Notes: Force Unbroken was kind enough to beta this for me when my eyes had glazed over from re-reading it one time too many. Thank you!
Sleep came slowly these days, when it came at all. He caught it in snatches and woke frequently between nightmares and restless dreams. Most three AM's found him staring miserably at his bedside clock, exhausting his mental catalogue of chess strategies in an effort to lull himself to sleep while time silently mocked him.
So when the light flicked on in the hallway at a quarter to midnight, Rusty was awake to see it.
He thought nothing of it at first. Sharon had gotten up to use the bathroom or something. But he never heard her open the bathroom door, and in the gap between the door and the floorboards, he saw the shadow she cast when she came to stand before his bedroom door.
He lifted his head.
Her shadow swayed from side to side as she paced back and forth. Rusty sat up slowly, careful not to make a sound, and he waited. He kept one eye on the clock and one eye on the door, and in this way, five minutes ticked by in slow silence.
Then doorknob rattled, just a little. He'd taken to sleeping with the door locked. Not that it would help, really, if someone broke in and came after him, because he couldn't exactly jump to safety from an eleventh story window and all they would have to do would be to smash in the door.
That was one of the nightmares, waking to the sound of splintering wood and the cold barrel of a gun pressed to the back of his head. He knew it was a ridiculous fear, because after Sharon had overreacted and ordered him his stupid security detail, she'd also ordered round-the-clock surveillance for the entire building. There was no way anyone was getting in.
But he still felt better for having locked the door, and sometimes, it made the difference between sleep and not.
The doorknob turned once more.
Rusty became alarmingly aware of his heartbeat. Had something happened?
Something had to have happened—there was no reason otherwise for Sharon to be at his door in the middle of the night. Rusty waited for a knock that never came, and then Sharon's shadow retreated down the hall. He stared at the crack of light that seeped in under the door until it vanished.
He slipped out of bed. The moment he stepped out of his room, Sharon's door opened. "Rusty?"
The light from her room was dim—she must've just had one of her lamps on—but it was enough for him to see her troubled expression and the way her arms were wrapped around herself. "Are you all right?" she asked him.
"I was just..." He squinted at her shadowed face, too distracted to think of a lie. "Are you all right? I heard you..."
"I'm fine, honey." She came towards him, speaking quietly, but not so much that he didn't notice that her voice was higher than usual. The same sort of voice she'd used when she was extolling the virtues of boarding school. Her fingers settled on his arm, just above his elbow, and she pressed him gently back towards his room. "I'm sorry I woke you. Go back to bed."
He allowed himself to be guided back down the hall, but he stopped at the doorway. The dark must've made him bolder, because he heard himself say, "Liar."
Her touch disappeared from his arm, and he knew without needing to see that the quiet rustle was Sharon sliding her hands into her bathrobe pockets. He wondered if she knew how predictable she was.
But she wasn't radiating anger or lecturing him or even saying much at all, so he chanced pushing her a little further. "Seriously," he said. "Sharon. What's wrong?"
There was a slight pause.
"I wanted to be sure you were all right," she admitted at last. She sounded almost embarrassed about it.
His mind tripped over itself trying to figure that out. "You... didn't think I was going to run away again, did you?"
"Because I—I wouldn't do that," he went on, conveniently forgetting all the times he'd done exactly that, and anger momentarily displaced worry. "Sharon, how—"
"Rusty." Her voice was gentle but firm, and he quieted. "I just wanted to check on you before I went to bed."
He hadn't expected that.
"Oh." His indignation evaporated, leaving him just... tired. Not of Sharon, never of Sharon, but... this whole letter thing had gotten out of hand. He knew he'd said he was sorry, earlier, for hiding them, but he wasn't entirely sorry, because while the witness protection program was the absolute worst case scenario, this had to be the second worst. "Well... I'm fine."
"I know." Her voice followed him as he retreated back into his room. "May I come in?"
For one long moment he considered telling her no, that they could talk tomorrow. He wavered back and forth, and then he sighed, fumbling around in the dark for the lamp on the nightstand. The sudden light, dim as it was, made him wince. "Sure."
It almost made him smile to see that, sure enough, her hands were hidden in her robe. They stayed there until Sharon sat at his feet and crossed her arms.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly, and he stared at her in surprise, "if you've felt smothered lately."
"If?" He hadn't meant to sound so bitter, and he regretted it even before the corners of her mouth tightened.
