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Starsky knew Hutch was alive. He saw Hutch sitting up in the car as he grabbed Ray Pardee and tossed the suspect aside to a pair of patrolmen. What Starsky didn't know was how bad the poison had progressed; only that Pardee's girlfriend hadn't sounded very hopeful about Hutch's condition.

His path clear, Starsky ran to the passenger side of the car and tore open the door.

Hutch looked dazed. Weak. Sick. Blood running from a mouth corner.

Starsky squatted down to his partner's level, grabbing handfuls of drab, baggy clothing, needing to touch. He looked away from the pale face long enough to yell toward Dobey, who had arrived at the scene, "Somebody get an ambulance!" Then he looked back at Hutch, gentling his voice as he assured, "You're gonna be okay."

Hutch stirred, tried to look in Starsky's direction, seemed to get his mouth to form the ghost of a smile. There were quiet, muttered words. "Looks like you turned up the big winner."

Big winner. His reward for finding Hutch before the weekend was over. As if any sum of money would mean more than finding Hutch alive.

Starsky didn't want to talk about money. He just wanted to agree to whatever Hutch wanted. "Yeah," his own voice acknowledged softly. He looked away a moment to see that Dobey was on the radio, summoning the ambulance. Then he returned his gaze to his partner.

Hutch's tiny smile seemed to broaden. But then he groaned and slid sideways halfway down the seat, his hand pressing against his stomach.

Starsky released his hold, then squeezed an arm. "Easy, Hutch, easy." He rose. "Hang on a sec, just hang on." He rushed around to the open door of the driver's side. Hutch's arm had tightened around his stomach, and he was making gagging noises that were thick and dry.

Starsky knelt on the seat. "Hang on, hang on." He reached for Hutch's shoulders, then pulled. "Come on," he prompted in a more cheerful tone, "lay down." He was grateful to see Dobey arrive at the passenger side. "Get his feet, help him stretch out." Starsky continued to pull at Hutch's shoulders, backing away while dragging Hutch across the seat until his dirty head rested near the steering wheel.

After patting Hutch's leg, Dobey straightened and called to one of the officers, "Get a blanket."

Lying along the seat, Hutch groaned repeatedly.

Starsky squatted next to him. He pulled off the knit cap and tossed it aside. He patted the crown of Hutch's head, then rubbed vigorously along his back, clad in the short jacket. "It's gonna be okay, Hutch. It's gonna be fine. Just got a little touch of food poisoning, is all."

Hutch slowly reached up, rubbing at his throat. Eyes barely open, he muttered, "Can't swallow."

Starsky laid his other hand on the blond's sweaty forehead, desperately wanting to do more. "I know you don't feel so good, but it's gonna be okay. The ambulance is coming and the doctor will be waiting at the hospital with a shot. And then you'll be fine. Just hang on."

Dobey was leaning toward Hutch at the other end of the seat. He tossed a blanket toward Starsky, and the detective let go of his partner long enough to help spread it over the curled form.

Their captain laid a hand on Hutch's leg. "Take it easy, son. The ambulance will be here any minute."

"Do you want to give him this?"

Starsky turned at the voice behind him. An officer held out a soaked handkerchief in one hand and a bottle of water in another. Starsky took the handkerchief. "Thanks."

He placed it along Hutch's forehead, heart twisting with each groan that emitted from the other. The water caused the putty Hutch had used to change his appearance to pucker and peel more than it already was.

Starsky pulled the substance away, muttering, "You and your damned disguises. We never agreed to that." He tore at the fake nose, pulling it off, aware too late that he should have been more gentle. But Hutch hadn't even flinched. In fact, as Starsky patted the handkerchief along the broad forehead, he realized Hutch's facial muscles had an unnatural laxity about them.

Paralysis. Moving from the top down. Already, it was affecting his partner's throat and vocal chords. Once it reached his chest....

Starsky laid a hand on Hutch's shoulder, squeezing firmly, his touch this time protectively gentle. He glanced up at Dobey and muttered, "Where's the damn ambulance?"

"On the way," the captain replied, meeting Starsky's eye. The older man's held concern, but his voice was reassuring. "Dr. Pendleton has called the hospital to let them know we'll be bringing Hutch in, so they can be standing by with the antitoxin."

Starsky drew a deep breath, forcing himself to calm. Dr. Pendelton was the one at Parker Center who had tested the can of clam chowder. Letting the hospital know ahead of time what was going on would mean treatment could begin immediately.

Starsky's hand moved from Hutch's shoulder to the blond's neck, fingertips massaging. "It's gonna be okay," he whispered. Already, Hutch's breathing was harsher, as though he were struggling for each breath.

Starsky shifted so that he was kneeling on the ground, placing him level with the seat. He gently pulled at more of the fake scar tissue, scolding, "It wasn't enough that you felt like hell. You still had to go out and get Pardee all on your own didn't you?" Affection colored the reprimand.

Eyes closed, Hutch made several semi-successful attempts to swallow, which made Starsky regret that he'd asked a question. Finally, the gruff voice whispered, "'Old you I'd get 'im."

The stubbornness in the tone, which Starsky knew so well, made him put his arm around Hutch's shoulders and lean close.

There was the noise of further attempts to swallow. Then, with a touch of fear, "I 'an't see. Two... of ever'thing." Starsky pulled back, saw that Hutch's eyes were staring ahead from beneath drooped lids.

"Hutch," he squeezed the shoulder again, "it's gonna be okay. It's gonna be fine. The doctor will be waiting with a shot as soon as the ambulance reaches the hospital."

His own fear that maybe he was too late spurred him into action. He needed to do something, so he unsnapped the fastening on the coverall straps. He gently removed the gray outer jacket, muttering, "Gonna make you more comfortable, pal. Just bear with me." He pushed the coveralls down to his partner's waist, glanced up to see that Dobey was following his lead and removing Hutch's shoes and socks. Just as Starsky managed to pull the dark sweater over Hutch's head, he heard a siren in the distance.

He and Dobey both tucked the blanket more firmly around Hutch. "Just another minute," Starsky assured, "and the ambulance will be here."

Hutch barely nodded, then gasped and brought his knees up closer to his stomach.

Starsky swallowed. "Ah, Hutch."

The ambulance came to an abrupt halt next to Pardee's car. As the attendants jumped from the vehicle, Starsky called to them, "You know what's goin' down, right?"

One attendant gave a quick nod. "We've got direct communication with the hospital." More firmly, he added, "Please step out of the way."

Starsky gave Hutch's blanketed shoulder a final squeeze. "They're here, Hutch. You're gonna be okay." He moved back and let the paramedics through.

They wasted no time in getting Hutch on a gurney and putting him into the back of the ambulance. Starsky was able to ride with him, but he had to sit too far away to be able to touch Hutch, for the paramedics were surrounding him. They gave Hutch an I.V. and oxygen. Throughout the ride, they were transmitting his vitals to the hospital. Hutch didn't move or speak, other than an occasional groan, as though all his energy was focused on the simple act of breathing.

Starsky didn't protest when he was barred from the emergency room. For the time being, Hutch needed medical care more than comfort and reassurance.

He paced the hallway restlessly, trying to tell himself that the antitoxin was being administered and Hutch would be fine.

"You're Hutchinson's partner?"

Starsky turned at the voice. A severe-looking, overweight, gray-haired man held out his hand. "I'm Dr. Morgan." He tilted his head toward a row of chairs.

"Dave Starsky." Starsky shook his hand as they both sat.

"Mr. Starsky, do you know if your partner is allergic to horses?"

Starsky blinked with surprise. "Horses?"

"Yes, I ask because the antitoxin for botulism is developed from horse serum. If Hutchinson is allergic to horses, we'll have to consider another route of treatment."

A heavy weight pressed on Starsky's chest, as it was apparent they hadn't even given Hutch the shot yet. "I don't think he's allergic to horses. He's never mentioned anything about it." He swallowed and added, "Not that he's ever had a reason to...." Why hadn't he ever asked Hutch that question?

