Rated: M

Summary: A series of vignettes meditating on the meaning of love, sex and commitment.

This story is set post Requiem for Sergeant McCall, although just barely.  

Are you going to get that framed, or what?” Hunter asked her from their place on her sofa.  It was late, the fire was low, and they were full of wine and pizza.  The piece of paper certifying Steve McCall’s posthumous medal of valor sat with them, well clear of the greasy pizza box.


“Maybe,” she said with a yawn.  “It’s really enough to know he has it now.”


Privately, Hunter thinks she should be the one to get the medal.  All Steve did was get himself shot dead trying to solve a murder.  It was her who finally cracked the case and cleared Steve’s name in the process.


Sometimes, he wished he had paid more attention when Steve McCall was alive, given that he was going to end up a ghost in Hunter's life.  He had known Steve casually, worked with him once or twice, but Steve did the job and went home at night.  He didn't go out into the wilds at night with the rest of them, drinking beer and mingling with the street life.  Steve had been a smart, steady cop – maybe a bit boring, Hunter had thought at the time, and now he was left to wonder what she’d seen in the guy.  Coming in as he did years after the fact, it seemed to him that all Steve did was make her cry.


She seemed loose and content now that it was over, although maybe that was just the wine talking.  But the killer was caught and her suspension had been lifted. Maybe now the memories wouldn’t hurt her anymore.  And people wondered why he was never in a hurry to rush down the aisle.  McCall, on the other hand, seemed eager for another round.


“After all this, you would really get married again?” he asked.


“Of course,” she said without hesitation.  She leaned back on the overstuffed couch cushions with a happy sigh. “Marriage is great.”


“Oh, yeah?  What’s so great about it?”


She eyed him for a long moment and then shook her head.  “Nothing that would appeal to your sensibilities, I’m sure.  Some people are not the marrying kind.”


Now he was peeved to be cast out so quickly. "Maybe I could get married one day," he protested.  "You don't know for sure."


She rolled her eyes. "This from a man who considers a double-feature to be a long-term commitment."


“Now that’s an exaggeration.”


"Hunter, it's February 10th. I am sure, as usual, you have scrupulously avoided scheduling any sort of date within a week's time span of Valentine's Day, lest the woman get any sort of wrong idea."


He frowned at her.  "You're scary when you do that," he said, and she laughed, pleased with herself.  He scooted a little bit closer and leaned into her personal space. “I’ve had plenty of relationships,” he informed her.


“Yes, emphasis on ‘plenty,’” she said, amusement still in her eyes.  “Have you ever had a relationship with any woman last longer than two months?”


He considered a moment and then nudged her.  “Yes.  You.”


“Hunter, we are not married.”


“You didn’t say married. You said ‘relationship.’”  They have been together more than three years now, which was longer, he knew, than her marriage to Steve.  He slipped her feet into his lap so that he could lounge against the cushions near her side.  “You still haven’t explained to me what’s so great about marriage.”


She sighed.  “You want the sales pitch?  Fine.”  She paused to choose her words.  “It’s knowing that someone is always on your side, that you have each other’s backs, always – that you’ve owed each other so many times that no one’s even keeping score anymore.”


“We have that.” He couldn’t help pointing it out. 


She looked annoyed.  “For now, sure.  But we have not exchanged any sort of vows in front of God and everyone to stay together for the rest of our lives.  They could split us up tomorrow and that would be that.”


“Marriages end too – all the time.”


“You think somehow I don’t know that?”  She pulled her feet off his lap and sat up so they were shoulder to shoulder again.  He remembered then that she had spent the week torturing herself with Steve’s murder.


“Sorry,” he told her with feeling.  He ran his palm down the length of her spine.  “I didn’t mean...”


She waved him off.  “It’s okay,” she said, and he considered that maybe this was a benefit too: a long, rich history together meant you could occasionally say something stupid and it was barely a drop in the ocean of conversation.  She took a deep breath and continued, “Marriage means there is always someone there to pick you up if you need a ride home. Or make you laugh at two in the morning.  It’s someone to hold your hand in the hospital or celebrate your raise at work.”


“Again,” he said, “we’ve done those things.”


“Okay,” she said, sounding perturbed once more. “Marriage is also about sharing a bed at night.  We don’t do that.”


Well, she had him there.  He kept his mouth shut as she gave him a speculative look.


“I mean, that’s your real objection to the whole thing, right? The idea of having to go to bed with the same woman every night for the rest of your life?”


He gave a half-shrug.  “What can I say?  I like variety.”


She snorted a laugh.  “Right. As long as your definition of variety is blonde and under thirty.”


“When I work my way through that category, I’ll consider branching out,” he said with a grin.  She hit him with a throw pillow, and he shoved it back at her before getting serious again. “But you have to admit, it’s kind of a downside. Fifty years of monogamy is, well...we give murderers thirty years and call it ‘life.’”


“So marriage is like prison,” she said, amused again.  “Sure, you could get married one day, Hunter. It could happen.”  She shook her head.  “Yes, of course it’s not always easy.  But there are tradeoffs.”


He scratched his chin as he considered her words.  A trade suggested you would be getting something, sexually speaking, from the bargain. “What kind of tradeoffs?”


She took a moment to compose her answer. “Let’s just say there are distinct advantages to having a partner who knows exactly what you like and when you like it – especially if you’re a woman.”


It was probably the most sexually intimate thing she had ever said to him, and clearly she felt it too, because she was no longer making eye contact.  It struck him that this was indeed an area he knew nothing about, and he knew her as well as anyone.  The air grew charged and warm as her words lingered between them.  “I’ve, uh, I’ve never had any complaints,” he murmured at last.


She raised an eyebrow at him.  “I’m sure not.”


“You’re saying they didn’t have a good time and I somehow wasn’t aware of that fact?”


“No.”  She sighed and sat forward so she mirrored his position.  “I’m saying that when you meet someone new, you’re playing a version of yourself – maybe your best self, maybe not – but on some level, it’s putting on an act.  It’s only later when you get more comfortable that you can be who you really are.  These women...” She paused, hesitating.  “You go to bed with them, Hunter, but you don’t really know them.”


“And you’re telling me the sex would be better if I did.”  He saw her breath catch when he said the word sex.  It had a name now.


“I’m saying... I’m saying I guess you’ll never know.”  She reached for her wine glass and drank the remaining swallows.  Never know.  Never know.  The words swirled around inside his head.  It was impossible; every question had an answer.  He had built his career, his whole life, around this central premise.  When she moved again, he grabbed her hand and tugged her back toward him.  “Hunter, what--?”


He kissed her gently, much as he had done earlier, chaste and light. When he pulled away a bit, he felt her tension, the space between them crackling with new possibility.  She closed the distance again and kissed him the same way, soft but simple, a question more than an answer.  He pressed in closer and covered her mouth once more as she relaxed with a small sigh. They went on that way for long, heated minutes, exchanging kisses that grew more passionate each time.  Just a little making out on his way to the door, as if they did this every day.


“I should go,” he breathed against her lips.


“Hmm, yes,” she agreed, but then they were kissing again.


He did not bother with pretenses as he pulled her into his arms. When her mouth parted, he dipped in to taste her, hot and sweet, and he felt it for the first time, this odd mix of new and familiar.  He had held her close many times but never quite like this, with her breasts pressed against him and her mouth fully open under his.  He wanted to push her back into the pillows and climb on top of her, but the petite, overstuffed couch would never allow it.


Instead, he reached out blindly and shoved the coffee table aside.  She laughed against his mouth. “What are you doing?”


“Making room.”


He dragged her down with him onto the shag rug where he could lay her down as he wanted.  They kissed some more, until they were both breathing hard. “Is it like this?” he murmured against her neck. “Is this how married people do it?”


“Sometimes – oh!” She broke off as he sucked at her neck.  “Sometimes, yes.  All those years to get to try out every room in the house.”


He hummed a reply into her mouth as they kissed again, deep and open and endless.  If he were going home at all, it would have to be now.  “Tell me what you want,” he said as he started a slow rock between her legs.  His erection strained the front of his jeans, painful and complete.


She kissed him in answer, sliding her tongue into his mouth with the same rhythm of his hips against her body. It felt good, even amazing, but he’d had plenty of great sex before. She started arching against him, and he thrust up and into her so hard she moved backwards on the rug.  Her gasp – aroused and delighted – sealed the deal.  He kissed her again, over and over, as he started to undo the buttons on her shirt.


In no time at all, they were down to the bulge in his jeans and the lacy scrap of her underwear, the rest of their clothes scattered around them. He reached down to unzip as he put his mouth to her breast for the first time.  Her neck arched backwards and her eyelashes fluttered closed.  He smiled at the sight and sucked her in deeper, his nose pressed up against the fragrant swell of her breast.  He felt her hands running through his hair as he licked and teased both nipples to taut attention.  It went on and on until she let out a sob and dragged his face back up her body so they could kiss again.


His cock, eager and hard, poked out of his jeans and slid along her thigh.  He leaned his forehead to hers and felt her ragged breaths on his face.  “Last chance to back out,” he said as he rubbed himself against her. 


Her hips moved to his rhythm and her grimace of pleasure was almost pain.  She shook her head.  So this time as they kissed he let his large hand drift over her smooth stomach, down, down between her parted thighs.  Her panties were thoroughly wet, stuck to her body, and it made him grin into their kiss.  Don’t need any sort of marriage certificate for this, he thought as he began to stroke her.


He touched her through her underwear for a moment.  She was so swollen he could feel every ridge and valley.  Only when she started rocking into his hand did he pause to slip her panties down over her knees and off her body.  He shucked his jeans at the same time and lay next to her once more.  “Okay, that’s pretty impressive,” she said as she reached for his proudly erect penis.


“We aim to please,” he replied before he bent to kiss her again.  She allowed this for a few moments before wriggling down further under him so she could stroke his erection more fully.  He lolled back, eyes drifting shut as she thoroughly pleasured his cock.  He would never look at her hands the same way again.


He felt the orgasm building, bearing down like a locomotive through a tunnel, and he pulled away from her grasp.  “Get back here,” he muttered hoarsely, and he felt her giggle against his skin.


Somehow they ended up with her nestled in the crook of his arm, holding hands over her head on one side and kissing gently as he stroked his hand between her legs.  New partners didn’t always know what to do, she had said, and he supposed this was true for him too.  She seemed to be enjoying his touch but he had no clue where precisely the best spots were.  But what he did know, after all their years together, was how to read her face.  He could watch every naked emotion play out on her features, and he used this to his advantage as he sought to pleasure her.


When her mouth fell open and her eyes screwed tightly shut, he knew he’d found it.  He rubbed her harder with his thumb as he slipped a finger gently inside her.  “Oh my God,” she said, her hand tightening on his.


He felt it again then, a stab of something deep and loving, making him quiver.  This was McCall whom he held naked his in arms, the person he cared about most in the world. He was giving her intense pleasure, making her come, and it was like the sensations traveled right back through her body and into his.  When she arched into him with a cry, he sobbed right along with her.  They both trembled as she came back down, his face pressed into the shadow of her neck.


She held him close against her and stroked the back of his head.  “Shall we continue?”


“I thought you’d never ask.”  His penis had already found its away between her thighs, resting heavy and full against her swollen sex.  He rubbed himself back and forth a few times.  “Let me just get protection,” he murmured against her cheek.


She held her palm to his face.  “It’s okay.  I mean, it’s up to you.  I’m on the pill.”


He froze as he looked down at her, her eyes dark in the firelight and her smile warm and tender.  He had not had sex without a condom in around twenty years.  Other women had told him the same thing she had, but he didn’t particularly trust them, certainly not as much as he trusted himself, and so he always put on the rubber.  Always. His breath caught as he looked down at her, need welling inside him as he realized it would be okay now if he wanted it. This woman, he trusted.  Maybe married sex had some advantages after all. He blinked back tears as he settled himself over her.  “Okay,” he said, his voice rough with emotion.  “Okay, yeah.”


She smiled and looped her arms around his shoulders. “Good.”


He closed his eyes, listening to her uneven breathing as he edged his way inside her. He had forgotten how positively fantastic this felt.  He had to bite his lip to keep from groaning as he pushed fully inside.  She was hot and tight and absolutely fucking amazing.  It was so good his teeth hurt, and he would be lucky to last more than ninety seconds.


He pulled almost all the way out and then slowly thrust back in.  “Okay?” he asked her.


“Yeah, yeah.  Good.”  She ran her hands down his back and then up again.  “I just can’t believe it’s you.”


“I know.”  He closed his eyes, blocking it out as he began to move faster.  She hugged her knees to his waist and held on tight.


He rocked in and out, increasing his speed until they were panting and clutching each other.  He had no idea if he could make her come again this way and there wasn’t going to be time to find out.  He was expanding, tightening, almost over the edge.  “I…I can’t…” he gasped out, and then he was totally fuck-blind, thrusting into her over and over until there was nothing left inside him anymore.  It all belonged to her now.


She held his head on her breasts in the aftermath, stroking her hand against his cheek as he listened to her heartbeat slow into an even, steady rhythm.  She smelled like sweat and perfume and he had no idea how was going to get up off the floor and leave her here.  He squeezed his eyes shut and hugged her around the middle.  “So now I know,” he murmured, and she hugged him back, pressing a kiss to his shoulder in answer.


They rested together quietly for another moment.  “It’s late,” she said softly.


“Too late.”  He rolled his head to look at her.  “If we were married, what would happen next?”


She smiled.  “We would go upstairs to bed, and in the morning we could argue about whose turn it was to clean all this up.”


God help him, it sounded divine.  It was definitely time to go.


She felt it too.  “But we’re not married,” she said as she moved to disengage.


“No,” he agreed. “Clearly not.”


He got dressed to go but she merely wrapped a nearby blanket around herself so she could walk him to the door.  “Um, thanks for the,,” she said, clearing her throat.


He smiled.  “You bought the pizza,” he reminded her.


“Oh.  Right.  Thanks for, um, everything else then.”  She had turned pink and was looking at his feet.


He took a deep breath and pulled her against him.  She hugged him with one arm as she held the blanket closed with the other.  “Thank you,” he murmured against the top of her hair.  He paused. “I still don’t have any idea why you married Steve, but I think I understand why he married you.”


She gave a watery laugh and pulled away. “Goodnight, Hunter.”


He kissed her gently, like the old days.  “Night.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”


“Yes, tomorrow.”

