Much later in the morning, close to six, Theodore awoke with a start. He sat up quickly, hand coming down on a surface much more solid than his bed. His eyes landed on the ‘are you still watching’ message on the television before drifting down to Russell, who stared back up at him.
“You okay?” Russell asked, his voice rough with sleep.
“Umm…” Theodore passed a hand through his hair. “Yeah, I’m good.”
Russell cleared his throat, rubbing at his eye with the heel of his palm. “What’d you see?”
“Do… you care?”
“ ‘Course I do. I’m not him.”
Theodore let out a harsh breath as he lay back down, dropping his head to Russell’s chest again. The couch was suddenly much more uncomfortable than before, but that was fine. Russell was warm and comforting, and he liked that, especially when Russell wrapped an arm around his shoulders again. “I’m sure you think it was a nightmare about Shane, but it wasn’t. I wouldn’t be able to lie here with you if it had been.”
“Makes sense,” Russell mumbled. He cleared his throat again. “What was it?”
“When I was a kid, I was terrified of the monster in my closet. Totally not a real monster, I hope, but it scared the hell outta me. I still have nightmares every couple months,” Theodore said. “Which I know is stupid, but…”
“Not stupid. You can’t control what your mind fears, what… your subconscious fears.”
Theodore closed his eyes, laying a hand over Russell’s steady heart. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” Russell rubbed a hand up and down Theodore’s arm, leaving goosebumps as he went.
“Do you… wanna go home?” Theodore asked.
“Do you want me to?”
“I don’t know. I need to go to bed. Like, an actual bed. Only… forty-five-ish minutes until Vera wakes up for school, but I can’t be on the couch anymore.”
Russell nodded. “Then I’ll head on home, ‘less you think you need me here,” he said.
Theodore pushed himself up to meet Russell’s eyes. “Would you mind staying here?”
“On the couch?” Russell asked. Theodore nodded. “No, I wouldn’t mind. I sleep on my damn couch more often than my bed, anyway. And your couch is much more comfortable.”
Theodore smiled. “You can thank my dad for that.”
“I might just have to take you up on that.” Russell reached out and gave Theodore’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “I’ll be here if you need me. And if you don’t, I’ll still be right here.”
“No problem.” Russell’s eyes flickered to Theodore’s lips, but they didn’t linger there long. Theodore wished he could act on that, wished he could be impulsive and kiss Russell goodnight like he wanted to. But he knew better. He wasn’t ready for that. Hell, as it stood, he didn’t feel as though he’d ever be ready for that.
Instead, he pushed himself up and climbed over Russell. “Do you need anything?” Theodore asked. “A blanket, more pillows?”
“Nah, I’m good. I’m a warm sleeper.”
Theodore snorted. “Yeah, I noticed. You know where the bathroom is, so… you don’t have to hold it on the couch just to keep your word.”
Russell chuckled, rolling onto his side. “Good to know. Goodnight, Theo. Get yourself some sleep.”
Theodore reached out and gave Russell’s arm a tentative squeeze. “Night, Russell.”
Little more than an hour later, Theodore woke up late and to the smell of eggs. He climbed out of bed and made his way to the kitchen, surprised to see Russell at the stove. Vera sat on the counter, a bowl in her lap.
“Morning,” Theodore greeted.
“Morning, Daddy,” Vera said, kicking her heels against the cupboard door beneath the counter. “Russell’s making pancakes and eggs for us, Daddy.”
“I see that.” Theodore walked up to the counter and leaned over to look at the pan. “It doesn’t look burnt,” he said before he could stop himself.
Russell laughed. Relief sank into Theodore’s bones. “Yeah, I Googled it, and my friends that know how to cook are speed dials one and two.”
Russell smiled down at him. “Thank you.”
“Maybe while you’re teaching us self-defense, I’ll teach you how to cook some, y’know, basic meals so you can survive off more than freezer food and fast food.”
Hesitantly, Theodore laid a hand on Russell’s back. “I need to take a shower. Can you…?”
“I’ll watch her. And I’ll do you the added bonus of not burning your house down.”
“Greatly appreciated, thank you. I’ll be back in, like, five. Just…” Theodore cleared his throat. “I’m putting a lot of trust into you here, Russell. Please don’t betray that.”
