He woke slowly, disliking the fog that encased his brain. Rising from the bed, he stumbled to the bathroom. By the time he stepped into the hall, he felt a little better; his mind was clearer. The apartment was filled with the aroma of cooking food and he heard the clatter of dishes in the kitchen. Eames must still be there, and she was cooking dinner. He found that reassuring. Walking into the living room, he glanced toward the window. It was dark. His eyes instinctively sought the clock on the DVD player. 6:18.
The kitchen was his next destination. He stood there, watching her add salt and then pasta elbows to a pot of boiling water. She turned over chicken breasts that were simmering in a sauce of some kind. Citrus, he guessed, from the smell of it. He also guessed there was broccoli steaming in the pot on the back burner.
She looked over her shoulder and gave him a smile. "Ten more minutes and dinner will be ready. Do you feel better?"
"I-I'm not sure. A little, I guess."
She nodded her head toward the coffee pot. "It's fresh."
He didn't move, resting his shoulder against the wall beside the refrigerator and deliberately not looking at her. "A pearl of great worth," he mused, talking out loud more than he was talking to her. "I don't think I have ever been...important...to another person in that way."
"Well, you are that important to me," she said firmly as she stirred the sauce and spooned it over the chicken.
"You said...you know what I mean to you. You s-said..." His mind tripped and he stopped for a moment to form the words in his head before he pushed them past his lips. "You said...you need me."
She covered the chicken and stirred the pasta. "Is there a problem with that?"
She turned her head to look at him. "Yes? What's the problem?"
He waved his hands in front of him. "I-I don't know what to do with that."
She sighed as she turned back to the stove. "You accept it."
He looked lost. "How?"
This was not a conversation she wanted to have while distracted over a hot stove. She was sweaty from the heat of the cooking pasta and simmering chicken and she didn't want to burn dinner. She looked over her shoulder again. He was watching her, his face a picture of confusion and uncertainty. He rubbed his chest and his eyes were pained.
"Take your medicine," she encouraged.
"After dinner," he promised. "After we talk."
He could be so stubborn. "It's about done. Go sit on the couch and let me dish it out."
He watched her as she got two plates from the cupboard before he turned and walked to the couch.
When Eames carried the two plates into the living room, she stopped for a moment. Goren was sitting on the couch, leaning forward. He was staring at the floor and rubbing his chest. She moved closer and set his plate on the coffee table in front of him. "It hurts, doesn't it?"
He nodded. "Yes."
She sat beside him and held out the prescription bottle. "Just take one. It will take the edge off without knocking you on your ass."
He looked at the amber bottle and then at her. "I need to talk to you."
"That's fine. Take your medicine."
When he made a move to set the bottle on the table, unopened, she added, "Please."
He drew in a deep breath and opened the bottle, dumping a single pill into his hand. She held out a glass of water. He looked up at her, and she smiled. His face softened and he took the water. "Thank you."
She watched him take the medicine and set the water on the table. "Do you want coffee?"
He shook his head. "The water is fine."
He hadn't relaxed, still sitting forward with his hand pressed flat against his chest. She set her plate beside his and leaned forward to look at his face. "Eat, Bobby."
He turned his head toward her and moistened his lips. "Tell me what to do with it, Eames. How do I...accept...something I have never had before?"
It saddened her to think he had never felt important in anyone's life, but she carefully hid that reaction from him. If he had any inkling she was feeling that way, he would shut down on her for sure. She was still searching for some way to reach him. "Bobby, all I can do is tell you how I feel. I can't make you accept it."
"I don't want you to make me accept it," he murmured. "I just need...help...to come to terms with it."
"You need help to come to terms with being loved?"
He had no idea how to explain himself. "A pearl of great worth..." he mused again. "Do you...do you know what that means, Eames?"
"Yes," she replied, annoyed. "I know exactly what it means."
His brow furrowed and his face betrayed his confusion. "How can I...I don't understand. How can I possibly be...that important to you..." His voice faded as he added, "...to anyone..."
Her eyes filled with tears and she turned away from him to hide them. To see so little worth in himself...had his mother damaged him that badly? On the job...on the job he was confident. On the job he knew his worth. It was the job that made his life worthwhile, that gave it meaning. The job made him worthwhile; it gave him a purpose. Beyond that, though, he could find no worth in himself and she did not know how to alter that self-image. He would never accept the stock answer 'you just are, so deal with it.' It was not something he could deal with.
