Hunter shuffled some paper across his desk and tried to pretend he wasn't watching his partner. By the studious way she was also shuffling paper and refusing to glance his way, he knew he was not terribly successful in hiding his worried gaze. McCall kept her head bent, but he imagined he could still see the faint bruising on her neck. Or maybe he was just remembering from before, when the angry purple fingerprints took more than a month to fade away, and longer even, to finally lose their grip.
His phone rang, startling them both, and he quickly grabbed it off the hook. "Hunter."
"I need to see you a minute." Captain Devane sounded tired and grim. Hunter turned around in his chair and craned his head to look into the Captain's office. Charlie had already put down the phone and was waving him over.
Hunter replaced the phone and glanced at his partner, who was watching him now with a questioning look. "Problem?" she asked.
He shrugged and let out a short breath. Whatever the trouble was, it could hardly be worse than what they had been through already this week. "Save my seat," he said as he stood, trying for casual, but he could feel her gaze following him as he went to the Captain's office. Not that he could blame her. She already knew they had been up half the night talking about her, so she was probably bracing for another round. Hunter steeled himself for the same. "Captain?" he said as he entered.
Charlie gestured behind Hunter with his chin. "Close the door."
"What's up?" Hunter asked as he did as requested. "Is this about McCall? Because she seemed to think everything is settled." He sat down, his long legs creaking. Late nights and early mornings were harder than they used to be.
"Her job is safe, like we discussed. Fredericks is dead and I see no point in detailing what happened prior to his arrest at McCall's place. It's a risk. We could all potentially lose our jobs if the story got out." Charlie rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "But it was the department's idea to make her a sitting duck, and when that went bad, I think the department gets to cut her some slack. We all bear some responsibility here, so we all get to live with the consequences."
"Yeah." He thought of his partner last night, crumpled and sobbing against him. "So what's next? You have something new for us?"
Charlie snorted. "As if. Like I am sending you two back into the field right now. You've got bags under your eyes that would make Hefty proud, and a stiff breeze would take out McCall." He shook his head. "No, it's the opposite. I don't want to see either of you for a week. Take your things and go home."
"No. No arguments. I had to pull some serious strings to make this happen. It's paid leave so it doesn't get deducted out of your vacations. Think of it as a thank you from L.A.'s grateful citizens for a job well done."
"I'd really just prefer to keep doing my job. So would McCall."
"Yes, I realize that," Charlie said slowly and patiently, as if speaking to a cranky toddler. "But she hasn't exactly been using her best judgment lately, and so I am substituting my own."
Hunter sat back, defeated. He glanced out the office window but couldn't see McCall through the partially opened blinds. His partner had two broken ribs, a concussion and psychic injury that was no doubt still hemorrhaging. It had taken her nearly two months to return the last time. She'd clawed her way back out of the hole, and now here they were again.
"She'll need to pass a psych evaluation," Charlie said quietly, as if reading his thoughts.
Hunter returned his attention to the Captain. "I don't see why. We've agreed that...that the incident with Fredericks never happened."
"Doesn't matter. The call is out of my hands this time. She opted out after she was shot last year, and I backed her on that. Now she confronted a homicidal rapist in her home, and then he was gunned down in front of her, right here in the station. We're lucky the department doesn't want all of you shrinked up for having witnessed it."
"It's because of her history, isn't it?" Hunter knew he sounded a little hot, but he didn't care. "Because of what happened before."
"I don't know. Maybe."
"That's not fair."
"Of course it's not," Charlie said, angry now too. "I'm pretty sure if you looked up 'rape' in the dictionary, you wouldn't find one word about 'fair'. Look, I hate that this happened. I hate that it happened on my watch, and now I am just trying to do my damnedest to get us all out the other side."
"It just seems like punishing the victim. If she didn't have a history, there's no way the department would be mandating a psych eval, given what's on record about this case."
"Maybe not," Charlie said evenly. "But you and I both know that the official record only has part of the story. It's not the worst thing in the world for her to take some time off, Hunter."
He shook his head. "You send her away now and she might not come back."
"Then that's all the more reason she needs to go." Charlie's voice was kind. "Take the week, both of you. Get some rest. Turn off the news and try not to think about Unger or Fredericks or any of it."
Hunter sighed. "It doesn't seem like I have a choice."
"Nope." Charlie picked up a pen and signed a form on his desk. Then he signed a second one. "Here's the paperwork," he said, ripping the bottom copies off and handing them to Hunter. "If you send McCall in, I will break the news to her about the psych evaluation."
Hunter shook his head and hoisted himself out of the chair. "I'll do it. She'll take it better from me."
Charlie didn't even try to hide his relief. "Okay, thanks. I'll see you both back here in a week, then."
Hunter looked down at the leave papers. "I hope so," he said softly.