He staggered into the cold dark air, breath fogging up the night. Somehow he managed to find his car and start the engine, but he did not immediately drive away.  He idled on the street and watched the warm yellow glow in her windows.  He waited a few minutes, hoping to catch a glimpse of her shadow, but eventually the lights went out.  It was time to go.


As he drove off, still tingling, he had one final thought: if Steve McCall had gotten up from her bed in the middle of the night to work the case, if he had left her like that, sleepy and warm... well, maybe he deserved that fucking medal of valor after all.

Part Two: Hello, Kitty

It was past midnight, technically not Halloween anymore, but drunk college kids in semi-costume kept wandering in and out of the apartment building.  It was like Vice had decided to clear out the Nickel on a Saturday night. The girls all seemed to be dressed in some version of hooker – witch hooker, nurse hooker, Dorothy from Oz (if she were a hooker), whereas the guys did not seem to be dressed up at all.  The exception was one idiot who had a werewolf mask on backwards. He fell off the steps onto the grass and lay there moaning until one of his companions kicked him in the ribs.  “Get up, man.  The cops are here.”


Hunter was leaning against his car, which was parked half across the meager lawn of the Century apartment complex, chewing his toothpick and ignoring the two young punks sitting on the concrete steps.  They were handcuffed together and sobering up under the watchful eye of Patrolman Dennis Levy.  Hunter checked the time again; McCall should have been on the scene twenty minutes ago.  He was getting ready to call it a night when her red Dodge slid to a stop in front of the building.


The reason for her delay became apparent as she got out and approached.  She wore spike heels, fishnet stockings, and a black sequined skirt that was shorter than her usual evening attire.  As she got closer, he saw she was also wearing cat ears.  He was not the only one who noticed.


“Well, hello kitty,” said Matt Murphy, the drunker one of the two morons. 


Levy nudged him.  “Shut up. No one asked you.”


Murphy ignored him and squinted up at Hunter.  “You brought a date?”


Before Hunter could say anything, McCall withdrew her ID. “Sergeant McCall,” she said flatly.  “What the hell is going on here?”


Murphy regarded her with bleary eyes.  “I am totally changing my major,” he muttered.


“You’re going to be lucky to graduate at all at this point,” Hunter informed him. He sighed and shoved away from the side of the car, ambling over to McCall.  “I’m sorry you got pulled away from…” He paused to look her up and down. “Wherever it was you were.  Turns out it’s a false alarm.”


“No d.b.?”


“Follow me.”  He led her around the side of the building to the semi-lit pathway that ran among the various dorm-style buildings in the USC complex.  As they walked, he peeked around at her rear-end.


She halted. “Can I help you with something?” she asked dryly.


“Just checking to see if there was a tail.”


“No, but apparently there’s an ass.” She shoved him forward again.  As the shadows deepened, he could just make out the white toes hanging in the trees.  McCall froze again.  “I thought you said it was a false alarm.”


“Take a closer look.”  They moved under the leafy canopy, branches rustling in the breeze, and the picture did not immediately improve.  There was a woman in a red dress hanging from the tree, blonde hair obscuring her drooping head.  It was horrifying right up until you got up close and discovered her toes were plastic and glued together.


“A mannequin,” McCall said, exhaling in relief.  “A pretty good one from the looks of it.”


“Yeah, Mutt and Jeff back there went all out,” he said.  “Check out this value added proposition.”  He withdrew the pocket tape recorder he had confiscated from the young men and hit the play button.


A woman’s scream filled the air, followed by sobbing.  “She’s dead!  She’s dead!”


“Imagine that playing at full volume,” he told McCall. “Half the complex called it in.”


“Cute.  Very cute.”


He peered down at her. “Speaking of cute, what’s with the get-up? I’d guess you were out trick-or-treating, but I don’t see where you could be hiding the candy.”


She laughed. “I was at a party.”


“A party?  Did you go alone?”


She arched an eyebrow at him.  “That wouldn’t be very much of a party, now would it?”


It wasn’t like he didn’t know she went out on dates, although usually he did not have to witness any of the details.


He had tried for discretion the first time he’d slept with someone after their encounter, about a month after the fact.  But after his third trip outside to the payphone, he’d returned to their desks to find her looking at him with an amused expression. “You don’t have to keep running out on my account,” she’d said. “Let me guess.  Her name is Cindy and she wants to be an actress. No, wait – a model.”


 “Christina, actually,” he’d replied, although he was really just guessing at this part.  The woman in question had called herself Chrissy. “And she’s a restaurant hostess downtown – when she’s not in school.”


McCall had covered her eyes in mock horror. “Please tell me it’s college level, at least.”


 “Well, yes.  But only part time.”


“Because of her restaurant job?”


He had started pushing paper around.  “Uh, because of her other job,” he had said finally, and she’d waited, expectant.  “She’s a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys.”


McCall had blinked a few times, but then she’d laughed and laughed.  He was saved by the Captain’s summons, but she still found time to heckle him as they crossed the room. “Does she wear the uniform for you?  Have you seen her routine?”


Not for the first time, he’d wanted to kiss her to shut her up. He had kissed Chrissy, too, and the kissing had led to other things that only ridiculously athletic twenty-four-year olds ought to be attempting in the sack.  He’d needed a round of ibuprofen and a heating pad the next day, not that he would admit that even under penalty of perjury.


Even still, the sex was a hell of a lot of fun, as always.  He’d been relieved to discover it still worked the same, just as he expected. Orgasms did not take place in your heart.  Only when it was over had he felt a pang of…something.  A feeling he knew now could have been there, but wasn’t.


“So what do you want to do with her?” Back in the present, McCall was looking up at their dead mannequin.


He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Cut her down, and hand her and the two yahoos who put her up there over to Officer Levy.  He can book them on inducing panic, criminal mischief and terminal stupidity.”


“Not to mention crimes against fashion.”  Off his look, she gestured and explained: “They put her dress on backwards.”


They began walking back to the apartment complex where the would-be murderers awaited their fate.  Hunter hunched his shoulders deeper into his leather jacket and glowered at a group of giggling co-eds across the quad.  University campuses were never his favorite spot.  “We should make these nimrods spend a couple of nights in the slammer with the pimps on one side and the strung-out junkies on the other.  They’d think twice about ever pulling a stunt like this again.”


“Aw, Hunter, lighten up.  It was a stupid college prank that got a little out of hand.  Weren’t you nineteen once?”


He halted on the path and looked down at her in the low light. “At nineteen, I was sitting in the middle of a jungle with an HP service pistol in one hand and a hunting knife in my boot.” By the time he’d returned, college had become an impossibility.  He had killed a dozen men and had a child die in his arms; there was no way he could sit in a classroom and discuss Charles Dickens or Thomas Paine or quadratic equations. 


McCall touched his arm.  “Come on, let’s dump these guys and get out of here.  I’ll buy you a drink.”


“Don’t you want to get back to your party?”


“Nah, I was looking for a reason to leave,” she said, and he felt his smile returning.  “What do you say?”


He considered a moment.  “Tell you what.  We can hand off the idiots and their corpse, and I’ll buy you a drink.” 


“You’re buying?” Her eyebrows rose.  “What’s the catch?”


He smirked and traced one velvety edge peeking out from her hair.  “The ears stay on.”



It was Halloween on a Friday night, so most bars were doing a loud, frantic business, with party-goers in various states of costume spilled onto the street, green or orange glowing cocktails in one hand and cigarettes in the other.  Hunter led her to a place in his neighborhood that he knew would be quieter.  It was a hole-in-the-wall stucco hut with a faux thatched roof and heavy door peeling with red paint. "Classy," McCall remarked as they prepared to go in.

He held the door for her.  "I wanted to find someplace that suited your attire."

The barkeep was an old, long-faced Irishman named Ned.  He sported one drooping eyelid and thin white hair, and his gnarled, liver-spotted hands suggested he ought to be playing canasta in a nursing home somewhere.  But Hunter had seen him in action long enough to know that Ned never forgot a face nor a drink order.  He greeted them both with a short nod as they each selected a stool at the bar.  "Evening, Sergeant.  What can I get for you?"  He did not blink at the cat ears on McCall, but that was perhaps because he did not blink at all.

Hunter looked sideways at her.  "You want it soft or hard?" he asked suggestively, and she laughed with delight.

"Oh, make it hard," she replied, propping her head in one hand against the bar.  "You only live once."

He ordered them both bourbons on the rocks and then reached down the bar for the bowl of mixed nuts, which he set between them.  "So," he said as Ned went about pouring their drinks, "who's the guy?"

"Who's what guy?"

"The one you’re dressed like that for."

She looked down at herself as though seeing her clothes for the first time, so of course he had to look too. The tight black skirt had ridden up beyond mid-thigh. "His name was Tom," she said -- like the guy had died, Hunter noted with satisfaction.



"And what?" She paused to take a sip of her drink and then made a face.  "Wow, that's strong."


"You wanted hard, I give you hard," he said.  "Let's get back to Tom."


"Do we have to?" she asked with a sigh. 


"Well, you don't have to tell me," he began, and she brightened.


"Thank you."

"But then I'll just have to keep asking.  And asking.  And asking..."


"Okay, okay."  She cleared her throat.  "He's a personal trainer at my gym.  We had dinner last week, and it was nice, so I agreed to accompany him to this Halloween party.  Which also happened to be at the gym."  She sighed again. "I like a good workout as much as the next person, but there is really only so long you can talk about muscle groups, you know?"


He rolled an ice cube around in his mouth. "Serves you right for going to a Halloween party -- at a gym, no less."


"Boy, what is your problem with Halloween?  Did you get rocks instead of candy when you were a kid like poor Charlie Brown?  Or were you just sad because everyone was handing out chocolate instead of kale."


“It’s a ridiculous holiday.  Three hundred and sixty-four days a year, we tell kids not to take candy from strangers, but tonight, we send them out in the dark with instructions to get as much as they can.  Where is the logic in that, I ask you?”  He felt his blood warm as the alcohol started to seep into his system.


“Well, I like chocolate,” she said. She paused to take another sip. “Mmm. And costumes.  Haven’t you ever wanted to be someone else, just for a while?”


He didn’t have to think. “No.”


She laughed.  “Okay, okay. You can be the Grinch or Scrooge, or whatever…no, you know what?” She turned to face him, and their knees bumped.  “There is no Grinch or Scrooge for Halloween, and do you know why?  Because everyone loves Halloween.  Everyone.”


He crunched the cube and looked her over again, from ears to toes.  One of the spaghetti straps was threatening to fall off her shoulder.  “It has the occasional benefit.  I’ll grant you that.”


“I met Steve at a Halloween party,” she said, and then seemed to hesitate.  “At college, actually.  He, uh, he came by to break it up.”


“Wild, was it?”


“It started slow but then got out of hand as the night wore on.  My friend Kevin had a little too much to drink – okay, a lot too much to drink – and put his palm through a second-story window.  I tried to stop the bleeding but it was everywhere. By the time Steve showed up my Cleopatra get-up looked like something out of a real horror show.”  She paused and peered into her glass tumbler. “Steve was sweet, though.  He even came by the apartment the next day to make sure Kevin was all right.”


Hunter snorted.  “I’ve got news for you, McCall.  He wasn’t there to see Kevin.”


The smile that twitched at her lips suggested she knew this even then, and Hunter felt a pang of sympathy for Steve.  That poor bastard had never stood a chance.


“So Steve dropped by, asked you out in front of poor, wounded Kevin, and then you married him.”


“Kevin and I were just friends.”


“McCall, I have some more news for you – you and Kevin were probably not just friends.”


She gave him a dubious look. “You’re saying I was sleeping with him and I didn’t notice?”


“I’m saying that’s probably what he wanted, whether you noticed or not.  And because of this, men and women are rarely ‘just friends’.”


She was tracing the lip of her glass now, and for some reason, he could not stop watching her finger slide back and forth over the rim.  “We’re friends,” she offered finally, but she was not looking at him.


“We’re partners.  That’s different.”


“But you don’t want to sleep with me.”


His ears tingled and he glanced around quickly to make sure he’d heard her and not someone else.  The place was essentially empty.  Ned was at the other end of the bar, drying glasses with a dishtowel. “Jeez, McCall.”


“Just trying to make sure I understand how this works,” she said, looking at him from beneath smoky lashes.  “Because according to you, men in my presence might want to sleep with me and I’d have no idea. I mean, are there signs I should look out for here, or what?”


Fine, if she wanted to play like this, he could handle his part.  He took a long swallow of alcohol, making her wait, and then licked his lips as he set the glass down.  He leaned a little closer and lowered his voice. “The first sign would be looking in the mirror,” he said. “If you’re dressed like that, a man might start to think you wanted his attention.”


“Hmm,” she said, looking thoughtful, her eyes lowered.  She scooted forward on her stool, but she kept her gaze trained on his lap.  “What if…” Her voice was soft, almost a whisper, like she was telling him a secret. “What if I did want it?”


He sucked in a breath.  God, she could be a tease.  Their flirting had new electricity now that they’d been intimate once; always there was the distant promise of more.  “Then you would look for signs that he was into you too,” he murmured.


“Such as?”  She raised her eyes to his.


“He would…he would touch you.  More than was necessary.”  His elbow was still on the bar, but he could just reach down and graze her knee with his fingers.  “Little touches,” he said.  “Like that.  To see how you reacted.”


“Interesting,” she said.  “And what would he be looking for, exactly?”


“Mm, signs that you liked it.” He traced a fingertip down her arm and she shivered, just a bit, so he did it again.  “You don’t pull away. Maybe you even move closer.”  Their heads were practically leaning together now, creating a shared warm space between them.  She rested her hand on his knee, and he felt the prick of her nails through his jeans.


“You mean like this?” She breathed the words more than said them, and he swallowed hard.


“Yeah, yeah.  Like that.  Or maybe this.”  He put his hand in her lap and let his fingers follow the curve of her firm thigh.  The fishnets meant he could touch her bare skin, so he indulged for a long moment, stroking her gently as her breathing deepened near his cheek.  She smelled like perfume and makeup and her own soft skin, a cocktail he’d drunk once and was now thirsting for again. He could practically taste her already.  “Dee Dee,” he said, still caressing her, “what are we doing here?”


She squeezed his knee.  “Having a drink.”


“Last call!” They jerked apart as Ned called out from the other end of the bar.  He gave them an apologetic shrug. “We close in fifteen minutes.”


Hunter repressed a disappointed sigh as he gestured at their empty glasses.  “You want another?”


“Maybe.”  She touched his knee again.  “But not here.  Let’s go to your place.”


