Ghost Hunting


This story takes place in the same universe as Hereafter.

"She was so far away that it took him the better part of a day to reach her. By the time he'd flown halfway around the world, it had started to feel like a mission impossible, and he was almost surprised to find her standing there on the other side of the door."

Rated: M

Part One

He was distracted when his phone rang, his attention more on the computer screen as he tried to block out the parade of people going by and the sounds of talking and ringing phones all around him. "Hunter, Homicide," he said by rote, frowning as he noticed he had misspelled vehicle on the report.

"It's me," she said on the other end, and his surroundings immediately faded away. There were few people in the world who could greet him like that, walking out of his past with just two little words.

"Hi," he said. He gripped the phone so he could be sure to hear everything. "What's up?"

For a moment, there was only the sound of her heightened breathing. "I...I left Alex."

"Oh." He exhaled as he sat back in his chair. They had not spoken in a few months, not since her visit for the funeral. He had wanted to call but the time zones made it difficult, and to be truthful, he was not sure to say. "Uh, how are you?"

There was a pause. "Okay," she said at length, as if testing out the word. "I'm staying at a friend's flat in London for now – she's in Japan for a month visiting her family. But my eventual plan is to move back to the States."

A prickle broke out over the back of his neck. "Back here?"

"That's the idea, yes," she replied, but she sounded less certain.

"Great. That's, uh, that's really great." At one point, it would have been the best news in the world, but now it was six years later and her marriage was over and they didn't talk much anymore.

"Anyway," she said, taking a deep breath, "I called because if you really want me to show you around London, this may be your last shot, at least for a while. You would be welcome to stay here, assuming you still want to come..."

There it was, the invitation he'd accused her of never issuing. "Of course I want to come." He had already pulled up his calendar to eyeball it. "I can probably get away…day after tomorrow. Would that work?"

The cost of the tickets would be two weeks' salary, but he felt he had to move fast. Before she could change her mind. Before he could.

"Oh," she said, sounding surprised at his speedy reply. "Uh, sure. That would be great."

"Okay, I'll set something up, and you can… you can book an appointment with the Queen."

She laughed a little, not like her real laugh, the one from years ago, but it was familiar enough to make him relax. "I'll get right on that." She paused. "So…I guess I'll see you soon."

"Yes," he said, bemused. "Soon."

Later, back at home, he wandered his kitchen in a semi-daze, going through the motions of cooking dinner even as his thoughts were elsewhere. It was always so strange to hear her voice again after the years of silence, like flipping a switch to his past. So many memories. Sometimes they felt distant and hazy, as though from another life; other times, like now, they were sharp as the knife in his hands…

She'd been crying on the phone, so he gotten dressed and gone to the rehab center, even though it was long past visiting hours. The chance to reassure himself with visual evidence that she was alive was not one he'd passed up easily at that point. He had found her in bed in the dark, tears dry but still distressed over her recent setback – a twisted ankle that he was careful not to disturb as he'd gathered her into his arms.

"It's temporary," he had told her, resting his cheek on her hair.

She'd held on tight. "What if it's not?"

He hadn't understood at first. Of course the ankle would heal. "A few days, you'll be good as new again."

"Hunter." She'd pulled back so they could look at each other in the half-light.

"Hmm?" He had brushed her cheek lightly, only half listening. He'd been touching her way more often than he should in those days, but he hadn't been able to help himself. Anything to erase the feel of her, cool and still, bleeding to death on her living room floor.

"There are no guarantees here. Yes, I'll get better, but maybe not better enough to get my job back. Then what would I do?"

"You would figure something out," he'd said as he hugged her again. "You're smart and resourceful and talented. I have no worries about you."

"Maybe." She'd sniffled against his shoulder. "But we wouldn't be partners."

The words had settled heavily over both of them, and he'd wanted to deny it. But eventually, he'd decided for the truth, hard as it was. "No." Back then, he could barely imagine such a thing. "But we'll always be friends," he'd managed at last, because of course it was true. She was as essential to him as air. The last few weeks had taught him that.

She'd shuddered in his arms, held him tight, her fingernails pricking at his back. "Promise?" she'd said, her voice tearful again.

His answer had been to hold her fiercely, both arms wrapped around her and no space left in between them. He'd sworn he could feel her heartbeat. "Promise."

At that moment, Clare breezed into the kitchen, sucking him out of the past and back into the present. "Howdy, stranger," she said as she stretched up to smooch him. She was fresh from the shower, her blonde bob still damp and tousled. He held her tightly as the kiss lingered, and she broke off with a smile. "I'll take that hello any day of the week," she said as she touched her fingertips to his mouth.

"Dinner's almost ready," he said as he stirred the sautéed vegetables.

"It'll have to be fast," she replied, buttoning her cuffs. "I have to be at the hospital in an hour."

"Can't sew people up on an empty stomach," he said.

She flashed him a grin. "That's why God made interns," she replied, but she set out two plates on the table.

Over their meal, she chatted on about a recent patient – a woman who ended up with a broken foot and a kidney laceration after she was pinned to her garage wall by a golf cart. The golf cart had been driven by the woman's German shepherd. Hunter listened with one ear while he watched her talk. She had delicate, nimble hands and clear, light blue eyes. After their time together, he was sure he could map the smattering of freckles across her nose. She mixed a strong martini and tended their fruit trees as gently as she did her patients. His house, his whole life, was warmer because of her.

But still he had to go.

He broke the news as they cleared away the dinner dishes. "I'm going to London for a few days," he said, attempting to sound casual.

She gave him a sideways glance. "For work?"

"No, to see a friend. Dee Dee McCall. I mean Turnan." He never could get that part right. "My old partner – you met her at Charlie's funeral, remember?"

"Yes, I recall." She had abandoned the dishes in the sink and was leaning against the counter now, eyeing him speculatively. "When are you going?"


Her eyebrows rose. "That soon?"

He shifted uncomfortably and busied himself with the dishtowel. "Well, her marriage is breaking up, and I thought I should be there, you know…to help."

He had mentioned McCall before, of course, but nothing in great detail. She'd been gone for years by the time Clare showed up. "I am sorry to hear that," Clare said, sounding sympathetic. "I guess it would help to have a friend around."

She returned to rinsing the plates, and he felt a trickle of relief. "Yeah. Thanks for understanding."

"Sure, of course." She smiled and shrugged, not looking at him. "I mean, it's not like you're planning on sleeping with her, right?"

He froze at the question, just long enough for her to notice. "No," he said, but she already looked horrified.

"Oh my God," she said as she turned to him.

"I'm not. I'm not going over there to sleep with her."

"Yeah, but you had to think about it for a minute there, didn't you? Wow."

"It's not like that," he protested.

She folded her arms and frowned at him. Behind him, the clock on the wall ticked out the awful passing seconds. "Tell me then what it's like," she said at last. "Who is this woman again – the one you supposedly don't want to sleep with?"

"I told you. She's my old partner." Of course, Clare had no frame of reference for this, either. She didn't understand how it was between partners. He hadn't had a partner in years, not since shortly after McCall left and he hadn't wanted one anymore. "We were...we were very good friends."

"Friends who had sex?" Clare was an E.R. doctor; she was used to asking pointed questions in a hurry. It was usually one of the things he loved about her.

He swallowed. "Once," he said softly, and she sucked in a sharp breath. "Clare, honey…" He reached for her but she pulled her arm away from him.


"It was years ago," he said, but she was shaking her head, denying him. "Nothing…nothing ever came of it. I swear to you." Of course, he left out their impromptu tryst on the beach, the one he only allowed himself to think about for a few minutes at a time, late at night when the house was dark and quiet. The memory was hot and sweet, but also sad, and when he drew it out, it always seemed more like an abrupt, awkward continuation of their strange one-night stand than the promise of anything new.

"I can't believe this," Clare was saying, more to herself than to him. "You introduce her like she's just another person, with no mention of any of this." She tilted her head to look at the ceiling. "Did you love her?"

"She was my friend," he said, spreading his hands in a helpless gesture. "We spent long hours together, day after day. She was..." He broke off, frustrated that he couldn't make her understand. "She saved my life," he said finally, "on more than one occasion. Everything I have now, everything I do, it's because she was there."

"So I owe her one, is that it?" She fixed him with an accusatory look.

He took a deep breath. "Look. I promise I am not going over there to start anything. I'm going as a friend, that's all."

She shook her head. "It doesn't matter, Rick, don't you see?"

Her voice was thick with tears, but he couldn't answer. He did not see.

"This isn't some old friend you're describing. This is 'the one that got away.'"

He opened his mouth to argue but then shut it again. McCall hadn't gotten away from him because he'd never had her, not like that, but she had left him, suddenly and bewilderingly, gone in the space of one short week. She didn't write and she didn't call. They'd gone from spending 10 hours a day together to not communicating really at all. Her things, they haunted him; he'd inherited all the materials from her desk because she wasn't going to need them where she was going. He had held onto that silly red apple plant container for a year before he'd admitted it himself: she was never coming back.