Her head hurt, her ribs felt like knives, and the knot of dread in her middle tensed up again as she saw Hunter leaving the Captain's office. She tried to read his face for some clue to the outcome, but mostly she saw lines of fatigue. He forced a smile as he reached their desks. "What was that about?" she asked.
"Get out of jail free cards," he said, waving some papers at her.
He scooped his suit jacket from the back of the chair. "Come on, I'll buy you lunch and explain."
"I'm not very hungry. Can't you just tell me here?"
He frowned and appeared to be thinking a moment. Then he came around and crouched down beside her, putting them nearly eye-to-eye. "When was the last time you ate?" he asked gently.
"I had a bagel this morning."
"That bagel?" He nodded at the edge of her desk, where a wheat bagel sat on a thin, departmental paper plate. It was missing just two bites. She said nothing, and he squeezed her knee. "Lunch," he repeated firmly. "My treat."
She still did not move, nor did she look at him. "Did the Captain change his mind?" she asked, closing her eyes against his answer.
"No, nothing like that. We just have a little vacation coming to us." He stood up. "Effective now."
She opened her eyes and shook her head. She had declined vacation once already, but she didn't have the strength to argue it further at the moment. Hunter was still standing over her, waiting, and she could feel other eyes on them as well. Anyone who looked closely would see a bullet hole in the file cabinet against the far wall, and the room still smelled of bleach from where the industrial cleaners had mopped up after Fredericks's murder. Her office was a crime scene. Her home was a crime scene. Suddenly lunch sounded like a pretty good idea. "Okay," she said, "I'm coming."
She braced herself on the desk and stood up slowly. Pain lanced through her, but she almost welcomed the distraction. Hunter caught her wincing. "You all right?"
"Fine," she said automatically. "Let's go."
Hunter automatically slowed his gait to match hers, a habit he had perfected over their years together and she was grateful for now, given her slower pace. He punched the elevator button and she leaned against the wall. She caught him looking past her, back toward the bullpen, with a troubled expression. "What?" she asked, turning around to see what had caught his attention.
"Nothing," he replied as the elevator dinged its arrival.
But she saw it then, a line of high-velocity splatter, dead red on the institutionally white wall. She hurried into the elevator and pushed the button for the lobby several times. There would be no removing the blood from the walls now that it had dried. Sure, painters could cover up the evidence, but on some level, Lloyd Fredericks would always be with them.
Outside, the LA sun was at high noon, making her squint against the light. It was cool for November, following an unusually early rainstorm. The wind had blown the smog off to the mountains, leaving behind a pale blue sky. It was generally true that nobody walks in LA, but the exception was lunchtime in the city, when people emerged from the concrete jungle in search of whatever fast-food eatery would get them back to their desks in under half an hour. Hunter eyed the foot traffic over the rim of his sunglasses. "What do you feel like? Anything in particular?"
Normally he brought his lunch; something like an orange and a bowl of kale, at least that is what it looked like to her from across the desk. But she guessed he'd had little time for lunch preparations that morning, having been up with the Captain most of the night. She shrugged and immediately regretted it. "Whatever you want is fine."
"Hot dog?" he asked, indicating the nearby cart. It had a line that was already ten people long.
"I must look about half dead," she said, "if you're offering to buy hot dogs."
She meant it as a joke, but Hunter didn't smile. "Get us one of those benches, will you?" he said. "I'll get the food."
She did as he asked, happy for the opportunity to sit in the sun and not think about anything for a few minutes. She leaned gingerly against the back of the hard bench and put her hands in her coat pockets to keep them warm. Across the way, Hunter turned around to look at her, and she ducked her head, dodging his concern. It had been exhausting and painful, lying to him, but the truth was hardly better. He was waiting for her to fall apart again, and she was determined not to let that happen. It had taken months to get their equilibrium back as professional partners the last time. Crying in his arms helped her feel better in the short-term, but the long-term costs were high.
"Here you are, my dear," he said, handing her a hot dog and a soda. She noticed he had taken up with his old love, the chili dog. She also noticed he sat as far away as he could from her, at the opposite end of the bench. Clearly, she was not the only one with ambivalent feelings about their situation.
She looked at her hot dog but did not eat it. "So I understand why Charlie wants me gone for a while," she said. "But why you?"
He chewed for a minute before answering. "Stress of the overall situation, I guess. The thing with Stacie Tyler, Fredericks…"
"Uh-huh. I got the boot because I'm a liability, and you got it so that I have a baby sitter." He opened his mouth in protest. "Oh, don't even try to deny it. That's exactly what happened. I don't know what they're afraid of – that I might go down to the morgue and shoot Fredericks again?"
"I'd give you a ride," he said, and she actually smiled. "We could even use the siren."
"Some baby sitter."
"Eat your food."
"See? Now that's much more authoritative." She took a bite and swallowed, but the food just seemed to lodge in her chest. She opened the soda instead. "So what do you plan to do with your tax-payer supported vacation?"
