She took off her shoes and ran with all of her strength along the beach below the cliff she had left Fritz standing on.
Several months ago, Brenda spent an evening at Parker Center listening to young girls recount the stories of brutal rapes at the hands of a classmate. The looks on the girl's face broke her heart; the unphathomable sadness in their eyes haunted Brenda, and brought up a long-ago buried grief within her. On her way home at 5am the next morning, she stopped at the overlook to watch the sun rise. Brenda felt so broken that gazing out at the high tide coming in wasn't enough to even begin to soothe her wounds. She put on a pair of sneakers she kept in the car and slowly climbed down the cliff. Except for the last five feet or so, there were plenty of footholds for her to safely descend to the beach below. That silent morning she waded ankle deep in the sea where the water felt like a gentle caress, and after an hour of feeling the tide rise and the force of the waves break over her ankles and then her legs, some of her sadness was washed away.
The memory of that morning was what drove her to rapidly descend the cliff tonight, ignoring the fear in Fritz's frozen face. In her emotional state she missed a few key rocks in which to use as leverage, and she ended up falling the last several feel onto soft sand. If she got injured, she didn't notice. Her mind was so far away from her body at that moment that she couldn't think, only feel the rhythmic pounding of her bare feet on sand and the harsh gasping breaths brought on by her fitful running. Brenda was vaguely aware that Fritz was calling for her, but she didn't react. She didn't care. She wasn't running away or toward anything. She just wanted to run so hard and so far that she would sweat out the sickening mix of unwanted emotions within her; the hurt, the shock, and blind, red rage. She expected that she was oozing fury with each challenging step, with every ragged exhalation, and the sweat that poured down her face and her back was not sweat at all, but a bitter, bitter toxin.
After what seemed like a long time, she became dizzy, and the stars in the sky started to blur before her. Without consulting her, Brenda's body simply stopped, and the lactic acid washed over every muscle and rebuked her for her exertions. She couldn't breathe; she bent over and rested her hands on her knees and fought to get some oxygen into her lungs and her head so she wouldn't faint. She tried to slow her breathing by exhaling slowly through her nose instead of her mouth, and after awhile, the stars ceased to be a cosmic smear from her affected vision and returned to their rightful place in the sky.
Brenda was so fixated on trying to stave off fainting that she didn't hear Fritz until he was about 10 feet away. She turned to look at him, his shirt untucked and sweat running down his face, and he was fighting to catch his own breath. He stared back at her, but said nothing. She stood up slowly and turned away toward the ocean. The running had calmed her, had jerked her away from that dangerous cliff she stood on, when there were too many feelings in her, around her, grabbing at her hem like needy children. Brenda could handle one feeling at a time, and any more than that put her in an emotionally precarious state.
In this small space of emotional calm, Brenda felt pulled toward an old memory, a story from her childhood. It called to her from her past, its relevance making itself clear when she dusted off the recollection and examined it.
She was startled by the sound of her own voice. "When I was a young girl," she said in a flat tone, devoid of any feelings, "my best friend was a girl named Mary Elizabeth. Mary Liz's family was Catholic, and my mama would let me go to mass with her on Sundays if I slept over Saturday night. Mary Liz told me about confession and all, somethin' we Baptists didn't have. And the idea amazed me. Mary Liz said you went into that little booth, told the priest your sins, and got assigned penance, like it was a homework assignment or somethin'. And the penance wasn't really penance, if you ask me. You just had to recite a bunch of Our Fathers and I don't know what all, but then you got to go home, and the sin was just wiped away, like it never happened. I was fascinated by this, so much that Mrs. Fitzpatrick, Mary Liz's mother, had me meet with a priest one time, I think secretly hopin' I would be converted. I asked this guy like a billion questions about confession and absolution, how it all works, why a certain number of Hail Marys were just the remedy to get that pesty sin off your soul. And exactly how many do you have to do for something like murder? Was there a master chart somewhere? Well, I drove this guy crazy, and he told me that I was only eleven, and when I was grown up I would understand better. I never liked hearin' that from adults, that I was too young to understand. But the whole confession thing always fascinated me; maybe that's why I became an Interrogator, so I could hear all about people's sins and give them a lot more meaningful penance than a bunch of prayers. I personally can't think of a better way to atone for your sins than to spend years in prison thinkin' about what got you there."
