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I kiss the tears off your chest
I felt the poison fright that's in your breath
I knew your precious life and I know your death
I squeeze the love out of your soul
All the perfect love that's in your soul
You're just another spirit on parole
                   Alice Cooper—"Devil's Food"

"My God, you're beautiful."

Hutch accepted the compliment silently, his face all but obscured in shadow as the sun burned hazy and white through the window behind his head. He ran one hand slowly through his hair, smoothing platinum filaments away from his temple and then letting it all fall back into place.

"So beautiful," Starsky murmured, flat on his back on the floor. He thought he could make out the pale lips curving into a smile, deepening the prominent crease between the blond brows. Why was Hutch perched all the way up there looking down at him? They were supposed to be somewhere. He was almost certain of it. But his head hurt—hadn't he bumped it before? —and it was so very hard to think. An angry voice filtered in from nearby, but he couldn't quite understand what it said.

"Sorry . . ." Starsky told him, struggling not to slur the words. "Sorry I'm s-so, wasted. Dunno huh—how . . . "

Hutch leaned down from his perch and stilled Starsky's lips with his fingers. "Shhh . . ." Starsky kissed the tips of those fingers and sighed as they moved up to ease his eyelids shut. Once his eyes were closed it was impossible to open them again. The room felt like it was swaying from side to side. Was the whole place really moving or was this a bad case of the spins? A series of sharp bumps jarred him from underneath the musty-smelling carpet. They must be in a cab or something.

"Who, whose party . . ." Starsky tried to ask, but the road seemed to smooth out beneath him again and he spun gently back down into sleep.


Time to get up. Someone was shaking him. Starsky groaned. "Five more minutes, babe," he mumbled, trying to roll over. "Won't be late again, promise."

A hard slap stung his cheek. "Wake up, pig, we're here."

Something tightened around his neck, choking him, dragging him down hard onto the ground. Gravel cut into both palms as his hands skidded against hot asphalt. Starsky twisted around where he lay, momentarily blinded by the bright blue sky. Blinking, he stared up into brown, bloodshot eyes that glared down upon him from either side of a raised scar shaped like an upside-down cross.

"Jesus," Starsky choked, and then gagged as the fist gripping his necktie twisted tighter.

His abductor shook him roughly and sneered, "Not quite."

"Who—" Starsky tried to ask, but a tall, thin man stepped forward and kicked him hard in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. His necktie was released and he tried to crawl, but only made it a few feet before his stomach rolled over and he had to fight not to dry-heave. Laughter rang out behind him. Starsky rested his forehead in his hands, rough concrete digging into his elbows. It wasn't just the kick. He was weak, as though he'd been dead drunk or terribly sick for days.

Footsteps crunched across the gravel and stopped directly in front of him. A gentler voice drifted down to him. "Give me your hand."

Steeling himself against the pain in his temples, Starsky feebly raised his head. His eyes traveled up the darkened form that stood between him and the sun, up the long legs and past the big hand that was offered to the silky crown of white-blond hair that stirred in the breeze. "Hutch?" he croaked.

Salt stung the raw skin of his palm as the long fingers wound around his hand and helped him to his feet. Once upright, he found himself looking up into eyes that were almost the same shade of blue as Hutch's, but in place of the familiar moody crease between the brows was carved another inverted cross.

Crime scene photo; only a few hours dead when they found her. She looked for all the world like she'd been chewed up and spat out, maybe a couple of times. The only clean wound on the ravaged corpse had been the bloody cross cut between her eyes.

Starsky's vision blurred and he swayed on his feet, groaning. There was no way this was happening, no way. He clutched his head and kept repeating it to himself even as the ground heaved up and mercifully smashed him back into nothingness.

"Begin at the end."

How could Marcus have known about that?

Hutch stopped at the water fountain outside the visitation cell, not because he was thirsty, but because his legs were shaking too badly to carry him further. He could still feel Marcos' worn prison-issue work shirt rasping through his fingers, still smell the man's own peculiar sweet odor, like incense or essential oil. How could the stench of blood wash off the man with plain soap and water, while the gentler essences of spice and flowers remain? Was that part of the cult leader's charisma? Another element that made him irresistible to the drifters and dropouts he seemed to collect without even trying?

His followers were everywhere, just as Marcos claimed. Hutch knew that now, without a doubt. The man had just looked him in the eye and quoted his own words back to him.

"We'll start over, then, Starsk. We can begin at the end."

Starsky closing his eyes, breath shaky, head falling back against the closet door. "I want to begin again, Hutch. Want it so bad."

They had been so close to the end. After weeks and weeks working on the cult murders, after all that time steeped in blood and torture, they were hardly been able to look at each other without seeing pain and butchery. They had worked some hardcore cases before, but nothing like this. Where previous investigations had enhanced their natural symbiosis, this one only underlined their every essential difference in temperament and all but destroyed the familiar patterns of their partnership. Each fresh corpse was another wedge of guilt driven between them. It wasn't long before every innovation Marcos made in dismemberment and depravity was all they could see mirrored in each other's eyes.

Each dealt with it differently, spending more and more of what precious little off-time they had apart. Starsky sought out old acquaintances and started making some new ones, picking up where he'd left off before becoming Hutch's lover. Starsky's way was to do anything to reconnect with life.

Hutch, meanwhile, tried to follow the example set so admirably by his plant friends. Night after night, he stayed rooted in his apartment, trying to remain as still as he possibly could and never blaming Starsky for drifting away. When the phone rang again and it was time to go back to work, he was always relieved. Work gave him ample reason to stay cold these days. Work meant not having to think about Starsky.

Marcos had changed all that. Hutch stared down at his bloodless thumb, nail pressed white against the rusted button of the fountain. A weak arch of water spattered a wad of chewing gum stuck in the drain. Marcos was not psychic; Hutch wanted to believe that no creature on earth could be capable of brutalizing his young victims while sensing their pain and terror the whole while. Marcos had to have sent some of his goons tailing him and Starsky, somehow listening, maybe even from inside Hutch's apartment last night. They must have followed Starsky to him and then followed them both to the courthouse in the morning. Listened to them reconcile, listened to them as they—

The idea was too crazy. But so was the coincidence.

The guard who had waited for him just outside the cell door cleared his throat, jarring Hutch from his thoughts. He straightened from the fountain without drinking and let his feet carry him numbly down the hall. How had they gotten word to Marcos, then? Who could have relayed Hutch's words?

Every face he passed between the jailhouse and the precinct seemed suspicious to him. Someone inside had to be getting messages to Marcos. The only contact the man had been allowed was with his attorney, a couple of shrinks, and investigators who were directly involved with the case.

"We are everywhere."

Marcos always said it with a twinkle in his eye that made him resemble nothing so much as a demented Santa Claus with a ratty black beard.

It was part of Marcos' scam to make people feel as though he knew them better than they knew themselves. An uncanny talent for piercing observation, perhaps, but nothing more. Of course he'd known Hutch wouldn't hurt him when they were alone in the cell; a brutality charge would be all that the defense needed to delay sentencing, maybe even to call a mistrial.

Marcos meant to throw him off-balance by stirring up shit inside him, and he knew just how to do it. You're the White Knight. Hutch's arms still ached with the urge he'd felt to tear Marcos apart for that jibe, for throwing his own weakness back in his face. He couldn't force Marcos to reveal where Starsky was being held because he wasn't strong enough to jeopardize everything they'd worked for. Guilt jabbed at him again. Starsky would have found a way to make Marcos talk by now without letting the man get inside his head like this. Starsky wouldn't have let himself get tangled up in the law he'd sworn to uphold. Maybe Marcos was psychic, after all. At least he knew the legend as well as Hutch did, knew that the White Knight eventually lost in the end.

He moved through the precinct on auto-pilot, harassing the lab for results and letting everyone else stay out of his way. He was impotent until the next clue, until the next phone call or the latest batch of lab results came in. He couldn't find the file he was looking for, barely saw the labels as the files flipped through his fingers. Where the hell was Dobey, anyway? Hutch slammed the metal drawer shut, clipping the pad of one finger. He stood for a moment, breathing heavily, and watched as a purplish-black blood blister began to swell beneath his fingerprint.

Ollie regarded Hutch impassively, just as he had ever since Hutch had brought to him to live at the precinct. The somewhat mangy, well-chewed bear lasted less than a month as Hutch's roommate. Ollie had been too demanding, too judgmental, forever exuding Terry's perfume as he gave Hutch that look, the one that said he wasn't loving Starsky well enough, wasn't keeping Starsky close enough and that sooner or later Starsky would change. The bear was worse than a meddling mother in-law. Hutch couldn't operate under that kind of scrutiny. It made him nervous. In the end he had banished Ollie to his now-permanent residence on top of the filing cabinet, so he could see for himself that Hutch was doing his best, but that taking care of Starsky wasn't exactly the easiest job in the world.

Starsky had seemed touched that Hutch wanted to share Ollie with him, and Hutch let him believe that his motive had been honorable. Over time, Hutch grew to appreciate having the bear around them every day, reminding them of how every action they took as cops could trickle down into their personal lives. No good deeds unpunished. Arrest some kid who needs to be off the street and it might come back to you down the line when he gets killed in prison and his father shows up to take out your partner's girlfriend. Capture a serial-killing cult leader and you might end up losing the partner who was more of a mate to you than your wife had ever been, and more family to you than your parents and sister ever were. Hutch dug his fingers into the gnarled acrylic fur and closed his aching eyes.

The sickening thing was that Terry would have had nothing but sympathy for him right now. She would have forgiven him for losing Starsky at the courthouse, just as she had forgiven him in advance for reclaiming his place inside Starsky so quickly and so seamlessly after she was gone.

A muffled mechanical noise made Hutch loosen his grip around the bear's throat. Probing, he found the barely functioning sound box beneath layers of lumpy stuffing and squeezed harder, forcing Ollie to make the grinding, rusty declaration that Hutch never quite bought, coming from him.

"Grri ruv you."

Hutch stared at the bear for another long moment, then tossed it back on top of the cabinet and rubbed both hands over his face. Not sleeping had been a major mistake this week. He was losing it.

"Christ," he muttered, and wandered back out into the hall to look for Dobey.

A cool draft ruffled Starsky's hair, waking him from sickening, hopeless dreams. He winced as air stung the gash he knew he must have on his head. Something had happened to his left shoulder the first time he'd come to, when they'd tramped around him in circles and kicked him, laughing as he cursed and threatened them on his knees. The skin over his collarbone felt raw and abraded, causing him to dimly remember being shoved down some stairs. He followed the tinkling of wind chimes to full consciousness and tried to flex some feeling back into hands gone numb from being bound tightly behind his back. Someone was moving around nearby. He kept his eyes shut and tried to remain still. Needed a minute to think. Whatever they'd shot him full of had worn off just enough for him to begin to piece it all together. Start at the beginning. Breathe deep. Think.

He'd been with Hutch, and everything was going to be fine. Hutch had let him in, late last night, though he knew where Starsky had been. Held him as though none of that mattered. Tomorrow they'd start over, he said, maybe change some things they'd decided on, do whatever it takes to make it good. Once Marcus was locked up, they'd be okay, like they were before this case.

Hutch leaning against the open door in sleep-rumpled street clothes, rubbing his raw eyes with one hand and reaching for Starsky with the other, pulling him inside. "It's behind us now, I promise. You'll see."

