Everyone has scars. Some are earned; some are deserved. Those are the ones that run deeper than a physical mark, and it is those scars that are tearing John Cooper apart.
When I first became his rookie chew-toy, I never thought that I would see John Cooper as vulnerable.
Back then, I was only there for him to bark at, drag around crime scenes and occasionally rip to pieces with nothing more than a ferocious stare and a few choice words. My role in life was to sit quiet, listen up and let Coop play hardball.
He chewed me up pretty good in those first months and I only looked at him like he was God. Now, he is mortal and he is fighting every day in a way no deity would ever have to do.
And yet, in the City of Angels, he's the one I want by my side to protect me from the devil.
"You okay?" I ask softly, taking care to glance only momentarily across at him.
At the moment, his eyes are hidden behind the mirrors of his shades but I have seen the ghost of pain haunting those cobalt depths all day. His jaw is clenched tight and he has never stayed still, shifting restlessly in futile attempts to find relief.
"Coop." There is no insistence in my voice; he won't stand for that. But sometimes he lets his guard down just a little, giving me permission to voice what goes usually unsaid in our partnership.
"I'm alright, Boot," he finally says, gaze straight ahead.
That's it for the rest of watch. Pushing him is not the way to go; I've learnt that the hard way.
"How about a beer?" I ask as we walk, jeans-clad civilians once again, across the parking lot together, my pace deliberately slow without making it appear obvious.
"Not tonight, kid."
There is no aggression in his voice, no warning tone, and I take courage from that.
"Let me give you a ride home."
I wait for him to refuse, throw an insult about my car and rich preppie bastards, and his gentle sigh takes me by surprise. He doesn't speak but he looks at me as he nods and I realise John Cooper is done for the night. There is no fight left in him.
He is silent in the Audi, laying his head back against the plush leather. His body is held taut, the tension in him almost unbearable, and I have to fight myself to keep from grasping his broad shoulder.
The jolt of a pothole drags a sound from deep in his throat, partway between a grunt and a groan, so tightly controlled that it's barely audible, yet it seems to echo above the quiet purr of the engine. He's staring straight ahead, even though I'm trying to win the prize of his gaze so I can show him I'm feeling every stab of pain right along with him.
"Don't look at me like that." His voice is strained, as if his throat is raw, but once again, that Cooper variety of bulldog bite is missing.
I almost say sorry, automatically, but stop myself. I'm not sorry. "I'm not looking at you like anything except like your partner."
That takes him by surprise. His eyebrows actually lift and his head snaps around to look directly at me. I wait with no little trepidation for the explosion. And when he smiles, I'm as surprised as he was. It's only a little smile, that quirk at the corner of his mouth he does when he's trying to act like he's not amused. But it's enough to make me grin and I know I look like a damn Labrador puppy wagging its tail, 'cos Coop tells me this regularly, but tonight I don't mind.
"Quit grinnin' at me like a PCP psycho," he grumbles. "Watch the damn road before you kill us both."
He returns to staring straight ahead, folding those massive arms over his hard chest.
"Though that'd be a nice easy way out." He says it as if I'm not here, as if the words are safe in his own head.
"Don't make it sound worthless."
"Your life. Your life isn't worthless, Coop."
"And what'd you know about that, Richie Rich?" Again, there is no bite.
"I know what I see."
"You believe everything you see on TV?"
"'Cos TV only shows you what they want you to see, right? So what makes you think I don't do exactly the same?"
I think about it for a minute, several responses rearing their heads. "Guess I figure you trust me, a little."
"What's trust gotta do with it?"
"Everything. You told me that. You gotta trust your partner."
"I didn't say anything about trusting your boot."
I can't stop myself from looking across at him. He throws his eyes ceiling-wards, his sigh deliberately loud.
"Did they forget to teach a sense of humour at Harvard Westlake?"
"Yeah, 'cos Dorsey was just great for gentle teasing."
Somehow we've reached Mount Washington already. Time is an unpredictable master and these days it feels like it's controlled entirely by John Cooper; minutes will last hours if he chooses, or be gone before I've even noticed them. I'm powerless against it.
