Chapter 16

This cold and dreary winter morning has McCall yearning to be curled up in front of her fireplace sipping a hot cup of coffee instead of shielding herself from the icy wind. The buildings along Main Street create a wind tunnel, at times making it difficult to stand her ground as she returns to Parker Center. Her early morning meeting with a deputy DA had ended a short ten minutes after it began, thanks to the intrusion of a witness to another case barging into the District Attorney's offices screaming obscenities, and McCall almost burst into tears of frustration right there in the office.

After leaving the office, business unfinished, she opts to run into a coffee shop for a good cup of coffee to go and temporary relief from the outside elements. "Bad" coffee lost its appeal long ago when, at times, coffee became the highlight of her day.

"Dee Dee?" a timid voice asks, and McCall feels a hand on the back of her arm.

The face looking at her, waiting for a response, seems like a distant memory too long forgotten to recall. The cashier holds a to-go cup out for McCall to take, and she quickly drops her change into her purse and accepts the coffee, all the while racking her brain to place this auburn-haired beauty.

"Rachel," the woman says, "I dated—"

"Yes, Rachel, of course. I remember," McCall interrupts, and she can feel her face flush. As another customer approaches the counter, both McCall and Rachel awkwardly move off to the side. "Uh…it's uh…good to see you."

"You, too," Rachel says with a shy smile. "I don't want to hold you up on your way to work. I just wanted to say hi."

"Oh, no, it's fine," McCall says as an older man bumps into her and she braces herself for hot coffee to splash onto her hand. "How have you been?" she asks for a lack of anything else to say.

"Good. Just, like, good I guess. And you and Mitch?"

"Oh, uh, fine. I mean, I am, at least. Mitch and I aren't together…"

"I'm so sorry! I just assumed…you two seemed… Sorry."

"It's okay. Things just don't work out sometimes."

Rachel nods her head. "And how's Rick?"

Of course Rachel would ask about Hunter. She should have been ready for it. What do I say? Yeah, so, your ex-boyfriend is dying. Oh, and, by the way, we are living together.

"He's doing okay."

"Good," Rachel says. There's an awkward exchange of glances — Rachel seems to be hoping for more information and McCall avoiding the truth. "Well, I guess I better go. It was nice bumping into you."

"You, too," she says and watches as Rachel turns and walks away, overwhelmed by the sadness in Rachel's eyes after all this time, and a ping of regret of what could have been thumps McCall's heart. A single event, a change of course for a single person, creates a ripple that has the ability to tear apart the lives of three others. She is still watching when Rachel suddenly halts and returns to her.

"Could you, maybe, tell Rick I said hi?" Rachel asks, clutching the ends of her scarf with both hands.

"I will."

"I still wonder, you know, what happened. It was just sudden…and...and, like, no explanation."

She studies Rachel's face a moment, wondering if she should tell her the truth and why it matters. She had been frustrated with Hunter when he had refused to tell Rachel about his diagnosis, so sure that Rachel was left in the wings with a bunch of answered questions and insecurities. "Are you in a hurry? Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"

"Yeah, sure, that would be nice."

After they order Rachel's drink, McCall quickly weaves her way to a table in the back corner hoping to snag it just as the current occupants are preparing to leave. She brushes off a few crumbs before placing her cup on the table and wrapping her hands around it as if the paper cup is going to hold her steady. Rachel takes her seat and untangles her scarf from around her neck with clumsy fingers.

"That's a beautiful scarf," McCall says, buying herself time. She shouldn't be doing this.

"It is, isn't it? My mother gave it to me for Christmas and it was finally cold enough today to wear it," Rachel says, visibly relaxing into the small talk. "Did you have a good Christmas?"

Christmas? She was hardly aware that Christmas had come and gone. She spent Christmas Eve at her parents' house and stayed the night in the bedroom she had grown up in, not wanting to sleep alone in her own painfully silent house. The only presents she had received were a guilt trip from her mother for canceling the wedding and two dead fish. But let's be honest, it would have been a true Christmas miracle to have any live fish remaining at this point anyway.

