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"How'd it go, Starsky? Did they make you?" Captain Dobey asked around a mouthful of popcorn.

"No, I'm in."

Starsky watched the different way his three wooden syllables affected his two companions. The stouter and older of their group of three relaxed, resting his considerable girth against the slop sink of the broom closet they were crammed into. His captain was visibly pleased with a job well done.

Hutch, however, wasn't so easily fooled. Starsky saw the tall blond straighten, then those perceptive blue eyes dug into his face, as if trying to rip away all the layers of artifice the world forced upon him.

Normally, Starsky was more than happy to allow Hutch to read it all in his gaze, but not this afternoon. He turned his attention fully on Dobey, trying to block out his awareness of Hutch.

Shame was such a new thing between them, he didn't know how to deal. So, he just did his best to withdraw emotionally from the topic and report the facts, the way he'd fill out the details in an accident report—impersonal, like the events had nothing to do with him, like those cold hard facts hadn't stained his soul forever.

"Did Anderson check out your references?" their captain questioned the shakiest part of Starsky's cover, his pretense of being an ex-con. It was the weak link that was most likely to get him blown away. Starsky couldn't really blame his superior officer for worrying. Their entire set-up depended on the word of an imprisoned coke dealer who was trying to buy himself some good-will, and a shorter sentence, by cooperating. No cop could ever feel comfortable laying his life in the hands of an inside stoolie like Starsky had been forced to do this time out, but the group they were attempting to infiltrate wasn't your run-of-the-mill mob. Starsky couldn't work this case like a normal undercover setup. To get close to this particular mark, he was going to require an extensive, select background that couldn't be fabricated, so it had to be borrowed, which was always a risky proposition. The Schiller case had taught them the danger of impersonating living criminals.

"Yeah," Starsky nodded. "Delgado called from San Quentin last night. I was standing right in front of Anderson while he asked him about Villar. My cover held. They still don't know that Villar's dead."

Though he was downplaying how big a deal that phone call had been to keep up his captain's confidence in him, Hutch was probably able to see how he'd been scared spitless while his credentials were being verified.

"The story held, then?" Dobey probed, his dark, round face lined with concern. Dobey might be glad that Starsky was in, that his cover hadn't been blown now that they were actually getting close to their target, but it was clear their religious captain was having as much trouble handling this assignment as his inside man was. But that was only to be expected, Starsky supposed, unable to imagine what kind of cop wouldn't be creeped out by this particular undercover job.

"Yep. Villar's reputation for Satanism is legendary in C Block. Delgado confirmed everything," Starsky assured.

"Any trouble?" Dobey probed, visibly worried, as any good commanding officer should be.

Starsky shook his head. "No."

No trouble. Except, he still couldn't meet his partner's eye.

Hutch had been his back up last night, as on all the nights before that. His partner had been in a van around the block monitoring the transmission from the bug that Starsky had planted beneath the House of Satan's altar the previous week. Hutch had overheard every bit of last night's initiation ritual.

How he'd gotten this outré assignment, well, that was a whole other story in itself. Starsky was way out of his jurisdiction on this one, way out where the buses don't run. The Feds didn't want him in on it. Dobey didn't want him in there. Hutch didn't want him there. Hell, Starsky didn't want himself there, but when you had an in with the bad guys, you worked it for all it was worth.

This assignment was really his partner's fault, or, in truth, his partner's car's fault. A hot summer afternoon, an over-heated engine, an over-heated Hutch . . . they all made for a disastrous combination. Sensing imminent explosion, Starsky had wisely removed himself from the danger zone while Hutch and the Earl fought a battle royal over the resuscitation of Hutch's latest wreck. Of course, no one had told him to duck into that bar for shelter, but . . . it had seemed a good idea at the time. And like so many other good ideas, this one had led Starsky to the road to Hell.

Once, he'd seen that drug deal go down, the rest was history. He'd only caught the tail end of it, not enough to bust Baldino, but enough to convince Starsky that some pretty major action was going on in that bar. Maybe Starsky might've been able to just walk away from the scene and report it to the nearest precinct, if it had been anyone else but Vincent Baldino involved. His partner had a major jones for the creep, which pretty much meant that their jurisdiction rules went out the window until they could make an air-tight case against the guy.

After that first contact with Baldino all those months ago, all Starsky had been doing was paving the ground for your typical run-of-the-mill drug bust, working their mark in his off-duty hours because the child molestation charges Hutch had put the degenerate away on ten years ago hadn't been enough to keep the creep off the streets and his partner wanted the guy gone. Starsky's initial contacts hadn't been sanctioned. Hell, Dobey would have put them both on traffic for the rest of their lives if he'd ever found out what they were doing in their off-duty time, but Baldino being on the streets again had really bothered Hutch, so . . . .

So they did the kind of crap they used to do back in uniform when they were trying to persuade their superior officers to let two rookies work the streets together. He and Hutch had basically hot-dogged it on another precinct's turf, building a case against a guy they had no legal right to investigate until Starsky had become Baldino's best drinking bud. They'd been about to bust Baldino on the coke dealing charges when everything was turned around by the chance unveiling of the creep's arm during one of Starsky and Baldino's weekly drinking sessions.

It wasn't every cop who would remember a tattoo on a Jane Doe's body a year after the kid was buried. But the minute Starsky had seen that same ram-horned devil's-head tattoo on Baldino's arm, that mutilated dead girl had flashed through his mind. He'd known at that moment that the lowlife he was drinking with was involved in her killing, so they'd held off on the drug bust, done a bit more digging around and linked two other murdered kids to their first Jane Doe. A bit more poking around into Baldino's background had linked the lowlife to Anderson's cult, at which point they'd brought the entire mess to their captain. Hence, Starsky's undercover assignment. He'd gone under nine weeks ago when Baldino had gotten the unemployed Villar a care-taking job with the Church of Satan and had been under ever since.

Starsky didn't even want to think about the paperwork involved. The captain from the precinct closest to Anderson was on the line screaming to Dobey about their infringement in his territory at least once a day. Add to all that the fact that the Feds had been unsuccessfully trying to infiltrate Anderson's set-up for the last three years and were none too happy about some cowboy of a homicide detective horning in on their turf, and it made for bureaucratic hell for their boss. Dobey was ready to eat them both alive or sell them to gypsies. Poor Hutch had been running damage control for the past nine weeks trying to deflect the official heat while Starsky perfected his undercover persona, but right now, Starsky would have gladly stepped into the center of that bureaucratic battlefield just to avoid tomorrow night's ceremony. He just wasn't cut out for this crap. He knew it, even if he'd been able to fool their boss.

"Did you see anything we can use against Anderson and his followers?" the captain asked.

"Nothin' that points to homicide, Cap'. They might be twisted, but they ain't stupid. Anderson's not gonna let me see anything important this soon into the game, no matter what Delgado says about Villar. They're gonna want to give me a few test runs before they trust me with anything important. I'm gonna have to play it slow till they make a slip."

Dobey nodded. "Good. Make sure you're not the one that slips up. These boys play for keeps."

"Don't I know it. You should see Anderson, Cap'. Cool as ice and just as slippery. To look at him, you'd think he was a pillar of the community," Starsky reported, still having trouble consigning the head Satanist's benign, grandfatherly appearance with his depraved actions.

"That pillar of the community is suspected of committing more murders than Simon Marcus and Charles Manson combined," Dobey reminded him.

"And then some, I'll bet," Starsky agreed. After last night, nothing would surprise him. The fact that he hadn't even been entrusted with the cult's deepest secrets and had still participated in enough vice to get him 3 to 5 reassured Starsky not at all. "You should hear some of the things Baldino talks about doin': cutting people up, getting' it on with kids. Really sick stuff. But I haven't seen anything to back it up yet, nothin' that'll hold up in court, at least."

"You sure he isn't just yanking your chain, Starsky? Maybe he's just making this stuff up 'cause he sees you're interested in it," Dobey suggested.

"No, Cap'," Starsky insisted. "He's for real. He's done it. If I keep him talkin' long enough, he's sure to give me somethin' solid."

"You sure you weren't followed here?" Dobey checked for the fourth time in ten minutes.

About to snap at his boss' well-intentioned query, Starsky took a deep, calming breath and let the impulse pass. Now was most certainly not the time to lose it. He reminded himself that Dobey's concern was for his safety and not motivated by a lack of confidence in Starsky's abilities. Anderson and his friends weren't the kind you took chances with.

"I'm certain," he replied when he could trust his temper. "I left the apartment through the bathroom window, took a cab to the department store down the block, and entered the theater through the fire exit. I wasn't followed and no one saw me. Except an alley cat."

"Good." Dobey at last appeared satisfied. "The final initiation ceremony is tonight?"

"No. It's on Friday. Anderson's right hand man, Baldino, and me got plans to paint the town red tonight," Starsky reported, glad that Dobey hadn't asked the particulars of last night's ceremony and doubly grateful for his partner's silence.

"You let us know where you're goin' and I'll get a surveillance team set up . . . ."

"No can do, Cap'. We're goin' bar hoppin'. Dino's too much of a pro not to notice a tail. I'll be all right."

"Starsky . . . ." Dobey growled.

"Look, he's not gonna pull anything on me. He thinks I'm one of them. We're tight. Friends, even," Starsky admitted.

He wasn't proud of that last part. Baldino's feelings for him weren't faked. The creep really thought Starsky, a.k.a., Michael Villar, was his closest friend at this point.

"Friends?" Dobey repeated, his feelings on that subject clear on his troubled face.

"You know I've been hangin' out with him these last four months on my off-duty time tryin' to make that drug case. I hadta get close to him. The only way to do it was to pretend to like the sleaze," Starsky said, explaining the basic difference between this job and his previous undercover assignments. In most of his other cases, it was purely a business relationship. The dealers had a commodity they were trying to sell, Starsky and his partner had the cash to buy it with. Any socializing was usually purely superficial. All anyone ever wanted to do in a drug meet was to get out with their skin intact.

Taking a deep breath, Starsky offered his commanding officer his latest triumph. "I told Dino that I'm havin' trouble finding a job with my rap sheet. He's gonna ask Anderson if I can be his driver for a while."

"You what?" Dobey gaped, almost choking on his popcorn.

Starsky nodded, trying not to look too satisfied. "I thought you'd like that."

"I don't even want to know how you managed it," Dobey rumbled, but he looked relieved, like he wasn't so worried anymore about finding his man hanging on a meat hook somewhere.