There was no way to explain it, really, but he had to go. He had to know the woman who'd taken her place.


She was so far away that it took him the better part of a day to reach her. By the time he'd flown halfway around the world, it had started to feel like a mission impossible, and he was almost surprised to find her standing there on the other side of the door. But her smile matched his memory. "You made it," she said, welcoming him inside.

"I don't know if you've noticed, but the people here drive on the wrong side of the road."

"You get used to it after a while."

He cast a backwards glance out at the street, where he had just been plastered up against the wall of the taxi, fearing for his life. "I wouldn't bet on it."

"You must be exhausted," she said. "Can I get you anything? Something to eat or drink?"

"I'd love some water." He looked around at the apartment as he trailed after her, instinctively mining her surroundings for clues as to who she was now, but then he remembered the place belonged to her friend. It was defined by big windows and tiny furniture; the table, the chairs – everything was about two-thirds the size of what it would be back home. Maybe the British were some species of Lilliputians and he had somehow missed this crucial fact during history class.

She opened the refrigerator (also pint-sized, he noticed) and handed him a bottle of water. He opened it and drank it half down in one go. "So," he said, stretching across the narrow counter. "How's it going?"

She'd wedged herself against the other side, as far away as she could get in the cramped kitchen. His question made her flush and look at the floor. "You want the short answer or the long one?"

"Well, I've got four days."

"Might need all of them." She raised her eyes and met his gaze again. "I'm all right. Really."

It was a lie. Or at least not the full truth. He knew it immediately, and he almost laughed with relief. Six years gone by, but he could still read her like no one else. "Tell me," he suggested, hoping he did not sound as tired as he felt.

She hesitated but shook her head. "Later, maybe. And, you know, Hunter… I didn't ask you here to rescue me or anything. I want you to have a good time."

"I didn't come here to rescue you." He was pretty sure such a thing was beyond his capabilities anyway.

"No?" She regarded him. "Why did you come?"

Clare had asked the same question. He didn't have a good answer for her either. Eventually, he shrugged. "Because you asked."

She smiled a little and took the empty bottle from him. "Come on, let me show you to your room."

The double bed was of course too small for him. But he thanked her, washed up and crawled under the sheets. He was wrung out but still wired from the strange atmosphere. He lay blinking in the dark even as his tired muscles began to unclench from a day's worth of travel. Light shafted in from the bottom of the closed door, and he listened to the quiet sounds of her footsteps, moving around the apartment like a ghost.


In the morning they had breakfast on a tiny terrace that barely fit two people. It held a small round table and two metal folding chairs and was surrounded on all sides by high, ivy-covered walls. Under the cover of a gun-metal gray sky, they drank coffee and tried not to bump knees.

"So," she said, "what would you like to see?"

You, he thought, although this was perhaps too honest. The city might be thousands of years old, but she was really the only historical relic he was interested in. "You're the one in the know," he said. "What should I see?'

She looked thoughtful for a moment. "How about the Tower of London? It's a big one on the tourist list, but it's also the scene of much murder and mayhem." She hid a smile behind her coffee cup. "It'll be like old times."

He held out his cup to clink with hers. "To murder and mayhem, then."

They took the Tube so he didn't have to fear the roads again, and when they emerged, he squinted at the shifting clouds over head. "Looks like rain," he said.

She sighed. "Yeah, you get used to that, too."

The Tower of London was an impressive looming structure of white and gray stones. He touched one, stroking its cool, rough texture and imagining all the people who had passed by these same walls. Nine hundred years of history was enough to make anyone feel small. Maybe that's why they all slept in miniature beds.

They read up on the executions and the famous royal occupants, both willing and unwilling. They admired the Traitor's gate and the lush green grass outside the tower walls. "What's with all the crows?" he asked of the big black birds stalking about the grounds.

"They're ravens," she said. "Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave, the crown will fall and England with it."

"I don't think I'd leave the fate of my country in the hands of a pack of birds," he said.

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, well, I believe they take other measures," she replied as they walked. "But they had a near miss during World War II, you know. Only one raven survived the bombings. Churchill had to bring in a bunch of others to maintain the flock."

"Hmm." He glanced at a bird as they left; surviving a war with your feathers intact, this was something he could appreciate.

They ate sandwiches for lunch and spent the afternoon walking around, chatting about everything but the Alex-sized elephant not in the room. At the Palace, he studied the red-suited guards with a furrowed brow. "I am going to need to get one of those hats," he said of the giant, furry helmets.

She eyed him. "Oh? And just where would you wear it?"

"Jogging," he replied without hesitation, and she laughed, the real one this time. It made him want to grab her and hug her tight, but he put his hands in his pockets instead.

They went out for high tea, served piping hot in fancy little teapots, with scones and sweets and cucumber sandwiches. When the waiter had finished replenishing their water, Hunter frowned across the table at her. "You know you sound vaguely British when you talk to other people," he said.

"I do?" She considered. "I guess when you've lived here long enough you adapt to the different cadence of the words."

He looked her over. "And have you?" he asked. "Lived here long enough?"

She took a deep breath as she set aside her cup. "I used to think it was possible to be happy anywhere," she said, somewhat wistfully. "And I guess I still think it must be true. But maybe only one place can really be home. You know, somewhere you recognize with your heart and not just your eyes."

He couldn't imagine leaving Southern California for any length of time, couldn't imagine living anywhere without cheap, delicious tacos, high blue skies and hot, gritty sand beneath his feet. "Well then," he said with a slow smile. "Come home."


The rain started in earnest just after supper, and the sound of it, pit-patting against the windows, was actually somewhat soothing. He stretched his tired body out on one end of the couch – which was almost big enough for normal-sized humans – and relaxed with the leftover wine from dinner. The fireplace was not functional, but it had a half-dozen large candles in it instead, and she lit them all before joining him on the sofa. It wasn't quite home, but for now, he was content.

"So," he said as she curled her legs under her. "How did Alex take it?" Here in the low light, it finally seemed safe enough to ask.

The pained look that crossed her face made him regret the words. "He's, uh, he's pretty angry with me." She picked at the braided trim on the sofa. "He thinks I'm giving up too soon."

"Wait a minute now – he was the one who cheated, right?"

She closed her eyes and shook her head. "Yeah, but that was a long time ago. Besides, it's not that simple." She drew a shaky breath. "When I look back now, I can't believe what I was thinking. I traded my whole life – my work, my family, my friends…you."

Hunter smiled a bit when he got his own category.

"I traded it all for Alex, basically asking him to stand in for all the happiness I was giving up. It's no wonder he couldn't manage it. No one could." She bowed her head. "I had this vision of what my future would be like, married to him, have a few kids…and then when that didn't work out, I had nothing else to fall back on."

She paused to finish the last of her wine, and then set the glass on a side table. He tried to think of what he could say to make her feel better, but before he could find words, she was talking again.

"We went to counseling," she said, "after...after I saw you in L.A."

They glanced at each other quickly, and his pulse picked up at the memory of their kisses on the beach.

She cleared her throat and looked at her lap. "I knew...I knew I still cared about him, and I kept having this dream. I was in a house, maybe my house, I don't know. The house was falling down, and I had to run around trying to stop it."

He chuffed a "well, that's obvious" noise, and she answered with a wry smile.

"I know, right? I thought it was pretty clear – on some level, I must really want to save the marriage. I felt I had to honor that, to make it work. To…to stop the damn dream." She shifted with a heavy sigh. "But it kept happening, even when we started seeing the therapist. We'd talk in circles but I tried to tell myself it was helping."

"What changed?" he asked when she stopped talking.

She blinked, suddenly teary. "I, uh…" She swallowed hard before continuing. "We were in a session, and Margaret, the counselor, was talking about how things take time, and you don't always notice change day-to-day, but maybe next month, or next year, we'd see that our relationship was better. And just the thought, that I could still be here, in Oxford, married to him, made me start to panic." Her hand went to her throat. "I can't explain it. It was like the walls were closing in on me right there in the office. It was the same feeling I'd had in the dream, and that's when I realized: the house in the dream wasn't my marriage." She looked at him with wet eyes. "It was me. I had to save myself, even if…even if it meant leaving him."

"C'mere," he murmured as he tugged her against him. All their careful efforts not to touch one another came crashing down as he wrapped both arms around her and she sniffled into his shirt. He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. "This is why I came," he told her quietly.

She gave a short, watery laugh. "I'm so glad." They held each other in silence for a while, and he watched the flickering of the candles until the flames started to blur before his eyes. Her voice roused him. "I really have missed you." She was toying with one of the buttons on his shirt.

"Yeah?" He couldn't keep the surprise from his voice.

She shifted until she could look at him, putting a bit of distance between them once more. "You doubt it?"

"Not...not exactly." He felt uncomfortable even raising the idea. "Just forget it."

"No, what are you talking about?" She took his hand, as if to prevent him from getting up and leaving.