But last night had nothing to do with this.

Marcos was finally being sentenced today, on nine counts of murder, some of the most gruesome crimes that had gone down in this country in recent history. Starsky had left Hutch and Dobey in the courtroom for his ritual pre-sentencing dash to the john. He'd convinced everyone it was for luck, but the simple truth was that judges made him nervous, and nerves were easier to ignore on an empty bladder. He noticed the unusual absence of police presence as he walked down the hall, but then again, that made sense considering the media circus this case had spawned. Most of the uniforms were probably out front controlling the mixed mob of curiosity-seekers, press, and cult members.

The men's room door slammed against the wall too hard, as it usually did when he pushed it, and the first thing he saw was that the entire row of urinals had been taped off and tagged with a scrawled "out of order" sign. A guy wearing an Angels hat (the same one who'd dragged him from the van?) was washing his hands and another guy, tall, skinny (definitely the one who kicked him), was combing his stringy hair in the mirror. The first two stall doors were locked, and Starsky was relieved to find the last stall open. But when he started to head in, he was startled to find a young, blue-eyed blond sitting on the toilet. He backed out hastily, mumbling an apology.

A piercing sting hit him in the back of the neck above his collar, and for a confused moment he thought he'd been stabbed. Whatever they used on him started to kick in right away, and when he opened his mouth to yell they slammed him headfirst into the wall. That's when he started to smell blood and everything went gray. They probably walked him right out the back exit only a few yards from the restroom.

Hutch was watching over him in the van—no—had it been the blond from the bathroom stall? Hutch would be going nuts looking for him right about now, unless—

Starsky squeezed his eyes shut even tighter, and grimaced at what could only be dried blood cracking and flaking on his forehead. He couldn't afford to think this way now. He was having enough trouble getting his head back together without inventing a worst case scenario. But the idea formed and there was no stopping it; unless they'd gotten their hands on Hutch and were holding him somewhere, too.

He hadn't been breathing easily before, and his helplessness at the thought of Hutch being kidnapped only made his lungs feel tighter. He pressed his face against the cold rock he was slumped against and tried again for deep, steady breaths. The drug still had him and his body didn't want to cooperate. His chest felt as though it was buried under a pile of lead, and he doubted he could have done anything useful with his arms even if they hadn't been tied behind him. Opening his eyes with difficulty, he looked around and realized he was in some kind of cave. He would have been relieved that the sun hadn't gone down yet had the clear blue sky showing through the cleanly carved opening overhead not made him feel a little too much like he was at the bottom of a huge, open grave.

He expected one of the three freaks that had nabbed him to be standing guard, but was surprised to find as his sentry a life-sized porcelain doll. Nestled demurely into a crevice in the rock, she had the same waxen, milk-white complexion and lusterless auburn hair as one of the dolls an old girlfriend of his had collected. The longer he stared, the more convinced he became that she wasn't real, until her big, green, glassy eyes blinked at him, just like a doll's would if you tipped its head back far enough. The mark of Simon's cult shone faintly between her eyes, as if even the freak who had initiated her couldn't stand to ruin that gorgeous skin and had taken extra care not to cut too deeply. Her name was Gail, and her childlike demeanor was offset by the long carving knife she cradled like a beloved toy. No visible tracks marred her delicately formed arms but she was clearly on something. She spoke of Simon with a tone of innocent wonder in her voice and told him not to be afraid as she crawled closer with the blade. All that was missing at the end of each sentence was the sound of a pull-string reeling back into her body.

And now she was going to give him a bath. Wonderful. The coroner would really appreciate that when they found him.

"Listen—Gail," Starsky said, as she started with the knife at the ankle hem and slid the blade up one leg of his jeans, slicing it cleanly to the hip. Perversely, he had the thought that Hutch doing this to him wouldn't be a bad thing at all. "If you've got enough water for a bath around here, how's about letting me have some to drink?"

She looked uncertainly to the big tub standing under a couple of scrawny trees and murmured, "The bath water has already been consecrated." He followed her gaze to a plastic water jug perched on a stone shelf next to some candles. The jug had been decorated with childishly drawn suns in shaky blue magic marker.

"Then just let me have a sip of that," he said, coughing, his voice grating in his throat.

Gail frowned up at the jug, and then looked back to him, thinking. After a moment her face brightened as if something pleasant had occurred to her and said, "All right. I don't think Simon would forbid it." Her cotton slip brushed his face as she rose to retrieve the jug. "Just a sip," she told him, holding the heavy container to his lips, but he drank greedily for a few seconds before she pulled it away with a delighted laugh.

That was better. At least he wouldn't choke. He tried to relax as she sliced up the rest of his jeans and briefs, skinning him with that unwavering air of dreamy detachment. Then she pulled off his socks and gathered all of his clothing into a ball before getting to her feet and helping him to stand. She placed the wad of bloody clothing in the big basket and then grasped his elbow to lead him over to the tall wooden tub. He waited, feeling awkward and very naked, while she picked up a rag and lifted a heavy-looking iron pot from its stand over the fire.

"Untie me, honey, and I'll give you a hand with that," he offered good-naturedly. She just looked at him with a playfully scolding smile and grunted as she tipped the cauldron into the tub, steam rising from the hot water as it splashed in.

She was careful and efficient, and didn't hurt him when she lathered his hair and cleaned the crusted blood from his scalp. Her manner seemed strictly professional as she reached down into the water with the bar of soap and used both hands to thoroughly wash his genitals and then his ass. Terrific. How lucky he was to be getting a bath from Satan's candy-striper.

Not that the warm water and pampering didn't feel good, despite his predicament. Felt like the last of the sedative was burning out of his system, leaving him with an edgy, not entirely unpleasant sense of energy. In fact, he was starting to feel better by the second, maybe too good, almost giddy, every sense growing sharp and fast. Maybe he was in some kind of shock. He kept up a stream of good-natured chatter, trying to distract Gail while he worked at the rope around his wrists. But by the time his hands were free and he made his move, his groomer was nowhere to be found.

A towel was hanging from a tree branch and Gail had left something for him to wear in the big basket. He shook it out to find that it was some kind of silky black robe. He pulled it on, barely glancing at the red inverted crosses embroidered onto it, and scrambled for the narrow mouth of the cave.

The wind was rushing so loudly through the grass up on the surface. He felt like he was listening to one of Hutch's goofy relaxation tapes on a very good stereo. He craned his head to look up for a second at the glittering late-afternoon sky, distracted by the intricacy of tree branches laced together way up there against the shimmering sky. A wave of deja vu passed through him and he shook his head to break away from the hypnotic mosaic pattern shifting overhead.

Running his fingers along the cool stone walls, Starsky passed through two more rough-carved chambers, empty save for the odd burning torch. Weird that he could see so clearly, even into the shadowed corners. The darkness seemed so warm and clean. He followed the daylight that seeped in through another slender crack in the rock and managed to squeeze past the trunk of a fallen tree that blocked the exit. Pieces of bark crumbled like decaying velvet under his hands.

What appeared at first sight to be another exit proved to be completely caved in. The tunnel of caverns seemed to end here. But Gail had gotten out somehow, and Starsky fumbled along the wall, alert for any kind of breeze that could lead to an opening. Moisture was sheeting from his skin beneath the silky robe. It was hard to tell whether he was wet or dry, or whether he was hot or cold. His skin tightened all over and his scalp began to feel prickly. Everything he touched sent a myriad of sensations through his fingertips, up through his brain and seemingly to the very ends of his hair. When was the last time he'd felt like this? It seemed familiar . . .

Not since 'Nam.

Aww, fuck.

Blue suns on the water jug. Blue Sunshine? If so, he'd just chugged down a huge dose of very potent liquid LSD. No less than two months ago they'd busted a makeshift lab that had been churning the stuff out by gallon. Now he could only pray that the drug had been heavily diluted, only a small amount added to water while the jug was still full. "Brilliant, Starsk," he muttered. "Fuckin' great timing." But he wouldn't panic; he remembered the rules of this game. He'd still be able to think, and for the most part able to function. He kept checking the wall for some way to climb out. Whatever happened, he could handle it.

His internal pep talk might have worked if it wasn't for the wild bear that suddenly appeared.

Starsky backed up against the wall and stared in disbelief at the roaring tower of claws and fur as it reared up on hind legs and gnashed its teeth. It seemed to come from out of nowhere and it was too close for him to be able to squeeze back through into the other cave without getting nailed. The rock was too smooth to climb, but he grasped at it anyway, searching for a grip to pull himself up.

A mocking voice rang out overhead. "Welcome to Simon's dream."

One of Marcus' freaks was up there with a spear, taunting him as the bear closed in. The acid was only just beginning to warm up inside him, and Starsky was able to put his dread of being mentally hampered aside as his instinct kept functioning. Instinct put a big rock in his hand, and muscle memory pulled his arm back to launch it straight between the bear's eyes. The bear stopped growling and dropped down on all fours to lumber away.

That was all fine and good until it walked right through the rock wall and disappeared. Looking up sharply, Starsky saw that the guy with the spear was gone, too.

Not good, not good. A black tide of paranoia rose inside him. Starsky dropped the rock and clambered past the dead tree, trying to pick his way cautiously back through the tunnel. He peered through at the cave beyond. It seemed empty. He bent over to avoid low-hanging rock and stepped inside.

A staff of fire, spitting blue and white, struck the side of his face. Starsky screamed at the searing contact, raising his hand defensively as he backed away from the sizzling torch. Shadows of the flame danced to the shrieking of burned nerves as he crouched inside the tunnel and fought to get a handle on the pain before it got away from him. The flame had just missed his eye, and he focused on that. At least he still had his sight.

Anger threatened to overwhelm him, but Starsky knew better than to give in to it while under the influence. If he lost control now, he wouldn't get it back for hours. This kid called himself "the flame-keeper," though he had "geek" written all over his acne-scarred features. He probably thought he needed a handle that sounded cooler than Melvin, or Evelyn, or whatever nerdy name had gotten him beaten up in grade school. These were Marcos' soldiers, the remaining dregs of his operation—nutcases running around in robes with big knives and buckets of drugs. Nothing but outcast, overgrown children, hiding in an abandoned cave.

"You're nothin'!" Starsky yelled, suddenly unsure whether he'd been shouting all his thoughts out loud since the acid kicked in.

Things happened quickly after that, in a frenzied, kaleidoscopic whirl. He threw a handful of dirt in his captor's face and made a run for it, diving and rolling to avoid the flaming spear that came at him quick as lightning. His body knew what to do, so long as he didn't think about it, and within minutes he was able to leave the brittle beanpole in a heap on the ground.

He saw the exit, and stumbled into the wide shaft of sunlight that hurt his eyes and made his burn throb viciously. An iron-barred gate was halfway open, and possibly melting in the sun. Beyond it a flight of shallow stone steps. Starsky gathered up the skirt of his robe, trying to ignore the way it actually seemed to squirm around his legs like a live thing, and started climbing, following that beautiful patch of sky blue.

Nearing the top, he caught a glimpse of the empty cages and wrecked wooden benches that stood nearby. They'd been holding him prisoner at the old zoo. That explained the cave. The vanishing bear he would worry about later. His only thought now was to get to the road and flag down a car so he could find a phone. He didn't make it past the threshold. A hand snarled into in his hair and jerked him backwards while the blond (who actually looked nothing like Hutch), stepped up and aimed Starsky's own gun point-blank at his gut.

