Birthday Girl

Rated M

Summary: McCall gets better.  Hunter helps. Post Hot Pursuit.

Tags: pretty much everything your mother warned you about; sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll; novella

Notes: As if it had not done enough to the poor woman, the show decided to shoot McCall in the back – on her birthday, no less.  She made a miraculous TV-style recovery, but the reality would have been a bit tougher.  This is that story, with a bunch of sex thrown in for good measure.  She should get to have some fun, after all.

Chapter One

Because it was her birthday, he brought her a fat blueberry muffin for breakfast. It had four pink candles and a totally disgusting crust of sugar on top, just the way she liked it. He put the muffin on a paper plate and set it in front of her at her desk, but he spared her any singing. "I am turning four?" she asked, amused as he set it on fire.

"No, see that's three and one – thirty one."

Unlike some women he knew, McCall did not carp about getting older. Maybe it was because she was still the youngest detective they had on staff, or maybe it was because, with their jobs, she knew that every birthday you spent on the right side of the grass was a day worth celebrating. Either way, he had nearly a decade on her, so to him, she would remain forever young.

"Make a wish," he said as he stood over her.

She gave an enigmatic smile and blew out the candles. "May this year be better than the last," she said as the small puffs of smoke dissolved between them.

At thirty, she had been two weeks removed from the rape but not even a little bit free of it. She was happy again now, smiling as she readied the muffin for devouring. He accepted the candles into his palm, the singed edges hot against his skin, and he wished, too.

Because it was her birthday, he took the dead hooker and let her go to lunch with her doctor friend. It was the first he had heard of this new man, which meant either it was super early – in which case they were probably having just lunch – or it was super serious, in which case lunch might require a shower and a change of clothes.

He mostly ignored the men who buzzed around her, swatting at them only when they dared to come into his orbit. Still, when she came back from lunch dressed in the same pink outfit and navy blazer, he relaxed a bit. No need to pay attention to this guy just yet. He made a joke about the working girls, and she rolled her eyes at him. "What are you, lonely?"

Seven hours later, it was still her birthday when he found her next to a second dead hooker, this one on the floor of her living room. The clothes he had been eyeing earlier were leeching her blood. He knelt and stopped himself from breathing, stilling his own life force as he felt for any trace of hers. Nothing.

He shifted his fingertips around against her wet, cold skin, pressing as hard as he dared. His shoulders sagged in sharp relief as he picked up a faint heartbeat. Alive, but barely. He dialed the phone with her blood on his hands. "Officer down. Send an ambulance code three to eighty-five thirty-four Mesden Drive."

After that, there was terrible silence as he waited for help to come. He stroked her hand with one finger. "Hang in there," he told her. "They're coming." He listened for the sirens, but there was only the sound of his breathing, ragged and scared, and his own heart pounding out a desperate plea. Hurry, hurry, hurry.

Her phone rang, so startling that he reached for his gun. Before he could think to answer it, her machine picked up. "Hi, sweetheart, it's Mom. I hope you are having a happy birthday. I tried you earlier but you must be out celebrating. Call me when you get the chance."

He shut his eyes as the machine clicked off. On this day years ago, her mother had worked to bring her into the world, and now here he sat, unable to do anything to keep her from leaving it. His hand trembled slightly as he reholstered his gun and he lowered himself fully to the hardwood floor. The blood pool under her was slowly inching toward his leg.

In the distance, the sirens began to wail.


She was terrible at poker. She lost to Hunter on the coin flip every single time. Cheating just wasn't in her makeup, and yet somehow she had slipped away without giving the Grim Reaper his due. She felt death nearby, still looking for her, inside and out. There was a guard at her door in case the shooter wanted to try again, and a half-inch piece of metal lodged within her spine that, should it slip or twitch or shatter, would stop her heart for good. She had to fight through the drugs and the pain to open her eyes but she forced herself to do it anyway, just to prove she still could.

Hunter was in and out like a ghost, hushed and tender. He stroked her face so that she could feel him but hovered just out of her line of sight. "How are you doing?" he asked, and she did not know how much to tell him.

The halo was like a medieval torture device, pinning her head in place so that she did not accidentally kill herself with a sneeze. Various drugs competed for attention inside her – a delicate balance that kept her heart rate steady and her breathing clear. Always, pain waited, coiled like a snake, for any slight dip in the IV medication that kept the blinding headaches at bay.

And yet all of this was preferable to the nothing she felt below her shoulders. She was empty and light, detached, unable to sleep as her days and nights bled together into one confusing haze. Sometimes she wondered if maybe she was dead and no one remembered to tell her.

"I'm okay," she lied when he asked. He frowned, not quite believing her but unable to press for the truth.

He was keeping secrets from her, too, giving her only vague answers when she asked about the case. Her case, she supposed, in more ways than one. She pretended not to notice when he winced as he sat down.

Because she could not sign for herself, she needed a witness to certify her informed consent for the surgery. She chose Hunter because she would not have been able to follow the surgeon's explanations with her mother there, weeping. But the literal handholding was for his benefit alone because she could not feel a thing.

Dr. Lee impressed her as a straight shooter. Thus far, she was mainly a disappointment to others – she had visited tragedy on her family, again, and for Hunter, she had provided no helpful information to the case. But to Dr. Lee, she was a medical marvel just by breathing. It was clear she really ought to be dead, as far as he could see.

"The bullet is here," he said, showing her and Hunter an X-ray. There was a dark shaded bullet lodged at the center of her neck, and she imagined she could feel it there, a tiny leaden tumor. "This is an especially dangerous location because it is proximal to the parts of the brain that control heartbeat and breathing. That is why we want to get it out immediately, even before all the swelling goes down. It has already shifted two millimeters from when you were admitted."

Hunter was reading through the forms on his lap. "This talks about permanent paralysis," he said. "I thought it was only temporary."

"That is our best guess right now," Dr. Lee said. "But we will not have a clear picture of the damage until we go in to look for ourselves."

"Taking the bullet out," she said, "won't that damage the nerves some more?"

"Always a risk," he conceded with a nod. "But we would try to follow the path the bullet has already taken to minimize any additional injury." He detailed the myriad other risks – blood clots, anesthesia, cardiac arrest – all of them basically amounting to the real possibility that she could go to sleep and never wake up again.

"Okay," she said wearily. "I agree." What other choice did she have?

Hunter signed in her place and handed the forms back to Dr. Lee. "Great," said the surgeon. "I will see you bright and early tomorrow morning then."

When he had gone, Hunter held his face over his hands for a long moment. She did not know what to make of her new, quiet partner. Normally when she was at risk, he got angry and loud. She guessed there was no one available to threaten in the ICU ward. "Hunter?" she asked, looking the ceiling.


"What do you suppose it's like… you know, on the other side?"

They spent their days with dead people. She couldn't believe she had never asked him before. But the question had never seemed that important. The dead were gone – she could only help them by focusing on their killers. It occurred to her if she died, she would end up in the same file cabinet as the rest of them. She imagined him talking to some future partner, gesturing at wall of cold metal cabinets. "Yeah, I used to work with McCall. That's her over there."

In her imaginings, she put herself in the 'solved' cabinet; Hunter would see to that much, at least.

He was frowning at her now. "You are going to be fine," he said.

"Of course." She closed her eyes. Maybe there was no one she could talk to about this. "I was just wondering…"

She heard the chair creak as he shifted his weight and then felt him roll closer to her. He sighed. "I don't know," he said at last. "Wherever we came from, I guess maybe we go back there."

This did not sound lonely, at least. She guessed if she were dead she wouldn't really be in a position to care anyway. She eyed him as best she could, given the high-collared brace on her neck. He was scrunching her blanket in his hands, his head bowed so that she could not see his face. She felt a sharp pang at the idea of leaving him. It took her almost their three full years together to get him to let her take care of him even a little bit. She knew from experience that it was harder to be the one left behind.

"I keep thinking maybe…maybe if I had gotten there sooner, you wouldn't be going through this." He was still picking at her blanket.

"No," she said, "the damage was instantaneous. You…you saved me."

"Did I?" He sounded strange and wondering.

She tried to smile. "I guess we'll find out tomorrow."

The next morning, he was back before the sun came up, standing in the corner as her parents said good-bye. They were her family but she was still in protective custody; Hunter's badge earned him the back-stage pass. "We'll be right outside," her mother said, stroking her hair. Her father tilted his head back to hide his tears.

When they left, Hunter ambled over and leaned down to look at her. The case was still active. He had no business here. Every hour he spent with her was an hour the killer got further away. Last year he had waited until she was barely healed before he went down into the jungle looking for revenge. This time, he seemed content to stay.

He gave her that slow, tender smile he'd been gracing her with all week. "What's with the suit and tie?" she asked. "Going to a funeral?"

He shook his head, not taking the bait. "You're going to be okay," he said. His fingertips trailed over her face as though he were a blind man, reading her. He sounded so certain that she let herself believe it.

"Yes," she agreed, closing her eyes and imagining herself on the other side. "Okay."

She felt the warm press of his lips on her forehead, then her cheek, and finally, her mouth. She barely had time to register the kiss before it was over. The medical team came through the swinging door, already in action. They rolled her down the long hallway, fluorescent lights passing dizzy overhead, and then Hunter was left behind as she went on without him into the room of blood and steel, ready to be reborn.


Despite his best efforts, he was not there when she woke up. He found Vicki Lake, and with her, he found the shooter. The scumbag's aim from across the yard wasn't as good as when he was shooting women in the back, and Hunter was all too happy to return fire. When he saw McCall, he could tell her: her assailant would only be bothering the earthworms from now on.

But then Vicki told him the last part of the puzzle, and he realized he had to get to New York City in a hurry if he wanted to get the wizard behind the curtain. Or was it sorceress? Without McCall around, he'd been snookered by a pretty face. He crisscrossed the country in less than twenty-four hours to stop Louise and arrived back at Wilshire Memorial just in time to find McCall's parents leaving her room.

Still in the ICU, he noted with a frown.

Her mother was frowning too. "The doctors have told us to leave her to rest for a while," she told him. "No more visitors this morning."

"She's okay?" he asked, trying to see past them into the room.

Her father rubbed his face with one hand. "She's okay. She's sleeping."

Hunter had traveled six thousand miles already. He was not about to be deterred by six more steps. "I won't wake her," he said and tried to push around them.

Her father stepped into his path to block it. "Please," he said, not meeting Hunter's gaze, "can't you just let her be?"

Hunter remembered the first time he had seen them – in the receiving line at Steve McCall's funeral. I'm sorry, he had said on that windy summer day, back when he had no idea who she really was. Her parents had accepted his handshake with quiet dignity and he had moved on down the line. Steve was dead and she was no one he would ever see again. But then he had to say it three years later when she asked him to break the awful news to them, weeping softly in the background as he had stumbled through the awkward call. I'm sorry. He had been completely unable to use the word rape, but the silence on the other end of the phone had told him they'd understood.

And finally, he had phoned them just last week from the ICU, on her birthday no less. Dee Dee is in the hospital. You had better come quickly. I'm sorry.

It was little wonder they wanted nothing to do with him. They looked as tired and worried as he was, but there was no way to share the burden because they each loved a different version of her. He took a breath and gently moved her father's arm aside. "I won't disturb her," he promised. "I just want to see that she's okay."

He left them in the hall and found McCall essentially unchanged, lying pale and fragile in the bed. The same old machines were keeping track of her heart rate and blood pressure. She wore the brace around her neck and the IV was still in place, but she was alive and breathing. He stroked her hand with one finger. "Hey, partner. Sorry I couldn't be here sooner."

She did not move at all, so he leaned back carefully in his seat to wait. His broken ribs ached, and his body had no idea what time of day it was. He had been going non-stop since the moment he found her bleeding on the floor. It was supposed to be over now. Dr. Lee had promised she would make a full recovery, but she was as still and silent as ever.

He shut his eyes, intending just to rest them a moment. The beeping of the monitor ticked out the passing seconds, and he nodded off right in his seat.

"You look like hell," she said out of nowhere, and his head snapped up. "Go home."

"Hey." He scooted closer and took her hand. His voice was gravelly from lack of sleep. "How are you doing?"

She appeared to consider the question for a minute, and then closed her eyes as if concentrating. A few moments later, she squeezed his hand – barely, but it was there. He let out a choked laugh and sagged against the side of her bed in a shudder of relief. "If you liked that trick, you should see me wiggle my toes," she said, sounding sleepy.

Her hand was lying in his, close to where he had pressed his face into her mattress. He turned his cheek and studied the slim, familiar fingers. "Can you feel that?" he asked as he rubbed the center of her palm with his thumb.


"What about this?" He tilted her hand up to interlace their fingers.

"Yes," she told him. "Yes."

He closed his eyes with a delighted smile and let himself drift for a few moments. Then her hand jerked away suddenly, and he sat up to look at her.

"Sorry," she said, "that wasn't me."

It was slowly dawning on him that when Dr. Lee had said her recovery would "take some time" that he wasn't talking about a few hours or even days. His confusion must have shown because she sighed and tried to reach for him. Her hand came nowhere close.

"Apparently, the connections between the brain and the body are hardwired but also need regular conversation to keep in touch," she said. "A few days of silent treatment and they stop speaking. Some of the…the finer connections die off."

"Die?" he repeated, horrified.

"They grow back," she said, and he took her hand again. "At least that's what they tell me." She eyed him. "I also heard the guard is gone from my door. I'm guessing that's thanks to you."

"No thanks necessary."

When he didn't elaborate, she looked annoyed. "You going to fill me in?"

He grinned. "No," he said. "At least not while you're hooked up to a heart monitor."

"That bad?"

"Hmm," he replied, leaning his head next to her again. He yawned into her hip and she dragged her arm over him slowly, until her hand found his hair.

"Guess I'd better hurry up and get better then," she said as she gave him a clumsy pat.

He felt her touch travel all the way down to his toes, and he closed his eyes again. "Guess so."


Gradually, her body came back online. The heart monitor went away as the doctors seemed to feel her heart was probably going to keep beating without anyone standing around to watch it, and they weaned her off the blood pressure medication. She regained the right to use the bathroom even if she couldn't get there by herself. The awful plastic neck brace was swapped with a smaller, softer one that she was allowed to remove for sleeping.

But as welcome as these developments were, she realized the long road she had ahead of her on the third day, when the occupational therapist put a cup of vanilla pudding in front of her – her first real food since the shooting – and handed her a spoon. It took her four tries to get a bite all the way into her mouth, and the taste was hardly worth all that effort.

"I'm not very hungry," she said, pushing it aside.

From the doorway, Hunter did a double take. "Do I have the right room? I was looking for Sergeant McCall."

The therapist, a kind-looking woman with ugly shoes, gave her a smile. "I see you have company. Why don't I come back in an hour? We could try chocolate if you prefer."

Hunter ambled over and stood near the bed. "Look at you, graduating to real food and everything."

"This hardly qualifies as real food." Apparently, the loss of synaptic connections in her body included some involuntary functions as well, and this meant giving her stomach less work for a while. But she had already lost ten pounds in ten days, and so the pudding was fortified with protein powder. It tasted just as bad as she'd imagined it would.

Hunter ignored the chair in favor of sitting on the bed with her, the way he always did now that she could sit up and move around somewhat. Her parents hardly dared to touch her, as though she were some fragile china doll, but Hunter had resumed his usual physical territoriality pretty much as soon as possible. "You have to eat to get your strength back," he told her.

"I can't walk," she told him darkly. "It's going to take more than a vanilla pudding to fix that." The following day she was headed for in-patient rehab at a facility in Long Beach that had some experience with spinal injuries.

"You have to start somewhere," he replied. "Besides, I'm saving your seat, so you have to hurry up, okay?"

"What do you mean?"

"Devane wanted to give me a new partner – just temporary." He ducked his head and smiled a bit. "I might have had a few objections. Some of them may have been loud."

"A new partner?"

"Relax, I told you that I said no." He nudged her playfully. "You look pretty alarmed for someone who didn't even want me in the first place."

"I've gotten used to you." Right now, he was about the only familiar thing in her life. Her left hand started to shake of its own accord, and he reached out to still it. Something about engaging the touch of another person shifted the neural pathways involved, because she did not tremble as he stroked her hand with his thumb. "Charlie was here earlier," she said, "and he never said anything to me about giving you a new partner."

He chuckled softly. "That's probably because he didn't want to tell you his justification." Off her puzzled look, he sighed. "Okay, it's possible that while you were laid up in bed here that I might have been arrested for murder. Just a little bit."

"Hunter!" She jerked her hand back, and this time, the motion was intentional. How the hell did anyone get a 'little bit' arrested? "For murder? And you never said anything?"

"All the charges were dismissed!" he said. "You know, Mike Snow doesn't seem so bad when you're sitting on the other side of the table."

She frowned at him. "Most of the people Mike Snow represents are guilty. I notice you said the charges were dismissed – nothing about whether they were warranted in the first place."

"Oh, ye of little faith," he protested. "Not only was I not the killer, I went out and arrested her for them." He looked contemplative. "You think maybe that means I get a freebie?"

She wasn't going to ask what kind of freebie. The story was starting to make her head hurt, but at least he wasn't in jail. Maybe Mike Snow was good for something after all. The pain medication had begun to wear off, and she leaned back against the pillows. This was the downside to being able to feel everything again.

"You okay?" he asked.

She nodded, because she could do that now.

"Maybe…maybe I should get going. Let you get some rest."

"No," she said as her eyes flew open once more. She sounded desperate even to herself. If he left, it would be just her and the pain, alone together. She'd had enough of that to last a lifetime.

"Okay," he said, sinking back down next to her. He looked uncomfortable. "Can I get you anything? Do anything for you?"

"No," she said wearily. "Thanks but…"

"What?" he said when she stopped.

She bit her lip. "Maybe there is one thing."

"Name it," he said as he sat forward, obviously eager for any specific task.

"I—I want to see it." She gestured at the back of her neck. "But I need a second mirror. Can you find one?"

Hunter was silent a minute, and then he squeezed her knee through the bedcovers. "Okay," he said, "let me see what I can do."

She hugged herself as best she could while he went in search of another mirror. It was better to know, she thought, than to spend all her time wondering how bad it was.

After a few minutes, Hunter returned with a hand mirror, looking apprehensive but determined. He fetched the other mirror from the bedside table and rejoined her on the bed. She had to use her arms to push herself forward from the pillows, and the effort sent needles of pain down her spine. She bit her lip to keep from crying out.

"Maybe this isn't such a good idea," he said.

"No," she replied, her breathing unsteady. "I want to know. Please, can you take this off?"

He frowned but moved behind her to remove the collar. He moved her hair aside, and she quivered as she awaited the brush of his fingers. One of the terrible parts of this whole experience, the part she couldn't tell anyone, was how awful it was to be touched by strangers all day long. Everyone was so kind, but still she found herself shutting down so as to block out the feel of their hands on her body. There was no way she was going to let any of the medical staff go through this intimate moment with her.

"Okay?" he asked as the collar came free.


"I don't know if I should be removing this bandage."

"Just…just move it aside. It's okay." She held her breath, wincing as the tape pulled away from her skin.

"Sorry," he muttered. Then he went completely still.

She waited for a moment in agony while he said nothing. "Well?" She couldn't take it anymore. "Is it awful?"

He handed her a mirror and held the other one behind her, lifting her hair again so that she could see. It took her a few tries to position the mirror at the right angle, and then she held her breath and made herself look. The wound was around two inches long, red and angry. The ends were neat from the surgeon's work, but the middle where the bullet had penetrated was wider and more jagged. "I guess it could be worse," she said with a small sigh.

Her arm shook from trying to hold the mirror up, so she put it down again. Hunter reached around and took it from her. He set both mirrors aside and then lifted her hair from her neck. She felt a cool kiss of air as he inspected her. "It's not bad at all," he said.

She made a huff of disbelief. "Right."

"It's not," he insisted gently. He leaned down and pressed his lips just at the top of her neck, nuzzling her curls. She gripped the blankets as his words against her neck sent a shiver over her skin. "It means you lived."

Chapter Two

McCall was tired. Among other things, it seemed her body had forgotten how to sleep. Pain – intense in her neck and random everywhere else – kept her awake unless she numbed it with narcotics, but the pills gave her nightmares two nights out of three. She woke up each time shaking and alone in a room she still did not recognize. The rehab center tried to seem more like a home, with landscape pictures on the walls and cheery red curtains at the window, but the hospital-grade bed and grab bars in the bathroom rather defeated the illusion.

Her very presence at the rehab center was supposed to be an encouraging sign; she was getting better. But she could not help but catalogue her losses. Not walking. Could not dress herself. Could not even cut up her food or hold a pencil. The average age of the people on her floor seemed to be about seventy-three, and she felt just as old.

It had taken every bit of her emotional energy to recover last year, when she had been paralyzed inside instead of out. She had no distance yet, no reserves to fall back on. Her old friend fear moved back in with her, snuggling up close when it was dark and quiet. What if you are never the same again?

Cesar Sanchez, her physical therapist, was more optimistic. "I played rock, paper, scissors to get you," he informed her on the first day, and she knew by his studded earrings it wasn't because he somehow found her attractive. "A lady cop? You are used to working harder than you have to. You do the work here, and I promise we will have you back on your feet in no time."

But she did not want to work. She wanted to sleep, and this seemed to be the one thing she could not have.

The evening of the second day, they made her eat in the dining room with the rest of the patients. Her wheelchair was hardly alone there, but she still felt out of place amid the sea of white heads. She contemplated her salad and wondered how the hell she was supposed to spear the cherry tomatoes when she could barely hold a fork.

"Finally," said a voice above her. "Someone who isn't actively enrolled in the AARP."

McCall looked up to find a woman around her own age, perhaps a bit older, but it was hard to judge this sort of thing in a place where everyone had at least a cane or walker. The woman wore a tight black tracksuit with pink, leopard-print accents. Her short, spiky hair was dyed platinum blond and her fingernails were painted gold – apparently to match her eye shadow. It was the kind of look McCall was used to seeing on the working girls down at The Nickel.

"Irene Dunlop," the woman said as she sat down next to McCall. "Broken hip."

"Dee Dee McCall," she replied, and declined to say anything further.

"Take it from a woman who's been around the block – skip the cream of spinach soup. The ravioli aren't too bad, though."

McCall had no intention of touching the cream of spinach soup, and it had nothing to do with her inability to work a spoon. She gave up on the idea of silverware entirely and just used her fingers to grab the tomato.

"Who's your PT?" Irene asked as she poured herself a glass of water.

"Cesar Sanchez."

"Oh, he's a hottie, isn't he? I'd let him give me a workout any day of the week, if you know what I mean."

McCall raised her eyebrows. "I thought he was…oh, never mind."

"Gay as a jaybird?" Irene replied. "Oh, yes indeed. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy the window dressing." She sighed. "I've got Robin Englehart this time around. She's nice enough but I think her sense of humor may have been surgically removed at birth."

"This time?" McCall asked as she managed to break apart her roll.

"I'm in and out," Irene said with a shrug. "Old before my time." She gave McCall a sideways glance. "So are you going to tell me your story, or do I have to snoop around the nurses' lounge?"

"I was…I was shot in the back. The neck, actually." It was the first time she had said the words out loud.

Irene let out a long whistle. "Wowzers. We've never had a shooting victim here before. What happened - you forget to pay your bookie?"

"Something like that." She was not up for sharing the details.

"Shot in the back and walked away from it," Irene said, shaking her head. "I guess your number wasn't up."

"Well, I wouldn't say I walked away." McCall looked down at her wheelchair.

Irene's expression softened. "You'll get there," she said. "It takes time. I was sitting where you were six weeks ago, and look at me now. I've got the ugliest cane ever before seen in history." She held up a long steel rod that had a clawed foot with rubber-stopped ends. "Seriously, have you ever seen anything less fashionable in your life? Even blind people have better looking canes, and they can't even see the merchandise."

"It's not so bad," McCall said, and Irene narrowed her eyes at her.

"Oh, bullshit," she replied. "You are a terrible liar. That's a Donna Karan sweater you have on there, and apparently it meant enough to you that you were willing to fight with the buttons to get it on. Your manicure could use a touch-up, sure, but it was professionally done. Don't try to tell me you care nothing for fashion, because I won't believe it."

McCall blinked. She was used to being the detective in these sorts of exchanges. "What is it you do for a living?"

"I'm an artist," Irene replied. "Play nice and I might invite you back to see my etchings." She leaned over and eyed McCall's brownie. "Are you going to eat that?"

