Sunday, May 11, 2008

Against the Current by Christine London

Sideways rain blew across the windscreen, high intensity searchlights barely penetrated the gathering gloom and the ferocity of the storm threatened the survival of any imprisoned by its rage. Commander Grant Cooper pushed the collective gingerly, the nose of the H-65 Dolphin helicopter dipping beneath the traffic bed on the Golden Gate Bridge in a desperate search for survivors.

"There!" Lieutenant John Manning pointed a forefinger across the instrument panel into the sheeting rain.

"God damned crosswinds." Grant gritted his teeth as he struggled with the collective and the cyclic, trying to keep the pitch of the helicopter stable.

"Okay, Murphy. Time to hook up and earn your pay." John said into the microphone imbedded in his copilot's helmet. "There at two o'clock. He's getting fucking close to the piling."

"Bleedin' idiot. I'll never know what gets into people. Going out when the forecast is rain with gale force gusts. Much worse than this and we'd not be able to stay up." Grant's shoulders tensed and his gut tightened as he hyper-focused on maintaining the integrity of the copter.

John slid a glance toward his commanding officer, approbation warring with worry on his face. But then, this was a hell of a storm. It blew in off the Pacific like a lioness on wounded prey. "It's too windy for the basket. Murphy'll have to go it alone."

"I've got it," Grant calmly answered John's implicit concern.

"God, I love this job!" Murphy's voice came through the crew helmets. "Cowabunga!"

Grant knew the exclamation could mean only one thing. Murphy was out the cargo door, on his way to the frigid waters below. "Easy does it, Murph."

"Piece a cake, sir." The roar of the wind cutting under the bridge distorted Murphy's voice. "Keep it stable for me and I'll have this doofus inside before you can sing the National Anthem."

"Oh say can you see…" First class petty officer Sandy Richards sang out in accompaniment to her partner's descent. The team out of Coast Guard Air Station San Francisco had eighteen months in together. With Murphy as the rescue swimmer and Richards as the flight mech, they worked in tandem as one cohesive unit. Sandy operated the hoist, making sure Murph had a safe journey from copter to sea; Murphy, donned in dry suit, secured the victim's safety.

"It's a bit brisk out here, Commander. Water temp's gonna keep me from performing my husbandly duties for the next week."

"You just keep those jewels intact. I don't want to make any extra stops tonight." Grant kept his tone light, suppressing a shudder at the memory of losing a crewman at flight school in Alabama, where he was a Royal Navy exchange instructor for advanced flight training. It had been early in his two years there, well before transferring to finish his four-year commitment abroad as flight officer out of San Francisco. It hadn't happened on his watch, but the loss affected the entire class at Mobile. It always did. Every time a crewman was lost, it was as if a family member had passed. The cost of freedom.

Not the Department of Defense "freedom" preserved with soldiers and the use of brute force, but freedom of choice. In the case of this rescue, the choice to take a pleasure boat out on the bay at noon when everything looked calm; the freedom to ignore the responsibilities of a civilian sailor to monitor the weather. To believe yourself invincible to the whims of Mother Nature; the freedom to be arrogant and unwise.

From the lowliest petty officer to the Commandant, every member works to support the Coast Guard mission: Police of the Sea, to preserve life and limb on the waters. Grant's drive went further; he also represented her majesty's best of the best. As lead pilot, he was an integral part of the life and death mission assigned to Search and Rescue (SAR) units.

"Hey Sandy, I think that should be 'God save our gracious queen, our great and glorious Queen...'" Murphy's voice shivered through the noise of the storm. "Suppose the North Sea makes this weather look like a picnic, eh Commander?" His tone changed to one of solicitous authority as he addressed the victim in the water. "I'm a Coast Guard rescue swimmer and I'm here to help. I'll secure you, ma'am."

The sound of a woman's voice replying was barely audible. "But my boat…it's gonna…" The rest of her sentence was lost to the wind.

"Geez, that's a woman out there. What the hell…?" John's voice tensed with incredulity.

Grant kept his arms and eyes steady, performing the delicate balancing act of a helicopter pilot. Autorotation into the bay was bad; losing a blade, lethal. "Have you got her?" he barked into his helmet.

