Summary: He has been here a hundred times before, teetering on the precipice of making the life change he aches for. Each time he has lost his nerve and stepped back into the safe arms of the status quo. But tonight, it is the status quo that he fears. T/Z.
In the dark of his apartment he sits and considers what he could have. The cell phone in his hand is his line to his desires, if only he could decide whether to claim them. He feels like he has been here a hundred times before, teetering on the precipice of making the life change he aches for. Each time he has lost his nerve and stepped back from the edge, back into the safe arms of the status quo. But tonight, it is the status quo that he fears.
He is in this situation because he abided by the rules. Not the ones that Gibbs set down for him, but the single rule he and his partner came up with on the fly to justify the act they were determined to commit in a Parisian hotel room. The 200 Mile Rule, as they have dubbed it, allows them to act on any urge, feeling or need between them without restriction, but only when they are more than 200 miles from home.
Every time they have enforced the rule (and sadly, he can count the number on one hand) he emerges from the event more and more reluctant to leave the pretend relationship behind. With every fleeting taste of what life could be if they would both just agree to be brave and commit, he finds himself more and more addicted to the flavor. It is not just the sex that he craves, although that is the fastest way to scratch the constant itch of his desire for her. What he wants the most is to love her without restriction. To show her and tell her. Tell everyone. To kiss her just because he feels like it and sleep beside her every night. To smile without thought when she makes him happy, and to make her happy in return.
The rule allows him to feed these cravings, if only for a few hours. He once believed that the bliss of indulgence made the agony of withdrawal worth it, but on this night, as his body and soul scream for her, he is no longer so sure. The symptoms of his need are physical as well as emotional. Frustration, anger, desperation and even sorrow manifest in heart palpitations, nausea, headaches and private tears. The inevitability of returning to the public eye of the squad room drains his energy as he struggles to behave as if everything between them is normal, and it is in these moments that he most clearly understands the need for Gibbs’ number 12. It is impossible to be the agent Gibbs needs when his mind is so focused on preserving the memory of her body in his hands. And yet, at every opportunity, he abandons his resolve to stay away and goes back for more.
He does not blame her for the state he is in. She does not tempt him only to use him and then leave him in despair. He knows she shares every bit of his frustration. He knows that she clings to those moments together as ferociously as he does, and that her mourning of their passing falls in sync with his. She copes with the loss by striking out at him with increased brutality. He copes with public disinterest and private grief. And through it all, Gibbs sends them suspicious and warning eyes that he knows will make no difference when push comes to love.
Tonight he knows he should be heeding that warning, but instead his opinion of the twelfth rule is lower than it has ever been. Because ever since last weekend when he spent three perfect days in her company in the biggest city in the world, he simply cannot find the resolve to stay away from her until their next trip. He does not care how many barbs she will throw across the squad room at his practiced indifference. This time their private rule has broken him, and there is no going back to the way he was. Now he can only change his shape and start living as something different. Someone different. Someone unafraid to make his private desires public. He needs to make the pretend relationship real. And yet, he hesitates. The phone he has been cradling for the last hour has the power to bring her to him, but it remains on standby, waiting for him to make a decision.
Is what he has to gain worth what he stands to lose?
On first glace the answer seems obvious. If a life with her, a life in love with her, is what he has to gain, then there should be nothing more to consider. Except that his thoughts are crowded with issues of a professional nature, just as they have been every time he has considered making a move towards her in the past seven years. Choosing her could mean losing his father figure’s trust and respect. It could mean losing the career he loves and has worked so hard for. Neither would be an insignificant loss, and he is reluctant to gamble on the outcome.
Nor can he bring himself to gamble on the gains. He knows she loves him—the day may never come when she tells him, but he knows it all the same—but when it comes to matters of the heart she is known to make bad decisions. He cannot help but think he would be considered another misstep on her journey to the settled down life she once spoke of wanting. Not because he would use her or betray her or treat her with the disrespect that others have done, but because they are unlikely to last the distance and will probably destroy each other in the end.
This is what he has always thought. In real life they are both so flawed. They are both stalked by the demons of wrong decisions, mistakes, abuse and neglect. Neither has any concept of what a happy home might look like. They are prone to using sharp, loud or mocking words to make a point, and bury their real feelings beneath layers of cool detachment and jokes of misdirection. None of this is conducive to forming the base to a healthy and life-long relationship.
