"You owe me a dinner, buddy-boy," Starsky insisted as they exited Parker Center. He'd won the Ping-Pong match fair and square, and he wasn't about to let Hutch weasel out of their bet.

"Well," Hutch said, capitulating, "a bet's a bet." Hutch's blue eyes glittered as Starsky chided him.

Starsky chortled as they headed toward the Torino. "All right!"

They were feeling good, and why shouldn't they? They'd been through hell and back in the last few weeks, uncovering a nest of corruption that fouled everything it touched, including themselves. They'd quit the force, become targets of the same corruption they'd uncovered, and somehow ended up back where they'd started, smelling like roses. Through all of that, their partnership had been unwavering.

"Hey, as long as I'm buying," Hutch said, too-helpfully, "why don't I pick the date? How about tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow sounds great!" Starsky agreed.

Hutch nodded. "How about 5:00 in the morning?"

It had taken a woman to do what all the crime, all the filth, all the stress of the job had never been able to do—get between them. But they'd defeated even the green-eyed monster that had threatened to destroy them. Arm-in-arm they'd walked away from Kira, the woman who'd nearly ended their partnership. Their friendship was intact. They still had their always-reliable port-in-the-storm—each other.

Starsky had to laugh. "You owe me a three-course dinner!"

"That's a hamburger, fries, and a chocolate shake," Hutch insisted, naming one of Starsky's favorite meals.

As Starsky prepared to open the Torino's door, he felt like they'd been renewed. It was as if time had gone back, all the way back, to the Academy, to those first heady weeks of friendship as two opposites couldn't help but attract one to the other. Having rejected Kira, they were once more inseparable; their future together. And all that youthful exuberance seemed theirs once more.

"No way," Starsky insisted as he pulled out his car keys. "I'm talkin' 'bout a broiled lobster, maybe, or even a New York steak."

Hutch rolled his eyes as Starsky fumbled with the keys, but he was laughing.

"What are you lookin' so ill for?" Starsky asked, enjoying the chance to rub in Hutch's defeat. "It's not every day you can buy your best friend a meal."

Hutch looked better than he had in a long time. He didn't seem as burned out as he had just a few weeks before. He'd started running again, eating better. He'd started harassing Starsky about his own diet—always a good sign.

Starsky leaned against the car as he prepared to unlock it. The metal was sun-warmed, the gleaming red and white hide heating his thighs through his worn jeans.

Suddenly, Hutch did a quick double take, his eyes flicking to the side. A harsh, crunching noise came from the east end of the lot that sounded like a minor fender bender. Hutch turned toward it. Starsky was watching Hutch so intently, he wasn't paying attention to his surroundings. They were in the police station parking lot. Black-and-whites were pulling in and out. It was just another day at Parker Center.

Hutch tensed, his face a sudden mask of alarm.

But we're in the police parking lot, Starsky thought. What could happen here?

He glanced to the side. A black-and-white had pulled out too sharply, catching another car's fender. The driver of the police car ignored the collision, kept on coming.

Starsky frowned. What the—?

The cop driving the black-and-white hit the gas and the powerful police car lurched forward, heading straight for the Torino.

Even though everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, Starsky had no time to react.

"Starsky . . . !" Hutch said warningly, confused as the vehicle bore down on them.

But it's a cop car . . . . Isn't it?

And then he saw the barrel of an automatic pointing straight at him.

"Starsky, get down!" Hutch screamed.

It was happening too fast. No. Too slow. Starsky felt as if his feet were glued to the ground, as if he were frozen in place while everything around him kept moving.

Even confused, however, he knew his priorities.

Get down? What about Hutch?

He had to protect Hutch. Starsky was totally exposed, but brazenly, he pulled his Baretta.

"Starsky, get down, get down!" Hutch kept yelling.

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Before Starsky could free his weapon, the gun aiming at him chattered, firing rapidly again, again, again—

Bullets slammed into the Torino, rocking it, shattering the windows, punching their way through red metal then white—then tearing their way through fragile flesh. Starsky felt each deadly pellet impact his chest, his gut, felt them ripping into organs, tearing open his body, then exiting his back, right through his best leather jacket. He went down like a brick as air bubbled through one of the holes in his chest.

That's bad, he thought distractedly. It's bad when air comes out. Remember . . . from 'Nam . . . .

The pain hit like a secondary reaction, blocking everything, flooding his body, igniting every nerve. Pain like he'd never known—worse than the Italian restaurant, worse than Bellamy's poison, worse, even, than watching Hutch die slowly from the Plague. Dimly, he heard Hutch shouting at him, then the loud report of his big cannon. Distantly, he heard his partner screaming his name over and over.

"Starsky! Starsky!"

It sounded like Hutch was in a tunnel, his voice reverberating with an eerie echo.

Hutch quit firing and ran around the front of the car. Starsky was on the ground, his head nestled incongruously in the big mag wheel of the Torino, as if the car were trying to comfort him for loving it so much. Starsky's eyes were open as he lay gasping, fighting to breathe, struggling to understand what had just happened in the space of seconds.

Does this mean we're not going to the restaurant? he wondered, drawing in a painful breath.

Hutch stood in front him. He looked terrible, his gun hanging from his hand, his blond hair wild and wind-blown, his eyes—

Shit, is he cryin'? Hutch? Whassa matter? He blinked once with agonizing slowness.

Hutch approached him cautiously, then knelt before him as if he were praying. "Oh God, Starsky, don't die! Please, don't die." Now he really was praying, and that scared Starsky. What was even weirder was that Hutch was clearly afraid to touch him, afraid to come too close.

Am I gonna die? Starsky wondered. That wasn't possible, was it? They were in the police station parking lot!

Starsky could hear sirens, and footsteps, people running all around. He heard Dobey bellowing for medical assistance. He'd never heard the captain sound so frantic. Someone put a blanket over him. But none of that mattered—not while Hutch was crying.

"Don't leave me," Hutch begged. "I'll do anything if you just don't leave me."

Starsky struggled to speak, but he couldn't spare the air. You big turkey, I'll never leave you, don't you know that? You didn't get hurt, didja Hutch?

He started drifting away and thought about getting some sleep.

"Don't, Starsk! Don't leave me!" Hutch begged again, touching Starsky's cheek with a gentleness that surprised him. "Stay with me, buddy."

Starsky struggled to open his eyes, focus them on Hutch's face. That beautiful face, so sad now when it had been so happy just a few minutes before. I'm here, Hutch. Ain't goin' nowhere. Least, not without you.

Hutch leaned down, his lips close to Starsky's ear. He was speaking louder now, almost shouting, but Starsky could barely hear him. "I love you, Starsky. You know that, right? I love you so much. You can't leave me."

Starsky managed to blink again, and tried to swallow but couldn't. He fixed his eyes on Hutch's, needing to understand what was happening, what he was being told.

There were people everywhere now, a whole crowd, with Hutch and him as the center. But in spite of the mob, it was as if they were all alone on the tarmac beside the Torino. Hutch leaned closer, cupping Starsky's cheek gently with his palm. Starsky could feel Hutch's breath on his face as Hutch told him again, "I love you, Starsky. Never loved anyone else the way I love you. You believe me, don't you?"

And before Starsky could think of an answer, Hutch's mouth touched his. Starsky closed his eyes, felt Hutch's breath filling him, felt the air swelling his lungs, giving him needed oxygen, needed strength. Then Hutch's tongue slid between his parted lips, and Starsky felt an electric shock of pleasure so sweet it was blinding. His pain grew dimmer, lessening enough so that suddenly he could breathe, just a little at first, then more.

Hutch kissed him with all the love he had inside, all the love Starsky knew he was capable of, and as he did, his kiss began to heal Starsky's mortal wounds. The holes in Starsky's chest and gut slowly closed, and his breath stopped making bloody bubbles.

Suddenly able to move his arm, Starsky brought his hand up to cradle Hutch's head, needing to tangle his fingers in the soft, long strands of Hutch's hair. Hutch's strong arms gathered him up carefully, gently, holding him close, keeping him safe—curing him. With the utmost tenderness, Hutch's fingertips slid inside Starsky's bloody shirt until he could touch his seeping wounds. Cautiously, he stroked them, easing their pain. Under Hutch's hands, the wounds closed, healed, and finally disappeared.

Little by little, bit by bit, so did the Torino, the parking lot, and the frantic crowd. All of it disappeared, like fog breaking up before strong sunlight. Where it all went Starsky didn't know, and didn't care.

For him, there was nothing now but the strength in Hutch's arms, his broad, bowed back, and the love pouring through his kiss, the most soul-rattling kiss Starsky had ever known.

They broke for air, and Starsky sighed as he felt the pain ease away from him, dissipate, like all the other material things around them. He exhaled, relishing the ability to do that again, and inhaled slowly, languorously. Breathing was something he would never again take for granted.

Hutch was unbuttoning Starsky's bloody shirt as he murmured, "Ssssh, that's all right. You're all right now. I've got you." He didn't have to shout anymore; Starsky could hear him just fine. He touched Starsky's eyelids with gentle fingertips and his lids became heavy. Closing them, he willingly yielded, surrendering himself to Hutch's embrace.

There were things Starsky wanted to say, too, but his jaw was lax, his mouth slightly open. He couldn't force it to form words.

Hutch didn't seem to need words. His lips found Starsky's open mouth and he kissed it again, delicately, chastely, just lips on lips pressing light. Then Hutch's mouth was at his ear, comforting him, taking all the pain away and giving reassurance. "I've got you, babe. I'm here. Nothing can hurt you now, not while I'm with you. I love you, Starsky."

He sighed, smiling. Hutch was with him. Hutch loved him. Did they ever go to the restaurant? He couldn't remember.

His shirt was gone. He was no longer on tarmac. While he wasn't sure where he was, he no longer cared. He was on something soft and yielding, and he was warm and safe in Hutch's arms. Hutch's mouth slid smoothly over his jaw, down his throat, leaving a path of soft kisses. The coarse hair of Hutch's mustache teased and tickled as he kissed his way over Starsky's wounded chest. Then Hutch's mouth touched the bloody bullet holes. They were closed now, but still raw, still throbbing. Hutch's gentle mouth robbed them of their heat, their pain. They grew smaller, dimmer, until they could barely be seen under the swirling growth of Starsky's chest hair. Hutch kissed them away until Starsky forgot all about them and the pain they caused him, until Starsky could think of nothing but Hutch's sweet mouth and the pleasure it gave him.

He shifted, bringing his other hand up to cup Hutch's head, burying his fingers in the long mass of his blond hair. He sighed again, his lids still too heavy to open.

Oh, that's nice, he thought, as Hutch kissed his wounds, nuzzling him, using his tongue. So nice . . . . He stroked his fine hair, wishing he could tell Hutch how good this felt. Starsky moved under his gentling mouth, loving its attention.

"Ssssh," Hutch soothed, kissing the last of the wounds and robbing them of their sting. "I'm here, babe. I've got you." His mouth moved lower, his cheek and nose rubbing against Starsky's furry belly, making him smile. "Feel that?" He murmured. "Like that?" He slid the tip of his tongue around Starsky's flat navel making him sigh again and toss his head on the pillow.

Pillow? he thought groggily. Starsky's right hand groped blindly around his own head until he snagged a corner. Pillow. His hand swept down, palmed the surface he lay against. Sheets. Soft, clean sheets. The surface moved as Hutch shifted on it. Bed? Am I in bed? What happened to the parking lot? He touched his own bare chest and wondered where his shirt had gone. Sliding his palm down over his abdomen and bare hip he discovered he was nude. Where the hell are my clothes?

Then Hutch kissed him just below his navel and he stopped worrying about that. His sigh was half moan now, as his right hand blindly sought purchase again in baby-fine strands of yellow hair. Hutch's tongue traced a thin line of sensation where Starsky's leg met his groin, and suddenly he was in pain again. A different kind of pain. A delicious one.

He was throbbing once more, but not in his chest. His heart rate increased, his lungs gulped air, and he felt something stirring at his groin, but he was still too disoriented to be sure.

Then the wet tip of Hutch's tongue touched the blunt end of his cock making him gasp in shocked surprise. Hutch? What are you—? Why are you—?

Hutch did it again, slowly, tenderly, the gentlest, wettest touch. Starsky moaned aloud, and tossed his head. That was so good! Hutch purred in response and did it again, sweeter, wetter. Over and over the tip of Hutch's tongue rode around and around the head of Starsky's cock, making the whole thing grow and swell and throb and pulse like something with a life of its own, something not a part of his body at all.

Starsky gasped softly with every exhalation. It was as if all there were in the world was the tip of that tongue and the end of his cock—as if all feeling, all sensation, all awareness was right there, electric nerve jolting electric nerve.

He tried to call out—to ask why, to ask when, to ask how—but he couldn't spare the breath. Everything he knew, everything he felt, everything he experienced all ended right at his glans, his hot, bobbing glans, that enraged, enraptured part of him that wanted to spend the rest of forever nestled gently against the wet tongue of his best friend. Who knew Hutch could even do such a thing?

Hutch licked him slowly, wetly, until he thought he'd go crazy. He could never come like this, it wasn't enough. He couldn't come but he could lose his mind. But he couldn't say anything, his vocal cords were still frozen. He didn't have the slightest idea what to say anyway. Besides—That's so good, babe, so good . . . .

Then Hutch shifted, making the bed dip. Starsky, flat on his back, rode it out, helplessly in thrall, unable to fathom what might happen next. Hutch's teasing tongue outlined the ridge of his crown two, three times, then dipped below it, tracing the vein that snaked down the side of his painfully erect organ. Using his whole tongue, Hutch licked Starsky's erection all over, every inch. Collecting it tenderly into his hand, Hutch held it still and licked it wetly, lovingly, until Starsky felt his hips lifting of their own volition to meet that loving, lapping tongue.

The hands he'd buried in Hutch's hair clung hard now, holding on for the ride, scared to let go as if he might fall off a cliff and find himself plunging down into some dark abyss. Hutch's tongue carried him higher, higher, higher.

Suddenly, Hutch shifted and held Starsky's cock straight up so he could go straight down. Starsky slid into a tunnel of heat and moisture and realized with a shock that it was Hutch's mouth.

Hutch's mouth?

He moaned low and loud, thrusting up, thrusting in, as Hutch took him, swallowed him, sucked him so sweet he couldn't bear it. His hips rocked, he clung to that long hair, pulling Hutch's head down, his need suddenly insatiable, uncontrollable. Hutch's mouth. He had to have Hutch's mouth. All of it. Now.

And Hutch obliged, purring deliciously around the mass of man shoving into him, demanding what Starsky was willingly giving. Hutch swallowed him. Hutch sucked him. Hutch licked him raw.

Starsky cried out in delight, in heedless, unbridled passion, and opened his eyes, finally awake, towed out of his nightmare gently, relentlessly by Hutch's loving skill.

"God, Hutch," Starsky breathed, making the name one long exhale. "So good. Am I still asleep?" Starsky blinked, looking down at the blond head poised over his groin. The most beautiful man in the world was going down on him, easing him out of his terrible repetitive nightmare the way he always did—with his tender mouth and magic hands.

Hutch couldn't answer, but looked up. His ice blue eyes met Starsky's dark ones. Starsky watched, mesmerized, as Hutch made sure he could see what he was doing, what he loved to do. No woman had ever loved going down on him the way Hutch did. Still half-asleep, Starsky tried to remember why, and for a moment, couldn't.

Then it all came back in bits and pieces. The shooting in the parking lot. His near death. His real death. His return to life as Hutch raced into the hospital.

My heart beating in time with yours. My heart. My soul. Ah, Hutch . . . .

It was his own prayer.

Hutch's beautiful blue eyes watched Starsky watching him suck so good, so sweet, so long. Hutch could make this last for hours if he wanted to, and how could Starsky stop him?

The nightmares had started in the hospital. Not right away. A few days after his return to consciousness. After the sprinkler "accident."

He was still being heavily drugged against the pain when they started, and he couldn't wake up. He was locked in a cycle of terror and confusion as his subconscious played the film of the assassins firing on him again, again, again, knocking him down over and over, the pain ripping through him—

Maybe there was something weird in the way he was breathing, but Hutch figured it out. He had been dozing in the empty bed beside Starsky that first time. The nurses never could make him leave and had gotten tired of being surprised by the big hulk: lurking in the bathroom, in the closet, in the privacy curtains (like that wasn't the most obvious place in the world!) and once even under the bed, with the two of them giggling like kids every time and giving the hiding place away. So, finally, the nurses let Hutch have the other bed to save their own sanity.

So, Hutch was there when the nightmares started. He climbed into bed with Starsky and started whispering as he massaged his aching wounds, trying to ease him out of it that first night. He succeeded and Starsky had spent the rest of that night sleeping soundly, dreamlessly, in Hutch's arms.

The next night it happened again and the night after that—Starsky's nocturnal terrors were tearing Hutch apart. It was even worse the fourth night. At the fever pitch of the nightmare he heard Hutch, in frustrated desperation, confess his love.

Starsky came awake that night with Hutch's lips against his face, Hutch's eyes full of tears. Before they ever had a chance to deal with Hutch's embarrassment, Starsky initiated their first real kiss. Starsky didn't question his reaction to Hutch's passion; it just seemed right to respond to his need, to return something to the man whose love had brought him back to life. After that first kiss there was no embarrassment between them—and no barriers any longer. No barriers. No limits. No labels. Just two friends in a twin bed chasing away their mutual terrors with a love that had been growing for years.

Now, six months later, at home in his own bed, Hutch's love once more pulled Starsky from the grip of the dream.

Blinking dazedly as he stared into Hutch's eyes, Starsky whispered, "I love you."

That was always the final exorcism of the dream; the moment when Hutch could be sure Starsky was really awake. It was the first thing he'd said to him in that pivotal moment in the hospital, right after they'd kissed the first time.

I love you. The words that solved everything.

Hutch's eyes said it back to him. They were soft, bright, full of love, full of longing, full of hope, and all the deep emotion he felt inside. These were not the eyes of a burned-out cop who'd seen too much. These were the eyes of man who'd only learned recently that he was not too old to find the truest love of his life.

Starsky swam in the blue waters of Hutch's eyes, and felt a joy that was fresh and clean and new. This was what waking up to Hutch's love was like.

Slowly, reverently, Hutch released his tantalizing oral grip on Starsky's fevered flesh. Kissing his glans, Hutch rose to his knees, bestowing soft kisses randomly over his thighs, his hips, his furred testicles. Before Starsky could collect his wits enough to protest or plead for more, Hutch's large hand collected Starsky's erection, and stroked it smoothly.

