This story first appeared in the zine Code 7 #4.  It can be read independently, although it was originally a sequel to the short story Between The Hours of Five and Nine by April Valentine in No Pants, No Badge, No Gun. (This story is not yet archived, but will be soon.) That story proposed that during "A Coffin For Starsky" Starsky & Hutch returned to Starsky's apartment to rest during a period of time not shown in the episode.  While there, the intensity of what they were going through and the desperation of what might have been Starsky's last hours resulted in their making love. A Fine Storm picks up that story two years later, immediately after the tag for The Plague. A Fine Storm has a sequel (also in Code 7 #4).  The Sweetest Taboo by April Valentine. 

 

 

 

A Fine Storm (1987)

 

The affection between us
  During what we improperly call
  A fine storm,
  Falls several times...

 

 

 

November 30, 1977

 

        Hutch was the first to see the rectangle of paper tucked under the windshield wiper of the Torino. He had been half expecting to find it. He plucked it out and handed it to Starsky.

       "Hey," his partner said, "I didn't park in the loading zone this time."

       Hutch motioned at the sign designating the parking order. "I told you, 'Reserved for Official Personnel' means official airport personnel."

       Starsky shrugged and fed the paper into his pocket. "C'est la vie."

       His easy dismissal of the latest in an alarming number of traffic tickets collected at LAX told Hutch that Starsky was determined not to let anything spoil his day. With a flourish, he opened the passenger door, waved Hutch in, bowing after him. The blond chuckled. "Clown."

       "Mind taking the beach road?" he asked after Starsky had started the car. Obviously in an expansive frame of mind, Starsky didn't object to the longer route. Perhaps he understood that Hutch needed the free, open space and the endless sky. Only a small patch, gray with city smog, had been visible through the isolation room window; the last bit of open space he had thought he would ever see.

       He remembered very little of that day, except for needles and tubes being inserted into his body to prolong his life; hands, cold and impersonal in protective coverings, that poked and pried and hurt. And behind it all two windows on either side of the bed, one marking the too-fast passage of time, the other holding a promise in two-feet high letters. They had washed the letters off, but somehow he had kept seeing them all day long, a bright blood-red mark among blurred images, until he stopped seeing altogether. He had thought

       It's over, he told himself. Stop being maudlin. To dispel the inner chill he pulled a bit closer to his partner and threw his arm across the back of the seat.

       The beach, where the city streets spilled into it, was teeming with humanity, noisy with the discordant sounds of what youth called music. For a change, Hutch didn't care to look out of a policeman's eyes. He simply enjoyed the chaotic interplay of motion and sound, of human beings in the act of life.

       Further on the crowds thinned out, then disappeared altogether. Miles of sparkling gold sand and shades of blue stretched out. After a while, Hutch realized that Starsky had slowed the car, and they were barely crawling along the shoulder of the road.

       "Beautiful," he said, looking his fill.

       "Ain't it just?"

       He turned around. Starsky was watching him with the endearing smile which reminded Hutch of a kid who couldn't suppress his joy. It was the same smile that had burst out at the airport when Hutch had said something about living for 148 years.

       "Wanna get out?" he asked Hutch.

       "Uh, no. You were right. I am tired. Anyway, I can see it anytime, right?

       "Right." Starsky changed gears and pulled back out onto the road.

       Anytime. It was such a presumptuous word. And it was so good to be able to use it with reasonable assurance. Again.

       Hutch moved his hand the few inches to the back of his partner's neck and gave a brief, gentle squeeze, conveying 'thank you.' Starsky glanced sideways and smiled again. The blond pulled his hand away.

       The Torino came to a stop in front of Venice Place, and Starsky accompanied him up the steps. The first thing Hutch noticed upon entering the apartment was how clean it was. During the hectic days of investigation, he had left it a mess. Now it was cleaner than he could have managed himself.

       He didn't have to wonder. "Thanks," he said to his partner, simply.

       "Anytime," Starsky responded. "Long's it's once in 148 years," he added as he went into the kitchen. "Want something to drink?"

       "No."

       Somehow he had become homesick, Hutch realized, wandering around the apartment, confirming that his world was still intact. More intact than it had been, actually. A missing slat on a blind had been replaced; the broken mast on his model ship which had been lying like a broken wing for months was now standing upright; the new strings he had been meaning to put on his guitar were already in place. He was sure it had all been done during the two days when the doctors had known he'd live but couldn't guarantee he'd wake up without brain damage.

       I knew the feeling, buddy, he thought. Fix the little things and hope it's contagious, that order will be restored to the rest of your world.

       Starsky was leaning against the kitchen doorway with a beer can in his hand. Warmth spreading inside, Hutch approached. When he realized Starsky had to tilt his head back to keep eye contact, he also realized he had stepped closer than he had intended, seemingly for no reason. Needing an excuse, he plucked the can out of his partner's hand, then moved away.

       "Should you be mixin' alcohol with all the stuff they've been pumpin' into you?"

       Hutch evaded the question, a note of irritation creeping into his voice. "I'm thirsty." He had had enough nursemaiding. Defiantly, he took a big gulp.

       He saw the jacket he had thrown toward the couch had ended up on the floor. Feeling guilty about promptly cluttering up the place Starsky had tidied so thoroughly, he went to pick it up, draped it over the arm of the couch, then sank down into the cushions.

       A glass of milk was placed on the coffee table as Starsky plopped down next to him and casually removed the beer from Hutch's hand. Should've seen that one coming, he thought, then panicked instantly, unreasonably, when Starsky raised the can to his own mouth.

       "Don't!" He grabbed his partner's wrist, causing the beer to splash over Starsky's hand.

        "What the -- ?"

       "I drank out of that."

       "I know. So what's the -- Oh." A bemused expression came over Starsky's face. "What the hell're you worried about? You're discharged. Besides, didn't I just see Doctor the-hot-shot-from-Alabama-Disease-Control Kaufmann kiss you full on the lips? How contagious can you be?" He disengaged Hutch's hand and took a deliberate swallow.

       Hutch was feeling utterly foolish. "I know. It's just -- I wasn't thinking, that's all. Christ! For days I felt like Typhoid Mary, like my touch was a death sentence...."

       Starsky transferred the beer to his other hand and the left one came to rest on the back of Hutch's neck; fingers, cold and moist from the can, gently tugged on the long strands. "Didn't feel too great on the other side, either, believe me. It's over, partner. We made it."

       He always puts it like that, Hutch thought, remembering lying trapped under his car in a ravine, knowing he was finally found when someone had frantically scrambled to his side and familiar hands had cradled his head. Starsky had said exactly the same thing then: we made it, partner, we made it.

       An older memory surfaced. Starsky driving away from the Receiving Hospital, with Bellamy's poison in his veins and less than a day on his hands. "The doctor was pretty straight about our chances." Our chances.

       The memory was chilling. He had never been so scared in his life, not even a week ago when he had realized he couldn't hold onto consciousness for another instant although he'd had no guarantee he would ever wake up from that sleep.

       Never so scared, and never so --

       No! It was forbidden to think about that. It had been new, and different, and had felt so right... But it had existed so briefly, a time out of time, not to be considered when things turned normal again. Starsky had made that clear. Death had been stalking them and if something had to be buried as its due, Hutch was more than willing to bury that episode. The cost was well worth it, considering the alternative, the other payment death might have claimed. He shivered.

       "What's wrong?" Starsky asked instantly.

       "Nothing," he lied, then voiced the first excuse that sprang to mind. "Your hand is cold." He cursed himself when the hand was immediately removed.

       "Sorry." Starsky put the can down, and dried both hands on his jeans, rubbing them up and down as if to warm them.

       "It's all right," Hutch rambled, missing the comfort of the contact after being isolated and untouchable for so long. He was irritated that with the best of intentions on both sides, somehow they were managing to end up at odds.

       Starsky was the one to break the awkward silence that followed, and it was one of his typical off-the-wall statements. "You were right, Hutch."

       "Huh?"

       "It is hardest on the ones left behind."

       Oh, Starsky, do you have to remind me? was Hutch's first thought. Then he realized he didn't have to be reminded; he was thinking of that time anyway. He knew, with some amazement, that somehow Starsky had plugged into his thoughts -- on a different track, but in the same direction.

       "Well," he said lightly to hide his discomfort, "now that I've been on both sides--" But it wasn't a joking matter.

       "Now you think differently?"

       The sapphire gaze was so goddamned artless. "No, I was right the first time," he admitted. But he didn't want to remember that time, let alone discuss it. He rubbed his face. "I'm going to lie down, Starsky."

       "So lie down already."

       "I want to take a shower first. I still smell like the hospital." But he sat there, watching Starsky sip the beer and lick his lips, thinking they would feel cool now, remembering the different texture of the tongue-- Stop it!

       Starsky cast him a sideways glance after a while. "I said I'd tuck you in. You want help with the shower, too?" he asked pointedly.

       "I'm going. I'm going." Shower, a nap, dinner, a good night's sleep, waking up to a new day -- All's well with the world. He got up.

       When he came out of the bathroom, clad in his orange robe, Starsky had rolled down the blinds, leaving only a subdued shade of the bright afternoon sun in the apartment. He pulled the comforter off and motioned at Hutch to lie down. Suddenly uncomfortable with the atmosphere, unwilling to wonder why, the blond sat on the bed. "Are we having another heat wave?" he grumbled.

       Starsky touched his palm to Hutch's forehead. "Ain't that hot. You runnin' a fever or somethin'?"

       Hutch abruptly turned his face away. "No, I'm not," he snapped. "Stop fussing, will you?"

       "How about if I open some windows?"

       "Yeah, okay." He slid between the sheets.

       Starsky came back after fiddling with the blinds and windows all over the apartment. "If you're hot, why are you keepin' that robe on?"

       "Oh." Unable to find an acceptable excuse to cling to it, he squirmed in the bed to rid himself of the robe and Starsky helped pull it away. Hutch quickly grabbed the covers and pulled them up to his chin. Ridiculous.

       "Better?"

       "Fine." White lies, his mother had explained to the confused boy. Soon, he'd learned...

       For a long minute Starsky stood staring at him. "Is somethin' wrong?" he asked finally.

       "No. Why?"

       "I don't know. You just look-- I don't know."

       "I'm fine, Starsky. Really."

       "Okay." He looked down at his shirt and wrinkled his nose. "I smell like a brewery. Mind if I borrow a shirt?"

       "Help yourself."

       Hutch watched his partner rummage in a drawer and pull out a dark blue t-shirt. "How come you keep giving me all those loud shirts and when you borrow one you never pick one of them? I mean, if you liked 'em enough to buy 'em in the first place?"

       "Hah," Starsky snickered. "If you don't know the answer to that..."

       Hutch sighed. "I'm afraid I do. What I don't know is why I keep wearing the eyesores."

       Starsky took off his shirt. "'Cause you know I'll be hurt if you don't."

       "Will you?"

       "You bet."

       Hutch sighed again. "There's got to be a better way of testing me, Starsk."

       "Testin' you?"

       "Never mind." He rolled onto his stomach and burrowed into the pillows. The bed was too warm. A knot deep inside him was ice cold.

       "Hutch, you mad at me for somethin'?"

       Hutch let one eye surface. "Mad at you? No, I'm just tired."

       "Oh." Starsky stood, absentmindedly worrying a loose button on his shirt, the slanted rays from the blinds striping his naked torso. Then he seemed to reach a conclusion and came over to sit on the bed. "Guess I should've spent more time with you at the hospital, eh?"

       "What are you talking about?" His doctors and nurses had been frazzled to distraction from having to step over and around Starsky for days. "I don't think even you could've managed to get 25 visiting hours out of a 24-hour day."

       "No, I mean earlier. Before Callendar came in."

       "Oh, right, Starsk. You could've babysat me and I'd be dead. Great idea there."

       Starsky tapped his head. "I know that here, Hutch, but--" He let the sentence hang with a shrug.

       Starsky was fishing, and Hutch wondered why. Then he realized that his partner was reacting to the tension he sensed between them.

       "Starsky, I know you did everything possible, more than anybody else could've done. And it worked, right? You said it, partner: we made it. It's over. Cheer up."

       Guiltily, he remembered that Starsky had been very cheerful indeed. So had he, for that matter. His moodiness was spoiling a perfectly fine day. Thinking some conversation might help, he started chattering. "God, I can't wait to get back to work. You know, Starsk, this hospital stay taught me something. If I have to go, I want it on the streets. I don't want to lie there, helpless, waiting for it. Out there, it's quick and clean. Honest, you know. At least you know why, and you don't have time to--"

       "Stop it!"

       Starsky's voice and the look on his face halted Hutch. Oh great, he thought, I try to make casual conversation, and look what I end up saying. What a complicated bastard you are, Hutchinson. "Hey, it was just an observation. Doesn't mean I'll stop being careful. But we both know that in the end--" Starsky's hand closing on his upper arm in a painful grip stopped him again.

       "Cut it out! Just cut it out. I know it was hell and I couldn't make it easier. I know you gotta get it outta your system, but there ain't nothin' pretty or clean or honest about death, on the streets or whereeverelse the goddamned hell -- so don't talk like that. The sonuvabitch already has the high card, and I won't let you play into his hand. We don't accept it anytime, anywhere, ever, you hear me?"

       "I hear you," Hutch said trying to ease the pressure of Starsky's hand. "Let's ask the neighbors."

       Abashed, Starsky removed his hand and lowered his voice, but its intensity wasn't diminished. "I mean it, Hutch. Dammit, I hate it when you get like this."

       Especially after close calls, Hutch knew. "Don't mind me. Didn't mean to -- Would you believe I was actually trying to lighten up?" He managed a smile.

       Starsky stared at him, then decided to smile as well. "Hate to tell you, buddy, but you just look like the Sunshine Man. Got a lot to learn about bein' one." He patted the arm he had gripped so tightly a moment ago, then shifted around to rest his back against the headboard and swung his feet, sneakers and all, onto the bed. "Get some rest," he ordered, seemingly determined to stay and make sure Hutch obeyed.

       Hutch rolled to the other side of the bed, closed his eyes and tried to drift off. Starsky's presence was distracting, for some reason. He shifted restlessly, remembering a time when their positions had been reversed and he had sat on another bed, watching Starsky sleep. Irritated at the way portions of the same memory he'd buried for two years kept surfacing now, he allowed himself to at least search for the reasons. Except for an exchange of roles, the conditions had been all too similar.

       Okay, he thought, I'm just drawing parallels, that's all. It'll safely go away when we get back to regular routine. I'm all right. We're all right. Everything under the sun is all right. God's in his heaven and everything--

        "Can't sleep, huh?" Starsky cut into his thoughts.

       Hutch raised his head, punched the pillow into a presumably more comfortable shape, fell into it again, then rolled over with a sigh when it didn't seem to help.

       "What's botherin' you, Hutch?"

       You. Hutch stayed quiet, although he recognized the dogged attitude Starsky assumed when he was determined to get to the bottom of something. If he couldn't get answers, he'd invent them, hoping to stumble on the right one eventually. Out of the corner of his eye, Hutch watched his partner chew his bottom lip, and waited. Sure enough, Starsky soon opened his mouth, having pulled a probable out of possibles.

       "You know, buddy, you'd been out of it for quite a while, and Judith didn't have time to breathe. But I saw her often. Talked to her, too. I can tell she really liked you, Hutch. A lot. And I think that's why she had to leave. I mean she's a doctor in Alabama; you're a cop in LA. Maybe she was scared she'd start to care too much, and then what, right? It wasn't that she didn't care, take my word for it."

       Ten points for trying, Hutch thought at the sincere effort to soothe his ego. Being wrong didn't lessen good intentions. "Just as well she left. I mean, I liked her, too, but I'm not sure why I wanted her to stay." Oh, really? He felt the need to be honest about something. "I think I just...well, let's just say my reasons weren't all noble." He'd been in isolation for days, untouchable, feeling nothing but pain and fear. "Maybe all I wanted was somebody, anybody...you know..." He squirmed under Starsky's gaze. "Hey, never claimed to be too pure." He rolled away to the side of the bed, as far from his partner as he could get. "Talking is keeping me awake. Go away so I can get some sleep, huh?" Please, go away.

       After a few seconds, he felt Starsky get up. Relieved, he closed his eyes and found another location on the bed where he wouldn't roll off at the slightest move. Much better. His ears disinterestedly catalogued the sounds in the room. The rattling was the breeze off the ocean moving the blinds. Sliding of cloth against cloth and skin was Starsky dressing. The sound of the zipper meant the shirt was being tucked into jeans.

       Wrong, he realized and stiffened when, behind him, the bed sagged with the addition of new weight, and an arm reached across his shoulder, naked against his flesh. He jumped at the contact and immediately pulled away.

       There was a frozen instant, then he felt Starsky start to get up. "No, wait." He reached back with one hand, encountering the hard muscle of a thigh -- oh, God. He removed his hand. "Give me a minute."

       His partner obeyed, totally silent and still, only his weight on the mattress marking his presence. The first explanation Hutch could come up with was that he had somehow brought on the situation with his comments about Judith. His heart had started racing, feeling like it wanted to climb out of his chest; he took a deep breath to steady it.

       "You're not just anybody," he said. And certainly not anybody.

       Starsky seemed able to follow him. "I know," came the quiet reply first, then a sigh. "You don't understand."

       No, I don't. I don't know what it means this time and I feel like I'm going to fall off the edge somewhere. He couldn't speak or turn. Silence, like a tension wire, stretched to its breaking point.

       "I'm sorry. I...I'll get outta here," Starsky mumbled.

       His voice held dejection, making Hutch reach back again. "Don't."

       After a beat, Starsky's hand hesitantly fitted itself inside his. Hutch didn't know which hand had been shaking to start off with; now both were.

       We're scared of each other, he thought. Isn't that silly? Suddenly decisive, he pulled Starsky's hand around his shoulder and across his chest, squeezed it tight once, then gave it the freedom to do as it wished by removing his own. He felt Starsky exhale the breath he had been holding. Splayed fingers pressed flat on Hutch's chest, directly over the heart, and the curly head came to rest sideways against the blond's back.

       Long moments passed and Starsky seemed content just to hold him. Hutch remained still in the embrace, understanding the need, knowing that all that was required of him at the moment was to keep on breathing. It was so peaceful he almost fell asleep.

       He was brought out of it when the embrace changed, subtly at first. The cheek resting on his back rubbed up and down a few times, then the head turned so lips were moving against his flesh. It was a gentle pressure, warm and dry, but it made him shiver.

        So much for innocence?

       Something was quivering inside. He marveled at how easily, how naturally he had fallen into it the first time. Like a child running into a burning house because the flames were so pretty, unaware that they also scorched.

       The hand over his chest started a circular motion. Hutch's hand came up, intending to quell Starsky's, but found himself caressing it instead as it slid lower, pressed against his belly.

        Once intoxicated, one learns the strength of the wine.

       Starsky's breath whispered against his back. "Hutch...babe?"

       Unable to decide if the sensation curling and uncurling inside him, making him tremble, was arousal or fear, Hutch turned to face his partner.

       And all at once, it was all right. Looking at Starsky, feeling the closeness, he couldn't stay scared. Everything outside the reality of the moment dissolved. I should never turn away from you, Hutch thought; it only confuses me. Leaning into Starsky's lips felt as natural as taking his next breath, and just as inevitable.

       The contact was gentle for only a second or so, then mouths opened crushingly against each other, tongues twined, hands grasped heads, tangling in hair almost violently. The urgency was akin to a parched man's upending a bottle of cool, reviving water down his throat, unable to get enough, fast enough.

       They broke apart when lungs screamed for air. Lightheaded, Hutch wondered fleetingly whether they had managed to get close enough to block nasal passages, or had they somehow forgotten so basic a thing as breathing? He gasped for air, realizing Starsky looked just as shocked at the turbulence that had gripped them.

        And I thought I knew something about intoxication.

       Starsky's mouth was already red and swollen. Suddenly remorseful about the abuse he had inflicted with just one kiss, tenderness replacing urgency, Hutch gently touched his lips to Starsky's. The skin was stretched taut and felt hot. Softly, he ran a moist tongue-tip along the lips, then blew on them, trying to take away the burning sensation.

       It didn't seem to cool Starsky down. On the contrary. Suddenly volatile again, he gripped Hutch with demanding hands and bore him onto his back. His body followed the blond, grinding into him, pressing him into the mattress, as if he was impatient with the boundaries of skin and enough friction would burn away the obstruction.

       The feeling of being overpowered in bed was an unfamiliar sensation. Before Hutch could decide if it was upsetting or thrilling, Starsky's weight had lifted off of him.

       "I...I'm sorry," Starsky mumbled, moving to one side again. "All I wanted -- I didn't mean... I just wanted to hold you."

        And if I buy that, you got a bridge you want to sell? Always strip for a hug? Stop playing with me!

       Hutch's temper threatened to flare, but Starsky's inherent honesty came through. "I, uh, I think. Thought," he continued, looking confused, lost. "I mean, I've been on the other side of that glass...and I just thought, but...then... D-do you mind?"

       Hutch softened at the sincerity in the eyes. "No," he answered quietly, reaching to weave his fingers through the thick curls.

       Starsky smiled hesitantly, his eyes closed, and he let Hutch pull his head closer. "I feel strange...dizzy," he said, clinging to the blond in return.

       "I know the feeling," Hutch whispered back.

       The intensity that had overwhelmed them a minute ago had been tempered. They petted each other soothingly, almost fearfully, as one would a frightened kitten. The arousal that had flared in both had not been extinguished, just moderated, and soft caresses stoked it. Thirst renewed, they returned to each other's lips.

       Starsky's right arm snaked around Hutch's neck and held firm, fingers spread wide against a shoulder. Briefly skittish, his left hand worked its way down, alternately skimming and kneading, then stopped motionless in the air, asking permission. Hutch arched his hips forward, eager for the touch. He was stroked gently, experimentally, at first, then circled, held. He enjoyed the sensations for a while, until he noticed Starsky's body squirming impatiently in his arms. Forcing himself to see past his own pleasure, he reached for the seeking flesh.

       It felt familiar and strange at the same time, like being on the wrong side of the right mirror. Starsky moaned into his mouth, the sound encouraging him to go on. His other hand slid low under Starsky to cup the flexing buttocks.

       Starsky's hand on him was insistent, doing crazy things to his nervous system. He struggled to contain his own reactions and respond to Starsky's body which was moving frantically against his. He tried to get a secure hold and establish a rhythm, but ended up fumbling awkwardly. This wasn't his own body and the angle was all wrong. For a moment, he was irritated that Starsky seemed more assured than himself, then realized that the man was simply doing what felt good, while he was holding back, analyzing.

