Whatever he had to say to me was important enough to clean himself up for the discussion, and that made me nervous as hell. Which was ridiculous.
“Rusty?” I croaked when I felt him slide away from me. We’d spent the night curled up together, some part of us always touching. Even so, my dreams had been filled with long hallways and vacant rooms, searching and searching for Rusty, calling his name, always with the sense that he was just through the next doorway or around the next corner. Needless to say, I did not feel at all rested.
Though he had clearly been trying to get up without waking me, it was an impossible task. At some point when he was moving my head from his shoulder or untangling our legs or slipping out from under my arm, he was guaranteed to disturb my sleep, especially as I was half awake anyway. I said his name again. When he didn’t answer me once more, I pushed myself up on an elbow and forced my eyes open. I wish I could say I wasn’t surprised to find him pulling his jumpsuit on, but I had been hoping we’d gotten past this the night before. Rusty took a step toward the door, making plain his intention to leave without saying anything, and I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.
“What are you doing?” I managed, my voice barely more than a whisper. He finally turned to look at me with bloodshot eyes and I wondered if he’d slept at all. “I thought…” I trailed off, not sure what I’d been thinking. Why had I imagined anything would be simple with this man?
“I know.” He didn’t sound any better than he had last night. Stubble rasped against his palms as he scrubbed his hands over his face. He looked like he’d aged cycles in the past few days. “I just – not yet, okay?”
“No.” The word cracked like a whip and he flinched. “I need to know what’s going on with you. You have to talk to me, Rusty.”
“Matt – ” The plea in my name was clear. I flopped onto my back, arm over my eyes. I was so tired.
“Maybe – “
“Tonight,” I repeated in a firmer tone.
“Okay.” Moving my arm, I peered up at him. He met my gaze and nodded.
“Don’t make me hunt you down,” I warned.
“I won’t.” He held my eyes for a moment more and then was gone. I rolled over and buried my face in the pillow to muffle my scream of frustration. Then I allowed myself thirty seconds of pissiness before pushing my sorry butt out of bed and trudging to the shower. It took two full rounds of Jovian Dark before I started to feel human, but even after everything, I ended up having a rather productive day. Turns out having a guy beg to stay with me and then spend half the night crying in my arms goes a long way toward reassuring me I’m not about to be dumped. Losing that worry freed up a lot of my mind for more useful tasks, like answering the tenday’s worth of correspondence that had backed up while I was distracted by my shitstorm of a personal life.
“Who are you and what have you done with the captain?” Alix inquired when she popped her head into the office.
“Ha ha,” I deadpanned. Pod people jokes – they never get old.
“Vahn kicked me out this morning, said your boy was on his way in. I expected to have to drag you up the ladder by your ankles and instead I find you all bright-eyed and industrious.”
“Any eye brightness is artificially induced by caffeination, I can assure you.” I leaned back in my chair and stretched, watching as Alix dropped into her usual seat. I’d been at it for an hour or so and had managed to get through the most urgent messages. I was even making serious headway into the less-urgent-but-still-important queue, so I figured a break was in order. “As for the rest, well – were you or were you not the person busting my balls yesterday?”
“Well, yeah. But I didn’t expect it to work.” Glancing around, I realized my office suffered a distressing lack of items for me to throw at people. I settled for glaring at the XO instead. Naturally, she just laughed at me. “Should I take this to mean progress has been made?”
“I don’t know about progress. I would say movement, yes. Couldn’t tell you which direction, though.”
“Your relationship sounds constipated.” This time I seriously considered hurling my mug at her head. The impulse must have shown on my face because Alix jumped out of her seat and made for the door. “Surprising all that coffee you suck down doesn’t get things moving better,” she shouted over her shoulder, laughing as she disappeared onto the command deck. Alix Li is lucky she’s so amazing and smart and talented or I would not put up with her shenanigans.
The interruption had knocked me off my stride, but I was eventually able to get back into the zone and clear my inbox by mid-afternoon when I finally stopped to eat something. Leelee’s comment about my coffee consumption, while annoying, held an element of truth; things tended to get rather uncomfortable for me if I drank too much of the blessed brew without putting some actual food into my body once in a while. Rusty had borne witness to the unfortunate consequences of my haphazard meal habits more than once and was pretty good at making sure I ate on a fairly regular basis. Yet another reason I missed him.
Even fighting through my post-meal sluggishness, I made appreciable progress on my next project outline throughout the rest of the afternoon and into early evening. Despite my warning as he left, I anticipated that Rusty would force me to track him down if I didn’t want to wait until late that night to talk to him. So I was pleasantly surprised when he climbed the ladder from our quarters a bit before 1930.
