HANDS ON THE WHEEL

 

At a time when the world seems to be spinning

Hopelessly out of control

There's deceivers and believers and old in-betweeners

That seem to have no place to go.

It's the same old song - it's right and it's wrong

And livin' is just something I do;

With no place to hide, I looked in your eyes

And I found myself in you.

I looked to the stars, tried all of the bars

And I've nearly gone up in smoke;

Now my hand's on the wheel of something that's real

And I feel like I'm goin' home.

 

The hotel suite was large and friendly, overlooking the intersection of N and New Hampshire. Rudy Wells smiled appreciatively at the comfortable, slightly old-fashioned decor and the obvious happiness of the temporary residents; Barney and Carla Miller, three weeks into married life, were passing through Washington on their way to England and a whole new set of challenges.

"So tell me how the job offer came about, Barney," Rudy suggested. Carla hadn't waited to be asked but had thrust a glass of Scotch into his hand almost the moment he sat down. Rudy was pleased to note that Barney was drinking fruit juice; although habitually a non-drinker, he'd come close to developing an alcohol habit that could have killed him.

"Well, it surprised the hell out of me," Barney told him, with a chuckle. "You remember when I crashed at the Nurburgring in '74 and there wasn't a Track Marshall in sight?"

Rudy nodded. He'd seen footage of that sickening scene; afterwards he'd repaired the damage that had been done to Barney's mangled body.

"It was two other drivers who pulled me out of the wreck," the former racing driver went on, reflectively. "Ronnie Hauser - he was killed last year in Mexico. The other one was Jimmy Hunter, the British guy. He was the one who took the championship that season."

"That's right," Rudy mused. "I heard."

"Uh huh. Well, one of the British television stations offered him a slot as commentator for their Formula One coverage; he didn't want to take it, so he suggested me instead. He called me and said if I had a few months to spare there was a job waiting for me in England. He wants me to collaborate on a book, too."

"So," said Carla, from the other side of the room, "there's at least a year's work for Barney in England - and Jimmy knows a newspaper editor who wants a motor racing correspondent. We could be there the rest of our lives, Rudy."

He glanced up at her, and out of Barney's line of sight they exchanged looks that both meant the same thing.

I wonder who Oscar knows in London.

"Well," Rudy said, slowly, "that's wonderful. I couldn't be happier for you. It's kind of a late wedding present, isn't it?" He set the remains of the Scotch on the coffee-table and glanced over at Barney. "I'm glad you could make time to see me," he said, in a more businesslike tone. "If I'd been home in Colorado we could have done this a few weeks ago, but Oscar needed me here. It's just the very last quarterly psych. eval. session, Barney - won't take above half an hour, and then you're free and clear forever."

Barney shrugged. "Fine," he said, cheerfully. "What did you have in mind?"

Rudy couldn't help smiling. He always felt ridiculous when he had to announce that he was planning to hypnotise somebody; it conjured up such absurd mental pictures of charlatans and illusionists that it seldom failed to produce an amused response.

"I want to make contact with your subconscious mind, Barney," he said, almost shyly. "I'm going to hypnotise you; it'll feel like going to sleep. When you wake up, you'll feel terrific," he promised, lightly.

Barney exchanged grins with Carla. "Guess you've seen him do this before, huh?" he said.

Rudy's former head nurse chuckled. "A time or two," she said. "He hasn't lost a patient yet."

"Well, that's quite a recommendation. Okay, Doc, what do I have to do?"

"Nothing," Rudy reassured him. "Just make yourself comfortable, put your feet up on the coffee table, and I'll do the rest." He watched as Barney squirmed into a more comfortable position. "That's fine. Carla, would you close the drapes, please? Thank you. Okay, Barney, let's get to work. I'd like you to close your eyes and think of a meadow on a beautiful summer's day."

Rudy paused, waiting until the dreamy expression on Barney's face told him that the picture in his mind was completed to his satisfaction.

"That's good," he said, and his tone had altered to a deeper, more soothing one. It sounded as if the hypnotist as well as the subject was in imminent danger of falling asleep. "Now, tell me what you see in the picture, Barney?"

"Grass ... trees ... old post-and-rail fence," Barney said, slowly. "The grass is knee-high, and there are flowers growing in it - red, yellow, blue."

"And the sky is the same blue," Rudy told him, entering the imagined scene. "The clouds are white and far above. Can you see the house, Barney, the one with the green shutters right at the edge of the field?"

"Uh huh."

"Okay, let's go over there ... and up the front steps ... and in through the green front door. I'm right beside you, Barney; open the door."

A brief unconscious movement of Barney's right hand told Rudy he had entered the imaginary building.

"The walls are all green, Barney," he said, softly. "Filtered green light, like at the bottom of a well. It's getting dark, but you're quite safe. You can stay here, Barney. You can sleep here, in this quiet, green place. Go to sleep, Barney, you're safe here. That's right ... sleep ... "

Moments passed; Rudy repeated the soothing message several times, until Barney's breathing had slowed and deepened and he knew for certain that he had reached a deep enough level of hypnosis to begin the session properly. He opened his briefcase, drew out a small cassette tape-recorder, and set it up on the coffee-table. In the past this would have been Carla's job; she had taken charge of all his psych. eval. tapes, indexed them, transcribed them where necessary - now she was merely an interested onlooker. Rudy glanced up at her and smiled. She smiled back, full of confidence.

"Okay, Barney," Rudy said. "Let's take a look at that accident of yours from the inside, shall we? You're at the Nurburgring and it's race day; where are you on the grid?"

"Second row," Barney told him, sleepily. "Jaconelli's on pole, then Hunter, then me, then Hauser. If I can get a good line into the first corner I can burn Hunter away; Jaconelli's no problem, he's going to have to change tyres. I can get through on one set."

"That's a good plan. How's it working out?"

"It's good; we're nearly half-distance, and I've got a whole minute on Hunter. Jaconelli's all over the road. I don't see him too much, there's a back-marker in the way - one of the French guys."

"Okay, you're at three-quarters distance. There's an oil flag ahead - do you see it?"

"Yeah, I see it, but I'm going too fast; Jeezus, it's going...oh, God, round in a circle...the barrier..."

Rudy saw in his mind's eye the red and white car as it hurtled into the barrier at almost a hundred miles an hour; saw the front end concertina into a quarter of its length, heard the sudden 'pop' as spilled fuel ignited. The cameraman, high on a tower crane above the action, had kept filming, unable to do anything to help. Hunter and Hauser, battling for third place behind Miller, had come round the wide sweeping bend within seconds, and as if by mutual consent both cars had ploughed to a halt and the drivers sprinted across the track to haul Miller from the wreckage. They'd saved his life, but in wrenching him out of the burning debris they'd done untold damage to his spine. Hauser had suffered severely burned hands; he and Hunter had been lauded in the Press for weeks afterwards.