"…the land of the free…and the home of the brave." Murphy's voice was winded, the definite thud of bodily impact on the last word, changing 'brave' into something more like 'braumph'. Grant allowed himself a smile at Murph's song, the crew laughing at the inside joke that signaled mission accomplished. "We're aboard, sir."

Grant eased the cyclic forward and collective up. The helo responded, swooping across the frothy grey waters of the bay towards home.

* * * *

Grant pushed into the operations room inside the hanger. Petty Officer Kirk Dietrich reached to take the helmet from Grant's hand, "Welcome back, sir."

"Can't suffer you ASMer's looking after everything. I do appreciate it, though." As he gave up the helmet, he flashed a dimpled smile. Air Survival Man Dietrich was charged with maintaining the myriad of equipment necessary for Search and Rescue air operations.

"So no snafu's this trip, sir?"

Grant rotated his shoulders, trying to release the knots built up in his muscles. His thighs felt like he'd just completed a marathon and he wobbled a bit on his feet. "Miraculously, not even an injury."

"That's why you're back so quick. No stops at S.F General tonight."

"No. Not to say we shouldn't be takin' the woman in for other evaluation. She must be a real nutter."

"A taco short of a combo plate?"

Grant lowered his chin, shooting a look that encapsulated "duh".

"So where've you stashed her?" Dietrich queried.

"I expect she's in the women's head at the moment, getting sorted out."

"You got Petty Officer Richards with her then?"

"Yeah. She'll get her into a dry flight suit to save her from any further threat of hypothermia. At least she was bright enough to have donned a wet suit before being tossed into the bay. Wouldn't surprise me to hear that the jib had knocked her in."

"Lifevest?"

"Yes. It seems our victim had at least portions of her logical brain still functioning properly." Grant peeled off his dry suit, and reached into the locker for his civvies.

"So who is she?"

"Don't know. Haven't laid eyes on her yet. I asked Sandy to escort her to my office for an interview. Have to hear what she has to say…for my report."

"Of course, sir." The corners of Dietrich's mouth hiked into a knowing smirk.

Grant cocked his head, momentarily questioning, then realized the inference. "Don't worry…I'll be fair."

Dietrich pursed his lips and returned his focus to the personal locator beacons he seemed to have a sudden inordinate interest in examining.

Opening his mouth to respond, Grant caught himself. That was just what Dietrich would be expecting. Taking the offense in his defense. Not worth the effort. Dietrich was a great bloke, but not an officer. He didn't need to be involved in the regulations governing the paperwork required after each mission. Grant was getting just a bit tired of the 'good natured' ribbing he received from his fellow pilots. Now it seemed to be filtering into the enlisted ranks. Shit. All he needed was for the support staff to think he was tight assed. He shook his head. Better that than losing the respect of command. Grant yanked on the top of his tube sock, carefully folding it down to form a neat cuff. He blew out an unconscious puff of air.

"Do you need anything else commander?"

He looked into Dietrich's face. "No, nothing," he said with an edge of irritation. Hearing the strain in his voice, he quickly added, "Thank you Petty Officer." That didn't sound much better, but at least it maintained professional respect.

Dietrich left, leaving Grant alone. He tucked the tails of his crisp white shirt into the sharply creased kaki trousers. "Watch the gig line," the voice of D.I. Blankenship from basic training echoed in his memory. "No Irish pennants." Demerits off for any uniform deviations, no anomalies allowed. Every aspect of the uniform squared away and meeting standards. The steely glare of Blankenship's grey eyes pierced Grant as if it was yesterday. Never so much as a nose hair out of place, his English Drill instructor had been the bane of his company's existence.

"Good man," Grant said under his breath as he appraised his uniform in the sliver of mirror on the door. Buttons, belt buckle, fly all in alignment, check. Shirtfront smooth, he scrolled a circumspect eye down to his shoes. A line of caked mud was wedged between sole and topside. He leaned over and pried it loose with a flick of his thumbnail. Swiping a soft rag from the shelf of his locker, he wiped the crease and folded the cloth back into a square. As he laid it carefully on the shelf, his mind wandered to a more domestic version of the same scene, almost a year ago.