The voice in his ear was the one he'd heard when he first got here. "We're not 'nothing,' man, we're your executioners." The next thing Starsky knew, he was being tossed down another long flight of stairs. It wasn't as bad as the other stairs had been, since these weren't nearly as steep, and again he was luckily able to keep from breaking his neck. But by the time he got to the bottom, he was plenty banged up. The acid only seemed to accentuate every twinge of pain.

Getting to his knees and crawling was a lot harder than he thought it would be, but Starsky managed to find a nook in the wall where he could huddle. He buried his scraped knuckles in the cool folds of his robe and he shut his eyes. Concentrating on his breathing brought the pain down to a level he could deal with. He didn't bother to resist when someone pulled his hands behind his back and bound his wrists again.

He jumped when he felt a hand on his arm, and his eyes flew open to see Gail. She held a metal camping mug full of water to his lips. He chugged gratefully. He hadn't eaten since dinner the previous night, and now he regretted talking Hutch out of breakfast that morning, in favor of coming back to bed for a drowsy morning make-up fuck. Starsky thought about that for a minute. No, he didn't regret that after all. It was beginning to look like that might have been their last time together. What was the last thing he'd said to Hutch in the courtroom? "I'll be right back in a minute." Brilliant. Looked like his last words to his lover had basically been, "I gotta go to the john."

"Better?" Gail asked, as he handed the mug back to her. The kid was genuinely sweet, not at all the type that belonged with these other dopes. Starsky wondered how she managed to keep her white cotton camisole and slip so clean while crawling around in a filthy cave all day. He was glad she wasn't wearing one of the goofy robes. Maybe that meant she wasn't really one of them yet.

Suddenly his gut churned up into a mass of cramps. They'd given him more of that sunshine water, no doubt. He groaned and doubled up. The couple of times he tripped in 'Nam, something like this had happened to his stomach the following day, but that stuff had been low-grade, and he'd never taken more than a careful half-hit at a time. Nothing like the dose he'd had today. His stomach was empty. Nothing to throw up in there. The acid hadn't even peaked yet. Fasten yer seatbelt . . . . Looked like he was in for a long, bumpy ride.

He could hear tears in Gail's voice as she begged him to tell her what was wrong.

"I dunno," he choked out as a fresh set of spasms shook him. "The water—" The taste had been slightly different. Maybe it wasn't acid this time. That was good. He'd hate for them to miss any important drug categories so long as they were doping him to the gills.

Starsky heard the cup hit the dirt floor with a soft thunk and then Gail's voice, laced shakily with outrage. He couldn't make out what she said.

There was a loud slap, and she landed sobbing in a sprawl across Starsky's knees. She wrapped her arms around his legs, and he wanted to be sympathetic, but a new, drowsier haze began to merge with the strengthening whorl of acid. He couldn't make himself care that much about her right then. Tripping while sedated. This would be something new.

The flame-keeper was talking to Gail, who was still crying. If he listened very closely, Starsky could make out some of what was being said. "Simon," Gail chanted weakly, her head lolling on Starsky's lap. Starsky closed his eyes, drifting on the multiplying harmonics of her voice until long fingers snaked into his hair and yanked hard.

Pinned with his eyes open wide, Starsky's vision was filled with the flame-keeper's gaunt, dirt-smudged features. The bones beneath the pocked skin stretched and shifted, seeming to take on one different ethnic cast after another as the cross cut in his forehead spun like a bloody sun-wheel. Though the grotesque, leering mouth was no more than two inches from his face, every word the man said sounded like it came from miles away. Starsky had to strain to understand him at all.

"Dream, and make it good."

Starsky's blood bubbled audibly in his veins like lava, but he paid attention to the last thing the flame-keeper said, following the low, gravelly echoes of the sentence as it slurred and sank deep into his mind.

"You are going to die. "

Nothing. No scent, no sound.

Hills, grass, trees, van . . . . All of it empty, and all of it far too quiet and clean. Hutch turned in a slow circle, panting, feeling his bones creak under muscle knotted far too tight. There had to be something here. For an instant he stared into the sun, as if afraid to miss some clue that burned there. He shut his eyes and felt as well as saw the black tattoo of the searing orb throb in time with the pounding in his head. Badly needing something to break.

No time to check the van thoroughly. His feet were already moving, hand poised to radio in, if he could make the range. Must have backup. The radio crackled and hissed, infuriating him, but he forbade himself to smash the receiver against the dash as his arm screamed at him to do. Backup. Find another frequency. Try it again.

An hour later, he was back on the road. He left Dobey's team to search for prints and fibers in the van that would tell them everything they needed to know except where Starsky was. Hutch would be at Metro when the next lead came in, or someplace smarter if only he could think where.

It wasn't right, the way his Starsky-radar worked. Could pick that ass out of a dark, crowded bar with sunglasses on. Knew what Starsky was doing on a Sunday morning even before he called up and asked. Drove without thinking to a house he didn't know and wasn't even surprised to find the Torino parked outside. How could he find him like that, less than two days ago, but not now, when Starsky was being held hostage by a pack of ghouls?

That night had been nothing compared to this, the sick trail of panic he'd followed like a string of flares. At least then he'd known Starsky was safe, even though he felt like killing him. Had known in his gut where Starsky was, even if he didn't know who was with. All it took Hutch to find a wandering lover in a great big city was a good dose of jealousy and a little pathetically insecure fear.

Even before the Marcos case, Hutch had known all along that one of these nights Starsky wouldn't pick up the phone, wouldn't be out with a woman, and wouldn't be at Huggy's pretending he could stand the taste of draft beer.

Starsky taught him something that night, about taking him for granted, and about their unspoken policy of letting each other fly free. The lesson was not lost on Hutch, not at all. He learned that given the proper motivation, he could reach into a haystack while blindfolded and ram the hidden needle right through his thumb.

It couldn't end like this. He should know where Starsky was. He wanted to pound the wheel in frustration but his palm still ached from the last twenty times he'd smacked it since this morning. Not like this. There were too many things to say.

He turned off at his exit. Had to stop thinking like a victim's next-of-kin. Panic was knocking his radar out this time, where before it had sharpened his signal. It was downright sick that jealousy could endow him with powers of supernatural perception, but mortal danger left that inner eye blind. If Starsky had only been in bed with another man right now, Hutch would have found him in no time.

Welcome to my nightmare
I think you're gonna like it
I think you're gonna feel that you belong
We sweat, laugh and scream here
'Cause life is just a dream here
You know inside you feel right at home . . .
                Alice Cooper—"Welcome to My Nightmare."

Starsky dreamed. It wasn't all bad, even though the dream kept going after he opened his eyes. For a while he watched little movies playing inside the torch flames and tried to figure out the exact taste of the midnight sky as he gazed up from the bottom of his deep tunnel. Even the things that should have scared him seemed distant. It was wrong to start thinking like he was already dead, but he needed that detachment now. He'd had a couple of hours to lie quietly and think. Very little chance that even Hutch could find him down here, unless Marcos for some reason intended him to.

They'd untied his hands once he was too high to pose any threat, with legs that wobbled like rubber and a head that clouded over and made him fall down every time he tried to stand up. Impossible to tell how long before sunrise. He'd been in this cave for years. Hadn't seen Hutch since forever. His cop's voice was cranked all the way down on low, so faint he could barely hear it through everything else. Last time he'd caught what it was saying it told him that Hutch would be looking for him, that he could still make it out of this one. And then the little cop inside him started sounding like the scientist at the end of "The Fly," right before someone dropped a rock on him and squashed him flat.

Scratchy music played on a cheap tape player—or maybe it was really fine music playing on a very good one. Hard to tell, but it soaked the air like fog and crackled where it touched the rock walls.

"I don't like to see you cry . . . You just don't know how that cuts me . . . So I will cover up my eyes, and make it go away . . . "

He tried to imagine Hutch's voice singing the lyrics, but couldn't, even though he saw Hutch's handwriting everywhere. It rose in the smoke from the fire and rained down from the ceiling, spelling out things Starsky had to strain to read in the strands of Gail's hair. Bitter words of fear clung to her slender, oblivious shoulders before slithering away into the greasy shadows that surrounded them.

His timing had been rotten, as usual. If only he hadn't heard the belabored whine of the LTD's transmission outside that house last night. If only he hadn't gone off his nut that Hutch still gave a shit about where he was and who he was with and followed him back to his place. This would have been easier for both of them if Starsky had left it alone, but instead he had to go push his way back into Hutch's bed just in time to leave him with the corpse of another lover he couldn't save. "Sorry, Hutch," he whispered. "Really sorry."

God. And just when it seemed as though Hutch might be getting over Terry's posthumous request, or at least just a little bit. Take care of Starsky and Ollie, Hutch, because they aren't bright enough to take care of themselves (well, maybe Ollie was). Don't let my little Davey change. Why she saw fit to saddle Hutch with that load was still beyond Starsky's understanding. No one can stop change. Terry wasn't that naive.

What was it to her, anyway? She was dead.

The sharp flicker of anger he'd struggled with while watching Hutch labor under that burden threatened to turn into something he'd regret taking with him if this was really it. It was just the acid making him trip too far out on every stray memory and thought (not that living inside his head for a little while seemed like a bad idea considering his current situation). Besides, he truly didn't want to die with ugly things in his heart, not about Terry, even if her parting gift to Hutch had only made it that much harder for them both to go on together as partners, and just as hard to find each other again as lovers. She shouldn't have had to go through what she did, he reasoned. She hadn't been thinking straight. He couldn't hold her responsible for making Hutch feel like a failure because he couldn't stop the world from turning.

It never ceased to amaze (and even amuse) him that Hutch thought he could shelter Starsky from everything he was going through during that phase. Or that Starsky ever wanted to be sheltered from it. He needed his lover back after Terry was gone, not some guilty weirdo who tensed up every time he laid a hand on him, as if his dead fiancée was hanging around in the sky, watching them. Although to be honest, the fantasy of Terry watching him and Hutch together in bed turned Starsky on almost more than it had while she'd been living. Ironic that she was the one threesome idea he brought up that Hutch had ever turned down. As if he sensed what was right around the corner. The closest Starsky ever got to his fantasy was at the funeral, covering Terry's folded hands with his own while Hutch bent to gently press his lips to her smooth forehead, any trace of the bullet scar skillfully covered through the magic of mortuary science.

Terry had been up for it, too, until she found out Hutch was uncomfortable with the idea. Said she wouldn't mind seeing him with another man and then laughed and added that it might as well be "wife number one." So many beautiful things about her, and trust was by no means the least of them. She knew he'd never lay a hand on Hutch while they were together, not without her permission, not without her being there.

To Starsky's disappointment, Hutch had ruled it out with one icy glance and a smile that felt even colder. "What's the matter, Starsk, can't choose between us or something?"

Stung, he'd replied, "Hutch, you make that pretty easy some days." And Starsky never brought up the three-way thing again.

If it hurt Hutch that fate ultimately stepped in and made the choice for Starsky, he never admitted it, not even later, when things weren't going so good between them. And now it looked like fate was reversing its decision, sending him right back to Terry. There goes death, Starsky thought sadly, leaving Hutch behind again.