"What do you see, Barney?"

"Goldman," was the reply. "Oscar Goldman. 'Barney, you're not going to be able to walk again. You won't be able to drive. I'm sorry.'"

"Carla's there, too," Rudy reminded him.

"She feels sorry for me. I'm a man with no arms and legs, aren't I? How can she love somebody like that?"

"I do, Barney," Carla put in, softly. "You know I do."

Rudy looked up at her. The concern on her face was deep and heartfelt; she would have done anything to spare Barney the terrible suffering he had endured.

"That's right, Barney. She does. But you're not going to be a man without arms and legs for long, are you?"

"No. I never heard the word 'bionic' ... the way he explains it, it sounds kinda simple; they're going to rebuild me, and I'm going to be strong again and run faster than anybody else ... well, except this guy Austin, I guess."

"Who's Austin?"

"Oh, he's their first bionic experiment. I guess he's something really special, the way Goldman talks about him. You know, every other word this guy says is 'Steve'. It's like Steve can do anything."

"Well, we're all proud of Steve; he came through all the surgery and the trauma and he learned to handle his bionic strength. Not everybody can do that, Barney. There's no shame in failing - it's a hell of a thing we asked you to do."

Barney laughed - a bitter, hollow sound. "Sure, I know that. But Steve had the edge, didn't he? He had good old Oscar there night and day, holding his hand, making sure he had everything he needed."

"Now, Barney, you know it wasn't like that ... " Carla interrupted, but a glance from Rudy silenced her.

"This could be important," he said, softly. "There's a lot of resentment there, Carla; that could be the root cause of his adjustment problems."

"You mean ... in some way he's jealous of Steve?" she whispered back. "Yes, that could be - but he likes Steve. Steve helped him."

"True; but we're dealing with the subconscious here. There may be emotions stored away down here that the conscious mind has dealt with and discarded long ago. Barney, what is it about this that bothers you?" he asked, more loudly.

"Hey, don't get the idea that it matters," was the sardonic, amused reply. In his trance state, Barney Miller was able to convey a full range of emotional responses untrammelled by normal social conventions. He had no inhibitions about expressing how he felt. "Maybe some guys need that sort of thing, but not me. Maybe Austin gets a charge out of all that care and concern - all that 'individual attention' - but not me. You know, there's a name for guys like Oscar; guess he's got something about pretty blue eyes, huh, Rudy?"

Rudy looked up sharply, into Carla's shocked face. "Are you seriously suggesting there's an ulterior motive behind Oscar's concern for Steve?" Rudy asked, icily.

Barney's reply was relaxed, cool, non-committal. "Heeeeyyy, Doc," he drawled, "I can only tell it the way I see it; you'd have to ask the man himself - and what's he gonna do, come right out and admit that he's in love with Stevie-boy?"

Rudy's hand reached out to the controls of the cassette recorder. The tape stopped turning. He got up, walked away from Barney towards the kitchen area of the suite. Carla, concerned, followed him.

"Rudy?"

He took her hand. "We can help him deal with all that hate, Carla. He admitted he was envious of Steve - of the way he adjusted to what happened to him. I just never realised ... what form Barney's resentment took. The trouble is," he said, glancing past her to where the relaxed figure of the former bionic man was draped in the armchair, "I'm afraid he might be right - at least as far as Oscar's concerned." He stopped, as if belatedly realising she was no longer his head nurse and had no duty of confidentiality to him now. Then he caught sight of her worried expression, and knew he need not doubt her loyalty.

"What will you do?" she asked.

Sighing, he squeezed the hand that he held. "Whatever I can," he said, simply.

 

An hour later, walking down Connecticut Avenue with the tape of Barney's psych. session in his pocket, Rudy could not help but review the long, anguished months of Steve's recovery. Recently he had tried to convince himself that he had been guilty of over-reacting to what he believed he had observed back then, but he was only too aware that in the deepest recesses of his confidential medical files there were hand-written notes relating to Oscar's mental state and his responses to the man who had been the subject of the cyborg experiment.

Oscar liked to present the external appearance of a bureaucrat with ink for blood and a calculator for a heart, and maybe that had once been true. He had, however, mellowed considerably since the arrival on the scene of Steve Austin, ex-astronaut. Steve and Oscar had known one another slightly before the M3F5 prototype crashed and left the pilot a triple amputee, in need of the world's most advanced biomedical attention; that might have influenced Oscar when he had the finance allocation pushed through the Committee in emergency session in the early hours of the morning - but whatever Barney thought he had detected between them was of more recent origin.

Reviewing what he knew of Oscar's sexual orientation, Rudy had to concede that the man gave away very little about his private life. Obliged by his exalted position in the O.S.I. hierarchy to report any relationship or liaison he might enter into, he had made no such report during the whole of his time in the department. There had quite simply been no-one; other men might engage in relationships and, for one reason or another, omit to declare them, but not Oscar. If there was no report, there was no lover - of either gender.

As for friendships, they were few and far between; Bert Carrington, Rudy Wells and Steve Austin were his three closest friends. Of the three, the only one who had the right qualities to be considered a potential partner for Oscar was Steve Austin.

He had reached Lafayette Square, and wandered into the centre of it deep in thought. He sat down on a bench, watching a squirrel bouncing about on the grass engaged on some mysterious business of its own.

From his knowledge of Oscar he didn't think the man would have too much difficulty accepting a homosexual relationship; there was no intellectual or emotional barrier to such an eventuality. Oscar's problem was that he had become so used to putting duty before personal pleasure that, if he ever did fall in love, he would probably have very little idea what to do about it.

And what about Steve in all of this? What would his feelings be in the event - the very remote and unlikely event - of an approach from Oscar? Steve was vulnerable; always had been, despite the immense bionic strength Oscar and Rudy between them had imposed on him. The impression he had was that Steve was looking for some continuity in his life - some anchor, some fixed point, one person on whom he could always rely, no matter what happened. Oscar was already filling that role; Steve had only to crook his little finger and Oscar would drop whatever he was doing and supply the help or backup the other man needed. In return, Steve was always available to pull Oscar through any crisis situation he found himself in and supply the social companionship he seemed otherwise to lack. There was no disputing that, emotionally at least, the two men were good for one another - but it was a far cry from that to sharing a full physical relationship.

And yet ... if they cared enough, if they dared enough, there was no reason why it shouldn't work out. Certainly Steve would go to any lengths to avoid hurting Oscar; if it came to a showdown and Steve wasn't interested, he'd be sure to let him down gently. It was definitely worth trying - the potential benefits for both of them would be overwhelming, and they had very little to lose.