"People don't fold their jockey shorts in squares, Grant," Julie giggled as she toweled her hair, peering over his shoulder into the chest of drawers. "I mean, just look at that," she gazed into the cedar lining of his underwear drawer. "They look like rows of little soldiers, or some teenager's teeth just after the braces came off.

"Well, now you're talkin' about socks, lass. Let's not mix chalk and cheese." He braced his hands on the top of the dresser as she put her arms around his waist, her cheek resting on his back.

"I won't make you do a single push up, and I forgot my white gloves." Her voice was muffled, but the mirth was clear. She squeezed, then continued on her way to the kitchen.

Eyeing her retreating form in the mirror above the dresser, he slipped the last of the y-fronts into place and closed the drawer. Beads of water still glistened across her shoulder blades, refulgent with the yellow light of the night table's lamp. One corkscrew tendril of hair flirted with her neck, escaped from the knot haphazardly twisted at her crown, held in place with an ebony chopstick. Her hips swayed in that curious combination of little girl enthusiasm and womanly allure that only Julie seemed to possess. He pushed away from the dresser and bolted after her.

Scooping her from her feet, the towel so carefully wrapped about her loosened as he cradled her against his chest. His bleached jockeys strained under the massive hard-on suffered at the sight of her, the scent of her, the feel of her soft and warm in his arms.

He fused his mouth to hers. The remnants of a small chuckle still vibrated through her. Molten desire surged through him. It coiled like a clock spring in his gut, spreading heated honey through his chest, so thick and sweet he thought he'd suffocate.

Get her to the bed before you lose all higher brain functions, his internal voice shouted. His legs pistoned toward the bedroom. The consuming kiss was broken as his shoulder caught the doorjamb. "Ooooff." The force of the impact pushed air from his lungs, now deep in demand from his need. There must have been pain, but the morphine of her presence numbed him to everything but her. Three more strides and he lowered her to the cool cotton of the sheets. Eyes capturing hers, the dark green of her cravings reflected in the deep pool of her gaze. The naughty curl of her lips taunted him. He stripped his jockeys off in record time. Wearing a sabertooth's smile, he climbed on the bed, straddling her like a carnivore ready to pounce. He thought he'd explode if he weren't inside her in the next two minutes. Tearing his eyes from her, he opened the drawer of the nightstand, scooped a handful of condoms out and set them on the beech wood surface.

"Feeling ambitious?" Her voice drew his gaze back. She smirked like the proverbial Cheshire cat, perched on her elbows and staring up at him. He tore open the foil packet and rolled the latex down in one smooth action. Looking back, he dove to her neck, exposed in all its tender sweetness as she dropped her head back. He bit along the column of her windpipe to the sensitive meeting of neck and shoulder, then across the wing of her collarbone. Self control shredding with each passing second, he grabbed the shells of her hipbones, fingers pressing into soft silken flesh. Her pleasure, his reason echoed through the lust clouded pathways of his brain. Slow down! He dropped his eyes lower, taking in the gap as the towel split from her breast to the top of her luscious thigh. He hooked the hem with a finger and tore the terry cloth to the side. Why did he always seem to forget the fantastic curve of her perfect margarita sized breasts? Jaysus, if they weren't the most spectacular feature of womanhood, this woman in particular. He dove for the beaded nipple and took it into his mouth. Flicking it with his tongue, drawing it into firm suction between gentle teeth. His hand drifted to the other, favoring it with a rolling action between thumb and forefingers.

He felt her arc into him, hips lifting from the bed, soft moans escaping her lips as she shifted under him. He slid a finger over her clit, slick with arousal and she gasped. If he wasn't beyond ready, she certainly was. Two, then three fingers slid easily into her, finding the bundle of nerves that made her writhe. She parted her legs in wanton invitation as he positioned himself in the 'v' thus created.

"That's it," his voice rasping like sandpaper. He grasped the curve of her hips once more, aligned the head of his cock with her slit and called her name. She opened her eyes, dark with arousal and he latched onto her gaze as he pushed into her. She gasped, hips again rising to meet his. His head bumped against the entrance of her womb as he gritted his teeth in the surge of pleasure the tightness and heat of her brought, enveloping him in feral necessity. She followed his lead, pulling upwards on her hips and pressed against him. Their pubic bones met and he retracted, plunging back into her in smooth strokes until he feared he'd lose his mind. His thighs shook as he pumped. She met him in rhythm, arching her pelvis higher and higher.