What wind the cave managed to catch was getting colder, he knew, from the way the hair on his arms and legs stood up, but all Starsky had to do was glance at the fire through slitted eyes to feel flushed and warm. This was probably the last night he'd ever feel anything at all. He almost wondered if Terry had thoughts like this during her last days, but that was crazy because that girl would never spend a single minute of her life waiting to die. He pictured her sweet face smiling at him, her eyes laughing at him for being such a morbid idiot.

And then he could see her, in the strobe of the firelight, flashes of Terry as she danced at the edge of the fire. She probably would have liked this song, come to think of it. It was the sort of upbeat rock and roll she'd clown around to in her living room to when she was making fun of him for being tired at only midnight after he'd dragged himself over to keep their date. There she was again, skipping barefoot around the fire with her silly dance step, the white satin gown she'd been buried in falling off one shoulder that was so much paler than it had been in life.

"One thing I miss, is Cold Ethyl and her skeleton kiss. We met last night, making love by the refrigerator light."

Maybe being dead wasn't so bad, Starsky thought, watching Terry take the crown of white jasmine he'd made for her off her head and throw it on the fire. The music drowned out her laugh as the flowers burned. Maybe he would see her all the time over there, and she wouldn't feel cold to him at all because he'd be just as cold as she was. If anyone could turn death into a cheerful, positive experience, it was certainly Terry. He'd be in good hands with her.

"Ethyl Ethyl let me squeeze you in my arms, Ethyl Ethyl come and freeze me with your charms. Come on Cold Ethyl, freeze me babe . . . "

She was lovely, with her slender arms and hips swinging beneath the satin and sending ripples through the shiny fabric like water. It seemed that she could dip her hands and toes into the flame as she danced without doing damage to her perfectly embalmed flesh, though the hem of her sleeve and skirt drew faint trails of smoke behind her as she whirled. The floor of the cave was scattered with odd pieces of wood and brush the others had gathered earlier to keep the fire burning. Without missing a single beat, Terry picked up a short, leafy branch in each hand and shook them like pom-poms for one chorus before throwing those on the fire as well.

When Starsky started wishing he could touch her one more time, she stopped dancing and came toward him, her gown crackling as she stepped through the fire. The closer she came to Starsky, the more he noticed little things such as how her makeup was different from the way she normally wore it, and that her dress had been altered from when she first bought it for the Policeman's Ball, and was looser on her now. She was wearing perfume for once, which he always thought she hated. But none of that mattered; she was here to comfort him during his last night on earth and he was grateful to her. It was hard to tell, but he thought his eyes might be tearing up, so he closed them.

Incredibly, he could feel Terry now, sighing as she knelt between his legs and relaxed on top of him. Suddenly she was very still, no longer buoyant and full of energy as she had been while she danced. She seemed heavier than she had ever been, and colder, too. Starsky wanted to put his arms around her but found they were pinned beneath her weight. She was moving on top of him, just slightly, wasn't she? He could feel her, could feel everything inside his body that she ever made happen to him when they made love. His cock, trapped beneath her leaden thigh, wanted to rise. He thought he could make out a whisper of her real scent beneath the artificial flowery one. He wanted to move, wanted to come, so badly.

"One thing—no lie, Ethyl's frigid as an Eskimo Pie. She's cool in bed, as she oughta be 'cuz Ethyl's dead . . . "

He wasn't sure if the lyrics registered on him before or after her chest started to shake and he realized she was laughing. There was a confused moment, and then he thought, classic Terry. One more joke on Davey, one for the road. She always could make him laugh, even now, when he was sure it was wrong to feel happy even for a few seconds. But he did laugh, and as he did her body grew light on top of him, the scent of flowers fading. Her fingers moved like they always did, though her touch was cool and silvery on his face and his neck, penetrating the fabric of the robe he wore while she stroked his limp cock (that still somehow managed to feel hard) for a few seconds.

He thought her smile seemed slightly sad for an instant before she caught the next gust of wind and was gone.

"If I live 'til ninety-seven, you'll still be waiting in refrigerator heaven, 'cuz you're cool, you're ice, Cold Ethyl, you're my paradise . . . "

In spite of everything, Starsky laughed again. Good one, sweetheart, ya got me.

He could move and stretch now that Terry's weight was gone. It seemed as though the encounter had brought his tension down a notch, which left his head feeling a little clearer, despite whatever drugs were rambling around inside him. Gail stayed close, where he lay on his back next to the wall with one arm curled beneath his head. After a while he bent his knees so she would have something to lean against, and she sat sideways with her hand resting on his stomach, which was nice because he liked looking at her pretty, tapering fingers. The evil sunshine jug had made a few rounds since nightfall, and she had spent most of the evening staring raptly at the others as they ambled around the cave, singing and jabbering and playing recklessly with sharp things.

The really mean one with the brown hair, whose name, he'd learned, was Seth, was juggling three big machetes, dropping one every now and then when he got too caught up in watching his own shadow on the wall. Starsky still didn't know what the flame-keeper's name was, but he watched as the man sat cross-legged beneath a torch, making dozens of shallow cuts on his forearm with a razor blade. He let the blood drip into a tarnished metal urn of some sort that looked like it could have been a fancy old ice bucket. Jonah, the blond one who hadn't hurt him yet, alternately paced and spun gracefully around the fire, seeming at times to glide an inch or so above the ground, right on top of the music. Every now and then during a slower song, he'd stop, close his eyes and quietly sing along.

"I don't want to feel you die, but if that's the way God has planned you, I'll put pennies on your eyes, and it will go away . . . "

So this was what went on behind the scenes in a murder cult. After a lifetime of wondering about the fantastically evil things that were always hinted at but never quite shown in Vincent Price movies, it was almost disappointing to see how terribly mundane this scene was in real life. It reminded him of any Saturday night at the beach when he was a freshman in high school. He could still see himself as the pasty Jewish kid from New York, hanging out with the other misfits that never got invited to the cool parties. But Starsky had watched and learned, played football and followed the prettiest girls to a happier side of life. What Marcos provided was an alternative to that goal, a place where fitting in was a given for misfits and where the popular boys and girls were slaughtered like animals.

Watching as the flame-keeper studied his bloody forearm against the firelight, Starsky tried to ignore the sudden stab of sympathy he felt for Marcos' people. There was a time when he might have gone this way, all too easily. How were these kids that different from the mobster-wannabe punks he briefly ran with in New York when he was younger? The mob they'd all aspired to work for killed just as many, just as brutally. But they didn't grind up pretty sorority girls with rich families and society profiles, so most of their crimes never made the front page.

Starsky picked up Gail's hand and rubbed his thumb across the back of it. "What're you doing with these people, anyway?" he asked her, and she seemed to hear him even though he could barely hear himself. "What'd he mean when he said they'd 'taken' you?"

"Lord?" the flame-keeper suddenly called, rising and twirling toward them with arms outstretched and face turned heavenward, causing Gail to shrink away from Starsky. "How long shall the wicked—" he asked, pointing at Starsky with his bloody hand. "How long shall the wicked triumph on Earth?"

Starsky sat up and scooted back along the wall, causing the other three men to laugh as if they shared a private joke. He eyed Jonah warily over one shoulder as he came over and sat on one side of him, drawing his knees up under his chin. The flame-keeper, seemingly lost in his own trip again, laughed again and wandered back to his urn and his torch, where he sat turning his reddened razor blade over and over in his hand.

"The world is a rotten place," Jonah said quietly. "The world cries out for salvation."

Starsky turned to face him, dizzy from having been on his back for so long. Brilliant white light radiated from behind Jonah's fair head, and Starsky had to squint at him but even then it hurt his eyes. "That's a little heavy for me right now, champ," he told him. "If you're gonna kill me, just kill me. But don't make me listen to your cockamamie devil-worship shit beforehand."

The blond smiled. "I don't worship the devil. I worship ecstasy."

Starsky snorted. "I thought you worshipped Simon Marcos."

Jonah smiled and shook his head, making waves in his strange halo. "Simon is the conduit. Ecstasy is the current. Everything else is negation."

"Chopping up college girls is 'negation'," Starsky said, enjoying the slight buzz of anger this confrontation was giving him. "Or is that what you sick fucks call 'ecstasy'?" Someone turned down the tape player, and he could hear Gail singing what sounded like a church hymn, a Christian one, something about a shepherd and his flock. Starsky didn't know it.

"It is ecstatic for them," Jonah said. "The chosen ones die in divine ecstasy, and their removal benefits the stock. Each recalling is another step forward in human evolution. The chosen become immortal." As he spoke, the blond fiddled with the belt of his robe, which seemed to consist of a length of heavy chain. His manner was deceptively gentle and refined. Starsky had seen how these "steps" in evolution had been "recalled" and to the best of his knowledge, real evolution never had to be cleaned off a concrete slab with a big squeegee and a bucket of bleach.

For the umpteenth time since that morning, Starsky asked himself in utter futility how he'd wound up here, spending his last night on earth tripping in a cave with a bunch of killers. Immortality? He had no use for immortality without Hutch.

As if reading his mind, Jonah crawled toward him and held out his hand. Starsky accepted the small bundle offered to him and unrolled a blue and gray wrap-stripe necktie.

Hutch's tie. The one he'd worn to court. A huskier voice took up the harmony in Gail's hymn. It sounded so much like Hutch that he couldn't even look to see, couldn't bear to prove that he wasn't there in the cave with him.

Someone turned off the tape, and Seth and the flame-keeper drew closer as Jonah took the tie and spread it on the dirt floor in front of the fire. Gail stopped singing and softly began to cry. They were expecting Starsky to lose it at that point. So he didn't.

If Hutch was alive, he couldn't waste the energy to provoke them to attack. If Hutch was dead, it didn't matter what Starsky did so long as he could take at least one of these freaks with him when he went to join his partner.

Firelight rendered the blue and gray fabric in a metallic, acid-bright gleam. Starsky ran a finger down its length and stared as it seemed to breathe and arch beneath his touch like a cat. "Nice tie," he said. "Where'd you get it?"

Jonah studied him thoughtfully and answered, "It was on the ground where your white knight fell. He stood too close to the tower when lightning struck. He was looking for his king."

Starsky gathered the tie up in his hand and stuffed it inside one of the deep pockets he had discovered in his robe. "I think you kids have been playing a little too much Dungeons and Dragons. Heard about something like this on the news."

"We were close enough to touch him," Jonah said. "Some of us still are, even now. But Simon dreamed he would come to us of his own will, as long as you live. One of you will feed the demon, and the other will bear witness until the end-time. It is Simon's dream."

The flame-keeper picked up the half-empty jug, took another deep swig and passed it to Seth and then Jonah, who did likewise. "Here," Jonah said, holding it out to Starsky.

"No thanks," Starsky told him. "I have to drive later."

Seth thrust his machete into ground in front of him, leaving the hilt of the weapon sticking up in front of him where he squatted with his arms crossed, a demented grin twisting his thin lips.

"This is your test, Starsky. This is your first chance to transcend." Jonah held the jug out to him with sincere concern in his expression. "Choose ecstasy. Do it for him."

Starsky stared at the crude blue suns drawn on the jug and hesitated. He's just gotten a handle on the drug and now they wanted him to chug down more of it. Jonah crawled closer to him, the links of chain clinking softly at his waist. He pressed the jug into Starsky's hands and whispered close against his ear, "Feed the demon and the white knight rides free."

