Books & Badges – Chapter Twenty-Two

NOT EDITED

Freshly showered and changed back into the suit he kept in the car, Russell walked into the kitchen. Theodore stood at the stove, making something Russell couldn’t see. He was pretty sure he could smell peppers, though.

“It’s me,” Russell said before laying a hand on Theodore’s upper back, between his shoulders. “Where’s Vera?”

“Changing.” Theodore rolled his shoulders back.

Russell dropped his hand. “Sorry.”

“No, no, it’s okay. That wasn’t about you.”

“No?”

Theodore shook his head. “My shoulders hurt. I’ve been leaning a little too heavy on my cane recently.”

“Mm.” Russell moved his hand back to Theodore’s back, bowing his head to kiss his shoulder. Theodore closed his eyes, resting his head against Russell’s for a moment. Russell couldn’t help the little smile that came to his face. “What’re you making?”

“Scrambled peppers and eggs. Hashbrowns, too. Vera likes them, so…”

“I’ve liked everything you’ve made. I’m, like, a hundred percent sure I’ll like this, too,” Russell said.

“Thanks,” Theodore whispered.

“No problem.” Russell moved his thumb in a little side-to-side swipe between Theodore’s shoulders. Thankfully, Theodore didn’t seem to mind that, either.

“Umm…. I’m supposed to tell you about Gina.”

“Supposed to?” Russell asked. “And… what about her?”

“Supposed to, yeah. She told me to. And… I dunno. That I’m best friends with her. That I talk to her a lot about what’s going on in my personal life. That she’s kind of my sounding board for a lot of things. Like, she’s the reason I decided to keep our first supper not-date,” Theodore said. “I guess I’m just, like, supposed to let you know that.”

Russell took a moment to think of the kind of response he was supposed to have to that. His initial thought was that he saw nothing wrong with Theodore’s friendship, but if Theodore wasn’t telling him in case there was something wrong with it, it was pretty likely that Theodore would think he was lying.

Biting the bullet, Russell pressed a kiss to Theodore’s temple. “I’m glad you have a friend like that.”

“Really?”

“Of course. If you bounce ideas off of her and whatnot, it’s because you trust her. Everyone deserves to have someone they trust like that. I’m just glad you already do,” Russell said.

Theodore’s shoulders relaxed, but not enough that he’d entirely let his guard down. Russell didn’t expect his guard to ever be all the way down. It had been decades since another human being had abused Russell, and he still always had his guard up. He was simply a little better at hiding the tension behind a genuine-appearing smile than Theodore was.

“She works with me at the bookstore,” Theodore said.

“Hey, that’s great. Close friends are the best friends,” Russell said. “I work with the friends that made supper for us.”

“The supper you were supposed to make?”

Russell smiled. “Yeah, that one.”

“Are they detectives?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Homicide?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you like them?”

Russell’s brow furrowed. The question had… implications he hadn’t been prepared for. “They’re married. To each other.”

“Marriage totally didn’t stop Shane,” Theodore whispered.

Russell laid a hand on Theodore’s cheek and turned his head toward him. “Theo, my dates usually don’t go well because I don’t wanna waste my time sleeping around. I’ve wanted to settle down with someone for as long as I can remember. I dreamed of being married when I was five. Planned it when I was seven. I have absolutely no interest or intention of screwing around with anyone. Not my co-workers, not anyone.”

Theodore searched his face for a moment before closing his eyes and bowing his head. “I wish I could believe you,” he whispered.

“I know, Theo. I know.” Russell slid his hand around to the back of Theodore’s head and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “One of my co-workers is a mostly sex-repulsed asexual. The only person she’s ever slept with or had interest in sleeping with is her husband, and her husband is one hundred percent straight. Hell, I’m the only guy who also likes dudes that works at that station. I’m not taking my sexual interests–or my emotional ones, for that matter–anywhere else.”

Theodore sniffled, turning away to stir the eggs on the stove. Russell stiffened when the man turned and wrapped him in a hug. Russell let out a breath, wrapping his arms around Theodore. “If I ever find out you’re lying, I’ll let Vera kick you in the nads.”

Russell laughed, burying his nose in Theodore’s hair. “Deal.”

After a moment, Theodore pulled away and turned back to the stove. “You look much better now than you did this morning when you got here.”

“I was tired. A couple hours of sleep and a warm shower helped a lot.”

“It was only because you were tired?”

Russell cleared his throat. He wasn’t sure he was comfortable lying to Theodore. It felt like taking the wrong path in their relationship, even if that lie was only about work, about the case he had been given. “No. The homicide messed me up a little bit, too.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” Theodore asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe not right now, but… maybe eventually?”

Theodore nodded. “I… will be here when you decide.”

“Thanks, Theo.” Russell cleared his throat again, moving his hand back up to Theodore’s back. He desperately wanted to wrap him in a hug from behind, rest his chin on Theodore’s shoulder, but that felt too intimate for what Theodore needed from a relationship right now. Russell wasn’t there to push boundaries or force him out of his limited comfort zone. So for now, he’d settle for the hand between Theodore’s shoulders. That was more than good enough for him.

Theodore turned off the fire beneath the eggs. “I’m… going to go tell Vera food’s ready,” he said, turning to face Russell. “Do you mind setting out plates and… and all that? I-it’s okay if you don’t want to.”

“I’m more than happy to,” Russell said.

Theodore smiled, soft and timid like it usually was. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Theodore cleared his throat, fingers tightening around his cane. “Don’t move your head?”

“Remaining stationary.”

Theodore chuckled and leaned up, pressing a kiss to Russell’s cheek. “Back in a few.”

Russell smiled. “Okay. I’ll get the dishes out in the meantime.” Theodore only smiled at him before walking out of the room. Russell was thankful for that little smile. Anything that made him smile was something Russell could chalk up as a success, an achievement. The more smiles that crossed Theodore’s face, the better. The man deserved all the damn smiles in the world, far as Russell was concerned.

***

“You’re late,” Emilia said as Russell dropped into his chair. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

“Are you sure?”

“Just… not a case I expected to be working, that’s all,” Russell said.

Emilia nodded. “I heard about that… Saw it on the news. But I didn’t know it was your case.”

“Officers didn’t know who he was when they called me in. So…” He lifted his shoulders. “Who knows. Maybe Loo will pull me off of it, anyway. He doesn’t want me working cases alone in the first place. This would give him a good reason to get me away from it. Conflict of interest or something.”

“Would you prefer that?” Emilia asked.

One corner of Russell’s mouth scrunched up. “I don’t know. I thought about that a lot this morning, and I can’t decide if me working the case guarantees that it’s done right, or if me working the case has a bigger risk of emotional conflict that’ll lead to me screwing up and guaranteeing we never find out who killed him. I don’t know which one’s more likely.”

“Well… for what it’s worth, I’ve met you, Russ. You have a great work ethic, and even the cases where you’ve… invested yourself a little too much, you always end up on the good side of things. I’ve never seen your emotions compromise a case.”

Russell let out a breath that felt at least somewhat relieved. “Thanks, Emey.”

“No problem.” She cleared her throat. “You… think you’re gonna need help?”

“I don’t know. I’ll keep you updated, if that works for you?”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s totally fine. Whatever’s good with you is fine for me and Andrew,” Emilia assured.

“Thanks,” Russell whispered. He sighed, scrubbing his hands over his face. “I need to go down to the lab, see if anything has… come to light.”

“Okay. Good luck, Russ.”

He nodded, pushing himself to his feet. He made his way down to the lab. His steps were heavy, his legs tired. The smallest part of him really did hope his lieutenant would hand the case over to anyone else in the department, but the much larger part of him couldn’t get past the worry and fear that anyone else would screw up in one way or another.

Vince Gunn had been his mentor, the detective that had taught him damn near everything there was to know about being a detective. The man had been like a father to Russell, or at the very least, he’d been what Russell assumed a father was supposed to be like. It was a little hard to imagine what a good dad was supposed to be like, but he had always assumed Vince was pretty damn close.

He couldn’t just pass Vince’s murder off to someone else. He owed this to Vince. Solving his murder fell on Russell’s shoulders. It had to.

Russell knocked on the open lab door. Ellie Daniels, one of their forensic techs, lifted her eyes to his face. “Hey, Ellie.”

“Hey, Russ.” Her expression softened. “I’m so sorry about Vince.”

“Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “Speaking of… do you happen to have anything on him? On the crime scene?”

“You’re still working this?”

“Until Loo decides I can’t do it… yes. I owe this to Vince,” Russell said.

After a moment, Ellie nodded. Russell appreciated that. He didn’t think he had it in him to put up much of a fight, anyway. “Okay. Well, I don’t have much right now. He was shot six times in the chest. More appropriately, he was shot in the back six times.”

Russell walked a little further into the lab, forcing himself to nod. “Do you think he was trying to get away from someone? Or did they just… come up behind him?”

“I wish I knew. All I know is that he was shot the first time several feet away from where he fell, based on where I found his blood. He did try to get away after the first shot, but that’s all I can say for certain.”

“So… no chance it was a robbery gone wrong?”

Ellie shook her head. “I wouldn’t say so. If it was, they forgot to do the robbing part.” She pulled a bag out of the evidence box on the table and held it out to Russell. Finally, he crossed the room all the way. He grabbed the bag, his chest tightening.

It was Vince’s wallet. It had been flipped open before being bagged, allowing Russell to see Vince’s license, credit card, and debit card inside, and when he tilted the bag toward himself, he could see there was still cash inside, too.

