I was still angry – very, very angry – but my heart broke for him. And I was so damn tired. I needed things to just be okay, to just go back to normal.
For three entire days, Rusty barely spoke a word to me. If he didn’t know I was there, sometimes I’d hear him muttering under his breath about “Kells” and “a trap,” but as soon as he saw me, bright red patches would appear high on his cheeks, his ears would turn pink, and he’d suddenly remember he needed to do something elsewhere. Usually that meant on the other end of the ship with at least two decks between us. I had tried to give him space, allow time for the journaling or the vids or the therapy with Siobhan to help him untangle his head, but by the end of the third day, I was done. Just done.
When I found him in the gym, pale and shaking, it worried me. I pinged the doctor before approaching him, concerned he had overdone his workout and injured himself. Even if I hadn’t known him as I did, it would have been obvious that the restrictions were chafing. In fact, I was half expecting something like this to happen, assuming at some point he would tire of being responsible and would push too hard out of sheer stubbornness. The whole scene was already scripted in my head: He would be hurting and I would go to him. He would be angry and full of self-recriminations and I would comfort him, reminding him it was just a setback, that he was still doing so much better than before. And then he would pull some stunt like he did back at the Ring, telling me he needed my help with his “physical therapy.”
“Rusty,” I murmured, putting a hand on his bare, sweat-slick shoulder. “It’s okay. Siobhan is on her way to take a look at – “
That was it. He didn’t look at me or acknowledge my presence in any way other than that single word spoken in a horribly flat voice.
“There’s nothing to worry about, sweetheart,” I tried again. “Whatever hurts, we’ll figure it out.”
“No.” The engineer shrugged off my hand and stood, a damp towel dropping from his lap to the bench. It perched on the edge for a moment before sliding to the floor. Rusty’s footsteps were steady as he left the gym, still without looking at me. I stared after him and felt the leading edge of panic clawing at the outskirts of my brain. Not once, in all the time I’d known him, had Rusty behaved in such a way toward me. I was still standing there when the doctor wheeled in minutes later.
Rusty didn’t come to bed that night. In the early hours of the morning, I crept up to the office to look for him. Flipping through camera views until I got to the engineering deck, I was unsurprised to end up finding him in the engine room. He didn’t seem to be working. Instead, he just stood there, head down, arms hanging at his sides. Movement drew my eye and I watched as he alternately clenched his hands into fists and stretched his fingers wide. Eventually, he sat against the engine console, dropping his head back and closing his eyes. Hours passed that way; we breathed together, separated by over a hundred meters of wires, deck plating, and recycled air.
It was difficult not to go to him, but Rusty had made his desire to be alone clear. I’d been working on this very issue at my own appointments with Dr. Walsh. I was a fixer: if someone I cared about had a problem, I wanted to do all I could to resolve the issue as quickly and completely as possible. In our sessions together, Siobhan was attempting to help me recognize when and how to offer assistance and providing me with the tools to handle my own emotions when the problem wasn’t mine to fix. That was the goal, anyway. The reality varied, with me failing to put her lessons into practice more often than not. I counted staying away from Rusty that night as a win. It helped that, as much as he was freaking me out, he was also pissing me off.
When he came to our quarters to change the next morning, I tried to talk to him. I thought I’d cooled down enough, but getting nothing other than grunts in response sent me right back through the roof. I took my coffee to the office before I said something I’d regret. Fuming at my console, I scrolled aimlessly through messages and notifications, not seeing anything in front of me. All of my attention was focused on composing the barbs I was going to fling at Rusty next time he dared show his face.
That face, however – the one I both loved and wanted to punch – managed to stay out of range until late. I felt like we spent the entire day playing a ridiculous game of hide and seek. My agitation wouldn’t let me sit still for long, so I wandered the ship, checking in with people and generally making a nuisance of myself. If someone had asked if I were looking for Rusty, I could have said no with complete honesty, but I kept finding him anyway. The gym, the cargo hold, the production studio – everywhere I turned, there he was, grumbling and running away. Except medical. There, the hour for his appointment with the doctor came and went with no sign of him. I considered confronting him then, but Siobhan convinced me to let him be. She was sure he’d either pull himself out of it or make it a point to come to one of us for help before too long, and that he was less likely to resist help if he was allowed to seek it out himself rather than having it foisted upon him.
She was right. I knew she was right. She knew I knew she was right. And it irritated the hell out of me. I didn’t want to be mature about this. I wanted to shout at Rusty until he lost his temper and yelled back. And then we could clear the air and apologize and have makeup sex and things could go back to normal. I almost looked him up to pick a fight anyway, thinking it would be worth it if it got him talking to me. But I didn’t want to have to own up to it next time I had an appointment with Dr. Walsh. So I stayed away. Again.
