Definitions of Bravery
You've been on the road for six hours already. The Bureau wouldn't pay for airfare, so you and your partner are driving. More specifically, he is driving. You're in the passenger seat calculating cost of plane tickets versus cost of gasoline and, after factoring in fuel efficiency and time, you're pretty sure the Bureau is just screwing you over. Again. Most likely for something you didn't do. Just another perk of being the designated scapegoat.
You offered to drive, but your partner wouldn't let you. Something about you being a menace behind the wheel was said, under his breath and good-naturedly, of course. You suspect that despite his grumbling about the fifteen-year age difference and his constantly calling you "kid," he actually does like you. Most of the time.
The seats aren't very comfortable, but that's only to be expected from a government-issue car. You shift around, trying to relieve the cramp between your shoulders. He notices.
"You need to stop?"
It's sort of true. Your right shoulder is aching like the devil, but you've had worse, and you're never without some kind of pain reliever or muscle relaxer. If it gets too bad, you can dry swallow one the next time he stops for gas. Waiting until he gets out of the car, of course.
You don't know why you feel the need to perpetuate this myth that you're impervious to pain. He knows the muscle was damaged during the shooting, and he knows you're still recovering from it. And you know he knows you're on prescription pain killers and that you don't take them like you're supposed to. That knowledge doesn't bother you. He has to know what you're taking in case he has to inform the paramedics if you get shot again. Just like you know he's on medication for cholesterol, and he's allergic to penicillin. Just in case.
You think about just how intimate that knowledge is. He probably knows more about you than your last boyfriend did. And you probably know more about him than either of his ex-wives. Except how he is in bed, and that's one detail you can go the rest of your life without knowing.
The car hits a bump in the otherwise smooth highway and jars your shoulder. You wince, and rub it against the seat. Reaching up to massage it would be too obvious. Not that it matters.
"Will you just take something for it?" he grumbles.
"I don't need it," you insist.
"Are you calling me a liar?"
You shoot him that glare you're so well-known for, the one that makes your nieces and nephews behave for days, the one that makes a perp cave, the one that should make your partner squirm with discomfort at the very least, but if it has any effect on him, you can't see it. He's probably spent the last thirty to forty years building up immunity to those kinds of glares. Figures.
It's another three hours before he pulls into a gas station. While the gas is pumping, you can hear him digging around in the trunk. He comes back holding the prescription bottle you thought you'd hidden in the bottom of your bag so well.
"Take one," he orders, handing it to you. "Get out. Walk around a little. Stretch your legs."
"Do I have a choice?"
You pop the lid open, shake a pill out, and toss it in your mouth. You make a point of visibly swallowing, and for added measure, open your mouth to show you're not hiding it under your tongue.
"No one likes a smartass, Acklin," he grumbles.
"Pot. Kettle. Black."
He rolls his eyes skyward, as if seeking patience from a higher power, before getting out to check the pump. You open your door and slide out of the passenger seat, your legs protesting against the movement after hours motionless. You whimper involuntarily at the pain and hope he doesn't hear you. You glance over the car to check. It appears he didn't; he's watching the pump. You do some stretches and get back in the car while he goes to pay. He comes back with a turkey sandwich and a bottle of water, which he hands to you.
"You're supposed to take it with food," he says. "You're also supposed to take two."
"You only took one."
"You're not my mother," you grouse. "Or my doctor."
"And if you listened to them, I wouldn't have to be."
As he pulls back onto the freeway, you take a bite of the sandwich to avoid seeming churlish, and realize that it's been about eight hours since you last ate and you're actually kind of hungry. The rest of the sandwich disappears pretty fast.
Another three hours or so pass. There's a very brief discussion about driving all night versus stopping. You can tell he's exhausted, so you're in favor of switching spots for the night to let him sleep in the passenger seat while you drive, but he is adamantly against it. Apparently your driving is just that scary. He seeks out a Motel 6 just off I-80 instead.
There's some kind of convention in town, although what the heck could possibly be going on in Davenport, Iowa is beyond your imagination, so the motel only has one room available. You both agree that's fine; it's not as if the Bureau's given you an unlimited budget on this trip. The room itself isn't the worst you've seen. You toss your overnight bag on one of the beds and flop down next to it. He places his neatly on the other and sits down on the corner to take his shoes off. You let him use the shower first. You're dog-tired, and you've just been riding. You can only imagine how he must feel after driving for twelve hours straight.