The chemical-spiked water went down easier this time, and Jonah helped steady the plastic-tasting jug against his lips and made sure he drank more than a healthy dose. He tried to pull away, but Gail crept up behind him and he found himself boxed in between her and Jonah. When he finally sputtered and choked, unable to drink any more, Jonah pulled the jug away and bent his head to lick at the water that ran down Starsky's chest and throat.

Starsky shivered involuntarily and backed up further into Gail's arms. The music started again. Seth went back to juggling his machetes while the flame-keeper withdrew to claim his torch. Gail snuggled up to Starsky and sighed happily while he twisted around uneasily, trying to avoid Jonah's mouth. "Choose ecstasy," Gail whispered in his ear, giggling a little as she sucked on his lobe.

"O-okay now, e-easy—" Starsky stammered, trying to find the words that would make them stop what they were doing. Firm little breasts pressed into his back through the silky robe, and Gail's fingers were moving in delicate circles on his scalp, combing through his hair. Jonah's hands were resting on Starsky's thighs, a touch that was certainly intrusive but that didn't yet threaten to go farther. Though he strained not enjoy what they were doing to him, the new dose of drugs was already kicking in and every tiny flicker of pleasure was being magnified through his body like ripples in a pond. Try as he might to resist, his body was having a tough time sticking to the notion that anyone sucking on the side of his neck or nibbling at his earlobe could be "bad."

Gail's fingers traveled up his arms until they were stroking all over his hands, every touch causing tiny explosions of pleasure to shake down through the veins in each wrist. Jonah crawled in closer and sat facing him so that his legs, partially tangled in yards of black satin, straddled Starsky's hips. The fire was flashing like a light rack on a black-and-white and the sand beneath his ass felt like it had fingers that stroked and prodded him through his robe. Oh shit, he thought. Here we go.

There was a mouth at the back of his neck, and one moving along his collarbone and then down over his nipples. Fingers seemed to disconnect entirely from hands and stroke parts of his body he could no longer reliably identify. Suddenly there was no real difference between his throat and his thigh, or between his belly and his cock. It wasn't until he opened his eyes and saw fire-lit white hair moving down between his thighs that he realized his cock was harder than his belly was. For an instant he forgot himself and thrust weakly into the fingers laced around the once-familiar organ between his legs that now seemed to claim a will of its own. Guilt sparked as his Hutch-loop started playing again; Hutch leaning in the doorway, hurt giving way to relief in his expression. Apologies, promises—it was all supposed to be fixed by now. But instead he was right back where the loop started; flat on his back with his cock inside a stranger's mouth.

Gail giggled again and moved out from behind so she could push Starsky onto his back and kiss his mouth, holding her hair back in a ponytail with one hand and cradling his cheek with the other. Where Terry had left frost on his skin, Gail burned him. Tendrils of auburn hair escaped her grasp and snaked around her head, snapping at Starsky's half-closed lids, seeming to catch fire and sizzle like fuses. He shut his eyes and tried to picture Hutch's hair, burning almost platinum in the sun, and tried to kiss Hutch's mouth, but these lips were too thin, the tongue too tentative, too small. A ball of flame shot through the air overhead, transporting a million tiny, flaming mouths that shrieked like the damned. Blazing yellow droplets cascaded down in the fireball's wake, raining over Gail's back as she bent over him, breaking their kiss to laugh into his open mouth. When he opened his eyes, Starsky could see the flame-keeper standing over them, swigging from a clear bottle of liquor before he lifted his torch and spewed another bright gout of flame.

The wet vortex of heat that swirled around his cock like a cyclone tightened and dragged him upward until he was almost certain he was levitating. It wasn't a feeling he could have described as pleasure at that moment. It felt more like he was a being infected and cured at once by the same virus. Every nerve that crackled and burst inside his body was a tiny offering for Hutch. Feed the demon; free the knight. He repeated the words like a mantra. When it finally had to end, he wound his fingers in the blond hair brushing his stomach and saw Hutch's smiling face bending over him, as real as the bear had been. By the time the last spasm of his climax died, Hutch was gone and there was only Gail staring down with wide, vacant eyes, her tiny doll's mouth rubbed red and raw by his new-grown stubble.

The flame-keeper knelt in front the fire, chanting unintelligibly and warming the urn he'd bled into over the flame. Jonah carefully pulled his lips from Starsky's cock and crawled across the dirt floor to the fire. Starsky pulled his robe around his legs and watched in dazed disgust as the blond disciple delicately spit his mouthful of semen into the urn. The flame-keeper added something from a battered silver flask, swirled the liquid in the urn over the flame once more, lifted it to his lips and drank. One dark, viscous drop of fluid dripped down his ravaged chin, which he caught with one fingertip and fed to the fire, stroking deftly through the flames until his fingers were black with soot.

Starsky's stomach turned over. Once again, he was glad he hadn't eaten in so long. He tried not to watch as Seth, and then Jonah took their turns drinking from the urn. The flame-keeper motioned to Gail, and she dutifully crawled over. Holding Starsky's gaze, she took a tiny sip, but the flame-keeper tipped the urn and made her drink more, spilling a few crimson drops on her white slip. Jonah took the urn from the flame-keeper and brought it over to Starsky.

"Drink to your knight's health," Jonah whispered, holding the cup to Starsky's lips as the others drew near. "Blood calls the demon; semen keeps it alive." Starsky stared into the half-full urn. There was far more blood in there than could have possibly bled from the flame-keeper's shallow razor cuts. Some of that blood had to have come from one of the victims. Starsky knew it as surely as if he'd slit the girl's throat himself.

They surrounded him, Seth with his machete in his hand, giving him little choice. Closing his eyes, Starsky tried not to smell anything as he lifted the urn to his lips and swallowed, only to cough and gasp at the unexpected alcoholic fumes. For Hutch, he thought, defeated, doubting Hutch would appreciate the tribute, or the sacrifice. Hutch would probably have said he didn't need Starsky to take in evil for his sake, whether the act saved his life or not. He'd be left with the memory of a partner who drank blood and left his seed in the bellies of brainwashed dropouts, all in the name of "ecstasy." Starsky groaned as the salty, liquor-laced mixture hit his empty stomach and turned to press his face against the cold rock wall. A strong taste of bleach and iron lingered in the back of his throat as he gagged and kept swallowing. His teeth still reverberated from having grated against the nickel-plated urn. The others watched for a moment, seeming satisfied, and went back to their solitary pursuits.

Never leaving his side, Gail cleared her own throat and swallowed a few times. Wetting one fingertip in her mouth, she scrubbed at the fresh scarlet drops that stained the hem of her slip. As if she could wash it away.

"You think you can just wash it away?" Hutch smirked at him slightly, waiting for his answer.

Starsky's annoyance warred with his extreme relief as he pushed Hutch's hand away from his fly.

"C'mon, Hutch, it's not funny. Let me clean up."

He grabbed the bathroom doorknob but Hutch planted one hand against it to hold it shut as he leaned in close against Starsky. Weeks since Hutch had initiated the briefest of kisses between them, as he did now, and for the first time in so long there was something in his eyes that looked even remotely alive. Starsky turned his head and kissed the pale wrist next to his face, skin that finally smelled like skin again instead of the stale rubber sweat of disposable gloves.

"'Out, damned spot,' huh?" Hutch undid the button and slid the zipper down with one knuckle as he slipped his hand into Starsky's jeans. His lips felt so good against Starsky's throat that it was hard to worry if he could smell someone else's cologne, someone else's sex on him. Then his teeth scraped a spot on his collarbone that had already been bitten that night. Starsky winced and Hutch straightened to face him. His blue eyes had gone almost translucent again and for a minute Starsky saw the scary, far-removed Hutch he'd felt compelled to avoid for too long.

Starsky opened his mouth to say something, apologize, say whatever seemed necessary, but Hutch kissed him again and when his big hand held Starsky's face so he could look at him again, only his partner was there, sane and whole, willing to connect. No trace of recrimination in his tired, bemused expression as he spread Starsky's legs with a light kick to the instep and slid his hand down behind his balls. Don't, Starsky wanted to warn him, but one thick finger was already sliding too easily inside him, thrusting and then stroking more gently upon meeting no resistance from slick, already-stretched muscle.

"Hutch—" he began, even though there was nothing he could possibly say for himself. A second finger joined the first. Hutch inhaled deeply against Starsky's neck and found a spot to roughly tongue, lapping at his skin until it tingled, fingers still deep inside him but stopping just short of where Starsky needed to feel them. Maybe Hutch had the right idea. This wasn't something to wash off in the shower, but something that had to be burned out of them both.

He let go of Hutch's shoulders and clumsily shoved his own jeans down further. "We—he didn't, Hutch. We were going to—I mean, I heard your car outside—we gotta—" We've got to get your car into the shop, he'd meant to say. Hutch grabbed Starsky's jaw with his free hand and brought their lips together with an urgency that felt new and old at once, kissing him like they used to kiss, kissing like they might never have kissed again. Hutch's knees hit the floor with a sound that made Starsky's ache in sympathy. And then he was in the heaven that on any other man would be just a mouth, fingers rubbing inside him and making him jerk back against the door until it rattled in its frame.

Hutch let him come onto the front of his rumpled shirt, making himself as stained as Starsky felt. Wouldn't let Starsky touch him below the waist but whispered promises for the morning as they lay cupped together in Hutch's bed and tried to get an hour or two of sleep before court.

Starsky woke up before the alarm went off and fucked Hutch slowly, thoroughly, until he was sure all that sick frost had melted away. He knew he'd done it right when they ended up bickering at Merle's when they dropped Hutch's car off. Standing in the bright sunshine with a righteously pissed off partner seemed so perfect and back-to-normal, like the way they were before Marcos came along. With the only blood in sight being that which flushed Hutch's angry face, Starsky couldn't help feeling they were nearly back to where they should be.

But now he was right back in the loop. This time the blood wouldn't wash off; this time the blood was inside him. He'd never be clean again. If he ever got the chance to touch Hutch again he'd only end up staining him, too. Trying to swallow what felt like a rock in his throat, he lifted his hands and scrubbed at his cheeks, only to find them dry. He was tired, he realized gratefully, and curled up on his side, watching the fire. Through half-closed eyes, he could see Jonah bend to rewind the tape they'd been listening to and straightening up to dance again, spinning slowly as he sang along with the song.

"You've only lived a minute of your life . . . I must be dreaming, please stop screaming . . ."

Sanders, the cheerful, rail-thin brunette from Dispatch, had found Hutch cursing vehemently into a glass coffeepot that had only a smoldering film of burned residue coating the bottom. Sympathetically, she offered him one of her diet pills. Unable to remember the last time he slept more than a couple of hours lately, he accepted. What was it Dobey always said? Everybody takes pills. He only wanted half, but though he felt absurd, he hadn't been able to bring himself to crack the tiny pink heart in two. He swallowed it whole with a cup of warm soda from the malfunctioning machine in the hall.

That had been hours ago, and the coffee-times-five effect of the amphetamine was finally dying down and letting his brain operate at normal speed without leaving him susceptible to sleep. After a night of brainstorming over Marcos' taped cryptic babbling, Dobey and Huggy called a time-out for a fifteen-minute nap near three a.m. Hutch leaned back in his chair and kept watch, ready to make a noise if either of them started to sleep too soundly.