With difficulty, she was able to chase the tears away and compose herself so that she could face him. Words were inadequate in this case. She would never be able to alter his image of himself with words—at least, not with words alone. She was going to have to take the bull by the horns and back up her words with powerful actions. She would never reach him with anything less. But how far was she willing to go to reassure him?
"I stayed," she said firmly, not looking at him. To start with, she would offer him a statement of fact and see what he did with it. He took the bait.
It troubled her that he could find no reasons on his own. She wondered if he would be able to if she challenged him. Why should she be the one to do all the work? "You tell me, Bobby. Why do you think I stayed?"
That stumped him and his mind tripped again. He could quickly come up with a bunch of reasons why she should not have stayed, but not one would come to mind for why she did. He closed his eyes, mentally traveling the course of their partnership. He saw the looks they would get from Deakins or Carver, the more censuring looks they got from Ross now. He recounted the rumors that sometimes came to him, the fights he'd been in—that she had never found out about—defending her to those who did not know her. He knew the reasons others thought he stayed, but those would involve crossing lines he had firmly and deeply drawn in the sand, lines he had never crossed, except for in his mind, in his dreams. He wished he was as good in bed as everyone seemed to think he was. He recalled Leslie LeZard's accusations—You'll never make Captain—and Eames' admonition later—It's too late. His stomach did a lurch at the thought of the mark in her jacket, the one of probably many that he was directly responsible for. Slowly, he shook his head. "I don't know, Eames."
"Are you serious? You can't think of even one reason why I would choose to stay?"
He slowly shook his head and looked at the floor. "I...need you, but that's no motivation for you. Hell, I couldn't even save you from Jo Gage." He moved his head as if to look at her, but changed his mind. "How can you need me, Eames? I have nothing to offer...to you or to anyone else."
She did not miss the emphasis he placed on the words nothing to offer. She realized that was something he truly believed. Her mind was still searching for the right response when he spoke up again. "You're stubborn," he said. "You stay because you refuse to admit to yourself that you made a mistake."
She stared at him. She had not expected that, either. Her mind spun faster; she was losing him. "What makes you think I've made a mistake? I don't think that. I never did."
"Look around at my life, Eames. What do I have, except my job and you? I have nothing to show for the life I've lived. Not one damn thing."
She could feel him slipping away, and she knew she had to find some way to reel him back. She also knew she had to be gentle. Her sharp tongue would leave scars right now if she used it. What to say...what to say... Her mind scrambled. Finally it latched onto a discussion she'd had with Ross while Goren was fighting for his life in surgery. It was information she was certain Goren hadn't wanted her to have but the circumstances had demanded that she know about it. It was enough to shift the tide of the conversation and possibly give her the time she needed to refute his feelings of worthlessness. "When you were in surgery, I found out something I didn't know before, and I would like an explanation, if you have one."
His brow furrowed as he searched for anything he might have done before he'd been shot that would have upset her when she found out about it, but he could think of nothing. "Wh-what did you find out?"
"You changed your life insurance beneficiary after your mother died."
His face colored. This was not a conversation he ever intended to have with her. By the time life insurance came up, he was certain it would be too late for her to say anything about it. "Uhm...I..." He wanted to defend his decision, but it was his decision and he didn't have to justify it to anyone, not even her. He was not going to change his mind. "Yes, I did."
"Your brother should be listed."
"Why? So he can take the money and send it up his crack pipe or gamble it away?"
"Okay. Donny then."
"A nephew I don't know and never knew about, who is on the run from the law? I don't even know where to find him. Face it, Eames. I have no one. It was either you or some random charity. I chose you...because you are all I have left."
You are all I have left...The words struck her like a physical blow, even though he'd already said as much. Again she searched her mind for something that would refute what he had just said. She could find nothing. He was right. He had no one else. All he had left was the job...and her.
You refuse to admit to yourself that you made a mistake. She struggled to keep her voice even when she spoke again. "And yet you are so certain I made a mistake by staying. Damn it, Bobby, I did not make a mistake," she said firmly.
He didn't react, except to say, "The rest of the world thinks you did."
