"Coop." A voice penetrated Cooper's slumber. "Wake up, man."
Cooper reluctantly opened one eye to find Tristan standing over him, drinking from a carton of orange juice, skateboard tucked under his arm. Realised he was still on the couch, covered by a thick blanket. Alone, at least. Chickie must have hauled herself off to bed at some forgotten point.
"Coop," Tristan said more insistently.
Cooper forced himself to concentrate. "You wanna ride to school?" he mumbled, hearing his voice scratching in his throat from too much Scotch.
"Nah, I'm good. I'm goin' skating first; I'll come back and change before school."
Cooper nodded that he remembered.
"Coop, is Mom okay?" Tristan asked quietly.
"How'd you mean?" Cooper opened the other eye to look directly at the kid.
"Like, at work. She doesn't seem happy with it."
"She's okay, Tris. She's just got a few issues with her partner right now."
"You mean that drunk guy?"
Cooper couldn't help but smile. "Yeah, that one."
Tristan shook his head derisively. "He's not her partner. You guys are partners." He nodded to the sleeping Sherman on the other couch. "He's just some guy she rides with."
"She talk to you about it?"
"Not really. Just sometimes, y'know, she comes home really pissed off and she just needs to sound off. She tries not to tell me too much but I don't mind, man. I'd rather she talked about it than just pretended everything was alright."
"She knows she can always talk to me, right?"
Tristan nodded. "She knows you're there for her, Coop. She said last night that you'd got into it with the guy."
"I just told him what was gonna happen if he kept makin' her life difficult."
"Anytime." Cooper made sure the kid held his gaze. "Seriously, Tris, you don't have to worry about her. I'm gonna sort it, okay?"
Tristan nodded again, hitched his backpack higher on his shoulder. "I'd better get goin'."
"Have a good skate."
"I will. You're alright, yeah?"
"'Course I am."
Tristan held out his hand for a palm slap, grinned and departed with his skateboard. Cooper dragged the blankets back over himself, settled down again in the hope of sleep returning.
X X X
Sherman woke early, as he usually did when hungover. Cooper was snoring underneath his blanket on the opposite couch; Chickie was nowhere to be seen. No comforting smell of brewing coffee or the crackle of frying bacon. Suggesting she was still out for the count as well.
Disentangling himself from his own blankets, Ben stretched out his cramped limbs and considered his options. Aspirin was very necessary. Water would be good. Food was greatly desired.
"Coop, you awake?" he asked.
"Only if you've got coffee," Cooper mumbled, burying his head under his cushion.
"Shut the hell up then."
Footsteps too soft to be a teenage boy announced Chickie's arrival, last night's makeup still evident and wearing a huge LAPD sweatshirt. She seemed to be struggling to coordinate walking and talking, so she gave up and slumped against the doorframe.
"Jesus, why do I never think about the consequences?" she moaned. "My head's gonna explode."
"My stomach's trying to eat itself," Ben agreed, managing to sit upright and immediately regretting it.
"You want to take a shower?"
"Can I just have coffee and breakfast instead?"
Chickie regarded Cooper, who was keeping his eyes firmly closed. "Looks like you're gonna have to deal with that on your own. Go set the coffee machine going. I'll come make breakfast after a shower."
She moved slowly towards the bathroom and Ben carefully pushed himself upright, made sure he could maintain equilibrium before heading for the kitchen. Found the coffee beans after an extensive search, ground them successfully. Poured water into the correct place and let the coffee machine do its work.
The kitchen door banged carelessly, announcing Tristan's return. He dropped his skateboard and backpack onto a breakfast bar stool.
"Morning, Ben," he said cheerfully.
Ben managed to mumble something that resembled a greeting.
"Is Coop still here?"
"Yeah, he went back to sleep. Your mom's gone to take a shower."
"Not as bad as me."
Tristan grinned, crossed to the refrigerator. Pulled out peanut butter, grabbed a banana and two slices of bread from the counter. Made himself a sandwich.
"You want one?" he asked Ben.
"No, I'm good." Ben grimaced at the offering; peanut butter was high on his most-hated food list. But he had to make sure Cooper didn't find that out or he would suffer for it.
"You guys goin' to work?"
"Not for a while. You looking for a ride to school?"
"Wouldn't say no. Coop got his car here?"
"No, your mom drove us last night."
"Damn. Love that car, man."
Sherman grinned. "So does Cooper."
"He's let me try driving it a coupla times. Like, out in the desert on the quiet roads. Coop's a good guy."
"Yeah, I know. He cares a lot about you."
Tristan nodded quietly. "When I was a little kid, he'd always take me wherever I wanted. Even the beach. He never liked it much but he'd take me if I asked."
"I imagine he's more of a city guy than a beach dude."
"He didn't like all the women checking him out," Tristan grinned.