“Where’s his badge? Did you bag that separately?” Russell asked.

“His… badge?”

“Yeah, his retired detective badge?”

Ellie shook his head. “He didn’t have that on him.”

Russell’s brow furrowed as he looked back down at the wallet. Since Vince retired, he had always had that badge on him. Russell had seen it every time they’d had a couple drinks at the bar, anytime they’d gone out for coffee. While Russell’s badge was always displayed rather prominently on his belt, Vince’s retirement badge was always neatly tucked between the two halves of his wallet.

“Thanks, Ellie,” he said quietly, handing the bag back to the analyst. “Let me know if anything turns up?”

Ellie nodded. “I will.”

“And, uh… if you haven’t already, could you dust that wallet for fingerprints?”

“I will.”

“Thanks.” Russell cleared his throat, taking a step back. “I’ll see you later. When, uh… If something turns up.”

“Of course, Russell. You keep me posted, and I’ll keep you posted.”

Russell nodded. “Yeah, sounds like a plan.”


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Books & Badges – Chapter Twenty-One

NOT EDITED

Theodore grabbed his cane, using it to help himself off the couch. He headed over to the front door, unlocked the chain lock and the one in the knob itself, and pulled open the door. Russell, though he hadn’t knocked, stood outside, his head bowed.

“Are you okay?” Theodore asked.

“I’m good,” Russell said, his voice quiet. He lifted his head, clearing his throat. “Do you want me to sleep on the couch?”

Theodore reached out and grabbed the detective’s hand, gently tugging him into the house. “Like I said, I want to try letting you sleep in my bed with me. I… I trust you, as much as that scares me. I don’t think you’ll try anything shifty, to say the least.”

After a moment, Russell nodded. “If you change your mind at any point, you let me know, and I’ll move to the couch.”

“Okay.” Theodore closed the door and twisted the lock back into place. Before he could get to it, Russell reached out and slid the chain lock across. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Theodore looked up at Russell, one corner of his mouth scrunched up. Whatever that crime scene had been, Russell definitely wasn’t ‘good’. It didn’t matter how many times he said it or insisted it was true–Theodore knew damn well it was a lie. “What…?”

Russell lifted his eyes to Theodore’s face, frozen halfway through kicking off his shoes. “What… what?”

“Nevermind. I-it’s nothing.”

“Mm.” Russell looked back down at his feet and kicked his shoes off the rest of the way. Lifting his hand to Theodore’s cheek, he pressed a kiss to the man’s forehead. “You don’t have to fear asking me questions, even the ones you think might irritate me. I’ve lived through what you feel, initiated by a different relation… obviously. But, uh, I won’t lash out at you.”

“I wish it was that easy for me,” Theodore said quietly.

“I know, Theo.”

Theodore cleared his throat and stuck out a hand. “Come on. You look tired as hell.”

Russell smiled. “Well… that’s definitely true.” He grabbed Theodore’s hand and allowed the man to lead him through the house.

“When did you change into sweatpants?” Theodore asked.

“My car. I tend to keep a pair in there, same with an extra pair of jeans. Never know when you’re only going to have one chance to go to the gym or half an hour to sleep in your car. Always gotta be prepared,” Russell said.

“Work sounds… very hard on you.”

“I knew what I signed up for, but it’s what I needed to do.”

“Why?”

Russell smiled at him, though it was a little less brilliant than usual. “Another time?”

“Of course.” Theodore pushed open the door to his bedroom and flipped on the light. He stared at the bed, letting out a harsh breath. The only man he’d ever slept in the same bed with was Shane. It didn’t matter that it was a different bed frame, new mattress, different sheets. It was in the same room, the same house, the same position.

“I can sleep on the couch,” Russell said. “I take no issue with that if it’s what you need.”

“No, I still… want to try letting you sleep in here with me. It’s a step I wanna take, and it’s not like it’s sex. It’s just… sleep.”

“Sleep can be stressful and vulnerable. You aren’t weak if you can’t do this tonight,” Russell said.

“I’ll let you know if it turns out I can’t.”

“Good enough for me.”

Theodore nodded and walked into the room, fingers tightening around his cane. Russell followed him, his free hand tucked into one of his pockets. “Do you wanna turn on the nightstand light for me?”

“Sure can.” Russell brushed a thumb over his knuckles before releasing his hand. He turned on the lap, looking back at Theodore. “What would you like me to do now?”

“Sit down?”

“Of course. Which side?”

“Umm…”

One corner of Russell’s mouth lifted. “Sorry. Which side do you normally sleep on?”

“The right side. Uh, the one closest to you,” Theodore said. Russell nodded and walked around the foot of the bed. Without complaint, he sat down on the left side of the bed. Theodore let out a breath and turned off the overhead light. He crossed the room and sat down on the right side of the bed, eyes on the wall.

“I’m gonna pull my legs up onto the bed. Don’t be alarmed,” Russell said.

“Okay.” Behind him, Theodore heard the covers shift and Russell moved onto the bed. “I’m… I’m scared, Russell.”

“I can only imagine.”

“How did you get over the fear of getting close to people?” Theodore asked.

“Well, I acted out first. Stole a couple things from convenience stores. Paid people over twenty-one to buy me alcohol. Shot some plates in the backyard. Skipped school. The works. I had to go to therapy eventually. That helped work through the acting out stuff, and eventually, it helped me work through everything else. I don’t think I genuinely trusted anyone again until I was in college, and even then, I was still pretty apprehensive and closed off.”

“So I have a lot to look forward to, huh?”

“It’s a long process,” Russell said simply. “But it’s a process that’s very worth it.”

Theodore nodded. He leaned his cane against the nightstand and slowly pulled his legs onto the bed. Dropping his head to his pillow, he turned to look at Russell. “I want to get help. Eventually, I mean. For now, I’m making sure Vera gets help.”

“Hey, that’s great,” Russell whispered, rolling onto his side, meeting Theodore’s eyes. 

Theodore nodded. “I discussed it with my parents. They’re helping me with the house payments, and since I’m not driving right now, I’m not wasting money on gas. It’s nice to know that I can… get her the help she deserves.”

“Of course. It’s a good feeling, and you deserve to feel good about it,” Russell said. “Can I touch you?” After a moment, Theodore nodded. Russell laid a hand on his cheek, thumb caressing the arch of it. Theodore closed his eyes, reveling in the warmth of his touch. “How do you want to sleep?”

“I usually sleep on my side.”

“Okay. Which one?”

Theodore cleared his throat. “I usually just face the door.”

“Okay. Which way do you want me to sleep? My back to you, or facing you? Because I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“For tonight… your back to me?” Theodore asked.

“I can do that.”

“Thank you,” Theodore whispered.

“No problem, Theo.” Russell pulled his hand from Theodore’s cheek, rubbing it over his upper arm instead. “I’m gonna turn over now.”

“Okay.”

Russell smiled that heart-warming smile of his. “Goodnight, Theo.”

“Night, Russell.”

***

Theodore awoke to one of the most surprising things he’d ever experienced. Russell was still asleep on his side, his back to Theodore, his hands completely to himself. Russell wasn’t like the lead in romance novels and movies. When he made a promise regarding barriers, he didn’t break it.

Theodore gingerly rolled onto his other side, dramatically clearing his throat.

Russell responded with a simple, “Mm?”

“You kept your promise. Stayed facing that way all night,” Theodore said.

After a moment, Russell rolled over to face him, rubbing at one eye with the heel of his palm. “ ‘Course I did. I said I would.”

“They never do in movies. Or books.”

Russell smiled. “I’m all real, Theo. And even in my sleep, I’m not planning on violating your trust like that.”

Theodore couldn’t help the smile that came to his own face. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Theodore tentatively reached out with one hand and pushed Russell’s sleep-tousled hair back from his forehead. “How about I make you some breakfast before you go to work?”

“Can I help?” Russell asked.

“I was thinking you might wanna take a shower. If not, you… you can help.”

“Shower’s not a bad idea,” Russell mumbled. “Do you need help getting up or anything?”

“No, I’m good. You go ahead and take a shower, and I’m gonna feed my fish and start breakfast.”

“Okay.” Russell pushed himself up on one elbow before leaning over to kiss Theodore’s forehead. “I’ll meet you in the kitchen, Theo.”

Theodore gave Russell’s bicep a quick squeeze. “See you there.”


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Books & Badges – Chapter Twenty

NOT EDITED

For the fifth time in the last week, Russell sat on the couch in Theodore’s house, a plate on his lap and Theodore at his side. That night, the dessert they’d made had been macadamia nut cookies. To say Russell loved them was still an understatement.

“Hey, umm… question,” Theodore said, his voice quiet.

“What’s up?”

“This is weird for me to even… offer, but, umm, Halloween is next Monday, and Vera wants you to be there. She really likes you, and she wants to know if you wanna go trick-or-treating with us.”

“Do you want me to?”

“You answer before I do.”

Russell nodded. “I’d be… honored to go trick-or-treating with you two,” he said. “Your turn.”

“Asking you to come with is… nerve-wracking for me. I mean, it shows that I have some sort of trust for you, and it scares me. What might happen after you realize that trust? What might happen when you decide to find ways to turn it against me?”

Russell shifted on the couch, keeping his hands to himself as he turned to face the man. He’d love to hold Theodore’s hand or touch his cheek, but he didn’t want Theodore to feel like he was trying to control the situation with comforting touches. “I understand why it’s nerve-wracking to you. I understand why it’s hard for you. If you don’t want me there–”

“I do want you there. It’s just scary… to ask you to be there, scary to think about what might happen once you are,” Theodore said.