Starsky gasped in delighted surprise. Hutch's hand was filled with something warm and slick, a thick, comforting lubricant that made his stroke incredibly exciting. Hutch coated him, anointing him slowly, using his touch as deftly as he'd used his mouth.

Hutch's gentleness was always a tender surprise to Starsky, belying his strength, his height, his intimidating presence. He moved his hand over Starsky's sensitive flesh with the touch of a musician pulling forth from his instrument the purest note, the cleanest tone. Starsky sighed and watched Hutch tend to him lovingly. Hutch was beautiful when he loved Starsky.

His gentle stroking didn't last nearly long enough to suit Starsky—but would forever be enough? The bed dipped as Hutch moved around him, clambering over, then on top of him. He blinked as Hutch straddled him, ass over Starsky's groin, weight balanced on his knees and elbows. Hutch leaned over for a kiss.

"You awake?" Hutch asked, wanting to be sure. "You with me?"

"I'm in heaven, right?" Starsky murmured, his sleepy lassitude heightening every sensation. It was pure pleasure to be tended by Hutch, one hundred percent pure pleasure.

"No, not hardly," Hutch told him, grinning.. "You can't be in heaven, Starsk, cause you're still alive." Hutch kissed him then, lightly on the lips.

Starsky purred and opened his mouth, wanting more. Hutch gave it to him with the next kiss, the tip of his tongue touching his, just the tip, gently. "Not in heaven," Starsky murmured. "Can't be. Heaven'd have to much to live up to."

They kissed again, deeper this time. "Not heaven," Hutch agreed around the kiss. "Here. With me. Alive."

"Alive," Starsky said, reaching up to hold Hutch's head in place. His kiss grew hungrier, more intense. "Alive. With you."

Hutch reached between them, captured Starsky's bobbing organ, positioned it, then lowered himself with a sigh. "Alive. Ah, God, Starsky, so alive . . . ."

His arms slid around Hutch's long, lean back, as Hutch took Starsky's raging cock deep inside his own body. "Hutch! Hutch!" It was like being swallowed by the tightest, hottest mouth, pulled into a wet furnace by that strong, powerful body. The blood pounded in Starsky's temples, in his throat, in the bends of his elbows, behind his knees. It was like being all-powerful and completely helpless at the same time. He was captured by Hutch, devoured by his body. He was being drowned and burned alive all at once. This was Hutch's love, Hutch's need.

No, not just Hutch's . . . .

With a sound that was half-growl, half-roar, Starsky rose up, arms locked around Hutch's back. Hutch gasped as Starsky pulled him hard into his lap, driving deep inside him.

"Oh yeah," Starsky whispered in his ear. "I'm alive all right."

"Starsk!" Hutch breathed, his eyes widening. "Oh, damn, Starsky!"

"Mmmm," Starsky agreed, sliding his hands down Hutch's spine to clutch his buttocks. He lifted Hutch slightly, adjusted their positions, then eased him down again. Hutch moaned and Starsky purred along with him. "I changed my mind. I think it is heaven . . . ."

Starsky shifted them in the bed, lifted them, and drew his knees under them. Hutch gripped him with arms and legs as if afraid of losing his precarious seat. It felt incredible to have so much man wrapped around him. He nuzzled Hutch's long neck, nipped his shoulder. Hutch shuddered, losing it, clinging to him desperately.

"Is it good?" Starsky whispered, feeling Hutch's big frame tremble in his arms. "Is it?"

"God, yes," Hutch breathed. "You're so deep in me, Starsk. So deep . . . ."

He smiled and relished the sensation of Hutch sitting on him, holding him tight inside. Oh, so good to be alive for you . . . . He rose up, lifting Hutch, then eased them both down, so that Hutch was on his back against the mattress.

Hutch made a small sound of surprise.

"Goin' deeper," Starsky warned, once he had him settled. Slipping an arm under one of Hutch's knees, he pulled his long leg up higher and drove in, making Hutch cry out. "Deeper yet . . . ."

"Starsk! Oh, dammit, Starsky . . . !" Hutch clawed his back as his hips moved to match the rhythm.

Starsky was breathing hard, his lungs moving air as efficiently as they ever had as his legs pumped his hips, driving his cock in and out, deeper, deeper. He was alive, completely alive, totally alive, here and now, in Hutch, thanks to Hutch, because of Hutch. He moved harder, faster, stronger, feeling like he could last forever. Wanting to. Needing to. Needing Hutch.

Hutch called his name, not like in the dream, not like in the parking lot. Hutch called his name with a pure note of passion. "Come on!" Hutch called, tightening around him, meeting him stroke for stroke. "Give me everything! Everything!"

"Oh, yeah," Starsky promised, lost in it now. There was nothing but the two of them killing the bed, tearing each other apart, pounding away, fucking, fucking, so good, so good—

The sweat between them made them slick. Hutch's hard-on rode tight between their bellies. Starsky reached between them, catching the sweat, grabbing at Hutch, holding him. Squeezing tight. Stroking down. In time. In rhythm. Giving Hutch everything.

Hutch cried out and shuddered. Starsky knew that sound and smiled. "Now you come on. You give me everything!" His balls tightened up hard, aching. Hutch's strong muscles squeezed—

They shouted at the same time, their voices mingling in one pure note. Hutch convulsed beneath him as Starsky came painfully hard, filling Hutch. Giving him everything. Hutch spilled a flood between them, gluing them together, the warm liquid searing them, melding them.

It's like getting shot, Starsky thought dimly, only lot's nicer.

They clung together, making soft sounds of pleasure, sharing tender kisses, murmuring words of love that were nearly meaningless in their mutual exhaustion. Hutch was wrapped tight around Starsky's body as if he could prevent them, somehow, from ever separating.

"Better every time," Starsky murmured into Hutch's neck.

"That's the truth," Hutch said quietly, tiredly.

"I'm too heavy," Starsky said insincerely. He couldn't bear the thought of rolling off and moving away from Hutch even that short distance.

"No, you're fine," Hutch insisted, holding him tight. "Hardly weigh anything. Still so thin. Take you out tonight, okay? For dinner—something good."

"Mexican," Starsky said quickly, before sleep claimed him. Hutch was still trying to get him to regain all the weight he'd lost after the shooting. "Best tostados this side of Guadalajara."

"Mmmm," Hutch agreed sleepily. "Tostados. Sounds fine. Just rest now." He ran his fingers through Starsky's hair.

As if I could do anything else, Starsky thought as his body sagged slowly into a dreamless, peaceful rest.

It's funny what a difference a few months can make, Hutch thought, as he leaned back in his chair, putting some distance between himself and the table.

Seven months ago, he was a burned-out cop with too much mileage, barely able to find enough reason to wake up every morning. Then Gunther happened. And Kira. And, of course, the shooting. He glanced over at his partner, still cleaning up the last of his dinner, and savored again that incredible sense of peace he had every time he realized just how much in love he was. At this moment, Kenneth Hutchinson bore no resemblance to that tired, road-weary, burned-out cop. Today, he was a man who'd rediscovered the joy of living, the righteousness of working, and the wonder of loving.

It still amazed him.

Deciding this was too much contemplation on a full stomach, Hutch patted his abdomen and complained, "I don't know why I let you talk me into ordering these things—"

"'Cause it's good, s'why," Starsky mumbled, tucking the last bit of taco into his mouth and washing it down with beer. "You loved every bite. Don't try telling me you didn't."

Hutch looked at the devastation on his plate. The world's biggest chimichanga had fought valiantly there and lost. Or had it? Hutch suppressed a burp and stared at his partner. "You're right. I loved it. I'm just not sure it's real fond of me right now."

"Have another beer. It'll settle your stomach," Starsky assured him, shoveling in the last of his rice.

Where does he put it? Hutch wondered admiringly. He'd have to run an extra mile tomorrow morning to make up for this indulgence, but on Starsky's lean frame the heavy Mexican food just disappeared. No matter what Hutch fed him, Starsky couldn't seem to gain back those last five pounds. Starsky couldn't, but Hutch's attempts to pack the pounds back on him were taking a toll on his own body.

Two miles tomorrow. Gotta do it. He found himself smiling. Two miles—or another half hour in the sack with this mad man.

"You thinkin' dirty thoughts again?" Starsky said softly, as he glanced up slyly through lashes too long and too dark for any man.

Hutch blushed and glanced around, as if anyone could hear what was going on in his mind.

"Caught'cha!" Starsky crowed, grinning.

"Hard to think of much else," Hutch admitted, striving for a nonchalance he did not feel. "Considering how productive the day has been . . . ."

It was a rare day off after a week of long, tedious stakeouts that had accomplished nothing. The boring, yet stressful, job had left Starsky wired, edgy. So Hutch wasn't surprised when he'd suffered from the dream. After he'd loved Starsky awake, they'd drifted back to sleep, only to wake and make love again on and off throughout the day. It had been awhile since they'd spent the whole day in bed, but Hutch knew they'd needed it. The dream rattled them both, reminding them of the closest call they'd ever had. Making love was the best way to reaffirm their grip on life, and the amazing power of their passion.

"I checked the calendar," Hutch said quietly. "It's been a whole month since you've had one of those dreams."

Starsky nodded, staring at his plate, trying to appear unconcerned. "Well, the therapist said the incidents would start diminishing. Guess he was right."

Hutch wondered if the police therapist would approve of their unique form of therapy. Sometimes Hutch wondered what the therapist thought of them—off the record. The therapist never came out and asked, but after the fourth session after the shooting, he'd stopped seeing them separately. After the fifth session, Starsky started referring to the therapist as the "marriage counselor."

Hutch wondered, too, what his reports to Dobey must've said. The man wasn't stupid. But after Starsky had survived Gunther's assassination, and Hutch had brought his empire down, the media had declared them the centurions of the decade. He suspected they'd have to be caught in the act to suffer any repercussions. Still, they were both concerned enough to be discreet. Starsky more so than he. While wonderfully uninhibited and loving whenever they were alone, Hutch knew Starsky was still adjusting to this new image of himself. Hutch had had longer to adjust to the secret desire he'd harbored for Starsky, but it had taken him awhile, too. It was easy for him to be patient with Starsky. He assumed that, in time, those societal pressures would concern Starsky less and less.

It had been a relief when the therapist had finally cleared them both for active duty, though they still had to see him once a month. Starsky was losing patience with the process and, Hutch suspected, was anxious that the doctor might eventually confront them about their affair. Hutch wondered what Dobey would do if forced to face the facts in black and white. He didn't want to think about that, so pushed the thought away.

"You going to tell him about the dream, when we go?" Hutch asked.

Starsky shrugged. "Sure. I guess. Why not?" He paused, then really looked at Hutch. "You're not gonna start worrying about the dreams again are you?"

Hutch grinned. "I don't have enough energy left to worry, thanks to you, partner." Funny, how that word meant so much more to him, now.

"Yeah," Starsky said smugly, "you always say that, but I know the minute we get back to Venice Place, you'll be giving me that 'come hither' look . . . !"

Hutch pointed an accusatory finger at him. "If you so much as even flirt with me when we get home, so help me, I'll lock myself in the bathroom and sleep in the tub! We've got to work tomorrow, Starsk! It would help if I could stand up on the job!"

Starsky just laughed and shook his head, chasing the remains of enchilada sauce around with the last of his tortilla.

How is it possible, Hutch thought, for maybe the tenth time that day, that I could be this happy? He looks at me, and I'm lost. He touches me and I'm helpless. He makes me feel like I'm 18, and makes me act like I'm 16! How is it possible that I could have fallen so impossibly in love with a man—a man!—that I've known as well as I've known this man for almost 12 years now! How is it possible?

"You gettin' desert?" Starsky asked, his mouth still full of sauce-covered enchilada. Hutch couldn't take his eyes from the touch of red at the corner of his mouth until the tip of Starsky's tongue snaked out to clean it up.

He had to look away with a smile. "You've got to be kidding! I'd explode if I ate another bite. Don't tell me you're getting desert?"

Starsky shrugged. "Maybe something for later." He looked up under those indecently long, dark lashes and his expression made Hutch blush from the bottom of his soles.

Hutch leaned forward. Two could play at this game. "Well . . . if you're good, I could make something for desert later, once we're home."

Starsky smirked. "I thought I'd already been good. In fact, I'd say I'd been especially good."

Hutch sat back in the booth, exasperated, and shook a finger at him in warning, making Starsky laugh. That was one of Hutch's favorite sexual teases. "If you're especially good," Hutch would entice as he led Starsky to bed, "I'll make you the Paul Muni special later," or "I'll send down to Chez Helene's for that special éclair you love," or "There's a surprise in the freezer for you, but only if you're especially good." Starsky was always ravenous after sex, and Hutch enjoyed feeding the appetite he'd stoked with his loving. And Starsky was always especially good as far as Hutch was concerned.

Something touched his leg under the table and he jumped. The toe of Starsky's sneakered foot trailed slowly, wickedly, up the back of Hutch's calf, and suddenly he couldn't speak, couldn't think. He swallowed, fighting to rein in a reaction so strong he couldn't mask it.

Starsky smiled smugly.

"I'm gonna get you for that," Hutch said roughly.

"I'm countin' on it, buddy," Starsky purred, all confidence. "You know I gotta have desert! But right now I'm in need of the little boys' room." Grinning, he wiped his mouth and put his napkin down.

You outrageous little stud, Hutch thought, amused. You think you've got my number—which you do. But I've got yours just as well! Just wait till we get home. I'm gonna—

Something moved in Hutch's line of vision, something behind Starsky. The cop in him reacted automatically, instantly, focusing on the unknown. One part of his brain noted it, cataloging it, even as the bulk of his mind focused on its primary interest.

—peel you out of those skin tight jeans so fast your head will spin, then I'll—

The object came into focus then drifted through the restaurant, disappearing behind two waitresses, a busboy, and a meandering hostess. Then it reappeared. A woman. Something familiar about her. She came closer, staying behind Starsky. Then Hutch saw her face clearly.

She saw him, too, and smiled hesitantly, holding one finger to her lips, asking for his silence.

Hutch stared in stunned disbelief as everything he felt comfortable and secure with suddenly tilted. Instantly, he knew his shock showed on his face. Starsky—about to get up—glanced over to him then, reacting to his expression, stiffened, and started to turn around instead.

Hutch blinked, pulled himself together. Realizing what his expression must look like, he schooled his face, met his partner's confused eyes, and touched his foot to Starsky's under the table. It was an old signal of theirs. It's okay. Don't panic. Don't draw.

Then the woman, who was still staring into Hutch's face, stood behind Starsky. She moved her arms around him, covering his eyes gently with her hands. She didn't speak.

Starsky flinched visibly, but Hutch kept his foot covering his blue Adidas so he relaxed. Starsky's left hand touched one of hers, as if that might help him identify her.

Hutch was grateful that Starsky could no longer see him. It allowed him to stare fully at the woman. Even though he tried to contain his expression, his surprise had to be evident. His mind spun and his heart rate increased.

Fight or flight, he thought dimly. He didn't know which one to chose. Where did she come from? How did she find us?

He blinked, forcing himself to get a grip. He was a cop, dammit! He could handle this!

"Who is this?" Starsky asked finally, as he touched the hands over his eyes, tracing the slender wrists. There was no jewelry to give her away.

Can't he remember her hands? Hutch wondered. He felt dizzy, a little shocky. He couldn't really believe this was happening. Now? After all this time? Six months after I found the answer to everything I'd been looking for? How could this happen now? He sucked in a harsh breath.

"Don't you know who it is, David?" she said quietly.

"No, I'm sorry, I, uh—Hutch?"

"I'm here, partner," Hutch assured him, but even he could hear the anxiety in his tone.

"Look, Miss," Starsky said, taking hold of her wrist. Hutch could hear the impatience in his voice. "I'm sorry, but I really don't know—" he tugged the hand away from his eyes, turned and looked up. And said nothing. Just stared.

"Hello, David," she said softly. Her hazel eyes were clouded with concern. Her smile was tenuous, worried. She really had no idea what he might say or do.

In spite of his own concerns, Hutch found himself feeling sorry for her.

"Rosey," Starsky finally managed to say. He was staring now in plain amazement, clearly stunned. "It's—really you?"

"Really me," she assured him. She didn't sit down. She still wasn't sure she was welcomed.

"What-what are you doing here?" Starsky blurted, asking the question that was burning a hole in Hutch. "How did you find me? I—"

She held up a hand. "You found me, David. I was having dinner," she indicated a table for two with only one setting, "when you both walked in. I debated for a while—I mean, this wasn't how I pictured us meeting again, but—" She seemed to run out of words. Finally, she swallowed, and said with some difficulty, "It's good to see you again."

Starsky could only stare and blink. After a few seconds, he stammered, "Well, of course, yeah, it's, uh, good to see you again, too." Then he seemed to remember Hutch was there. Starsky looked troubled and muttered, "Uh, Hutch, you two haven't officially met, but this is—Rosey. Rosey Malone."

Hutch made himself smile and held out his hand. "Hello, Rosey."

"Hutch," she greeted him, shaking his hand and nodding. "You came into the store one time, looking for David. I remember. It's nice to finally meet."

Starsky looked like he wanted to bolt. He wet his mouth, took a deep breath. "Look, uh, Rosey, why don't you sit down, and uh, we'll, uh— That is . . . look, can you excuse me a minute? I was just about to hit the bathroom before you arrived, and—well, I really need to go now." He laughed nervously.

"Sure, David, fine." She sat slowly on the corner of a vacant chair as Starsky moved away from the table with a brisk efficiency. She seemed to sag as soon as he was gone. Glancing at Hutch, she said miserably, "Well, that was a disaster."

Unsure of how to play it, Hutch asked noncommittally, "What do you mean?"

She shook her head. "It wasn't the way I wanted our first meeting to go. I wanted to contact him by phone first, give him a chance to get used to the idea. Then see if he had any interest in meeting me. But when he walked in—I just couldn't walk out."

"Well, I can understand that," Hutch said softly. Now that Starsky was out of sight, she seemed nervous, almost fearful.

"Hutch," she said suddenly, placing a hand on his arm, "you're his best friend. I know you know everything that happened between us. You're probably pretty unhappy that I reappeared."

Hutch fought to keep his expression neutral even as he felt a surge of surprise at her intuitive guess. Then, he realized they were thinking on totally different wavelengths. She was talking to him as Starsky's friend, assuming Hutch's disapproval would stem from the heartache Starsky had suffered when she'd left him. She had no reason to assume anything else about the relationship between her former lover and his partner.

"But," she continued hesitantly, "I've got to ask you—please tell me—is there another woman in his life now? If there is, I'll walk away and never look back. But I've got to know. It's been two years. I had someone check, and I know he's not married. But is there another woman?"