Without thinking, McCall reaches up to brush the pearl earring in her right ear — an unwitting reminder of her actual Christmas present. They were lovely and thoughtful, and she had no doubt that the simple pearl studs had been Hunter's idea and purchased with Hunter's money, but she also knew that Marie had been the one to actually do the shopping and the wrapping. The awkward moment of opening the present, sitting in a cramped hospital room with eight other Hunters watching had put a damper on the fact that Hunter had remembered her off-handed comment several years ago that she wished she had a pair of earrings to wear with the pearl pendant Steve had given her for her birthday just before his death. There was meaning there, a unspoken acknowledgement that he has always listened and always cared, perhaps even a confession that he had been waiting for an opportunity to grant her that wish.

"It's always nice to spend time with family," McCall finally replies, silencing the negativity in her head.

"Look, you don't have to pussy-foot around anything. I'm assuming Rick broke up with me for somebody else. I just wish he'd been honest with me."

"Oh, no, that's not it at all." McCall pauses a moment, gazing out the window as she contemplates her words.

Rachel laughs nervously. "When you said you and Mitch broke up I thought maybe it was you."

McCall uncrosses her legs underneath the table and then re-crosses the other direction, and her fingers gently fluff her bangs. "No, definitely not that. Listen, Rachel…um…Rick has Lymphoma. It's a form of blood cancer."

"Oh my God!" Rachel exclaims, covering her mouth with her hands. "Is he going to be okay? I mean, like, with chemo or whatever?"

"He is going through chemo. Yes. But, so far it's not looking good."

"Oh my God. I don't know what else to say. Oh my God."

"It's been a really tough time for him. But, there wasn't anything you could have done differently. He was worried about the cancer. That's all."

"Why didn't he tell me?"

"I know it's hard to see, but I think he thought not telling you would be easier for you. He really did care for you, you know."

Rachel slowly sits back in her chair. There's a long silence before she speaks again. "What do you mean it's not looking good?"

"The chemo he has received so far has stopped the cancer from spreading, but that's it. It has also made him very ill. In fact, he just got out of the hospital last week after contracting an infection."

"I just can't believe it. He was so healthy. Always eating healthy and exercising. He's the last person I'd expect this to happen to."

"I know. He's trying an experimental treatment now." McCall pauses and watches her finger trace the edge of the lid of her cup. Her nail is short and jagged from chewing, a habit she seems to have picked up recently. When was my last manicure?

"We are hopeful," she continues, "but we won't know anything for a few more weeks."

"Do you think it would be okay if I went to see him?"

"Oh, um, yeah, sure. He's not always feeling up to seeing people, you know, but he might enjoy hearing from you."

"Okay, I will. Thank you. Thanks for telling me," Rachel says, and McCall instantly regrets violating Hunter's privacy.

XXXXX

"What're you doing out here?" McCall asks, finding Hunter sitting out on his deck.

"Getting some fresh air. It's a nice day."

"Mmm, it is," she says turning her face toward the setting sun, closing her eyes as she soaks in the warmth. Two weeks ago it was record-breaking cold, but today might as well be May.

"I want to go to the beach," he says and holds out a small cooler for her to take. "You carry this and I'll get the chairs."

"Are we spending the whole night out there? What is all this?"

"Just help me, will ya?"

She removes her suit jacket, laying it over the back of a chair, and takes the cooler from him. They walk down the stairs in silence, Hunter leaving her behind as she takes off her shoes and socks at the edge of the sand.

He already has the folding beach chairs open and waiting when she catches up to him. From the cooler he pulls out a bottle of champagne and tugs on the wire cage over the cork.

"What are you doing? You're not supposed to drink."

"If there was ever a day to break the rules, this is it. I think I, WE, both deserve a glass of this," he says, holding the bottle so that she can read the label. Champagne isn't something in her wheelhouse, but the label appears to actually be French and she assumes that he spent a pretty penny on it.