She stopped for a moment and took a few deep breaths. Fritz stood still a few feet away, but made no move to speak. "When I think about Will, and all that has happened in my life because of my affair with him, I can't help but feel I have performed a heck of a lot of penance for that particular sin. I had to pick of the pieces of my life after he dumped me, I had to end an unwanted pregnancy alone, I had to leave DC and start all over again. I brought all the mistrust and hurt from Will into my marriage, which backfired terribly, and here I am in LA, and I'm still payin,' with Estelle Pope's temper tantrum lettin' everyone know I slept with Will. And your jealousy, and Pope's jealousy, never seem to end, no matter how may virtual Our Fathers I say." Her feelings returned, amplified for their respite, and she was blinded by them. She shouted over the roar of the ocean, "God, when am I gonna be forgiven for my sins? For Will Pope's sins?" She raised her arms over her head, and her voice rose even louder. "When is my penance done, God? When do I finally get absolution? When? I want my clean slate, I want a fresh start, I want…" she was suddenly too exhausted to speak.
Fritz lunged forward and grabbed her around the upper arms as she collapsed onto her knees at the water's edge. She felt the water soak into her linen pants, but she didn't care. Fritz's strong arms held her up, and she leaned into him without meaning to, feeling too weak to support her own body. She tilted her head back and looked at the night sky. "I'm kneelin," she yelled again at the great beyond, making Fritz jump. "I'm kneelin', isn't that what the contrite penitent do?" She closed her eyes. "I am so sorry, so sorry for everything I did to deserve this, so sorry for everything I've done wrong…please forgive me." Her voice stopped, as if she was being choked, and she could say no more. She waited for the tears to come, as they were freely flowing all night. But her eyes were dry and tight, feeling like they did when she had stayed up for days in a row. There were no more tears left. Her whole body shook. Fritz held her tight and gently rocked her, his mouth buried in her hair whispering comforting words Brenda couldn't make out. She wanted to push him away and continue running, but she didn't have the strength.
"How could you, Fritz," she moaned, as if in physical pain. "How could you tell Will? Why would you do that to me? Why? I trust you. I never trust anyone but I trust you." She spoke barely above a whisper.
Fritz pulled his mouth away from her head and brought his lips down to her ears. "Honey, I can only say I'm sorry so many times, because after awhile it just starts to sound insincere. You can't know how sorry I am for the things I've said tonight." He paused and rested his chin on top of her head, gently rocking her. "Like I said before, I told Pope about getting you pregnant to hurt him, and I realized pretty quickly what kind of person that made me, to violate your privacy for my own petty gain. Will Pope really brings out the worst in me, and I saw how ugly I get around him, how low I will stoop to make it clear that you are better off with me. I am more than a little disgusted with myself, especially because I hurt you in the process of hurting Will. He paused, rocking Brenda in silence for a few minutes. "I used to do things like that when I drank," he said, his words seeped in regret. "Mean things, petty things. I was immensely self-centered and didn't care about anyone but myself. I worked on that a lot in rehab, and in therapy and AA afterwards. I thought I had changed, that I'm a better man than that now. I'm more than a little disgusted with myself. I don't want to be that person ever again, and I especially don't ever want to be that person around you." He sighed.
"But I have to remind you, Brenda, you never trusted me with your secret. You never told me about your abortion. Be honest, if I hadn't found out by accident, at your appointment with Dr. Daily, would you ever have told me?"
"No," Brenda answered quickly. "It wasn't any of your business. You said so yourself, in the car afterwards, remember? Or were you just bein' nice?"
"I think I was just being nice."