Russell nodded. “Of course. My mistake.” He offered a smile, giving himself time to think through the little stutter of his heart and flip of his stomach. Theodore wanted him to go with. That was so much more than Russell had been expecting to come of the evening. “If you’re scared of what will happen if I go with, I won’t. You can tell Vera I have to work that day. Which, I mean, for all intents and purposes, is the truth. I do work, uh, seven to six that Monday. If you’re scared, I don’t want to push you. Hell, I don’t wanna push you even if you aren’t scared. But if you don’t want to have to worry about me being there, I’ll take the fall from Vera.”

Theodore stared at him for several silent seconds, searching his face. Finally, he nodded. “Give me… until tomorrow?”

“Works for me.”

“Great,” Theodore whispered. He leaned into Russell’s side, dropping his head to his shoulder. “Thank you for, umm… Well, thank you for being you.”

Russell smiled, resting his head against Theodore’s. “No problem, Theo. No problem at all.”

***

Halfway through their second episode of Nurse Jackie, Rusell’s phone rang. He cleared his throat, lifting himself enough to pull the device from his back pocket.

“Do you need to take that?” Theodore asked.

“Uh… I’ll leave that up to you. It’s work, so it’s a homicide. If I don’t answer, they’ll call one of the other detectives.”

“Take it.”

“Are you sure?”

Theodore nodded. “You said you haven’t gotten a ton of cases since you’ve been partnerless. Take it.”

“Thank you.” Russell accepted the call and pressed his phone to his ear. “Steele.”

“Hey, Russell. This is Officer Beckard. We got called out for a disturbance, but it definitely appears that that disturbance is a homicide. You want it?”

“Yeah. Text me the address and I’ll be there soon?”

“Sure thing. We’re already setting up barricades to keep people out. You want us to do anything else in the meantime?”

“If there are people out and about, do me a favor and question them about what they saw, what they heard. I’ll be there soon,” Russell said.

“Will do, Russell. See you in a bit.”

Russell ended the call and pushed himself to his feet, tucking his phone into his pocket. “I’m sorry to cut Nurse Jackie short, but the next time you want me over, I’ll be here.”

Theodore nodded. “It’s okay. And… sounds like a plan.”

Russell leaned down and pressed a kiss to Theodore’s forehead, closing his eyes as the shorter man laid a hand on his cheek. “Night, Theo.”

“Night. Good luck.”

“Thank you.”

“A-and… and stay safe.”

Russell nodded. “I will. I’ll even text you every… half hour to let you know I’m okay.”

Theodore smiled. “Half an hour. I’ll hold you to it.” He reached out and squeezed Russell’s hand. “Talk soon.”

***

Russell pulled up a few feet from the yellow crime scene tape and shifted his car into park. He grabbed his phone from the cupholder and sent a quick text to Theodore to let him know he had arrived safe and sound at the scene.

He cut the engine and pulled the key from the ignition. Though he’d prefer to be at Theodore’s, watching Nurse Jackie, he was still glad to have a case. A case meant he was useful at the station, even without a partner. That would always be a plus in the grand scheme of things, even if it cut his time with Theodore short.

Russell figured he could make up for it later on, maybe after Halloween.

For now, he had a crime scene to work.

Climbing out of the car, he stuffed his keys and phone back into his pocket. He was still in his jeans and a New York Law hoodie, but dressiness and clothing professionalism didn’t matter much at nearly midnight. Hell, Officer Beckford had straight up seen him work a crime scene in his pajamas before. Jeans instead of sweats with cinched ankles was certainly a step up.

Russell ducked under the yellow crime scene tape and made his way down the sidewalk, toward the four officers standing closer to where the body must’ve been. “Beckford. What do we got?”

Kurt Beckford lifted his head. Hands tucked into the pockets of his uniform pants, he stepped away from the group. “Dead man. White, maybe in his seventies. We haven’t moved him. He was found on his back, but the caller found him on his stomach and rolled him over to see if he was alive. He’s been shot six times in the chest.”

“Overkill,” Russell mumbled. If nothing else, it was a good indicator that this particular homicide hadn’t been just a random attack. It had, at the very least, been a crime of passion. Whether it was pre-planned or not, Russell couldn’t be sure, but six bullets to the chest was generally too excessive for a robbery gone wrong.

Russell stepped closer to the body, a hand moving up to his mouth. “Oh, my God,” he whispered.

“Do you know him?”

The detective nodded. “He, umm, he’s one of ours. He was the detective that taught me the ropes when I was promoted. He’s been retired for the last two years or so, but…” He cleared his throat. “Do you have an ETA on forensics?”

“They should be here in about ten minutes,” Kurt said.

“Good. He… he deserves a hell of a lot better than this.” Russell shook his head, taking a step back. “I-I need a few. If I’m not back here when forensics shows up, call me?”

“Are you sure? I can call a different detective, Russell. There’s no need to put yourself through some kind of hell just so–”

“I’m okay,” Russell assured with a nod. “I just need a moment.”

“All right, man. I’ll let you know when they’re here.”

Russell nodded and headed back for his car. He leaned back against the hood and pulled his phone from his pocket. After unlocking it, he selected Theodore’s number from his contact list. He didn’t want to unload on Theodore by any means, but he did want to talk to someone calming, and Theodore was incredibly calming to every damn fiber in his being.

“Russell?” Theodore asked after the third ring.

“Yeah, hey.”

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Umm, yeah, I’m good. Just waiting on forensics, so… thought I’d give my favorite man a call, let him know everything was going okay.”

Theodore chuckled softly. “Flattered.” He cleared his throat. “Are you sure everything’s okay? That… you’re okay? You just sound different than usual.”

“Oh, I-I’m okay. It’s just, you know, even after working homicide for a while, you still never really get used to seeing what people are capable of doing to their fellow human,” Russell said. If nothing else, that part was at least the truth. He always found himself surprised at what humans were capable of doing to one another. This time was just a little… different, was all, a little more personal, a little closer to home.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Theodore asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.” Russell cleared his throat. “All good.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, you don’t sound okay, or good.”

“Aww, thanks. Also, is that you caring about little old me?”

“It is. So don’t be an asshole and keep lying to me,” Theodore said.

“Some… cases are more difficult than others. This one’s more difficult.”

“Do you wanna talk about it?”

Russell looked down, grinding the toe of his tennis shoe into the gravel. “Not right now. Right now, I’ve gotta… stay on the case, you know? Not let my head wander too much. But… maybe later?”

“ ‘Maybe later’ works for me. Until then… good luck.”

“Thanks,” Russell whispered. “I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”

“Okay. Umm… when you’re done at the crime scene, are you going into the station?”

“Probably not. I wasn’t scheduled to work this Monday, so once I’m done questioning anyone that might be awake around here, I’ll probably get a couple hours of sleep before I head in and see what forensics has turned up, go from there.” Russell closed his eyes, scrubbing a hand over one side of his face. “Why?”

“J-just… If you want to, you can come back here, grab some sleep. In a bed.”

Russell opened his eyes. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Positive,” Theodore said. “I mean, the worst possible outcome is that it turns out I can’t handle sleeping in bed with someone yet, and one of us sleeps on the couch. And then I’d apologize and… we could make breakfast together.”

“Well, that does sound pretty damn appealing,” Russell said. “I really only need to talk to the gal who called this in, and then there are a few open places of business on this street. I need to talk to people inside, see if they heard or saw anything. After that, I can come on over. Maybe two hours? Three?”

“Works for me. I’ll see you soon, Russell.”

“See you soon, Theo.” Russell ended the call and tucked his phone into his pocket. With a sigh, he pushed himself away from his car and started back toward the crime scene. It certainly wasn’t what he wanted that morning, but what he ‘wanted’ didn’t change the description of his job, and regardless of the body waiting for him at the crime scene, he had signed up for that, so he didn’t have too much room to mope or complain. “Time to get back to work,” Russell whispered.


A/N: 😟

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Books & Badges – Chapter Nineteen

NOT EDITED

After about an hour of watching Nurse Jackie, Russell helped Theodore to his feet. An arm threaded through Russell’s, Theodore allowed the detective to walk him around the house. It was nice being without his cane to walk around, even if it was only possible because Russell was supporting his weight anytime he put far too much pressure on the injured hip.

“When… do you need to head home?” Theodore asked.

“Whenever you need me to.”

“That doesn’t help, you know.”

“I’m sorry. Umm… I don’t know. I can leave, if that’s what you want me to do.”

Theodore shook his head. “Two things. One, you have nothing to be sorry for. That was like, umm… ‘You’re a big help’. That’s all. And two, no, I don’t want you to leave right this second. I just wanna know how much more Nurse Jackie you and I can watch tonight while we cuddle on the couch.”

“As much as you want. But you have to wake up around, what, six-thirty?” Russell asked.

“Give or take.”

“How many hours of sleep do you prefer getting?”

“Prefer?” Theodore asked. He chuckled, though even he knew just how much humor the sound obviously lacked. “I don’t know. That’s not a question I’ve been asked before. Most of the time, when… Shane was here, I averaged four hours. Since I’ve gotten back from the hospital, I’ve managed much of the same, save for…”

“For?”

“When… you’re here,” Theodore said quietly. “There’s a part of me that really hates letting you know that. But it’s true. You bring me… comfort, I guess. I don’t know if it’s because you’re not like him or because you’re a cop, but… but I feel a little safer when you’re here, and I guess it’s why I keep accidentally falling asleep when you’re here.”