“Hey, you,” I said softly, taking him in. He still looked like shit, but something had settled inside him. His body was more relaxed, his movements more natural as he stood in my office, waiting for me to wrap things up. I didn’t hesitate to do so. The me of the past couple of days would have relished making him stick around while I took my time, but that Matthison Carolinas was petty and vindictive and not who I wanted to be. I did not fool myself into thinking he was gone, but at least for the moment, I could be the compassionate Matt who recognized that the man he loved was hurting.
Rusty didn’t speak, though he did give me a nod and a small smile. His hair was still longer than I was used to, but it looked clean now. And he had shaved. I developed a sudden case of the butterflies. Whatever he had to say to me was important enough to clean himself up for the discussion, and that made me nervous as hell. Which was ridiculous. We’d been living together for ten days and had seen one another in some exceedingly unflattering situations. But somehow the man who semi-regularly belched answers to my questions could put me on edge by practicing basic hygiene. Love is stupid.
When I got to the room, my anxiety cranked up a notch. He had dinner laid out on the table, including a glass of bourbon for each of us. Things were even more serious than I’d imagined if he thought we needed whiskey to get through it. I turned around, intending to say something to delay the very conversation I’d been pushing for, but he shook his head.
“Can we sit first? Please?” His voice was still rougher than usual, but he sounded worlds better than he had that morning. I sat.
Until we were facing one another across the table, Rusty had been hiding his own nerves incredibly well. The way he drained his drink and immediately refilled it provided a fairly solid clue that his calm was a front.
“Matt.” He took a deep breath and folded his hands on the table, pushing his untouched plate aside. Meeting my eyes was an obvious struggle, but he managed. “First, I need to apologize. The way I’ve been acting toward you – well, toward everyone, but you in particular – over the past few days is unacceptable, and I’m sorry.”
“Okay.” The word cracked in the middle. My eyes stung and I blinked rapidly to clear my vision. Rusty gave me a crooked smile and I noticed the shine of wetness on his cheeks. My heart leapt into my throat.
“More than that, I need to tell you how sorry I am for what I put you through. Over the last tendays, yeah, but also before that. Hell, clear back to Vegas, if I’m being honest.” Rusty scrubbed his arm across his eyes and cleared his throat. “I – well, you know some of how things were for me growing up. That did something to me, to the way I feel, how I process emotions, and – “
“Rusty,” I interrupted. I couldn’t just sit there while he laid himself bare before me. “It’s okay. Really.” I stood and moved to straddle his lap. Cupping his face in my hands, I looked down into deep brown eyes swimming in tears. “I love you. I do! And I know you care about me. I have zero doubts about that. So it doesn’t matter if you can’t say you love me, now or ever, because – “
“But I do.”
Those three words, spoken with quiet sincerity, neatly cut off whatever I’d been about to say. I sat there, gaping at him, unable to process what had just happened. “What?” I managed to whisper eventually.
“I said I do. Luh-love you, I mean.” What he said knocked me flat, but the way he said it – how he stuttered over the word – was my undoing. Crying and kissing are not the most compatible activities, what with all the leaking and smooshing of faces, but at that moment I wasn’t about to let anything short of explosive decompression stop me. Even then, I would have happily died with my lips pressed to his.
Turns out I was full of shit when I said it didn’t matter if he told me how he felt. Hearing him say the words touched me more deeply than I could have imagined. Still sitting on his lap, our food forgotten on the table, I laughed and cried and begged him to repeat it over and over, which I made difficult because I couldn’t stop kissing him.
We talked late into the night, partly because there was still a lot to say, but mostly because we spent the earlier hours taking care of that whole makeup sex thing. When our bodies forced us to take a break, we sat naked on the bed with our reheated dinner and Rusty tried to explain what he’d been going through over the past few days.
“So Kells tricked you into admitting your feelings?” I asked through a mouthful of potatoes and gravy. I was more hungry than I could remember being in a long time.
“That’s what I thought!” Rusty gestured with his fork, flinging a bit of his own food into the air. “I was so pissed off at her I couldn’t see straight. We’d barely hung up when you showed up in the gym, telling me everything was going to be fine. It was too much coming at me too fast and my insides felt like they were exploding and getting sucked into a black hole at the same time. I just needed to get away, to think, you know?” I nodded, cheeks bulging as I chewed. “Then I really freaked out. I’d just realized something that threw everything I’d always believed about myself into question and I didn’t have anyone to talk to.”
