Archivist note: One More River was originally produced on a typewriter, and had to be re-typed into an electronic format, then proofed. Special thanks and a bouquet of roses to Morag for her magic fingers typing skills, and for Elaine for proofing it.
Comments about this novel can be sent to: kmankatz@CandW.ky
One More River
... There's always one more mountain to climb,
"Goddamn it to hell, Starsky!" The bellow came from the bathroom. Starsky's left eyebrow twitched upwards, but he didn't pause in buttering his toast.
"What now?" he asked, as a furious Hutch emerged from the bathroom, hopping on one leg. "Hey, Hutch, did you know you've got toothpaste on your foot?"
"You don't say." The sarcasm was icy. "It happens that way when you step on an uncapped toothpaste tube."
"I didn't leave it lying on the floor," Starsky pointed out reasonably. "You better haul ass, babe, if you're not gonna be late."
Hutch shot him a venomous glare and hobbled to his wardrobe, leaving a trail of smeared toothpaste gobs in his wake, and began to dress. Starsky unfolded the morning paper and munched leisurely on his toast.
"Starsk, have you seen my blue--" Hutch didn't finish the query. He was staring at the blue shirt Starsky was wearing.
"Hmmm?" Starsky mumbled with his mouth full, cocking a questioning eye at him.
"Never mind." Hutch hauled on a sweater instead, and swiped a slice of toast from Starsky's plate in passing.
"Hey--fix your own breakfast," Starsky objected.
"No time. See you for lunch if we're in the area, okay?"
"Sure. Have a good day." Hutch's snarled reply didn't reach his ears, Hutch being halfway out of the door at the time. Starsky smiled, shrugged, and returned to his unhurried breakfast.
Five minutes late, the blond man stalked into the Homicide squadroom looking distinctly peeved.
"Hi, Hutch," Dave Duplessis called casually, and got a harassed glance and a grunt in reply. S.O.P. It was two months now since he'd been teamed with this half of the legendary Starsky-and-Hutchinson duo--a year since he'd finally made the transfer from Sierra County to Los Angeles--and the last two months had been the toughest. "You'll be working with Hutchinson for a while," Captain Dobey had told him when he'd started in Metro. "He'll break you in to street-life, the way it really comes down out there. Take it easy." That last instruction had not been for him, but for the man beside him.
The first few weeks had not been easy, but Duplessis had kept his cool, put up with the hostility and sarcasm, and absorbed all the street-wisdom sparingly tossed his way--and bitched like hell about it all to his wife when he got home at night. He stuck it out, though, aware that he was merely the latest in a string of rookies to be teamed with Hutchinson. His stamina and stubbornness served him well. Once through the first month, Hutch had eased up on him a little, even accepting him in a kind of way. Duplessis no longer bitched to his wife--when he did talk about his partner, it was to voice concern for a tired and lonely man.
He had expected Hutch's recent two-week vacation with Starsky to New York to improve the situation, maybe bring back the man of the legend. Only it hadn't worked out like that. The first week of Hutch's return had been hell on wheels. Back again was the cool-eyed anger, the savage resentment. The only thing missing was the moustache.
Hutch volunteered no explanations. He was making an obvious effort not to take it out on the people around him, but did not always succeed. Through the Department grapevine, Duplessis heard enough to piece together what Hutch wasn't telling him: while they were gone, Starsky's apartment had been broken into and wrecked, the Lab boys hadn't come up with any clues on who or why, and Starsky had suffered some kind of relapse that put him back in the hospital for forty-eight hours. In all, more than enough reason for the anger and tension that made Hutch an oddly menacing figure prowling through the days.
Thankfully, that had been short-lived. Hutch had a house-guest now, while he and Starsky were redoing the devastated apartment, and the one-time partner was now apparently an all-time pain in the neck. No one in the squadroom appeared to find anything extraordinary in this. As Minnie put it, "Starsk is a great guy, a real sweet fella. But hell to live with."
Duplessis wondered how she knew.
"Got a call from Huggy just before you came in," Duplessis said as Hutch sat down at his desk. "Wants to see you. He's got something on the rig hijacking."
"Okay. Fix me some coffee, will you?"
As Duplessis poured him a cup and set it by his elbow, Hutch sorted the paperwork on his desk into urgent, important, and catch-me-later, piled them all together again, and shoved them back into his in-basket. "Thanks. Has traffic come up with the owner of that car the Marquetta kids totaled?"
"No. Still working on it."
Hutch grunted something about paraplegic snails and drained his coffee down to the dark sludge. "Okay." He got to his feet. "Let's go see Huggy. Car's out front."
The Torino caught and held Duplessis' gaze the moment they left the building. "Starsky's car?" he ventured.
"Yeah." There was a note of disgust in Hutch's voice. "He wants the Dodge to shift ladders and paint and stuff. Here, you can drive the damned thing." He held out the keys, and Duplessis took them solemnly.
"Thanks," he said, cool and casual as he could manage.
"Just take it easy on the gas-pedal. It takes off like a spooked jack-rabbit." They got in. Duplessis started the car. It was the first time Hutch had used the Torino for work--if they didn't use his Dodge, Duplessis' own Datsun had to do. Consequently, although he tried to take it easy, the Torino took off with a squeal. "Christ, you want me to book you for speeding?" Hutch snarled. "Get your fucking foot off the gas!"
Sheepishly, Duplessis obliged. "Sorry," he said. "Sure responds, doesn't she?" He collected a look that prompted him to keep all further observations to himself. Silently, they drove downtown.
The Pits when they got there was not crowded, as it was only mid-morning. Hutch leaned on the bar, glanced down the empty length, and ordered a couple of cokes. "What you got for us, Hug?"
"This 'n' that, good buddy." Huggy slid the glasses across the bartop, nodding a friendly greeting to Duplessis. "I hear tell that Marco over on Seventh has taken delivery of a couple of cases of clock-radios, the quartz kind. Could be off that rig. Brand name's right."
"We'll look into it. Anything on the rest of the shipment?"