But in their pretend life, it works. They work. Maybe it is only because they do not have to deal with the day-to-day irritations and difficulties of a real relationship, but when he is with her in a foreign city he can’t shake the feeling that they could make it work at home. They still fight, but it lacks sting. They still disagree, but get over it quickly. And he wonders if it is because in their pretend life it is easier to say sorry. Or because the entire 200 Mile Rule is based on the idea that they are allowed to be honest with each other without fear of rejection. Surely these things could be transferred to the real world, if only they were brave enough to try.
His head falls back against the couch in near defeat and his fist clenches around the phone. He recognizes this behavior. He has seen it in so many of those who come into his life at rock bottom. Tonight it is his turn to be the addict on the edge of total oblivion, searching for a way to have the drug he craves while still holding on to the things in his life that he loves. But perhaps that is not fair. She may be as addictive as heroin, but she cannot be as destructive. And if his life falls apart it will not be because he loved her. It will be because Gibbs does not love him enough. At least, this is what he will say as he refuses to accept blame for the fallout.
The three days they spent in New York last weekend was their longest and greatest indulgence in the rule only they shared. He had promised to be her tour guide through the city he’d visited hundreds of times, and had made vague plans for where he would take her and what he would show her. In the end they hadn’t done even half of the things he thought she would enjoy. A handful of visits to some of the more iconic attractions had been interspersed by hours of aimless wandering through the living, breathing city. The attraction was in each other’s company and in soaking up the freedom of anonymity offered by the crush of 10 million others.
A week later, as he struggles with his real world place as co-worker, he runs the memories of their liaison through his head, even though he knows they will only torture him more. He remembers the simple pleasure he got from watching her face as she gazed up at the Statue of Liberty. He remembers the contentedness he found in just lying back on the grass with her beneath the symbol for freedom with her head cradled in the hollow of his shoulder, and watching the ferries full of tourists pass by. He wonders how many strangers will have happy snaps of Lady Liberty from that day featuring a nameless couple lying in the foreground of the frame. How many of those strangers will ever notice them there, or guess at what it had taken for them to get there together?
He remembers on their first night how they’d watched from 40 floors above it all as the sun went down and the lights came on, and she’d gasped at the beauty of the concrete jungle. It had only taken a day for the city to work its way under her skin, and he knew that he would be meeting her there again and again in the years to come. When she had enough of the intoxication from below, she had reached for him and he had moved into her arms like he had been doing it his whole life. Passion had possessed them and they had reached high after high, and he remembers he thought that he could search all his life and never find anything better than this.
He remembers the feelings of fulfillment and love when she pressed her chest to his back on top of the Empire State Building. Her arms had wrapped tightly around his waist and she peeked around his arm at the vast city below as he spun her a tale about the history of the building. Of course she knew he was wrong, but in this pretend relationship she did not correct him. She humored him because he humored both of them, and then kissed him as the crowd swirled around them. He remembers how he felt like he was kissing her in front of the whole world, and that it felt like such a risky move. But he was drunk on happiness by then, and feeling so comfortable that he had hoped someone they knew would catch them.
He remembers lying quietly in bed with her as they just watched the city lights, and that it occurred to him that this wasn’t what friends with benefits did. He felt like she had to know it too; that she could not be mistaking it for something less than what it was to him. Because there was so much raw, honest feeling within him as he held her against him and stroked her bare skin that he felt positive his intentions had to be as obvious to her as the lights in Times Square. And then he panicked that they weren’t, and he had to kiss her softly, over and over and over until she had given him that look that melts his bones and sends him as high as a kite.
Mostly, he remembers the feeling of completeness whenever he looked at her walking beside him or sitting across from him or lying beneath him. This is what he aches for now, and he finally accepts that resistance is futile. He sends a prayer for help to the god he rarely speaks to because he knows he needs her now. He needs to be free to love her and touch her every day or he will lose his mind and possibly his life. He cannot put his need for her behind his need for his father figure’s respect. He is not a child, and must step out on his own. He must be brave.