“Yeah?” He tried not to grin too hard, lest it feed her ego even more.  But there was that smile again, this time for him.




He slipped a few bills on the bar and acknowledged Ned with a short nod.  Then he offered his hand to McCall, helping her down from the stool.  Their fingers interlaced, and he kept them that way as they walked out into the cool night air.  He did not want to stop giving her the signs, in case she somehow changed her mind.


He walked her to her car door, where he was forced to let go of her so she could retrieve her keys from her purse. “So,” she said. “Meet you there?”


He leaned both hands on the car behind her, caging her in. “Maybe we could run the sirens.”


She laughed.  “It’s three blocks.”


He leaned down and kissed her, sealing the deal early.  Her mouth was warm and open under his, and he slipped inside to taste her. He felt the keys scratch his back as her arms closed around his neck, pulling him closer.  The wind swept her hair against his cheek but he did not care. He backed her up against the car, kissing her deeply even as his hips began a slow grind against her body. Eventually it occurred to him that he could be holding her instead of the roof of the Dodge, and he shifted his attention down to her rear end, grabbing a fistful of silky skirt in each hand.  They made out like teenagers late for curfew until the heavy door of the bar creaked open behind them.


Hunter looked up in time to see Ned give them a little wave, looking nonplussed.  “Night, then,” he said, as McCall hid her face in Hunter’s chest.


“We need to get out of here,” she said against him.


He kissed her head between the cat ears.  “Three blocks.  Two minutes.”


They apparently used up the last of their common sense by not running the sirens because they ended up groping outside again, this time with her up against his back door with the moon and the ocean looking on.  Her breasts were pressed into his chest and his tongue was teasing in and out of her mouth as she yanked out the tail of his shirt behind his back.  He rubbed the soft material of her skirt against her thighs, riding it higher and higher until she was standing there pretty much in her stockings, heels and underwear.


Her hand crept between them to stroke him through his jeans where his erection strained against the tight material.  He was about ready to pop the button, it was that bad.  “I think I’ve found another one of those signs,” she said against his mouth.


He muttered something unintelligible and used his teeth to slide one of the spaghetti straps off her shoulder.  She was breathing hard, head thrown back against the door as he pressed open-mouthed kisses along her bare skin.  All the while, he worked her from below, hands on her round, perfect ass, grinding her against his thigh.  It should be illegal to feel this good.  “Hunter.”


He was too busy exploring her neck with his tongue to reply.  She gasped and arched.


“Hunter, the door.  We should...we should go inside.”


Inside, he thought. Yes.  He backed away from her unsteadily and she sagged against the door, looking breathless and mussed from his hands and mouth.  Their eyes held as he tried to reach the key from his front pocket.  He got his fingertips in and not much else.  “Shit.”


“Problem?” she inquired delicately.


“You. You have me so worked up I can’t even get into my own pants.”  He had swelled so much there was literally no room to work with down there.  She tittered, hiding her smile behind her hand but he could see the amusement in her eyes.  “Use your key,” he suggested.


“I didn’t bring it.”  He frowned and she spread her hands in protest.  “How was I supposed to know we’d end up here?  Like this?” She made a vague gesture at his distended state.


Desperate, he cast an eye about the wind-swept deck.  There were always the wooden lounge chairs…


“Uh-uh,” she said when she saw him looking.  “It’s too cold out here for that.”


“I’d keep you warm,” he told her, leering, but she ignored him.


“Come here,” she said as she tugged him closer to her again.  “Let me try.”


He screwed his eyes shut as she wiggled her hand inside his front left pocket.  She was pressed against him again but he didn’t try to touch her for fear that they’d end up dry humping against his door again. “My God, McCall.  Hurry up.”


“I’m trying.” Her fingertips moved along his erect penis like an inchworm as she worked her way deeper.  He tilted his head back, willing himself not to start rutting against her like a horny animal. 


She made some humming noise as she adjusted her hand and now she could stroke him with more intent.  “Mm, that’s nice,” she murmured into his chest.


“The keys,” he reminded her, feeling desperate now. “Get the keys.”


He held his breath as she wriggled her hand some more.  “I can’t reach.”  He was about to protest when she used her free hand to undo his pants.  He went weak with sweet relief as his cock surged free.  “Well, that worked,” she said, pulling his house keys from his jeans.  His cock practically reached out to shake her hand, and she returned the greeting.  “Mm, what do we have here?”


“You have the keys,” he said.  “Use them.”


“In a minute.  I’m busy.”


He closed his eyes as she began rubbing the length of him.  “You should have worn devil horns,” he told her with a groan.   Her delighted laugh echoed into the night.


He felt her move again and opened his eyes, preparing to go inside, but McCall wasn’t standing there anymore. She had slid down and was crouched between him and the door. He barely had time to react before her mouth closed around him. “Holy shit,” he said, gritting his teeth against the sharp burst of pleasure.  His back arched and he braced himself on the rough wooden door.


Oh my God she was good at this.  He didn’t want her to be.  He didn’t want to have to live forever with the image of her down there working him over with lips and tongue until the world around them started to go all sparky and soundless.  He couldn’t see much in the shadows.  But there was her dark head, bobbing up and down with the perfect little ears sticking out.  He stroked her hair from her face and rested his forehead on the cold, hard door.  “Ah,” he gasped when she swirled her tongue around the sensitive head of his penis.  “ gotta quit that.”


She paused.  “Stop? You’re sure?”


He was not at all sure.  But he was afraid if he didn’t get her inside, she might leave before he got the chance to return the favor.  “Go.  Keys.  Now.”


She giggled as she felt around for them on the deck.  “I had them here a second ago.  Aha, here we go.”


She opened his door at last, and he hurried her, still laughing, over the threshold.  “Finally,” he muttered as he held her head in both hands for more kissing.  She wound around him and welcomed him in, apparently as needy for it as he was. He nudged her backwards as they kissed until they found the couch with their knees.  He paused to turn on the nearby lamp on the side table before pulling her down onto his lap. 


She giggled again, squirming away as he nipped at her chin, and the cat ears went askew.  “Now where were we?” he said, sliding his hands under her skirt once more.  Dammit, she was still wearing underwear.


They leaned heads together as she straddled his lap, rising up a bit to take his long erection under her short skirt.  She braced herself on her knees and began rocking slowly back and forth so that he slid along her center, scraping against the bits of lace and satin that covered his ultimate goal.  Her eyes were closed, her neck arched as she rubbed them both closer to heaven. He slipped his hands under her panties to hold her tight little bottom, urging her faster and faster until they were rocking the whole couch.  He was taut as bow under her, hard between her legs, and he knew it would be over soon if they didn’t move things along.  “Wait, wait,” he said as he stilled her hips.


She blew her bangs out of her eyes with a frustrated breath.  “Why are we stopping?”


“Not stopping.” He gripped her underwear in one hand and twisted it, making her gasp.  He wanted the barrier gone but he did not want to her to move off his lap.  “How expensive are these?” he asked her.


“I’ll bill you later,” she said, leaning in to lick him. 


He ripped the edge easily and they adjusted enough that he could remove her torn underwear.  She laughed as he threw it over his shoulder. “Much, much better,” he murmured as he reached under her skirt once more.  Her laugh dissolved into a breathy moan when he began to stroke her between her legs, where she was warm and wet.  Kitty was a very nice pussy indeed.


Her head dropped to his shoulder and he could feel her hot breath through his T-shirt as she began to move on his hand.  Gently, he tested her with one finger, and her nails dug into his shoulders. “There?” He thumbed the swollen and tender flesh, and she hissed out a long breath.


She reached down and shifted his hand slightly to the left.  “Oh, yeah,” she said as he made the adjustment.  “Just like…just like that.”


He took up the rhythm again, and pretty soon she was whimpering into his neck as he fucked her in short, quick strokes with one finger and rubbed her off with his thumb.  He could feel the tension rising in her, her thighs trembling, and abruptly withdrew his hand.  She cried out at the loss but he shushed her with gentle kisses as he maneuvered her body over his.  They both jerked at the initial contact of his erection against her opening.  “Still protected?” he murmured between kisses.  Please say yes. Please say yes.


She nodded quickly, which was just as well because he was already partway inside her.  Still kissing, he tugged down the straps of her top to reveal, much to his delight, her naked breasts.  He stroked them up and down and all around with both hands as she worked to take him deeper into her body.  But he was big and she was tight, so it was a game of inches.  He let her set the pace, swallowing hard, keeping his hips still as she braced herself on his shoulders.  She shivered as he pressed a kiss between her breasts. “Okay?” he murmured.


“Yeah, yeah.  Just…give me a sec.”


He smiled against her skin and reached up to stroke the side of her face.  She leaned her cheek into his palm, and they cuddled this way until he was completely inside her body.  He nuzzled the shadowy hollow at the base of her neck.  “You always smell so good,” he told her.  “It’s not fair.”


She laughed gently and began to move against him.  “Talk about unfair – have you seen the jeans you wear?  They’re like a walking advertisement for…Oh!” He thrust up into her as the pace increased a bit.


“Oh?” he asked.


“Oh, for sex.  Mmm.”


The word from her mouth, coupled with the deed, was almost his undoing.  He gasped and put his hands under her skirt again.  There was less room available now that he was down there with her, but he searched out the place she had shown him earlier.  She drew in a sharp breath as he found it, and he brushed his lips against her cheek.  “Can you come this way?” he whispered.  They hadn’t managed it before, and he was dying to know what it would feel like to have her rippling around him, no trace of latex in sight.


“Mm, yes.  Please.”


“Please what?”


“Please…that.  Oh, God.  Yes, that.” 


He rubbed her faster and harder as she began riding him in earnest.  Pleasure was coming in overlapping waves now, and he leaned his head back and tried to keep control. Don’t come. Don’t come.  God, was she even close yet? The hot slide of his cock between her legs was maybe the best sensation he had ever felt, because he was always at his best when he was with her.


Just when he was losing it, slipping right over the edge, she cried out and jerked in his arms.  He felt the white-hot clench and release as she shuddered and he gasped with relief and joy, following her into sweet oblivion.


When he could see again, he blinked and found her still leaning over him, her hair adorably mussed and a fond smile on her face.  She stroked his cheek a moment and then leaned down to kiss him.  It was warm and loving, but her sigh as she pulled back was tinged with regret.  “I should go.”


He caught her hand.  “You don’t have to.”  The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.


Surprise flickered over her features, and he tugged her back close.  Her lashes lowered so he could not read her expression.


“Stay,” he said softly. “It’s okay.”


She didn’t say anything for a moment, but then she squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.  “No, I really should get going.”  She eased off his lap on shaky legs, righting her clothing, and he felt the loss of her acutely.  She smiled again and touched his head.  “This was way better than my earlier date.”


He zipped himself back up. “Is that what this was – a date?” he asked, and she faltered.


“I...well, whatever it was, it was fun.”


He hesitated a second before reaching out to touch the soft curl at the end of her hair.  She watched him while he played with her, shifting from her hair to her collarbone and down the silky smooth length of her bare arm.  “Maybe…maybe we should try it sometime,” he said, unable to look at her.  He swallowed. “A date.”


“Hunter.”  Her tone was affectionate, but rueful.  She stepped back closer to him and gathered his head against her middle.  “I’ve seen the way you date.  It’s all delightful for about twenty minutes, and then you lose interest.”


He hugged her tight and buried his face in the soft swell of her bosom.  Now she smelled like perfume, sweaty cotton and sex. It was even better than before.  “You are different,” he told her.  “I hope you know that.”


She traced his brow tenderly. “Yes,” she said. “And I’d like to keep it that way.” 


She kissed the top of his head and excused herself to the bathroom.  While she was gone, he washed his hands in the kitchen and drained a tall glass of water.  He found her again in the living room, retrieving her shredded underwear from his floor.  The ears were still on, though, and he found this endearing.  He touched one lightly as they lingered near the door.  “You may have convinced me about the merits of Halloween,” he said, and she smiled.


“You know, Hunter, it’s not too late.”




“If you wanted to go to college.  They have night courses, and you’re plenty smart enough if that’s what you wanted.”  She paused to touch his arm.  “I know you could do it.”


He felt something crack open inside of him, an alternate future that might have been. A person he would never be.  “No,” he said after a moment.  “I’m not much for classrooms. Besides – old dog, new tricks – you know how the saying goes.”


She smiled suggestively.  “I don’t know. I kind of like your tricks,” she said, and he smiled too.


“We’re even, then, because I like your treats.”  Her grin widened and he kissed her forehead gently. “Happy Halloween, Sergeant.”


Part Three: Lunar Phases


They were home. It was his home because he did not consider hers safe anymore. She’d have to go back there eventually, but not tonight, not with the bullet in her wall and the bruises hiding under her clothes.  He lay out on the deck chair in the afternoon sunlight, counting on the bright sky and cool breeze to keep him awake. He was wearing the same jeans and shirt that he’d put on two days ago, before he’d found Lloyd Fredericks handcuffed on the floor of his partner’s living room.


He scrubbed his face with his hands in an effort to rub away the fatigue.  He had been up all night with Charlie, trying to make him understand.  It did not matter how many goddamn rules got broken: the rapist never, ever got to win.


The door opened behind him, and he craned his neck around to see her.  She had changed into black leggings and an over-sized red sweater, and the ends of her hair were damp from her shower.  “Bathroom is free,” she said as she stood over him.


He squinted up at her a moment and then reached for her hand to tug her down with him.  She sat by his hip.  “You doing okay?” he asked.


“Of course.  Fine.”  But she avoided his eyes.


“Do you want anything to eat?”


She shook her head.  He hadn’t seen her consume a bite all day, which registered in the red zone on the McCall distress scale.  “I’m not hungry.”


Truth be told, neither was he. He’d swallowed so much guilt over the last week that there was no room left for food. Stacie Tyler was lying cold in the morgue and his partner had been brutalized in her own home on his watch.  If they had actually fired McCall, he probably would have walked out the door right behind her.  He squeezed her hand gently.  “Maybe we should get some rest then,” he suggested.


She looked tempted but then shook her head.  “You…you go ahead.  I’m all right.”


The rings under her eyes told him there was no way she’d slept more than he had over the last few days.  He swung his legs over the edge of the lounge chair and stood up, trying to bring her with him. “Come on, just for a few minutes.”


She stayed put.  “No, I’m fine.  Really.”


He frowned and sat back down next to her.  “It’s okay, you know.  Nothing’s going to get you.”


“I know.” She sounded defensive.  “He’s dead.  It’s over.  As for the rest of it – we’re all pretending it never happened, right?”