You feel his hand shaking you, and you jerk awake. You dozed off while he was in the shower. Running on autopilot, you gather up what you need and scurry into the bathroom. The pounding hot water from the showerhead on your shoulder feels so wonderful you almost forget your purpose for showering in the first place. You snap out of your daze and finish the rest of your nightly routine.
When you stumble back to the room, the lights are off except for the one between the beds. He's in the bed he'd claimed earlier, reading The Screwtape Letters. Ordinarily, you would've countered that by pulling out something quirky like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but you're too tired and all you want to do is go to sleep. You crawl into the other bed without a word, burying your face in the pillow. You hear the light click off.
The hallway is dark, but you can still see clearly thanks to the eerie shafts of light coming from places where light doesn't make sense. You're tensed like a tightly-wound coil, ready to act at the first sign of danger because wherever you are right now, it's certainly dangerous. Dark places usually are. That rumbling sound is making you nervous. A piercing shriek makes you grab your Glock and spin around, except your Glock's not there. The holster's empty. That doesn't make sense. You always make sure you have it, because you know how dangerous it is to enter a building unarmed without backup, and now you've broken both those rules at once. Your SAC will kill you when he finds out, but it doesn't matter because that loud pop and the punch in your shoulder tell you you're already dead. And you really should be panicking more than this. Maybe you are, because someone's shaking you and demanding you wake up.
The light between the beds is on again. Your partner's sitting on the edge of your bed next to you, looking just the slightest bit concerned. You sit up, shivering.
"Sorry," you mumble.
"It's not your fault. What happened?"
"I heard screaming."
"It was just some kids running up and down the hall."
As if to prove his point, you hear a squeal and the rumbling sound of pounding feet down the hallway outside your room. A door slams, and you recognize it as the gunshot sound from your dream. You shudder, whether you mean to or not.
"What time is it?"
"I'm sorry I woke you up."
"It's not your fault," he tells you again. He studies you. "Did you ever talk to anyone about it?"
"I had my mandatory sessions with the Bureau shrink."
"That's not what I'm asking," he says. "Did you ever talk to someone who's been in that situation? Who knows what it's like to feel a bullet ripping through you? Or how it feels to wake up in a strange hospital room alone? How agonizing and terrifying the decision to return to the field can be? To willingly let yourself go back to the job that put you in that position in the first place?"
"Maybe you should."
You don't answer. Slowly, as if trying not to startle you, he lets his hand come to rest on top of yours. His index finger slips under your wrist, checking your pulse.
"Listen," he says gently. "You're going to have bad days; everyone does. And when you do, it's okay to admit it. It doesn't make you weak or cowardly to say you need help. There's nothing wrong with being human."
You still don't answer. He leans forward a bit to look you in the eye.
"Yeah," you whisper, nodding. "Thanks."
He gets up and returns to his own bed, shutting the light off as he does. You lie back down and go to sleep almost instantly.
Breakfast at the motel consists of cold coffee and cheap donuts, so you both agree to eat on the road. You peruse the phonebook and discover an IHOP not too far away. You make another offer to drive, and he immediately shoots you down.
"Is my driving really that horrifying?" you ask once the waitress has seated you at a booth in the back corner.
"One time when I was in New York, I rode in a taxi driven by a man who'd recently immigrated here after spending most of his adult life as a cab driver in Tel Aviv." He sets his menu down to look at you over the rim of his reading glasses. "For fifteen years, I swore that was the most terrifying experience of my life. That was before I spent ten minutes in a car with you."
He picks up his menu and looks over it again. You don't know why. He'll order fried eggs with bacon and two slices of toast just like he always does, no matter where the two of you are having breakfast. The waitress comes back to refill your coffee and take your orders. You decide on French toast, just for variety's sake. He considers the menu a moment longer before ordering fried eggs with bacon and two slices of toast. You take a sip of coffee to hide your smirk of self-satisfied amusement. He'd probably kill you if he knew you found him that predictable.
The waitress returns again with your food, and you're making short work of the toast when you realize he's giving you a pointed look. You freeze, suspicious of a trap.
"What?" you ask, confident that you've done nothing wrong.
He reaches into his jacket pocket, removes your prescription bottle, and sets it on the table in front of you. You wince, feeling your confidence evaporate.
"Did you mean to leave it on the bathroom counter when we left?"