"I dunno. I thought I might have a house guest," he said, squinting into the distance.
She froze with the soda can in mid-air. This was an invitation she longed for and dreaded in equal measure. Her heartbeat picked up as she tried to formulate a proper response.
"Just for a few days," he said. "Until you get the new security system installed."
The company was coming in two days to install a state-of-the art alarm system, no expenses spared. It was the only way she could see that she might ever be able to sleep there again. As it was, she had spent the past two nights in a motel. She had deliberately not shared this information with Hunter for fear he might make the offer he was making now. "I don't know if that's a good idea," she said so quietly he bent over to try to hear her.
"Well, I think," he started to say, and then shut his mouth. A second later, he tried again. "Why do you say that?"
And just like that, hot tears pricked her eyes. This was why she wanted to say yes. Her friend, her partner, the man who had been so committed to helping her last time that he'd visited the rape counselor with her and read all the literature. She could practically see him dredging up the old training as he fought back his natural instinct of asserting his own opinion and instead let her take back some power in the conversation. That he already knew the right things to say and cared enough to do them made her want to grab hold of him and not let go.
She wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. "I don't want to go backwards," she said finally. From the way he stiffened, she knew he felt at least somewhat the same. Just because he'd picked up her broken pieces last time did not mean he welcomed the chance to do it again.
"It's not backwards," he said. "It's more like southwest."
She forced a smile at his poor humor, but shook her head. She could hold it together in his presence at work, with something outside herself to focus on, but alone with him and nothing but the hours between them, he was bound to see all the cracks.
As usual, though, he was already in her head. "We can order Chinese and watch bad television. We don't have to talk at all if you don't want to."
This was the problem. She wanted to. She just had to hang in there for two more days, when her home would be fixed, and Anita, her counselor, would be back from vacation. Exhaustion threatened to overwhelm her reasoning. "Maybe if it's just for a couple of days…" she said faintly, and Hunter leapt to his feet.
"Great, it's settled. Why don't we go get some of your things and head over now?"
She nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat, wondering already whether she was making a mistake. "Yes, okay." She finished the soda and waited until his back was turned to toss the hotdog in the nearest trashcan.
He slung an arm around her shoulders. "It'll be all right," he said. "You'll see."
As he pulled away again, she nodded, mute. She wondered whom he was trying to convince: her or himself.
He waited behind her on the front stoop while she fiddled with the key. It was so new she didn't have the motion down smoothly yet, and she'd initially tried to insert it upside down. The new locks had been no deterrent at all to Fredericks; he'd simply smashed the back window and lain in wait for her. Hunter had higher hopes for the security system, but seventeen years on the job had taught him that no one was ever perfectly safe. If you really care about her, said the little voice in his head, you'd encourage her to quit.
Hunter ignored the voice and followed McCall inside. Her gaze went immediately to the bullet hole in her wall. "Your suitcase is in the hall closet, right?" Hunter said a bit too loudly.
She nodded, and he moved to retrieve the bag. "I can carry that," she said as he started up the stairs to her bedroom. He was relieved to hear a tinge of annoyance in her voice.
"I've already got it." Upstairs, McCall packed a few personal items while he wandered around. He'd been in her bedroom several times before, but it wasn't as familiar to him as the downstairs territory. He didn't snoop intentionally; it was a hazard of the job. He smiled at a few of her pictures and picked up some sort of miniature ceramic monkey from her dresser. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a prescription pill bottle on the bathroom counter.
"I'm almost ready," she said, brushing past him into the bathroom. She returned a minute later without the bottle.
Curiosity got the better of him and he ambled over to check it out: Vicodin. He'd been prescribed it enough himself to recognize the generic name. The label indicated the prescription had been written by Dr. Beth Paxton five days earlier, but the bottle seemed to be unopened since then.
"All set," McCall said from behind him.
He turned and shook the pills at her. "What about these?"
"I don't need them."
He had endured broken ribs before, and in his recollection, the pain killers were the only way he got any sleep for about three weeks. McCall had turned her attention elsewhere, so he slipped the pills into his jacket pocket, just in case. Without a word, he took the suitcase from her again and headed back downstairs. He paused partway down when he realized she wasn't following. He glanced back and saw her stopped at the very top of the stairs, her hand on the wall. "This is where he was hiding," she murmured. "I could smell him from where you're standing."
Hunter suppressed a shudder. "Let's get out of here, okay?"
She was quiet on the drive to his house, and he didn't mind this because he had no idea what to say. He relaxed as his modest beach home came into sight; its familiar shingles and sandy walkway seemed especially comforting after a tense couple of days away. He had not actually made it home at all last night; a couple of hours of sleep at the station were all he'd been able to manage.
It was only once they had stopped to get out and McCall was staring at his place as though she had never seen it before that he remembered why she was here: her home was no longer welcoming. "Mi casa, su casa," he said lightly as he led the way inside. When they reached the threshold, it was his turn to freeze. "Uh, I might have to do a little straightening up," he said.