When the knock sounds on his door a few moments later he freezes with the hesitation of a lapsed Catholic. Ask and ye shall receive is a nice thought but a complete crock, as he well knows after 40 years of consistent denial. He entertains the thought that it is his neighbor needing help with her deadbeat boyfriend again, but halfway through his journey across the floor he knows it must be her. He is not psychic but he knows her presence, and he knows that she had as tough a week as he did. The 200 Mile Rule suggests that if they need to talk about things they should wait until their next trip, but tonight he is willing to ignore that part of it. He is desperate to talk, desperate to see her, desperate to tell her of his desire to change things between them permanently. Where this will lead them, he does not know. He just hopes he can convince her to give it thought.
She looks tired but beautiful. The smile she gives at the sight of him is small but intimate, and if they were 200 miles away he thinks it would be an invitation to kiss her. And he wants to, but he will wait. He gathers his strength, steps aside and lets her in. They don’t bother with hellos anymore.
“Why is it so dark in here?”
He doesn’t want to cop to brooding in the dark, and so gives her a flippant answer. “I guess because the lights aren’t on.”
“Did I wake you up?”
“Did you just get home?”
She gives up. In their pretend world he probably would have told her that the darkness was mood lighting for his deep thoughts. But in the real world he has not learnt to be so vulnerable and honest.
She leads the way to his living room as though she has claim to his space. He allows her because he wants her to have it. She flicks on a lamp without having to grope for the switch, and he wonders how many nights she has been here in her capacity of untouchable colleague and friend to have such a clear map of his things in her head.
With the light comes a better view of her expression and body language. He eyes scan the room, unable to settle. Her lips are pressed together in a tight line and her jaw is tense. Her shoulders are stiff and she is knocking her two clenched fists together, over and over, in front of her. Anxious doesn’t begin to cover it. The contrast to her soft eyes, easy smile and relaxed and languid body of last weekend is sharp, and his heart drops to his stomach as he gets an idea of what all this means. He is sure she must have had the same thoughts as him this week, and perhaps she has even arrived at the same fork in the road. Choose the gains and risk the losses, or forget the gains and return to the safety of life as they know it? If he had to guess her decision from her posture, he would say it didn’t look good for the relationship he has only just decided to pursue.
Bad timing is why so many people end up miserable and alone, he thinks, and he suddenly wonders how much scotch he has in the house. He thinks he will soon need a lot of it.
“I need to talk about the rule.”
There is it. He swallows down his panic and leans with faked nonchalance against the wall. He should have spoken up first so that they would have this conversation on his terms, but he was too distracted by the warmth her presence brought to his home. Now, they must have it on hers. “Yeah.”
He watches her fingers twist together and her eyes settle on the intimacy of his for just a few moments before flicking away again. “This week has been…harder,” she settles on. Her voice wavers like he has only heard a handful of times, and never while delivering good news. “And then next time will be even worse.”
His arms settle across his chest, an ineffective shield against what he believes is her intent. “Yeah.”
She tucks a lock of straightened hair behind her ear, and his mind wanders momentarily as he thinks about the slightest scent of singed hair that will be mixed with her usual coconut fragrance.
“I do not want to experience that,” she tells the wall.
He felt the dismissal was coming, and yet the sting of it still weakens his knees and steals his breath. His eyes leave her beautiful face and settle on a wall of his own. “Sure,” he pushes out. It is all he can manage. He wants to sting her back, but honestly, he can’t. He knows what she is struggling with. He has been struggling with it himself all night. He wishes he had been the one to find the strength to do what is probably the right thing, but that’s not how their relationship has ever worked. She has always been the braver, bolder, more rational one.
“I do not…” The words hang as she takes a shuddering breath, and he feels the first pricks of tears behind his eyes. “I do not have the ability to detach myself from this. I used to be able to. I could put things in little boxes and forget them. Not let them affect me until it was convenient. I could turn off emotion, or avoid feeling anything in the first place.”
He thinks of the woman he met seven years ago. She was a strange mix, deliberately cut off from them while simultaneously pouring herself into his space and his thoughts. She has changed so much—so has he—and he wonders if there was ever a time when she made a conscious decision to shed her old skin.
“America’s made you soft,” he throws at her, but it’s not meant to wound. He knows she believes it. Until moments ago, he was fairly certain that she liked it.
“Yes,” she agrees, and then hesitates before taking the thought further. “You have made me soft.”
He cannot tell if she wants him to apologize, but he’s not feeling inclined. “Don’t blame me because you can’t start work at four in the morning anymore.” The light joke comes out with a distinct trace of bitterness, and he hears the swish of her hair across her jacket as she turns her head to look at him.