McCall considered. "You know what? I think maybe I am."


Traffic was light mid-Sunday morning so Hunter made good time to Long Beach. He felt bad that he had not been able to make it down there sooner, but he was busy working both her job and his own, all with a forced cheer so that the Captain did not overrule his objection and hand him a new partner. He had pulled two double shifts in the past five days, but that meant his entire Sunday was free and clear.

The rehab center was not far from the water, and it seemed more welcoming than the hospital. He saw various patients out on the grounds, enjoying the sunny flowerbeds and the shade of the eucalyptus trees. McCall did not appear to be among them, nor did he find her in what was ostensibly her room.

Nosy was his job description, though, so he kept looking until he located her in the exercise room. A tan, fit man with too much gel in his hair was leaning over her as she tried to move a weight machine with her feet. Only there weren't actually any weights attached. Hunter leaned back against the wall to watch. "Two more times," the man was saying. "You can do it."

"No." She looked exhausted.

"Yes, you can. Two more."

"I can't," she said. "It hurts."

"Then you have to push harder. It's the only way to make the pain stop for good."

Hunter saw her try to move the machine and fail. He frowned but kept his distance. "I can't," she said brokenly, holding her hands over her face.

"You going to cry on me now?" he asked. "I thought you were tougher than that. Come on, just one more. You can do this."

"No." The word came out on a sob, and Hunter pushed himself away from the wall.

"Maybe that's enough for now," he said loudly, and the therapist turned and fixed him with a glare.

"Who are you?"

"I'm her partner, and I think maybe you should back off for now."

The man leaned down and touched McCall's shoulder. "You rest here a minute," he said, his tone kind. "I'll be right back." He crossed the room and jerked a nod at Hunter to follow him around the corner. "Cesar Sanchez," he said, but he did not extend his hand. "You're interrupting my session."

"Rick Hunter. You're torturing my partner."

"I'm not torturing her. I'm helping her."

"It did not look that way to me." Hunter frowned past him in the direction where they had left McCall. "You don't know what she's been through."

"You're right, I don't know," Cesar replied neutrally. "All I know is what I see in front of me, and what I see is one lucky woman. She has a real chance for a hundred percent recovery. Most of the patients who come through here can't say that. Of course it's hard, and I know it hurts, but if she walks around feeling sorry for herself, what should I say to the rest of them?"

Hunter really couldn't give a damn about the rest of them, but he figured it would not be politick to say so. He folded his arms, still not convinced. "You're pushing too hard."

"It's my job to push hard. That's why I'm here." He was beginning to sound a little frustrated. "Each day we don't do the work, the harder it is going to be for her to recover the function that she's lost. Everyone who comes through here has a sad story. I can't hold their hands and give them hugs and kisses because it won't help them get better. Pushing hard, asking more of them than they care to give, that is what helps them get better."

Hunter relaxed his posture a bit. "Yeah, okay," he said grudgingly. "I see your point."

Cesar softened too. "The hugs and kisses," he said, "that can be your job, okay? Just let me do mine."

Cesar returned to his work, and Hunter stood in the hall just outside the open door, listening. "Break's over," Cesar said, sounding efficient and firm. "Now I want to see you do three more of these." Hunter leaned against the cool concrete wall, an ache in his chest as he heard her struggling, but this time, he did not interfere.

Afterward, he accompanied Cesar and McCall back to her room, where the physiotherapist helped her into bed. "Rest up," he told her. "I'll see you again at four."

McCall settled back against the pillows and ignored him. Once Cesar had gone, Hunter took a few tentative steps toward the bed. "You look better," he offered, and she opened her eyes to look at him.


He fetched the item he had brought with him from her house. "Someone else wanted to visit too," he said, handing her the alligator.

She mustered a smile. "Mr. Mouth," she said, hugging him to her. "Thank you."

"Fed your fish, too." He would have been here sooner but he also found two large dried blood pools on her floor, which he had done his best to clean. He checked his hands, thinking on it, but all traces were now gone. "How are things going?" he asked.

"Oh, you know." She sighed. "I haven't noticed a lot of progress just yet."

"Give it time."

"Quit saying that," she snapped. "Everyone keeps saying that to me – like time can actually make this better."

An orderly came in with her lunch tray and moved the rolling table so it was in front of her. "Enjoy," she said with a smile, and McCall scowled at her.

When she made no effort to start eating, he cleared his throat. "Don't wait on my account," he said. The sandwich, potato salad and fruit cup did not look too bad.

"I'm not hungry," she said, sounding tired. Her hand shook as she pushed the table away.

He hesitated as he considered Cesar Sanchez's words. Then he stepped forward and rolled the table back into place. "You need to eat," he insisted. "You won't get better otherwise."

"Didn't you hear me? I'm not getting better. Every day is pretty much just the same as the last one."

"I see improvement," he lied. She didn't look like she believed him. "Regardless," he said, "you need to eat or they're going to start feeding you through a tube again."

She folded her arms and regarded her tray with a glare. "Fine," she said. "What does it matter?"

He hesitated a moment. "Listen, I am busting my ass at work right now, working overtime almost every day so that I can do your job on top of mine."

"I never asked you to do that."

"The least you can do is hold up your end of the bargain and actually work at this thing. I want you back. I want you to get better. But I can't want it for the both of us."

She frowned for a minute and then picked out a grape from the fruit cup. She popped it in her mouth. "Happy now?"

"Just keep eating."

He stood over her while she managed to eat half the sandwich and all of the fruit. It was a start, at least. After the staff had collected the tray, he nudged her aside and sat on the edge of the bed. "So," he said, "tell me the worst part."

She regarded him with mild surprise. "It's hard to pick a favorite," she muttered finally.

"Make it a top ten if you like." He checked his watch. "I've got time."

She was quiet for a long moment, her head bowed. When she looked at him again, her eyes were wet. "I can't sleep," she whispered finally. "Either the pain keeps me awake or the drugs give me nightmares, and so I'm awake all the time in the night. It's…I can't explain it. It's like I'm the only one left on the earth. And then morning comes, and I'm so tired." She rubbed her face with both hands. "I can't even think anymore."

"Come here," he said, and pulled her carefully into his arms. She was stiff and light. He had not realized just how thin she had become. It took several long minutes of holding her before she started to relax. He rested his cheek on the top of her head. "Did you tell the doctor?"

Her hair rustled beneath his chin. "There's no point. I've tried other painkillers. Very little helps." She sniffed and his heart broke a little.

"I have an idea," he murmured, and she pulled back to look at him.


"The painkillers, have you taken them recently?"

"After breakfast," she said wearily. "It's the only way I can make it through PT. But in theory I should take another dose."

He got up to look in the bathroom, and then stuck his head around the corner. "These?" he asked, waving a bottle at her. She nodded as she settled gingerly against the pillows once more. He brought them over and poured her a glass of water from the pitcher sitting on the bedside table. "Here," he said.

She looked at the pills in her hand for a moment before sighing and putting them in her mouth. "I warn you," she said, "these typically knock me out."

"That is the general idea." He shut the door and then picked up the remote from the side of her bed. He flipped around until he found the baseball game, at which point, he got back into bed with her. This time he sat so they were side-by-side. "Move over."

"What are you doing?"

"I'm watching the Dodger game," he told her as he wrapped his arms around her. "You can watch with your eyes closed." This way, if there were any nightmares, at least she would not be alone.

"You don't have to do this."

"Too late. Already watching."


"Shh, it's the first pitch."

He felt the resistance go out of her as she settled against him, and he shifted with her until she found a comfortable spot. He knew he had made the right decision when she hugged him back and turned her face into his shirt, blocking out everything but the two of them. An intense wave of protectiveness washed through him, and he kissed the top of her head. "Rest," he whispered to her. "I've got you."

She slept. He stroked her back absently, his eyes on the game but his attention more on the woman in his arms. This was supposed to be for her benefit, but he realized then how much he had wanted to hold her since the first moment she'd opened her eyes after the shooting. Alive, thank God, alive. He held her warm and close and breathed her in. She smelled like her usual shampoo, but the perfume and makeup were gone, and so the scent was more intimate, more her.

The game was on low, barely audible, and he closed his eyes to listen. The Dodgers were in a pickle as the Braves had the bases loaded, one out. He had his hand resting gently on her ribcage where he could feel the soft rise and fall of her body as she slept. The rhythm was soothing, like the sea. The game faded into the background as he let himself drift off with her into dreamland.

The room was noticeably dimmer when he awoke as the sun had shifted away from their corner of the world. McCall was still tucked securely against him, sound asleep, and he gave her a tender smile. She had not been exaggerating her fatigue.

There was a sharp knock on the door and Cesar appeared. He was back for the four o'clock appointment. Hunter tightened his arms, loath to let her go, but he remembered their earlier conversation. "Should I wake her?" he whispered.

Cesar looked them up and down a moment and then shook his head. "No, it's okay," he murmured and flashed a smile. "You don't interrupt my work, and I won't interrupt yours. Sleep is important too. Tell her I will see her at ten tomorrow, okay?"

McCall awoke about a half hour later, blinking and stretching awkwardly. "Is it really almost five?"

"Yeah. How are you feeling?"

She assessed a moment. "Better." She gave him a shy smile. "Thanks." She struggled to sit up, so he helped her. "Who won the game?" she asked.

"No idea." He ducked his head. "I might have dozed off myself."

"You're working too hard," she said, sounding concerned.

"Just hard enough."

"Maybe…" She took a breath. "Maybe you should take on a new partner, just for a while."

"No." He didn't want to let this tragedy get more of a foothold than it already had. "I'll wait. You just keep getting better, okay?"

At that moment, an orderly came by and poked his head in. "There are cheese and crackers down the hall ahead of dinner," he said, "if you're interested."

Hunter eyed her meaningfully, and she sighed. "Okay," she said. "I'll be there."


Days in the rehab center continued to pass slowly, but she at least started to notice some progress. The pain receded just a bit. She could steer the wheelchair on her own now and even stand with assistance for short periods of time. Hunter promised her an ice cream cone once she could actually take steps.

He showed up whenever he could, including some evenings. The second time, he brought her boom box and a good selection of her CDs, for which she actually threw her arms around him in delight. They listened to music and he would tell her about the cases she was missing out on.

"It's always the greed that does them in," he was saying. "This woman, Maryann Marshall, she comes in saying I need to investigate her husband's death because she's pretty sure he was poisoned."

"Poisoned by whom?"

"A random madman, if you can believe her story. She said he complained of a headache, took a couple of Tylenol pills, went to bed and never woke up. She thinks the Tylenol were poisoned."

"That's a pretty big leap," she said skeptically.

"Ain't it, though," he agreed. "But we tested the bottle. Turns out she was right – eighty percent of the pills had cyanide in them."

"Huh. Wonder how she guessed that."

"Well, because she put it there, of course."

"Of course." She was curled up under the covers while he sat with his feet propped on her bed.

"We dug up poor Alan, and sure enough, he did not die of an aneurysm. It was cyanide poisoning. Then I find out he had mysteriously taken out two additional life insurance policies just weeks before his death."

"Imagine that," she said dryly.

"She forged his signature. But get this – one of the policies had paid out already. Alan was dead and buried. She was getting away with it! If she hadn't come into the station and insisted we dig him up again because he'd been poisoned, no one would have known anything about it. Guess why she opened her big mouth."

She did not have to guess. She had lived it. "The insurance pays out more in the event of murder," she said with a sigh.

"Yep." He rocked back in his chair. "The greed. It gets them every time." She yawned into her pillow, and he checked his watch. "Jeez, I didn't realize how late it was. Bedtime?"

She nodded, her eyes already closed. She listened to him round up her pills and the water. When she had swallowed them, she moved over to make room for him as he drew the privacy curtain closed. This, she would think later, might have been a sign. Or at least a really good idea.

But half asleep, she did not give it a second thought as he took her in his arms. Twice a week or so, she was guaranteed at least six solid hours of peaceful sleep. Poor Hunter would leave before dawn so he could be back at work by eight. She had told him it was not necessary to do this for her, but he insisted. "You actually look better," he'd said the last time. "I'm not stopping now."

She did not have the will power to object. He was at least as therapeutic as the medical staff – more so, arguably. They had a massage therapist, and she had thrice-weekly appointments with him, but as adept as he was at removing some of the stiffness from her back, she could not say she enjoyed his touch. With Hunter, she might enjoy it a little too much.

"Okay?" he murmured the first time his hand wandered under her pajama top to rub the soreness from her back muscles. She had managed to nod amid the rush of pleasure.

It was partly from this touching, partly from boredom or curiosity, that she got herself into trouble. She recognized her body only in passing these days. Most of the time, she ordered it to do something, and it still refused. Sometimes, it performed actions all on its own, such as when her hand started twitching or her foot seized up in a painful cramp. Half the time, they seemed to resent each other – she for the many ways her body let her down every day, and it for all the tasks she demanded of it that it could not fulfill.

But when she lay with Hunter, his arms around her and his big hands warm on her skin, she felt a flicker of recognition. It might be possible to feel good again.

So it was with this question lingering in the back of her consciousness that she found herself one Saturday afternoon, alone in the hours of nothingness that stretched between physical therapy and dinner. She was watching a random movie on HBO – some silly love story – because there was little else to do. She could not hold a book long enough to read more than two pages at a time.

Hunter had been there the night before, and she could still conjure the feel of him in the bed with her. She was only half paying attention to the movie when the couple on the screen started kissing. This was a little more interesting. They were standing in a hallway, and he had backed her up against the wall for more kissing. It went on for long minutes, and the sound of their heavy breathing was audible over the soft strains of the soundtrack. Then they started walking backward into the bedroom, shedding clothes as they went. When they paused so the man could put his mouth on the woman's naked breast, McCall felt a stirring between her legs.

It hadn't even occurred to her to wonder if this part of her body still worked the same. Why should it? Nothing else did. She clamped her legs together and squeezed experimentally. When she relaxed them again, the ache had grown, just as it might have before.

The couple on the TV was going at it for real now – or at least as real as it got in a non-X-rated movie. The man was on top, his face hovering just above hers. The woman had her eyes clenched shut and her mouth set in a rictus of pleasure. "Yes," she said, "fuck me."

Yes, McCall agreed silently, a fine idea. She shut her eyes and let fantasy take over as the TV continued to add audio play-by-play. Her hand wandered under the sheets and then under the waistband of her yoga pants. So far, so good. Definitely good. Maybe this part wasn't broken at all. She stroked herself gently until her hips jerked of their own accord. The pleasure built higher and higher, and she kept going with it to see where it might take her. But then her hand cramped and spasmed, breaking the spell. Red hot needles lanced down her wrist as her fingers trembled.

She was trapped there with the pain when suddenly the door swung open, and Hunter stood there. There was no privacy curtain between them, and it was obvious what she was doing. His jaw fell open and he quickly turned around again. "Sorry!" he called out as he bolted from the room.

Oh, God. The pain receded enough that she could get her hand out from between her legs, but it hardly mattered anymore. She flushed and hid her face in the pillow. Forget going back to the LAPD. She was going to have to change her name and move to a different country now, because there was no way she was ever going to be able to talk to him again.

She lay there in a tangled heap, utterly humiliated, until there was a knock at the door. She screwed her eyes shut and waited for him to reappear. But it was Irene who poked her head in. "It's time for supper," she said. "Aren't you coming?"

"I don't think so." She was just going to lie there and die some more.

"You're not sick, are you?"

"No. Just not…not up for company."

"Hogwash," Irene said. McCall felt the Cane of Steel give her a prodding. "I am not sitting with Hector Jenkins tonight. He leaves his teeth on the table when he eats his soup. Come on, let's go."

"All right, all right. I'll meet you there."

"If you're not down there in five minutes, I'm coming back to get you," Irene warned. She left, and McCall maneuvered herself into the wheelchair. She went to the bathroom to wash up and avoided looking at herself in the mirror. If she couldn't even meet her own eyes, there was no way she could deal with Hunter.

Irene had saved her a place at dinner, which was salmon and rice pilaf. This did not require coordination of a knife and fork, so she could manage all right – if she'd had any appetite at all. Irene dug into her own plate with relative gusto. "It doesn't seem fair that you get all the good looking men," she said. "First Cesar, and then the tall drink of water I'm always seeing come out of your room. You two an item?"

McCall looked at her plate. "Uh, no. He's my…" Well, he wasn't actually her partner at the moment. After today, he might not be her anything, anymore. "He's my friend."

"I'd be real friendly to him," Irene offered. "Send him my way." McCall blanched, and Irene laughed, deep and throaty. "Oh, your face. Not to worry. I'm all talk and no action these days." She gave a deep sigh as she picked up her fork again. "Although it would be nice…just to have one more romp in the sack before I'm gone."

She was so caught up in her mortification that it took a few moments for Irene's words to register. "Gone – are you leaving soon?"

"Six months, give or take, according to my doctors." She took a sip of water. "Stage four breast cancer – and there isn't another stage beyond 'six feet under'."

With that, McCall's afternoon vanished away. "I'm sorry," she said as she laid a hand on the other woman's arm.

Irene waved her off. "Yeah, yeah, it bites the big one. I don't really like to sit around talking about it. Talk's cheap and it doesn't change a damn thing. Sometimes the irony gets to me, though -- I spent my entire thirteenth year hoping, no praying, that I would finally get breasts like Deborah Manning down the street.  Well, I got 'em, and now they're going to kill me." 

"It hardly seems fair," McCall agreed.

 "What burns me up is that I have to waste my time in this dump. They can't get rid of the cancer, but they can put me through rehab for my leg. To what end, I ask you?"

"Can you leave? I mean, if you wanted to?"

Irene squinted as she considered. "At this point, probably yes. But it would worry the hell out of Nick – he's my son – and I think I've given him enough to worry about right now. He's supposed to be living it up in college, not stressing over his mother's medical care. Nicky likes me here where people are keeping an eye on me, so I promised to stay for the full eight weeks. After that – Paris!" She grinned. "I love to paint there. The light on the city at sunset is just amazing."

"I bet it is."

Irene sat back and folded her napkin. "But for now, we're stuck here. What do you say you and me have a little party?"

McCall looked around at the senior citizens. "You mean with them?"

"God no. No geezers allowed." She hoisted herself up on her ugly cane. "Meet me in my room in twenty minutes – and bring that music maker of yours."

So McCall took her radio/CD player and a dozen or so albums and rolled down the hall to Irene's room. It had the identical layout to hers but was covered in art that definitely did not come mass produced. In the corner stood an easel with a half-finished seascape on it. The sandy hills had hints of grass among them, and a brilliant sun glittered across the water. "Cape Cod," Irene said when she saw her looking. "Nick's Dad and I lived there when he was born. In fact, he was conceived right about…here." She pointed at a spot to the far left. "I'm painting as much as I can remember."

"They're beautiful," McCall said as she took them all in. She found a portrait of a brown-haired boy about five years of age, squatting to study a frog in the grass. "That must be Nick."

"Yep, that's my boy. Of course he is quite a bit taller now – not to mention more serious. He is studying to be a civil engineer at Cal Tech. If I had not spent thirty-six hours in labor with that boy I would never have believed he came from my body." She hobbled over and took the CD player from McCall. "What have you got?"

"A little of everything. Take your pick."

"Oh, you have Some Girls. Definitely that one." She put it on and closed her eyes as the music began to play. "I was seriously into the Stones for a while there in the 70s. I must have seen them live eight or nine times. Gave Keith Richards head in the back of the tour bus once. He was high as a kite. Kept calling me Samantha for some reason."

"I snuck out to see them in LA in '75," McCall confessed. She had been seventeen and very busted the next day.

"The Tour of the Americas! Yes, I remember!" She went over to the dresser and opened a drawer. When she returned, she was holding a Tupperware container, which she opened to reveal a bunch of homemade brownies. She selected one for herself and held out the bowl to McCall. "Pot brownie?" she asked. "Nicky made them, and he is an excellent cook, if I do say so myself."

McCall eyed the brownies. "Uh, I don't think I'd better."

"Oh, come on. They're excellent for pain and way less dirty than alcohol when it comes to mixing with the line-up of pharmaceuticals they have us on. Live a little. What are they going to do, send the cops in after us?"

McCall laughed ruefully. "I am a cop."

Irene's eyes went wide. "Holy shit! I knew there was something interesting about you, but I never would have guessed cop. Jesus. You're not going to arrest me, are you?"

"I'm homicide, not vice. Besides, we don't really get worked up over small amounts for personal use." She paused. "But don't quote me on that, okay?"

Irene made the sign of the cross over her heart. "I will take it to my grave," she said solemnly. McCall winced, and Irene burst out laughing. "Oh, it is too easy to do that to you. Lighten up, sweetie. It's only life and death."

She had been so close she could still taste it. "You know…maybe a bite or two wouldn't hurt me." With the day she'd had, the year she'd had, she deserved it.

"Now you're talking!" Irene handed her a brownie and fetched a dainty pink napkin to go with it. "I guess if you're a cop, it explains why someone was trying to kill you," she said as she sat back down in the chair.

"Yeah, it wasn't even personal," McCall said. "More of a 'wrong place, wrong time,' sort of thing. Only the 'wrong place' turned out to be my own living room."

Irene raised her eyebrows. "Well, if they weren't after you in your own house, then you must keep some unsavory company."

"Be careful about inviting prostitutes home for dinner," McCall said as she took another bite. "I think that's the big lesson."

"So noted."

The women talked and ate and listened to music for several hours. Irene was right about the painkilling properties of the brownies. McCall was so relaxed she thought she might slide right out of the chair.

Irene was half lying across her bed. "The funny part about dying of cancer is that at first you feel a lot better."

McCall giggled. "That doesn't sound very funny," she said.

"I know, right? But it's true. They stop pumping you full of rat poison because there's no point anymore, and so you actually feel pretty good. I bought a new wardrobe and a ticket to Paris. I also dyed my hair blonde because I heard that blondes have more fun."

"Do they?" McCall was glad to hear someone had finally conducted an investigation.

"Fuck no. I broke my goddamn hip," she said, and they both convulsed in laughter. Irene sat up and rearranged her pillows. "So this tall friend of yours is not a boyfriend," she said. "What other prospects have you got?"

"I had one," McCall said. "Then I got shot."

"Men," Irene replied with disgust. "Always wanting their women with no bullet holes."

"I know. You get shot just one time, and they're outta there." They both dissolved in another round of giggles.

"Wait! Did you hear that?" Irene sat upright, listening. "Bruno is always on me about making noise, and it beats the crap out of me why he cares. It's not like my neighbors can actually hear anything."

"I don't hear anything…" A sharp knock at the door made them both jump.

Irene flung the container of brownies under the bed. "Uh, come in!"

But instead of Bruno the night nurse, it was Hunter who appeared in the doorway. "I heard you from all the way down the hall," he said.

Of course this was funny, so they laughed again. "Don't tell Bruno," Irene said. Then she covered her mouth with one hand. "Wait a second, you're a cop too, aren't you?"

"He's even more of a cop than I am," McCall explained. "He is working both of our jobs now, so he is actually two cops."

"I could get arrested twice!" Irene exclaimed, and then fell over on her bed in laughter.

"What the heck is going on here?" Hunter looked bemused as he crouched down next to her chair. She was glad she was high. It covered her embarrassment.

"Pot brownies," Irene confessed.

"God, Irene, you would make a lousy criminal," McCall said.

"I thought you said you only cared about dead people." She sat up again and looked at Hunter. "I will be dead soon. Will you care about me?"

"I think this party may be over for the night," he said. "Why don't I take you back to your room?"

She sighed deeply. "Fine. Thank you for a lovely evening," she told Irene. "Good night."

Irene was passed out on her bed again. "Good night, Irene, good night," she said to the ceiling.

Back in McCall's room, Hunter helped her into bed. "Well, you've had quite the adventurous evening," he said.

"She has cancer. It would have been wrong to make her eat alone." The logic seemed sound enough to her.

"Uh-huh," he said, amused. "I'm confiscating your D.A.R.E. sticker."

"Please. I'm on so many drugs right now, you can hardly tell the difference."

"Oh, I can tell. You're cute when you're baked."

For some reason, this triggered her earlier memory, the one she really didn't want to have, and she covered her face with a pillow. "Okay, I'm fine now," she said from under it. "You can go."

"Why are you hiding?"

"Hunter, please just go."

He tugged the pillow free, and in her weakened state, she was not able to resist. "Is this about earlier?"

"Oh, God." She covered her face with her hands now. "Please let's not talk about it."