Russell rubbed at his arm. “You need the sleep. Accidental or not, you need it,” he said. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad I can bring you some sense of safety or comfort. You deserve that.” He cleared his throat. “So… I ask again, how much sleep do you wanna get?”

“I could be rebellious and say five.”

“Five works. I’ll make sure you’re in bed by one-thirty, then. And I can either stay past that so you can sleep, or I can head home, and you can feel free to call if you need me. Okay?”

Theodore stayed silent for what felt like far too long. He didn’t want to lean on Russell. He didn’t want to count on Russell. But, dammit, it was so hard not to. “Okay,” he finally said.

Russell gave his forearm a light squeeze. “Good. Come on, then. Let’s get another good minute or two of walking before we go sit our lazy butts down on the couch again.”

Theodore chuckled. “Works for me.”

***

Russell was good at sticking to his word and following through with his promises. That was what Theodore had figured out when, just before one-thirty, Russell paused the episode of Nurse Jackie they were watching and helped Theodore back to his bedroom. Theodore sat down on the edge of the mattress, eyes focused on Russell’s gentle movements as he leaned the cane up against the nightstand.

Everything Russell did seemed to be that way–gentle, calm, easy. Theodore had only really seen him be in a hurry on the occasions where he thought Theodore could be in danger. Russell cared for him, about him.

“Russell?”

“Mm?”

“Do…? Would you like to sleep in here?” Theodore asked.

Russell’s gaze shifted to his face. “Are you sure that’s something you’re ready for?”

“We’ve cuddled on the couch for hours, slept on the couch for hours. A-and Shane’s never been in this bed. It’s new. S-so… so no bad memories.”

Russell nodded. “I want you to think about this question and your answer before you respond. Are you asking me to spend the night in here with you because you want me in here, or are you asking because you think you have to in order to… keep me around?”

“I’m not offering sex.”

“I know. That’s not what I’m asking about.”

Theodore let out a breath. “I don’t know. If you want me to… to tell you the truth, I don’t know why I’m asking. I feel like it’s because I want you in here. I like how safe you make me feel and how… how warm you are and how warm you make me, but… but I don’t know.”

“How about you give it another date or two, hmm? I just wanna make sure it’s something you’re actually comfortable with first. I’m not here to push you into anything. I want this all to be at your pace. Not mine, not society’s. Yours,” Russell said.

“Thank you,” Theodore whispered.

“No problem.” Russell leaned down and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “I’ll be on the couch if you need anything. Or if you just need to know I’m there. Goodnight, Theo.”

“Night, Russell.”

***

Theodore woke up early, like he usually did. He couldn’t remember the last time he had managed to sleep in on a weekend. Vera usually didn’t wake up until at least eight or nine, but he still woke up around six-thirty like it was a weekday.

Theodore pushed himself off the bed and headed for the door, hesitating as his hand touched the door knob. Russell was probably still in the living room. It was a Sunday, so he probably didn’t work unless he was called to a scene. Would Russell care if Theodore walked out in his sweatpants and t-shirt instead of jeans and a button-up of some kind?

Probably not. Russell had already seen him in his pajamas at least once, and he had never thrown a fit like Shane would have. That probably boded well.

He walked out of the bedroom, phone tucked into the pocket of his sweats. He headed for the living room first, just to see if Russell was still there.

A smile crossed Theodore’s face. Russell was sound asleep on the couch, a leg and an arm hanging over the side. Carefully, Theodore grabbed his ankle and helped the leg back onto the couch. He waited a moment to see if Russell would react or wake up. When he didn’t, Theodore moved his hand back to the pillow shoved beneath his head.

Theodore ran his fingers through Russell’s hair, earning a little smile from the detective. Theodore couldn’t help the smile that came to his own face. Russell’s resting face was incredibly calm and peaceful. The corners of his mouth were turned up just enough to give him the idea of a smile. Theodore had assumed that was a conscious decision when he was awake, but it must’ve just been the way his lips naturally rested.

He was a gorgeous man, not to mention an incredibly kind and generous man. Russell was practically perfect, and Theodore was still working to convince himself that perfection wasn’t being used to hide something else, something more sinister, something more… Shane-like.

“You’re starin’ at me,” Russell mumbled.

“Absolutely am not.”

Russell smiled, his eyes still closed. “What time is it?”

“Early. Umm, little after six-thirty.”

“Mm.” Russell lifted a hand and rubbed at his eye. “Everything okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, everything’s fine. I just can’t sleep in very well.”

Russell chuckled. “Clearly.” He opened his eyes and sat up on the couch. “Hungry?”

“Are you gonna make me pancakes if I am?”

“Depends if you want pancakes or not.”

Theodore snorted, shaking his head. He lowered himself to the couch, holding his cane between his thighs. “Do you work today?”

“Nah. Not unless I get called in for a homicide, but that’s unlikely. I’ve only worked one case in the time I’ve been partnerless.”

“Why?”

“Superiors prefer when you’re out in the field in pairs. In case something happens,” Russell said.

“In case… something happens.”

Russell nodded, bowing his head as he scrubbed his hands over his face. “You know, shot, stabbed, attacked. Stuff like that.”

“Jesus,” Theodore whispered. “I never even thought of that. You could… be killed on the job.”

Again, Russell nodded. “Yeah. I mean, we know it’s a possibility. You go out and do your job, help a few people, hope that no one… has it out for you because you wear a badge. You just hope you, you know, make it home at the end of the day.”

“That’s terrifying, Russell. God, how do you even…? How do you even get up and go to work, knowing that’s a possibility?”

Russell shrugged. “Harder some days than others. It’s a lot harder after… you read a news story about a fellow brother or sister in blue getting hurt or killed. But you make d. You do your job, and you go in. Helping people get the justice they deserve is what I started doing this for. So even on the days where it’s difficult, that reason keeps me going.”

“I can’t even… imagine.”

“Good.” Russell laughed, shaking his head. “Good. I don’t want you to have to imagine what it’s like to know today has a possibility of being it. I never want you to have to experience that. I want things for you to be like they are at the bookstore. You’re happy there. You love all the books and the people. I don’t want you to ever have to experience anything scarier than that in regards to work.”

Theodore pressed a kiss to Russell’s shoulder, closing his eyes. “I don’t wanna think about you getting hurt.”

“Me, neither,” Russell said simply.

Theodore drew in a breath, resting his chin on Russell’s shoulder. “Let me teach you to make cinnamon rolls?”

“Umm, absolutely. Ready to stand up?” Russell asked. Theodore nodded. Russell rose to his feet and stuck out a hand. Theodore grabbed it, happily accepting the help to his feet. “Are we making cinnamon rolls from scratch?”

“Do you want to? Because I can get one of the premade ones from the fridge if you don’t–”

“I want to. Yeah. If that was your plan? One hundred percent.”

Theodore took a step away from Russell, grabbing his hands instead. “Russell… What…?”

“You can ask what you wanna ask. I won’t be mad, no matter what it is.”

“What are you hiding with the niceties?”

“Not a… Shane-like personality, that’s for sure.”

“Why do you…? Why are you so willing to go the extra mile for me? To make sure the thing we end up doing is exactly what I was initially thinking of, and not some slight variation of it?” Theodore asked.

Russell cleared his throat. “I… grew up with an abusive father. First ten years of my life. He was abusive toward my mom, primarily, and I know what it does to people, and I have a… faint idea of how to treat people that have been through it without making them feel like you’re patronizing them.”

“Christ,” Theodore whispered. “I-I’m so sorry, Russell.”

“Hey, it’s not like it’s your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I… I made you tell me.”

Russell’s mouth scrunched up at one corner as he shook his head. “You didn’t make me do anything, Theo. If I didn’t wanna tell you, I would’ve told you I didn’t want to talk about it today. I’m not… I don’t know how to phrase it. Umm, I’m okay telling people about that part of my life. I just don’t normally tell it as a date story.”

Theodore offered a little laugh. “Yeah, I probably wouldn’t tell it as a date story, either.” He let go of Russell’s hands, grabbing his cane instead. “I-if I… lean up and kiss your cheek, you’re not gonna move your head, right?”

“I’m not gonna move my head,” Russell promised.

Theodore leaned up and pressed a kiss to Russell’s cheek. “Thank you,” he whispered.

“My pleasure, Theo.” Russell held out a crooked arm. “Shall we go make some cinnamon rolls?”

Unable to fight the smile spreading across his face, Theodore slipped his arm through Russell’s. “We shall.”


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May 4th 2020

Hey, guys!

Next month is Cut to the Kill’s first birthday! So, much like I did with Ashes in the Light, I’ll be giving away free ebook copies (PDFs) in exchange for Amazon or Goodreads reviews. If you’d like to know more about Cut to the Kill, you can find it’s book page on my main site here: Cut to the Kill book info

There’s a form for you to fill out below if you’re interested in reading CTTK in exchange for a review before June 18th.

If you read Ashes in the Light and did not leave a review or email me about delays, you won’t be able to read Cut to the Kill. I sent out seven copies and received two reviews in exchange. Though I’m more than willing to send you CTTK after you’ve left a review for AITL, I can’t give out free copies of my work to anyone who has previously left their half of the agreement unfulfilled or unexplained.


Cut to the Kill Form

Books & Badges – Chapter Eighteen

NOT EDITED

Russell looked down at his phone for seemed like the millionth time since he had texted Theodore. The man had read it more or less instantly, but it’d been nearly twenty minutes without another response. Either Russell was overthinking it again, or he had genuinely upset Theodore. He wasn’t sure which was more likely–he didn’t Theodore well enough to figure that out–but he hated the way it made him feel.

