gripping her fingers like a lifeline, and right now she'd offer him any comfort she could. "Why was your father disappointed?" she asked carefully.
"I was never the kid he wanted," he said with a shrug. "He thought I was lazy and stupid, and he didn't like that I was smarter than him." He caught her frown at the contradiction and grinned. "Yeah. Like I said, I was smarter than him. And he thought I was weak."
At that, in other circumstances, she might have laughed. "Had he even talked to you?" she asked, but she thought maybe she knew what was behind that ludicrous notion. From what little Robert had said, she'd formed an unpleasant picture of his father, and she doubted he'd have coped well with the suspicion his son might like other men. That was one secret Robert hadn't kept; she'd figured it out early on and got him to admit it in a pizzeria by the simple tactic of commenting that their waiter was cute.
"We rarely talked," Robert said with another cold grin. "Not what you'd call conversation, anyway. Like I said, he thought. I know who I am, and he stopped being able to hurt me a long time ago. These days, mostly I deal better with it than this."
"You don't need to hide from me," she told him quietly, and there was a painful question in there.
He shrugged slightly. "Doesn't exactly make for good date conversation."
But he'd never told her. And it wasn't just that he hadn't told her, he'd lied to her.
"I've never told anyone," he said with a sigh, answering her thought.
"No one else knows?" she exclaimed. That wasn't right. She knew that he was tough-minded and independent; those were some of the qualities she liked best in him, but the idea that he might have been carrying this on his own for all these years...she didn't know if she could bear it. Bad enough that she hadn't been there.
"Danny knows," he said with quick reassurance, like he knew what she was thinking. "He was there when I was a kid. I didn't need to tell him, he saw."
Huh. She bit her lip. "Danny knew all that time?" she said uncomfortably.
He looked at her fiercely. "Danny figured it out within a week of knowing me," he said. "And he told his teacher and his parents right away, and he told a whole parade of people over the years. No one ever listened."
"Oh," she said slowly. That probably explained a lot about Danny. Why stay within the bounds of society when society had let you down so badly? She swallowed hard. "Suddenly I feel very sorry for him."
Robert nodded. "It was bad for him."
"And for you," she stated quietly.
"Yeah," he agreed and for a while there was silence.
"What happened?" she asked. "In the end."
He shrugged, distant again. "Mom left when I was nine. Dad...blamed me. It got worse for a while after that. Not that it was ever good..." he added pensively. "We left just before I turned fifteen, me and Danny. Moved to New York."
"On your own?" she said, aghast, and she remembered being fifteen, remembered being knowingly irresponsible, remembered all her attention at the time being on school and boys and karate tournaments. No way she would have been able to live by herself, and it wasn't as if Danny were that much older than Robert.
"Yeah," he nodded. "I know it sounds bad, but we were already thieves by then. Actually, I'd been stealing since I was six," he added, and she could imagine why and it hurt. "We were able to support ourselves just fine."
She tried to digest that, tried to accept it but it still sounded so wrong and it hurt her. "So your parents are still alive?"
"Far as I know," he shrugged. "It's not like I ever tried to stay in touch," he said lightly.
Gently, she leaned forwards and pressed her lips against his, and she wanted to take care of him, and she wanted to track down his parents and make them hurt, like they'd made him hurt.
She placed her hand on his cheek. "You could have told me, Robert," she said softly.
"I couldn't," he said. "Not then. And later I'd already lied."
Really, she could understand that. She'd bared her soul to him, and she could imagine how she'd feel if she shared her painful childhood, and he turned round and proved his was so much worse. And still, it was worse that he'd lied.
"Idiot," she whispered.
"I just never want to lie to you again," he added very, very quietly.
She kissed him again. "I'll hold you to that," she said huskily.
He looked deep into her eyes. "I want you to know what you're getting into."
"This changes nothing about who you are," she said without hesitating because it was true. This changed nothing. She'd known who he was three years ago. She knew who he was now. And she'd chosen to leave everything she knew because he was absolutely worth it.
There were decisions in everyone's life that could be wondered at, maybe even regretted. Turning points, moments that changed everything, choices that could mean the difference between a lifetime of happiness and a lifetime of regret.
"I chose right," she whispered. "I chose you."