I was trying to listen, to be supportive, but my pain at hearing that was written all over my face. Rusty dropped his fork and took my hands. “No, it wasn’t like that, Matt. I do talk to you. About everything. But I couldn’t say anything about this to you until I’d worked it out myself. I know you claimed it didn’t matter, but I could tell it was hurting you that I never said it back. The last thing I wanted was to make that worse by dumping a bunch of disorganized, mangled emotional bullshit on you.”
“But Rusty – “
“I know.” He squeezed my hands before releasing them and taking another bite of his meal. He chewed and swallowed before continuing. “I know you would have been willing to deal with all of that. But I didn’t want you to have to.” Sighing, he looked down, tapping his fork on his plate. “Though I guess I fucked up anyway. I’m so sorry, Matt. I really wasn’t trying to make you suffer.”
I shushed him. “You already apologized, sweetheart. It’s over and done. Don’t worry about it.” He tried to protest, so I moved to more effective means of getting him to stop talking.
“It took me longer than it should have to figure out I wasn’t getting nowhere on my own,” he admitted later. “I was ignoring Kells, I was avoiding you, and I was snarling at anyone who came in range. Honestly, I’m surprised Li didn’t kick my ass.”
“She was too busy kicking mine,” I told him. Rusty snorted a laugh and listened attentively as I recounted the XO calling me out. My impression of her saying I could go mope tickled him, but I could see by his expression that he wanted to apologize yet again when he realized which night I was talking about. He managed to resist the urge. I tackled him in a hug, knocking him flat onto the bed, bouncing a bit as he laughed.
“No. More. Apologies.” I punctuated each word with a peck on his lips.
“Okay, okay,” Rusty agreed, cupping the back of my head and proceeding to kiss me breathless. After he released me, I snuggled into his chest and we lay like that for a time, just enjoying each other’s presence.
“I’d already decided to go see the doc before coming back here last night.” He said eventually, the words rumbling against my ear. “I regretted missing my appointment almost as soon as I did it, but then I was feeling too stubborn to admit that, so I just took myself to the gym and shouted for an hour or so while hitting things.”
“That explains what happened to your voice.” I rolled off Rusty and lay on my side next to him, propped on an elbow. Pushing his hair back from his forehead, I lightly scratched his scalp. Rusty closed his eyes and moaned softly. “I’m kind of liking your hair,” I mused. “I wasn’t sure at first, but I do enjoy having enough length to do this.” Closing my hand around a bit on the top, I tugged gently and got a growl in response.
“Is that why you rushed out of here this morning?” I went back to carding his hair with my fingers.
Rusty nodded without opening his eyes. “I really tried not to wake you up because I knew you’d want me to tell you what had been going on and I needed to see the doc first.” He heaved a sigh. “She helped me work through things, gave me some tips for figuring shit out going forward. And then she made me promise to talk to Kells, let her explain before I cut her off assuming the worst. That sucked to hear – Doc telling me that I wasn’t being fair to Kells. I knew I was being shit to you, but in my mind Kells was the one in the wrong.”
“Did you two work things out?”
“Well, when Doc could see I was starting to dig in my heels, she used a medical override to pull up my mailbox and started playing the messages from Kells I’d been ignoring.”
“Oh shit.” I was equal parts shocked and impressed that Siobhan would pull something like that.
“Yeah.” Rusty grimaced. “Each time Kells would mention something I’d said, Doc would stop the message and make me tell her what Kells was talking about.”
“That sounds excruciating.” It would have been unpleasant for me. For Rusty, I couldn’t even imagine.
“It was basically my idea of hell,” he replied, confirming my guess. “But I got through it. Obviously.” He slanted a grin at me. “And I feel, I don’t know – better? More fully assembled. Like all these pieces had been there before, but everything was misaligned and there were all these gaps.” He lay quietly for a time and I waited, rubbing small circles on his belly. Then it became apparent he wasn’t going to continue.
“Huh?” The jerk had been going to sleep on me.
“What happened with Kells?”
“Oh. Yeah, we talked. Or messaged. You know what I mean.”
“She admitted she was hoping looking at stuff from the outside would give me the chance to see my shit different, but it wasn’t just about that. I guess she really is interested in someone and does have concerns about the separation and everything.” The last word ended in a yawn which I immediately caught. “Matt?”
“Do you think we could sleep now? I’m not trying to keep things from you, but – ” Another yawn. “I haven’t slept for shit the past few nights. Same for you?” I agreed. Now that he’d said something, I could feel the exhaustion pulling at me as well. After sending Alix a quick message to ask that we not be disturbed for anything short of an actual emergency, I crawled into bed with Rusty and we slept together – rather than just in close proximity – for the first time in what felt like an age.