       He surrendered himself, letting Starsky and the sensations guide him. Like the pieces of a puzzle suddenly falling into place, they fit together with ease, the true simplicity of instincts as old as time taking over. The feelings intensified until Hutch thought hazily that spontaneous combustion of a body wasn't that farfetched an idea, and Starsky pulled away from the union of their mouths to gasp, "Hutch...please." He immediately returned to the blond's mouth, as if to make up for the brief deprivation.

       Something was interfering with Hutch's efforts. He realized that Starsky, being left-handed, was reaching for him from the same side and crossing wrists were getting in the way. Impatiently he shoved Starsky's hand away, pulled himself closer and captured both organs in his large hand, taking control.

       Unable to concentrate on anything anymore except the centering, peaking pleasure, their mouths broke apart simultaneously, both breathing harshly. As Hutch was sure it was about to crest and nothing could halt it, Starsky's hand returned, covered Hutch's, and forced the long, deep rhythm to change into rapid, shallow strokes. Suddenly, Hutch was thrown into limbo, teetering on the brink but unable to fall. He cried out in frustration. It mingled with Starsky's moan, the fingers on his shoulder tightened painfully, and he felt the heavy throbbing of the hard flesh against his palm, as warm, thick fluid spilled over his hand.

       "Now," he sobbed, desperate for the same relief. "Please, now."

       Instantly responsive, Starsky pulled himself out of the way before he could catch his breath, and replaced Hutch's hand with his own on the blond's erection.

       "Show me," he said, his voice raspy, "show me what you like."

       Hutch grasped the slick hand tightly, forced it down hard to the base of his erection, then pulled it up fast, in one long, smooth, tight stroke. Starsky picked up the rhythm immediately and copied it, quickening the pace instinctively, and it only took a few seconds to totally overload Hutch's senses.

       Awareness returned sluggishly. Hutch found himself with his head flung back, Starsky's teeth gently nipping at his exposed throat, his hand still fondling. The sated flesh too sensitive at the moment even for that tender kneading, he shivered, pulled Starsky's hand away. It shifted in his hold, and slender, sticky fingers laced with his, gripping tightly, possessively. Hutch realized his other hand was still digging into Starsky's buttocks and he loosened his hold, stroking in apology. The curly head burrowed into the hollow of his neck, the hair clinging to his moist skin.

       For a long time they remained still, close, until breathing stopped being a labor and hearts resumed pumping blood at a normal rate. The cooling perspiration chilled Hutch; a shiver went through his body. It seemed to rouse Starsky. Looking wantonly tousled, he lifted his head, shook it like a puppy coming out of water, and leaned across Hutch to grab the edge of the crumpled top sheet. He dried Hutch's face and chest, and his own, wiped the blond's abdomen and groin. Still sensitive there, Hutch caught his breath at the contact. Starsky cleaned himself, too, dabbed at the wet spots on the bed between them, then tugged the sheet from the foot of the bed and covered them both with the dry portion. He cuddled close again, bringing with him his warmth, and was almost instantly asleep.

       Hutch drifted in the in-between world of half-sleep, feeling a quiet permanence, safe and complete. Minutes chased each other, not touching the two men. Then Starsky, still deeply asleep, started fighting with the sheet, obviously getting too warm. Not needing the cover himself anymore, Hutch threw it aside. Starsky curled easily around him again. Without needing to move, Hutch could see Starsky's darker body and limbs entwined comfortably with his own, a twin in contrast.

       He wondered why the perfection of the moment had to end, why they had to emerge from this womb into the hostile world with its iron-clad taboos, which seemed so arbitrary and capricious to Hutch right then. The thought shattered his mood and brought him fully awake. The world had intruded already. Damn you, he cursed himself, you couldn't just go to sleep. You had to think, didn't you?

       Sighing, he disentangled himself from Starsky and carefully got out of bed. He stood looking down at the sleeping man, who made a protesting sound, groped around the bed and had to settle for hugging a pillow.

       I could stand up against the world, Hutch thought. I could. If only you stood alongside me.

       Will you?

        What does it mean this time? Two years, and I never thought we'd cross that line again. Has anything changed? Or is this just a repeat performance, imposed by similar circumstances? It was fear the last time. Today, it was relief, I think, after being so scared. A measure of defiance, in both cases. Is it only that when losing it all comes too close for comfort we grasp greedily, in ways we wouldn't think of normally?

        What now, Starsky? Business as usual and this didn't happen? Like before?

       Starsky had never referred to it, had never given the impression that he at least was aware something out of the ordinary had taken place between them, and Hutch had worked hard to follow his partner's lead, fearing that unless he did, the rest of their relationship would suffer.

       Generally, he didn't mind, didn't even give it much thought himself. It was like living with an injury. Once the feel of it became the normal tune of the body, one functioned with it and stopped noticing the constant ache consciously. Except, every once in a while, a small barb went into the tender spot, and then it hurt like hell, making Hutch realize it was beyond him to totally forget.

        Like when Blaine died...

       At first, he hadn't connected any aspect of the Blaine case to his one experience. To him, nothing could've been further removed from the seedy hotels, sleazy bars, cheap hustlers and blatant trappings which had been the package John Blaine's murder came in. The only time it had hit a little too close to home had been during the interrogation of Peter Whitelaw. Hutch had caught a glimpse of something more permanent, someone loved, yearned for and lost in Blaine's secret life. It had stirred an echo in him.

       Then Whitelaw had looked directly into Starsky's eyes and dared him to state his opinion. Hutch had held his breath, waiting for the answer, as if his whole existence was hostage to it. There had been no condemnation in Starsky's quiet reply, just an honest expression of his distaste that one's privacy should become a rallying platform in public.

       Hutch had quickly banished the echo, realizing anew how much Starsky needed and valued his silence. It was too private for words, maybe even for thoughts. He liked to think that from that moment on, he had succeeded in distancing his emotions from the case. Later, however, when Starsky had compared the intimate relationship between two men to a disease, he had been unable to help a few pointed comments. It was usual for them to end uncomfortable subjects with a joke, and the 'not even a good kisser' remark had just slipped out. As soon as the words were past his lips, Hutch had wished them back, afraid he might have strayed too close to forbidden territory.

       A beat of silence, then Starsky had sat up, leaning against the back of the seat toward Hutch. "How do you know that?"

       What hurt most was that it hadn't even been a challenge, daring Hutch to step past the limits set by Starsky. If it had been, he probably would've trampled over the line right there and dared Starsky in his turn to deny the knowledge. But the question had held an innocence, an impossible innocence which made Hutch wonder if the whole thing had been a figment of his imagination in the first place. He had quickly changed the subject.

       The game is called charade-between-friends, he thought sadly. In this version, the object is not to give the game away. Blurt out the name, out of the game. And God help me, I wanted to keep playing. Still do.

       Conspiracy of silence. It had lasted for two years.

        Now what?

       There would be no answers until Starsky was awake. Hutch felt too drained to continue standing by the bed, and moving further away seemed to be beyond him. He was also chilly again, and crossed his arms to rub his shoulders. Noticing a soreness on his right shoulder, he twisted his head around. He saw the reddened spots, remembered Starsky's grip, and decided they were going to turn into bruises.

       Starsky reclaimed his attention by pushing away the pillow, as if he found it a poor substitute. He rolled over and sighed in his sleep, and Hutch couldn't resist climbing back into bed. Starsky found him immediately, flinging an arm and a leg over the blond. Hutch gave in to the inevitability of sleep.

       When he awoke it was late afternoon, and he was alone. There was a piece of paper next to his head. He picked it up, trying to focus his eyes.

       "Back at dinner time -- with dinner. Rest," the message said, scrawled at a wildly slanting angle in Starsky's usual impatient style.

       Hutch sank back into the pillows and obeyed.

***

       Starsky's arrivals were rarely what Hutch's neighbors would approve of as quiet, unobtrusive events. This time, it was louder than customary. The sounds heralding his presence ended with thuds delivered on the door with sneakered feet. Hutch, just out of the shower, quickly shrugged into his robe and answered the door, wondering why Starsky didn't simply barge in as he always did. The answer was soon plain.

       His partner was loaded down with packages of various sizes, from which delicious aromas drifted. Unable to decide which ones he could extricate without causing the precariously balanced mound to topple, wondering what army they were going to feed, Hutch settled for removing a small brown bag from between Starsky's teeth, and waved the man in.

       With heretofore unsuspected deftness which would've left a juggler envious, Starsky unloaded everything on the dinner table and proceeded to set it to his satisfaction. He frowned, running a critical eye over the array then, remembering, he plucked the bag out of Hutch s hand, took out the cranberry sauce, placed it in the center with a last bit of flourish, and turned to his partner.

       The blond stared incredulously at the overloaded table. "Turkey?" he sputtered.

       "I go through all this trouble and all you can do is call me names?"

       Hutch laughed despite himself. "There's no name descriptive enough for you, Starsk. What is this?"

       "Thanksgiving dinner," Starsky announced.

       "You idiot! Thanksgiving was--" Hutch cut off, remembering when Thanksgiving was, that he bad missed it -- they had both missed it -- and realizing there was good cause for celebrating it, belated or not. "Is," he reversed his verb. Then he felt obligated to inject a little more. "But it's so much."

       "So you won't cook for a week, or at least until you get tired of turkey."

       "Seems that's one thing I can't get tired of, Starsk." He resisted the impulse to pull the curly-haired, bluejeaned imp into his arms.

       "Siddown. And quit stealin' my jokes."

       Hutch was served, and although the gravy made a soggy mess of the rolls and more cranberry sauce ended up on the dressing than on the turkey, he couldn't find it in him to mind. And the way Starsky was eating, there didn't seem to be a prospect for too many leftovers, either.

       The subject of Thanksgiving turned into the subject of Christmas. Conversation flowed easily, and the blond man found it impossible to dwell on the uncertainties which had plagued him earlier. Right now, they were unimportant, even silly. What could possibly go wrong with this perfection, a word that seemed created specifically for the occasion?

       "Are you going home for Christmas?" Starsky asked.

       How do you go where you already are? Hutch thought, feeling too full and thoroughly mellow. "No. Why break a perfect record?"

       "Great. In that case, I've got it all planned. Kathy and Cindy're goin' to have a layover here through the holidays. They said they'd help us decorate the tree and stay over to open presents in the morning."

       It was like suddenly being hit in the face with ice cold water.

        He's doing it again. New York secretaries, LA stewardesses, what's the difference? The message is the same.

       Hutch groped for something to say past the lump that had suddenly lodged in his throat, hoping he could sound as casual as Starsky. "May I remind you that you're Jewish?"

       "Right. So we're gonna decorate the tree here. That'll make it all kosher, see?" He chuckled at his own wit. "I'll bring a sleeping bag for me and Cindy."

        I should have some goddamned doors in this place, was Hutch's first thought. Or maybe I'll get drunk enough to be blind and deaf.

       "That okay with you?" Starsky continued.

       Hutch couldn't look at him. No, it's not okay with me. I'm carrying your mark on my shoulder; my bed smells of you; the evidence of what we did is dried all over my sheets -- and you're acting like it never happened, just like you did before, and it's not okay with me!

       "Sure," he found himself saying. Coward. "As long as Kathy and Cindy are having a layover here..." He left the sentence hanging, afraid his voice was about to break.

       "The least we can do is make sure they have a proper layover," Starsky finished for him. "Right?"

       Hutch came back with a pun of his own, feeling obligated to do his share to reestablish the status quo.

       The bruises will fade, he thought, I'll air out the room, wash the sheets -- but, oh God, how do I turn off my brain?

       Somehow he would have to, and knew that he would. He had done it before.

 

 

DECEMBER 25, 1977

        

       Hutch opened his eyes, blinked and brought up his hand to brush Kathy's long, dark-blonde strands away from his face. She was curled up on her side, her back to him. Sometime during the morning, after he had thrown himself onto the bed and promptly fallen asleep, she must have joined him. He looked down at himself and wondered if he had unbuttoned his shirt and unbuckled his belt himself to get comfortable, or if Kathy had tried to rouse him, to no avail.

       He eased out of bed, careful not to disturb the sleeping woman, and walked into the living room. He heard sounds in the kitchen. Cindy was there, fixing something. She saw him, smiled drowsily and mouthed, "Good morning."

       Softly, Hutch stepped around the couch. Starsky was sprawled in abandon across the sleeping bag on the floor, still fully clothed, The night certainly hadn't been what anybody had expected. In fact, it had been more fun than Hutch had had in a long while.

       Trying not to laugh out loud at the picture Starsky presented, Hutch pushed away the sheet and pillow Cindy had used and found a spot on the couch. He smiled down at his partner, remembering the antics of the night.

       They had been detained on a case and had made it home way past midnight to find the two women waiting for them. The choice had been whether to go to bed and leave a pristine tree, or to decorate it then. Starsky had made it clear he wanted a properly decorated tree for Christmas, come hell or high water.

       So, with generously spiked eggnog making frequent rounds, they had proceeded, Starsky insisting on decorating the whole apartment along with the tree. At one point, Hutch had noticed how the angel hair Starsky was trying to fashion into snowy shapes was catching in his hair, and had decided to decorate Starsky as well, promptly starting to weave tinsel through his curls, draping gaily-colored balls over him. Everybody had joined in the game.

       When they were finally done, all of them more punchy than they cared to admit, Starsky had spied the first rays of the morning and had decided he could safely tear into the presents, sparking a free-for-all wrestling match aimed at divesting him of the notion. After a tickling bout, he had promised to be a good boy, leaving all free to crash on the first available surface.

       Hutch reached to pull out the strands of tinsel that still remained in Starsky's hair, was rewarded with a growl and a swat for his efforts, and took himself into the bathroom after rummaging for clean clothes.

       He was through with shaving when the door opened and Kathy slipped in. He smiled at her mumbled a good morning, and didn't bother with apologies for his unresponsiveness earlier; the relationship was too sporadic, too casual for that. There was little difference between going dancing or going to bed; it just depended on the mood. In fact, it made little difference to her which partner happened to be available when she had some time to spend.

       Kathy took off her clothes and sank to her knees in front of him. Later, they showered together. She soaped Hutch's body, arousing him again. When they rinsed off and stepped out of the shower, Hutch lifted her, wedging her between his body and the wall as her legs wrapped around his waist. Aware of others outside the door, he tried to smother her sounds by capturing her mouth under his, but soon reached a point where he couldn't bother.

       They got dressed, and Hutch followed her out of the bathroom, running his fingers through his wet hair. Kathy went to join Cindy in the kitchen. Hutch started toward the couch, met Starsky's stare, and was brought up short as if he had run into a solid wall.

       Starsky was sitting up cross-legged on the sleeping bag; eyes darkened to a midnight shade glared at the blond man. Hutch felt some undefinable emotion reach across the room and slam into him. He was shaken by its intensity, puzzled at its cause.

       Almost immediately Starsky broke eye-contact, rose to his feet as smoothly as an uncoiling snake, and began to roll up the sleeping hag in quick, precise motions. Pinned by that enigmatic stare, Hutch stood motionless, watching him. Starsky pushed the bundle to one side and approached his partner, stopping directly in front of him.

       "What?" Hutch asked in a whisper, confused by the hostility emanating from the man.

       "Other people need to use the bathroom, too, you know," Starsky snapped.

       Hutch realized he was still blocking the doorway. He moved. "Could've knocked."

       Starsky didn't take advantage of the access. "Oh, yeah?"

       "Hey, what's the big deal?"

       "Nothin'."

       Hutch hated to start the day off on the wrong foot. "I know you didn't have your morning coffee yet, Starsk, but you look ridiculous having the grumpies with that stuff in your hair." He reached to pluck the tinsel out.

       Starsky's hand came up and knocked his away. He went into the bathroom and slammed the door. Hutch stared after him. That had been no sleepy protest this time, but a deliberate slap.

       Screw you, he thought. You wrote this scenario; I'm just playing it. If you're going to sulk because you didn't get any, take it up with Cindy. Something in him wasn't at all unhappy at the turn of events. Serves you right, buddy. He went into the kitchen and put an arm around each woman, determined to enjoy himself and ignore Starsky's petulance.

       Starsky was quiet through breakfast, in an ill temper, but not rudely so. He no longer seemed terribly interested in opening presents, either, when the time came. Cindy and Kathy made appropriate noises of appreciation over the trinkets they received, and presented the partners with curiosities found during one of their trips. Starsky roused himself from his sullen mood long enough to thank them and kiss both women.

       Hutch reached for the last package under the tree. Peeling away the flashy paper revealed an even more chaotically colored material underneath. The blond man pulled out the shirt. "I see. Art-Deco goes tropical. Gee, Starsk, what can I say? You shouldn't have. You really shouldn't have."

       For the second time that morning Starsky looked straight into his eyes. "Will you wear it?"

       Hutch again felt pinned by the intense gaze, suddenly sensing that something much more important than the outrageous shirt was hanging in the balance. Before he could open his mouth, Cindy spoke up, the intrusion making Hutch realize that he had momentarily forgotten the presence of the women. "Ken, didn't you get anything for Dave?"

       A look of defensive detachment came over the dark-blue eyes, and Starsky turned away as if the subject didn't concern him in the slightest. Hutch remembered the box in his closet. Starsky's peevish attitude had made him deliberately neglect placing it under the tree. But the way Starsky turned away now seemed to say that his partner actually did not expect a present. Hutch's track record in such things had never given his friend cause to be optimistic, let alone assured.

       Feeling a little embarrassed at his own pettiness, Hutch pointed to the bedroom. "Just might be something in my closet." Starsky turned back towards him, a tiny flicker of hope in his eyes, but he didn't get up. Do you doubt me so much? Hutch thought.

       Cindy jumped up, a bundle of holiday spirit. "I'll get it." She emerged from the bedroom with the huge box. "Didn't you ever hear that the best things come in small packages, Ken?" she joked as she placed it in front of Starsky who was sitting on the floor.

       "Not in his case," Starsky said softly, then threw another doubtful glance toward his partner. "Sometimes."

       Starsky wasn't in the habit of opening presents; he normally stormed them. This time, though, he was warily slow, as if he expected an unpleasant surprise to spring out at him. Once the rectangular box was opened and the case was revealed, there shouldn't have been any question as to the present, but Starsky still pried open the snaps and lifted the lid cautiously. The hesitancy was causing something very much like pain inside Hutch.

       Starsky froze for an instant when the lid was open, then reached in eagerly to pull out the shiny guitar. "Now you can stop massacring music on mine," Hutch put in.

       "Hutch, this - damn, this is great." His dark mood seemed to have evaporated instantly. Once again, he was a child on Christmas morning. "Goddamn, this is terrific!" He cradled the instrument on his lap and assaulted the strings. "Let's sing."

       Hutch covered his ears with his palms. "Stop. Stop! STOP!" He yanked the guitar away. "Tuning, Starsky. Ever heard of tuning?"

       Starsky shifted until he was sitting at his partner's feet and proceeded to join his voice to Hutch's while the blond attempted to tune the instrument. Hutch cupped his hand over his partner's mouth, then discovered he couldn't tune with just one hand. "Somebody shut him up. Watch it, he bites."

       Giggling, Kathy and Cindy fell on Starsky, wrestling him down, trying to cover his mouth. "You're just jealous," Starsky declared around their hands. "You know I'm gonna be the hit at the barbecues from now on.

       "Fat chance, buddy. You just keep on dreaming."

       Some hours later, the women had to get back to work. Starsky offered to drive and left with them, clutching his new guitar, damn near stroking it. He also left Hutch saddled with cleaning up the apartment, through which a strange combination of "Jingle Bells" and "Black Bean Soup" still seemed to reverberate.

       When the house no longer looked like it had been hit by a tornado - or Starsky - Hutch picked up his new shirt again, grimaced at it, and went to put it in the appropriate drawer. In the drawer was another package. In it was a red not candy-apple red, thank heavens, but burgundy red cashmere sweater, his initials discreetly embroidered on it in a slightly darker shade of the same color.

       Next morning, Hutch put on both the shirt and the sweater to go to work. The gaudy shirt clashed horribly with the classy sweater, but Hutch thought it very fitting indeed. With Starsky, one took the off-beat right alongside the tasteful and learned to like living with both.

 

 

MAY 2, 1979

 

        Hutch was under the impression that he was expected, and Starsky's door wasn't latched, so he just walked in.

        The tall, blond woman standing in the middle of the room whirled around, then seemed unconcerned about the intrusion once she got a look at him, although she only had a towel wrapped around her. "Hello. You must be the other half."

        "Uh..." Hutch was flustered, at the situation, and also at the way she studied him as if he were the one standing there almost naked. "Excuse me, I thought--"

        "Are you the better half?"

        "What?"

        "Never mind. I'm a good detective; I'll find out."

        Hutch wondered why he felt like he knew this woman and knew her well. "Hold it. You're getting ahead of me there. I came here to--"

        "Oh, right," she interrupted. "Never outdistance a man. Got to watch that."

        Hutch had had enough. He extended a finger toward her and opened his mouth to state exactly what he thought of her attitude.

        "I'm sorry," she said before he could speak, all of a sudden looking like an embarrassed little girl. Hutch thought she managed the turn-about rather charmingly. "When somebody has me at a disadvantage, I tend to compensate by coming on too strong." She motioned at her barely-clad state.

        "You call that a disadvantage?" he couldn't help saying. She smiled. Only a Madonna should have that smile, he thought, caught in its enticement.

        "Let's start over, okay?" she said. "I'm Kira. You're David's Hutch. We'll be working together."

        Starsky's women usually called him Dave. Why couldn't she? Not sure about why he didn't care for the way she addressed either of them, Hutch decided he'd change the form in his own case at least. "Call me Ken. Didn't mean to barge in, but I thought the office had called to tell Starsky I was coming."

        Languidly, she strolled over to the phone, picked up its cord and dangled it to show it was disconnected.

        "I see. Bad timing. I'll come back later."

        "You're already here, so sit down. David will be out of the shower in a minute. He won't like me scaring his partner away."

        "You're not scaring me away!"

        "So why should you leave?"

        Hutch shrugged and sat down, wondering why he was letting the woman get under his skin.

        "Is that our case file?" She pointed at the folder he was holding.

        "Yeah," he said, grateful to get on the firmer ground of their job. He opened the file on the coffee table.

        She sat next to him, scanning the preliminary reports. Hutch jerked back, as far as he could get to the side of the couch. It wasn't her closeness or nudity. He had become too jaded over the years to react like a teenager to either influence. But she must've just rolled out of bed and hadn't made it to the shower yet. She reeked of sex. And of Starsky.