She seemed on the verge of tears and the grip on his arm tightened. Hutch felt his own throat close down as blood pounded at his temples. Another woman?

Somehow, he found the voice to answer her. "No, Rosey. There's no woman."

She sighed as if a huge burden had lifted from her heart.

That's fine. Just lay it on mine, Hutch thought, feeling the weight.

"Thank you," she said sincerely. "And please believe me when I say that my intentions—" She stopped, then laughed bitterly. "I was about to say that my intentions towards Dave are 'honorable' but that would probably sound sarcastic."

"Rosey," Hutch said, placing a hand over hers, "what happened between you and Starsky was between you. I know feelings ran deep on both sides. Whatever will happen is also between you. I—don't have any preconceived negative feelings toward you. I mean that."

Even as he said what he knew to be the truth, he felt himself already locking part of himself away. He would have to become armored now. He would have to steel his heart for whatever might happen.

"Thanks, Hutch," she said, looking relieved. "Your opinion is so important to him. If you were against me—"

Hutch shook his head. Am I against you if I'm for myself? In their last triangle, the woman was the center. It did not go well. Hutch didn't want to relive that nightmare. Now, with Starsky as the focal point, what might happen?

She pulled away, collecting her composure. "Believe me, I'm not taking anything for granted. I can't. It's been two years. We've both been through a lot. I'd be happy if we could just be friends. I don't dare hope for anything more."

Then she turned towards the direction Starsky had gone, waiting for him to reappear.

Of course you hope, Hutch thought. How could you not? Hutch, too, stared in the same direction Starsky had gone—the man who'd loved him nearly senseless all this long, lazy day—and found himself hoping just as hard.

As Starsky entered the men's room he felt like he was seeking sanctuary. He went into the nearest vacant stall and sat without removing his pants. Resting his elbows on his knees, he buried his head in his hands.

What the hell just happened? He closed his eyes, trying to escape the image of Rosey and Hutch side by side. My two blondes. That's great. Just great. She had not changed a bit, not one single bit. She was just as beautiful, just as radiant as she'd been—

the day she left me.

Even now, the memory of that cut sharp, hard and cruel.

She left me for another man.

Her father, her first love. Starsky hated her for it, yet admired her at the same time.

She didn't love you enough, not as much as she loved him.

Of course, it was hardly the same thing.

You weren't the one whose life was in danger. She was, she and her dad. She did the only thing she could do.

But she left me.

I loved her and she left me. I loved her. And—goddammit—he shuddered as the knowledge tore a hole in his heart—I still do!

He realized he was shaking, that he was on the verge of a breakdown. How many months had it been before he'd stopped imagining her in every sandy-haired woman that had passed him? How many months before he even was tempted to date again? After Rosey, he'd stopped fooling himself. Dating was for fun, not for permanence. He'd given up any hopes of forever after Rosey.

I even lied about Kira, he admitted to himself. I lied to Hutch. I told him I loved her, but it was a flat out lie. I just didn't want him to have her. I didn't want him to win. Wasn't that a joke?

He scrubbed his face with his hands and took a deep breath. He had to get his act together. There were two people out there who were depending on him not to hurt them. He'd have to be careful.

Hutch's face when he saw her. It was like the bottom dropped out of his world. Like he just knew I was gonna give him the brush off right there in the restaurant. I know the way he thinks. No way could he believe my love for him could be as strong as my love for her.

Was it? At the moment, he honestly didn't know. He was too surprised, too stunned to be sure of anything.

Seeing her again—it was like getting pole-axed in the balls.

He rubbed the lowest bullet scar hard with his fist, realizing that it was aching, throbbing. It hadn't done that in weeks.

Terrific. I'm havin' an anxiety attack in the fuckin' bathroom, and I haven't even peed yet.

He breathed slowly, deeply, the way Hutch had taught him, and rubbed the ache away. Hutch did it much better, but that was for home, not here.

If I don't get outta here, he's gonna come in after me, and I'm not ready for that yet. I'm not ready to see the heartache he's gonna try so hard to mask. He's probably already got his good-bye speech all written out, if I know my golden boy. Hutch, don't do that, please. Don't write me off. I'm gonna need some time to get my head together about this. I'm gonna need you to be patient. To understand—

He left the cubicle and moved to a urinal, then quickly unzipped and urinated. Moving over to the sink he washed his hands quickly, but not so fast his image couldn't ask—

—Understand what? What does Hutch need to understand?

Starsky blinked and stared at himself, his own accuser.

I need time. I need to think, to sort this out. I need to . . . . Need to . . . .

See her again? Sleep with her? Love her as fiercely as you did before? Dredge up that happily-ever-after fantasy? See if you can make it real this time? A lovely wife, a couple of kids, a nice home . . . . Like when dad was still alive. Mr. and Mrs. Starsky and family . . . .

He had a sudden, sharp memory of lying in bed with her after Hutch had ordered him to "go cuddle with your lady." In the sweet euphoria of his afterglow, he'd found himself asking how she felt about kids. It was the kind of conversation he'd only ever initiated with a few special women. Helen. Terry. Rosey had laughed, accusing him of not letting her ever catch her breath, but finally she assured him that of course she hoped to have children some day. It had made him feel absurdly happy, as though a necessary piece had just fit into place. And when she had left, it had made the sense of loss that much more bleak.

But now she was back. Holding out the hope of a future he had long ago had given up.

A future he could never have with Hutch.

Is that what Hutch needs to understand? That you're gonna leave him for Rosey Malone?

He nearly shouted "NO!" but another patron entering the bathroom shocked him back to reality. He dried his hands quickly, needing to flee the bathroom as badly as he'd needed to flee the table just a few minutes before.

Like a rat in a maze, he thought grimly, I'm trapped no matter where I go.



"Rosey," Starsky said as he sat at the table, "it really is good to see you again." He glanced over at his partner, but Hutch had his cop face on now. He was shuttered. Controlled. "But, it is kinda surprising. Why are you back in town? How does your father feel about you being here?"

She sat back in the seat and looked away. Her voice was subdued. "I'm back in LA because of my father. He died two weeks ago, David."

He reacted in shock, as did Hutch. Frank Malone had been a powerful underworld figure, a brilliant strategist and a cunning opponent. He was just past middle-aged. Had his enemies finally figured out he'd turned state's evidence? Had they hunted him down in his Mexican hideout and assassinated him?

Is Rosey in danger?

Starsky was surprised by the sudden rush of protectiveness he felt.

"Being forced into 'retirement' was a bitter pill for my father," she explained. "He tried to stay busy with his investments and businesses he still had in Mexico, but it broke his spirit. He was never the same. He died of a series of heart attacks, the doctors said, but he'd lost the will to live long before that."

"Rosey, I'm sorry," Starsky said sincerely, covering her hand with his. He could see Hutch's sympathy for her clearly on his face. Hutch never could respond to anyone's grief with anything but empathy.

She nodded. "Thank you. You know Daddy—he had to control everything, right up to the end. He left me all kinds of instructions on what to do after his death. But before he died, he was honest with me. He told me the truth about his life. And I forgave him for it. All the money he had in Mexico and all the businesses, they were all legitimate, legal. He knew I'd never keep any of that money if it had been acquired dishonestly. Even if he didn't live right himself, he and Mom raised me right.

"He left a wonderful monetary legacy for the Huichol Indian Foundation we started. And he left me more than enough money to keep me comfortable for the rest of my life. After his first heart-attack, he contacted his associates back here. He wanted to make sure that if he died—I could come back here and make a life again. We talked a lot after that first attack." She stared at the tablecloth, clearly recalling these last critical moments with her father.

"He told me he really regretted coming between us, David. He said he could recognize a man who was . . . " she smiled sadly, "'worthy' of his daughter. He hoped that, once he was out of the picture, that we might— Well, he regretted interfering in our relationship, even though, at the time, he felt justified."

Starsky nodded, and felt color rising in his face. What would have happened between us if he hadn't taken you away for your own protection? "Whatever else he might have been, Rosey, he was a good father. I'm sorry for your loss."

Having lost his own dad, Starsky did not have to imagine her pain. Then, remembering his partner's presence, he glanced at Hutch and pulled his hand away from hers. He was momentarily distracted by the contrast between Rosey's delicate, feminine hand and the memory of holding Hutch's large, strong one as they made love earlier that day.

"Thank you, David," she said, blinking some moisture from her eyes.

Hutch handed her his untouched glass of water. She smiled shyly at him and sipped at it. "I brought Daddy home to bury him next to Mom, the way he wanted. I settled all of his accounts. And I met with some of his associates, as he instructed me. They assured me that it was perfectly safe for me to live here again. There was no reason for me to fear them. My father's association with their businesses ended when he moved to Mexico, and I had never had any part of that. I'm just an ordinary citizen now, going about my life. But, once I got here . . . I found I didn't have a life here any longer. And I didn't know how to build one . . . without resolving my past."

She stared at him evenly now, and for the moment, Starsky realized, Hutch was just a witness. "I did a little detective work on my own. I found out you were still a police officer, still with the same precinct. I intended to contact you through a third party, a lawyer maybe. I never meant to confront you like this, David, and put you on the spot. I was telling Hutch that, well—it was just happenstance that made me eat here tonight. I'd actually been avoiding the place, but—this still has the best tostadas this side of Guadalajara." She smiled shyly and he responded in kind. "I never expected to run into you here. But once I saw you—"

She looked away, and seemed to be trying to compose herself. "I hope I didn't interfere too much with your evening. I thought—that is—if you'd like to talk to me about . . . anything—" She rummaged in her purse nervously, searching for something and finally found it, a small card. She scribbled on the back. "This is where I'm staying. If you'd like to talk—I would, too."

She placed the card on the table, pushed it towards him and left it.

Starsky glanced over at Hutch, but he was busy staring at a nearby potted plant as if trying to memorize its leaf pattern. Starsky felt completely at a loss for words. He couldn't move, couldn't pick up the card, couldn't say a thing. He felt as if anything he might do right now was tantamount to stepping on a land mine. But he had to say something.

He opened his mouth, took a breath, and fumbled for words, but before he could retrieve anything worthwhile, Hutch intervened.

"Look, you two need some privacy," he said reasonably. His voice was two octaves lower than normal. "Starsky, your car is here. Why don't I just catch a cab and leave you two—?"

That galvanized him. "You know that won't work, Hutch. We've gotta be on stakeout in less than an hour." He was shocked at how easily the lie came to his lips. But suddenly, his tightening diaphragm felt looser. He could breathe. He turned to Rosey. "We've been on these all-night stakeouts. Starts at midnight. It's left us pretty ragged. And I don't know from day to day what our schedule's gonna be." He took the card, glanced at it, recognized the name of the small guest-house hotel, and put the card in his wallet. "But I should have some time tomorrow, if you're gonna be available. I'll call you. We'll talk."

"That would be nice," she said, not very hopefully. She looked so small sitting there, so alone. He realized with a jolt that she was completely parentless now. Her mother had died two years before he'd met her. There were no siblings. With the life Frank Malone lived, there wouldn't be any other family, except the business "family."

"Starsky," Hutch said warningly.

Before Hutch could construct some other fabrication to nullify Starsky's, he interrupted tersely. "Come on, Hutch, you know we gotta be in place on time. Dobey'll have our butts in a sling if we're late. In fact, we need to get moving now if we're gonna have our reports in and get on location." He turned, took Rosey's hand. "I mean it. I'll call you tomorrow. We'll talk, okay?"

She squeezed his lightly. Her palm was damp. "Sure, David. I'll look forward to it." She looked like she was about to shatter. Smiling, she turned to Hutch. "It was nice meeting you, Hutch. I hope we get to see each other again."

"I'm sure we will," he said blandly, and stood to see her off.

"Don't sit down," Starsky growled as Hutch watched Rosey walk away. He obeyed without a word as Starsky rose and, still holding his wallet, looked around the table.

"I paid the check while you were in the bathroom," Hutch said quietly.

Starsky shoved his wallet in his pocket, and jerked his head toward the exit. "Let's go." He headed for the Torino, assuming Hutch would follow. His mind was churning, swirling. He didn't know whether to slug Hutch or hug him. And Rosey's card sat like a dead weight in his pocket.

As they got into the Torino, Starsky turned in the seat to confront his partner. "What was that, a test? How about givin' me a chance to catch my breath before you throw me at her? You're already convinced that I'm half-way out the door, aren't you?"

Hutch said nothing, but his body said volumes. He was stiff, withdrawn, his shoulders tense, his jaw clenched. He stared straight ahead. "You need to talk to her, Starsky. I knew you felt awkward with me sitting there. I was just trying to make it easier—"

"On whom? I'm not ready to talk to her, Hutch. I'm not even sure I'm ready to think about her. I haven't even fully accepted the reality of her reappearance. Besides—we don't really know that she wants to talk about . . . ."

"She asked me if you were seeing anyone," Hutch blurted, keeping his voice low.

That rocked Starsky and shut him up completely. She asked Hutch that? Then he realized, why wouldn't she? What was Hutch to him in her mind but a partner, a friend? The same thing he appeared to be to the rest of the world, with the exception of Huggy. The same thing he would always have to appear to be . . . . "And you said—?"

Hutch held up a hand. "Let me rephrase. She asked me if you were seeing any other women." He turned to look at Starsky. "I told her the truth. You're not seeing any women."

"You could have told her," Starsky insisted. "You should have. Told her the truth. About us."

Hutch stared at him, his eyes etched with pain. "How could I do that without knowing how you felt about my telling her?"

"We're lovers," Starsky hissed. "I'm not ashamed of that. I know we have to be closeted about some of this stuff because of the job, but—"

Hutch shook his head. "You said you haven't fully accepted the reality of her reappearance. Well, I have. I accepted it the minute I saw her coming up behind you. I accepted that reality, and everything it implied."

"What are you saying?" Starsky asked, amazed he was even able to get the words out. His bullet wounds ached fiercely, burning like fire. He was having trouble catching a full breath.

"The reality?" Hutch looked out the window for a second, then turned back to Starsky. He seemed tired. Sad. "We're in a public place. After an entire day of lovemaking, we still want to touch, need to touch. So we do. The only way we can in public. Under the table."

The memory of teasing Hutch with his foot came sharply to mind. "Hutch, we've always touched in public, even before—"

Hutch cut him off, wanting to make his point. "A strange woman approaches you. It could've been any woman, even someone you've never met, or someone you hated. She can lay hands on you, kiss you, give you her phone number, sit on your lap, do whatever she wants. Not a single person will turn their head. But if I so much as held your hand, put an arm around you—"

Starsky started to argue, but Hutch wouldn't let him.

"It's not just that. I'd spent the day making love to you. Making love. And we did it all, covered every trick in the book. I sat in that restaurant looking at you, loving you, feeling the afterglow of the incredible day we had, and felt, believed that you were mine. That's what any lover wants to believe about the person they love. You were mine. My lover. And it took one moment to shatter that illusion. She touched you, and suddenly I—had no rights to you. I couldn't get jealous. I couldn't get defensive. As a woman, even if she'd been a stranger, she had more rights to you than I ever would. That's reality. And that's the way it'll always be. I guess—I guess before tonight I never thought about that, never realized it. How different things are between loving a woman or loving a man. But I realize it now. It's not a happy discovery."

The truth in Hutch's words cut Starsky deeply. Typically, he found himself getting angry in response. "Is that all this is about? Our public personae? Come on, Hutch—!"

"No," Hutch said gently, as if trying to explain something to a very dense child. "It's about the world we live in. The real world. It's about our future. The future you will now have to choose. A future with me, a future where our love will always be secret, closeted, furtive—"

"Hutch, please—!"

He held up his hand to finish his piece. "Or a future with her. A normal future. A real future. Marriage. Kids. Social approval. A future you've always wanted. How can I ask you not to chose that? Especially now that I understand the way it really is."

Starsky's jaw tightened and his clenched fist hit the steering wheel. "That future is a fairy tale, and you, of all people, know that!"

"Other cops, lots of cops, get married. Have good marriages, good lives. Just because it didn't work out for me—"

"Or me either! Sure I wanted to marry Rosey—and Terry too, before her." He hated bringing up the name of the woman he'd loved who'd died because he was a cop. "But it didn't happen. Rosey left me. You think I can just pick up the pieces and forget about that? She left me. You never left me! Not once. Not ever. You've always been there. You think I don't remember that?"

"I haven't always been there for you," Hutch said, looking away. "When Kira was between us, I tried my best to leave you then. Leave you, and take her with me."

Starsky closed his eyes, hating to think back on one of the worst times they'd gone through. "We talked that out, Hutch, and now that we're together, we know what that was all about. We just couldn't stand to have anyone get that close to the other one. 'Cause inside we knew we were in love, we just couldn't deal with it yet."

"You mean," Hutch corrected him deliberately, "I was in love with you, and I couldn't deal with it yet. The last two years, I made sure I got between you and any skirt you took a shine to. The very thought of you getting into anything serious nearly made me panic."

"Except for Rosey," Starsky reminded him. "You were a little peevish about it at first, but then you supported me completely. So, if you were already in love with me, why—?"

Hutch looked away, as if he were trying to remember. "I was confused; I still wasn't sure about what I was feeling. I wasn't ready to accept it. I thought maybe it was just burnout, or just familiarity, the partnership filling in all the loneliness, making up for all the past failed relationships. But when you met Rosey . . . you were different. I know the real thing when I see it. How could I stand in the way of your happiness? And I had to be honest and admit to myself that's what I was trying to do. If I was really your friend, your best friend, if I really loved you, then I had to want your happiness even . . . even over my own. That's what it means to really love someone."

Then, after Rosey left, Starsky realized, Hutch had gone through so much—he'd nearly died from the Plague, had fallen in love with, then lost, his ballerina, Anna, then gone through that terrible time when his ex-wife Vanessa had been killed in his apartment. All those things had brought them so close together, had made it seem like it had been him and Hutch against the world. It had focused Hutch's feelings on the one reliable constant in his life—Starsky.

"But by the time Kira showed up," Hutch continued, "I'd lost all perspective. I-I needed you too much, and my need wasn't being met. I couldn't think about your happiness when all the purpose seemed lost from my life and my work. I could only think about losing you, the last thing I had that had any value to me. So, I held on too tight. It wasn't healthy, I know that now, but I can't change it."

"I wouldn't want you to," Starsky said. "It's part of our past, part of who we are today."

"And just who are we today?" Hutch said solemnly. "An hour ago, I thought I knew. Now?" He shook his head.