"I'm not going to apologize for prioritizing your safety over your happiness," she told him. "But you and Lieutenant Provenza are right. It could be years before Phillip Stroh goes to trial, and I can't keep you locked up in here forever."
"Lieutenant Provenza talked to you?" At her nod, he added, a little worried, "I didn't ask him to do that."
"I know." She patted his ankle. "I made a few calls today, asking around for therapists."
She must've felt him tense; she withdrew her hand, and he drew his legs up to his chest. "Already?"
Sharon frowned at him. "I seem to recall you were eager to help this morning."
Rusty rested his chin on his knees. He had been, but that had been when he'd thought he could get it for free. He should've known that she would make him negotiate for it, but he'd been too relieved at first that she'd agreed to it. Now he worried that she would change her mind as soon as he saw this person, and then what would he have left to bargain with?
"I have a few leads to follow up on," she went on. "So don't be surprised if I find you someone by the end of next week."
"Okay," he muttered. "Great."
"Non-negotiable stipulation," she reminded him without a trace of pity. "Tell me something. How happy, exactly, do you think I am with the concession that I made to you?"
Rusty shrugged. "You got what you wanted."
She shook her head. "What I wanted was to be able to protect you."
"You always protect me," he said.
Her smile was sad. "I'm putting you in danger against my better judgment."
"But I won't be alone. You'll be right there."
He wasn't sure if that stipulation was negotiable or not. He was afraid to bring it up in case it wasn't, because then she would be hurt and have something else to worry about and maybe not let him do it at all, but... if he divided his life into Before and After, Sharon was definitely part of the After. If there was anyone he didn't want to see him Before, it was her.
It made him feel sick, actually, with the shame and the guilt but also the worry that if she saw, really saw, what he had done, that she wouldn't love him anymore.
The worry was the biggest part, really. It ate at him from the inside and made it hard for him to focus on her words.
"Doesn't matter," she said softly. "There's no defense against bad luck, as Lieutenant Provenza once told me, and he was right. I can put you in a bulletproof vest, I can put every officer in the entire LAPD on the street with you, I can take every precaution I can think and then some, and it's no guarantee that it'll turn out all right."
"Are you changing your mind?"
"No," she said, after the briefest of pauses. "We have a deal."
Rusty eyed her suspiciously. "Are you just going to hope that your disapproval changes my mind?"
He tried to say it lightly, just so she wouldn't look so terribly unhappy. But Sharon only seemed to curl more tightly around herself, humor the farthest thing from her mind.
"If anything happened to you—"
It was always her voice that betrayed her. They'd had arguments where he'd snarled and shouted at her and her face hadn't so much as twitched in response—and then when he had run out of words to hurl at her, she would speak and there would be a little hitch in her breath, a waver between syllables, and then she would close her eyes and turn away. Even when he was so angry with her that he couldn't unclench his fists, he had watched how she'd strained the muscles in her throat in her struggle for composure, and he'd been overcome with the uncomfortable sensation of knowing he'd done the wrong thing.
The only time he'd seen her cry openly had been with the letters in her trembling hands.
But this was infinitely worse, somehow, because this time there was nothing to apologize for and nothing he could say to make her feel better save for changing his mind, and that wasn't going to happen.
So he hugged his knees and lowered his eyes, giving her as much privacy as he could while she gathered herself back together.
"All I've ever wanted," she said at last, and it was as if she hadn't been on the verge of tears a moment ago, "is what's best for you. Know that."
"You've always been on my side," he said, hoping again to make her smile just a little bit. She didn't.
"You can stop trying to make me feel better, honey," she said. "I'm never going to like it. But I will allow it."
"Thank you," he said instead, and he hoped that she could hear his sincerity. "Can I ask you for one more thing?"
Sharon gave him a wary nod.
"I want to see my letters."
She hadn't expected that, he could tell; she inhaled swiftly before saying, "That's out of the question."
"How bad can they be?" he pressed. "And they're addressed to me. You can't keep them from me."
She bowed her head.
It was a slight thing, a little dip, but then he remembered how when he'd asked earlier, back at the police station, she had taken a step backwards and how she had been tense before he'd brought up the boarding school. It was so obvious now, he wondered how he hadn't seen it at the time.
An unpleasant feeling welled up in Rusty's stomach. "Sharon, why can't I see the letters?"
"Because..." She drew a line in the carpet with her toe. "They're not addressed to you. They're addressed to me."
