Notes: It's finally done! I don't know what it was but the last two hundred words took me forever. There'll be something multi-chaptered next but I think I'll probably wait until it's finished before posting because as every other fandom I've ever been in will tell you, I have a terrible track record with WIP's. There's some references to Rusty's past and some unhealthy thoughts on his part, but I think it's fairly mild.
Home is a valuable thing.
Like Kris had any idea about that. Rusty scoffed as he stared out the window, drumming his fingers violently against the door. He was restless, alternately feverish and then clammy in his near-panic, swallowing hopelessly against a dry mouth.
Sharon was anxious, too. She hadn't uttered a word since marching him to the car and she wore Captain Raydor's face like a mask, but her knuckles were white where she gripped the steering wheel and every now and then a shaky breath betrayed her.
They sat side-by-side and suffocated in silence as Sharon drove along at a snail's pace. Rusty stared out into the sea of cars stalled by rush-hour traffic that surrounded them and marveled at the unfairness of it all. So many cars, so many people in them, and he just couldn't seem to walk unnoticed among them.
Somewhere, a ghost who called himself a friend watched for him.
Emma Rios wanted to quietly disappear him to somewhere she deemed safe.
All Rusty had meant to do was seize the best chance he saw of bringing his mother home, and even she had managed to vanish. Twice. Leaving him here, a walking target who'd had the bad luck to trust the wrong person.
"I can't believe Kris did this to me." His voice was hoarse with grief and anger. He curled his fists in his lap. "I thought she was my friend."
"Oh, Rusty." Sharon sighed, soft and sad. She'd hardly spared him a glance since she started driving, but she looked at him now and beneath her carefully impassive expression was a tenderness that nearly undid him. For one long, uncomfortable moment he chafed under that look until the light changed and she directed her eyes back to the road. "Kris is your friend. She's the best friend you could've hoped for."
"Okay, well, that's a total lie, and—"
"God, Sharon!" He twisted to face her, sadness displaced by burning anger. "Do you have to take her side, too? It's bad enough you already took Emma's."
"I did not side with Emma," Sharon said, in that overly calm way of hers. She cleared her throat before continuing, "Her primary concern is the prosecution of Phillip Stroh. My primary concern is you. In this instance, our objectives are the same."
"Yeah," he said, letting bitterness drip from his voice. "That's why you're letting Emma take me away, because you're so concerned about me."
He knew (oh, he knew) that it was a cruel thing to say. The words she'd said to him earlier were true. He'd had no response for her then and this shouldn't have been his answer, but—it was what he offered her, and he sounded so harsh to his own ears that when Sharon pulled up against the curb he almost expected her to order him from the car, safety be damned.
Then he realized her hands were trembling in something other than anger.
"Sharon," he whispered and his own anger vanished, leaving him with guilt and grief. "I—"
She held up a finger to silence him, and turned away. Rusty flinched.
"God," she murmured, low and thick, and in that one word Rusty heard the whole unspoken prayer.
He bowed his head.
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Sharon press her clasped hands to her mouth, shaking her head.
Rusty stared determinedly at his shoes and didn't look up until Sharon released a slow, controlled breath.
"Okay," she said, turning back to him. "Rusty."
Unable to look her in the eye, he watched her hands.
"Do you think," she asked softly, "that I don't know what you're doing?"
"No," he mumbled. "Not really."
She sighed again, tilting her head against the back of her seat with her eyes closed. "Lieutenant Provenza told me you would understand someday," she said. "When you received the first letter and I took your car away. I told him it didn't matter whether you understood, as long as you were safe—and Rusty, I stand by that now. Do you understand?"
"Yes," he whispered, guilt-sick. He'd always known that. He chanced a glance at her face and found her watching him with wet eyes.
"Know this," she went on. "The only side I'm on is yours."
He opened his mouth to challenge her, then slowly closed it again.
"I'm on your side," she repeated, and there was a steely edge to her voice that calmed him. "As long as I believe I can protect you, I'll fight to keep you with me."