She peered around him. "You're lucky the guys from the robbery division aren't here. They'd think your place had been tossed."
"I haven't been home much to clean," he replied as he walked around, retrieving shirts from the furniture as we went. "But make yourself at home."
"I'll tackle the kitchen, then," she said, rolling up her sleeves.
He stopped. "No, I didn't mean..."
She waved him off. "Please. I need something to do."
So she tidied his dishes while he cleaned up the living room and put new sheets on the bed. When he went to find her again, she was stopped in front of the big kitchen window with a dishrag in her hand, watching the sun slowly sink into the Pacific Ocean. "The days are getting shorter," he remarked as he joined her.
She gave a gentle smile. "Sometimes I get why you choose to live down here amid the crabs and the sea gulls. It can be beautiful."
He gathered her against him and kissed the top of her head. "I'm glad you agreed to come," he said as she carefully returned his hug. "The place looks great."
She laughed and winced. "I see your true motives for the invitation are exposed."
When she didn't pull away, he rested his cheek on her warm hair and stroked her back. You're safe here, he tried to tell her without words. She relaxed under his touch and was quiet for a long time. Then he heard her stomach rumble.
"Aha! I knew it," he said. "Police sergeants do not live on coffee alone."
"Okay, okay," she said, swatting at him. "I'll eat. But not tofu." She paused. "Or whatever that is growing in your refrigerator."
So they ordered a half-dozen different kinds of Chinese food, and he stuck Casablanca in the VCR. This part felt normal and familiar, and McCall, having changed from work clothes into jeans and a sweater, seemed more at ease. She ate at least half the food on her plate.
He waved a piece of Szechuan tofu at her with some chopsticks. "There is still time to get in on this action," he said. "Unless you are too full with deep-fried pig parts in orange sauce, or whatever it is you call that dish."
She made a face. "No, thank you. How you got so big eating rabbit food, I'll never know."
"You can't question these results." He gestured at himself. "My body is a temple."
"My body is a temple too," she replied. "I just choose to worship at In-n-Out."
They watched the movie in silence for a while, and Hunter found himself repressing a yawn. Fatigue had also turned him into a lightweight. Two beers and he was already nodding off. He tried to remember the last time he'd gotten more than four hours of sleep, and he guessed it was probably more than a week ago. He decided to switch to water and glanced toward McCall to see if she might like some too. She had curled up with one of his big cushions and gone to sleep. It didn't look like the most comfortable position for someone with cracked ribs, but she seemed peaceful enough. He rose quietly and covered her with a blanket. After fetching his water, he stretched out on the other end of the sofa, legs on the coffee table, and closed his eyes as well. Just for five minutes, he promised himself, while Ingrid Bergman threatened Humphrey Bogart with a gun.
The next thing he knew, he startled awake to a darkened room. McCall was gone and the food had been cleared away. The blanket he had covered her with was now draped over his middle, and he smiled as he removed it. In the back of the house, he could hear the shower running. He bit his lip. This part, he remembered too well. She had showered three times a day and still not felt clean. He sat and listened to the water running, debating his next move. The clock on the VCR read half past midnight. It was too late to start coffee. Truth be told, he mostly just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep for about a week.
The water stopped and Hunter went back to the bedroom. It was dark except for a shaft of light coming from under the bathroom door. He quickly changed into sweatpants and a T-shirt as he considered possible sleeping arrangements. There was no way he was going to let her stay on the couch. Just then, she emerged with a cloud of steam. She was dressed in pajamas and a robe. "Oh," she said in mild surprise, "I hope it's okay…"
"Fine," he cut her off. "Of course it's fine." She seemed embarrassed to be caught mid-ritual, so he did not press. "The bedroom is all yours."
"Oh, I couldn't."
"McCall, I insist. I'm not the one with two broken ribs. The couch will be fine, okay?" He moved to grab some extra pillows.
She hesitated. "We could share it."
"You're okay with that?"
"It wouldn't be the first time."
"There is that." He chose the side of the bed opposite from where she was standing. "Consider me convinced."
"I'm just going to dry my hair."
He dozed off again to the sound of the blow dryer, only to wake when she joined him under the covers. He could just make out her form in the inky darkness. Outside, the ocean wind battered the house, but inside, there were warm, clean sheets and the scent of her shampoo.
"Thank you," she said, "for letting me stay."
He groped around until her found her hand, which he squeezed. "Don't mention it." He rolled over onto his back and blinked at the ceiling, suddenly more awake. "I should have been there." The pillow rustled as he turned to look at her. "I shouldn't have just trusted the surveillance." This was somehow easier to confess under cover of darkness. He had been there, sleeping at night on her couch, and then he'd gone home. That was the opening Fredericks had needed.