All the breath went out of him.
"What?" His voice came out a croak. He'd never realized, before, that he was putting her in danger, and he could only stare at her in horror. "To you?"
She nodded, just once.
"What did they say?"
"Nothing you need to worry about." There was that note in her voice again. She sighed, and said vaguely, "The usual stuff, mostly."
"Can I see them?"
"Absolutely not," she said sharply, and that was when he knew that there was far more in the letters than she would ever tell him. Her voice was softer when she added, "Try not to worry about it, Rusty. This isn't the first time anyone's threatened to—this isn't the first time I've received threats, and I'm sure that it won't be the last. No one has ever come after me before."
"You never had me before, either," he said.
He'd only thought of the danger to himself. It seemed obvious, really—he was the target. He was the one in danger. Why go after Sharon? To draw him out? That didn't make any sense. If anything happened to Sharon—he could hardly process the thought, but he was sure that if anything happened to Sharon, Emma would have him on the first plane out of town.
Rusty glanced off to the side, because he was afraid to see the look on her face when he asked, "Would you be safer if I weren't—"
"No." She said it so strongly that he jumped, and when he dared look at her, her hands were trembling in her lap. She released a deep breath. "If you would feel safer in the witness protection program, I—I wouldn't try to stop you from leaving. But no, I wouldn't feel better if you left."
"Is that why you wouldn't let anyone tell me?"
"I thought it would push you towards boarding school or... option three." Her lips pursed as she said it. "I wanted you to make your decision based on what you wanted."
What he wanted...
What he wanted, right now, more than anything, was for Brenda to have shot Phillip Stroh just one more time. She could've gotten away with it. He wouldn't have told anyone.
But, for whatever reason, she'd let the asshole live and now he was paying the price for it.
Not just him, but Sharon too.
He looked at her, at her trembling hands and the lines in her face, and he thought of the way her voice sounded when she was worried, and... He knew she could protect herself far better than he could protect himself, but he felt a rush of protectiveness towards her nonetheless.
They'd had an argument, the first week he'd come to live with her. Maybe the second. He was sure that he'd calmed down by the third.
Rusty couldn't even remember which particular argument it had been; God knew they'd had enough of them at the beginning and a thousand more since. The only thing he could clearly recall was how it had ended, which was with him screaming at her at the top of his lungs, spitting angry and tears hot in his eyes. If you're this much of a bitch to everyone, it's no wonder no one likes you.
He might have shouted more into the space left by Sharon's abrupt silence. Or maybe you're just incapable of feelings.
He'd expected her to hit him.
Instead, she'd let him finish yelling without flinching, and then without raising her voice she had told him in no uncertain terms that he didn't have to like her, but she would not be subject to such flagrant disrespect under her own roof, and then she had left the room without a backwards glance, the conversation over and him pretty sure that he had lost.
There were some things that he'd said to her, especially at the beginning, that made him queasy when he thought of them, and that was one of them. But, strange as it was (because if anyone dared say that where he could hear it, Rusty was fairly certain that he would hit first, ask questions later, and then maybe hit them again), looking back, he thought bitch was the part that he felt the least guilty about because, okay, maybe he'd chosen the worst possible word for it but the general sentiment was true of her, sometimes.
But he'd told her to her face what people had been saying behind her back for twenty-five years. He hadn't known, then, that sometimes she spoke about the past with her voice a little too high, a little too measured, a practiced edge to her smile.
Rusty liked to think that he wouldn't have said it if he'd known. But he also knew he could be an asshole and that he'd been even worse about it then... and he'd been so angry, and he'd needed to test her, and that it might not have made a difference. Probably, he wouldn't have cared about hurting her feelings.
Still, he looked at her now and wondered how he'd ever thought her cold, because he saw her so clearly now. Sharon tried to wear her emotions quietly and close to her heart, but she felt things very deeply. Deeper, probably, than anyone else he'd ever known.
And he knew that no matter how he tried to hide it, whatever she'd read in that letter had hurt her, or frightened her, or both.
He never wanted to see her look like that again.
It wasn't like he wasn't afraid. Of speaking to the therapist. Of going back out on the streets. Of Sharon changing her mind.
But he was willing to push through the fear because he wanted his life back and if that meant he would take his chances with Phillip Stroh and whatever freak Stroh had sent after him, then so be it, because this was his life and he'd fought too hard for it to surrender it now.