Starsky himself was still ambivalent about that breakthrough. As much as it would help his case, he still wasn't sure how pleased he was that a bunch of psycho Satan-worshippers had taken him to their hearts as though he were their long lost son. Still, as far as police work went, it was quite a coup. It meant that he'd have a front row seat to all of Anderson's activities, which was a good thing. Only, the mere thought of being that close to that sicko on a daily basis gave him the willies.

"Will you be able to get away to meet us again tomorrow?" Dobey checked.

"I'll try. Better make it the Rivoli, though."

"Same time?" the captain asked.

"Same bat time, same bat channel." Starsky's grin was forced, but it was enough to fool their captain.

"Don't be cute. Be careful, Starsky," Dobey warned, prizing his bulk off the sink edge to leave.

"I'm always careful, Cap'. Hutch is cute." Starsky forced a smile, his heart sinking as Dobey's hand settled on the closet's doorknob. Something inside him twisted at the thought of these men he trusted with his life leaving. This was the first time he'd felt normal since their last meet four days ago.

"Hutchinson?" Dobey called.

"I'll be with you in a minute, Captain." Hutch spoke for the first time since he'd said hello.

Dobey nodded. "I'll wait for you in the car. Don't be too long."

The tiny room could not be said to be silent as the door closed behind Dobey, not with the action packed shoot 'em up blasting through the paper-thin walls from the nearest theater, but the lack of speech was disconcerting to the frazzled Starsky.

Starsky stared at the stained linoleum between his blue Adidas and tried to think of something to say. Hutch had heard everything last night.


Starsky actually jumped at the quiet greeting.

"It was part of the job, partner," Hutch continued. "You had no choice."

The understanding in the gentle tone enveloped him, reassuring him almost as much as the hand that gripped his shoulder did. His whole body seemed to relax under that touch, the way it would when he was holding his breath for a long time and finally let go and breathed.

"That's better," Hutch approved as Starsky finally dared his gaze. "Do you wanta talk about it?"

"What's to say? It isn't even my religion and I feel . . . dirty about what went on."

Those clear blue eyes were startlingly non-judgmental as they dug through Starsky's outer guards, seeming to sink straight through to his soul. "Last night was worse than I thought it'd be, Starsk."

Detecting the note of apology, Starsky shrugged. "We knew it wouldn't be easy. At least you were able to prepare me as to what I could expect in there. Could've been worse."

"Not by much," Hutch whispered.

"Someone could've died," Starsky reminded him.

"Yeah, you're right," Hutch agreed, then that hand that had yet to leave his shoulder was giving another encouraging squeeze.

As always, he found himself thankful for Hutch at the oddest of moments. Without his partner's briefing, he would have walked into that cult armed only with the lure culled from horror films—very little of which was accurate as he'd learned. Even the most daring of horror directors steered clear of the sexual perversions involved in the actual Satanic ceremonies. Hutch had done some research and warned him how things might go down. Without it . . . Starsky wasn't sure he would have held it together last night.

But he didn't want to think about last night right now, not with Hutch so near. He just wanted to enjoy the moment.

"There's that," Hutch agreed to his someone-could've-died comment.

A particularly loud explosion from the film playing on the other side of the wall filled the lull in conversation.

"I still wish I could've gone under," Hutch said at last, beating a long dead horse.

How that would have helped any, Starsky didn't know. He was having a hard enough time handling all this himself and he wasn't the one prone to head-trips in this partnership.

"Baldino would have made you in a minute. It might be ten years ago, but a guy don't forget the first cop that busts him."

"Yeah, but . . . ." Hutch sighed. "I don't like you in there alone."

"I ain't alone. You're my back up." His partner's worry somehow eclipsing his own apprehensions, Starsky tried to lighten the mood. "Besides, if you think I want anyone else on the other end of that bug, you're outta your mind."

A touch of pink blossomed in his partner's tanned cheeks. "That was . . . pretty wild last night, huh?"

Thinking of the mockery Anderson's group had made of the Christian communion ritual, Starsky shuddered. "You don't know the half of it. Hutch, they . . . put it inside her. I had to get it out with my mouth and tongue." Starsky could feel his own face flaming at the confession.

"I heard," Hutch admitted.

Calmed by his partner's non-judgmental acceptance of last night's depravity, Starsky asked the question that had been burning in his mind, but that he hadn't been able to voice last night because his ignorance was sure to have blown his cover. "Why couldn't I touch the wafer, Hutch?"

As always, Hutch seemed to have the answers Starsky needed. Going into his lecturing tone, he matter-of-factly explained, "In the Roman Catholic religion, it used to be sacrilege for anyone but a priest to touch the host with their hands."


"Because the host was supposed to have been transformed during the ceremony into the actual flesh of Christ, not just a symbolic transformation like in the Protestant religions," Hutch answered. "Only priests were allowed to touch it."

"You said 'used to be sacrilege'. Isn't it anymore?" Starsky asked, almost as confused by the explanation as the event.

"I don't know for sure, Starsk. I think the rules changed about ten years ago, but it isn't my religion, either."

"Then how do you know all this?" Starsky questioned, puzzled as ever by his partner's eclectic knowledge.

"I lived next to Nancy Blake and her mom for over fifteen years when I was a kid, Starsk. How could I not know?" Hutch chuckled.

Recalling the devout Irish lady, who'd wanted him for a son-in-law instead of the murderous Billy Desmond, Starsky gave an understanding nod. "Yeah, I guess that'd do it, and then some. What happened last night . . . it was . . . really gross, Hutch."

"It was meant to be," Hutch answered, then continued in a more philosophical line, "Sexual perversion, desecration, blasphemy . . . it's all for effect, Starsk."

Starsky, who'd been there, knew better. "No, it ain't just the shock value or even the sex. These flakes really believe that doin' that stuff gives 'em power."

"Are you . . . okay on this?" Hutch hesitantly questioned. "I mean, can you . . . ?"

"No, but I can cope. You weren't there, Hutch. To think of some innocent kid being put through that . . . I want them, partner. I want to tie this case up so tight that it'll take their high priced lawyers a hundred years just to make their bail."

"Okay, but remember that I'm out there if you need me."

Starsky found his first genuine smile of the day. "I've been doin' my damnedest to forget that, buddy."

Hutch grinned and gave a soft chuckle.

The joyful sound soothed Starsky's frayed nerves as little else had these last tension-wracked weeks. Being in Hutch's presence after the enforced separation was ridiculously comforting. Undercover, he found himself missing his partner for the strangest reasons.

Feeling the lack of the immediate steadfast support hadn't really surprised Starsky. All partners in a close-knit unit felt that emptiness on solo assignments, but it was the little things that got to Starsky most. Like the absence of that quiet laugh in moments when it was needed to break the stress, that silence was the loudest sound in the world. Or the way Hutch's forefinger would absently stroke his pale mustache when the blond detective was lost in thought. Or the way his partner would gripe incessantly about the inconsequential annoyances of day-to-day life and then clam up like a kid about the really awful blows. There were just so many things he missed about his friend.

But most of all, Starsky missed the out and out goodness of his partner. With the deviant persona this case had forced Starsky to assume, he found himself craving the gentle compassion that characterized Hutch. He needed a good long dose of interacting with a normal, balanced personality. Five minutes stolen in a broom closet with Hutch just wasn't enough.

Looking at him, Hutch's expression sobered. "I know that you're coping with the cover, but under it . . . how are you doin'?"

It's like he reads my mind or something, Starsky thought, forcing a smile. "Hangin' in there. How 'bout you?"

"The same." Those expressive eyes gave the truth of that away. Hutch might be more contained about his emotions, but they were no less strong for all that they were controlled.

"Dobey still givin' you hell about all this?" Starsky questioned, still feeling guilty that Hutch had had to take the heat over this alone. His partner always underplayed the trouble their hot-dogging had brought down on him, but Starsky knew his captain well enough to know that Dobey wouldn't be forgetting this kind of infraction anytime soon.

Hutch shrugged. "I've been keepin' a low profile."

Translation—Hutch had been all but living in the surveillance van. Starsky didn't have to ask to know that if he were on Anderson's grounds, his partner was staked out in the van around the corner, regardless of what Hutch's actual work shift was. Hutch had been pulling double and sometimes triple shifts these last nine weeks, just to be close to him. They were both wrung out.

But Hutch obviously didn't want to discuss whatever was going down in the office. Instead, he said, "I watered your plants yesterday, dusted a bit . . . ."

"You don 't even dust your own place," Starsky pointed out with a laugh.

"Yeah, well . . . hell, Dobey's waitin'. I've gotta go, Starsk. Be careful, huh?"

"Always. That goes for you, too, you know. Watch your back, babe."

Hutch's eyes squeezed shut like he was in actual physical pain. When they reopened, the crystal blue depths were the slightest bit misty. "Watch my back, he says. I'm not the one rubbin' shoulders with a bunch of wackos."

"Yeah, well, I ain't out there to do my job. You're gonna have to do it for me."

Hutch's smile was shaky, but Starsky appreciated the effort. For a minute, they just stood there staring into each other's eyes, Hutch's big hand still gripping his shoulder, their bodies brushing close as lovers. All Starsky wanted to do was sag against Hutch's warmth and let his friend support him for a while, but . . . .

Hutch would never allow him to walk out of here if Starsky were to let on how bad this assignment had really rattled him. If he gave into that weakness now, no matter what strides he might have made towards breaking this case, Hutch would force Dobey into pulling him in. There was a part of him that really wanted to do it, to let the whole damn depravity go, but there were those three kids in John Doe graves whose murderers were still running loose, and, God knew how many more would join them if Starsky didn't follow through with this case.

So, as tempting as it was to draw comfort from Hutch's strength, Starsky held back.

He couldn't, of course, keep Hutch from reading the struggle in his face, but there was nothing he could do about that. As long as Hutch was convinced that his partner was strong enough to get through this, that was all that mattered.

At last, Hutch ripped his gaze away. Looking like it was tearing his heart out, Hutch raggedly whispered, "Dobey's waitin', buddy. I really gotta go. You sure you don't want back up tonight?"

Starsky nodded. "I'll be fine."

His bluff had been bought. He forced himself to be brave. His grin might be weak, but he kept it plastered on for his partner's sake. The last thing he wanted to see right now was Hutch walking away from him.

"Till tomorrow, partner." Another shoulder squeeze, then Hutch was gone.

"Tomorrow," Starsky agreed. His grin dropped the moment the door closed behind Hutch.

Absurdly enough, he felt like bawling his eyes out. Instead, he squeezed them closed and practiced that deep breathing Hutch had taught him until the impulse was mastered.