No, you really didn't, but functioning in the morning before coffee has never been your strong point. That damn fool bottle could've been dancing across the table wearing a sombrero and you wouldn't have noticed. Well, maybe you would've, but it would've been in the context of "Wow, that's weird. Am I hallucinating?" instead of "Oh, right. Don't forget to pack the meds."
Explaining this, of course, will do no good. He's already made up his mind that you tried to ditch the pills on purpose, and any attempt to say otherwise will look like a denial. You grab the bottle and toss it in your purse. He clears his throat.
"What?" you ask again.
His only response is to raise his eyebrows slightly in disapproval. It's the same tactic your assistant principal used to make you cave and confess multitudes of sins and misdeeds, whether or not they were yours. That method might have worked in high school, but now it just annoys you.
"Look, I don't need it right now. Full range of motion, see?"
You stretch your arm out and rotate it in a slow circle to prove your point, and if the muscle hadn't chosen that particular moment to spasm on you, you might've succeeded. As it is, your partner looks less than convinced when you let your arm drop to your side too quickly.
"I am your superior," he reminds you, not in an arrogant or condescending way. "One word from me puts you back on desk duty."
Realizing you've been defeated again, you grab the bottle, shake two pills out, and swallow them down with a mouthful of coffee.
"Blackmail's illegal, you know."
"I know," he agrees affably. "But so useful sometimes."
The rest of breakfast passes in silence. As you linger by the door while you wait for him to pay, you notice the waitress has finally seen the gun clipped to his belt. Her expression of naïve, fascinated shock is one of the funniest things you've seen in a while, and you can't help but wonder how she'd react if she knew about the Baby Glock he wears in an ankle holster. The waitress glances at your waist in what she thinks is a surreptitious manner, and you fight back a chuckle, knowing she'll only see your badge. You learned years ago that discretion is the better part of valor. The Glock stays in your purse while you're on the road unless you decide otherwise.
The waitress hands him the change, and the two of you exit together. You wait until you're across the parking lot and out of sight before you bust out laughing. He gives you a quizzical look.
"What's so funny?"
You explain the waitress's reaction to discovering she'd just served coffee to a couple of real live FBI agents. He snorts, sharing your amusement.
"Probably the most interesting thing that's happened around here in years."
You cackle in agreement as you get in the car. You don't even offer to drive this time, knowing he'll just make a remark about comparing you to a kamikaze pilot or an Autobahn driver.
After staring at cornfields in silence for over two hours, you catch yourself humming show tunes. You cycle through The Music Man twice and are about to start on it a third time before he tries to silence you with a glower. You grin unapologetically, and don't stop. It's not your fault "Iowa Stubborn" is so catchy. And appropriate, given the circumstances.
By the time you reach Omaha, however, you've given up on musicals. There's a brief stop for food and gas, and then you're back on the road half an hour later. He turns on the radio to listen to a game. Baseball holds no interest for you, so you tune it out almost immediately. Cornfields are only fascinating for so long, and you decide from now on to rate everything you find boring on a scale of Pennsylvania to Nebraska.
Your mind eventually drifts back to last night's discussion. No, you never did talk to anyone about it beyond the mandatory psych evaluations. You never saw any need to, but if he's concerned about you (and you suspect he is, even if he won't come right out and say it), maybe you should. He pegged your emotions pretty well when he was questioning you.
There's one thing he got wrong, though: You didn't wake up in the hospital alone. Through the drug-induced haze, you vaguely remember trying to yank the IV out of your arm to get away from whatever it was you thought was coming after you, only to have his hand reach out of the fog and stop you. In your recollection of events, you calmed down the moment you realized he was there, but you know the reality of the situation is he probably spent several minutes pinning your wrists to the bed before you finally cottoned on that no one was going to hurt you. You blame the anesthesia.
Thinking about your various experiences in hospitals makes you wonder about his. You know he's had his share of visits, and you wonder who was there when he woke up, who had been there to assure him that he was safe, that he hadn't died, and wasn't going to. His first partner? An ex-wife? Another friend or relative? You wonder if you should ask him about it, and if he'd accuse you of getting too personal if you do. It would be his own fault, you decide. After all, he's the one who brought it up.
"What're you thinking about?"
"Huh?" It's not your best comeback, but he caught you off guard.
"You've got that look," he explains with an air of patience. "What're you thinking about?"
You see the corner of his mouth twitch in annoyance before he heaves an exasperated sigh.