Russell: I’m sorry. We haven’t known each other long enough for me to start checking up on you as soon as your shift ends and I shouldn’t be doing wellness checks. I’m sorry.

Theo: Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry. I just forgot to respond. You’re fine, Russell. You didn’t do anything wrong.

Russell blew out a harsh breath. “Thank God,” he whispered.

Russell: That’s okay

Theo: Work was tolerable. Hip wasn’t great, but I managed. Books make it fun.

Russell smiled. Theodore definitely worked in that book store because he loved books. There was doubt about that.

Russell: I’m sorry your pain was a little worse today. I’ll make sure to wake you up next time.

Theo: You were sleeping, too.

Russell: I’ll set an alarm

Theo: Brilliant

Theo: Next time, huh? Presumptuous.

Russell’s heart skipped an odd little beat in his chest. Maybe that had been too presumptuous. Maybe–

Theo: What about tomorrow night?

Russell: I’d love to, but I’ve got a thing tomorrow with my brother. Friday?

Theo: Counter for Saturday? Vera and I always talk about our weeks on Friday. Which probably sounds lame and stupid, but it’s tradition.

Russell: I don’t think it’s stupid at all. I think it’s healthy. I’ll see you Saturday. Eating in or out?

Theo: In? But maybe… after Vera goes to sleep?

Russell’s brow furrowed. Did Theodore regret introducing him to Vera? He considered asking, but he didn’t want to push it. There was no reason to push it, not now, and especially not over text.

Russell: Saturday it is then. Should I eat beforehand?

Theo: Probably. Unless you… want to eat at, like, nine. Vera goes to bed at 8:45

Russell: Only if you’re teaching me to cook when I get there

Theo: I can do that.

Russell: It’s official, then. This Saturday, you, me, and some glorious recipe I’m learning.

Theo: Perfect. See you then, Russell.

Theo: Get off your phone. The city needs you.

Russell snorted.

Russell: City only needs me if there’s a homicide. But you’re right. You have more interesting things to do then keep me from paperwork.

Theo: You’re a dork.

Theo: See you Saturday.

Russell smiled, shaking his head as he slid his phone back onto his desk. He’d ask about the Vera thing eventually, but for now, he just wanted to be happy that Theodore trusted him enough to be able to call him a dork without apologizing afterward.

With Theodore, that was definitely something.

***

On Saturday, Russell pulled up to Theodore’s place at nine PM and texted him rather than risking a knock on the door. Nearly a minute later, Theodore pulled open the door. “I can’t believe you actually came.”

“Was I not supposed to?” Russell asked, head cocked to the side.

Theodore shook his head. “No. I’m just used to being stood up.”

“And then it somehow always being your fault, right?” Russell asked. Theodore offered a small nod. “I’m not like that. I will never be like that.”

“Yeah,” Theodore said quietly. He cleared his throat and took a step backward. “Well, come on in.”

Russell stepped inside, closing the door behind him. “So… what’re we making?” he asked as he kicked off his shoes.

“I wasn’t prepared to make that decision for you.”

“Us. It’s a decision for us, since you’re teaching me.”

After a moment, Theodore nodded. “I guess.”

“What do you have ingredients for that you enjoy making?” Russell asked.

“Goulash. I-I like making goulash, but Shane–”

“What’s that?”

“You–? Okay. Elbow macaroni, cheese, beef, onions, garlic, some italian seasoning. Goulash.”

“Totally down for that,” Russell said.

“You… are?”

“One hundred percent. You had me sold at cheese. And macaroni, of course.”

“You’re not just saying that to please me?”

“No. Me and mac and cheese have watched some great TV shows together.”

Theodore chuckled. “Yeah, okay. Come on. I’ll teach you how to make goulash.”

***

Seated on the couch in the living room, Russell stuffed another forkful of goulash into his mouth, letting out a mildly embarrassing sound. “Okay, so, I could never make this without you holding my hand and making it stir things, but God, do I love this.”

Theodore chuckled. “I’m glad you like it.”

“Oh, I love it. Think we can do this thing where you hold my hand and make it cook things more often?”

“You really wanna… keep doing that?”

“Long as you want to? Definitely.”

“Then… yes,” Theodore said.

“Awesome.” A pause. “I’m also super sorry for that food-induced moan.”

Theodore laughed, shaking his head. “Don’t be.” His cheeks turned pink. “You aren’t allowed to respond to this next part, but it’s the sexiest sound I’ve ever heard come out of a man.”

One corner of Russell’s mouth lifted. “I really can’t respond at all?”

“Nope.”

“Okie dokie. No response.” A pause. “Oh, that’s so hard to do, Theo.”

Without looking at him, Theodore bumped his shoulder against Russell’s arm. “Maybe I’m testing your self-control.”

“Is self-control a good thing, or a bad thing?”

“Depends on the situation. Shane was always in control.”

Russell let out a nearly distressed whimper. “Theo.”

Theodore chuckled softly, turning to press a kiss to his shoulder. “You can say one thing.”

“I think the fact that you think it’s sexy, and that you said it outloud, is a good thing. That’s a thing non-‘damaged goods’ are able to say about people that they’re… technically dating now? And like I said, you aren’t damaged. Stuff like this? Simple little stuff, but it can help show you that you aren’t damaged, that you’re just fine the way you are.”

Theodore seemed to mull that over for several seconds. “Maybe you’re right. I’m no expert in… any of this. Also, technically dating?”

“I wasn’t sure how to phrase it without it getting under your skin.”

“I think… dating works. I’m okay with dating.”

Russell smiled. “Awesome. Me, too.”

Theodore wrapped his arms around one of Russell’s. “I, umm… feel like I should tell you that–although I really liked cuddling with you–I can’t do that again.”

“Because of the hip pain, or because of something… Shane-related?”

“Me not being able to kiss you this morning when I wanted to was Shane-related. This is totally hip-related. My mattress and my pillows–they’re supposed to help with the pain. Or, at least, they aren’t supposed to help make it worse. The couch tragically doesn’t have those qualities when used for more than, like, an hour,” Theodore said.

“Okay. No more couch cuddling, especially if it lasts more than an hour. I can manage that,” Russell said. “You wanted to kiss me?”

“I thought about it, when I saw you look at my lips. But I knew I couldn’t. I don’t know if it’s because Shane would always use kisses to sign his ‘apologies’, or if it’s because it still feels like betrayal of him, but… I couldn’t.”

“I’m not expecting you to kiss me,” Russell said. “And, uh, at no point am I going to force you to kiss me. It’s important to me that you know that, or try to understand it.”

“I’ll do my best.” Theodore pulled away from him, clasping his hands between his knees. “What do you wanna do now? Watch Nurse Jackie?”

“Yeah, we could do that. But I’m gonna make you stand up in an hour and take a little walk around the house, just to make sure your hip doesn’t stiffen up too much,” Russell said. “Or… not make, but I’m gonna suggest it in an hour.”

“I like that idea. That works for me,” Theodore said.

“Great.” Russell cleared his throat as Theodore grabbed the remote from the coffee table. “You sure you don’t want any of this?”

“I ate supper with Vera. I’m not hungry.”

“You’re sure?”

Theodore offered a smile. “I’m sure, thank you.” He turned back to the television and turned it on. “I’m just going to get us settled up with an episode of Nurse Jackie, and I’ll stand up in an hour like a good boy.” He cleared his throat. “Though I’d love if you pretended you didn’t hear those last two words.”

“Can I ask a question first?”

“Yes.”

“Did he use to call you that, so you’d like to avoid it? Or do you just not like the way it sounds?”

Theodore stayed silent for a moment. “He used to call me it, usually when I stopped arguing for my side of a fight. I guess it was… even more proof he could defeat me if he ended it with ‘good boy’.”

Russell nodded, doing his best to keep his body relaxed, his expression neutral. The idea of some sick bastard like Shane treating him like shit pissed him off to no end, but he feared anger would set off every red flag Theodore was simply waiting for him to hit. “Well, I’ll make sure I never call you it, then. It’ll never be my goal to condescend you or try to… defeat you. That’s not who I am–not with you, not with anyone else.”

Rather than responding, Theodore laid his head on Russell’s shoulder. Russell smiled, reaching up to lay a hand on the side of Theodore’s head. He didn’t need a verbal response. That spoke much more than words could say, anyway.


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Books & Badges – Chapter Seventeen

NOT EDITED

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.”

“Thank you.”

“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.”

“You’re adorable.”

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.”

“Deal.”

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.

“Deal.”

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.”

“Thank you.”

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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Books & Badges – Chapter Sixteen

NOT EDITED

Russell pulled his car into Theodore’s driveway and shifted it into park. Letting out a slow breath, he dropped his hands to his lap and turned to look at Theodore. “Did you have a nice time tonight? I know it was just supper, but I didn’t want to add too many other things on top of it and risk stressing you out or anything of the sort.”

Theodore turned away from the window, a little smile gracing his face. “I really enjoyed myself, Russell. Thank you for giving me that,” he said. “And… you? I hope I wasn’t too boring.”

Russell chuckled. “Theo, I’ve sat in a dark, quiet room with you so you could manage to sleep for a while, and I wasn’t bored. You aren’t a boring person.”

“Yeah, I’ll just have to take your word on that one.”

“Well, even that works for me. Long as you know I think you’re plenty interesting.”

“I… think the same of you,” Theodore said.