"I just want to say sorry," he said. "I should have knocked."

"Please stop talking!"

"Oh, don't be ridiculous," he said, but his tone was affectionate. He gathered her against him and held her tight. "It was my fault. I didn't even tell you I was coming. I wanted to surprise you."

"I was surprised," she muttered against his shoulder, and he laughed.

"It's okay," he said, pressing his face down against hers. "You think I haven't done it? I've probably set some form of world record."

She snickered a little, and he continued, encouraged.

"Seriously, they're going to retire my number."

"Okay, I get it." She sighed, still unable to pull away and look at him again. He rubbed her back a moment.

"Okay then?" he asked.

For some reason, the words caused sudden tears to well up inside her. She clutched him and shook her head, mute. "No," she whispered eventually. "It's not okay."

"Tell me," he said, rocking her. "What is it?"

It was the drab, prison-like room. The total lack of privacy. The terrible food and the hospital-grade bed. It was aches and pains and how she wanted to go home so desperately but she still could not walk a step. He would be leaving again soon but she was trapped there.

"What?" he prompted again when she did not reply.

She took a shuddering breath. "Nothing works right," she said. "Still."

For once, he didn't try to paste a happy face on her misery. "I know," he murmured. "It's hard."

"I mean nothing," she said darkly. The pot made her bold. "This afternoon, when you saw…I mean even that."

"Oh." He went still as he realized what she was saying. "Um…"

Her face burned again as she regretted the words. She tried to pull away, but his arms tightened around her.

"It'll get better," he said. "All of it."

She gave a watery laugh. It was very sweet of him to sit here and suggest that one day, in the future, she might be able to get herself off again. He leaned his forehead on hers. "Let's get some rest, huh?" he said, and she nodded, suddenly very tired.

"You don't have to stay," she told him as she settled in. "I don't need the painkillers tonight."

Amusement crept back into his tone. "Yeah, I would say not," he said. "How many of those things did you eat?"

"Just…a few." She closed her eyes and heard him chuckle.

"If it's all the same to you, I am going to put my feet up here for a while," he said. "I don't feel like driving back right now."

"Sure, fine," she murmured, half asleep already. She smiled into the pillow when she felt his feet come to rest alongside hers. "Night, Hunter."


Hours later, she awoke with a cry as terrible pain seized her right leg. Hunter was with her immediately. "What is it?" he asked in the darkness.

"Leg. Cramp." She couldn't sit forward enough to reach it. "Oh, my God."


She whimpered as he found it and held her hands over her mouth to keep herself from yelling anymore than she already had. Hunter stretched out the leg, massaging her calf at the spot of the cramp. She counted to ten and tried to remember to breathe. They said nothing between them as he worked the pain back out of her body.

She went weak with relief as it eased, sinking back into the pillows. Hunter moved closer to the bed and leaned over her. "Okay?" he asked.

"Yeah, thanks." She was still a little shaky, and his hand was warm at her knee.

He rubbed her reassuringly. "You're all right," he said. "It's okay."

She felt around until she could grab his other hand, and he squeezed her gently. She could squeeze back now with close to her usual force. There was nothing but the sound of their unsteady breathing in the darkness as they held each other tightly.

Gradually, she became aware that he was still caressing her leg at the knee. It felt good, really good, and she pushed back into his touch without even thinking about it. Just the small movement made his breath catch. His hand stopped briefly – the space of several erratic heartbeats – and then he started stroking her again, a little higher.

She did not dare open her eyes. Her hand tightened on his as his other palm crept up the inside of her thigh, over the satin of her pajamas. Higher, higher, until he reached the junction of her legs. She felt him leaning down, felt the scratchy press of his face against hers, his breath warm on her face. His hand was hot and hard between her legs, but he did not move. He was waiting to see what she wanted to do next.

Her heart was pounding as the ache from earlier returned full force between her thighs. She could pull away. It was the middle of the night. They could go on as though nothing ever happened. She felt him tense and poised, ready to follow whichever way she directed. "I…I want…"

"What?" he breathed against her neck. "What do you want?"

She summoned every bit of concentration she could muster, willing her body to cooperate. It responded, and she sighed with relief as she arched into his hand.

Chapter Three

Time had slowed to a stop. She was awake in the night again, but this time she was not alone. Hunter had his face pressed against the side of hers and his long fingers sliding back and forth between her legs as he touched her through her pajamas. She had spent the past few weeks trying to ignore the feel of other people's hands on her body that she had nearly trained herself not to feel anything. But Hunter's touch was gentle, insistent, almost familiar, even though they had never done anything like this before. Her breath caught on the edge of a sob as pleasure broke over her. Every nerve ending crackled along her skin, sparking to life as though woken from a deep sleep, and she pushed once more into his hand.

He moved his up and over to the naked patch of skin at the gap of pajamas. He rested his warm palm on her stomach, his fingertips just barely stroking her. She made a choked noise and turned her head so their foreheads pressed tight together. His lips hovered just above hers, so close she could almost taste him. They both held their breath together as his fingers crept beneath the elastic on her pajama pants. Her eyes were screwed shut, creating kaleidoscope of spinning stars inside her head.

This was against the rules on many levels. She had looked at him long ago and decided she would never, ever. But he was pressed against her with his healthy strong body, smelling like sand and salt, and she felt good again for the first time in ages.

She gasped as he found his way inside her underwear and rational thought ebbed away completely. He touched her lightly with one finger until she thought she would go mad. She did not have the lower body strength or coordination yet to set any sort of pace. She shifted restlessly, trying to urge him on. His breath was ragged against her face, and she felt around until she found his prickly cheek, stroking him in the rhythm she wanted below.

He caught on and increased the pressure of his fingers. She traced his cheekbone, his jaw, his soft, open lips. He groaned a little as she slid one finger inside his hot mouth, and she shivered at the rough sweep of his tongue against her skin. He sucked her finger in and out as he began to mimic the motion between her legs.

She rolled her head back, totally lost to the pleasure coursing through her. She couldn't move, could only lie there and let it come for her. She laid her hand on his arm, stroking the wiry hair, and felt the strong tendons of his forearm stretch as he worked his fingers inside her. There wasn't a lot of room to maneuver; she was still fully dressed. He fucked her in short, quick strokes until her mouth hung open and she panted with the rhythm of his hand.

Orgasm crashed through her like a force from another realm. She shook and shook, tears in her eyes from the strength of it. Hunter gasped and shuddered, as if he felt it too, and his hand became gentle again against her body.

She trembled a little as he withdrew, but he didn't go far. He gathered her limp and exhausted into his arms, and she hid her face against his neck. Gradually, her heartbeat slowed to normal. She knew she should say something but she couldn't seem to open her eyes or form any words. It was her first orgasm with another person since the rape a year ago, as if her body had been waiting for him and she hadn't even known it. The raw intensity of it all rendered her completely mute.

Only later, near dawn as he murmured a good-bye against her ear, did she realize: they had never even kissed.

The sun woke her the next morning, slanting in through the curtain and shining in her eyes. She lay huddled under the covers for a moment and contemplated her new existence. Her mouth was dry from the marijuana and there was a distinctive ache between her legs. Maybe the bullet hadn't killed her, but it seemed to have made her a new person.

In the afternoon, she followed the sun outside, where the real world seemed much as she had left it. The sky had the hazy pale blue of early summer, and the hummingbirds flitted among the flowers. She rolled down the paved path to where Irene sat working at her easel. "Hey," Irene said, putting down the paintbrush and giving her a chagrined smile. "How are you feeling today?"

"Actually? Pretty good." She knew she should be worried about what to say to Hunter when she next saw him, but strangely, she felt no apprehension this time. Sex meant she was alive and she was not going to be sorry. It could be his turn to be embarrassed if he wanted.

"Good," Irene said with obvious relief. "I was afraid maybe I got you in trouble with your friend."

"Hunter," McCall supplied as Irene stretched out to offer her a bowl full of red grapes. "And no, he was very…understanding."

"I'm glad. We need all the friends we can get around here, right?"

McCall realized then that she had not seen Irene with many visitors, which seemed odd given her vibrant, welcoming personality. Irene seemed to read her thoughts.

"It's hard for friends, I think, when you don't actually get better. I've been sick for seven years, which is a really long time to keep up the cheerleading. Plus, well… there's not much left to cheer about, you know?"

She remembered all too well how it had been for her, lying in death's shadow and no way to talk about her fears. "Are you scared?" she asked finally.

Irene gave her a look that told her she was unused to such honesty. "Not for me," she said at length. "Not anymore. But I worry for Nick. He is such a serious young man and he keeps everything wrapped tight inside. His father is the same way – his idea of a warm father-son chat is a lecture on how to negotiate a car loan."

McCall laughed. "I know that father – I have one just like him."

"Well, then maybe there is hope," Irene replied. She sighed. "I just worry if there is no one around to ask Nick how he's feeling, he might not take the time to notice for himself."

McCall turned her face to the breeze and considered Irene's words for a long moment. "He'll miss you," she agreed finally. "Always. There's nothing you can do to change that." She took a deep breath. "But I think if you've loved someone, you seek out that love in other people – not to replace the person you lost, but to recapture who you were when you were with them."

"So you're saying he'll find some other lady who makes him try on crazy hats and go swimming in the ocean on New Year's Day?"

McCall smiled. "The specifics may change – but yeah, I think he'll find her."

Irene tilted her head a moment and then reached for the grapes. "You sound like you speak from experience."

"Not precisely. My parents are both still living. But my husband was killed a few years ago, so I have some idea what it's like to be the one left behind."

"Sucks either way," Irene said without rancor. Then she regarded McCall with curiosity. "So have you found him yet – the man who is not a replacement for your husband?"

"Well, I—" She broke off when she noticed Hunter walking toward them.

Irene saw her looking and followed her gaze. "Oh!" she said, sitting back in her chair. "See, now this is interesting!"

"No, no, it's not like that." McCall didn't get to say anything more because Hunter had reached them.

He almost but not quite met her eyes as he nodded at the bowl of grapes in her lap. "If those are laced with PCP, I'm afraid I'm going to have to bring you in."

"Sorry," Irene said gaily, not sorry in the least. "I'm afraid I've been a bad influence."

"I don't know," Hunter replied as he gestured at the fruit. "That's healthier than anything I've ever been able to get her to eat."

"Maybe I'm a changed woman," she told him, arching one eyebrow.

He looked her over speculatively. "Listen, do you have a minute? I was thinking maybe you and I should, uh, talk for a bit. About…about last night."

"Interesting!" Irene exclaimed again.

McCall ignored her. "Sure," she said lightly, and handed the bowl back to Irene. "I have half an hour before my next PT appointment. We can go to my room."

"Aw, you can talk here," Irene said. She was munching the grapes like they were popcorn. "I won't listen too hard."

"Goodnight, Irene," Hunter replied as he moved to push McCall's wheelchair.

"It's three-thirty," Irene called back as they left. "And it does you no good, you know. I'll just make her tell me everything later!"

Back in her room, Hunter parked her wheelchair and shut the door. Then he drew up a chair and sat down a few feet away from her and the bed in which he had pleasured her so thoroughly. He had come dressed casually today in jeans, a blue T-shirt and sandals. She looked at his large, tanned hands and tried not to think of them on her body.

She was determined to get through the conversation without blushing, but Hunter was already looking at the linoleum floor. This was a man who had propositioned her in passing pretty much daily for three years, all the while bedding every blonde honey who dared to give him a wink or a smile. He was not shy about sex, nor had she ever known him to be shy with her.

"It's okay," she said finally. "I won't tell her everything later."

He laughed a bit and risked looking at her, so she smiled to show him it was all right. "I just wanted to apologize about last night," he said.

"For what?"

He looked uncertain. "For…for taking advantage."

What? Was he crazy? "I think if anyone was taking advantage, it was me," she replied. "You don't need to apologize."

"No, I mean it wasn't fair. You're still in pain, you're on drugs – apparently some of them recreational but my point is the same – with your situation here, you quite literally could not get away from me, even if you wanted to."

"I wasn't trying to get away. Quite the opposite." She knit her eyebrows together and regarded him. "I mean, you know that I…"

"Oh yeah," he said with such gusto that she actually did blush a little. "I know. I just need to know you could've said no."

"I could have." She cleared her throat. "I just didn't want to."

"Oh. Okay then." He looked relieved, and then a slow, satisfied smile broke out over his face. "You know, we've broken some departmental rules in the past, but this might be the biggest one yet."

"I was thinking about that," she replied. "And technically, we're not partners right now." Normally when she reminded him of this he looked alarmed, but this time, he seemed intrigued. "I mean, you said it yourself," she continued. "I'm on so many drugs that my tox screen would light up like a Vegas slot machine. I can't walk, let alone fire a gun. The LAPD would have no use for me at all right now."

"I don't know." He looked her up and down. "I can think of a couple of uses for you – and I'm LAPD."

She laughed, glad for their usual banter. "Please tell me they don't involve your handcuffs."

He smiled but then looked at the floor again. "So…no regrets?"

"No regrets." She hesitated. "Well, maybe one," she said, and his head jerked up.


"You never kissed me."

"No. I…I must have."

She shook her head slowly. "I would remember."

"Doubtful," he said, scooting toward her. "You were pretty fried."

"Not then I wasn't."

He was practically in her lap now. "Are you sure? Not even once?"

She had her eyes downcast, hardly believing she was saying these things. "Nope, not once."

"Well then maybe…maybe I need to rectify that." He reached out and cupped the side of her face, the way he had so many times when she was totally paralyzed and this was the only part of her that could feel. This time, she felt the warmth of his palm all the way to her toes.

He leaned in and kissed her. It was not a friendly kiss even at the start, their mouths soft and parted, breath mingling as heat spread across her face. He captured her sigh, holding his mouth against hers until she practically melted into him. Carefully, she wound her arms around him and pulled him even closer, breathing in his scent. Their lips brushed repeatedly, deepening the contact with each pass until they were kissing continually. Her senses were filled with him – his nose nuzzling her cheek, his tongue in her mouth as his hand stroked over her jaw and down her neck.

She became aware that he was actually trying to pull her toward him. "Can you?" he breathed against her mouth. "Is it okay?"

She barely had time to nod before she was in his lap. "Much better," he muttered before his mouth settled on hers again. They kissed like two kids in the backseat out after curfew, desperate and a little awkward with the groping. She still had only partial control of her hands.

His were expert, though, and she moaned softly into his mouth as his fingers found a nipple, teasing it to firmness even through her clothes. Having had a taste, her body was eager for a second round. They kissed deeply and a steady throbbing started between her thighs, where she had grown slick and swollen. "Mmm," she murmured as his hand started to creep under her shirt.

A loud knock on the door made her jerk back as if burned, but there was nowhere she could go. A second later, Cesar poked his head in. "It's almost four o'clock," he said, eyeing them up and down. "Time to work."

"Right," she said, clearing her throat. "Uh, be right there."

He closed the door again, and Hunter leaned against her with a low chuckle. "Busted yet again. You are going to get a reputation around here if you're not careful."

She sighed. "I am so getting a lock for that door." She leaned her head against his. "Are you taking off now?"

His fingertips slipped under the hem of her shirt again to trace tiny circles at her bare hip. "I was thinking I might hang around for a while."

"And stay for dinner?"

"Dinner, dessert…lights out."

She shivered as he pressed his lips to her neck. "I should get going," she said, sounding totally unconvinced. "I have to do five more reps of everything if I'm late."

"Better go then," he agreed. "And save your strength."

In the gym, it was just her and Cesar, and she avoided looking at him as he helped her onto the weight machine. It was like getting caught making out by your parents. But Cesar seemed amused. "If you are waiting for me to scold you, it ain't gonna happen," he said as he handed her the lift bar. "As far as I'm concerned, any exercise is good for you. Even sex."

"I'm not…we're aren't…" How the hell did she keep ending up in these conversations?

"I don't know if the doctors talked to you about it," he continued as if she hadn't spoken. "But it's pretty similar to the other stuff we've discussed in that you may find that sensations are different for a while. You could experience the same kind of paresthesias, numbness, or muscle fasiculations. Orgasm is governed by the autonomic nervous system, though – it's mostly involuntary, like breathing or heart rate. With high injuries like yours, sometimes the ANS can take longer to recover all of its functions, so don't worry too much yet it if it's not, uh, working properly."

"Really," she said, still not looking at him. "I'm fine."

"Okay, okay," he replied, and she could hear his grin. "No more sex talk unless you bring it up first. Except…" He knelt down next to her. "I don't know if you have noticed, but the nightstand in your room should have come with a 'Do Not Disturb' sign. If it's not there, just ask one of the orderlies, and they can replace it."

"Great, thanks," she said, rolling her eyes. "Now you tell me."

Later, at dinner, Hunter got the chance to get to know Irene a little better. "I was arrested for real once," she said as they ate their spaghetti and meatballs. "Apparently you are not supposed to go skinny dipping in the Trevi fountain. But not to worry – it was a case of mistaken identity."

Hunter raised his eyebrows at McCall. Do I want to know? She shook her head as she sipped her water. Better not to ask.

But Irene continued on anyway. "They mistook me for someone who gives a damn," she said with a smile. She looked from one to the other. "So what are you two crazy kids up to tonight?"

McCall recognized a fishing expedition when she heard one, and she was not going to take the bait. "Nothing much," she said as Hunter focused all his attention on his pasta. "Probably just watch a little TV."

Irene narrowed her eyes. "Uh-huh. I remember that kind of TV watching – the kind where it doesn't really matter what's on."

Just like that, she became acutely aware of his physical presence sitting next to her.Lights out, he had said, and she remembered too well what he could do to her in the dark. She reached for her glass again and took a long drink.

"What about you?" she asked Irene. "Any plans for the evening?"

"I am going to bed early," she replied. "My friend Gertie is coming to visit tomorrow, and we're going to the beach."

McCall vaguely remembered the beach. "That sounds nice," she said.

Irene gave a happy sigh. "Yeah, it will be. Gertie is one friend who has stuck with me since high school. We bonded over our old lady names and our shared hatred of Mrs. Dalton, the algebra teacher. If X wanted to be found so badly, why the hell did it keep getting itself lost in the first place?"

"Excuse me," Hunter said, "I am going to refill this pitcher." He took the water pitcher and ambled across the room.

Both Irene and McCall turned to watch him go. "Boy those jeans sure don't leave anything to the imagination, do they?" Irene said.

In truth, McCall had imagined plenty, but she shook her head with a smile as she turned back to her friend. "Do you always say the first thing that pops into your head?"

"Yes," Irene replied, her eyes crinkling. "Life's too short for second thoughts."

For McCall, the words echoed later when she was back with Hunter, alone in her room. She found the 'do not disturb' sign in the nightstand drawer, just where Cesar had said it would be. She hesitated a moment because she knew she might as well hang a sign out front saying 'having sex in here, thanks,' but eventually she handed the card to Hunter. He eyed it for a long moment before sticking it on the outside of the door.

She maneuvered herself back into bed, on top of the covers, and her left arm shook afterward from the effort. Hunter approached her slowly, and she leaned back against the pillows. For all her earlier bravado, she was starting to worry she had promised too much. She wanted to touch him, to hold him, but her neck ached and she was also exhausted. Still, when he drew the privacy curtain shut, the sound of the metal track balls gave her a shiver of anticipation. "Can't be too careful," he said as he climbed into bed with her.

He felt marvelous, warm and solid in her arms, but she winced as she tried to lay her cheek against his chest. He noticed and probed gently at her nape with his fingertips. "Hurt?"

"A little." It was as much as she would admit to with him, ever. But a small whimper escaped her as he found the sore spot.

"Sorry," he murmured. "Let me get the pills, okay?"

She nodded with her eyes closed, intent on breathing through the pain. When he returned with her medication, she swallowed it gratefully and sank down into the pillows. Hunter sat next to her and stroked her hair. "Is it better if I sit over there in the chair?"

"No," she said, reaching for him. "Please." It hurt more to get into position against him, but then the ache eased a bit as they lay together quietly. "Sorry," she said eventually. "I know this isn't why you stayed."

"It is why I stayed," he said, kissing the top of her head.

She yawned and hugged him. "I forgot to tell you earlier. You're going to owe me that ice cream cone. I can take actual steps now." She could walk the parallel bars with some effort, and Cesar seemed to feel she would be out of the chair within a few days.

"Once you start using those connections again, they come back a lot faster," he explained.

Hunter squeezed her. "Best news I've heard all day," he said.

She shut her eyes and let her hand drift under the hem of his T-shirt, where she stroked his warm skin. "Just give me a minute for the pills to kick in," she said, and promptly fell asleep.


He roused when she did, blinking in the darkness as he realized where he was. Sleeping in her bed. Right. Normally when they did this, he managed to keep himself to a light doze, but this time he had gone to sleep like a man falling off a cliff. "Did I squash you?" he asked.

"Hmm, no. What time is it?"

He craned his neck to see. "Not that late. Only eleven." The rest of the building had gone quiet outside their door, and the moon peeked in through the open curtains.

"You have work in the morning," she observed as she drew her hand across his stomach. "You should probably go."

"In a minute." He captured her hand and brought it to his mouth so he could kiss the center of her palm. It felt so good that he did it again, this time letting the tip of his tongue dart out to taste her. Her thumb caressed his jaw in answer. The last traces of sleep faded away as arousal started to hum through his veins. He leaned his face down to hers. "How are you feeling?"

The question had a definite hopeful note. He was close enough that he could feel her smile. "Better," she whispered. She stroked the side of his face. "How are you feeling?"

He loved it when she got all flirty with him. "Not bad," he said as he shifted closer to her. "Definitely…improving." He brushed her lips gently with his until she opened with a sigh, at which point he pressed her deeper into the pillows so that he could explore her mouth properly. He could hardly believe he got to kiss her now, as much as he wanted. So many years of telling himself no, no, no, all the teasing and the touching that could only go so far before he had to pull away again. He stroked her soft cheek, slid his tongue along hers.

The sound of their labored breathing filled their makeshift room. This wasn't supposed to happen. They weren't supposed to feel this way about one another. But in the night with the curtain drawn around them, it felt like a place out of time where reality could not enter. He had a powerful urge to unzip, tug her pants down and be inside her, but he knew that would be too much. He showed her the general idea, though, lying hard against her as his tongue moved in and out of her mouth until they were both moaning with lust.

"You have to tell me if I hurt you," he said, pulling his mouth away.

"Doesn't hurt."

"I mean it." He kissed her again, slow and deep. "The only way this works at all is if you tell me the truth."

"I will. I am." She held his face in her hands. "I'm okay right now, but yes, I do have some limits."

"I look forward to finding all of them," he said, and she laughed, thoroughly amused. He nuzzled her. "What's so funny?"

"That is just such a perfect encapsulation of your character," she told him. He laid his head on her chest and listened to her heartbeat as she stroked his hair. After a few moments, he slipped his hand beneath the hem of her thin cotton shirt. He hooked his fingers around the edge and dragged it upwards towards his face. Her heart picked up speed beneath his ear.

When he had exposed a large patch of skin, he leaned down and placed an open-mouthed kiss at her navel. "Can you feel that?"

"Yes," she said, sounding breathless.

He moved higher, near the end of her ribcage. "What about this?"


He pushed the long-sleeve T-shirt up and over her naked breasts. He lowered his face again, breathing in her sleep-warm skin. "And this?"

"I feel…oh…everything." Her back arched a bit as he took the tender peak of one breast into his mouth. He sucked gently at first but then with growing pressure as her fingers splayed in his hair.

He had been hard since about two minutes after they started kissing and was now swollen so full that it was starting to hurt. But he had not worn any underwear, and if he unzipped now he worried that she might take it as a demand for more. He kissed his way back up her body until he found her mouth again.

She tugged his T-shirt halfway up his back and he was able to feel her full breasts against his skin. He snaked one arm beneath her to pull her closer, and she responded with a tiny cry that was lost amid their kiss. "Okay?" he asked.

"Yeah, yeah." She shifted against him awkwardly, her arm between their bodies. "I want…"


"I want to touch you."

He closed his eyes against the sharp surge of lust but shifted so that she could reach him. His hips jerked involuntarily at the first touch of her palm between his legs. She stroked him through the worn denim until he thought he might go mad. He bowed his head next to hers, breathing fast and light, still unable to believe this was really happening.

She rubbed her hand over his erection more several times and then turned to kiss the side of his neck. "I can't work the button or zipper without help," she murmured, still caressing him. He couldn't stop it any longer; he started to rock into her palm.