Cooper's driveway looks bare without the resting beast of the Challenger crouching on the asphalt. It's a nice house; not what you expect of a man like Coop. Somehow too normal, too typical; the type of house that you don't really notice. So different from its owner who finds sanctuary from the chaos in the quiet norm he has created here.
"Thanks for the ride, kid."
"Anytime." I mean it.
A moment's silence, neither of us moving. No words come to mind, even though there's a thousand things I want to say.
"You need me to get you anything?" is the useless question I eventually settle for.
"No." Short and sweet as usual. Not that I'd ever dare describe Cooper as sweet.
I shrug, study the steering wheel. Wait for him to get out of the car and walk away from me.
"Jesus Christ. Move your ass, numbnuts."
It takes a moment to realise he is inviting me in. I hasten to follow orders, tread carefully behind him as he climbs the steps with wary, uneven paces. He crosses the living room floor as I softly close the door, as if I expect loud noise or sudden movements to bring Cooper to his senses and end in me being unceremoniously ejected. He barely seems to notice my presence; each step is its own individual moment of pain as he disappears into the kitchen.
"Want a beer?" he asks as he grabs the Maker's Mark bottle and a glass in one huge hand.
"I'll get it." I take a Corona from the refrigerator, slightly surprised to see the lean meat and fresh vegetables sitting alongside the beer. My own fridge currently contains made-up protein shakes, lime Jello and eggs. No wonder the guy's built like a bear.
I expect him to head for the couch and TV but instead he sits at the kitchen table. His elbows rest heavily on the dark wood as he carelessly sloshes the amber liquid into his glass, a measure bigger than I could comfortably down, but he throws it back with ease. If I hadn't been aware, I wouldn't have noticed the two small, white pills that went down with the whisky.
I take a seat opposite him, force my fingers not to play with the beer label. The silence sits and I can't figure out if it's strained or not. Cooper isn't looking at me, staring into his second glass that he seems content to sip, and although his body is still taut, the little lines around the edges of his eyes have faded slightly.
"Did something happen today?" I find the courage to ask the type of question he usually shoots down instantly.
"Your back. Did something happen at work that I missed?"
At least he bothered to answer. I take a slug of beer and try to think of something to say that won't irritate him.
"It was bad when I woke up," he says quietly. "Gets like that sometimes."
"How long does it take for the meds to work?"
His eyes flick to mine but the defensive glare drops before he can bother to crank it up. "Half hour."
He finishes his second glass, casually pours another before tilting the bottle, proffering it to me. I shake my head, aware of how swiftly the evening will go downhill if I start on the hard stuff so soon.
"What'd you do in the first place?" I've never broached the subject before: Cooper's original answer all those months ago had brooked no further questions.
Just for a second, it looks like he may answer. "What's it matter?"
He shakes his head as if dismissing the thought. "It was a long time ago. Didn't bother me much at first. Thought it'd heal up eventually." Another swallow of whisky. "I pulled a guy out of a car wreck just before it blew. Didn't have time to be gentle about it."
"That's what one of those is for?" I incline my head to the framed medals on the sideboard, four commendations; hero status as far as the LAPD is concerned.
They are hidden from casual view; they would not be noticed unless you were permitted to look around, but the fact that they are not buried in the back of a closet tells me that Cooper is not ashamed of his bravery. I find myself looking at a framed photo pushed right to the back, barely visible. A younger Coop, built even bigger than he is now, muscles bulging under his dress uniform as those sharp blue eyes stare at the camera with an intensity that burns into the lens. Pinned to his barrel chest, the medal glitters but although he is stood to attention, no pride shows in his carefully expressionless face. Only his eyes betray a maelstrom of emotion; unease, dissent, even a little bit of embarrassment.
He follows my gaze, scowls at the photo. "Yeah," he says shortly. He doesn't glance at the awards and for a moment his face darkens, as if he doesn't want to be reminded that his own courage led him to this moment, sat slugging whisky with the rookie he can't shake off, barely able to move, jaw gritted against the pain that now bothers him more than he can bear to admit.
Abruptly, he stands. The movement is too fast and he immediately drops his head to hide the contortion of his features, blows out several sharp breaths, goes very still.