"I thought about that," she answered quietly. "Whether it would have made any difference."
"Of course it would've."
"For one night, maybe. But not forever." She reached over and ran her hand down his arm. "It's not your fault. We didn't know he'd made the tail."
"We knew how dangerous he was. That should have been enough."
She let out a tired sigh. "We stopped him. That will have to be enough."
"We didn't stop him. You did."
"I believe that honor actually goes to Clare Fredericks." She was quiet for a minute. "She did what I couldn't do; she pulled the trigger."
"And destroyed her life in the process," Hunter reminded her.
"Yes. And maybe saved mine." The bed shifted as she rolled over. "Good night, Hunter."
The next time he awoke the bedroom clock read three-thirteen. He could tell immediately that he was alone in the room. The bathroom door was open and the light was off, so McCall was elsewhere in the house. He sat up to listen but didn't hear anything. Nothing like the nights he'd awoken to her screaming from the other room. The silence piqued his interest, and he found her on the couch with a mug of tea. She had turned on one small lamp and appeared to be lost in thought. He was trying to decide if he should say anything, when she turned to look at him. "I hope I didn't wake you."
He shook his head. "The wind," he lied as he lowered himself next to her on the couch.
"I'd think you'd be used to it by now."
"What's got you up?" She seemed calm and collected, not like someone battling nightmares, but the lines on her face indicated exhaustion. "Anything I can do?"
"Not unless you have some magical power to heal broken bones." She stretched out carefully to set down her empty mug.
"That's what the pain killers are for," he said. "I brought them over." He stood to get them, but she grabbed his hand.
"No," she said. "I don't want them."
"Why not?" He was now totally confused. He knew she'd had plenty of medication last year when recovering from surgery. It wasn't a matter of an allergy. He sat back down again and searched her face. "I don't understand."
She wouldn't look at him. He tried to think: was this some sort of self-punishment? "Dee Dee? Explain it to me. Why won't you take the pills?" She shook her head again, and he took her hands. "Tell me. It can't be that bad."
"I'm afraid," she managed at last.
He squeezed her hands. "Afraid of what?"
"That if I take something that makes the pain go away, I won't know when to stop taking it." She raised her head and he saw the tears in her eyes. His own eyes welled up in return. "I know it sounds crazy," she continued. "But right now the fact that I hurt is the only thing keeping me sane. It gives me something to push back against, to keep fighting… if it just disappeared…I might disappear too." She pulled free to cover her mouth against a sob, and then doubled over with a painful gasp.
"Okay," he said, gathering her up. "You're okay."
She shook slightly as she tried to contain her tears. "Crying, though, that's a bit much," she said against him. "Ow."
He rubbed the tears from his face with one hand as he held her with the other. His t-shirt was damp from her cheeks. "I'm so sorry," he said.
"I wanted to call you after it happened. So much. But I just couldn't. I couldn't tell you." She wasn't making a whole lot of sense any more. "I couldn't tell you."
"You can now."
She sniffed and burrowed a little closer. "You already know."
"No, not…not everything." It occurred to him that possibly she was the only one who knew the details at this point. Fredericks was dead. The LAPD had decided to pretend the attack had never happened. There was no official report, nothing written down, no trial or hearing of any kind. "You can tell me," he said again. He would be her secret sharer, no matter how reluctant.
She pulled away slightly. "It's not the same this time, you know."
"What do you mean?"
"Mariano, he shot you. We were victims together in a way. This time it's just me."
He had no answer to this but felt the truth of it immediately. There was a separateness to this experience that hadn't been there before.
"I see it when I look at you," she continued. "You're expecting I'm going to lose it again. Hell, I'm expecting it too." She leaned back against the couch and closed her eyes. "Maybe… maybe you even resent me a little for it."
"No," he said a little too quickly. God, this weirdly brutal honesty was nothing like the last time. He found himself wishing for nightmares and crying jags.
"If you had a male partner, this wouldn't keep happening."
"I don't want a different partner." On this point, he was sure.
McCall still had her eyes closed. "I'd just hung up the phone with you," she said, "and I was going up to my bedroom. I got partway up the stairs and smelled his cologne - it was just like the first time he was there, only much stronger. I knew immediately that he was in my house. I started down to get my gun, but suddenly, there he was."
She drew a shaky breath and opened her eyes. She looked at him, almost through him, and continued:
"He had a stocking mask on. The house was mostly dark. I couldn't see his face." Her hand fluttered to her neck. "He...he started choking me."
Hunter forced himself to sit still and not react.
"We fell backwards down the stairs," she said, her voice little more than a whisper now. "That's when I broke my ribs. The pain was instant, and I couldn't scream or even breathe. My head was swimming but I knew if I passed out, it would be over. He kept trying to force my legs apart." She swallowed with difficulty. "My pants were ripped. I couldn't get free. I could feel I was losing the fight. He was just so big and there was no way to get out from under him. I just kept thinking, God, how could this be happening to me again? Then there was a siren outside, maybe a block or two away. He thought he'd been made, so he ran right out the front door. I…I couldn't follow at that point. I could barely move. I just lay there with my door hanging open for I don't know how long, until finally I could get back off the floor..."