"But—" Rusty hesitated, watching her face carefully. "You told Emma—"
"That I agree that the number of letters and their content are cause for concern," she said. She sounded more composed now that she had her rules and procedures to comfort her. "Yes. I believe that. If you'll recall, I also asked Chief Taylor for a week to investigate these letters myself with the help of my team before we make any decisions regarding your relocation, to which he and DDA Rios agreed."
"I don't see what good that'll do." Rusty slid his thumb against the edge of the seatbelt. "You didn't find anything before, and Emma doesn't want me living with you."
"That was one letter, Rusty," Sharon said, frowning. "We have eleven now. That's an established pattern of behavior, and we need to examine all of them for physical evidence. The more letters you receive, the more likely the sender is to make a mistake."
"Trust me," she said quietly. Her hand hovered in the air the way it did when she wanted to reach out to him but wasn't sure she should. She touched his shoulder gently, and withdrew her hand just as quickly. "I'm not giving up just yet."
"Sharon?" he said, into the silence that followed. "I'm sorry."
"I know," she said.
"I don't know why I..." He hesitated. "I say terrible things to you sometimes. Things I know aren't true."
"I know," she said again, turning the key in the ignition. "And I think you do know why."
He had no answer for that.
"Now, what do you say we go home?"
"Yeah," Rusty said quietly, staring out the window again. "Sure."
It was a long, quiet drive back.
Rusty disappeared into his room the second he made it through the door, and Sharon let him go. He locked the door and collapsed onto his bed, eyes closed as he ran his hands through his hair. However she tried to reassure him, there was no escaping the fact that this was all so incredibly screwed up.
He heard Sharon's voice every now and then from the living room, low snatches of a conversation he couldn't follow. He pictured her sitting on the couch the way she liked to do when she came home every day, her heels kicked off beside her feet as she stretched out her sore legs. And then he realized that he could see the entire apartment in his mind's eye, right down to the weird art Sharon kept hanging on the walls.
If I get to stay here, I'll never tell Sharon her furniture is ugly again.
Was that enough?
And I'll never complain about going to Mass again.
If I get to stay here, I'll see the dumb psychiatrist.
It wasn't just church she took him to—it was the ballet or the symphony, sometimes museums. Places he pretended not to enjoy as much as he did because it was uncool. Places he would never, ever complain about going again because it meant Sharon was around to drag him out to "culturally educational events". Whatever that meant.
Rusty wasn't sure who he was reasoning with, here—he wasn't sure where he stood on the whole God thing, and he could practically hear Sharon's response. ("As generous an offer as that is, I doubt Chief Taylor and DDA Rios will see it that way.")
But it was all he had, so he offered it anyway.
When Sharon called him to dinner, Rusty told her twice he wasn't hungry. She ordered pizza anyway, but wouldn't let him have a second soda. He complained about unfairness and she pointed without a word to the cabinet where she kept the water glasses.
"I..." Rusty watched her pick at her own food, and stopped.
Too late. She raised her head, watching him closely. "Yes?"
He helped himself to a third slice. He really wasn't hungry, but he thought she liked to see him eat. "I heard you on the phone earlier."
"Was that, um, important?"
"It may be. Lieutenant Tao will call back—" She glanced down at her watch, then the clock on the stove, and sighed when she didn't like either number. "Soon."
"So you found something?" he pressed, his heartbeat picking up in a smidgen of hope. "In one of the letters?"
"It's too soon to tell." Her lips pressed together into a thin line. "I hope so."
"So you could find the guy?" he said. "And I could stay here?"
Sharon pushed her plate away, food uneaten. "I hope so," she said again, softly this time. "I do, Rusty."
"I know." Rusty stared down at his pizza, uncomfortably guilty. "Look, Sharon... about what I said before. In the car."
He fiddled with his uneaten pizza crust. "When I said I didn't know why I... lashed out like that. And you said I did."
"Go on," she prompted when he stalled.
"It's just that—" He couldn't look at her as he said it. "My mother said she loved me too."