Ben smiled, studied the coffee machine as if confirming its effectiveness. Didn't want to say anything in response.
"It's cool, man, I know," Tristan laughed. "Coop told me years ago."
"Boot, you figured out how to work the coffee machine yet?" Cooper's sleep-heavy voice yelled from the living room.
"Yeah, it's just brewed," Sherman shouted back.
"Grab me a cup, will ya?"
"I got it," Tristan called.
He moved around Sherman, poured another cup of coffee and stuck his sandwich into his mouth. Ben followed the kid back through to the living room. Cooper was still under the blankets, lying on his side in an outward display of comfort.
He accepted the large mug Tristan handed to him, grinning as the kid immediately flopped down beside him on the couch, stretching his long body across the free space. Cooper threw a paternal arm around the kid's shoulders, ruffled his hair.
"You forgot about school?"
"Got twenty minutes before the bus." Tristan tore a huge bite from his sandwich and offered the remainder to Cooper.
"Get that thing away from me."
Tristan grinned and shoved the rest into his mouth. "Can I have twenty bucks, Coop?"
"You got a damn mother, go beg her for money."
"I can't ask Mom for money."
"But you can ask me, right? What, you started smoking weed or somethin'?"
Tristan laughed. "Nah, man, I promised I'd tell you if I was gonna try that shit."
"What'd you want it for then?"
Tristan grimaced awkwardly. "I kinda got this girl, y'know, and I wanna get her somethin'…"
Ben struggled to keep his face straight, amused not only by the kid's self-consciousness but also by Cooper's expression, which said he could not refuse the boy. Cooper gave an exaggerated sigh.
"Find my wallet. It's in the kitchen somewhere. Take whatever's in there."
Tristan's eyes illuminated and his smile nearly split his face. "You rule, Coop."
"Get the hell to school before I change my mind."
Tristan sprang up and sprinted for the kitchen. Minutes later, they heard him yelling farewell as he charged out the door.
"Soft touch," Ben grinned.
"Don't think you're gettin' any cash outta me, Boot."
"Did you give Tris money?" Chickie asked, returning with hair still wet from the shower.
"Nope," Cooper said calmly. "Where the hell's breakfast?"
"You want pancakes?"
"If you manage not to cremate them, yeah."
Chickie flipped him the finger and headed for the kitchen. Cooper still showed no sign of moving and after a few minutes of quiet coffee-sipping, Sherman realised the big man wouldn't get up while anyone was watching.
"I'm gonna help Chickie," he announced, getting to his feet.
Cooper didn't say anything but he met Sherman's eyes, gave him a nod that said more than words ever would. It said he realised Ben understood.
"I'll put more coffee on," Ben said, keeping his tone casual. "You want some more?"
He took Cooper's cup and wandered back through to the kitchen. Set the coffee machine going again and poured himself a glass of juice, watched Chickie attempted to flip a pancake. In her hungover state, it wasn't going well.
"You hungry?" she asked.
"Starving, but take your time."
"I'm not the world's greatest cook," she admitted.
"You know I'll eat anything."
She smiled, poured more batter into the skillet. "It was good hanging out with you guys last night."
Chickie was quiet for a moment, concentrating on the task. "Cooper thinks I'm a shit cop," she said suddenly.
Ben paused with his juice glass halfway to his mouth, surprised by the sudden change in conversation.
"He cares about you, Chick; he just wants you to be safe."
"Do you think I'm shit?"
Sherman wasn't sure of the best reply to give. His natural inclination was to trust Cooper's instincts but Chickie was his friend and he could see yesterday's shooting had shaken her self-belief badly.
"No, I don't," he said finally.
"You're not pissed I put you in the line of fire?"
"Not at all."
Chickie gave a weak smile. "Thanks, Ben."
Ben shrugged. "We're all in it together, Chick. I'm not your partner but I'll always look out for you if you need me."
She sent him one of those smiles that somehow managed to convey everything she was thinking. "Just make sure you look out for Cooper as well."
"I will if he lets me."
"You know his favourite saying is 'don't be a pussy', right? He's never gonna admit he needs your help; he doesn't think that's what real men do."
"So what am I supposed to do?"
"Just stick by him. That's what means the most when life gets rough."
"Sounds like the voice of experience."
Another enigmatic smile. "Guess it is." She set another pancake on the stack. "You want syrup?"
As Ben took his plate, he realised Cooper had been standing quietly in the doorway, unobtrusively listening to the conversation. Chickie still hadn't noticed as she turned away to search for the syrup.
The partners met each other's gazes. And it was immediately clear that they both recognised what the other was thinking.
They may both have wanted to protect Chickie, but for John Cooper and Ben Sherman, keeping each other alive was the most important thing of all. Because, when the dark threatened to close in on them, that's what partners did.
They looked out for each other.