        He remembered reading somewhere that the sense of smell was one of the strongest legacies left to man from his hunter ancestors, that it could stir the most deeply-buried memories.

        Damn, damn, damn.

        Starsky chose that moment to come out of the shower. "What kept you?" His voice sounded muffled. Hutch turned around and wished he hadn't. Starsky was naked except for a towel over his head, a sight Hutch could do without at the moment. He started to turn away, intercepted Kira's watchful eyes, and wondered what she had seen in his. Suddenly, he suspected that turning away would come too close to admitting discomfort, and kept himself from completing the move.

        "We have company, David," she said.

        "Huh?" Starsky's face surfaced quickly from behind the towel, then relaxed when he saw Hutch. "Didn't hear you come in." He continued drying his hair briskly. "I see you've met Kira."

        "Yeah. Dobey wants us to go straight to the dancehall tonight. I thought I'd bring the file here."

        "Be right with you." Starsky headed for the bedroom.

        "Oh, come back here, David," Kira interfered, a strange twinkle in her eyes directed at Hutch. "He already caught me like this and I'm going to feel embarrassed if you get dressed."

        I don't know if I like this game, Hutch thought, but I'll be damned if I back down from you, lady.

        "I forgot to tell you he's got rotten timing," Starsky said, plainly unaware of the byplay between the woman and his partner.

        "Not always, I hope." The words were only mouthed, but Hutch heard every single one. Starsky wrapped the towel around his waist, then perched on the back of the couch, behind Kira. Hutch leaned over the file, spread out the papers, and started to encapsulate what he'd read.

        At one point, Kira's hand covered his, pulling it off the paper, presumably to see the report underneath, but she didn't pull it away afterwards. Hutch glanced at his partner. Kira's other hand was on Starsky's thigh, stroking it possessively. He was stroking her arm in turn. Suddenly it was too much. Hutch jerked his hand away, stuffed the papers haphazardly back into the file, snapped it shut and rose.

        "What's the matter?" Starsky asked.

        "We'll continue when you can keep your mind on it!"

        "Hey, I was payin' attention."

        "Yeah, well, I have to change. You can do this on your own." He threw the folder back onto the table. "See you tonight."

        Kira smiled and waved at him. There was something like disappointment in her eyes. Wrong, lady. I didn't just throw in the towel, Hutch thought. At the moment, you have an unfair advantage. I'll be back when you can't get the best of me so easily.

        He was in his car when he realized why he'd felt like he knew the woman. She was reminding him of Van.

         

MAY 9, 1979

         

        A spring shower was coming. In LA, they tended to be downpours. It was still a drizzle, though, imparting a moist sheen to the streets, blurring the fluorescent signs. From the car radio came Jim Croce's voice, singing "The Hard Way Every Time."

        Should've seen the danger signs as soon as I realized how like Van she was, Hutch thought. Won't I ever learn? He looked at the rear view mirror again. The Torino was still there.

        "And in chasing what I thought were moonbeams/I have run into a couple of walls," Croce sang, and the last exit on the highway before Venice was left behind both cars.

        After they'd left Kira at The Pits, they had separated without a word and gone to their respective cars. Hutch had considered the matter ended for the time being and headed for home. A little later he had noticed that Starsky was following him.

        Oh, go home, Starsky. I don't feel like talking tonight. Half the time even I don't know why I do the things I do lately. How can I explain it to you? Off at the dark horizon lightning stabbed down, followed by others, outlining heavy clouds rolling in. No spring shower, this. A storm is coming.

        It isn't that you're blind, Van had told him once, but you'd rather blind yourself than admit your mistakes.

        I saw right through Kira at first, he thought. What went wrong later? Was it that if I couldn't fashion her into something right, I had to admit I was doing something wrong? Or...? He remembered, four years ago, going back to Starsky's apartment to sleep in the bed they'd shared, where his friend's presence still lingered, finding comfort and satisfaction in that measure of closeness. Is it that Kira was also a way--?

        God, that's sick.

        Please, Starsky, please go home.

        The Torino followed him to Venice Place and parked directly behind the LTD. Starsky stayed on his heels all the way into the apartment. They didn't speak. Once there, Starsky went through the dark room without touching a light switch, as sure-footed there in the dark as in his own place. He stood looking out a window, hands in pockets, an orange neon sign on the street outlining his form in timed flashes.

        Hutch took off his jacket and went to the refrigerator, preferring the dark himself as well. "Want a beer?" There was no answer. He shrugged and got one for himself, then found his way to the couch. The silence became oppressive. "A lot of bad moves lately, huh?" Hutch asked.

        Starsky just nodded, the action barely visible.

        "This last one, it was...it was way out of line?"

        Another nod.

        Silence fell again until Hutch felt strangled by it. Why did he always find it impossible to apologize? "Can you live with it?" he asked, instead.

        He kept capturing and losing Starsky to the vagaries of the flashing light. Then the man turned and he lost even the intermittent outline of the face. "I think so..." Starsky answered, then continued in a decisive tone. "Yeah."

        "Okay."

        The conversation was at an end. Hutch drank his beer while Starsky simply stood facing him, making Hutch feel exposed to the unseen gaze of a dark, brooding stranger who seemed to have replaced his sunny, effervescent partner.

        He finished the beer and crushed the can, a shockingly loud sound in contrast to the rain pelting the windows. "I'm going to bed."

        "Okay." Starsky didn't seem to have caught the hint.

        Hutch gave up. Starsky knew the way to the door. He would go or stay as he pleased.

        When Hutch came out of the bathroom after brushing his teeth he saw that the storm had arrived. Blue-white lightning flashed the room in and out of existence, alternating darkness with vivid, brief seconds of strange angles and sharp contrasts. The color spectrum had surrendered to the storm's intensity and Hutch saw Starsky, sitting on the couch with just his jeans on, as interrupted images of light and dark. So, he had decided to stay.

        "You know where the sheets are." No reaction.

        Hutch went into the bedroom, sat down to remove shoes and socks, tugged off his turtleneck and threw it aside. He unclasped his necklace and rose to put it on the dresser. Another flash burst the room into light just as his eyes happened to glance at the mirror. He gave a start and waited the scant second for the next lightning to make sure the man behind him wasn't a trick of the storm's discharges. He had heard not the slightest sound to warn him of Starsky's approach.

        Then Starsky took a step closer and he didn't need light to be assured of the solid reality of the man. The body heat against his back was more than enough, although they weren't in contact. Yet, he realized. He also realized that he had known where it was leading all along, ever since he had joined Starsky in taking that last half-step to throw their arms around each other before walking out of the bar.

        It was only a stand, he thought, but didn't say. Can't we leave it at that? Just because we put on an act, we don't have to follow through. We don't owe the bitch anything, let alone this.

        Please, not this.

        He could neither move nor speak. The lightning was striking in close succession now. It was in almost-unbroken light that he followed, in the mirror, Starsky's hands as they grasped his waist, then moved in and up, not stroking but gripping handfuls of flesh, fingers digging into the muscles, pressure hovering just on the edge of pain.

        Starsky had moved directly behind him, hidden by Hutch's larger frame. The mirror reflected only the progression of his hands, looking incorporeal. They could have belonged to no one or anyone, and their harshness was alien. Hutch wasn't used to this treatment at his partner's hands. He almost cringed away, them remembered those same hands clenched into fists, hitting him. Just yesterday morning.

        All right, anger I can take - as long as I know they're your hands. The fingers had loosened in the meantime. They lay dormant on his chest, then closed in to pinch his nipples, hard.

        Hutch caught his breath at the sharp pain, but it was gone immediately. The palms rubbed roughly over the suddenly sensitized spots, hardening them. Then they pressed firmly, thrusting Hutch back into Starsky's body. Even through double thickness of denim, he felt the hardness push against his buttocks and wondered how long Starsky had been waiting in that state.

        Arms banded tight around him, one across his chest, the other angled down across his abdomen, a hand digging into the hipbone. Starsky's mouth closed over his shoulder. He couldn't feel the lips, only the sharp edge of teeth running back and forth across his flesh, not biting or hurting, but still an ungentle contact. They trailed up his neck, closed over some strands of hair and tugged down hard enough to make his head snap back.

        One hand came up around his outstretched neck and for a brief instant Hutch almost felt fear. But the fingernails only skimmed, and the teeth released his hair so he could put his head down before the position became uncomfortable. Starsky buried his head in Hutch's neck, his breathing shallow and rapid. His teeth bit into flesh after all, not cutting skin but hard enough to mark. They loosened at Hutch's inarticulate protest. Starsky rotated his hips, and one hand cupped over Hutch's groin, rubbed, then squeezed hard, making the blond press back into him. Hutch writhed, not sure if he was trying to get away or get closer. Starsky's fever was contagious, though, arousing him as well.

        I want it - I don't care how.

        His hands, so far unmoving, went back to grip the sides of the corded thighs, pulling them into himself as if there was the slightest possibility of meshing any closer. Starsky didn't seem to appreciate the end of his passivity. Abruptly, he released Hutch, then spun him around. He dug his hands into the waist of Hutch's jeans, gripped denim and belt buckle, and yanked sideways, propelling him toward the bed, then onto it.

        Hutch looked up at the man hovering over him. Who are you? Do I know you?

        Did I change you, too?

        Starsky stood waiting next to the bed, hands at his waist, his legs braced apart, an imposing presence which became more and less substantial as the capricious light flashed. He seemed an intrinsic part of the storm, as intractable as the force of nature.

        There was no mistaking the demanding stance. While a small portion of his mind marveled at his own acceptance of a role not in his makeup, Hutch sat up, unbuckled Starsky's belt, unsnapped the jeans and pulled the zipper down. He attempted to touch the swelling underneath, but Starsky deflected his aim impatiently.

        Hutch held the waistband of the jeans and the briefs, slid them down together. Starsky lifted his legs one at a time, helping the removal. His hands rested on Hutch's shoulders to balance, and once the blond man sat up again, they pulled him forward. Fingers tangled in his hair, holding his head firm against taut abdominal muscles. Starsky's erection rested on his shoulder. He tilted his head and rubbed it with his cheek. Starsky's fingers loosened, and he turned to touch it with his lips.

        It felt so hot. He ran his tongue over it, trying to get used to the texture, taste. Starsky groaned, the first sound he had made. Fingers dug into Hutch's scalp again, and he looked up. Starsky had thrown his head back. The muscles and veins of his throat stood out in stark relief, apt companions to the bow-string tension dominating the whole body.

        Hutch felt the need to relax that body, temper it with pleasure until the anger and hurt were washed away, and then maybe it would fall lax into his waiting arms, maybe it would yield back to him the gentle man he knew and missed.

        Sliding one arm around Starsky's hips, he cradled the swollen organ in his right hand and got his mouth around it. He took a moment to get used to the feel as well as the idea, then pulled it deeper into his mouth, starting a gentle suction, thinking that the act wasn't beyond him after all, not as long as he felt the evidence of Starsky's pleasure. His partner was groaning again, a deep continuous rumble. Sweat was pouring off his back, and his muscles had tightened to such a degree they trembled with the strain.

        It all affected Hutch's body, too. He was still painfully restricted by his position and jeans, but preferred to concentrate on Starsky. His body could solve its own problem or not; it wasn't that important to him right then.

        Suddenly, Starsky pushed. Hutch instantly realized, with some panic, that he'd been able to handle it so far only because of the man's restraint, and what he'd thought were signs of pleasure had mostly been signaling a desperate control, now about to break. Starsky thrust again, deeper. Hutch choked, unable to contain the sound of protest. It stopped Starsky immediately.

        Slowly, as if he didn't dare make another uncontrolled move, his hands pushed Hutch away, disjoining them. Still slowly, deliberately, he moved back, his hands deserting Hutch. He came to sit on the bed, taking deep breaths, obviously trying to calm himself. He leaned his elbows on his knees, and doubled over to rest his head on his arms. Hutch gave him a minute, feeling miserable, then put his arm around the dejected curve of the back, hoping to transmit both apology and a willingness to continue.

        Starsky reached around to tug on the material of his jeans. Hutch got the message and removed them. Suddenly Starsky was pulling him onto the bed, covering him, impatient. His knee pushed Hutch's legs apart before he fit himself between them. His hand slid low under the blond, gripping tight, pulling. Hutch caught his breath and tensed, waiting for the next step he thought inevitable, feeling overpowered.

        He was taller, stronger, and perfectly capable of resisting, but his mind had granted a justification to Starsky while assigning the guilt to himself, so he meekly waited to be taken. Starsky, however, held him in position for a few seconds, then sighed and eased off a little, brought his legs together again, thrust between them.

        Hutch pulled his legs apart, causing Starsky to growl in frustration. "Go on. Do what you want." Starsky's head against his shoulder shook, a definite no. "Go ahead," he insisted. Go ahead and prove what you need to prove.

        Something was mumbled into his neck. He caught the word 'hurt.' "I'll get something. Let me go." He wasn't released. "Starsky, let me up."

        Starsky rolled off of him. Hutch got to his feet and found himself unsteady. He stumbled to the bathroom. The storm was abating and it was almost completely dark. He groped blindly in the medicine cabinet, shying from light, unwilling to see too much. He had to settle for some baby oil, left by whomever. As he turned to go back, it dawned on him that he was standing free, didn't have to return.

        Free? That was a laugh. He went back.

        He handed the bottle to Starsky, climbed into the bed, lay on his back and closed his eyes, waiting quietly in the dark. Shortly, Starsky's weight covered him again, and one oily hand slipped between his legs. The sensation was actually pleasant, reminding him of his own desire which had been peaking and ebbing unpredictably. He bore down on the slippery fingers, but Starsky was hurried, perfunctorily oiling his skin, not intruding any further. The hand left as Starsky pulled himself up and pushed. The lubrication made flesh slide uselessly against flesh. Starsky pushed again, awkwardly, then tried to guide himself. The angle was wrong and he grabbed a pillow to slip under Hutch.

        The soft, thick pillow made the angle more impossible when under Hutch's waist, and pulling it lower only caused his hips to sink into it. Hutch gritted his teeth, hating the fumbling. He knew a big portion of it was his own lack of cooperation, but couldn't bring himself to help. Frustrated, Starsky yanked the pillow away and hurled it across the room. He sat back on his heels instead, pulled Hutch's legs over his, then rose to his knees, balancing and angling the long body on his thighs.

        Hutch missed his weight. However ungentle, it had been a closeness. He felt cold, and uncomfortably exposed, restricted and manipulated as Starsky's hands positioned him. He wasn't used to this. He tried not to squirm away. Relax, he told himself, relax or it's going to--

        He gasped when the hardness pushed against him. Starsky stopped. His hands held the buttocks tighter, parting them more, and he pushed again. Hutch threw an arm across his face and tried to bear the pressure. He was panicking and it was all out of proportion to what he was actually experiencing. Starsky wasn't hurting him that much. It was mostly the anticipation of pain -- and something else. Deep inside him, something very basic was rebelling.

        He braced his heels and returned the pressure. If he couldn't get out of it, he at least wanted it over and done with. The combined effort overcame thc resistance of muscle, but he hadn't been able to relax, and felt the entry as searing pain. He cried out and Starsky hesitated. "Go on," Hutch managed. Get it over with.

        Starsky pushed again, groaning at the pressure of Hutch's muscles which, out of control, still tried to repel the invader. Hutch bit his lip to keep from crying out again, as his partner struggled against unyielding flesh that wouldn't admit him any further.

        "Dammit! How do they do it?"

        Hutch's nerves were stretched to breaking point. "What the hell makes you think I know?" he snapped.

        For a second, Starsky froze, then pulled out abruptly and shoved Hutch's legs out of his way. "Forget it! Just forget it." He threw himself down on the bed, his back turned.

        Briefly, it was a relief. Then Hutch felt more than saw the forbidding, stiff curve of the back, and a cold, hollow sensation enveloped him. Shouldn't be like this.

        He wanted to reach out. Couldn't. Nothing works anymore.

        For what seemed an eternity, they stayed motionless, separated by a few inches of the same bed, further apart than they'd been for years, the only link between them a crackling tension. Then Starsky squirmed uncomfortably, cursed under his breath, and swung his legs off the bed.

        He's leaving, was Hutch's only thought. He bounded out of bed without any other consideration and grabbed Starsky's arm. "Where're you going?"

        "Where does it look like?" Starsky snarled. "To the bathroom."

        "Why?"

        "Take one good guess!"

        Hutch looked down Starsky's body, seeing him as a solid darkness against a lighter, spectral dark. Swallowing a lump in his throat, he removed his hand. "I'm sorry," he murmured miserably.

        "What'd you say?" Starsky asked after a beat. His voice had softened unaccountably.

        "I'm sorry," Hutch repeated, louder. He suddenly realized it was the first time ever that Starsky had heard him say that outside of common, everyday courtesy. It hadn't choked him after all. "About...everything."

        Something seemed to be missing from the room. The air of menace and anger emanating from Starsky was gone as if it had never been. "It's all right. No big deal," he whispered, reaching for Hutch's arm. He rubbed up and down a few times, awkwardly, in what the blond assumed to be a consoling gesture, then took another step toward the bathroom.

        Hutch managed to grab the retreating hand in time. Starsky paused. "What?" he asked after a while, when the blond didn't make another move.

        He could ask now. "Hold me a minute?"

        Starsky sighed, but didn't deny him. "Sure."

        Hutch buried his face in Starsky's curls and savored the feeling. Was it really as simple as that all along? Just two words?

        It was a great relief. It was also a bit scary. Whatever the sin, would forgiveness always be granted with so little effort on his part? Could he deflect punishment so easily? Punishment? What punishment?

        He remembered the harshness of Starsky's treatment. He also remembered that every time he had made the slightest protest, it had eased off. However angry or driven Starsky was, when it came right down to it, he couldn't be cruel to his partner.

        Hutch tightened his arms, was answered in kind. Desire had left his body sometime earlier; he didn't know when. It didn't seem inclined to come back, but the embrace was filling a deeper emptiness. However, it hadn't left Starsky s body. Still, except for the hardness pressing against his thigh, neither demand nor resentment was leaking into their closeness.

        How could I have possibly felt threatened by you? How could I think giving to you would make less of me? His hand stroked down Starsky's back, strayed into the triangle of hair at the base of his spine.

        Don't!" Starsky started to pull away.

        Hutch didn't let him. "You still want to?"

        "Yeah," Starsky answered without dissembling.

        His candor decided Hutch. "Come back." He got into bed, tugging the other man after him, but encountered resistance.

        "Uh...you mind some light?"

        "No."

        Starsky first groped in the dark, then turned on a lamp. The light was unexpectedly easy on the eyes. Hutch saw he had thrown a shirt over the shade to subdue it. Being able to see his partner made a big difference. Hutch held out his arms. Starsky took a few steps toward him, then froze. Hutch glanced down to see what he was looking at, and saw reddish spots mottling his chest. Except for the tiny half-moon shapes that were darker, they would be gone in a few hours. It was just that his pale skin tended to get irritated easily. "Hey, it's okay."

        Starsky came close and reached out to touch the marks. Hutch captured his hands and brought the palms to his lips. Don't. Guilt is my game. It doesn't suit you. "I mean it. It is okay."

        He pulled his partner onto the bed. Starsky leaned over to kiss him, for the first time that night. He pulled back, making Hutch realize that the moustache was a novelty to him, considered it briefly, then seemed to find it acceptable and returned. Hutch clung to the lips, easily relearning the taste, remembering other times he had been unable to let go of them. He wriggled to get closer, but Starsky's body retreated. Hutch reached out and cupped a hand over the genitals. Starsky broke the kiss and caught his breath.

        "They hurt?" Hutch asked, feeling the glands too firm and tight in his palm.

        "Some, Starsky admitted. "Not bad yet...well, not too bad."

        "Let's do something about it before it gets worse."

        Starsky's hand copied the action on Hutch's body, the flesh under his hand soft and yielding. "Not yet."

        "We'll worry about that later. Come on." Hutch stroked, but gently.

        "Shouldn't, but -- oh, God, I can't wait."

        "Ssh," Hutch soothed. "Come on."

        "It'll hurt again. Just keep doin' that." He pushed into Hutch's hand.

        "I'll help. Last time, you didn't, uh...I was too dry inside."

        "I know that." Starsky sounded a bit irritated. "I'm not a child. Didn't think you'd like it if I...you know."

        It was ridiculous, of course, considering what the main objective was, but the way Starsky's mind worked was totally, endearingly, unique to Starsky. "I don't mind," he assured his friend, locating the bottle and taking Starsky's hand to squeeze some oil into it.

        Starsky's upper body covered him while one hand slipped under. This time, Hutch pulled up his knees, helping. One finger entered. Starsky captured his lips in a deep kiss, as if to distract him from what was happening. He need not have bothered. It wasn't an unfamiliar sensation anyway, and although Starsky couldn't help some impatience, it bordered on pleasure.

        The slippery palm pressed and rubbed against the sensitive muscle between his legs, and a faint desire stirred in Hutch again. "Try two," he said into Starsky's mouth. That wasn't as comfortable, hut he bore down, trying to stretch himself quickly, knowing Starsky was in no shape to wait. He tightened around the fingers, wanting to know and get used to how it was going to feel. Starsky groaned, pressing his hips into the mattress.

        Hutch untangled himself enough to reach for the oil. Squirting some into his palm, he attempted to reach for Starsky, but his partner scooted back. "Don't touch me!"

        Hutch realized he was afraid of losing all control. "Ssshhh," he soothed, bringing his palms together to spread the oil on both. Then he started rubbing Starsky's back with one hand while with the other he touched himself, thinking it would help if he could stimulate the stirring already there into a heat to match Starsky's. "Scissor your fingers." His muscles protested. Want it, he told himself. You have to want it.

        "You ready, babe, please?" Starsky's voice strained on the edge of desperation.

        "Yes," he said, although he knew he wasn't. If he couldn't yet manage the wanting himself, wanting to relieve Starsky would have to be enough.

        Starsky lifted up, got between Hutch's legs, and groped for the bottle. He turned it upside down to squeeze the oil on himself, splashing it on the blond's belly, the sheets, and making Hutch realize he couldn't even tolerate his own touch anymore.

        It was going to happen very fast. Hutch felt himself tightening instinctively. He took a deep breath and tried to relax as Starsky once more got him into the position that had shown some promise of working earlier. The cumbersome mechanics were destroying the mood again. He wanted to be wrapped tight in his partner's arms and flow into an ultimate closeness rather than lie there and watch himself being taken.

        Nevertheless, he crossed his legs behind Starsky, braced, and returned the first pressure. The splitting pain flared again. He couldn't help arching off the bed, but managed to stifle the cry by gulping in air. He let it out in pants, relaxed back into the bed, and realized Starsky had stopped. He was trembling with the effort, but he had stopped. Hutch looked at his partner. Their eyes locked. When his reflected discomfort, Starsky stopped; when Starsky's became desperate, Hutch relaxed to admit him further.