The doctor nodded, as if attempting to be reassuring. "We're giving him a skin test to see if there's a reaction. If it comes up negative, we can begin administering the serum."

"Skin test?" Starsky repeated, feeling he was way out of his element and wishing he'd asked Dr. Pendleton more questions the day before. "How long will that take?"

"About twenty minutes."

"And if there isn't a reaction," Starsky pursued, making sure he understood, "then you just give him a shot of serum, right?"

Dr. Morgan drew a deep breath. "I'm afraid it's not that simple Mr. Starsky. If the skin test is negative, we will begin administering the serum via an IV. But the serum isn't a cure-all. It can only stop the progress of the toxin. It won't reverse his current symptoms, so we'll have to treat him for those. In addition, even if the skin test is negative, there's still a slight chance he could have an allergic reaction to the serum, which could be more harmful than the botulism itself. We'll have to keep him closely monitored. Under the best of circumstances, he'll be in intensive care for two to three days."

Starsky blinked slowly, looking away. He hadn't expected Hutch's treatment to be anywhere near this complicated. Finally, he managed hopefully, "But he will be okay? I mean, assuming he doesn't have any bad reactions to the serum?"

The doctor eyed him gravely. "Frankly, Mr. Starsky, I can't say 'Yes' with absolute certainty. Our biggest challenge is keeping him breathing, because the toxin is trying to paralyze his respiratory system. That may mean putting him on a respirator, depending on how quickly his ability to breathe deteriorates between now and when the serum begins to take effect."

Starsky didn't know what to say to that. He wanted to plead with the doctor to save Hutch, but he knew that was, of course, the physician's intent. He squared his jaw, then met Morgan's eye. His voice came out as an unexpectedly soft whisper. "Save him."

Morgan stood. "We'll do everything we can." Turning away, he said, "I’ll let you know as soon as the results of the skin test are in."

As darkness fell, Starsky was sitting in a chair on a different floor. Dobey had arrived in time to hear Morgan announce that Hutch's skin test had been negative. Closely supervised treatment had begun. Now, Hutch was in the intensive care ward and stable for the moment. Dobey had left upon hearing that Hutch's condition was no longer worsening.

Starsky had gone into the ward to see Hutch, but hadn't stayed the five minutes allowed. Hutch was hooked up to all sorts of apparatus and tubes, and though pain medication had been given for the abdominal cramps, he had looked so uncomfortable that Starsky was afraid his reaction, however subtle, might be more distressing to Hutch than soothing. He hoped whatever medications his partner had been given had sent him into some sort of dream world where he wasn't conscious of the atrocities medical science was committing upon his person.

My kids grew out of playing that game before they were seven years old.

Dobey's statement came back to Starsky, as it had every time there wasn't something else distracting him. Now, full of fatigue he finally gave it the attention that his memory insisted it deserved.

A game. Hide and seek. Cat and mouse. No matter what one chose to call it, it was a kid's game. Something two grown men wouldn't dare be caught playing. And he and Hutch had gone into it with the relish of two opponents going in for the kill.

An inadvertently accurate analysis.

Of course, even if they hadn't played The Game, Hutch would still have been infected with the botulism, for he had consumed the contaminated can of Ryland soup before the subject of The Game had ever been breached. But if they hadn't played they would have heard about the botulism on the radio, or seen it in the newspaper, or heard people talking about it. And Hutch could have gone to the hospital and been given the serum before symptoms even began to appear. And been back on his feet in no time.

Starsky's brows drew together as he considered the shoulda/coulda/woulda aspect further. He was surprised to realize that he did not, in fact, feel guilty about Hutch being in his current state. His actions, or lack of such, had done nothing to bring on the botulism. Choosing to eat the can of soup -- at room temperature, no less -- had been Hutch's choice.

Dumb blond.

For that matter, The Game itself had been Hutch's idea.

Starsky bent forward in his chair, his concentration focusing inward. That was the voice that was replaying itself in the back of his mind. The one that wanted to know why they had resorted to a children's game of hide and seek.

When Starsky had stopped by the station to have Dr. Pendleton test the can of soup, he had run into Minnie Kaplan. She'd gotten wind of their plans and teased, "What's the matter with you two? Don't you have anything better to do with your weekend than find each other?" After a somewhat mocking laugh she'd added, "Like maybe go out on a date or something ?"

Starsky had blown her off, too concerned about what Pendleton's lab would find. Now, he realized she had asked some very good questions.

How had it all begun?

Starsky had loved this past Friday. Loved everything about it. Loved the sense of contentment he felt as he put away files while Hutch read from Shakespeare out loud. Loved the banter that went back and forth between them. Of course, it had been frustrating that Pardee got away when Hutch's car wouldn't start, but Starsky had loved the opportunity it had given him to tease Hutch about being inept. And Hutch, in typical always-have-to-have-the-last-word style, had tried to one-up everything Starsky said.

Even when Huggy had introduced Anita as his new waitress, all their attention, and their remarks, had been directed at each other rather than at her.

Starsky straightened in his chair. The last thought brought forth another memory. One from last year. The attractive lady reporter. He and Hutch had fallen all over each other trying to impress her that first day. Again, it was Minnie who had made an off-the-cuff statement upon seeing Starsky in the hall. "You two act so juvenile around her it's disgusting," she noted good-naturedly.

 Starsky countered with, "Don't you think she's worth trying to impress?" 

Minnie looked him up and down. "She's worth trying to impress?" she had scoffed. "It looks more to me like it's each other you're both trying to impress."

Starsky had had no interest in her analysis at the time. Now, he seemed to have all the time in the world.

He had heard a theory once about gang rape. When a group of men raped a woman, each man in the gang raped to impress the other members of the gang. The psychology of the act had nothing to do with each man and the woman; all the dynamics were involved with the attackers pleasing each other by showing they were man enough to participate.

On a much less violent and dramatic level, is that what had happened between him and Hutch concerning the lady reporter? How strong would his interest in her have been if Hutch hadn't been there to observe it?

What if Hutch had, say, for some reason left early and gone home for the day? And then what if Starsky had asked Miss Lady Reporter for a date? And what if she had said "Yes"?

Starsky released a sigh. He would have had no interest in the date, he admitted to himself now. It wouldn't have meant anything to him since Hutch wouldn't have known about it until the following morning. Though he would have been able to brag about it, it wouldn't have had the effect it would have had if Hutch had been there to observe the moment when she said "Yes", the moment that would show him Starsky had "won".

Starsky pressed his palms to his eyes.

When had this all started? How had he and Hutch gotten so competitive? They hadn't always been like that. In years past, Hutch would brag about his intelligence and Starsky would feel no need to challenge it.

So why had he felt the need this past Friday? When Hutch had so smugly pointed out that he was "the brains of this duo" while Starsky was "the not-too-inconsiderable brawn"? Why had he not shrugged it off, even basked in the compliment about his strength? Instead, he'd made a comment or two about his own intelligence. And when Hutch had suggested a game of cat and mouse, Starsky had jumped at the chance, grateful to have a way of putting Hutch in his arrogant place.

What an evening it had been. A perfect ending to a perfect day. Making the final plans in the locker room. Snide remarks aside, they had readily agreed on the rules.

Starsky had felt at peace with the world then. Everything in his life had neatly fallen into place. It had filled him with such exuberance that he hadn't been able to keep it to himself. "I've done my homework for seven years, "he'd bragged while running his eyes over Hutch's body, flirting in that way that had become a natural part of them over the years. "I know how, where, when you eat, walk, sleep, talk, who you know, whacha know, and how you know it. And there ain't no hidin' behind that."

The pride he had felt at those words. The exhilaration over the truth of them. What better assignment could he have been given than that of finding Hutch? Not because Hutch was in the bad guys' hands, not because Hutch was lying hurt somewhere, not because Hutch needed him, but just… because. The act of finding Hutch was intended as an end in itself -- an enjoyment all its own -- rather than a means to an end.