He would find Starsky in time. It was the only frame of mind that would allow him to keep functioning, the only one that kept him from breaking the nearest piece of furniture the way he'd come so close to doing at two-hour intervals for most of the night. He'd grab Starsky and they'd go somewhere with a huge bed and they could sleep until they wouldn't be able to believe that any of it had really happened. Maybe they'd take a leave of absence, get out of town.

Quit the force before he could fuck up again and put another lover in the ground.

Following a trail of crimson
Spots that lead into the night
Suddenly I realize
I see it all through real eyes
These crimson spots are dripping from my hand
And ooh it makes me feel like a man.
               Alice Cooper—"The Awakening"

Starsky had no idea how long he'd been curled up next to the cave wall when Gail shook him from the stupor he'd fallen into and Jonah pulled him to his feet. The others stood at the foot of the steps and waited. This time his hands were bound in front of him, and no one spoke as he was ushered up the stairs.

The sky was that shade of blue that looked like midnight with a bucket of water thrown in. Pre-dawn birds were noisily chirping in the trees. The grass beneath his bare feet was cool and moist with dew and the air smelled so clean and free of smoke that he wanted to cry.

They led him up a hill to a skeletal metal structure that looked like it could have been a tent frame at one point, and fastened his bound hands over his head so that he was all but hanging with his feet just barely flat on the cold concrete. The chanting started softly and gradually began to build. Gail was transformed into a remorseful black widow, her calm, ritualistic posturing a striking contrast to the naked fear in her eyes.

Gail was the real victim and there was nothing Starsky could do for her. The other three could kill, mindlessly, with no conscience to torment them afterward and no soul left to lose. But Gail was different. Starsky could see it so clearly in her eyes; maybe she was capable of making the first wound, but she'd never survive her own crime.

The sun rose as Gail wept, tracing her tear-streaked cheeks with gold. Starsky heard himself pleading with Gail to put down the knife and let the others do the job. But his heart was already skipping beats, as though it knew it would have to stop in a few minutes. Gail was obviously already lost. Dobey would take Hutch off the case after this, wouldn't he? Surely someone would keep Hutch away from the scene?

He never felt the stroke when it came. The earth merely opened and unleashed chaos all around him. His hands were free somehow and the others were falling. To his surprise, he found he could fight, and that someone was fighting with him. He wrestled Seth for the butcher knife, seeing nothing but a yellow and orange blur from the corner of his eye. It moved like Hutch, looked and sounded like Hutch, but couldn't be Hutch. It was too late, too impossibly late.

At last the others lay motionless, and Starsky was still breathing.

This was the part of the movie where the victim dreams that the hero pops up and saves him at the last minute. And then there's the long dolly shot at the end of the poor guy lying there dead in a pool of blood with a dreamy look on his face. That's how Hutch would find him when he really did get here. Starsky wished they would cut to the credits already and let his corpse rest. He was tired of pretending to breathe just so he could look like an actor playing dead.

The dream was good one, though, looked just like Hutch right after one of his epic ass-kickings. Way up there standing over the groaning, wasted creeps that sprawled down by Starsky's knees, breathing hard and shaking out his fist. The sun was behind his head just like it had been in the van, blocking out his face and lighting up the wild white spikes of hair that stood out from his head.

Then the dream dropped down to one knee in front of him. The scar between the dream's eyes was just the familiar deep wrinkle and every perfect shape of the movie-star face was in the right place. The breath that panted in Starsky's face was laced with coffee and the wintergreen Certs Hutch used to suck on when he was quitting smoking. Never worked, and Starsky always gave him shit because he could smell the tar from a sneaked Camel Straight underneath all the mint.

Might as well swallow that hook and let the dream have its laugh. Starsky reached out and dug his fingers into the sleeves of the blond leather jacket that dream-Hutch wore. The solid arms underneath felt strong and real.

"What took you so long?" Starsky meant it to come out like a joke but he sounded like a kid who'd just found his daddy after being lost in a big department store. Someone else was on him, Gail wrapping herself around his legs again, but he couldn't worry about that because the dream's face broke out in that weird, heartbroken grin Hutch always made when he was trying not cry and pulled Starsky's head against his chest.

"That's a nice looking nightgown you've got there," Hutch said, and his joke fell flat, too. But it was the right voice, and his sweat smelled right. The pink shirt still had a speckle of ink on it from the ball pen that had leaked on him before they left for court last time. The fingers that tangled in Starsky's hair and rubbed the back of his neck to soothe him would have brought anyone back from the dead. His white knight had come for him, just like in Simon's dream. Starsky tried to smile and think of a comeback but couldn't do anything right anymore and ended up laughing even while his tears dripped onto the pink shirtfront.

Shiny black shoes and dark blue pants cuffs rushed all around them on the concrete platform. Gail hung onto him a little harder for a minute until someone gently lifted her away. Hutch gave an order to a uniform over Starsky's head but didn't stop holding him and stroking his hair until Starsky started making an effort to collect himself. He sniffled once and pushed himself upright, with Hutch helping him to his feet. Cops were swarming all over and hauling away anything in a black robe but him. The sun stabbed at his eyes like a laser but the tiny geometric shapes that had been a filter for everything he'd seen since early yesterday were nearly gone.

"You need a doctor," Hutch said, latching onto his arm and grabbing his walkie-talkie off his belt.

"Nah, I'm good," Starsky told him, wishing his voice would level out. "Kinda fucked up. Get me out of here?" He dropped his head and rubbed at his eyes, trying to will himself to stop shaking. Hutch gripped his shoulders and bent over to look up into his face but Starsky flinched away. If he saw that concerned expression right now, he might start bawling for real.

"You got it, buddy," Hutch said, giving his shoulder a squeeze. "Let's blow this Popsicle stand."

He reached into his breast pocket and handed Starsky his sunglasses. Starsky slid them on, easing them carefully over his singed temple. Better. He was able to keep his eyes open in the sun and not feel like a goon for crying. Hutch led him down the hill, guiding his bare feet around rusty bottle caps and fossilized deposits of dog shit until they were at the Torino. She was filthy, and had something that looked like hay or weeds stuck in the fender. Starsky stepped carefully onto the asphalt, though it was too early for it to be hot yet. He automatically headed for the driver's side, but Hutch steered him away and opened the passenger's door.

"Wait here for a second," Hutch told him, settling him into the seat and pushing down the lock and shutting the door. "I've got to tell Dobey where we're going." He looked around at the uniforms milling around the cluster of cars until he seemed satisfied that Starsky wasn't alone, and then turned to head back up the hill.

Starsky resisted the urge to lock the doors while Hutch was gone, and put his window the rest of the way down just because that was what he would normally do. The bad guys were all in cuffs and cages now. A violent shiver wriggled down his spine. The acid was starting to work its way out of him. It should have been nice to be back in his own car, but he saw that everything was rearranged since Hutch had been using her. Driver's seat all the way back, steering wheel and mirrors maladjusted, and a graveyard of crushed 7-11 coffee cups curled at his toes on the floor. Under different circumstances, he would have torn Hutch a new one over this.

He'd been smoking in here, too. The ashtray was squeaky clean, but Starsky could smell it. Some health freak. Two years of clean lungs down the drain. Though when it came right down to it, what was a little smoke compared to the things Starsky had consumed while they'd been separated? Suddenly it did make some kind of sick sense. But why did it seem like they always ended up having to get dirty to find each other?

The driver's door opened and Hutch slid into the seat. "I told Dobey you didn't want to go to the hospital and he's mad as hell but—"

Starsky interrupted him. "Hand 'em over, pal," he ordered, holding out his hand. At least that sounded like him when it came out. Hutch froze and looked at him for a second until he figured it out, and then sighed. He pulled the pack down from on top of the visor and slapped it into Starsky's palm. He didn't say a word as Starsky rolled down the window and tossed the Camels at the big metal trashcan a few feet from the car. The pack bounced off the rim and landed on the gravel.

"Screw it," Hutch said, and started the ignition. The Torino's ass slid all over the place when he pulled out too fast, narrowly missing a parked squad car. Starsky opened his mouth to start bitching but the big, bruised knuckles on the wheel were white and Hutch's jaw was set at the angle of doom, so he kept his mouth shut and focused on not wincing every time they took a curve at light-speed. He realized after a few minutes that they were headed for Hutch's place.

A yellow Camaro whipped out in front of them from a private road and inexplicably hit the brakes. Hutch swore and slammed on the brakes as well, causing the Torino to skid onto the dirt shoulder. The Camaro picked up speed and kept going while a cloud of dust bloomed around the stopped Torino. Hutch stared after the other car for a tense minute, breathing hard, and then squeezed his eyes shut and let his head drop to his chest. Starsky took off Hutch's aviator shades and stared at the battered hands slowly wringing the steering wheel and at the back of the tanned, slightly grimy neck.

"You wanna go after—?" Starsky said, gesturing at the road. It almost made him smile to picture the look on the driver's face as he watched a cop wearing a black robe with big red upside-down crosses on it walking up to him in his rearview mirror to give him a ticket. Hutch jerked the door handle and sprang out, slamming the door shut and pacing toward the rear of the car. Starsky turned in his seat and watched his partner stalk a shallow groove into the dust for a few minutes, back and forth, before stopping and rubbing his hands over his face and staring out over the drop to the beach and the ocean beyond it.

Starsky had seen him too hopped up after a case to come back down before, but never to the point of driving like a madman for no reason, especially in Starsky's car. Even after they nailed Simon, after weeks of dead, mutilated college kids and devastated parents, Hutch had been the one to hold at least their working partnership together, the one that made them both take a step back from all that blood and breathe every once in a while.

Starsky knew what it felt like, thinking the cult had Hutch, but it must have been that much worse for Hutch, having the evidence, knowing for sure. How could he convince Hutch now that it was all over, when he was still shaking, himself, still half-expecting to get jabbed with a needle that comes from out of nowhere?

The driver's door opened and a calmer Hutch slid back in, attempting a feeble smile. "Let's try this again, shall we?" he said and turned the key to the ignition.

Starsky covered Hutch's hand on the shift, preventing him from putting it in gear. "You all right?" he asked cautiously, unsure about which of them was in a worse state to drive.

He noticed for the first time how bloodshot Hutch's eyes were, the broken vessels contrasting sharply with pale blue. "Not yet," Hutch said, "but I will be, provided I can get us home in one piece." Starsky left his hand on Hutch's while he shifted and pulled out onto the road, and held it for a minute longer before letting it slip away.

They drove on in silence. Starsky was ready to jump out of his skin by the time they were nearly there. Coming down off this stuff in 'Nam was something he remembered well, and not fondly. He was hurting from having his hands tied behind him and getting beat up and burned and thrown downstairs. Several hours of bad, jittery vibes and free-floating anxiety was the last thing he needed on top of that. He leaned forward and dug behind the maps and the box of ammo in his glove box until he found the bottle of Percodan tablets left over from the last time he'd taken a bad beating. Before he could twist it open, Hutch reached over and took it from him, glancing down from the road to read the label.

"One," Hutch told him and handed it back. Starsky shook out two and tried to swallow them dry, but they stuck in his throat. He grabbed the styrofoam coffee cup out of the holder and gulped down the brown stuff inside.

"Eeuugh," he said, shaking his head and sticking his tongue out. "God, that's bad cold."

"Wasn't great when it was hot, either," Hutch said, as they pulled up in front of Venice Place.