"Stereos, TVs, VTRs--nope. Just the small stuff. How's the trucker doin'?"
"Still unconscious, last we heard. Going down." Hutch looked at his drink. "They don't hold out much hope."
"Tough break," Huggy said quietly. "How's Starsk?"
"Him? He's fine," Hutch snorted. "Gonna catch him later and bring him some free lunch. He's got no problems. Regular Playboy of the Western World."
The Playboy of the Western World, bellowing along with Neil Diamond, was flat on his back on a couple of planks balanced between ladders, a tray of white paint on his stomach and a laden roller describing beautiful sweeps over the ceiling some eighteen inches above his nose. A bright bandanna was tied over his hair, another covered his face from nose to chin, since he had discovered the hard way that singing and painting while flat on one's back are not advisable as a combination. Globules of white paint were splattered like bird droppings over floor, walls, and his person with an indiscriminate abandon. A small but steady stream of white paint was trickling from the roller down the length of his arm, unheeded. Starsky was enjoying himself.
The radio, with Starsky's enthusiastic support, was pumping out enough decibels to drown out the landing of a Marina assault force, so the arrival of Hutch and Duplessis went unheard. The two men were frozen immobile, poised on the edge of the Starsky-created chaos, until Hutch moaned aloud.
"OhmiGod. Will you look at this mess? I don't believe it. How can one man cause this in just a couple of hours--Starsky!" Eyes squinted against the intermittent fall of paint-rain, ears deadened to all but Diamond, Starsky neither saw nor heard. "... the ceiling--he hasn't even cleaned off the old stuff! What the hell does he think--STARSKY!" Hutch strode forward, blond doom personified, snapped off the radio and roared Starsky's name again at the top of his lungs.
"Wha' --?" The Home Decoration expert squawked, body convulsing with shock, almost falling from his perch. Paint arced from the flailing roller, and Duplessis ducked just in time. Hutch did not.
"Starsky!" he yelled, as his victim flopped limply on the planks, arms and legs hanging, chest heaving. The paint-tray was upside down on the floor.
"Hutch." It was a pained whimper. "You tryin' to give me a cardiac arrest, sneakin' up on me like that?" He tugged his mask down, slid unsteadily from the planks, and stumbled on the inverted paint-tray. "Look what you made me do! You're a menace, Hutchinson. A health hazard."
"Hazard? You're the hazard!" Forefinger stabbing at Starsky's paint-specked chest. "Look at this place! Last night it was all ready for you to come in and start stripping the ceiling. So why the hell didn't you?"
"Don't need to, that's why!" Starsky bit back. "The guy in the store said this stuff goes on top. Don't have to go through all that rigmarole--"
"Bullshit! It'll be peeling off in a matter of weeks! And what's with the planks? This isn't the Sistine Chapel!"
"What's good enough for Michelangelo," Starsky said with dignity, "is good enough for me. Whatcha got for lunch?"
"Colonel Sanders'," Hutch said shortly. "French fries and a coleslaw. And a six-pack. Oh, yeah--Dave Duplessis, Dave Starsky."
"Hi." Starsky offered his sunniest smile, sticking out his hand. Hutch's young partner grinned back and shook it, getting paint on his palm. "Oh, sorry." Starsky groped for the turpentine-soaked rag, and both cleaned off sticky hands while Hutch raided the kitchen for cutlery and a stack of paper plates. Duplessis glanced around the large room, empty except for ladders, planks, cans of paint and assorted debris, evidently looking for a chair. "Pull up a piece of floor an' siddown," Starsky invited, doing so himself.
"Yeah," said Hutch, following suit. "You're making the place look tidy."
"Bitch, bitch, bitch." Starsky claimed a chicken leg. "How the hell d'you get along with this sorehead, Dave?"
"Oh, I manage." Duplessis folded himself to the floor and accepted his plate of food and can of beer. "Hey, that's quite a car you've got."
"Yeah, ain't she." Starsky beamed at him.
"Souped-up coke can," Hutch grunted. "Starsky, you can't go on with that."
"The ceiling. It's got to be stripped before you put the fresh paint on. I told you that. The old stuff is too flaky and loose, it'll make the new layers crack and lift. It'll be like a Minnesota snowstorm in here."
"The guy in the store said--"
"Who cares what the guy in the store said!" Hutch exploded. "You insisted on doing this job yourself, so it's gotta be done properly. That way it stands a chance of lasting more than a few months. And that means proper preparation and no short cuts!"
"Do you believe him?" Starsky said to Duplessis. "Thinks he knows more than the guy who sells the stuff."
Duplessis apparently decided it would be politic not to comment. "How much more you got left to do?" he asked politely.
Starsky looked around at the whole apartment. "Too much. Wanna get it done before the Review Board puts me back on the street."
"If you don't finish it sooner than that, you could be out on the street a whole lot faster than you think," Hutch snapped. "Mainly, sitting on your ass outside Venice Place. How come that's one of my shirts you're wearing? For painting in?"
"Don't want to get one of mine messed up. Right now I don't have any to spare," Starsky said reasonably, but a quick glance at the angry blond face suggested a change of subject. "So what are you guys workin' on this morning?"
When Hutch didn't answer right away, Duplessis spoke up. "A rig loaded with high-priced hardware. TVs, VTRs, like that. Stolen."
"Finally found the truck in a parking lot last night, one trucker dead, the other with a cracked skull." Hutch took over. "The trailer was stripped. Marco on Sepulveda was caught with some of the little stuff stashed in his back room, but he claims a gang of kids brought it to him. That checks out. They said they found the stuff dumped near Hollenbeck."
"Huh?" Starsky stared at him. "Dumped? That's crazy."
"Yeah. Looks like the killers hijacked the truck, threw out the small stuff, met their contact in that parking lot, loaded up the expensive goodies, and killed their hostages there. Unless the survivor recovers, we've got nothing to work on."