"The hell with the rest of the world," she declared, anger giving her voice the steadiness she needed it to have. "I don't care what anyone else thinks. This is our partnership, and it works. I love my job now more than I ever have, and a big part of that is you. You're unpredictable and exciting. I never know what each day will bring, and I relish the challenge of trying to keep up with that brilliant mind of yours. I could have moved on, but I chose not to because I want to be your partner. I will never forgive you if you walk away from me."
"Walk away?" he repeated in a tone that suggested he was having a hard time comprehending the concept. "I...I would only do that as a last resort, Eames. Only if I knew beyond all doubt it was the best thing for you."
That gave her hope because he had not left. Nothing had yet convinced him she was better off without him, and it was up to her to convince him that she was definitely better with him. "I'm a sharper investigator, a smarter cop and a better person because of you," she insisted.
"Yes, Bobby. A better person. You can be a self-centered bastard, but you have one of the biggest hearts of any man I've ever met. Before I became partners with you, I never even tried to see a perp in any kind of sympathetic light. The world was black and white for me; there was good and bad, victims and perpetrators. You introduced different shades of gray along with the occasional splash of color. Guilty is still guilty, but somehow...it's different. I still can't find any sympathy for a guy like John Tagman, but Wally Stevens, Mike McShale...I can start to see shadows on the dark side of the moon." His shoulders didn't seem so tense, and she went on. "I will never look at life the same again." She shifted closer to him, reaching out to stroke his cheek with the back of her index finger. "I can never look at a seashell now without realizing it once protected a fragile life. I can't feel the wind without thinking of an ocean wave or a butterfly's wing. And when I see a child playing in the park, I feel a little less empty. All because you have made me see life from a different perspective. I have a richer view of simple things."
He didn't know what to say, so he said nothing. Closing his eyes, he focused on the sensation of her finger as it trailed across his skin. He rubbed his chest for a moment, but the pain was subsiding. He opened his eyes and turned his head to look at her. "You mean that," he said quietly.
"Of course I do." She slid closer, until her knee touched his leg. "Never think I will be better off without you," she insisted. "Because I won't."
He looked at her knee and laid his hand over it, but he did not look up at her. "You don't know that."
She laid her hand over his. "Yes, I do, because I know what I am with you and I don't want that to change."
He gave that some thought. "Change..."
When he trailed off, she smiled. "You don't do well with change," she offered.
"No. No, I don't."
"When your mom died, a lot changed for you. She was always your focus off the job. Tell me...where do you put that focus now?"
Where did he put it? His mind spun in circles looking for the answer, but it wasn't there. "I...I don't have a focus outside the job any more," he murmured, realizing that for the first time.
That explained why he was always in the squad room, always buried in a file or a book. She leaned forward and looked at his face. "It's time, Bobby. It's time for you to heal; it's time for you to start living."
He averted his eyes, and she knew he was withdrawing. She had to draw him back, but she wasn't sure how. Her mind scrambled. She moistened her lips, remaining where she was so she could still see his face. "Bobby, please answer a question for me."
He looked at her but he was wary. He also seemed uncomfortable with her proximity, but he didn't move away. "What question?"
"The other day...when you kissed me...you said it was to catch me off guard." The mention of the kiss sent his tension level skyrocketing again, and she squeezed his hand tightly. "It worked. You caught me off guard. But I need to know if it meant anything to you."
He slowly shook his head. He didn't want it to, but it did. "It...can't," he whispered. "I can't let it."
"But it did."
He withdrew his hand from hers. If he admitted that it did, it would make the kiss more than he wanted it to be. He could not allow it; he wouldn't. He should have looked away, but he was drawn to her, like a moth to a flame. God...he was doomed.
Eames knew there was a line in the sand before her. If he were any less a man, Goren would be daring her to cross it. But he wasn't. He was as fully aware of it as she was, and he was begging her not to cross it. She was conflicted, not sure what he would do if she followed her heart. She had once sworn she would never again go through what she did when Joe died. She had promised herself she would never love another cop. Then Goren had come along and everything changed. It had taken time but he had set her world on its end and she knew there was no going back.
She moved her hand and brushed it over the hair at his temple. He drew in an unsteady breath but did not pull away. "It did," she repeated, gently forcing the issue.