Rudy's emotional reactions to the situation pendulumed between sympathy and apprehension. He had lived with his suspicions for some considerable time now, and while they had been his alone he had not felt the necessity of doing anything about them. Now, with Barney's psych. tape burning a hole in his pocket, he must take steps to engineer a situation in which Oscar could examine his own feelings. The very contemplation of such an act seemed to him like a betrayal of his friends; no matter how much he rationalised it to himself he couldn't feel good about it.

"But it's got to be done," he said out loud.

The bag lady who was approaching him to ask for his spare change stopped in her tracks, tilted her head slightly, and thought better of it. She turned away again, leaving him to the squirrels and the impenetrable maze of his thoughts.

 

Rudy pushed away his coffee cup and glanced across the desk at Oscar. The head of OSI favoured him with a sidelong look which was eloquent of suspicion.

"Come on now, Rudy, let's stop playing patty-cake. You didn't come here to discuss the weather or the Redskins or even next year's budget allocation. What's on your mind?"

Rudy's expression became grave. "Well, I'll tell you, Oscar, it's that routine psych. evaluation on Barney. It turned up something I wasn't expecting. I think maybe you should listen to the tape." He flipped the cassette out of his pocket and handed it across the desktop.

Immediately Oscar was concerned. "He's all right, isn't he?" The mistake about Barney Miller had been his fault entirely, he felt. Barney's inability to adjust to the sudden acquisition of bionic strength and speed had been due to a character flaw he ought to have spotted sooner. It wasn't just the money, although he'd had trouble explaining that side of things to the Committee; his main concern was for Barney's welfare. "I thought Barney and Carla were settled."

"They are. I've told him I won't need to see him again, and Carla's promised to let me know if there's any alteration in his condition. She was a damned good head nurse, Oscar; I'll miss her. Barney Miller's a lucky guy."

"I know," Oscar acknowledged. He was fingering the cassette gingerly as if he thought it might bite him. "But in that case, I don't understand ... "

"Play the tape, Oscar. You'll understand."

Oscar snapped the tape into the desktop dictating machine, pressed the button, and watched thoughtfully as the capstans spooled slowly. Barney's voice rose from the speaker on the machine, almost lethargic at first, becoming harsher as resentment coloured it.

Gradually, as the impact of Barney's words became apparent, Oscar began to draw back from the machine; Rudy watched, fascinated, as Oscar reacted like a man facing a boa constrictor. His face contorted with disbelief - and then he pushed back the chair, turned to the window, thrust his hands into his pockets and stood staring out onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Slowly, he reached up one hand and removed his glasses, letting them dangle loosely from negligent fingers as Barney's acid words cut through the quiet in the room.

The tape ran out. Rudy reached over and stopped the machine but Oscar remained at the window, staring into space.

"Is that all there is?" he asked, his tone low and pained.

"That's all."

"How many people have heard this?"

"You, me ... and Carla. She was there at the time. Barney has no idea what he said, Oscar; he doesn't remember anything about the session at all."

"Good. Well, thank you for bringing this to me, Rudy. I appreciate it."

Rudy bit his lip, took a deep breath, and prayed. "Oscar, that's not really the end of it, I'm afraid. Just how is your relationship with Steve these days?"

Oscar shrugged, uncomfortable with the subject of the conversation. He still had not turned back to face Rudy, and the little of his face that was visible to the older man bore the stunned expression of the witness to some terrible disaster.

"Oh ... fine, I guess ... " he said, vaguely.

"Tell me."

"Well ... we're friends. We get along just fine, Rudy." He turned around, walked away from the window, but his head was bowed and he still could not face Rudy.

"Did you ever consider," Rudy asked softly, "that the relationship might develop into something ... closer?"

"With Steve?" Oscar's head lifted, shock registering on his face. "No, never," he answered, calmly. "It's not exactly his style, is it?"

"Maybe not," Rudy conceded, marvelling at the matter-of-fact way Oscar could discuss a subject so exceptionally intimate. The refusal to hide from it was, for Rudy, a mark of the depth of Oscar's feelings for Steve; a lesser man might have bluffed and blustered, but Oscar was prepared to discuss - in painful depth, if necessary - anything that might affect his friend. "What about you, Oscar?"

Oscar turned away again. "Well, you know what they say about me, Rudy - that I'm married to my work."

"Uh huh, I've heard that. But it isn't enough, is it? Not for you, or anybody else. Now, be honest with me, Oscar; if Steve was willing - would you want him?"

It was the hardest question Rudy had ever had to ask, and it cut through Oscar like a surgeon's scalpel through flesh.

"Rudy ... " It was a cry of agony.

"The truth, Oscar. It's important." Rudy's tone dropped, filled with sympathy and compassion. "Do you want Steve?"

For a long, long time it seemed as if he was not to have an answer, but in the end the words forced themselves from unwilling lips and dropped into the room like stones into a millpond.

"Yes. Yes, I do."

Relief washed over Rudy like a shower of warm rain. He leaned back in his chair, feeling as if his spine had turned to jelly and his brain to mush. Steepling his fingers, he looked at Oscar over the top of them and said, with something only slightly short of triumph in his voice, "I guessed it a long time ago, Oscar. I just needed to know you'd admitted it to yourself. Now listen to me, and then we'll both forget this conversation ever took place. If you really think you can handle loving Steve - and there's no way it would ever be easy, for either of you - maybe you should try and find out how he feels about it."

"Wha ... ?"

"You promised to listen, Oscar. Don't interrupt. Now, I don't know for sure how Steve's likely to react to this, but he's your friend. He cares about you. Maybe you ought to ask him."

"Is that your professional opinion, Doctor?" The tone had hardened, become almost hostile.

Rudy shook his head. "No, Oscar; that's my Rx for you and Steve. Give him a chance to say 'yes'." He paused. "You've got forty-eight hours; after that, I'll take matters into my own hands. If you want my opinion, Oscar ... I don't think you'll have to ask him twice. Now, the next time I see the pair of you I want you both to be smiling." Rudy got to his feet, flipped the cassette from the machine, and walked over to where Oscar stood, placing the little plastic oblong into hands that seemed paralysed with fear. "It's the only copy," he said, reassuringly. "Do whatever you want with it; Barney's case is closed."

He turned around then, picked up his briefcase, and left the office without giving Oscar a chance to respond.

As the door closed behind his visitor Oscar seemed galvanised into some semblance of life; he cracked open the cassette case, pulled out the tape, and spent several minutes, an expression of the most profound distress on his face, feeding the long, brown ribbon piece by piece into the jaws of the shredder.

