You can feel the solidity of Cooper's body beside you as you stare at the rescued sneakers in your hands. He is close enough for you to smell that scent that is uniquely Cooper. Citrus notes of a masculine cologne, the tang of gun oil and mint chewing gum and the slightest hint of sweat.
"It wasn't your fault, Ben," he says softly.
You blink, because he never calls you Ben. Boot has become his favoured address for you, a nickname that you accept rather than a label forced upon you. Richie Rich or Kid on occasion. Numbnuts or Dipshit when he's in a particularly sardonic mood. But never Ben.
You don't know what to say in response; you want to acknowledge the effort he is making, but your shell-shocked brain doesn't know how, so you settle for staring at the sneakers a while longer.
It has become familiar to feel comforted by his presence. Cooper can reassure you with just a glance. When Coop's around, you feel like everything will be okay, and that's why you asked him to meet you tonight.
He has become your mentor, your adviser, your friend. He is your confidant and your adversary; your rock and your punchbag. You fight with him and you laugh with him. Most of all, you value the times when he gives in and allows his laughter to flow; since the first time you heard him lose it at the sight of half-naked Dewey, Cooper's laughter has lightened you. Because if John Cooper can laugh, if you both can, till your stomachs hurt and your eyes water, all is not lost.
He stands abruptly. No laughter tonight: neither of you can find it within you. Your gaze jumps to him, wondering if he is about to drive off and leave you with your new demons, and you speak before you've realised your words.
Cooper is still for a moment, hand resting on the Challenger's low roof.
"Get in the car, Boot."
X X X
You sit in your emotionless living room, swigging beer between bites of Thai food. Cooper is talking but you can barely hear his words; your mind is replaying the day's events, a soap opera of images you don't want to see.
The scene becomes the station carpark; Cooper's calming voice piercing your heart-thumping anticipation as you clutch the shotgun and try not to keep glancing at the U-Boat that signifies such a huge leap forward.
Watch the hands. Cooper's hands are huge; rough-skinned and covered in the little nicks and scars of a life lived through action. You find you are watching their sure, casual grip on the less-lethal.
Be safe; be smart.
You tried so hard to follow his instructions that day, to prove to him that his belief in you was justified. You didn't want to let him down any more than you wanted to let yourself down.
"Yo, join the same planet at the rest of us, Richie Rich." Cooper's voice is strident in your ear, in the present, and it won't be ignored. Those eyes, that can be like flints of ice or as warm as a Caribbean ocean, never leave yours.
"Sorry," you mumble.
"If you need to apologise, I'll tell you."
That makes you smile, even though finding humour feels impossible. Only Cooper can manage to be an asshole and a friend in a single moment. This contradiction of a man, who can be both enigma and inspiration. He is the guy who keeps you safe, prevents you from screwing up, teaches you the lessons he knows inside out. Right now, you still need that. One day not too far in the future, you won't anymore. But will you still need John Cooper? Need that strong, solid presence by your side, the reassurance of this cop that you want so desperately to emulate?
"You could at least think out loud," he complains. "I can practically hear your li'l brain whirling away."
You look blankly at him, because you can well believe Cooper can read your mind. He throws a bottle cap at your head and sits back to shoot some choice insults at the Lakers.
You hope no bottle caps will find your new LED cinema screen.
X X X
Days pass. Sometimes it feels better; sometimes worse. Sometimes you can talk about it; sometimes you have to grit your teeth until the urge for violence passes. Cooper stays by your side each watch, at once a silent tower of strength and an advising sensei, and when watch is over, he takes you for beers until he's confident he can send you home.
"Jesus, does your partner keep you on a leash or somethin'?" a banger pants after you slam him to the sidewalk, chase over before it's even begun.
"Hell no, I don't want him that close to me," Cooper announces, "but I put his collar on pretty tight."
You know you've got that look on your face, the one he calls 'the puppy dog', and you know he's gonna call you a girl and tell you to grow a pair.
"You think about the bad names they've called you after you go home?" Cooper mocks once you're back on the streets.
You shoot him an impotent glare but don't have a reply.