He rubbed his face with free hand and shook his head a bit. "I was naïve, I guess, about your leaving." He glanced at her and saw he had her utter attention. "It all happened so fast that I didn't really have time to think about it. You were happy, and I was happy for you. I knew I'd miss seeing you, working with you, but…" He trailed off.

"But what?"

"It was like you died," he said eventually. "You were there and then you weren't. Your stuff was still in front of me – at work, at my place. But I couldn't see you or talk to you. You didn't write. You didn't call."

"I'm sorry," she broke in, tearful again.

His own eyes were wet now too. "No, I get it. You had a new life to build. Of course that was your priority. Of course it was. But…I was stuck in the old one." He swallowed hard and squeezed her hand. "I loved you," he said finally. "Not in a romance and babies way, but more than I'd loved anyone before. And because of that, because of what we'd been through together, I thought…" He searched for the words. "I thought it wouldn't really change. Like I said – I was naïve."

She wiped at her cheek with one sleeve. "I'm so sorry," she whispered.

"Shh." He pulled her back in close so they could lean heads together. Her perfume was different than he remembered, but the feel of her was soft and familiar. After a moment, he continued, "I guess what I'm saying is...I missed you too. I think maybe I still do."

She made a small anguished noise, and this time, without thinking, he shushed her with his mouth. She pressed back immediately, and his arms closed around her again so he could hold her as they kissed. It was gentle at first, but quickly grew deeper and more desperate as he kissed her with years of pent-up feeling. He hauled her into his lap so that she was facing him and held the back of her head with one hand, roaming her body with the other. He wasn't so much trying to arouse her as reassure himself that she was real.

She held his face in her hands, and he felt the tear stains on her cheeks. "Please," she said against his mouth.

There was a time he would have done anything to please her. He kissed her mouth, her cheek, trying to go back to that place where they'd been everything to each other. "McCall," he murmured against her neck, and then froze when he realized what he'd said.

She drew back, her hands on his shoulders. "It's okay," she said quickly.

He shook his head.

"Really," she said, pleading with him. "I don't mind. It's who I am when I'm with you. I could...I could use that right now."

"I know." He cupped the side of her face and smiled at her sadly. "And that is probably a really good reason to stop."

She reached up and covered his hand with her own. "You don't mean that," she said, but she already sounded resigned.

He brought their joined hands down between them, regretful. "Before I left…Clare asked me if I wanted to sleep with you."

She closed her eyes at the mention of Clare's name. "Oh, right," she said with forced lightness. "Clare. I forgot about her."

This was another lie, but he didn't call her on it.

She regarded him in the flickering light. "What did you say? When she asked."

He hesitated, and then broke the news gently. "I said no." He realized now that he wanted the woman from six years ago, the one who had finished his sentences and kept his secrets and filled his life with infectious giggles. He wanted Dee Dee McCall, and that's not who she was anymore.

She bowed her head for a moment and then nodded. "Well, we certainly don't want to make a liar out of you," she said as she eased off his lap. She curled up on the other end of the couch like a wounded animal. It made his heart hurt to look at her.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean…"

"Forget it." She was looking away from him. "You're right, it's a bad idea."

He bit his lip. "Look," he said finally, "that falling-down house – I can't fix it for you anymore than Alex could. I wish I could, but I can't."

"Who's asking you to?"

He ignored that part. "I think...I think you have to figure out what you want, apart from me or Alex or L.A. or anything else. When you've done that, we can see where I fit in."

She was quiet for a long time. "So you would still pick me up at the airport?"

He smiled. "Are you kidding? I'd run the siren."

"And then...and then maybe you would want to be friends again?" The question was so loaded she couldn't even look at him as she said it.

If only she knew. He'd risked his whole pleasant, stable life on this very gamble. He reached over to hug her again. She resisted for a moment but then huddled against his side, sad and uncertain. "Oh," he whispered to her, "I want that more than anything."


They spent another few cautious days together, in and out of an apartment that seemed to grow smaller by the hour. Their conversations sputtered and started as they interrupted each other awkwardly; the silences weren't easy the way they used to be. Most of all, there was a palpable hunger for the intense connection they'd once had but could not regain. By the time he was to brave the taxi again, it was almost a relief to be leaving.

"Call me when you know what your plans are," he said as they stood on the stoop.

She nodded. "I will."

There was an uncomfortable pause, but then he hugged her. "Thanks for having me."

"Thanks for coming," she replied against him, and she even sounded like she meant it. He stroked her hair, hoping to impart some last remnant of comfort. She squeezed him. "I loved you too, you know," she said quietly.

"Yeah," he said, warming at last. "I knew."

He slept through most of the plane rides home, bone weary from emotional exhaustion. With the passing miles, London fell away and he found himself eager to see the sun again. It was shining brightly as they touched down, the Pacific gleaming in the distance. He retrieved his car and drove the familiar roads until his beloved beach condo came into sight. He was so happy to be home again that he left his suitcase in the car and bounded up the steps two at a time.

Inside, the place was quiet. Clare's car was gone so she definitely wasn't home. He wandered around, reacquainting himself with all his normal-sized things. When he got to the kitchen, he went to the fruit bowl to pick up an orange. That was how he found the note.


I've gone to stay at Meredith's place for a while. I need time to think. I'll call when I can.

Love, Clare

His eyes zeroed in on the word "love." It was then he felt the true weight of all he'd risked. He sank into the nearest chair, and the orange rolled away from him on the table. He read the note over and over but the words never changed. Suddenly the quiet of the house did not feel so welcoming.

What, he thought, have I done?

Part Two

The year was1996 but it felt like a rerun: O.J Simpson was on trial again, the Atlanta Braves were headed to the World Series, and any minute now, she would be back in Los Angeles. Hunter shoved his hands in his pockets and tried not to watch the door too intently for the moment that she would walk through it. It was late, too late really, after he had worked several hours of overtime for the third day in a row, but he'd promised he would be here and it was anyways easier than going home.

He chewed his thumbnail – and old habit that was new again – and tried to keep his leg from jiggling as the minutes ticked by. Everyone around him was waiting for someone – family, friends, lovers. At one point, she'd been all of them to him. Now he wasn't sure what they were anymore.

Eventually, her plane landed and bedraggled passengers started trickling out of the gate. He straightened up when he saw her, and she gave him a tired smile. "You came."

"I said I would." There was a time he would have gone to the ends of the earth for her.

They looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, and then he tucked her against him in a quick, sideways hug. "How was your flight?"

"Okay." She looked familiar, at least. Her dark hair hung in loose waves around her shoulders and her makeup had worn away with the miles. "Sorry about the time. We were delayed getting out of New York."

"Well, welcome home," he said as they started to walk towards baggage claim.

She halted with a blink at his words. "Right," she replied. "Home."

They collected the rest of her things, and she was quiet as they drove through the darkened streets of Los Angeles. Every time he glanced at her, she was focused on the passing scenery, as though seeing it for the first time. He supposed it probably did look different if you'd been away as long as she had. The city really was a concrete jungle, sprouting and changing right under your feet.

At the hotel, he hung around the lobby while she checked in; she'd made the arrangements without consulting him, and he was truthfully a little relieved. His own home felt strange and foreign to him now, and he could not imagine asking her to stay there with him. "All set," she said to him with artificial cheer, when she had dispensed with the paperwork and her luggage.

He nodded. "Good." This was the part where he should be going, but his feet remained rooted to the marble tile floor. There was a long moment of awkward silence. Then they both spoke at once.

"I really should be—"

"Do you want to get a drink or something?"

He shut his mouth and checked his watch. It was quarter to midnight. "Aren't you tired?"

She flushed a bit and looked at the ground. "Yes, some, but I could use real food, and I figure I owe you. But if you need to get going…"

"No, no," he said quickly. He forced a smile. "A beer would be great."

The got a booth in the dimly lit hotel bar-cum-restaurant and sat across from one another as they had done so many times in the past. Middle-of-the-night conversations had once been their specialty, but now they made small talk about her flights and the weather. She picked at the Cobb salad she had ordered, and he regarded her over the rim of his beer.

"Not as hungry as you thought?"

"Must have my signals mixed up," she said lightly, not really meeting his eyes. "Flying halfway around the world will do that to you, I guess."

He hesitated a moment. "Glad to be back?"

"Glad?" she echoed. She sighed and put her fork down. "I guess, maybe. But I barely recognize the place now."

"Come on, it hasn't changed that much."

"Maybe not," she allowed, her eyes downcast. "Maybe it's just me that's changed." Off his look, she continued. "Before when I was here I had a job, a home, a life – and a real sense of the future. Now I have none of that. I have to start all over again."

He felt the truth of this as well from his end – she was back but she wasn't going to be his partner again – but he didn't like to think about that part. No wonder it was overwhelming from her perspective. "Well, you take it one thing at a time," he said. "Right?"

"Right," she said, but her tone was distant. At last she met his gaze. "I have to find an attorney to file for…for divorce."