Because my moods are perverse, when Rusty finally came back to our room, I rolled over with my face to the wall and ignored him. I didn’t bother to pretend to sleep. Instead, I just held myself rigid and waited for him to say something. And I kept waiting as he stayed silent. Eventually, the mattress dipped slightly under his weight. Tensely coiled, I was afraid if he touched me, I would explode into violence, even as I wanted – no, needed – him to reach out, to bridge the distance between us.
It turned out my fear was pointless: Rusty didn’t touch me. At all. It would have been impressive if it hadn’t made me so furious. Our bunk was not that big and Rusty was not a small human. I heard him rustle around for a couple minutes and then it was just breathing – his deep and even, mine fast and punctuated with hard exhalations. I was pretty sure he was sleeping a few minutes later, but stubbornly refused to roll over and check, not wanting to give him the satisfaction if he was still awake. Sometime in the hour that followed, he mumbled and twitched in a way I was familiar with. Knowing he truly was sleeping finally allowed me to relax enough the fatigue that had been pulling at me all day gained the upper hand.
Rusty was gone when I woke the following morning. Because of course he was. And if I had a good cry before peeling myself out of bed, well, that’s between me and my pillow. My anger and anxiety had taken their toll, leaving me numb. Everything was muffled and I couldn’t force my attention to stay on anything longer than a minute or two. Luckily, I had a good crew that knew their jobs, because I wasn’t worth much to anybody.
Sometime in the afternoon, Alix called me to her quarters. Shoving me down into one of the chairs at her table, she pushed a cup of coffee at me and waited until I’d taken a few sips before speaking. She needn’t have bothered: I knew what she was going to say. But it would have taken more energy than I possessed to head her off, so I just let her words wash over me.
“It pains me to say this, Mac, but I’m beginning to see the wisdom in that ‘company port’ policy Rust held to for so long.” What struck me was her use of his name. She had been calling him my “boy” for tendays, but now she was using his name? A thread of concern wormed its way through the haze in my head. Did she know something I didn’t?
“The way you are right now?” the XO continued, “you can’t do this. You have to keep it together, have your game face on no matter what is happening in your personal life.”
“I know,” I mumbled into my mug, not looking at her.
“When the crew sees this kind of behavior from you, it affects them. It’s bad for morale, which isn’t ideal when we’re millions of klicks from anywhere.”
“I know,” I repeated.
“Bailey made a cake this morning.”
“Oh fuck,” I breathed. Then I laid my head on my arms and cried. To her credit, Alix was patient with me. A hell of a lot more patient than I deserved, that’s for sure. She rubbed my back and brought me tissues. When I was finally able to pull myself together, she went to get food while I washed my face. I’d managed to erase the worst evidence of my breakdown and was staring forlornly at my empty coffee cup by the time she returned. Because she was the most amazing best friend ever, she brought another full mug with the sandwiches.
“So,” she said through a mouthful of bread and cheese, “tell me what’s going on then.”
“I wish I could. I don’t know. And I think that’s what has me so messed up.” Yet more tears threatened, but I refused to give in. Twice in one day was more than enough.
“Obviously, Rusty is failing to follow instructions.” Alix snorted a laugh at my look of confusion. “I guess he didn’t tell you then. A tenday or so ago, I ordered your boy to figure his shit out.”
“No wonder everything is all messed up,” I jokingly complained.
“Hey,” she protested and I laughed. It felt good and made me realize I hadn’t been doing nearly enough of that lately. “Seriously, though,” Alix continued, “what’s wrong?” I gave her a quick rundown of the previous couple of days, followed by a much longer rant about what a jerk Rusty was. This led to a competition to see who could come up with the most embarrassing stories about the other’s relationships; it wasn’t until my stomach grumbled that I realized how late it had gotten.
We were lying on our backs in her bed, her head on my stomach and her legs stretched up the wall. My left hand was absently toying with her hair. We’d done this so often throughout the cycles of our friendship, it was easy to fall back into the same positions, the same rhythm of conversation. My belly growled again and Alix scowled at it as she turned and sat up.
“Fuck me,” I muttered, looking at the time. “We’ve been bullshitting for hours.”
“You sound like him, you know,” she observed with a small smile.
“Fuck me,” Alix responded in a terrible imitation of Rusty. Or perhaps it was meant to be a slightly less terrible impression of me.
“Fuck me,” I repeated unintentionally. That set both of us off.
“Oh hell, Leelee, I’ve missed this,” I said breathlessly when the laughter had subsided, leaving me holding aching sides.
“Me too.” Alix’s words were muffled as she rubbed her cheeks.
“You’re right – “
“I know,” she interrupted.
“Shut up.” I aimed a mock punch at her shoulder that she easily dodged. “I mean it, though – I need to stop getting so wrapped up in Rusty that I neglect you. And the crew and the Marzi, of course.”
“But mostly me.”
“Yes,” I said with a smile. “Mostly you.”
“Come on. Let’s go eat.” Alix rolled off the bunk and held out a hand to me. I shied away.
