I know this is my third update in a week. Two words: Serious. Withdrawal. Two weeks into the hiatus and I'm already missing Monday nights excitement way too much. I'm expecting it will fade eventually, but until then, I'm falling back on unhealthily speedy updates - or as I like to call it, therapy :P.

Thanks to everyone reading and reviewing this story! Only a couple of chapters left...!

No Such Thing as a Perfect Family (25)

" – free to use my pass to get into the business lounge, it's a lot nicer than the regular waiting areas and I've got about five billion air miles…Honey, wait, don't put the Brussels sprouts away." Stephanie patted her daughter's hand as Julie had been about to start clearing the table after their improvised lunch. "Let me grab a few more."

"Thanks, Aunt Steffi." Ricky was idly chewing on the last of the leftover steak, and Rusty felt very generous indeed for not even being too mad that he hadn't gotten to eat any more of that. He was happy enough with the chicken and leftover veggies from last night's dinner (the tupperware with Katie's peas had, mysteriously, disappeared).

And he was more than happy with the relaxed, informal atmosphere of the lunch. It was fair to say, after the church service that morning and the brief trip to the cemetery, that he'd reached the limits of his social and emotional abilities. It was only thanks to the fact that there were so few people in the kitchen and it was so quiet, that he was able to eat anything at all.

It had also been useful to have a break, after they'd all arrived home from church. Sharon and Stephanie had taken their mother upstairs to get some rest, Paul and his family had gone back to their place, and Sharon's 'Uncle Peter', who also lived at the house, had retreated to his own room for a nap. It had been a quiet hour or so, and then Sharon had knocked on the bedroom door and asked Ricky and Rusty if they wanted some lunch. They'd gone downstairs to the kitchen, where Julie and Lt. Flynn had been warming up the leftovers.

"What time's your flight again? Ten?" Stephanie had to try a few times before managing to spear a Brussels sprout with a fork, and Rusty privately wondered why she thought it was even worth the effort. There was bacon right there next to her, and that was way easier to pick up, too.

"Nope, that's mine," Katie swallowed her bite of baked potato and cleared her throat. "His is at eleven-twenty."

Her aunt grimaced sympathetically. "That's a long wait, kid."

"It's not that long," Sharon's children said at the same time, prompting Sharon to smile and shake her head at them. Having shared a room with Ricky, Rusty knew that the young man and his sister had changed their flights as soon as Sharon had booked her return trip, so that they could all go to the airport together.

They hadn't told Sharon that they'd done that intentionally, of course, but Rusty thought that maybe she knew, anyway.

"I don't mind the wait," added Ricky. "It'll give me time to catch up on some work. And, I'll use your air miles," he promised his aunt. "Never tried the business lounge before. Though I'm always tempted to sneak in," he said as an afterthought. "Wonder if anyone would notice."

Lt. Flynn snickered in obvious approval (so unfair; if Rusty had suggested it…), and Katie laughed out loud:

"Be sure to let us know how that goes, James Bond. My money says it'll end up like that one time you tried to sneak into the girls' bathroom in eighth grade."

"It won't," countered Ricky, "because now I know that the trick is to look like you belong there. Piece of cake."

His sister smirked. "It's a good thing Aunt Steffi has all those air miles, because if you tried to get into the lounge using only your poker-face, you'd probably end up in an airport holding cell."

Rusty tensed at that, because suddenly the conversation was drifting into murky waters and Ricky was about to reply and please, please don't make it worse –

"Hey, I'm getting pretty good at this whole outsmarting airport restrictions thing," Ricky grinned, with a sideways nod to Rusty. "I bet I could pull it off."

Oh god.

A sudden silence followed Ricky's words.

Rusty froze, his gaze darting to Sharon.

Next to her brother, Katie winced.

Andy sighed; kids always did that, somehow, shooting themselves in the leg. They'd been so close to getting away with the whole thing, too – he doubted that Sharon had forgotten, but she hadn't seemed willing to bring it up. Now, however…

It only took Ricky a second to understand everyone's reactions, and then he winced, himself. Julie looked a little confused by the sudden ominous silence.

Sharon's expression had turned deadly serious.

"Don't even joke about that," she said quietly.

She seemed to consider things for a moment, then set down her coffee cup and pushed her chair back to stand. "Ricky." Her gaze was soft. "I need to talk to you. If you don't mind joining me in Grandpa's st –" (she trailed off for a moment, but recovered almost instantly) " –study. Please."