Brenda tried to pull away, but Fritz's strong arms held her against him, and she relented. "I suppose you want me to respect you for your honesty," she said sarcastically.
"No, I'm not anticipating much respect from you for awhile," he said, his voice soft. "It's just that I wish you didn't keep secrets from me. I wish that you felt close enough to me to tell me these things, knowing I would never judge you, that I will love you no matter what."
"I did trust you with my secrets, Fritz. I told you about my past relationship with men. And tonight you just threw it back in my face."
"Yes, another sign that I can't blame my personality flaws on drinking," he answered quietly. "I am going to have a hard time forgiving myself for how mean and selfish I have been tonight. I get a little tired of working on all my issues. But such is one's life in recovery." He kissed her head. "I promise you, Brenda, I didn't mean to throw anything in your face. Ever. I lashed out, like a jerk. I promise I'll earn your trust back, I swear. More than anything I want to be your constant, your safe haven. I'll do anything to be that to you, Brenda. Believe me."
Surprising herself, she realized she did believe him. She had entered that No Man's Land of her temper where she wasn't furious any more but was unready to forgive. Emotional purgatory, she thought to herself. They kneeled in silence for several minutes, both lost in their own personal miseries, their private worlds of pain and regret.
Fritz spoke and brought Brenda back before she could be swallowed by desolation. "I didn't get a chance to tell you everywhere I've been tonight, looking for you."
"I'm afraid to ask."
Fritz shifted his weight. "Like I said before, I thought maybe you went to Parker Center to work on your case, so I went there looking for you."
Brenda shook her head. "No you didn't. You told me you never made it to Parker Center, that you saw my car and pulled over on your way there."
"Actually, I was on my way back from there when I saw your car. I was heading home to see if you showed up yet."
Brenda looked at him. "So you are tellin' me you went to my work and let my squad know we had a big fight and I was missin'?" Her voice rose. "On top of everything else, you embarrassed me by sharin' our private life with my people? How much damage did you do to my life tonight, Fritz?"
He reached out and gently laid his hand over her mouth. "Brenda, honey, just let me talk for a second, will you? Let me tell you the story. I assure you that I didn't do anything terrible, I promise. But will you just let me talk?" He kept his had over her mouth until she nodded, and then he slowly removed it.
"I went to your murder room," he said. "I stopped at the entrance and looked around. Your office was dark, so I knew right away you weren't there. But your squad was, and they were talking about you. So I hung out and eavesdropped."
"What'd they say," Brenda asked, curiosity overtaking anger.
Well, Flynn, Provenza, and Gabriel were gathered around Tao's desk, looking at what I think were crime scene photos. Their backs were to me, so they didn't know I was there. Gabriel said how amazing it was that you left them alone to work on this case, that you are usually such a micromanager and wouldn't consider letting them work on a fresh case without looking over their shoulders. And then Provenza did an imitation of you giving everyone orders in a really terrible Southern accent."
Brenda rolled her eyes. "Oh lord."
"But then Tao said something that really struck me. He said this was a great opportunity to show you how effective they can be as a squad. Flynn piped in and said the brass had put you through hell over the past few years, and Gabriel said that Flynn had done his fair share of torturing you too. Flynn gave him a dirty look and said it would be nice to pay you back a little bit by showing how much they have learned from you, and even with all the stuff you've been through you formed a great squad." Fritz paused for a breath. "Brenda, they were talking about how much they wanted to impress you, although they didn't come out and say it. The way they spoke about you was with such respect, and believe me, I never thought I'd hear Andy Flynn talk about anyone with respect. I just remember your first year here, where your squad treated you like crap, and every day getting up and going to work was like going into battle. You rarely ever complained, but I could see how stressful it was on you. And now, three years later, you have these hard-assed cops doing whatever they can to prove their worth to you. You have come so far with PHD, and it was like swimming upstream. But you earned their trust and respect because you persevered, you didn't let them, or Taylor, or anyone else get the best of you. You showed what an amazing detective you are, and what a loyal boss you can be. Standing there, listening to them talking, made me realize something."