He couldn't afford to fall apart, not now, not when they were so close. If he could just hold out for a few more days, get the goods on Anderson and his flakes and bust them all to Kingdom come, everything would be fine.

Telling himself that over and over again, Starsky waited a few minutes in the closet that now seemed as huge and gaping as an empty sports arena. Once he was sure Hutch had had time to clear the building, Starsky slipped out of the room himself.

Having nothing better to occupy his time before tonight's scheduled performance as Villar the Malignant, Starsky stepped into the nearest theater. It was the first time he'd snuck into a movie since he was thirteen. He only wished that Hutch could have hung around long enough to join him.

Brrrrinnng . . . brrrinnng . . . brrrrinnnng . . . .

Hutch's hand blindly groped for the shrieking phone. Prying his sticky eyelids apart, he peered at the illuminated green numbers of his digital radio clock. 1:47. He'd been asleep for less than an hour. Not that anyone could call that restless tossing and turning he'd been doing sleeping.

"'lo," he growled into the receiver.

Silence, absolute silence was all he heard at the other end of the phone. Listening hard, Hutch thought he detected rapid breathing. About to tell the sicko to get his jollies somewhere else and hang up, Hutch froze, abruptly recalling another night, another call with nothing but breathing at first. Vic Bellamy and his god-damned needle . . . .

The memory of that nightmare of near death bringing him to complete wakefulness, Hutch sat up in the bed.

"Starsk," he greeted, knowing who was on the other end of the line.

"Yeah." The word was little more than another ragged breath.

He didn't ask how Starsky was. The fact that he was calling this late told Hutch his partner was anything but okay, as if their interview this afternoon had left any doubt of that in Hutch's mind. So he asked the next important thing. "Where are you?"

"Villar's dump."

Hutch nodded, altering his approach. It was highly unlikely that Anderson had bugged the phone in Starsky's cover's apartment, but they were taking no chances. He couldn't call his partner by name again.

"Damn," Starsky cursed. "I just looked at the clock. You were sleepin', weren't you? Sorry, I'll . . . ."

"It's okay," Hutch quickly assured him in the most normal tone he could manage. All he could see in his mind's eye was Starsky's face as he'd looked in that broom closet this afternoon: tense, tired, haunted. Every instinct Hutch had owned had screamed at him to have Dobey pull his partner in then, but he couldn't let Starsky down that way. "I was thinkin' 'bout you. I'm glad you called."

"You were?"

Starsky's voice sounded so lost, so lonely.

"Yeah," Hutch said. Knowing from that tone what Starsky was needing, he took a chance that no one was listening to them and softly said, "Look, I know this is breaking all the rules here, but I really need to see you. Can I meet you somewhere?"

He put the need on his end, making it easy for Starsky to give in . . . and virtually impossible for his strung out partner to refuse. When had Starsk ever said no when he needed him?

There was silence at the other end of the phone, filled with such longing that Hutch could almost touch it.

It was a different kind of longing than the type that had been gnawing at Hutch's own guts for the past three years, but he recognized it for what it was all the same—the need for human contact. He'd been undercover himself, though not for nearly as long as Starsky was this time out. After a while, you got lost in your cover. You got to a point where you just had to have some contact with a healthy, normal person to remind you of who you really were.

He'd seen that Starsky had passed that point this afternoon, which was why Hutch had wanted to reel him in then. But if they pulled Starsky now, they might never get this close to Anderson again and more innocent lives would be lost. Until Starsky made the decision himself to come in, Hutch was resolved to do everything in his power to protect his partner and back him up. Right now, all he could really do was maintenance. A quick fix of something normal to get Starsky firing on all cylinders again — if anyone could call clandestine meetings at 2 a.m. something normal.

"It's late. You're sleepin'. I shouldn't'a called—"

"It's not that late," Hutch argued. "Come on, we can meet for a quick drink."

"Where? It's Thursday night. Even Huggy's'll be closed by the time we get there. Sorry, Hutch, this was a stupid idea. I'm just gonna—"

"You're gonna get in your car and come over here," Hutch firmly interrupted him. "You are okay to drive—aren't you?"

Starsky didn't sound drunk, but his partner held his liquor well. Although he didn't think Starsky would be stupid enough to jeopardize his cover by overindulging, sometimes when you were that strung out you took your comfort where you could get it, regardless of consequences.

"Nah, I'm straight."

The words hit like the unexpected sting of salt in an ever-raw wound. Starsky was straight—always was, always would be. Hutch winced at the phrasing. That was the risk you took when you walked around with your bleeding soul wide open. He took a deep breath, reminded himself that this wasn't about his own pain and said, "Good, get over here. I can't come to you, partner, not at Villar's; you know that. Please?"

"Okay, I . . . ."

"Just get here. We'll talk when you arrive," Hutch promised.

He was up as soon as the phone clicked in his ear. For a moment, he stood naked by the bed, eyeing his ratty old orange robe. It was comfortable, but he needed more than that soft warm shield between his hungry flesh and his stressed-out partner. Recognizing that this meeting was an invitation to disaster, Hutch went to his bureau and pulled a pair of old gray running pants out of the bottom drawer. A clean white undershirt on top of them, and he was as ready to face Starsky as he'd ever be. If he put on more clothes than this, he knew there'd be awkward questions, but the jogging pants and undershirt were casual enough to be worn to bed.

Funny, four years ago he could have entertained Starsky stark naked and never have had a moment's worry, but the advent of this unanticipated and unwanted desire had altered his entire lifestyle. Tight jeans and cords were things of the past. These days it was baggy pants and over-sized button downs, anything with yards of fabric that would hide a problem he had no clue how to handle.

The freeways must have been pretty clear tonight, for it was less than twenty minutes later that Hutch heard a soft rap, then his door swung open.

Hutch took a long look at his friend as Starsky entered the apartment, evaluating Starsky's condition. It was bad, but not as bad as he'd feared. If you didn't know Starsky, you'd never be able to tell how close to the edge he was dancing. In his tight blue jeans, denim shirt, and white cotton jacket, Starsky looked his usual, casual elegant. His partner made more of a sartorial impression in Levis than most guys did in a tux. Despite the ghastly chest scars that were hidden at the moment, the mementos of Gunther's assassination attempt, Starsky was completely comfortable in his skin. The clothes he wore telegraphed his raw sexuality and his feline grace. Seeing him tonight in those soft blues and white jacket that so accentuated his incredible, magnetic gaze, that sex appeal was all a stranger would see.

Hutch, who was no stranger, saw far deeper. The lines that seemed etched into those normally relaxed features, the ten pounds that Starsk couldn't afford to lose that had been dropped in the last nine weeks, these telltale symptoms of extreme emotional stress were readily apparent. What was less visible was the tension that crackled with Starsky's every movement. An almost electrical charge seemed to tingle in the air as Starsky entered Venice Place.

Hutch, who was already over-sensitized to this man's mere presence, shivered in reaction. He knew that look, recognized that an emotional time bomb had just been dropped into his lap.

"Hi." Hutch smiled from the couch. He was glad he'd had the forethought to turn on the lamp on the end table. He didn't want to barrage his partner with too much light, but he didn't want to be alone in the dark with Starsky when his friend was this vulnerable. The golden lamplight cast a cozy glow over everything in the room, a safe, homey comfort that made the situation seem more normal and somehow reduced the intimacy.

"I shouldn't've come here," Starsky replied. He was poised by the greenhouse doors, tense and ready to flee.

"I'm glad you did," Hutch answered, keeping his tone soft. Feeling like he was dealing with a wounded wild creature, he cautiously approached his partner. "I've been worried about you out there alone."

"I can do my job, Hutch," Starsky snapped at him, almost challenging.

Hutch saw all those lean, hard muscles tense as if for a fight. Anger and desperation churned in his partner's tight features in equal measure.

"I know you can," Hutch soothed. "But, don't you worry about me when I'm under, even though you know I can do it?"

That scored a hit. Starsky's honest nature had him nodding. A little of the wariness left those strong, chiseled features.

"Sorry," Starsk muttered, appearing grudgingly appeased.

"'s okay," Hutch said, but he had no illusions here. He still had a wounded mountain lion in his living room. Hutch himself was simply no longer being viewed as the enemy, but this could still turn lethal. You couldn't play at being something like Villar for weeks on end and then just shrug it off like an old coat. This undercover role was doing things to Starsky, pulling out pieces of his darker side that Hutch knew his partner had spent years mastering. These days an air of violent menace clung to Starsky as tightly as his faded denim.

"You hungry?" Hutch asked, stepping up closer.

Starsky's dark head gave a negative shake, the overlong, loose curls bouncing against his cheek, catching in the dark stubble there. "I ate before."

Hutch heard the lie, let it pass. Arguing the small stuff wasn't gonna get them anywhere.

"How'd it go tonight with Baldino?" Hutch questioned as casually as he could manage.

That wary tension snapped back into Starsky's face, tenfold. "It went."

"What happened?" Something bad had gone down or Starsky wouldn't be here.

He watched that already tense face pinch tighter, Starsky's body language telling him that his partner wasn't going to answer.

"I asked you what happened, partner," Hutch put the slightest hint of a threat into his voice. It was a chancy proposition. Wild animals respected strength, but if he came on too strong, it would be seen as a challenge and met as such. Hutch had tangled with this feral side of Starsky once or twice in the past. It was never pleasant. But he couldn't back off on this. He had to know what had gone down, how bad Starsky was doing. If his partner wouldn't answer him, he was going to get Dobey to pull Starsky off the case first thing in the morning, consequences be damned. Anderson's flakes were too much into blood to let this wild cat prowl their ranks unrestrained. If Starsky was out of control, he needed to be pulled in now, before he snapped.

Being under that feline glare was never a pleasant experience, but Hutch met it with his own cool, blue ice. He almost wished things would get physical, so that this nerve-wracking contest of wills could be resolved in a burst of brute force. A couple of punches, and the tension would be broken, but so might a few bones.

Even Starsky, gone as he was, seemed to recognize the danger of moving their contest to a physical level. Though his partner's body stiffened and coiled further in on itself, practically vibrating with the force of his emotions, the violence remained in check.

So, the contest stayed a staring match. Hutch was certain he was losing, but finally, Starsky dropped his gaze. Deep down they both knew Starsky wanted to talk; that was why he'd come here. But after nine weeks of guarding his words and actions during every waking hour, trust didn't come easy.