He had noticed she was no longer wearing the wedding ring. "Well, I'd tell you to look up Mike Snow but he retired last year."

"Yeah? I didn't think he'd ever walk away willingly." Her shoulders rose and fell with her sigh. "I don't want anything contentious, anyway. I just want it to be over." She paused and then hesitated with her confession. "You know, no one in my family is divorced."

He pressed his lips together and sat back in the booth. "Oh, well, half of my family is. Trust me, it's survivable."

"Yeah, I know. I just look at my life right now and wonder how I got here. I've always prided myself on making smart choices, but I can't say that I've made many lately. With Alex, by the end, everything was such a huge mess…"

"That wasn't all your fault, you know."

"A big part of it was," she said, her tone sorrowful. "And now here I am, making this other big decision to move back here, thinking maybe I can start over someplace I used to be happy, but it's just really hard to trust my own judgment right now, you know? And there is no one to tell me I'm doing the right thing."

"Yeah," he said, looking at the table. This part he knew too well.

She shook her head as if to clear it. "I don't know. I guess the die is cast now and I just have to see what happens. It can't be any worse than the last year and half, right?"

He gave her a ghost of a smile, and she checked her watch.

"I didn't realize how late it was," she said, shooting him an apologetic look. "Sorry for keeping you captive for my wallowing. You should get home. I imagine Clare will be wondering where you are."

He cleared his throat. "Uh, no, probably not. Clare, she…well, she's gone."

She raised her eyebrows at him. "Gone?"

"She moved out."

"Oh." Her eyes welled with sympathy. "Rick, I'm sorry. Here I've been going on and on about my problems…what happened?"

He still wasn't quite sure, but there was no way he was going to tell her about her role in the drama. Clare had asked for a full accounting of his feelings for McCall, and he'd given it as best he could, from their wild-and-crazy partnership and their one heated night together to her hasty departure and the silence that came with it. "I promise I'm not in love with her," he'd said, because of this much, he was sure. On some level, he barely knew her anymore.

Clare's face had been pinched and white as she'd made her decision. "It's not about her," she'd said at last. "I thought it was, but now I think it's not. It's that you had this incredibly close connection with her, someone you obviously loved deeply in whatever capacity, and yet you never breathed a word about it, for years. It's like there was a huge piece of yourself you'd been keeping buried away where I couldn't see it. I'm left wondering how well I knew you at all."

Rather than digging any further, she had left.

Back in the present with Dee Dee, he just shook his head. "I screwed up," he said simply. "And now I've got bare patches on my walls from the stuff she took with her, and there are two deck chairs being delivered next week that we had picked out together. The house is so quiet I can hear myself breathing at night." He took a deep breath. "So yeah, I get it. I get what you mean – there was a certain kind of future there and now there's just...blank space."

She nodded. "Exactly. And I just don't know yet how I'm going to fill it." She paid the bill, and he walked her to the elevators. "Thanks again," she said, "for picking me up."

"No problem." He lingered a moment, debating whether to say more. "Look," he said finally, "I can't tell you that you're making the right decision. But I can say…I'm glad you're here."

"You know what?" She smiled and reached for his hand, which she squeezed. "For right now, so am I."


He saw her a few times over the next several weeks. Once they went looking at condos together, which turned out to be awkward when one realtor after another kept mistaking them for a couple. Another time he invited her over for BBQ chicken and a World Series game. She wandered his place, taking in the walls and furniture, and he could feel her cataloging what was familiar and what wasn't.

"I don't remember this one," she said as she stood in front of a somewhat abstract painting of an old oak tree.

He stood with her. "No, it's, uh, it's pretty new." He had purchased it with Clare, because it reminded him of her. She had a worn-out sketchbook that she drew in from time to time, but the back page was an ink drawing of a great, branching tree. On the branches were names – names of patients she had lost over the years. They'd been dating casually for a couple of months the first time she had shown him the book, and that's when he had known: she was someone he could love.

Dee Dee must have read something of the history in his face, because she looked at him and asked, "Do you miss her?"

"Sometimes." It was getting easier, and while he wasn't ready to admit that Clare had been right about his feelings for McCall, he was glad to have the space and freedom to work them out, wherever that landed him in the end. "Why? Do you miss Alex?"

She sipped the iced tea he'd given her and contemplated the picture in front of them. "I missed him a long time ago," she said eventually, "even while we were still married. It's when I stopped missing him that I had to leave."

He murmured a small noise of agreement.

"I'll tell you what, though," she said, "I'd forgotten some of the other stuff I missed – things I enjoyed without him."

"Like what?"

She shrugged one shoulder. "Oh, like being able to crank the stereo whenever I wanted. Alex was usually working when he was home and didn't like the noise. Plus, there's meat."

"Meat?" He furrowed his brow. That reminded him he was supposed to be tending the grill, so he walked back to the deck, and she followed him.

"Alex is a vegetarian," she explained as they both regarded the sizzling chicken. She took an appreciative sniff. "Mmm, that looks great."

"You married a vegetarian? You?" His tone was teasing. "I'm sorry, but that should have been your first clue right there."

She made a face and poked him. He grinned and dodged her as the fire rose up to tickle the underside of the chicken. When the food was done, he brought his stereo speakers to the edge of the open door. They ate dinner outside on the deck, where they played the stereo – as loud as they wanted – until it was time for her to go.

A few days later, he was in the break room reading the sports section when Captain Wyclef entered to help herself to a stale donut and a cup of coffee. She sat across from him with a sigh. "We're losing Maria Lopez," she said. "She's taking the executive management position over at the DA's office. Their gain, of course, but this one's going to sting." She took a sip of the coffee and promptly scowled at it. "Anyway," she said, "I don't suppose you know anyone who'd be qualified as a Victim/Witness Coordinator."

Hunter smiled. "As a matter of fact, I do."


With a job, she could afford her own condo, and by mid-November, she had moved in just ten minutes away. It was a strange sensation; after years with a continent and an ocean between them, they now lived closer than they ever had before. Maybe that was why he was giving up a perfect sunny Saturday to help her paint the place.

"Great!" she said when he'd agreed. "Now I don't need to buy a ladder."

So he put on faded jeans and an old Hawaiian shirt and showed up at her place at the appointed time. She looked him over when she opened the door. "There's a blast from the past," she remarked at his shirt. "I'd have thought you would have burned them all by now."

"Are you kidding? These never go out of style."

"That's because they were never in style to begin with."

She had done most of the prep work, taping off the doors and windows, putting down a drop cloth, so they got started straight away. Her stereo was playing classic rock – at a reasonable volume, he noted – and they worked in companionable silence for a while, turning her living room from white into a soothing pale green. Painting wasn't his usual idea of a good time, but he had to admit there was a certain satisfaction in setting out a specific task and seeing it easily completed. At work, his desk was stacked high with unsolved cases.

Around noon, they stopped for sandwiches and sodas, which they ate outside on her spacious balcony. He raised his eyebrows at the freestanding wooden swing that sat at one end. "You're into swinging now?" he asked.

"The previous owners didn't want to take it, so I said I'd keep it," she answered with a shrug. Then she arched an eyebrow. "Don't knock it 'til you've tried it."

"Hmm, I'll keep that in mind." He looked over the contents of the table and didn't see any mustard. "Do you have mustard?"

"In the fridge," she said, and so he got up to fetch it.

In the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator and scanned it for mustard, but he couldn't find any. He was about to go ask her for help when a sheaf of papers on the counter caught his eye. He earned his living by snooping, so he couldn't help himself. He looked.

Divorce was granted, it said: irreconcilable differences. Her signature was there at the bottom of the second page, alongside Alex's.

"I forgot it's probably not open..." She halted when she saw him, and he dropped the papers in a guilty hurry.

"Sorry," he said.

"Yeah," she said softly after a moment. "Me too." She left him with the papers and went to fetch the mustard from the cabinet.

He followed her back outside to their food. "I shouldn't have pried," he said as they sat down again.

She waved him off. "It's not like it was a secret."

Still. Her life with Alex was mostly mysterious to him, which he supposed is part of why he'd read the whole decree. "Are you, um, are you doing okay?" he asked.

"I guess so, yeah." She put down her sandwich. "It ended up being pretty easy – shockingly so, really. You sign some papers, and bam, that's it, it's over. All that stuff you agreed to about being together forever – it turns out it's not so binding after all."

He frowned as he took a drink. "You're sounding a little cynical in your old age."

"Am I?" She sighed. "Maybe. Maybe I'm just not a starry-eyed romantic anymore."

"Hey, I liked the starry-eyed romantic." He smiled, trying to get her to smile back. It almost worked. He sobered again and took up his sandwich. "You never know. Maybe the third time's the charm."

"No," she said, reaching for her soda. "I'm not getting married again."

This drew him up short. "Sure, I can see why you'd feel that way now…" The ink was barely dry on her divorce papers.