Her son looked none too thrilled at the request, but he pushed back his own chair, trying very hard to look as though he was doing it of his own volition and not because his mother was telling him to. Yet at the same time it was clear from his expression that he was trying very hard not to antagonize her. Meeting her eye, he gave a little shrug and headed toward the kitchen door.

When Sharon moved to follow, she was momentarily paused by Katie hopping off the bar stool. She gave her daughter a silent, neutral look, waiting to see what the young woman had to say.

"Ricky didn't come up with any of it on his own, Mom. It was me." Katie didn't look apologetic as her brother had, but her tone was determined.

As her mother nodded and held a hand out toward the door, Katie preceded her out, heading in the same direction that Ricky had. Sharon once more began to walk after them, when from the corner of her eye she noticed Rusty stepping away from the counter, ready to follow as well.

She half-turned and held up a hand. "No."

"But Sharon – I was –"

"No." She shook her head and gave him a firm look. "I know you want to take responsibility for your actions, Rusty. We can talk about it between us. But I have something different to say to you and my adult children, and I'd rather do it separately."

For a moment he looked like he wanted to protest, but he didn't; his shoulders slumped dejectedly. "Okay."

She kept the solemn look in place for another second, then nodded briefly and turned on her heels, following Katie and Ricky toward the study.

Once the three of them had left, Julie, still a little confused by the whole thing, looked questioningly to her mother. Stephanie shrugged – she had an inkling of what was going on, but she didn't know the details of what exactly her niece and nephew had done.

And she wisely refrained from commenting on how her sister had no qualms about imparting some discipline on two grown adults basically. Sharon was… Sharon.

She did give Rusty a good-naturedly wry look. "You know Rusty, for a kid who's just escaped a lecture, you're looking pretty glum. I'd be over the moon."

The boy sighed. He would've gladly taken the lecture; instead, Sharon had left him out, and that was a hundred times worse. Whatever she had to say to him that was different from what she was saying to her children, he was pretty sure that he didn't want to hear it.

They'd been waiting for her, standing straight-shouldered and grim-faced, and she hadn't even known where to start.

Leaning against her father's desk, Sharon watched her two children, who watched her back with matching, earnest expressions. This wouldn't be their first lecture, not by a long shot, but it had been years, and this felt different because on the one hand, here were two adults looking back at her, two beautiful adults, her beautiful adults – yet on the other hand they were the same kids from a few years ago, who'd tried to have a summer party at the house while she'd been at a weekend training seminar in San Diego.

It wasn't that she didn't remember how to do the lecture thing, it was that she didn't want to.

Usually she'd have done it while she was still angry, but there was just no room for anger in her now. More than that, they were the reasons that she'd managed to get through the weekend at all, and she didn't know how to reconcile that with the fact that she needed to say something that would make her feel like the worst mother.

"I know that what you did came from a good place."

The soft words came out almost without her conscious input. She had to start somewhere.

"I know… I know how things were, and how they must have looked to you, and how worried you must have been, and I'm so sorry… " She sighed and looked away for a second, before meeting their eyes again. "I… apologize, for letting things get to the point where you felt it necessary to… take the actions that you did. I realize that you wouldn't have gone to such extremes without good cause, and I'm sorry that my circumstances and my behavior gave you the cause to make such rash, dangerous decisions."

Sharon paused, but raised a hand to stop Katie when her daughter opened her mouth to say something. She wasn't done yet. After a second she dipped her chin and resumed:

"I understand why you did what you did," she acknowledged. "I know it was out of love for me… and you know I love you, with all my heart…" Her voice wavered, but she pushed through it. Things needed to be said. "So I do understand… but now I need you to understand why you can never do something like this again."

They were watching her in silence, waiting for her to finish, and she again felt at a complete loss as to how to proceed. A calming breath helped only marginally.

"Rusty… Rusty's situation…" Another false start, but she recovered. "The danger to Rusty is far greater than what either of you know," she said, and she could hear herself slip into her Captain's voice. "He is under twenty-four seven police protection, and that is for a very. serious. reason, of which you were unaware, and which you did not ask about. Your actions not only put him in danger, but you too, Ricky, and if anything had happened to either of you…" She shook her head, her skin rising in goosebumps at the mere thought. "I would have never been able to forgive myself. No –" She signaled with a finger to stop Ricky from interrupting, " –let me finish, please. You want me to treat you like adults," she reminded them, "and so I'm talking to you like adults, and telling you that you cannot make this kind of spur-of-the-moment decisions without knowing all the facts. Especially when the facts that you're ignorant of could end up costing other people their lives."