        Once past the initial, tightly-bunched muscle ring, it got a little easier. "It's okay now," Hutch said. "Don't wait." Starsky closed his eyes, threw his head back, and started moving, caution still ruling him. The friction added a burning edge to the pain. Hutch concentrated on not making a sound. Shouldn't take too long.

        Suddenly, unexpectedly, a sharp sensation pierced through the even pain, and caught Hutch by surprise, making him cry out. Starsky stopped again. "That's it. I can't." He started to pull away.

        Hutch clutched at his partner's hands gripping the sides of his hips. "No! Do that again."

        "What? This?" Starsky moved slightly and the sensation was back.

        "Yes, yes, again." Another movement. "God, that feels good." His legs tightened as he tried to prolong the feeling. Starsky started a slow, shallow rubbing on the spot, and the sensations multiplied. Hutch tossed his head, dazed at how fast it was affecting him. He'd figured out that Starsky had found the prostate gland, but he had never been touched there before, had never been stimulated from within his body, and wasn't prepared for the incredible sensations. "Oh, god," he moaned.

        "I'll be damned, it does feel good." He heard Starsky distantly, knew that his partner could see his excitement for himself. It seemed to break all restraint. His legs were lifted onto Starsky's shoulders, then the man's weight was bearing him down, doubling him over, and the thrusting became fast and furious.

        He couldn't tell what was pain and what was pleasure anymore. Didn't care. It was all one irresistible power, pounding hard, forcing reaction into him and then ripping it out before he was ready for any of it, over and over, spiraling dizzily to an impossible peak. He felt pinned by it, used. He wanted to touch himself, replace the overpowering feelings with something familiar, something he knew and understood, but at the end of his outflung arms his fingers had gripped the sheets, and he was helpless to unclench them. He had no choice but to bow to the irresistible, and it burned all coherent thought out of him. He didn't know which voice belonged to whom, what was inside him and what was outside, but suddenly it was over.

        He felt taken by storm, tossed, and cast away, drained. Shaken and weak, he wanted to be calmed, consoled, held. Starsky's dead weight over him stirred, lifted. An ache ran the length of his legs, preceding the relief from cramping, as they were eased off his partner's shoulders. Then Starsky's arms gathered him, fingers grasping possessively, in an embrace that managed to be hard and soothing at the same time, and all Hutch needed was there. His partner was babbling something into his chest. He couldn't understand any of it; didn't know if the defect was in his hearing or Starsky's speech, but he knew they were endearments and didn't need to know any more. Starsky was still inside him, but now it was soft enough to be comfortable, solid enough to be felt, as intimate a part of both as the combined pulse of their hearts laboring against each other.

        He wanted to put his arms around Starsky, too, but movement was beyond him at the moment. He stayed spread-eagled on the bed, with his partner curled under, over and around his middle, recovering.

        Beautiful.

        He never wanted to move. Ever. But nature wasn't that kind, and too soon he was very uncomfortable. He squirmed a little, trying to dislodge Starsky from inside him, hoping that would alleviate it and ha wouldn't have to leave his haven. Starsky felt his movement and slid out of him with just a motion of his hips, not giving up any other inch of their contact. Instead of easing, the pressure became immediate. "Starsky, get off me," he had to say.

        "Hmmm?"

        "Now!" His partner pulled back as if stung. Hutch rolled out of the bed quickly and went to use the bathroom.

        In a few minutes Starsky was at the door. "Hey, you all right?"

        "Yeah, fine," he answered, although he wasn't too comfortable. He was a little swollen, sore inside, and felt the beginnings of internal cramping.

        "Can I come in?" Starsky asked after a while.

        "No!"

        A little later, his partner spoke up again. "What's wrong?"

        "Starsky, will you please leave me alone! Nothing's wrong." The man shut up, but Hutch still sensed him hovering at the door. As soon as he could, he cleaned himself and came out. Sure enough, Starsky was right there.

        "What's the matter?"

        "Nothing, I told you. Uh, maybe you should wash up, too."

        Starsky looked down at himself. "Oh, yeah."

        While he was in the bathroom, Hutch stripped the bed, then threw clean sheets on it and climbed in. Soon, Starsky was slipping in next to him. Having missed the closeness, Hutch pulled him into his arms. Starsky leaned up on an elbow to look at him, a question in his eyes. When Hutch smiled up at him, he bent and lightly kissed the blond, then lay back down.

        "Hutch?" he said after a pause.

        "Hmmm?"

        "Will you let me look at you?"

        Hutch turned his head sideways. "You are looking at me."

        "You know what I mean."

        "Why?"

        "Any reason why I shouldn't?"

        "No. No reason why you should, either."

        "Mind if I checked?"

        "Starsky, there's nothing to see. All right; I'm a little swollen and sore. Anything further, you'd have to be a doctor to see."

        "Do you need one?"

        "Oh, for heaven's sake, of course I don't! Will you relax? I'm fine." He pulled his partner's head to his shoulder. He didn't want to talk. Not unless they could talk about the important things, and since Starsky never wanted to, Hutch preferred the silence.

        "Any bleeding?" Starsky persisted.

        "Come on, Starsk, you're being ridiculous. Don't take the virgin bit too far. If there was any, you'd have been the first to know, right?"

        "Guess so," Starsky mumbled, still sounding unsure.

        "I feel good, believe me. Very good." Hutch tilted his partner's head up by the chin, ran his lips over the forehead and the brows until the frown disappeared, then moved to the eyelids. By the time he had found his way to the lips, the steady breathing parting them slightly spoke of sleep.

        And he was alone with himself.

        How many hours do I get this time?

        Oh, God, it's not fair. If it feels so right, how can I be expected to let go? He almost wished it had been concluded within the cold anger that had started it. Then maybe he'd have been only too glad to forget.

        And then again, maybe not.

        He sighed, held Starsky while he still could, and resigned himself to a solitary awakening.

***

        Warmth. Close and nice. Hands. Softly pulling him from sleep. Replacing lethargy with something even more pleasant. Stirring his heavy limbs into life. Starting a gentle ache inside. He knew he was smiling.

        Lazily, he parted his eyelids, and found himself looking into dark blue eyes. It jolted him. "Starsk, you're--" Still here, he almost said, arrested the words. "Awake," he finished.

        "Great goin', Sherlock. So are you." The pressure of his hand low on Hutch's body, already awake, gave more meaning to the words.

        Starsky pressed against his side, a subtle signal that they were sharing the mood. Hutch closed his eyes again, unwilling to question the unexpected. It was still night and he didn't want to wake up yet. This much awakening was just fine. His hands joined Starsky's, copied actions. They nuzzled each other blindly, lazily, like a couple of sleepy puppies. Then Starsky's hand slid to his buttocks, kneaded a little too hard, making Hutch really feel the soreness, now worse than when he had fallen asleep.

        "Starsk, I don't think I can just yet."

        "'Course not," was whispered into his ear. A hand pulled at his and brought it to rest on Starsky's buttocks. "Your turn, partner."

        Mmmm, nice, was his first reaction. Then it sank in and an unease crept into his contentment. Damn you, do you have to question everything? It was no use; he was awake. He rose on an elbow to look down into Starsky's eyes. "Why?"

        "I wanna."

        The eyes labeled Starsky a liar. They held too brave a look, probably good enough to fool anyone, except the man gazing into them at the moment. That man also knew the look well enough to realize nothing would get Starsky to admit it. So he asked himself the questions. Are we settling accounts here? Balancing debits and credits, rounding off the tally? Is that why I'm not alone yet?

        Damn your archaic sense of fair play, Starsky!

        I don't want it like that.

        Wearily, he let his body drop back to the bed. His partner clung to him. "No, Starsky, I don't want to."

        "Why?" He didn't answer. "Hutch, is it--?  Did it hurt bad? Is that why?"

        Dammit, Starsky, do you even realize that's blackmail? If I hold back, will you ever believe otherwise? That will really weigh down your debit side, won't it?

        A not-so-nice thought brushed against his mind, insinuated itself. In that case, will you keep coming back for more? Is that the way to keep you?

        "Dear God," he moaned, turning his face away, ashamed of his thought; briefly, it had been too tempting.

        "Hutch, babe, what's wrong?" Hands fumbled at his head, turned it back around, worry evident in the sapphire eyes. "Tell me, partner."

        Hutch suddenly realized that Starsky had never called him 'partner' in bed before. Twice now in the same minute, he was bringing that relationship into this one. He wondered if Starsky felt the status quo threatened. "Starsky, you don't really want to."

        "I do, too."

        Somehow Hutch's hand on Starsky's buttocks had been forgotten. He squeezed hard, let his fingers slide down, parting the firm flesh, and pressed against the opening purposefully. Starsky flinched. "You see?" he said softly, easing off.

        "So what? Was it easy for you? I still want it."

        Hutch knew that he did. Maybe not in the ways he'd have the blond believe, but he truly did. For his own reasons. "All right," he said, and felt an instant surge of excitement go through him as if his body had just been waiting for the mind's permission to let loose.

        Control that, he ordered himself. Above all, control that. He pushed Starsky gently onto his back and kissed him, running his hands down the sides of his partner's body. You're not going to give it as an obligation or apology. It's no good that way. I know, I tried it. I'm going to love you until you want it in all the right ways. Until you want me. For yourself.

        However, it was impossible. Starsky clung to him, tugged at him, impatient, insistent. His own body was also altogether too willing to turn traitor under the urgings, and the threat of losing control became immediate. He knew it wasn't so much desire on Starsky's part, but mostly anxiety and apprehension. We will not hurry-up-and-get-it-over-with, he thought, then pulled forcefully out of the embrace and kept his partner at arm's length.

        Dark blue eyes searched his face, confusion and something very much like hurt in their depths. "What?" Starsky panted.

        "Give me a chance. Relax. Let me."

        Starsky stared at him for a few seconds, then took a deep breath -- calming his impulses or his fear, Hutch couldn't decide -- then obediently let his whole body go lax. His head fell back and his eyes closed, although a frown still creased the brow: a picture of uneasy expectation.

        Whatever the overwhelming emotions or urges at any given point, Hutch discovered tenderness had never had the slightest trouble supplanting them. Lightly, he kissed the closest eyelid, felt the restless movement underneath. "Scared?" he asked gently.

        A pause, then, "A little," Starsky admitted.

        "You're free to change your mind, you know."

        There was no hesitation this time. "No!"

        "Ssh. All right." He brushed his mouth against the thick lashes, felt them tickle his lips, knew from the flickerings and the sound Starsky made that his moustache was tickling the eyelid, traced the sharp ridge of the nose to the tip, kissed it softly. "I'll try to make it good, promise. I'll try. Maybe I can." His partner whispered something. "What?" he asked, although he'd heard enough of it already.

        Starsky wouldn't repeat it. "Nothin'."

        He pulled back, letting his fingertips replace his mouth. 'That's what I'm afraid of,' he was pretty sure Starsky had said. Will that be unfair, babe? Your rules threatened? You're going to have to forgive me that much selfishness -- if I can, that is.

        Obviously, all of Starsky's impatience couldn't be contained. "Your show, Hutch, but at this rate we're gonna need a cab to get to next week."

        He couldn't help chuckling at the comment that was so typically Starsky and just as typically ill-timed. "My show," he stressed. "We'll get there when we get there."

        "Okay," he was granted, "but in case you haven't noticed, I'm goin' backwards."

        The fierce arousal had ebbed somewhat in both of them, and that was just the break Hutch had wanted. To satisfy the demand he let his hands stroke his partner, but for himself, he wanted just to see, if only for a minute. He'd never had the time or the opportunity to slow down and experience as fully as he wanted to. He remembered yearning for it ever since the beginning, but time had been the most precious commodity then, except for the body in his desperate grasp that had yielded to him in almost a last wish. Here was the chance to see, touch, explore, discover, and finally know every inch, every response, every secret--

        Suddenly, he was terrified. Every sweet memory would mean one more thing to miss, every knowledge one more thing to forget.

        I can't afford this.

        He closed his eyes tightly, blinding himself on purpose, but the image lingered behind them, indelible. With a sigh, he fitted himself to his partner, began loving him slowly, trying to channel the sensations in one direction only, block their return...impossible. He had too many senses, too finely attuned, heightened, and he felt them all becoming saturated.

        Take you? What a laugh. You're penetrating into every part of me, the deepest part of me. Without even trying. How much more can I hold?

        He tried not to think. And mostly, he shied from giving name to the feelings. No identification. No description. No substance. At a distance. Keep it that way.

        He felt a sadness as he would for a new life, stillborn. A sob caught at his throat, and he buried it in Starsky's flesh. Let it get lost in his partner's moans.

        Despite the heaviness inside him, his touches were light, almost fearful, as if he was handling something fragile, and Starsky felt boneless and pliable under them. Shortly, though, demands started: "Hutch... please, babe...please."

        He pulled up until they were molded together and his lips were again buried in the tangled curls over his partner's ear. "What?" he whispered. "Tell me what you want." You, he wanted to hear. Please, say it, if only in this context. Just once. Let me here it just once. Starsky only kept making incoherent sounds. "Tell me." Suddenly frustrated, he couldn't help nipping sharply at the earlobe, once. "Tell me!"

        Starsky gave a hiss of pain, but didn't seem to mind. Rather, he seemed to consider the change in Hutch's treatment a welcome permission to let go of restraint. His hands grasped all over. Legs wrapping around the blond, he lifted himself insistently into the body covering him, then they were rolling around the bed in abandon, clutched tight, thrusting against each other.

        "Tell me," Hutch pleaded once more, hopelessly, before the primal urges swept him away as well. You keep coming back. Your body responds, wants. You have to feel it. Why can't you say it?

        Why can't I?

        Anger kindled, at himself for his own lack of courage, at Starsky for forbidding him courage, and gave a different impetus to his actions. It wasn't denying because he was denied, rather it was holding back a little longer until he knew Starsky could absorb no more sensation into any part of his flesh, until he'd done all in his power to give his partner something that would be hard to forget, this time. If it was to be only a memory again, then at least it would not be an easily erasable one.

        But he couldn't find it in him to carry it to the point of torture. Next time he heard Starsky's hoarse plea, he gave in to it, knowing that now he could probably force out what he wanted to hear -- but then, it would be an empty victory. "Roll over," he whispered, instead.

        Starsky instantly tensed, but obeyed. All at once, at the implied trust, the sharp edges of Hutch's emotions smoothed out, concern taking priority again. Don't be a bastard. Gently. He found the oil. When he turned back, Starsky was compliantly on his stomach. Hutch's eyes swept down the body, suddenly aware of how very much he wanted this. Sweet-fleshed, beautifully curved... He forced himself to look away. He deposited an affectionate kiss between the shoulder blades and pulled his partner close, fitting one arm under Starsky to hold him across the chest. "On your side more. Yes, fine. Pull up your knees." Starsky did, but he was tense all over.

        "Relax, Starsk, this isn't going to hurt." He hoped he was right. All he had to go by was his own brief experience. He pushed at the leg on top with his hand. Starsky got the message and lifted it. Hutch kissed his neck, oiled between his legs, then reached further, fondling his erection with slick fingers.

        Starsky moaned and moved against him. Hutch kept the heavy sac cupped, fingertips teasing the base of the erection, and stimulated the tight ring of muscle with his thumb. When he felt Starsky bearing down, he entered with a finger. At the same time, he skimmed down the furry chest to the furrier groin, up again, then down again. After a while, Starsky gripped the teasing hand and pressed it over his erection, grinding it into himself. Hutch slipped another finger in and his partner, apparently feeling no discomfort, began to rotate his hips against both pressures in abandon. Fearing he was going to finish too fast, Hutch pulled back, causing the man to growl in frustration and arch searchingly.

        "Soon, babe, soon," he said, again borrowing the endearment Starsky used for him. He maneuvered his partner to his knees and got between them, lubricating himself liberally, noticing that his hands were shaking. He couldn't make the next step painless. "It's going to hurt, Starsk. You still want it?" he asked while he still had control.

        "Oh, God, anything, but now!"

        Anything? Anything I want? How about 'don't leave me again'? He fastened his teeth in his lower lip. It wasn't the time. It was never the time. I won't lose all of you for more of you.

        Besides, everything was fast becoming secondary at the moment to his body's imperatives. However much he had tried to disregard himself, his flesh was eager, hungry. Too eager, he realized, and wrapped his hand firmly around it so he couldn't forget himself and go too far.

       Want me. Want me.

       He pushed and entered. Almost instantly, muscles clamped down hard on him. He heard Starsky's voice, muffled by the pillow, but nevertheless a sound of pain. He made himself freeze, but God, it was hard to resist pushing all the way into that tight heat.

        For him. This is for him. Don't forget it.

        He leaned over the arched back, his hands holding Starsky's hips a careful distance from himself. He ran his tongue over the small of the back, the only part he could reach, and held steady. "Want me to pull out?" he asked when the pressure didn't decrease. Starsky's hands were curled around a pillow, clutching it to his face.

        "No! No."

        He felt Starsky struggle and succeed in loosening up a little. He sheathed himself another inch, was stopped by a gasp. "Relax, babe, you have to relax. Please, I hate hurting you." Entreaties were getting them nowhere. Maybe it would help if he surrendered control. "I'm not going to move. You do it when it feels right for you."

        Starsky immediately started to push back, still too tense. Hutch pulled back the same amount, allowing no further penetration. "When you're ready. Don't think about me; I can wait." I hope, he prayed with one portion of his mind; forever if necessary, he swore with the other.

        In stops and starts, Starsky came to him. Of his own will. That was something. By the time they were fully joined, both were shaking and panting, drenched with perspiration, each from a different labor. Hutch wrapped his arms around Starsky and curled over his back, waiting for him to get used to their joining. He felt like he was enclosed in a clenched fist and remembered well how it had felt when Starsky had first started thrusting.

        "Please ease up, Starsk, you're hurting me." The strain in his voice was due to holding back against every instinct, but Starsky didn't have to know that. It worked. The pressure eased noticeably. Endearingly predictable, was Starsky.

        He slid one hand down, finding Starsky semi-hard at best, and stroked, while, very carefully, he moved - not thrusting, but searching for the same spot that had given him pleasure. He had to change the angle a few times, but finally Starsky caught his breath and Hutch felt a strong pulse in the flesh he held. He repeated the movement, was rewarded by the same reaction.

        Too aware of how overwhelming it could get, Hutch concentrated on keeping a steady pressure on the sensitive area, and laid his palm flat on Starsky's abdomen, encouraging him with gentle pushes to seek his own pleasure at his own rate. The position was uncomfortable, his only support Starsky's back and his own knees which felt far too weak, but he was determined to hold it as long as necessary.

        Starsky moved tentatively against him a few times, then pushed back hard, gasping. "Easy, easy," Hutch whispered.

        "That... that was it? Damn, that's--"

        Hutch rubbed his cheek against the straining back. "Still hurt?"

        "Yes...no...I don't know...Hutch, that's -- dear God."

        "Easy. What you want. As much as you want." This is for you. Use it.

        Starsky started moving on him, getting more eager the more he experienced. The organ in Hutch's palm firmed quickly, seemed to beg more from his grasp. He moved his hand in counterpoint, remembering how Starsky liked it. His partner was making incoherent sounds in his throat, increasing his tempo urgently. Hutch had to put one hand on the bed to brace himself against the thrashing, trying not to give in to the sensations himself. He was still holding his own gratification back, giving his whole being to Starsky's use, and the effort was threatening to trip his heart, burn him out.

        Then he felt Starsky's orgasm, heard him cry out his name, no longer in pain but pleasure, felt an incredible wild joy at bringing it about, and his control snapped. The strong pulses deep in Starsky's body pulled at him, beckoned his own, insisted that he yield. His arms crushed his partner to himself, he thrust deep and fast, and in another second he was spasming strongly against Starsky's waning contractions.

        "David! David. David..."

        He knew he had blacked out for a short while, but as soon as he could think or move again, he was rolling them on their sides to get his weight off Starsky, holding his partner as close as possible, stroking him everywhere he could reach, kissing whatever he found close to his mouth, knowing how badly he had needed this kind of hard cuddling himself. Now it was Starsky totally lax and spent, able only to rub his head lazily back against the blond.

        "Oh God, Hutch..."

        Hutch's embrace softened, still tight but shifting down to a more relaxing hold. Suddenly, Starsky's body tensed again. "Hutch...uh..."

        "I know," the blond said, releasing his partner. "Go on." Starsky quickly took himself to the bathroom. Now at least he had to know that Hutch's abrupt departure from the bed earlier hadn't been a rejection or due to any pain.

        Starsky came out of the bathroom, looking a little sheepish. He held out a wet, soapy washcloth. "Want it?"

        "Thanks." Hutch cleaned himself and threw the cloth in the general direction of the bathroom as Starsky got back into bed.

        "That's a pain in the--" Starsky stopped, then chuckled. "I mean, if you have to rush to the bathroom every time. Don't they ever get to relax and enjoy themselves afterwards?"

        Hutch flinched at the distinction Starsky still made between 'us' and 'them.' "I guess you can prepare for it beforehand by--"

        Starsky's lips covered his. The suddenness of the move told Hutch its objective wasn't so much a kiss as it was to shut him up. He wondered what bothered his partner. The stark realities, or the thought of engaging in the act purposefully enough to prepare for it? He closed the subject anyhow, and settled down. Whatever problems, whatever worries, he'd face them in the morning. For just a little while, all he wanted to do was to breathe and hold his other half.

        "It's all right now," Starsky said softly.

        He'd have liked to pretend it was just a sleepy comment and cling to the pleasant mood. But he couldn't help hearing what was behind the half-statement/half-question. Did I pay my dues, too, the words asked, are we intact? It reminded Hutch anew why Starsky was still at his side. Status quo now reestablished, the moment was to be transitory, as usual.

        "Everything's all right," he lied. Somehow he'd have to make it the truth again. He settled the tousled head more securely into the hollow of his neck. "We're just fine. Go to sleep."

        He was thinking Starsky was already asleep from the heavy, even feel of the body in his arms. But his partner spoke again, his voice indistinct and slurred, "Never thought...so good...didn't know..."

        Now you do, Hutch thought. We both do. I also know how the story goes: they ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge...

        He fought sleep and was still awake when morning filtered through the blinds and Starsky stirred. He pretended to be asleep, though, as the dark man furtively slipped out of his hold and his bed, quickly dressed and stole out of the house.

        ...and they were cast out of heaven.