"We're two men who've loved each other a long time," Starsky insisted, feeling absurdly angry that he had to defend their relationship. "We loved each other in the Academy even before we were partners. We've loved each other through the good times and the bad, through everything. Then-then we finally fell in love—"

"I fell in love," Hutch insisted, cutting him off.

"You act like you're alone in this. Who the hell was that dark, curly-haired man kissing you in that hospital bed? I thought for sure it was me, but maybe—"

"Starsky, let's be honest about that for once," Hutch said in a low tone. " You were suffering from terrible gunshot wounds, your body heavily damaged. You were in pain all the time. They were pumping you full of drugs. Your brain was rerunning the nightmare of your shooting every night, so you were totally sleep deprived. And then, I seduced you in your sleep."

Starsky stared, struck dumb by Hutch's view of what had happened between them.

"I just . . . just lost it," Hutch said. "Your face was twisted in pain, I couldn't wake you up, it was making me crazy to see you like that night after night . . . thinking about you nearly dying . . . knowing you were dreaming it over and over . . . ."

"Hutch," Starsky said firmly, "stop it. You're acting like you molested me. Your loving me that night pulled me from a nightmare into the warmth and security of your embrace. I responded to you because I loved you. You think I could do that, make love to you, just out of gratitude? I love you. I've loved you for a long time. I may not have gone through what you did, I might never have said to myself, 'Wow, today I fell in love with Hutch,' but that doesn't mean my feelings for you are any less."

"Maybe," Hutch conceded, "but your feelings for me are different than mine for you. If I hadn't kissed you in that hospital bed under those conditions, would you have ever felt a physical desire for me?"

Starsky rubbed a hand over his face, frustrated by the argument. "How can I answer that? How do I know what might've happened between us? I'd like to think so, but what does it matter? We're together now."

"Starsk, we've always been together," Hutch reminded him. "We're partners. Best friends. By definition that means we're together. And I want you to know that, to me, that's still the most important part. The critical essence of who we are. As for the physical relationship, that's something so new, so different for both of us, how can we be sure it's right, that it'll last, would've lasted even if—?" He didn't say if Rosey hadn't walked back into your life, but the sentence hung there between them anyway.

Hutch wet his mouth. "You fell in love with her the first time you saw her that day in the park."

Starsky rolled his eyes, exasperated. "I was attracted to her that day in the park—"

Hutch shook his head. "It was more than that, right from the start. I was with you. I saw your face. It looked like mine the first time I saw Gillian . . . and Vanessa." His voice grew softer and he asked quietly, "At what moment in your life did you experience that feeling for me?"

Starsky started to say, When I woke up in that hospital bed and you were kissing me, loving me so much I couldn't do anything but respond. But he hesitated. Hutch would only use it score his own points. He felt confused. "You're talkin' about the past, Hutch. That was then."

Hutch nailed him with his clear, blue gaze, the penetrating one he always used on suspects. "Are you going to sit there and tell me you don't love her anymore? Are you? Or tell me you ever forgot her, even for one day?"

Starsky couldn't lie to him, and so sat there mute. When he couldn't deny the accusation, he finally said, "You're the one who told me to quit tryin' to forget her. So, don't get mad if I did what you said."

The two of them turned away from one another to try and regroup. As they sat in the car silently brooding, pedestrians passed back and forth in front of them, mindless of the quiet drama in the loudly painted vehicle.

After a moment, two elderly men tottered past the Torino, crossing the street. One was fair and tall, the other shorter and darker. They were too mismatched to be related, but it was clear their relationship went back a long time. They walked in step, arms brushing, hips bumping. As they negotiated the curb, the taller, fair one helpfully took the frailer one's arm with a touch that was confident of its place, its right to be there.

That could be us in forty years, Starsky thought. What's wrong with that future? He felt a choking lump well up in his throat, and turned to point the old men out to Hutch.

But Hutch was lost in his own vision as he stared blank-faced to the side, where a curly-headed man walked with a lovely light-haired woman. The man held a toddler on his hip as the woman pushed a new baby ahead of them in a stroller. The couple was completely involved with each other, laughing, talking, interacting with their children. They might have been the only people on the street. And Hutch stared at them with eyes that didn't blink.

Unable to say anything, Starsky started the car and peeled away from the curb.

"Starsky, get down, get down!" Hutch screamed as he fell to the ground to protect himself. He heard the machine gun chattering, firing rapidly—

He glanced under the belly of the car, trying to see Starsky, trying to see anything. Bullets slammed into the Torino, rocking it, shattering glass that showered over Hutch.

Where is he? Where—?

He heard the scream of tires as the assassin's car squealed around the parking lot. He rolled over, staying tight against the Torino as he pulled his Python.

"Starsky? Starsky?" He was on his feet as the police car sped forward, leaving. He raced after it firing bullet after bullet. Then the gun was empty, the car out of range, as Hutch gave up pursuit and ran around the Torino. Starsky had not answered him, not once.

Hutch felt like the red car was three miles long, that the hood kept growing, blocking his way, that his legs were trapped in molasses.

He found his partner on the ground, his head nestled incongruously, in the heavy wheel of the Torino, as if the car were trying to comfort the man who loved it so much. Starsky's eyes were open as he lay gasping, fighting to breathe.

Bullet holes stitched across Starsky's shirt. There was blood on the Torino.

Hutch stood for a moment, clinging to his gun, unable to accept what he was seeing. Why doesn't he get up? We've gotta go after those guys—

Starsky blinked once with agonizing slowness.

Hutch approached him cautiously, then knelt before him as if he were praying. There was blood everywhere. Air bubbled from the chest wounds. Starsky couldn't move, was hardly breathing.

He's going to die. The thought was like a sudden punch to his gut. Starsky's going to die.

Then his mouth engaged. "Oh god, Starsky, don't die! Please, please, don't die." Now, he was praying. Praying and terrified, too terrified to touch Starsky, afraid to come too close.

I never told him how much I love him, Hutch thought, trying to work the problem out. I never told him how I love him. I was too afraid of his rejection. Now he's going to die before I can tell him.

Hutch could hear sirens, footsteps, people running. He heard Dobey bellowing for ambulances, medical assistance. Someone put a blanket over Starsky. But none of that mattered—not while Starsky lay dying.

"Don't leave me," Hutch begged, leaning over his partner. "I'll do anything if you just don't leave me."

Starsky struggled to speak, but he couldn't spare the air. His eyes shut; he started drifting away.

"Don't, Starsk! Don't leave me!" Hutch begged, louder this time, touching Starsky's cheek gently, but his hand was shaking. "Stay with me, buddy."

Starsky struggled to focus on Hutch's face.

Tell him before you lose him. There's no time to waste. Hutch moved his lips close to Starsky's ear. His voice was loud, clear. "I love you, Starsky. You know that, right? I love you so much. You can't leave me."

Starsky struggled to blink and tried to swallow. Did he hear? Did he understand?

There were people everywhere now, a whole crowd, with him and Starsky as the center. But it was as if they were alone on the tarmac.

Hutch cupped Starsky's cheek, as his voice grew louder. "I love you, Starsky. Never loved anyone else the way I love you. You believe me, don't you?"

Someone grabbed him with big, meaty hands. They were towing him away from Starsky. He turned, and realized his captain was talking to him. "Easy, son, come on now. Let the paramedics get to your partner."

Hutch blinked dazedly as Dobey physically pulled him to his feet. He grasped the captain's lapels. "You don't understand. He's dying! Starsky's dying, and I-I never told him. Never told him how I—"

"He knows, son," Dobey insisted. "Starsky's gonna be all right, but he needs the paramedics."

"Don't lie to me!" Hutch shouted. He was shaking, getting more frantic as Dobey pulled him farther away from the limp figure. "He's dying! I've gotta tell him! He can still hear me. Dammit, let go!" With sheer force, Hutch wrenched away from Dobey, and lunged at Starsky, pushing the obstructing bodies away.

"Help me with him!" Dobey yelled at the other cops milling around as Hutch leaned over Starsky.

Hutch pressed his mouth to Starsky's. Starsky gasped and drew the breath out of Hutch's body. That breath filled Starsky, and gave him needed oxygen, needed strength. Without questioning this, Hutch's tongue slid between Starsky's lips, and Hutch felt an electric shock of pleasure so sweet it was blinding. Starsky sighed, drawing more air.

Hutch felt unleashed, kissing Starsky with all the love he had inside, all the love he was capable of.

Then he was being torn away again as his brother cops obeyed their captain. Hutch couldn't match the strength of all those men. He shouted Starsky's name, reaching for him, but Starsky's body was blocked by white coats and now Hutch couldn't even see him.

"Easy, Hutch, easy!" Dobey said, trying to pull his attention away from the frantically working paramedics. "You've gotta let them at him, Hutch!"

Dimly he recognized the other men wrestling him —their friends, Simmons, Babcock, Jamison. "He needs me!" he argued. "You've got to let me go!" Starsky would die without his touch.

Then, through the noise of the crowd and the clamor of his own shouts, Hutch heard Starsky call out for him, and everything stilled.

"Hutch!" His voice gave Hutch the strength he needed to burst free.

Starsky reached up through the throng of white coats. Like a wild man, Hutch shoved the paramedics away, as crazed as Starsky had been that day he'd thought Hutch had been shot down in the street.

"Hutch!" Starsky gasped, wide-eyed.

He gathered Starsky in his arms and held him close, keeping him safe. He bent to meet Starsky's mouth again, their lips joining, and as they did, their kiss began to miraculously heal the mortally wounded man. The holes in Starsky's chest and gut slowly closed, and his breath stopped making bloody bubbles.

Starsky brought his hand up to cradle Hutch's head, tangling his fingers in Hutch's the long strands. Hutch's fingertips slid inside Starsky's shirt, until he could touch the seeping wounds. Cautiously, he stroked them. The wounds slowly closed, healed, then disappeared.

So did the Torino, the parking lot, the crowd. Where it all went Hutch didn't know, nor did he care.

They broke for air, and Starsky sighed and smiled. He wrapped both arms around Hutch and sat up. Lowering Hutch onto his back, Starsky leaned over him, stroking his face, his eyes molten with passion.

"Ssssh," Starsky murmured. "You're all right now. I've got you." He was grinning.

Hutch felt himself yielding, surrendering himself to the man holding him. "I've wanted you for so long." He didn't need to shout anymore. "Love you so much."

"I know," Starsky said, still smiling. His gentle fingertips still traced the contours of Hutch's face.

Starsky's lips found Hutch's and he kissed him again, chastely, just lips on lips pressing light.

Hutch couldn't understand. His love didn't repulse Starsky? How could this terrible secret he had lived with for so long be so easily resolved?

Hutch realized suddenly that they were no longer on tarmac. His shirt was gone. So was Starsky's. They were on something soft and yielding, warm and safe, holding each other. That was more than enough. It was a moment he'd fantasized about for years.

Hutch had to touch, had to feel, and ran his hand lightly over his friend's jaw, down his throat, over Starsky's wounded chest. He touched the bloody bullet holes. They were closed now, but still raw, pulsing, and painful-looking. But Hutch's touch robbed them of their heat, their pain. They grew smaller, until they could barely be seen under the swirls of Starsky's chest hair. Hutch stroked them away until they were nearly invisible and he could forget how hideous they were and how they'd terrified him.

"Ssssh," Starsky soothed, as Hutch watched the wounds fade away. "I'm here, babe. I've got you." Starsky ran a fingertip over Hutch's lower lip until Hutch opened his mouth and sucked his finger suggestively. Starsky smiled and purred, his lids lowering in pleasure.

Hutch's heart pounded against his ribs. He was loving Starsky, and Starsky was permitting it, enjoying it. Hutch bit his finger gently, making Starsky close his eyes and gasp. Hutch released his hold and kissed that finger, moving his head on the pillow to reach it.

Pillow? Hutch thought. He looked around. He was on a soft pillow, resting against fresh sheets. Are we in bed? He touched his own bare chest, wondering where his shirt had gone, then realized he was nude.

Starsky was just as nude. Hutch felt disoriented.

Starsky just kept smiling, that disarming smile that made him look like a little boy with a dirty mind and an answer for everything. "Hey, blondie, you awake yet?"

Hutch stared as Starsky rolled against him, cuddling against his chest.

"It's my turn, isn't it?" Starsky asked, which only confused Hutch further.

Your turn? Hutch thought, confused. "Starsky, you were shot. You were dying . . . ."

"Well, I ain't dead yet, partner," he chuckled, then ran a trail of kisses down Hutch's neck and chest.

He gasped in delight, finally awake, towed out of the nightmare by his lover's tender skill. The most beautiful man in the world was loving him, easing him out of his repetitive nightmare the way he always did—with his tireless mouth, and magic hands.

As Starsky's lips found a small, brown nipple to play with, Hutch stared as Starsky sucked him beautifully, passionately. His cock throbbed, hard and erect, hungry for Starsky's touch.

It all came back in bits and pieces. The shooting in the parking lot. Starsky's near death. His real death. His return to life as Hutch raced into the hospital.

My heart beating in time with yours. My heart. My soul. Starsk . . . .

Reality intruded too suddenly. He remembered yesterday evening. He remembered Rosey Malone.

But it's not enough. Not for the real world.

It was like a shock of cold water on his arousal.

As he stared dazedly into Starsky's bottomless eyes, Starsky released his nipple to whisper, "I love you."

That was supposed to be Hutch's line. The final exorcism of the dream that plagued them both, when Starsky could be sure Hutch was really awake.

I love you. The words that solved everything.

But Hutch didn't believe that anymore.

Starsky waited for Hutch's response, but he only shut his eyes and turned away. Touching Starsky's chin, he whispered, "Don't."

Starsky moved up his body, still leaning over him. "Hutch, are you awake? Babe?"

Hutch found his tenderness unbearable. His nerves raw from the dream, he felt like he was floundering, that he had no center. He didn't know what was real anymore. Starsky loved him. Starsky loved Rosey Malone. Whatever meaning had been part of his life yesterday morning seemed gone now. Perched on the edge of sleeping and waking, Hutch couldn't mask his fear of the future, or the heartache he felt today.

"I love you," Starsky said again, more insistently. The words felt like nails crucifying him to the bed. Hutch had never felt anything like this, not when Vanessa left him, not even when Gillian died. He felt like he was drowning.

Yesterday he had been a man who'd learned that he was not too old to find the truest love of his life. Yesterday, he'd woken beside his lover and felt a joy that was fresh and clean and new. That was what waking up to Starsky's love had been like. Now it felt like a promise forever out of reach, a place he'd been allowed to visit, only to be barred from it as soon as he grew accustomed to it. In his half-awake state, still reeling from the nightmare he hadn't had in almost six weeks, Hutch knew he couldn't handle the flood of conflicting emotions—wanting, needing, grieving.

"Hutch, please," Starsky implored, worry etched around his eyes. "Are you awake? It was just the dream. It's over now. I'm alive. I'm healthy. And I'm here for you. I love you. Come on, talk to me."

He couldn't talk, he hurt too much. Absently, his hand ran over the thatch of Starsky's unruly curls, the familiar sensation twisting his heart. He shook his head.

"You need me," Starsky said confidently. "Even when you're half asleep, I know when you need me."

He started to shake his head, ready to deny the desire that thrummed through his body. He had to get used to denial. Soon, it would be part of his life—again.

But Starsky took sudden hold of his half-erect organ with a hand filled with warm, slick lubricant. Hutch cried out in surprise, the sweet sensation as shocking and sharp as a knife. His erection pulsed and swelled again, filling Starsky's firm knowing grip. He arched up, his body disinterested in any reality but this one. He needed Starsky, needed him more than ever.

Don't. Don't! his mind implored as Starsky stroked him, anointing him, bringing him to perfect readiness. But his mouth couldn't make him a hypocrite.

"Come on, babe," Starsky said. "I'm ready. Been ready. And you need me."

Hutch responded with a low, hungry sound as he rose from the bed, grappling Starsky in his arms. As Starsky grunted in surprise, Hutch claimed his mouth, demanding it yield. And Starsky did instantly, lovingly, giving Hutch what he needed. Whatever he needed.

Don't! Don't! Hutch ordered himself, but could not obey. He's not yours any more. But his body couldn't refuse what was both real and immediate. Starsky was here, in his bed, and so very willing.

Panting hard, aching, nearly in pain, Hutch turned his lover with quick, hurried moves. Starsky cooperated completely, rolling onto his stomach, cuddling a pillow under his head—spreading his legs. His easy compliance gave Hutch pause, but only for a second.

"Starsky?" he whispered, not even sure of what he wanted to say.

Midnight blue eyes looked back at him. "Come on. I know what it's like. You need me. And I'm here for you. Alive. And ready. Come on, Hutch."

He could see Starsky was just as excited as he was, breathing hard, waiting expectantly, eyes glittering.

Hutch swallowed hard, then claimed his compliant body. He touched Starsky's anus with a trembling hand to find it already slick.

"Told you," Starsky whispered. "I'm ready. Hutch!"

His head was pounding, the blood rushing through his body, flushing his fair skin. His balls were so tight they were killing him. He pressed his flaring glans against the tiny aperture, telling himself to go slow, to take it easy, to be patient—

But he couldn't. The need was too keen, the hunger burning him. He moved in hard, claiming the one person he needed more than anything. Mine! his inner voice cried out as his body joined with Starsky's. Mine!

He was instantly appalled and tried to slow his thrust, but Starsky cried out in passion and pushed back, giving Hutch what he needed. He grew afraid of his own desire and whispered, "Don't! Starsky, don't!"

Digging his nails in Hutch's hip, Starsky gasped, "Hutch, please! Oh, god, please—it's good!"

Then Hutch was lost. He thrust in deep and hard, and Starsky rocked up to meet him. They were together, the way they always were, their rhythm perfectly in tune. Hutch gathered Starsky in his arms, clutching him, pinning him against his body as he took him, again, again, again. He never wanted it to end, never wanted to come, just wanted to be here in this place, loving this man, making him his.

He buried his nose in Starsky's clean, fragrant hair and listened to the soft sounds of passion his lover always made. He loved those sounds, those sweet pleasure noises, and let his hands slide over Starsky's furred chest and tweak his small nipples just to hear more. Hutch kissed his soft, bronze nape and Starsky moaned low. Then the need came on him, to claim, to own, to possess, and he bit down on Starsky's neck.

"Oh, jeezus, Hutch!" Starsky cried out, spreading his legs, pushing back to meet each demanding thrust.

Slow down, Hutch ordered himself, go easy, but he couldn't. Not now.

Starsky gripped the mattress, clawing the sheets, as he struggled to handle Hutch's need. Hutch hands stroked down Starsky's strong, dark arms, until they found his elegant hands. They entwined fingers and Starsky held on tight, clinging, needing the help.