"Well, did you--" Starsky broke off, a knife of pure frustration twisting in him. Hutch was out on the street, alive and doing, while he sat and vegetated and waited for the Review Board to give him his life back. Scowling, he bit fiercely into a chunk of chicken. "Spare me the day-in-the-life-of-a-cop bit, okay?" he muttered. "I got better things to do. Like scrape my fuckin' ceiling."
Duplessis looked at him, startled, but Hutch, under his anger, showed a gleam of understanding. "Yeah, you do that," he said. "Get it cleaned off, and we'll paint it this evening. Just no more of your 'short cuts'."
"Nag, nag, nag. Leave the beer, willya?"
"Sure." Hutch got to his feet. "Lunchbreak's over, Dave."
Duplessis bolted the remainder of his french fries and followed on Hutch's heels. Starsky watched them go, then planted hands on hips and glared up at his abortive attempt at interior decoration.
It was past four when Starsky let himself into the Venice Place apartment, dropping his jacket on the already littered couch and collecting a beer from the icebox before strolling out to the deck. Sprawled out on the bench, he tilted his head back against the padding. He felt tired, but it was a healthy tiredness, not the dragging, drained exhaustion that had seemed to dog him for months. Plainly both Vinnie and the physical therapist were right, and not in collusion in some plot to ruin him for life, because the workout sessions were finally having their desired effect.
He smiled dreamily at the dangling philodendron, thinking of Kim and her physical therapy. Just being in the same room with her raised a guy's heart rate. No doubt she was used to her patients getting kind of involved with her--but he fancied that the interest was mutual. After all, how many of them regularly had lunch with her after each session?
He swung his feet up and lay back, hands behind his head. Not so long ago, that would have been impossible, or achieved with a maximum of sweating effort. Now there was little he couldn't do, and it was more a case of retraining his body, recovering as near as possible the level of fitness and stamina he'd had before the shooting. As near as possible. He knew, in himself, that he'd lost more than he could hope to regain. But he'd be ready when the Review Board met. Had to be.
A couple more visits to Kim, and he'd be discharged from Therapy. Almost be sorry to say goodbye. Vinnie, of course, was another matter, being a hard-handed sadist who enjoyed watching his clients sweat. However, between them he and Kim had worked a small miracle, putting the pieces of David Starsky back into shape and reasonable running order. Urged on by them, he retrained. He swam, he lifted weights, he ran. The damage to his lungs was plainly healed, because he could, when he wanted to, pull out sixty-five-second quarters, and that was good in anyone's book. And after months of enforced inactivity, when even turning over in bed was a pain, he had discovered a fresh enjoyment in the way his body answered the demands he made on it.
Of course, there was no way he was going to admit that to Hutch. Shit, if the Blintz once thought he was enjoying it, he'd be a worse taskmaster than Vinnie. Bitching about his punishing schedule usually snagged Hutch's sympathy, got his partner to coddle him and tell him to take things easy, take a shower, relax. That was kinda nice. He was also becoming addicted to his daily massage, especially since Hutch was the best masseur in three counties. Magic Fingers Hutchinson...
Like the plant shadows on the floor, his days were falling into a pattern. P.T. two mornings a week, followed by lunch with Kim, the other three mornings spent working on the apartment, and grabbing a fast lunch if and when Hutch turned up. Afternoon meant a workout at the gym, and after that he was usually ready to crash for a few hours, which left him refreshed for his evening plans. And now he was back in circulation, he usually had plans.
Make the most of it, Davey-boy. Another few weeks, and you'll be back on the street.
Or at least, if he wasn't, he'd know about it--no more uncertainty.
The sun through the glass made the air heavy, tropical. He lay relaxed, eyes closed, letting the warmth soak into him. Sleep was not far away--his thoughts began to drift as the restriction of consciousness slackened.
Uncertainties... The Review Board, his ability to cope if he did make it through. The problem of his future if he didn't. The few talks he'd had with Hutch on that possibility had been highly unconstructive. Hutch seemed unable to accept the idea that Starsky might not be passed fit. Or didn't want to accept it, more likely. Burying that blond head in the sand, convincing himself that if he didn't think about it, it wouldn't happen. Hutch had been badly shaken by the relapse after Vegas, though he'd tried not to show it.
Only I can see right through you, babe. I was scared, but you acted like I was going to go into cardiac arrest any minute.
Well, with the Review Board looming, any setback reduced his chances. Understandable that Hutch had been worried.
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
And suddenly Nicky was back in his mind. He shifted uneasily, frowning. Hadn't heard from Nick. Hadn't wanted to, but--in spite of everything, Nick was still his brother. Hutch hadn't said anything about the confrontation he'd had with Nick before putting him on the plane east, but the evidence of skinned knuckles proved it hadn't been friendly. No word from Nick since, not even through Mom. But he was okay. Starsky was sure of that. Nicholas Marvin Starsky was a survivor, and was no doubt making hell hotter somewhere, screwing up the lives of anyone unlucky enough to cross him...
The door slammed, jolting him out of his doze. The sun was low, the air cooler, and his skin felt slightly sticky with drying sweat. He yawned, stretching. "Hutch?"
"Jesus Christ, Starsky, this place looks like a bomb hit it!"
Hutch was standing in the middle of the room, glaring at the chaos. Starsky, still yawning, padded in from the deck. He hadn't registered it before, but the apartment did look like it could use some cleaning up. "Hi," he said casually. "Hard day?"
"What the hell have you been doing?" Hutch demanded sharply.
"Sleeping," Starsky said innocently, picking up the scattered sections of newspaper from the floor and folding them more or less together. "Vinnie had me jumping through hoops. I was wiped out."
"Sleeping," Hutch repeated. He walked heavily to the couch, shoved its cargo of debris to the floor, and sat down. His knuckles were cut, there was a graze and a darkening bruise on his left cheekbone, and a drawn weariness circled his mouth. "You really break me up, you know that?"
"You're the one who's always telling me to take it easy, pace myself." Starsky was on the defensive before he could realize it. "Hey, what --"
"Sure. Pace yourself. The way you did this morning? Hauling ladders and god-knows-what-else up the steps of your place?"