"Coop." I've stood before I've realised it and I'm beside him and my hand is resting gently in the small of his back even though my brain has caught up and is warning me away.
His body jerks like he's taken a bullet and that sound escapes his throat again, that noise which would be inconsequential from anyone else, but from Cooper is the equivalent of a howl. I wait for him to tell me to get out, maybe even physically throw me away from him, but he's concentrating on breathing and even though his fists are clenched so tight his knuckles are almost piercing the skin, he shows no sign of the violence he is so capable of.
I take hold of his arm, the biceps rock-solid beneath my hand. "C'mon, Coop, sit down."
For a moment he is determined to resist and I stand more chance of moving a bear than I do an unwilling Coop, but his heart isn't in it and I feel the give as he allows me to move him. His forearm lands on my shoulder, an action that is becoming familiar, a silent acceptance, and he allows me to take some of his weight. He doesn't even jerk his arm away as he eases onto the couch cushions; he is gentle in removing himself from my touch.
He lays back, eyes closed, blowing out another breath, and I know he needs some space.
"I'm gonna run to the store. You're almost outta beer." It's a lie, he knows it is, but he nods. "You need anything?"
A shake of the head and I make a quiet exit, leaving him to his own private battle that he still can't bring himself to share. I take longer at the store than any man ever has before, wandering the aisles, picking up random items until I'm certain the clerk is reaching for his shotgun.
Wandering slowly across the parking lot, my hand instinctively goes to my belt as movement near the dumpsters catches my eye. I'm immediately aware that Coop's reassuring bulk is absent from my side and I suddenly feel strangely, acutely, vulnerable. My fingers trace the familiar grip of my Glock, comforted by the knowledge it will protect me.
More movement, noises I can't identify, sounds that I've never heard any gangbanger or dope slinger make. A whimpering cry sends me into the Audi's trunk, finding the flashlight and directing its powerful beam across the asphalt.
Hunkered down in the damp, a dog cowers away from the blinding light. My mother's goddam Schnauzer has put me off most canines but even I can't ignore this pitiful animal as it lets out another whimper. As I move carefully closer and crouch down, a sensible distance from the potential threat of its teeth, the dog drops to its belly and crawls forward until it's practically lying on my boots. The tail wags, cautiously hopefully, and a pink tongue lolls out in a canine grin. The thin body quivers with delight as I run my hand over the dirty golden coat.
"Does it hang around here much?" I call to the clerk as he appears in the store doorway, probably checking whether to rack the shotgun.
"Never seen it before. I can shoot it if you want."
"You can't shoot a dog!" Even I'm surprised by the indignation in my voice.
"It's just a stray. Hundreds of 'em around."
I sigh and look at the dog. "I'll find a pound to take it to. Leave the damn thing alone."
Annoyed at being press-ganged into action I don't particularly want to take, and certainly not keen on putting a stinking stray mutt in my very clean car, I make a noise that I hope will scare the dog into running off. Instead the damn thing jumps up and glues itself to my heels. It follows me to the car, waits politely for me to open the passenger door. I point to the foot-well and, to my great surprise, it jumps in and sits.
By the time I've tossed the grocery bag in the trunk and come around to the driver's side, the damn mutt is curled up on the passenger seat and looks perfectly content.
I give a long-suffering sigh that makes me sound exactly like Cooper and give up.
He hasn't moved from the couch when I arrive back at the house. I put the six-pack within arm's reach of him and, with no little reticence, offer him the adhesive heat patch I'd found during my aisle wandering.
"Figured heat would help."
Part of me expects him to refuse the sympathy, but after a moment's hesitation, he accepts the packet, hauling himself up into a sitting position so he can fix it against his skin. He can't bring himself to say the words but his nod thanks me. I can't bring myself to hand over the tube of muscle rub I'd searched for so I settle for placing it on the table next to the bourbon bottle. He doesn't acknowledge its presence but I see his eyes flit briefly to it.
"I gotta head out again. Save me a beer; I'll be back."
"Where you going now?
"Nearest dog pound. I found this damn mutt in the store parking lot and I couldn't leave it there howling."