"So good, Hutch," he called out, sounding almost in pain. "Oh, god, babe, so damned good!"

It was coming on him hard now and fast. He told himself to touch the man beneath him, give him his pleasure, but he couldn't release the grip he had on Starsky's hands, couldn't let go. He felt as if he released that hold he might fall off the world all alone.

Then suddenly Starsky rocked beneath him, bucking, crying out his name. His lithe body tightened down, holding Hutch, sucking him in, milking him. He lost it, thrusting, thrusting, blind and deaf to everything else but the sharp sweet jolts of pleasure his lover was giving him.

His balls tightened up so fast it hurt, a wonderful pain, and then the release was on him, so sudden he saw stars, lost his breath, even as he shouted Starsky's name, called out his love, swore it, begged for it again and again. It lasted so long, he trembled when it was done, shaking from head to foot, helplessly in thrall.

Starsky was still making those sounds, those quiet little sounds of pleasure.

Hutch buried his face between Starsky's shoulders and whispered, "I'm sorry, Starsk. So sorry—"

Gasping for air while lying limply beneath him, Starsky asked wearily, "Sorry? Sorry for what?"

"I hurt you. I was so rough. I never even touched you—"

Starsky sighed. "Hey, hey, come on, blintz, cut it out!" He took one of Hutch's hands, still gripping his, and moved it down to his belly, rubbing it there. Hutch felt something warm, viscous, sticky.

"You didn't hurt me, babe," Starsky said softly. "And yeah, it was a little rough, but it was good. You're a man, just like me. Sometimes we need that. Damn, Hutch, I came before you, it was so good for me. If you had touched me, I wouldn't'a been able to handle it."

Hutch felt confused, and hugged Starsky tighter, trying to sort it out. Starsky shifted and Hutch pulled out, then rolled to the side so that his partner could turn and embrace him, chest to chest.

"It's just the dream," Starsky reminded him. "It always makes you worry like this, makes you anxious. Remember, the therapist said that powerful, stress-reaction dreams could affect your reactions to real things if the images were strong enough. Believe me, Hutch, it was good for me." He kissed Hutch's cheek, stroked his hair. "Better every time, babe."

Hutch stared at him, still unsure. "It's not just the dream," he said decisively. "You know that." And if I wasn't such a coward, I'd admit my real fear. What I just did had all the earmarks of a good-bye fuck.

Starsky didn't say anything for a moment, just kept holding Hutch, running a hand through his hair. Finally, he said softly, "I wish you wouldn't worry about that."

Both of us so careful not to say her name, Hutch thought. As if we both understand that there's power in names.

"I wish you wouldn't pretend there was nothing for me to worry about," Hutch replied quietly. "When are you going to call her?"

Starsky didn't get defensive, and didn't deny anything either. That was enough cause for concern right there. "We just finished making love, Hutch. I don't want to talk about this now."

He glanced at the clock. "We've got to get up for work in 15 minutes. This might be the only private time we get to talk about it. Are you going to call her?" He didn't want to push Starsky on this, but he knew his partner well enough to know that given a choice, he'd never discuss this at all.

"No . . . maybe . . . I don't know . . . " Starsky confessed reluctantly. "I'm still not sure—I don't know that calling her is the right thing for me to do. I'm thinking, maybe it would be better if I just left it alone."

Hutch kept his voice carefully modulated. "Pretend she's not living here? Pretend she still isn't interested in you?" He stopped himself from blurting, Pretend you're not still in love with her? He was still Starsky's best friend. He had to allow him to talk about this difficult topic without coming across as a jealous lover, even if that's what he was.

Starsky wet his mouth. "It's an option."

Hutch sucked in a deep breath. "Well, I'm not that good at pretending. If you want the truth, I'd spend all my time waiting for the other shoe to drop—waiting to bump into her again, waiting for her to call, waiting for you to call her. Just like I can't pretend you don't still love her."

Starsky's eyes went soft. "I love you, Hutch. You believe that, don't you?"

"Yes," he said quickly, wanting to reassure. "I know you love me. But I know you love her, too, that you never stopped loving her. You loved her first. As a lover, anyway. As a potential mate. And she was the one that got away. That gives her a special claim on you. I know this has to be hard on you." He smiled tiredly, worn out by the irony of their situation. He brushed the back of his hand against the face he adored. "Starsky, I'm your lover now, but the first thing I am is your friend, your partner. I can't be those things and deny you the life you're entitled to."

"You mean the life you think I'm entitled to," Starsky corrected.

"You're going to tell me you don't still want it—marriage, kids, the whole deal? It's what you've always wanted. Ever since I've known you."

Starsky hesitated, looking a little sad. "I want you, too, Hutch. I don't know how to resolve those wants."

As Hutch continued to run a gentle hand over Starsky's face, Starsky kissed his palm gently. "The only way you can resolve them is to call her. Talk to her. Find out how you feel, how you still feel—how she feels."

"You almost sound like you want me to do this," Starsky protested.

Hutch felt his chest tightening. "I'm your best friend. I want whatever it is that will make you happy. And—if that happens to be me—then I want us both comfortable with that decision. I want that security. I can't have that without this being resolved. And if—if it's her—" He had to swallow to regain his voice. "Then I want to be your friend, the friend you could always rely on before this," he indicated their presence in the bed, "and wish you well, and stand behind you."

Starsky stared at Hutch, his gaze unblinking. "You could do that? If . . . if—"

"We were friends first," Hutch said, with forced cheerfulness. "I never want to lose that. I want you to believe you can rely on me."

Starsky shook his head. "I don't know, Hutch. I just—"

"Starsky, if you don't do this, if you don't call her and resolve this thing, one way or the other—in six months you'll be filled with a lot of 'could-have-beens' and 'what-if's'. And somehow, I'll be the cause. You'll come to hate me for what I prevented you from doing. If that happens, we'll lose everything. The friendship, the partnership, and the love."

Starsky ran his hand over Hutch's blond hair. "It took us so long to find this together. Now, I can't believe I could ever stop loving you."

Hutch smiled tiredly. "Good. Then don't." There was a click and the clock radio turned on with the soft sound of familiar music. Both men groaned at the intrusion.

"Come on," Starsky said, easing out of the bed, and grabbing Hutch's hand. "Let's hit the shower."

"Together?" he said skeptically. "If we do that, we'll be late! You know what happens when we get wet together."

Starsky grinned devilishly. "That's right!"



"Here's the most recent photo of our suspect," Dobey said, handing out copies to the eight detectives sitting in his office.

Starsky took a picture for Hutch and him to share. They were already sharing a chair, Hutch in the seat, and Starsky perched on the arm. They were sharing coffee, too, which Hutch had just taken the last swallow of. The eight-by-ten photo was dim and grainy, but the distinctive features of Randy "Red" Barstow were easy enough to make out. The shock of red hair that hung to his massive shoulders topped a hulking six-foot-six frame that made the man hard to miss.

"That was taken off a surveillance camera in a check-cashing store-front business," Joshua Epstein said. Like a lot of Feds, he was a plain-looking man with a regulation hair cut and an average build. The slight-built, dark-suited federal agent turned to a large write-on board that had been moved into Dobey's office for the meeting. It was covered with schematics, photos, notes, and scrawled ideas. Epstein pointed to the photo of the unfortunate check-cashing store that Barstow had last robbed. In spite of bulletproof glass, barred windows, and a decent alarm system, Barstow had cleaned the place out, threatening to level it with several hand-grenades. He hadn't left any of the three clerks or the five unfortunate customers alive.

"He was in and out of this place in less than three minutes," Epstein continued. "As usual, he was armed to the teeth, and expert in the use of everything he had on him. He got $350,000 dollars in unmarked cash and was gone long before anyone could respond to the silent alarm. The place was on fire from the grenades by the time law enforcement arrived, so finding any evidence was out of the question." Epstein sighed.

"And no one saw him enter the business?" Starsky asked. "I mean, you can spot this guy across a crowded room. He's taller than your average bear and wider, too."

"Not to mention his neon-colored head," Hutch added, fingering the picture.

Epstein looked tired. "For a big, ugly, funny-looking guy, he's been impossible to spot. Down at the office, they call him the Abominable RedMan. Everyone knows where he's been, but no one sees him either coming or going. We don't even know what kind of a vehicle he used in this heist."

Starsky actually felt sorry for Epstein. He was a hard-working agent who'd been after Barstow ever since the hit man had broken ties with the mob and had gone rogue. Barstow had cleaned out money-changing businesses in three states, left a trail of dead bodies, and was running wild. It was impossible to predict where he'd show up next or who would suffer for it. Epstein was in charge of the federal task force to bring the big man down, but it had been a futile task so far. They knew Barstow was headed for LA, that he'd lived here much of his life and had ties in the city. The trouble was that Barstow had so many connections in the city, there were potentially eight different places that he might hole up when he finally arrived, and even the feds had trouble staking out that many locations.

So, they'd enjoined Dobey's men. Epstein worked differently from most of the feds Starsky had had the misfortune to work with. He was appreciative of the local assistance, communicated freely and willingly about the mission, and treated the cops as valuable assets, respecting their experience and capabilities. If he wasn't careful, Epstein might actually give the feds a good name.

"While Barstow's been zigzagging over the western states, we think, from the pattern of his strikes, that he's getting ready to come home, stash the cash, and hide out till things cool down," Epstein said. "We've got stakeout locations in the proximity of the most likely crash pads he might use. Six of the units will be covered by federal agents. We've requested that Captain Dobey provide the manpower to cover the remaining two, which are in your jurisdiction. He has graciously agreed, for which we are very grateful. However, this is a dangerous assignment, and we aren't asking that anyone get involved who doesn't wish to. So, if any of you men care to drop out, please do so now. No questions asked, no blemish on your record."

Starsky glanced at Hutch, who returned his gaze. Neither of them budged. That was just another act of love on Hutch's part, Starsky knew. It was hard for Hutch to see Starsky step into any risky situation since Gunther's hit. But he knew Starsky wasn't willing to live any other way, and he accepted that.

Dobey had handpicked this group himself, and as Starsky expected, none of the men left their seats. Dobey smiled at Epstein who grinned back at him.

"Okay, great," Epstein said, nodding. "We're going to work out rotating assignments for the stakeouts and we'll let you know as soon as the schedule is set."

As the men shifted, assuming they were about to be dismissed, Dobey spoke up. "I appreciate your willingness to work on this assignment. I want to remind you men that like most stakeouts, the greatest danger is boredom and inattention. You can't afford that on this gig. Barstow is at the top of the Most Wanted list. He's a volatile, dangerous man, an expert marksman, and frankly, he's damned crazy. We've set up the stakeout apartments farther than most from the targets since Barstow is good at spotting surveillance. Be careful! We want this guy, but not at the cost of our own."

"I couldn't agree with that more," Epstein added. "We'll have those schedules within the hour."

Dismissed, Starsky and Hutch left the office and headed for their shared desk. Starsky continued to examine the photo of the big man who was using a high-powered rifle to slaughter the hapless customers in the check-cashing business. "So, what are the odds of this guy showing up at our sight?" he asked Hutch as his partner rounded the desk and took his seat.

"Technically, one in eight," Hutch said, taking the photo from him and staring at it. "In reality, far less than that. The feds are manning the most likely sites he'll use. Our spots are long shots. This is going to be one of those endlessly boring gigs where we have to be on hyper alert even though nothing's going to happen."

"No doubt," Starsky agreed. Still, the department had to cooperate. Anything they could do to help bring this animal down was worth it. He just hoped it wouldn't go on too long. "Hey, at least we're working together," Starsky said quietly. "Eight to 10 hours . . . alone . . . in the same place . . . ." He waggled his eyebrows and Hutch colored on cue, then smiled in embarrassment.

"We'll be on duty, Sergeant," Hutch reminded him sternly.

"I love my job," Starsky said teasingly, just as the phone rang. Hutch reached for it, but Starsky snatched it up first. "Starsky," he said into the receiver, still grinning at Hutch.

"David, is that you?" a soft-voice answered.

He recognized Rosey's voice instantly; it was like a sudden punch to the heart. He felt a flush of adrenaline as his heart rate increased. It must've shown on his face because suddenly Hutch looked concerned. "Oh . . . uh, yeah, it's me. Hi.." He was totally unprepared to hear from her.

"I'm . . . sorry to call you at work, David, but after your late night I was afraid to call you at home. I didn't think I'd reach you at all. I just planned on leaving a message."

He suddenly remembered the lie he'd told her about the late stakeout he was supposed to have been on. He frowned into the phone. "Uh . . . it turned out we got called off at the last minute and put back on our regular shift. You . . . uh . . . know how unpredictable police work is."

Hutch's expression shifted and Starsky realized he'd just figured out who was on the phone. He suddenly stood and said, "I'll go find us some fresh coffee." He left the squadroom before Starsky could stop him. The pot Minnie had just finished brewing sat right behind him.

Starsky sighed and eased into his chair.

"Is this a bad time?" she asked. "I could call back later."

Say yes, he told himself. Tell her it will always be a bad time. Tell her you can't deal with seeing her, hearing from her. Tell her to go back to the Huichol Indians and get the hell out of your life.

"No," he heard himself saying, "no. This is fine. I can talk."

About what? About how you walked out on me after I handed you my heart?

Suddenly, she didn't seem to know what to say either. "This . . . this is so much harder than I thought it would be." Her voice was so soft he could barely hear her. "I'm sorry I'm making this so awkward."

You have no idea.

"Rosie . . . it's . . . not your fault. Mine, either. I'm sorry, too."

I'm sorry you left me. I never stopped being sorry . . . .

"Look, David, I'll be honest," she said. Her voice had firmed up, sounding more like the strong-spirited woman he'd once loved. "I was calling to . . . to tell you I was sorry I'd intruded in your life last night. I never should've done that, and I regret it. I'd intended to contact you by letter, or through a third party so that you could decide how you felt and whether or not you wanted to even talk to me. I should've stuck to my plan. So I thought . . . today . . . well, I wanted you to know that you don't have to feel obligated to call me, or see me. It's entirely up to you. I . . . I won't be bothering you again. Anyway, that was the message I'd planned to leave . . . ."

There was an extended silence on the line as the two of them sat, not speaking. He could imagine her so clearly, holding the phone the way she had when her father had called to tell her the man courting her, the man who'd made love to her all night long, was a cop, someone who was only interested in using her for his own ends. He could see her strained expression, her intense concentration, and the firmness of her resolve as she'd dialed the phone.

"Well," she finally said into the silence, "that's all I wanted to say. Whatever happens . . . it was wonderful seeing you again, David. Goodbye . . . ."

"Wait!" he said impulsively. "Did you . . . do you . . .  want to hear from me?"

She hesitated, then said honestly. "That's the only reason I contacted you." The words of love hung in the air unsaid, and he was grateful for that. "Look," she said, "don't think I imagined you were sitting here just waiting for me. I know that's not the case. I just thought . . . I knew that if there was a chance . . . any chance . . . that if I didn't take it, if I didn't find out for sure . . . . Well, I had to know. I . . . had to risk it."

There was so much unsaid between them. So much undone. He rubbed his forehead. "We . . . should talk. Things . . . things are different now." His mouth felt like sandpaper. I'm in love with someone else. Someone male. What would you think of me if you knew that, Rosey?

"It's been two years," she agreed. "I'm sure a lot has changed. For both of us. I'd really like it if we could talk."

He imagined himself in her apartment, having polite conversation over coffee, discussing the different paths their lives had taken. He shook his head disbelievingly.

"I . . . guess it's kind of unrealistic to think we could just sit down over tostados and beer and hash out old times," she said, sounding sad. "Maybe . . . maybe we could discuss things over the phone for awhile. Maybe that would be easier."

"Maybe . . . ."

I wouldn't have to look into your eyes, wouldn't find myself remembering those eyes dilated in passion, closing in bliss as you kissed me . . . .

His heart twisted. "I'll call you." It was the classic male lie. I'll call you . . . sometime before I'm 80. He couldn't leave her with an untruth, not after she'd been so honest with him. "Or . . . you could call me here. We'll be putting in a lot of hours . . . and I'm not home much." And I don't need you calling me while I'm in bed with Hutch. "They can patch you through to me if I'm available, and if I'm not, I can return your call when I get back."

"Really? You want me to? Honestly?"

Did he? He thought of saying no, please, end it now, and don't call me again. He thought of never hearing her voice again, thought of all the months where he'd answered every phone call with the vain hope that she might contact him. He wet his dry lips. "Yeah. I want you to. Really."

Hutch returned, placed a cup of coffee in front of him, then sat and opened his files.

"Okay, David," she said, her voice still subdued. She wasn't letting herself hope for too much. The wistfulness in her tone spoke of all their lost chances. "I'll call you. Tomorrow. Goodbye." The click in his ear was soft and final.

"Yeah, okay," he said to the dead phone, and hung it up. He looked up at Hutch, feeling incredibly confused and conflicted.

Hutch's eyes went soft, the way they always did when Starsky was in pain. "You okay?"

Am I okay? Starsky wondered. No. Not really. "That was Rosey," he blurted, realizing even as he did that Hutch already knew that.

Hutch nodded, still looking at Starsky as if he might need emergency aid any minute.

"We . . . uh . . . " Starsky stammered, "we . . . that is . . . she's gonna call me from time to time. Try to talk things out. About the past. She's gonna call me at work." Not on our time, he wanted to convey.

"Okay," Hutch said.

Okay? What does that mean? This is a helluva time for you to become Mr. Reasonable. If they weren't in the squadroom, Starsky knew his temper would get the best of him, even if he wasn't sure why.

"Did I say something wrong?" Hutch asked sincerely. Starsky couldn't answer him. "Look, this isn't going to go away by wishing it, Starsky. You two definitely need to talk, but why you'd want to do that here is beyond me. But however you decide to handle it is up to you, partner." Hutch's expression was one of resigned acceptance.

Starsky opened his mouth, wanting to reassure Hutch about his feelings for him, about their relationship. But the room was full of other cops and at that moment Starsky couldn't shake the feeling that they were all watching him, waiting for him to do something that would reveal the truth about his relationship with Hutch. A relationship that would change the way every one of them related to him both as a cop and as a man. He closed his mouth feeling frustrated and embarrassed.

"Okay, men," Dobey announced suddenly, as he and Epstein exited Dobey's office. "Here's the roster for the Barstow stakeouts."

She rested her hand on the phone receiver, reluctant to break even that flimsy contact with him. This is crazy, she chided herself. Why are you doing this to yourself? The chance you had with him is gone. Accept it. Let it go. Move to San Francisco, Sante Fe . . . New York . . . . The moon. She closed her eyes knowing that was no solution. Her memories would travel with her as they had these last two years, always bringing her back here, to him.