Russell smiled softly. “Thank you.” He cocked his head to the side. “Do you want me to stay in the car, or may I walk you up to the house?”

“My mom’s inside.”

“Does she not know you went on a date?”

“No, she does. But I don’t know if you really wanna meet my mom.” Theodore winced. “That sounds terrible. My mom’s a wonderful person. I just mean, like, isn’t meeting the parents a milestone of some sort?”

“It can be, usually with supper, in my experience. But if you don’t want me to meet her right now, I’ll begrudgingly sit in the car.”

Theodore smiled faintly, and Russell couldn’t help but smile right back at him. “Yeah, okay, I’ll let you walk me back up to the house.”

“Awesome.” Russell shut off the car and pushed open his door. “Stay there? I’m gonna be gentlemanly and open your door, too.”

Theodore snorted. “Yeah, okay. I’ll behave and wait right here.”

“Not behaving,” Russell said. “I don’t have control over you. I don’t want control over you.”

After a moment, Theodore nodded. “Okay. By my own choice, I’ll wait right here,” he said.

“Perfect,” Russell whispered. He slid out of the car and closed the door. He was doing everything he could to balance his behavior. He truly had enjoyed supper with Theodore, but he had felt like he was holding a lot back. He hadn’t wanted to pressure him into any conversations or actions.

He just wanted the night to be fun and simple for Theodore. Calm. Relaxed.

He never wanted Theodore to feel like he was like Shane in any way, shape, or form.

Russell rounded the car and pulled open the passenger door. He held out a hand, which–after a moment–Theodore accepted. He got out of the car, touching his cane back to the ground. “How’s your hip?” Russell asked as he closed the door.

“Good. It’s… it’s all right. Those chairs were pretty nice.”

“Good. I did my best to make sure of that.”

Theodore snorted. “Thanks for not lying when you do weird, potentially manipulative things to get something. It’s… not something Shane would’ve been honest about.”

“In that case, I have one more honesty bomb for you.”

“Is it a good honesty bomb?”

“I would say… no. It’s super sad that I can’t cook worth a damn.”

Theodore cocked his head to the side. “So you paid for the food you brought over?”

“Psh, ‘course not. I don’t break promises. I did, however, help two of the detectives at the station with paperwork specifically so they’d make me food to bring to you and Vera. It’s not money. It doesn’t count.”

“That’s still totally cheating,” Theodore said. He smiled. “But it’s a good loophole. Congrats.” He elbowed Russell in the side. “And I’d say the food was well worth the trade, right?”

“Oh, one hundred percent. Though, it wasn’t the food. It was the supper. You and Vera. That was… that was what made it worth the trade,” Russell said, hoping to God that wasn’t crossing any boundaries with Theodore.

Theodore smiled at him. “Your sweetness scares me,” he whispered.

“I promise you it will not turn on you. What you see here is exactly what you get. I’m not a… I’m not a violent bastard. I never will be,” Russell said.

Theodore wrapped him in a hug. Russell let out a slow breath, embracing the man as he closed his eyes. “This is all so… strange, new, and difficult for me.”

“Oh, I can only imagine, Theo.”

“I-I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I enjoy being around you. I enjoyed having you at the house for supper. I really enjoyed having super with you tonight. But every single time you do something for me, I’m waiting for you to hold it against me. Every time you’re nice to me, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop or for you to hold it over my head. I-I don’t know what to do, here.”

“Do you want to keep seeing me?” Russell asked.

“Yes,” Theodore whispered.

“Then we’ll figure it out.” Russell rubbed a hand down Theodore’s spine. “We’ll figure something out to help calm your nerves. Just… give me some time. I’ll figure it out.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem, Theo.” Russell cleared his throat. “What do you say we head on up to the house?”

Theodore nodded, taking a step away from him. “Are you tired?”

“No, why?”

“After my mom leaves, do you want to stay and watch a movie?”

“I would love to,” Russell said softly.

A tiny smile turned up one corner of Theodore’s mouth. “Really?”

“Really.”

Theodore nodded. “Okay. Let’s go… introduce you to my mom, then.”

“Are you sure you’re still all right with that? I won’t be mad if you don’t want me to meet her. I’ll take you up to the door, and then I’ll come back to the car and wait until she leaves to come back in for a movie. As long as you feel safe and comfortable, it doesn’t bother me,” Russell said.

“I want you to come inside. She hated Shane from the very beginning. She always said there was something undeniably off about him. I wanna know what she thinks of you,” Theodore said.

Russell snorted. “Comforting. Come on, then.” He held out a crooked arm. After simply staring at it for several seconds, Theodore looped his own arm through it. Helping to support Theodore, Russell walked him up to the house. The man still had his cane with him, but Russell was pretty sure the majority of Theodore’s weight had been shifted over to his Russell’s arm rather than the cane.

Russell was fine with that. Whatever helped Theodore feel more stable and confident in his step.

Theodore opened the front door and stepped inside. Russell followed suit, closing the door behind them. A woman walked into the foyer as they were kicking off their shoes, seemingly surprised to see that Russell had come inside. “Hey, Mom. This is Russell, the detective I went out with tonight,” Theodore said.

Russell stuck out a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

She smiled, accepting his hand. “You, too. I’m Bonnie.”

“Good to meetcha, Bonnie.”

She nodded, dropping her hand. “What kind of detective are you, Russell?”

“Homicide.”

“That… must be terrible. Working murders?”

“It definitely isn’t easy,” Russell agreed, “but it allows me to give justice to the wronged, and it allows me to give people comfort on what is probably the worst day of their lives. Knowing I’m doing a good job at it makes the darkness of it worth it.”

Bonnie nodded, crossing her arms over her chest. “Are you an asshole?”

Mom.”

“What? I’m asking the man an honest question.”

Russell chuckled softly. “Don’t worry about it, Theo. It’s okay.” He cleared his throat. “As far as I know, I’m not an asshole. Since I graduated college, the only people who have honestly called me an asshole have been criminals when I’m arresting them. I–personally–think that’s a pretty good asshole to not an asshole ratio.”

“Hmm. We’ll see. I’m keeping my eye on you.”

“Please do. I don’t plan to harm Theo or Vera, but if I ever do, whoop my ass. I would deserve it,” Russell said.

Theodore grabbed his hand, tugging him back a tiny step before releasing his hand. “Okay, Mom. You’ve had your fill for the night, yeah?”

“For now. I plan to interrogate the heck outta this boy if you ever bring him for supper,” Bonnie said.

“Yeah, okay, Mom.”

“Well, it was nice meeting you, Russell, but it appears I’m being shooed out.”

“If you’d stop being embarrassing, I wouldn’t have to shoo you,” Theodore said.

Russell chuckled. “It was good to meet you, too, Bonnie.”

“Can you go wait in the living room, Russell? Please?” Theodore asked.

“Sure can.”

“Thanks.”

Russell headed into the living room and sat down on the couch. He heard the front door open and close, and a few minutes later, Theodore came back inside and sat down beside him. “So?”

“I’m sorry about my mom,” Theodore said.

“Sorry? You don’t have to be sorry, Theo.”

“I… don’t?”

“God, of course not. Your mom loves you. She’s just trying to make sure you’re okay, that you’re safe. You don’t have to be upset with her for that, either. I’m sure not.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Theodore shook his head, clasping his hands between his knees. “Shane hated my mom, absolutely hated her. Every time she did something he didn’t like, I… was expected to apologize.”

“Well, to me? You don’t have to apologize for someone else’s behavior. You can’t control your mom. She’s not, say, a well-trained dog. And again, even if you could control her, I’m not upset with her. I’m not angry at her for protecting her son, not at all,” Russell said. He reached out, brushing a few of the longer strands of Theodore’s hair back from his forehead. “The only thing you’ll ever have to truly apologize to me for are your actions, your words. And I don’t mean the things Shane probably made you apologize for. I mean actual, genuine, terrible things. Okay?”

“Okay,” Theodore whispered. Almost cautiously, he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Russell, resting his head on the detective’s chest. Russell hugged him back, closing his eyes as he gently dropped his chin to rest on the man’s head. “Do you still wanna watch a movie?”

“If you aren’t tired, I’m still definitely game for that,” Russell said.

“Then… I’m also game for that,” Theodore said. He lifted his head, eyes locking with Russell’s. “Russell?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you… sure you want to… be seeing me?”

“Pretty sure, yeah. Why?”

“I’m… damaged goods.”

Russell’s heart beat just a little faster, his temperature growing just a little warmer. “You’re not damaged goods. That’s the kind of disgusting bullshit people like Shane say to keep their victims in line, to keep them from leaving,” he said. “You aren’t damaged goods. You’re a human being who has been through hell. You’re a human being who, despite that hell, is going out of his way to raise a wonderful daughter. You’re doing great, Theo. You’re not damaged, you’re just healing.”

Theodore watched him for a long moment before letting out a breath. “God, I wish I could bring myself to believe that.”

“I know. And someday, maybe you’ll be able to. That wound’s still a little too fresh for you to simply… be over it. Not to mention that I’d be a monster if I just expected you to be over it. You have to heal, and that can be a long process. I’m not going to sit here and shame you for it or tell you to hurry it up. You have to take the time you need to heal, and I’m not going to force you to do that any differently.”

“I… I wish it wasn’t so hard to believe you’re genuine.”

“I understand why it’s hard for you. I won’t push that, either.”

Theodore sighed, though it didn’t seem to be out of irritation. “I know I asked you in for a movie, but… do you mind if I hug you just a little longer first?”