"You've found a frickin' dog on the way for beer?"
"It's in the car. Probably pissing all over my seats and chewing on the steering wheel."
"What sorta dog?" This is the first interest he's shown in anything all day.
"I d'know, just a dog. Looks kinda young. Medium-sized golden thing."
Cooper swings his feet down from the couch, failing to hide a painful wince. "Go get it."
"Bring it in. You take it to the City pound, they'll anaesthetise it after five days. The charity shelters will rehome it but none of them gonna be open at this time of night.
Apparently my confused expression is not what he's looking for.
"Jesus, Boot, go get the dog before it eats your car."
I do as ordered. Surprisingly, the mutt has neither pissed nor chewed and is sitting patiently, awaiting its fate. I half-expect it to run when I open the door but it seems to have decided I'm the best option it's had for a while and it faithfully follows me into the house.
"Nice lab-mix," Cooper declares, and there's definitely a smile playing on his lips as he watches the dog cautiously check out the living room. "Won't even be a year old, I reckon.
I can't add anything to the analysis so I settle for opening a beer instead. The dog eyes the big man, wary of his size, seizing up the potential threat. The tail begins to wag and the moment Cooper holds out his palm, the dog is by his side, leaning its weight against his leg as Cooper pets it with a gentleness he so rarely shows.
The dog gazes up at him with what I can only describe as adoration in its eyes.
"What we gonna call you, then?" Cooper asks it. "You got a name, lil dude?"
"It ain't gonna be so little when it grows up," I declare.
"It's halfway grown already."
"That mean you're gonna keep it?"
"Didn't say that." Cooper cocks his head at the dog and grins as it mirrors his action, ears pricked questioningly, tongue lolling cheerfully. "Shit, he looks exactly like you when you think you've done somethin' wrong."
"Thanks a bunch."
"Gonna have to call him Boot."
"How will you distinguish between me and the dog?" I mutter.
He considers that for a moment. Then he whistles between his teeth and the dog's ears leap to attention again. "You listening, Richie?"
"Don't worry, you still get to be called Richie Rich when I feel like it."
Cooper reaches for a beer, grits his teeth as he sits upright again, another sharp breath, jaw clenched. The dog studies him, looking him straight in the eye, then leans forward and gently licks Cooper's hand.
The broad grin that spreads unhindered across Coop's face is rewarded by a thumping tail and if dogs could smile, I would swear that this one is.
"He can stay here tonight. I'll see what to do with him in the morning." Hauling himself to his feet, he drops another pat onto the dog's head. "C'mon, lil dude, there's a packet of hotdogs in the fridge. Hungry?"
Apparently so. Coop's little shadow trails him to the kitchen, and I trail them both. I decide not to dwell on the new order of rank.
Coop's cell phone rings as the dog wolfs down hot dogs from a casserole dish sacrificed without a moment's consideration. I expect him to ignore it: he never likes talking on the phone, but he looks at it for a long moment before answering.
His hand is stroking the dog as he listens; the other has absently moved to press against the heat patch and he looks almost surprised to find it there.
"I'm alright… Not great, but it's been worse… I got something already, thanks anyway… No, Ben's here…"
I feel my eyebrows jump as I quickly look across at him. The fact he will admit I'm here, in his private space, is as significant as the knowledge that his ex-wife knows who I am, that he doesn't have to explain me.
"Thanks, Laur," he says softly, "I'll be ok… I won't…You take care."
He doesn't offer any explanation after he hangs up but I'm pretty sure he'd left Laurie a message earlier in the day, when he'd expected to be sat here, suffering alone.
Abruptly, he turns and heads out of the kitchen. Either avoiding acknowledgment of the phone conversation or maybe just avoiding further unwanted talk.
"I'm gonna take a shower," he throws over his shoulder. "Grab yourself another beer."
The dog weighs up its options and clearly decides his best bet is to stick to Cooper's side, cheerfully abandoning his hotdogs and trotting up the stairs after his new best friend. I don't seem to have been ordered to leave, so I settle down in front of college hoops.