Starsky sighed and began speaking, "Oh, Dino and me've had quite the night. First Baldino tried to pick up this underage kid in one of the discos on Ventura. She couldn't've been more than fifteen, Hutch. I don't even know how she got into the club."

The empty, tired tone sent a chill through him.

Neither he nor Starsky were very good at not playing the white knight when there was a damsel in distress. Hutch had a vivid memory of Starsky and himself poised on a hill, with orders to hold their position while that psycho JoJo Farrente worked a receptionist over. While Baldino probably wouldn't have killed the girl tonight, he would have been no gentler with her than that rapist. For Starsky to stand by and be a party to that would have been unbearable.

Hutch didn't even know how to voice his next question. Nine weeks ago, it would've been 'how did you stop him?'. Tonight, the question was did you, not how. The fact that he didn't know scared the shit out of him.

Starsky appeared to take pity on him, continuing without prompting, "I thought I was gonna have to blow my cover, but . . . I played on Villar's bein' an ex-con. I came on like King Kong. I was all over her, got a little rough to scare her the hell outta there before Baldino could get her alone."

Hutch almost sagged with relief. "That musta been hard."

Starsky snorted. "Not hard enough. There was a moment when it was a real question, whether I should risk blowin' my cover to step in, and it shouldn't've been, Hutch. There shouldn't've been any question to it at all, I shoulda just taken Baldino down . . . ."

"Starsky, we're trying ta catch a creep who's killed three kids that we know of, probably more. It mightn't have been the smoothest strategy, but you got that girl out of there without blowing nine weeks of solid police work. You did right, partner."

"Maybe," Starsky muttered, his eyes shifting away from Hutch's again. "That guy in intensive care ain't gonna think I did right, though."

Hutch froze. "What guy?"

"We moved on to Tico's on Hollywood Boulevard after that. You know Scarpaci?"

"Torregrossa's right hand man?" Hutch asked, putting a face to the name. Torregrossa was moving in on the West LA drug action. Scarpaci was his top goon. Starsky and he had been surveiling Torregrossa's operation when Anderson's first victim had been found. The drug case had been temporarily shelved last year in favor of the homicide. When they'd gotten back to Torregrossa, his operation had been so streamlined that there wasn't enough outside action to justify wasting the taxpayers' dollars on a long-term surveillance.

This was Hutch's worst nightmare given form—Starsky being recognized as a cop by some peripheral player. Fortunately, they'd just been surveiling Scarpaci, but it could just as easily have been someone they'd busted.

"Yeah, that's him. He was at Tico's. He had the most beautiful redhead I ever seen on his arm, Hutch. She looked like a movie star or somethin', really fine."


"Baldino hit on her. Scarpaci didn't like it. They had words. Ended up takin' it out back to play High Noon."

"What happened?"

Starsky shrugged. "I talked them into keepin' guns outta it. Told 'em the noise'd bring down the heat. So they went at it like Foreman and Ali, minus the Marquis de Queensbury rules. I figured a gorilla like Scarpaci would knock Dino on his ass and that would be the end of it. In the end, I had to stop Baldino from snappin' Scarpaci's neck. I just stood there and watched, Hutch, while he beat a man half to death."

Hutch took a deep breath, searching for something to say. "Scarpaci was no angel, partner."

"Maybe not, but he didn't deserve that."

"We're after a murderer, Starsk—" Hutch began.

He was cut short by his partner's snappish, "And I almost became accessory to manslaughter tonight."

"It's a thin line we're walkin' here, partner," Hutch answered, taking those vital two steps closer. He could feel Starsky's breath on his face now, was close enough to feel all that pent up tension beneath his partner's skin pummel his own. "I wish I could be right there beside ya, but I can't. For what it's worth, I think you did the best you could."

"I shoulda busted the sonuvabitch," Starsky insisted.

"We'll bust him, babe, I promise. But for murder one. Not for some piddling attempted manslaughter or assault charge. We'll sew Baldino and Anderson up so tight that they'll make the Gordian Knot look easy."

"The what knot?"

Hutch relaxed at the question, knowing that he'd won the battle—for tonight. If Starsky were willing to be distracted by some tangential anecdote, then his partner had enough resilience reserved to hold it together for a few more days, if no more of this stuff came up.

So he explained his comment in a soft lulling tone, watching how his voice almost seemed to visibly soothe the remaining tension out of his partner's lean form. "The Gordian Knot was this ancient riddle. It was a big rope tied in a million knots. It was said that the man smart enough to unravel it would rule the world. Thousands tried and thousands failed."

"Anyone ever do it?" Starsky asked, his eyes fixed so squarely on Hutch's nearby face that he could barely think, let alone breathe.

"Alexander the Great."

"He unraveled it?"

Hutch shook his head. "Not quite. He, ah, severed it with his sword and went on to rule the world."

"Do you think that's where it all went wrong, Hutch?" Starsk asked with a catch in his voice.

Hutch could hear how troubled his friend was, how hard Starsky was struggling to hold it together. "How what went all wrong?"

"Well, the Gordo . . . Gordian Knot, it was a riddle, right? A thinking man's problem."

"Yeah," Hutch cautiously confirmed, not knowing where this was going.

"Then some bozo with a sword comes along and just cuts it in half. Doesn't think at all, just uses brute strength to get what he wants. It's sorta like what we face on the street every day—isn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess it is at that," Hutch replied, amazed as ever at the way his partner's mind worked. In some ways, Starsky was his very own Gordian Knot. He'd spent over twelve years puzzling on all the twists in his partner's complicated character, but no matter how well he thought he knew his friend, Starsky always managed to surprise him.

Seeing that a measure of calm had entered Starsky's attitude, Hutch tentatively ventured, "How're you holdin' up, partner?"

Starsky took a moment to answer. Hutch expected to have his question blown off with some humorous reply, but those blue eyes skewered his soul and offered him the unadorned truth. "I'm hangin' on by a thread, but I'm still hangin' in there."

It wouldn't have mattered to Hutch right then what was jeopardized by his seeing his partner this way. He couldn't hold back anymore. As he'd ached to do from the moment he and Dobey had stepped into that stupid broom closet this afternoon and he'd seen how haggard Starsky looked, Hutch reached out and gathered his partner tight to his chest.

He must have done right, for Starsky sagged against him as though every bone in his body melted, trusting his full weight to Hutch's keeping.

Hutch held that trembling body close, inhaling the scent of Starsky's hair: shampoo, the sharp combined scents of tobacco and marijuana smoke from the clubs, a hint of sandalwood cologne, and, below it all, that irresistible aroma that was Starsky himself.

His partner clung to him like a lifeline, locking Hutch in tight, gifting Hutch with the type of embrace he had fantasized about for years.

Holding Starsky close like this, feeling him safe in his arms . . . this would almost be enough, Hutch thought. He knew he could never have the whole enchilada, knew that even broaching the topic would ruin everything they had, but when he held Starsky like this, he could pretend for a few brief moments that the world was the way he wished it could be.

The guilt that came from deriving pleasure from these rare occasions when grief would drive Starsky to seek comfort in his arms was almost unbearable at times. But Hutch was an addict, and he knew it. He'd take his pleasures where and when he could. He never overstepped the bounds of comfort, never took advantage of his partner's vulnerability, though every selfish impulse Hutch owned screamed 'go for it' every time Starsky was in his arms. He never had and never would give into those base impulses, because to do so would bring down the one constant in his partner's world. They were all each other had. It wasn't Starsky's fault or problem that Hutch wanted their connection to be more than it was, and Hutch was determined to never contaminate the purity of what they shared by enlightening Starsky.

This was one relationship that Kenneth Hutchinson was not going to fuck up. If the day ever came that Starsky wanted it to be different, Hutch would be more than eager to oblige. And on that day, he'd probably see some pigs fly by.

So he stood there stroking Starsky's back in wide circles, offering the only comfort he knew to be acceptable. Every iota of his willpower was focused on control, on keeping his body in check, especially a certain six inches that wanted to expand and show his partner just how welcome Starsky was in his arms.

Starsky vented a deep sigh. His nose burrowed deeper into the collar of Hutch's undershirt as he seemed to breathe Hutch deep into his lungs.

The play of warm air over Hutch's sensitive neck made him shudder. Starsky was a burning heat down his entire front . . . so hot . . . so perfect . . . .

Hutch viciously cut off that line of thought. His own muscles tensing with the strain of fighting his feelings, Hutch dug his fingers into the soft white cotton of Starsky's jacket and held his friend tighter. It seemed to be what Starsky wanted. Stars knew, it was what he himself had been hungering for.

"God, Hutch, this is the first time I've felt safe in months," Starsky whispered, burying his face in the hollow where Hutch's neck and shoulder met, nosing through the long blond hair there the way Hutch's lovers would.

Those powerful arms hugged Hutch even tighter, the hold almost becoming painful.

"Me, too."

"I'm sorry to come here and lay all this on you in the middle of the friggin' night. I know I shouldn't be here . . ."

"Ssssh," Hutch soothed. "Dino's not likely to be lookin' for you tonight, is he?"

Starsky gave a negative shake of his head, his dark curls batting the side of Hutch's jaw in an intimate, ticklish barrage. "No, he said he'd call me in the morning about what time I should pick Anderson up for that chauffeur job."

Though it was a great breakthrough for the case, Hutch didn't like the idea much. "You got it, then?"

"Yeah. I'm not gonna be able to make our meet tomorrow, Hutch."

"Don't worry about it," Hutch ordered. "Come on. You need some shut eye, partner."

With that, Hutch started shuffling their linked forms towards the big double bed in the next room.

"I can't," Starsky's mouth protested, but his hands didn't let Hutch loose and his feet didn't stop moving at his partner's urging. "I'll blow my cover for sure. I—"

"I'll wake you before the sun comes up. I promise. But right now, you're going to sleep." Hutch paused them by the side of the bed, waiting for a more vehement protest.

When none was voiced, Hutch eased his exhausted partner down to sit on the mattress. Almost trembling at how close this was to his dearest fantasy, Hutch peeled Starsky's jacket and holster off with trembling hands. After placing them on the chair in the corner with his own stuff, he sank to his knees to dispense with the Adidas.

He shivered as he felt a strong, rough hand grip his shoulder. Almost afraid, Hutch looked up into his partner's down-bent face. Starsk's intense, serious expression liquefied what remained of his controls. He was nothing but mush inside, shaking, quaking mush, at that. Hutch could barely breathe under that gaze.

"You know that it's you that's holdin' me together—don't you? I wouldn't be able to do this at all if you weren't here to hold me up."