Hutch's eyes had sparkled Friday evening, too, though he'd had no such noble task as finding his partner. His assignment was to hide so that Starsky couldn't find him. Come and get me if you can.

I can, Hutch. He'd never doubted it for an instant.

Hutch had never doubted it, either.

Starsky jumped to his feet as the truth hit him. He rubbed at his legs to restore the circulation, then began pacing up and down the hall.

Hutch had known all along that Starsky would find him. Now that the thought was in the open, Starsky felt it with the same certainty that he had known he would have found Hutch before Monday morning.

Then why, Hutch? Why the game? Why give up two weeks' pay to make me prove I could find you?

What had Hutch wanted from him?

He tried to put himself in Hutch's shoes, look at it from the blond's point of view. What would he gain by having Starsky find him before the weekend was over?

Hiding from Starsky would mean he would have to be clever, trying as hard as he could to trick Starsky. Tricking Starsky, knowing with each move that Starsky was working all the harder to find him. Knowing Starsky was going around, asking questions, trying to find him. Knowing Starsky was trying to think as he thought. Knowing that at every moment of the weekend, the only thought in Starsky's head was Hutch. Knowing....

The brainstorm reached a dead end. Starsky ran his hand through his hair and sat back down.

Is this what it was all about, Hutch? Knowing that you would occupy 100% of my attention for a whole weekend? Is that what your reward would have been?

No, surely not. Hutch had his little psychological quirks, but he wasn't that insecure.

Was he?

It's not that he didn't have good reason to be. His romantic failures were as numerous as Starsky's own. Perhaps, all in all, Hutch's failures were more intensely felt because he committed himself so wholeheartedly so quickly. And the job itself was growing more frustrating than satisfying with each passing year. Disillusion was strong, but again perhaps more so for Hutch, for he had had higher expectations regarding what he could accomplish for the good of mankind.

It was a fact that Hutch had changed somewhat over the past few years. Even just the past year. In some ways he was more relaxed, in other ways more withdrawn. In other ways more moody. There were longer periods of celibacy between romances. He ate more junk food. He was, in general, more grumpier than cheerful.

In short, he seemed to be drifting through life lately rather than embracing it. Speaking of embracing, they didn't do that much anymore, either. All those touches -- large and small -- they used to share… those had become very infrequent in recent months.

Starsky realized that he missed them.

What happened to us, Hutch? We used to tease each other and then share a pat or a hug... or at least a smile.

Maybe, simply, they'd grown out of that.

And "grown up" to the point of playing hide and seek? No, that didn't make sense.

Why, Hutch? Why did you feel you needed to set it up so that I would spend my whole weekend looking for you? What would the payoff have been?

Starsky tried to imagine the scenario. If Hutch hadn't gotten the botulism, Starsky still would have found him by Sunday night. At the moment of capture, Hutch would have probably tried to defend his ego by making a few choice remarks about Starsky having cheated. And Starsky would counter that Hutch had used disguises without mentioning it ahead of time. Starsky would demand to be paid up and Hutch would find some way to weasel out of it. Most likely, he'd say he'd pay Starsky on pay day, but when the day came he would say he really needed the money to take care off a certain debt or loan. And he'd keep finding reasons to put it off until the next week until Starsky was no longer interested in collecting and it was forgotten about.

Meaning Hutch would, ultimately, "win".

There was a time, Starsky thought forlornly, when winning was something they both did together, instead of something one did in opposition to the other.

What happened to those days, Hutch ?


Though the noise was gentle, the closing of the door next to the chairs he was stretched across jerked Starsky awake. He blinked quickly and looked up at the nurse who had emerged from intensive care.

She smiled at him.

Starsky struggled to a sitting position. "How is he?"


He nodded, realizing there were a dozen or so patients in this particular ward.

"No worse." She said it cheerfully, and Starsky realized then that she couldn't say more because it was the doctor's place to determine a patient's official status.

"Can I see him again?"

She nodded, tapping at the sign on the door that read, "Visits Limited to Five Minutes. No Exceptions." Then she proceeded down the hall.

Starsky looked at the wall clock. It was a little after eight in the morning. He rubbed at his eyes, then turned toward the door the nurse had emerged from.

The ward was well lit. He went to Hutch's bed. The blond's body was almost impossible to see beneath the tubes and machinery. Though it was upsetting to see such artificial devices keeping Hutch alive, Starsky resolved to not be squeamish and moved closer. Hutch was still, eyes closed, the respirator forcing exaggerated breaths from his lungs.

Looking down at the bed, Starsky thought that Hutch looked small and frail. IV's were connected to an arm, and blankets covered most of the rest of his partner's body. The only large space of flesh revealed was the blond's forehead.

Starsky placed his hand there.

He closed his eyes, absorbing the living warmth. He remembered, so many times in the past, when Hutch had touched his stomach in passing. It was such a little thing, and yet it had always made Starsky feel cherished. Special.

He hoped Hutch could feel his touch now.

He relaxed his fingers, let them spread so that his hand encompassed Hutch's entire forehead, his fingertips spilling into the frail hair.

He looked again at the thick tubes covering his partner's nose and mouth, forcing air into weak lungs.

During his own last "hospital stay", he'd had tubes up his nose, but they had been thin and hadn't penetrated far. They were supposed to provide a small stream of oxygen, but the oxygen hadn't even been turned on, for his outer appearance had been all that mattered. All for the sake of appearing injured to lure Hutch in.

The stab of guilt was sudden, powerful and strong. Starsky closed his eyes and swallowed, his fingers tightening their grip over Hutch's forehead.

That was cruel, wasn't it, buddy? What had Hutch gone through wondering if Starsky was really shot or just faking it?

How scared Hutch must have been that the answer was the former.

Did you really think I would stoop to that, Hutch? Pretend to get shot just to lure you in so I could win our stupid bet? Did you really think I could do that to you?

Obviously, Hutch had thought so. For he'd entered the hospital in disguise so he could find out Starsky's true fate.

Starsky quickly removed his hand for he was fearful of radiating the inner struggle he was experiencing to his partner.

What's happened to us, Hutch, that would bring you to think I'd pull something like that? That I'd cash in on your caring to trick you into coming in?

And once you found out that I wasn't really hurt, were you angry with me for putting you through it?

It hadn't seemed like it. In fact, Hutch's subsequent note had been strangely cheerful, even hinting at admiration. Starsk, close but no cigar. Love, Hutch. P.S. How much of a cut did you promise Huggy and Dobey?

Starsky put his hand out again, this time rubbing his fingertips across the smooth forehead, gently massaging.

Maybe you even enjoyed it. Could that be possible? Enjoyed knowing that I could be that cruel? That I had your same level of cleverness. That I showed I knew the correct button to push that would bring you in?

It was almost like Hutch had applauded him.

Love, Hutch.

Instant forgiveness.

Dammit, Hutch, if you'd pulled something like that with me ....

Starsky took his hand away again. If their positions had been reversed, he would have been absolutely furious with Hutch for pretending to be shot, for putting him through that kind of agony. In fact, he would have never wavered to figure out if it were true or not. He would have assumed that it was and rushed to Hutch's side. And then beat the living tar out of him when he found out ....

Starsky drew a deep breath. Maybe not. Maybe he, too, would have forgiven immediately.

After all, wasn't that what he'd done when Hutch had pulled that amnesia stunt last summer? How hurt he'd been when Hutch had revealed he'd been faking all along. But Starsky hadn't been able to stay mad. After all, Hutch had obviously had his reasons, his own need, for doing it ....

Why do we keep playing these games?


Early in the afternoon, Dr. Morgan arrived. Starsky had taken time to eat and clean up, and then he waited eagerly for the physician to emerge from ICU.

When Morgan appeared, his usually-grim expression had softened. "Your friend is improving. His vitals are stronger and the toxin has been almost eliminated from his system by the serum. I want to wait a few more hours to be sure, but I anticipate removing him from the respirator before the night is over."