"I know," Sharon said gently. She startled him by reaching across the table to take his hand, her fingers settling carefully on his. "You want to know how far you can push."
That was the thing.
Rusty pulled his hand from hers. "That makes me sound sort of horrible."
"It makes you sound like a teenager," Sharon said dryly. "Who are, occasionally, known for being horrible."
They watched each other across the table, Sharon with her hands on the table and Rusty with his arms folded across his chest. Her lip twitched, the corners of her eyes crinkled. Rusty couldn't help himself—he laughed. Hesitantly at first, as if he'd forgotten how, and then great hysterical gasps that made him weak and helpless while Sharon dropped her face into her hands, her shoulders trembling.
"You—" He couldn't catch his breath long enough to say it. "Not even—funny."
The words ran together in his haste to get them out while he could, and that set her off again. She shook her head from side to side, the back of a hand pressed to her mouth. "Oh God," she managed to gasp out, and choked. "I—"
The phone sobered them both. Rusty inhaled swiftly, watching Sharon's hand hover in mid-air. On the second ring, she snatched it up and rose to her feet, heading towards her bedroom. Before she shut the door, Rusty heard her answer, and her voice was as cool and calm as it ever was. "Good evening, Lieutenant."
Rusty rubbed his sweaty palms against his jeans, and then cleared the table while he waited. He'd resented this once, filling the dishwasher to Sharon's specifications. Going to Catholic school. Bedtime at ten-thirty every night.
Those first couple of weeks, he'd comforted himself by remembering that it was only temporary. That Sharon would find his mother for him and they would be a family again, just the two of them. Three of them, maybe—Rusty had told himself he would try harder to be acceptable to Gary. It was what he'd wanted, more than anything.
And now... he dreamed of something a little different.
If Sharon came back and told him that they'd found the creep behind the letters, everything would be less complicated. He would be less complicated. He could take the car out again, maybe go to the movies or something. Normal people stuff.
If he were more normal, maybe he and his mother could give each other another chance. He was different now. They'd have to take it slowly at first, because he liked the home he had here with Sharon, and maybe his mother had let him down but Rusty knew he'd been a lot of trouble to her. They could see each other on weekends, maybe, while they learned to forgive each other.
But none of it could happen without Sharon coming back with a smile on her face and a promise that they knew who was after him. So he waited with bated breath, with all his dreams hinging on a single fingerprint.
Lieutenant Tao hadn't found anything.
Rusty knew the moment he saw Sharon's face, tired and drawn, the edges of her mouth turned downwards. She shifted her phone from hand to hand, hesitating.
He tried to make it easy. "Don't."
"It's only been a few hours," she said softly, sinking into the couch. "Have some faith in us."
"I do," he admitted, coming around to sit in the armchair. But the faith he had was that he trusted their affection of him, not that they could perform a miracle when they had nothing to work with. "But whoever's sending these letters is smart enough not to get caught."
Sharon smiled grimly. "So was Phillip Stroh."
"Okay," he conceded. "But you only caught him because of me."
"God, you know the worst thing about all this bullshit?"
There was a tightening of her lips that told him she had to physically stop herself from reprimanding him, but all she said was, "I'm sure you're about to tell me."
"That even though I don't want to testify I can't wish this had never happened," he said, "because then that creep would still be out there killing people and I would be—you know."
The lines of her face softened. "Oh honey."
"You're talking about my life here, Sharon," he said. "My whole life, and I'm going to lose it, and I—I can't—"
He was pacing, he realized suddenly, wearing a path into the floor. Sharon watched him from the couch, worrying the edge of the cushion with her fingers. It was funny—one would think, that after he'd been through, everything he'd lived through, that he would've known better to take this life Sharon had given him for granted. But after Daniel Dunn (the asshole) had signed away his parental rights and Sharon had become his permanent guardian, he'd settled comfortable into this life like he'd always lived it. Like he'd always had this stability.