"Hope none of your neighbors see me in this." Starsky put the shades back on and hiked up the skirt of his robe so he could climb out of the car.

"But the sunglasses make all the difference," Hutch said, lightly, unconvincingly. He pushed his door shut and stood back to take a look at the car. "I'll get her detailed for you tomorrow, have her back good as new. Didn't have time to get mine back from Merle."

"S'okay, don't worry about it," Starsky said. "Next time you're kidnapped by cultists I'll just use yours."

"You're funny." Hutch held the front door open for him and gestured him inside the house.

Starsky stepped inside the apartment and felt safety envelop him in warm, musk-scented arms. Things lived here; green things, yogurt cultures, Hutch, and sometimes Starsky. They ate here and fucked here and it smelled so damn good all the time. Dirty dishes could accumulate in the sink, wet towels could mildew in the hamper, Hutch could forget to take the trash out for a week, but somehow it always smelled good. All part of the mysterious magic of Hutch.

Hutch kept a little distance between them after he followed Starsky inside and shut the door. Starsky, for his part, was almost completely at ease. The painkillers erased the ache in his limbs and took away any trace of hunger, which was good because he definitely wasn't ready to eat. They also smoothed out the mean reds that came in the acid's wake. Things still weren't right with the world, not by a long shot, but for now he would be able to get by.

"You okay?" he asked Hutch, and then looked down at his Halloween costume. It was enough to weird anyone out. Before Hutch could answer, Starsky said, "I think I'm going to shower and change into, uh, something a little less comfortable." Hutch nodded, his expression numb, and leaned back against the front door.

Starsky shed the robe beside the bed and headed for the bathroom, straight into the shower stall. The blast of cold water that had been sitting in the pipes felt good, as did the blazing hot stuff that came right after, so long as he kept it off his burn. He avoided the big sponge that was too much like the one Gail had used and scrubbed himself all over with his hands and the big bar of Hutch's weird oatmeal soap. He shampooed carefully, tentatively feeling the cuts on his scalp. They didn't seem to be bad, and the scorch on his face had settled down to a dull throb.

He toweled off quickly, thought about skipping shaving but reconsidered, then brushed his teeth with a ferocity that made his gums bleed, avoiding looking in the mirror almost the entire time. After he rinsed, he picked up the mug he kept his toothbrush in and filled it from the tap, grateful to drink water with no drugs in it, cup after cup. He could hear Hutch talking to someone out in the kitchen. Hanging his towel up neatly on the rack, he dug in the bedroom dresser for a pair of Hutch's sweatpants and an old t-shirt. The clean cotton knit smelled like all of Hutch's laundry and felt like heaven. He might never wear anything else for the rest of his life.

". . . more shaken up than anything else . . ." Hutch was saying. Starsky paused outside the kitchen and listened. Still in his jacket, Hutch's long frame was bowed over the counter, leaning on one elbow with the phone cradled between his shoulder and jaw as he struggled to unscrew a vitamin bottle. "He doesn't want to and I think—yes, sir, I am aware of that, but consid—" the cap came off the bottle too suddenly, spilling the orange papaya pills he chewed for his stomach. Slamming down the bottle and cap, he straightened to catch the ones that were rolling off the edge of the counter, managing to simultaneously knock over the open bottle of beer at his elbow and bash his head on the corner of the open cabinet door above him. As Hutch recoiled and clutched at his head, the phone receiver, at the end of its tightly stretched cord, shot out from under his jaw. It ricocheted against the wall and clattered to the floor just as the beer bottle rolled off the counter and smashed.

With Dobey's tinny, angry voice still arguing from the beer-soaked receiver, Hutch remained crouching with his head in hands amid a thin sea of foaming beer, dissolving papaya pills and broken glass. Starsky stifled his laughter and watched, waiting for Hutch to pick up the phone and take it out on the captain. Instead, the leather-clad shoulders began to shake as Hutch buried his face in his battered hands and took in a couple of choked, stuttering breaths.

"Aww, babe, c'mere . . ." Starsky still had to laugh a little as he stepped into the mess despite his bare feet and all the brown shards of beer bottle.

"Watch it—glass." Hutch sniffed once and wiped his flushed face as he rose to push Starsky off the wet floor. Starsky walked backwards, pulling Hutch with him until they were both clear of the disaster area and then reached back in to swing the receiver up by the cord and into his hand. He used his thumbnail to unhook the connector doodad at the bottom, abruptly cutting off the mosquito buzzing of Dobey's rant.

Hutch stared, his eyes red and moist, as Starsky stuck out his chest and rocked back on his heels while tugging up the waist of his sweats and addressing the disconnected receiver. "Yessir, Cap'n'sir, Starsky here. That's a negative on Hutchinson delivering the abductee to the hospital for the regulation once-over. Hutchinson will be on assignment for the remainder of the afternoon, flat on his back with his great big, gorgeous cock down the abductee's throat. Ten-four." Starsky saluted the receiver with more mirth than he really felt and hung it up in the branches of a potted tree.

"You sure told him," Hutch said, but he wasn't laughing.

Starsky looked at Hutch's jacket, noting how scraped and sooty parts of the light-colored leather were. "We'll take care of Dobey tomorrow," he said. "Right now let's take care of you." He pulled on Hutch's hand and tried to walk to the bedroom, but Hutch wasn't moving.

"Considering you were the one abducted, isn't that my line?" Hutch asked.

"Yeah, you're right," Starsky replied. "While I was sitting on my ass tripping on drugs with a bunch of screwed-up flower children you were taking it easy, just kickin' back like a bum with no worries. That's why you were having a nervous breakdown in the kitchen just now—too much relaxation."

Hutch stared at him. "Tripping. You mean tripping as in . . . hallucinogens?"

"Only for the past 18 hours or so." Starsky shrugged, lamely, as though it was nothing. "Started coming down around the time they hitched me up to the stake this morning." Hutch dropped his head and started shaking it, his knuckles going white against his hips. Starsky laid a hand on his arm. "Hutch, I'm all right."

"Don't give me that!" Hutch shot back. "You need to be checked out. Look at your face." He grasped Starsky's chin and tilted his burns up into the light.

"It's not so bad, just stings," Starsky said, but Hutch disappeared into the kitchen, his boots crunching on the broken glass. He rummaged in the sinkfull of dirty dishes for a minute and washed something before returning.

"Here," he said, and the blade of the kitchen knife flashed bright light into Starsky's eyes as Hutch whipped it between them to hack at something. "Let me see that face." He turned to reach for Starsky, who'd already backed away and stumbled as he nearly tripped over the coffee table. Starsky panted, bent over with his hands on his knees, and tried to calm the panic that thumped in his chest.

Hutch stood gaping at him, confused, the knife in one hand and a dripping aloe vera leaf in the other. His wide blue eyes tracked Starsky's gaze to the hand that held the knife. "Oh, shit," he said, and tossed the knife into a far corner, where it struck the wall and left a mark. "Oh . . . Starsk, I'm—"

Starsky waved him off. "S'okay, just took me a little—a little by surprise." He laughed weakly and took a deep, shaky breath. "What'd you throw the knife away for? That—" he gestured at the aloe leaf still in Hutch's grasp, "—that evil-lookin' thing is what got me spooked."

It took a moment to sink in, but then Hutch shook his head and laughed, and something clicked in the universe and brought all the planets back into line. Everything would be fine now, as long as he could get Hutch into bed before he fell over from exhaustion.

"Hey, nature boy," Starsky said, "why don't you bring that kinky green thing in the bedroom and show me what you can do with it."

Hutch smiled for real, not the tortured way he had when he'd saved his life, and Starsky felt his skin shiver up into goose bumps. "Come on, angel," Hutch said. Starsky felt his eyes widen at the unfamiliar endearment but offered no protest as Hutch took his hand to lead the way. "I can take the fire out of that burn."

The warm pressure on his hand came from fingers that had lost all strain and felt right again. Starsky gave up his own momentum and let Hutch pull him along, watching broad shoulders in half-blasted looking leather darken in the shade of the curtained bedroom. He thought he'd followed those shoulders for the last time, thought he'd wait forever for Hutch to join him in the place where dead lovers meet.

"God," Starsky whispered, took Hutch's head in both hands and stepped up to pull their mouths together. Hutch's mouth was like beer, smoke and mint staining day-old breath, and it was the most beautiful thing Starsky had ever tasted. His bare toes curled against dusty leather boots as that articulate tongue spelled words he'd never heard across his own. Every blood vessel in his body stood up and leaned toward Hutch, like his plants did for the sun. Starsky moaned and broke the kiss to rub his face across the soft blond stubble on the heat-flushed cheek—

"Jesus—fuck!" Starsky stumbled back and sat heavily on the bed, trying not to clutch at the seared spot on his temple.

"That's what you get," Hutch said breathlessly, squeezing translucent goo from the thorny stalk of aloe onto his fingers, "when you distract your doctor from administering his treatment." A thready glob of the stuff dripped onto the carpet between Starsky's feet, unobserved by Hutch. He planted a knee between Starsky's thighs on the mattress and used his elbows against Starsky's shoulders to push him down onto his back.

Starsky sighed in relief as Hutch smoothed the cool, weird-smelling gel across his cheek and temple. Like magic, the sting melted into a much more bearable, very dull ache. Hutch's slippery fingers rubbing his skin made Starsky think of K-Y, and once he'd made that happy connection he didn't even mind that it was getting into his hair a little and dripping next to him onto the sheet. He sighed again.

"Sounds like he likes that," Hutch teased, hands shaking a little as he milked the leaf for more aloe. "He won't make fun of folk remedies from now—" Hutch moaned as his patient's hand found his erect cock and massaged it through his pants.

"You wanna play doctor, little boy?" Starsky asked, eyes closed to half-slits. "Lemme see if I can guess where it hurts." With one hand full of goo and the other holding the leaf, Hutch fell against Starsky with his elbows on either side of his chest, gasping as Starsky cupped him firmly and rubbed, coaxing a small damp spot into life though the brown gabardine. "Hmm . . . We seem to have some swelling here. Ow!"

Hutch twisted on top of him and his teeth closed on Starsky's right wrist. Without releasing him, he tossed the severed stalk to one side and pushed the old BCPD tee shirt up over Starsky's chest. Starsky groaned as aloe-slick fingers found and rubbed across his hardened nipple. He turned his right hand so he could stroke Hutch's cheek as he was being bit. "Oh, damn," he said, as the teeth withdrew and warm lips suckled at his wrist and palm. "I'm gonna need a rabies shot."

"I'll give you a rabies shot," Hutch muttered with a gleam in his eye, rising up on one knee, his other foot still planted on the floor next to bed. Not breaking eye contact, he shrugged out his jacket and threw it aside, then paused. "I really ought to shower," he said. "I haven't since yesterday morning."

Starsky decided against bringing up the other night when Hutch had refused to let him shower. "Yeah, well, the Little Rascals gave me a bath to purify me but it feels like it only did the opposite." He remembered the flash of Jonah's blond hair between his thighs and tried not to let his hands shake as he reached up for Hutch. "You're fine as is."

Hutch caught his hand and kissed the fingers. Starsky could see the brutal autopsies flashing across his pretty blue eyes. "I was afraid—I really thought—" Hutch said.