Starsky latched onto every word. When Morgan was finished he felt a smile break over his face. "Then he's going to be okay?"

The doctor smiled back. "I think so."

Starsky dropped by Parker Center on the way home. Though he was in dire need of some shut-eye, he wanted to deliver the news in person.

"Hutch is going to be okay," he announced as he burst into Dobey's office.

A broad smile spread across his superior's features. "Thank god."

"They'll have him out of intensive care by tomorrow morning."

"Maybe I can stop by and see him then."

"Yeah," Starsky agreed happily.

The captain's expression sobered, his voice rising as he spoke. "When he's well enough, he's going to hear a lot more than 'get well soon' from me. That stunt you two pulled is the most ridiculous, childish -- "

"Yeah, yeah," Starsky agreed quickly, hoping to cut him off. "But what's happened to him is punishment enough, don't you think?" Punishment enough for both of us.

"I suppose you're right," Dobey muttered. Then, "What I don't understand is why neither of you have anything more productive to do with your time off. You're both still young and good-looking. Shouldn't you be spending your weekends out on dates?"

Starsky quickly left the room, hoping he wouldn't be expected to answer. But a moment later he heard the bellowed warning, "After you get some sleep, I'd better see your tail back in here!"


"Ma'am," Starsky inquired of the woman behind the nurse's station, "where can I find Ken Hutchinson? He was in intensive care yesterday and got moved out sometime last night."

She consulted a clipboard muttering, "Hutchinson, Hutchinson." Then she looked up. "Kenneth?"

Starsky nodded. "Yeah."

"Room 1442."

"Thanks.' He trotted toward the elevator.

The late morning sun greeted him as the elevator opened opposite a large glass window. Starsky followed the signs that pointed to room 1442.

The door was partly open.

Starsky knocked gently, then pushed it open the rest of the way. The curtain separating the two beds was pushed back, and he could see that the far bed was empty at the moment. He turned his attention to the near bed as he stepped across the threshold.

The bed was elevated to a sitting position, but Hutch looked barely awake. His hair was mussed and his face looked tired, pale, and haggard. An I.V. was inserted in his left arm, and his right was holding the covers to his chest, which was covered with a hospital gown.

The blue eyes held life however, as they darted to Starsky. A weak smile lit the pale features as Hutch whispered, "Hey, partner."

"Hi ya, Blintz," Starsky greeted in the same soft tone. He pulled a chair from the corner to the bed and sat in it. "How ya doin?"

The reply was sarcasm without the bite. "I'm doin' great. Just great." Hutch's eyes held a small twinkle. "Don't I look great?"

Starsky placed a hand on his arm. "If it was Halloween you'd win a prize."

Hutch snorted weakly. Then he sobered, staring at the covers. After a moment, his eyes rose to meet Starsky's once again. Levelly, he whispered, "Pretty dumb, huh?"

If Hutch was willing, they might as well talk about this now. Starsky counted on his fingers. "Well, let's see. Dumb that you ate a can of soup at room temperature? Dumb that you wanted me to prove my intelligence by playing a child's game? Or dumb that you went after Pardee alone, even though you couldn't even stand on your own two feet?"

Hutch closed his eyes wearily. When they opened, he defended, "I've eaten soup before that wasn't heated." His voice was gruff.

"You've had a very deprived upbringing."

Again Hutch looked weary as he shook his head. "Doesn't matter. I don't want to see a can of soup again as long as I live. I don't care what brand or what flavor. Never again." His eyes closed again.

Starsky didn't reply, unsure of what to say. He wondered if Hutch had been speaking of soup when he had used the word "dumb", but he didn't want to pursue the other possibilities if Hutch wasn't up to it.

After a moment, the blond's eyes opened again. This time his expression was soft as the blue orbs met his partner's. "Wasn't your fault, buddy."

Starsky squeezed the arm his fingers were still resting upon. "It was nobody's fault that you got sick, Hutch. It happened. I don't blame myself."

That caught Hutch's attention. Worriedly he asked, "Do you blame me?" His voice was strained.

"That you got sick?" Starsky asked incredulously.

In a small voice, Hutch replied, "That it was my idea to... have you find me." He swallowed thickly, then added, "That I put you through that."

"Hey," Starsky scolded in a whisper, "you had no way of knowin' the soup was toxic." He reached out with his other hand and placed it on Hutch's forehead, then petted back through the haggard strands. '"Sides, speakin' of 'putting you through it', I'm sorry I pretended to be shot." His voice strengthened. "But I had to pull you in, Hutch. At least try."

The muscles beneath his hand moved, causing the pale brow to furrow. With puzzlement, Hutch managed, "How did you know what was wrong with me?"

Starsky leaned forward, voice earnest with the desire to fill his partner in. "It was all over the radio that the soup was toxic. I went to Earl's to try to find out what car you took, and when your car was sittin' there I found that can of Ryland soup in the back. I took it to the lab and they confirmed that it was infected."

"So you weren't just trying to win our bet," Hutch noted thoughtfully, "when you pretended to be shot."

Starsky used his hands to elaborate. "The bet didn't matter by then. I was tryin' to find you to save your life. That's why, when you called after you'd dressed up like an old man, I told you that you win, I lose. I just wanted you to come in."

Hutch closed his eyes for an extended moment. When they opened, he said, "I wouldn't listen. I thought everything was a trap."

Starsky allowed himself a sigh. "I know that, Hutch." He paused, unsure if Hutch was ready to hear what he wanted to say. Then he decided to go forward, clasping his hands between his knees. "Hutch, I never in a million years would have pretended to be shot just to win our bet."

Hutch turned his face away. In a barely audible voice, he admitted, "I would have."

Starsky bowed his head, knowing it was true. If their situation had been reversed, Hutch would have pulled out all stops in order to...

In order to?

Make me prove I would rush to his side?

Why did Hutch need any proof at all?

Hutch's face was still turned away, but his eyes had closed and his expression was more relaxed.

Starsky patted his arm. "Gonna let you sleep, pal. I'll stop by later on."

There was a bare hint of a nod. Starsky got up and left the room, his thoughts colliding with each other in his seemingly endless attempt to understand the dynamics between them. But one thought was clear.

Hutch, we gotta find a healthier way of showin' each other how much we care.


"You gonna pay Blondie's tab?"

Starsky looked up from the salt shaker he'd been twirling around. "Huh?"

Huggy placed Starsky's hamburger on the counter before him. "Your better half left after the pool game Friday without payin' the tab. I call that a sore loser."

Friday. Six days ago. One of the best days of his life. "Loser pays the bill." Starsky remembered saying the words, but he couldn't remember Hutch agreeing. After he'd won, it had thrilled him to remind, "Pay the bill, sucker." He had walked out. He knew Hutch had walked out right after him, but it hadn't registered at the time that it meant Hutch hadn't paid. Even when he "lost", Hutch always managed to somehow finagle it so that he actually "won".

Starsky pulled out his billfold and tossed a ten on the counter. "That ought to cover it and then some."

Huggy picked up the bill, pulled it taut. "With interest and tip, I’d say it makes us even."

Starsky made noises of disagreement but they were stifled when he bit into his burger.

Huggy leaned his weight on an elbow. "So, our golden boy is on the improve?"

"Yep. Should get out tomorrow."

"Does that mean he's going to pay up for losin' the bet?"

Starsky pulled the burger away and made a face. "Come on, Hug. I'm not gonna try to collect after what happened. It's enough to have him walkin' around tomorrow instead of six feet under."

Huggy grinned slyly, as he picked at his gums with a toothpick. "Well, just between us chickens, I know you would've found him regardless of the circumstances."

Hutch knew it, too, Starsky wanted to say. But he couldn't say it, not even to Huggy. That was a private quirk of Hutch's that Starsky wanted to protect; knowledge that perhaps only he held, for it was likely that Hutch himself wasn't even consciously aware of it.