He was quiet a long moment.  Then he took the bottom hem of her sweater and raised it up slowly.  She tensed, looking away from him, but did not pull away.  He stopped when he reached the huge black-and-blue splotch that accompanied her broken ribs.  She covered her face with her hands, and he leaned down to press his face against her hair.  “It did happen,” he said. “And you don’t have to pretend with me.”




In his bedroom, the blinds held back the worst of the sun as it hung heavy over the ocean.  The sheets were clean-ish, if a bit rumpled, but he was too tired to care.  She settled in carefully next to him, and he saw no reason to pretend they didn’t like to touch each other.  “Tell me if I hurt you,” he said as he gathered her closer.  She shook her head against him, whether to deny the hurt or deny that she would tell him the truth, he did not know.  She’d been keeping some pretty powerful secrets from him these days.


She hugged him tight, far tighter than he dared hold her.  “I’m sorry,” she said into his shirt.  Her shoulders hitched as she held back tears, and he felt his own eyes water in response.  He wanted to help but he was also exhausted.  In fact, he was having so much trouble concentrating that he almost missed the last part.  “I’m so ashamed,” she whispered.


He placed a long kiss on the top of her warm head.  “For what?”


Her arms tightened around him and he felt her swallow.  “For being raped,” she said, sounding weary of it after all this time. “For being unable to defend myself, again.”  She paused to gather herself.  “For…for what I almost did.”  She shuddered at the words, and he stroked her back as best he could without catching the bruises.


“You did nothing to be ashamed of,” he told her. “Nothing.”


He thought of how they’d escaped last time, all the terrifying statistics in the pamphlets Anita had given him.  Sexual assault survivors face increased risk for depression, for alcoholism, for drug abuse.  They are four times more likely to commit suicide. He gathered her closer as if to shield her from these invisible enemies.  Did the numbers reset now?  How long before he could breathe easy again?


He felt her search out the scar on his shoulder, and she rubbed it lightly through his cotton shirt.  “Can you forgive me?” she asked, and his heart squeezed painfully at her words.


“I don’t need to forgive you.” He closed his eyes and kissed her furrowed forehead.  “The question is, can you forgive yourself?”


If she ever answered, he did not hear it, as sleep rolled over him like a stone.  When he woke again, moonlight slanted through the blinds, creating a zebra pattern over the bed around them.  He blinked in the darkness to reacquaint himself with the new quiet world. McCall lay curled against his side, asleep under the weight of his arm.  He smiled at her gently and used his thumb to stroke her between the shoulder blades, soaking in the gentle rhythm of her breathing.  For a few moments, at least, there was peace.


They had never lain like this before.  After the rape, he had held her briefly at times, more of an extended hug than anything else, but he never would have dared climb into her bed back then.  Now they’d been intimate but they still hadn’t been to bed together, not like this with her warm knees against his thighs and the tickle of her breath on his arm.  He caressed her slowly, reverently, as though she were a fairy sprite who might disappear again at any time. 


The grumble of his empty stomach woke her a few minutes later.  She inhaled sharply as her eyes came open, and he drew his hand back as if burned.  She relaxed back into the pillow a few seconds later as she recognized her surroundings.  “What time is it?” she asked through a yawn.


“Just past ten-thirty,” he replied as his stomach growled again.


She smiled at the noise.  “Oh, it was you,” she said. “I thought maybe it was The Big One hitting us at last.”


“Sorry.  Guess I’m a little hungry.”


She appeared to consider this.  “Mm, me too.”




She nodded but gave him a look of concern.  “But do you have any...”


“Any what?” He was prepared to offer anything as long as she would eat it.


“Any, you know…food?”  She finished this off with the usual arch of her eyebrow, and he grinned with relief.


“Are you suggesting I don’t eat real food?”


“I’ve seen your breakfast cereal. It looks like sticks and gravel – and sounds like it too, I might add.”


“As opposed to your breakfast cereal, which features a cartoon animal on the front.”  She laughed and he rolled out of bed.  “I’ll tell you what,” he said.  “I’ll take a shower and you can order a pizza – put whatever you want on it.”


She eased herself gingerly from the other side.  “Oh yeah? You trust me?”


He paused from where he was already unbuttoning his shirt, and their eyes met. “Yeah,” he said softly. “I trust you.”


He stood under the hot spray for a good ten minutes, letting it wash out the tension from his neck and shoulders.  Afterward, he changed into sweats and a T-shirt and went in search of McCall.  He found her back outside on the deck.  She had lifted the old Navajo blanket from his couch and was sitting on one of his lounge chairs, looking at the moon.  “Pizza’s on its way,” she said when she saw him.


He stood next to her and regarded the bone white face of the moon.  It was full and low in the sky, as though reluctant to part with the ocean.  He nudged her over so that he could sit next to her; right now, he could only relax when they were touching.  She seemed to feel he same way because she hugged herself around the middle and leaned against his shoulder with a small, contented sigh.  “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked as they took in the nightscape.  “Nights like tonight, it’s easy to believe we put a man on the moon – it almost seems like you could reach out and touch it.”


“You remember that day?” he asked.  “When Armstrong walked on the moon?”


“Sure.  They rounded up the whole school so we could watch it in the auditorium.  There were so many kids crammed in there I could barely see anything.”


He forgot sometimes how many years he had on her. He settled in closer so that he could lean his head against hers.  “I didn’t see it, but I heard it on the radio.  We were stationed in this little town called Bien Hoa in South Vietnam at the time.  The radio had been out most of the day, but these two guys just kept fiddling and fiddling with it, trying to get a signal.”  He smiled a little, remembering. “God, it was hot. It was the middle of the night but our clothes were stuck to our skin.  It seemed like we were going to miss it, but suddenly, there was the transmission, crackling in the darkness.  We all gathered around and no one said a word the whole time – we just sat there and listened to the world changing.”


She reached over and took his hand, and he tucked them both back under the warm blanket.  “It was pretty amazing,” she said.


“Yeah.”  He hesitated, and she shifted to look at him.




He shrugged. “After it was over, I walked about a mile away to this little hillside where I could see it – the moon.  It was this little hanging crescent way up in the sky.  It seemed unbelievable that we had managed to put a man up there when we were losing guys every day to these primitive booby traps in the jungle. I don’t know. I figured that night that we were probably never going to win. But I’ll tell you what -- I did feel a kind of brotherhood with those astronauts way up there in the distance.  We were the both of us far from home, with no guarantee that we’d ever get back again.”


She hugged his arm and rested her cheek against his shoulder once more, snuggling against him.  They sat together, watching the moon, until the pizza arrived.  He smiled when he saw that it was veggie, just the way he liked it.  She peered into the box with him. “There’s no zucchini on my half,” she said. “Because that’s just wrong.”


He pulled a half a bottle of house red out of his fridge and waved it at her. “You want any?”


“Can’t,” she said as she separated a slice of pizza from the pie.  “Prescription drugs.” 


But he noticed she was happy to finish the last of his glass later when she was cleaning up the kitchen. By midnight, they were back in his king-sized bed, face-to-face in the middle.  She had changed into pajamas, and he left his sweatpants on because he didn’t actually own pajamas. She was subdued again, curled up as if to make a smaller target for the nightmares, and he didn’t know what he could really say to reassure her. They both knew that sometimes the monster under the bed was actually real. “Thanks for letting me stay,” she said at length.


He smiled and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.  “Any time.”


Silver light slanted in on them from the window, and she was as pale as the moon itself.  He drew nearer to her like the sea.  “You’re safe here,” he murmured to her as he cupped the side of her face.  “You know that, right?”


Her lashes lowered.  “I know,” she said, but she did not sound convinced.


“You want to talk about it?”


She shook her head slowly against his palm. “No.”


“You…you need to talk to someone. Forget what the report says. It happened, and it matters.”


Tears filled her eyes and she took his hand away from her face. “I have a counseling appointment tomorrow,” she said with a sniff.  “I don’t want to talk about it tonight.  I want… I want…”


“What?”  He was leaning over her now, their faces close together.  He would do just about anything at that point if it would take away some of her pain.


She wound her arms around his neck and pulled him nearer.  He had almost no time to react before she was kissing him.  It was gentle and unhurried, and he would have let it go on forever but then he felt the tear tracks on her cheeks.  He broke off the kiss and rested his forehead on hers.  “This…this probably isn’t such a good idea right now.”


“No, it’s okay,” she said, kissing him again. 


He stroked her hip and held her closer as they kissed, warmly at first but then with growing passion. It felt amazing to be able to do this, to put all his pent-up terror and relief into their kisses. He wanted to take her inside himself where nothing would hurt her again.


She made a murmur of pleasure, and he let himself forget a little bit as their mouths met in a slow, repeated dance. At the first touch of her tongue against his, he rolled her onto her back, and she pulled away with a painful gasp.  “Shit, I’m sorry.”  He pressed his flushed face into her neck, where he could feel the rapid flutter of her pulse.


“It’s all right,” she said as she tried to coax him back up. “Really.”


“No, you’re hurt.”


“Yes,” she said, and kissed his cheek. “But you’re making it better.”


He shook his head but leaned down to nuzzle her, softening his rejection.  “I couldn’t.”


She held his head to her body and stroked his hair. “Please,” she whispered, sounding tearful again. “I would like to feel something…not horrible.”


He could not bear it when she cried, especially not now, here in his bed where he only wanted to make her smile. He kissed her again gently and she held him tight, not letting him get away again.  “I don’t want to hurt you,” he murmured against her mouth.


She shook her head, still clutching him.  They kissed some more, almost desperately, and he felt himself grow hard from the strength of the emotion alone.  She maneuvered until he was lying between her legs.


“You’re sure?” he asked, drawing back to look into her eyes.  This still seemed like madness to him, but his resistance was slipping.


She nodded as she ran her hands down his back. “You’ve never done this?”




“You know.”  She planted little kisses on his jaw.  “Comfort sex.”


He seized up at the word, swallowing hard.  Comfort sex – that was a real thing? “Ah, no.”  He inhaled sharply as her fingertips slipped beneath the elastic waistband on his pants.  He was being careful to keep some space between them so he did not crush her, and thus she had room to start maneuvering his pants down his hips.  “Wait just a second,” he said, shifting away from her.  He wasn’t sure about the rules of comfort sex, but he at least figured that he was the one who was supposed to be doing the comforting.


He lay on his side next to her, his head on his arm so that he could stroke her hair and face with one hand as he started unbuttoning her top with the other.  They kissed some more, and it did feel sort of comforting.  She was warm and soft in his arms, safe for the moment as they lay together in the quiet of his bedroom. He loosened the last button but did not part her pajamas right away. Instead, he rested his palm against her smooth, flat stomach, caressing her the way he might do to a sleepy kitten.


Arousal was a slow, deepening ache in his groin as their kisses grew longer and deeper.  He brushed aside one half of the pajama top and pulled his lips from hers. “Still okay?”


Her hair tickled his cheek as she nodded.  She took his free hand and drew it back down to her body. “Touch me.”


He did, parting the other side of the shirt to reveal the delicate arch of her ribs and the rounded curves of her breasts.  She was a vision dressed in moonbeams and shadow, and he set about mapping her with his mouth and tongue.  He plumped up both nipples into tight buds before taking one deep into his mouth for a thorough suckling.  She gasped and arched, maybe from pleasure and pain together, and he held her body still as he continued his ministrations. She put her palm against his face, her thumb rubbing across to touch the edge of his lips as he worked at her breast. “Ah!” she said as he widened his mouth to take her thumb in as well.


She tasted like salt and smelled like his lemon dish soap.  He licked back and forth between her nipple and thumb until she was squirming again in his grasp.  She pulled her hand free and tugged his face back up so they could kiss again, hot and eager for it now.  Slow, he reminded himself as he started slipping off her pants.  Go slow.


When she was naked, he pressed her gently into the pillow for more kissing, his tongue just teasing hers while his hand drifted down the plane of her body.  Her thighs were parted for him so he searched through the soft curls with one fingertip.  She was swollen but dry, and her legs closed around his hand as she hissed against his mouth.  “Sorry,” she said.


“No, shh.  That’s my line.” He nuzzled her a moment until she relaxed again, and then he kissed her nose.  “I’ve been waiting for this opportunity,” he murmured before easing down her body.  He felt her sharp intake of breath as he moved to lie with his head between her thighs.




“Shh.  I’ve got you.”  He widened her legs a bit, and that’s when he saw them: ugly bruises in the shape of fingerprints all across the inside of her thighs.  He froze, and she felt it.  Her legs squeezed shut, trying to block him out.


“Stop,” she said brokenly, and he hesitated just a moment.  He stroked the outside of her legs with long, reassuring sweeps of both palms. He remembered her words from earlier – I’m so ashamed – and suddenly he had to swallow back tears.  Above him, she was sniffling too.  “I know it’s awful,” she whispered.


He rubbed his cheek on her leg and then moved slowly back over her again until he could see her face.  Tears glittered in her dark eyes.  “What happened to you was awful,” he said.  “But you are perfect.”


She shook her head, squirming away from his gaze, but he brought her back gently. 


“Yes,” he said.  He leaned down and pressed his face against hers.  “You are the best thing that ever happened to me.”


Her face crumpled before she hugged him tight around the shoulders.  “No, that’s you,” she said as she kissed his cheek.


They held each other warmly for a few moments, and eventually he laced his fingers through hers, squeezing her hand.  “You want to stop?”


“Hm-mm.”  She returned the squeeze, and he shifted so they could look at each other again.  She smiled a little, and so he did too. 


Her smile faded into uncertainty as he moved back down her body.  He kept her hand in his this time as he settled between her legs.  She gripped him fiercely as he turned his face first one way, then the other, placing whisper-soft kisses on each scattering of bruises.  He wished they had done this before, so he would already know what she liked, but his worries evaporated the moment he put his mouth on her.  Her gasp as he began learning her with his tongue was the single most erotic sound he’d ever heard.


Her clit was hard and erect, ready for his attention, and he realized with relief that it was actually okay, that she did want this, want him. He wrapped his free arm around her hips so he could hold her closer to his mouth.  She started making little um, um noises with each pass of his tongue, and his throbbing cock picked up the rhythm as well.  He tried not to rub himself too much on the bedclothes when her thighs started quivering around his head, growing tighter and tighter as he licked her repeatedly with a firm, flat tongue.


She cried out, her body straining under his grasp, and he felt the contractions ripple through her.  When the buzzing in his ears subsided, her legs limp around his shoulders, he became aware that she was weeping.  Horrified, he shifted to take her in his arms. “What?  What is it?” He kissed her head as she burrowed against him.