"I am so sorry," he said.
She wasn't tearful or angry, just sad. "You work so hard to build a fragile peace after it happens. Everything starts to seem okay again. And then here it is, the rerun from hell. I think…I think that's why I keep focusing on the physical pain. At least that is knowable. I can't tell what will happen when I try to process the rest of it - will it be easier this time? Harder? What if I never get that peace again?"
He gently hugged her to him, and she came willingly, all the fight gone out of her. "You will," he said.
"You don't know that."
"I know you."
They sat huddled together for a long time. When he spoke, his voice was scratchy from a lack of sleep. "We should get some rest," he said, shifting away from her a bit.
From the way she was blinking, he could see she had already been dozing, and he kicked himself mentally for waking her. "You go ahead," she said.
"No, come on." He took her hand and led her back to the bedroom. "You need sleep. Probably about three days of it." He fished the Vicodin from his jacket pocket and got her a glass of water. "Try half a dose. Just enough to take the edge off so you can rest."
He saw her hesitation in the half-light from the bathroom, but apparently she couldn't argue anymore. She swallowed the pill and got into bed with him. This time, he held out an arm for her, and she cuddled in next to him with a small shudder. He stroked her back. "See?" he said lightly. "Can't do this with a male partner."
He felt her smile against him. "Good night, Hunter," she murmured, and he closed his eyes and slept.
She awoke as if being pulled slowly from the underworld, blinking in the gray fuzzy light. The blinds were drawn but the bedside clock read nearly noon. She shifted carefully and found Hunter had already arisen, but he hadn't been gone long: his side of the bed was still warm. She put her palm on the spot and allowed herself a few last moments of quiet before braving what was left of the morning. Getting up and lying down were still the most difficult movements to manage, and she hissed as the sharp pain lanced through her again. Once she was upright, the ache was manageable, and she went to the bathroom to change.
She found Hunter in the kitchen, burning something on the stove. He was already dressed in a blue faded button-down shirt and jeans, but his feet were bare. "Morning," he said when he saw her, and checked his watch. "For at least four more minutes. Come have a seat - I'm making pancakes."
She eyed the blackened, misshapen lumps he had created so far. "Are you sure? I think the victims may be beyond identification here."
"That was my test batch," he said, licking his thumb. "I've got it down now."
"Why don't I take it from here?" She grabbed the spatula from him and peered into the bowl to see if there was a way to rescue the batter. "You handle the coffee."
Ten minutes later, they had fluffy brown pancakes and hot coffee. "This here is the irony," he said between bites. "You can cook real food. You just choose not to."
"It's no fun cooking for one."
"So where did you learn how to do it?" he asked. "My grandmother tried to teach me a few times, but needless to say, the lessons didn't stick."
"Steve taught me."
He raised his eyebrows at her. "Steve?"
"Oh, yeah. I never told you this before? When we got married, he was the one picking out all the kitchen stuff to put on the registry. I think he looked at four hundred different types of knives, or maybe it just seemed that way. He was very particular about his knives." She picked up her coffee mug with both hands and took a sip. "But he was right about the quality. I still have them. And his cereal bowl."
"His cereal bowl?"
"We had a longstanding argument about this bowl. It was huge and orange and not very attractive, but he loved it because it would an enormous amount cereal. The man could eat half a box at a time, I swear to you. But then he would not wash it. It would sit in the sink for days until I got tired of looking at it and cleaned it, or until he wanted more cereal. Then he would wash it, eat a bowl, and it would be sitting in the sink again." She paused. "After he died, it sat there for a good few months. My mom finally cleaned it and put it away when I wasn't looking. Now when I see it, I remember him crunching away on the sofa, trying to tell me some story around a mouth full of Apple Jacks."
"I guess the bowl is like a reminder, huh? Don't sweat the little things."
"Oh, no. If he'd lived, that bowl was coming to a bad end. I don't believe in the idea of ignoring 'little things' in a marriage, or at least I don't think that way now. Sure, I could have just washed his bowl to make him happy, but he could have just as easily not left it there to make me happy, you know? There are only a few 'big things' in a marriage. It's mostly all about the little things."
"Yeah, I suppose that's true." He looked thoughtful. "I'm glad Brad and Kathy are back together."
"You and me both. I was not looking forward to participating in that divorce. I hope they make it."
"Think you and Steve could have gone the distance?"