"Jesus Christ, Boot, do you ever just answer without thinking about it for ten minutes first?"
"Sometimes," you reply hotly, caught off guard. You'd have liked to take the time to consider a clever response.
That familiar half-smile, that little smirk, plays on Cooper's lips. "Finally, a little progress. And I mean a little."
You can't help the grin. "I must be movin' on up."
"If you start singing, I swear to whatever god you believe in, I will throw you outta the fuckin' window."
X X X
Another day; the dreams getting easier to handle, no longer seeing the broken body every time you close your eyes. A stand-off outside a pet store. Angry guy barricading himself in his truck with his equally aggrieved dog.
You look over the broad shoulder, standing close to the big, solid body you could identify from a block away, so the mutt's teeth will encounter Cooper first before it reaches you. He's the dog guy, after all.
"Maybe you should get a dog."
"Jesus Christ, is it not enough to have you to deal with every day?" he retorts, but his voice is amused and he lets you see the light in his eyes.
"I guess it's pretty delicate." You eye the furiously-barking dog with poorly-disguised unease.
"Does that thing look delicate to you?" Cooper demands. "It comes near me it's gonna be a dead delicate thing."
He marches forward like he owns the entire damn world, like no one could possibly be more in charge of this situation than him, and plants his feet. Adopts his familiar barn-door stance; arms folded hard across his barrel chest.
"Get outta the truck right now, asshole, or I'm gonna shoot you and your fuckin' dog."
"Hey!" Cooper yells, almost sounded indignant at being ignored. "You deaf, numbnuts?"
And you can do nothing but watch, thinking how you're going to explain this to the watch commander if Cooper ends up getting squashed into the asphalt or eaten by an angry poodle.
X X X
Towering over the smaller man, Cooper looks massive, his black t-shirt clinging to his hard body from the desert heat despite the fancy rehab's AC. You hope he's not gonna land one on Dewey, 'cos you stand more chance of knocking down a telegraph pole with your bare hands than of succeeding in pushing Cooper away.
You watch him carefully but his anger is back under control; he is in charge of this situation and you can feel his power radiating from him. When he speaks, his voice has softened and as his eyes lock on Dewey's, there is so much authority in the bright blue that you believe Dewey would hop on one leg singing the national anthem if Cooper told him to.
He's tense and uneasy when you leave; his body language as he strides to the Charger is the opposite of when you left LA. Doesn't want to talk about his friend's death, doesn't really want to talk about anything. But he handles himself well at the funeral, Cooper the rock you value most when shit gets hard, and, hell, it must be hard for him listening to that eulogy, seeing the guy's young family.
Despite the occasion, you feel yourself stand a little taller when he introduces you to the widow as his partner, when he introduces you to Laurie as simply 'Ben', as if he has spoken of you regularly. She smiles acknowledgement like she already knows all about you.
A couple hours later, the desert staring at you in the rearview mirror, you risk a glance at the big man sitting beside you. You like the Challenger; it had been a nice ride here, gunning the engine as loud as it would go, tossing jibes between you, laughing easily. The rehab centre had been awkward as hell but, as usual, you stood by your partner and took it all in with what you hoped was an expression of neutral interest despite your acute discomfort when your own unease and temper escalated.
The ride home is quiet: even the throatiness of the engine seems hushed. You throw regular glances at Cooper's half-shadowed profile as he keeps his haunted eyes fixed on the road. You are used to watching Cooper: you watch him every day. You know his features better than you know your own reflection. It has become automatic, instinctive, to look to him, so many times a day you often no longer realise you are doing it. Today, it feels different.
He looks older than when you set out this morning; his features are stony and his jaw clenched tight. He sits bolt upright, no longer relaxing into the seat. You feel small beside him. You want to speak, say anything to break this agonising silence.
His revelation takes you by surprise, when he does finally start talking. As so often happens, he opens up more than you expect and you're glad when he keeps talking, 'cos you're struggling to think of something to say. You hadn't heard any rumours flying around the locker room, but that isn't unexpected. John Cooper is not a guy that other cops gossip about. He is liked and respected throughout the division. His brethren do not feel the need to discuss his private life: Cooper has earned their loyalty. Most likely, they are also aware that his big fists fly fast and accurate when the need arises.