She turned her head into the pillow and smothered a scream as he felt her contract around him. The spring unwound in a flood of release, beginning at the base of his spine and radiating through his body like the trembling of the earth in a great quake. Consumed in the aftershocks, he barely noticed the rumbling of his own voice as he climaxed off the Richter scale. Like a bicyclist thrown clear of an accident, he blanked out in sheer ecstasy. Breath ragged, chest heaving, he fought to regain composure. He drew her into the crook of his arm as he reached to cup her face. Forehead beaded with perspiration, she opened her eyes and looked at him through a foggy gaze. He watched her face transformed from the hard angles of desire into the soft, almost peaceful expression of satiation. "God, Grant," she exhaled in deep satisfaction.

Still panting, he drew his forehead to hers. "Every time is amazing. Unbelievable."

"Yeah," she agreed.

"Why is that?" he asked rhetorically, as much to himself as to her.

She raised her chin and smiled soft and drowsy.

Grant's cell phone broke their duet of shallow gasps, breaking the serenity of the moment. Climbing from the tangled sheets, Grant extricated himself from her side. Bringing his eyes to focus on the small screen of his phone, he scooped it from the nightstand. Air Ops. Shit. That could mean only one thing. They needed him. Wedging the phone between shoulder and ear, he pressed the answer button and headed for the shower.

The Big 4-Oh! by Beth Wylde

I kicked the front door shut with my foot and tossed my coat and purse absentmindedly across the hutch in the foyer before storming my way to the bathroom. "Who in the hell do they think they are?" I cranked on the water until it was just this side of scalding and shoved in the stopper, letting the huge garden tub fill up as I added a generous handful of bath beads in hopes of calming myself down. "Little, preppy bitches. They wouldn't know old if Father Time slapped them in the face with a walker."

I pulled off the rest of my clothes and twisted up my long, curly mane so the heavy vanilla oil wouldn't seep into it. I caught sight of myself in the small mirror over the sink and paused to tilt my chin to the left and right in search of wrinkles or other signs of my advancing age. When I didn't find any, I felt a tiny bit better, but I was still righteously pissed about what had just transpired at my work place.

Most of the new employees at the law firm were young, twenty-something females who were fresh out of law school. They insisted on trying to brown-nose their way into a partnership instead of actually learning their chosen profession and doing what they were paid to do. On the other hand, I was a seasoned professional earning six figures, with ten years of cases under my belt and the ability to enjoy plenty of time at home with my hubby. The new trainees were the ones who had to stay late doing the drudge work and research while I got to go home every evening at five.

Gerald, the big boss, often used me as a prime example of what to do to win in the courtroom and it made my position as their supervisor even more difficult. They call jealousy the little green monster for a reason.

With my fortieth birthday looming on the horizon, the girls had finally found a way to get back at me while still staying in Gerald's good graces. After all, throwing me a birthday party could hardly be considered a personal attack against me, or at least they knew Gerald wouldn't see it as such. They also knew it would anger me to no end and that's exactly the reaction they were aiming for. They figured they owed me for making them work and this would be an easy way to get revenge. They were right.

Age isn't a big deal to most men. We women are the ones who don't like to be reminded how many years we've been walking upright on the planet. We prefer the idea of being young and vibrant forever, even if it's only an illusion. Otherwise, plastic surgeons and hair salons wouldn't be so busy all the time.

Thinking about hair made me do a quick check on my own head to make sure none of my roots were showing. Finding my auburn curls free of gray, and satisfied that I could wait another week or so before calling my hairdresser for an appointment, I sank down into the tub. The hot water was exactly what I needed to soothe my frazzled nerves.

I reclined against the padded backrest of the whirlpool tub and flicked on the button for the jets. The sudden swirling motion of the water mixed up the bath oil until the entire room filled with steam and the heady scent of vanilla. After a few minutes of floating, my troubles seemed even further away. I had my own ideas about how I wanted to spend my birthday next week, but I wanted to talk to Dave, my husband, about them first.