“You have my word. Vera’s safe with me,” Russell said, his voice low but far from intimidating. It sounded… reassuring, comforting. Those were two words that hadn’t even been in Shane’s vocabulary.
“Thank you,” Theodore whispered. Russell nodded and gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “Be good, Vera. Kick him if he starts acting shifty.”
Vera grinned. “Okay, Daddy.”
Theodore headed back to the hall, turning to look back at them. Vera was smiling, occasionally ‘helping’ Russell with the eggs. Vera had never really liked Shane. He had been in her life since she was a month or two old, but she had never much cared for him, despite acknowledging that he was technically one of her dads, by marriage rather than adoption. Shane hadn’t wanted to father a child that wasn’t biologically his, so adopting her had been out of the question. Vera hadn’t liked that much, either.
Theodore didn’t blame her, couldn’t blame her. Not liking Shane had clearly been incredibly intelligent of her.
But she liked Russell. That was something.
Theodore lifted himself onto his stool behind the register at work. Before he even had a chance to pretend that he was comfortable, Gina drummed her hands against the counter. “Good morning,” Theodore greeted.
“Morning. How was your date?”
“God, it sounds so odd to call it that.”
“Do you want me to call it something different? I will if it makes you more comfortable.”
He shook his head. “No, that’s okay. I… enjoy Russell’s company. It was definitely a date.” He laid his cane over his thighs, clearing his throat. “I don’t know. I had… fun, and he’s a gentleman. He’s a good guy. He basically reserved the entire restaurant for the period of time we were gonna be there so I wouldn’t be anxious around a load of other people. Then we came back to my house, he met Mom–and he was really nice to her, even though she asked him if he was an asshole. We started watching a TV show together, we cuddled on the couch. Christ, Gina, I fell asleep snuggled up to him, with his arm around my shoulder. Asleep.”
Gina smiled. “Theo, that’s awesome.”
“Is it? I worry I’m moving too fast.”
“Some people have sex on the first date and others don’t want to hold their date’s hand on the first date. Both are okay. As long as you aren’t uncomfortable–as long as he isn’t forcing you to do something that makes you uncomfortable–I don’t think you’re moving too fast at all.”
“Okay,” Theodore whispered. “Okay. That’s enough talking about me, though. Talk about you. We won’t have customers in here for at least another twenty minutes.”
Gina nodded. “I don’t have any fancy dates with hot detectives to talk about.”
“I totally never said he was hot.”
“You totally didn’t have to. Like I didn’t see you talking to a super cute guy about Beautiful Creatures, like, right before you started talking about the detective?”
Theodore’s cheeks warmed. “Okay, so he’s cute. Very cute. But stop turning the conversation to me.”
She grinned, crossing her arms over the counter. “Okay, okay. Hmm… Oh! I’m adopting a dog this weekend.”
“Aww, Gina, that’s great. What kind of dog?”
“The shelter thinks she’s part Boxer, but all I know is she’s adorable and she’s so sleeping on my bed every night.”
Theodore chuckled. “That’s what I’d do. A warm body to snuggle with that’ll pretty much love you no matter what.”
For the briefest of moments, Gina acted like she was going to direct the conversation back to him because of that particular comment. Instead, she nodded. “Yeah, that’s pretty much one of the benefits I see of it. Otherwise, I’m just really excited to have a dog again. I haven’t had one since I was, like, God… eight? Nine? It’ll be great to get back into exercising, too. Taking her on walks and runs. She’ll keep me in shape, and I’ll keep her well-exercised.”
“All damn good things.”
“Right? Ugh, she’s so cute. My phone’s in my car, but I’ll show you a picture of her on lunch break,” Gina said.
She straightened herself back out, drumming her hands against the counter. “Coffee?”
“Coffee would be great.”
“Awesome. The usual?” she asked. Theodore offered a nod. “Okie dokie. Back in a few.”
“All righty.” Theodore shifted on his stool once Gina had turned away. He touched his cane to the floor, using it to better support his bad hip as he lifted it off the seat for a few seconds. God, he shouldn’t have spent so many hours on the couch with Russell. He’d been comfortable–most of the time–but the couch was far from good for his hip. After the accidents, his parents had bought him a new mattress and several very good quality pillows that would make sleeping with the injury a little easier. The mattress and the pillows, if nothing else, were a million times more comfortable than the couch. Theodore, however, hadn’t been smart enough to tell Russell he couldn’t actually sleep on the couch–especially on his side–without it hurting.