A little smile tugged at one corner of Russell’s mouth. “I don’t mind at all,” he said. Theodore leaned over and wrapped him in a hug again. Russell returned it, resting his chin on the man’s head. “I know you’ll never really let your guard down, and that’s okay. I respect and understand that. But I do want you to know that if you ever need me for… just about anything, I’m here. Okay?”

“I’ll do my best to remember that.” Theodore cleared his throat. “Can you… lean back? Against the arm rest?”

“You want to cuddle?”

“Maybe.” Theodore pulled away. “Is that okay?”

“Very.”

Theodore offered a smile. “Great. Umm… what do you wanna watch?”

“Anything that piques your interest.”

“You’re a big help.”

“I try.”

Theodore snorted, reaching out to grab the remote. Russell shifted, leaning back against the pillow propped up on the arm rest. Once Theodore had turned on the television and switched it over to Netflix, he lay down, hesitantly dropping his head to Russell’s chest.

After a moment, Russell wrapped an arm around Theodore’s shoulders. “You’ll… let me know if my arm is too much?”

“I’ll let you know,” Theodore said.

“Awesome,” Russell whispered. He turned his head toward the television, watching Theodore flip through the movies and shows they could choose from. “You really don’t care that I like women, too?”

“No. It’s not my business to care about the people or gender you find attractive. You like what you see in me–I guess–and I like what I see in you. That’s all that matters to me. I mean… on your end. I kind of also have to take in if you’re an asshole, how you treat those around you, how you act in public versus in private… You get the point.”

“I do,” Russell assured. “Still, thank you. Since I opened my eyes to the part of myself that also likes men, I’ve had a hard time finding a guy that doesn’t care and who wants to do more than sleep together. Same with the women I’ve been with since I came out. I can get one or the other, but finding both qualities in one person hasn’t been easy for me.”

“All the good ones must’ve been sucked up into relationships this year.”

Russell chuckled. “Yeah, that must be the case. Thank God you’re out of one, then, huh?”

Theodore tilted his head back against Russell’s chest, offering a little smile. “Yeah, thank God. I… I still can’t believe I’m out, you know?”

“I can only imagine.”

“Y-you know how I said Vera had a bad dream? That’s why I didn’t respond?”

“Yeah. You didn’t really want me to care about that at the time.”

“I know. I’m sorry about that.”

“You don’t have to be.”

After a moment, Theodore nodded. “Her bad dreams are about Shane. She has a lot of them where he comes back to the house, comes back to hurt me.”

“Does he ever hurt her in the dreams?”

“No, thankfully. I-I never let him… I never stopped him from hurting me. I couldn’t. But I didn’t let him lay a hand on her. I think I would’ve killed him if he had tried. Despite everything she ever saw, I think that keeps her from seeing him hurting her in the dreams, and for that, I’m thankful,” Theodore said. “Do you… do you think that fear will ever go away? The dreams?”

“I don’t know. She’s young, and there’s a chance it could fade, at the very least. But I… I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I figure I’ll have to try and take her to a psychologist who can help her and who can answer that question. I should… probably do that sooner than later.”

“Does your insurance cover it?”

“The first two sessions, yes. Outside of that… no.” Theodore cleared his throat, shifting on the couch. “But I’ll figure it out. She’s my baby girl. I’d do anything for her.”

“You’ll definitely figure it out,” Russell agreed. “Theo?”

“Hmm?”

“Did you really enjoy our date?”

“I did. Why?”

“Just making sure. I want to know that… you’re comfortable, you know? That’s important to me.”

“Well, I am currently very comfortable,” Theodore said.

Russell chuckled. “Good.” He laid his free hand on Theodore’s cheek, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. Theodore let out a soft sigh, though his body was tense. Russell understood why that conflict of emotions battled within the man, and he had no intention of drawing attention to it, not unless Theodore did it first. “You go ahead and choose a movie or TV show. We’ll watch whatever you want to.”

“Are you sure?”

“Mmhmm.”

Theodore nodded against his chest, flipping through their options again. “Have you ever seen Nurse Jackie?”

“I have not. Would you like to watch it?”

“Always wanted to. Shane hated hospital shows.”

“Well, good news, I love hospital shows. Long as you promise not to watch any episodes without me, fire it up.”

Theodore laughed. “Deal.”


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Books & Badges – Chapter Fifteen

NOT EDITED

Tuesday night, after work, Theodore waited for his mom to come to the house to babysit Vera. The idea of going on an actual, genuine date with Russell made his heart race and his stomach twist, but he was doing his best to keep it together. He wanted to move on. He wanted to show himself that he was worth more than someone like Shane.

As it stood, Russell had treated him rather well. If that wasn’t better than Shane, he wasn’t sure what–or who–was.

Finally, when his mom got to the house, Theodore unlocked and opened the door. “Well, don’t you look nice,” she said, her head cocked to the side. “You said you were going to the bar. Dress pants, a tie, and a very nice button-up are the things you’re choosing to wear to the bar?”

Theodore offered a smile. “What if I said yes?”

“Then I’d call you a liar.”

Theodore let out a breath. “Between you and me, I’m going on a date.”

His mother smiled. “Theo, baby, that’s great.”

His shoulders relaxed. “It is?”

“Of course it is. If you’re ready to try and start… living your life again, if you’re ready to be able and try to move past all that bad stuff? Of course that’s great. If even one date with a good man helps make you happy, it’s really great.”

Theodore smiled softly. “Thanks, Mom.”

She nodded. “Are you nervous? You look nervous.”

“I’m scared it’s too soon.”

“But you’re not sure?” she asked. He only shook his head. “Well, you look very nice tonight, so I say go. You can always leave early.”

“He’s picking me up. I don’t… I haven’t gotten back around to driving again.”

“That’s okay. Tell you what, if you wanna leave early and he won’t take you, you call me. I’ll put Vera in the car and come getcha.”

Theodore smiled. “Thanks, Mom. Really, I appreciate that.”

She touched a hand to his cheek. “You’re my baby boy. I gotta make sure you’re taken care of.”

“Thank you.” He cleared his throat. “So, umm… call me if you can’t find something or if you or Vera need anything. I’ll answer. Otherwise, I’ll be home in about three hours.”

“All right, sweetheart. Have fun, okay?”

“I’ll do my best, Mom.” Theodore pressed a kiss to her cheek before pulling open the front door. Though he had heard Russell’s car pull up, he hadn’t heard the door open or close. Regardless, Russell stood at the front of it, leaned back against the hood, eyes on Theodore.

Theodore swallowed, stepping outside. He reached back and pulled the front door closed. “Good evening,” he greeted.

Russell smiled softly. “Evening. How are you?”

“I-I’m good. How are you?”

“Also good. Do you need a moment, or may I open the passenger door for you?”

“You can–Yeah, you can do that.”

“Okay,” Russell whispered, pushing himself away from the car. He walked over to the passenger side and opened the door. Theodore drew in a deep breath and made his way down the steps, fingers tight around his cane. He hadn’t wanted to bring it, but Vera had insisted. In the long run, he also knew it was better to have it with him, but he hated bringing it everywhere he went. He wasn’t even thirty yet, not for another year or so. Having to walk with a cane made him feel… unbelievably old.

To say the least, it wasn’t a feeling he enjoyed.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice quiet as he slid into the car.

“No problem. All good?” Russell asked. Theodore nodded, pulling his leg a little further from the door as Russell closed it. Through the windshield, he watched the man walk around the front of the car, looking damn good in that suit. Russell slid into the driver’s seat, pulling the door shut behind him. After he buckled his seat belt, he looked over at Theodore. He flashed a smile. “I’m the boring kind of cop that’s not going to back up until yours is on, too.”

“Oh, shoot, sorry. I-I’m just… I’m nervous,” Theodore said, the words tumbling out before he had a chance to stop it.

Russell only smiled. “That’s okay. I’m nervous, too.”

“You are?”

“Very. Dates normally don’t go my way. The whole bisexual thing has really only gone well so far with a couple of women, and I just wasn’t interested enough for a second date. Or… a date at all. One of those gals is just nice to, umm…” Russell cleared his throat. “Well, I won’t go into detail on that one. But I’m nervous. That’s the main takeaway. You aren’t alone.”

Theodore reached over the center console, hesitating. “You won’t be mad if I touch your hand… will you?”

“God, no.”

He nodded, dropping his hand to cover Russell’s before he could stop himself again. He gave the detective’s hand a squeeze. “Thank you. Knowing that you’re nervous, too? That makes this feel a little… lighter, easier.”

That familiar soft smile came back to Russell’s face. “No problem, Theo.” He laid his free hand over Theodore’s, encompassing his cold, clammy hand with nothing but warmth. “Are you ready? Or do you wanna sit and talk a while longer? I’m okay either way. I made sure our reservation time accounted for a bit of nerves.”

Theodore offered a smile. “I’ll put on my seat belt and be ready to go. Thanks, Russell. Again.”

“No problem, Theo.”

***

Their reservations were at a simple but very nice restaurant, though all the tables directly around them were empty. After their waiter gave them their menus and walked back toward the kitchen, Theodore turned his attention to Russell. “I’m rather suspicious of you.”

Russell snorted before lifting his head. “For which reason?”

“This is a nice place, and I’m assuming you didn’t take me somewhere that had terrible food.”

“I didn’t. You’re right.”

“So why are there so many empty tables?”

“I… don’t know that you want an answer to that.”

“I think I do.”

Russell cleared his throat. “I wanted to play it safe and make sure that you didn’t feel too on edge. My sister manages this place. She made sure we were the only ones seated in this section for the next hour and a half.”