She had their attention, she knew, but even so she was losing momentum, because how to explain it all without worrying them, without telling them the whole story? She'd avoided thinking about it for days, but now it was out in the open… and the hundred scenarios of how their half-baked 'plan' could've gone terribly wrong whirled through her mind again.

An entire police department tasked with protecting Rusty, and her own children had taken him away right from under her nose, the situation totally out of her control, and them having no idea, none, of what could have happened…

"I know you weren't thinking about hard facts," she found herself speaking once more, "and I'm not saying don't act on your feelings when you feel it's necessary … but if you do make decisions using your heart and not your head," her voice wavered again, "even if it's out of love it cannot be at the expense of innocent others. And if you know that other people will end up tangled in your decisions anyway, then you have to think. things. through." She could hear the desperate edge in her voice. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Two silent nods were their response, and Sharon swallowed hard, suddenly assaulted by guilt. Here she was yelling at them, and they'd been nothing but good, and so supportive, she couldn't be more grateful, but if she said nothing to them and they did the same thing again…?

"You know I love you. I'm not – I'm not mad, how could I be, when you are the most wonderful children that any mother could wish for… " She inhaled a shaky breath. "I just have to know that you understand that there are consequences to your actions, and when you make a decision off-the-cuff and without knowing all the facts, it can end in tragedy," her voice grew thicker, "no matter how good your intentions. And that is something you'd have to live with for the rest of your lives and I will not let that happen to either of you, I won't."

"We get it, Mom." Katie's voice was soft, and she was giving her an understanding look, and Sharon smiled through the tears that were starting to pool in her eyes... but then another memory came to her and her eyes widened:

"And breaking the law – Ricky…!" It came out as a gasp, and she shook her head. "How could you even consider letting Rusty fly under your name? Do you have any idea how much trouble you could've both gotten into?" Okay, she'd thought that there was no room for anger in her, but the recollection of that particular detail was kind of creating some space. "You could've both been arrested, at the very least… I did not think I would ever stand here," she said disbelievingly, "lecturing you on the importance of not committing crimes – because misidentifying oneself in front of the authorities is a crime, and so is enabling someone else to do so, especially a minor!" She was starting to panic now – if they were willing to go to these extremes once, what did that mean and would they –

"I'm sorry!" Ricky held up both hands. "Mom, I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry – I promise I'm not turning into a career criminal or anything. It was – stupid. What I did was stupid. I wasn't thinking –"

"You were not thinking," she confirmed in a growl, "this could've had serious consequences, it could've changed your whole life, your future, Ricky –" another gasp, " I see people every day who start out one morning as normal, happy individuals with a bright and promising future, and all it takes is one reckless little act to make it all spiral out of control. One decision, that maybe didn't even seem so bad at the time, can make an irrevocable impact and nothing, nothing that's happening to me, ever, is worth risking your future, do you understand me? No –" She held up a warning finger, genuinely upset this time, especially as they both looked ready to protest, "I don't want to hear anything but an affirmative, because in this instance I am right and you are wrong and that's just the end of it. I know you love me, with your words and your actions and I know how much but I will not have you endangering your lives, or Rusty's life, or your futures, like this, ever again, is. that. clear?"

Katie returned a scowl, that suggested not so much anger as some mixture of concern, disagreement and deliberation.

Ricky rubbed both hands to his face. "Okay, Mom. Okay. Just… " He stopped himself just before saying 'calm down', because he knew from past experience just how well that went over. "… I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make you mad." And as he spoke the appeasing words, he actually began to mean them, and he met her eyes. "Or worried. I'm sorry. I didn't realize… I wasn't thinking about all of it. We were just trying to do the best thing for you."

The tension drained out of her posture somewhat, and Sharon sighed. "Honey… the best thing for me, no matter the circumstances, will always be to know that you're safe and doing well. Nothing is worth risking that, because there's nothing more important to me than that."

Katie's eyebrows arched. "You… do realize that we're allowed to think the same thing, right?"

"No. Well – when you have your own children, yes," Sharon amended. "Right now – all you're allowed to do is be considerate of your own lives and futures, and those of other people who might be impacted by your decisions." She was not thrilled with their dubious expressions. "Is that clear?" In the ensuing silence, her eyes narrowed. "I'd like a verbal response, please."

Katie and Ricky exchanged a look, and then her daughter pursed her lips.