She shook her head. "No, I mean it. I'd like to…I might find someone to be with. I won't rule that out. But marriage? I don't see it. What's the point in making promises you don't really have to keep?" She regarded him meaningfully. "That was always your viewpoint, as I recall."

"Yeah, but not yours." He felt wounded somehow, as though one of the fundamental tenets of his universe was now untrue.

"Well," she said lightly as she wiped her hands on her napkin. "People change." She eyed the chocolate chip cookie that had been included as a freebie with their order. "Are you going to eat that?" she asked.

He suppressed a smile as he nudged it towards her. "People change, huh?"

"Sure." She snatched it up. "Just not the really important stuff."

After lunch, they finished off the hallway and the guest bedroom in almost no time at all. He was removing the tape from above the closet door when he noticed she had a spot on her side that needed another coat. "You should get that spot right there," he said, nodding at it.

She looked the wall searchingly. "Where?"

"Right there."


He stepped forward to point it out just at the moment she stepped back for a better view, causing them to bump into one another, and her wet brush caught the front of his shirt. "Oops," she said, covering her mouth with her free hand. "Sorry."

"Sorry my ass." He looked down at the taupe streak across his chest. "You did that on purpose."

"I did not!"

"Admit it – you orchestrated this whole thing just to get rid of my shirt."

She gave him a look, brush cocked in hand. "Oh, honey, if I'd wanted that shirt dead, it would've been gone a long time ago."

"Is that so." He jabbed at her with his own brush, but she giggled and ducked out of the way.

"Your aim isn't what it used to be," she said.

He answered with another swipe, this time connecting with her hand. She squeaked and dodged him further. They traded jousts back and forth amid her breathless laughter. Eventually he had her trapped between the window and his body. There was paint on her face, and they were both breathing hard. "Give up yet?" he asked.

"Okay, okay," she said, mischief still in her eyes. "I forgot – you always get your man, no matter the consequences."

"Hold still," he replied. "This is the part where I break out the handcuffs."

She snorted with amusement. "Such big talk. I know you're not packing."

So she'd been watching his ass, had she? He smirked and leaned down further into her personal space, close enough to feel her breathing. "And how exactly do you know that?"

Her merriment faded as they watched each other. "I used to be a detective, you know," she murmured at last.

The words pricked him momentarily, but it was impossible to be too broken up, not when she was standing there right in front of him, a hint of a smile on her lips. "Hmm," he said, as the air grew warm between them. "Seems I recollect something about that."

"Mmm-hmm," she said with her lashes lowered. "I had my fair share of victories too."

"Oh yeah?" He grinned again. "Well, this ain't one of them."

"I don't know," she said as she raised her eyes to his. He lifted his brows in question, and she smiled. "One way or another, you're going to have to lose that shirt."

He wasn't admitting defeat just yet, so he put the shirt in the washing machine while she took a shower. Now bare-chested, he fetched a beer from her refrigerator and went back out onto the balcony. After a moment's pause, he decided to brave the swing, and okay, yes, he could see why she kept it. He closed his eyes and soaked in the warm afternoon sunshine.

After a while, he felt like he was being watched, so he opened his eyes and found her in the doorway, looking at him. She was redressed in jeans and a clean T-shirt, but her feet were bare and her damp hair was pinned on top of her head. "That's a good idea," she said, regarding the beer in his hands.

She disappeared for a moment and then returned with her own bottle. Cautiously, she took a seat next to him on the swing, and the sturdy wooden frame held. She drew one leg up and he rocked them gently back and forth for a few minutes. Her gaze flickered over him. "Clare must have asked," she said at length. "About the scar."

Reflexively, he touched the old bullet wound. Clare of course had recognized the injury for what it was. "Yeah, she asked," he allowed. "I told her the truth: that I got shot by a guy we were investigating in a rape-homicide."

She looked surprised. "That's it?"

He shifted uncomfortably, realizing that maybe Clare had been right about the enormity of the things he had left out. "The rest of it...well, it was all tangled up in what happened to you. I didn't feel right talking about that part." It was her story, of course, but it also felt personal to him in a way that the bullet hole didn't.

She nodded a little, as though she understood, and turned her face to the sun. He watched her for a moment. "What about Alex?" he asked eventually. "Did you tell him?"

She regarded him again. "Some," she allowed eventually. "He knew about the rape. He knew you'd killed Mariano." She hugged her knee and closed her eyes. "But I never told him…"

"What?" he asked when she stopped. Suddenly, he wanted to know really badly, whatever it was.

She sat up a bit and shook her head. "It's been ten years," she said. "And of course most days I don't think about it at all, but it never actually goes away. It's like it…the whole experience just sits there, a box full of memories, and I don't have to look in the box, but every time I do…" She paused for breath. "It just surprises me, I guess, how much I still wish it had never happened."

He reached for her hand. "I wish that too," he said.

She smiled and blinked back her tears. "And that's why I can tell you," she said, giving him a squeeze.

They sat in silence for a while, still holding hands with each other and the past. It was probably why he slipped again. "You know, McCall..." He winced even as the word came out of his mouth, but she stopped him when he tried to pull away.

"It's okay," she said, and there was no desperation or awkwardness this time, only pure affection. "I mean it. If the situations were reversed, you'd always be Hunter to me."

"I've been doing so much better," he said. "You gotta give me that." Years of habit, ingrained deep. It was like trying to think of peanut butter without the jelly. Or saying "Michael J. Fox" without the J.

"Yes, well, you don't have to try so hard," she told him. "I'm not changing it back, obviously, but I don't mind at all. It can be…it can be our thing."

A slow smile spread across his face. "We have a thing? Since when?" His thumb slid along the back of her hand, and he swore he saw her blush.

"Oh, since about a dozen years ago, I'd say." She cleared her throat and looked at him seriously. "Now. What did you want to tell me?"

He ducked his head. "I could really go for the rest of those potato chips."


Occasionally her new job brought her into his orbit, and they'd have lunch if there was time or a quick coffee if there was not. He had her new phone numbers memorized and was slowly getting to trust that she would answer if he called.

So he wasn't surprised when she answered on the second ring. "Hey, it's me," he said.

"Hi," she said, her voice warming when she realized it was him.

He was on his cell by the side of the road, turned away so he could not see the blood in the street. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to reschedule dinner."

She recognized the strain in his voice immediately. "What happened?"

"Turn on any news channel you like," he said, squinting into the sky where the helicopters hovered like vultures. "Four vehicle crash – three dead, eight injured. One seven-year-old girl dead at the scene." The driver of the van that had triggered the accident was being treated for minor injuries, but he was looking at a possible homicide charge.

"Oh, that's awful," she said, her voice full of sympathy. "I'm so sorry."

"Yeah," he said grimly. He cast a glance behind him where a Honda Accord lay upside down and smashed. "I don't really think I'll be up for company tonight. It'll be a miracle if I'm done by eight, anyway. Rain check?"

"Of course. Just give me a call."

He spent a good part of the day under the sun, walking the pavement with NTSB investigators, talking to witnesses to determine exactly what had happened. The summary was short: a blue Chevy van doing approximately 55 mph on a city street crossed into incoming traffic and took out the Honda, full stop. Then it skidded into an Audi, which veered off course and hit the minivan. But all the details had to be recorded for any eventual prosecution.

The street was littered with glass, bits of plastic and medical waste. It looked like something out of the apocalypse, and for five families, it may as well have been. Little Lacey Hayes had been found still buckled in her seat, upside down with one eyeball gone on impact. Her mother, the driver, was airlifted to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead later on. Hunter spoke briefly with the father, Bart Hayes, a man who restored classic cars as a hobby. Hunter figured those days had probably come to an abrupt end.

The hardest part of working for the dead was dealing with the living they left behind. He had learned years ago to sit patiently through the sobbing or incoherent rambling. "I don't understand," the survivors always said. "Why?"

Twenty years on the job, and he still didn't have an answer.

He drove home carefully, the way he always did after the scene of one of these accidents. Just the sound of the ignition catching was enough to make his skin prickle. Once back in his driveway, he cut the engine and sat there a few minutes, trying to get up the energy to drag himself inside.

He walked up the path and stopped short when he found Dee Dee sitting on his steps with a large paper bag. From the way she was huddled in her sweater, she had been there a while. "I was thinking," she said to him, "that there was a time when I wasn't 'company.' So I brought some dinner over, only…" She closed her eyes, rueful. "I got all the way over here before I remembered I don't have a key anymore. I can go if you want. No hard feelings."

He nodded at the door behind her. "Get inside already, would you?"

She smiled as she gathered her things and followed him into the house. They went to the kitchen, where he pulled out a large bottle of apple juice while she started unloading the contents of her sack. "It's chickpea curry," she said. "And I have the makings for salad. You do have rice, don't you?"

"I have rice." He peered at the Tupperware container. "You…you cooked that?"

"I did." She continued working while he gaped at her, and eventually she stopped to roll her eyes. "I had some free time on my hands these last few years, okay?"

He eyed the contents, still skeptical. "I'm up-to-date on all my shots, so I guess I can risk it."