"You don't have to do this," he muttered.

"What are you, shy? Let me see the goods."

He huffed, amused as he rolled off her enough so he could undo his jeans. His eager cock sprang out into her waiting hand, and she curled her fingers loosely around him, rubbing him gently from root to tip. He tried not to thrust into her like a horny schoolboy.

"I'm sorry I can't do this properly," she said, sounding unsure of herself all of a sudden. Her hand trembled slightly, and he reached down to hold it. The technique might be off, but the fact that it was her hand on his body more than made up for it.

"It's okay," he said, pressing his lips to her hair. "You feel so good."

"You too."

Gently, he folded his hand over hers and together they moved up and down the length of his erection. She drew a sharp breath and he kissed her softly. "Does this hurt?" he asked her as their joined hands continued to stoke him.

"No," she murmured. She turned her head and kissed him openly, slipping her tongue into his mouth. His cock jerked in their shared grasp.

He hoped like hell that everyone knew to obey the sign on the door because no privacy curtain in the world could hide what they were up to now. McCall was breathing just as hard as he was, their faces pressed close together as he trembled right on the edge. "Ah, stop, stop," he said, panting as he pulled away. His erection quivered on his belly from the loss of contact.

"Why?" She pushed herself up on one elbow to look at him, and her dark eyes glittered in the moonlight.

"Because I'm about to lose it, that's why."

She leaned down and kissed him slowly. "That's the general idea," she said against his mouth as her hand traveled down to where his pants lay open. He sucked in a breath as she found him again.

"Wait, wait," he said. "Just a second." He was not going to make a mess of everything and give the rehab staff more to gossip about. He rolled over and picked up his wallet from the nightstand, feeling around in the dark until he reached the condom. This is a first, he thought as he put it on, but unusual situations called for creative solutions.

He was actually shaking a little as he drew her close to him once more. They lay face-to-face, legs mingling, and he gently brought her hand to his erection again. There was no slow build up this time. Together, they held him tight, rubbing him faster and faster, until he jerked and stiffened for release. He groaned into her hair as the spasms shook him almost painfully.

"God," he said, clutching her. "No. Please no." Somewhere in his head, she was dying on the living room floor again. Grief for her had been frozen inside him for weeks, unchanged even as he knew she had lived. It came pouring out on a silent sob.

She rubbed his head and held him close. "Hey, it's okay," she said. "It's all right."

"You were dead when I found you," he whispered brokenly, brushing away her tangled hair. "I couldn't get a pulse."

"I'm right here. It's okay." She kissed his neck and tightened her arms around him. She shushed him and soothed him until he stopped shaking, at which point she drew his hand under her shirt and held it between her breasts.

He felt the swift flutter of her heartbeat. "See?" she murmured. "I'm here. It's okay."

He took a shuddering breath and pressed his face against hers. "God," he said, "I'm sorry. See what you've been missing all these years?"

She kissed him sweetly and stroked the back of his neck. "No, I'm sorry. I didn't think. I didn't think what it must have been like for you."

Mostly, he remembered the terrible silence, the helpless feeling he'd had as he sat on her living room floor. Whenever he awoke alone at night, the eerie quiet took him right back to that awful moment. "I don't know how to be here without you," he said. "Not—not anymore."

"You don't have to be," she said again, snuggling close. "It's all right." They rested together for a few long moments and he felt the memory fade again. His hand was still under her shirt, and he shifted it so that he could cup one soft breast. It was a comforting gesture at first, but then he started rubbing the pads of his fingers lightly over her skin. He thumbed her nipple gently, fattening it into a stiff peak, and he heard her breathing change.

He kissed the top of her head. "Be right back," he said. He cleaned himself up in the bathroom, squinting under the bright fluorescent lights, and then returned to her bed. She yawned as he took her into his arms again, and he felt a rush of pure affection. He leaned down so they could rub noses. "It's your turn," he murmured, "unless you would rather sleep. There's always next time."

She trailed her hand down his back. "There's going to be a next time?"

"I don't see a way to stop it." He kissed her gently once, but when she gave a small sigh, he leaned in for more. When he pulled back, his voice was low and thick. "I want you pretty badly," he said as he stroked the hair from her face. "I have for a while."

She laughed lightly. "That's so not true."

"Of course it is. I think I would know." He slipped his hand under her shirt and started tracing gentle circles on her back.

"Hunter. You've been with – what, six or eight women in the last year? All of them blonde and with full control of their limbs."

He froze for a moment. This was a place where he could easily go wrong; he could say too much or too little and destroy the tender new connection between them. He wished there was a way to let her look inside him and see all the pieces that belonged to her. "No," he agreed, pulling her close. "You're different, it's true. But in a good way." She said nothing as he resumed the soft tickles on her back. "You remember the Pruitville motel?" he asked eventually.

"Who could forget? All that lace and hideous red polyester – and you with the vibrating bed."

All the touching and the teasing and the innuendo. "We were pretend married but in a real honeymoon suite," he reminded her. "It was driving me a little bit crazy."

"Me too," she sighed. "That awful blinking light."

"No." He shifted so he could look at her. "I mean lying there with you in that bed where so many couples had…you know."

She arched an eyebrow. "Consummated their union?"

Consummation, yes. That was what he had wanted. She had been warm and giggly and just two feet away. He had felt married to her for real that night, in all the ways that counted. Desire stirred in him at the memory, he leaned down to whisper near her ear. "I wanted to kiss you. I wanted to unbutton your clothes and put my mouth on you."

"You—you did?" She started squirming under him as her breathing deepened.

"I wanted to touch you and lick you and come inside you."

"Hunter…" She sounded desperate now.

"I still want it," he said, arching into her. "We are still…unconsummated."

She halted abruptly. "I can't. I mean, I would but…"

"I know, I know." His lips brushed her forehead, her cheek, her chin. "I found one of the limits. It's okay. Come here."

They kissed with renewed hunger, and he let his hands wander here and there, stroking and touching until she was nearly frantic in his arms. He took her leg and placed it over his hip, caressing the back of her knee as he did so. His thigh slid between hers and she made a soft noise of pleasure against his shoulder. "Oh, God. Please. I can't…"

There was no purchase for her in this position. "Shh," he murmured. "Let me do the work." He held her bottom firmly and started rocking her against him. She gave a choked sob and held on tight.

He could feel the heat of her through their clothes, friction building as they moved together in an age-old rhythm. She was panting, her hands clenching and unclenching in his shirt. She grabbed a fistful of his hair and dragged his head around so that she could kiss him again. "More," she said, sounding frustrated.

He smiled into their kiss. "More? Are you sure?" He couldn't help it; he loved to tease her.

"God, Hunter – yes, more."

"Okay then." He rolled her under him so he could see her face, and she made a noise of distress at the loss of full body contact. He rested a palm on her stomach, smoothing over her fevered skin, and leaned down to kiss her neck. "I am going to take your pants off now," he said against her shoulder. His tone was low but business-like, as if they were hashing out a plan to enter a suspect's darkened house. "Then I am going to put my hand right down here and I will touch you until I find all the best spots, the ones that make you want to scream. I will keep touching you until you come so hard you see stars. Okay?"

She held one hand to her face and made some sort of nonsense reply.

"Got it?" he asked. "You're good with the plan?"

"Got—got it."

He grinned and gave up torturing her. Instead, he pulled off her soft knit pants, taking her underwear along for the ride. He helped her spread her legs and then he was between them, stroking her just as he had promised. They lay with her head in the crook of his arm, kissing softly at first and then with growing urgency as he worked her higher and higher. His tongue was in her mouth when she came, her body finally arching hard into his hand.

He continued to kiss her and touch her gently, intending to soothe her down, but instead she started stiffening again. "Oh, yeah…more," he said in wonderment as she whimpered through a second climax. Curiosity got the better of him then and he just kept going, murmuring words of encouragement against her damp skin as he stroked her swollen sex.

"Ah, enough," she said after the third time. "Stop." Her legs trembled as she tried to close them, and he felt a momentary regret about pushing her so far. Then she curled into him with a deep, satisfied sigh, and he grinned against her hair.

"You are more fun than a bag of puppies," he said, giving her a delighted hug.

"Mmm. Thank you for that flattering analogy."

"How many times can you do that?" When she did not reply, he nudged her.

"Hunter. It's very late."

"Four? More than four?"

She sighed. "The record is around six, I think."

He felt a new personal goal coming on as he reached down for her pants. She was sleepy and heavy-limbed as he redressed her. "You know the thing about records," he said as they cuddled together once more. "They are meant to be broken."

"Shh," she said, "I'm sleeping." And then she was.


Her mother, who seemed to have a sixth sense about her love life, showed up the next afternoon for a planned visit. She brought magazines, The Joshua Tree CD, and homemade chocolate chip cookies. "Yours are still the best," she told her mother as she devoured a third one.

Her mother set an orange woven bag on the bed. "I brought the other things you asked for from home," she said as she sorted through the contents. "Clothes, makeup…these." She held up a black lace matching bra-and-panties set.

McCall used her newfound dexterity to grab them away. "Thanks," she said, shoving them back into the bag.

"So are you going to tell me who's the guy? Or do I have to guess?"

"Who said anything about a guy?"

Her mother laughed, the sound so like her own. "You think you are so mysterious, sweetheart. You forget you grew up under my roof." She set about hanging the clothes in the closet. "Let's see, the last one I heard about was the attorney – Jack?"

"I'm not dating anyone," she said, because this was true enough.

"Your doctor is a very nice woman, and your physical therapist is a lovely man – who is clearly interested in other lovely men. So the underwear isn't for their benefit."

McCall closed her eyes. Not one minute of goddamned privacy in this place. "Maybe I just want to feel like myself again," she said after a moment.

"Maybe." Her mother arched an eyebrow as she pointed out the irises sitting on the bedside table. "But are you sending yourself flowers too?"

There were seven of them – Hunter being cute. He had double shifts that day so she would not see him again until late Tuesday, if then.

"Mom, wait," she said as her mother snatched up the card. But it was too late. McCall knew the message was harmless and damning all at once. Miss your face. And the rest of you. R.

"R," her mother said, looking puzzled for a moment. "R as in Rick?"

"Mom, I love you, but I really don't want to talk about this with you right now."

Her mother's face fell. "It's against the rules," she said quietly. "That's what you always told me."

She swallowed with difficulty. Yes, they would be separated if anyone found out. She was gambling her job for a few days of…of whatever it was she had going on with Hunter. But work was very far away, and he was right up close against her - in her bed, in the dark, making her feel things she hadn't felt in years.

Of course it would not last. Hunter was a constant in her life but no one else's; he did not stick around for good-bye. She was not going to throw away a hugely successful partnership for the chance to be another notch on his bedpost. No. Once she got better, once she could walk again, she would be strong enough to walk away and not look back.

"I'm fine," she told her mother. "There is nothing to worry about."

Her mother sighed deeply and put the card back next to the flowers. "Okay, I will not pry any further for now. I just hope you know what you're doing."

McCall leaned back against the pillows and ignored the sudden tears in her eyes. She hoped, too.

Chapter Four

The whole goal of rehab was to get her out of bed, but these days, she spent a good deal of time finding excuses to be back in it, pressed so tightly against Hunter that they might have been wearing the same clothes, when they were dressed at all. They were shameless, hanging out the sign in the middle of the afternoon sometimes so they could lie behind the curtain and kiss. Once, she came still completely clothed, trembling like an earthquake with her legs spread wide so he could rock between them; when it was over, she saw that her mouth had left a damp imprint of an "O" against his T-shirt.

Another time, he wasn't physically present at all. It had been two days with no contact as he worked a double homicide, so on the third day, he called after dark to explain in detail that he had been thinking about her - specifically, his mouth and where he would like to put it on her body. By the time his tongue was between her legs, her hand was there too, and this time, there was nothing but pleasure as she gave herself release.

Currently, she was trying to decide how far they could go on this Sunday afternoon when her parents were scheduled to arrive "around two." It was presently one-thirteen. Her blouse was fully unbuttoned and he was slipping his tongue gently in and out of her mouth. "This is nice," he muttered as he fingered the lace edge of her bra.

"You like that, do you?"

"Mmm, yes," he said, pausing to take the delicate edge between his teeth. "But I'd like it more on the floor."

She giggled. "My parents are coming soon," she reminded him as she stroked his warm head.

He leaned against her breast with a groan. "God, it's like being back in high school again."

"Maybe for you. I was a good girl in high school."

He peered up at her. "So when did it all go wrong? Don't tell me you were a virgin bride."

"Okay, I won't tell you," she replied agreeably.

He moved to lie on top of her, his face inches from hers. "I think you will."

She shook her head, full of mischief. "Nope, my lips are sealed."

"I know a way to fix that," he said, lowering his mouth to hers. They kissed some more as his hand worked its way under her long cotton skirt. "A good girl, huh?" he murmured against her throat. "Never sat in a parked car with a boy and let him do this to you?"

She had her eyes closed as he trailed his fingertips over her bare thigh. "No…" There had been boys, of course, but nothing ever like this.

"Never had to fight yourself, wondering how far to let him go?"

Wondering it right now, she thought. His breathing had deepened near her ear. She bit back a cry as his hand slipped inside her underwear to where she was swollen and wet.

"No," she said as she stroked the hard plane of his back. "I spent most of my time…ah…in the library."

"Good student were you?"

"I studied hard." She was not sure how much longer she could keep up conversation. "I…oh, I still do. I have mastered a new skill just today, as a matter of fact."

He stopped caressing her and pulled back to look at her face. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah." The clock read one-twenty-six. They would have to be fast. She wriggled down just a bit until she could reach the waistband of his jeans. His back stiffened in surprise as she nimbly unsnapped and unzipped him. "See?" she said as she took his erection into her hand. "I've been practicing my manual dexterity."

He groaned as his head fell onto the pillow next to hers. "I take it back," he said, his voice muffled. "You are a good girl. A very, very good girl."

Her laugh was low and intimate. "There's not much time," she said. "We'll have to hurry."

"Not going to be a problem." He shifted so he could hold her face as he kissed her, loving her tenderly with his mouth even as he fucked her hand desperately below.

Within minutes, they had her underwear gone and the condom in place. But this time, he did not return himself to her warm grasp. He settled his heavy cock between her thighs, rubbing the blunt tip against her. She gasped as her body opened and tried to draw him in. "Rick, oh…"

He shuddered in her arms. "Just this much," he told her urgently as he started moving against her. "Just like this." Her hips jerked of their own accord. She still did not quite have the lower body strength to manage this, but at that moment, she did not care. His hand on her rear end helped her establish the rhythm, and soon she was making incoherent noises of pleasure against his shoulder.

He was panting roughly in her ear, and she thought she might come from the sound alone, his desperate need for her as they vibrated her narrow bed. She was so, so ready for this – beyond ready into crazed – this hot, hard slide of him between her legs. Her body was poised and rigid. Almost…almost but not quite there. If she could just change the angle a little bit, he would be inside.

She started sobbing as he picked up the pace, grinding her deeper into the mattress. "Please, please," she said as the ache grew stronger and the bed started to shake. "Do it."

"Not yet, not yet." He sounded like he was talking to himself, as lost as she was.

She arched, clawing his shirt up his back. "I…oh, God." She broke off as she felt it – just the very tip of him push inside her body. It was all she needed, and she came with a keening cry that she buried in the sweaty, salty skin of his neck.

He released a strangled groan and withdrew to rub rapidly against her until he found relief. He collapsed on top of her and they held each other tightly through the aftershocks. "You were right," he said finally, his breathing still unsteady. "Studying does pay off."

"You were right too, about the pleasures of sneaking around."

They smiled as they kissed. "Speaking of…" he said as he pushed off of her. "It's quarter of two. We'd better clean up and make this bed, or you're totally screwed."

She pulled his face down to hers, tempting fate just a few seconds more. "Almost," she said. "But not quite."


One summer evening he finally took her out for ice cream, the sun still so high in the sky that it seemed the day might stretch forever. Only the warm tangerine glow of the clouds hinted at the dusk to come. She selected chocolate and he opted for black raspberry – two tastes that would work well together, he thought as he eyed her with a sideways glance. He normally did not eat sweets, but these days, he was treating himself a bit more.

They ate on a bench in a nearby park, surrounded by tall trees and the heady smell of the rose garden. "It's nice to get out and see the real world," she said as she took in the view.

He felt a stab of guilt that he hadn't brought her out sooner. But with work killing him daily, he had precious few hours to get away to see her, and when he did, strolling through the park was not the first thing on his mind. "Yeah, it's nice," he agreed.

"It's crazy how it all seems to disappear on you," she continued. "You forget that everyone else gets to walk around in reality all day long."

"You'll be rejoining us soon," he pointed out. Her walker sat next to the bench, and the rehab staff was already talking about upgrading her to a cane within the next week. After that, it would be only a few days until she could come home.

"Yeah," she said with a sigh. "Back to life. Back to work." She looked at him. "Unless you've gotten used to being on your own."

Work was hell. He'd kept most of the struggle away from her because he didn't want her to worry. Reports were piling up. Interviews had gone wrong. Anything that required her gentler, more efficient touch had basically crumbled under the weight of his over-worked, over-burdened temper. "I'd take you back tomorrow if I could," he told her.

She smiled, but it did not reach her eyes. "You know that would mean the end of this," she said as she looked away again.

"I know." She had reminded them both of this before, and he'd agreed. The rules meant they had to choose, and he'd made his choice three years ago: he needed a partner, and she was it. He was going to be forty soon – too old to be breaking in a new partner. Sex he could find anywhere. Granted, he'd stopped looking for it, but he was a trained detective: he felt sure that he could track it down it again when necessary.

As usual, McCall seemed to be in his head with him. "You can go back to your blondes," she said as she wiped her hands on a paper napkin. She paused, as if considering. "Assuming you ever really left them."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

She shrugged. "We…whatever this is, we never had any sort of agreement. You're off alone in the wide world for days at a time, and we both know it's full of women willing to hand you their phone numbers."

He squinted at the horizon. "You think I have a side project going, is that it?"

"I'm saying that, if you did, I would have no place to object."

He shook his head and sighed. "Look it," he said. "I go to work. Then I go to work some more. When I am not working, I am either sleeping or I am down here, having unbelievable amounts of not-sex with you. I am ruined for anyone else."

Her mouth twitched with the beginnings of a smile.

"I mean it," he said, stretching his arm across the bench behind her. "The whole rehab-kink is really working for me. I'm going to have guard rails put on my bed and start using industrial laundry detergent. I'll pay some skinny guy named Bruno to creep around in my halls. The next thing you know, I'll have to be hanging out a 'do not disturb' sign just to jerk off."

She was doubled over now, shaking with silent laughter. He gathered her tightly against him so he could share the feel of it. When she calmed and rested her cheek on his shoulder, he put his lips to her head. "I have neither the time nor the interest for anyone else right now," he told her seriously. "You are it for me, capisce?"

She nodded against him. "But for how long?"

He squeezed her. "For always," he whispered.


When Irene didn't show up for breakfast on Wednesday, McCall was concerned, but when lunch came and went without her as well, she decided to go in search of her friend. She didn't have to look hard. Irene was in bed in her room, looking pale and wan. Her eyes were closed and her breathing barely detectable. McCall hesitated on the threshold, not wanting to disturb her, but Irene must have sensed a presence because she opened her eyes.

She turned her head slowly and smiled. "Don't tell me I missed the turkey tetrazzini. I actually like that one."

"I'm sure they would bring you some…"

Irene shook her head. "Not actually hungry. Come in and sit. I could use the company."

McCall took a careful seat next to the bed. "What's going on?" she asked gently.

Irene had closed her eyes again. "The thing about dying of cancer," she said, "is that eventually it hurts like hell."

"I'm so sorry." McCall felt totally useless. "Is there anything I can do? Maybe go get those brownies for you?"

"You're sweet, but no. They have me on morphine now. I'd barely notice a brownie at this point. No, you can sit there and talk to me for a bit if you don't mind. Helps distract me."

"Of course," she said, but her mind went totally blank. Her world these days had shrunk to physical therapy and Hunter.

Irene waited a beat and then helped her out. "What's the funniest case you've ever had?"

McCall considered a moment and then grinned. "Oh, I don't know if I should even be repeating it," she said finally.

Irene opened her eyes. "There had to be an official report filed, right? So spill."

"Okay, okay. It was ages ago – I had only been on the job about six months, and I responded to a domestic disturbance call in the middle of the night. I get there and find this man and woman, both with genital rings, who had apparently gotten the rings stuck together while having sex. So they were, um, still having it when I arrived."

"Oh my God," Irene tittered. "How deliciously awful. Which one called it in?"

"That was the really memorable part – her fiancé made the call, and he was not the one with the distinctive jewelry. It seems he had been working the late shift and came home to find them like that."

"Wow. So what happened?"

"The EMTs very carefully transported the couple to the local hospital for disengagement." She paused. "I can only presume the woman had a second disengagement shortly thereafter."

Irene sighed. "I'd do a lot in the name of beauty," she said, "but I think the only holes you really need are the ones God gave you." She smoothed the covers near her hip. "So, speaking of sex – what's the story with you and Mr. Strong Silent Type?"

"You mean Hunter?"

"Do you have yet another man hanging around after you? Bear in mind that if you say yes, I may cry."

McCall laughed a little. "No, there's no one else." She hesitated while Irene waited.


"Okay, yes. I may have kissed him." There was only so much she was willing to share.

Irene eyed her with amusement. "Sure, we'll go with that. You kissed him – for hours, apparently, behind closed doors. Good for you! How was it?"

"Um, really pretty great, actually," she said, flushing a bit. "But possibly it may not be worth it in the long run."

"Oh, honey, kissing is always worth it in the long run."

"It's against regulations," she explained. "We work together, and we've been partners a long time. We're not supposed to be seeing one another, uh, socially, so once I go back to work, we have to choose."

Irene smiled fondly. "Well, you're fucked then." Off McCall's look, she explained. "Love is the one thing you don't get to choose."

McCall ignored this. "Can I ask you a question? What happened between you and Nick's father?"

"Daniel? Daniel was a one-night stand that lasted six years. I was painting in Central Park one afternoon and he was playing Frisbee with his friends nearby. One of their tosses got away from them and knocked over my easel. Daniel offered to buy me a drink to make it up to me. Then, well, we went back to my place and he made it up to me some more."

"You didn't love him?"

"Oh, sure I did. He's quiet and intense, hard to get inside. He has these beautiful wide blue eyes, though, so you don't realize it at first. I tried really hard to be what he wanted – the kind of woman who had ambitions beyond waiting for the perfect sunset. He wanted me to go back to school, to hustle, to line up shows and such. I was happy just filling up canvases with pretty colors. He was so disappointed when he realized the truth that I started to hate myself a little bit on his behalf. That's when I knew I had to leave." She sighed. "Falling out of love – you don't get to choose that either."

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry it didn't work out."

"Oh, but it did." She smiled. "He married a lovely woman with her own veterinary practice, and I…I have all of these." She gestured around her at the walls full of paintings. "And we both have Nick, whom we love so, so much." She closed her eyes and sank back into the pillows. "So you see? They all lived happily ever after."


"Hey." She opened her eyes in the night to find Hunter leaning over her.

"What are you doing here?" The clock on her nightstand read one-eleven.

"Too wired when I got off shift, so I came down here." He bent to kiss her, and he smelled like smoke and leather. "Did you see the news?" he asked when he pulled away. He ditched his jacket on the chair.

"No, I watched Out of Africa with Irene. What happened?"

He climbed over her and kissed her again. She could feel the taut pull of his muscles, the vibrations under his skin. "We caught the Hillside arsonist."

This time when he tried to kiss her, she moved her head. "You did? Tonight?"

"Like six hours ago. Right in the act, too." He started unbuttoning her pajama top. "Get this – it was the fire marshal, Gary Burton. He was investigating his own goddamn fires."

"I didn't know it was your case."

"Mmm, yes," he said, pausing to kiss her neck. "Ever since those two teenagers died in the last fire. I got pulled in."

Her breast swelled to meet his hand even as her brain tried to make sense of what he was saying. "You were on the task force?"

"Yeah, yeah. Just for the last few weeks. We knew we were closing in when we got the last explosion on video – a couple of kids making a homemade monster movie caught the blast in the background. You can't see much but the smoke, but the important part turned out to be the timing. The call that came into 911 to report the fire was recorded at four-thirty-seven. But the building went up at four-forty-one."

"So he was already there."