But gay bars? You try and fail to picture a guy as tough, as confrontational, as John Cooper in a rainbow bar. You're so busy trying to think of something useful or sensitive to say that you don't notice the view has changed from desert to city. The silence sits until Cooper guides the Challenger to a stop beside your Audi.
You are uneasy and it is palpable in the quiet, but you think he genuinely doesn't care about what he has just told you. There isn't even a hint of emotion in his expression. Just strain and exhaustion.
When you climb out, he slides from behind the wheel. Stands slowly to his full height, watching you unlock the Audi and throw your bag in, tug at your tie and unbutton your shirt until you're free of constraints, just your white tee and dress pants in the hot and humid night.
"Why'd you tell me?" Your voice sounds stilted and unwilling.
He knows exactly why, of course he does. Cooper doesn't reveal anything without due consideration. But he shrugs as if he doesn't have an explanation and that dismissive action inexplicably riles you.
"Coop, just tell me the whole fuckin' story! Just for once, tell me. Quit keeping half of it back."
"Maybe the rest doesn't matter."
"And maybe it does."
"It doesn't matter to you, Boot," he snaps.
"Why? 'Cos I'm just some stupid rich kid that you like to yell at?" Technically, he doesn't yell. He barks and he rags you and he can make you feel six inches tall with just a couple of sentences, but he rarely shouts. Doesn't need to.
"'Cos you're just some stupid rich kid who hasn't got a fuckin' clue what he's talkin' about."
"I do have a clue!" you almost shout. "I get it, Coop. I get you."
He raises one eyebrow in that sardonic expression that is so familiar you want to laugh and cry at the same time. "Do I look like I give a fuck?"
You step back then. Distance yourself from him. It's time to go home to your white walls and empty kitchen.
"Sorry, kid," he mumbles, barely audible, voice deeper than normal. And it's so unexpected that you can't prevent your double-take. John Cooper does not apologise, simply because John Cooper is never wrong in his own mind.
"You heading straight home?" you hear yourself ask.
"This day's been too frickin' long to be making any more stops."
You grasp the nettle. "Got any beer?"
X X X
Here, in Cooper's private sanctuary, you finally relax, only realising your back teeth had been clamped together when the tension releases from your jaw.
"You really didn't know?" he asks as he hands you a Corona and lowers himself stiffly onto the couch beside you.
"Uh-uh." You shake your head quickly.
"Does it make you think differently about me?"
Again you shake your head as quickly as you can.
"You gonna say anything or you gonna pretend you're a puppet all frickin' night?"
You don't have an answer for that, so you settle for just staring at him, 'cos you can't think of anything else to do. He gives a laugh that is halfway between frustration and exasperated amusement. "I'm gay, Ben, not dying of friggin' cancer. I figured it probably wouldn't be a big deal to you."
"It isn't," you say so hurriedly that you immediately fear it sounds false. "I don't care. I mean…it doesn't matter if you're gay. I mean…"
"Jesus, would you shut up and breathe for a minute," he interrupts. "This is worse than tellin' my ex-wife."
You can't stop the laugh. "You got anything stronger than beer?"
Is it just your overactive imagination or do you see just a hint of relief in his grin. "Fuck, Boot, you're gonna be the death of me."
"What did you expect me to say? That you'd look hot in pink? That I secretly suspected you had a Janet Jackson vinyl collection?"
He growls without any venom at that last one and goes to get the tequila.
X X X
The bottle has taken quite a dent. It's late and neither of you are done yet.
"Did your friend kill himself because…" you realise mid-sentence that the question is not exactly tactful and quickly censor yourself.
"Because he was gay?" Cooper finishes for you without a hint of unease. "To be honest with ya, kid, I don't really know. I think it all got too much. He was still trying to live as a family man, seeing his boyfriend for a few snatched hours, playing it straight to his cop buddies. I guess he didn't know how to keep juggling it all."
"That's pretty rough," is the only thing you can think of to say.
"That's one way of putting it."
"But his wife knew? Before he died?"