"Don't worry, Mom. We'll be good," she conceded, still sounding somewhat displeased. After a moment, she sighed and gave Sharon an honest look. "I hate to break it to you though, but the whole worrying thing still goes both ways."

And Sharon let her shoulders fall in a slow breath, and offered: "I'll be good, too."

And Katie couldn't help her lips curling into an amused smirk at the response. Next to her, Ricky gave a full grin, because he knew a white flag when he saw one, and he could tell that his sister was still a little disgruntled over some of the things that their mom had said, but he himself was just happy to see Mom's indignation winding down. He really, really, really did not like her mad at him.

"You know Grandpa would be offering us all coffee or juice right about now," said Katie, and Sharon couldn't help a small chuckle.

Her father had been the most peaceable, conflict-averse person, but between a wife, two daughters close in age, parents and in-laws constantly visiting and later half a dozen grandchildren, arguments and lectures hadn't been unheard of under his roof. He'd usually present himself whenever he heard yelling or scolding, and innocently suggest a drink to anyone involved, and would they like some fresh fruit, too? He'd just bought some that morning.

Sharon had been mostly non-combative herself, growing up, but she'd ended up accepting an awful lot of coffee during her children's teenage years.

And once or twice, something a little stronger.

Right now, though, she didn't feel like a horrible mother enough to warrant alcohol, and she didn't think her body could take any more caffeine, so she just smiled and tried to get her heartbeat back under control; talking to her children about what had happened had left her a little shakier than she'd anticipated. Just thinking about what could have happened, and about them doing these reckless things – because of her, and …

But no, no, she wasn't allowed to rehash the whole thing after it was over. That had always been the deal. She didn't get to become angry over the same thing all over again… part of the 'no double jeopardy rule', as Rusty would've put it.

The thought of the boy made her sigh again. There was so much to think about there, too, and she felt very, very tired.

"Mom…" Katie walked up to her, leaning one leg against the desk as her arms went around Sharon's waist. She leaned her forehead against her mother's shoulder. "Please be okay…" She looked up without letting go. "I love you. Please don't worry so much."

Sharon lowered her head just enough to kiss the top of Katie's nose. "I love you," she smiled. Her eyes went to her son. "Both of you."

Ricky stuck his hands in his pockets and joked: "Even when we're being idiots." And Katie glared at him because did he have to go and remind her?

"You're never idiots," Sharon said seriously. "You're both wonderful people, and I couldn't be more proud of you. I'm sorry…" she had to clear her throat, because her voice was breaking again, "I'm sorry for being… harsh, earlier , I'm –"

"Mom." Katie squeezed her waist to make her stop. "You're not really supposed to say 'sorry' after a lecture. Do we have to teach you everything?" she sighed. "Honestly."

The words did their job, eliciting a quiet huff of amusement from Sharon.

"I guess you must be out of practice," her daughter added in a resigned tone. "You used to be pretty good at this, you know."

"A testament to how well-behaved my children were," Sharon murmured thoughtfully. "That I got so good at lectures."

They both grinned. "We were the most well-behaved," confirmed Katie, arms still tight around her mother.

"One of us at least," Ricky put in. His sister pulled a face at him. "Hey, I'm just saying, I didn't come home with a note from Sister Christine every other week."

"That is so not a fair argument," she complained, "the Barracuda hated my guts! For no reason!"

Sharon sighed, then tried to hold back a chuckle. She hadn't heard that term in a while. "I'm sure that you calling her 'The Barracuda' had nothing to do with Sister Christine's general disapproval."

The young woman smirked. "Well I never called her that to her face, mother, I'm not an amateur!" She loosened the hug somewhat, enough to tilt her head up curiously. "Is she still teaching?"

"She is."

"Poor kids. Poor Rusty," she added as an afterthought, remembering that he went to their school, too. "I hope she likes him better."

Sharon hummed. "Well, Rusty doesn't call her names, to her face or otherwise," she smiled, "so I think it's safe to say that their relationship is in better standing, yes."

But bringing the conversation to Rusty had reminded her again of how much there was still to worry about when it came to him, and it occurred to her that he was probably still waiting in some corner of the house, dreading a lecture of his own, and… oh, what to even tell him, when she didn't know herself what the consequences of his flight from L.A. would be?

"Mom…" There was a more serious note in Katie's voice this time, and Sharon looked down to meet her daughter's eyes. "When you said that Rusty's in a lot of danger…does that mean you, too…? Are –"

"No," Sharon said firmly. "The threat to Rusty has nothing to do with me. Don't worry."