 

Carla was waiting at a quiet table in the corner of Swensen's, an ice-cream parlour and coffee shop decorated like something out of old San Francisco. The Barbary Coast decor was somehow reassuring; Steve had always felt comfortable here, and Carla had chosen the venue for that reason. She already had a cup of coffee waiting for him, but as it was creamy and he generally took his black he merely sipped at it.

"I'll miss coming here," she smiled, softly. "I don't think they have anything like it in England. You've been to London, haven't you, Steve?"

"Sure," he said. "A couple of times. Tell Barney the beer's warm and the steaks are small - and French fries are called 'chips'," he added, with a shrug.

"Tell him yourself," Carla told him, gently. "I want you to come to the airport and see us off. It means a lot to me, Steve."

"Okay." He shrugged again. "Sure."

Dusk was settling over the city; home-going office workers were passing the window on their way to the nearest Metro station, and out in the square a necklace of thin silver lights draped in the trees proclaimed that the nation's capital was already making preparations for the Christmas festivities. Steve had seen it all before, but he never tired of it - the city was full of life, full of variety.

"Now, Carla," he said, gently, aware that something was troubling her, "you called me, and it sounded pretty urgent. Want to tell me what it's all about?"

"Yes, I do," was the reply. "But it's difficult. Let me tell it my own way, please, Steve, or I'll lose my nerve and we'll end up talking about the weather."

He nodded. Anything that could bring the cool, collected ex-nurse to this pitch of anxiety had to be pretty important. He sat back, sipped at his coffee, waited patiently with his large blue eyes firmly fixed on her face.

"Steve ... " Carla said, hesitantly, " ... you and I used to mean something to each other, didn't we?"

For a moment her words recalled memories he wasn't really willing to examine; Carla had been there all through the grim, early days of realisation that he was a triple amputee and the suicidal depression that had followed, had guided him through his convalescence and the traumas attendant on the fitting and adjusting of his bionic limbs. He had loved her for that, and he had told her so - but it was the love of a patient for his nurse, and it had not survived the more exacting stages of his recovery. Neither of them had ever expected it to last.

"Yeah, we did," he conceded. "But you've got Barney now."

"I know." She reached across the table and patted his hand in the comforting gesture she had used so often in the hideous past. "I really love him, Steve. I know it's going to work out for us in England. Barney's going to love being a 'media person'."

"Sure he will," laughed Steve, indulgently. "He always did like to show off."

"That's right. Only ... you don't have anyone, Steve, do you? Not right at the moment, I mean."

Puzzled, he tilted his head slightly. There was a look on her face he couldn't define, but it was caring and affectionate. "What is this, Carla? You tryin' to set me up with a blind date?"

She laughed, but he could detect nervousness in the laughter and it was soon extinguished. "No, not that, Steve - you mean too much to me for that. But maybe I am interfering in your life a little. I want you to know it's because Barney and I care about you, though." She couldn't meet his eyes.

"Carla ... ?"

"Steve, there's not enough love in the world today, you know that. I know ... Rudy and I both know ... we knew a long time ago ..." She stopped, swallowed convulsively, steadied her trembling hands and lifted her chin courageously. Bewildered, he studied every line of her fine features; the high cheekbones, the gentle blue eyes that had been of such significance to him in the dark days of his recovery. "If ... if you knew," she went on, her voice scarcely rising above a whisper, "if you knew for certain that there was somebody really deeply in love with you, would it matter ... Steve, would it matter very much to you if it was a man?"

His expression altered, hardened, became as stony as any of the statues or monuments that filled the historic city.

"Carla, what are you talking about? You know I never got involved in anything like that."

"I know you didn't, Steve. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you - only he cares about you such a lot, I thought maybe you could be happy together. I guess I made a mistake. Please believe me, I don't want to cause any trouble, I - "

She got up suddenly, dragging her coat from the back of the chair and tucking her purse under her arm. She was halfway out of the restaurant before Steve's battered senses realised what she had in mind.

"Hey, Carla, wait a minute, let me see you home," he called out despairingly as she reached the door.

"No, I'll take a cab," was the anguished reply. "I'm sorry, Steve."

He watched her as she ran past the window, not looking in his direction, tugging her coat around her against the autumn chill. He saw her cross the road to the cab rank and climb into the leading vehicle. He watched as it cut its way viciously into the growing stream of traffic and headed off north towards the hotel. Then he abandoned the remains of his coffee, got to his feet, threw a handful of change on the table and headed off in the opposite direction.

 

His mind was full of images; he'd never panicked before, but Carla's words had started off a primeval impulse to doubt, to deny, to flee. It lasted two or three minutes while he strode between shoppers in the evening streets heading - somewhat obliquely - for home. Then some rational instinct cut in and he knew where he was going; where he often went when he had things to think through that he couldn't understand or accept.

The strange thing was, there had never been any question in his mind about who Carla meant. Since his accident there had been only one guiding force in his life, and although he occasionally made ungrateful remarks or chafed against authority he had sense enough to understand that without Oscar Goldman there could have been no Steve Austin - no walking, living man of that name. He would have been a paraplegic, a tragic victim of his own heroism, eking out his life in institutions and depending on the able-bodied for every little comfort. Not that his friendship with Oscar was founded on gratitude alone; that had certainly been involved at first, but it had outgrown that stage of initial awkwardness and re-established itself as a relationship of equals. Whatever he may have owed Oscar had been repaid a dozen or more times, and in the process he had run up new debts.

Oscar had simply always been there; pulling every string he knew to allow Steve to go on the Athena One rescue mission and then pacing Mission Control like - as Jim, the Flight Director, had told him later - an expectant father, complete with cigar; on the ground throughout the desperate flight of the Navion light plane with Senator Hill unconscious in the pilot's seat and both Steve's eyes temporarily blinded by scalding oil; at the funeral of Carl Austin, one of very few civilians, unobtrusively supporting Steve's mother and acting as a supernumerary member of the Austin family. On every one of these occasions Oscar had made a point of stepping away from any possibility of intrusion. He'd left Steve alone to talk with Kelly Wood, the Athena One pilot he'd rescued; given him the chance to thank Airman Jill Denby, the young air traffic controller who'd talked the Navion down; left him in peace to comfort his mother. These were the actions of someone who cared about him a great deal, and who did not want to intrude too far into his life without an invitation.

So where did that leave him, he wondered, striding purposefully down 17th Street. With a friend who loved him but wasn't willing to make any demands on him other than those of his job?