His breathing remained ragged as his mind returned to the hospital lobby, to the memory of the kiss he'd stolen. He wanted more, but it was forbidden. He wouldn't allow it; she wouldn't allow it. He was lucky she hadn't punched him. It had been worth it--and it hadn't. He had a small inkling of what he was missing and he didn't want another peek into a forbidden world. His life was filled with enough regret.
Her hand continued to smooth back his hair, straying around the curve of his ear. "Eames..." he whispered, closing his eyes.
"Just say the word and I will stop," she said softly, a lot closer than he wanted her to be.
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. She continued teasing his hair and said, "It meant something."
He was done. He could not fight her. Before he could stop himself, he was nodding. It wasn't supposed to, but it did. Before he knew what was happening, her lips brushed across his skin, placing a soft kiss in front of his ear. His stomach flipped and he swallowed a groan. "E-Eames..." he managed, though her name came out on a strangled moan.
Another kiss grazed his jaw...then his cheek...and he turned his head, giving her access to his mouth--and silent permission to claim it. It was a soft kiss, and he wanted more. His hands rested on her hips and slowly eased their way up her sides and around her back as he deepened the kiss. She leaned into him, sliding herself onto his lap as she wrapped her arms around him. He buried a hand in her hair and touched the tip of his tongue to her lips. Her lips parted, welcoming his exploration.
Slowly, she withdrew and leaned back, overwhelmed and breathless, resting against his knees, one leg on either side of his lap, and watching him in silent apprehension. He dropped his head back, eyes closed and breathing hard. She slid her hips forward until her knees rested on either side of his hips. He rested his hands on her waist and opened his eyes, watching her face. "You started this," she accused lightly, teasing.
He couldn't argue with that. How many times had he done something that he later regretted? Someday he would learn to control his impulses. Splaying his hands over her hips, he sighed. She placed her hands on his shoulders and leaned into them. "So what now?" she asked.
He shook his head slowly. "I don't know. I really don't know." He moved his thumbs over the curve of her hips. "But whatever we do, I can't...lose you. I've lost enough."
That would get no argument from her. "Don't overthink this. Just take it for what it is."
"What is it?"
"It's an offering--of support, of comfort, of love. It's a progression of our friendship, an evolution, of sorts."
"Work is work. As long as we keep this out of the squad room, we'll be fine."
"Can you be pissed at me and still function as my partner?"
"I have in the past, haven't I? That won't change." She moved her hand from her chest toward his. "This will. It already has."
"But remember? I don't do well with change."
"I'll get you through it, like I always do."
His mouth relaxed into a brief smile. "I count on that," he answered.
Leaning forward, she hugged him, relaxing against his chest. He smoothed his hand over her hair, tightening his other arm around her. She slid off his lap and picked up both plates. "Let me reheat these. You need to eat so you can heal."
He waited for her to return, and they ate in silence, each lost with their own thoughts about the turn their relationship was taking.
If there was a time to put the brakes on, it was now, and part of him wanted to slam to a screeching halt. A bigger part of him, though, seemed willing to take the risk. When working a case, he was willing to do whatever it took to solve the case. In his personal life, however, he was much more cautious. This could turn out to be the most wondrous event of his entire life or the biggest catastrophe, and he had no way to predict what it would be. For probably the first time in his life, he was going to have to step fully into a situation with no guarantee of the outcome. If this relationship fell apart, so would his life. It was the biggest risk he had ever taken, and he was anxious about it, but if she was willing to open this Pandora's Box, he would not deny her what she wanted.
She was surprised to see that he seemed to have settled down, and she was glad. She was not going into this blind. She knew him better than anyone did. She knew his strengths and she knew his failings. She had seen the bastard in him but she had seen the tender side of him as well. She knew a personal relationship with him was going to be a lot of work peppered with some pain, but if he could find it in himself to let go and project himself into them, it was going to blow her mind. Sitting at his bedside after the shooting, as she struggled with the fact that she was at least partially responsible for his condition, she began to think of her life in terms of his. She knew how important she was to him, but what struck her to the core was how important he had become to her. Where once she could have moved on and not suffered too much for it, now she knew she could not. They were taking a risk in moving forward, but she felt it was a risk well worth taking. As a team, they were formidable. Fully together in every aspect of their lives, they would be unstoppable.