Did Emma Rios realize she wasn't providing him with a guarantee for his safety? Sharon had never raised her hand against him in anger. Could he count on that next week, or would he find himself running back to Sunset Boulevard to feed himself? He couldn't go back there, not again.
If they took him away from Sharon, his life would be as good as over.
Sharon knocked at his door five minutes to ten that night. She'd changed into pajamas and a robe, but she hadn't yet removed her makeup or brushed her hair for the night. "May I come in?"
He shifted from foot to foot, hesitating. What more was left to say? "Yeah, I guess."
She perched herself on the edge of his bed, hugging her arms to her chest. "I want to make you a deal."
Rusty watched her warily as he sat beside her. "What kind of deal?"
"If you are removed from my custody—if, Rusty," she repeated, holding up her hand when he opened his mouth. "Let me finish. If you're removed from my custody, and placed with guardians who are no threat to your physical or mental safety, I want you to stay put. No running away."
"That's not much of a deal," he muttered.
"No," she agreed sadly. "I know that you have... endured far more than you deserve already, and I know that I'm asking you to do something unpleasant, but if you are safe where you are—stay there. Please."
"I'm safe here," he insisted. Sharon watched him impassively, and he sighed. "If I agree, what do I get out of it?"
"In return," she said, "I will call you as often as I'm allowed, and if you need me at any time, for any reason, I will come to you regardless of where you are. If you remain in Los Angeles, provided that your new guardians agree, I'll continue to pay for the portion of your tuition that your scholarship didn't cover so that you can stay at Saint Joseph's with your friends."
Rusty frowned at her. "You never said you were paying for it yourself."
Sharon only shrugged.
"Is it, like, a lot?" he pressed. "Because if you want, someday I'll have a job and I could—"
She stopped him with a shake of her head.
"What I want," she began in an odd voice, and stopped. "No. What I need, is for you to graduate high school. Go to college. Be happy. That's what I want."
"Sharon, I..." Oddly embarrassed, Rusty stared at the floor.
"Do we have a deal?"
"If I'm in danger..."
"You will call me," she said fiercely. "And whether you're here or Dallas or New York, I will come to you."
"But otherwise, I stay where they put me."
Rusty let out a deep breath. "Okay."
"Okay?" Sharon repeated.
"I'll do it," he said. "What you asked."
"Thank you." She smiled faintly. "I still think they'll be convinced you're safest with me, but I wanted to be sure you heard me before I told you."
"Told me?" His heart skipped. "Told me what?"
Her face broke into a real smile. "There was a fingerprint on one of the envelopes."
He hardly dared breathe. "Whose?"
"We'll know that soon," she said. "And they haven't finished yet. We may find more."
That dulled the hope, a little. What if they couldn't match the print? A thousand other doubts swirled around in his gut, but Sharon sounded so sure. "That's great," he said, and hoped for her sake that he didn't sound ungrateful.
"I thought you could use a little good news before bed," she said, and stood. "Don't stay up too late. It's a school night."
"Wait," he said. "Sharon."
The words weren't there. He felt them rise up in his throat and lost them somewhere on his tongue, leaving him with his mouth awkwardly open. She waited with her hand on the doorknob, and Rusty hesitated. "I..."
"Yes?" she prompted, when the silence stretched uncomfortably long.
Rusty gave up. Instead, he went to her and it wasn't like there was no awkwardness there, either, because this wasn't really something they did, but—he hugged her, fierce and loving, and if that little inhalation he felt was an indication of surprise it didn't stop her from hugging him back. For a moment, they clung to each other, until it became too much and he released her.
Sharon's eyes were unusually soft. "Good night," she said, patting his cheek as she turned to go. "Don't stay up too late."
"Yeah," he said, not quite able to look her in the eye. "Um. Okay. Good night."
Sharon closed the door behind her and Rusty locked it. That was habit now. He checked the windows and then turned off the light, exhaustion overcoming him as he crawled into bed. There was still so much unresolved and thinking about tomorrow was still scary, but for now... for now, he was exactly where he needed to be.