As Huggy moved away to clean off the rest of the counter, Starsky found his thoughts searching inward, as they had so many times since finding Hutch.

They'd talked a little the past few days, but as Hutch got stronger he was more inclined to complain about the hospital food and how humiliating it had been to have had tubes inserted in every orifice of his body while in intensive care. And how awful it had felt when those tubes were removed. "Do you know what it feels like," he had grumbled, "to feel as though all your insides are being pulled out through your nose?"

He'd never mentioned anything about their bet and Starsky hadn't seen any point in bringing it up.

But why The Game in the first place? Starsky wondered for the hundredth time. Why did you want to play when you knew I would win -- Why was it so important to you to have me stalk you for the weekend?

What is it you need from me that I'm not giving?

Starsky turned on his bar stool and looked toward the pool table, now vacant.

The minute I bragged about my intelligence, you came up instantly with the idea for The Game. You didn't even have to think about it. It was almost as though...

... as though...

... as though you'd been waiting for the right time to mention it.

Have you been wanting to challenge me all along, Hutch? Wanted me to come and find you for no reason other than… just because?

Starsky's brow furrowed. Just because… what?

He studied the pool table more intently, remembering that wonderful Friday. The constant banter back and forth. Cutdowns that were merely words reflecting the rawest brand of affection. Never wanting it to end, and only allowing it to when Hutch had presented an excuse for them to play a better game… a grander game... a more noble game. A game where the inevitable loser was really the winner.

Starsky pushed his nearly-full plate away.

"Hey, where you goin'?" Huggy asked. "The cookin' ain't that bad."

Starsky was moving toward the door. "To claim the spoils of war."

But he had to wait. Wait until Hutch was out of the hospital. Wait until the convalescing blond had a few days to rest at home. Starsky made a point of making himself scarce, easy to do when he had a demanding job to take up all the time he was willing to devote. His impatience was minimal, for those days gave him an opportunity to put all the puzzle pieces together. To be sure. Of himself. And of Hutch.


When he let himself in Hutch's apartment, carrying a frozen pizza, he made a beeline from the door to the kitchen not wanting to pause long enough to give himself time to think.

Hutch was sitting cross-legged on top of the coffee table, wearing a robe over white pajamas. Saying words out loud. Sounding peaceful.

And Starsky realized this was another one of those great days, just like that Friday, when there was nothing grander than being alive, and being in the presence of this one particular person.

He couldn't contain his exuberance and felt a grin cross his face. "Hey, if you did that with clean white pajamas and a sitar you could probably start a religious movement." He wasted no time in pulling the pizza from its box. He'd told Hutch to have the oven preheated; the warmth radiating from the kitchen indicated that it was.

Hutch's response was calm and serene. "It's called free association, mushbrain. Speaking of which, why don't you throw that pizza in the oven before it petrifies?"

Starsky only listened with half an ear, for he had spotted an album on the counter which he now picked up. "Hey, you got the Buddy Holly album." He had remembered Hutch talking about it months ago. He flipped it to the back. "It's autographed."

"Yeah." Hutch sounded pleased.

"How 'bout that," Starsky pretended to marvel. The butterflies were back in his veins as he slipped something into the oven. He was desperate for a distraction, something that would prevent him from treading too indelicately.

"Cost me and arm and a leg," Hutch was saying, "but there's only eight of them in the whole country."

"No kiddin'." Starsky really didn't care about the album, but he loved seeing Hutch enthused about something. Hutch's happiness was so infectious, after all.

"Yep," the big blond replied, then went back to making some weird humming noise.

It made Starsky feel good that Hutch didn't feel the need to stop what he was doing just because his partner was there.

Yes, the most perfect day in the world.

"Hey, why don't you give me a crack at that?" Starsky said as he came over to the sofa. He was torn between wanting to distract himself further from all his plans, yet feeling so elated over his recent thoughts that he thought he might burst. He compromised by picking up a magazine and pretending to leaf through it. Yet, his mind was fully on his partner. "I bet my stream of consciousness would float us both right out of the room." Did Hutch hear the hint of challenge in his voice?

"Yeah, I bet it would, too," Hutch agreed, so casually.

Oh, Hutch, if you only knew....

Now Blondie was in his "instruction" mode. "Okay, why don't you put the magazine down, take your feet off the thing, and sit down over here. Be the experience of your lifetime. Come on."

Starsky couldn't keep his grin from widening. Hutch wanted his participation. "Okay."

When he was kneeling on the floor beside the coffee table, he beamed at his partner waiting for more.

"The first thing you got to do is relax."

Starsky shook his body all over, knowing he looked foolish.

But Hutch seemed determined to be serious. "Okay, uh, take your hands apart." Starsky did so.

"Right. Close your eyes."

Starsky squeezed his eyes shut.

"No, no. Relax your face."

Basking in the attention, Starsky let himself relax.

"Good. Now, take some de-e-ep breaths," Hutch demonstrated, breathing loudly. "Fill those lungs up."

Starsky tried to show equal enthusiasm. Eyes still closed, he breathed with great exaggeration.

Hutch didn't sound impressed. "Don't kill yourself, just relax."

Starsky reluctantly obeyed.

"That's it. Now. I want you to tell me everything that comes into your mind when I say the word… closet."

Inwardly, Starsky blanched. Outwardly, he was calm. "Closet?" Hutch, what made you pick that word of all words? Was that one of those Freudian-whateveryoucallit-slips?

"Closet," Hutch clarified.

"Closet," Starsky muttered, determined to keep up the pretense that he was being a very concentrated student. What did Hutch want? Free association. Starsky thought, then spoke. "Moth balls. Stuffy. Overcoat." Then a memory flared and he smiled. "It's my eighth birthday."

A noise of intense interest. "Mm?"

Starsky frowned. It was a strange memory. "I'm hiding from my father." He heard noises of Hutch's feet scraping against the table top, indicating his partner's eagerness. He could sense Hutch straining for more and had to make an effort to focus on the exercise. "Uh... heavy footsteps."

"Mm," Hutch encouraged.

"I'm trapped. It's getting closer." Starsky had been afraid then. He was afraid now. But now, as an adult, he was in charge of his own destiny. He had to take back control of the situation. My turn, Hutch.

He grinned inside.

The blond's voice was wonderfully earnest. "What?"

Starsky was relieved to be free of the childhood memory. "I just thought of something terrible." He opened his eyes.

Hutch was so enthused. "Starsky that's terrific. That's wonderful. Talk about it. Spit it out."

Ah, Hutch. "No, I don't think it's something you'd want to hear."

Hutch was all friendship now. "L-look, the whole point of this exercise is t-to cleanse yourself, to get these things out into the open and talk about them." The blue eyes batted repeatedly. "It's the only way it works."

Hutch was so sincere that Starsky almost felt guilty as he pouted, "Sure you won't hold it against me?"

"Absolutely not. It won't leave this room." Those words were true. When Hutch said something like that, he meant it.

Starsky went on. "Well, you remember when I was holding your new Buddy Holly album in my left hand and the pizza in my right hand?"


"Or was it the pizza in my left hand and the album in my right?"

Hutch looked away with such exaggerated suffering that Starsky didn't feel bad about pulling the plug. He took a deep breath. "One of them is in the oven."

It was a beautiful sight, watching Hutch's nose wriggle as he rotated on the table top, turning toward the kitchen. The smoke was beginning to penetrate the room. And Hutch kept his promise, for he was completely calm as he glumly said, "Doesn't smell like the pizza… does it?"

Starsky was still holding his hands out, and he shook his head.

A red hue crawled up Hutch's neck, and his jaw firmed in what Starsky knew was determination to keep his promise and not get angry. Then, dangerously calm, the blond asked, "Do you know how much that album cost me?"

Thinking back, Starsky innocently replied, "An arm and a leg?"