It seems to be a while before he returns but I'm carefully thinking only about the ball game, not permitting my thoughts to wander, even as I hear his footsteps on the stairs. I permit myself a brief glance; note that the big man is alone.
"Where's the dog?" is the only sensible question I can think of.
"Crashed out on my goddam pillows," he grouses without a hint of real complaint. "I left him up there; lil thing probably doesn't get much sleep on the streets."
He sits at the other end of the couch, reaching for the bourbon bottle on the low table in front of us. I pretend not to see, keep my eyes on an Indiana free throw as if it is of vital importance to my happiness.
He's still shirtless from the shower, smelling of a masculine shower gel that reminds me of the ocean, and it becomes difficult to avert my gaze, not that he notices, occupied staring into his next glass of amber liquid. The muscle rub sits next to the bottle and he doesn't seem to realise his fingers have seized it, playing subconsciously with the red tube. Does it signify weakness to him, or can he just not bring himself to admit he needs it?
I can't help it; I reach out and still his fingers. He jumps, taken aback by my unexpected touch, and abruptly tightens his fist round the tube. I wait for him to hurl it across the living room. He's drunk now; I can see it in his deliberate actions.
He makes sure his eyes are fixed on the TV, not seeing a single picture, as he slowly unscrews the cap and spreads a deliberate line across his palm. He even recoils from his own touch as he applies the noxious substance to his skin, teeth gritted against the possibility of sound.
He leaves a thick layer of the cream visible, stark white against his tan, either unwilling or unable to rub it in.
It isn't a conscious decision; I just sit looking at it until suddenly it's unbearable, and I reach out without thinking, my fingers making contact with his back. He sucks in a sharp breath, holding it, but he doesn't pull away as I gently work the cream into his skin, small circles, just my fingertips, barely touching.
A minute sound escapes his throat, a noise I can't interpret. I dare to deepen my touch, manipulate an angry knot of muscle in careful circles and suddenly it is no longer just about muscle rub, and I can't understand how this feeling of intimacy has crept up. His breathing has changed, quickened, and the same sound battles free once again.
My second hand joins the first, gliding up and down the long plane of muscle in a firm, confident stroke.
And that is my step too far. He explodes off the couch, whipping around faster than he should have been able to manage and as I leap to meet him, I see his fist clench and I brace, instinctively knowing what he will do.
Even though I'm expecting the blow, it is delivered so hard and fast that I can't keep my feet. The impact throws me onto the couch and I know just from the strength of that huge fist that blood is flowing.
For a moment I'm motionless, fighting against the spiralling black spinning before my eyes, and everything I've ever wanted to say is about to come spilling from my uncontrollable lips. Then I'm upright again and I don't understand how until I feel the grip of rock-hard biceps holding me vertical, the solid slabs of Cooper's chest against my back, and it doesn't matter that I can't keep my feet 'cos he's practically carrying me into the kitchen. And all I can think is the strain of my weight must be killing him.
The cold wetness of a cloth is pressed to my eyebrow. I know Coop is talking to me; I can see his lips moving but I can't hear a single softly-spoken word through the roaring in my ears.
He sits me at the kitchen table, towering over me, holding the cloth till I'm capable of raising my own arm to take it. A glass of bourbon appears in front of me and I throw it back with no regard for the burn that ignites a pained cough.
He is pacing the floor, a caged tiger trapped behind bars he can't escape from. His fists clench in rhythm with his jaw. He is at once furious and guilty; submissive and dominant. And he's so big and so agitated that I wonder if his fist is about to come flying at me again.
"Don't tell me you're sorry," I interrupt, seeing him draw breath to speak again.
"Even if I am sorry?" His voice is missing the demanding anger I'd expected.
"You don't need to be."
"'Cos now I know."
"Know what?" Frustration flares in his tone.
"That I won't wake up in the morning and find you dead, surrounded by empty pill bottles."
That shocks him more than any physical blow. I actually see him recoil as if he is the one to have taken the punch.
"…Ben…" He raises that cobalt gaze to mine.
"It's okay, Coop." My voice is barely above a whisper.
"It's not okay!"
"I'm telling you it is." I don't know where the strength in my voice has come from but it's enough to douse the angry flame kindling once again within him.