I pulled the small tray of bath supplies closer, grabbing the shaving gel and razor first. My fingers were slippery from the oil, so I paused after spreading the cream on my legs to wipe my hands on a nearby towel. Smooth skin is very sexy; multiple nicks and cuts are not.

I took my time, making sure that every place with unnecessary hair was shaved clean before pulling the plug out to drain the rapidly cooling water. I stepped out onto the Oriental, no-slip throw rug that bridged the gab between the tub and the shower, shivering as I turned the knob halfway to hot and jumped inside. I normally don't take a bath and a shower because I think it's a big waste of water, but I still felt sticky from the shaving gel residue and the oil. Washing my hair was on the agenda also.

I picked up the shower head and held it downward toward the floor so the first cold blast didn't make me any colder. I held my hand in the spray until the temperature was satisfactory then hung the shower head back up in order to finish. I unpinned and scrubbed my hair first since the long auburn mass took forever to wash and condition. Once that chore was finished, the rest of the job went quickly. Within minutes I was soapy, scrubbed, and ready to rinse.

I grabbed the shower head once again, focusing the water on my body. As I ran it over my belly and the tops of my thighs, I noticed how the gentle pulsing made my skin tingle, especially between my legs on my newly-shaved pussy. Instantly, I knew another way I could take my mind off of my disastrous day.

Spreading my legs just a bit more, I aimed the nozzle directly where it felt the best. The hot, massaging spray worked wonders for my mood and had my clit throbbing in seconds. I leaned back against the wall and held the shower wand closer, lifting up one leg and propping it on one of the two built-in seats to allow the spray better access.

I slid one hand down to join the water, holding myself open as I slipped in first one finger then another. The combination of the water outside and my fingers within was startling and almost more than I could stand. Within moments, my hips started moving of their own accord. I was so close to climax I could almost taste it. I knew since it had been a while that the end result would be extra sweet. My mouth opened on a groan.

"Yes, oh yes," I moaned, my body eagerly approaching the point of no return. In another minute or so, I'd be there.

Suddenly the frosted doors opened. My husband stood there watching me with a big smile on his face. Apparently he'd been there for quite a while, but I'd been too occupied to notice. In fact, I hadn't even heard him come in.

I screamed and dropped the shower head in the process. The thing swung backwards, spinning on its cord and shooting water all over everything, including Dave. I reached out and turned the water off as fast as I could, but it still wasn't quick enough. My husband looked like a drowned rat, albeit a very nicely dressed one. I expected him to be mad or irritated, but he still had the same big Cheshire Cat grin on his face that he'd had when he first opened the door. I knew something was up.

"How about a little warning next time?" I frowned. "What if I'd been shaving? I could have cut my leg off…" I paused to drop my foot back down on the tile and turn sideways so he could get a better look at the maintenance I'd just performed. "…or hurt something even more precious."

His gaze immediately drifted from my face to the shiny pink skin between my legs. "We definitely wouldn't want that to happen." He reached out and ran his fingers lightly over the super soft area. I gasped as he touched me tenderly, bringing denied nerve endings screaming back to life.

I was close to begging. "Do it harder." The look on his face was one of awe and I knew this wouldn't be my last time going bare. I'd definitely be checking into some laser hair removal or waxing in the near future.

He finally pulled back, after treating my clit to some up close and personal attention, and grabbed two towels off the rack nearby. I huffed out the breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding as he handed one to me and wrapped the other around his neck for himself after shucking off his dripping shirt.

Now I was really skeptical and quite a bit irritated as well. It wasn't like Dave to tease me and then stop. "What's the deal?"

He finally tore his gaze away from my pussy and looked up at my face. "Huh? What do you mean?"

"It's Friday evening." I glanced out the oval window situated above the tub. "The sun hasn't even gone down. You're home extremely early and you're way too calm about the fact that your entire outfit, including your favorite Gucci loafers, are soaking wet. You're not even trying to avoid the big puddle of water you're currently floating in."

