Could Have Been


It wasn't like he'd never wondered. About Sharon, anyway. Rusty was willing to admit that he'd never spent much thought on Detective Sykes—though now that he'd actually talked to the woman for longer than, like, a second, he'd realized that she was pretty cool, and he wouldn't mind talking to her again. He hadn't expected that.

Which... might have been Buzz's point.

Rusty knew that he could be an asshole and sometimes he was even a giant asshole, but he liked to think that he wasn't really a huge egomaniac. He'd just never... realized that the questions were there to be asked, or that answers would be given if he did. That never would have happened a year and a half ago. A year and a half ago, his reasons for not asking would've been different, too—it wasn't fair to interrogate people about their past without being willing to answer a few questions about his own and he certainly hadn't been then. He was hardly willing now.

Okay, he told himself. Tomorrow, he would talk to Detective Sykes, he would ask Lieutenant Tao how his morning had been, and he would bring Buzz some coffee or something. It was the least he could do after Buzz had hustled him out of the murder room before he'd accidentally gone and made himself a witness again. He'd thought that was illegal. Double jeopardy or something.

He would ask Sharon, usually, but right now he was trying very hard to appear mature and well-informed. If she thought he was too much of a child, she would tear up those papers he had worked so hard to get her to sign.

When Sharon had handed him the consent forms, he asked her how the case had turned out because... well, he'd been following them around for a couple of days. He'd grown curious, and the lady had a sad story to tell. But Sharon only shook her head, and then she practically shoved the papers into his chest before disappearing back into her office. The blinds were drawn a moment later.

She spoke little on the way home and less over dinner.

That was why Rusty didn't like to ask—because Sharon didn't always like to answer, and he didn't want to risk upsetting her by asking too many "none of your business" questions in a row.

But this time, he was still determined to prove to himself that he was, actually, capable of taking interest in other people's feelings, he picked a question that he thought she might actually answer. "Why'd you want to be a lawyer, anyway?" he asked from the kitchen, watching Sharon clear the table.

"Well." She paused with a plate in each hand, bringing them to him from the dining room. "I outgrew wanting to be a ballerina, and my mother didn't want me to be a nun."

That wasn't the answer that he'd expected at all. Rusty was glad that he was bent over opening the dishwasher so that she couldn't see his face, but the incredulity slipped into his voice.

"Really, Sharon?" He straightened to take the dishes from her. "Those were your choices? Really?"

"And what did you want to be, when you were five?" she countered. Hands free, she folded her arms and surveyed him with a raised eyebrow that just dared him to laugh at her.

"A Ninja Turtle," Rusty admitted as he dropped the silverware into the dishwasher basket. Behind him, he heard Sharon giggle, just once. "But, I mean, lawyers are so..."

"There's nothing wrong with being a lawyer." Sharon sat sideways in her seat at the head of the table, watching as he finished up in the kitchen. "It just... wasn't what was in store for me, that's all. Life surprises you sometimes."

"Do you ever, you know, think about what could've happened?" He shut the dishwasher and asked the question carefully, because he was treading into more personal territory now. "If you'd actually been a lawyer."

"Oh," she said, and he watched her tilt her head at him in surprise. "Every once in awhile, I suppose."

"Do you ever wish that—"

"No," she said, cutting him off with a quick shake of her head. "I meant what I said before. I like the law but I don't always like lawyers, and I can't imagine never having had my children. We wouldn't be sitting here, for that matter, if I were a lawyer."

Which was true, now that he thought about it, and it send a faint chill down his spine because where would he be without Sharon?

Dead, probably.

He shivered a little at the idea, because no matter what Sharon thought about him participating in an SIS operation, it wasn't like Rusty had a death wish. He wanted his life back, not over.

Could the police have protected him this much if Sharon weren't his guardian? Would they?

And it wasn't just Phillip Stroh's creepy friend, either. If he'd kept doing what he'd been doing, before, well—there had been other kids on the streets with him, and some of them had walked off into the night and never come back around in the morning.

Or what if he'd been handed over to his father?

Without Sharon...

Rusty swallowed as he came to sit beside her. "Then I'm glad you're not a lawyer, either."

Was that selfish? Thinking about Sharon in terms of himself? He couldn't help it, and he was thinking about it because he was grateful, so maybe it was all right. It had to be, didn't it?

"To tell you the truth," Sharon went on, unexpectedly because that was already more than she usually shared with him, "I'm not sure I would've found the same sort of fulfillment in any other job—and that's something that you should start thinking about too, because the trial of Phillip Stroh will not last forever."

She always said that.

Rusty folded his arms with a huff. "It sure seems like it."

"Rusty," Sharon said, voice gone dangerously soft. "You've promised me and a lot of other people that you can be an adult, and I've signed the papers allowing it. Do you really want to ruin it by acting like a child now?"

"No," he admitted, and uncrossed his arms.

"Good." Sharon's shoulders relaxed, just a little, and she tilted her head back against her seat.

"So... you're really worried, then?"

"Of course I'm worried." She straightened in her seat to glare at him. "Of all the—"

"No, I didn't mean—just—" Hurriedly, he searched for the right words. "You want me to change my mind."

"Nothing would make me happier."

Her frankness made him flinch, because he really, really wanted to do this and while he'd always known that she hated this idea, he guessed he hadn't realized quite how much she hated it.

"But," Sharon went on, after a slight pause. "I... also want you to make your own decisions without any pressure from me."

"I really want to do this, Sharon," he said quietly.

"I know." There was a funny edge to her voice, sharp yet gentle all at once. "Don't think for a minute that I'm not tremendously proud of you, because I am."

"I know."

"Good." Sharon released a deep breath. "Just—promise me that you'll do exactly as you're told. Exactly. No fooling around, no playing hero. Understood?"

He probably would've promised her anything, just to keep her from changing her mind. But this was a little thing, really, and Rusty nodded without hesitating.

"Say it," she insisted.

"I promise."

A fleeting smile graced her face.

"Do you feel better now?"

Sharon considered that for a moment, studying him with her uncomfortably penetrating gaze. Then she patted the arm he had on the table and stood, shaking her head. "Very little."

Rusty supposed guessed that caring about her feelings meant that he would always feel guilty for wounding them. "I'm... sorry?"

"You don't have to be sorry," she said, and sighed. "Just... don't get yourself killed."

He had to promise that he would be careful another half a dozen times before she was satisfied. Sharon said something vague about homework then, which was ridiculous because it was vacation, but apparently the rules were different when you went to school online. But he remembered that it had hardly been five minutes since he'd sworn that he could behave and she was probably testing him again, so he just nodded and went to his room, where he pulled up a chess game instead of his assigned reading list because really.

He never thought he would miss wearing that stupid uniform.

Maybe when this was over, Sharon would let him go back to real school. He could still spend a semester with his friends and graduate on time, and he still wasn't sure what was going to happen next year when he went to college because he couldn't see any way out of testifying in this stupid trial, but afterwards, maybe...

Rusty hadn't forgotten Dr. Joe's question, either.

He used to spend a lot of time wishing that he could change the past. That he could fix all his mistakes, or his mother's, and that they could start over again somewhere safe. And here he was thinking about the future, not even the future that might have been, but one that might actually happen.

Rusty wondered what that meant.

He had the uncomfortable sense that he was moving towards an answer.