On the face of it he and Oscar should have very little in common; there was a gap of fifteen years between their ages, and it sometimes seemed more. Oscar had mellowed a lot, though, from the deskbound bureaucrat acting from mercenary motives who had sponsored the cyborg project through the hierarchy of the Defense Department; he had admitted as much to Steve when he had owned up to the truth about Barney Miller. Oscar, powerful as he was in many ways, had had no choice but to accede to his superiors' demands for a second cyborg. He'd chosen Barney, and he'd put the whole project into operation in such complete secrecy that Steve had known nothing about it. To Oscar, it was no longer a case of finding a willing victim, grafting on bionic limbs, and using the result as a super-powered secret agent and deadly weapon combined; he'd learned through Steve's experience that he was dealing with human beings, and human beings take their time to adjust to the sudden acquisition of bionic power - and some, like Barney, are never able to make the adjustment. Barney's inability to cope had been just as painful to Oscar as it was to Steve, and they had their friendship to thank for that insight.

Steve paused, stared up into the deepening sky. A jet, taking off from National, seemed to sail through the topmost branches of the trees in Constitution Gardens, pushing aside the bobbing pale moon as it cut a swathe through the ocean of clouds. He always had trouble making the connection in his mind between that serene pearl-like globe in the sky and the little dust-covered rock he'd visited a couple of years before; there was a leap of the imagination involved in reconciling the two, and although he was one of the few men privileged to walk on the moon he still stared, marvelling at its beauty.

He'd watched the moon from that Pacific island, the night he and Oscar had spent camped out among the rocks after their military transport plane had crashed. There was an assassin looking for Oscar, and they'd decided to separate from the rest of the survivors to draw the man out into the open and to prevent the possibility of an innocent bystander being injured. The night had been cold and Oscar, understandably, somewhat withdrawn, but they'd huddled together in perfect companionship - the way only really close friends could. Later on that seemingly unending island exile Oscar had been shot; he'd come close to death. Steve had been privileged to save his life. It had felt good to do so; it had felt as if he was saving someone more than ordinarily important to him.

And now Carla said that Oscar loved him. He had no idea how she'd come by that knowledge, but he had no reason to doubt it. If he'd stopped to examine the relationship in depth before, he'd have known it for himself, anyway. It wasn't so awful; he could live with it. He could return it, too, if ever he had the chance.

Stuffing his hands into the pockets of his denim jacket he strolled idly among the maples; the darkening sky had begun to leach colour from the brilliant red and yellow of their autumn foliage and dead leaves in every hue covered the ground. He'd always been fond of this time of the year, no doubt because it still carried with it warm childhood remembrances of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

He'd never thought of himself as wanting a sexual relationship with any man. Never ruled it out, either. It was a subject he hadn't bothered to consider; like cowardice and debt, it was something that happened to other people. If it happened to him he wouldn't turn away from it; he'd turn towards it, and live it, and enjoy it. He'd never been as close to anyone in his life as he was to Oscar, and the prospect of increasing that closeness - introducing a sexual dimension to the relationship - far from being alarming was positively intriguing. He'd been aware of approaches from other men in the past - occasionally he'd wandered into the kind of bars where his build, his good looks and his tight jeans had given the regular clientele the impression that he might be available. He'd always managed to indicate, without giving offence, that he wasn't looking for male company. Oscar had made no approach, and yet he wanted Steve. He was prepared to deal with his feelings in silence and alone rather than risk souring their friendship with a rejection - or, worse, an unwilling acceptance. That, to Steve, was almost a textbook definition of love; that Oscar cared, without seeking to force a response.

 

"Hey, Steve, I thought I might find you here."

Oscar's voice reached him through the dusk, slicing across his tranquil thoughts but also belonging in them. Steve turned, offering a comfortable smile, and took the opportunity to look closely at the man approaching him along the side of the reflecting pool; he was tall, strong, handsome and had a smile that could suddenly ignite and spread like wildfire around a room. For anybody - man or woman - Oscar would be quite a catch.

"Hey, Oscar. Aren't you a little off the beaten track? This isn't exactly the quickest route to Georgetown, you know."

"I was on my way to your apartment," Oscar told him, halting at his side. "Wanted to talk to you about something. You seemed to be deep in thought just now - anything on your mind?"

Steve smiled, and watched his smile light candles on Oscar's deep brown eyes. "Let's walk," he suggested, turning in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial. Oscar moved in close at his side, and shoulder-to-shoulder they strolled through the peaceful evening. "I was just thinking about Senator Hill," Steve said, keeping to neutral subjects in view of their surroundings. "Have you seen him lately? How's he doing?"

Oscar chuckled. "Saw him three days ago," he said. "He's enjoying every minute he has left. Crazy old coot told me he wants to take up ski-ing, and he's managed to persuade his doctors to let him have a holiday in Europe."

Steve couldn't help but admire the irrepressible spirit of the man. Ed Hill had been more than a little stubborn in accepting that he had a problem, but once he had faced it squarely he had dealt with it with courage and resourcefulness.

"How long does he have?" he asked.

"I don't know. Three months, maybe. He's another one of your success stories, Steve; without your help, he wouldn't have been in a position to enjoy whatever remains of his life with his friends and family around him."

Steve turned away. "I just did what needed doin'," he said, modestly. "Besides, I owed him one; he helped you get the six million."

Night was closing in on the reflecting pool and the gardens but a posse of dogged late-season tourists was striding determinedly along towards the massive statue of Honest Abe, sitting in his stone seat brooding on the affairs of his nation. Steve and Oscar watched them go; almost envied them the carefree nature of their quest.

"Oscar, I know what you want to talk about. Come on up to the apartment."

Oscar nodded, slowly. "You saw Rudy?" he surmised.

"No. I saw Carla." He stopped in his tracks, because Oscar had done so already and was a few feet behind on the path watching him with wide, horrified eyes. "Don't worry about it, Oscar," he said, calmly. "It's going to be okay ... I promise."

Oscar's jaw had dropped. "Are you sure ... are you sure you know what you're saying, Steve?"

Steve took a step closer. "I know exactly what I'm saying" he said, several million conflicting emotions coursing through his nerves in a split fraction of a second. "I'm saying ... it's going to be okay, Oscar. Don't worry."

The sparsity of the words contrasted with their eloquent meaning. Oscar looked into deep, humorous blue eyes whose fair lashes had beguiled him longer ago than he cared to recall and, unbidden, his right hand lifted until the tip of the longest finger brushed across the angle of Steve's jaw; it was a possessive touch, the first touch of a lover, and it drew from Steve only that charming, crooked smile Oscar had fallen in love with.

"Now you understand," the fair man encouraged, gently. "We can make it work, Oscar. I know we can."

Oscar was watching him the way a rabbit watches a snake. He shook his head, trying to clear his jumbled thoughts, and looked again into the calmly smiling face. "Rudy gave me forty-eight hours to talk to you about this," he said, uncomfortably. "Steve, I hope you know what you're doing."

"Why don't you explain it to me?" the other man invited, confidently. "Come on, Oscar, let's go get a drink."