She considered. Steve had been gone seven years now, more than twice the length of their short marriage. Sometimes he seemed abstract and far away, like a character from a novel; other times, she swore she heard his footsteps in the house. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I'd like to think so. It's hard to imagine it now with all the intervening years. That young thing who married Steve, she's long since disappeared. His death forced me to grow up, but that was going to have to happen sometime, right? Whether we would have grown together or apart, I guess I'll never know."
She tried to conjure a vision of her life if Steve had lived: kids, certainly. Probably she wouldn't be on the force, and she certainly wouldn't have made Detective. No commendations, no bullet wounds. No Raul Mariano or Lloyd Fredericks. But also no Hunter. Her relationship with Rick was at least as defining as her brief marriage, a singular friendship she knew instinctively she would never have with anyone else.
"I've got the dishes," he said. "Do you want any more coffee?"
"No, I think I'm going to take a walk." She rose stiffly and stretched her sore muscles.
"You want some company?"
"No, thanks. I just need some time to myself for a while."
He paused with plates in each hand to give her a real smile, one that crinkled the edges of his eyes. "Take all the time you need. I'll be here when you get back."
Later, when looking back on it, Hunter would realize that things started to go wrong at the movies. Dinner was fine; friendly conversation and bar food. McCall had slept most of the afternoon away, and the rest had been good for her. The color was back in her face and she actually seemed to have an appetite. The movie itself was also harmless; some mildly amusing romantic comedy he'd agreed to because it seemed very unlikely to contain any references to rape or murder. It had been running for a while, so the theater was mostly empty.
Maybe it was the fact that he'd never been with her to the movies. They'd watched television and sports programs, sure, and that was fine, but there was no preset script for "Hunter and McCall go to the movies together." He was forced to ad lib, and therein lay the problem. Or maybe he should have ordered snacks. That would have at least occupied his hands.
Instead, they sat with their legs touching and watched the movie. At least McCall watched it, or seemed to. Maybe she was doing the same thing he did, which was to stare at the screen but spend most of the time lost in his own head.
He was having a hard time shaking what she'd said the night before, about him resenting her for the assault. Her words shoved forward some uncomfortable feelings that he didn't know what to do with. Of course he was angry about what happened to her. He would have gladly shot the SOB himself – hell, he'd proved that before. But there was something else, too. McCall wasn't wrong that he wanted this tidied up as quickly as possible. Patch 'er up and get her back out there before anyone had time to think too much.
He chewed the inside of his lip and glanced sideways at her. She felt him looking and turned to smile. He forced himself to smile back so she couldn't tell what he was thinking. For added measure, he took her hand and squeezed it. She returned the squeeze and looked away again.
God, could he really be that low? Could he be angry with her for being a victim again? He searched his memory to see if he'd felt anything like this the last time and came up empty. He had wanted her well, of course, and would have given anything to take away her pain. That much was still true.
He stroked the papery skin of her hand with his callused thumb, choked with a sudden surge of affection. No, he couldn't be angry with her. He was afraid, maybe, that she would walk away this time. That would make sense, right? He was definitely too old to be starting over with a new partner. Satisfied that he had identified his odd feelings, he relaxed back into the seat, determined to ignore any lingering doubts.
He'd watched ten or fifteen minutes of the movie before he realized they were still holding hands. This was a bit unusual but not out of bounds for them. He had been joking with her the night before about the benefits of a female partner, but the truth was, they had a fairly physical friendship. The contact wasn't romantic, but it was sensual, and he enjoyed it more than he liked to think about. Still, they'd been able to negotiate the boundaries without any explicit conversation, waxing and waning the number of hugs, shoulder rubs and chaste kisses, depending on where they were in relationships with others.
So they had held hands in the past, albeit briefly and usually in private. Anyone looking at them now would assume they were out on a date.
His ears warmed and he jerked his hand back, but McCall didn't seem to register any distress on his part. Thankfully, the film was ending, and he dismissed his strange emotional blip as a remnant of their stressful week.
"Well?" she asked as he held the door for her. "Did you like it?"
He shrugged. "It was no Hepburn-Tracy picture."
McCall rolled her eyes. "You know, Hunter, for someone who likes his modern conveniences, you sure spend a lot of time romanticizing black and white movies."
"Hey now, those are certified classics." They walked out together into the chilly night air and took the central sidewalk across the parking lot.
"I'm not saying they're bad movies. I just find it interesting that your taste is so fixated on a bygone era."
He considered. "Maybe I prefer it when the bad guys and good guys are easier to spot," he conceded as they reached the car. "You know - everyone wears the proper colored hat." He stepped down onto the asphalt to open her door, which took about six inches off their height differential. Add in McCall's boots and, it gave the odd effect that they were nearly eye-to-eye. She looked somber.
"I don't think it was ever that easy," she said, "not even back then."
"I suppose not," he said, leaning on the car door. "But allow me my fantasy, would you?"
She gave him a tender smile and touched his face. "I think you would look quite fetching in a white hat, actually. Maybe something in a fedora, or perhaps a..."