"C'mon. Compared to the weight-liftin' Vinnie has me doing --"
"Pressing weights in the gym is not the same as carting ladders up steps," Hutch snapped. "Did you get the ceiling cleaned off?"
"Yeah. We can tackle painting it tomorrow."
"What's wrong with tonight?"
"Well, you look bushed, for starters. And I--uh, well, Tracy called after you left. I'm taking her bowling."
"Fantastic," Hutch said snidely. "Don't suppose you've had time to fix any dinner?"
"No, not yet --"
"Then why don't you do it while I take a shower? Or is that asking too much?"
Pushed by his unreasonableness, Starsky snarled, "I'm not your friggin' slave, dammit!"
Flushing slightly, Hutch got up and headed for the bathroom. "Maybe not. But a little more cooperation around here would be nice."
"Cooperation? Oh, terrific! Get off my case, willya? You think it's been a bed of roses for me since we got back from Vegas an' I had to move in here?"
The bathroom door shut, full period to their conversation. "Wonderful, pal," Starsky muttered. "Ignore it and maybe it'll go away." He snatched up his jacket. "Ignore me, and maybe I should go away, too."
The click of the closing door woke Hutch up--he sat up, groggily wondering why he'd fallen asleep over the table, and Starsky's voice said, "Hey, you didn't have to wait up, y'know."
"What time is it?" Hutch knuckled at his eyes.
"Quarter after two."
"Thought you'd be in bed. I didn't mean to wake you--I mean, I was real quiet comin' in."
It occurred to Hutch that Starsky was not quite sober. This irritated him somewhat. "Yeah," he said shortly, wincing as stiffened muscles twinged in his back and shoulders. "Don't flatter yourself. I wasn't waiting up for you. I figure you're a big boy now."
"Thanks, momma." He collected a slightly intoxicated grin from Starsky. "Hey. You cleaned up."
"Let's see if we can keep it that way?" he suggested, unable to keep the bite out of his voice.
"Listen, it wasn't my stuff spread around --"
"No, it was mostly mine," Hutch agreed. "But you've been wearing it, and I'm sick of clearing it up behind you."
"You're sick of it?" Starsky hooted. "That's rich! Since I moved in here, you've been acting like you got a live-in housekeeper, and boy are you mistaken!"
"I don't expect --"
"So what do you expect, tell me that? God Almighty--and you wonder why I'm in a hurry to get my place finished!"
Hutch took a deep breath, trying to control his temper. Starsky seemed determined to get right under his skin, and he was tired and short on patience.
"I don't expect anything. I would appreciate a little consideration. Some thought. I'm working a ten-hour day --"
"Oh, I get it! I'm not working, so --"
"So nothing! Damn you, Starsky, will you shut up and listen to me for a minute?"
"What for? To have you lecture me on what I should or shouldn't do? The things I've done or not done? Forget it! I'll pack up in the morning, get out of your hair --"
"That place isn't livable yet."
"So I'll check into a hotel for a few days."
"No." Hutch stood up. "You're staying here."
"Give me one good reason why." It was the bristling challenge of the street-fighter, but Hutch didn't rise to it.
"Because I'd worry about you," he said simply, too weary to wrap the truth in any more complicated reasoning. Starsky didn't say anything. "Someone has to ride herd on you. You push too hard and you'll end up in the hospital again, and that's the Review Board out the window."
"The Review Board, huh?" The words were soft-spoken suddenly. "Is that the whole story?"
"Go to bed, Starsk." Any minute now he was going to fall on his face, and he certainly wasn't making much sense, not even to himself. "Please."
"Answer me, Hutch." Quiet, implacable.
"Oh, damn you... No, it isn't the whole story. It's just Chapter One. I want you fit to face the board--and pass it. I want you back working with me. I need a partner, Starsk. Okay? That clear enough?"
"You've got a partner. Duplessis. He's a good kid."
"Yeah. You said it. He's a kid. And he's not my partner. I've got only one partner, and you're it. No one else."
"Uh-huh." Starsky's eyes never left him. "Guess that answers the other question. The one I didn't ask yet." He crossed the room in four strides, laid his hands on Hutch's shoulders. "I want t'pass that Board too, y'know. It's Chapter One, like you said. Until then, I'm--marking time. Drifting. It bugs the hell outta me, knowing you're out there on the street and I'm not. Guess that's why I'm a little touchy. I'm sorry."
Hutch let himself relax into the embrace. "Yeah. Me too."
"I'm gonna make it, Hutch."
"I know." You better. Or it's the end of me...
"'Kay. Just remember it." He let go, stepped back. "Who gets the bed tonight?"
"I do," Hutch said firmly. Starsky raised an eyebrow, but didn't protest. They got themselves settled, and Hutch was just beginning to drowse when the voice out of the darkness said, "Hutch? You awake?"
Hutch contemplated playing possum. But if Starsk was in a talkative mood, that wouldn't work. "I guess."
"I figured out why we've been at each other's throats so much recently." A pause, as he waited for a reply. He didn't get one. "Well, before we went to Vegas, we had more time. You know, just to--socialize. Since we got back, even though we share the same living space, we never get time to talk to each other. You know?"
Out of the past, another voice, strident, female. "You never talk to me any more, Ken. You use this place like some cheap hotel..."
One relationship down the drain. And this one means far more than that ever did. Sounds crazy, but it's true. Don't bomb out on this one, Hutchinson.
"I know. Just doesn't seem to be the time, somehow."
"Right. Besides, I'm trespassing on your territorial imperative."
"What?" Hutch wasn't sure he'd heard that right.
"Really. I read it in a book. Some animals stake out their own piece of territory. You know, foxes, dogs, cats--even birds. And if another male trespasses on that territory, there's a fight."
"You mean--I'm subconsciously resenting your presence? Defending my space?"
"Like any other alpha male."
"You're really weird."
A chuckle. "Yeah. An' if it makes you feel any better, I'll buy a frilly pink apron..."
Hutch snorted into his pillow at the ridiculous image that conjured up. "Whatever feels natural to you, Starsk." He managed not to laugh.