 

Steve's apartment was on the seventh floor of a new building overlooking the Georgetown Channel. He opened the door, switched on all the lights in the place, and took Oscar's coat from him as if he was a valet with a lifetime in service.

"Pour yourself a drink," he suggested, throwing Oscar's coat and his own over the back of one of the dining chairs. He tugged aside the long muslin drape and threw open one of the centre pair of glass doors out onto the balcony. Then he crossed the room in a few economical strides and switched on the radio, tuned - as always - to his favourite country music station.

Oscar found the Scotch and glasses among the plants on the room divider and poured himself a larger drink than he would usually have contemplated. "You want one?" he asked, his tone almost normal.

"No."

Steve was back out on the balcony, the cold breeze tugging at his shirt-sleeves. The dark river stretched out to left and right, a gulf of blackness between rows of lights. He watched the sparkle of car headlights reflected in the water, but his thoughts were somewhere far away.

Oscar stepped out behind him. "Steve?" There was no mistaking the anxiety in his tone; where Steve's welfare was concerned there was always anxiety in Oscar's tone.

"Yeah, I'm fine." He tried to shrug it off, but a melancholy mood was closing over him. "Guess that could have been me, Oscar, couldn't it? What happened to Barney, I mean."

Oscar swallowed, trying to suppress the surge of terror that shot through him. When he spoke, his voice was perilously calm. "No, it couldn't. I'd've made sure it didn't."

"I know you would, Oscar. Thanks."

This was the moment of truth. Steve was waiting for him to explain himself. He'd chosen the time and the location, but he'd left it to Oscar to supply the words. Suddenly the older man felt faint, trying to rein in his galloping thoughts.

"Steve, you know you're probably just about the strongest man in the world," he said, noticing the tremor in his voice and cursing himself for both his boldness and his cowardice.

Steve didn't turn. "Uh-huh," he acknowledged. "So they tell me."

Oscar moved closer, stood beside him, looking out over the river. "I just wish I understood," he said, forlornly, "why I feel like I want to protect you ... to take care of you ... It doesn't make any sense to me, but it's how I've always felt."

The silence seemed to stretch taut between them, bringing Oscar's nerves to bowstring tension. He needed the sound of Steve's voice, needed a reassurance of some kind - needed some repetition of that quiet confidence that everything was going to be all right.

"I don't know why, Oscar." The words were so deep as to be almost inaudible. "I guess you're just an old-fashioned romantic."

Steve turned, one hand still on the parapet; the other, the left hand, curled around the lapel of Oscar's jacket and drew him in just a little closer. Their eyes exchanged honesty, sympathy, the beginning of a new understanding.

"How did you know?" Oscar asked, shaking hand depositing the glass on the parapet wall; his right hand lifted to cover Steve's where it rested on his shoulder. "I was so careful - how did you find out?"

Steve shrugged. "Carla asked me if I'd ever considered loving a man," he said. "The rest of it I worked out for myself."

"I should have realised you'd figure it out sooner or later," was the rueful response. "I just never thought you'd be interested."

"Neither did I," Steve confessed, shyly. "This is kinda new to me, Oscar."

"Me too, pal. Me too. Come here."

Carefully he drew Steve into his arms, mesmerised by the way the evening breeze was stroking through the brown-blond strands of his hair and by the way those intense blue eyes mirrored the golden light that spilled from the apartment. "I love you," he said, shakily. "I always have. It's crazy, and I really don't know what the hell to do about it."

"Well ... You could always kiss me," suggested Steve, demurely.

"Well, I could ... "

Oscar's arms closed around Steve's waist possessively, and as he drew in to take Steve's mouth with his own he felt the other man's strong hands slide into place on his chest. Their lips touched lightly, parted briefly, touched again and held - it seemed forever.

Steve relaxed against him, letting Oscar take command, letting him set the pace. The kiss deepened, gained in intensity, became more intimate as their bodies locked together, Oscar's arms tightening into a grip of iron Steve knew he could never escape. It was Oscar who broke away, eventually, shock and a need for reassurance driving him to seek a moment's respite. His right hand strayed into Steve's hair, combed through it, rejoiced in the silky texture of the fair strands.

"Oh, Steve ... God, you taste wonderful," he whispered, his deep voice catching on the syllables as his cheek brushed Steve's.

"Take it easy, Oscar," Steve soothed, fingertips of his left hand lightly skimming Oscar's jawline and throat. "Take it easy. I won't run away."

"You won't? This is really what you want?" He was unable to keep the incredulity from his voice as he drew back and stared into Steve's face. He saw there only compassion, gentleness, humour - and, he now recognised, the love that had been there all along. "I never imagined you could accept this kind of relationship," he said, seriously. "Certainly not ... with me."

"Now, don't sell yourself short, bossman," Steve advised. His hands were sliding inside Oscar's jacket, stroking across the fine fabric of his shirt, feeling the strong warmth of his body and the smoothness of his skin. "I don't stop to look for answers," he went on, a little hoarsely. "I just know I can't help myself; I love you, Oscar, and that's all she wrote. I'm not too good at saying it, but I sure know how to prove it to you."

"Oh, God ... " With a groan of real distress Oscar pulled Steve closer, blissfully aware of what those competent hands were already doing to him and dizzily apprehensive about the effect they would have when they contacted naked flesh. He wanted those hands all over him here and now, and fired by the mental image the desire had produced he made the next kiss demanding, almost brutal.

"Heeeeeyyy," Steve teased, drawing breath some considerable time later. "This is real caveman stuff, Oscar. Don't you think we ought to get into the bedroom before this goes any further?"

Steve could have been proposing a stroll across the Sahara or a picnic at the top of Mount Everest for all the impact it made on Oscar's reeling senses; he didn't understand the words at all, but he knew that wherever Steve went he wanted to be right there with him. He allowed himself to be drawn, slowly, back towards the bright lights of the apartment, to be led inside, and to be conducted towards the bedroom.

 

Oscar paused just inside the bedroom door; he had never seen this room before, and he wanted to make sure he noticed every detail. The walls and carpet were the same cornflower blue as Steve's eyes; the pictures were in narrow gold frames and grouped in stylish arrangements. A range of fitted wardrobes with white louvre doors ran along the inside wall; opposite it, the glass wall was covered in extravagant swags of white muslin which fell like a waterfall from ceiling to floor. A white homespun spread decorated with Chinese-style patterns in two shades of blue was thrown diagonally over the bed, which was made up with dark blue bedding. The effect was crisp, clean, and surprisingly feminine. Oscar turned raised eyebrows towards Steve.

"Kelly chose the decor," he said. "She wanted to give me a thank-you present, so when I moved in here she and a friend of hers took over and designed the whole thing. I had to insist on blue, though," he laughed. "I think they had something else in mind."