"Hunter…"

"Relax, will ya? A bottle of this isn't going to kill me," he says as he hands her a plastic cup. She accepts it reluctantly.

"Oh, Rick…," she whispers sympathetically, reaching out to squeeze his arm, assuming the worst.

"And neither is cancer."

She holds her breath and watches him as her mind races through about a hundred negative meanings for that statement.

"At least not any time soon. Because…I am…100%...cancer free." He smiles at her, an honest to goodness smile.

"You're joking. This can't… You can't…"

"I wouldn't joke about this. The cancer is gone," he laughs in disbelief as he says the words. "We did it, Dee Dee. We beat cancer."

An involuntary scream escapes her mouth as McCall throws herself into his lap, wrapping her arms around him so tightly he nearly chokes and champagne sloshes all over the both of them. He's laughing as she pulls away and presses a kiss hard against his lips.

"This is real? You're going to be okay?"

"Yeah, baby, it's real. Every test, every one, came back negative of any sign of disease."

She hugs him again, burying her head in his neck as tears of joy smart her eyes. Eventually, she pulls away and moves back to her chair, sniffling and wiping her fingers across her tear-soaked cheeks.

"Thank you," he chokes, the words barely getting out of his mouth as emotion takes over.

She grabs hold of his hand and entwines their fingers in silent response.

"I, uh, wanted to make a toast, but I think these cups need refilling."

She laughs as she realizes that she is still holding that plastic cup, now empty, and lets go of his hand so that he can refill it. "Wait…did I miss your appointment with Dr. Patel? I have it on my calendar for tomorrow."

"No, no, it is tomorrow. He said he couldn't wait to tell me the good news, so he called this morning."

"Can I still go with you tomorrow?"

"I don't think it's necessary. We're just going to talk about what happens now — how much more chemo, that kind of stuff," he says, placing the bottle back into the cooler. "Okay, so now that toast."

"Yes, toast."

"Well, first off, to Dr. Patel for performing a miracle."

"Absolutely! To Dr. Patel," McCall agrees as she raises her cup.

"But more importantly, to you," he says, "because Dr. Patel would not have been able to work his magic if it wasn't for you. I owe you—"

"Nothing. You owe me nothing. I'm your partner; I've always got your back." She knows he wants to correct her — that she has a new partner, that even when he's healthy enough to return to work it's unlikely they will ever be partners again, that at forty-four and weakened from more than a year of chemotherapy he may never be able to return to the physical demands of a homicide detective — so she quickly changes her tone. "Except maybe a steak. You can owe me a nice, big, juicy steak. And some chocolate cake. But, seriously, I think you're the one we should be toasting. You have endured unspeakable pain and suffered for longer than any human should ever have to suffer, and you have done it with grace and dignity."

"Alright, how about we just say, 'Adios lymphoma. Never come back. Rot in hell you effing son of a bitch.' "

"Cheers to that!" she laughs and taps her cup to his.

They both sip their drinks, watching the sun play on the horizon. Yesterday, McCall would have likened the setting sun to the end, but today, in light of Hunter's news, she can enjoy the beauty of knowing that the sun will rise and set again tomorrow and the day after that.

"So what else you got in this thing?" she asks, nudging the cooler with her foot.

"Well, I don't have a big, juicy steak for you, but I did come prepared with chocolate cake."

"No kidding?"

He bends over and pulls out two small styrofoam containers and plastic forks, handing one of each to McCall. "I would hope that I know you well enough by now to know that no celebration would complete without chocolate."

At the end of the celebration, Hunter lugs his tired body back up to his condo while McCall puts away the remnants of their picnic. After a long shower, letting the hot spray soothe her muscles and the steam clear her thoughts, she heads upstairs.

Hunter is sound asleep, softly snoring, when she walks into his room. She crawls into bed, curling her legs up between her and Hunter, just as she's done every night since his return from the hospital. There's no understanding between them, there's no need to define anything when there is no future to consider. But, she's been there every night, an unspoken commitment between them. And now, an unknown future lays ahead, but a future no less.

...to be continued...