"I don't know why I did that." Practically a whisper now.
"Yes, you do."
He blows out a long breath and nods.
"I'm not trying to threaten you, Coop."
Almost a laugh, "I'd like to see you try."
"I won't hurt you."
"Like I just hurt you?"
"The alternative would've hurt a hell lot more than this." And it's the truth, even though my face is throbbing and I can physically feel the swelling grow.
He won't look at me but at least he hasn't reached for the bourbon bottle again. "You playin' some game with me, Ben?"
Ben. Not Kid, not Boot. For this conversation, I have earned the right to be just Ben.
"No." Firm. No opening for discussion. "Not with you. Not ever."
"So what was that?"
"Clearly something you couldn't handle."
"Hardly something I was expecting from you."
"Was it so bad?"
"No." He seems as surprised by the quickness of his response as I am.
I manage to secure eye contact and it may only be momentary so I say what needs to be voiced. "I'm sorry I crossed the line."
"You're sorry?" he asks, incredulous. "You're seeing stars right now and you're the one saying sorry?"
"Like I said, I crossed the line."
"No," he says again and he almost sounds as if he isn't present in the room. I lose the fragile trust of his gaze; his eyes drop to the floor.
I stand. The room wavers and I fight for equilibrium, holding onto the table. He makes a move towards me, intention undeterminable, but I summon control and meet him halfway.
This time, he doesn't flinch as my palm comes to rest on his back. This time, there is no intake of breath as I run my hand up and down the length of his taut spine, tracing both the pain and the warming spread of the ointment. This time, he doesn't hit me. He doesn't even move.
I don't know how long I stand behind him, working my hands against the powerful, protesting muscles, but his chin has dropped onto his chest and his eyes are closed, his breathing slow and even. For the first time since I saw him that morning, he is at peace.
"Does it help?"
I instantly feel him stiffen. "Little bit. Yeah."
I step back from him then. He has earned his personal space, even though he makes no move to edge away.
"Thank you." His voice is barely audible but he looks directly at me as he speaks and I fancy I can physically feel an electric crackle between our eyes, a bolt so unexpected that it's me who takes the step back.
"You ok?" he asks, indicating my bruises.
"I'm good. You?"
Both of our lies sit heavy in the air.
"I'm gonna go check on the dog," Cooper announces.
I wait till I'm alone before I grab a glass and pour the bourbon, blow out the breath I've been holding for what seems like forever. Pressing the cold cloth against my face once again, I settle at the table with the bottle in easy reach. And my brain finally calms enough for me to think about what just happened. What John Cooper actually means to me; the role he has come to play in my fucked-up life.
I'm so involved in my own reverie, I don't notice Coop hasn't returned. My face has begun to ache and the house has settled into a calm silence and I realise I haven't been sat for a short amount of time.
At the top of the stairs, even though I'm being as quiet as I am capable of, I expect the dog to set off barking. Somehow, the silence remains. I look at the darkened doorway of Cooper's bedroom but I'm full of beer and bourbon and it's the bathroom I head for first.
Washing my hands, I risk a glance in the mirror. The skin around my eyebrow is puffy and beginning to darken with the bruise. The cut is smaller than I thought, a thin red line dissecting the hairs. Now I have my own scar and I don't mind. I won't flinch every time I see it. It will not serve as a reminder of violence, but of the night I finally found the courage to face John Cooper's demons head-on.
Padding silently along the hallway, I go to check on Cooper. The bourbon has beaten him. He's dead to the world, laid up on his side, a pillow hugged in his huge arms. The dog is settled on the bed as if he's been here all his life. He's curled up tight against the small of Coop's back, pressing the warmth of his body against the big man. My appearance opens one tawny eye, merits a lazy raise of one ear, but I'm not important enough to warrant a real greeting. Maybe the mutt assumes I'm just another part of the pack.
Cooper shows no sign of stirring so I leave him to sleep. Richie settles down again, safe in the knowledge that he's doing okay right where he is.
Somehow, I don't think that dog will be going anywhere near a pound.
I think Cooper's found someone that will stop his own scars from hurting so bad.