Hutch's teeth clenched as he looked back at his partner. Voice barely audible, he muttered, "Speaking of which, I'm going to tear your -- "

Starsky jumped up and rushed to the oven. He grabbed a pot holder to pull the oven open. He gingerly pulled out the contents and threw it in the sink.

Hutch had followed from behind and was looking at the smoking mess in the sink, which Starsky now turned on the tap and poured cold water on.

It sizzled at the sudden change in temperature, and smoke billowed up from it. Hutch stared into the sink. Confused, he stated, "It's a dish cloth."

Starsky grinned as he leaned back against the counter and beamed at his partner. "Fooled you, didn't I?"

Hutch turned on him, expression menacing.

Starsky stepped backwards, hands out in a defensive gesture. "Guess that free association stuff doesn't work with me. Guess I got the album mixed up with the dish cloth."

Hutch stalked toward him as Starsky stepped back. The blond's voice was still dangerous. "I guess you did, moron."

Starsky took more step backwards, moving out of the kitchen. Then he bumped into the arm of the sofa, blocking further retreat. This was one of those times when he needed to call upon all he knew about Hutch. With feigned hopefulness in his voice, he asked, "Do you know how beautiful your eyes are when you get angry?"

He waited until the exact moment that Hutch lunged. Then he stepped out of the way, and Hutch came crashing facedown onto the sofa. The blond quickly rolled over but just then Starsky pounced on top of him. He let his full weight rest on his partner, pinning him.

Hutch pushed at Starsky's chest. But it was a feeble gesture and Starsky was relieved that Hutch really wasn't all that interested in wrestling, even if it had been a while since they'd played like that.

Or, as with The Game, maybe Hutch wanted to be pinned.

"Uh-uh" Starsky scolded as his partner wriggled against him. He placed an arm across Hutch's collarbone, while his other hand held a handful of robe. "You're gonna stay right here, 'cause it's truth time, partner."

Hutch's brows narrowed, the playful anger dissipating. "Truth time?" Was there a hint of fear in his voice?

Starsky shuffled, making a big show of getting settled on top of Hutch. "Yeah. Like, for example, why it is you chose the word 'closet' just now?"

Hutch frowned. "What's wrong with closet? It brought forth some childhood memories, didn't it?" His face closed, tone indicating hurt. "Or did you make that up, too?"

Starsky let himself soften. He was sorry to cause Hutch that moment of doubt. "No," he assured, "the part about my birthday was really true."

"What happened?" Hutch whispered, genuinely interested.

Starsky shrugged, not wanting to change the subject. But that desire was overridden by his instinct to please the man beneath him. "It wasn't a big deal. I'd gotten a new baseball from a friend for my birthday, and I was playing around with it in the living room and I accidentally threw it at the window and broke it. My father had had a hard day at work, so I knew he was in a bad mood. So, I tried to hide rather than face up to it."

"Did he find you?"

"Yeah, but it wasn't as bad as I thought. He just swatted me on the rear and told me to clean up the glass and that I'd have to do extra work around the house for a couple of days as punishment." Starsky was prepared to leave it at that, but another memory fed on the first. "Then, later, he came into my room and sat me down and told me if I ever wanted to be a man, I had to learn to admit my errors and face up to the consequences." Starsky nodded with approval. "That stuck." Old feelings welled up, mixing and meshing with each other. Distantly, he added, "My father was a good man."

He felt arms come around him, a hand settling on the small of his back, another pushing at the back of his head until it rested against Hutch's chest.

"I know that, pal," came the gentle words. "I wish I would have known him." The hand on his lower back rubbed across his shirt.

Starsky absorbed the warmth radiating from the other, feeling it was like old times, when they used to so avidly pet and cuddle and fondle. Though he'd rather not end the moment, he forced himself to raise up on an elbow braced against the sofa cushion. He waited until Hutch's eyes met his. "We got off the subject."

The blond's orbs held awareness then he casually said, "If you think we've got heavy talking to do, then why don't you throw the pizza in the oven for real, so we won't starve?"

Oh, yeah. Starsky knelt up, heard an exhalation of relief from his partner, and then he tapped a finger against Hutch's nose. "Don't move." He got up and moved to the kitchen. 

As he placed the pizza into the still-warm oven, he heard Hutch call, "How about a beer?"

"Uh-uh," Starsky shook his head. "Straight talk first. What else do you want? Water?" He was already pouring a glass. When he turned around, Hutch was sitting up and removing his robe. 

"Hey, I said stay still," Starsky said as he returned to the living area.

"Just getting more comfortable," Hutch shot back, freeing himself of the outer garment and leaving it on the coffee table. It left him dressed in the white pajamas; the top open all the way down his chest. "Any objections?"

Starsky didn't bother answering. He handed Hutch the glass and waited beside the couch while his partner took a few sips, then set the glass next to the robe. Hutch lay back against the arm of the sofa.

Starsky kicked off his shoes, then lowered himself on top of Hutch.

"Hey," the blond protested, "what are you doing?"

But he didn't resist, Starsky noted with affection, and he worked his leg in between Hutch's limbs while resting his weight against the other's upper body.

"Hey," Hutch pointed out warily, "I'm not exactly unhealthy any more, if you know what I mean."

Starsky grinned devilishly. "I know exactly what you mean." He even rocked his leg against Hutch to prove it. "In fact, that's what we're going to talk about: healthiness. Specifically, the health of our relationship."

Hutch mouthed the words, our relationship?

Starsky nodded. "That's right." Then, seeing the confused look on Hutch's face, he let himself soften. "Hutch, I've been thinkin'."

"That's dangerous."

"Yeah, well, thinking was all there was to do while you were in ICU with tubes coming out every hole in your body."

Hutch's expression softened too, as though he felt apologetic for putting Starsky through that.

"And the more I thought," Starsky went on, "the more things started clicking into place."

Hutch looked genuinely confused. "What things?"

"Things about what's happened to us. Why things are different now than they used to be."

Hutch placed his hands on Starsky's shoulders. "Starsky, all relationships change over time," he admonished. "It's natural, because the people in those relationships change."

Starsky lowered his eyes, trying to put into words what he knew. "Hutch, I don't think the reason we changed was a healthy one. I think, with us, it was more defensive than... than just adjusting. And, really, we ourselves haven't changed all that much."

"Neither has our relationship."

Starsky squirmed restlessly. "Yeah, it has. Just a couple of years ago, we woulda never argued so much about Pardee. I mean, somehow it became a 'you against me' thing. It wasn't a 'we' thing." His voice lowered with reluctance. "It seems a lot of things that used to be 'we' things aren't anymore."

Hutch started to speak but Starsky cut him off. "And then we do this game. And instead of, like, having it be me and you trying to find or trying to hide from another Partnership -- like, say, Simmons and Babcock -- it became our own little battle."

The blond squirmed as though he didn't want to hear any more. "Starsky, it was just a silly game. It doesn't need to be analyzed to death. Okay, maybe it got out of hand --whether or not I would have gotten sick. I guess maybe I got too caught up in the sport of it. I thought it was fun, fooling you with disguises."

Starsky studied his partner's expression, knowing Hutch believed what he said. Then he pointed out, "That game was just one incident, Hutch. There's been others. Like that amnesia stunt you pulled. Like us falling all over that Christine reporter lady, competing with each other for her. I mean, used to be, we were together in everything."

Hutch shrugged, but his voice lacked conviction this time. "Maybe we just… grew out of that."

"Grew out?" Starsky emphasized with disbelief. "Hutch, you call playing a kids' game of hide and seek a step toward greater maturity?"

The blond took a deep, inpatient breath. "All right. You seem to have all the answers. Why do you think our relationship has changed?"

Starsky blinked. With his usual cleverness -- which he probably wasn't even aware of -- Hutch had turned the tables so that Starsky was the one answering questions. He had an answer, but now that he was faced with the moment, he wasn't sure how to spell it out.

He settled more comfortably against the other's body, but shifted a little so that his weight wasn't all borne by his partner. One arm was across Hutch's chest, and he now rested his chin upon it. With his other hand, he drew little diagrams with a finger tip along Hutch's pajama top.