"I was angry at you tonight for not reporting Pope to Internal Affairs. That he physically assaulted you and was going to get away with it. But listening to your people, I remembered what you told me about why you didn't press charges against your boyfriend Peter after he beat you up. You said that jerks at the Atlanta PD would turn that into a joke, and would use it against you, that's just the way the old boy's club worked. And it occurred to me that the LAPD wouldn't be any different, and you knew that. If you reported Will, he would get all the support from the higher ups, and you would be accused of all types of things, especially when a lot of people know, thanks to Estelle Pope, that you two had an affair. You already went though a witch hunt like that in Atlanta, and I figured out you probably didn't want to go through that again. Especially now that all your hard work and patience has paid off, and you have a squad that would do anything for you, and Priority Homicide has earned a lot of respect. You didn't want to risk losing all that, did you, Brenda? Am I right?"
"Of course you're right, Fritz," she snapped. "Do you think I like the idea of Pope gettin' away with this crap? When have I ever let someone guilty of somethin' getting away with anythin'? But yea, glad you figured it out, reportin' him would completely backfire and come back to hurt me, I know it would. And it makes my stomach burn every time I think about Will gettin' away with accostin' me, but my hands are tied. It's just so great to be a woman in law enforcement." She heard the resentment in her own voice.
"But he didn't get away with it, Brenda," Fritz said. "I think Pope is finally going to do some penance for what he did."
She turned to look at him, frowning. "Fritz, what are you talkin' about? Like you said earlier, he still has his fiefdom."
"Yes, he does, but he lost other things. Things that might be more important to him."
"What are you talking about?"
"Besides the obvious retribution, a seriously busted lip—oh, and I do want to complement you on a very impressive punch, I think that strength training is really paying off—he is suffering in other ways for what he's done. He completely lost your friendship and any respect you may have had for him. And since he clearly still cares for you, any relationship you have with him at all, even just a friendship, is probably very important to him. It's connection. And now that's gone. What's also gone is the delusion he has that the two of you will get back together some day. He told me tonight he realized as soon as you came to LA he had made a terrible mistake breaking up with you, and he regrets it every day that he didn't marry you."
Brenda looked up at Fritz in surprise. "He actually told you that?"
"Yea, like I said, he was pretty pathetic when I went over there tonight. So that hope has been taken away from him, from your reaction to his advances, and when you take that away from the mighty Pope, he is a sad man. He is divorced twice, which shows you how good he is at relationships, and he's pining away for someone he can't have. His life is a collection of bad choices, nothing else. Oh, and he lost something else very powerful."
"My jealousy. I realized tonight how my insecurities about you and Pope has only fueled his ego. He got off on doing things he knew would make me jealous, and I'm sure I have only heard a fraction of the stuff he's done." He paused and looked at Brenda, who nodded almost imperceptibly. "But putting you in the middle like that, doing things you wouldn't tell me because you knew I would get upset, gave him a great deal of power over both of us. And that's done, because I realized tonight I have nothing to be jealous over." He reached out and gently touched Brenda's cheek. "I know you love me, Brenda," he said softly, "and you wouldn't hurt me intentionally. Pope told me you made that very clear to him. Doubting that love, and worrying that Will was going to steal you away, that's all about my insecurities, and nothing about you. But I made it about you, and that breaks my heart. I am supposed to be your safe place to land, not your adversary."
"But you are still jealous, Fritz, you said so tonight. You said you were jealous of his kids, and jealous because he got me pregnant."
Fritz shifted off of his knees and sat down on the damp sand, and pulled Brenda's back against his chest between the vee of his legs. He propped himself up with his arms as Brenda leaned against him again. "I think this has to go in the 'petty' category. Or the 'male ego' one. Or let's just call it the workings of my petty male ego."