But now, knowing this, fear dulled and was supplanted by grim determination, accompanied by the startling realization that he cared more about Sharon's safety than his own happiness because the former was a necessary condition of the latter.
The only other person he'd ever felt that way about was his mother.
"So," he said, because he didn't want to think about that last part and what it meant about him and about them, "all this time you've been keeping me from doing the one thing that could help us both?"
"I was trying to keep you safe."
"When haven't you kept me safe?" he demanded. "Nothing bad has happened to me since I came here."
"That's not true."
"Besides the letters," he said. "But that's not your fault, and they're not that bad."
"I didn't mean the letters."
"Then what?" Because really, he couldn't remember a single thing that had—
"I let you leave with your father," she said, very quietly. "I thought it was a bad idea and I let you do it, because it was what you wanted. And you were hurt."
Rusty could only stare at her. He'd had no idea she blamed herself for that, not until now. "But... that wasn't your fault."
"No," she agreed softly. "I know that. Just like I know that if anything were to happen to you, anything at all, I would never—I couldn't—"
She pressed her hands to her mouth. He saw another tremor run through her, and her shoulders tensed with the effort it took to hold back the next one. She usually got up and left the room long before it came to this point, retreating to her room where he was sure she hugged a pillow to her chest and cried while he was left to feel guilty about whatever line he'd crossed that particular time, but this time, right now, she stayed.
He felt a great surge of emotion for her. He knew exactly how much he owed her, and how much she'd done for him, and he was glad now that he'd told her that he loved her. Because he knew that it had strengthened him the last three months knowing that she wouldn't send him away, knowing that she would fight for him in every way that she could, and now it looked like she could use some strength of her own. Which scared him a little bit, honestly, because he wasn't used to Sharon needing anything. Wanting, yes, demanding, always, but needing? Not so much.
"Are you, um... okay?" He asked it tentatively, because she was always the one asking that question too. He wasn't sure that it was really his place to ask her, especially if he was the reason that she wasn't.
She nodded quickly, and lowered her hands to her lap.
"You're lying again." He tried to say it gently, but—not gently enough, apparently, because he watched her swallow hard.
"I am as fine as I can be, under the circumstances."
Which, he suspected, was not very.
"That's why I want to do this," he said. "I just want things to be normal again, Sharon."
"I know," she said softly. "I do know that. And I'm very... proud of you, I am. I just wish..."
Her voice trailed off into silence, and he stared at her awhile longer, wishing she wouldn't make him feel so guilty. He didn't even think she was trying to guilt him out of a bad decision so much as she was trying and entirely failing to maintain her composure.
Carefully, he laid a hand on her shoulder. Not sure that he knew what he was doing, not sure that she would accept the comfort, not sure about anything except that he wanted to keep her safe just as much as she did him.
She let him, and lifted a hand to pat his. Then he shifted closer to her, hugging her awkwardly from the side. She let him do that too, curling her fingers around his wrist in a vise grip. She seemed smaller in his arms, somehow.
Then she turned to gather him in her arms, and he had no illusions about her strength, because she held him so tightly that it hurt. Instead of protesting, he wrapped his arms around her and let her hold him as long as she needed to.
Or he tried to. She didn't seem to want to let go ever, and she really was holding him too tight, her nails digging painfully into his shoulders.
He wriggled gently against her hold. "Sharon," he whispered. "You can let go of me now."
She squeezed him once more before releasing him. And then she stood, not quite meeting his eyes, as if she were embarrassed about how much emotion she'd displayed tonight. "I should—" She cleared her throat, and when she spoke again, her voice didn't waver as much as it had the moment before. "You should get some sleep."
"Yeah," he agreed quickly, to cover his own sudden awkwardness. He wished sometimes that he could just hug her without feeling claustrophobic.
Maybe that was one of those things that therapy would fix. He wasn't holding his breath for it, though, and he tried to pretend that he wasn't already thinking about therapy being helpful.
Her fingers slid briefly against his cheek when she passed him. "Good night, honey."
"Good night," he echoed.
She shut the door behind her, and he rose to lock it again. It was a silly thing, he knew, but there'd be no falling asleep without it. Then he crawled back into bed, exhausted but wide awake, to play the never ending game against sleep.
Maybe tonight he would win, but he was afraid that only new nightmares awaited him now. Ones in which he woke not to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun but instead to the sound of shots fired down the hall.
It was going to be a long night.