He was so honest, so real, she knew that no matter what he had become in these last two years that would not have changed. If he wanted her out of his life or in his life, he'd let her know. And if it were the former, she'd have to live with it somehow. But he'd have to tell her. He'd have to send her away. She couldn't make herself walk away first. She'd only had the strength to do that once, and then only because of her deep love for her father.

She was struck with a sudden pang of intense grief for both her father and mother. Never had she felt like such an orphan as she did this minute. Alone in the world with nothing but the fleeting memories of a man who had once loved her, she realized fully how empty her world would be if he did reject her.

Still she had to risk it. If there was any chance that he still loved her, if there was any hope that he might trust his heart to her again, she had to take it. She was walking on a high wire without a net, but if she succeeded then there might be another reason in her life to live again, to laugh, to love. Right now, there was none. She squeezed her eyes shut.

If I could touch him just one more time . . . hold him . . . kiss him just once. If I could just make him believe in me again . . . . I know I could make him happy, give him the family he always wanted, the life he expected to have.

She still loved him so much it hurt.

"Starsk," Hutch asked off-handedly, as he lay stretched out on the colorless, worn couch in the drab stakeout apartment, "do you think Dobey knows?"

It was Starsky's turn to watch. He sat perched on a folding chair in front of a powerful telescope with a camera attached to it. The camera was aimed at a correspondingly drab apartment that no one had lived in for over a year. But it was one of several mob-held apartments that Barstow had master keys to.

"Knows what?" Starsky asked distractedly, peering through the eyepiece. "I think he knows the laws of LA back and forth. I think he knows his kids' birthdays. I think some years he remembers his wedding anniversary. I think he knows every infraction we've ever—"

"About us," Hutch interrupted mildly, knowing Starsky could go on forever with his speculations. "Do you think Dobey knows about us?"

Starsky grew quiet, glanced at him once, then went back to the eyepiece.

"I mean, after that scene in the parking lot—" Hutch murmured.

"I'd been shot," Starsky reminded him. "I was dying. Maybe dead already. It looked like a hit by other cops. You were right there, witnessed it all, my partner and best friend. I think people understood why you were upset."

Hutch snorted. "I was a bit more than upset, buddy. I went completely, totally bonkers."

"I heard," Starsky said softly without taking his eye from the scope.

Yeah, I guess you did.

When Hutch had come around the front of the Torino, gasping from the adrenaline rush, and found Starsky on the ground, bleeding, unconscious, he believed his friend was dying. Starsky was dying, and Hutch had never told him how he felt, how he really felt. He'd been in love with Starsky and had wanted him for at least two years that he'd admit to, and possibly longer if he really examined the issue. He'd known the love and desire—especially the desire—was futile the minute he finally acknowledged it, and had locked it in the closet he'd kept his real heart in. They were friends. He felt blessed to have that. He would not push his luck. He locked the truth away and waited to get over it. Which he never did.

When he found Starsky on that tarmac, his life's blood pouring from multiple wounds, Hutch realized he'd willingly, passively, given up any hope of happiness over the fear of rejection. At that moment, decorum hardly seemed to matter.

He knelt in the parking lot and tried to make a dying man understand how he felt before time ran out, in the desperate hope that love could pull Starsky back from the grave. Perhaps it had.

Dobey had been there in the parking lot when Hutch fell apart. How the big man had gotten downstairs and into the lot so quickly Hutch would never know. But there he was, snapping orders, organizing emergency first aid, commanding the crowd of stunned onlookers.

As Hutch had called to Starsky, then shouted at him, swearing his love, his desire, kissing his dying friend, trying frantically to breathe life back into him, Dobey had been there. Dobey had been the one who had finally pulled Hutch off the wounded Starsky so that the paramedics could get him to the hospital. It was Dobey who had brought Hutch there. Wild-eyed, nearly incoherent, Hutch was already convinced that Starsky would die. It was Dobey who helped Hutch pull himself together during that terrible day.

"I can't even remember all that I said to him in the car," Hutch said quietly. "But I couldn't shut up. You were dying. I was losing you. And I couldn't live with it. He never said a word about it— Still hasn't. Even when I climbed into bed with you that night after I busted Gunther. Acted like all his detectives kiss their dying partners, and swear their love."

"He lost a partner, too," Starsky reminded him. "Maybe he went a little crazy then himself."

"You think he knows?" Hutch pressed. "About us?"

"Yeah," Starsky said, just as quietly. "I think he knows. And I think he doesn't care just as long as we don't do it on his desk."

Hutch snorted another wry laugh. "I think you're right. That or have one of our famous 'lover's quarrels' in the squad room."

"We've had more than our share, I suppose," Starsky said, "even before we went to bed."

Dobey had always called their battles that, "lover's quarrels." He never said that about the other partners—but of course, none of them were as volatile, nor were their differences as likely to escalate. There wasn't as much passion.

"Does it bother you?" Hutch asked quietly. "That Dobey knows?" When Starsky shifted and adjusted the eyepiece without answering, Hutch was sorry he asked. Still he couldn't leave it alone. "I guess things have always been . . . different between us, right from the Academy. I guess by now it might even seem like old hat to him." Starsky leaned forward as if something in the eyepiece had claimed his attention. Hutch couldn't stop himself from pressing the issue. "Does it bother you, Starsk . . . about Dobey?"

"Why're you worried about Dobey all of a sudden?" Starsky asked, still focused on the eyepiece.

It was Hutch's turn not to answer. Guess I'm wondering what he'll think if you go back to Rosey. It'd probably take some pressure off him if you did. Make his two senior detectives appear more normal . . . more straight.

"Is it your turn yet?" Starsky asked plaintively, squirming in the seat as he tried to stretch the kinks out. "My back feels like a corkscrew in this flimsy excuse of a chair."

"No, it is not my turn yet," Hutch said pointedly, grateful that Starsky was changing the subject he had brought up. "Would my lord and master like his servant to bring in his recliner for the stakeout?"

"Yeah, that'd be nice," Starsky said.

"No recliners," Hutch told him, smiling, thinking about the sexual antics they'd performed in the recliner Dobey had loaned them during Starsky's recovery. "You know we get in too much trouble in recliners."

Starsky chuckled evilly. "Just hafta settle for a pastrami sandwich then, I guess. With mustard. Not mayonnaise!"

"I take it that's a lunch order," Hutch asked.

"Unless you wanna take your next turn early," Starsky offered. "Then I'd go for lunch."

"Nope," Hutch said, pulling himself up off the couch with an effort. "Pastrami sandwich. Mustard. Rye bread. Pickles. That right?"

"Yeah, and a bag of chips and some Ding-Dongs, and skip the health lecture," Starsky added.

"That won't be hard to remember," Hutch said, heading for the door. "Ding-Dongs for the ding-dong!"

"Thanks," Starsky said, focusing again on the scope.

Hutch paused with his hand on the knob facing away from his partner. He stared at the peeling gray paint on the back of the old door. "If you're thinking of seeing Rosey, today might be the best time. I mean, we're due to be relieved at four, then we're free, unless something breaks, which doesn't look likely. Dobey said when we logged in that he might have to pull Johnson and Selby off the roster tomorrow and if he does we'll probably end up back on nights. We could get tied up on that shift for quite a while." There was no response from behind him, so he added, "Just a suggestion."

"Let it rest, Hutch," Starsky said noncommittally. "That's what I'm doing. If she calls me, we can talk on the phone. Anything we have to say to each other can be said on the phone."

Hutch shifted from foot to foot. "You can't solve this on the phone, Starsk . . . ."

"Hutch—" There was a definite warning tone in Starsky's voice. His eye never left the scope.

"I just . . . I just want you to know I'm okay about . . .  about this . . . about this whole situation." Worried that he sounded like a jerk, he shut his mouth with a snap.

Starsky looked away from the scope and faced Hutch. "And what situation is that?"

Hutch stared at the floor, then shoved his hands in his pockets. "It's not gonna be Kira again, Starsk. No matter what. I mean that."


"I'm okay about it. Whatever happens. That's all. I just don't want you worrying about that. About me." He couldn't make himself shut up.

"Because you're 'okay about it.'" Starsky sighed, sounding tired. "Look, Hutch . . . there's not going to be anything for you to be 'okay' about."

Hutch shook his head. "Don't say that. You don't even know how you feel yet. When you figure it out . . . it might surprise you."

"Yeah," Starsky said quietly. "Okay. I'll be sure and let you know if I have any startling revelations."

That's nice, Hutch thought. I'd definitely want to know.

Without another word, Hutch opened the door.

From behind him, he heard Starsky say quietly, "I love you, Hutch."

He nodded because he couldn't manage to say anything and left the apartment. That felt so good to hear. Every time Starsky said it Hutch feared it might be the last time. After shutting and locking the door, he moved away a few steps and waited. He should go back, apologize, and stop trying to make himself crazy and Starsky, too. He had as much right to love Starsky as Rosey did, maybe more. He had to have confidence in the strength of their love, let Starsky know he had that confidence. He leaned silently against the door marshalling his thoughts. As he placed his hand on the knob, he heard the phone ring twice. He could hear Starsky lifting it, saying his name in that blunt way he always did on the job.

There was a pause, then finally, hesitantly, "Oh, hi. Yeah. This is Dave. They patched you through okay, huh?"

Hutch nodded to himself and left to get lunch, wondering how he would manage to eat it.

They stayed on the early shift for the next three days. The hours were tedious and boring, with frequent updates of the suspect's sightings and probable predictions of where he might show up next. The time was taxing on both men. The constant togetherness, once a comfort to them, grew strained. Starsky was distracted and Hutch grew anxious. Their nights were filled with a passion that seemed hungry, nearly frantic on both their parts.

Hutch made sure he went for lunch every day. Rosey called at the same time, and it gave him an excuse to give Starsky privacy for those calls. They didn't talk about the calls but some perversity in Hutch made him wait outside the door until he heard the call come in. Today, when he left for lunch and waited outside to hear the phone ring, he heard Starsky make the call himself. There was a subtle change in his tone of voice. Some of the hesitancy and awkwardness was gone. There was a new low pitch in his voice that Hutch was all too familiar with. He remembered when Rosey and Starsky first met, that his late-sleeping partner would rise extra early just to call her when she was still in bed. Those early-morning intimate phone calls were pivotal in the development of their brief but intense affair. No doubt Rosey remembered that when she suggested the less-threatening phone calls.

Rosey said something to make Starsky laugh, and Hutch knew he'd stayed too long. When he got to the deli, he couldn't remember what to order and had to guess.

"I'm going to see her at 8:00," Starsky said without preamble, after Hutch disposed of the remains of their lunch.

Hutch hadn't really eaten. He'd only dismantled his food, rearranged it, crunched it up in the wax paper it had been neatly folded in, and dumped it. He nodded. "That's good. Eight."

"That'll give us time to have dinner together, you and me," Starsky said. He was sitting with his legs straddling a chair backwards, his arms crossed over the back rest, his chin propped on his arms. He was perched against the wall beside the window, where he could face Hutch while Hutch took his turn watching through the scope. He wanted to see Hutch's expression.

Hutch nodded again. "You didn't have to do that. I still remember how to eat by myself."

"You sure? You never swallowed a bite of lunch," Starsky said, nailing him with his gaze. "I mean, you played with it enough to make the Hasbro people think about developing toy plastic club sandwiches as a new item for their Christmas line-up, but that's not gonna get you through the day. We'll have dinner together. I wanna see you eat. Then I'll go deal with this, and it'll be over."

Hutch glanced away from the scope to stare disbelievingly at Starsky. "What does that mean?"

Starsky shrugged. "It means you're right. I need to see her, talk to her. Clear the air. Settle some issues. So I can put it behind me. Get over it. Get over her. Then we can go on—you and me . . . ."

"Starsky," Hutch said patiently, "don't do this. Don't sit there and give me a pep talk on what's going to happen between you two tonight. You don't know what she's going to say to you and you don't know how it's going to make you feel. Deal with it when it happens. If you make promises now—"

"I'm not making promises!" Starsky insisted.

"That's good. I wouldn't hold you to them if you did. Just—be honest with yourself when you go over there. That's all you can do. Then deal with the honesty. Whatever happens—"

"Nothing's going to happen!" Starsky said too quickly.

Hutch just smiled at him. "Oh, something will happen all right. And if you keep denying it, you're going to be very surprised when it does. Just be honest. And handle it."

"And you?" Starsky asked, his eyes etched with worry.

Hutch went back to the scope. "I'll handle it, too." Only I won't be surprised.

He felt Starsky's hand in his hair, and glanced at him.

"I love you, Hutch," Starsky said quietly, his voice thick.

"I know you do," Hutch assured him, taking the hand stroking his hair and kissing the back of it. "I love you, too. And I'm still your best friend in the whole world. That's not a job I can resign from."

Starsky blinked rapidly, and sucked in a breath.

"It's gonna be okay," Hutch said quietly, not sure how long he could continue to console this man for leaving him. "We'll get through it like we get through everything." But he couldn't say the word. He couldn't say, together.

You don't know what she's going to say to you, Starsky remembered Hutch warning him as he stood in front of the strange apartment door, and you don't know how it's going to make you feel. Deal with it when it happens.

He lifted his hand to knock, then paused for the second time.

You don't know . . . . You don't know . . . . Deal with it when it happens . . . .

He sucked in a steadying breath. What was wrong with him, anyway? He didn't face armed felons with this much trepidation. This was just a woman, a woman he'd been intimate with once. Just another woman, one of so many—

Stop lying to yourself. She wasn't just another woman. She got under your skin the first moment you saw her. You loved her as much as you ever loved anyone. And still do. Then she left you. She's the one who got away—

He knocked on the door finally, in the hopes that the brash sound would still his own mental voice.

"Just a minute," he heard from the other side, then the snick of the lock and—

"Rosey," he said softly as she swung the door open.

The years fell away as he looked at her. He might as well have been picking her up for their second date. She was in faded blue-jeans and a soft cotton shirt. Her hazel eyes were bright, large, luminous. Her thick sandy blond hair fell in a heavy cascade over her front and down her back. It was longer now, nearly to her waist. He remembered how soft it was, how fragrant, how it felt when he buried his hands in it, when it trailed over his body—

She smiled at him shyly, nodded, and opened the door wider. "David. Hi. Glad you could come." Her voice was tight, full of tension. The comfortable, non-threatening atmosphere of their phone conversations seemed to dissolve now that they were face-to-face.

It was worse than being strangers, much worse. As he stepped inside he realized how wounded they both were by what had happened between them. They both bore scars. Did it matter anymore how they'd been inflicted?

"There's beer in the fridge," she said tentatively. "Can I get you one?"

"No, that's okay," he said lamely.

He wasn't ready for any hospitality. Though by the looks of the place, she wasn't prepared to give but so much. The apartment was nearly bare, almost devoid of furniture. There was a single couch. A lamp. Two boxes of files. Some Indian blanket pillows on the floor. They had different patterns, and were different pillows, but he had to look away from them lying innocently on the floor. He didn't want to remember how she felt in his arms while he kissed her on the floor, how powerful wanting her felt—how terrible losing her felt.

The whole place looked like she'd just gotten here and wouldn't be staying long. There was no Indian pottery decorating the place, no candles strewn about, no sense of hominess like there'd been in her last apartment. He wondered if she'd even bothered to buy a bed, a big one like she used to have, or—

He saw himself in that bed with her, that big king sized bed, rolling over her, moving her slim frame so easily. Not like with Hutch, whose big blond body had to be wrestled into position, and sometimes just wouldn't be. But Rosey was little, he could move her around at will, pulling her under him, centering himself, entering her so easily, so naturally, listening to her breathless cry as she took him inside—

He blinked, shutting the image away, rattled at how easily it came to mind. "Maybe, maybe some water," he asked, as his mouth went dry.

"Sure," she said, leaving the room and stepping into a small, nearly barren kitchenette. She returned with a large glass filled with ice and water.

He downed half of it in a swallow. "Thanks."

"I didn't really think it'd be this awkward," she admitted honestly. Her voice was low, as if afraid that speaking too loudly would startle him.

"No?" he asked, surprised at the bitterness in his voice. "What did you think? That I'd been waiting for you all this time? That I'd be so happy to see you I'd—" He clamped his mouth shut, took a breath and got a grip on his seesawing emotions. "I'm sorry, Rosey. That was uncalled for."

"No, it wasn't," she said quickly. "You have every right to be angry, to be hurt. I left you. You loved me, and I walked out on you. I didn't want to, David, try to remember that. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do." Her voice quavered on the last words, but she got herself back under control. "I'm grateful you were even willing to see me."

He nodded, and put the glass down on a small packing crate. Let's get this over with. Then I can go home—to Hutch. Hutch had been cheerful and easy-going over dinner, but it had all been a sham, and Starsky knew it. This was hard enough on his big blond; he didn't need to spend hours over here rehashing old history that couldn't be changed while Hutch stewed alone.

"Why did you want to see me, Rosey?" Starsky asked. "What did you want to say?"

He realized that while her face was outwardly calm, she was wringing her hands, washing them over and over together, as if she had to manifest her nervousness in some way to keep herself together. "Well, for one thing, I wanted to say—I'm sorry. I'm sorry I left you the way I did. I'm sorry I had to. But most importantly—I'm sorry I hurt you."

Her voice had deepened, roughened, but he tried to ignore that. He was having enough trouble with his own voice, his own feelings. "Sure. Thanks for saying that. I've put it behind me. You should, too." Hutch is right about you, Dave—you're a terrible liar.

"Do you . . . can you—forgive me?" she asked in a small voice. She was not imploring. It was a straight question, asked for information. Could he? Was he capable?

He started to dissemble, then stopped himself. "No," he said simply.

She looked down at the floor, sucked in a breath, then seemed to get a grip on herself.

"I can't forgive it," he muttered, "but I can get past it. It happened. It's over." But the wounds still bleed. They'll always bleed.

She didn't look as if she believed him. "Then I'm not sure there's anything else for us to talk about."

"Say what you need to, Rosey," he encouraged her. This might be your only chance.

She hesitated, then gathered her courage. "After my father died, and I realized I'd have to come back here to bury him, I began to think—began to hope—that maybe, if you could ever understand, you might forgive . . . . David, I-I—" She shut her eyes, collected herself. Both of her hands were tightly fisted now, as she folded her arms. Trying to contain herself, to stay together.

"David," she said quietly, her voice controlled, "when I left you, I loved you. It was the last thing I said to you before I went with my father. I loved you then. I still love you."