"Yeah, we dusted the payphone for prints and turned up Burton's. It wasn't enough to arrest him, so we just put on a tail and waited. Sure enough, he and his gas can were out on the prowl tonight."

He was hard and eager against her, unable to slow down. She recognized the high, the adrenaline rush from a big case broken open, and it set off a different sort of ache inside her. "Why didn't you tell me it was your case?"

He raised his mouth briefly from her breasts. "We've been busy with…more important things."

She closed her eyes. This was it, she realized. This was the exchange she had made. He had slipped her into one part of his life and removed her from the other. Tears leaked out from behind her eyelids and she wiped them away with both hands.

Hunter glanced up as he felt her move. "You all right?"

"Sure," she said, but there were tears in her voice.

He raised his face to hers and frowned. "What's wrong?"

She gave a half shrug, not looking at him. "I guess I just miss it, you know. Being out there."

He rolled to the side and took her with him. "It won't be long now," he said, trying to jostle her into optimism. "You're practically good as new."

"Yeah, I guess."

"I'm counting the days until I get my partner back," he said before he kissed her again.

For once, she felt the same. Just to hear him refer to her as his partner felt warm and familiar, closer to the person she used to be. She relaxed a little and started kissing him back.

"Mmm, to the victor goes the spoils," he said against her mouth.

She laughed and ran her hands through his hair. "I'm the spoils now?"

"Well, I certainly plan on spoiling you." His mouth went lower to curve of her breast. He brushed his lips lightly over her nipple until it puckered out to meet him. Then he took his tongue on a tour of her ribs and her navel, down, down further until he was between her legs.

Off came the pajamas. Gone was her underwear. She tilted her head back, her fingers twisting in the bed sheets as he did everything he had promised. She was stronger now, able to move with his mouth. She arched with a small cry. Her old life was coming back to her, faster and faster. She closed her eyes and saw the fire burning bright as she went up in flames.


Summer had definitely arrived. They were sitting outside in the shade enjoying fresh lemonade in paper cups. It was hot, and the faint breeze felt good against her sticky skin. Hunter had chopped off a pair of old jeans into makeshift shorts, and she was dressed almost like her old self in a black and aqua sundress.

McCall finished her drink, crushed the cup and tossed it with a perfect arc into the trashcan sitting six feet away. Hunter regarded her from behind dark sunglasses. "You are getting better, aren't you," he said, as if somehow he had not noticed before.

"Better than you, that's for sure." He had the reflexes of a panther, but he was terrible at trashcan basketball.

He made a face at her as he crushed his cup. It went sailing past her, hit the edge of the can, and bounced to the grass. "The wind took it," he said.

"What wind?" She pulled the top of her dress away from her skin to illustrate her point. "There is barely a breeze."

He licked his finger and stuck it in the air. "Feels like five knots from the northeast."

"Feels like a sore loser," she replied, teasing him.

"I'll show you sore," he said, grabbing at her as she laughed and squirmed away.

At that moment, the unmistakable sound of an ambulance wailed from down the street, and they both sat up to listen. It grew closer with every passing second until it pulled to a stop in front of the rehab center. The EMTs practically leapt from the van. "Irene," McCall murmured as she reached for her walker.

"You don't know that."

She knew the sick feeling in her stomach well enough. She went as fast as she could back to the building, Hunter trailing behind her, and they arrived at the front just in time to see Irene being wheeled out on a stretcher, apparently unconscious. "Where are you taking her?" she asked.

"County General. Please move out of the way."

Hunter put a hand on her shoulder and tugged her backward. "I'll take you," he said. "Come on." She stood frozen as her friend disappeared inside the ambulance.

"She was supposed to leave for Paris next week."

"Come on," he said again. "We can run the siren."

She left without telling anyone that she was going. Hunter weaved smoothly in and out of traffic, following the ambulance easily as she clutched the side of the door. The EMTs regarded them with interest when they arrived at the emergency room doors. "Is this a police matter?" the stolid blond one asked.

Hunter flashed his badge, and she was grateful for it. "She's a friend," he said.

"Your friend is quite ill," the man replied. "You'll have to wait in the waiting room for now."

They sat for a couple of hours, Hunter dozing with his long legs spread in front of him while she flipped through the pages of a magazine without reading a single word. Finally, she went and inquired at the desk again. "I'm a friend of Irene Dunlop's," she said. "Is there any news on how she is doing?"

"Let me check." The woman punched a few keys in her computer. "Irene Dunlop has been admitted," she said. "Room 323."

"Is it okay if I go see her?"

"I don't see anything here saying you can't," the woman replied with a kind smile.

McCall went back to where Hunter was sitting up and rubbing his face. "She's been admitted," she told him. "I'm going to go see if I can find out how she's doing."

"You want me to come with?"

She shook her head. "I won't be long."

Irene was lying pale and still in the bed, her eyes still closed. She seemed to have aged ten years in the space of a few short days. There was an IV in her arm and an oxygen tube around her head. McCall went to stand next to her and took her hand. Irene stirred at her touch. "It's you," she said with some effort, her breathing unsteady. "I must still be here."

"Just rest, okay? Don't try to talk."

"I talk, therefore I am." She licked her chapped lips. "They tell me it's pneumonia. I guess that's the way it happens. The cancer doesn't so much kill you itself as let the door open for more ordinary monsters. Shame, really. Much less glamorous this way. I think my grandmother died of pneumonia."

"They're treating you," McCall said, noting the antibiotic in the IV. "You'll get better."

Irene patted her hand. "Thank you for believing that." She closed her eyes and McCall thought perhaps she had fallen asleep. But then Irene spoke again. "I may have lied to you," she said. "I am a little bit scared."

McCall took a deep breath and willed herself not to cry. It would not help Irene at all if she fell apart. "Is there anyone I can call for you? Nick or anyone else?"

"The admitting nurse already took care of that. Thank you." She shifted a bit under the covers. "I guess I won't be making it back to Paris after all. I knew it was a long shot, but I had started to let myself believe it would really happen. I guess I'll have to be content with the memories."

"I'm sorry," McCall said, holding Irene's hand in both of her own.

"They told me you can see the ocean from here. Do you think they were just trying to charge me for a better view?"

"I can check," McCall volunteered. She went to the window and pulled aside the curtain. There in the distance, the Pacific Ocean glinted like a sapphire in the sun. "They were telling the truth," she told Irene. "You can see the ocean."

"Tell me – is it very blue?"

McCall looked again. "As a summer dream," she said, and Irene smiled, already there.


Hunter could drive the stretch to Long Beach without even thinking about it now. The path to McCall had become part of him, instinctive and woven deep. He had called her twice last night and then again several times today, but received no answer. He assumed she was at the hospital with Irene. He admired her devotion to her friend but hoped she wasn't overdoing it herself.

Traffic on I-5 ground to a standstill, and he inched along with the rest of the commuters. Everyone looking to be someplace they were not.

The sun was just touching down when he arrived at the rehab center. Even if she had been at the hospital, McCall should be back by now. He took the steps two at a time and ambled down the hall to her room. The door was shut, so he knocked – shave and a haircut. No reply.

He hesitated a long moment before knocking again less playfully, and this time, he heard her. "Come in."

He found her sitting cross-legged on her bed, another recent superpower she had developed. "Hey," he said, coming to sit with her. "How's it going? How's Irene?"

She shook her head and looked at her lap. "Irene died this morning – her heart just gave out."

"Oh, honey. I'm so sorry." He tried to hug her, but she stiffened and pulled away.

"Her son Nick was with her, so at least she wasn't alone."

He stroked her knee. "That's something."

She drew her leg up, away from his touch, and he once again marveled at how she was becoming herself again right before his eyes. Progress was so slow at first, but now she was gaining new skills every day.

She looked at him with wet eyes. "What are we doing here, Hunter?"

He was confused, but he kept his tone tender. "What do you mean?"

"I mean this. You and me – what is it?"

His stomach tightened and he sat up straighter. "It's, uh…I don't know. I've never given it a name."

"But if you had to," she pressed. "What is it? We're not partners. We're not dating. We're…what? Just messing around?"

"No. No, of course not."

"Fucking?" she said in a clipped voice, and he winced as if slapped.

"Dee Dee…"

"I guess it's not really fucking," she said to herself. "Because I haven't been able to manage that much."

"Honey, listen, you're upset, and I-"

"I want to know what to call it."

His shoulders sagged and he rubbed his face. "Does it need a name? It's you and me…maybe it's just indefinable."

"I think you should go." Wrong answer, he thought. She hugged her legs to her body, not looking at him.

"Not like this." He leaned into her, pressing his face against hers. She did not pull away this time, but neither did she relax. "Let's just talk about it. Or not talk. Whatever you want."

"I want you to go," she said again, holding her head in her hands. "I…I can't even think anymore."

He drew back and tried to look at her, but she would not meet his gaze. "Okay," he said finally. "If that's what you really want."

"It is."

She said it with such chilling finality that he worried she might want out of everything – the sex, the partnership, his whole life. He stretched out a hand to touch her but stopped before he made contact. "I'll call you," he said as he dropped his hand.

She huddled further into herself and said nothing, so he left. He walked like a zombie out of the rehab center and back to his car, where he stood for a full five minutes. Then he cursed and kicked the hell out of his front tire. So many times he had wanted to reach for her and told himself no – this was why. Idiot.

He got in and started the car with a vicious roar, gunning the engine twice before peeling out of the lot. Sex was not supposed to mix with feelings. He had feelings for McCall and sex with other people. This system had worked beautifully for three years, and then he had to go and fuck it up – literally.

Fucking. He wasn't sure he had ever heard her say the word before. She must be really mad. He gripped the wheel as the term floated through his brain. What is this, she had asked. Like he had an answer. It was fun. It was hot. It was the thing that woke him up in the night, bone hard, with his arms clutched around a phantom. Why did everything always need a label?

God, just a few short weeks and they would have been home-sweet-home again:partners. She wanted a label? There was a label. He drove with a lead foot, putting as much space between them as possible.

It was sexy and sweet. It was the curve of her face in the flinty moonlight, the taste of her skin on his lips. It was the way he had watched her fall down so many times and then pick herself back up again, lifting him too in the process.

He had told her, hadn't he? He had explained his realization that he did not want to do the job without her. She was essential. One did not merely fuck around with essential. Surely she understood this.

It was tender and moving. It was listening to her nonsense mutterings as she slept. It was how, when she rested her head on him to listen to his heart, he heard it murmur her name.

Leave now, it told him, and you might never come back.

He brushed his face with one hand and was shocked to find it wet. It was the one thing he had never told her.

He took the next exit off the freeway and turned the car around. By the time he got back to the center, the rooms were largely dark. He had long ago mastered the security code and let himself inside. Bruno the night nurse frowned at him, but Hunter held a finger to his lips and walked right on past.

He entered her room without knocking and the momentary flash of light from the hall showed her curled up with her back to the door, unmoving under the covers. "It's me," he whispered, and saw her twitch.

He felt his way over to the bed, so familiar now. He sat on the edge and pulled at her. "Leave me alone," she said, sounding defeated.

"In a minute." He tugged her upright and held his hands on her shoulders. "We can stop this if you want to. Hell, we probably should have stopped a long time ago."


"Shhh. I know the answer."

She tensed under his hands. "What answer?"

"What this is," he said, squeezing her. "It's love."

He felt her freeze, and her head tilted up to look at him. She searched his face in the low light, and he nodded to show her he meant what he said. A sudden sob escaped her, and he gathered her into his arms, rocking her as he had wanted to do earlier. Her whole body shook with the force of her tears. He kissed her head, her brow, the salty skin on her cheek. "It's love," he told her again.

Chapter Five

The sex stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Partly, it was a lack of opportunity; two double shifts in one week meant that he was not able to make the drive to Long Beach more than once. Partly it was that she had a release date: assuming no setbacks, on Saturday she would be a free woman. Free to continue with outpatient rehab, that is. But there was no question she was healthier, stronger, more herself again, and Hunter had responded by treating her that way, catching her up on cases she might actually be working in a few weeks' time.

Love, he had called it at their last night together, when she had cried herself to sleep in his arms. She had awoken alone but at peace. They'd dodged a thousand bullets together, but it took one in her spine to get her attention. Of course she loved him. That she breathed at all was because he existed. He was her best friend and staunchest ally, her devil's advocate and sometimes just a devil. He had not specified the kind of love he was talking about, but she found it did not matter. Whatever was between them, it was steady and strong, and the details could sort themselves out in time.

On Monday, Cesar took away her walker and returned with a steel, footed cane. He held it out, cocking his head to one side. "It was Irene's," he said. "But I think she would have wanted you to have it."

McCall accepted it with a small smile. "I think she wanted pretty much anyone else in the world to have it."

Cesar grinned. "Yeah, she hated this bad boy through and through."

McCall stroked the smooth metal. "She was so hoping to be done with it before Paris because it is totally unfashionable. She thought it made her look old."

"Irene, bless her soul, was never going to be old." He lowered himself into the chair next to her. "You and me, though, we may still get that chance." He nudged both her and the cane. "The next move is up to you."


Because it was a special occasion, she put on a red sleeveless dress and sandals. They were rubber soled with no heel, of course, but it was progress. She wore earrings for the first time in forever and actually attempted to apply makeup beyond a little lipstick. The combined effort took her nearly an hour, but in the end, she almost recognized the woman looking back at her in the mirror. Her hair was longer now, just past her shoulders, so no one would see the scar.

As promised, Hunter left work early to pick her up at six. One glance at her, and he pulled down his shades for a better look. "I thought you said casual." He was sporting his customary jeans and faded blue button down shirt.

"For the birthday boy, yes."

He broke into a slow grin. "So I get to wear whatever I want while you're dressed like that? Forty is pretty good so far." He leaned down into her personal space. "Does this make you my present?"

She laughed and squirmed away. "No, I have plans for you that involve leaving this room."

"But I'm really good at unwrapping," he protested.

She took his hand and tugged. "Come on, let's go or we'll be late."

"Late for what?" He looked intrigued.

"You'll see."

They got into his car, and he turned to her expectantly while the engine hummed beneath them. "Okay, where to?"

"Back to LA," she said, taking out her own sunglasses. The midsummer sun blazed a fire across the sky as it started its slow descent into the sea.

"LA? But I just drove all the way down here."

"And now you can drive all the way back," she said lightly. "It will be worth your while, I promise."

He eyed her a long minute before putting the car into reverse. "I'm holding you to that," he said.

He drove back up the freeway and into the heart of the city, following her directions until they arrived in a familiar neighborhood. "This is it," she said, and he peered up the street.

"Sully's?" They had passed many hours in the booths of Sullivan's bar, flicking peanut shells across the table at one another and arguing over whose turn it was to pick up the tab. This time, it was all on her credit card. "As long as it isn't the meatloaf special," he sighed as they got out of the car.

They had an awkward moment at the door when he tried to force her to go in ahead of him, and she had to nearly shove him over the threshold. Finally, the door swung shut behind them as a joyous cry went up from the crowd: "Surprise!" She had managed to amass around half of the metro PD for the party; if you were a criminal looking for trouble, you might wish to seize the moment.

Hunter looked stunned, a small smile playing at his lips. He turned around to look at her. "You did this?"

She nodded, delighted. "I did have some help," she said as Kitty O'Hearn stepped forward from the group.

Kitty placed a gold paper crown on his head and a noisy smooch on his cheek. "Happy birthday, old man," she said. Then she went right past him to McCall. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes! Sweetie, you look amazing." She hugged McCall tight, rocking her slightly in the process. McCall did her best to return the hug without losing her balance.

The rest of them swarmed in, then, shaking Hunter's hand and slapping his back, only to push beyond him to welcome her home. The physical crush and outpouring of emotion was almost too much for her. In no time at all, they had her backed up into the door again, kissing her cheek and grabbing her free hand for heartfelt squeezes. She understood their overwhelming relief at seeing her walking around again; her brush with death had made them all vulnerable.

Hunter let it go on for a few minutes before intervening. "All right, all right, she's here for the duration, folks. Let's maybe step back and give her some air, okay?" He managed to clear them all but Kitty, who had linked her arm through McCall's. Hunter peered down at them each in turn. "You two look pretty pleased with yourselves."

"I may have had some free time on my hands," McCall said, smiling.

"That, and a worrying ability to keep a secret." He leaned down and held Kitty's face in his hands. "Thank you," he said, kissing her briefly. Then he moved to McCall. "And thank you." He lingered with her kiss just a bare moment longer, and his thumb stroked once over the cheek that Kitty could not see. She felt her face warm as she pulled free.

He wedged himself between both women, an arm around each. "Let's get this party started, shall we?"

There was beer on tap and unlimited plates of deep fried goodies – plus a tray of sliced vegetables for Hunter. Sweet Home Alabama blasted over the stereo, and the music did in fact take her home. She could not participate in the dancing or the surprisingly competitive games of pool that broke out at the back, but she could eat and laugh and catch up with all her friends.

Charlie Devane showed up about an hour in, and he did not even bother with Hunter first. For a large, beefy man, he had the gentlest touch as he gave her a careful hug. "I can't stay long," he said as he took the bar stool next to hers, "but I had to come to see if the rumors were true. It's so good to see you back on your feet."

"Thanks," she said, ducking her head. "It feels pretty good too."

"Hunter tells me they're springing you soon."

"Day after tomorrow." She looked over to where Hunter was deep in conversation with Bill Musco. The crown was now tilted to one side, making him look like a naughty prince.

Charlie followed her gaze. "No one wants you back more than he does," he told her. "He's been kind of a lost soul in your absence."

"He said that you wanted to give him a new partner." She could not hide the tightness in her voice.

"Yeah, and I almost went through with it about a dozen times."

She regarded him with interest. He shrugged and yanked at his tie.

"Figured I might lose the both of you if I did," he said.

Hunter ambled over at that point and helped himself to one of her nachos. "Captain," he said with his mouth full. "I hear it's good luck to kiss the birthday boy." He tapped his cheek. "Go on, lay one on me."

Charlie looked at him over the rim of a full mug. "There isn't enough beer in all the land," he replied.

The music shifted into Can't Get No Satisfaction as some more people joined them at the bar. "You know, I remember my fortieth birthday," Brad Navarro said. "Kathy and I took this cruise to Jamaica, and she wore this tiny little white bikini pretty much the entire time…" He gestured at himself for emphasis, and Kitty gave him a playful shove. He laughed and grabbed one of Hunter's celery sticks. "Best present I ever got."

"My fortieth birthday was just another Tuesday," said Ambrose Finn. "Just the way I like it."

"I spent mine in Ireland," Charlie said as he accepted a second draft of beer. "We were supposed to be sightseeing, but we pretty much ended up just doing this in various tiny pubs." He took a long swig, and Hunter laughed gently.

"Blending right in with the natives, then," he said. McCall wondered if the "we" in Charlie's trip included his ex-wife, and if so, at what point she had become an ex. Another beer or two and she just might get the story out of him.

"I can think of worse ideas than getting blotto for your fortieth," Kitty said with a sigh. "I have five years to prepare, and I think I may need every one of them. Forty is…well, you can't pretend you're young anymore, right?"

"Speak for yourself," Hunter said, waving a carrot stick at her. "I am fresh as a spring daisy."

Kitty nudged McCall. "What about you? Any plans for forty?"

She considered saying that she was pleased to have the chance to be forty, but she figured that was understood. She tried instead to imagine herself there, nine years into the future. Nine years ago, she had been a newly minted college graduate, sure she was going to start her career first, then find a husband and have a couple of kids. But she'd found the husband before the career, only to lose him unspeakably young – another person never to see forty, she noted – and wind up co-anchoring the most successful team that Metro Homicide had ever seen. Losses and gains, yin and yang, and a life she had never expected. Yet somehow, she'd ended up right where needed to be.

You see? Irene had said. They all lived happily ever after.

"I think," McCall said aloud, "I think maybe I'd like to go to Paris."

Hunter met her gaze, his eyes knowing and tender, and she felt herself flush under the weight of their shared memory.

"I love Paris," Kitty interjected with her customary enthusiasm. "If you go, there is this little hotel not far from the Seine that has the most unbelievable claw foot bathtub. You can fit three people in there at once."

"Are you saying you actually tested its capacity?" Navarro wanted to know.

Kitty smiled and popped a cherry tomato into her mouth. "A lady never reveals all."

"Yeah?" her partner returned. "You see a lady around here anyplace?"

"That's my cue to leave," Ambrose said as he set his empty mug on the bar. He shook Hunter's hand. "Best of everything to you, sir," he said, and then he leaned down to kiss McCall's cheek. "So good to see you well again," he murmured near her ear. "You give me hope for miracles."

She drew back to regard him, noticing for the first time how tired his eyes seemed. "Ambrose? Everything okay?"

He waved her off. "Yeah. We'll talk another time. See you back at the ranch soon, all right?" He kissed her again quickly and then left.

"I'm off too," Charlie said as he slid from the stool. "You all better get home safe, you hear?"

"I'm the designated driver," McCall said, and he made a face.

"Ha, ha. Glad to know you've kept your sense of humor." He saluted Hunter briefly. "Sergeant. Here's to another forty. Good night, and good luck."

"Thanks, Charlie." He took the seat next to hers, so close his knee rested between her parted legs. She felt the rough slide of denim against her bare skin.

Around them, the speakers crooned out the Pet Shop Boys. You've got a heart of glass or a heart of stone…Just you wait 'til I get you home…We've got no future, we've got no past…Here today, built to last…

"You throw a heck of a party." Hunter leaned in so far she had to back up or risk bumping into him.

"Mmm, thanks. Sorry to be such a distraction," she replied, waving even now at people just arriving. "The timing was unfortunate."

He shook his head slightly, his gaze holding hers. "They're just glad to see you," he murmured. "I know how that feels."

She looked down, hiding the pink in her cheeks as Kitty and Brad were still looking on. Bill Musco picked that moment to join the group. He had a pool cue in his hands and his face was ruddy, whether from victory or from alcohol she did not know. "The game's about over," he said. "Hunter's got the winner."

She lifted her eyebrows at him. "You're playing pool?"

"Play? Play is for mere amateurs." He cracked his knuckles for show. "I'm about to take them all to school. You should come watch and learn."

Kitty took up her beer. "This I have to see."

McCall agreed and got her cane. They crossed to the smoky back of the bar, where they took side-by-side stools as Hunter selected his weapon of choice. "I'm taking action," Bill said, counting out a bunch of small bills. "You want in?"

"Give me five on whoever is playing Hunter," she said, amused. She had never even heard him mention pool before, and she'd seen his skills with trashcan basketball. It was all the same physics, right?

"You wound me, McCall," he said as he chalked up the end of his cue. He walked over and stood right in front of her. Werewolves of London had started playing over the speakers; maybe that was why he looked a little dangerous. "Prepare to kiss your money goodbye."

McCall exchanged a look with Kitty as Hunter bent over the table right in front of them, his tight jeans riding lower while he lined up the shot. He broke the balls apart with a smooth, even stroke. "Two ball, center pocket," he said, and shifted to take the shot. The two ball obediently sank where he put it.

She shook her head and grinned that he could still surprise her after their years together. "I think I've been had," she told Kitty.

"No, if I'd have had you, you would know," he returned without slowing down.

This time she did blush, and Kitty laughed. Not for the first time, McCall remembered that Hunter had had Kitty at least once, and probably more often than that.

Ahwooo, howled Warren Zevon in song as Hunter sunk another shot. Werewolves of London. Another ball rolled into the pocket, and Hunter threw his head back and howled along. McCall gasped with laughter as Kitty doubled over next to her. "You think he's having a good time?" Kitty asked with tears in her eyes.

"Watch it or I'll come bite you both," he said, and they lost it again.

Hunter soundly defeated Jerry Crawford and strolled over with his pool cue to gloat. "Where did you learn to do that?" McCall asked him.

"Misspent youth," he replied, looking her up and down.

"That was some display, man." Brad clapped him on the shoulder. "Remind me never to play you for real money."

"Speaking of, pay up," Hunter told her, holding out his hand.

"Fine." She sighed and reached for her purse.

Brad tried to push another beer into his hand. "You deserve a cold one after that show you put on."

Hunter shook his head. "I've had my limit. I'm driving McCall back to Long Beach tonight."

"I'll do it," Kitty offered. "It is your birthday after all."

"No!" he blurted, and McCall froze with her open purse in hand. "I mean – thanks, but it's okay. I know the way and all. Plus, Bruno the Night Nurse – he and I are like this." He crossed his fingers in demonstration.