Starsky was so tired that he bordered on drunk at the moment. Hutch knew that. But even knowing that his partner was punch-drunk with exhaustion didn't take the sting out of those words. They were so close to what Hutch wanted, needed to hear from this man; yet, in reality, Hutch knew they were light-years away when it came to intent, no matter how much they sounded like a come-on.

So he ignored them and worked at unlacing the Adidas, which seemed to be tied with their very own Gordian knots. Unfortunately, Hutch didn't have a sword handy, so he had to work at the snags with his sweaty, trembling fingers.

If he'd had that blade, Hutch would have thrown himself on it when his partner's hand left his shoulder and started to comb through his tangled blond hair.

Starsky had always been fascinated with his hair. His partner often touched it, mussed it, or played with it. Hutch knew that it wasn't a sexual thing. Starsky just liked his hair the way a baby liked playing with a dangled set of keys or a crow liked shiny trinkets. It didn't mean anything, Hutch tried to tell himself, and it certainly wasn't sexual, no matter what his quivering insides or that piercing stare of Starsky's, which he was attempting to ignore, might be saying. Starsky was just out on his feet, blindly reaching out for some human contact.

But if Starsky didn't stop trickling his hair down onto his neck like that, his partner was gonna get a hell of a lot more human contact than he bargained on.

Despairing of ever opening those laces, Hutch gave in to desperation and just tugged the sneakers off. The scent of hot sweaty feet immediately assailed his senses. Knowing how far he was gone, that he had it so bad that even this man's sweaty feet turned him on, Hutch reached out a shaking hand to peel off the red socks his partner was wearing.

Red socks . . . only David Michael Starsky could get away with something like that. The man just oozed raw sexuality. You could put Starsky in red socks or a Santa costume and the guy would still turn heads. Even on the verge of physical and emotional exhaustion, Starsky still managed to look sexy. It didn't make a whit of sense getting turned on by a guy's red socks, for feet were quite possibly the least erogenous zone that Hutch could imagine, but once he'd dealt with the candy apple red footwear, the mere sight of those blue jeans above his partner's bare ankles made him hot, the way a woman removing her bra would once have turned him on.

"There we go, all set," he announced, almost weak with relief as he sat back on his heels.

"Thanks, part . . . ner," the last word was interrupted by a tremendous yawn.

"Okay, in you go," Hutch urged, lifting the nearby sheet.

"Pants," Starsky reminded. The hand abruptly left Hutch's hair so that Starsky could stand up to undo his jeans.

Alternately feeling like some perverted voyeur and a stupid clod, Hutch's mouth ran dry as he watched his tired partner attain the vertical and fumble with the button of the tight jeans. Though it was a valiant struggle, the uncoordinated man didn't seem able to open it.

"You, ah, want some help?" Hutch was forced to ask at last, trying to make light of the offer.

"Nah, I can get it," Starsky groused, then recommenced his battle.

Hutch almost passed out as those slender hips thrust in his direction as Starsky fiddled with the tight jeans' button. It shouldn't be erotic, but somehow it was, terribly, painfully exciting.

"God damn . . . can ya believe this . . . ?" Starsky struggled with the button while Hutch stood there salivating and quietly going insane. He simply could not take much more of this.

Deciding that the powers that be had a very sadistic sense of humor, Hutch watched the pathetic battle of the bulge, his own sweaty hands locked in the pockets of his sweatpants to keep him from reaching to help. It took every bit of self-restraint he possessed to keep his gaze—and fingers— off that impressive bulge beneath his partner's zipper. The flesh there was so big that if he didn't know any better, Hutch would almost say that his partner looked aroused, or interested at the very least.

But he did know better, so Hutch forced himself to stop thinking those kinds of thoughts.

To his intense relief, Starsky finally got the damned button open and stopped his gyrations.

By the time Hutch had gotten his own erratic breathing back under control, Starsky's jeans had been shucked off and the blue denim shirt removed. Ignoring his half-naked partner, Hutch picked shirt and jeans up from where they were tangled on the bottom of the bed and put them on the chair with their other stuff. When he turned back to the bed, Starsky was chastely beneath the covers.

Thank God. Hutch honestly hadn't known how much more of that kind of temptation he could have taken. Of course, the sight of Starsky waiting for him in his own bed wasn't exactly a turn off either.

Trying to get his racing heart under control, Hutch slipped into bed on the other side.

Totally overwhelmed, he was far too aware of his own excitement to get a handle on Starsky's mental state. Hutch was hard as a rock, and even with these jogging pants on, Starsky would feel it the first time their lower bodies touched. So, Hutch lay on his side for what felt like forever, willing his stubborn erection to subside, loathing himself with a passion. Getting turned on by his fatigued, stressed out partner was an all time low in his book.

If he were lucky, Starsky might be asleep already. The soft breathing at his back seemed to indicate that or Starsky might simply be lying there pretending sleep like he was doing himself.

What felt like an eternity or two later, the pressure at his groin finally let up. When he was sure he was once again innocently flaccid, Hutch turned over onto his back in a more comfortable position. Throwing an arm across his eyes, he released a deep sigh, wondering how he'd ever gotten this fucked up.

The unexpected shock of a warm hand easing down onto the tender flesh of the inner forearm of the arm that lay chastely at his side between Starsk and him several minutes later nearly propelled Hutch right out of his skin.

Completely overwhelmed by guilt, Hutch realized that his partner was still awake . . . and still upset. Starsky hadn't quite reached out to hold his hand, but it was a near thing.

Hutch understood fully well what had held his friend back. It was one thing to form a handclasp in the office when one of them was dying, but quite a different thing to hold hands here in the private intimacy of Hutch's double bed. The way Starsky had just left his hand lying on top of Hutch's arm in that seemingly accidental contact, it almost seemed as though his macho partner were uncertain how that act would be received were Hutch still awake.

For a moment, he debated whether or not it truly were an accidental touch, but the tension Hutch could feel vibrating off the slender figure beside him told him that the contact hadn't been accidental at all.

Releasing a deep breath, Hutch twisted his arm up until their hands touched, then entwined his and Starsky's fingers in a tight clasp.

"Hey," Hutch whispered into the semi-darkness, giving the sweaty palm a firm squeeze. The light from the lamp in the living room, which he'd forgotten to turn off, gave the bedroom a warm gold tint. "This is me—Hutch. I thought we got past all that macho bullshit years ago."

"Wouldn't want your partner thinkin' the guy who guards his back's a wimp— would ya?" Starsky asked in a light tone, that was so forced it must have almost choked him.

Hutch swallowed hard before answering. This guy ripped his guts out on a daily basis without even trying—but Hutch lived for those disembowelings.

"I know my partner's not a wimp," Hutch answered when he could trust his voice. "He's man enough to take what he needs and not worry about what people think about him."

Once he'd voiced the words, Hutch wanted to bite his tongue off at how close to a sexual offer his badly phrased response had sounded.

"What about what his partner thinks about him? That'd matter, right?" Starsky questioned, his tone small and strangely uncertain.

As Starsky gave voice to the very fear that had held him back all these years, Hutch's insides constricted until he thought his own internal organs would strangle him. He didn't know what they were talking about here, what Starsky might want that he'd be afraid to ask of his partner. All he knew was that, no matter how much it might seem that they were on the same channel, they could not be discussing the same thing.

"What do you need, Starsk?" Hutch asked as calmly as he could manage, trying not to read any meanings into this that weren't of Starsky's design.

"I'm . . . I'm out of my head here, babe, bouncing off the walls. I . . . I . . . ."

"Just say it, Starsk, just say it," Hutch soothed, giving the hand that was attempting to fracture every one of his fingers a tight squeeze of encouragement, trying to pretend that Starsky's next words wouldn't alter their entire universe.

"I . . . would you hold me, Hutch? Please? Just keep me from bouncing away?"

And still, he didn't know what Starsky was asking for. Unable to refuse whatever it was, Hutch used their joined hands to guide Starsky over to him. He turned on his side to face his partner, easing his right hand over the side of Starsky's rib cage and the elbow resting there.

"That better?" he questioned, shaking so hard he was surprised the whole bed wasn't rocking. He could feel Starsky's chest hair under his elbow, a little ticklish and absurdly soft. Starsky's sweaty scent was inundating in the closeness. Hutch could barely breathe, let alone think. The heat radiating off the body he was snuggling was hot enough to melt asbestos.

"Yeah . . . thanks."

The emotion behind the two tight syllables penetrated his haze of anxious excitation. Hutch knew that tone of voice. He'd lived for years within its frustrating, lonely parameters. It was the settle-for-what-you-could-get tone, because you just didn't have the words to ask for the kind of things you needed at the moment. Those kinds of needs went beyond vocalization.

There were a million responses Hutch could make here. The most sensible was to ignore it, to leave Starsky in that horrible nowhere land where he'd suffered himself these last few years.

Hutch knew he couldn't safely handle more than this simple embrace. Any closer contact than this and his body was sure to betray him.

He tried to assuage his conscience by telling himself that it wasn't like he was denying Starsky anything here. There wasn't a guy on the planet who'd be comfortable being even this close to his best buddy in bed. This tangled hug was all propriety could ask a friend to offer. Starsky wouldn't/couldn't ask for more, any more than Hutch had ever been able to. Hutch knew he could take the coward's route out and never know a moment's blame.

But since when had propriety ever dictated either of their actions when it came to each other, his smarting conscience demanded. This wasn't just some good time buddy here next to him. This was the man who'd crawled into bed with him and held his stinking, cramp-wracked body close as a lover's while he'd vomited all over them both when Forrest's horse had been burning its way out of his system. Propriety had no claim on either of them, no matter how attractive a safe out might be to Hutch at the moment.

As personally comforting as that easy path might be, it wouldn't do anything to ease his partner's troubled spirit. The stress of this undercover assignment was eating Starsky up inside, leaving his capable friend in desperate need of grounding.

There was nothing as good at breaking the tension or grounding a guy as getting laid. They both knew that.

Hutch knew that he could give his partner what he needed, help Starsky work the tension and anxiety out of his system. Good sex could focus a man in a way little else could, only . . . Hutch wanted this too badly himself to completely trust his motivations here.

Starsky was vulnerable tonight, the way he'd been after Helen and Terry died and Rosey Malone split. Hutch could very easily meet this need, but he couldn't be sure that by doing so, he wouldn't be taking advantage of his partner. And if he made a mistake here, if he forced something on his upset partner that Starsky didn't want or wasn't ready to accept, Hutch knew he'd ruin everything. Maybe even get Starsky killed on this assignment.