"It's less about having kids than about my manliness, really. I think men throughout history have proven their virility through procreating. And I know that's very caveman of me, and I apologize for my sex as a whole. And I say this with tremendous embarrassment, please know: it makes me feel less of a man than Will because he got you pregnant and I can't. Even though it's about our age, your PCO, real-life, practical issues, and I know that, it still brings out the primitive male in me."
Brenda snorted loudly, not even trying to hide her distain.
"I know, I know, its stupid, and you probably thought I was a little more evolved than that. I try not to let my knuckles drag on the ground too much."
"Actually, stories of men's immaturity never surprise me," she answered. She regretted the words as soon as they fell out of her mouth. "Sorry, Fritz, I shouldn't have said that. That's just me bein' petty, too."
He pulled her closer. "That's okay, honey, I deserved that."
She rested in his strong arms for awhile, fighting off her bone-deep fatigue. The sound of his voice startled her back into wakefulness.
"Tell me, something, Brenda."
"What?" she said warily.
"Anything," Fritz said. "Anything I don't know about you. It doesn't have to be something terrible, just tell me something…personal. I think there is so much inside of you don't know about, and I want to know you, Brenda. All of you. And I want you to be able to tell me anything. So please, just tell me something you have never told me before."
Brenda looked at him, her brow wrinkled in confusion. After chewing her lip for a moment, she spoke.
"Well, since I'm all about confessin' my deep darks tonight…I did recognize Will still had feelin's for me just a couple of months after I got to LA," she said. "And I realized what a huge mistake I had made, comin' back to work for him. So I decided to leave. My squad hated me and did everything they could to undermine my authority. Taylor was a constant pain in my you-know-what. It just made sense to leave and go somewhere else. I called Homeland Security and they had another position available, and it was mine for the takin'. Here you thought I was bein' a good soldier my first year here, when I was really plottin' to escape."
Fritz looked surprised. "I had no idea. What made you change your mind?"
She looked at him like he was the biggest idiot on earth and rolled her eyes. "Well, you, of course," she said.
He raised his eyebrows. "This was after we had only dating for a few months? You were like a frightened colt any time I even mentioned the word 'girlfriend.' You broke dates with me all the time. Back then I didn't have any idea how you felt about me, about us. And yet you stayed in LA for me?"
"Fritzy," she said, wearily, "haven't you learned by now that the way I act and the way I feel are two very different things?" She looked at him. "Yea, I had my whole escape planned, even picked out an apartment in my old neighborhood in Georgetown and contacted a real estate agent about sellin' the bungalow. My resignation letter was typed up. And I just couldn't go through with it. I was so determined and all, to walk into Pope's office and quit, to call you on the phone and tell you it was over, I hoped we could be friends, and then.." again, her voice caught.
"Then what?" Fritz prodded her.
"Then you would come over and be your wonderful self, takin' care of me and all, lettin' me know how much you loved me without ever sayin' it by bein' so gentle, so kind. When I was with you, all that other stuff about Pope and my squad seemed so inconsequential. No one has ever made me feel like that, and every time I opened my mouth to tell you I was plannin' on leavin', I'd look into those eyes of your and my heart would, well, it would do somthin' funny in my chest, and the words just disappeared. I finally admitted to myself that I didn't want to leave you behind. Oh, I told myself all kinds of things, like I didn't want to give the LAPD the pleasure of pushin' me out, or I really didn't want to move back to DC, stuff like that. And I know I'm not very honest with myself most of the time, but when I was, I finally admitted I was too in love with you to leave. So I stayed."
Fritz looked almost as stunned as he did when he watched Brenda go over the cliff. "So you gave up plans for a better job back east where you could escape Pope and all the other assholes at the LAPD, to stay and be with me? The past three years, all those hours, all those times Pope has yelled at you or come on to you, you put up with that because of me?"
"Yea," said Brenda, picking up a small shell and drawing circles in the sand with it. "You surprised, Fritz?"
"Honestly? Very. Now I feel even more like I jerk for everything I did tonight."