"But… Mom, he's living with you. Are you –"

"Honey," Sharon swept an errant strand of hair off Katie's forehead. "Rusty is living with me precisely because that's a safe place to be. I'm not in any danger, and I don't want you to worry. Okay?"

Katie just tightened her arms around Sharon's body again. "Mom…"

"I mean it." She stroked her daughter's hair, and smiled. "I'm perfectly safe. I promise."

Neither of them looked entirely convinced, but they knew that their mother didn't dole out promises easily, so they reluctantly accepted her reassurance.

"Will Rusty be okay…?" Katie asked after a few seconds, and Sharon's lips pressed together in a determined expression.

"Yes," she replied. "He's going to stay safe. And so am I," she pre-empted when Ricky opened his mouth, and he closed it without comment, although still looking worried.

"Is he gonna get in trouble? For leaving like he did? Because of the whole… underage witness thing?" Katie sounded uncertain, and Sharon didn't think she had a proper answer to give.

It was incredibly likely that Rusty would be in trouble, though not the kind of trouble Katie was thinking of. It was also possible that Sharon, herself, would be in pretty hot water when they got back, and the last thing she wanted was to end the week of her father's death only to jump straight into another series of shouting matches with Emma Rios, but that was probably exactly what would happen and…

"I don't know," she admitted. "I hope not. We'll see."

The very thought of the antagonistic DDA elicited an involuntary scowl. Ricky misinterpreted her expression.

"Mom…" He sighed. "The kid – Rusty, he… didn't really want to go. I mean… he said it was a bad idea, from the start. So just… you know. Don't …" He paused, not knowing exactly what to say: obviously his mom wasn't going to do anything awful to Rusty, but Ricky still felt compelled to set the record straight. "He didn't want to do it," he reiterated.

His mother was silent for a second, then shook her head. "It doesn't matter, now. Either way, what happened, happened, so the only thing left to do is deal with the consequences."

That didn't entirely reassure him that she wasn't blaming the kid too much. "But he really did object a lot. A lot. He pretty much made all your points, actually, about the law and getting in trouble and everything –" he winced at his mother's pointed expression, " –right, I'll pay better attention next time… but, seriously, he was…pretty against this whole thing. I was the one who kinda bullied him into it."

And Sharon let out a long sigh. "Ricky… no one bullies Rusty into things, trust me," she said, slowly. "If he went along with your plan, it's because he… thought it was the right thing to do. Otherwise he wouldn't have left with you."

Ricky hooked his thumbs in his jean pockets, and looked a little uncomfortable: "I think… he only went along with it because he wanted to do something to help, too." He cleared his throat. "Anyway… just, for the record. It … wasn't really his fault."

The sad smile she gave him was hard to interpret.

"Thank you for saying that, honey. That's very kind of you."

Hardly, Ricky thought, but she didn't seem inclined to discuss it further.

"Mom…" Katie shifted slightly, "about Rusty…" She met her mother's eyes with an anxious look. "Can we maybe… talk about this, at some point? It doesn't have be now, just… this is kind of… we'd like to know more about him…"

Sharon nodded tiredly. "I know." She let her head fall back, eyes closing for a brief moment. "I'm sorry that you and Rusty had to meet under… these circumstances… and that I wasn't able to… that I haven't…" Her voice wavered again, and Katie cringed:

"Mom, it's okay," she hurried to say. "It doesn't matter. We don't… it's fine. We don't have to talk about this now. Just… can you maybe say that we'll have this conversation…before you… do anything drastic?"

Sharon's eyebrows rose involuntarily. "Oh god. Yes, honey. Of course." Tears filled her eyes, and she pulled Katie closer. "Of course. I'm not planning to do anything drastic, and in any case I'd never do that without talking to you, first. Alright? Okay, sweetheart?" She waited for Katie to confirm then looked to Ricky, who nodded in his turn.

Only then did she allow her shoulders to relax in a slow breath; one arm was still around her daughter, but with the other she reached and reassuringly stroked Ricky's shoulder, and he smiled his easy, unassuming smile and shrugged lightly as if to say, 'no big deal'. It almost made her want to cry again, because it was a big deal but they were being so patient about it, and really she'd handled introducing Rusty to her family in the worst. way. possible., yet here the two of them were, rightfully confused and still trying so hard not to make her feel bad about it…

"I know you want to know more about this situation, and I will answer any questions I can about Rusty," she promised. "And… thank you. For..."