“It’s not you,” she said through her tears.  “It’s everything else.”


He ran his hands over her naked back and rested his cheek on her hair.  “I’m sorry, honey. I’m so sorry."

This got her attention and she sniffed as she looked up at him. “For what?”


“For not being there.  For letting this happen.”  He smoothed her hair back from her face, and she reached up to take his hand.


“It’s not your fault.”


“I’m not so sure about that.”  At the most basic level, she was his partner.  Injury to her meant he had failed.


She cuddled closer, hugging him around the middle. “What did you say earlier? Something about forgiving yourself?”


He realized how impossible it sounded when she was the one saying it.  He snuffled her hair and gently squeezed her.  “I have to tell you -- I don’t know about this whole comfort sex proposition.  It doesn’t seem very comforting.” She gave a watery laugh as he sighed. “Maybe I’m just doing it wrong.”


“No,” she said, laying her hand against his face. “You’re wonderful.”  He shook his head, but she tilted his face back to hers.  She swallowed visibly as she held his gaze.  “I—I couldn’t do this with anyone but you.”


Okay, he thought as they leaned heads together.  This part was a little comforting.


They kissed with tenderness and affection, and then he nosed around in the damp tendrils of hair that curled near her ear.  “You should get some rest.”


She repositioned herself under him, wincing a bit as she did so, and tugged him back between her legs.  “Not yet,” she said as she peeled the sweatpants down over his hips.  His cock sprang out, still partially erect.


He sucked in a breath as she began to stroke him. “You don’t have to do this.”


“I want to.”


His breath deepened as they both watched her hand moving up and down, a flash of her red painted nails in the white moonlight.  He bowed his head as he lengthened and swelled in her grasp.  She kissed his chin.


“You…you have to tell me if it hurts,” he said as he settled between her legs.


“Mmm, yes,” she agreed, drawing her knees up on either side of him.  She traced her fingertips lightly over his face as he started to ease inside her.  Slowly, he advanced, holding the bulk of his weight off of her as she took him, inch by inch. They stroked and kissed and finally smiled at each other when he was all the way in.


“Okay?” he murmured as he leaned down to brush his lips against hers.


“Very.” Up close like this, he could see her wet, spiky lashes and the beauty mark by her collarbone.  She was quiet and relaxed, trailing her fingers over his shoulders and down his back, and it awed him to feel how close she had let him get.  He was big, bigger even than the man who’d hurt her, but somehow she was willing to be vulnerable with him like this, risking further pain to give him pleasure.  The degree of trust she’d placed in him felt raw and deep, a bond they might not have formed any other way, and he shuddered as he began to move gently inside her body. 


He tried to go as slow as possible, but she was tight and hot and wrapped all the way around him.  Emotions from the week kept flashing through him even as the sexual need grew stronger and deeper.  Fear.  Death.  Lust and pain.  He grit his teeth and picked up the pace, thrusting into her with all he had. 


Horror.  Relief. 



“Oh, God,” he said, his voice catching on a sob.  It seemed like the orgasm was ripped from him, release that hurt so good, making him tremble and collapse in the aftermath. 


He managed not to land on top of her, but she curled up against him anyway.  Wordlessly, he stroked her hair as she sighed with what sounded like contentment.  “You…you should’ve warned me about that,” he said, still quivering on the inside.  “Comfort sex makes it sound like wool socks or apple pie.  Not…not…” He groped around for the words. 


“Not?” she said, amused.


Shattering. Death and rebirth.  “Not like that.” He kissed her head and she nestled closer.


“It’s not over yet,” she said, sounding sleepy.


“It’s not?” He was genuinely a little worried.


“No,” she said with a yawn. “This part counts too.” 


He reached down and pulled the covers over them before lying down next to her again.  The moon had risen high in the sky, leaving them alone together in the shadows.  He traced the curve of her face with his fingers and felt her smile.  And this, at last, was comfort.


Part Four: Fall


It was the first day of fall when Hunter happened to glance across the squad room and spot McCall talking to DDA Jason Leffler.  This part was not unusual. Both of them had met with Leffler a dozen times in the past; today, he was probably inquiring about the Weber case, which had been tossed out at arraignment last week and just landed back on Hunter and McCall’s desks.


But they did not look like they were talking about the Weber case, not when Hunter saw them.  No, they were laughing, and something in the way they were standing made the hairs on his neck prick up. She was leaning into Jason as he said something, and his hand rested lightly on her forearm.  The intimacy of the tableau made Hunter’s palms tingle, and he clenched his fists beneath the desk to stop the odd sensation.  Jason murmured something near her temple, and she smiled and nodded.  He squeezed her arm before sauntering down the hall, and Hunter sat there like an idiot, watching her watch Leffler.


Hunter jerked his attention back to his work as she approached.  She was still smiling.  “Is that the Henderson paperwork?” she asked, nodding at the notes he had spread across his desk.




“I’ll type it up for you if you want,” she said as she took her seat.


“Really?” He furrowed his brow at her.  “You’re volunteering to type the report?”


“Sure.  What are partners for?  But you’d better hurry.  This offer has a clock on it.”  She extended her hand across the desk for the files, and he slowly started gathering them up for her.


“What’s the rush? You have somewhere to be?”


“Mm, yes,” she said as she accepted the paperwork.  “I’m having dinner with Jason Leffler.”


“Yeah, I saw he stopped by. He, uh, he wasn’t here to talk about the Weber case?”


She paused in shuffling the notes to grin. “No, he was.  But I don’t expect it will come up again tonight.”


He had nothing to do now that she had taken his work from him, but he found some folders to push around all the same.  “Another Friday night, another jerk attorney?”


“Hey, now.  You like Jason. I’ve heard you admit it.”


He laced his fingers together and leaned over the desk. “No, what I said was, ‘he’s the least objectionable one of the lot.’”


She gestured at him, her good mood still intact.  “See? There you go. It’s a ringing Rick Hunter endorsement.”


Lawyers always seemed to love his partner.  Hell, everyone loved her, but for some reason, she seemed to love the lawyers back.  He had watched representatives from nearly every profession under the sun make a play for her – doctors, actors, bankers, musicians, cops, con men and pimps – and he could say two things with authority: she said yes to the lawyers and no to the cops.  And the pimps.  He was pretty sure she’d never knowingly dated a pimp.


She had on occasion slept with a cop, however, so apparently he was the exception to her rule.  It had been more than a year now but he could still conjure the memory of her standing barefoot in his kitchen, wearing his Oxford shirt and not much else as she made their morning coffee.  She’d been warm and relaxed when he’d set her on his lap for cuddling, resting her cheek against the top of his head as he had nuzzled the open collar of her shirt.  But he could still taste her grief when they’d kissed. “I have to go home now,” she had said at last. “Or I never will.”

He looked at her now, long past the fading point for both the bruises and the kisses, and damned if she wasn’t humming as she typed.  He frowned but she did not see it. “So where are you going?” he asked.  “For dinner?”


“Oh, Jason knows this hole-in-the-wall Portuguese place that he says is amazing.  Apparently he’s been there so many times, they let him order off the menu now.”


“I’ll just bet he does.”


She made a face at him and pulled out the finished report.  “Here you go,” she said. “All done.  Now I can leave you with a clear conscience.”




There were at least two more dinners over the next week and a half, punctuated in between with phone calls at her desk.  He eavesdropped openly but she did not seem to notice at all, caught up as she was in whatever Jason was saying on the other end of the line.  She would giggle and smile into the phone, and at one point, she said, “I think that could be arranged – of course, I would have to go home and change first.”


He watched her put on makeup at the end of the day and felt like he was studying a new species. None of her previous men had ever triggered this sort of mooning.  She sat across from him, pink and glowing, like she was keeping the best secret in the whole world.


“You’d better not be doodling little hearts over there,” he said when he found her, chin in hand, scratching at the margins of her notebook.


“Of course not.”  But she snapped the book closed.  She checked her watch, and he repressed a sigh.


“So I take it you’ve got another evening scheduled with the prosecution.”


“He’s picking me up in ten minutes.”  She patted her middle a bit, and he sat back and folded his arms.


“Don’t tell me – butterflies?”


She flushed and looked at her lap, and he felt his mouth go dry before she could even answer. He wished he could take it back.  “A few, maybe,” she admitted, avoiding his gaze, as if testing whether this was okay to talk about between them.  She picked up her pen again and toyed with it.


He felt the air changing, even then, but still he had to ask.  “I don’t get it.  What makes this one different?”


For a long moment, his words hung between them.  She finally met his eyes.  “I don’t know yet,” she said softly, and then hesitated just a second before acknowledging the truth.  “But he is.”


A week or so later, he was standing at his kitchen counter eating his bran flakes and banana when the phone rang.  It was McCall, sounding chipper. “Good morning,” she said. “I have good news – I called the hospital and Mary Jenkins is awake. The doctor said we could probably ask her a few questions about the shooting, but he wasn’t sure how much she was likely to remember.”


“Hopefully enough to ID her husband as the shooter.”  He shoveled in another bite of cereal.


“I was thinking we should get over there first thing to talk to her.”


“I agree,” he said, setting aside the rest of his breakfast.  “You want me to just pick you up? You’re on my way.”


“Oh,” she said.  “Uh, no thanks. I’ll meet you there.”


“It’s no bother.”  He already had his keys in hand.


“No, it’s not…” She stopped abruptly and started over. “I’m not home,” she said, sounding almost apologetic. There was a long ugly beat of silence.  Then she broke in lightly.  “I’ll see you over there, okay?”


They met at the hospital and did their jobs like always. But as they showed off their IDs, he caught a glimpse of her photo, the one taken more than five years ago, before he had ever known her. She looked younger then, and his chest tightened at the thought of all that had passed in the intervening years.  He turned his head to the side and tried not to know that she had come from another man’s bed.


What makes this one different? 

I don’t know.  But he is.




Sometimes, when it was just the two of them riding around in the old green Dodge, it felt like things were the same.  “Check out the girls working your old corner,” he said as they idled at a light.


She covered her face with one hand. “Please tell me I was not out there long enough to have a defined corner.”


“I think you could take them,” he replied as though she had not spoken. “The scrawny blonde one in particular looks a little rough around the edges. You want me to pull over? You could offer some tips, at least.”


She laughed and glanced out the window.  “Maybe lighten up on the peroxide.  I don’t know if it’s the smog level today or what, but I have never seen that particular shade of orange before.”


He grinned. “You could out earn them by noontime, easy.”


He’d reached over as he said it, squeezing her stocking-covered knee as he did so -- a gesture he’d performed a thousand times.  Only when she took his hand and gently shifted it back off her leg did he realize that there was a new boundary in place.  “Your days of pimping me out are long over,” she said, her tone teasing even as she drew her skirt back down to her knees.


She need not have bothered. He would not reach for her again.


A few days later, in case he had been confused, she spelled it out for him: eventually I want to hang all this up here, you know.  Of course he knew this. She had made no secret of her desire for marriage and family.  He’d just never expected to have to watch it happen. 


“You realize this means you’ll be losing the very best partner you’ve ever had,” she said. “Do you think you can handle that?”


They had been together five years; she’d worn him down like a river on a rock and now there was no one else who would fit his new smooth places. “Well, I think so, only if I am the bridesmaid,” he said, because, after everything, he was still the one who knew how to make her laugh.




Two nights later they were walking through the precinct parking lot, and he was shuffling perhaps a little slower, burdened by a nagging suspicion that Jason was trying an innocent man for murder.  She must have felt his preoccupation because she touched his arm as they reached her car.  The sensation was rare enough these days to get his attention.  “Hey, are we okay?” she asked softly.


“What?” He straightened. He was not used to keeping secrets from her. “Of course.  Why wouldn’t we be?”


“Well, I know we haven’t spent much time together lately…”


Oh, that. He shrugged. No big deal.


Her mouth twitched as she grappled with some emotion he did not recognize.  She reached for his hand and held it tight.  “I know I would be losing my partner, too,” she said finally.  “I think about that part a lot.”


He was surprised.  He hadn’t thought she’d so much as noticed him in weeks.


“I will miss you.”  She took his hand in both of hers now, as if he was the one pulling away. As always, her tears were his undoing.


“These barbeques on the weekend,” he said at length, “would I be invited to them?”


She wiped at her eyes with one hand.  “Of course.  But would you actually come?”


He tried to imagine it, sitting in some grassy backyard while Jason flipped burgers.  Near as he could tell, Jason’s taste ran to chi-chi foreign food that other people cooked. In Hunter’s imaginings, Leffler wore a stupid apron that said something like “Grilling a witness” and burned half the meat.  “I’d come and bring the tofu patties,” he told her, and she laughed through her tears.


She slipped her arms around him in an impulsive hug, her cheek against his chest. He froze momentarily at the wonder of it before lifting his hand gently to stroke her hair.  He made sure not to hold on too tight.




He took his anthropological studies on human mating behavior out to the bar, where he met a pharmaceutical rep named Alana Fowler.  She wore a blonde chignon and a red silk wrap-around blouse that certainly wrapped around her.  The Cartier watch and Italian leather shoes meant she could buy and sell him easily, but he still paid for the drinks.  When he put his hand on her knee, she did not move it away.


“So what kind of drugs do you sell?” he asked. “Anything I’ve heard of?”


She laughed, full and throaty. “Doubtful. I expect in your line of work, the drugs are less FDA and more DEA.  These days, I’m selling heart medication.”


There was a painful squeeze in his chest, as if his own heart had been waiting for such an opportunity, but he ignored it.  “Oh yeah? Give me your best pitch then.”


She smiled and leaned in close so that he could see the flecks of gold in her hazel eyes.  “Sergeant Hunter,” she said slowly, “I have a drug that can change your life.”


“Hmm.” He swallowed the last of his drink – anesthetic and heart drug all in one – and squeezed her leg.  “I’ll take it.”


Back at his place, it wasn’t long before her blouse puddled on the floor and his pants were open as he stiffened in her hot, eager palm.  They had energetic sex across his bed, after which he lay next to her, feeling curiously light and empty. Alana gave a satisfied sigh and regarded him with a smile. “No drug can match that,” she said as she ran a hand down his bare arm.  She appeared pleased and sated, but there was no trace of the light he saw in McCall’s eyes when she looked at Jason.


He had never been interested in chasing love, but now he wondered about it.  Was it out there someplace, hiding like a thief in the night, eluding him simply because he had never bothered to track it down? Or was it something that happened to you, like a lightning bolt from the sky.  Nothing personal, buddy -- you just happened to be the sucker outside when the rain started.