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that." She was measuring out the rice now.

"Do you mind if I take a shower?" he asked.

"Take two, I don't care." She did not give him a backwards glance.

In the shower, he stood under the hot spray for a long time, washing away the feel of the dust and road grit. Gradually, the tension in his middle eased to the point where he thought he might be able to eat again. He put on jeans and his favorite comfort flannel before rejoining her in the warm kitchen. The air was redolent with the spicy scent of curry, and his stomach grumbled in appreciation.

"That actually smells good," he said, coming up behind her.

"Try not to sound so surprised," she replied, but he caught her smile.

He slipped an arm around her waist and gave her a reverse hug. "In case I forget to say it later – or I am hospitalized with food poisoning – thanks for coming."

She covered his hand with her own. "You're welcome. Now let's eat."

He discovered he was hungrier than he'd thought, although when he considered, he realized he hadn't eaten more than coffee and a banana all day. The curry was aromatic and delicious – a hot and spicy with just an undertone of sweetness – and when he went back for seconds, she gave him a pointed look. "Okay, I admit it. Apparently you can cook now. This is really good."

She looked pleased. "Well, don't get too carried away with the accolades. I can make a handful of dishes, but they're enough to get by."

After dinner, she sent him to the couch while she cleaned up the kitchen. He didn't bother turning on the lights; after the day he'd had, the darkness suited him just fine. He lowered his tired body onto one end of the oversized leather sofa and listened to the sounds of her moving around in the other room. He heard her footsteps approach, so familiar even after all the intervening years, and forced his eyes open again.

She slipped off her shoes and curled up next to him. "I saw the news," she said. "It looked bad."

He nodded. "The worst."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

The gentleness of her question contrasted with the horror of his day made his eyes water. He swallowed back the lump in his throat and shook his head. "Someone had to be there," he said.

"Yes." She laid her head on his shoulder. "But I'm sorry it had to be you."

He slipped an arm around her and pulled her closer. She hugged him around the middle in a comforting embrace. When he showed no signs of letting her go, she shifted and slowly relaxed against him. He rested his cheek on her warm head and held her tight enough to feel her breathing. She ran a tentative palm over his chest.

"You were wrong, you know," he said, his eyes closed. "You are company. The best kind."

He felt her smile against his shirt. She lay there quietly with him in the dark, letting him use her as tactile therapy. He couldn't save everyone, but damn it, he'd saved this woman a time or two, and she was warm and whole in his arms. He stroked her hair and smoothed his hand along the curve of her back. She simply held him in return. Eventually, it occurred to him that the hour was late, that he should let her go. It was the last thought he had before he fell asleep.

He awoke to silence hours later, muzzy-headed and blinking in the semi-darkness. His earlier tension had eased, and there was peace and quiet around him. The light from the kitchen spilled out from the other room, and McCall was lying still in his arms. From the weight of her, he could tell she was asleep. It was a work day, and he ought to wake her. But instead he used this rare opportunity to drink in her physical closeness and consider how he felt about it.

Over the years, off and on, he had lain awake in the night and wondered how he had lost his best friend. She'd been gone so long that sometimes he'd wondered if he had made her up entirely. But now here she was again, close enough to touch. It was like finding a long-lost security blanket. Part of him wanted to carry her upstairs to bed just for that alone.

But of course the last time they had been in bed together, they'd been naked. It wasn't a memory he allowed himself to revisit very often because of all the confusion that had followed. Instead, he would squint at it occasionally from a distance, like looking into the sun. He remembered clearly the feeling of crossing a line, of being drunk on their kisses but unable to stop touching her more and more. Her aroused gasp as he'd slid inside her was still one of the most sexually thrilling moments of his life.

She sighed in his arms, a distant echo of that night, and desire flooded him, hot and thick. He quickly tamped it back down again.

He loosened his hold and sat up a bit, which caused her to shift sleepily away from him. "Oh, wow," she said when she realized where she was. "Sorry. I didn't mean to fall asleep here. What time is it?"

He held his arm so it caught the kitchen light and he could see his watch. "Almost five."

"I'd better go." She gave his hand a quick squeeze. "I'm just going to use your bathroom first, okay?"

"Mi casa, su casa."

He sat there in the half-light, feeling tired but less raw inside. He was going to be able to get up in a couple of hours and go face the families again. His knees creaked as he stood up, a reminder that he was older than he used to be. He ambled into the kitchen and poked around in the junk drawer until he found what he was seeking.

She appeared, this time with her purse slung over one shoulder. "I put the leftovers in the fridge," she said, "in case you get hungry later."

He took her hand and placed the key inside it. "Here," he said as he closed her fingers around the key. "For next time. We don't want you sitting outside in the cold."

She looked surprised for a second, and then suddenly teary. She reached out and grabbed him in impulsive hug. "Thanks," she said against him. "For letting me in."


Before Christmas, they went to visit Kitty, her husband Paul, their new son Andrew, who had decided to make his entrance to the world a few weeks early. They sat in the sun room and McCall held the baby while Kitty regaled them with tales of her labor. "So there I am in the middle of contractions," Kitty was saying, "and Paul is five feet away eating a sandwich at approximately 700 decibels. I hadn't had a bite to eat in twelve hours, mind you, and he was over there trying to set some sort of record as World's Loudest Chewer. It's like he grew a second set of teeth."

There was no real rancor in her tone, and Paul looked amused, not offended. "Finally, she said to me, 'I hope you choke and die.'"

They both laughed and Kitty added, "The nurse kindly suggested he finish eating outside."

Hunter smiled, only partly listening. He was watching Dee Dee with the baby, the way she patted his little back and kissed his fuzzy head. It was a bit of tender, instinctive interaction, and it was then he really felt the weight of what she'd lost, the unfairness of it all. She must have sensed him looking because she met his gaze and held it. She let him see the flash of longing in her eyes, just a hint about how deep this particular pain still felt, before she blinked and forced a smile again. "He is the sweetest thing," she said to Kitty as she gently handed the baby back.

But Kitty demurred. "I want to see Rick take a turn," she said with a smile. "The contrast in size alone would be worth it."

McCall arched an eyebrow at him, but he held out his hands. "Hit me," he said.

The sleeping baby didn't so much as stir as they made the transfer, and McCall stood next to him so they could both look down at the tiny creature in his palms. He touched Andrew's delicate little hand with one fingertip and smiled when the baby grabbed him. "Hard to believe you were ever this small," McCall said.

He considered the warm, slight weight in his hands. Really, he thought, what a courageous and hopeful thing it was to bring a child into this world, especially given what they had seen. Babies were born every minute into uncertain futures. Guns and locks and fences failed; monsters could wear a human face. You had to believe somehow that yours would be different, blessed and safe.

Hunter had never been able to make that leap of faith. Love, he knew, was no protection at all.

In hands, the baby sighed, content for now with his dreams.


It was getting late at night, three days before Christmas, and they were lying in front of his gas fireplace amid a mess of throw pillows and empty pizza boxes. She was going to spend the holiday with her family, so he wouldn't be seeing her for a while. At the moment, he was keeping her with him through a long, meandering conversation that had somehow landed on a debate over the cleverest birds. "I'm just saying," he told her, one hand propping up his head, "chickens are smarter than we give them credit for. I knew one growing up that figured out how to work a bedroom window from the outside."

"And just what was it going to do when it got in?" She shook her head. "No, owls are way smarter than chickens."

He smirked. "You know those cartoons with little owl monocles and little owl diplomas aren't for real, right?"

"Yeah, but come on now, Hunter – there's no restaurant chain called 'Kentucky Fried Owl.' I'm pretty certain that chickens are the inspiration for the term 'bird-brained.'"

"That reminds me of a woodpecker joke," he said.

She rolled her eyes. "Let me guess – the 'knock knocks' just go on forever."

He shifted so he was a little closer. "No, see, a California woodpecker and a Hawaiian woodpecker got into an argument about which state had the toughest trees, and the Hawaiian bird said that they had a tree there that was – pardon the language here - 'impeckable'."

"Oh, God, Hunter…"

He grinned and continued. "The California woodpecker refused to believe this, and so they both went to Hawaii, and in fact, when they got there, he had no problem pecking a hole in the trees that the Hawaiian bird said were impassible. Flummoxed, the Hawaiian bird said he would now have to try the California trees for himself. So they flew back to California, and the native woodpecker showed his Hawaiian friend how the tree was impenetrable. But when the Hawaiian bird tried it, he pecked through with ease."

"I don't get it," she said.

"Well, the birds finally realized – your pecker gets harder when you're away from home."

She groaned and threw a pillow at him, which he dodged, laughing. "That's awful. You are completely terrible." She shuddered as they settled back down again. "I've never liked woodpeckers anyway."

"Why? What'd they ever do to you?"

"Oh, it was ages ago, back in high school." She stopped and he nudged her.


"And I was with this guy, in his car, and we were parked near the woods with no one around. It was late and we were… well, you know."