 

JULY 1, 1979

 

        It was a breezy day for July on the South Pacific Coast. The wind was rippling the surface of the ocean, making a flurry of tiny waves riding the backs of the great big ones. The sun gilded the tips, as if a fine, playful net of white/gold sparkles had been cast over the deep blue water.

        It was hell on the eyes.

        Hutch squinted against the glare and paid attention to the narrow road. It was really a hassle to drive all the way out every weekend, but the doctors had decided that Starsky had a better chance of recovery on the beach, away from the city pollution. A man with a scarred lung, a partial stomach, one kidney and a shortened intestinal tract needed all the help he could get, from nature as well as the medical profession. All the beach property close to the city had been way out of reach, even to rent. It took an hour and a half to drive to the small cottage Huggy had somehow procured.

        The road was graced with beautiful scenery, but Hutch hated it anyway. For one thing, it scared him. The doctors had said that if Starsky had been unable to get down during the shooting, it was just as well he had been standing up all the way. The shots coming from the car had entered at a low enough angle to miss the really vital organs. They saw no immediate problems cropping up. Still, it was at least an hour to the nearest hospital from the cottage; too goddamned far for Hutch's taste.

        For another... "Don't be ridiculous," Starsky had said. "Three hours driving every day? You'll fall asleep on the job or on the way and get yourself killed. I've got a nurse and I'll be fine."

        Hutch hated the distance.

        Today, though, there was a saving artistic grace. For once, The Earl had restrained his inclinations and had listened to Hutch: "I don't care how appropriate it sounds, Merl, no zebra stripes, period. Just put it back the way it was. Whatever it takes, just the way it was."

        Starsky, who thought his precious toy was somewhere collecting rust, would be surprised. Hutch put more pressure on the gas pedal of the Torino, painted anew and waxed to a sheen.

        The cottage was wide open, as usual. Hutch found Starsky's day nurse in the kitchen, drinking coffee and reading a magazine. A professional therapist had also been too scarce and too expensive.

        "Hello, Sergeant," Willis said. He was a pale young man, short and stocky. "Nice day."

        Hutch returned the greeting as he peeked into the bedroom. "Where is he?"

        "On the pier. Fishing."

        Hutch went to the patio doors. They opened on to a rectangular sundeck, and steps led down to the beach. A little behind the stretch of sand was the pier, weathered wood planks on cement supports, just adequate for two small boats. Starsky was sitting in a chair at the end of it, with a small table in front of him. The fishing pole was secured between some planks. His head was down, probably reading something or dozing. "Is he all right?"

        Willis turned around to look at his charge. "Fine." He was a man of few words.

        Not dozing, Hutch thought when Starsky's arm moved. "Should he be out in the sun?"

        "Do him good."

        Hutch saw the arm move again, reaching for something on the table. "How's the therapy going?"

        "Going."

        Both men watched Starsky. "You usually leave him alone like that?"

        Willis tapped the table top. "Got the beeper right here."

        Before he consciously knew what he was doing, Hutch was out the door, across the patio and at the steps. "Call an ambulance!" he shouted, taking the steps three-four at a time. "Starsky," he called out, hoping he was wrong and his friend would turn around. No reaction.

        The sand slowed him down. Didn't hear me, the wind, he tried to explain to himself, but fear was stronger than any efforts to subdue it.

        "Starsky!" he shouted again, bounding onto the pier. He slid to a stop and dropped to his knees next to his partner. Starsky's head was still down. He cupped the face gently to turn it. It was pale, wet with perspiration, the eyes open but glazed. "What's wrong? Starsky!"

        "Ca-- can't--" Starsky tried and made a whimpering sound.

        The table and Starsky's arm reaching across it were what was keeping the man upright. Hutch braced him, shoved the table away, sending it crashing onto its side, and took Starsky's weight, easing him off the chair into his arms. "It's all right, I got you. Can you talk? Can you tell me what's wrong?"

        A raspy sound was all that came out of Starsky's mouth. His right hand moved, an agitated motion, groped to get a hold of Hutch, slid off.

        "Hush. It's all right if you can't talk. Don't be scared. I got you." Starsky was still trying to get his fingers to hold onto Hutch. "Easy, easy. I'm right here. He noticed that the left side of the body was deathly inert.

        Oh, God, no more. Please, no more. "I'm going to lay you down now. Stay still." Carefully, he eased his partner down on the planks.

        "Hutc--" Starsky began, couldn't finish. He wouldn't be still. The hand that could move clawed at Hutch.

        "Please don't move, Starsky, please." He grasped the restless hand, squeezed tight. "You feel that? I'm not going to let go." He leaned close to the face, saw panic in the pain-darkened eyes. He wished he could gather him back into his arms, but didn't dare. "I'm going to get you to the hospital. You just hold on. Close your eyes. Try to relax." Starsky rolled his head from side to side. Hutch cradled it in his palm. "Sssh, don't tire yourself." Starsky leaned into his hand and stilled. "That's right. Just hang in there, okay, partner?"

        When he noticed there were too many hands on Starsky, he realized Willis was there. "What's wrong with him?" he asked, desperate for assurance from some source.

        Willis checked the pulse and the pupils, then brought out a stethoscope. "I don't know. His breathing -- something's interfering. Fluid in the lungs? Sssh..." He listened for a while. "Arrhythmia, definitely."

        "What's that mean?"

        "Irregular heartbeat. Interrupted, actually."

        Not again. Please, not again. "Do something!"

        "I can't. I'm not a doctor, just an LPN. The ambulance is on the way."

        I knew it, Hutch thought. So far away. I knew something was bound to happen. He didn't know how he spoke or made sense, but the words were coming out, clear and precise. "Go to the car. Pick up the radio. Red button. Second left. Metro, Priority One, Distress. Repeat it until someone answers. Ask for a patch to Captain Dobey. Dobey. Tell him what happened. Tell him I want a police helicopter, with paramedics. Now!" Willis left at a run.

        "It's going to be okay, Starsk, hang in there." He leaned over his partner, shielding him from the sun, feeling helpless. "I'll get you out of here. Soon, I promise. You hear me, don't you?"

        Starsky's eyes opened. They were clear and calm now, and the lack of fear in them scared Hutch more than anything. The hand in his moved a little. Hutch loosened his hold enough to sense which direction it wanted to move, then brought it up to his face. "This? Is this what you want?"

        Fingers groped, found his hair, tugged down weakly.

        Thinking he understood, Hutch brought his ear close to Starsky's mouth, despairing at the grating, labored breathing. The fingers tugged again, a feeble directive to turn his head. He did, found his lips against Starsky's, felt the ghost of a kiss, and the fingers slipped out of his hair. He held them securely again, pressed to his cheek, and pulled his head back a little to see his friend's face. A corner of Starsky's mouth lifted in a travesty of a smile, one finger brushed against Hutch's cheek, then his hand went totally limp and he started to close his eyes.

        Goodbye, Hutch heard as if spoken.

        "No! No, dammit! You're not giving up, you hear me? Open your eyes, look at me. Look at me, damn you! We don't accept it. Anytime. Anywhere. Ever! Isn't that what you said? Goddamn you, Starsky, were you lying to me?"

        Starsky looked at him again. "Hutch..." he managed.

        "That's right, I'm here. Stay with me. Just stay with me."

        "Can't...breathe..."

        "Yes, you can! You are breathing. Keep it up, even if it hurts, keep it up.

        Fear reclaimed Starsky's features as he struggled. "Can't--!"

        "Don't be scared. If you have to stop, I'll breathe for you. We can hang on long enough. But you keep on trying, don't quit. Please, Starsky, for me. Stay with me, stay, for me."

        Starsky closed his eyes again, but he was doing his best to obey the entreaties. Gurgling sounds accompanied his efforts, but some amount of air was going in and out. Hutch counted each breath, his own respiration unconsciously falling into the same rhythm. "Come on. One more. Again. Another one. You can do it, come on. Deeper, can you manage deeper? That's good. Again."

        Starsky convulsed at one point, unable to exhale. Hutch lifted him up into his arms before he could think he might be doing something wrong, then realized he had done the right thing after all when something dislodged from Starsky's throat and his breathing eased a bit.

        Hutch leaned him sideways. Something slipped out of the side of his mouth.

        "Better..." Starsky mumbled.

        "Of course it is. Going to be just fine." Hutch watched the lump of coagulated blood, dark and viscid, slide down his arm onto the wood, then noticed Starsky was drifting off again, exhausted. "Back to work, slouch. Come on. Breathe. Deeper. In. Out. Again. Again. Again."

        He held his partner and talked without pause until the chopper drowned him out. Then other hands were there, other people were talking, pulling Starsky away from him. He stubbornly held onto his partner's hand, and nobody seemed able to break that last hold.

        "Maximum concentration of oxygen," a tinny voice from a radio was saying. "Expand those arteries. Tracheotomy indicated?"

        "I don't think so," a paramedic answered. "Some obstruction in air passages, not that drastic."

        "Just tube him then, and bring him in."

        "We have to take him now." Somebody was pulling on Hutch's arm.

        He shoved the hand away and stood up as they lifted Starsky on the litter, keeping his hold through a wave of dizziness. Breathing at Starsky's rate with clear air passages had made him lightheaded. He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and managed to keep up.

        He barely registered the flight, the progression across a rooftop, and the elevator ride. The first thing to really reach his awareness was when Starsky's hand was forcibly removed from his. "You can't go in there," he was told as doors swung shut after his partner. "Go to the waiting room."

        He blinked and identified Starsky's doctor. Distantly. "No."

        "Get him out of here, take him to my office," the doctor told some orderlies and disappeared through the double doors.

        Hands steered him through corridors and into a room. They attempted to seat him, but he shook them off. He found a wall instead, stood against it, leaned his head back. Doors opened and closed, then he heard a familiar voice.

        "Sit down, Hutchinson." Dobey. Of course. He shook his head and stayed where he was. "Well, okay. Can I get you anything?" He shook his head again. "All right," Dobey said. The Captain dabbed at the blond's lips with some cloth. As it was pulled away, Hutch saw dark red stains on the pristine white, remembered the blood on the side of Starsky's mouth, didn't wonder about how it had gotten to his, didn't worry if the nurse or the paramedics had been there at the time.

        He sensed the captain pacing, then stopping in front of him. A hand closed gently on his arm. "Why don't you come to the chapel with me? It might help."

        Why couldn't they leave him alone? He yanked his arm away. "I'm not going anywhere!"

        "It's right here in the hospital." The tone was conciliatory.

        "No. You go. And you can tell the bastard to find a flood for his kicks. Tell him to leave Starsky alone!"

        "Hutchinson!"

        It brought Hutch to his senses, a little. He looked at Dobey's face and knew that he had deeply offended the devout man. "Captain, I...I--" He couldn't say he was sorry for what he'd said; he only regretted upsetting the kind man.

        "All right, son, all right. Don't worry about it. I understand. He does, too."

        While he's at it, Hutch thought, could he condescend to understanding that I'd make one lousy Job?

        Dobey didn't leave him alone after all. A few times he attempted to make Hutch sit down, but the detective wouldn't budge. He was still there when the doctor came in, followed by Willis. Hutch simply waited, feeling like if he moved he would break into little pieces.

        "Blood clots...blockage...arteries...lungs. Luckily... Could've been... Caught in time... Resting easily. Can be discharged...a few days. Some systems... Now that we know he's prone to them...regular anticoagulants...no problem...

        "Did you hear that?" Dobey was tugging at his sleeve.

        He straightened, shook his bead to clear it, nodded. Rubbed his face. Took a deep breath. Shook his head again, and could hear better. "I didn't notice anything," Willis was saying. "He was fine. Fishing. I saw him reach for something on the table, but his drink was there, too. I don't know how the detective knew something was--"

        "Right hand," Hutch said. Everybody looked at him. "He kept reaching with his right hand."

        "So?" Willis said.

        "He's left-handed, dammit! Didn't you ever notice? The table was right in front. He'd have used his left if he could've."

        "Oh." Willis looked genuinely distressed. "I'm sorry."

        "We're all sorry," the doctor said. "I assure you, better care will be taken in the future. We'll make sure--"

        "No!" Hutch interrupted. "No more. No more! Whatever this guy knows about therapy, teach me. I'll learn. If I can't, send a therapist daily, but I'm taking care of him from now on. Nobody else."

        Dobey started to object. "You can't be with him twenty-four hours a day. You have--"

        Hutch whirled on him. "Why not? Put me on leave without pay, put me on the inactive list, count me AWOL, fire me. I'll save you the trouble and resign. What the hell do I care?"

        Dobey stared at him for a moment, then sighed. "You're on compassionate leave, effective immediately. We'll figure out the rest later. For now, I'm taking you home before you fall on your face."

        Hutch insisted on detouring by Starsky's room, then allowed Dobey to drag him out of the hospital. They were in front of Venice Place when he remembered his manners. "Thank you, Captain."

        "Oh, get outta here. Couldn't have gotten an honest day's work out of you otherwise anyway. What's the difference? Get some rest and keep me informed."

        Hutch headed straight for his bed and dropped into it fully clothed. He felt strangely impersonal about himself, his surroundings. He was on hold in this apartment, like a temporary boarder. Only when they restored his partner to him would he feel halfway home.

 

JULY 6, 1979

         

        Hutch had brought Starsky straight from the hospital to the beach cottage that afternoon. His partner had been subdued, and he had followed suit, content for the moment with Starsky's presence close by. Dinner was a quiet affair, which was just as well, the blond thought. In a talkative mood, Starsky would have griped endlessly about the bland foods he had to eat for the next few days.

        "Is that all you want?" Hutch asked when Starsky pushed his plate away and carefully leaned back. His partner nodded glumly. Hutch took the plates into the kitchen. Having lost some of his stomach, Starsky had to eat less, but more frequently. He had to slowly stretch what remained until it was again adequate for the needs of a young, active body - well, active one day, it was hoped.

        Hutch came back with some more water. Liquids had been deemed the best, not taxing but with volume to expand the stomach walls. Starsky made a face, but drank it anyway. "Back to square one," he said tonelessly, as he put the empty glass down.

        "No, Starsky, not really. You just lost some days, that's all. They said you're healing fine, much better than they expected." In fact, the blood clots had been partially due to a too-fast-healing system.

        "Why doesn't it feel that way?"

        "It'll pass."

        "I hope so. Right now, I feel like going down to the beach, lying down and never getting up again."

        Hutch studied him for a minute. A certain amount of depression was to be expected, especially after a setback. "Okay. Let's see, we'll need sleeping bags. An umbrella in case it rains. I'll bring the cooler down. It'll do for now. Oh, yeah, toilet paper. Anything else we need, I'll come back for it later. Let's go."

        Starsky looked at him strangely. "What?"

        "You want to live on the beach, we'll live on the beach. You don't have to get up, either, if you don't want to - I don't mind catering. Of course, I don't know what you're going to do about the minor detail of a bathroom, but I suppose we can move upwind if it gets too bad."

        "You're a nut, you know that?"

        Hutch pretended to be insulted. "Hey, it was your idea."

        "I didn't expect it to fly!"

        "We can't tell until we try it, right? I'm game, let's go."

        "Aw, shut up and get me those tennis balls," Starsky grumbled.

        Hutch kept a straight face and did what was asked. Starsky took one in each hand and started squeezing them rhythmically. After a while, he pushed his chair back a little, sat up, stretched his arms straight, chest muscles now contracting with each squeeze. "We can't keep this up for too long, you know."

        "What?"

        "You, stayin' here."

        "Why not?"

        "How long can Dobey keep you on compassionate leave before the Chief comes down on him? Another week, max."

        "So I'll go on leave without pay. Or inactive."

        Starsky lifted his arms over his head and continued the exercise. "I'm on partial pay already. No bank is likely to give us a loan. I mean, I'm what they call 'a bad risk,' right? What are we gonna do for money? Talkin' of which, I saw the groceries. I just have to eat, Hutch, I don't have to eat like Rockefeller. Don't like most of that junk anyway."

        "He who wields the spatula has the last word. You'll have some say-so about it when you can get your ass into the kitchen. Not too much say-so, mind you. I'm not eating your concoctions until I vote on what goes in them."

        "You're dodgin'."

        "Don't worry about money. We'll manage."

        "By what miracle?" Starsky put his arms down, forgetting the exercise until Hutch motioned at him to go on. "I don't wanna give up my apartment, or have to look for another one. Three houses, a therapist, the equipment we're rentin', daily expenses, utilities--why are you grinnin' at me? This is serious!"

        Hutch hadn't been paying as much attention to what Starsky was saying as to how he was saying it. His partner had already lumped the finances and the difficulties under an all-inclusive joint ownership, and something about his attitude over 'granteds' was immensely appealing to the blond. He brought his wandering mind back to the issue. "There's the savings."

        "Can't be much left. I know my insurance didn't cover private rooms. I know who covered those. And my car."

        "There's enough. There'll be more."

        "How?"

        "Don't worry about it."

        Starsky stopped the exercise, and this time wouldn't obey Hutch's motion to continue. "Your folks?" he asked, frowning. Hutch couldn't hedge anymore. He nodded. Starsky stared at him, then turned away and hurled the balls toward a wall. "Damn, Hutch!"

        Hutch plucked one rebounding ball out of the air, let the other roll out of the room. "What's the big deal? They're my parents and they're loaded."

        "Don't give me that! You're 36 years old. When was the last time you went to them with your hand out?"

        "Twenty years ago!" Hutch snapped. The subject was a sensitive one. "Didn't stop them from piling it on me, did it? For every goddamned thing I didn't need. Clothes suitable for a Hutchinson, schools right for a Hutchinson. Cars, trips, clubs, you name it. They even kept Van in furs as long as I was a good boy on the way to becoming a proper heir. They can damn well use it for something that matters to me for a change!"

        Silence followed his outburst. Starsky studied his hands, sighed, then, asked softly: "Was it bad, askin' them?"

        "Don't make a big deal out of this. I asked and they said yes. You wouldn't understand them, Starsk." And thank God for that, he thought. "It wasn't as if I wanted something important; I just wanted money and they probably loved it. They enjoy handing out money; it's other things they have problems with."

        Starsky shook his head, still looking down at his hands. "That wasn't what I asked."

        "I know." He left it at that and Starsky seemed to understand he wasn't going to say anymore about it.

        The dark head came up after a while. Starsky took a deep breath, and let it out. "It's a loan."

        "Of course it is."

        "We'll pay it back, every penny."

        "Yes, we will."

        Silence fell for a while. Hutch rose. "Guess I'll do the dishes."

        "First, could you set up the bicycle and the rower for me?"

        "Why don't you rest for one night?"

        "I'll take it real easy, but I'm sick of sittin' on my ass. I gotta get back to work."

        As Hutch was pulling the cumbersome equipment to the middle of the bedroom, he realized that he had, inadvertently, given Starsky another purpose, and that he'd probably never again hear his partner talk about playing dead on the beach.

         

AUGUST 10, 1979

         

        "Hey, you falling asleep on me again?" Hutch asked, unwrapping the towels from around Starsky's legs.

        Spread like a starfish on his belly, his partner moved without opening his eyes. It wasn't a stretch, but the sleepy, boneless undulation of a sleek, dark cat, a purr-like rumble deep in his chest completing the image.

        Definitely mellowed out, Hutch thought. Wish I could leave him be. "You ready?"

        "Mmmmm..."

        Hutch took that as consent and began the massage. He'd learned enough so that now the therapist was only showing up to change the routines and supervise the new ones for a few days.

        Hutch had been impatient to take over from the man. He had sat there, watching Starsky contort and flinch with pain under a stranger's hands, hearing his breath catch at each manipulation, and had been sure he could do so much better. Of course, his first attempts had shattered all illusions. It felt worse knowing he was the one causing the pain. When he had seen, alongside all the other signs of discomfort, tears spilling out from under Starsky's tightly squeezed eyelids, he had drawn back, convinced that he couldn't go on, ever. Starsky had given him one of his setting-the-muddled-blond-straight lectures. No deposit, no return; no pain, no gain. It wasn't that he hadn't hurt enough to cry before, just that with Hutch he had been able to let go finally, and it was actually easier that way.

        It was getting better lately, much to Hutch's relief. Right then, Starsky seemed to be enjoying himself, but then the real test would be when Hutch finished the limbs and started on the torso, still wrapped in towels at the moment.

        "Best idea you've ever had," Starsky mumbled, his voice muffled by the mat.

        He was referring to the towels. Remembering his wrestling days, Hutch had suggested throwing thick towels into the dryer and warming the muscles with them prior to the massage. "Really? Makes a difference?"

        "Mmmmm...terrific." He was practically drawling. "You ain't gonna make me get up 'n exercise afterwards, are you?"

        "Of course I am. Let's not forget the whole purpose of this."

        "Right. Let's not forget that," Starsky said after a beat. He didn't sound drowsy anymore and there was something like irritation in his voice.

        "Come on, Starsk, I know it's getting to be a hassle, but--"

        "All right, all right. I got the point." Hutch pulled the towels loose from Starsky's upper body and started on the shoulders. "You're tensing up. Relax." With spread fingers he followed the prominent curve of the wide muscles that narrowed toward the small of the back, over and over, slowly increasing pressure. "What's the matter? Relax, will you." Sweat sprung out in beads under his hands and the pale, stretched skin around the bullet and scalpel scars reddened. Still hurts like hell, doesn't it?

        "Okay, here goes," he warned before he really dug his fingers into the muscles. Reflexively, Starsky's head came up from the mat. Hutch held the pressure steady until his partner got used to the feel, his breathing regulated and he put his head down again. Then he continued. After he was through with the necessary manipulations, his hands gentled again, rubbing the back in long strokes, keeping the muscles warm and trying, in some small measure, to make up for the hurt.

        "Enough." It was a definite order.

        Hutch pulled back, a little surprised. There was an undercurrent he didn't understand. "Roll over."

        "Take a break, okay?"

        "Starsky, the idea is to warm and stretch all the muscles quickly. I know it's not pleasant, but it has to be done. Roll over."

        "I wanna rest."

        "This isn't the time to do it. Are you turning or am I doing it for you?"

        "Leave me alone!"

        "You're acting like a child." Hutch reached to turn Starsky over and encountered resistance. "What's the matter?"

        "Oh, what the hell," Starsky grumbled and turned, the action revealing the reason for his reluctance.

        Well, he's getting better, Hutch thought. He almost made a joke to let Starsky know there was nothing to be embarrassed about, but there was something unnerving about the expression in his partner's eyes which were looking straight at him. Hutch started massaging the chest as if aware of nothing out of the ordinary.