He looked at Alana again, at her full lips and skinny earlobes, at her perfect California tan.  Maybe if they had sex enough times, he would come to love her.  Maybe that’s how it happened.  But the idea kind of made him hate himself for even thinking it.


“Would you like some water?” he asked her.


She flashed a smile. “That would be great.”


He tugged on his pants again as he went in search of glasses.  When he returned from the kitchen, he found her with a new wrap-around outfit – his white sheet – and standing by his dresser.  She turned when she heard him enter the bedroom.  “Nice picture,” she said, showing him the one he had framed of him and McCall.  It was natural that she would be drawn to it, he supposed, as it was the biggest of the lot. 


“Yeah,” he replied, noncommittal.  He stretched out the water glass in her direction, and she replaced the picture.


“She’s pretty,” Alana said, and he resisted a smirk.  Women always did this thing where they noted one another’s appearance in a manner that sounded like a compliment, but wasn’t. 


“She’s my partner – my police partner.”


“Oh yeah?” She raised her eyebrows and sipped the water. “Interesting.”


“Interesting,” he repeated. “What do you mean by ‘interesting’?”


She glanced back at the picture. “Well, I’m just saying -- I don’t have any framed pictures of my coworkers lying around in my bedroom.”


He considered this revelation as she drank her water.  His first instinct was to protest – there was nothing sordid about the goofy picture – but maybe she had a point.  If McCall had still been married when they became partners, he probably wouldn’t have a picture of her in his bedroom, because who would keep a framed photo of himself with another man’s wife?  If she got remarried, maybe he would have to take it down. Maybe he would even want to, rather than have to look at the reminder every day.


He wondered suddenly if she had removed her version, the twin to his, or if Jason had to go to bed at her place next to a picture of Hunter with his arm around McCall. There were bits and pieces of himself all over her house, stuff he had not seen in several months now – a blue sport coat he’d lent her to wear home when she was cold one night; his worn-out copy of Bringing Up Baby; his lug wrench; and his lucky Dodgers jersey that he kind of wanted to have back but did not dare ask for because then she might just return everything.


He forced his attention back to Alana. “So who do you keep pictures of?” he asked. “In your bedroom.”


“Oh, my Mom.” She eyed him, hesitating a moment. “My five year-old son Donovan. I also have a photo of me and best friend Cheryl on our cruise to Aruba last year.  You know, the usual,” she said with a shrug. “Pictures of the people I love.”




He thought some more about love over the next day or so as he worked Kay Dawson’s murder for the second time. She had married James Dawson sixteen years earlier and probably they had been in love that day. They looked happy, at least, in the wedding picture that sat in Kay’s old office.  Kay was an all California girl in the photo  -- young, fit and blonde – but with a hungry look in her eyes that said she knew her future would be bigger than this day. James was tall and handsome in his gray suit, his gaze fixed on her face as though she had all the answers.  Hunter wondered when it was James decided to murder Kay, and whether he’d ever looked at this picture and remembered a time when he did not want her dead.


Love, it seemed to Hunter, was something you were lucky to survive.


He thought this again later when McCall was looking at him with a hint of betrayal in her eyes – some for him, because he’d been working the case behind her back, and some maybe for Jason, who had not been working the case at all.


“What’s going on here?” she asked.  “Why did you keep me in the dark?”


“Because it’s Jason’s case and I felt you were too close it.”


“We have worked on other cases before, and it’s never been a problem.”


He almost threw the words back to her. Why is this one different? I don’t know. But he is


Aloud, he said, “Yeah, I know, but I think Jason’s making a personal vendetta out of this thing.”  Jason had Tommy locked up good and he wasn’t letting go, not for a little thing like murder.


Hunter watched McCall hesitate, her loyalties torn, but he was on the side of truth, and for her, the truth always won.  “Yeah, you have a point,” she conceded.  “You said the Dawsons fought a lot? I’ll go by their attorney’s and find out what the stakes were.”


Much later, they were drinking bad coffee together in the conference room as the city skyline glittered outside in the night.  Technically they were both off duty now, but for once she hadn’t beat a hasty retreat for the door and so he stuck around too, just to see what would happen next.  Jason had stalked out of the squad room hours earlier without a backward glance.


Hunter risked a look at her as she contemplated her coffee mug.  She was physically present with him, but he would bet her thoughts were with Jason.


He would have lost the bet, though, because when she finally spoke, she said, “It was nearly two years before I accepted a date after Steven died.”  She said it more to the cup than to him, and he held very still in case he might startle her back into silence with any sudden movements.  She sighed before continuing.  “I was a wreck at first, of course, but after a while it wasn’t about the pain anymore. I felt…” She paused, searching.  “I felt like I had lost something I was never going to find again, so there was no point in even looking for it.”


This rather confirmed his feelings on the subject, so he said nothing.


“Anyway, my Mom started pestering me about dating again, trying to set me up.  I tried telling her why I wasn’t interested, and you know what she said?” She turned to look at him, and he shook his head.  “She said, ‘That’s because Steve died before he could disappoint you.’”


He winced, and she gave a short, dark laugh.


“Yeah, that was my reaction, too, at the time.”  She blew out a long breath and sat back in her chair, slumping a little.  “But maybe she wasn’t wrong.  We were married barely a year, and together less than three.”  She looked at him soberly.  “You and I have been together nearly double that.  Can you believe it?”


He gave a slow, ghostly smile. “And how often have I disappointed you?”


“You? Pretty much daily.” But her smile was teasing this time as she pushed away from the table.  She paused behind him with her mug in hand. “Somehow, though, you always manage to redeem yourself.”  He felt her hand rest briefly on his head.  “Thanks for the coffee.”




They broke up before winter, but the nights were already getting chilly. He felt cold while he waited for her in the hall.  He knew from the look on her face that she had ended things for good. “I guess it’s better to find these things out sooner rather than later,” she said, sounding teary.


Ouch, she said, and he felt it sting him too.  He was allowed to hold her again, if only for a few minutes, because their embrace was still more about Jason than it was the two of them.


He wanted to tell her that he maybe understood it now, that love was hard to find but easy to lose, that while one man had killed his woman for money, another was willing to die to keep his woman from harm.  He thought maybe love was not a single decision in time but a million little choices every day.  Get one wrong and the whole mountain could come tumbling down, leaving you crushed under the rubble.


He wanted to say he was sorry for the hurt but not the breakup, that he understood her bewilderment because he felt it as well, this scary realization that everything she did would affect him too.  He was raw like her now because he could see how close they’d been. She’d promised she would walk away one day, and now they both knew she really meant it.  The clock had reset but it was still ticking.


He swallowed with difficulty, holding back the tide of words. He was afraid to start talking for fear of what might come out.  She sniffed and pulled away from him, and he felt time slowing down. A million little choices.  “You, uh, you want to go somewhere? Maybe get some food and talk?”


She shook her head, and regret and relief washed through him, leaving him weak at the knees.  “No, I just want to go home and not have to talk to anyone for a while.  Maybe I’ll even take Monday off.”


“’kay.  Call me if you need anything.”


She nodded a bit to show she heard him but left without turning around.  In the end, of course, it wasn’t really about him.


On Tuesday morning, she showed up at eight, looking subdued but determined in her familiar gray pantsuit.  But the glow inside her had gone out. He gave her a cautious once-over as she settled in at her desk.  “You’re back,” he said, basking in the moment of reprieve.


She looked around, as if surprised to find herself there.  “I’m back.”


Date Night


Back a million years ago, when Hunter had first made detective, he’d preferred to work alone.  The old timers were either checked out already or spent half their days making sure he understood who was the senior man on the job.  The younger guys cared mostly about scoring points with the brass and climbing the ladder.  And there were no women, no how.


Now he’d had the same partner, a woman, for six years, and one week without her was enough to send him into a tailspin.  McCall had been in court all week testifying in the trial over the murder of Rosalind Chambers, a C-list celebrity just famous enough to attract media attention when she was shot to death in her car outside a posh, downtown restaurant.  Her much younger boyfriend was charged with the crime.


Hunter, meanwhile, was stuck with a gangland slaying and a probable mercy killing of a 79 year-old father of eight.  Which of the eight had tripled his morphine and hastened his death? Hunter couldn’t say and didn’t really care to know.  So he was just as happy to put that aside when McCall came walking through the door mid-afternoon on Friday.


She plopped into her seat with a sigh.  “The next dead celebrity is all yours.”


“Rough day in court?”


“I think the fancy pants lawyers must get paid by the word.  We spent half a day with the valet who brought her the car – a valet, who by his own admission, witnessed nothing.”  She sat up, brightening a bit.  “But my part is done. You are looking at a free woman.”


He looked her over, taking in her black suit, red blouse and self-satisfied expression. Whenever they were apart for any length of time, he was always a little surprised to see her again, the way her curves didn’t quite match his memory.  “Your testimony went well, I take it.”


“If he walks, it won’t be because of me. Esther said she’d buy me dinner.”


He frowned. “Oh yeah? Tonight?”


“She didn’t specify a date.” She eyed him with some suspicion.  “Why? You’re not thinking you’re going to be handing me that stack of folders I see sitting on your desk, are you? Because I am technically off duty.”


“How low do you think I am?” She made a face that told him exactly how low. “McCall, I would never dump all this paperwork on you on a Friday afternoon.  I just thought that if maybe, maybe you were free...we could have dinner or something.”


She narrowed her eyes. “Define ‘or something.’”


“Look,” he said with a sigh, “Sherry, the woman I was supposed to spend the evening with, canceled on me an hour ago. So I was thinking maybe you and I could hang out instead.”


She laughed. “Oh, so I’m your consolation prize now, is that it?”


“No.” He tilted his head and grinned.  “You’re my backup.”




His argument must have worked because she agreed to go with him.  He phoned her on his way out the door to pick her up. “I forgot to mention that dress is casual.”


“Just how casual are we talking about here?”


“Well, I don’t want you to put a run in your stockings or anything.”


“Hunter. I thought we were talking about dinner.  You make it sound like we’re going to be roping cattle or something.”


“Yeehaw,” he said. “See you in 30 minutes.”


When he arrived at her house, she was wearing jeans and a lightweight black sweater. “I hope this is acceptable,” she said, her hands on her hips. “I don’t actually own jodhpurs and chaps.”


“Relax, they’ll have everything we need.”  He pushed her out the front door over her noises of protest.  At his car, they paused as he opened her door for her.  “It’ll be fun. I promise.”  She arched a skeptical eyebrow at him but got inside the car.  He hid a smile. “And if it’s not, you can ask for your money back.”


“What do you mean money back? You’re not paying? Hunter—!” He grinned and shut the door.


When they reached the parking lot of their destination, she peered out the window.  “A carnival? How old was your date, Hunter? Nine?”


“Come on, carnivals are fun.  You do remember fun, right?”


She sighed.  “Vaguely. I think I had some back in 1984.”


“Well, let’s go see if we can’t track some down for you, hmm?”


It was late spring and the sun was just setting, leaving the sky awash in deep amber.  The carnival itself was aglow with flashing, spinning lights, while the scent of popcorn and fried dough wafted out into the evening air.  They wandered the aisles to check out the available entertainment.  Hunter lost money playing some sort of basketball game, but he perked up when they reached a booth based on fishing – use a magnetized rod to reel in three red plastic fish in under a minute and win a prize.


“I’ve totally got this,” he told her.


She leaned against the side of the booth with a smile. “I’m prepared to be amazed.”


But the stupid plastic fish kept bobbing the wrong way as they swam around in the circular “stream.” He had trouble positioning the magnet to catch the corresponding bit of metal by their mouths.  He managed just one red fish and two yellow ones before the time was up.


McCall rubbed his arm comfortingly. “Maybe there will be a game for picking up women. I mean, isn’t that usually what you do when you go fishing?”


He was indignant. “Who says that? I don’t know what you mean.”


She grinned and shrugged. “I don’t know, Hunter -- I’m only going by the catches you bring back.”


He swatted at her but she ducked out of the way, laughing. Further down the aisle, they found the feats of strength, and he redeemed himself by hitting the panel hard enough to send the washer all the way to the top and ring the bell. It won him a line of free tickets, and her eyes lit up. “Let’s find the rides,” she said.


“Maybe we should get something to eat,” he said, eyeing the one ride he could see – some circular thing spinning people in the air upside down.  “They have deep-fried food on a stick here.  I know how you like food on a stick.”


“This was your idea,” she said as she tugged on him.


So this was how he found himself on the Tilt-a-Whirl, clinging onto the lap bar as their egg-shaped cart started tiling and whirling at approximately 107 miles per hour.  McCall laughed with delight, the sound carrying over the rushing wind.  “You were right,” she yelled.  “This is fun!” 


His weight kept him anchored but the force of the spinning had propelled her practically into his lap.  He screwed his eyes shut tight and enjoyed the ride.


Her cheeks were pink and her eyes shining as they emerged breathless at the end.  “Okay,” she said, and he held fast to the nearest railing. “Now we can eat.”




After hotdogs, sodas and popcorn, they wandered back towards the games.  A bored looking teenage boy was manning the duck-shooting booth. Wooden ducks swam back and forth, intermixed with weeds, and the goal of the game was apparently to shoot them flat with a Styrofoam pellet gun.  Hunter motioned with his chin at the row of teddy bears hanging from the top of the booth.  “You want me to get you one of those?”


She grinned at him, looking cheeky. “After the fishing experiment, are you sure you want to be making offers like that?”


He scowled and dug out the requisite tickets. “Just for that, I’m keeping the bear.”  He looked at the kid as he took up the gun. “What’s the rule here?”


“Knock down all the yellow ducks before time runs out and you win a prize,” the boy said with exactly no enthusiasm as he reset the clock.


“Yellow ones.  Got it.”  He nodded at McCall, who made a sweeping gesture with her hand.


“Let’s see it,” she said.


Hunter squinted as the ducks began swimming back and forth again.  It took a few seconds to pace them, but once he did, he had no trouble picking off the yellow ones.  He got them all with time to spare.  “See there,” he told her as the kid handed him a coffee-colored bear.  “Look what you’re missing.  He’s got this lovely red ribbon and everything.”


He moved to leave, but she put a hand on his arm to stop him. “Just a second,” she said, and she turned to the kid in the booth. “What’s that one for?”