"If you don't want to talk about it, all you have to do is say so."
"No, seriously. Is there anything in the state of Nebraska besides corn?"
You're deflecting the issue, trying to diffuse the situation with humor. One look from him tells you he knows it, too. You start to admit what you were really thinking, but the low gas alarm on the dashboard cuts you off. He looks down at the flashing light in disbelief.
"I just filled it," he mutters, more to himself than to you as he flips on the turn signal.
You wisely decide not to make a snippy comment about how that was a few hours and a couple hundred miles back as he pulls off I-80 to search Nowheresville for a gas station. He finds one fairly quickly, and while he's filling the tank, you get out to stretch for a bit. You're bending over to touch your toes when you notice a puddle forming under the car.
"Hey, we're leaking oil," you announce, still bent over.
He kneels down to look under the car, sees the puddle, and utters a stream of colorful curses that's probably Italian, but could be Spanish. You fight back a snort of amusement as he shuts off the pump and storms inside. You pity the poor fool behind the counter, but can't help find a bit of pleasure at the idea of someone else being on the receiving end of that wrath for once. Schadenfreude.
He comes back with directions to a repair shop on the other side of town. He's still muttering some fascinating-sounding obscenities and the occasional minced oath. You're tempted to ask him to translate, but he's so visibly irate you decide not to. He looks like he might damn you to one of the upper circles of Hell. Or maybe just to Purgatory. Part of you is just a little bit afraid he might succeed.
The inside of the garage is about the same temperature as an oven, so you opt to wait outside on a bench and watch the cars go by. He eventually joins you, still grumbling. You offer him one of the bottles of water you snagged from the vending machine while he was busy harassing the mechanic. He takes it, muttering thanks, and sits down next to you.
Silence reigns only for a minute or two before you start whistling "Put on Your Sunday Clothes". The look he sends you has made many a fresh-faced rookie squirm.
"Do you have to sing show tunes?"
"Would you prefer something from Chicago?" you ask cheekily. You recall the outcome of the ballgame on the radio earlier, and feign sudden understanding. "Oh! Is that why you're in such a foul mood? Because the Cubs lost again?"
Your tone is so theatrical, so over the top, as if you've just received enlightenment and now have the answers to all the mysteries of the universe, that he laughs. You take a sip of water to wet your lips, pleased with the reaction, and start whistling again. Your selection this time includes the Eagles and the Rat Pack, the latter of which he seems to approve.
The mechanic interrupts the impromptu solo concert to inform you that the problem was a bit more serious than they originally thought, that it was going to take longer than originally expected, and they'd make sure the car was ready by tomorrow morning. The steady stream of curses resumes, this time aimed at the retreating mechanic's back. While he's busy condemning everything from mechanics to cars to the obstructive bureaucrats who made you drive instead of fly, you grab the phonebook and locate a motel within walking distance.
The place is run-down and a bit creepy looking, and you're secretly glad when he suggests sharing a room again. He claims it's in the interest of saving money, but you suspect he wants to keep an eye on you tonight. Just in case.
You shower first this time, quickly because you don't want to reinforce the stereotype that women spend hours in the bathroom. Still, the pizza he ordered is there by the time you finish. You grab a slice, and curl up on one of the beds with your dog-eared copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. He sits on the opposite bed with his pristine copy of The Screwtape Letters, and the pair of you read in comfortable silence.
The problem arises when you realize that you've read To Kill a Mockingbird so many times you've practically got it memorized. You should've brought something else with you to read. With nothing to occupy your mind, it wanders back to earlier when you were contemplating the cornfields and pretending to be amused by it. Humor, sarcasm, and general smart-assery have always been your coping mechanisms. You wonder what his are, aside from cooking and sharing the occasional anecdote about his extended family.
"You haven't turned a page in almost twenty minutes," he observes without looking up from his own book.
"You are incredibly irritating sometimes, you know that?"
"So I've been told." He marks the page. "What's eating you?"
"What was it like?" you blurt out. "The first time?"
He sighs. It's a low, slow sound of someone dredging up memories long buried.
"Disorienting," he admits, taking off his readers and setting them on the nightstand between the beds. "Confusing as hell. You don't realize how close you came to dying until after the fact, when someone tells you you were in surgery for five hours or you coded in the ambulance. You skip right over the whole 'life flashing in front of your eyes' thing. In a weird, twisted kind of way, it feels like you've been cheated out of something. Like you skipped a step somewhere.