"Some time back," Starsky began in a quiet voice, "and I can't say when it happened because I think it was so gradual and on such an unconscious level that neither of us knew what was happenin'. But, at some point, I think we both knew we were real close to crossing a line. And it scared us because we didn't know what to do about it or how to deal with it. So, we sorta took a step back from each other." His eyes darted to meet his partner's, who was listening with an rapt expression. "But we missed the closeness we had." Starsky looked away again. "We missed it a whole lot. So, I guess we started inventing ways to recapture it. We were too scared to be direct with each other anymore, so we started showing each other how much we cared in more twisted ways, less direct." He looked up timidly. "And that's how things got to be where they are now."

"Ah, buddy," Hutch's hands were rubbing at Starsky's lower back again, "if you ever needed anything from me, all you had to do was ask."

Starsky lowered his eyes. "I know that," he said in a small voice. "But, used to be, we never really had to ask. We were just there for each other. Always." Hutch started to speak, and Starsky quickly added, "And we still are. But I'm talkin' 'bout how… you know...," he hesitated, surprised he was having such a difficult time finding the words. "You know, we used to... like… be more expressive."

His cheeks were taken in two large hands, forcing him to meet his partner's eyes. Those sea blue orbs were soft and glowing. "I love you," Hutch whispered.

Starsky couldn't restrain a bashful grin. "I know that," he insisted. "It's just...." This wasn't working, so he quickly tried another track. "You know I love you, too. So, how come you felt like you needed me to find you?" Now that the questions were directed at Hutch, his resolve grew stronger. "Why the game, Hutch?"

The pale brow furrowed deeply, as though Hutch couldn't understand why Starsky had returned to that topic.

Starsky decided to elaborate, his voice quietly insistent. "If you know I love you, then why did you need me to," he shrugged apologetically, "prove it?"

The blond chuckled uneasily. "What do you mean, prove it? It was just a game, for fun, for cryin' out loud." He tapped Starsky on the temple. "All you were supposed to prove was that there's more than marshmallows inside your noggin."

Starsky shook his head. "That doesn't wash. Because you knew all along, deep down inside, that I was going to find you before the weekend was out, botulism or not. You knew I would win, but you still wanted to go through the motions."

Hutch seemed intrigued. "You sure about that?"

Starsky nodded once, firmly.

The big shoulders shrugged as well as they could beneath Starsky's weight. "Maybe so," the blond relented. "But I don't remember you hesitating to play along."

Starsky smiled warmly. "Of course, I didn't. What nobler task could I have than that of finding my partner? If we couldn't have what we had before, then what better way could there be to express how much you mean to me?"

More furrowed brows. "There's that word again," Hutch said. "Express." He grunted as he tried to shift beneath his partner's weight. "So tell me, what's the point of all your amateur analysis?"

"The point is that I think we can find a lot healthier ways of showing each other how we feel than tracking one another all over the damn city."

"Such as?"

Starsky placed both hands on Hutch's shoulders. "This, for one thing," he replied, squeezing. "We used to, you know, be more physical with each other. So much so that," he voice softened, "it scared us, like I said before. I think, deep down inside, we were both afraid of where we were headed. So we pulled back. But we didn't love each other any less."

Hutch took a deep breath and closed his eyes, as though it was all too much to assimilate.

Starsky gently pressed forward. "I don't think we need to be afraid, Hutch. I mean, if we let ourselves feel what we feel, then what could be wrong with where those feelings take us? If a line is there, why shouldn't we cross it?" He realized his heart was pounding inside his chest. "We've never let lines and boundaries stop us before, when we knew we were right."

Hutch look puzzled, confused, perhaps afraid. "Starsk, are you saying..." He didn't complete the sentence.

And maybe the problem, Starsky thought, was that he was trying to explain everything with words. He swallowed thickly, said a silent prayer, then closed his eyes and leaned forward. He felt his lips touch a delicate softness. He pressed farther still, until he could taste the other, a flavor that was familiar even though he'd never tasted it so directly before.

Abruptly, Starsky pulled back. And opened his eyes.

Hutch was staring at him -- surprise, confusion perhaps even sympathy reflected in the blue depths.

Starsky found that he did, indeed need words. With forced cheerfulness he asked, "It wasn't so bad, was it?"

Hutch's eyes closed. His chest expanded with a slow, deeply held breath. After it was released, he replied, "Of course, it wasn't 'bad'." Then, with a tortured expression he demanded, "Starsky, if we start, how are we ever gonna stop?"

Starsky felt as if he had pushed Hutch off a cliff that Hutch hadn't even wanted to approach. But his voice was earnest with conviction. "Hutch, we don't have to stop. Or we can stop whenever we want. All I'm tryin' to say is... if we love each other as much as we do, what's wrong with showin' it?" His voice trembled slightly with apprehension over the new territory they were breaching. "I'd just much rather make you feel good all over -- any way I can, any way you want -- than go chasing after you to prove how much I love you, how much I care."

The blond's eyes were closed again. "I don't know…"

Starsky shifted, realizing he had to be feeling awfully heavy to the man beneath him. "It's not like we have to make any ultimatums or anything. I mean, it's not like we have to move in together. We can still see girls and stuff. I'm just sayin' that..." he thought it through quickly, wanting to get it right, and his voice softened, "that in those moments when maybe you're feeling just a little down, just a little insecure, or you just want a little extra special lovin'.... Or, those times when I feel like I'm so fulla love for you that I'm gonna burst .... well, then we can give each other what we need." He shrugged. "That's all."

Hutch's hand reached up, brushing across Starsky's forehead, fingers spilling into his hair. With tender affection, he noted, "You make it sound so simple."

"It doesn't hafta be complicated. We've always given each other what we needed. I'm just saying that… well, that we shouldn't be afraid of wherever those needs take us." Starsky's voice gentled with awe and conviction. "We've always trusted each other, Hutch. We'll always have that to fall back on."

The deep furrow eased. Gradually, the pale countenance relaxed. Once again, Starsky's cheeks were gripped, but this time the hands that held him were cautious and tender. They drew him down, Hutch rising up at the same time. And their lips came together in a gentle kiss.

As soon as they separated, Hutch kissed Starsky again. Then again. Hutch paused, and his eyes closed. Then he leaned forward very slowly. When their lips touched this time, the contact lingered, Hutch pressing hard against him.

Hutch broke the contact and brushed a thumb along Starsky's brow. "Sometimes," he whispered, breath tickling across Starsky's nose, "it's crossed my mind. And I've pushed it aside. But the thought's been there, lingering." His hands pulled on Starsky's cheeks, and Starsky found himself less than an inch away from his partner's mustache.

"I've never been ashamed of it," Hutch went on, "or embarrassed about it. I always thought, in a way it was natural to have thoughts like that working so close with somebody, loving them so much. How could the thought not be there?" He kissed Starsky's lips.

When they parted, Starsky admitted, "It's been there at the back of my thoughts, too. Only, I guess I saw it as a threat to everything I believed about what we should be." He hesitated, wanting something understood. "And, Hutch, I don't think, even now, after what we've said, it's like we have to. It's just...I'd just…I'd rather resort to playin' games with each other."

Just as Starsky stopped speaking, the front of his shirt was grabbed in a strong hand, pulling him down. He eagerly complied, pressing his lips more forcefully against the ones opposite, and felt an electrical shock up his spine when Hutch's other hand pressed against the back of his head. It was the feeling of being hungered for that excited him, that caused him to ground his groin against the body beneath him. His heart had already been full for some time, and now it was close to bursting.

There was a point when he didn't think Hutch was going to let go, so he relaxed into the kiss, determined to not let things finish before they'd had a chance to begin. He also felt that Hutch was doing everything now, making all the moves. Starsky grunted a protest, and was breathing heavily when the full lips finally let him go.