“That’s…”

“Invasive,” Russell said. “I should’ve asked you if that was something you wanted, but I was worried you wouldn’t give me a straight answer, anyway. I just don’t want tonight to be terrible for you.”

Theodore reached across the table, touching two fingers to the back of Russell’s hand. “Russell, I was going to say that’s about the nicest thing a man’s ever done for me. Thank you.”

Russell’s shoulders relaxed as a smile came back to his face. “No problem, Theo.” Theodore nodded once, pulling his hand back to himself. “So, I want you to know that you don’t have to skim that whole menu and then order, like, a four-dollar salad, okay? You can get whatever you want here, no matter what it is, and I will not be angry with you. I will not hold it against you later. It’s important to me that you do your best to understand that, even though I know it’s difficult for you.”

“I-I’ll do my best,” Theodore assured. He cleared his throat, eyes falling to the menu in front of him. “You’ve eaten here before, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What… do you recommend?”

“Well, I really like the steak. I’m pretty sure that’s my favorite thing on the menu,” Russell said. “But the chicken breast is good, and the salmon is good. It’s the battered fillet, so… no eyes.”

Theodore snorted. “Good to know. What about sides?”

“I always get fries with the steak, even though my sister tells me I should try and be classier,” Russell said.

Theodore chuckled. “Your sister sounds like a hater.”

“Man, she totally is, she just won’t admit it.”

“How rude.”

“God, I know. Rudeness is her speciality,” Russell said.

Theodore lifted his eyes to Russell’s face. “Sibling jabbing aside, is she the one with the niece you bought the book for?”

Russell smiled. “Yeah, she is.”

“What’s your niece’s name?”

Russell’s smile widened, eyes brightening. “Abby. She’s… God, light of my life, you know?”

“I do. Vera’s the light of mine,” Theodore said. “Hopefully this Abby knows how great of an uncle she has?” He was damn proud of himself for managing what he hoped was a compliment without blushing or syking himself out of it. Russell deserved compliments. He was too good of a guy not to have them thrown at him every day.

“I think she knows,” Russell said. He smiled. “And thank you. I hope Vera knows how great of a father she has.” A pause. “Well, that’s a lie. I don’t have to hope for that. I’ve spoken to her about you. I already know she knows it. She sees you as… a warrior, a protector. She’d be right.”

Heat rose to Theodore’s cheeks, but he still managed to shake his head. “No, I’m no protector, and I’m certainly no warrior. I… I let Shane–” “Theo, you didn’t let that bastard do anything. He took what he wanted to take, and he did what he wanted to do. It was a systematic approach to forcing you into submission, forcing you to believe you were garbage and that you deserved what he was doing and saying to you. You, in no way, let that happen. That is not your fault,” Russell said. “And as far as I’m concerned, you are a warrior. You are a protector. He sent you to the hospital, and you fought back against every single thing he had ever done to keep you quiet, and you sent the cops back to that house to make sure Vera would get as far away from him as possible. That sure as hell makes you a warrior in my eyes.”


A/N: I love these two SO damn much, and I have no idea what I’ll do with my life after this book is over, lmao

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Books & Badges – Chapter Fourteen

NOT EDITED

Russell managed to wrap up the case early Sunday afternoon, not counting paperwork. The killer, however, had been arrested and read his rights, and he now sat in a holding cell at the station, waiting to be transferred to county tomorrow morning.

Russell sat at his desk, working his way through the paperwork in question. Final interview and interrogation notes, reports, signing off on the used warrants and forensic reports. It wasn’t the most fun part of the job by any means, but he had no real issue simply getting by. It was his job to do it, and Russell was damn good at following orders.

Russell looked down as his phone dinged with a text. Upon seeing Theodore’s name on his screen, he set his pen down and grabbed his phone instead.

Theodore: Question

Russell: Answer

Theodore: Are you at work?

Russell: Yeah, wrapping up paperwork. Why? Everything okay?

Theodore: Yeah, I think so

Theodore: Sorry, yes. It’s fine.

Russell frowned and selected the call option instead. He pressed his phone to his ear, waiting. After three rings, Theodore answered, though he didn’t offer a verbal response. “Theo?”

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Great. What’s going on?” Russell asked.

Theodore cleared his throat. “It’s not a big deal, Russell. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry for anything. What’s up?”

He sighed. “Umm… it’s nothing, but a car like yours is driving around on my street. They’ve gone past the house four times already. I thought it might be you, but if you’re doing paperwork, it better not be you.”

“It’s not. But if it looks like mine, it should be a detective patrolling the block.”

“Isn’t that… a cop’s job? In a cruiser?”

“Depends on what they’re looking for,” Russell said. “There was an attempted break-in on that block not too long ago. It should be the detective working that case.”

“Really?” Theodore asked.

“Really, really. You’re safe, I promise,” Russell said softly. “And Theo?”

“Hmm?”

“If you ever think something’s wrong, you can contact me. A text or a call… I don’t mind either way. If I’m by my phone, I’ll answer it. Okay?”

Theodore stayed silent for a moment. “Are you sure?”

“I’m certain.”

“Okay.” Theodore cleared his throat. “Russell?”

“Yeah?”

“I have a hard time buying the… nice guy act.”

“For me, it isn’t an act, but I understand what you’re getting at,” Russell said.

“Yeah. I have a hard time believing it isn’t an act. So… I’m putting a lot of trust into you right now, but if it gets broken… I can’t talk to you anymore. This soon after everything with Shane, I can’t afford any second chances.”

“I know. And if I break your trust, feel free to just get rid of me, okay? I know you can’t believe me on this, and I understand that, but I won’t hold any grudges. None of your fears or inabilities are your fault. They were forced onto you. You with me?” Russell asked.

“I think so.”

“Good,” Russell whispered. “Very good.”

Theodore cleared his throat. “Thank you. For, uh… everything. Again.”

“No problem.”

“I’ll let you get back to work. Good luck with paperwork. Talk to you… later?” Theodore asked.

“Yeah, thanks. Talk soon, Theo.” Russell waited a moment before a little smile came to his face. “You’re still on the line. Would you like me to hang up first?”

“Yes, please.”

“Okay. Enjoy your day off, Theo.”

“I… was gonna say ‘you, too’, but I guess I’ll have to settle with, ‘I’ll do my best’. Talk to you later.”

“Yeah, talk to you later, Theo,” Russell confirmed. He pulled his phone back and ended the call, setting the device back down on his desk. Theodore seemed to be doing his best to answer questions without hesitation or a breakdown of those questions. Despite the man’s fear that Russell considered everything he did or said a burden or waste of time in some sense, ‘doing his best’ was a plus.

***

The next morning, with his own paperwork wrapped up, Russell went back to helping Emelia and Andrew go through the paperwork for their cold case. Police interviews, interrogations, missing persons reports, suspicion persons reports, APBs, BOLOs, photographs of the crime scene, printed off screen grabs from surveillance photos.

To say the least, there was a lot to go through.

“Coffee,” Andrew mumbled, pushing himself to his feet. “Anyone want a refill?”

“I’m good,” Russell said.

Emelia held out her mug. “Thanks, babe.”

Andrew smiled. “No problem.”

Once he walked away from the desks, Emelia glanced up at Russell before going back to the file. “So, you’ve been quiet this morning.”

“Do you want me to be super loud? That can be arranged,” Russell said.

She laughed softly, shaking her head. “No, I’m just not used to it. ‘I’m good’ is the most you’ve said in at least the last hour.”

“I’m just thinking, I guess.”

“Thinking about anything you’d like to talk about? Or is it all something that has to stay in your head?” she asked.

“I’m, umm, not sure, actually. I guess I’d like to talk, but at the same time, I don’t know how much I’m willing to talk about.”

“Okay, I get that. Well, I’m always here for you. You have to know that.”

“I do. More or less.” He cleared his throat. “Can I ask you something? And you have to answer it without being, like, super judgmental.”

“I think staying level-headed is generally regarded as one of my good qualities,” Emilia said. “Ask away.”

Russell nodded, though she wasn’t looking at him. “If the guy I… currently like is still recovering from an abusive relationship, should I put the brakes on and tell him it’s too soon? Or is it okay to let him figure it out?”

“Tell him that it’s too soon for him, or that it makes you uncomfortable to go on dates with him so soon?”

“I think it’s too soon for him,” Russell said.

Emilia nodded. “Have you already asked him if he thinks it’s too soon?”

“Yeah.”

“And what did he say?”

“That he can’t let his ex continue to ruin his life from behind bars.”

Emilia nodded. “Do you want my suggestion?”

“Please.”

“Unless it makes you uncomfortable or anything like that, go for it. Date him. If it’s too soon for him, he’ll know. He’s the only one that can know.”

“But… what if he doesn’t know?” Russell asked. “As far as I can tell, this ex of his is one of the only–if not the only–person he’s ever been in a relationship with. How will he know if he’s ready?”

“I wish I had an answer to that one, Russ, but I… don’t. Andy’s the only person I’ve been with, too,” she said. “I think if it’s too soon for him, one way or another, you’ll both know. But right now? If he wants to move on, he’s either going to try moving on with you or with someone else. I guess–if I were you–I’d weigh which option you prefer.”

Russell nodded. “Thank you.”

“No problem, Russ. I hope everything works out for you. You deserve it.” He smiled. “Me, too. Thanks.” He wasn’t so sure that he deserved anything to work out for him, but the idea that it was possible was a damn nice one, if nothing else. That had to count for something.


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