He stood rigidly, not moving, barely breathing. Don't say anything. Don't think about this. It's almost over. In a few minutes you can leave and go home to Hutch.

When he didn't respond, she continued, "I know I hurt you terribly. Believe me, I hurt myself just as much. I didn't leave because I wanted to, but because I had to, and you know that. I knew I couldn't make a new life, couldn't start over, especially not here . . . without speaking to you. Without knowing—"

She stared at him, her eyes fastened on his face, as if she couldn't get enough of looking at him. It was the same expression she'd worn before leaving with her father. She reached out tentatively and placed her hand on his arm, as if she couldn't resist one last opportunity to touch him. He could feel her hand trembling as it gently stroked up his arm onto his shoulder. Her voice was almost a whisper. "I knew I couldn't live here without finding out how you still felt about me." The fingers of her hand lightly touched his cheek, then she pulled away as if trying to rein her emotions in.

Her touched rekindled the tactile memories of their intimacy. His face tingled where her hand had made contact. He didn't move, didn't say anything. Just a few more minutes. Then it'll be over. Then you can leave, and never think about her again. He lowered his eyes, embarrassed when he couldn't even successfully lie to himself.

"David? I need to know. How . . . do you still feel about me? Do you hate me?"

He realized his mouth was dust dry and picked up the water glass, then downed the remains. Finding his voice he said clearly, "No, Rosey. I couldn't hate you."

She seemed to sag a little as if she'd been terrified of his response. "Then, what do you feel? Apathy? Annoyance? Friendship?" She was grasping now.

Not friendship, he realized, that one word snagging him. I know what friendship is all about. That's what I've got with Hutch, in spades. Friendship first, above all else. You wouldn't have a clue.

"David, do you—could you possibly—is there any chance that you still might . . . care about me? Even in some small way?" She couldn't make herself ask him, he realized, what she really wanted to know.

Still, he couldn't lie. He swallowed, wishing he'd never come here, wishing he'd never seen her, never confronted her heartache; never felt the touch of her hand. He looked around the room, wanting to escape, but his eyes kept drifting back to the pillows on the floor and the shadow of two lovers who'd once lain there together.

"Of course I care," he said, sounding irritable. "I care, all right. Too damn much for my own good."

There was a flush on her face as she stepped hesitantly toward him. Her hand reached out again, but this time didn't connect. "Last night, I-I asked Hutch . . . . He said you weren't seeing anyone. It made me think . . . made me hope that maybe . . . ."

Her mentioning Hutch's name seemed to galvanize him. He looked her straight in the eye. "Rosey, let's get this out on the table and quit dancing around it. You want to know the truth, okay, I'll give you the truth. Do I still care about you?" The lump in his throat felt like a boulder. He forced it down. "Yes, God help me, yes, I care. The truth is I still love you. I never stopped loving you. I never forgot how much I loved you not for one single goddamned day." His voice was climbing even as his throat constricted. Now his hands were balled into fists.

The words seem to strike her like blows, one after the other. Her head snapped back, but she stood her ground, her face unreadable.

"We barely knew each other a week," he continued, his voice still harsh, "but it was long enough for me to know. I loved you. I loved you and you left me. I dealt with it. I'm still dealing with it. And my life moved on. It's been two years. Two years without you. Two years remembering you, thinking about you, wanting you and trying to forget that want . . . ."

He shook his head, recalling the headlong rush of one night stands with other women, always looking, always searching, never finding . . . . All the while, Hutch beside him, never letting on to his own feelings as he watched Starsky devour woman after woman. But all Starsky wanted was for someone to make him feel something beside that terrible loss— And not one woman did.

"I must've gone out with a hundred women the year you left me," he muttered, unable to recall a single name, a single face. "Never the same one twice. But none of them were you. So eventually, I stopped—"

How long had it been since he'd gone on a real, live date? Oh, there was the occasional one-night stand, like the police groupie they'd gotten involved with. And, of course—he shuddered even now, remembering—Kira. She was a sandy blond, too, wasn't she? He had tried so hard to love her, tried to convince himself he did— It had all been wrong right from the start. He felt hollow, thinking about that.

"Hutch said you weren't seeing anyone . . . ." she said quietly.

He focused on her face, as painful as that was. "That's not what Hutch said. He said I wasn't seeing any women." He watched for her reaction, but she only nodded, as if they'd both just said the same thing.

"Six months ago, Rosey, I was nearly killed," he said bluntly. Color leached out of her face, but she remained quiet. "I was shot by professional assassins hired to kill me and Hutch. They got me, but missed Hutch. They tell me my heart actually stopped for a while. The scars are still pretty raw. Hutch saved me, saved my life, worked with me all through my recovery. You start to see the world differently after you've been shot, Rosey. That close a brush with death changes your perspective about a lot of things."

He sucked in a breath, trying to quell the rage storming through him. His wounds ached, but he pressed on. "Hutch didn't exactly lie to you, Rosey, but he didn't tell the truth, either. I'm not seeing any women. Haven't seen any since the shooting. But there is someone in my life."

She blinked, totally confused, her brow furrowed. He could see her trying to work it out and coming up with no answers.

"There's someone in my life I love very much. Someone who saved me when I was dying. Rosey, I love Hutch, and he loves me."

It didn't compute. Her expression was still like someone who'd been given a complex math problem that was going to take time to figure out.

"Hutch?" she finally mouthed softly. "How could you be—? David, you're not—?" Then understanding hit, finally. Understanding, and, to Starsky's dismay, acceptance. Some surprise, but the acceptance was there.

"Hutch," she said firmly. "You and Hutch. I see." She wet her mouth, her mind working, assimilating. Trying to arrange the image of the man she thought he was with the image of the man he really was. Still, her reaction was unexpected. There seemed to be no repugnance, no disgust. Just this struggle to understand.

Then it hit, and she covered her face with her hand. "Oh, no, oh, god—Hutch!"

He stiffened in anger, glad to feel that. Glad to feel anything besides the confused emotions of love and need burning a hole inside him. She would condemn them and he would leave her in a blaze of righteous anger. And it would be over.

But she only shook her head, looking distressed. "When I think of what I said to Hutch—!" She turned to him, worriedly. "I didn't know! How could I know . . . ? I asked him about you, about your relationships. I confided in him! I treated him as if he didn't matter, as if his relationship with you couldn't be as significant— David, if I had known, if I'd had any idea . . . ." She swallowed painfully. "I would've never approached you—and certainly not in front of Hutch—if I'd known. I'm so sorry. Will you tell Hutch I'm sorry?"

Starsky felt all the force of his anger deflate. She was worried about hurting Hutch? He thought of Hutch's depression after the restaurant, the things her appearance had made Hutch realize. He understood suddenly that if she'd known about them, she wouldn't have even contacted him, respecting the choice he'd made. That's what she'd asked Hutch. Was there someone in his life, some woman? If there was, she would've just slipped away. And now that she knew about Hutch, is that what she would do? This wasn't the reaction he expected. He had no idea how to feel about her acceptance and understanding.

"You couldn't have known," he said softly. "We have to be pretty discreet because of the job. It's one of those things everyone probably knows but no one talks about." She was watching him, listening intently, clearly wanting to know more, to really understand. Still, the pain of loss etched around her eyes was hard to look at.

"It took us both by surprise," he said, feeling the need to explain. "Or at least it took me that way. Apparently, Hutch had—felt that way for awhile, but kept it to himself."

"Even when we were—?" she started to ask.

"Yeah," Starsky said. "You remember how he helped us get together, how supportive he was."

He hadn't been at first, Starsky recalled. He wondered now how much of that was concern that Rosey was involved in her father's criminal activity and how much was plain jealousy. Whatever it was, Hutch had finally been able to push it aside and just be Starsky's friend. He could still remember Hutch chiding him gently, "Go cuddle with your lady. Let me handle this." What must that have cost him then?

"Anyway, he never let on," Starsky continued. "Then, after the shooting, he was there for me. He saved me. My heart stopped and didn't start again till he got in the hospital. He was with me every minute through my recovery. And he saved me from the worst night terrors I've ever had. I got through it all because of his love. I don't believe I would have survived otherwise. We've been lovers since then." The word felt odd in his mouth, saying it to her. It wasn't a word he said very often. So much about their love remained unsaid, invisible.

She was listening intently, watching him, absorbing everything. She still wore that intense expression, her expressive hazel eyes boring into him. There was still no condemnation, no disgust.

He didn't know how to take that, and finally ran out of things to say.

When she realized he was done, she asked, "Are you happy, David?"

I was, he realized with a start, until I saw you again. He tried to make the words come out, tried to say, yes, Hutch and I are very happy, but he couldn't. Instead, he muttered, "You're takin' this pretty well."

She shrugged slightly. "I'm surprised, but—I've seen a lot of things in my travels. The Indians I live with have a different attitude about these things, so I guess I've picked some of that up. And my mother always told me that love is love, no matter where you find it. And . . . after losing you . . . I came to realize those were the truest words I'd ever heard. Love is precious. Cherish it. It's entirely too easy to lose."

He had to look away, her sorrowful expression nearly overwhelming him.

"But why did you bother telling me you still loved me," she asked, her voice letting the pain be heard. "You have Hutch. You didn't need to lie to me about that. I could understand your having another lover. I expected it. I expected you to be married—"

"Is there no one in your life, Rosey?" he asked bitterly. "In two years, hasn't there been anyone for you?" He didn't expect her to tell the truth. He counted on her lying. But he couldn't make himself disbelieve her, none-the-less.

"My father played matchmaker the entire time we were in Mexico," she said angrily, "throwing every eligible bachelor at me he could find. Landowner's sons, businessmen he knew, consultants, academics—he nearly drove me crazy trying to marry me off." She faced him squarely. "In two years there's been no one. I hurt, David. I didn't want another man. I wanted you. I wasn't willing to settle for a substitute. So, the answer is no. In two years, there's been no one."

He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling the thrum of loneliness emanating from her, feeling the love for him, the need for him. Feeling the answering call in his own heart, in his groin. A wave of desire passed over him so strongly he swayed. He thought of Hutch waiting at home for him, remembered the lost expression in those beautiful blue eyes as he left. How could he betray the man who loved him so unconditionally?

His bullet wounds throbbed, and he found himself rubbing his chest unconsciously.

"I'm happy for you, David," she said quietly, sounding defeated. "I'm happy if you're happy. But you never answered me before. Are you happy with Hutch? I could accept all this and go on with my life if I were sure—?"

Her pressing for that answer tore something inside him, and all his confusion and emotions surged forth in a chaotic jumble that was more anger than anything else. He spun, closed the gap between them and grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. It was everything he could do not to shake her till her teeth rattled.

"You wanna know if I'm happy with Hutch? If you'd asked me in the restaurant, I'd've told you I was the happiest man in LA, maybe the world. I was healthy again, back workin' the streets again, my partner beside me coverin' my back. My best friend in the whole world was also my lover. The one human being on the planet I knew I could trust without question loved me. Did everything he could to make me happy. Lived for my joy. And I was full of joy. And if I thought of you—and a day never passed when I didn't—it was with a dull pain, the kind I get around my gunshot wounds. You were the past. Hutch was the future. I had accepted losing you, and I accepted loving Hutch and what that meant, and what it would cost me. 'Cause loving Hutch meant giving up something—giving up dreams of a family, of children. But I accepted that because I love Hutch, and he loves me. And for the first time in two years the world seemed right again. But then—"

His voice choked up, in pain or rage he couldn't say. He gripped her tighter, not caring if he hurt her, just needing to say what was inside him. "But then, you were there, right there, alive and real again. Holding out the dream. The fantasy. You tell me you still love me. You say there's been no one for you. And you ask me if I'm happy with Hutch? I was, damn you. Rosey, I was so happy—"

He gasped in a breath to keep from sobbing. "You wanna know why I said I still loved you? Because I do. I wish it wasn't true. I wish I'd never seen you again. But it is true, and you're here. And, dammit, Rosey, I love you like you never left me, like you never cut my heart out and made me eat it raw. Now, what am I supposed to say to Hutch? And what am I supposed to do?"

Tears swam in her eyes as she stared at him. She touched his cheek gently and whispered, "I'm sorry, David. The last thing I wanted to do was cause you more pain."

The heat from her palm scalded him and in reflex he turned his face into it, kissing the smooth skin there. "Rosey . . . " he breathed. "What am I gonna do?"

Then he couldn't hold it in anymore and as his own tears fell, he pulled her against him, crushing her slight frame to his brutally. He kissed her hard, taking her by surprise, making her gasp.

He plundered her mouth roughly, needing to find her taste, needing to know if it was the same. She tried not to yield, she tried to resist, pushing at him, moving her head, but he buried his hands in her hair roughly, and held her in place, waiting for her to surrender. And finally, with a soft cry, she did, opening her mouth, wrapping her arms around him as tight as she could, and meeting his tongue with hers. Her loneliness and need for him was like a tidal wave engulfing him, opening him up to everything he'd felt for her in the past, everything he'd tried—and failed—to forget. They were both shedding tears, for their loss, for their past helplessness in the face of outside forces larger than their love, for the pain of their separation, and for the pain that awaited them now.

Even as Starsky bore her to the floor, to the pillows that would hold her in place for him, he knew the pain was coming. For him. For her. For Hutch. But for that instance he couldn't resist the need for her that had been banked for so long. As he blanketed her body with his own and pinned her to the floor, he could hear the melancholy in Hutch's voice.

You don't know what she's going to say to you, and you don't know how it's going to make you feel. Deal with it when it happens.

The memory was enough to make him break the kiss.

As he did, she gasped, "David, stop, we can't do this. Your relationship—"

He knew what it was costing her to say that. He shook his head, "I still can't back off from you, Rosey. I just can't."

And Hutch's voice sang in his ear: "Oh, something will happen all right. And if you keep denying it, you're going to be very surprised when it does. Just be honest. And handle it."

He closed his eyes. I love you, Hutch. And I'm sorry. But this is the only way I can handle this now. Then he shut all the warning voices away, his own, and Hutch's, and even Rosey's, as he bent to taste her mouth again, and find the answer to his need in her body.

Her body. He felt as if he'd only ever had two lovers: this slender wraith of a woman and the solid tower of one remarkable man. Everything about her seemed small, delicate, yet with a surprising strength and resistance. Her desire, confusion, and reluctance reverberated through her touch, her kiss, and the tension in her body. But she couldn't make herself stop touching him, not after wanting him for so long. A distant part of him realized he was reacting instinctively, just as he had that night in the hospital bed with Hutch. Someone he loved, someone he trusted, was kissing him, giving him beautiful pleasure, and his animal nature couldn't resist the allure of passion mixed with love. It was no different now. He wondered if this was how Hutch had felt as he'd lost control of his need and taken Starsky's mouth, in defiance of society's censure, in defiance of their whole world? There had come a moment when Hutch couldn't say no to himself any longer. Would that help him understand Starsky's yielding? Would that help him forgive it?

"Wait . . . David, wait . . . !" Rosey gasped, managing to pull away and put some distance between them. She shook her head. "It's not fair . . . !" She was so distraught, it forced him to try to think, try to collect himself, as much as he didn't want to.

"Rosey . . . ."

"First my father was hurt by our being in love . . . . Someone who never did anything but love me." She used the heel of her hand to wipe the tears from one eye, as he brushed the others away with his thumb. "Now, it's Hutch we'll hurt. And all he's done is love you. There's never been a moment when it could just be me and you, working it out between us—" She shook her head. "Let me go, David. Go home to Hutch. He saved you. I can't come between that—"

"It's too late," he said honestly. "You already have. You've brought the past right back to the now, like it never went away, like you never left. I feel like I last loved you only yesterday. Your kiss, it's the same. The feel of your hair. Your warmth. The way you smell. Like it's all been stored inside my head waiting for you to remind me." His hands touched her, emphasizing what his body made him recall.

"You weren't just an infatuation to me, Rosey. You were one of the rare women in my life I ever seriously considered marrying. I was in love with you with my whole heart, my whole self. You think that just goes away? I thought—I'd hoped—it could . . . but when I saw you in that restaurant, I knew it never did." He towed her closer to him, but she withdrew, turning her head away in denial.

"You can't change your mind now," he told her harshly, confused, frustrated, and racked with guilt. "You came after me, you called me, pursued me—"

She shook her head, still not looking at him. "I didn't know! I didn't know there was anyone else. How can I hurt him—the way I was hurt when I had to leave—?"

He had no answers, couldn't think of any, couldn't feel anything but the terrible pain in his heart. She was too close, too real, too alive. He couldn't back off. Not now.

He rolled over her, claiming her mouth and she couldn't escape his kiss. In seconds, she was clutching him, returning his passion, her mouth open, her hunger something he could taste. He was as eager to respond to it as he'd been in that hospital bed so late at night. It tasted like love, just as Hutch's hunger had. And he was the one who could fill that hunger, who had to fill it. His hands found her breasts under her soft shirt, stroking them, pulling shudders from her.

"David . . . David!" she gasped. "Oh God forgive me! I love you. I can't help it! I love you so much."

He squeezed his eyes shut, hearing the echo of the words that he and Hutch used to pull each other back to reality from their terrible dreams. But this was reality, too. Her body, her need, his love and desire for her.

His palms slid beneath her clothes, moving them out of his way as he prepared to claim her. Her resistance melted away and she helped him, searching beneath his clothes for that skin-to-skin contact that was the only real thing left for them now. When her fingertips found the rigid scars still so livid on his skin she jolted in shock.

He pulled her hand away. That wasn't part of their past. That was part of his now. Hutch's fingertips would trace each one lovingly, feeling they were evidence of his life. To Rosey they would only be something he'd experienced without her. He pulled her hand down lower, to his unzipped jeans, to the part of him that was unchanged since she had touched it last. His cock rose up to meet her hand as eagerly as it always had, and she gripped it as surely as she had before, stroking it smoothly, strongly, the way she knew he liked it. He wrestled with her sweat pants until they were around her knees as he clambered awkwardly between her spread thighs. Their mouths never separated as they shared panting breaths while the rest of their bodies coordinated their dance automatically.

So familiar, yet so different . . . . She pulled him into her with a shaking hand, her body trembling in need. He couldn't help but think of Hutch's frantic need, the way he'd penetrated him so strongly, so forcefully. He was sympathetic to that need then, but he understood it totally now. After two years of abstinence, she was far tighter than he had been under Hutch. He fought his eagerness, trying to ease in carefully, be gentle. But it was a losing battle as he lost his focus and his brain was flooded with sensations both familiar and alien. Tight and wet and small—so different from Hutch. How powerful he felt whenever he took Hutch, to be able to claim such a strong man. But this was different, it was right, it was natural and oh, so good. He thrust into her, disregarding the tangle of their clothes, her grip on his arms, and her fingers yanking his hair. He could hear her whisper his name over and over as she became lost in his passion. Somewhere inside him, his body knew the most primal truth—this is the way you made children. This was the only way a man could find immortality on this earth. From this union, new life was possible. It gave a power to his passion that was different from his loving Hutch.