"No," he said, feigning confusion. "Explain it to me. In detail, please."

She fixed him with a look. "We were making out, when all of a sudden there was this unbelievable noise. It sounded like machine gun fire. It scared the beejezus out of both of us, and we just got the hell out of there. I was sure we'd read in the paper about some crazed gunman killing teenagers in the woods, but nothing ever turned up. It was only a year or two later when I saw the bird actually making that awful sound when I realized what had happened."

"Go back to the making out part," he said, still frowning. "I still have questions."

She rolled her eyes. "Try your local library. I'm sure they have books that can help you."

"But none with pictures," he said, with a deep, heavy sigh, and she laughed. He inched a little closer and watched the firelight flicker over her face.

Sex in general was not something they discussed in any detail, even after they'd done the deed. Jokes, sure, but anything beyond that had always felt too dangerous. Frankly, it still did, with the lateness of the hour and her lying inches away, looking completely edible with her wide, dark eyes and mussed-up hair.

He'd been having some distinctly impure thoughts about her lately, as sense memories from their past got all tangled up with the present. He remembered what it was like to undress her and lie naked in her bed, her body taut with pleasure under his. But when he dreamt about it now, it was the current version he was kissing. He could tell even with his eyes closed because this imagined lovemaking was tinged with a level of desperation he hadn't felt at the time. He hadn't understood back then that he could lose her.

His palms itched with the sudden need to touch her. Slowly, he stretched his hand out nearer to her, watching her face as she watched his fingertips edging closer. Her lips parted, and he could practically feel her quiver. Just as he would have made contact, she sat up with a gasp. "I…I should get going. I have a long drive in the morning."

He drew back his hand and nodded. "Okay."

He turned on the lights and they picked up the disarray on the floor; soon it looked like nothing ever happened. "Oh, wait," she said. "I have something for you."

Intrigued, he waited by the door as she went out to her car and returned. She handed him a wrapped package. "Merry Christmas," she said.

He opened the box and found a Hawaiian shirt inside – blue with red and orange flowers. He pulled it out with a grin.

"I had to go to two consignment stores to find one that ugly," she told him, looking pleased with herself. "And now you can see I am sorry about ruining the other one."

"It's great. Thank you."

The moment lingered as they looked at each other, and then she snapped out of it. "Okay, I'm really going now."

"No, wait." He hesitated again. "I, uh, I have something for you too." He'd had it for a while, actually. Years. Several times already he had thought about giving it to her as a housewarming gift, but every time, he chickened out. To let her see it now would basically be hanging a sign on his feelings: this is how bad I had it.

He went into the other room and retrieved the crazy-faced apple plant holder. For Christmas, he'd even put a new plant in it. He held it up so they were eye-to-eye. "Last chance to back out," he whispered to it. Then he sighed.

He tucked it behind his back and returned to the kitchen, near the door where she waited. "Here," he said, thrusting it towards her. "This is for you. I mean, it's yours."

She took it carefully, as though it was some ancient historical artifact. "Oh, goodness," she said, smiling. "I'd forgotten all about this little guy. You kept him?"

He leaned against the table, trying to look casual, but nodded tightly. He'd removed the silly thing from his desk after a year or so but could never bring himself to throw it out. Now here he was, presenting it to her like it was some lovesick token. Maybe enough time had gone by that she wouldn't even understand. "Pretty stupid, huh," he said, scuffing at the floor with his toe. "I mean, you didn't even remember him. You don't have to keep it if you—"

"I'm keeping it," she said swiftly. She looked at him searchingly for a moment, and then she set aside the plant. "Rick, I..."

He could tell from the gentleness in her tone that she did get it. He almost ran away when she took a step forward. "Forget it," he muttered.

He couldn't look at her, but she was standing close enough that he could smell her perfume. She touched his hand, palm to palm, and laced their fingers together. "I forgot the plant holder," she said, her voice full of emotion, "but I never forgot you. Not for a second."

He looked at her to see if it was the truth. In her eyes, he saw the same sense of loss that he had felt. She reached up with her free hand and held her palm to his cheek. The gesture broke open the wall of memories inside him, and he pulled her in closer, closer, until their noses brushed. "I'm sorry," she whispered, "if you've ever doubted it."

He kissed her because he couldn't help himself. It was soft and gentle and full of years of apologies. They cradled each other, exchanging murmurs and kisses that grew slower and deeper with each touch of their lips. As always, he held back with her, not allowing himself to fall too far in, even when she parted her mouth and wound her arms around his neck. But the air between them grew heated with their labored breathing, and he mapped her curves with his hands. She tasted as sweet as his dream, the one where he swept her up and took her to bed.

She must have felt it too because she pulled her mouth from his with a small gasp and a shudder went through her. He leaned his forehead on hers, absorbing her shock. He made a little humming noise of reassurance and traced the curve of her jaw. "You," he whispered, and he felt her smile.

"I have to go," she whispered in return. His heart, still thundering in his chest, lurched in confusion. She placed a lingering kiss near his ear. "But I promise I'll be back."


The new year came and work hit him like a ton of bricks – three separate homicides in the span of two days. When it finally slowed again, he idled at his computer, not really seeing the screen as he thought about how to approach her. After twelve years, it seemed a little late to go up and say, "Wanna go out sometime?"

He was considering inventing a pretext to get her back to his house – maybe it could be his turn to paint a bedroom – when he thought he heard her laugh. Wondering if he had conjured her out of thin air, he rolled his desk chair back, and then back further, until he could peer down the hallway. Sure enough, there she was, talking with Jeff Burton. Burton was standing a little too close for his tastes, but Dee Dee was smiling at him and shaking her head as though amused.

Hunter frowned as he went to go investigate. Burton squeezed her arm and ambled away before Hunter could get close enough to eavesdrop, so he was forced to ask. "Hey," he said, nodding his chin after the departing detective. "What did Burton want?"

She composed herself and fingered the file folder in her hands. "Oh, him? He wanted to ask me out."

"Like on a date?"

She eyed him. "It's been a while, but yes, I believe that's how it's done." Hunter scowled, and she hit him lightly with the folder. "Relax. I told him no."

"You did? Why?"

She shrugged and looked at the floor. "I keep hoping maybe you'll ask me instead."

It took him a fraction of a second to parse her words. "How's Friday?" he said quickly, and she grinned once before reining it in again.

"Friday," she mused, squinting as she appeared to think it over. She scratched the back of her head. "I'll have to check my calendar."

She started strolling down the hall, and he hurried to follow her. "Jeez, McCall…" He didn't get a chance to finish his sentence because she ducked into an empty conference room and pulled him in after her. "What are you-?"

She grabbed his tie and yanked him closer for kissing. He recovered from the momentary shock just in time to kiss her back, because then it was over. "Friday's good," she said as she pulled away, her breathing unsteady.

He put his hands on his hips. "You have changed. You're a brazen hussy now."

"I didn't hear you complaining." She smoothed out his tie. "I've had some time to think about what I want, and I decided to go and get it."

He tried not to smile. "So what are you doing here, anyway?"

She looked at him from beneath her lashes. "I just told you. Getting what I want." She reached up and used her thumb to remove the lipstick from the side of his mouth. "See you Friday."


By Friday, he was as nervous as he'd been at sixteen on his first formal date. He had just barely managed to stitch back together one kind of relationship with McCall, and now here they were, pressing their luck as they tried out another kind. No whammies, he thought as he pulled into her driveway to pick her up.

All his doubts fizzled away when she opened the door. She looked amazing, but then she usually did, in his estimation. She wore a fuchsia-colored sundress and a thin black cardigan, and her hair was pinned up in the way that always made him want to bite her neck. But it was the delighted smile she gave, the one that said she was happy to see him, which made his stomach flip over.

"I wasn't sure what to wear," she said, looking down at her clothes and then eyeing his jeans and polo shirt, "since I didn't know what was on the agenda for the evening."

"It'll do," he said as he took her hand. "For now."

He drove them to the marina and led her down the boardwalk until they reached Lou Prescott's houseboat. She stopped and regarded him as he fished out the keys. "Have you been holding out on me?" she asked.

"It belongs to a friend," he said as he let them both inside. "I'm just housesitting for the month."

He had stocked it the night before with wine and groceries, so she was able to sit on a stool in the small kitchen as he prepared a meal of pasta primavera and salad. When her white wine ran low, he paused to refill the glass, leaning perhaps a bit over much into her personal space as he did so. "The service in this establishment is impressive," she said.

"Hmm, yes," he replied. "You have to watch the staff, though; I hear they can get a bit handsy."

She eyed him over the rim of her glass. "I'm kind of counting on it."

He kept a straight face even as he ran a finger down her arm. "Then I suggest leaving a big tip."

They ate at the petite dining table next to the big bay window, chatting as the sun slowly sunk into the ocean. "It's beautiful here," she said as she looked out at the water. It was smooth as glass, reflecting back the fading orange light in the distance.