Kitty was watching him curiously as he stammered out his excuses. "Uh-huh. Forget I asked."

McCall cleared her throat and counted out his five dollars in crisp singles. "You earned it," she admitted grudgingly.

He waggled his eyebrows at her. "I know just what to do with it, too," he said. "Come with me."

McCall shrugged at the others as if to say: what can you do? It was his birthday. She followed him through the crowd until they reached the automatic photo booth near the restrooms. "Oh, I don't know," she said as he fed dollars into the machine. The both of them would barely fit in the narrow confines.

"Come on, Sergeant, make my night."

She bit her lip and set her cane outside before plunging into the darkness with Hunter behind the curtain. He set her on his knee and she looped her arms around his shoulders so she wouldn't fall over. "Finally," he said. "A way to be alone with you."

She giggled as he nipped at her. "You're crazy," she murmured just before he kissed her. She opened immediately, as hungry for it as he was. They kissed slowly and deeply, until they had used up half the air in the tiny room. Her heart was pounding as they parted, and she licked her lips, leaning her head against his.

He stroked the curve of her jaw with one finger. "I like you best of all," he whispered, and she squeezed her eyes shut in answer. It was madness, sitting here like this with half their department just outside the curtain.

"We have to get back," she said finally.

"We have to take the picture." She felt him lean over and hit the buttons. The lights came up and she could see his face at last.

"Happy birthday," she said softly, and he graced her with one of his rare, true smiles.

No one was watching in any obvious fashion as they left the booth. Hunter went to the restroom while she waited around for the photos to print. She scooped up the strip immediately and checked it out with a quick glance. They weren't actively kissing, but they might as well have been. Their arms were around one another, heads leaned together, completely consumed in the moment. His crown threatened to slip right off his head. She shoved the incriminating evidence in her bag and tucked her hair behind her ear. The camera might not lie but it sure had a big mouth.

"Rick disappear on you?" Kitty materialized at her elbow. "I'm still good for that ride home if you need it."

"Thanks, he'll be back in a sec."

"You guys taking off, or do you have time for one more?" She nodded at the bar.

"A soda water, sure." She took out her painkillers – downgraded to prescription-strength ibuprofen – and shook them inside the bottle.

Kitty looked at her. "Did it hurt?" she asked softly.

"The actual shot? No. I didn't feel a thing. I don't even remember it happening, actually." She sighed. "I guess there are worse ways to go. If I hadn't woken up, I never would have known the difference."

"Don't even talk like that," Kitty said as they sat.

"Oh, believe me, I'm happier it turned out this way. It's just…I don't know. We've all seen some pretty horrible exits, right? This was at least peaceful."

"Maybe for you," Kitty said. She looked over her shoulder a moment. "But not for everyone else."

"Yeah." She looked at her lap. "I know."

"I'm glad we did this," she said, touching McCall's knee. "It's good to see him happy - to see you both happy."

McCall smiled in answer and then paused to swallow her pills. "Can I ask you something?" she asked as she set her water down again.

"Anything," Kitty replied without hesitation.

"When you and Hunter were together…"

Kitty laughed. "I wouldn't say we were exactly together," she said, and McCall suppressed an eye roll. Apparently there was a lot of this going around.

"Weren't you concerned about the fraternization policies?"

"Nope." Kitty took another sip of beer and licked the foam from her lips. "I mean, we were working a single case together. Technically, I guess it was against policy but I've never been one for technicalities. The LAPD can tell me what to do from eight to six. After that, I make my own decisions." She looked sideways at McCall. "So, you and Rick, then?"

"Um, I don't know what you mean." She took up her water again as Kitty snickered.

"Okay, we can play it that way if you want to. I won't say anything." She turned around again, and McCall shifted to look as well. This time, Hunter was there across the room, clearly looking for her. They locked eyes and he regarded her with naked appreciation. He jerked a nod at the door, lifting his eyebrows in question. Time to get out of here?

She nodded, and Kitty sighed. "Yup," she said, almost to herself. "Never looked at me like that."

They said their goodbyes and escaped into the cool night air. Hunter helped her into the car and then knelt down next to her. She put her hand on the top of his crowned head. "Some detective," she said affectionately. "I got you good."

"I've been a little preoccupied lately," he said. He took her hand down from his head and kissed the center of her palm. "Let's get you home, hmm?"

She yawned as he shut the door. The painkillers had started to ease the ache that had been building in her neck all evening. Four hours of working hard to maintain her balance, all the while carrying on a couple of conversations at once, left her lightheaded with fatigue. Her eyes were already closed as she felt the car roar to life beneath her. She was asleep before they hit the freeway.

Back at the rehab center, she awoke to the feel of his hand on her cheek. "Home sweet home," he said. "At least for one more day."

She smiled at him sleepily and rubbed her eyes. This was home to her, sitting with him in a parked car in the dark. "It's almost midnight," she said, observing the dashboard clock. "You have four minutes of birthday left."

"Better make the most of them then," he replied as he closed in on her. They kissed warmly for a few moments, with more affection than passion, until she broke off in another yawn.

"Sorry," she said as he chuckled against her hair. "I think I'm all partied out."

He took the crown from his head and placed it on hers. "C'mon, birthday girl, let's get you to bed."

In her room, she was relieved to see him taking off his shoes and preparing to stay. There was still one last piece of business she wanted to address with him, and the minor apprehension she felt was enough to perk her up just slightly. She managed to get most of the way dressed but fumbled the buttons on her top. "Come here," he ordered from the chair.

"I can do it," she protested as he started closing the gap in her pajamas.

"Yes, and then we can both go to bed at two in the morning," he replied. "You're not the only one who's exhausted here."

She touched his face briefly and nodded. He had worked himself to the bone and then she had rewarded him with a bunch of trips up and down the 405. The least she could do was let him get some rest.

They drew the curtain and crawled into bed together. She practically moaned at how good it felt to be lying down again, especially next to him. She felt sleep threatening to pull her under and knew she had to talk fast. "Was it a happy birthday?"

He rubbed his cheek against the top of her head and hugged her tight. "I got everything I wanted."


"Hmm?" He sounded half-asleep already too.

"I have just one more night here." She began tracing gentle circles on his back. "And I don't know what it will be like, for us, once I go home."

He snuffled against her sleepily. "Probably like old times."

"Yeah." She paused, trying to figure out what to say next. "Before we go back, I thought maybe we could spend one last night together." She felt some tension creep back into him, but he held completely still. "We never got the chance to…you know, be together. Fully."

He shifted so he could look down at her in the inky darkness. "Sergeant McCall, are you asking me to go all the way with you?"

For once, she ignored the humor. "It's our last chance," she said softly. "And I didn't want to leave this behind without knowing what it's like to feel you…everywhere."

He dropped his head next to hers with a groan. "You are trying to kill an old man on his birthday, aren't you?"

She smiled against his neck and let her hand drift under the edge of his T-shirt. "Is that a yes?"

He raised up enough to kiss her, softly at first, and then with deepening hunger. When he pulled away, they were both breathing hard. She touched his full mouth with one finger. "I think that's a yes," she said, both pleased and amused.

"Of course it's a yes," he said. He kissed her forehead. "Of course." He drew her against him once more as they settled back in for sleep. She closed her eyes, but his voice made her open them again. "You maybe, um, want to get a hotel?" he asked.

"I thought about that," she said with a sigh. "But I have PT and various doctor's appointments all day tomorrow – one last round of checkups before they can release me. As nice as it would be to get out of here, I wonder how much energy I am going to have left at the end of the day. I'd kind of like to save it for…other things."

"Oh, yeah? Like what?"

She smiled into his shirt. "Oh, this, for instance." She placed one foot on the bed for leverage and used her newfound lower body strength to arch her spine completely, bringing their entire bodies into full contact.

Hunter groaned again. "You are trying to kill me. I knew it. Okay, okay, I'm convinced. Back here tomorrow night for lights out."

"Don't be late."

"How about early?" he asked. "Can I be early?"

She laughed, delighted, and they hugged each other tight.


His typing was even more haphazard than usual. Every few letters, he glanced up at the clock, convinced that time was actually moving backwards. It was a little ridiculous how excited he was. You would think he'd never had sex before. He already knew her intimately, given the way they had explored each other in the dark. The big lines, they had crossed them long ago, so thoroughly that this last one might not matter at all.

Except. Except he kept staring across at her empty chair. He looked so long and hard that he could imagine her there, smell her perfume and catch the hint of her smile that said she knew he was watching her. I want to feel you everywhere.

"You'll have her again soon."

The Captain's voice jolted him back to reality. "Uh, what?" God, was it five o'clock yet? Now he was getting boners just from the office furniture.

"I said you'll have her back soon," Charlie said, frowning at him. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, fine." He scrubbed his face with both hands and was glad he was sitting down. His brain didn't seem to care at all that the Captain was standing right there. It continued with the fantasy just the same. "Just…tired, I guess."

"Too much birthday," Charlie said knowingly. "Did you get McCall off okay?"

His head snapped up again. "What?"

"Did she get home okay? Jeez, Hunter, you know maybe you should take the day off and go home to bed – consider it a belated birthday present."

He imagined driving down there early and having to look directly at her while they waited an eternity for lights out. The space between dinner and nine-thirty was going to be torture enough as it was. "No, thanks. I'm all right." He took a deep breath and looked at the clock: only four more hours to go.

Friday afternoon traffic snarls kept him away longer than he would have liked, but he still arrived at the rehab center well ahead of their scheduled appointment. He found her sitting on top of her bed, leafing through a magazine. "Hi," she said, giving him a slow smile. "So much for early."

"Four vehicle accident going north," he said as he closed the door. "The medic chopper actually landed on the freeway."

"It's amazing you made it at all then."

He sat down on the bed with her. "Oh, I would have gotten out and walked if I had to." She wore a long black knit skirt that seemed to be inviting him to slip his hand under it, and he was not one to refuse an invitation. Her breath caught as he trailed his fingers up her bare leg, pausing at her knee. "Just for the record," he told her in a low voice, "it's unfair to post-date sexual encounters beyond, oh, four hours. I had to go to work today, you know."

She laughed and scooted a little closer. "Poor baby. Hard, was it?"

"Charlie tried to send me home to bed."

"Hmm, bed," she said, stroking the side of his face. "What an interesting idea."

"Allow me to demonstrate." He pushed her back roughly into the pillows, and she yelped in surprise. She curled away from him, giggling as he climbed over her. He practically growled into her neck as he settled his body on top of hers.

"Not yet." She was breathless, and her body betrayed her words, arching into his touch.

"It's okay. I put out the sign." He tried to kiss her but she ducked her head.

"Not while people are still walking around in the hallway," she said, and he rolled away with an exasperated groan. She cuddled in next to him, her cheek to his chest. "I want to take off all our clothes," she explained as she traced a gentle circle on his ribs.

Oh my God. She was actively trying to drive him mad. "Woman," he said, screwing his eyes shut, "you need to stop talking if I am going to make it one more hour."

"Hmm, okay." He felt her shift, and then her mouth closed over his. She tasted sweet, like the mint iced tea from the dining room, and he moaned with unrestrained lust.

"You… you said not yet," he said when she pulled away. Her dark eyes sparkled with equal parts merriment and desire.

"I said nothing that requires removing all our clothing," she countered. "But if you'd rather wait…"

He yanked her back down next to him, smothering her laugh with his mouth. He kissed her slowly, over and over, until she had almost disappeared into the pillows. They rolled together, her skirt riding up between them. He had learned just how far they could go without ever getting undressed.

Soon her bra was open beneath her sweater. Her restless hands skimmed the waistband of his jeans as he brought each nipple to attention in his palm. He stroked her side, her hip, murmuring encouragement against her lips as she started a slow grind against his thigh. He put his hand down the back of her skirt, his fingers digging into the bare skin of her bottom as he urged her on. Then her tongue found the hollow of his throat and he thought he might lose it right there.

He twisted her panties in his grasp and started easing them down. She made a choked noise against his neck. "Off?" he said, his voice little more than a rasp.

She nodded frantically. Thank God he wasn't alone in his desperation, but it was still half an hour until lights out.

He held her in the crook of one arm as he slipped his hand back under her skirt, brushing the petal soft skin of her inner thighs. They kissed some more while he started to touch her. He knew all the spots by now, and it was fun to tease her a little bit.

"Fuck," she muttered when he dipped his fingers in gently to find where she was wet and ready for him.

He grinned against the side of her neck. "Not yet," he reminded her.

Her hips shoved into his hand with surprising force, and he realized anew that she was healthy again. He rubbed his fingers over her in the rhythm she liked, and soon she was tense beneath him. "Wait," she said, holding his face.

He stilled his motions. "What?"

"I…I'm too close."

He nuzzled her damp, tender cheek. "It's okay," he said as he started stroking her again. "We have all night."

"I, oh…" Her eyes fluttered closed again. "I wanted to be with you."

"You are with me," he breathed, coaxing her some more. "Open…open. That's it." Her mouth parted the moment he kissed her, and he rewarded her with a slow caress with his tongue. His erection throbbed in time with his pounding heart, but chasing her orgasm distracted him from his own.

Still, she seemed to be fighting it. "S'not fair," she said as she stroked his back and his arm.

Honestly, it was better this way. At this point if he lasted two minutes, they would be doing well. Plus, he was not a small man, and she would need to be as relaxed and open as possible. Even now she was impossibly hot and tight around his fingers… "Shh," he murmured, moving in rhythm with her. They always told each other the truth. "Let go. It'll make it easier later, when I come inside you."

That was all it took. She bit back a sob as she jerked and came in his arms. It was still the most amazingly beautiful sight, and he felt like a god that he was able to make this happen, over and over. He hugged her and stroked her as she calmed again. She quieted, her breathing evening out, and he realized she had dozed off.

I'm just that good, he thought with an ironic smile. He unsnapped his jeans for a bit of relief and checked the clock: twenty minutes to go. Long enough, he supposed, for her to grab a nap. He kissed her temple and tried to think of anything besides what they would be doing when she woke up.

He waited ten minutes after the lights went out and then bent to kiss her cheek. She roused easily, winding her arms around his neck. "Oh, good, I didn't miss it," she whispered, and he gave her a playful nudge.

"I like my women conscious, thank you," he said. His eyes drifted shut as her hand went between them to find where he had gotten a head start on the clothing removal. He hissed when she made contact with his bare skin. "Careful," he said. "Too much of that and it will be over before we get started."

"Then let's get started."

He had been started since about dawn, so he had no objections. She helped him off with his T-shirt and he removed the pants. Then finally, he had the immense pleasure of slipping her sweater over her head and tugging off her skirt. He draped the sheet back over them, and she giggled. "I hardly think it matters now," she said.

He took her in his arms again, reveling in the full skin-to-skin contact. She wound her legs around him, and his cock jumped like a fish against her thigh. They kissed until the air between them grew warm and thick. He wanted to be inside her so badly that it was starting to ache all the way to his toes. But this was his one chance. A few more minutes and it would all be over.

Her hips had started a slow undulation against him, drawing him in like the tide. She gasped as he slid unerringly into place. "Please," she murmured, stroking the side of his face. "Let's not wait."

He was dizzy and hot. He could not think of a reason to say no. His hand trembled a little as he put on the condom, and he shifted over her once more. Wait, he thought. One chance. He ignored his quivering cock and pulled her into a loving embrace, nose-to-nose with their legs mingling under the sheets. "I want this to be good for you," he said.

"It is," she said, her breath warm on his face. They kissed some more and he could not help himself; he started to rub himself between her legs.

There were other things he was supposed to say, but words were starting to elude him. "I want you," she said as she arched against him. "Please."

This was it. He grit his teeth as he started to slide inside her. She shifted her legs farther apart to ease the way. Slowly, he pushed deeper, then deeper still, trying to pay attention for any sign of pain from her, but her eyes were closed and her neck was arched in pure pleasure. It was almost over right then and there. He released a long, shuddering breath and bent his head to hers. "I feel you," he said. "Everywhere."

She made an incoherent sound and buried her face against his shoulder. He stroked her hair back until she shifted to look at him again. "It's almost… too much," she confessed as she ran her hands over his shoulders.

"I know." Consummation at last.

He started to move gently, and her lashes lowered once more. Emotion welled within him. This might be one night, but it was no one-night stand. He meant it forever. His hips picked up pace as the storm gathered inside him. "Love you," he muttered desperately, "always." It would kill him if somehow she did not know.

She nodded and held onto him tightly. "Always."

He had only a few more thrusts to find the angle that made her squirm. Here? There? Suddenly his back arched and he was out of time. He screwed his eyes shut and drove for home. Orgasm shattered him from the inside out, making him gasp and rattle like a dying man. He shook and shook, pouring years of blood, sweat and yearning deep inside her body. She held him close and stroked his head in the sparking aftermath.

He recovered enough to push upwards on one arm and kiss her warmly. He caressed her breast, his fingers finding one peaked nipple, and her hips jerked where he was still half-hard inside her. He didn't know if she had come, but he also knew by now it did not matter.

He ran his fingertips lightly over her bruised lips until she opened her mouth to nip at him. He slipped a finger inside and she licked him quite thoroughly. Then he took his moistened finger and put it back between their bodies, just above the place where they were still joined. She hissed with pleasure and tossed her head against the pillow. It took only a few moments of touching before she came with a soft cry, rippling around him in gentle waves.

They rested together, naked and illicit under the thin sheet. "This," he said when he could talk again, "this was a good idea you had."

"It seemed important to know everything that we'll be missing," she replied with a yawn.

He shushed her with a finger to her lips. "Stop that. It's not time for the missing yet."

She gave a slow smile and drew him down to lie against the soft pillow of her breasts. Her heartbeat, the one he hadn't been able to find, thrummed steady and strong beneath his ear. He closed his eyes and listened to it count down the passing minutes to when they would have to be separate again. He would no longer be able to put his hands on her, to feel the warm pulse humming just beneath her pale skin.

But he would look at her, and he would know. She lived, and thus so did he.

Chapter Six

She returned home to the place of her near-death, which seemed frozen in time, still trapped in that moment. The room was hot and stale, her plants wilting; someone had turned off the air conditioning long ago. Her coffee table was covered in two months' worth of junk mail. She glanced at the floor, just barely allowing herself to look, but she saw no traces of blood.

Suzy had died just a few feet away, another ghost in her life, another soul she did not save. They would have to live here together now, her and the dead woman she might have been.

Her mother fussed around her for a while, trying to make her rest, but eventually realized the futility of the effort and frowned with her arms folded. "Maybe you should use the guest room for a while," she said, "so you don't have to climb the stairs."

"I am sleeping in my own bed tonight," McCall replied as she bent down to smile at her fish, still swimming happily in their tank. "I don't care if takes me two hours to get there."

"Then maybe I should use the guest room," her mother retorted. "That way there is someone to call 911 when you fall and break your neck."

McCall rolled her eyes. "I'm fine, Mom, at least nearly so. Pretty soon you are going to have to face the facts: I lived."

Her mother's face flushed hot. "It's nice that you can be so cavalier about it, but the rest of us have some catching up to do."

McCall turned and walked back across the room so she could put an arm around her mom. "I'm sorry," she said, contrite. "I don't mean to pretend it hasn't been hard. I just meant, you know, the worst is over. It's going to be okay."

"Is it?" Her mother's jaw was set with repressed emotion as she brushed Dee Dee's hair away from her face. "Maybe for now. Until next time."

McCall sighed and pulled away. She sat perched on the wide arm of the nearest overstuffed chair. It wasn't like she had a good argument to allay her mother's fears, but they'd been having some version of this conversation ever since Steve was killed.

Her mother looked at the floor for a long moment, and then reached into her skirt pocket. She withdrew what looked like a short white piece of paper, which she clutched for a second before turning it over for McCall to see. It was the photo strip taken the night of Hunter's birthday party. "Where did you get that?" McCall asked, reaching to snatch it away.

Her mother put up no resistance. "You asked me earlier to get your pills from your purse, and there it was."

McCall closed her eyes, mentally kicking herself for her forgetfulness. Her mother walked to the couch and began fluffing the cushions – which was totally unnecessary given that no one had sat on them in the last two months.

She peeked at the black-and-white photographs, and they were as incriminating as ever: the two of them more interested in each other than in the camera, his crown tilted from their illicit make-out session and her hand at the base of his neck. She remembered him just a few hours earlier, naked in her bed as the first streaks of dawn lightened the sky.

"What are you doing?" she'd asked against his mouth.

"Kissing you some more while I still can."

"Is it because of him?" her mother asked tightly, not looking at her. "Is he the reason you're so willing to risk your life, time and time again?"

She held her head in her hands, considering. She probably would not go back to Homicide if it weren't for Hunter, but that had more to do with how well they worked together than any personal feelings she might have for him. She would hardly have any idea how to do her end of the job without him holding up the other side. "Not…not in the way you're suggesting," she said finally, and her mother regarded her with a pleading expression.

"Then explain it to me," she said, "because I just do not understand."

McCall took a deep breath and then paused. She spread her hands. "I'm really good at what I do," she said simply. "I know it's not the career you and Dad would have chosen for me, but I love it, I'm good at it, and it's important work. Dangerous people are off the streets because of what I do." She hesitated again as her mother shook her head, unmoved. "Other people are alive today because of me," she said quietly. "And yes, Hunter is one of them."

Her mother looked her over searchingly. "And it's the same for him," she said, not really asking a question.

McCall nodded anyway. "Yes."

Her mother's shoulders slumped a little and she lowered herself to the freshly fluffed couch. "I don't doubt you have made a difference in the world," she said eventually. "I just wish there were a safer way to do it."

"I'm as careful as I can be," McCall replied as she moved to sit on the other end of the couch. She smiled. "The work might be crazy, but I'm not foolish – my mother raised me better than that."

Her mother gave a thin-lipped smile in return and glanced at the photograph strip in McCall's hand. "And what of that?" she said, nodding at it.

McCall ducked her head and hid the photos against her leg. They seemed to burn through fabric of her jeans. "It's nothing," she said, and her mother snorted.

"Sure, it's nothing. The last time I saw you like that with a man, you ended up married to him."

"I don't – I'm not marrying Hunter." As far as she knew, he wasn't interested in marrying anyone.

Her mother looked pensive for a moment, then she reached over and gently turned McCall's wrist so that the photos were facing up again. "From everything that's happened, I wonder if it even matters."

"What do you mean?"

Her mother pulled away with a small sigh. "If I gave you life first, then he gave it back to you – on your birthday no less." She touched McCall's cheek gently. "So I guess maybe, somehow, we have to share you now."


If Hunter owned part of her, then he was a relatively absentee landlord over the next few weeks. He stopped by early on with groceries, vegetables mostly, albeit friendly ones such as fat summer tomatoes and tender, buttery lettuce. "You have to eat well to get well," he had informed her, but she'd discovered a Godiva chocolate bar at the bottom of it all and knew he still cared.

At night she rolled around in her too-large bed, unused to all this freedom after sleeping wedged between Hunter and the guardrails, so close she could smell him on her skin. No wonder they had ended up having sex. She wondered if he still thought about it too, kissing to keep quiet as they eased aside their clothes in the dark. Her body, healthy again, was achy and restless; all that work and now no play. It took its revenge in her bed every night, teasing her with sensual memories until she throbbed from head to toe. Remember what you're missing.

During the day, she had outpatient therapy, and it became clear it was working when she got up from the couch one night to get a glass of water and did not think to grab the cane. Running followed walking; soon she could drive a car and hold a pencil, skills coming back in rapid succession. Only one lingering concern remained, gathering dust against the wall in her quiet house.

Finally, she approached her piano with some trepidation. She hovered over it, picking out the opening melody to Für Elise one-handed. When that went okay, she sat down and played through the entire piece, slowly but with no mistakes. The final haunting notes still hung in the air as she leaned down, weak with relief, and rested her head against the music stand. At last, she was home.

On Saturday, she was ticking down the time before she had to requalify for active duty by reading a book on her couch when there was a knock at her door. She had a brief flare of hope that it might be Hunter but knew the sound was too tentative to be her assertive, six-and-a-half foot tall partner. She checked the peephole and it took her a moment to place the young man standing on the other side. Then she smiled as she opened the door for Irene Dunlop's son.

"Nick," she said. "Hi." They had met briefly at the funeral but she had no idea if he even remembered their interaction. Steve's funeral had been a total daze for her.