His orgasm rose up through his legs and erupted through the barrel of his cock, just as she clutched him frantically and shook with her release. But he realized, as he came, that they had never been alone in their passion, not for a single second. As he had loved her, his other lover's shadow had hovered over them the entire time. He squeezed his eyes shut and clutched her to him, as if to hide her from that shadow. As he rocked her gently, consoling her about the fates that conspired against them, she cried quietly, sorrowfully against his chest. And as the lassitude of his orgasm settled on him heavily, he found himself as haunted and confused as he had ever felt in his life.

Hutch sat on the couch in his apartment, long legs sprawled out in front of him, and watched the Creature Feature's midnight offering, Rodan. He realized with some surprise that it was at least the fourth time he'd seen the silly thing, but the first time he'd ever watched it alone. It felt strange, sitting here, watching the pair of fakey monsters flying over ravaged Japan, screaming at one another, without Starsky beside him, bowl of half-eaten popcorn on his lap. But he was desperate to do something, anything that would still the chaotic memories surging through his brain.

As he tried to concentrate on the movie, the last two years of his life kept replaying like a private screening in his mind.

That first day in the park . . . if I hadn't talked you into running there . . . if you hadn't seen her that first time . . . .

Starsky's interest in Rosey had been instant and impulsive, so sudden Hutch had no time to school his jealous feelings. He'd finally managed to rein them in, but only after outside forces threatened them.

It could've ended differently. If the feds hadn't interfered, Malone might've stayed, and if he had, she and Starsky would've probably been married by now with a kid.

When Rosey left it wasn't like when Terry died. They'd both mourned that senseless loss, and let time heal the pain. But Rosey wasn't dead, she was just gone. And Starsky looked for her in every woman that passed him. He'd gone through the ladies like Sherman taking Atlanta, and Hutch had had to witness it all. His own desire was a shameful secret he felt determined to keep buried, and his own denial of it had nearly led to the end of their partnership.


He closed his eyes, not wanting to think about her, but unable to escape the memories. She was yet another of the sandy blond Rosey-substitutes Starsky courted. But it had gotten too serious. Starsky had had less and less time for him, as he made more and more time for Kira. By that time, Hutch's unrequited love for Starsky had become a bitter wound that was slowly poisoning their friendship, eroding their partnership. Hutch had gone a little crazy, determined to get between Starsky and Kira. He succeeded in the basest way possible, only coming to his senses when Starsky nearly caught him in her bed.

He tried to remember what Kira had felt like in his arms, what making love to her had been like, but he couldn't. He could barely remember what she looked like. Since he'd become Starsky's lover, he'd stopped thinking about women as sexual partners. It was as if that part of his life had never existed.

His behavior during that time with Kira shamed him. He was never sure why Starsky forgave him except maybe because he still loved Hutch, still considered him his best friend. It was a miracle, really, that they'd patched things up. Then Starsky was shot and it all seemed so stupid, wasting all that time when suddenly time was so short, life so fragile.

But it had taught Hutch something, at least. It taught him what was really important in this life. Starsky, of course, but most especially, Starsky's friendship. It was the most valuable thing to Hutch, outweighing even his desire, even their shared passion. Because it was that friendship that had sustained them through the worst of times. It was that loving friendship that gave Starsky the will to live during his nearly fatal ordeal, and the strength to go on through his recovery. It was the power and strength of that amazing, unique friendship that kept each of them going in their bleakest hours—after Gillian, after Terry, after their worst, most heartbreaking cases. And after having survived Kira, Hutch had vowed that never again would he allow anything to come between him and his partner, his best friend. Nothing. Ever. The friendship was inviolable.

Now that vow was being tested.

He realized with a start that the movie was nearly over. The monsters were meeting their doom, being burned alive in a volcanic conflagration. And the Japanese watching it were getting all philosophical about it. This was the part when Starsky would always tear up. Because the monsters were a pair, they were lovers, and they were dying together. No matter how many times they watched it, Starsky would get weepy and Hutch would roll his eyes in exasperation as he did.

They're just rubber puppets, he would tell Starsky, and not very good ones at that. It's the silliest movie ever made. I don't know why I sit through this thing with you every time.

So, he was very surprised as he sat, alone, watching the doomed creatures call to one another, to feel a lone tear fall from his eye. He reached up, touched it, and looked at it as if it had fallen from the sky. As the Rodans fell into the lava, Hutch realized that if he didn't turn the TV off this minute he would dissolve into an uncontrollable crying jag. Suppressing an urge to shoot the TV dead, he rose from the couch, covered the distance in two strides and shut the set off.

Watching stupid monster movies by myself, he thought, agitated, when I could've been reading a book, or practicing my guitar, or watching something worthwhile. I'm losing it.

He sat back on the couch in the same ungainly sprawl and stared at the now dark set. The images of the dying monsters still swam before his eyes, calling to one another in their death throes.

Like me and Starsky on the street. Like me and Starsky during the hit.

He squeezed his eyes shut. If he started mulling that over, he'd have to live through the dream tonight. Tonight. When he'd probably be sleeping alone.

He heard the knob turn and jumped, startled. When Starsky entered, it took him completely by surprise. He knew it showed on his face, and tried to school it, but it was too late. Besides, what had he ever been able to hide from this man?

"Hey," Starsky said as he let himself in. "Were you asleep? I'm sorry if I woke you."

"No," Hutch said too quickly. "I wasn't asleep. I, uh, was watching Rodan." He smiled sheepishly.

"Oh, wow," Starsky said, and frowned. "That's such a sad movie. You watched it alone?" He said it in the same tone of voice as if it had been some intense Shakespearean tragedy with Lawrence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn.

Hutch just stared at him. "Well, my date stood me up."

Starsky flushed dark, not the kind of flush he got when he was excited, but the one he got when he was embarrassed. "I'm sorry I'm so late."

Hutch immediately felt like shit and looked away from him. "Don't apologize. You don't have curfew. In fact—I didn't really expect you back here tonight. I thought, that is, I figured you might want to be alone." Or not. But not with me.

Starsky moved around the room restlessly, touching plants he normally never noticed, fiddling with assorted bric-a-brac, eyes roving everywhere. He seemed a bundle of nerves to Hutch, a live wire looking for a spark.

You usually plunk yourself so close to me you're practically in my lap, Hutch thought, trying to keep his face blank. He didn't want to say the wrong thing, pressure Starsky, or ask the questions that were burning holes in him. Instead, he really looked at his partner, taking in everything, like a good detective.

You've showered, he realized with a knot in his stomach. Oh, god, you've taken a shower. Your hair still has that fresh-washed sheen and the curls aren't sitting just right because you didn't take the time to blow dry your hair.

For a brief moment, Hutch thought he might actually get sick, but then he drew in a breath and calmed down.

You knew it would happen. Stop acting so surprised. Be his friend. Be adult. You can handle this.

"Hutch, I-I can't work this out alone," Starsky said, referring back to Hutch's last comment about Starsky's wanting to be alone. Turning, finally, to face Hutch, Starsky shoved his hands in his pockets then pulling them out again. "I'm so used to having you there, to working things out with you that I can't do it on my own anymore."

Be his friend, Hutch ordered himself harshly. The friendship will last, has to last, so be his friend.

"You don't have to work it out alone, buddy. I'm here. Talk to me."

"How can I?" Starsky asked plaintively, looking like he was barely holding it together. "How can I discuss this with you when the things I'm feeling, the things I'm doing are tearin' you apart? Tearing us apart . . . ."

A strange calmness came over Hutch, infusing him, firming his center. "No, not that. Nothing can tear us apart, partner. What we've got is too solid. Gunther couldn't do it. Kira couldn't do it. The job couldn't do it. This won't either."

Starsky stared at him, searching his eyes to see if he was lying.

"Maybe we'll have a rocky moment or two," Hutch admitted honestly, "but we'll come out the other side. We'll always be partners; we'll always have each other. We had that before anything else. We'll have that when—" The love affair is over. He swallowed hard and made himself smile.

Starsky's eyes darted around the room again, and he started wandering some more. He looked trapped, frustrated. It was the kind of look he got before a complete explosion of nerves and temper. "Why'd you make me go over there tonight? Why'd you make me do that? I wasn't ready. I didn't have my head together . . . ."

"You had to do it," Hutch said calmly. "You had to face it, however it went. And you had to know I accepted that." Hutch paused for a moment then admitted something that had been sitting in his gut all night. "I knew when my marriage to Vanessa was over. I knew when it was time to let her go."

Starsky spun back around, looking nearly panicked. "Is that where we're at in your mind, Hutch? Are we over? You ready to pull the plug while the patient's still breathing?"

He didn't miss the analogy, and smiled wryly. "Starsk . . . if Gillian were somehow to walk through that door right now, I don't what I'd do or how I'd feel. But I loved that woman so much . . . if she were still alive . . . if she came back . . . . I'd probably be going through a similar hell. I can't stand in your way. I can't be an obstacle to you. I love you. And if that's true, if the love is genuine, then that means I've got to care about your happiness—wherever you might find it."

Starsky's eyes squeezed shut. Angrily, he asked, "If everyone's so fuckin' concerned about my damned happiness, then how come I'm hurtin' so bad?"

Hutch leaned over the back of the couch, resting his chin on his forearms, wishing Starsky was in reach. "Easy. Easy there, buddy. Talk to me."

Starsky stared at him. The tears were banked in there, dammed up, as if he were terrified to let the first one sneak out. "Hutch, I still love her. Just like you said. I couldn't make it go away, I couldn't pretend it wasn't there. It was tearin' me up inside it hurt so bad, to see her, be with her, talk to her—" His voice choked up hard and he swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing violently. "She-she held it all out to me. She stills loves me, wants to be with me. She's been waiting for me all this time."

Hutch nodded, keeping his face fixed with that understanding expression. Oddly enough, his outer calm affected his inner being and he felt himself becoming detached, analytical. As though the friend he was to Starsky had taken ascendancy and pushed the frightened, needy lover aside. That was good, he thought. Maybe it would help him handle this.

"Hutch, I-I made love to her—!" Starsky blurted guiltily. His hands were balled into tight fists by his sides. "I'm sorry!" he whispered.

For some weird reason that made Hutch smile the indulgent smile he always got when Starsky got the guilts over something dumb. "I know. I could tell." He got up from the couch and approached him, running his hand through Starsky's disorganized curls. "You showered. Unless the two of you spent the evening running laps, I couldn't see any other reason."

The gentle humor didn't register, making Starsky look only more distressed. "Aren't you mad? Don't you hate me?"

"Ssssh," Hutch admonished, trying to calm him down. "No, I'm not mad. And I could never hate you. We haven't made any promises to each other. You never asked me for fidelity—"

"No, you just gave it," Starsky interrupted. "You never cheated on me, Hutch, I know that, not the whole time—"

"Stop," Hutch ordered firmly. "The only promise we ever made to each other was the same one we always had—the promise of our friendship. In a relationship like ours . . . there's no real mechanism for permanence . . . . I never asked you for monogamy; you never asked me for it. I'm not mad. I . . . I guess I expected it."

Starsky looked astounded and confused at the same time.

"It's not like you went out and had some one night stand just for the hell of it, Starsk. You love this woman. You loved her before you loved me. I understand. And I can accept it." Just like I've accepted your leaving me while you're still fighting it.

"But Hutch," Starsky argued, pulling away and making another nervous circuit of the room, "it didn't help, making love to her. I mean, yeah, it helped the immediate problem, but there were no answers there. For a few minutes I thought, if I did that, if I loved her, physically, when I was done, I'd know—"

"Know what?" Hutch asked, having a little trouble following his agitated argument.

"I'd know what to do," Starsky said plaintively. "I'd know who I loved the most. But it didn't help. Not at all. Even while I made love to her, you were in my head and my heart. You were there. Even when I finished, I knew I still loved you. Still wanted you. I've never been through anything like this in my life, Hutch. I never loved two people so hard, both at the same time. I don't know what to do."

Hutch didn't know either. It wasn't what he expected, so he had no answers. But he knew how to comfort Starsky's pain. He'd always known how to do that. He leaned against the counter and opened his arms. Softly, he said, "Come here. Let me hold you."

Starsky hesitated for a few seconds then crossed the room, nearly falling against him, clutching him desperately. "Hutch?"

"Ssssh," he whispered, stroking Starsky's spine, his thick hair. "I've got you. Try to relax."

Starsky was trembling, nearly shaking in his arms. "Can I stay here tonight?" he asked, his voice tremulous.

Hutch felt as if someone had thrust one of those long ceremonial swords slowly through his heart, then drew it out just as deliberately. "Never ask me that. This is your home. This room, the bed, my body, everything here is yours. You know that. No matter what. No matter why. You can always stay here."

"Even after—?" Starsky began.

Even after fucking her? "Yes. Always. Forever. No matter what."

"Do you still love me?" Starsky asked, his voice so tight Hutch thought it would crack.

"I could never stop loving you," Hutch told him. "I never will." Anymore than you could stop loving her.

Starsky crushed him even harder until Hutch had to gasp for air. "Make love to me?" Starsky pleaded softly, timidly.

Hutch grinned, feeling as though his heart were cut in two. Half of it leaped for joy. The other half shriveled and died. "An offer I could never refuse," he whispered, kissing Starsky's forehead.

"I love you, Hutch," Starsky insisted, even as his hands frantically began searching his body.

"I know you do," Hutch assured him. "I know." Then Starsky's mouth came down on his hard, hungry, desperate, and Hutch yielded to his confusion and need.

Starsky was rock hard already, as crazed and needy as he usually was after the dream. Hutch needed to slow things down, help Starsky find some inner peace if Hutch had any hope of finding his own. He stepped back from Starsky, disentangling them. Starsky looked disoriented and rejected at the same time.

Hutch held out his hand. "Come to bed. Then we can sleep when we're done. I'll hold you."

Starsky's face was a mask of turmoil. He stood, went to Hutch, wrapped his strong arms around him.

Hutch couldn't help but wonder if Starsky was comparing the feel of his large, male body with Rosey's small feminine one. And why wouldn't he? If images of Hutch were in his mind while he loved Rosey, then what could he do but see her while he loved Hutch? He closed his eyes, shutting that concern away.

We're together tonight, who knows for how long? Cherish it. Remember it. It might be the last time. He bent his head, found the mouth he loved, and kissed it with all the gentleness he had, all the longing inside him.

Starsky grew calmer in his arms. "I'm sorry, Hutch," he whispered. "I never wanna hurt you."

"Ssssh," Hutch soothed, stroking his face. "Let's just be together in this moment, here and now. Can you do that?"

Starsky nodded, looking grateful, as Hutch led him to his big brass bed.

Once he had him there, he undressed him slowly, kissing him everywhere, examining his body, memorizing every inch of it for later, for all the lonely tomorrows. He used his tongue freely, knowing Starsky loved that, tasting his freshly washed skin and storing that experience away as well. He used his teeth only to bestow the gentlest nips, the tiniest nibbles, just to excite, not to dominate, not to brand. He had to share now. She had left Starsky unmarked, and Hutch was grateful for her consideration. So, he showed the same regard. He had never needed to mark, to bruise or bite, it wasn't his way. Starsky needed to sometimes, and after the last dream Hutch had done it, but it bothered him. It wasn't like him.

This was like him, this slow, languid loving, this thorough worship of the body he craved, the complete enjoyment of the man he loved more than he had ever loved anyone.

As he adored Starsky with his mouth and hands and tongue, Starsky touched him wherever he could reach, lightly, gently, as if he couldn't believe he was still here, as if he were totally amazed that they were doing this. His finely chiseled fingers stroked Hutch's face, traced the outline of his lips, teased his ear, and petted his hair. And all the while, Starsky repeated his love, over and over, as if needing the reassurance himself.

Hutch spent a long time kissing and licking Starsky's ass, knowing how much he loved that. He traced the separating crevasse with his tongue tip, then pushed the buttocks apart with his hands. When he rimmed Starsky's anus, his lover moaned and called his name, swearing his love and sounding close to tears.

Will she give you this? Hutch's traitorous mind wondered. Can she please you all these ways? Can you teach her how to love you, how you like it best? Or do you want it differently with her? Do you love all the special things she does instead? Will you remember this when you take her, when you give her all you have?

He closed his eyes and shut the thoughts away, and worked at pleasing his lover.

"Take me, Hutch," Starsky cried out. "I can't handle that anymore! It's too good, please. Fuck me now!" He was clawing the sheets, getting close, so close.

But Hutch didn't want to fuck. He didn't want to do anything she couldn't do. He didn't want to dominate or overwhelm. He just wanted to love. And he knew in his heart he didn't have to fuck to please Starsky. Hutch knew he could pleasure him as well as any woman even without that. He was willing to compete on even ground. Twelve years of knowing this man had to give him some advantage. Gently, he turned Starsky over, found his rigid cock pulsing in time with his heart, in time with Hutch's heart as well. He took hold of it firmly, and slid his mouth around it.

Starsky cried out and bucked, protesting even as he shoved hard into the hot, wet haven of Hutch's mouth. "Please, babe, please—!" he pleaded, but Hutch knew Starsky no longer knew what he was pleading for.

So he showed him, taking all of Starsky inside him, into his throat, licking, swallowing, sucking, loving the most beautiful part of this most beautiful man with all that he had.

I may never see you like this again. Each time we're together could be the last. I've got to remember—

Starsky shouted and shoved hard down Hutch's throat and then it was there, the strong jets of thick semen pulsing, flowing, filling him. Hutch drank as if Starsky's seed would give him life, give him purpose. And the act of swallowing Starsky so excited him he came unexpectedly, pulsing against the bed and Starsky's leg.

When they were done, he released Starsky after wiping the spatters from Starsky's calf. He climbed back up to the head, took Starsky in his arms and pulled the sheets around them.

"That was so good, Hutch," Starsky sighed. "It's always so good with you. So right. I love you." And then he was asleep, still clutching Hutch hard as if afraid to let go.

You sleep, Hutch thought, kissing his curly head as he pulled Starsky to him. He sighed, enjoying the familiar feel of Starsky's lax, satisfied body lying in his arms. You sleep now. I'm here to keep the nightmares away. God knows the daylight ones are going to be bad enough.