"Who said I was gonna be the one wearing it?" Starsky countered, and let out a yelp of shock as Hutch's accurately thrown pillow landed on him.
"Go to sleep!" Hutch commanded, choking on laughter, and heard the answering snicker. "'Night, Starsk."
It was a March Tuesday morning like any other, except that ten months ago this particular Tuesday had seemed to belong in the realms of fantasy. For so many weeks Hutch hadn't dared even to think of it, and planning for it seemed totally futile, even tempting fate. But that phase had passed, and Starsky's thirty-seventh birthday had become a goal, a target to aim for. Yet he hadn't finalized any plans for it--in fact, he'd bought the present only yesterday. Ever since he'd seen one months ago in a lapidary shop, he'd thought of it for Starsk: a greyish-brown globe of stone, featureless, vaguely ovoid, rough to the touch... with a secret hidden at its heart.
Hutch tucked the gift behind the boxes of bran flakes and granola on the table, and poured the coffee. "Breakfast!" he bellowed. "C'mon, haul ass. You don't get room service."
"Standards sure are slipping," came the drowsy complaint. "What happened to old-fashioned courtesy? An' you're forgettin' something."
"No I'm not." Setting the table with haphazard speed, Hutch hid a grin. "C'mon, I only got fifteen minutes."
"So? I got all friggin' morning." Unshaven, blinking like a grounded owl, Starsky shambled out to join him, scratching absently at his ribs, a yawn nearly dislocating his lower jaw. Hutch gave him a long, thoughtful look, then sighed and shook his head.
"Over the hill. Definitely over the hill. Here, siddown and eat your breakfast."
Starsky flopped into a chair, squinting into the brightness of the morning and of Hutch's groomed, ready-for-court appearance. He grunted. "You're a sight."
"For sore eyes. Or something. What's the occasion?"
"Oh, nothing special. Pettersen's pre-trial hearing." Casually, he lifted the bran-flakes aside to reach for the milk, revealing the birthday present, and was arrested by Starsky's "Hey!"
"You didn't forget!"
"I figured you'd forget. I didn't remind you or anything. You always forget if I don't remind you."
"That's a contradiction in terms. What are you rambling about, Starsk?"
A wide, beaming grin greeted him. "You can't fool me, partner. Thanks." And the colorful wrapping was shredded by eager fingers. "Geez, it's heavy. What is it, huh?"
"Open it. Find out," Hutch suggested, finishing his cereal. There was much rustling and ripping as scotch tape yielded to brute force and the butter knife, and tissue was evicted. Then came silence.
"It's a rock."
"Right." Hutch grinned. "You'll make a detective yet, Starsky. Keep working at it. Gotta run." And bolted.
He wasn't in the car ten minutes before Control called him for a patch-through.
"Roger," Hutch acknowledged. "Yeah, Hutchinson."
"You rat," said an immediately identifiable voice.
"You like it," said Hutch, grinning inanely.
"Like it? It's the dumbest present I ever got!"
"Well, I figured no one else would give you your very own rock, Starsk."
"Guess not." The chuckle surfaced for an instant. "Hey."
"Happy Birthday, buddy," Hutch said with complete contentment.
"Yeah. It is. You crazy bastard." And the line went dead.
When he arrived home that evening, it was to find the geode prominently displayed in pride of place on the coffee table, which had been cleared for the purpose. The rock sat in solitary splendor, the cut halves angled to catch the light in the glistening crystals that lined the hollow interior.
Starsky was on the phone, a wad of opened envelopes and cards in his free hand. "--yeah, sure, Mom. I will. Thanks for callin'. Sure, I'll let you know as soon as it arrives. Take care, Mom. I'll call you Friday."
"Not from here, you won't," Hutch announced, as Starsky put the phone down. "Had a good day?"
"Not bad." Starsky gave him a cocky grin as he began to arrange the cards around the geode, hunkering down to check the effect. "Had lunch with Kim. She gave me a present too. Aramis Devin."
"Terrific. So now maybe you'll stop swiping mine."
"Don't hold your breath. How was your day, huh? Court go okay?"
"So-so." Hutch headed for the bedroom, shedding jacket, shoulder-holster and tie. "He got bail. Trial set for next month. You fixing dinner?"
"I got it planned, yeah."
"Oh." Hutch turned the corner into the bathroom and started the shower. "Don't get so enthusiastic!" he heard Starsky yell after him. "It's my birthday, for chrissakes! You should be fixing my dinner!"
"Never mind. Hey, your lady called."
"Jaqi?" He cut the shower off, and peered round the shower curtain.
"Unless you're two-timing her, she's the current passion, right? Yeah, she's somewhere in Oregon. Apologized for tonight--said she can't make it. Said to tell you sorry."
"Shit." Hutch ducked back into the shower and rinsed off.
"Heavy date, huh?" Starsky said sympathetically.
"Something like that. I thought we'd take you out to dinner--it's about time you got to meet her." Wrapping a towel around his waist and stropping another briskly over his hair, Hutch re-emerged. "Guess it'll have to wait."
"Out to dinner?"
"Sorry, hell. So we'll make it company instead of a crowd. Where're you taking me?"
"Nowhere, looking like that," Hutch said firmly.
He watched Starsky eye with open amusement the blue suit and toning blue shirt he selected from his closet. "Tell me, did some dumb broad once tell you that blue matched your eyes?" Starsky said mildly.
"Probably." Dressed, Hutch checked the time on his pocket-watch and slipped it back into his vest-pocket. "Get changed and we'll go downtown to Huggy's. I'll buy you a drink while I decide where we're eating."
"Well, I drink more than beer on my birthday," Starsky warned.
"No kidding? Getting all grown up, huh? Okay--I buy you one drink of your choice, then the next round is yours. Deal?"
"Deal!" Starsky agreed, and once Hutch had pronounced him sartorially fit to face the world, spent the trip to The Pits listing recipes for cocktails of lethal content, as if thinking aloud. He had just detailed the ingredients for a concoction he dubbed Montezuma's Revenge, which included tequila, lime juice, Tia Maria, and white rum, when Hutch pulled into a parking space.