It was on the tip of Oscar's tongue to ask how Steve had thanked Kelly for her assistance, but he suppressed the question. "She has taste," he said, absent-mindedly - although whether in terms of interior design or in her choice of men he did not elaborate.

Steve's hand went to the switch and the room was plunged into darkness, except for the light that spilled in from the apartment's living areas. Oscar walked around to the far side of the bed, lifted one edge of the drape, and peered out into the night. Steve moved in close behind him, a hand resting comfortingly on his shoulder.

"Steve ... ?"

"Uh huh?"

Oscar shrugged. "That's just it. I don't believe I'm here. Is this really me? Is it really you?"

The hand - Steve's right - strayed to the back of his neck; the bionic hand, that could kill with a single touch, stroked and soothed with infinite gentleness.

"Oscar, I never use a stuntman for love scenes - you know that."

"Love scenes ... " Oscar mused, not turning to face him. "I've got to level with you, Steve; if word of this ever gets out, we're going to have a lot of explaining to do. It could be both our jobs."

Steve nodded, turning Oscar to face him. "That's okay. You mean more to me than the job anyway. Oscar, there are more things in life than being able to out-lift Charles Atlas; one day I won't have all this bionic strength any more and I'll need somewhere to run to. That's when I'm really going to need you."

Oscar framed his face with both hands, drew him close, touched his lips briefly with a reassuring kiss. "Whenever and wherever you choose," he said, "I'll be there. I promise."

"I know you will, Oscar," Steve told him, amidst the rain of tiny, delicate kisses on his face. "I know you will."

 

Steve woke slowly, luxuriously, his right hand bunched into a fist beneath his chin where it rested on the broad, bare shoulder. It felt like mid-morning, but he guessed it was only around seven as the radio still playing in the living area was carrying the Early Show. He lay still, allowing the music to caress his soul much as the autumn sunlight caressed his closed eyes.

It had been a long night, a surreal argosy through an unfamiliar world of emotion, an exploration of a new territory, a voyage into uncharted waters. At first eagerness had battled with shyness - hands desperate to touch had held back, awaiting permission. Then, as evening blended into night, they had become more sure of one another, more trusting. In the light from the bedside lamp Oscar had taken both Steve's hands into his, held them up to his face and examined them minutely.

"It's amazing," he breathed, awed. "I could never trust myself to get close enough to find out ... Steve, there really is no difference, is there?"

Steve shrugged, watching his lover's expression with gentle amusement. "The right hand cost a million and a half," he said, self-mockingly. "I got the left for free."

Oscar kissed the fingertips of first one hand, then the other. "Perfect ... everywhere," he continued. "No scars, no difference in texture; Steve, you're not just a scientific marvel, you're a work of art."

"And there was me thinking you loved me for myself," teased the younger man affectionately.

Oscar's expression altered alarmingly. "Steve, I didn't mean ... I do. You know I do."

Steve gathered him in closer. "Hey ... easy, pal, easy. I know it. I don't mind talkin' about it. I've never had any secrets from you, Oscar."

"Never?" The look of disbelief was almost comical.

"Well, okay - not many." Steve's laughter was deep, happy and infectious. "Nothing important," he added, more soberly. "Nothing that could hurt you."

"Thank you for that."

Steve reached out and rumpled Oscar's hair, noting how the first strands of silver-grey caught the light. "I can do better," he said, solemnly. "I can promise I'll never keep a secret from you again."

Oscar turned away. "I can't promise that," he said, sadly.

"I know. Don't let it worry you, Oscar. I don't mind."

There was a long, long pause. "You know, Steve, I'm only five years off retirement. In five years' time, we could ... "

"Yeah, we could. We could."

"Your life expectancy is lousy, pal," was the whispered comment as Steve found himself drawn into warm, supportive arms.

And so it might be, to the casual observer. Now, however, there was something extra to live for - a future Steve was determined not under any circumstances to put at risk.

The tranquil rhythm of Oscar's breathing reassured him; it didn't vary, and he listened for a while to the deep, contented sound, reflecting almost idly on the night that had passed. It was a version of himself he was going to have to get used to; he'd never imagined a Steve Austin who could spend the night making love passionately, inventively and single-mindedly to another man. There had been a time, in fact, when it had looked as if the rebuilt Austin, OSI's tame cyborg, would be impotent. Rudy Wells had saved him that indignity; did he understand why, even back then? Had Rudy used all his skill to restore Steve because he already knew that Oscar was in love with him? One day he'd have to ask. For now, all that mattered was that Oscar did love him, and that he had made certain Steve knew it.

Steve opened his eyes, lifted his head slightly. As he had suspected, Oscar was already awake.

"Good morning," he said, his voice calm and low.

"Good morning." The response was soft, mildly amused-sounding, and accompanied by a shy smile. Oscar shifted his position a fraction and placed a kiss of greeting on Steve's cheek. "I thought you were going to sleep all day," he teased. "I didn't want to wake you."

"Thanks. Did you sleep well?"

"Not as well as you. I couldn't get my brain to stop spinning long enough. Steve ... I don't think I've ever been this happy in my life. You've redefined all the words for me ... 'happy' is no longer enough."

Steve chuckled, and his right hand slid proprietarily over Oscar's throat and collarbone. "I was right about you," he said, sleepily. "Just an old-fashioned romantic. Do you have to go into the office today?" he asked, unable to keep out of his voice the wild, almost childlike, hope that they might spend the day together.

Oscar sighed, pulled him closer, indulged that insane fantasy of protecting this unbelievably vulnerable man.

"I guess not," he said. "What did you have in mind?"

"Barney and Carla's flight leaves at three," Steve told him. "We could take them out to lunch first, then drive them to Dulles."

"Uh huh. And between now and lunchtime?" Oscar asked, mildly, already knowing the answer.

Steve shrugged. "I don't plan to get out of bed," he said.

"You don't, huh?"

"Uh unh."

"Well, that's kind of unfortunate, Steve, because I've got to." Gently he detached himself from the strong embrace and, seeing the look of disappointment on his lover's face, leaned forward to place a kiss of reassurance on Steve's forehead. "Bathroom's first on the left?" he asked, with a smile. "You've been sleeping on my stomach most of the night, pal, and you're no lightweight. I'll be back in a minute."

Steve watched in semi-dazed fascination as the long, muscular body uncurled itself, stretched - with noticeable lack of self-consciousness - and departed in the general direction of the bathroom. As the door closed behind Oscar, he rolled over onto his back, tucked his hands behind his head and looked up at the ceiling as though he had never seen it before. As he did so, a phrase that was already a cliché - but none the less true for all that - entered his mind as though, like Oscar, it intended to stay.