No, whatever he did, he couldn't fuck around here. He had to be clear that this was what Starsky wanted and that it was Starsky's choice. But he didn't have the words to ask that kind of question, anymore than Starsky did.

So, in the end, he reached out for Starsky's shoulders. Moving carefully, giving his friend every opportunity to object and bail out, Hutch tentatively guided his partner over until Starsky was lying right on top of him.

It should have been awkward and clumsy, pulling another man close like that, but Starsky's body settled on top of his own with almost frightening ease. Starsky came to him slowly, like he couldn't believe it was happening. His partner's features were so tense, Starsky looked like he was waiting for his world to explode.

But no explosion followed, nothing upsetting at all in fact. There was no painful bump of crotches or knees or elbows or noses. With something like fear etched into his face, Starsky simply tucked his head onto Hutch's right shoulder, the rest of his limbs seeming to just melt around Hutch. Most reassuring of all was the way Starsky's groin settled gently against Hutch's right hip.

Hutch almost sobbed with relief. Holding Starsky close like this was tempting as all hell, feeling his warm, heavy weight blanketing every inch of him was exquisite, but . . . Hutch thought he could live with this. It was a close call, but their groins weren't in direct contact. He was as braced for trouble as he could be. He had his body under iron control now. No matter what, he wouldn't give his feelings away.

Even though they were lying here tangled more closely than ever before, this still might not be about sex. Starsky could simply be needing a more satisfying embrace—in which case, Hutch knew he was in for one of the longest nights of his life.

Needing to relax them both, he laid his palm tentatively on Starsky's bare back.

"It's gonna be okay, Starsky," he whispered, his right hand stroking in wide, reassuring circles across that broad, sweat damp expanse of flesh.

There wasn't anything overtly sensual in his movement; Hutch made damn sure of it. He was working so hard to be good, to make damned sure that he didn't do anything tonight that he hadn't done a zillion times before.

Yet, Starsky hissed in a breath, a shudder seeming to quake through his tight-held form like the latest disturbance along the San Andreas Fault.

Stunned, Hutch felt the hardness nudging his hip pulse and swell to life. That burgeoning erection was the only movement at all in Starsky's body after that one convulsive shudder. Even Starsky's breathing seemed to stop at that moment.

A ten-ton weight seemed to lift off Hutch's chest when he felt his friend's physical reaction.

Good God . . . it wasn't just him!

Starsky was feeling it too. Just knowing that he wasn't alone in this made a world of difference to the guilt-ridden cop. They weren't out of the water yet. They were still in far too deep, but at least the shore was in sight now. Even if this were just an adrenaline-induced hard-on, Starsky had reacted first. He hadn't forced anything on his partner.

Recognizing the palpable dread that had frozen Starsky's whole body, Hutch quickly whispered, "It's all right. Everything's gonna be all right. I promise. Just . . . relax, okay?"

His partner's suppressed panic gave way to sudden movement. Starsky took his weight onto his arms, quickly lifting his lower body up off Hutch and staring down into Hutch's face in horrified shock as he hung there above him. "I . . . I'm sorry, I . . . ."

"Ssssh," Hutch gripped those muscular shoulders, anchoring his partner in place as the mortified man tried to move back to his own side of the bed. "Don't . . . please. Just lie back down and . . . tryta relax, okay? For me?"

He gave another tug at Starsky's shoulders.

Starsky's face gritted in determination. Big beads of sweat popped out on his forehead as Starsky held himself aloft.

"You . . . you don't understand, Hutch. I just . . . ."

"It's all right, Starsk," he assured, putting as much calm and belief into the words as he could muster. Hutch's own courage was ready to jump ship in the face of his partner's shock.

"What is?" Starsky questioned, visibly on the verge of freaking out.

"Everything, anything," Hutch shakily replied, reaching up with a quivering hand to stroke Starsky's curls, calming him the way he would a scared kitten.

Those frantic eyes filled with confusion. Beneath their sexy, dark stubble, Starsky's cheeks flushed crimson as he sought to explain, "But . . . I just got a hard-on. Didn't ya feel it?"

"I felt it," Hutch tried a small smile on for size. Inside, he was scared so bad that he might run for the hills himself at any minute. They were going places here they wouldn't be able to get back from if they kept talking.

"Doesn't it . . . bother you?"

"It's a normal reaction, partner. You've been living on adrenaline and nerves for nine weeks now, Starsk. I'd hazard a guess that I'm the first warm body you've been close to in that time . . . ."

". . . and then some," Starsky muttered, his eyes not quite as wild in the face of Hutch's composure.

"It's just human physiology. A natural response to closeness after a long abstinence."

"So it doesn't mean anything?" Starsky asked, calming down some.

That hurt.

"I didn't say that," Hutch said, lowering his gaze, unable to lie about something so important to his heart, even if that lie were something Starsky wanted/needed to hear.

"Then let me get back to my own side of the bed and . . . ."

"I didn't say it meant something bad, Starsk," Hutch interrupted before the 'and we'll pretend this never happened' that was no doubt coming could be voiced.

He could feel that gaze digging into his face, searching for answers. Bracing himself with a deep, cleansing breath, Hutch opened his eyes and forced himself to meet Starsky's stare.

Allowing his perceptive partner to read those windows to his soul was probably the single most difficult thing he'd ever done in his life. There'd be no going back after this, no more pretenses, no more hiding. For better or worse, Starsky would know the truth.

Twelve years of friendship, their entire partnership, could dissolve here in the next three seconds. Hutch knew that, but he still opened his heart to Starsky.

For a moment, it seemed that Starsky was just too tired and caught up in his own embarrassment to truly understand. Then Hutch saw those dark-ringed eyes widen in comprehension.

A completely unnatural stillness claimed the tense figure above him.

Hutch prepared himself as best he could for his entire world to come crashing down around him. He didn't know how he'd make it through this, or even if he was meant to. Vanessa's leaving had totally shattered him, but to lose Starsky . . . .

"Hutch?" Starsky's voice was hoarse, shaky with disbelief.

"Yeah?" his own didn't sound much better, even to his own ears. He'd been ready for Armageddon, not this subdued shock.

"It . . . it really is . . . okay?"

For a moment, Hutch didn't know what the hell Starsky was talking about, then he realized that Starsky was referring to his own arousal, as though that was still the only topic on the table here.

Could it be, Hutch wondered, almost limp with relief. Could he have gotten off that easy? Starsky was completely exhausted. Perhaps his partner really wasn't able to see beyond the stress of the moment to any deeper truths.

"It's okay, Starsk. I . . . promise it'll be okay."

Those eyes watched him like a hungry wolf in a cage, who'd been taunted so often with the sight of raw meat beyond its reach that it couldn't believe the bounty that was freely offered to it now. Maybe if this had happened at another time, things might have gone the way Hutch had always feared they would, but it was suddenly clear that Starsky was so caught up in the need of the moment that he couldn't see beyond his own hurting.

Realizing that his hands were still gripping Starsky's bare, powerful shoulders to anchor him in place, Hutch took a chance and loosened his right hand. He let it roam slowly down Starsky's back, feeling how every single muscle was sharply delineated with sustained tension.

Starsky's entire body seemed to shudder in reaction at that single stroke.

Taking heart from the unexpected response, Hutch rested his palm against the small of his partner's back and exerted the lightest pressure to guide Starsky's hips back down again.

"It . . . it's really . . . all right, Hutch?" Starsky nervously repeated as he continued to resist, the entire concept obviously too much for his tired brain to absorb.

"It's okay, partner," Hutch gently assured, his heart almost breaking for his strung-out friend. "It's just you and me here. Me 'n' thee, the same as always. I swear."

Starsky released a raggedy, shuddering breath, then asked in an uncertain tone, "What do you want me to . . . I mean, what can I . . . ?"

"Take whatever you need, Starsk. Whatever it is, it'll be all right."

Hutch exerted a bit more pressure on his palm. This time, Starsky allowed himself to be swayed.

They both gasped as Starsky's hips descended again. Starsky's erection nestled right beside Hutch's own aching arousal.

Hutch felt his own upper arms clasped in a possessive hold, as his partner's head once again settled into the nook of his left shoulder. Hutch momentarily regretted his inability to see Starsky's face, but as those white brief covered hips began to pump against his own jogging pants, it was the only thing in his universe he regretted.

His hands scrimmaged down Starsky's back, getting a grip on those cotton-covered globes. They fit perfectly into his palms, like the curve of buttocks was designed precisely for his own big hands. God, how he longed to feel the silky skin under those briefs, but . . . this was Starsky's show. He couldn't rush things or force anything more onto his overwhelmed friend. If they were gonna get naked, his partner was gonna have to suggest it.

Unable to resist, Hutch dug his fingers carefully into the succulent flesh, pressing the soft mounds together under their chaste cotton shield.

Starsky jerked erratically in response, giving a deep, sexy moan.

"God, oh . . . God . . . Hutch . . . ." his partner practically sobbed as his hips pounded frantically down against Hutch's groin.

Hutch met his partner thrust for thrust, falling into the rhythm like it had been waiting there for them for a hundred years.

It shouldn't feel this good, this right, Hutch thought, reeling under the shock waves of pleasure. Maybe it had just been too long for him, but this simple belly rubbing—through two layers of clothing, none-the-less!—felt like nirvana to him. He sobbed with ecstasy, unable to keep his hips from pounding up to meet Starsky's driving force.

Not that he was trying to resist. It just seemed smarter to play it safe, to not let on how very much this meant to him. Only . . . his body was having none of that two-faced nonsense. Where he was normally totally in control, able to play head-games with the best of them, with Starsky, where he really needed such protective shields the most, he was absolutely defenseless. He was crying out Starsky's name like a guy who'd been in solitary confinement for three years straight.

His body was explosively responsive to Starsky's slightest caress. His partner didn't seem able to stop touching him. The hands running restlessly up and down Hutch's sides, occasionally jumping up to card through his hair . . . those simple touches sent his nerve endings sparking the way getting a blowjob normally did. For some reason, the skin in such non-erogenous zones as his elbows and biceps seemed to be hot-wired directly to his cock tonight.

It was, of course, all due to the fact that he knew this was Starsky caressing him. If his partner had so much as laid his hand over Hutch's erection and ordered him to come, he probably would have done so out of the sheer knowledge that it was Starsky wanting him to react that way.