"One more like that and I may have thrown up," Hutch told him, checking his watch again. "Settle for something civilized, willya? Or do you want to give Huggy a brain-seizure?"
"'Kay. How about a Slow Screw?"
Hutch did a classic doubletake before he saw the wicked grin and the bubbling laughter, and knew he'd been suckered again. "Out, clown," he ordered, smothering his own grin. "Before I Slow Screw you--to the nearest wall!"
Starsky, still chuckling, bounced down the steps and pushed open the door of the bar. Hutch followed close behind. "Hey, Hug, whatcha --" In the utter darkness that faced them Starsky broke off, backed up, reaching for him, saying uneasily, "Hutch --"
"Happy Birthday, Starsk," Hutch said, and suddenly the lights came up in a dazzling flood. Someone yelled, "Surprise!" and the place was full of people--the Dobeys, Minnie, Dave Duplessis with a tiny blonde, Huggy with his arm around Diane, Sweet Alice, Molly, Kiko, Jackson...
"Oh, shit..." said Starsky feebly, at a loss for words. Then Hutch laid an arm across his shoulders, steering him into the welcoming crowd, sharing him with their many friends.
Huggy had promised the Birthday Party To End All Birthday Parties, and when Huggy promised, he delivered. The spread of food alone would have delighted the average eight-year-old, for imagination had run riot, and there was nothing left out. The enormous cake sported thirty-seven candles, and was frosted in white with 'Top of the Cops' curlicued elegantly in blue, and beside it was a strawberry-jello-mold Torino, the white stripe piped in cream. A masterpiece of culinary confection, and to what end? Folks was just goin' to eat it...
Present-opening took a time, as no-one had come empty-handed--there was a Pentax from the Dobeys, to replace his lost treasured camera, three Fats Domino albums from Kiko and Molly, and a rainbow-striped silk kimono from Sweet Alice that bugged Hutch's eyes. "Hey, that has to be one of your old ones, Alice."--"Hutch honey, don't you know I got better taste than that?" The diminutive blonde with Duplessis turned out to be Sally, his wife, who confided that she hadn't believed a word Dave had told her about his partner--Ken Hutchinson was charming. Starsky solemnly agreed that Ken Hutchinson certainly was, and kissed her thank-you for the velour shirt she and Dave had given him, meanwhile observing Hutch's blush with pleasure. It was his turn to blush when Huggy escorted a blonde forward, a slinky female in a red halterneck that looked as if it had been sprayed on to a figure that rivaled Bo Derek's, introduced her as Annette, and placed her hand in his. "Kinda run out of original ideas for presents, Starsky my man," he announced. "So I settled on somethin' that wouldn't need no gift-wrappin'. Bless you, my children."
"Why don't I get birthday presents like that?" Dave Duplessis wondered, and collected an elbow in the ribs from his wife.
Restrictions on diet and alcoholic intake being lifted for the occasion, it wasn't long before Starsky was flying high, in love with the world. "It's my party," he informed Hutch, "I'm allowed to be happy." Hutch wasn't arguing--he was having too much of a good time himself to shorten his convalescent partner's leash. So Minnie achieved the ambition of years--a tango with Starsky, complete with final dip, which left her breathless and giggling and ready for a repeat performance with Hutch. Maybe it was the drink, but for once his feet went where they were meant to, and they got a round of applause at the end of it. Dave Duplessis swept a protesting Sally into an energetic exhibition of Saturday Night Fever that for sheer athleticism made Hutch feel his age. Starsky draped an arm around his shoulders, eyes glittering.
"Let's show these kids some real fancy footwork, babe," he invited.
"Uh-uh. I'm not dancing with you, Starsk. Go smooch with Annette."
"Can't, Dobey's dancing with her. He pulled rank. 'Sides, we can't do a siti--cirkat--sirtik--hell, Zorba with girls, Hutch. Has to be stag. You know that."
"What does?" Dave Duplessis, flushed with his exertion, overheard.
"A sirtaki." Hutch explained about the Greek Wedding, and Dave was keen to learn, and the three of them began an unsteady version of the dance, to their own accompaniment until Huggy caught on and switched the music to fit. They got on a lot better after that, except that Starsky's feet were somehow working to a different rhythm to the rest of him, and his snickering fits of the giggles finally forced him to drop out and watch from the floor, where he sat cross-legged and called out encouragement as Hutch and Duplessis attempted to perform a zebekikos. He thought they did very well, too--so well that they deserved applause, and in true Greek spirit smashed three of Huggy's plates before anyone could stop him.
"But it's a Greek custom!" he protested. "Like applause!"
"You stick to handclapping, Starsky," Huggy ordered, quite unimpressed.
"'S been a beaut'ful party..." Starsky said dreamily, still sitting on the floor at three in the morning, as the last guests began to make their farewells and leave and Huggy and Diane cleared away the debris.
"Yeah," Hutch agreed, smiling at the disheveled and completely legless figure that blinked moistly up at him. "Blow your nose. And say goodnight to whatsername. It's time to go home, Birthday Boy."
Starsky tightened an arm possessively around Annette's waist, and she purred and kissed his ear. "S' my present," he announced. "Fr'm Hug."
"Sure, babe, but --"
"It's okay, Hutch," Annette smiled. "You're gonna need help to get him home anyway."
She was right. Starsky wouldn't acknowledge that he was incapable of walking to begin with, and found their attempts to get him first to his feet, then up the stairs, then to the car, hysterically funny. Once in the car, he seemed to fall into a sudden stupor, his head on Annette's shoulder, so Hutch got into the driver's seat, started the car, and headed for Venice. He could drive Annette home later, or get her a cab...
"Hutch." Her voice was soft, her free hand on his shoulder.
"Mmm." His thoughts had been elsewhere. It had been a night to remember, and no mistake.
"Wasn't altogether Huggy's idea, you know."