“You are upset.”
He blows out a soft, pain-tinged chuckle. “Yes.”
She takes a step towards him, and it drives up the heat in his cheeks and the anxiety in his chest. He fights the urge to take a large step away from her.
He would think that she is being cruel, but she sounds legitimately clueless. By the time he turns his head to meet her gaze tears have begun gathering in his eyes and he has lost significant pride. “Because I never wanted to detach myself from it,” he tells her, the slight shrug of his shoulder adding a punctuation mark to the obvious. “Not since this started.”
Her forehead barely creases but he recognizes the expression. She doesn’t understand what he is implying. “And you think I did?”
It is his turn to frown at her. “Isn’t that what you’re getting at?”
The shake of her head sends hope spiking in his chest. “The rule appealed to me because it meant I did not have to detach myself at all. I did not have to think about what I was doing. I could just act on impulse and it would be okay. It is what follows in the days after we…” She trails off, as much at a loss over how to label what they do as he is. “I am left with this sadness and ache…”
He reaches for her then because he hates to see her struggle, and because he is all too familiar with the feeling she describes. His arm slides too easily around her back and his hand cups her cheek, and she responds as if they are 200 miles from here. She rests her forehead against his chin and breathes deeply into his neck as she presses her chest against his.
“That is the part I wish to detach myself from,” she says softly. “But I cannot. Not unless we stop this, and…” Her breath hitches in tandem with his. “I cannot do that either.”
Strong hands clutch at his sides, and he is glad for the support. Because it sounds like he had this all wrong. It sounds like she is telling him that she has reached the same conclusion as him. The gains more than outweigh the potential losses. Of course they do. It is that simple. They would be utterly stupid to try to convince themselves otherwise.
He feels as though he is once again standing on that precipice of a major life change, and if he falls he wants to be sure to take her over the edge with him. “Neither can I,” he tells her, and he barely hears himself over the thudding in his chest.
She lifts her head to meet his eyes, and he can’t help the way his thumb grazes the soft pink of her lower lip.
“I want to ask if you will agree to amending the rule,” she says, and he recognizes her normal assertiveness reclaiming her eyes and her voice.
One corner of her mouth lifts. “The 20 Mile Rule.”
It is as good as not having a rule at all, and a small smile spreads across his face. “Twenty miles from where? The Navy Yard?”
She shrugs. “Yes. Or 20 miles from wherever Gibbs is at any given moment.”
He feels confident enough now to joke. “So, we’ll have to fit a tracking device to his watch?”
Despite lacking a formal answer from him, she still allows herself to press a kiss to the underside of his jaw. His eyes flutter closed. “Distance will not be strictly enforced,” she tells him. “I will be happy with any distance that prevents him from bearing witness to displays of affection.”
The structure of her statement shows a return to her confidence, and he supposes she knows his answer is a foregone conclusion. But before he bravely commits to her, he needs her to tell him that she is willing to pay whatever price may be asked of her.
“We’re not going to be able to hide it from him,” he says, forcing them to face practicalities. “And frankly, I don’t want to. Is this worth his disappointment to you?”
She favors him with a fond smile and a shake of her head. “He will not be disappointed. He already knows. He will just be unwilling to tolerate it in his field of view.”
He is banking on her being right about that. “Then is it worth whatever hit your career might take because of it?”
She does not delay her reply, and he knows she has thought about this at least as many times as him. “Yes.”
Yes. The most beautiful word. His smile grows in sync with hers. Relief floods him and the force of it strips most of his strength. His hands shake as he lifts them to gently hold her face, and for a moment he rests his forehead against hers as he just breathes and feels. This real world relationship is already worth whatever loses it may bring.
He hears her sniff back tears before she asks for the answer she must already know he will give. “So. You agree to amending the rule?”
He has been here a hundred times before, teetering on the precipice of making the life change he aches for. And this time, he makes the choice that sends him plummeting over the edge. He has never been so willing to fall. “Yes.”
She is kissing him into commitment before the word is fully out, and his body buzzes as she feeds his addiction and sends him soaring. He gives himself over to it, vows to love her without restriction or apology, and commits to indulging in every drop of the drug that is her presence in his life.
She will be his last high.