"What?" Dave finally glanced down at the floor, cursing as he realized that his shoes and the rug were a lost cause. "Damn." He shrugged and kicked the offending items off across the room. "Oh, well. I can always get new shoes." He reached out and grabbed me by the waist, pulling me flush against his damp chest and the wet pants that were now molded against his lower body. "But you're one of a kind." He leaned down and ran his lips across my shoulder, pausing to sniff my skin. "God, you smell good." His tongue flicked out against my neck. "You taste good, too. Just like sugar cookies."

Before he could get me any hotter, I needed to finish my interrogation. "You never answered my question."

"What question?" His fingers were toying with the top of the towel where it was tied above my breasts.

"What are you doing home so early? You usually work until at least eight or nine on Friday evenings and you always come home grouchy. What do you have planned that I don't know about?"

He tried prying apart the knot, but I gripped it tighter until we were fighting it out tug-of-war style. He sighed as he let go, realizing I wasn't giving up anything until I got the information I wanted. "When did you become such a hard ass?"

I laughed at the teasing tone in his voice. "Twenty years ago when you married me; you love every minute of it. You wouldn't know what to do with a docile and proper lady. You need me to help keep you on your toes."

He nodded as he dried himself off as much as possible. When he pulled the towel off his head, I had to smile. The combination of the water and the humidity had curled his shaggy, dark hair into a tousled mess that just brushed his shoulders. It made him look very young and lent him an air of mischief that fit his personality to a 'T'. "Yeah, you're probably right. Would it help matters any if I told you I bought you a present?"

"Hm, it might. What did you bring me?"

He shuffled off toward our bedroom, dropping his damp towel in a heap on the tile. "Come see. The package is on the bed."

True Hollywood by James Buchanan

Silence and pain of seven years filled with questions. Had to start to reconnect somewhere. Jason dropped his own empty on the bar. "Well, I had a great gig on a regular action prime-time show and a sometimes gig on a reenactment docudrama." He huffed out the frustration. "Then the writers walked out. We had three scripts for the new season. Shot those. Then they laid us all off. The educational shit dried up a little bit after."

"That sucks."

More drinking ate up time. Jason half finished his beer before he asked, "You?"

"I've got a few movies in the pipes that were in pre-production prior." Ernie watched the beer swirl in the bottle for a while. "Those are still going forward. CGI's stealing a lot of screen time. Five hours of work here and there in front of a blue screen just doesn't have the thrill. And it's not as steady or as fast as I'd like, but it's work."

"I hear that." Both downed the remaining beer and stared at the empties. "Like old times? Tequila?" They'd always finished off a night with the Old Man with a round of shots.

"Great." Ernie waggled two fingers at the barkeep. "Two shots, Cuervo." When the drinks came, gold liquid fire in chipped shot glasses, they turned and raised their drinks to the wall of headshots. Somewhere, three or four rows up and across, their own, younger, faces stared out at them. The Old Man's was there, too, higher up and in a frame darkened by time. They slammed back the tequila.

Ernie dropped some cash on the bar while Jason shouldered into his jacket. Jason realized Ernie'd never removed his coat, the bomber jacket he'd liberated off a set. Probably figured they wouldn't be there very long. Sunday nights ranked low as party time for most people. While they were inside the rain had started back up. Jason followed Ernie's run to his car. A damn nice and fairly new Nissan X-Terra beeped and unlocked itself when Ernie punched the key-fob. Hell of a lot better ride than Jason's twenty-year-old Jetta.

Sliding into an interior that still smelled vaguely of new car, Jason gave himself a moment to wallow in jealousy. Newish vehicle, high-end clothes—things Jason didn't usually see except on Talent. As he yanked the door shut, he tried to rationalize. Ernie'd always been better at the high paying gags, super risky stunts that gave you the bump. Then again, Ernie also knew how to hustle for jobs. He had the knack for showing up on set about the time some idiot got booted off filming. It was almost a second sense. And, once you were known, you were known. Hard core hustles were for stuntmen who didn't have a rolodex full of connections.

"You know," Ernie slammed the driver's door, then twisted the key in the ignition, "I could use something to eat."

Delaying things. They both knew where they'd end up. Still, it was awkward in almost a first date kinda way. "Pink's should still be open."