        But, of course, he was. He could keep his eyes from the evidence of Starsky's arousal, but not his mind. Every time I do this I cause him pain. Would it be so wrong to give a little pleasure? It can be so simple, just an extension of the massage.

    He might have carried on from thought to action, and his hands almost strayed to the waistband of the briefs a couple of times, but he was uncomfortably aware of his own reactions just to the thought, knew he couldn't keep it simple, and controlled himself.

        They were cooped up in a tiny house, committed to a cause. It was no time for complications. Miraculously, it hadn't affected their friendship in the slightest over the years, but they'd always had other distractions, their personal space to retreat into. In such close quarters, with Starsky constantly under his eye and hands, he didn't dare cross the line or there'd be no restraining factor, no way to gain distance from it...

        ...no place for Starsky to run.

        He continued the massage as usual -- no more, no less. Starsky turned his face to one side, away from him, and closed his eyes.

        "Uh...you want a break now?" Hutch suggested after he was through. "I can go swim for a while."

        "No," Starsky answered gruffly. "Let's get on with it."

***

Seagulls were the noisiest creatures in creation, Hutch was beginning to believe. And weren't they supposed to be asleep in the middle of the night?

       He had thought it would cool off the later it got, but the breeze still felt like it was coming from the mouth of an oven, and he was still sticking to the sheets and his pajama bottoms. The damned couch wasn't conducive to sleep in the first place, especially for someone his size.

       Starsky was also restless, judging by the way he was tossing and turning, reminding Hutch of his presence. There was no more than twelve feet between them -- too close and too far away.

       It was wreaking havoc with the cardinal rule Hutch had been forced to formulate. Whatever happens, however many times it happens, it's unique to those times, isolated, sufficient unto itself. Outside of that, no fantasies, no imagery, no substitutes, no dreams. It was another one of those things one couldn't play at without getting burned, so no careless games. It was the only way he could control it and keep it from spilling over into the rest of his life.

       However, not allowing fantasies was one thing -- how did one get away when suddenly reality was too real, too close? What had started as a perfect morning had quickly become overloaded with tension and had deteriorated into a day of uncomfortable silences interspersed by ill-tempered comments.

       Hutch rolled to his stomach. Not that the position was more comfortable, but it was at least a change within the confinement of the couch.

       He remembered a play he had taken Van to once. His wife had not been pleased to find herself in a tiny, rundown theatre that catered to poor intellectuals, and she said Jean-Paul Sartre's obscure existentialism bored her. No Exit had been a ponderous play about three people who couldn't exist with each other, but had nevertheless been thrown together for eternity into a room they couldn't leave: Sartre's vision of True Hell. Van had gotten the point and been furious for days.

       The characters of that play had hated each other. Hutch was just realizing that one extreme of emotion had much in common with another, and the play would have made its point even if the characters had loved as hard as they hated. Variations on a theme.

       What if it gets to a point where I can't live with you or without you? What then?

        "Hutch?"

       The voice was soft enough to be almost inaudible, but he jumped. "What the--? Dammit, Starsky, don't sneak up on me like that!"

       "Didn't wanna wake you if you were asleep."

       "What sleep in this damned furnace! What do you want?"

       Starsky shrugged. "Nothin'," he mumbled.

       He was looking so much like a tousled kid standing unsure of his welcome at the foot of his parents' bed that Hutch's irritation evaporated. "You can't sleep either, huh?" He got a negative shake of the tangled curls. "Want to sit with me for a while?"

       "You don't mind?"

       "No." He started to rise, but Starsky stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

       "Stay there. I'll sit down here." He sat on the floor close to his partner, on one of the large cushions Hutch had thrown off the couch, and pulled his legs to his chest, wrapping his arms around them to rest his chin on his knees. Not too long ago he wouldn't have been able to manage the curled-up position, and Hutch felt a sense of accomplishment watching him assume it without too much difficulty.

       "The first thing we're getting tomorrow is two fans," the blond said. The small store a few miles down the road had been adequate, but well-stocked ones were much further away. "You feel like going for a ride?"

       "Sure, I-- Uh, no. You go. In fact, I'm fine now. Why don't you just stay in the city tomorrow? Night, too."

       "Why?" Starsky's shoulders rose in a shrug. Hutch felt relieved. He definitely needed to get away for a while. His partner probably also wanted some space. "Okay. I'll either be in the car or near a phone. You can reach me if you have to."

       Starsky nodded and kept silent, looking away into the moonlit night through the wide-open patio doors. Hutch hugged the pillow, put his head down, and watched his partner in profile for a long time. His reactions to this man never followed a predictable pattern. All day long he'd felt a sexual tension, had been sleepless because of it. Now Starsky was sitting damn near naked in the seductive light of the moon, a fine sheen of moisture accentuating the body mere inches from his hands, and Hutch was perfectly content and comfortable with the situation. He felt he could easily fall asleep like that, needing nothing more.

       Starsky broke the silence. "Hell living with me, huh?"

       It was so contradictory to what he was feeling right then that it startled Hutch. Then he remembered that a little earlier he would have agreed. Maybe the difference between heaven and hell was as elusive as the difference between love and hate. Maybe they were even interchangeable. We bit off more than we could chew when we strayed from the comfort zone into extremes, he thought. Do you feel it, too?

        "If you can stand me I can stand you," he answered.

       Starsky's face turned a little, revealing a crooked smile. "No problem. After eight years, you even get used to a toothache."

       "Oh gee, Starsk, you have a way with words. I am so flattered." It was crazy, but the inane banter actually felt good. In an off-beat way, it even made sense. After all, people normally got bothersome teeth removed instead of keeping them for eight years. "I am flattered," he repeated. "My God, this is more serious than I realized -- you're making sense to me!"

       "Knew there was hope for you yet."

       Easy laughter followed, as naturally as water bubbling up from a spring and just as refreshing. Hutch reached out to ruffle the riotous curls. You can take me to hell and back -- just keep making me laugh. And laugh with me.

        "Didn't mean to be a pain in the ass all day long," Starsky said, still wearing the remnant of the laughter as a smile.

       "You're mixing your metaphors, or pains, or something."

       "Okay, we're both pains. What do we do about it?"

       "Well, I'll go away tomorrow like you want. Consider it an aspirin."

       Starsky's face turned serious. "Hutch, I don't want you to go away. I just want you to take a break before you start feelin' like runnin' away."

       Hutch had gotten a pony one birthday. The shaggy beast had had a tendency to kick up hell to break free of her stall, but when she was given her head she wouldn't go anywhere. Now he knew why. "I like it here fine," he said.

       "Really?"

       "Trust me."

       "Wanna know somethin' funny, Hutch? I trust you all the way, all the time -- except when you say that."

       Hutch chuckled. Starsky knew him too damned well. "All right. This place closes in sometimes. But it's not only me who needs a break. We both do."

       Starsky took time out to consider that. "Guess you're right." He uncurled, tucked his legs under him sideways and leaned on Hutch's pillow. "Let's play hooky tomorrow."

       "And do what?"

       "Go somewhere."

       "Where?"

       "Dunno. I'll think about it."

       "Okay."

       Starsky put his head down on the pillow, curling one arm over his partner's head. A thick curl wrapped around one of Hutch's fingers of its own accord. He tugged on it gently. "Hey, you'll get cramps. Don't fall asleep down there."

       "Won't," Starsky said, settling his head more comfortably into the pillow. "How 'bout Disneyland?" he mumbled after a while.

       "Wherever," Hutch said drowsily. Later, he noticed that Starsky's weight over his arm under the pillow was too steady. "You're sleeping," he accused, barely able to fight it himself.

       "'m not." The indignant reply was slurred.

       "Good. Shouldn't."

       Some time later Hutch managed once more. "Starsk, go to bed."

       "'m goin'," came indistinctly. The last thing Hutch remembered hearing was a soft snore.

       An itchy, tickling sensation woke him, and he found his face buried in his partner's hair. He forced himself to get up, pulled a sleepily protesting Starsky to his feet, steered him to the bedroom and into his bed. For a minute, he watched as Starsky had a disagreement with the pillows and bedclothes that he seemed to settle to his satisfaction, scratched the tip of his nose on the back of one hand, rubbed his eyes with the knuckles of the same hand, and went into deep sleep again, forgetting his hand on his face in mid-rub. Then Hutch went back to drop on the couch and slept peacefully until two of his senses awakened him.

       The smell in his nose, signaling imminent breakfast, was pleasant and welcome. The influence on his other sense, however, could only be described as an assault.

       "M-i-c-k-e-y-M-o-u-s-e," Starsky was singing.

 

OCTOBER 9, 1979

 

       Hutch blinked, rubbed his eyes, then tried to focus on his watch again. The phosphoric blur finally sharpened into numbers: 2:32. He let his sleep-heavy arm fall with a groan. What now?

        It hadn't been a sound that awakened him, of that he was pretty sure. He was even surer, without checking, that Starsky wasn't in his bed, or anywhere else in the cottage. The absence, like a vacuum, had pulled, rousing him. He yawned to send a fresh supply of oxygen to his groggy brain, dragged himself off the couch, stretched, and went to look out the patio door into the night. Starsky was sitting at the edge of the tide, his back to the cottage. Hutch swept his shirt off a chair and pulled it on as he descended to the sand.

       "Didn't mean to wake you up," Starsky called back upon his approach, without turning.

       He stopped short, knowing he had made no sound that could be heard over the surf, then shrugged to himself and continued. Maybe presence worked along the same lines as absence. "Something wrong?"

       "Nope. Woke up, couldn't get back to sleep."

       He sat down next to and a little behind Starsky. "What's wrong?"

       "Told ya."

       "Yeah. So what's wrong?"

       Starsky chuckled softly. "I don't know. Restless, I guess."

       "Worried about tomorrow?" It was too soon, in Hutch's opinion, but Starsky had insisted on taking the battery of tests for re-qualification and Dobey had set up the first batch. The problem was, Hutch decided, that his partner would be taking them alongside Academy cadets. When Starsky shrugged instead of answering, the blond continued, "Nobody's going to compare you to a bunch of greenhorns. You're at a whole different level now. You're not expected to jump through hoops."

       "I'm not worried about competition. Oh, I was for a while, then realized that was just a waste of time. I can only make the best of what I've got lef--what I've got."

       "You'll be fine," was the only lame response Hutch managed to get past a sudden constriction.

       "Sure I will," Starsky said lightly. "No, truly, Hutch that's not botherin' me. I really don't know why I'm restless."

       "Being cooped up in this place?"

       "No. Actually, just the-- Maybe it's...I don't know. However the qualifications go, whatever the Board decides next month, well, there'll be another change. I feel...kinda...settled here. Ridiculous, right? I wasn't made to be a beach bum. I mean, this is just...interim...whatever. I do wanna go back. You can't wait either, betcha, but still..." He stopped, took a deep breath. "I don't know. Just a jumble in my head. It makes no sense. When it does...if it does...you'll be the first to know, okay?"

       Hutch read a request for silence into that and complied, prying into the quality of it with his instincts as he constantly did lately. He found it easy, peaceful, and relaxed into it.

       In a few weeks, the nights were going to be too cool to sit comfortably on the beach. At the moment it was pleasant to him, a relief after the sweltering summer. But he was wearing a shirt. The only reason, he told himself, that his eyes went to Starsky's naked shoulders and back was to see if he was chilly with only his denim shorts on. The dark skin, tanned by the sun, burnished now by the moon, looked smooth. His gaze was held there. Smooth in the sense there were no chill-bumps. Otherwise...

       From his vantage point, only two of the round, puckered ridges of the exit scars were visible, the other one lost beyond the curvature of the spine. Lower, angled across the small of the back, was one long, clean scalpel cut, marking the search for the fourth bullet that had gone astray inside the body, ripping jagged zig-zags and causing most of the damage. It corresponded to another on the abdomen, both mute reminders of the surgeons' frantic haste that had left no room for aesthetic considerations. On the chest, out of his sight at the moment, the bullet wounds hadn't been gaping, but now the surgery scars were numerous, bare, pale streaks glaringly criss-crossing the symmetrical pattern of hair.

       The urge to touch the scarred body was there again, as if his fingers could obliterate the cruel brands. They couldn't, of course, and if he touched the way he wanted to, Starsky would misunderstand. So he touched in the permissible way. Shifting until he was on his knees behind the curved back, he started massaging. Only a soft sigh came from Starsky. Quietly, Hutch continued at the implied consent.

       Past Starsky's head, the hammered-metallic shimmer of the moon frolicked on the waves. Hutch smiled to himself. In the past, whenever he'd thought of his friend, the surroundings of the image were mazes of city streets, and if he had had to come up with a comparison, his first thought would've been of a prowling, hunting alley cat. Lately, he'd become conditioned to seeing the man against a sunlit backdrop of the beach, or the quiet star-filled nights. Likening him to a barely-tame creature hadn't changed, though, especially when he was so naturally clad in his own skin and little else.

       His fingertips caught on a ridge marring the well-defined musculature. Jungle-scarred, too. Would he bolt like a wild thing if Hutch leaned forward and touched with his lips? Maybe he wouldn't even feel it; nerves had been severed along the cuts, deadening them to sensation forever. Hutch shook his head and cast about for something else to concentrate on. He noticed Starsky was fiddling with something on the sand, leaned over his shoulder to see. "What's that?"

       "Huh? Oh." Starsky lifted his palm. "Nothin', just sea shells. Look at this. Pretty, isn't it? What's it called?"

       Starsky always asked him things like that, as if he had every obscure answer at the tip of his tongue. "I don't know what that's called, but if it was much larger, shaped like that, it'd be a conch shell."

       "Oh, yeah. Used to find those, the big ones that is, at Coney Island when I was little. Didn't go much, though. My dad was too busy. Took one home once. Nicky used to turn it upside down to shake. You know how you're supposed to hear the ocean - guess he thought the ocean was in it. I remember him cryin' 'cause it wouldn't pour out. Good thing, too. Ma would've been pretty upset with an ocean on her kitchen floor. Would've made me mop it up."

       "Why you if it was Nicky who dumped it?"

       "He was younger. Always got away with things like that." He shrugged and added, although Hutch hadn't asked, "I didn't mind. Well, mostly." Suddenly, he jumped tracks. "How come you can hear the ocean in 'em, Hutch?"

       "It's not really the ocean, you know. The curves make an echo chamber inside and it only sounds like the sea. Actually, it doesn't sound too much like it, either. It's just human nature, I guess. Poetic license. Making a fantasy out of reality."

       "Where it don't fit," his partner added softly. "Just...fanciful thinkin', right?"

       "Yes."

       Starsky tossed away the shells. "Right."

       With the ending of the conversation, Hutch became aware that his hands had taken to stroking rather than massaging. He pulled away, fearing Starsky might also notice, and sat back on his heels. His partner saw fit to scoot forward a little and drop his shoulders and head into the blond's lap. Oh, babe, don't.

"You look all shiny," Starsky said, looking up at him.

       "What?"

       "The moon's right behind your head."

       "Oh." The eyes stared up at him a little longer, then closed. "What're you thinking about?" he asked.

       "Quicksilver."

       Hutch wondered if Starsky's non-sequiturs would ever stop catching him off guard. "Huh?"

       "You know, mercury, like in thermometers."

       "Yeah, I know. What about it?"

       "I was, I don't know, six, I think. Yeah, must've been. Ma was out to here with Nicky." He held his hand over his abdomen, then let it drop straight down. Obviously, Starsky was in one of his nostalgic moods. "I was sick. The bedrooms were upstairs and Ma couldn't climb up 'n down all day, so she made me a place downstairs in front of the TV. She kept takin' my temperature every ten minutes, I swear. You see, at the time, summers in New York meant polio scare. Guess she was tired and worried. I didn't understand any of that then. It was hot, I was hotter 'n she kept stickin' this pesky thing into my mouth. I remember fussin' about it. One time when she wasn't in the room, I took it out and started playin' with it. I didn't mean to break it, but the tip just broke. The mercury spilled out."

       Hutch was barely listening, his attention captured by Starsky's fingers idly running through the thick matting on his lower abdomen. Also, his legs were going numb. Heedless, his partner kept chattering. "Tiny silver beads rollin' all over the place. Shiny and smooth and so pretty. I started chasing 'em. But I never could catch any. Even when they stopped rollin' and sat there like they were saying 'come and get me,' they were shimmering like they were restless inside, and I found out they were gonna get away faster than I could grab. I tried so hard to catch one and hold on to it just for a minute, just to know what it felt like. Even if I couldn't keep it."

       The cut-off jeans Starsky was wearing as shorts were old, and he'd lost a lot of weight since then. In the prone position, his pelvis hollowed out further, and the thickening descent of hair was visible between the jutting hipbones. What it felt like, Hutch's mind parroted. No...we're talking about...what the hell're we talking about?

        "I couldn't catch any, but I wanted to so badly. I didn't even know what it was called then, never mind why it was called quicksilver." Both his hands made an open-palmed gesture and fell to his sides. As if released from a spell, Hutch focused on his face again.

       "I also didn't know it was poisonous," Starsky continued. "Ma came in and she was furious. Wouldn't believe I didn't do it on purpose. She must've thought I broke it in my mouth, 'cause the next thing I knew, I was at the hospital, gettin' my stomach pumped out. They had this hose they kept shovin' down my throat. It hurt like hell, and nobody would believe I never even got to touch the stuff, let alone swallow any of it, and I remember wantin' to cry, but my father was there by then, and..." He trailed off.

       That seemed to be the end of the story. Comprehending Starsky's stories was a challenge under the best of circumstances, and Hutch had been following this one with only a small fraction of his mind. He had to stop and think what a normal response would be to the narrative, grasped at a conciliatory tone one would use for a child. "I'm sorry they hurt you, and I'm sorry nobody believed you." Starsky looked up at him strangely. "I'm also sorry you didn't get to catch any mercury," the blond added as good measure.

       "Quicksilver," Starsky corrected.

       "Same difference."

       The darkly shadowed eyes reflected something like disappointment for an instant before they were shuttered. Did I miss something? Hutch wondered as he tugged lightly at the springy curls that felt moist with the humidity. "You really should get some sleep. First stop in the morning is the firing range. You need steady hands and clear sight."

       "Yeah. Tell you what, you go on up. If I keep talkin', I'm never gonna get sleepy. I'll be along soon."

       Hutch went back. Although he tried to wait up, he drifted off. His sleep wasn't too deep, though, until Starsky was also in the cottage. However, it was deep enough to leave him wondering if the feeling that his partner had stood looking down at him and stroking his hair was reality or just a dream.

 

NOVEMBER 12, 1979

 

       Normally, Starsky would've bitched endlessly if he had to wake up during what he called 'ungodly hours.'

       For the last month, though, he'd been up, and down at the beach, before the sun had a chance to climb any respectable distance into the sky. On the sundeck of the cottage, Hutch sipped his tea, watching the small figure on the beach jogging determinedly, laboring against the sand that dragged him down.

       Captain Dobey was sitting next to him, overflowing the flimsy wicker chair, looking like a dark, grumpy bear roused too early from hibernation. Of course, nobody had asked him to be there; nevertheless, he was. "Well, this is it," he said in a low, rumbling voice.

       Hutch just nodded, eyes still on Starsky who had come to a stop next to a boat shed and was now chinning himself on some wood supports. The blond winced at the sight as he always did, imagining the stress on the scarred-over muscles. However, there was no stopping a determined Starsky, and he had come a long way on sheer determination. Everybody, including the doctors and the therapists, agreed on that, but only two people knew the actual cost in pain, sweat and tears.

       "Can he cut it?" Dobey's voice intruded again.

       "That's what the Board will decide today, isn't it?" Hutch said, irritated. Starsky's nerves were stretched to snapping point waiting for the day, and it had begun affecting his partner as well. "They've got all the reports."

       "I don't give a hoot about the reports. I'm asking you."

       Hutch realized Dobey wasn't making idle conversation. The captain would be called before the Board for his recommendation and he seriously wanted the detective 's opinion. Still, Hutch hedged. "Why ask me? I'm not a doctor."

       "No doctor will be going onto the streets with him. No Board member will be trusting his life to him. None of them will get hurt if he's too slow or too hesitant. You will. This is between us. Level with me."

       Hutch turned to him angrily. "I'll always trust him to be my partner. When it comes right down to it, Captain, you don't trust your partner because he's Superman. There aren't any around. You trust your partner because you know, without any doubt, that he'll back you up with everything in his power. What he's actually got in his power, well, that's not so important. If I'm on the line, I know Starsky will be as fast and sure as it's humanly possible for him. And that's what counts." His eyes dared Dobey to find fault with his reasoning.

       The captain sighed. "Ask a stupid question..." he grumbled. "Let me put it another way. If he doesn't have what it takes anymore, he's liable to end up getting hurt. And I know who'll bleed the most in that case. So, you tell me, can he still cut it out there?"

        It was a harder question to answer, and one that was already haunting Hutch. It was his turn to sigh. "It took a lot out of him," he admitted miserably, then turned to look at the figure still trying to get the most out of an abused body. "Physically," he amended. "In terms of guts, determination, courage, I'd say he's got more of those than ever -- even discipline which I thought he'd never cultivate. Maybe enough to make up for whatever else is missing now." He looked back at the older man, now also watching Starsky's efforts. "He made his choice, Captain, and he's been working very hard for it. I'm on his side. Are you?"

       Dobey was silent for a while. "Yeah," he said finally, then added with a rueful grin, "Some habits are hard to break." Both pairs of eyes followed Starsky's return, now at an easy jog. "You know my recommendation will only count so much. What the Board will decide is still anybody's guess. If they put him behind a desk...?"

       "He'll resign," Hutch said.

       "And you?" Hutch didn't bother answering. "Thought so," Dobey said. "Well, we'll wait and see." He leaned over, threatening to tip the chair, picked up his briefcase and took out some papers.

       Hutch watched him make some notations. "What're those?"

       "The department's workload and manpower reports. Thought I'd bring them up as long as there's a Board meeting."

       Hutch smiled. "Loading the deck, Captain?"

       "Well, I do have manpower problems. Can't afford to lose two detectives longer than I already have."

       Hutch let him work and went back to watching his partner. Halfway to the cottage, Starsky paused to pull off his warmup suit, then plunged into the waves, surfacing a few seconds later. He was swimming as haphazardly as ever, throwing up more water than would be expected from a dozen playful dolphins.

       Dobey's voice cut the silence. "You know the time Starsky was shot by those hoods gunning for Vic Monte?"

       Hutch blinked at the change of subject. "Yeah?" he said. As if he could ever forget. For an instant, the expanse of sun-bleached sand and blue-gray water was obscured by the vision of a dark, rainy night, a homey restaurant smelling of rich herbs and wine, and warm blood spreading over the floor, red&white checkered cloth, his hands... Hutch shook his head, and breathed in the crisp morning air, trying to banish the memory.