“I don’t know, Leelee. I’m not really up to – “
“What did we just talk about?” Exasperated, Alix grabbed my arm and tugged me toward the edge of the bed. I didn’t fight her, but I wasn’t about to help her. As my body rolled with the force of her tug, she swatted my ass. Hard.
“Ouch! What the fuck?”
“If you’re going to act like a child, I’ll treat you like one.”
“Like anybody has spanked their kids in decacycles,” I grumbled, rubbing my ass as I gave in to the inevitable and levered myself off the mattress.
“The point still stands,” the XO said breezily, leading me into the corridor.
Rusty didn’t show at dinner that night either. I did my best to engage with those who were there and ignore his absence. I was more successful at the former, mainly due to Alix’s continued efforts. She hung around and subtly blocked my every attempt to escape back to my quarters until the last straggler from the crew had departed.
“Okay, now you can go mope in your room, Mac.” She stepped back and spread her arms, making a show of no longer stopping me. Scowling, I shot an obscene gesture at her and, like the ungrateful shit I am, turned my back on the XO as I shuffled out of the galley. My shoulders hunched when I heard her laughing softly behind me while she headed in the opposite direction. It was a safe assumption she was on her way to medical to chat with Dr. Walsh. I was sure the stability of their relationship was part of what gave Alix the confidence to lecture me about my conduct where Rusty was concerned. After all, I’d been there for some of Alix’s past behavior that I would bet she wasn’t proud of.
Catching the direction of my thoughts, I chided myself for trying to turn my own dissatisfaction back on my best friend. It wasn’t her fault I’d decided to take up with the engineer. Hell, she’d done just about everything short of outright forbidding it. And she wasn’t to blame for Rusty’s current behavior. It was easier to grumble about Alix, though, than to face the reality that my love life seemed to be falling apart. And then I could almost hear Siobhan’s voice in my mind, counseling patience. Groaning, I pinched the bridge of my nose between thumb and forefinger as the door to my quarters hissed open.
I was distracted due to Alix’s machinations and my irritation with both Rusty and myself. That’s my excuse for why I was halfway to the wardrobe before I realized I was not alone in the room. Catching a glimpse of the man seated on the edge of the bunk out of the corner of my eye, I froze. A muscle in my jaw jumped as I gritted my teeth against the flood of questions and recriminations that threatened. I didn’t turn to look at him, afraid of what I might say if I saw him head on.
Time stretched as we continued our odd standoff. I could hear him breathing, hear the wet, choked sounds he was clearly trying to stifle. I’d like to say I was sympathetic, that his clear distress tugged at my heartstrings, but all I felt was a sort of cold rage. Looking back, I can see that it wasn’t just him, that my own embarrassment about my choices fed into it. At the time, however, all I knew was that he had hurt me and I wanted to hurt him back.
“So you’re here.” I snapped my teeth shut on the last word, trapping everything else that wanted to make its way out.
“Please,” Rusty whispered. His voice was wrecked. Then tendons in my neck creaked when I turned my head to stare at him. There was no way this was the man who had dismissed me so coldly a couple nights before. I knew it was impossible, but he seemed to have shrunk. He had not been eating with me, but I assumed he’d been eating something. Now I wasn’t so sure. His skin, always pale, had taken on an unhealthy pallor and appeared to be pulled tightly against the bones underneath. Dark circles ringed his eyes and his brow was furrowed as if he was in pain. He did not speak again, just looked at me through eyes dulled by fatigue.
“Are you going to tell me what the hell has been going on with you?” Rusty shook his head helplessly and I whipped back around to continue my journey to the wardrobe. Two steps later, I was stuck. My plan had been to undress for bed, but no part of me wanted to take my clothes off with him watching.
“I can’t, Matt.” He swallowed hard. “Not yet.” That hoarse voice tore at my resolve. He sounded like it physically hurt him to speak, as if he had screamed his throat raw. I turned to face him once more, arms crossed over my chest. Rusty wasn’t looking at me. His hands hung limply between his thighs and his face was turned down toward them. He needed his hair cut. It was an odd detail to note at the time, but the way it flopped forward over his face made me realize how long it had gotten. It looked like he had not showered since I found him in the gym. From the thickness of the dark stubble on his cheeks, he had also been neglecting to shave.
That flipped a switch inside me. Suddenly I grasped what should have been obvious from the start: Rusty had not been hurting me intentionally. Whatever was going on with him, it had really fucked him over. His mind must have been so full of his own suffering that he was unable to even consider what he was doing to me. I was still angry – very, very angry – but my heart broke for him. And I was so damn tired. I needed things to just be okay, to just go back to normal. At that moment, I didn’t care about the why of it all. I just wanted it to stop.
Rusty had apparently taken my silence as irritation with his refusal. “I want to,” he rasped. “I do. And I will. Tell you, I mean. I’m just – I’m not ready.” He cleared his throat and winced. “Please, can I just – can I just be here? With you? Tonight? Because I really fucking miss you.” And then Carter Rust, former mercenary and the most badass engine jockey in the system, put his face in his hands and cried.