"Sounds good." Pulling into the street, Ernie headed back into the nicer part of Hollywood. "Won't be much of a line with the rain." They dropped down to Melrose, aiming for La Brea. The sound of rain drumming on the roof mixed with the shush of the wipers and the muted hum of the radio. Otherwise, silence filled the car. Not a completely uncomfortable silence, but one that somehow captured really knowing someone and yet missing a big chunk of their life. Ahead of them, on the corner of La Brea and Melrose, sat a one-story box painted white and sporting red trim: Pink's, one of those LA late night traditions. Bright signs bordered in yellow and lettered in fuchsia announced chili-dogs, burgers, and other items. "So, what you doing now?"

"Selling Harleys." A metal, under-lit awning covered the lines of patrons waiting to order from exterior service windows. Pink tiles walled up to the lip of the chrome counter, and steel pipe linked by chain kept the lines neat and moving. Not that they were really necessary on a night like this. Jason studied the small crowd for a bit before asking, "You?" Not too busy, the outside line didn't quite make it to the front of the antique store next door. In better weather, it might wrap all the way around the block.

"Drive a limo for my dad's company when I'm off set."

"Make good money?"

"Okay. Tips are pretty good." Ernie angled the SUV into the back parking lot. "Keeps me from going stir crazy on weekends. I, ah, moved back in with my folks after the whole thing with Steven went to hell." Even with the rain, spaces ran at a premium and Ernie had to park a bit of distance from the building. They jumped out and threaded across a back patio strewn with concrete tables and plastic chairs. Most of the pink and white umbrellas were folded and tied down against the wind. They jogged around the corner and slipped to the end of the line. "What do you want?" Ernie pressed himself against the wall, avoiding the worst of the rain.

The awning didn't quite cover far enough out to the side. If he wanted to keep from being thoroughly soaked, Jason had one choice. He squeezed into the small bit of space next to Ernie. "Is there anything other than a hot dog to order at Pink's?" The warmth of Ernie's body reminded him of lazy mornings in bed and evenings spent shaking the chill after a day on the slopes. Polo cologne…God, he used to steal Ernie's jacket just to smell it when he wasn't around. How his hip fit right against Jason's like a puzzle piece, went right to Jason's groin. He shifted, trying to adjust things without being overly obvious.

Ernie bumped his shoulder, breaking Jason out of his thoughts. "Well, yeah." To emphasize, he jerked his chin to the side. A painted menu was barely visible through the window.

"Okay," Jason conceded, "but why would you want to?"

With the skimpy crowds and normally uber-efficient service, they hardly had time to talk before their turn came. Ernie smiled at the gal taking orders. "Make mine a chili-dog." Then he glanced at Jason, asking, "You?" At Jason's nod he added, "Two then."

Jason leaned into the counter. "Make 'em bacon chili-cheese with onions." The smell of burger grease, chili, and steamed bread wafted out. Nobody really knew why Pink's hot-dogs tasted so damned good, they just did. Especially at one-thirty in the morning after drinking, few things compared.

"You really are looking to gas us out tonight." Ernie fished some bills from his wallet, exchanging them for his change.

Reaching over the counter, Jason snagged the tray. Hot dogs, smothered in dark chili and sprinkled with onions, hung out the end of buns. "I've thrown up on you," he teased, "after that, what's a few farts between friends?" He handed over Ernie's food and ducked into what passed for an indoor dining room at Pink's.

They cradled the mess in tinfoil and ate standing in one corner of the dining room, hardly adequate to accommodate the number of people seeking shelter from the rain. The ubiquitous gallery of Hollywood celebs surrounded them. At Pink's, to get your face on the wall…well, the names read like a red carpet A-list on Oscar Night.

"So how you doing otherwise?" Ernie mumbled around a mouthful of dog. "Besides the work thing?"

Nasty thoughts about what other long and hard things should be shoved between those lips hit Jason hard. He swallowed and choked out. "Surviving." God, how hard up was he if he was fantasizing about hot dogs? It had to be the corniest thing in the world.

"I hear you." Ernie'd always been a master at eating and talking simultaneously. "We had some great times, you know?"

"Yeah, it was a great crew."

"No," Ernie stopped eating, "I mean you and me."