       Every time it happens, I keep thinking it has to be the last time, that God can't be so cruel as to hurt him again, that fate can surely find another plaything...and then--

        Dobey's hand on his arm brought him back. The captain was standing next to him. "He once told me that when he got hurt that time, what he appreciated most wasn't so much how well you took care of him, but that you didn't treat him like a cripple. He said you still made him feel like you were partners working together every step of the way. I gather he liked that a lot."

       Hutch wondered why Dobey was referring to that years-old incident in such a pointed way. Then he realized that as soon as Starsky had taken to the water, he had come out of his chair and was still worriedly watching the progress of the dark head bobbing among the waves. He felt a little embarrassed while he tried to justify himself. Starsky hated the water, couldn't swim well, but did it daily as exercise and to cool off after a workout. And Hutch always worried about fatigue or muscle spasms, especially since the weather had cooled. However, Dobey had a point. If Starsky went on active duty, Hutch couldn't keep hovering over him, undermining his self-confidence.

       "Got you, Captain," he said and went into the cottage to fill the tub. Left to himself, Starsky would opt for the expedient shower. Hutch preferred him to relax properly in a tub. Have to stop that as well, he thought. Soon.

        It dawned on him that soon he'd have to stop a lot of things he had come to take for granted while they shared a house. Whatever the Board decided, the limbo was ending. They would have a definite direction by that evening, one way or another. The period of interdependency would end, and they would each go back to their individual homes and lives, as befitted two adult men.

***

       "You're drunk," Hutch accused.

       "Yabetcha," Starsky agreed good-naturedly. He kept his stranglehold on Hutch's neck as the blond tried to steer his unsteady steps into the apartment. He was also exhibiting, Hutch had noticed, an unfortunate tendency to giggle at nothing.

       "Hate to think what's happening to your liver," Hutch grumbled. Huggy had thrown one hell of a party after hearing of Starsky's reinstatement.

       Starsky giggled. They were halfway into the bedroom when he dug in his heels. "Hey, where're we?"

       "Don't you know your own apartment?"

       "My-- " He squinted at his surroundings. "Oh, yeah. What're we doin' here?"

       "You live here." Hutch gave a yank to dislodge him from his spot and pulled him to the bed.

       "I like the beach," Starsky argued while Hutch seated him and got him out of his jacket.

       "Yeah, well, we're working again. I'm not driving all the way out there tonight just to come back the same distance tomorrow."

       "But we'll go back, right?"

       Hutch pulled off the sneakers and socks. "It's yours until the end of the month. Maybe weekends."

       Starsky found that worthy of another giggle. Hutch unbuttoned the shirt, but Starsky had thrown his arms around the blond's neck once more, so he couldn't remove it. Giving up, he just tipped Starsky into the bed. The arms tightened and pulled him down as well. Starsky's lips found an earlobe, making Hutch jerk back.

       "Let me go, Starsky. I want to go home."

       "Whatshwroonng...what's wrong wi' mine?"

       "I'm sick of couches. I want my bed."

       "Got a bed. Right here," Starsky said, trying to pull Hutch's head closer.

       And you just happen to be in it, Hutch thought. This time there's even the classic excuse: I was drunk, I didn't know what I was doing. How trite are we going to get? "No, Starsky, let me go," he said firmly.

       "Hutch, stay...please."

       The reason Hutch lost his temper, he knew, was because everything in him was begging to give in to the tugging of those arms. "I said no!" Not again, he thought. If it ever happens again, I don't want reasons like fear, relief, guilt, anger, or anything else to hide behind, excuses to bury it. I can't take anymore. If it is to happen, it will be because we choose and want, for no reason except that we choose and want. I want to be acknowledged, goddammit, not hidden away like some dirty little secret.

       He roughly thrust away the arms and straightened up. Starsky stayed still for an instant, looking sobered, then rolled over on his side and curled into a ball, hiding his face under an arm.

       Hutch picked up the jacket and threw it on a chair, set the alarm clock for him, and turned the bedside lamp off. He was almost out of the room when Starsky called, "Hutch?" in a small voice.

       He paused. "Yeah?"

       "Sorry."

       "Forget it."

       Starsky took a shaky, audible breath. "Okay. I will ."

       "I mean, it's all right." He turned to leave again.

       "Hutch?"

       "Yes?"

       "Pick...pick me up...for work?"

       Starsky sounded so unsure about his answer that Hutch couldn't help returning to the bed. He put a hand lightly on his partner's shoulder. "Of course I'm going to pick you up for work, dummy. I set your alarm clock. Try to be ready on time for a change, hangover or no hangover."

       "'Kay. 'Night, Hutch."

       "Goodnight," Hutch said, squeezed the shoulder once, and left.

 

JANUARY 6, 1980

 

       Hutch eyed his beer still untouched and flat by now, and decided he didn't want it. In fact, he didn't want anything the night had offered so far. He'd already realized getting back into the swing of things wasn't going to be easy; he only hoped it would he possible eventually. They were on light duty at work, which was all right with him, but it meant too few challenges to lose himself in. Maybe he was getting old, but their usual after-duty activities no longer appealed very much, either. The Pits was filled with smoke and raucous noise, one burning his eyes, the other getting on his nerves. Neither was he thrilled with his new companion. She was certainly pretty, and he had been trying to pick her up, but that was just habit and perhaps doing what was expected of him, going through the motions. In half an hour her attitude had started setting his teeth on edge, although it was no fault of hers. The few times he'd let himself get carried away by his glands had only served to empty those glands briefly, filling nothing else inside him. He wasn't up to it tonight. It was time to make an exit.

       "Hey, Starsk," he spoke over the noise level. His partner was also alone at the moment; the two women they'd approached had gone to the bathroom together. "I'm cutting out. Make my apologies. Be nice; she's an okay kid. Say I was called to work or something." He attempted to get up, but Starsky reached across the table to hold his wrist.

       "Somethin' wrong?"

       "No, I just -- " Hutch shrugged. "Just don't feel like it."

       "Oh." Starsky didn't release his arm. "Come to think of it, neither do I. Let's tell Huggy to apologize for both of us."

       It surprised Hutch. He'd thought Starsky had been enjoying himself, considering that for the last ten minutes it had been hard to distinguish which body belonged to whom on the other side of the booth. "Thought you were having a ball. What's the matter?"

       Starsky looked around the noisy bar. "Tell you later." He got up. "Wonder if the burgers are ready, though?" he said, steering his partner ahead of him through the crowd. "I am hungry."

       "If not," Hutch called back, "we'll stop by Toni's and pick up the pizza monstrosity of your choice."

       "Terrific. Got beer in the fridge. Let's get outta here."

***

       Starsky had sprawled on the couch with his head back, his feet propped up on the coffee table, on which remained only a large, greasy cardboard box and some empty cans. He had his hands crossed on a stomach that, in Hutch's opinion, was protruding a little more than usual right now. And no wonder. "I don't believe you ate all that."

       "Was good, too," Starsky said with all the smug satisfaction of a replete man. "Had a good idea there, partner. Gettin' us outta Huggy's, I mean."

       Hutch chuckled. "Buddy, you know you're getting old when you opt for pizza instead of the hot armful you had there."

       "And what was wrong with your 'okay kid'?" Starsky came back.

       "Not a thing, except she was just that, a kid."

       "Come on, she wasn't that young."

       "Maybe not in years. I think it'd have been fine if you hadn't piped up we were cops."

       "So now it's my fault? They asked. I was supposed to lie?"

       Hutch pushed the clutter on the table to one side so he could also stretch his legs. "You know how it goes sometimes, Starsk. You get a wide-eyed innocent with hero worship in her heart and not the first notion how dirty this 'glamorous' job gets." He remembered that there had been a time when he'd have enjoyed such attitudes, would've even capitalized on them. An earlier time when he'd have thought it no more than his due. And an even earlier one when he had the attitude himself. Basic beliefs had survived the years, but no illusions were left. Not even a decade and as old as Methuselah. "I can't deal with that anymore. How do you explain that this Champion of Law and Order is just tired, and sick to his stomach from the stink most of the time?"

       Starsky's hand came to rest on his thigh, squeezed gently. A gesture of understanding. "There's worse. Sometimes you get the morbid ones. You know, fascinated by all the gory details. She felt my scars, and I swear that's what turned her on. Try explainin' they aren't medals to the one living inside the skin. They pull. They catch. They hurt."

       Hutch felt his throat tighten. He put his arm on the back of the couch, reached and got his fingers into the curly hair. "I know," he whispered. "I know."

       Starsky turned his head sideways to him. Hutch saw that his eyes were very full. "You ever get the feelin', Hutch, that you ain't in step with the rest of the world anymore? So much's happened that now you're marchin' to a different drummer, and nobody can hear the same beat?"

       "I know," Hutch repeated.

       Starsky continued as if he hadn't heard, and the words were rushing out like a dam giving way. "Nobody knows what's goin' on inside you? They can't understand even if you told 'em, and you know you've even stopped looking for someone to tell, 'cause what's the use anyway, 'cause there's no way for anyone to understand, not unless they were there, lived it all with you all along, and then you know -- except for -- you think -- but then that's impossible, too -- and then you realize--" He gave up and fell silent, then removed his hand from Hutch's thigh and looked away.

       "Then you realize what?" Hutch prompted softly, sensing the answer was important, but cautious about dwelling on what it could be, afraid of reading too much into it.

       "Nothin'. Never mind."

       "Tell me," Hutch insisted, his fingers unconsciously tightening and loosening on the dark head.

       "Then you realize you'd rather opt for pizza," Starsky finished, sounding his usual irreverent self, and brought it all to a full, closed circle. "Was good, too." Abruptly, he swung his legs off the table and rose. "Except it don't clear itself away."

       He piled the cans on top of the box to carry them into the kitchen. To close the distance, Hutch picked up a forgotten can from the side of the couch, found all the discarded paper napkins, and followed him. He leaned back against the counter and waited when his partner decided to water his plants, all thoughts suspended.

       He watched Starsky until the chore was finished, thinking of absolutely nothing, and then, in a totally unconsidered move, relying only on his instincts, simply reached out and pulled the man into his arms. Once he had him there, a little tense but not objecting, it seemed like the next simple thing to do was to kiss him. So he did, softly at first, and when he felt Starsky fit against him naturally, a little harder. From the mouth, his lips followed the cheekbone to the temple, then traced the hairline down, his arms and hands molding his partner into himself.

       "Hutch, why?" was whispered close to his ear.

       He didn't answer for a few seconds, too preoccupied with parting the curls to reach the skin underneath. "Because," he answered finally, distracted.

       The question was repeated, louder this time. "Why?"

       "Told you." He found the upper portion of the ear, ran his tongue over the stiff curves.

       Starsky shivered a little in his arms. "That ain't no reason."

       "Exactly."

       "What's that mean?"

       "Figure it out." He got down to the earlobe, interested in the differences of texture.

       "Quit playin' with words, Hutch. Tell me."

       Irritated at the way he had to keep using his mouth to answer Starsky when he had better things to do with it, he pulled back until he could see his partner's face. "There's got to be a reason?" Starsky didn't answer, just kept looking at him. He wasn't backing away, either. Neither rejection nor acceptance, and Hutch realized neutrality was worse than both. "Yes, for you there has to be, I guess. Try this on for size: because there's no reason. How do you like that?"

       "Hutch, that -- that's not--"

       "Not good enough? Sorry, it's the only one I've got." You've used up all the rest, he thought. "Take it or leave it."

       Starsky looked down, swallowed hard a couple of times, then raised his eyes again. "I can't.

       Final.

       Hutch stared at him for an instant, then he made his hands let go of Starsky with slow, deliberate motions, pulled his arms away from around the man, leaving them suspended in the air, palms spread open in a gesture of surrender, and took a step back. "Fine," he said, a cold finality in his voice. He put his arms down and began to walk away.

       Starsky held his sleeve. "Hutch, let me expla--"

       Hutch yanked his arm away; his temper snapped. "Explain what! That it's fine when you make the moves, but not so hot when I come on to you? Or that you can't get off on me unless you're scared to death or angry? Did it occur to you, buddy, that you might have something in common with that woman you left at the bar?"

       He saw the words hit Starsky as blows, and it felt like a balm to something raw and bleeding inside himself. He turned on his heels to leave, sweeping his jacket off the couch and heading for the door. Half-way through it, he glanced back. Starsky was still in the same spot, now leaning into the support of his hands on the counter, his head down, his shoulders heaving as if he hurt inside.

       Hutch hesitated, took a step back into the apartment, closed the door again, and leaned his forehead against it for a minute to get a hold of his anger and see past it. He collected himself and went back to his partner -- because Starsky was that, first and last, no matter what.

       He managed to sound calm. "Listen to me. I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I lost my temper, that's all. If you can't, you can't. I can handle that. It's all right. It doesn't change anything else. But you have to do something for me. Don't ever, whatever's going down, ever cross that line again. I can't take anymore. You hear me?"

       The bowed head moved in a nod. "I'm sorry," Starsky whispered, his voice shaky.

       Hutch found himself unable to see Starsky miserable and stay unresponsive. He put his hand lightly on one shoulder. "No need for that. I'm not." As soon as he said it, he knew it was the truth. He chose his next words very carefully. "I don't regret any form our friendship took, and I'd like to keep it that way, so this form has got to stop. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

       Starsky took a deep breath and nodded again. "Yeah."

       "Good. Now, who's driving tomorrow?"

       "I am."

       "Fine. Pick me up." He patted his friend's shoulder and left. And let's see if I can pick up the pieces.

 

FEBRUARY 8, 1980

 

       The warehouse was a washout for all purposes.

       What else is new, Hutch thought, why should this be any different than anything else lately? He kicked an empty crate. "There's nothing here, Starsky."

       His partner wiped his dusty hands on his jeans. "Guess it was a bum tip."

       "You sure there was one?" Hutch snapped unkindly. He was sick of being dragged out to follow this and that lead during his supposedly free time, especially when most of them didn't pan out.

       "What're you talkin' about? The call's recorded. How would I get a warrant from Judge Carney after hours without a good tip?"

       "Wasn't so good after all, was it?"

       "That ain't my problem." Starsky ran after the blond who was striding out of the warehouse. "What's the matter?"

       "Look I don't know what your problem is. I don't know why I'm getting dragged out time after time on stakeouts that fizzle out, to see snitches who don't show up, or on tips that could've been handled by uniforms, but this is the last time you're blowing my Friday night." It had been dismal enough in the first place. A month now -- glutted and still starving.

        "I thought that was it," Starsky snapped back. "Fine, go back to your whatever-her-name-is-this-time, and I won't bother you the rest of the weekend."

       "Thank you! And her name is Linda. Use it."

       "Why? By the time I do, another one'll be there. Let's hope the next one will be more than a step up from a --"

       Hutch whirled on him. "You want to keep your teeth, you'd better not finish that sentence!"

       Starsky backed down, looking genuinely embarrassed. "Okay, that was way outta line," he mumbled. "I just meant she's not your type. None of 'em are lately. Damn it, Hutch, why?"

       Tell me about types, buddy, Hutch thought. And then tell me where a curly-headed man fits in. "Why? You have the nerve to ask me why?" He stared at his partner, then something seemed to snap inside. "Since you asked--" He grabbed the man by the front of his leather jacket, yanked him around, forcibly seated him on a crate and stayed over him.

       "You want to know, here goes. No, I don't like one-night-stands. But they keep me sane. If I can't have what I want, I'll take what I can get. Sure, I can get better, but do you think there's anything left in me to invest in a relationship? Those women you don't think too highly of, they don't complicate my life, they don't confuse me, they don't tie my guts into knots -- which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for you. What the hell do you want from me anyway? You're on eggshells around me all day long and at the end of it I can't get rid of you. At least with those women it's simple and honest. We all know exactly what we want. I don't hurt them and they don't hurt me. Tell you something else, I like them, too -- quite a bit and just enough. So the next time you think you've got some say-so in my choices, remember, the only thing that concerns you is that I'm leaving you alone, and you can damn well return the favor!"

       He let go of Starsky abruptly, spun around, and stalked to his car without a glance back. His partner didn't follow immediately. Hutch sat in the car and waited, looking at the deserted, dirty street, seeing none of it.

       All the king's horses and all the king's men... I don't think they've got a chance.

       Starsky was there, reaching for the door handle, when Hutch slapped his palm on the lock, barring him. He rolled the window down just enough to be heard. "I'm leaving," he informed the man outside in a toneless voice.

       "Oh...okay. I...I'll get a cab."

       "No, I mean I'm leaving."

       "Where're you going?"

       There was something like panic in Starsky's voice but Hutch didn't turn around to look at him. "I don't know."

       "When're you coming back?"

       "I don't know."

       "You are coming back?"

       Hutch shrugged.

       "Aren't you?"

       He shrugged again, listlessly.

       "Hutch, please, let's talk about it."

       He shook his head.

       "What -- what do I tell Dobey?"

       Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn, was the first thing that popped into his head. He kept it to himself, shook his head at the inanity of it, and found himself laughing at the same time. He was still laughing when he drove away.

       When it hurt too much to cry... Or was it the other way around?

       One of the first things he noticed two hours out of LA was that he had forgotten his wallet. He wasn't going back for it, so he stopped at the next town, found the police station, flashed his badge and said he was stranded. With professional courtesy, they gave him some money. He signed the voucher and addressed it to Metro. He couldn't keep doing that, or soon he'd find Starsky or Dobey waiting for him somewhere, but for the moment it was enough. He'd use it only for gas and food, find a place on the beach to sleep when he got tired, and worry about the rest when he had to.

 

FEBRUARY 9, 1980

 

       The first day's tally was a heady feeling of freedom, too little sleep, many miles left behind under the impulse to push on, and a slowly emerging question: Where am I going?

 

FEBRUARY 10, 1980

 

       Next day, he couldn't drive much; gas ate up money. So did the diners which evidently believed prices should be in direct opposition to the quality. He let the car sit a lot, wandering aimlessly through the little towns he happened upon. Towards nightfall, he seemed to have reached one conclusion: I have no place to go.

        But going back simply because there was no other refuge would be galling. He went a little further up the coast, then stopped to sleep.

 

FEBRUARY 11, 1980

 

       By the time the sun came up, he'd decided he was being ridiculous. Of course he had places to go, alternatives to choose from. Just what they were, let alone how appealing they were, well, he'd settle that later. So he jumped back into the car and drove on.

       Maybe he could call Duluth that evening and ask for some money to be wired. His parents would be ecstatic over the news he'd left LA and 'that miserable job,' and wouldn't ask questions. By the time they figured out he wasn't heading home, he'd be... wherever. He'd smooth the ruffled feathers one day. Anyway, they never expected better of him, so what difference did it make?

       He went so far as to pick up a phone and talk to the operator about reversing the charges -- then he simply hung up. A grown man had to govern his own life, and one of the cardinal rules was not to let somebody else pay his way through it. Another, he thought, is to face it.

        He got some coffee and toast, left the truck stop, and found another nameless beach for the night. It was getting colder the further north he went, definitely too chilly to think of sleeping by the sea, and the car got cramped too quickly. He found a blanket in the trunk, sat down on a boulder, and as the first order of business, admitted to himself that he had no place to go because he wanted no place else to go.

        I am what I want to be, in my chosen corner of the world. My life is back there. That's settled.

        Nothing else about his life was settled, though.

       A month ago he had told Starsky he could handle it, and then proceeded to prove he could do nothing of the sort. What was he trying to prove with a string of one-night-stands? After all, for four years he hadn't needed to exhaust his body to keep his hands off his partner.

       So what had he been doing? The most honest answer was that he'd been having a temper tantrum, like a child refused something he wanted. That realization was embarrassing, but not completely new. Most of his life he'd been comfortable with his actions; it was his reactions he had problems with. He lost control when his life got tangled up with somebody else's. Too bad a man can't be an island. It'd be so much easier.

        Why couldn't a man be an island? Certainly, conditioned to symbiosis, it was hard to imagine, probably even harder to achieve, but if amputation was what it'd take--

       What the hell are you thinking of in such clinical terms? It's not a sickness, dammit, and if you insist, try split personality, because that's how woven the relationship is. How do you amputate that? Exorcism? Oh, that'll be interesting. You see, Padre, this is my partner, and, uh, well, we have a problem.

        Maybe sitting alone on a dark, empty beach and laughing at yourself would not be considered an approved therapeutic practice, but there was a lot to be said for it, he found out. Somehow, it cleared the cobwebs away. He pulled himself up straight, and for the first time, both mentally and vocally, he put it into words:

       "David Michael Starsky, I love you."

       He chuckled. No heralds and trumpets, please; it's not a revelation. Neither does it obligate Starsky. However, it's a fact. And as with all facts, you have to live with it. Now that you've said it, put it away, and don't parade it anymore. Won't be too hard. Only a tiny portion of it has to be buried; the rest is reciprocated. Go home. Find your partner. Friend. Period.

        He headed back to his car. If he drove without stopping, he should be home sometime the following night, and he should have just about enough money left to do it

 

FEBRUARY 13, 1980

 

        It was twenty-eight hours later, 3:06 in the morning, when he walked into his apartment. The phone was ringing. He answered it, found it dead, hung up again. He sank on the couch for ten minutes, then decided he should clean up before he gave in to exhaustion. He was undressed and ready to step in the shower when the phone rang once more. He picked it up.

       "Hutch? Hutch, is that you?" There was a frantic note to Starsky's voice. "Hutch, you there?"

       "Yeah, I'm here."

       "Finally! You know how long I've been calling? Forgot how many times I stopped by. Don't hang upon me. Listen, Hutch, I'll keep callin' if you hang up, and if you leave again--"

       "I'm not going to hang up, Starsky. I'm listening."

       "--I'll find you. You know I can, Hutch. Sooner or later I will, and don't think--" Starsky finally seemed to register what Hutch had said and cut off. "Oh...okay." He fell silent.

       "I'm listening," Hutch repeated, although he wished it could be postponed until the next day; he was tired enough to ache.

       "Uh, yeah. Where were you?"

       "Took a drive up the-- Never mind. Not important. How come you're calling this time of the night?"

       "I've been calling all night, every night. I just let the phone ring and get up every half hour to check."

       "What?"

       "See, when you answer, it gets disconnected. So I'd know. Figured you might not like it if I stayed at your place, I mean, considerin' -- didn't know what else to do."

       Hutch shook his head. Only Starsky. "Well, I'm back now." Since that was settled, he waited for Starsky to get off the phone. When there was only silence on the wire, he added, "I'm not going anywhere." That didn't seem satisfactory enough, either; the line stayed open and silent. "What did you want?" he asked, and whatever it is, can it wait?