"Tell me how to touch you," Starsky pleaded, softening his voice. "Tell me how you like it."

Hutch closed his eyes, then swallowed thickly. With difficulty, he suggested, "Let's move to the bed."

Starsky felt another jolt go through his body, hitting him at all levels. Hutch wanted to do this. Was willing to do it. Perhaps needed to do it. And in a matter of minutes, they would be doing it. It seemed like a monumental event, a turning point in life.

He got off Hutch, standing, his legs a little wobbly. Then he reached down to take Hutch's hand, and pulled him to his feet.

Hutch's arm came around him as they took small steps toward the bed, and Starsky wondered who was leading whom. He supposed it didn't matter, for he was willing to give Hutch anything he wanted, to possess him or be possessed. As long as it was with Hutch, whatever happened between them would be magnificent.

They paused beside the bed, Hutch stepping in front of Starsky, placing his hands on his shoulders, looking into his eyes.

Starsky returned the gaze and reminded, "Tell me how you like it."

Large hands took his own, then guided them around the tall body, placing them on the generous buttocks.

Starsky stepped closer and squeezed the flesh in his hands. Hutch groaned with appreciation, and Starsky drew him closer still, gasping when he felt a hardness against his beltline. Then his face was taken in tender hands, tilted up, and he got a glimpse of the serene expression on Hutch's face just before the pale countenance ducked to take his lips once again.

Starsky squeezed vigorously, causing Hutch to groan against his mouth. The vibration went through his body, exciting all parts of him.

Suddenly, Hutch stepped back, breaking all contact between them.

Starsky watched him, puzzled, until Hutch presented a tiny smile and began removing his clothing. Starsky wanted to assist, but he also didn't want to delay. He took a step back and began removing his own clothes.

They watched each other, both pairs of eyes determined to not look away, despite a bashfulness that neither could hide. Their gazes remained on each other's face not daring to lower even as final layers of cloth were removed.

When there was nothing left to discard, they regarded each other expectantly. Then, feeling a chill, Starsky took a step forward, then another. He ducked his head and kissed along Hutch's collarbone groaning from the realization that this was something he could indulge in whenever he wanted.

An arm came around his waist, supporting him, while Hutch reached back to the bed with his other hand and pulled at the covers. He sat on the bed, then tucked his feet beneath the covers, bringing Starsky with him.

Starsky followed eagerly, feeling yet another flush of bliss that they were allowing themselves to get comfortable, so that they no longer had to worry about mechanics. They were free to think only of pleasing each other.

Even as Starsky settled on his side, feeling parts of his body brush against other parts of Hutch's, lips were gently attacking him. Now that they were both more relaxed, he felt a fascination that the sensation was so delicious. Before, when thinking about it, he'd expected the experience to be nothing more than merely tolerable because it would be with Hutch. What he hadn't anticipated was how similar this was, physically, to other encounters he had had. The bonus was the degree to which his heart was swelling so desperate was he to please this particular person.

In a rare moment when the warm lips released him he again demanded, "Tell me how you like it."

The answer was more lips… lips that completely overpowered his own, pressing firmly against him, devouring him, almost like they were trying to suck him in. As they did so, Starsky was aware of being pressed back, until he was lying on his back, Hutch moving on top of him.

There was a surge of instinct… an instinct that said one had to defend against anyone at least as equally powerful who was on top of him. Starsky was prepared to squelch it; but found, instead, that the primal urge merely made itself known but did not prompt him to react. With fascination he felt acquiescence overtake him, and realized that he was actually taking comfort from having the strong, firm body on top of him, pressing him against the mattress.

He could stay still no longer. Starsky wrapped his arms around Hutch and squeezed mightily. Lips stopped and rested against the corner of his mouth while a gasp of air emerged from between them. A moment later the kissing resumed, this time with renewed vigor.

Starsky didn't want to let go. He moved his hands down to the twin globes of flesh and squeezed there, fingers kneading mercilessly.

Hutch groaned loudly, and the resulting vibration caused Starsky to arch his hips up needing something that hadn't yet been provided.

Hutch took that moment to slip his own hands beneath Starsky, and they, too, began to massage the firm rump in their grasp.

They lay pressed together, their lips refusing to part, even as gasps of air were exchanged between each as they fought to escalate the sensations taking place. Muscles tightened, hands squeezed, and finally Hutch dragged his mouth away to bury his face in Starsky's neck.

The hot breath, the gripping hands, the rocking hips, the hardness brushing against his own… all crested upon a single wave, and Starsky pulled at Hutch's hips while he cried out toward the ceiling, feeling as though his entire body was bursting with the most wondrous explosion ....

When he recovered a small part of his breath, Starsky realized that Hutch was still groaning against his neck, the noise eventually tapering off into a whimper. Simultaneously, their hands relaxed and Hutch rolled off Starsky and collapsed beside him on the bed.

The sun had set and the room was almost dark, and Starsky lay still while he listened to their steadying breaths.

Finally Hutch got up. Starsky watched as the pale form moved into the living room, put on his robe, then stepped into the bathroom. A few moments later and a towel was tossed his way.

Starsky picked it up and wiped at the moisture that had cooled along his stomach. Hutch turned on a bedside lamp.

His hair was mussed, his face still flushed but his eyes were bright and tender. Starsky pulled the covers up to his chest after tossing the towel aside.

Hutch sat down on the bed, facing Starsky. "How long have you been wanting this?" he asked gently.

"I haven't 'been wanting' it," Starsky countered. He turned onto his side, wanting Hutch to see his expression, to understand how he felt. "It's just this past week or so since I found you that I've been thinkin'. And like I was telling you before, this," he vaguely indicated the bed, "just seems so much healthier than some of the other stunts we've been pulling with each other." He swallowed then ventured, "It went okay, don't you think? I liked it."

Hutch lowered his eyes, softly admitting, "I liked it, too."

"We've got a lot of feelings for each other. I think it would be the biggest mistake of all if we pulled apart because of our feelings, instead of pulling together. I mean, what we have together is something that most people spend their whole lives striving for. We can't throw it away."

Hutch released a noise that hinted at a chuckle. "You don't have to try to convince me, buddy." He lay down, supporting himself on an elbow, and slid close to his partner. He placed his hand on the center of Starsky's chest. "Since we've come this far, I don't think there can be any going back."

Starsky loved the warmth flowing between them. He put his hands on the blond's waist, loving the feeling that it was his. "I don't think so, either. But I don't want our feelings to be a like a trap. It's something that can be there for us, always, whenever either of us feels like we need it."

"No promises, huh?"

Starsky shook his head. "No, we don't need to promise each other anything. We just need to be there for each other, like always."

"Without jealousy?" The question was almost a statement, asked with a tone of doubt.

Starsky squirmed. "Hutch, if you fall in love with somebody, I wouldn't want to get in your way. I'd be happy for you."

Hutch planted a kiss along Starsky's neck. "I think I already fell in love with somebody." Impossibly, his expression softened further. "I don't think I'm going to want anybody else."

Starsky's heart lurched. He hadn't meant for there to be any ultimatums, and here Hutch was declaring Starsky as his one and only. Something only a fool would throw away... and many had. Yet, he couldn't hide his doubt. "Hutch, I don't think I'm ready yet for any kind of commitments."

Hutch kissed him, gently, sweetly. "I know, pal. I'm not asking for any. I just know how I feel." He kissed Starsky again, lingering this time. Pulling back, he said, "You were right. Maybe we've been fighting nature all along. Now we don't have to."

The kissing resumed. Starsky closed his eyes, not seeing any point in arguing. He had never known love like this, love that felt so comfortable, love that wasn't merely acting on instinct but was a true culmination of feelings that had been felt for years, a reward for a trust that had been built by demonstration rather than vows.

Hutch's kisses grew more insistent, starting downward, pushing the covers back.

Starsky closed his eyes and let it happen. It was difficult to say who was the real victor in their game. A game where no one lost.

A game where the spoils was love.

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