Hunter looked where she was pointing and saw an enormous tan-colored bear with a blue silk bow.  The kid’s shoulders heaved with his sigh.  “That bear is the prize for knocking down all the ducks in one try, but it is harder than it looks because there are 10 ducks and 10 pellets. You can’t miss a shot.”


“Can’t miss,” she repeated, and then shrugged with a smile.  “Okay, then I won’t.”


Hunter rolled his eyes as she handed over her tickets for a turn with the gun.  A minute later, all the ducks were laid flat, and the kid was using a hook to reach down the grand prize.  The bear was about a third of her size.  “Exactly where are you planning on putting that?” he asked her.


She peeked around all the fur to smile at him. “Oh, I’m sorry.  Is my bear making your bear feel inadequate?”


“My bear is very satisfied with who he is, thank you. Unlike some people, he has nothing to prove.”


“Right,” she said, composing herself, and they started walking again.  “Of course, what he is – is small.”


He poked her and she giggled, shielding herself with the stupid bear, and he couldn’t get around it. Bigger, he thought, was definitely not better in this case.




The bears were left alone to get acquainted in the backseat of his car while they took a ride on the Ferris wheel.  Their bucket stopped near the top to let others on, swaying gently and allowing them to take in the view.  City lights twinkled as far as the eye could see, and to the immediate west, the great black ocean glinted with a shard of moonlight.


They were quiet, each lost in thought, until the breeze picked up and flattened McCall’s hair across her cheek.  She brushed it back from her face, tucking it behind her ear in an unconscious gesture he’d seen her perform a million times, but this time, the familiar sight made his heart squeeze.


She gave a contented sigh.  “It’s beautiful up here.  Whatshername… Sherry? She doesn’t know what she’s missing.”  She smiled at him. “Why did she cancel, anyway?”


He had a choice between a thousand lies and the truth.  They’d been going around in circles together for years; at least now, they’d reached a stopping point. He shifted uncomfortably, causing their bucket to swing. “Uh, no reason.”  He cleared his throat. “She didn’t.  I mean... there is no Sherry.”


She looked confused. “What?


“Well, I’m sure there’s a Sherry someplace.  Probably lots of ‘em.  I just didn’t have any sort of date with one.”


He watched her digest this new piece of evidence. “So… this was a ruse?  Why? To get me to come to the carnival?”  He said nothing, and her eyes widened.  “Wait a minute.  Hunter, is this… is this a date?”


He had no good answer, so again, he kept his mouth shut.


“Oh my God,” she said to herself as the wheel started moving once more. “It is.”  She looked at him accusingly.  “You are something else, making up this story to get me out here.  There was no need to lie. You could have just asked me outright, you know.”


“And if I had, would you have come?”


She folded her arms. “I guess we we’ll never know.”


“Because I did ask before,” he continued, “and you said no.”


She blinked a few times, seeming surprised. “I...” She stopped and tried again, but the words came out uncertain. “You didn’t mean it.”  She paused. “Did you?”


He shrugged.  “I guess we’ll never know.”


“Dammit, Hunter.” She was annoyed again as the wheel started upwards into the sky once more.  “What we did...what we had, I thought we agreed it was for fun.”


“Fun it was,” he agreed.


“And it’s been years,” she said, more gently. “So what gives?”


He looked out across the landscape far below them.  It seemed like another world.  “I guess I thought...I thought maybe it was a little more than fun.”


She was quiet for a long moment, and then she tugged his hand loose from the bar. “Of course it was,” she said softly.  “You mean the world to me.  I hope you know that.”


He nodded a little, still not looking at her.  “But you’re not in love with me.”


She drew back, clearly shocked.  She said nothing for so long that he started to wonder if she might never answer.  “I didn’t think you wanted me to be,” she said finally.


“Neither did I,” he admitted, and he glanced at her with a wry smile. 


She managed a half-smile in return, and then looked at her lap.  “So, uh, what changed?”


That part was easy. “I had to watch you be in love with someone else,” he said.


“Oh.”  She flushed so hard he could see it in the low light.  They never talked about her time with Jason, although they still had to work with him on occasion.  Canned carnival music swirled through the air around them as she tried to make sense of their new reality.  “I don’t know what to say,” she said at last. “I don’t know what you want from me.”


“Me either,” he replied.  “I figured this—“ He broke off to wave his hand between them. “This was one way to find out.”


The ride glided to a stop and the attendant came over to let them off.  Hunter shoved his hands in his pockets as they slowly walked away.  She was being awfully quiet.  “Look, I’m sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable,” he said. “I can take you home if you want.”


She stopped short, looking thoughtful.  Then she smiled.  “Nah,” she replied, with mischief in her eyes.  “As long as we’re here, we may as well see what happens next, right? I’ve always kind of wondered about the full Rick-Hunter-date-extravaganza experience.  I mean, a girl hears stories...”


He gave her a slow grin.  “You want the full treatment, is that it?”


She looked at the ground and scuffed her toe.  “You bamboozled me into this. I think I deserve it.”


“It’s not going well so far?”


She gave an exaggerated shrug.  “Well, it’s been fun and all, but up until a few minutes ago I didn’t even know I was on a date, so...”


“Okay, okay, I got it.”  He considered his next move for a moment.  The way to her heart was always through her stomach.  “To the ice cream,” he said, taking her hand. 


She smiled and did not pull away.




Later, they walked until they found the beach, where it was very dark indeed. The air was cool and scented with seaweed, sand and salt. He set her on the sea wall so they were face to face, and stood between her parted legs – as close as they could be without actually touching.  “Well?” he asked. “Is it seeming more like a date yet?”


“Mmm, getting there.”


“Hmm.  How about now?”  He kissed her then, for the first time in two years, and it all came flooding back – she really was as sweet as his memory.  He kept it gentle, though, like the first time, because they were starting all over again someplace new. They kissed slowly for long minutes, his fingertips learning the curve of her face, and his time, when the wind took her hair, he brushed it back for her.


She shivered.  “Cold?” he murmured, leaning to breathe the word near her ear.


“No.” She put her palm to his face and he felt her hand was warm. “I think I should warn you, though…” She smiled as she trailed one finger across his lips.  “I don’t put out on the first date.”


“Is that a fact?” She giggled as he tried to bite her. “Sounds like a challenge to me.”


“Take it as you will,” she replied.


“Hmm, yes, taking,” he muttered before kissing her again, this time with intent.  She sighed her approval as he wrapped his arms around her.  They kissed openly, shifting closer and closer, until she was tight against him with her legs around his waist. “Tease,” he said against her lips, and she replied by slipping her hands under his T-shirt.


Two could play at that game, and he found the hem of her sweater with his fingers.  He nudged inside and took his caresses higher, higher, until he found the clasp of her bra.  Maybe she was too busy tonguing him to notice, but she didn’t stop his exploration, and so he took that as a silent yes.  The clasp sprang free and he moved his hand around to her side, mapping the full slope of her breast.


She gasped into their kiss when his thumb found her nipple.  He brushed it repeatedly, setting up a steady rocking motion between her legs that matched the same rhythm. They had barely touched second base and already he was full to bursting within his jeans. He stroked her and rubbed her until they were both desperate for it, incoherent and trembling right on the edge.  “Gotta, need to stop,” he said, leaning his head on hers.


She nodded, apparently unable to speak.  They hugged each other as their breathing slowed.  When she pulled away, he saw her mouth was wet and shining from their kisses. “I didn’t ask you,” she said eventually. “I didn’t ask you if you’re in love with me.”


“I noticed that.”


They watched each other, and his heart pounded as he waited, unsure of what he might say.  Finally, she smiled a bit.  “Maybe later.”


He took her home and they didn’t say much during the trip.  Back at her place, they tried to kiss goodnight in the car and instead ended up making out against the passenger door.  “I’ve missed this,” he admitted as he nuzzled the base of her neck. “Missed you.”


She made a humming noise as she petted his head. “Me too.”


“Yeah?” He raised up to look at her.


“Yeah,” she said, drawing him down for more kisses.  Her body was pressed against him in all the right places, soft everywhere he was hard. She was going to have to be the one to stop it this time because he didn’t have the strength to do it twice.  Even still, he groaned when she pulled her mouth away.  “You could come in,” she murmured, stroking the side of his face.  “For coffee.”


There was no fucking way he could stand around drinking coffee with her right now. “Maybe another time,” he said with regret as he shifted off of her. “It’s getting pretty late.”


“Yes, it’s after midnight,” she replied.  “And I understand if you want to get going…it’s just that, with the new day and everything, the coffee would count, you know.”


“Count?” His brain was still addled.


“As a second date.”


She looked up at him from beneath smoky lashes, and he felt a grin tugging at his face.  He stretched across the seat again to where he could smell her perfume. “This coffee,” he said, “Would we actually have to drink it?”


She threw back her head and laughed. “Three sips,” she said, pushing him back toward his door.  “I think that’s enough.”




They made it as far as two sips, and then the coffee was left cooling on the counter as they lay together half-naked in her bedroom. Now that the rest was all but inevitable, he was content to linger at the kissing stage for a bit longer.  He’d thought it might be gone forever, but now here she was again, lying in crook of his arm and kissing him with her soft, parted mouth. 


They smiled in between kisses and held each other close.  His hands on her body coaxed forth both giggles and gasps, and he’d forgotten the sheer level of fun this could be. She seemed to feel it too, an odd combination of humble and giddy, as if they both had received the same amazing gift.  He knew now that it could get taken away again and so he savored every touch and sigh.


He unwrapped her slowly, kissing each new patch of exposed skin. His fingers seemed born for this as he trailed them up the length of her body.


When they were naked, she rolled over and hitched a leg over his hip. “I definitely remember this part,” she whispered as she reached between them.  She placed tender kisses on his open jaw as she stroked him up and down, alternating hands until he thought he would go mad.  He held her face and kissed her thoroughly, mimicking her rhythm with his tongue.  This went on and on until he was completely slick and harder than any stone.


“Ah, enough,” he said, easing away.  Another few minutes and his part would all be over.


She sank into the pillow next to him with a smug smile he wanted to bite right off her.  He nipped at her instead, and she squeaked with delight.  She could make a million different sounds and he was determined to hear all of them.  They kissed some more as he slipped a hand between her legs.  She tensed just for a nanosecond before he showed her that he, too, remembered a few things.


“Look at me,” he murmured, because it was the only way he could be sure he was doing it exactly right.  She obliged for a few moments until he established a regular rhythm and then her eyes drifted shut again.  He shifted so he could press his face down to hers, feel her hot breath on his cheek as he gently eased one finger inside.  She clutched his head and simply held on while he increased the pace and pressure.


“Mmm, wait, wait…” She jerked away from him and lay there, panting hard.


He grinned. “But I was just getting good there.”


“Too.  Too good.”  She took a deep breath and snuggled closer again. “But I have a better idea.”  She whispered the details in his ear, and he had to admit, she always had the best ideas.


“Uh, one sec,” he said as he moved into position.  “I gotta ask – protection?”


“Oh,” she replied, looking surprised.  Then chagrined. “Right.  Um, we should use something.” He lifted his eyebrows at her, and she sort of squirmed. “I let the prescription lapse,” she explained, trailing her fingers over his chest.  “There didn’t seem to be a need.”


The word need made him throb from head to toe.  He bit back a curse and dropped his forehead down to hers.  “We may be screwed then.”


“You don’t have anything?”


“I didn’t think we’d end up here!”


“You’re the one who knew it was a date.”


“Yes, and you weren’t really supposed to find out.”


This made her smile. “Well, I’d say that cat is very much out of the bag now.”  She kissed his cheek sweetly and then nudged him.  “Check the nightstand… the very way back.”


He did as requested, and thank his heavenly stars, there was a condom.   She welcomed him back into her arms, and they nuzzled each other as he started to push gently into her.  He was never more conscious of being physically inside another person than when he was doing this with her.  She murmured his name and stroked the side of his face.  He swallowed with difficulty.  She owned just 15 percent of his life but 100 percent of his heart.


“It’s okay,” he whispered against her temple, “it’s okay if you want to ask that question now.”


She hesitated but he felt her shake her head.  Okay, then.  She wouldn’t ask and he wouldn’t tell.  He said the words only to himself as they began to move together. 


Their rhythm was strong and steady, and he was actually glad for the latex that took the edge off.  It allowed him to hold back long enough to find the angle that made her gasp, “There, there.”  He repeated the words inside his head, driving into her with long full strokes until she shuddered and jerked around him.  Only then did he give in to the pleasure, letting it pull him under like the sea.


Afterward, she curled against him and he kissed the top of her head.  They rested quietly for a while, and she traced random patterns on his chest.  “Hunter?”




She turned her face into him and pressed a kiss to his ribs.  “Maybe… maybe a little bit.”


“A little bit what?”


“Maybe I’m a little bit in love with you.”


He grinned into the darkness.  “I can work with that.  At least you’re not putting your clothes on and leaving this time.”


She settled in for good, drawing the blankets around them. “No, that would be silly. I’m already home.”

Better and Worse


Their relationship was so covert that sometimes Hunter felt like he was hiding it even from himself. Even though they spent most nights together, it never seemed like a sure thing. “I was thinking of ordering Chinese tonight,” she might say on their way out the door, and that was his invitation – casual, so he could take or leave it.


He took it always but never pushed for more. It was almost like he’d tricked her into this, and they had no formal agreement, so he kept his mouth shut and waited, watching her, at the end of each of each day. He wasn’t sure what kind of agreement he would want in any case, and he had no idea what she would say if he tried to ask for one. I don’t date cops, she had said, on more than one occasion, and like hell he was going to be stupid enough to present evidence to her otherwise.


So at New Year’s they took separate cars to the party Lieutenant Jack Hurley threw at his home in the Hollywood Hills. His wife was some big-time heart surgeon, and ordinarily it might be weird to mix his coworkers and hers, but there was enough alcohol on the premises that nobody cared.


Still, they mostly broke down across party lines, the blues and the bluebloods, and on their side, Detective Lila Henderson was eyeing the doctors with a distinctively predatory look. “Do you think that one is single?”  She asked McCall about a dark-haired guy leaning by the fireplace across the room. “I don’t see a ring but he was chatting up some blonde earlier.”


“I have no idea,” McCall replied. “You could try just going over there and asking him.”


Lila ignored her and turned to Hunter. “What do you think? I need a man’s opinion.”


“My opinion is...” He cast a glance across the room. “He’s not really my type.”


McCall hid a smile behind her wine glass as Lila frowned at him. “Yes, we all know your type – blonde, big tits, and some name ending in ‘i,’ right?” She made a show of looking around. “I don’t see anyone fitting that description, though. The party too late for her curfew?”