He was like a run-away train, thrusting his hips shamelessly up at Starsky, panting and crying his partner's name out in desperate need, but then, Starsky was doing exactly the same thing, so it couldn't have been all that offensive to his buddy.

Hutch had wanted to keep it light, to keep things simple, to not complicate this night by throwing his own needs into the mix, but he couldn't have kept his feelings out of it if both their lives had depended on his restraint. Starsky was really here in his arms and making love to him. That was all the reality he knew.

On some level, Hutch was aware that there were still issues that needed to be dealt with here. If Starsky had been completely comfortable, they probably still wouldn't be wearing their clothes and yet . . . it felt so good that even such nagging reality checks held no sway over him.

Starsky could use him as he liked tonight, do anything he wanted to him, Hutchinson pride be damned. He'd pick up the pieces of his shattered self-respect in the morning, as he'd done on any number of occasions when his need for Starsky had forced him to give into the sordid fantasies that starred his oblivious partner.

"Hutch . . . Hutch . . . ?"

"Mmmmm?" Hearing the urgency, he muttered, opening his eyes as his thrashing head was caught and held still. Starsky's fingers had his hair tangled over his ears like he'd hold him like that forever. Hutch wasn't protesting, but it was obvious his partner wanted his attention, so he tried to think beyond the incredible sensations crashing through him. He'd never been this carried away by sex in his life and he was still fully dressed.

"I . . . ."

Whatever it was, Starsky didn't seem capable of voicing it. After a minute of just staring at him, Starsky gulped spasmodically.

Hutch opened his mouth to ask what was wrong . . . only to have his mouth covered by Starsky's quivering lips. It was . . . weird. Beyond the strangeness of the raspy, stubbled chin and masculine aggression, Hutch could feel the emotions vibrating through his partner. His own were pretty damn intense, but what Starsky was undergoing felt like it was trying to shake him apart. He wouldn't have exactly called Starsky's initial kiss rough, but it was frantic, like Starsky was scared out of his mind and hanging on by that thin thread he'd mentioned earlier.

Hutch didn't know what to say, how to calm the anxiety. All he could think of doing was to take it into himself. So he molded his mouth to Starsky's nervous force. His fingers were always hungry for the feel of his partner's skin, so he let them roam Starsky's back in soothing circles while his pliant mouth worked at communicating reassurance, and all the time those hips were pounding down into him like Starsk was trying to grind him through the mattress.

Though the passion never dimmed, the edge of fear seemed to blunt after a few minutes of lip-wrestling. He could almost feel the nervousness and uncertainty seeping out of Starsky as his partner absorbed his acceptance. After that, the urgency was like one pulsing need, throbbing between them.

Starsky's tongue poked out and entered his mouth, a sweet, succulent visitor that explored every nook and cranny. Hutch drank in Starsky's taste, his hands clutching at the powerful back as his ecstasy soared to unbearable heights. His hips thrust up in one final burst of need, then reality exploded around him.

Vaguely, he was aware of their mouths breaking free of each other.

"Huuuuttttccchhh!" The sobbing outcry seemed to fill the universe as Starsky's hips slammed down onto him with primal urgency. A spasmodic jerk of flesh, then a matching hot wetness bathed him from above.

Once the last convulsive shudder faded, Starsky collapsed against him like a marionette whose strings had been sliced. Hutch rubbed the sweat-slick back while Starsky panted into his neck, shivering as Starsky dribbled a little there.

He loved the boneless feel of the man, the musky scent of him. Hutch lay there simply savoring the closeness, for his fantasies had never taken him this far. This was all new territory to him, from the utter contentment weighing his limbs down to the raspy beard stubble scratching at his sensitive neck.

There was a part of him that wondered if Starsky were going to leap up any second, the picture of macho indignity, but as the minutes passed and the most Starsky did was snuggle more comfortably down onto him, that worry faded. Their heads mightn't have a clue about how to deal, Hutch realized, but their hearts knew.

Accepting this moment for the precious gift it was, Hutch tried to imprint the feel of Starsky in his arms in his memory before his partner pulled back in the inevitable withdrawal. The awkwardness would come, he knew, and then there'd be questions to answer and consequences to be met.

It didn't get this good in the real world. Maybe some people found this kind of lasting happiness, but Ken Hutchinson wasn't one of them. As soon as Starsky fully appreciated what they'd done here, he'd be up in the bed demanding explanations for the unforgivable trespass. Hutch had known that was how this would play out from the instant he'd allowed it to happen. He was gonna have to pay the piper, big time.

But, while he lay there braced for disaster, Starsky simply cuddled in his arms, his face pressed in the nook of Hutch's neck and shoulder.

Only slowly did it register on the anxious Hutch just how deep his partner was breathing. There was no tension what-so-ever in the body blanketing him. In fact, Starsky felt limp as a rag doll.

Hutch focused his senses fully on his friend. Starsky didn't sound like he was lying there having an identity crisis. To the contrary, from the deep breathing, Starsky sounded like he was lying there fast asleep.

Well, he'd wanted to get rid of Starsky's tension. Grinning at his success, Hutch took a deep breath and gave the dark curls beneath his chin a kiss as he pressed his mouth into the crown of Starsky's head.

He knew that the confrontation had only been postponed, but he was grateful for any time he was given. Exhausted himself, Hutch closed his weary eyes, content to cuddle Starsky all night like this.

It seemed only minutes later that the sun was blazing against his closed eyes. He drifted in drowsy contentment for a few blissful moments, enjoying the feel of a body that had been loved to languor the previous night. That was such a rare occurrence these days that he wasn't used to it. Starsky had certainly . . . oh, God, Starsky . . . !

Hutch snapped up in the bed, stiff with terror. Beyond the knowledge that there'd be hell to pay for the reason behind his current lack of tension, was the awareness that he'd screwed up big time. He'd promised to wake Starsky in time to get back unnoticed to Villar's dump. The sun was already up. If someone was watching Villar's place . . . .

Only slowly did Hutch realize that he was alone in the bed. He glanced over at the chair where he'd put Starsky's holster and clothes last night. It was as empty as if Starsky had never been here.

For a moment, he questioned his own sanity. Maybe he had dreamed the entire thing. The itchy, flaky patch of semen crusted between his belly and jogging pants could have been the result of a mighty vivid wet dream. God knew, he'd had enough of them, only . . . he hadn't been wearing these sweatpants and tee shirt when he went to bed at midnight. He was sure of that. Also, the fear of rejection weighing him down was no holdover from a dream. Starsky had been here last night all right . . . and left without saying a word.

Hutch damned himself ten times a fool. How could he have been so stupid? The future of their partnership aside, he had no right laying all that on Starsky when his partner was barely holding it together in the most dangerous undercover assignment they'd ever taken on. Was he actively trying to get his partner killed?

Consumed with guilt, Hutch sank back down onto the bed. He didn't even have clue one as to what kind of mood Starsky had been in when he'd left here this morning. God, he hadn't even cared enough to be awake to see how freaked out Starsky was on the morning after. He wondered if Starsky hated him so much for taking advantage of him in a vulnerable moment that he didn't even want to talk to Hutch before leaving.

How could he have fallen asleep like that and just left Starsky to deal with all the inevitable emotional baggage alone? Shattered, Hutch realized that he'd slept through one of the most important moments of his life. He was never going to get a second chance to explain, to apologize. If he was lucky, Starsky would be around to hate him tomorrow. If he wasn't . . . .

There were no ifs here. It was his job to see that Starsky was around tomorrow.

As the alarm started to blare, Hutch pulled himself up in the bed, silencing the radio clock with a viscous move. This was all his fault. He didn't know how he was going to make up for last night, but he was damn sure going to have to try. The last thing Starsky needed was this kind of additional stress in the middle of an undercover assignment.

Racking his brain for some way to make this up to his friend, Hutch stumbled to the bathroom to pee. No more enlightened, he wandered out into the kitchen, and froze at the sight of a white piece of paper taped to the coffee pot.

His insides clenched up like concrete was hardening in his guts. The blood in his veins certainly seemed to be solidifying. The very thought of breathing was even beyond him at that moment. All he could do was stand there and stare at that note, the way someone else might stare at finding an armed felon in their kitchen. The terror was certainly on that same level.

Hutch didn't even know how a person would phrase such morning-after thoughts on a piece of paper. Something like 'you betrayed our entire partnership last night; don't even think of showing your face at the station ever again' or something to that effect, perhaps? Even as furious as Starsky had every right to be with him under the circumstances, could his partner really finish their partnership on a note like that, Hutch wondered. Wouldn't he rather have the satisfaction of doing it in person?

Unable to stand the tension of not knowing another minute, Hutch reached out with a trembling hand to tear the note off the coffee pot. His stomach knotting in dread, he began to read the hastily scrawled words,


You looked too peaceful to disturb. There's a million things I should say here, I know, but I'm not too good at these kind of scenes. Just didn't want you to think I snuck out on you without saying nothing. That just wouldn't be right. You really put my head back together last night, partner. Above and beyond the call of duty or friendship. I know we got to talk about this, but I got to get back to Villar's. It stinks. I want to be here when you wake up. We'll talk tonight.


His knees almost gave out on him when he read that first line. Too peaceful to disturb . . . like Starsk had actually been watching him sleep. He read and reread the note, looking for some hint of the anger or disgust he'd feared, but there just wasn't any. If anything, there was a flavor of wonder to the letter, like Starsky really didn't know how to verbalize what he was feeling.

Hutch could certainly appreciate that. He felt like crying himself, either that, or laughing his head off.

Starsky didn't hate him. Considering his luck when it came to love, it seemed almost impossible to believe, but he had it right there in black and white, written by Starsky's own hand. Starsky didn't hold last night against him. What's more, Starsky hadn't wanted to leave him this morning.

His heart racing, Hutch absorbed what the note seemed to be saying. No hate, no regrets, no guilt, just Starsky being his irrepressible self. And that last line. We'll talk tonight. The tacit promise of those words sent a shiver coursing through his long frame. He tried not to let his hopes run away with him, but it really sounded like Starsky might've been interested in more. Could it be true? Could he be that lucky?

He was going to have to wait through this long day to find out the answers to those questions, going to have to wait till their talk tonight. But even though he didn't think he'd survive another minute without knowing for sure, his heart was strangely light as he put the coffee on to brew. For the first time in years, he didn't have that cancer of secret longing eating away at his heart. His hopes might be shattered to hell and gone tonight, but . . . at least he wouldn't be hiding any dirty secrets anymore. Starsky would look him in the eye and know who he was . . . and take him or leave him as he might chose to do.