"Me." She smiled, and began to play with the hair at his nape. He could smell her perfume--light, flowery. Diorissimo. "Confession-time. I suggested it. Huggy told me about you two and Kira."
"Huggy--told you about Kira?"
"Sure. She must have had rocks in her head." Her fingers found his earlobe. "Knew how I'd handle it if I ever got the chance."
"Yeah?" This was slightly unexpected, but it didn't stop his grin from forming.
"Uh-huh. So how 'bout it, lover? You game for a threesome?"
"Uh..." He wasn't quite sure what to say. After all, she was Starsky's birthday present.
"Hutch." The solemn inebriated voice of his partner cut in on his thoughts. "You're my bes' frien'. Ev'ryone got a piece a' my cake, di'n't they? Y're my bes' friend--you get to share my present..." Having spoken, Starsky slid across the seat, coming to rest with his nose in Annette's cleavage, apparently asleep.
A troy was no new thing for them--there had been times before when they had shared a girl. Not often; it wasn't always easy finding a girl both were interested in who would go for the idea. Kira hadn't, and that had been their last opportunity. Moreover, since Jaqi had come into his life four months ago, Hutch had had all he could ask for in her. Mostly. There had been a couple of one-night stands, but it wasn't as if he were committed to anything with her. No strings. That was how they both wanted it.
Annette's red dress was slit to the hip, and the smooth length of creamy thigh exposed tempted his touch. Beside her, Starsky snored. Hutch sighed. "I wouldn't count on it being a threesome, honey. Lover-boy there may not be capable of much by the time we get him home."
Her tongue flicked across her lips, and she smiled. "We'll see..." she murmured.
Getting Starsky up the stairs at Venice Place was a problem Hutch could have done without, but leaving his partner in the car to sleep it off would have been a rotten thing to do.
Besides, Starsky had been marginally conscious and might have objected to Hutch walking off with his birthday present.
It took Annette barely five seconds to get down to skin, since she was wearing nothing but a pair of skimpy red lace panties under her dress. Then she went to help Starsky, who had decided to be ticklish. By himself, he had tried to take his pants off without removing his shoes first, and had hobbled himself so thoroughly that he had fallen over. Fortunately, onto the bed. Between them, Annette and Hutch got him stripped.
Sitting next to the furry naked torso, Hutch reached out and pulled Annette toward him, caressing the sleek perfection of her body, the heavy silken warmth of her as he took her mouth in a kiss.
"Hey!" came a mumble from beneath them. "'S my birthday, ...'n my present. Lemme up..."
Starsky was struggling to sit, and they helped him, a twining triple embrace indiscriminate of gender. The press of two bodies at once excited Hutch, and the small illicitness of the situation aroused him still further. But Annette soon took command of the loving, letting them know just what she wanted, and getting it. Probably she had done this kind of thing before, Hutch surmised. Just as well. He was no way as smashed as Starsky, but he wasn't exactly rowing with both oars either.
Hutch had always gotten a special charge out of a troy, though he had never tried to analyze why--if he had learned anything from his marriage to Van, it was not to question his own motives too deeply. But this particular coupling was something else. Maybe it was his alcohol haze. Maybe it was her sheer erotic expertise. Or maybe it was being able to watch Starsky's face as she brought them both to a simultaneous shattering climax.
"Hey," she said, when she could speak. "Does that happen every time? You two getting off together?"
Starsky, whose expression had mellowed from transcendence to a tomcat smirk, cracked one eye. "Oh, sure. Every time. The Bobbsey Twins." And with a glance at Hutch, "Did we?"
Hutch, laboring for breath, took his time answering. "I think we did."
"Oh." Shifting position to wrap an arm around Annette, Starsky made himself comfortable. "Hutch?"
"Yeah?" He didn't bother to open his eyes again.
"Nex' time, you get heads, I get tails."
"Deal..." Hutch agreed.
The alarm shocked him out of sleep. Hutch cursed, reached for it, shut it off, and slumped back with a groan. His skull was a solid ache, ear to ear. On the other pillow, two heads nestled side by side still deep in slumber, one tawny blonde, one dark. Starsky was holding on to Annette like a child clutches a teddy-bear. Hutch hated him. Of course, right then, Hutch hated anyone who didn't have to get up and go to work.
A shower helped wake him up, but his hopes that the noise of his getting dressed would disturb the Sleeping Beauties went unrealized. He didn't feel quite vicious enough to try more drastic measures, and besides, he was going to be late enough as it was. "Goodbye, my children," he muttered. "Don't do anything I wouldn't."
He was not the only sufferer, as he discovered when he got to the squadroom. Those who had attended the party were all in states similar to his own. Minnie was in a poisonous mood. Dobey restricted himself to bass grunts. Dave Duplessis was very pale under his freckles, and moved as if he hurt. There was a run on the coffee.
He and Duplessis staggered through the day. By evening, as Hutch pulled up alone outside Venice Place, he considered it had been the sort of day one was glad to see the end of. One feisty old lady who had had to be talked into an appointment to pick out the man who had mugged her, and another dead-end clue on the truck hijacking. Thank God he had time-off coming. Ostensibly a pre-Review Board break to get Starsky into the peak of condition, it would also give them time to relax, to rediscover the old empathy, the intimate sense of partners communicating without words. Not having that these past ten months had been what galled the most. Over the years it had become part of his life, and being without it was like trying to function with only one eye, or one hand.
You've got to make it through, Starsk. You've got to.
The other half of the Bobbsey Twins was not at home. A note on the kitchen table read, "Gone to pick up a few things for the apartment. See you there. Starsk." After three weeks of that cocky grin greeting him every time he walked through the door, Hutch felt oddly lonely in the empty room.
My God, Hutchinson, you're really in need of that vacation.
He fixed himself a quick sandwich. Any food at Starsky's would be indigestible even if it were edible, since lately Starsky grabbed every conceivable opportunity to break his diet. He took it with him as he drove over, and was just finishing it as he pulled up behind the Dodge.
"Hi, Hutch," floated cheerfully from the bedroom as he entered the apartment. "I was hoping you'd get here soon."