It was his turn to frown, and he tried to catch McCall’s eye, but she was looking at the floor. Before he could say anything, Lila was handing her empty champagne flute to McCall. “All right, I’m going in,” she said. “My horoscope this morning told me 1990 was going to be my year. Wish me luck.”


McCall raised her eyebrows. “Good luck,” she said.


He stood there with her as they watched Lila thread her way across the room towards her unsuspecting prey.  “Look, about what she said…”


McCall brushed him off. “Forget about it.” She set the glasses aside and glanced at him.  The clock read five to midnight, and the crowd was starting to buzz with anticipation. “It’s kind of warm in here, don’t you think?” McCall said, and he took that as his cue to follow her outside.


They found a secluded spot behind the fruit trees.  Music and cocktail chatter wafted out through the open windows, and Hunter tried again to figure out an apology. McCall didn’t seem to need one, as she looped her arms around him. He kissed her lingeringly for a few moments and the words started to fizzle from his brain. “Mmm,” he said, breaking the kiss. “Just for the record: I have no objections whatsoever with your name, your hair color or the size of your...”


She giggled as he let his hands do the talking. “I know,” she said warmly.


“Yeah?” He was relieved.


“I have been paying attention these past few months,” she said as she ran her palms up his chest to his shoulders.


See, he thought, there are benefits to dating a cop. They are real good with clues.


But he didn’t say anything further because they were kissing again, long and slow and sweet. Dimly, he was aware the crowd inside the house was shouting down the last few seconds of 1989. Noisemakers blared and the band struck up “Auld Lang  Syne.” He pulled his closest friend even closer and kissed the hell out of her. Finally, he broke it off and nuzzled her warm cheek. “Happy new year,” he whispered.


“I love you,” she said in return.


He froze, just for a moment, because here were the words at last. Then he relaxed with a smile. “I know.”




“I’ve been paying attention too.”


They kissed again, gently at first, but his hunger grew fast and his hands started roaming farther under her skirt. She encouraged it for a few minutes but eventually broke off with a gasp. “We…we should go.”


“I support this plan one hundred percent.” He was already fishing out his car keys. 


His place was closer, so they picked that one, and soon he was enjoying the sweetest of new year’s treats: her, naked, in his arms and in his bed. It was only afterward when she was dozing against him, sleepy and sated, that he replayed their earlier conversation and realized his end came up short. “Hey,” he murmured, nudging her. “I love you too.”


She sighed and snuggled deeper into the pillow, and he had no idea if she’d even heard him. But now he knew there would be future opportunities to say it again, and at that moment, this was enough.




The new normal lasted several pleasant months, and he didn’t feel the need to define their relationship further. What would that look like, anyway? Moving in? God forbid, marriage? He had never been keen on the idea and she had always been very clear: never again. One dead cop husband was more than enough.


So he tried not to think very hard about the future. Their cases kept them busy day-to-day, and it was easy to go with the flow. But then in March, McCall got sick with some sort of cold or flu that he mostly hoped to dodge. Then she got sicker, with a fever and a cough that would not go away. Finally, the doctor diagnosed her with pneumonia and she was forced to take time off to recuperate.  He brought her medicine and fluids and hovered nervously until some color started to return to her face.


After a few days of antibiotics, she was feeling somewhat better, but Sunday afternoon found her tucked under his arm, asleep on the couch as he flipped between a hockey game and some Perry Mason movie. Hunter was content. He had his feet up, a beer in one hand and his partner in the other. She was on the upswing, and everything was going to be okay. The house was otherwise quiet.


He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. As great as the sex was, this was the part that hooked him. There was a sense of peace with her that he had never found anywhere else.  He tried not to think about how scared shitless he was that it could disappear again.


Perry was just about to go into his damning cross examination when Hunter’s beeper went off. The sound was enough to rouse McCall as well. She sat up and he missed her warmth immediately. Something already felt wrong, but he made himself pick up the phone anyway.


He dialed the number back and got the news that Dwayne Hawkins was back in town. “Yeah, okay,” he said, rubbing his face with one hand. “I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”


“What is it?” McCall asked him, watching closely to make sure his answer was the truth.


“Dwayne Hawkins. He’s back, just like we thought he would.” The gang leader had fled three months ago after executing two teenagers and one adult confidential informant. They had deduced Dwayne was up in Oakland somewhere but couldn’t get a line on him. A couple of days ago, Vice had arrested his younger brother Tommy on possession with intent, and now Dwayne was back to defend their shared territory, as expected.


“We’ve got eyes on him?” McCall asked as she got off the couch.


Hunter was busy gathering his stuff. “A witness who swears he saw him come out of his mother’s apartment this morning. No confirmation beyond that yet.” 


“Just give me a second to change.”


He paused and glanced at her. “What? No. You are not well enough for this.”


“I’m fine, really.” She started for the stair but then had to stop for a coughing fit. It doubled her over, and Hunter moved to help her sit down again.  “I can go,” she protested hoarsely.


“No, you can’t.”




“You’d be risking your life and mine too.”


This stopped her argument, but she still looked distraught. “It’s very dangerous,” she managed after a moment.


He took her hand. “I’ll be careful.”


She looked away and shook her head a bit. “Hawkins will not go quietly. You know he won’t.”


“He doesn’t know we’re onto him. If we move quickly, it should be fine.”  He tried to meet her eyes but she wouldn’t look at him. “It’ll be okay. I promise.”


“You can’t promise that.” The words were hurt and angry, and it cut him to the quick. But they always told each other the truth, even when it was hard. 


“No,” he admitted. “I guess not.” Time was ticking.  He had to leave. “I promise I will do everything in my power to stay safe, okay?” He reached for her hand but she pulled it away.  It was clearly not okay.


When he got up to go, she trailed him to the door. “If he’s back in charge, he’ll have watch dogs,” she said.  

They could debate this all day, and he had a gang banging murderer to bust. “I’ll call you the minute I can,” he said as he shrugged into his jacket.


She nodded, holding her sore ribs. He tried not to see the tears in her eyes.


“Dee Dee…”  When he reached for her this time, she hugged him back – hard. It warmed him slightly until he heard her answer, muffled against his chest.


“This is everything I never wanted.”


The peace, the magic, the trick of light – whatever alchemy they had managed to conjure together, it all winked out in a flash. Because here was the hardest truth of all. 




Nailing Dwayne Hawkins took about eight hours and ended with a tense but brief standoff. No shots were fired. His mother got to watch as Dwayne was made to  lie down on the gritty pavement, handcuffed, and then hauled away to join his brother in jail.


It was after one in the morning before Hunter could use a phone, but he called her anyway. She answered before the first ring had completed. “We got him,” he told her. “No fireworks.”


“Thank God,” she said, relief plain in her voice.


“Yeah.” He screwed his eyes shut against the oncoming headache and searched out something else to say. “I… I should let you get some rest.”


There was a long, painful silence on the other end. “Right,” she said finally.  “You too.”


It was four a.m. before he finished up the paperwork and dragged his tired ass home. He went to his place because this way it would be a few more hours before she could end things.  McCall must have felt differently, though, because his headlights caught the back of her car as he pulled into the driveway. He cut the engine and sat there, blinking the dark. Eventually he forced himself to go inside.


He smelled coffee as he walked in the door, and he found her in his living room with a mug full, curled up on one end of the couch. “It’s fresh, if you want some,” she said.  She sounded tired but not angry.


“I, uh…” He rubbed his head. “I didn’t expect you to be here.”


“I know.” She regarded him.  “I can leave if you want.”


“No,” he said swiftly as he moved to sit next to her. “That is not what I want.”


She said nothing for a long moment.  Then she sighed as she put her mug on the coffee table. “It was just like ten years ago,” she said at last. She was back to not looking at him, and he took that as a poor sign.  He leaned back in to the sofa and resigned himself to his fate. “The same helplessness, the same fear. You sit by the phone in the dark and worry. And I know now – sometimes the fear comes true.”


Her voice caught with the words, and instinctively, he reached for her hand. To his surprise, she took it.


“I told myself I would never do that again. I would never sign up for those sleepless nights and endless worry. I would never choose to be with a man where I had to wonder each day whether he would say goodbye and never come home again. Because that is so, so hard.”  She drew a shuddering breath and then coughed again.  When she could breathe, she looked at him. “It was shocking to me how it all came back. How it was exactly, precisely the same.”


He nodded. “I know.  I figured as much.”  He waited a second and then took a deep breath. “If you want end it…”


“I don’t.”


His head jerked up and he looked at her. She looked scared still, so he wasn’t quite sure he had heard her right.  “You don’t?”


“I thought I did,” she confessed in a small voice. “I thought for a little while that maybe I had no choice.”


“But?” he prompted hopefully.


“But I realized.” She swallowed hard. “The fear is the same because the love is the same. I was so busy trying to avoid that fear that I’d forgotten what it was attached to – a truly remarkable, wonderful man.” She smiled a little, and he allowed himself to do the same. “And I don’t want to give him up.  Not for this.  Not...not for anything.”


He could barely speak. “Get over here,” he muttered, and tugged her into his arms.


She gave a small sob of relief and held him tightly. He buried his face in her hair, breathing her in. The adrenaline of the day was wearing off, and he was bone weary. “So what now?” he murmured against her warm head.


She sniffed. “I was hoping we could go to bed. I’m exhausted.”


He cupped the side of her face until she looked at him. “I think that’s a fine idea. I would like very much to go to bed with you. In fact, I like the idea so much that I would like to go to bed with you every night for the rest of my life. What do you think?”


She blinked in surprise as his words sunk in. Then she smiled. “I think...I think I would like that.”


He suppressed a yawn as he scooped her up. “Great. Let’s get started right now.”




They got married in her backyard on a Saturday in front of two-dozen friends and relatives. “Oh thank God,” Charlie said when they told him. “I can stop pretending I don’t know.”


The party was simple and lovely and still a bit much for him, so Hunter wandered away for a few minutes of quiet. He went to her bookshelf in search of a particular item, one he’d never really wanted to see before, but now would not stop until he found it. The search did not take him long.  He pulled out her wedding album and leaned against the back of the sofa to start paging through it.

Her wedding to Steve had been a much larger affair, it seemed. She looked impossibly young. Steve looked roughly the way Hunter remembered him, which he supposed made sense given the photos were taken only a couple of years before Steve was killed.


The poor guy looked so damned happy in the pictures.  Hunter could relate now, remembering how he’d felt a few short hours ago, slipping a new ring on her finger. He would never have been standing there with her if Steve had lived. Guilt twinged at him, just a bit.


“There you are,” she said, appearing out of nowhere.


He snapped the book shut but had no time to hide it. “I was just, uh…”


“What?” She paused and then gave him a gentle smile when she realized what he was doing.  “Oh. It’s okay.” She took the album from him. “It’s okay to look if you want.”


She opened it back up and flipped through some pages.  The memories didn’t seem to hurt her, so he reasoned that maybe he should keep his mouth shut.  The words came out anyway. It was that kind of day. “I was thinking he looks really happy,” he said.


“He was. We were.” She smiled again and set the book aside.


Hunter bit his lip. Just say nothing, he coached himself.


She took his hand, and he saw the wedding ring. “I’ve always been so sorry,” he said. He risked a quick glance at her. “You know, that he died.”


“I know.” She leaned against his arm. “And now you don’t feel so sorry – is that it?”


Oh, fuck it. He should have stayed outside with his mother and the little quiches.


“It’s okay,” she said softly. “I won’t hold it against you. Neither would he.”


Of course not. Not Saint Steve. “You said it was the same,” he said at length. “I guess I just wanted to see…”


“It’s a lot the same. But different too, in some ways.” She reached up and held her palm to the side of his face. “The promises were easier back then,” she told him. “I meant them, of course, but I didn’t really understand what it was to live by them. I didn’t know...” She searched herself for the words, and he took her hand to hold between his own. “I didn’t know that love could be hard, really hard, sometimes.”


His chest tightened at her words. She was talking about a loss of innocence he wasn’t sure he had ever possessed.


“But,” she said, squeezing his hand, “if it’s harder this time, in some ways, it’s also deeper. Richer. I choose this, choose you, because you are worth every bit of that risk. I meant everything I said today, with my whole heart.” She smiled through her tears. “Even the parts with the scars on them. Maybe especially with those parts.”


Damn it, now he was watering up too. He sniffed hard and pulled her against him. They fell backward onto the sofa, landing her squarely in his lap. He suddenly had no desire to return to the party. “When do they all go home?” he asked her as he nuzzled the base of her neck.


“Not for a while yet.” She sounded regretful.


“Maybe they can just entertain themselves for an hour.”  His hand crept under the hem and found her bare knee. She’d worn a simple off-white slip dress, and he was intent on slipping it off of her as soon as humanly possible.




“Okay, a half hour.”  He kissed up the side of her neck until he found the place by her ear that drove her crazy.  She sighed with pleasure, and he thought maybe he had a shot at this.  His hand moved up to her thigh.




“Come on, we gave ‘em a show, fed them and made the small talk.”


“Our boss is out there,” she said as he resumed stroking her.


“And the guest room is right over there,” he replied.  “Twenty minutes. Who would know?”


“My mom is out there,” she continued, trying to pull away.


“Don’t care.”


She pulled out the big guns: “Your mom is out there.”


He sighed, defeated. There was no way to mix sex and his mother. “Go,” he said, heaving a put-upon sigh.


“Not without you.”


“I am going to need a minute here,” he replied.


“Oh.” That she could still blush about this, after everything, was just one of the things he loved about her. She kissed his cheek sweetly. “I’ll help you with that later.”


“Promises like that are not helping me with it now,” he replied pointedly, and she laughed as she walked away.


He waited a few minutes and then picked up the album. He walked it back to the shelf but stopped again before putting it away. He let it fall open to the middle, where it showed a candid shot from the reception. She was kissing Steve’s cheek, while Steve was looking at the camera, looking like he’d won the lottery. Promises were harder now, she’d said, and Hunter felt the truth of this as he looked at the photo.


He glanced around him to make sure he was alone, so he could make one last promise. “I’ve got it from here,” he told Steve’s picture.  Then he put the book in its usual spot and went back outside in the spring sunshine, where his wife was waiting.


The end.

I’ve been thinking a lot about love and loss recently. So I cleaned this up, and here it is.

Thanks to Amanda and Lysandra for beta services rendered.  Any remaining mistakes are mine alone.

 Feedback welcome

© syntax6 2015