Theodore had gotten pretty good at suffering in silence in his time with Shane. Tragically, it now seemed to be carrying over into his time with Russell.
He let out a heavy sigh. He hoped it didn’t continue as his time spent with Russell grew. Russell, as it stood, wasn’t Shane. For now, he was nothing like Shane. Theodore understood his own apprehension toward the man, but for now, there was no reason to hide simple things like that from him. It wouldn’t even take much to just tell him that sleeping on the couch for several hours, cuddled up against Russell–despite how warm he was–just… had to be out of the question.
As long as he convinced himself that Russell wouldn’t care, he’d be able to relay that without any issue. Now it was just time to do some serious self-convincing before he saw Russell again. “Easier said than done, Theodore. Easier said than done,” he whispered.
Russell: How was work?
Theodore stared down at his phone as he walked out to the parking lot with Gina. Russell had texted him pretty much exactly when his shift had ended, and Theodore was pretty damn sure Russell himself was still at work.
Theodore: How do you know I’m off work?
Russell: I just added eight hours to when you said your shift started
Russell: I didn’t mean to come off as creepy or stalkerish. My ass is still behind a desk. You were just walking with a bit more of a limp this morning, and I figure that’s my fault for letting you sleep on the couch. I just wanted to make sure you made it through the day okay. That’s it
Theodore let out a breath. Russell knew exactly what part of that question had put Theodore at a place of unease, and instead of defending it or telling Theodore he was just being sensitive, he had apologized, diffused, and followed it up with concern.
Russell was a little too perfect when it came right down to it. Shane had been nice and charming in the beginning, but he had definitely never hit Russell levels of perfection.
So what the hell was Russell trying to cover up for?
Theodore flinched as Gina touched his arm.
“I’m sorry. You okay?” Gina asked.
Theodore nodded. “Just… thinking about Russell. And not in the cute way you think.”
“What’s up?” Rather than responding, he held his cell phone out to her. “He’s good at handling your apprehensions. That’s good, right?”
“He’s too perfect. What is he hiding?”
“Oh, Theo,” Gina whispered. “You… Look, when a guy comes along and doesn’t treat you like shit, you’re pretty much going to think he’s perfect. I do the same. He doesn’t have to be hiding something for him to do his best to comfort you and reassure you.”
“It feels like he does. Feels like… he does have to be hiding something.”
“Then I guess you’ll have to ask him what he’s hiding.”
“I can’t do that. He’d be angry. And he sure as hell wouldn’t tell me.”
“You know neither of those two things, just like you don’t know that he’s hiding anything,” Gina said. “I understand why you think he is, why you think he has to be hiding something, but if he is, that something isn’t that he’s like Shane.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“Because guys like Shane crack,” Gina said. “When you first started dating Shane? He told me I couldn’t come over to the house anymore, because he was allergic to cats, and I could carry allergens from my cats into your house. I asked him why it mattered, since he didn’t live with you. He told me that what did or didn’t matter wasn’t any of my business anymore. People like Shane crack around people who aren’t you in the beginning. Not your parents, because they’d be too close. Not your siblings. But people like me. We’d only been friends for half a year. He wormed me out as much as he could, because he knew that, eventually, I’d see him for what he was, and he couldn’t risk me telling you.”
“Jesus,” Theodore whispered. “I-I had no idea about that.”
“That was his goal,” Gina said. “You know, sometime, tell this Russell guy about me. I’m your best friend, you run a lot of things by me… Stuff like that. If he’s like Shane? He’ll confront. Having someone who can influence you besides him? He wouldn’t like that if he were like Shane.”
“Maybe I’ll do that,” he said quietly. “Thanks, Gina.”
“No problem, Theo. You deserve good. A good life, a good kid, a good guy. Maybe that’s Russell, maybe it’s not. But I won’t let another bastard treat you the way Shane did, I promise you that.”
She patted him on the back. “No problem, Theo.”
A/N: The ‘Letters from a Madman’ edit has been killing me these last few days, so getting to take a break to skim through this chapter was such a cute, happy little break. I can’t wait to be done with this edit and back to writing my #Rheo ship 😭
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