"Mmm, yes," he agreed, although he was taking in a different view. She smiled a little and ducked her head. He cleared his throat and sat forward. "Actually, I might like to buy a boat one day. Not to live on, like this, but for day trips and stuff."

"Yeah?" She picked up her wine glass again.

"What do you think?" he said, searching her. He was beginning to imagine a future that included her in it.

"I think it sounds nice."

He relaxed with a smile and they watched each other for a long moment. "So," he said at length, "would you like some coffee or something?"

She considered for a second and then stretched across the table toward him. "Define 'or something,'" she replied as she laid a hand on his arm.

He could have picked her up and hauled her back to the bedroom right there, but it didn't feel quite right. It had been almost a decade since the first time, and there was a hell of a lot more riding on the outcome now. So he took her hand and led her out to the private deck, where there were two lounge chairs. The night was cool but not yet cold, and he knew how to keep her warm.

She smiled as he drew her down with him onto one of the chairs. "I like this idea," she said, slipping off her sandals and snuggling in happily. They held each other quietly in the twilight, and he felt every one of the intervening years. They were on a precipice, a place they'd been before, and the spot where it had all gone wrong. He had left her bed a decade ago thinking they had all the time in the world to sort it out. Now ten years were gone and he understood how fast time could fly.

She rubbed her cheek against his shirt. "What are you thinking about?" she asked softly.

He decided for truth. "I was thinking about the last time we were together," he replied, and he didn't have to clarify any further for her.

"It was a long time ago." She paused. "Maybe we're older and wiser now."

"Older for sure," he said with a sigh, and she hugged him. He rested his cheek on the top of her head. "Did you ever think back then that it might have turned into something more? I mean, did you...did you want that?"

She took a long time with her answer. "I didn't dare think it," she said as she trailed her fingers down his chest. "I knew you didn't want that."

How she could have known this, when he hadn't known it himself, was a mystery. He searched himself for any sort of real answer, but the years hadn't offered any clarity. This was one thing that made him cautious. "I wanted you," he said, because he felt it was important that she know this.

"I know," she replied warmly.

"No, I mean – not just that night." He shifted so he could look at her. "At one point I was pricing flights to D.C. so that I could come see you."

"What?" She looked genuinely surprised.

In the end, he'd been too afraid. Grand gestures and commitment were not his style. He smiled at her sadly now, remembering how it was. "Yeah. I, uh, I missed having you around – you know, talking to you, seeing you." He swallowed. In for a penny, in for a pound. "Touching you."

She smiled a little and took his hand. He squeezed her.

"We hadn't been apart more than a few days back then," he said, his voice low, and her face took on a pained expression. It almost seemed silly now, how much that brief separation had hurt. "I kept thinking of stuff to say to you, but you were gone. I guess I just, uh, I just missed you."

Her eyes were watering now. "I missed you too," she said, her voice teary.

He sniffed back his own emotion. "Yeah?"

She nodded vigorously. "So much," she said, and hugged him as though she might never let go again.

He was no longer sure which time period they were talking about, and maybe it didn't matter. They held each other close and tight, rocking gently while she sniffled against his shoulder. Eventually, he lay back down and she settled against his side. They toyed with each other's hands as their legs intertwined. "What would you have said?" she asked him after a while. "If you had come to see me in Quantico?"

He shifted her gently so that she was most of the way in his lap, and then he cupped the side of her face until she looked at him. "Hi," he said, stroking her soft cheek with his thumb.

She smiled back at him. "Hi," she whispered as her hand found the back of his neck. She leaned in and then they were kissing. It was slow and warm, with low murmurs and her occasional giggle. He'd forgotten how intimate that laugh could feel when it was soft and right up against him in the dark.

He nuzzled her cheek as he slid his hands up the back of her sweater. His fingertip brushed the zipper tab of her dress, worrying it back and forth in a subtle tease. "Stay with me." He murmured the words against her warm skin.

She drew back to look at him. "That's what you would have said – back then?"

"No." He inched his fingers up further until he found the faint scar at the base of her neck, and their eyes met in shared memory. "It's what I'm saying now."

She searched his face for a long moment and apparently found whatever it was she needed. She nodded, a little hesitant, as if she couldn't quite believe what she was agreeing to.

"Yeah?" He couldn't quite believe it either.

A slow smile broke out over her face. "Yeah."

She eased off his lap, and he took her hand and led her, a little shyly, back to the bedroom. She shed the sweater as he sat on the bed, and then he drew her to stand between his legs. He could feel her heartbeat racing, but her touch was gentle as she stroked his head. "It's been a long time," she said.

He did not know if she meant a long time for her, or for them, or maybe just a long time in general. After all, she was one of his oldest friends. For so many years, he had avoided any sort of contact that might get him into trouble. His eleventh commandment: thou shalt not lust after thy partner, no matter how good she looked in a leather miniskirt and thigh-high stockings. Now she was standing right in front of him, holding her breath as she waited for him to touch her.

He did not make her wait long.

He held her fast around her ribcage and leaned forward to put slow, open-mouthed kisses along her collarbone. She gasped and her fingers tightened in his hair. The scent of her perfume and soft skin made him hot and dizzy as he nosed his way down to her breasts.

When he drew back for air, they were both breathing heavily. She looked dazed and aroused, her eyes dark and her mouth pink and full. He reached up and touched her lips softly with one finger. "Oh," he said, "the things I am going to do to you."

Her eyes widened in delighted anticipation. "Yeah? Like what?"

"This for starters," he said, and dragged her down onto the bed with a growl.

She laughed and pretended to squirm away for a minute, but he caged her with his body so there was nowhere she could go. He finally got to bite that neck, and she was as delicious as he'd imagined. Her dress rode up around her waist and his hands went to her hips, thumbs inside the sides of her underwear as he urged her against him. He was hot and hard between her legs, aching inside his jeans. "Oh, my," she said, all breathless and sexy as reached down to touch him, "Is that for me?"

"If you're a good girl," he murmured.

"Oh, I'm better than good," she said as she nimbly undid his pants.

They hadn't really talked the last time, probably because they couldn't admit to one another it was happening. It was hot and fast and over before he knew what hit him. This time, he was determined to make it last.

So they talked and kissed and undressed each other by the light of the small bedside lamp. At his urging, she took his hand on a slow tour of her body, twining their fingers together as they moved from her face to her neck and shoulders, over her breasts and down her flat stomach to the impossibly soft skin of her inner thighs. "What do you want?" he breathed near her ear. "Show me."

Conversation ceased then as she placed his hand between her legs. He stroked her gently at first with the pads of his fingers, all the while watching her face, searching for the place that made her breathing go ragged. Soon she was arched, her head thrown back on the pillow, breasts full and heaving as she gasped for air. His hand was a blur between her thighs.

Lust made his blood churn, and he was panting right along with her. She was so close he could taste it. "You like that?" he said, his mouth open against her damp cheek. "You like it right there?"

She answered with a whimper.

Impulsively, he grabbed her hand and placed it on his erect penis. "Feel me," he urged. "Feel what I'm going to do to you." She groped him with no precision whatsoever, but it made him swell even further in her palm. "Soon," he promised her, his voice crooning, "Soon I am going to fuck you."

That did it, as she went of the edge with a wail. He rained kisses over her hot face as she came, and she shuddered, winding her arms around his shoulders. "Do…do it," she said when she could talk again. Her hips were still sliding against him.

He pulled back to look at her. Her hair was askew, half the pins gone; her lips were smudged and bruised, and her mascara was running. He had never wanted anyone so badly in his life. "Yeah," he said, and it wasn't a question.

His hands shook a little as he put the condom on. Carefully, he positioned himself between her legs, and he leaned down so that he could kiss her as he slid inside. They kissed softly and tenderly as her body stretched to welcome him. Later, he'd make good on his promise; right then, he was just looking to come home.


He woke with a jerk to find himself alone, with the sun steaming in through all the windows at once. The sheets were tangled around his waist and the other side of the bed was cold. He barely had time to get concerned, however, because she appeared in the bedroom again, wearing a fluffy white towel and carrying two steaming mugs of coffee.

"Morning," she said with a smile. She came around the edge of the bed to sit by his hip. "We never did get to the coffee last night."

"Hmm," he agreed as he accepted a cup. "We have kind of a history in that area."

She laughed as she blushed a little. "Well, we definitely have a history. No one can deny that."

He took a sip of the strong, hot brew. "This is perfect." He nudged her. "You're perfect."

A shadow crossed her face and she looked down at the bed. "I'm not. I've made countless mistakes, and you should know – you've been there for many of them."

Going forward, he planned to be there for all of them, but he sensed she wasn't ready to hear that part yet. He traced the curve of her knee with one finger. "Been there?" he said, gently teasing. "I think I was one of those mistakes once or twice."

She smiled and stretched down to kiss him. "Yes," she said. "My favorite one."


End part two.

To be continued? I am not sure yet. Sometimes the answer isn't clear!

© syntax6 2015