"Good," Brenda said. She looked at him and they both started laughing at the same time.
"Laughter, that's good," Fritz said, smiling. "It means you don't want to kill me any more."
"No, it just means I found somthin' funny. I'm still mad at you."
His smile disappeared and a very intense look crossed his face. "Do you have any idea how much it means to me to hear this, Brenda? That you loved me enough to stay in LA even when everything was going so badly? That despite all you had been through, all your terrible relationships, something in your heart knew we were meant to be together? You know what that was, Brenda?"
"Faith," he said. " You believed in me. You believed in our potential as a couple."
"I didn't think of that as faith before," Brenda said.
"Faith is believing in something when you have no reason not to," said Fritz.
She grunted her assent.
"Well, Father Fritz, since I'm really scrubbin' my soul clean tonight, I have another confession. I ate two chocolate donuts for lunch a few days ago." His face was masked in mock horror. She raised her hand. "Okay, okay, I admit it, it was three! There, I said it. Now what is my penance gonna be for bein' such a sinner?"
Fritz twisted her around so she kneeled between his legs. He took her hands in her face and hesitantly kissed her. When Brenda didn't pull back, her kissed her more, an evolving kiss that started with gentle touches of their lips and turned into the sweet perfection of two velvet tongues caressing each other. Brenda could barely breathe from the spender of it.
She pulled back. "Well, now, that was a hell of a lot better than havin' to say the rosary." She smiled, and Fritz put his large warm hand on her cheek, running his thumb over her lips.
He looked down at the sand where Brenda had been drawing with a broken shell, and noticed a big heart with "Brenda + Fritz" in the middle. He smiled, and when she followed his gaze to her own handiwork, she felt slightly embarrassed. "I was just doodlin', I didn't even know what I was drawin'." Fritz kissed her nose. "Well, I'll take it as a good sign."
"A good sign for what?"
"That you will come home with me now, Brenda. Crawl into bed and let me hold you. Please."
She shook her head. "No, I don't think so."
Fritz look frustrated and was about to speak again, but Brenda held up her hand and nodded toward the horizon. In the distance, a thin line of peach was slowly siphoning away the darkness of the night sky. It was dawn.
Brenda looked down at her watch. "Honey, it's 6am. I have to go into work. Even though my detectives are itchin' to show me I'm no longer needed, I have to go in and work on that case, make sure a Frovenza hasn't happened," she said, using their secret name for a mess made by her two most troublesome lieutenants.
"Oh, you're right, I didn't realize how long we've been out here." Fritz stood up and extended his hand to Brenda, which she took to heave herself up. "I have to get ready for work too. But will you at least let me buy you breakfast first? You didn't eat dinner last night, and I know you are going to have a long day. How about it?"
Brenda pondered his offer, as they both started to walk back to the cliff. "Okay Fritz, only if I can have pancakes with real syrup, not that fake sugar-free crap." She looked at him hopefully.
Fritz raised an eyebrow. "Brenda, are you playing me because you know I feel guilty about everything that happened tonight?" He tried to look serious.
She didn't miss a beat. "Yes, yes I am. I am takin' full advantage of your emotional pain to get a nice, hot stack of pancakes the way they were meant to be eaten, drownin' in Maple syrup."
Fritz laughed and grabbed Brenda around the waist, swinging her around a couple of times before finally giving in to her protestations and setting her down on the sand again. "Well, in light of tonight's discussion, I can only say that I appreciate your honesty."
Brenda, slightly dizzy and out of breath, wrapped her arms around Fritz's shoulders to steady herself. "And I appreciate that your penance scores me some pancakes!" She kissed him quickly, took his hand, and began to drag him down the beach, their way back increasingly illuminated by the rising sun.
A/N: Well, that's my magnum opus. If you took the time to read it all, thanks so much, and please take a minute to hit the review button and let me know how you liked it. Even a few words would be most welcome. Feedback is what we fanfic writers live for!