Although he knew it was foolish to entertain such hopes anymore, Hutch found himself strangely fearless. The fact that Starsky hadn't freaked out over this was an indication that his luck had already changed for the better. Feeling a confidence he hadn't experienced in ages, Hutch left the coffee brewing to go choose his clothes of the day, thinking that maybe, just maybe, it might be time to dig those tight cords out of the back of his closet.


Sixteen hours after he'd crept from his partner's bed that morning, Starsky drove the battered blue Mustang that was the down-and-out Villar's only means of transportation into the crowded parking lot behind the House of Satan. The rusting Ford had put him in good stead with Baldino, for Starsky hadn't had to act when he was griping about his embarrassing wheels. A car enthusiast himself, Dino had understood his shame entirely.

Sitting there behind the wheel, staring up at the ugly black edifice, he took a moment to compose himself before leaving the car.

When he'd left Hutch's this morning, he'd felt like a new man. What Hutch had done for him last night was . . . unbelievable. At 2 a.m. when he'd shown up at Venice Place, Starsky had been prepared to admit defeat. He'd been fully ready to allow Hutch to call Dobey and pull him from the assignment. He just couldn't take another moment of being that lowlife Villar, of living in a world where sadism and violence were the norm. But instead of allowing him to blow nine weeks of hard work, to give up like that, Hutch had . . . .

Starsky still wasn't quite able to get his brain around precisely what Hutch had done for him last night.

Sex. He'd had sex with his male partner. They'd lain in each other's arms and brought each other to the heights of ecstasy.

If he'd ever thought about the idea of two guys together at all in the past, Starsky had always figured it'd be pretty gross, maybe even violent, what with both guys jockeying to see who'd be on top. The concept had always been alien to him, too scary to think too much about, let alone actively explore.

His contact with the gay scene had done nothing to improve his image of it. Hustlers, S&M clubs, pick-up joints, transvestites . . . Johnny Blaine.

As always, including his mentor in that sleaze parade troubled him immensely. Blaine just didn't fit in with that seedy crowd. His heart kept insisting, even now, that it couldn't have been true about Johnny, and, yet, Hutch had accepted Blaine being gay right from the start. Maggie had confirmed it, so it had to be true, even though Starsky still couldn't believe how a man that good, that . . . honorable could fit into that seedy world.

Johnny was the only exception that had refused to gel with Starsky's admittedly biased view of gays, and even poor Johnny had ended up a corpse in a sleazy dive. In his thirty-six years of life, Starsky had never seen one thing to make him think that there could be anything attractive or positive about two guys getting it on. It was just another kink, another sexual perversion that he'd run across in the line of duty, nothing that could ever apply to him or anyone he knew personally. Even in Johnny's case, it had killed him, so it couldn't have been good for him.

Only . . . what Hutch had given him last night had fed his soul. It was so far outside Starsky's previous experience of the gay lifestyle that the confused detective couldn't even begin to file what Hutch and he had done in with all that other scary stuff. There had been nothing dirty or seedy or predatory about it. The loving Hutch had bestowed upon him had been as bright and clean and pure as his partner.

There had been no struggle for domination. Hutch hadn't tried to overpower him and screw him into the mattress. To the contrary, Hutch had put him on top. He could still hear his partner's ragged whisper that everything, anything he might want was all right. That he should just take what he needed.

That wasn't perverted. That was love. The same kind of nurturing support Hutch had given him from day one, the type of cherishing regard Starsky had looked for in a hundred women and failed to find. Until last night.

Only he hadn't found it with a woman. He'd found it with Hutch, his beautiful, male partner.

He might not be sanguine about any of this gay stuff, but Starsky was man enough to admit when he was wrong. He didn't know squat about two guys together, that was clear. Fortunately, his partner seemed better informed. Hutch hadn't appeared panicked or disgusted by what had gone down last night. His partner's only true fear had seemed to be his concern that Starsky himself would freak. So maybe Hutch knew a bit more about this business than he did.

He sure as hell hoped so, because one thing had been perfectly clear to Starsky the entire time they'd been fumbling towards ecstasy—it wasn't just sex motivating them; it was love. And, no matter how unexpected or complicated the source, Starsky wasn't prepared to turn his back on something that good, that right. Not just because the person it came from was anatomically different from all his other sexual partners. Starsky figured that if he turned away from a feeling this strong just because it was coming from his guy partner, it'd be the same as refusing to date a woman because her skin color was darker than his own. He'd never held with that racist crap and, difficult as it was to accept, he was beginning to see that his attitudes towards homosexuality were just another kind of prejudice.

God, he wished that he'd had a chance to talk to Hutch, to see how his partner felt and maybe sort some of this stuff out. That'd just have to wait till tonight, till after his final initiation ceremony.

The thought of what he was about to walk into here drowned his elation like cold water on dying campfire embers.

Focus, he had to focus. Thinking about Hutch and him in this new light beat the hell out of imagining what he was gonna walk into here, but . . . if he didn't concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing in his undercover role, he was gonna end up dead. And he couldn't end up dead, not tonight, not when Hutch and he had so much to talk about.

So Starsky did his best to force last night's encounter with Hutch from his mind and fall back into character.

He was Michael Villar: rapist, ex-con, strong-arm thug, Satanist. What Hutch and he had shared last night had nothing to do with a lowlife like Villar. The guy he was pretending to be had probably never experienced an emotion that fragile, that gentle from his cradle on. Maybe that was what made degenerates like Villar into the sick bastards they were, Starsky thought, almost pitying the creature he was portraying.

The uneasiness that had plagued him throughout the assignment fell over him like a clammy shroud. He didn't have to work at bringing up the emotion that had been most prevalent throughout this assignment. He'd worn that terror so close to his heart that it settled back over him like a second skin.

Fear was something he was accustomed to handling, but normally, Starsky knew what he was scared of. Bullets, knives, drugs—in his line of work, he'd weaved his way through them all. Though he could never say that being at the wrong end of a loaded gun didn't bother him, he knew how to deal with that kind of fear, knew how to bluff his way through. This was different from anything he knew, far, far worse.

This assignment was the stuff his childhood nightmares were made of. Devil worshippers. Just the mere sight of that sculpted, painted goat horned godhead throughout the place gave him the heebie-jeebies. And those flakes who worshipped the monstrous looking thing! A scarier group of weirdoes, he'd never seen. They made Simon Marcus' crowd look mundane.

Starsky just didn't get it. What could make anyone want to worship the Prince of Darkness and propagate evil? And it wasn't all just show or cheap thrills, like Hutch had suggested. Starsky only wished it were. These creeps really believed this sick stuff gave them some kind of magical power.

What was even scarier was the fact that Starsky was no longer so sure it didn't.

Before this assignment, he'd considered himself a healthy agnostic. But now . . . .

Now he found himself thinking more and more of his childhood days at temple. He remembered how when everyone was together, raising their voices in prayer, there did seem to be some kind of weird buzz to the place. Starsky hadn't been to temple or felt that buzz in years . . . until two nights ago.

It scared the stuffing out of him to admit it, but in the midst of that ritualized depravity, when all those freaks were chanting their responses to the Black Mass, Starsky had felt an energy around him similar to that which he'd experienced in temple, only this particular energy was a lot stronger, a lot wilder . . . and just feeling it there in that horrible setup petrified him, for it made him wonder if maybe it wasn't all true, all that religious stuff he'd dismissed in his wild teenage years as just society's way of controlling people.

Starsky tried to push those thoughts out of his mind. He was too old to have a crisis of faith, for he didn't have any faith to destroy. He lived in the real world, worked the streets of LA. It didn't get much realer than that. He knew what was possible and what wasn't. Devils, demons and magical powers, they were all the props of a horror flick. They didn't exist any more than angels or Santa Claus did.

It was just a case of nerves, he told himself. Who wouldn't be freaked out dealing with this bunch of nuts? He had reason to be upset. If things got much more intense, he wasn't sure he'd be able to hack it, not and stay in character.

Wednesday's initiation was almost more than he could handle. Tonight's ceremony was supposed to be even more intense, if Baldino's brags were anything to go by. Anderson had assured Starsky/Villar that tonight's ceremony wouldn't be anything that Villar hadn't encountered in his former congregations, but that hadn't helped Starsky at all. He had no idea what these flakes were going to throw at him and, from everything he'd learned of the group's blood-thirsty leaders, he wasn't looking forward to illumination.

Still, Hutch was out there backing him up. If it got too heavy and he needed a fast out, his partner would be through the door in an instant with his Magnum drawn and half the LAPD behind him.

Reassured by that certainty, Starsky stepped out of the car. He hadn't seen the surveillance van when he'd driven up the road, but his coworkers wouldn't have been doing their jobs right if he had. They were probably still around the block.

His roving gaze reluctantly settled upon his destination. The building alone had almost been enough to completely unnerve him the first time he'd seen it. The house was huge, one of those hideous Victorian montages of cupolas, abutments and ornate gable-work that, had it been better maintained, might have qualified the place as a historical landmark.

In Starsky's admittedly biased opinion it was a landmark—in the most literal sense of the term—a blot upon the land.

As if the building's basic unsightliness wasn't enough, its current owners had added to its lack of appeal by painting it black, as dark and chilling as the void of deep space. Even the windowpanes were painted over in black, although they had the added charm of a blood-red, ram-horned devil's head painted on each of them.

Fortunately, the ghastly edifice was far enough back from the road and shielded by enough trees that its presence was rarely noticed by the neighbors, except for the mysterious disappearance of house pets. Nothing was ever proven against Anderson and his flakes, of course, which was why Starsky was here, wishing he were just about anywhere else on Earth tonight, preferably the center of his partner's big bed.

God only knew what they were gonna throw at him tonight. The only thing he was sure of was that God would have very little to do with it.

Trying to boost his courage, Starsky reminded himself that he'd gotten through the last ceremony. He could handle this one. And, if he couldn't, help was just a shout away. The bug he'd placed beneath the altar would have Hutch and half the police force in California in here in a minute should he give the word.

Buoyed by that thought, Starsky eyed the eerie black building and gathered his wits about him. Even though he was familiar with the structure, the place still gave him the creeps.

Oddly enough, the effect wasn't as bad at night. In darkness, the black building was swallowed by the surrounding shadows. Anderson's place was darker by night than its immediate neighbors, but not immediately perverse. It was only in the sunlight that the inherent evil of this place permeated the soul at mere sight.

Squaring his shoulders, Starsky took a deep breath and got out of the car. It was show time.