Today, it said, is the first day of the rest of your life.

 

Remnants of last week's snowfall still clung to the grass along Rock Creek, but the morning was unseasonably clear and warm like a summer's day transplanted; not a morning - if ever there was one - for being trapped in a limousine in a traffic queue. There had never been any question of taking a cab; unfashionably, Steve preferred to walk - and Oscar, who would cheerfully have given him the world tied up in pink ribbons, preferred to walk with him. He could hardly look at Steve, who was challenging the brilliance of the day in a closely-cut blue denim suit that emphasised all his claims to masculinity, worn over a white shirt whose brightness hurt his eyes. In other circumstances he would have looked his fill and enjoyed it, but the consequences of discovery were preying on his mind - along with the fact that, unlike Steve, he had yet to change his clothes and was still wearing yesterday's suit.

An idle stroll along the lower section of the parkway brought them into Georgetown and among stately Federal houses to Oscar's home near Dumbarton Oaks Park to remedy that situation; unwilling to be outshone in the sartorial stakes, he changed into a dark grey suit, white shirt and pink tie - an ensemble that made him seem taller and more dignified than ever. Steve approved his choice immediately by pulling him into an impassioned embrace in the hallway of the house just as they were about to leave.

"Now who's the spiffy one?" he asked, mischievously.

"Still you, pal," was the breathless answer. Oscar's hands ran appreciatively over the slim hips in their taut denim covering. "You look ten million dollars."

Steve closed in for a kiss, already more at ease in the new relationship than Oscar, more comfortable with displays of affection. "I only wore this in Barney and Carla's honour," he said, with a smile.

"Sure you did, Steve," Oscar told him, allowing himself to be drawn into a closer embrace. "I knew that."

 

It had been difficult to tear themselves away from the Georgetown house, so that with time pressing before their lunch date it was necessary to stride out briskly along Q Street, an exercise which could not help but be enjoyable. Steve modified his pace to Oscar's, and they walked side by side in companionable silence, sharing the golden late-morning sunshine.

Oscar reached the hotel entrance first and held the door for Steve.

"After you, pal."

The fair man grinned at him as he stepped through. "Have you noticed how often you do that?" he asked, lightly. "It's kinda like putting a paragraph in the Washington Post - 'not married, but happy'."

"Would you keep your voice down?" was the mild response.

Crossing the lobby under the curious gaze of the bellman, Oscar thumbed the button for the lift. A fin-de-siècle gilt-mirrored cabin opened silently and they stepped into it, stoically refusing to believe that anyone in his right mind could decorate an elevator like a Parisian brothel.

"You're right, though," the older man conceded, with a wry smile. He jammed his hands into his pockets and grinned at Steve. "I've got to stop treating you like fine porcelain, haven't I?"

Steve chuckled. "Only when there are other people around," he amended. "The rest of the time I can live with it."

"Right." The cabin doors opened again, onto a winding corridor that followed the building's eccentric contours. A short stroll across thick, luxurious carpet brought them to the door of Barney and Carla's suite.

Rudy Wells answered their knock. His expression was determinedly neutral, but it was apparent that he found the fact of their arriving together at least reassuring. "Oscar ... Steve ... " he said, casually, admitting them.

"Hi, Rudy," returned Steve. He strode ahead into the suite to greet Carla and Barney, while Rudy closed the door and placed himself close beside Oscar.

"So?" he asked, in a low tone that was masked by Steve and Barney's exchange of banter.

Oscar didn't turn in his direction; his eyes remained focussed on Steve. "So," he said, nodding, unable to keep the contentment from his voice. "Let me know if you ever get tired of being right all the time," he added, allowing Rudy a confident half-smile.

Rudy's sharply indrawn breath was audible both to Steve and Carla. The former nurse heard the sound, turned, and saw the head of OSI looking particularly sheepish as he and Dr Wells carried on a conversation without words. She was bright enough both to appreciate the subtext of the exchange and to keep that appreciation to herself for the time being. She threaded her arm through Steve's.

"I'm glad you could come say goodbye," she smiled. "It could be months before we get back on this side of the Atlantic. Do they still have those fogs in London?"

"Yes," Oscar told her, urbanely, stepping forward, "but they've retired the stagecoaches and the town criers."

"Oh, too bad!" the young woman laughed.

"We're here to take you guys out to lunch," Steve put in smoothly. "Oscar booked a table downstairs in the restaurant."

"The one overlooking the courtyard," Oscar supplied, glancing across at him but not allowing his gaze to linger on his lover's face. It would scarcely do to dwell on how he had dialled the restaurant from the phone beside Steve's bed, and how he had almost been distracted from his task by the warm hand that had trailed slowly down his spine.

"Well, that's good," Barney broke in, full of an almost uncontainable cheerfulness. "One last time, huh, Steve? Oscar's two favourite cyborgs in the same place at the same time; thirteen million dollars' worth of bionics around one restaurant table - I hope the hotel has good insurance."

Rudy chuckled. "I hope no-one's thinking of damaging my handiwork," he cautioned, to friendly laughter all around. "We should be getting down there, I think," he added. "Your check-in at the airport is only a couple of hours away."

Carla picked up her purse, checked her hair in the mirror, and then attached herself to Steve again.

"I'll miss Swensen's," she reiterated, sadly, and her fingers bit into his arm. "Maybe they'll open a branch in London."

"Maybe," he acknowledged. "You were right, Carla - I guess Barney and I have a lot in common."

"You survived the same way?" she surmised, stealing a surreptitious glance in Oscar's direction.

Barney, opening the door for the assembled party, caught the tail end of this sentiment. The former seven million dollar man turned back to his wife. "How's that?" he asked.

Carla looked across at Rudy, who was doing his level best to suppress a smile. The unspoken conversation, that to her had been so clear and eloquent, was to Barney an obscure text in a dead language.

Seeing his confusion, Carla abandoned Steve, grabbed her husband's arm and steered him away into the corridor. "Don't worry, Barney," she said, cheerfully. "I'll explain it to you some time."

Steve, Rudy and Oscar fell into step behind the couple, and together the party headed off towards the restaurant.

 

 

'Neath the shade of an oak down by the river

Sat an old man and a boy

Settin' sails, spinnin' tales and fishin' for whales

With a lady that they both enjoy.

It's the same old tune - it's the Man in the Moon

It's the way I feel about you;

With no place to hide, I looked in your eyes

And I found myself in you.

I looked to the stars, tried all of the bars

And I've nearly gone up in smoke;

Now my hand's on the wheel of something that's real

And I feel like I'm goin' home.

 

* * *

 

Hands on the Wheel' by Bill Callery

© 1975, Nunn Publishing Company

featured on 'Red Headed Stranger' by Willie Nelson