"Okay," Katie murmured, interrupting her. "That's all we needed to hear." She pulled back a little again, and tilted her head. "So… do you want us to send him over from the kitchen? It sounds like you'll want to talk to him, too…"

Sharon nodded, her expression turning grave again. "I do," she confirmed. "If you don't mind asking him to find me in here…"

Her voice came out more tired than she'd meant to, and they both looked concerned at her shift in mood, but they made no further comment; Katie squeezed her waist again and Ricky gave her another reassuring smile and then they both headed for the kitchen, and Sharon leaned more of her weight against the desk and let out another long breath and felt very, very grateful for her children.

It was only a minute later that she looked up at the telltale sounds of sneakers scuffing against the floor, to see Rusty standing warily in the doorway. "So…you wanted to talk?"

With a nod, she quietly waved him to come in, and the boy stepped into the study and closed the door behind him almost reluctantly.

He waited for her to speak, arms crossed and looking so miserable that Sharon's heart went out to him. The seconds stretched on in silence as she pondered what to say, unable to find the right words…

Maybe Rusty was expecting a lecture, scolding, consequences, but that was far from what she meant to say to him. Really, in this whole mess, she was to blame for getting so overwhelmed as to send everyone into a panic, and Ricky and Katie had been wrong to act rashly without getting all the facts, and Paul was an adult who shouldn't have aided their reckless scheme behind her back, but… Rusty had acted in the least selfish way possible, and he was perhaps the least to blame in everything.

Not to say that she didn't disagree with his decision. But there was no need to lecture him on consequences. He'd known the consequences from the start. She knew why he'd left, and she was hardly going to yell at him over it.

And how could she even think of punishing him, when in all likelihood they'd both get punished on their return to L.A., and there was nothing she could do that would be worse than that.

So Sharon could find no words. She wanted to impress upon the boy just how terrible it was to have played with his own safety, and really she could have worked up a lecture on that alone… but knowing the consequences he'd likely face back in L.A. for his actions, she refused to add even a single harsh word to what he had to deal with.

When the silence stretched on for nearly half a minute, Rusty began to fidget. He'd been staring determinedly at the floor, but he glanced up, and seeing her compassionate look only made him squirm. "Sharon – I'm sorry. Well, no… I mean, I'm sorry I ran off. I didn't run, run… but… I know I left, and I know … if I'd told you, then you'd have stopped us, and then…" He swallowed. "I just thought you should be with your family."

She bit her lips and nodded. "I know. Thank you." She continued to watch him with the same warm gaze, and even though she could tell that her silence was making him uncomfortable, she just couldn't decide how to go on.

Again anxiety compelled him to fill the silence for her. "But, like… I know I broke our deal when I left, so… I… understand, if … you're… if you want to…"

He noticed the look she was giving him, then, and suddenly realized that of course she wasn't going to do any of the things that his mind had come up with. With a sigh, he looked down at his feet again.

It was hard to acknowledge, how certain he was of her now, but he hoped she knew that he… knew.

"The only thing I want," Sharon said softly, then paused until he looked up and met her eyes again, "is for you to promise me… that you will never, ever take off on your own and put yourself in danger like that. For any reason."

Rusty nodded. "Yeah. Okay."

It seemed so little, but she seemed happy to take it.

"Okay…" A warm smile fleeted across her lips. "And Rusty… thank you, again. I know this," she gave a vague handwave at their surroundings, "can't have been easy for you, and … I really appreciate how kind you've been."

He swallowed, a little disbelieving since he hadn't done anything really... but there was no time to think about it, because Sharon cleared her throat and stepped away from the desk:

"Well, why don't we join everyone else in the living room?"

And he couldn't believe that this was it.

Days of stomach-churning anxiety over what he'd done and what she'd say, and Sharon was letting him off the hook, just like that. She hadn't even yelled a little. He glanced at her a little unsurely, almost afraid that she was still not alright, but no, she seemed… okay, mostly. And genuinely not mad.

He thought he understood. 'Whatever happens…'

"Sharon…" She paused to look at him, and he stared at the floor and muttered: "You're wrong."

That seemed to throw her somewhat, he could tell from her confused voice: "About what…?"

He met her eyes then. "It was easy."

It took her a second to understand what he was referring to, Rusty could read it on her face when she did, because there was a brief flicker of surprise and then an expression he couldn't quite decipher. Then her lips pressed together in that affectionate smile of hers, and she lowered her head and nodded in acknowledgment, and his stomach did one last of those wavery little flips before settling into something that felt an awful lot like peace.