"Yeah." A sigh. "She knew."
You wonder whether to keep your mouth shut but the question is out before you can stop it. "How did your wife find out?"
His body jerks in surprise as he whips his head to look at you. You expect him to tell you to shut the hell up.
"I told her," he said simply. "It wasn't fair to lie to her. I came home after watch, sat her down and told her straight. Hardest damn thing I ever did."
"How'd she take it?" You're too curious not too ask.
"Not great at first. I offered to get my stuff and get out; she told me to stay. She even slept beside me that night. We talked about it for days. She said we didn't need to get divorced if I didn't want but…" Cooper shook his head. "Like I said, it wasn't fair to her. She deserved to live her own life as well."
"She still loves you…The way she looks at you…"
"I know. I love her too. Always will."
"You're lucky," you say quietly.
"Me? Lucky?" His voice is incredulous.
"To have someone who loves you."
"Your family loves you, Boot."
"That's what they're supposed to do. It's different if you've got… someone."
"I don't have Laurie," he says forcefully. "I'm as alone as you are, Boot, soon as I close my front door."
"Is that by choice?"
"How much choice do any of us have?"
He winces involuntarily, his body going rigid as he sits abruptly upright.
"Want me to get you something?" you ask.
"I don't know…" because you have no idea what you can offer him.
"Then stop asking."
"I can't." You say it before you can stop yourself.
"Why the hell not?" Anger in his tone.
"'Cos that's what partners do. We make sure each other's okay. That's what we do."
"What the fuck do you want me to say, Ben?" He's on his feet now, pacing, an agitated lion ready to pounce and you find yourself standing just because you feel completely dwarfed. "This ain't something you can fix. I live with this. Every fucking day!
"So do something about it!"
"Like what? Go sit in a therapy circle and listen to little shitheads like you talk about their feelings?"
"I'm scared of nothing except losing my badge!" he yells. He's in your face now, the lion baring its teeth. "Don't you understand that? Can't you just leave this alone? I got enough shit to deal with without you as well!"
"Then hit me!" You're aware you're echoing Dewey, something you never thought you'd do, but you can't stop the words flying from your mouth. "Fuckin' punch me, Coop! Make yourself feel better. Do it!"
He's taken a step back, big palms up, almost as if he's placating you. And you see an expression you've only recognised a couple of times on John Cooper's face – shock. Whatever he had been expecting, it wasn't this.
"You think I'd hit you, Ben?" It's that same voice he used on Dewey. "Think I'd hurt you?"
He's moved forward again, dropping his head so he's almost going nose-to-nose with you. And he's huge, a solid wall of natural size that isn't just muscle, and if he does hit you now, you're going nowhere but the ground.
"If I'd wanted to punch you, I coulda done it a hundred times by now." His voice is almost hypnotic and you can't tear your eyes from his. "All the times you've pissed me off, Boot, and fuck, there's been enough of 'em, have I ever threatened you?"
You can't prevent yourself replying, "No."
"So why the fuck would I start tonight?"
There is violence within him; you know that. He is capable of causing harm and he won't dwell on it afterwards. But somehow you know, for all his size and strength and anger, he will never be a threat to you.
"Siddown, Boot," he tells you quietly and you automatically follow the instruction before you even realise you've done so.
He drops down beside you, his head falling into his hands as he scrubs at his eyes. You stare at the back of his close-cut hair, fighting to curl even though it isn't long enough to be allowed. Fuck it, you are not responsible for this shit he's going through. You're not responsible for him and his myriad problems.
But you are. You're responsible for him because he is your partner. Not your TO or your mentor or even a pain-in-the-ass superior. Your partner. Your friend. Countless times you have looked into those deep blue eyes, seen the pain.
And that is why you're still here.
"We live in the grey," you whisper.
You reach out and rest your hand on his back, gently, no pressure, just letting him feel the heat of your palm. When he doesn't bolt, growl or punch you, you let your hand slide under his tee.
"You know what you're doin', Boot?" His voice is strained, barely audible.
Your hand runs softly up his back, until you reach his wide neck, feeling the sinew beneath your fingers.
"I'm pretty sure I do."