"The first time I woke up, they had me wearing an oxygen mask. I kept trying to rip it off." He gives a rueful smile. "Thought someone was trying to smother me."
"What stopped you?"
"My partner was there. Leland, you remember him? He sat there for probably six hours or so listening to me rave like a lunatic about God knows what. Told me later he thought he was going to have to cuff me to the bed to keep me from messing up the equipment."
"Anesthesia's not too gentle on its recipients, is it?"
"No, it's not," he agrees. "I think the nurses have a name for it. ICU sickness or something. Point is, you come out of surgery after you've had your stomach pumped, you've been all cut up and sewn back shut, then you wake up in recovery drugged out of your mind with no concept of how long it's been, you get a little crazy. I knew I was in the hospital. But I also knew I was in some sick pervert's basement looking for the kid he'd snatched. It does a number on you."
"That's how you knew I'd try to escape."
"What about afterwards?" you ask, finally coming around to what you realize has been the crux of the discussion. "How did you know you wanted to go back?"
"I didn't. Not at first. I stayed at a desk for a while. Part of it was mandatory; you damage a lung, they're not going to let you do anything besides paperwork until they're sure you're not going to keel over. But afterwards...I didn't jump right back in."
"Some people are made for working behind a desk. They can spend their whole lives sifting through paperwork and feel like they've accomplished something. I realized after a while I wasn't one of them. Being out in the field gave me a sense of achievement, that I was doing something that mattered. Knowing I was risking my life to help others, and that it was worth the risk, gave me a kind of satisfaction I could never get as a desk jockey. Accepting that it was okay to be afraid, though, that was the real problem."
You wait, knowing he'll keep going now that you finally opened up and broached the subject. He's got a point to make, and he'll make it how he wants to, when he wants to.
"We were working a case in Baltimore," he says. "It should've been easy, but it got ugly real quick. There were some shots fired during the takedown. One of them came pretty close. I thought I was fine. I told Leland I was fine. He found me almost catatonic in the parking lot a couple hours later."
He pauses. The silence hangs over you, and you realize he's actually going to make you ask. You bite.
"He took me to a diner, got some coffee in me, and made me listen to his stories about Vietnam. When he was finished, he told me the same thing I told you last night. Bad days are inevitable, and trying to hide them or hide from them only makes it worse in the long run. Doing that won't make people think you're a better agent; they'll think you're crazy."
"I thought that was the general consensus already," you point out.
"You're a quirky kind of crazy," he clarifies. "Eccentric, even likable sometimes. Crazy in a good way. Pretending to be untouchable suggests you're self-destructive and you've deluded yourself into thinking you're bulletproof. That's crazy in a bad way. That kind of crazy gets you back in mandatory sessions with that therapist you love so much."
You snicker. He smiles, apparently taking that as an indication he's gotten through to you.
"How's the shoulder?" he asks.
You consider. It's the first time you've thought about it since this morning, actually. You roll the shoulder around slowly in an experimental fashion, feeling the tension and gauging the pain.
"It's a little stiff," you admit. "A bit sore. But it's actually not too bad."
"Good. Get some sleep."
He sets his book on the nightstand, and shuts the light off. You lie on your side, on your good shoulder, and try to sleep, but your brain wants to rehash the last twenty-four hours. You try to imagine your life without the Bureau, but you don't see anything. It's just a void, an empty space where something more meaningful should be. You try to imagine a life with the Bureau, but at a desk. You see yourself going stir-crazy within a couple months, half a year at the most. Or, even better, becoming despondent and giving up on life because you don't feel you're changing the world.
He's right, you realize. Being in the field gives you the most satisfaction. You can see the results of your work firsthand, and you know you've done something worthwhile. You wouldn't get that behind a desk filling out forms, even if it cut down the risks. Every life saved makes those risks worth it. He's also right about the pain. You're not indestructible (you've known that for years), just very lucky. Hiding from it hasn't helped you, doesn't help you, and never will help you.
Right before you fall asleep, a sudden thought crosses your mind. You only have his word that the higher-ups refused to pay for airfare. If you were a suspicious person, you might wonder if he did this on purpose, knowing that the forced close contact would eventually prompt you to open up. But you're not a suspicious person, not at all, so you decide not to worry about it and try to get some sleep.
The next morning, you take the prescribed painkillers without coercion or argument.
When it's time to leave, he lets you drive.