He did not get to find out what other fashion advice she had for him, because suddenly, he was kissing her. It was almost nothing at first, just the barest touch of his lips on hers. He felt the surprise in her sharp intake of breath, but it melted into a sigh as he kissed her again. And again. She opened her mouth under his, and he was lost. He cupped the side of her face and her hands bunched folds in the front of his coat. Dimly, he was aware of alarm bells buzzing at the back of his brain, thanks to years of conditioning that she was strictly Off Limits. But at that moment, she was warm and soft and amazing, and so he ignored the warning in favor of more kissing.
"Hey, get a room, would ya?" A car full of laughing teenagers roared past in the parking lot, honking at them, and the spell was instantly broken.
"Oh my God," he said with a ragged breath, backing up as far as the car would let him. "I am so sorry."
She was staring at him with huge, round eyes, one hand clamped over her mouth. He thought he saw her tremble. Or maybe that was him.
"Really," he said again. "I - I don't know what happened. I'm sorry." He tried to figure out where exactly he'd gone wrong, but the throbbing in his pants made it difficult to think.
She cleared her throat. "We should get out of here."
She pushed past him and got into the car, so he shut the door behind her. He leaned against the roof in agony for a few more minutes. The idea that he would make a move on her, and after she had been assaulted less than a week prior... well, his actions were baffling, even to himself. He couldn't imagine what she was thinking.
He rounded the car and forced himself to get in, although he could not bear to look at her. He could tell she was shaking, and his self-loathing swelled again. Then he heard a giggle.
"Oh, ow," she said, as the laughter escaped her. She hugged her middle to brace her ribs but kept right on snickering.
"What? This is funny?" He was so confused.
"I don't think I've been honked at by teenagers for making out in a parking lot since I was fifteen myself," she said, wiping her eyes.
"Well, glad I could take you back," he muttered.
She coughed and winced, then leaned against the door so she was slightly facing him. "And your face," she said. "I've seen you look less horrified at the scene of a triple homicide."
"What I did was wholly inappropriate," he said, and that set her off again. He was starting to feel pretty alone in his shock and dismay.
"I'm sorry," she managed at last. "Clearly this is troubling to you."
"But apparently not to you."
She sighed. "I guess I don't have the emotional energy left right now to overanalyze it. It's been kind of a long week."
"I know, and that's why I'm trying to apologize."
"Hunter, if you say you're sorry one more time, I might start to get a complex here. Was it really so terrible?"
He gaped at her. "Terrible? No, I mean… I just…"
"What?" she asked, not unkindly. "Given the amount of time we spend together in emotionally charged situations, it's kind of surprising it hasn't happened before, don't you think?"
"Well, I was surprised," he said as he turned on the car. "Never in a million years did I expect that to happen."
"There you go with the flattery again."
Okay, he had to admit: her determination to find this amusing was starting to make him feel slightly less awful. He put the car in reverse and started home. It was a short, quiet drive back to his place, and he glided the car to a stop in the darkened driveway. "Look," he said, turning toward her, "I'm not blind, you know. It has not escaped my notice all these years that I have the most attractive cop on the force as my partner."
She closed her eyes and shook her head.
"Dee Dee. You've been undercover as a model – twice."
"You'll forgive me if I'm not feeling especially modelesque right now." She was refusing to look at him again, and his heart broke a little.
"I know, and that's a big part of why I'm sorry." Tentatively, he reached over and took her hand. She gripped him with surprising strength. "I have watched for years as guys at the station make ham-fisted passes at you, with their sleazy little remarks."
"It's mostly just talk," she said. "I've learned to ignore it."
"You shouldn't have to ignore it. And I vowed pretty much immediately that I was never going to be that guy."
She looked up then. "Hunter, you would never…"
"That was a long time ago," he continued. "Before I even really knew you. Once I realized I not only had the most attractive cop, but also the best partner, well, then there was just too much at stake. I would never want to risk it...risk losing you."
She nodded and took a long, shuddering breath. "No, I get it. I do. I say we chalk it up to a weird moment and we just put it behind us."
"Agreed." It sounded so easy when she said it. He extended his hand to shake hers, and she accepted it.
They got out of the car and headed up the windy walkway. "You really think I'm attractive?" she asked as they walked.
He glanced back to see if she was kidding around again, but she seemed to be searching his face for the truth. "I'm a trained detective," he said. "I can pick up the clues." He opened the door and flicked on the lights, allowing her into the house first. "And yes, the evidence assures me that you are indeed attractive."
"But I'm hardly your type."
"I don't have a type."
She shot him a look. "Blonde, twenty-five, legs that go all the way to the floor," she said, and he opened his mouth in silent protest. "I'm a detective too, you know."
She left him standing there as she went to make the coffee. They drank it together like always, and spoke no more of their kiss, but that night, Hunter made up the couch for himself and she made no argument in return.
To be continued...