"Hi," he said, giving her an awkward smile. He wore a Cal Tech T-shirt and wire-rimmed glasses, but behind the lenses were Irene's familiar hazel eyes. In his hands was a large, rectangular package wrapped in brown paper. "Sorry to just show up like this, but I didn't know your phone number."

"It's okay, please come in." He stood just over the threshold until she shepherded him into her living room, package and all. "Can I get you anything – coffee, a soda?" She paused. "Brownies?"

He blanched a little, and she felt bad about teasing him. Just a little bad, though, because Irene would have found it hysterical. "Uh, no thanks. I can't really stay."

"Well, please sit for a minute at least." She curled her legs under her as he hesitantly lowered himself into one of her armchairs. "How are you doing?" she asked.

"Okay," he said automatically, ducking his head. Sandy brown hair fell across his eyes, indicative of a long-overdue haircut. "I mean, we all knew this was coming, right? She'd been sick since I was fourteen."

"I don't know if that makes it any easier," she replied gently.

He nodded and looked around at her walls. "I went to the cemetery the other day and sat there – it must have been at least two hours. I know that's where she is because I saw them put her in the ground." He looked at the floor. "I waited and waited, but I couldn't feel anything. It was so quiet, and Mom was never quiet. I just…I don't know how often I'll go back there." He glanced at her. "That sounds horrible, doesn't it."

"No, it's not horrible at all." She regarded him with sympathy. "I didn't know your mom very long, but I know she wanted more than anything for you to be happy – she wouldn't want you hanging around her grave."

"That's what Dad says too."

McCall was a bit surprised to hear this, given what Irene had said about Daniel. Maybe Nick's father would be able to fill in some of the emotional void after all. "She loved you very much," she said, affection for the boy she barely knew cutting her surprisingly deep.

"I know." He gave her a faint smile. "She told me all the time." Then he heaved a sigh and took up the package. "She left this for you," he told her as he handed it across. "She left a bunch of them to different people, and I've been delivering them as I get the chance. I suppose I could've just put them in the mail…"

"I'm glad you didn't." She carefully removed the paper wrapping and turned the canvas around. "Oh," she said, smiling through sudden tears when she saw which one it was: the seascape from Cape Cod – a different ocean from the one she loved, but still just as blue.

"Wait, I don't get it. It's unfinished." Nick frowned as he got up to stand next to her. "My Dad wrapped them up, so I didn't realize. Maybe I got the wrong one."

"No," she said, reaching for his hand. She squeezed him. "No, it's the right one. She was working on this one during the time I knew her." She decided not to mention the part about how it depicted the spot of his conception.

Nick still looked confused. "She has a hundred completed ones, though – they're really good. I don't understand why she would give you a painting that wasn't done yet."

The artful ocean glinted with flecks of white and yellow, and she could almost feel the tall grass waving against her skin, smell the salt of the sea. The bottom right corner was just a pencil sketch, waiting for color and a signature that would never come. McCall blinked back her tears and squeezed Nick's hand once more. "It's because your mom knew," she said. "Not everything has to be finished to be beautiful."


The city was frying under a hot summer sun. Inside the precinct, the air conditioners could barely keep up with the three-digit temperatures, and cops and criminals alike draped themselves over chairs, too hot to argue with one another. Hunter spent the day wilting under the useless breeze of the fan he had purloined from her desk.

At quitting time, he went out into the wall of heat, the sun still blazing in the sky. He paused to put on his sunglasses and went in search of his car, already mentally blasting the A/C for the ride home. He stopped short when he saw her there, leaning back on his hood like a pin-up girl. The heat had not touched her a bit, it seemed, with her tailored black shorts and sleeveless pink sweater. She shaded her eyes with one hand and gave him a dazzling smile. "Hi, partner."

He grinned. "I take it you passed."

"Oh, I did more than pass, big guy. I beat my original scores." She slid off his car, looking immensely pleased with herself. "I'm not sure you're going to be able to keep up with me now."

"As if I ever could," he replied, humoring her. He would always be quicker and stronger, able to beat her at pretty much any physical challenge. She was better at the puzzle aspect of their job and at reading people, possibly because she did not suspect everyone on first sight. But where he would never hope to keep up was with her pure strength of spirit.

Life started him out hard and then got harder, with a dead father, two uncles in prison and a long, bloody tour in Vietnam. He felt entitled to his scowl. She would be entitled too, given all the violence she had taken inside her, but somehow it never shook the goodness at her core. He'd made love to her at least partly to know what it was like to be in there with her, and now he had to live with the fierce, tender answer.

"I'd better not get back tomorrow to find my desk covered with your paperwork." She smelled like spring rain, and he shoved his hands in his pockets so he would not reach for her.

"You had a desk?" he asked, and she gave him a playful smack. Sweat was starting to bead at the base of his neck. "Well, I guess this calls for a celebration." If relearning how to walk again earned her an ice cream cone, he figured that passing the rigorous qualification exam merited at least one dinner. He checked his watch. "You hungry?"

"Starved." All the merriment was gone from her dark eyes, and he felt the flush spread down his chest.

"Then let's eat."

They went a few blocks away to Morty's steak house, which was blessedly cool. They were seated in an small curved booth that was dressed with a crisp white tablecloth and a real candle. Together, they ordered the surf-n-turf – he the surf, she the turf – and then there was an awkward silence as they looked everywhere but at each other. "So," she said finally, "I guess I should thank you."

He grabbed his water, afraid of where this might be going.

"Rumor has it Lydia Henderson from Robbery is looking to switch teams and made a play for you during my absence. I gather she had some reason to think you might be receptive…"

"Mmm," he said as he put his glass back on the table. "I told her no." He had told her yes last year when she'd proposed an entirely different kind of partnership, but he wasn't about to get into that detail.

"Yes, well, she might need a refresher on 'no means no'," McCall replied, eyeing him speculatively. "She put in for the transfer anyway. I guess not everyone was as convinced as you were that I was coming back."

He was experienced now, and he knew a few things. The three-man rush was a stupid play that gave the quarterback too much time to make a pass. The other checkout line always moved faster, at least until you switched lanes. Never order fish on Sundays. Always bet on Dee Dee McCall.

Their food arrived, and she gave a delighted smile as she picked up her considerable steak knife. "See? I can cut it by myself and everything," she said.

"So you can handle a knife and a gun now," he said wryly. "Lydia better watch herself."

She snorted a laugh. "She's not after me. You think I don't know you had a thing with her?"

Yep, a keen observer of people, she was. It was a wonder he had any secrets left at all. He cracked open the tail on his lobster and dipped the end in butter. "Mmm, this is really good," he said, hoping to change the subject. "You don't know what you're missing."

She glanced at him. "Pass. I've had enough meals involving a bib recently, thank you."

"I see you are making up for lost time," he remarked as he eyed her plate. "Will you be gnawing on the bone, too?"

"Careful," she said. "I'm still holding the knife." But with that, she paused to use her napkin. "You know, that reminds me of a funny story from when my sister-in-law Karen was working as a critic for Forbes Travel Guide. She used to check into fancy hotels and put them through their paces – you know, ordering ice cream and pasta from room service at midnight to see if it was served at the correct temperature, testing the dry cleaning service with a stained sweater, leaving loose change around to see if it disappeared. That sort of thing."

"Rough life."

"Yeah, tell me about it. Anyway, she had to order way more food than she could eat, and so she would take home anything she could. One night, she's in this four-star hotel, eating by herself, and she orders half the menu – including a T-bone steak. She took one bite and discreetly slipped the rest of it into a doggie bag to take home for my brother, right? Well, the waiter came to take her plates away, and he's giving her the usual business about 'was everything okay, ma'am' but she can tell something is wrong. It was only when he started feeling around under the table with his foot that she realized he was looking for the T-bone."

"Ha!" He sat forward with a grin. "Did she tell him where it was?"

"Nope. He probably still thinks she ate it."

"Must run in the family," he said, and she swatted him with her napkin.

He smiled as he ducked out of the way, but truthfully, it was good to see her eating again. Good to be sitting next to her like old times. It was a moment that had felt impossible not too long ago, and now here they were, about to go back to their future. He raised his wine glass, which had about two swallows left. "Partners again," he offered.

She hesitated just a moment before clinking her glass with his. "Partners," she agreed softly.

The waiter took their plates, T-bone and all, and he sat back, pleasantly full. He was going to ask her if she wanted dessert when he noticed she was rubbing one hand at the back of her neck. "Does it still hurt?" he asked, and she jerked away as if embarrassed to be caught.

"Not usually." She looked at her lap. "I have to decide pretty soon if I want plastic surgery to reduce the scar."


She sighed. "I'm not exactly eager for more surgery."

He considered a moment and then slid a bit closer. Gently, he reached under her hair and found the raised edge at her nape. "It doesn't feel so bad," he said as he stroked it carefully. The skin next to it was soft and sensitive, and she shivered under his fingertip massage.

"Hunter…" Her tone was one of warning, but he noticed she leaned her neck to one side so he had better access.

"Hmm?" Now that the barrier was broken, he couldn't seem to stop touching her. Their eyes held as his caresses turned slower and more intimate, the moment stretching between them. He shifted his hand to rest against her warm cheek. She turned her face to his touch and kissed the center of his palm before reaching up to take his hand in hers. They interlaced fingers and toyed with one another's hands, watching each other to see who might pull away first.

"We shouldn't," she murmured finally, but her fingers kept sliding back and forth through his.

"Probably not," he agreed in a low voice. More touching. Their knees brushed together under the table.

"I guess…if you think about it, I guess we're not officially partners again until tomorrow," she said. She licked her lips nervously and he about yanked her into his lap right there.

"That's true." He raised their joined hands to his mouth and pressed a lingering kiss against the inside of her wrist. "We have one more night left to do with what we wish. Unless maybe you already have plans…" He kissed her again and her eyes closed briefly.

"No, no plans." She opened her eyes but did not meet his gaze this time. "I—oh!" She stiffened and pulled away with such alarm that he immediately sat up too. It was the kind of reaction one might have if a gunman came charging through the door.

"What?" he asked, scanning the restaurant for signs of trouble. And then he saw. Charlie Devane, seated not twenty yards away, apparently having dinner with a pretty redhead.

McCall had her eyes trained on the table. "Do you think he saw us?"

Hunter risked a glance and noted that Charlie was on the move in their direction. "Yeah, he saw us," he said, sitting back with a deep sigh. How much of an eyeful their boss had received remained to be seen, but he doubted Charlie could have missed much. He tensed as he awaited the guillotine.

"Detectives," Charlie said, casting a fat shadow over their table. He did not seem too upset. Maybe their flirting had escaped his attention. "I heard the good news this afternoon." He turned to McCall with a warm smile. "Congratulations, and welcome back to active duty."

She smiled too but he could still feel the tension radiating off her as she accepted Charlie's outstretched hand. "Thanks, Captain, and thanks for saving my seat."

"That's all on him," Charlie said, jerking a thumb at Hunter. "He's got crime scene tape all over your chair – police line, do not cross."

She laughed and turned to him. "You did not!"

"Hey, it worked, didn't it?"

Charlie looked from one to the other. "So you're out celebrating the reunification, is that it?"

Hunter shifted away from her just a little bit more. "Something like that." He figured the best defense was a good offense. "So who's your friend over there, Charlie?" he asked, nodding at the woman across the room. She caught him looking and gave a tiny finger wave.

Charlie's expression softened into a smile. "Captain Jill Tyler – she runs the major crimes division at Rampart."

"Well, I think it's a major crime to keep a lady waiting," McCall said.

He frowned at her and seemed like he might say something more. "Okay, then. Enjoy the rest of your meal, but don't stay out too late – after all, you have work in the morning."

McCall answered with a slow smile. "Yes, sir."

They watched him return to his date, where he glanced back once, his expression unreadable. He apparently said something to his companion about them, because she turned to look at them too. Hunter looked away. "I guess we're safe," he muttered.

"Either that or he separates us first thing in the morning," she agreed, still watching the Captain.

Hunter sighed as he felt the earlier promise of the evening slip away. "I guess maybe I'd better get the check and then take you back to your car."

She raised the last of her wine in a regretful salute. "Partners again," she said, and then finished it all.


Returning to work after a three-month absence reminded her of the first day back at school following summer break. Everything was just the same except for a thousand tiny differences, from new haircuts to a different spot for the coffee machine. The cadence of the chatter was familiar but the specific names of the cases she did not recognize. Sergeant Billings had apparently moved on to Vice, and now there was a trim, efficient-looking man sitting in his place.

Hunter, at least, was exactly where she left him, hunched over his desk and chucking half his mail directly into the waste bin. She stopped short when she saw her chair. As promised, it was wrapped with yellow crime scene tape. There were also two stacks of folders about six inches high sitting on her desk. "Cute," she said as she observed the chair. "Now where am I supposed to sit?"

"Allow me," he said gallantly. He got up and easily tore through the crisscrossed mess of tape, unwinding it from her chair and then draping it around her shoulders like a feather boa. "Problem solved."

She still felt a little like a crime scene, with the scar at her neck and the curious onlookers in the station around them. "Very funny," she replied as she removed the tape and put it in the trash. "Now what can you do about these folders?"

"Those are all yours, McCall." He took his seat again and gave her a winning smile. "Welcome back."

She flipped open the top folder and beheld his handwritten scrawls. "Did you do any paperwork while I was away?"

"Just enough," he told her.

She sighed and took her seat. "All right, I suppose you have earned a little freedom from grunt work." She picked out one of his pages of notes and rolled a triplicate incident form into the typewriter. "I see we're commenting on the ingenuity of the perpetrators now?" she asked as she tried to decipher his writing.

He gave her a blank look. "Huh?"

"It says 'murder weapon – clever'. Can't have been too clever if he got caught."

"Oh, no, that's cleaver. You know, like a butcher has."

She wrinkled her nose. "Then I am guessing this brown stain here on the edge isn't coffee."

He opened his mouth when the phone rang. "Saved by the bell," he said as he picked up the receiver. She made no effort to hide the fact that she was listening, eager to pick up the trail of whatever was going on right now. "Okay, Barney, thanks," he was saying. "We'll be right down."

She felt a little frisson of pleasure at the word "we." "What's up?" she asked as he prepared to go.

"Sixteen year old killed two days ago in a drive-by. A good kid, from the sound of things. He was just coming back with a bottle of Coke from the corner store when he got hit in the neck with a 9 millimeter. Barney's finally got the details."

"How awful."

Hunter was going to say something further when his phone rang again. "Hey, Donna, how's it going? You did? That's great news. Yeah, please keep her there. Do not let her out of your sight, okay?"

When he hung up, she raised her eyebrows. "More developments?"

"Working girl by the name of Montana Starr may have witnessed the shooting. She saw something that spooked her because I haven't been able to find her at any of her usual hangouts. Donna Carlisle has her down at the shelter now, so Barney's just going to have to wait."

She stood up followed after him as he started for the exit, keys already in hand. Keeping the M.E. waiting was a sure-fire way to go to the back of the autopsy line. "Why don't I talk to Montana and you meet with Barney?"

He swung the door open into the bright sunshine. "We have time to do both," he said.

"Hunter, wait a second." She finally caught him, pulling him to a stop with a hand at his elbow. "It's not my first day on the job, you know. I'm pretty sure I remember how to conduct an interview."

His expression was unreadable behind his sunglasses. "I know that."

"So let's divide and conquer. I'll talk to Montana, you find out what Barney has to say."

He looked beyond her, back at the precinct. "Tell you what: I'll take Montana. You talk to Barney."

He turned to leave again, but she stopped him. He was always huge and scowly, and so frightened female witnesses had long been her territory. "Hunter. What gives? You wanted me back, right? I'm back. So let me do my job."

"Last I checked, consulting with the coroner was part of your job," he said as he pulled free and walked away from her. "So you go do that, and let me know what you find out."

She caught up with him again at his car, squeezing between him and the door before he could open it. He gave an annoyed sigh and turned his face away from her. "Look, I get that you've been doing this on your own for months now, and if you think it's important that I to talk to Barney, I will – but I have never taken orders from you, and I am not about to start now."

He shook his head. "You don't get it, do you."

"Get what?" Near as she could tell, they'd had sex and now somehow he thought he was in charge.

He put both hands heavy on her shoulders and leaned down towards her. "The last time you went skipping off on your own to interview a witness – a working girl, let's remember – I found you mostly dead on the floor of your living room."

Oh. Right. The irritation drained out of her and she closed her eyes for a long minute. He let go of her, but she could feel him standing there, still remembering. "Hunter," she said at last, and took his hand. "You can't go everywhere with me from now on. And I can't go everywhere with you." She gave him a quick squeeze and then let go. "What happened wasn't your fault."

"I know that," he said, too quickly.

"If we were together then, we might both be dead." He looked away again, and she stretched out a hand to him, almost but not quite touching the vulnerable spot at his middle. "You can't protect me forever," she said finally.

"Just for today." He squinted in the direction of the precinct. "Give me twenty-four hours to get used to the idea, will you?"

Sometimes, when she woke in the night, she thought she could hear the bullet leave the gun. "Okay," she said, relenting. "Okay, I'll talk to Barney – this time."

He looked relieved as he chucked her under the chin and smiled. "Deal. Tomorrow you can have all the prostitutes you want."

"Thank you. I think."

So she went to the morgue and he went to the shelter, and between them, they had the case solved in two days. The shooter was a sixteen-year-old himself, although it had been years since he was a boy. It was hard to feel precisely good about the outcome, but she did feel relieved. Here they were again at the end of a long day, she typing up the report while he read the sports section. Their partnership was healing just like everything else, still a little stiff and sore in spots, but holding firm under pressure.

Hunter must have felt it too, because he set down the paper and regarded her with a warm gaze. "Pretty good work we did there, partner," he said.

"Yeah, I would say so." She pulled the form out of the typewriter with a flourish and set it in the appropriate folder. Then she sighed at the remaining stack on her desk. "Only one hundred and forty-three left to go."

"Not tonight," he said as he started to gather his things. "Come on, I'll buy you a beer."

"Now we know the heat wave has gone on too long," she said wryly. "It's addled your brain." But she smiled and pushed away from her desk.

"Nothing imported though," he said, holding the door for her as they went out into the warm summer evening, and she laughed.

"Oh, no, we wouldn't want to go too crazy." She started for her car but he nudged his fingers between hers and squeezed, stopping her.

"Where are you going?"

She was momentarily distracted by his touch. "Um, that way, remember? I'm parked down the block." The lot had been full when she'd arrived that morning.

"I'll walk you."

She might have protested except they were not-quite-but-almost holding hands. After a few steps, he pulled away again and a wave of loss swept over her, reminding her why this was not a good idea. She halted on the sidewalk and put a hand to her head. "Hunter, on second thought, maybe I should just go home."

He turned from his place a few steps in front of her. "What are you talking about? It's one beer."

She gave him a meaningful look. "Sure, that's how it starts - one beer, one kiss, one night, and we know how it goes on from there. We're not really good at stopping with one of anything." He was silent, a hand on his hip, but unable to argue. "I just think maybe it's too soon," she said eventually.

"Fine," he muttered, and kicked away a small rock. "Whatever you want."

"Hunter…please don't be mad."

"I'm not mad," he said, but his tone belied the words. "I'm just…"

She held her breath but he did not finish. Finally, she had to know. "What?"

"I just wanted to go have a beer with you – like we used to." She swallowed the lump in her throat because she wanted it too. He shook his head. "All these rules we put in place," he said, "and I wonder what the hell they're even protecting anymore."

Chapter Seven

Stopping the sex had always been the easy part, as far as he was concerned. Finding the woman, getting her to bed, these were the challenges. Then it was fun and done, and he never really looked back. With McCall, it was the opposite. He'd had no problem at all finding her – she was right there in front of him – and for weeks, she'd spent more time in bed than out. Now she was walking around again good as new and he was trying to figure out how to exist in a place where he was not supposed to touch her anymore.

It had been weeks since her return and almost three months since their last night together, the time she said they needed to find out what they would be missing. He'd figured he would miss it in a casual way, like the mild regret at the end of a really good movie, or the vague restless feeling when he couldn't get out for his morning run two days in a row. He had not expected to be upended by his contrasting days and nights – one filled with buttoned-up efficiency and the other drenched in naked memory. He tried to tell himself that it was just over a bit too soon, cutoff before they could really tire of one another. He was left with too many unfulfilled fantasies, now with just enough Technicolor sensory information to make them come to brilliant life when he was alone in bed at night. What would they sound like together if there were no one on the other side of an unlocked door?

For her part, McCall seemed unruffled by their intimate past. She sat across from him primly and performed her job as easily as she ever had. No winks. No shared smiles. He didn't know it was possible to miss someone sitting only six feet away, and at times, unfairly, he resented her for it. He was the one who said things like let's sleep on it – together, and she was the one who was supposed to say no. That was how it had worked for almost four years. She was supposed to save him from himself.

No sex for three months. No after-hours friendly wagers on the Dodgers game. He missed both equally and his confusion woke him sweaty in the night, unsure of whether he wanted to fuck her or hold her hand. Maybe both, or neither, or all of it at the same time. He was running twice his usual distance every morning but it did nothing to ease the ache inside him.

Across the desk, McCall paused in her work to lick an envelope, and he could not help but stare. Maybe you just need to get laid, he told himself. Form some new memories and move on.

"I'm going to the mail room," she said. "Are you done with the report from yesterday yet?"

"Do I look finished to you?" he asked peevishly. One killer, two murders, and three divisions involved – the interoffice paperwork was a bitch.

"Sorry to have asked. I was just trying to be nice."

"Well, quit it." He had his head down over his desk again.

She paused with her mail in hand. "Excuse me?"

He did not look at her. "Stop trying to be so nice." She had been going out of her way to be helpful to him ever since she got back – fetching free coffee, filing reports, taking his messages. No matter how much shit he dumped on her desk, she just kept taking more. He didn't know if she felt she owed him for working her job while she was away or for honoring her request for no more sex. Either way, coffee was not what he wanted from her. "I need you as my partner, not my lackey."

"Okay, fine," she said, clearly irritated now as well. "You can get your own damned mail – see if I care."

"Okay, I will. "

She took a sheaf of folders and tossed them on his desk. "You can have these back too."

"Great! I'll take them all." The words came out louder than he intended, and he felt the heads around them turn to look.

From across the floor, Charlie called out to them. "Hunter? McCall? May I see you a minute?"

She shot him a look for getting them in trouble and threw the mail down on her desk. They walked to Charlie's office and stood on opposite sides, not looking at each other. The Captain sighed and closed the door. "Sit," he ordered them, nodding at the couch.

He took one end and she took the other. Charlie pulled up a chair and regarded them with a neutral gaze.

"So," he said, "how's it going?"

Hunter shifted uncomfortably. "How is what going?"

Charlie spread his hands in an open gesture. "This – the old team, back together again."

"Fine," Hunter muttered automatically. That sounded a little weak to his ears, so he sat up straighter and cleared his throat before trying again. "Good."

There was a long pause and then McCall nodded. "Yes, fine."

Charlie frowned. "It doesn't seem fine from where I sit," he said, and they had no reply. The Captain sighed. "Listen, it was a pretty serious and scary thing that happened to you two – anyone would be shaken up. I know you opted out of EAP counseling, and of course it's not mandatory at this point, but perhaps you might want to reconsider. Sometimes the reentry can be harder than you imagined."

"What? No," McCall said. "I'm fine. We're fine."

"Totally," Hunter replied, nodding vigorously. The last thing they needed right now was a shrink poking around in their relationship.

"Hmm," Charlie said as he sat back in his seat. He folded his arms, clearly not believing them. After a moment, he took a deep breath and stood up. "Well, then let me suggest something else," he said as he went to his desk. "Do either of you happen to know Kim Butler or Charles Rampacek? They're Major Crimes detectives over in Rampart."

"No," Hunter said, and McCall shook her head.

Charlie tapped what looked like a business card in his palm, hesitating. "I think – I think maybe you might like to talk to them. Jill – that is, Captain Tyler – mentioned to me that they've, um, possibly been through something similar to you two, and they might have an interesting perspective. I have their cards to pass along."

He handed them both to Hunter, who barely glanced at them before putting them in his coat pocket. "Is that all?" he asked.

Charlie looked annoyed. "Presuming you're done putting on theater for the rank-and-file outside, yes, that's all."

Duly chastened, Hunter got up and left, trusting as usual that she would be right behind. His desk was a haphazard slide of manila folders, and hers was covered in angry mail. He rubbed the back of his neck and glanced at McCall, who was looking rather grim. "Sorry about that," he said.