"I thought so, too." Starsky sat up and wrapped his arms around Hutch's waist, stretching up to plant a kiss deep inside his unbuttoned collar. Hutch's long fingers slid into his hair and slowly twirled around in the damp curls. "Listen," Starsky said, following a sudden inspiration. "Let's get the paperwork done early tomorrow and cut out of town for awhile. I wanna go someplace . . . boring. Really boring."

Hutch nodded in agreement. "Boring sounds good right now. Any other requirements?"

"Yeah." Starsky circled Hutch's nipples through the cloth of his shirt with his fingernails. "I want to go to an ugly hotel and eat Chinese takeout in bed. Put quarters in the bed-massage and listen to AM radio and fuck until housekeeping throws us out in the morning."

"And then what?"

Starsky thought for a moment. "Find another hotel?"

"Anything you want," Hutch said, stroking the backs of Starsky's hands. "Anything." He studied Starsky for a long, serious moment and added, "You think maybe we ought to just get some sleep right now? We're running on adrenaline. Could crash and burn at any second."

Shaking his head, Starsky pulled Hutch closer. "Blaze of glory, babe."

Working his way down, he alternated kissing and unbuttoning until he could run the tip of his tongue through the patch of baby hairs around Hutch's navel, and it only made sense to pull the shirttail out and start unbuckling the belt. He was interrupted as he carefully drew down the zipper when Hutch bent over his back to pull the t-shirt off of him and leaned on his shoulders for balance while he slipped off his socks and short boots.

The morning sun fell through the curtains in a muted, luminous wash, casting deep shadows into every cut and curve of the long body poised expectantly before him. Starsky slid the snug pants and briefs off of the ticklish, flexing ass and down until Hutch could step out of them. He remembered to rub only the good side of his face across the smooth belly, hugging him close so he could feel the whole length of the hard cock pressing upright along the front his throat. He swallowed and the fingers tightened in his hair as his Adam's apple convulsed against the thick vein on the underside of the shaft. Hutch's head was thrown back, and his chest rose and fell more quickly. Starsky loved to watch him like this, loved to bring him to just the doorstep of arousal and leave him there with eyes shut until he realized he had to ask to come inside.

That moment came quickly today. Hutch gazed down into Starsky's eyes and cradled the back of his head with both hands while he rubbed himself against the smooth-shaven throat. Starsky shifted so the salty tip was gently thrusting against his parted lips and moved the flat of his tongue as slowly as he could over the swollen head until Hutch's hands were jerking in his hair and making panicky, restrained little grabs at his jaw. When Starsky heard the sound he was waiting for, that moan that got cut off and sucked down the swanlike throat as a choked gasp, he opened his mouth and let his lover sink inside.

Hutch's hand shot out and grabbed a brass rail in the headboard, the impact causing the whole bed to jump and the bolts to squeak. He humped slowly into Starsky's mouth, never going deeper than the trusting hands on his ass pushed him. By the time Starsky's throat opened and the cock that slid into it was slicking his tongue with warning traces of a thicker, more bitter substance, his own cock was straining against the fleece lining of the sweatpants.

He didn't realize he had been making any noise until Hutch pulled his quivering cock out of his mouth and leaned down to kiss him. Out of breath, Hutch nipped at Starsky's lips and playfully asked, "What's that you said? I know I heard something from down here." He turned his head and put an ear against Starsky's mouth. "Just whisper it to me." Starsky licked at the sweat glistening on Hutch's neck before tracing his tongue around the offered ear.

Hutch gasped as his earlobe was sucked and lightly bitten. "I think I know what you're tying to tell me," he said. He moved forward until they were both on the bed, dumped Starsky on his back and dragged the sweats off of him. Starsky's cock was pulled down with them and sprang back against his stomach with a faint slap. He groaned and reached instinctively for the insulted organ with both hands but Hutch caught them both in his own and laced their fingers together. Supporting himself on his elbows, he lowered his head to Starsky's chest and made love to it, kissed, sucked, and murmured unintelligible endearments until Starsky was thrashing too violently for him to continue.

His chin resting on Starsky's wet, heaving sternum, Hutch looked up innocently into his eyes and asked, "What's the matter, cat got your tongue?" He sucked one of Starsky's already wet and aching nipples into his mouth and held the tip between his teeth as he flicked his tongue across it.

"Oh—oh God," Starsky moaned, thrusting his cock up into the slick strip of moisture he'd humped onto Hutch's stomach. He understood English when Hutch spoke to him, but the ability to form words more complex than one syllable had left him the second his lover's cock had passed his lips. Hutch knew it too, and never let the opportunity to tease him while he was tongue-tied go to waste. "Hutch?" he asked.

"Here, babe," Hutch answered, rubbing his cheek and his baby-fine hair across Starsky's nipples.

"Shut the fuck up and hell—sh—shut the hell up and fuck me?" He knew Hutch would have laughed if his voice hadn't broken in a little sob at the end.

Split-second flashes of what happened in the cave began to stab at him. He needed Hutch inside him, needed to know it was Hutch and not some sick illusion, like the one he'd had in the van. Starsky's hands tightened around Hutch's until it had to be killing him. Hutch crept up and kissed him softly, his mouth barely moving against Starsky's, his tongue-tip seeming to trace every tiny wrinkle in his lower lip. Starsky loosened his grip on Hutch's hands and they slipped away to stroke him, long, soothing strokes up and down his arms and sides until he relaxed and his legs naturally tangled with the longer, leaner ones and their cocks met and throbbed in recognition between their bellies.

They hadn't made the bed the last time they were here, and Hutch had already found the tube of K-Y in the rumpled pile of sheets. He rolled onto his back and pulled Starsky on top of him so he unscrew the cap without taking his arms from around him. Starsky spread his knees wide so their cocks could keep dancing and concentrated on devouring Hutch's neck. Two fingers slipped into him and out of him over and over again in the exacting, complex beat that always seemed to trip tumblers inside him and leave him wide open like a busted safe. When Starsky was half-collapsed and shuddering weakly on top of him, Hutch raised up and locked an arm around him so they could reverse positions.

This part had become something of a routine for them, but that certainly didn't make it boring. The motion of turning over and the feel of the cool sheets beneath him awakened the familiar buzz of anticipation as Hutch's mouth began a slow journey downward across his chest and stomach. He lost control as the first warm puff of breath upon his cock, but Hutch contained his thrashing and helpless thrusts by holding him down against the bed with one powerful arm. Then he was deep inside that hot mouth with Hutch's fingers moving back into him and he found his voice again, but it didn't matter because he never had a clue afterward as to what he said and Hutch always swore he'd never tell him.

It was when he opened his eyes and looked down to see the crown of silky pale blond hair moving on top of him that it started to go bad again. The blood and the semen, the torch and the blade all whirled in his head. He thrashed harder and still Hutch held him. "Stop, stop!" he yelled, and startled Hutch enough to make him look up, with blue eyes that loved him, and a mouth that grabbed his hand and kissed it. The ground shook just a little, enough to loosen the dirt, and the cave in his mind's eye slowly began to collapse. Hutch kissed his way back up his stomach, every touch of his lips erasing another minute of time spent underground.

"H-hutch . . ." he stammered, turning onto his side as his lover pressed against his back. Strong arms encircled him from behind, one avoiding the burned skin to stroke his hair back from his face, and the other reaching up from around his waist to find his cock and stroke it in time. How was it possible for someone's hands to feel so good, so strong and light that they could reach inside you and pull out all the parts that died, maybe plant them somewhere and make them grow again?

"Yeah, angel," Hutch whispered, his own cock lubed and sliding with promise between the cheeks of Starsky's ass. "Just say it."

He hadn't realized what he wanted until Hutch asked, until he felt those fingers inside him, changing his flesh, making it good again. "I want to be clean again, Hutch. I want to be clean." He felt stupid, but he didn't know how else to say it. Warm lips pressed a kiss against his shoulder, and he listened to the gears that turned in Hutch's head for a few seconds. And he could tell from the way Hutch's fingers went deeper into him, the way he pulled him closer, that he understood.

"I can do that for you, babe. I know how to purify you—" His motions concentrated, as if directed by new purpose, Hutch moved down and then up, thrusting sharply into him. "—inside and out," he finished, his breath hot against Starsky's ears, sweet as the acceptance his words held. "Inside and out." He gasped, moaned, pumped Starsky's cock with his hand faster and harder. "No room for them in you," Hutch muttered, driving deeper. "Only me."

Starsky believed him, and didn't try to hold back. He held onto Hutch's arms and let the noon sun burn his eyes through the curtains. Hutch's mouth was waiting for him when he turned his head, sucking the moans off his tongue and swallowing them. He tried to tell Hutch he was too close when the lightning flashed but Hutch wouldn't listen and thrust into him harder, let go of his cock and grasped his neck with a wet, slick hand.

The scent of his own semen filled Starsky's senses but it was nothing like it had been in the cave. No blood this time, and no demon to feed. This was all for Hutch, for his sweet mouth to take instead, lips and tongue working at his neck until the scent was gone. Then Hutch was crying out, with arms that closed around him like a vice as he froze and thrust again, flooding Starsky's body with pulsing warmth, and for the first time since his initiation in the cave, it seemed like he had magic on his side.

They lay together for long, quiet minutes, until Hutch's arms gradually loosened as he began to stir. Starsky stayed where he was, watching Hutch rearrange the wadded covers, unable to lift a finger to help. Wrapping his long arms back around him from behind, Hutch fit their bodies back together and settled in before he asked, "What'd you mean when you said you'd made your choice?"

Starsky tried to think, but that was harder and harder to do. "When'd I say that?"

Hutch chuckled sleepily. He cupped his hand over Starsky's contented cock and licked his shoulder, reminding him without words how he babbled like a fool nearly every time Hutch gave him head. Then his big blond head hit the pillow and he was sound asleep with Starsky's cock still in his hand.

"I choose ecstasy," Starsky whispered. He winced a little when Hutch mumbled some dream-reply into the back of his head and in doing so nudged the burned side of Starsky's forehead against the pillow. Starsky sighed and studied the dirt under Hutch's short, wide fingernails for a long time before finally falling asleep.

One bump in the road, and then another, brought Starsky up from some dream that he couldn't remember. He had a feeling it was better that way. The car came to a stop. He heard a door open and close, and boots crunching across pavement, but he couldn't quite get his eyes open yet. He'd fallen asleep with sunlight warming his face, but now he shivered a little at the night air pouring through the open window. Stretching, he unfastened the seatbelt and shoulder strap with a grimace and rubbed at his eyes until they were able to face the night.

Footsteps approached and the driver's side door opened again just as Starsky managed to focus, squinting slightly and arching his neck to undo a kink. Hutch tossed a room key on the dash and started the engine again. He turned to look out the rear window before backing out but then stopped and did a double-take. His face was barely visible with the neon motel sign burning behind him. Without thinking, Starsky reached over to touch the deep wrinkle between his eyes. Catching himself, he laughed a little, feeling foolish for needing proof. He let Hutch stare at him for a few more beats before self-consciously glancing over his own shoulder and then back.

"What?" Starsky finally asked.

"Nothing," Hutch said. He started backing up the car. "You're just beautiful."

Don't get me wrong
Don't get me right
I'm not like you are
When I get home from work at night
I'm blacker and bluer
So I escape
I get out when I can
Anytime I can
I'm crying in my beer
Just get me out of here
           Alice Cooper—"Escape"

The End