"What did I--? Uh... Hutch, listen, I don't wanna argue, I don't wanna fight. Whatever you want is okay with me. And if you want...still want -- I mean, I want whatever you want, okay?" He waited for a reply he didn't get. "Okay? Hutch, say something."

       Hutch wasn't sure he liked the way that sounded. "What's that supposed to mean?" Don't do this to me, not when I've barely managed a semblance of order in my own head that I can live with.

        "Whatever you want. You got it. Whenever. You know."

       "Starsky, did you just say what I think you said?"

       "Yeah, if you still want to, that is. Just... just don't--"

       A martyr routine yet? What, mine wasn't enough? The minute I decide to survive it with some dignity intact, this is what you hit me with? "Don't what? Don't go away?"

       There was a long silence, then Starsky answered softly. "Yeah."

       "Goddamn you, Starsky! I should hang up. I should go the hell away, 'cause you sure aren't leaving anything to stick around for!"

       "Hutch, I thought--"

       "No, you didn't! You didn't think at all."

       "Hutch..."

       "Shut up and listen! I'm going to say this once and then I'm going to forget this insane conversation ever took place. What I feel for you, it isn't open to bargains, and it sure as hell isn't up for bribes, you hear me? It doesn't come that cheap. Dammit, I won't let you make me feel bad about this! What the hell's so wrong with it anyway? It came from years of caring, trust, respect, companionship, everything a relationship needs -- hell, even the chemistry works, and don't dare pretend you don't know what I'm talking about. Except nature threw us a curve. The joke's on us. So, okay. So you can't get past that. Fine. You will never have to worry about what I want. I lived with it for four years and I didn't abuse it. I'll live with it for another four or forty. So you can relax, and the joker who dealt this hand can keep right on laughing, but nobody will barter with it again. Ever. It's nobody's business, not even yours. It's mine." When he ran down only silence came through the wires. "You hear me?"

       The reply was barely audible. "Yeah."

       "Do you understand?"

       "Yeah."

       Hutch took a deep breath, feeling shaken. It was time to close the subject forever and see what could be salvaged. "I have no gas in my car. Will you pick me up sometime around noon? I have some explaining to do to Dobey."

       "Huh--? Oh. Yeah."

       "Goodnight, Starsk."

       "Yeah," Starsky repeated, sounding absentminded.

       Hutch didn't wait for the click from the other end to hang up. Refusing to even think about the conversation, he took his shower.

       The phone was ringing again when he turned the water off. He didn't know how long it had been going on. He had just talked to Starsky and didn't care to talk to anybody else, so he let it ring. However, it persisted, although he took his time drying off and getting into a robe. Finally the sound got on his nerves enough to make him grab the phone. "Yes!"

       "It's me."

       Hutch gave an irritated sigh. How can I get myself together if you won't give me a break? "What is it now, Starsky?"

       "Hutch...do you...love me?"

       "What!"

       "Just answer."

       Hutch shook his head in exasperation. "Oh, no, Starsk, whatever gave you the idea?"

       "Give me a straight answer, dammit."

       "Isn't that a contradiction in terms under the circumstances?" Hutch managed the derisive tone, but couldn't summon the laugh the comment seemed to require.

       "Please, Hutch, don't play games."

       He gave up at the pleading tone in his partner's voice. However, saying it out loud to himself was one thing, being able to lay it out for Starsky something else. He couldn't help hedging a little bit. "That's a stupid question, Starsky. Of course I love you and you know it. I told you enough times."

       "No, not like that. Not to take the sting off the rotten thing you're gonna say next. I'm talkin' about for real. The commitment kind? The kind that goes 'forsaking all others'?"

       Hutch choked up.

       "Do you?" his partner insisted.

       "Starsky, leave it alone," the blond managed.

       "Do you?"

       "Didn't I just say we won't talk about this anymore?" Let alone I give an inch and you want a mile.

        "Do you?"

       "What the hell are you trying--?"

       Starsky overrode him. "Do you?"

       "Yes, goddammit, yes, I do! Are you happy now? What did that accomplish?" There was a mumble on the phone. "What was that?" he snapped.

       "I said, you never told me."

       "There was never sufficient reason to," Hutch said sarcastically, smarting from the knowledge that he hadn't even been able to say it to himself until recently and now it was being dragged out of him. "We know you need reasons for such things and--"

       "Don't, Hutch, please. Don't spoil it. We gotta talk, I'm coming over."

       Hutch suddenly felt afraid. "No!"

       "Why?"

       For some reason, he didn't want to be seen right then. "Whatever it is can wait until tomorrow."

       "And you accuse me of needing reasons?"

       Hutch didn't know how to respond to that. "I've been driving straight for...I don't know how long. I'm tired."

       "Go to bed. I'll be over. I'll wait until whenever."

       This time it was Starsky who didn't linger on the phone. As soon as he was through talking, Hutch heard the click. He stared at the receiver, then replaced it slowly. He cast about, somehow feeling caught, wanting to get away, then wrapped his robe more securely around himself, tied the belt tighter.

       How could having given voice to feelings make him feel more naked, more exposed, than actual nudity, he didn't know. But it did. The body was easy to put on the line. He had opened up something much deeper, and it was no longer only skin deep.

       He found himself at the window, watching the dark street.

       Maybe he wouldn't show up.

       No good. If Starsky said he'd be there, he'd he there.

       He waited.

~~~

       He was still at the window when the Torino came to a stop in front of the building, and all too soon Starsky was inside his space.

       "Hutch?"

       Hands were on his arms, urging him to turn away from the window. He tried, but changing position made him feel faint.

       "Hutch, what's wrong?"

       Suddenly, Starsky was taking his weight and leading him to the couch. He was seated and his partner was pushing at his head. "Put your head down. Breathe deep."

       He obeyed, and in a short while the hazy film lifted from his brain. He raised his head, saw Starsky sitting on the floor in front of him, holding him by the knees, and looking worried.

       "You all right?"

       "Yeah, fine."

       "What happened?"

       "Nothing. Just tired. Must've locked my knees. Stupid. First thing they teach you."

       Starsky's hand touched his cheek lightly, rubbed. "You look terrible. Growin' a partner to the caterpillar?"

       He turned his face away from the touch, and Starsky's hand dropped back to Hutch's knee. "Nowhere to shave on the road. Just now, couldn't bother."

       "How long since you've had any sleep?"

       "Don't know. Been driving since last night. Before then, it was cold on the beach."

       "The beach?"

       "Didn't have much money."

       Starsky cursed under his breath, dug into his pocket, and brought out Hutch's wallet. He threw it on the couch. "Did you eat at least?"

       "Sure."

       "Did you eat anything today?"

       "Breakfast. Then I had to keep getting gas."

       "Shit! When you're feelin' better, I'm gonna kick your ass. You're too old to run away from home. And too young to be trusted alone, looks like."

       He would've liked to be alone right then. He pulled the hem of the robe tightly around his legs and scooted back on the couch, trying to get away from Starsky's hands. His partner seemed to understand and dropped them to his own knees.

       "You're beat. Go to bed."

       If he went to bed, he knew, he wasn't going to wake up for a long time. He couldn't bear to stay in limbo for that long. "No. You came to talk, talk."

       Starsky looked uncomfortable, too. "Stretch out on the couch, huh?"

       "Will you stop with the mothering? I said no!"

       His partner studied his hands. "You ain't makin' it easy."

       "Tell me about easy!"

       "Guess not," Starsky mumbled. "Look, uh, you want something to eat?"

       Hutch realized he had to let Starsky take it at his own pace. "Yeah, all right."

       His partner left with alacrity, but he was also back soon, with a bowl of soup. He held out a spoonful.

       "On, for Christ's sake, I'm not a child," Hutch grumbled and took the bowl away.

       Starsky said something under his breath that sounded like "Couldn't tell." He sat on the other end of the couch and didn't say another word until Hutch put the empty bowl on the coffee table.

       The blond studied the table top. "So, why are you here?"

       "Sometimes you ask the dumbest things, Hutch."

       He decided to plunge straight into it. "What happened to 'I can't'?"

       "What?"

       "That night at your place. You wanted all kinds of reasons. 'I can't', you said."

       "Oh. That was different."

       "How?"

       "Hutch, you'd never told me-- I mean, that time, if I let myself go, where could I stop?"

       Confused, Hutch stared at him. "Stop what?"

       Starsky found something worthy of vast interest in a loose thread on the arm of the couch. "Wantin' more. Again. Anytime. For no reason. It was hard enough anyway. You trample all over limits, and how do you stop?"

       "Who asked you to?"

       "You did. Oh, I know, not in so many words, but that was the message. At lest, I thought it was. But then you go and...." He shrugged, a motion of resignation. "I don't know anymore, Hutch. Whatever you want, I'm here. Isn't that enough?"

       "No, dammit! I told you that already."

       "Yeah, you told me other things, too, but you're not..."

       Acting like it, Hutch heard, and saw Starsky's hand make a hesitant move toward him. Carefully, he kept his own hands to himself until his partner pulled back. "Starsky, I'm exhausted. I can't see straight. My brain feels like it's been through a grinder. Spell it out for me. Why did you think I'd want you to stop?"

       "Well...the first time...you wouldn't talk to me afterwards. I tried, but you wouldn't. It was like you couldn't handle it, didn't want to."

       Hutch kept staring at him in astonishment. They couldn't possibly be thinking of the same time. He was exhausted enough to be hazy on a lot of things, but neither fatigue nor years could dull that memory. He could remember with perfect clarity. Beyond comparison to anything he'd experienced before or since -- even with Starsky. There had been no doubts then, no holding back, no fear... Fear? God, yes, there was fear. Almost paralyzing fear. Not of each other, but...

        Suddenly, he understood. He had been so afraid of falling apart totally when Starsky needed his support and stability most that the only way he could handle it had been to clamp down on every emotion. He did, after all, remember thinking he was going to shatter if he let himself feel, and how he'd been speechless, helpless because of it. And that's when the signals crossed? Dear God, four years...

        Starsky was continuing. "At the time, it was enough that you'd stuck by me, even across that line. When everything was okay again, and we'd still not said a word, I thought maybe we could go away somewhere, work it out. I mean, I wasn't sure of much myself, but I wanted to try. But you wouldn't come to the islands with me."

       "The islands?" Hutch asked, dazed.

       "Yeah. I kept askin', but you just got upset, couldn't wait for me to get lost."

       "I was supposed to go with you?" Yes, Starsky had asked. And there had been a reason, then, why he wouldn't. He kept looking at his hands on his lap. Was his sight blurring, or were they shaking? He clasped them. "What, you and me and the New York secretaries?"

       "Huh?"

       He had to concentrate for a minute, frowning. He was only peripherally aware of talking. "Huggy said you wanted to go where all the New York secretaries went. Didn't figure you wanted them to take dictation." Had it been important then? Sounded silly now. This is how wars are lost -- for want of a nail? He felt like laughing, controlled it; Starsky was looking bewildered enough already.

       "I said that? I don't remember. Must've said it, but Hutch, if I was talkin' to Huggy, what was I supposed to say? You know it didn't mean anything." He looked intently at his partner. "You...you didn't know? Damn it, just a stupid remark, and that's why? All this time? And I thought--"

       No, it hadn't been because of a stupid remark, or his even more stupid reaction to it. He'd thought Starsky was subtly but firmly stating his preference. But he couldn't explain anything at the moment, just wanted to hear Starsky's side of it. "What?" he prompted his partner, who'd fallen silent.

       "I thought you'd rather forget it. I mean, I could understand that. Not your usual thing, is it? Just because I needed and you were there for me that once, it didn't give me any rights. I was grateful enough you didn't let it spoil everything else."

       Grateful? I wanted to love you, make you happy, keep you safe, and you ended up feeling like a...supplicant? While I--

        "So I forgot it, too," his partner continued. "Tried, anyway. And it worked just fine, most of the time, but every once in a while -- well, you know that. And every time it got away from me and I pushed it on you, it got...scarier. I thought it was gonna spill over into the rest, and one day you were gonna have enough of it all. I hated riskin' that, Hutch, but..."

       "You didn't push it on me," Hutch commented, feeling he was going in the wrong direction on a familiar roller coaster, wondering how it was possible to get a sense of deja vu out of somebody else's eyes, wondering how two rights had added up to a wrong, or two wrongs to a farce. I'm too tired for this. Can't think.

        "So how come I always made the first move?"

       "When I did, you wouldn't." I sound like an idiot.

        "Hutch, after Gunther, after all that time we spent livin' together... I tried to tell you once -- when you realize there's only one thing that feels right anymore, you can't be casual about it. I couldn't just take it now and then, and watch you do whatever else in between. I thought it'd really get heavy, and I'd say or do somethin' way outta line, 'n I'd lose you for good. But then you left anyway..."

       Starsky paused. He extended his hand again tentatively, then seemed to regret the action, and covered up by flicking invisible specks off Hutch's sleeve before he drew back. "As you said, if you can't have what you want, you take what you can get. I ain't losin' you altogether. So, I'll take it on your terms. I'll deal with the rest. Somehow."

       There was something incredibly intimidating about the strength required to bare one's soul. It was making Hutch feel inadequate. "But what would you want instead?"

       "Sure you'd care to hear it?"

       He nodded, not at all sure, but he nodded.

       "I'd want it all," Starsky said simply, then seemed uncomfortable. "Don't get me wrong. I couldn't've said that without knowin' how you feel, but commitment-kinda-feeling don't necessarily mean you're willin' to make the commitment. I haven't been burned. You have. So, no strings." He looked at Hutch, evidently found something lacking in the blond's expression, and mumbled, "Well, you asked."

       Be careful what you wish for - you just might get it.

        It was expecting too much from a battered place deep within, something that had been walled in long ago, and constantly reinforced. He didn't know if he could expose it again, wasn't even sure he'd be doing Starsky a favor if he tried. He certainly hadn't been able to handle commitments before.

       He realized he had been forbiddingly quiet for too long when Starsky shifted, nervously. It reminded Hutch that the next move was his. He couldn't even find it in him to reach across the short distance on the couch, let alone anything else. "I'm tired," he whispered. Back off, please. Give me space. I can't breathe.

        "Go to bed."

       "Okay."

       "Want me to leave?"

        No!

        "Want me to stay?"

        No.

        Starsky seemed to sense his need for halfway measures. "How about if I stayed here, on the couch?"

       Stop-gap. "Fine."

       He knew his total withdrawal had to be hurting Starsky, but anything else was beyond him at the moment. Without a word, without even a glance, he went to the bedroom. He sat on the bed and stared at the walls, feeling the presence of the man in the other room too heavily.

       Sometime later, Starsky went to the bathroom. The sound of the door closing him off felt like a parole. Without thinking, Hutch rose, crossed the apartment and let himself out of it. Two steps down, and he realized he wasn't dressed for the street, so he went up to the roof instead. He approached the side, hands in pockets, finally able to breathe deeply. Then he looked around. The roof was only two stories high, and too securely enclosed by three-feet-high cement blocks.

       He climbed up on the parapet. Dawn was breaking. Typical for the time and place, the air was a little chilly, laden with moisture, tasting of salt and bearing wisps of fog. Pale colors had made a tentative appearance on the horizon, getting ready to burst full-blown on the gray city.

       It was irritatingly tranquil.

       He wondered how it would feel to stand up there during a fury of nature, in blinding rain. He imagined the wind whipping and pulling while he was precariously balanced on the edge, fighting a force greater than himself. If it would drag him down or if he'd make the decision to jump himself; if he'd even know the difference in that split second, or if he'd simply feel the fear of falling.

       The damned job -- a thrill-junkie looking for an adrenaline fix. But still too afraid to jump where you know damned well you'll be caught. Eight years of experience isn't enough guarantee?

        "Come on down, babe." A whisper as insubstantial as the sluggish breeze.

       He turned his head slightly. Starsky was standing there, looking confused and worried, his hands out but not touching him. Starsky, who had the good sense to be afraid of heights, who preferred to be grounded firmly, but took the chances anyway.

       "Relax, I'm not going over the edge." In either sense, he thought, actually feeling more clear-headed than he had in a long while. "Just wanted to know what it feels like."

       "Okay, but will you please come down now?"

       "Sure," he said and stepped down easily. As soon as he did, though, he stumbled.

       Starsky instantly steadied him. "What's wrong?"

       "Nothing. A little dizzy. It's gone."

       Starsky looked terrified, and Hutch knew he was envisioning what would've have happened if the dizzy spell had hit a little sooner.

       "Damn, Hutch!" He let go abruptly, spun around, took a few steps in one direction, stopped, paced a few more restless steps in another, changed direction again. "Damn, damn, damn!"

       Suddenly he was back in front of Hutch. His hands, angry and impatient, tore at the blond's belt, pulled at the front of the robe.

       "Hey, what're you--? Starsky, anybody can see!" He looked at their open space, at the taller buildings around, becoming more visible by the minute. "Stop it!"

       Just parting the robe seemed to be enough for Starsky. Arms sliding under it, around his partner, he hid the nakedness with his own body, a frantic edge to his embrace. Hutch suddenly understood. He pulled at the robe to enclose Starsky as well, his arms holding it in place around his partner.

       I know, I know. Too many layers around me.

        You can remove the rest, too. But slowly. Defenses come down hard. So, please, slowly.

        "You're not getting a bargain," he whispered into the dark curls. "But you got it, for as long as you can stand it." He thought the crushing grip couldn't possibly tighten. He was wrong.

       "Don't make other plans for the rest o' those 148 years, and we'll be fine," was whispered back.

       They stood holding each other for long minutes, until Hutch felt himself falling asleep on his feet. "Better put me to bed before we both fall."

       Starsky's arms loosened. He became aware of their surroundings, and quickly pulled away to tie the robe around Hutch. That seemed to be the extent of his self-consciousness, though. He put his arm around his partner's waist and led him down the stairs, across the apartment and into his bed. He tugged off the robe, then started undressing himself. Hutch found he wasn't in that great a hurry to close his eyes after all. I can look now, all I want. Just wish my eyes weren't glazing over.

        Starsky glanced down at his scarred body. "You're not getting that much of a bargain, either."

       Hutch frowned at the uncharacteristic comment. "Come on, Starsky, that doesn't sound like you."

       "It isn't. Point is, just because mine can be seen, don't mean I can't live with yours."

       "Now that sounds like you. It makes no sense." He shook his head and added with a sigh as Starsky climbed into the bed, "Except, maybe to me."

       "Come here." Arms gathered him.

       "You're not going to work either?" Hutch asked.

       "Today? Hell, no."

       "I must be already on Dobey's shit list. He'll crucify us both."

       "Nah. He'll yell a lot, dock our pay, make noises about Traffic or Records. With the workload, how long can he keep us sittin' on our cans? It'll blow over soon."

       Hutch wriggled into the warmth enfolding him. "You have such an easy grasp of basics, Starsk," he commented drowsily.

       "Speakin' of which, left something basic undone." He tilted Hutch's head up, softly stroked the chin and cupped it in one palm.

       Hutch anticipated the next move, saw the too-sincere intent in the deep blue eyes, and couldn't help grinning wickedly, wondering if a comment like 'sealing it with a kiss' would be sufficiently mushy to annoy Starsky.

       His partner didn't seem to have any trouble reading his intentions. "One crack, and you're wakin' up to ice cubes. Not down your back, either."

       Hutch quickly swallowed the remark, and let Starsky kiss him, wanting to respond, but too wiped out at the moment. And adding insult to injury, he ended up yawning into the kiss.

       Starsky found it amusing. "Oh, go to sleep," he said, chuckling, then added with mock-sarcasm, "lover."

       At first Hutch was perfectly comfortable with taking the comment in the manner offered and settling into Starsky's embrace. However, he had thrown a leg over his partner, and could feel the quickening reaction against the inside of his thigh. Right then, he couldn't match the arousal to save his life, but still, Starsky's needs and desires were given into his care. Knowing that was a high in itself. He started to slide down to do something about it, was halted.

       "Where're you goin'?" Hutch stroked the erection. Starsky caught his hand and pulled it away. "It'll keep."

       "Let me..." He rubbed his face on Starsky's chest, feeling the hairs catch on his stubbled cheek.

       "You can't keep your eyes open. Besides, I've had it with solitaire. When you can join me, okay?"

       "The spirit..." Hutch mumbled.

       "Is willing, I know. We'll just wait until the rest o' you can get into the act."

       Hutch let Starsky pull him back up and settle him again, but he was still distracted. He nudged the erection with his knee, rubbed it.

       Starsky gently pushed his leg down. "Will you forget about that? It hasn't had a warm body for so long it don't know how to behave."

       Hutch was jolted out of sleep again. "How long?"

       "Oh, a while."

       "How long a while?"

       "Since last time."

       Only for a second did Hutch think Starsky was playing with words. "You mean...with me?"

       "No, with Miss America. Of course that's what I mean, dummy."

       "Starsk, that was almost a year ago!"

       "Yeah, well. I wasn't up to it most o' the time anyway. And later..." He shrugged.

       The blond couldn't speak for a minute. "Why?" he asked finally.

       "Dunno. Once or twice I started out to -- but just didn't feel right anymore. The beast gets discriminatin' sometimes."

       Hutch found the energy to hug him tight. "Wasted so much time."

       "Not really, babe. I think it's true that there's a season for everythin' under the sun. When it's right, it happens."

       "Four years, Starsk?"

       "Whatever it takes. Think about it. We just made a decision. But we didn't say anything about how it's gonna look to others, the hell we're bound to catch sooner or later. There's a big bad world out there, babe, are you scared?"

       Although he was getting too groggy, Hutch considered it seriously. Amidst all kinds of fear, that one hadn't even occurred to him. Amazing. "I...I don't think so. I don't think I care. But if you feel--"

       Starsky's hand covered his mouth. "I can hear those nasty gears clicking in your head again, Hutch. Turn 'em off. That's not why I brought it up. I'm tryin' to make a point here. You don't care, I don't care, either. But I cared four years ago. Hell, I cared until after Gunther. I mean, I'm complainin' about your silence, but I didn't exactly have the guts to open my own mouth, did I? Dying's a good swift kick to dislodge your brains from where they don't belong. Before then, I'm not sure I wouldn't've spoiled it."

       "Me, neither," Hutch admitted.

       "See, it takes time to separate the wheat from the chaff, and know which to keep 'n which to throw away."

       Hutch burrowed even closer into his partner, muttered, "I'll keep you, thanks."

       "My pleasure.

       "Not at the moment."

       "Whadda you know? Go to sleep."

 

The End

 

 

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