She shook her head. "No need to apologize."

"We'll do better." He hoped he sounded convincing to her because he wasn't sure how to make it happen himself. In his pocket, he found the business cards Charlie had given them. He separated them with a twist of his thumb to check out both names.

McCall caught him looking. "Which one do you suppose was shot in the back?" she said, but there was an ironic arch to her eyebrow as humor crept back into their exchange.

"Yeah, right," he said. "Maybe they can give us tips on which hospitals have the best Jello." He held up the cards. "Any interest?"


He eyed the office to make sure the Captain wasn't looking and then promptly dropped the cards in the trash. Hearing someone else's sob story wasn't exactly going to help their current situation. He drew a deep breath and held out a hand to her. "I'll take the mail," he said, and she smiled as she gathered it up.

"Thanks," she said, and it was a start.


The late Michael Berry lay face-up in a disheveled hotel room bed, his pants around his knees, a bottle of tequila on the floor and a steak knife between his ribs. Hunter knelt next to the bed to get a better look at the body. "I don't know about you, but this is about how I remember high school," he said.

Berry was in town from Sacramento for his tenth high school reunion. McCall smiled to show she heard him and inspected the nearby table. "I've got two glasses, one with lipstick on it, and what looks like it could be traces of cocaine here on the edge of the table."

"Some after party," he said as he stood up. "Who do you think was on the guest list?"

She regarded the knife handle protruding from the body. "I don't know, but I gather she's not a vegetarian."

"Meat is murder," he said. "Let's see if we can figure out where Party Boy spent the rest of his evening, and maybe then we'll know who he spent it with."

McCall was leafing gingerly through a yearbook. "Hanging out with the Class of '77 would be my guess."

"Check to see if they have someone voted most likely to commit murder."

"No, but you'll never guess the number one song in 1977." He turned from the threshold and gave her an expectant look. She flashed a perfect smile. "Stayin' Alive."

For a moment, he said nothing. Then he made like John Travolta and discoed out of the room to the sound of her laughter.

The reunion organizer, Patty Huston-Smith, looked a little hung over herself that morning, her blue eyes rimmed with red before they even broke the bad news. "You mean Michael was murdered here? In this hotel?"

"We're trying to piece together his actions from last night," McCall explained. "Did you see him at all?"

"Sure, he was all over – and all over Sandy Plecker. They were hot-and-heavy most of junior year, too, until he dumped her for Marianne Grenoble right before homecoming senior year. But Mike and Sandy were here until past midnight when the party ended. I think they were with the group that continued on downstairs to the bar."

Armed with this new piece of information, he and McCall also visited the restaurant/bar, where they talked to the manager about the reunion revelers. "Oh yes," he told them, "they were here – at least a dozen of them. Melody was working the bar last night. She could tell you more. You can find her taking inventory in the back."

Melody LeCroix turned out to be a cheerful young woman with feathered blonde hair and breasts big enough to inspire generous tips. She smiled at both of them but kept eye contact with only Hunter. "Homicide, huh? Did someone kill my boss, because that's about the only reason I can think of that you would want to talk to me."

"We're interested in this man," Hunter said, pulling out a Polaroid shot of Michael Berry's pale face.

"Well, that's definitely not George."

"Do you recognize him?" McCall asked. "Maybe from last night?"

"Oh, yeah. Now that you mention it. Jack-and-Cokes, both he and the lady he was with."

"Can you describe this woman?" Hunter asked.

"Brunette, maybe my height. Low-cut black dress and about three pounds of mascara. I'll tell you this, though, if you're looking for suspects, I can give you two of them right away."

"Oh yeah?" he asked. "How's that?"

She smiled, showing even white teeth. "That lady he was with – and his wife, wherever she was."

"How do you know he was married?"

She snorted. "They all make the same mistake. He was coming to his reunion, right? So he got his hair cut, picked up a new shirt, and maybe hit the tanning salon a few times. Only the moron forgot to take off his wedding ring during the tan." For emphasis, she reached over and grabbed Hunter's hand. "There was a pale strip, right here where the ring was before he took it off," she said as she ran her fingertip over his skin. She smiled up at him from under thick brown lashes. "I see you're definitely not married."

He couldn't help it. He felt a slight stirring. "Not to my knowledge, no," he said as he pulled away.

"Well I'll just add that little tidbit to my knowledge," she said.

"This woman, do you think you could identify her if you saw her again?" he asked.

"Sure, easy. You can drop by and find me here any time you need me. Or…" She grabbed a white cocktail napkin and pulled a pen from her back pocket. "You can also reach me at home. You know, if it's urgent."

"Thanks," he said as he took the number. He took out his card. "If you think of anything further, you can call me at the station."

She toyed with the end of the card. "But what if it's urgent?"

He winked at her, almost out of reflex. "Then call twice."

Only when he turned around and saw McCall watching him, dismayed, did he sober up again. Shit, he thought as she walked away. He shoved the napkin in his coat pocket and hurried after her. "We should get a picture of Sandy Plecker and see if Melody can ID her," he said as they reached the car.

"Right," she said. "I would say that's definitely… urgent." She got in and shut the door with a little more force than was strictly necessary.

He hesitated with his fingers on the handle for a moment before he got in as well. She looked out the window and away from him as he started the engine. All their earlier light-hearted joking had evaporated completely. "I'm not going to call her," he said after a minute. "At least not how you're thinking."

She said nothing, so he put the car in gear. They drove in silence for a few minutes before she spoke, startling him. "If you want to, you should call her." She still was not looking at him.

"I don't want to call her. I just want—"

"Want what?" she said, turning on him.

"Want to know what the rules are here. I mean, I have to figure you're not planning to go through the rest of your life celibate, right?"

She blinked a few times, looking hurt, and he gripped the wheel tighter in frustration. He didn't want Melody so much as the concrete possibility of something else, a way out of the life he was trapped in now. "I didn't realize these past few weeks had been such a burden to you," she said tightly.

"And I can't believe you've been so totally fine with it. All those nights together and then suddenly nothing." He looked over and noted with some satisfaction that she did not look fine, at least not now. "But we had to make a choice, and we agreed to stop. It's what we both wanted." He paused. "It's still what we both want – right?"

There was a long silence before she nodded slowly. "Right," she whispered. She leaned her head back on the seat and closed her eyes.

They said nothing further on the way back to the station. At their desks, McCall started out a new witness file for Melody LeCroix. "I'll pull Sandy Plecker's driver's license photo and we can show it to Melody ASAP," she said. "I think even if she doesn't make the ID, we should interview Sandy today – she may be headed back home if she was only in town for the reunion."

"Good thinking."

She braced her head in one hand, bent over the file. "Give me the number," she said. "For the report."

He didn't pretend to misunderstand. He fished out the crumpled cocktail napkin to read off Melody's home number, and McCall dutifully transcribed it. Then he stretched out a hand toward his trash and made a show of dropping it into the bin. McCall watched him, her expression wary as he tossed the napkin away. But the number was there on the desk now between them, transformed from Melody's loopy script into McCall's neat printing, preserved as part of their official record.

They worked together after that without further comment. McCall was quiet for the rest of the day and so he did not say much either. At quitting time, he tried one last time to connect as she slowly gathered up her things. "You want to go to Rex's? Grab some food?"

She closed her eyes for a long moment and then shook her head. "No, I'm just going to go home, thanks. I have a headache."

He regarded her with concern, remembering how bad it was after she was shot. "You okay?"

"Yeah – it's nothing a handful of aspirin won't cure." She paused and looked him over, her expression a mixture of pain and regret, and he thought she might say something more. "Goodnight, Rick. I'll…I'll see you tomorrow."

He sat there a long time after she had left, the station winding down and growing quiet around him. So many nights he had been here like this, alone at night with her empty desk, waiting for the day when they could be together again. Now she was back but it was hardly the homecoming he had anticipated. He scrubbed his face with both hands and took a deep, shuddering breath.

He had no desire to go home to his drafty house and wrestle the memories some more. There were no answers to be had there. Instead, he leaned down to his trashcan and sifted around until he found the number he sought. He stared at it hard for a few moments, and then he picked up the phone and dialed.


She drove home aching with unshed tears, which did nothing to help the pounding in her head. Her neck and heart hurt in equal measure, but the pills could only help one part. She broke out the remainder of her prescription strength ibuprofen, swallowed two, and ran the hottest bath that she could stand. She left the lights off as she got in, and there in the gray shadows, the water up to her chin, she allowed herself to cry.

Of course Hunter was right. It wasn't like they could remain alone together for the rest of their lives. She just had failed to imagine this part of it, when women starting slipping him phone numbers again right in front of her. Now she knew too well what they were after, what he could do to them in the dark.

He had said it was love, but maybe it wasn't – not if he was back to chasing girls on the job. Or maybe he just loved them all as long as it lasted.

She put on pajamas and climbed into bed early with a cold glass of iced tea, which she held against her puffy cheek. Her tears had dried but the heavy, awful feeling remained like a weight on her chest. She managed to drink about half the tea before there was no room left inside her – the ache took up all her usual empty places. Putting the glass aside, she opened the drawer on her nightstand and pulled out the photo strip again to see if it looked the same.

Love, he'd said, and when she saw them there, she believed it. Why had they walked away?

When they had talked about choices, she'd thought they were making the only logical decision: friends and partners trumped lovers, two-against-one. The job said there were limits on how they could feel, and to keep the job, they'd changed their feelings. But they were left with just one hollowed-out partnership; somehow, maddeningly, they had chosen the work over one another. This was of course the rule but it was never one they had followed in the past.

She traced the crown on Hunter's head and sniffed back fresh tears. I will always choose you, she thought.

He had not ever seen the pictures, she realized with a start. Maybe he did not know. They had looked at thousands of pieces of evidence over the years and together managed to find the truth in it. Perhaps if she could show him the photographs, he could see what she saw, that what they had wasn't so much lost as given away, and maybe there was still time to get it back.

She threw off the covers and put on the first clothes she could find, determined not to waste another minute. She ran a quick comb through her hair, grabbed her purse, and left with the photo strip clutched in one hand. It rode sitting on the dashboard as she drove to Hunter's, where she could see it flash into focus every so often under the passing streetlights. The clock in the car read after eleven on a work night, but she was prepared to wake him up if necessary.

Her stomach was in a knot of anticipation as she turned onto Hunter's street. It was dark down by the beach, all the houses quiet. When she pulled into his driveway, she found his car was not there. She parked and got out anyway to look around, as if the Dodge might be hidden behind the dunes. Fall was coming fast, and the night air had a chill to it. The wind whipped her hair into her face, and she clawed it back.

The weathered boards of his deck groaned under her feet as she went to peer in the door. No sign of Hunter. Her heart sank as she checked her watch by the light of the moon: eleven twenty-three. If he was out at this hour, he wasn't alone. She was too late.

Her grip tightened on the photos, and she swallowed hard in quick succession. He was no doubt out with Melody and her breasts. You told him to call her, she reminded herself. Of course, he had lied and said he hadn't wanted to. She tilted her head back to keep the tears from falling. What an idiot she had been to think they could do this in the first place, and then again to think it might change him.

You are just not that special, she told herself. Even if he had made her feel that way at the time.

She forced herself to look down at the pictures one last time. They were in the same deep shadow as everything around her, but she knew the images by heart. I like you best of all. With a choked sob, she raised her hand into the wind, paused only a moment, and released them once and for all.


She drove around aimlessly for a couple of hours, until it was either time to get a fresh tank of gas or go home. She figured she could take a sleeping pill, set her alarm for six-thirty, wake long enough to call in sick, and then maybe never talk to Hunter again.

This plan went immediately out the window when she arrived home to find him sitting on her steps. She halted on the path and stared at him. He was wearing the silly crown from his birthday party, and he turned around the photo strip when he saw her. "Hi," he said. "I got your note."

She covered her mouth with one hand. "I—I threw that away," she managed after a moment.

"Yeah? I found it plastered against my front door when I got home."

From where he had been out with that girl, she reminded herself, and did not move from her spot on the walkway.

"I figured maybe we should talk," he said, patting the step next to him.

"Talk about what?" She hugged herself protectively. It was cold now and she had not bothered with a jacket.

He jerked his head to the side. "C'mere."

"Hunter, it's very late."

"It's not late. It's early." She waited another beat before complying with a sigh, lowering herself to the stone step next to him. He shifted so that their shoulders touched and held the photo strip up between them. "I've had a handful of really great nights in my life, and this was one of them," he said, nudging her.

She ducked her head, unwilling to look at the traitorous photographs any more. "It was fun while it lasted," she allowed.

His voice dropped even lower. "The night after…well, that was even better."

"Also, apparently, fun while it lasted."

He gave an amused snort and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "Fun," he agreed. "Amazing, confusing and perhaps a little terrifying. Between you and the long hours, I didn't know if I was coming or going. You may have noticed I was agreeing to all sorts of questionable behavior."

She almost smiled, remembering. It was crazy what they'd done together, but at the time, it had felt entirely necessary.

His tone was warm but conspiratorial. "There was the groping, the tiptoeing through the halls – I mean, at one point I had to look the other way in the face of flagrant use of controlled substances – and then, of course, came the worst of all."

She looked at him sideways, waiting. He squeezed her.

"I agreed to let it stop."

She held his gaze for a moment and then dropped her chin to her chest. "You were out tonight," she said, and steeled herself for the rest of it. "With a woman, I'm sure."

"Yes," he agreed easily, but stopped her when she tried to pull away. "And as a result, now I'm here with you."

She remained stiff and uncertain under his touch. "Looking for a second round?" she asked, despair creeping back in.

He made a shushing noise as he started rubbing her shoulders. "You are never second," he told her, leaning down so he spoke the words against her head. Then he sat up and resumed his massage. "How's your headache? Any better?"

"Don't try to change the subject," she said over her shoulder, but already her body was softening under his hands. He knew exactly how to touch her.

"Who's changing the subject? The topic is my priorities, and you are at the head of that list." His thumbs slipped under the collar of her shirt to brush against her bare skin. "Does this hurt?"

She shook her head, mute, and shifted forward so he could stroke her some more.

"Good," he said softly, his caresses becoming gentle and tender. She felt him lean down into her again. "Because the last thing I would want to do is hurt you."

The words made tears burn in her eyes. "I wouldn't want to hurt you either," she said.

"I know." He wrapped her in a hug from behind, his face pressed against the side of her neck. She leaned back into him and rubbed her palm over the warm skin on his arms as they held her.

They sat in silence for a moment, and she closed her eyes, enjoying the solid, comforting feel of him again after three months of distance. "So what do we do?" she asked him finally.

"This seems pretty good," he replied, squeezing her.

She smiled a little and reached back to stroke his prickly cheek. He chased her hand with his mouth and kissed the tip of one finger. "I'm serious," she said as she pulled away.

"So am I."

She turned in his embrace but he did not let her go, instead wrapping his arms loosely around her and resting his lips at her hairline. She traced the outline of his ribs through his T-shirt and breathed in his clean, male scent. It was a little easier to ask the hard questions when they were cuddled together like this in the dark. "When you said this is love, what did you mean?"

His palm swept the length of her spine. "You mean, what kind of love?"

She held her breath and nodded against his shoulder. He rubbed her back slowly some more as he seemed to consider the question.

"I guess a lot of different kinds – right? I mean, the partner and friend parts take up the most room right now because they're the ones we've had for years. We've spent a lot of time nurturing those parts, with, um, great results." He paused and dropped an affectionate kiss to her head. "I wouldn't want to lose them."

She gripped his shirt in agony at the very thought. "Me either."

"But," he murmured, his voice becoming low and intimate against her neck. "I can't deny that I have other feelings now too. The romantic and sexual component is new…" Her breath caught as he brushed his lips along her cheek. "But pretty powerful." His hand had moved from her back to her side, stroking her gently from breast to hip.

"Yes." She pressed a little closer to encourage him and lifted her head from his shoulder, but the sensations were so thick she could not open her eyes.

"I think…" More stroking. His breath was on her face, almost but not quite kissing. "I think it would be nice to explore this side for a while and see what happens. What do you think?"

"Yes." She found his mouth with hers, kissing him openly until they were breathless and clutching each other. "You want to…oh, you want to start now?" she asked as he found his way inside her shirt.

His lips were hot against her neck. "Inside," he said even as he started caressing her breast through her bra. "We've had enough semi-public sex for while, don't you think?"

She nodded, shaking a little as she extricated herself and tugged him to his feet behind her. It was hard to fit the key in door with him pressed full length against her, his hand rubbing her belly through her clothes. At last, they stumbled through the door, and she flicked on the light switch.

Hunter froze as the lights came up, his hand on her waist, and she turned to find him looking at the floor. She stood on tiptoe to kiss him again, forcing his attention back to the present. Her mouth was gentle and persistent, and after a moment, he responded, opening under her lips and cupping her rear end with his large hands. He grew harder and more urgent as they kissed, and she fought the urge to climb him like a jungle gym. "Up…upstairs," she managed, her lips swollen and stinging and still hungry for more.

In the loft, he sat on the bed and gave it a bounce. "I hardly know what to do with all this room."

She moved to stand between his legs and pulled the crown off his head, pausing to kiss him as she did so. "Well, I have a few ideas, if you're stumped."

"Mmm, what a partner." His arms wrapped around her and she gave herself to the kiss, mindless of anything other than the gentle insistence of his tongue. He undid the buttons on her blouse from the bottom up, and then parted the sides so he could reach her breasts. He nuzzled her through the fabric of her bra even as he reached around behind her to unclasp it.

She closed her eyes as it fell away, stroking his head and holding him close against her body as he began to kiss her breasts. He pulled one firm nipple into his mouth for an especially strong suck, and she gasped sharply, biting her lip to keep quiet out of habit. He chuckled against her skin and one hand came up to her mouth. Gently, he worried her bottom lip free with the rough pads of his fingers. "It's just us this time," he murmured, tracing the soft O of her mouth. "Make all the noise you want."

He went back to his work and she allowed herself to stop monitoring and just feel. Soon she was moaning softly, rubbing his neck and shoulders, totally lost in the sensation of his hot mouth on her skin and the strong muscles moving beneath her hands. Only when he stopped did the fog of arousal lift enough for her to pay attention.

"What?" she asked when she found him looking up at her – not an occurrence that happened every day.

He smiled and traced the curve of her breast. "Just enjoying the view. I didn't really get to see before." He placed a gentle kiss above the spot where her heart was pounding. "You're beautiful."

She toyed with his hair, suddenly self-conscious. The last time she'd heard those words, they had been followed by a blow hard enough to crack her cheekbone, and Hunter had witnessed the whole bloody, sobbing aftermath. "I'm amazed you can still think that, given everything you know about me."

He rubbed his prickly cheek against her tender skin and gathered her closer. "It's because of what I know about you," he whispered, tilting to look up at her.

They held one another's gaze for a long moment, and then she bent down to kiss his mouth again, this one soulful and loving. When they paused for breath, she stroked the side of his face as they rested their heads together. "I want you so much," she murmured.

"Me too," he breathed, and reached for the closure on her pants.

They stripped each other down to the bare skin, and then he fell backwards onto the bed as she crawled over him. She pressed open-mouthed kisses along his shoulder while his hands skimmed her eager body. She tingled from head to toe, alive, aroused and in love, full of feeling inside and out. The tip of his hard cock rubbed wetly against her stomach and she started shifting, trying to help him find the right angle.

"Easy," he said at her desperation. "Wait a second." She was glad he had remembered the condom because she'd been totally ready to proceed without it. When he returned, she climbed back on top of him, kissing him deeply and trying to convince him with her tongue to move things along at a quicker pace.

His fingers grazed between her legs and she heard him draw in a breath when he felt how ready she was. "Oh," he murmured with wonder. "It should be now, huh?"

"Mm, yes. Please." This time when she reached between them he gave no resistance. His erection was full and heavy in her hand, and she rubbed him between her legs to make him ready. It felt so good that she kind of forgot there was another goal; her eyes drifted shut and she knew nothing but the hot slide of his body against hers. His hands went to her breasts and he pinched her nipples gently. She gave a sharp cry and fell forward against him, losing her grip on his cock.

But the motion changed the angle just enough, and suddenly, there he was at the entrance to her body. She raised up again so she could see his face. His eyes were dark with arousal but his gaze was tender. "Whenever you're ready," he said, brushing her hair from her face.

She widened her legs and sank down on him fully. He gave a shuddering breath as his eyes closed in pleasure. "I was ready," she told him sweetly.

His voice was strained. "I noticed."

"Oh, God." She moved experimentally, just a bit. "Was it this good last time?" They were idiots for wasting three months without this.

"Yeah, yeah," he told her. "Always."

He was huge and hot inside her, stretching her in all directions as she began to move. Healthy and strong again, her body reveled in the vivid sensations coursing through her. The bed started to shake with their movements, and Hunter let out a deep groan. She loved him but this was pure lust right now, using his body for sexual pleasure and giving him his in return. His hands held her hips as she rocked on top of him with increasing speed.

Orgasm burst upon her in a flare of blinding light. She sobbed with relief, shoulders shaking as he took over the movements, pushing deeper into her with tight little thrusts. She recovered enough to watch him go over, his jaw slack and his eyes screwed shut. His hips took her completely off the bed, and she laughed with the joy of it all.

Later, they cuddled together under the sheets so close together that they might as well have been back in her narrow hospital bed at the rehab center. She traced her fingers lightly over his chest, unable to stop touching him. "You know," she said, "we still have to figure out what to do about work."

"Well, I have time off coming, so there is no way I am going in there in…" He raised his head to check the clock. "Two hours and twenty-five minutes."

She closed her eyes against the horror.

"You're screwed, though," he told her playfully. It was true; there was no more time off left for her this year. He stretched his hands behind his head. "Maybe I'll just hang out here and wait for you."

"You'd better," she said, nipping at him. He laughed and hugged her to his side. As they sobered, she sighed and tried again. "I didn't mean tomorrow – I meant in the long run. This is still in violation of the rules."

"Hmm." He was running his fingers through her hair. "I think we'll be okay. Charlie gave us his blessing."

She sat up with a jerk. "He what? You told him?"

"No, I think that little secret got out the night he caught us at Morty's."

She grimaced and ducked her head. Right. "What did he say to you?" she asked, bracing herself for the answer.

Instead of replying right away, he pulled her down against him once more. "You never asked me where I was tonight."

"That's because I don't really want to know."

"Well, it's important for the story, so you're going to have to listen anyway. I was having coffee with Kim Butler."

This name meant nothing to her. "Who?"

"One of the Major Crimes Detectives that Charlie referred us to – you know, the ones who had supposedly been through the same thing we had. I figured we had nothing left to lose, so I called her." He kissed the top of her head. "You might be surprised to know that neither she nor her partner Chuck Rampacek have ever been wounded in the line of duty – not seriously at least."

"Huh," she said. "So what was the point of talking to her?"

"I was confused about that as well for a while. But then it became clear. Butler and Rampacek are lovers."


"For three years now. Back when it started, their Captain, Jill Tyler – whom you might remember as Charlie's own possible fraternization project – brought them into her office and said some version of, 'I know you are sleeping together and it's fine with me as long as the work gets done and I never have to see it, hear about it, or acknowledge it in any official capacity whatsoever.'"

"So by referring us to Butler and Rampacek…"

"Charlie is essentially delivering us the same message," he filled in. "At least that's what I take it to mean."

"Wow." She rolled onto her back. "Some strict policy they have going on there. I guess if they fired everyone, there would be no one left to catch the bad guys, huh?" Hunter was no longer listening. He was kissing his way down her neck. "Hunter," she said. "Speaking of the bad guys, I actually have to go to work soon, remember?"

"Mm, but I don't."

"I might have to stand be able to stand up to pull that off," she said, her eyes closing as his hand trailed up her inner thigh.

"I'll be gentle, I promise."


"It's me or the job, Dee Dee," he murmured teasingly as he started to stroke her. "You have to choose, remember?"

 She held his face on either side so their eyes could meet, and she smiled. "You," she said. "I choose you."

The End.

Notes: The unfortunate truth is that, given the placement of the bullet in her spine, McCall would have been very dead.  Thankfully for her, she lives in TV land where it barely caused her a blip!

As ever, if you made it to the end, I’d love to know what you thought.  Feedback welcome at  Thanks as ever for reading.

Big beta hugs and kisses to Maybe_A, for reading all these stories for a show she's never watched. Thanks, m’dear!

© syntax6 2015