There was a large flat package wrapped in brown paper propped against the living-room wall beside the bedroom door, marked 'FRAGILE--GLASS--HANDLE WITH CARE.' Hutch spared it a curious glance as he passed it. "Got a problem?" he wanted to know. Starsky, on his knees beside the window, was putting the final touches to the paintwork of the sill.
"Not yet." He looked up, grinning, and gestured at the room. "See? All done."
Hutch looked around. "So we get the kitchen fixed up next. How was your day?"
"Well, I didn't come round 'til noon, but after that--terrific. Annette sent you her love."
"You were both dead to the world when I left," Hutch said, examining the door-jamb for shoddy brushwork. "I did check to see you were still breathing. But I figured they'd never let you into heaven with a smirk like that on your face."
"Who needs heaven?" Starsky asked rhetorically. "Give me a hand, willya?"
He was manhandling the large mystery-object through the doorway--Hutch gave him the required aid. "Hey, it's heavy. What the hell is it? We fixed the glass first off."
Starsky was stripping away the protective wrapping. "I thought I'd get some style in my life," he said proudly.
Hutch stared at his reflection in the revealed mirror. He didn't need to ask where Starsky intended to put it. "Starsk. There's only one name for that kind of style--West Coast Sleazy. I thought you'd grown out of tacky ideas like that."
"Listen, smart-ass--don't knock it 'til you've tried it. You gonna help or not?"
"I guess I got no choice..." Hutch sighed, and took off his jacket.
"Right. Oh yeah, Hug called. He sounded kinda mean. But he said he'd got the keys for Shangri-la."
"Where?" Hutch was trying to figure out the best way of getting the mirror up and keeping it there. "Are you sure the ceiling's strong enough to hold this mother?"
"Yeah, I checked. Shangri-la. The cabin he found us. Our vacation away-from-it-all, dummy."
"Oh. Did he say when to pick them up?"
"I told him you'd call round tomorrow. Look, if you can steady it--like that --"
Feeling like Atlas with the world on his shoulders, Hutch finally voiced the question that had been puzzling him ever since the mirror had made its appearance. "Starsk. This may sound stupid, but--how the hell do you fix one of these things up?"
Starsky grinned at him wickedly around the screwdriver clenched pirate-fashion between his teeth.
"Very long screws," he said succinctly. "Schweetheart."
Hutch had a free weekend, and the two of them spent Saturday in a concentrated effort to get as much of the decorating done as they could.
It made for a long day. When they finally called a halt and returned to Venice, Starsky dropped onto the couch with a groan. "God, I ache," he complained. "I swear, I ache in more places than I knew I had places. D'you think I overdid it?"
"No," said Hutch concisely, grinning. "A little hard work never hurt anyone. You're not used to it is all. Once you're back in shape, you won't even notice. Anyhow, we broke the back of it."
"Yeah, and mine, too, feels like. Downhill all the way from now on, I hope." He stretched like a cat, eyes shut tight, and wrinkled his nose. "I stink of paint. And turpentine."
"I didn't want to mention it," Hutch said. "Well, you know where the bathroom is. I'll fix us some supper."
Starsky opened one eye, tried for a pale-and-interesting look, and didn't quite make it. Hutch was regarding him tolerantly. "You're not makin' me stick to that diet, are you, buddy?" he asked, expression soulful. "Couldn't we send out for a pizza or three? Or some chili --"
"Your digestion wouldn't take it," Hutch told him dismissively. "That cast-iron gut of yours is a thing of the past, remember. You want to pass the Review Board, don't you? Well, you won't if your stomach falls out."
Starsky snarled voicelessly. He was getting sick of Hutch holding the fuckin' Review Board over his head like the Sword of Damocles every time he wanted to do something Hutch disapproved of. Muttering to himself, he climbed to his feet and made for the bathroom--emerging half-an-hour later, water droplets glistening in the dark curls, hitching the belt of the blue terry-cloth robe tighter around his middle. The smells from the kitchen were making his mouth water.
"Hutch? The Paul Muni Special?"
"Thought you deserved a treat after all that hard work," Hutch said. "There's a bottle of wine in the cupboard. Be careful you don't cork it when you're getting it open."
"Would I?" Starsky demanded rhetorically, finding the wine and the corkscrew and wrestling to divorce cork from bottle. "Hey, you really spoil me, you know?"
"I know," Hutch agreed. "Make the most of it while it lasts." He finished laying the table. "C'mon, sit down." Starsky sat, poured the wine, and lifted his glass in a salute.
"The Review Board," he said. "And afterwards--me'n' thee again."
"I'll drink to that. Eat your spinach."
They both enjoyed the meal--the day's work had given them good appetites, and conversation was non-existent, restricted to a mumbled request to pass the salt, until the edge was off their hunger. By that time the Paul Muni Special was down to scrapings, which Starsky disposed of.
"You'll make someone a wonderful mother," he announced, sitting back replete.
Hutch shook his head. "Uh-uh. Too narrow in the pelvis. Toss for who does the dishes?"
"Heads," said Starsky, not caring either way.
"Right. You get to do the dishes."
"Oh, terrific." He grouched for the sake of it, but didn't really object that much. When he was through, he carried the bottle and glasses over to the couch. There was about an inch left in the bottle. He considered this, then tipped it into his glass, downed it, and called, "Hutch? This bottle's empty."
"There's another one. Same place," was shouted above the sound of the shower. Starsky grinned to himself and collected it. Sebastiani Zinfandel--better than merely palatable...
He leafed through the TV Guide, but there was nothing to catch his interest, at least not until the Late Late Show. He considered the stereo, but his taste in music wasn't quite in synch with his partner's. Hell, who needs it, anyway? It was a luxury just to sit back, close the eyes and relax, secure in the knowledge of hard work done well.
His thoughts drifted, as they often did, to that 'what if' question that hung over his career--both their careers. Hutch had made that perfectly clear over the months.
"We're a team, a partnership."
"On the force or off it, doesn't make any difference."
"It's gonna be together, Starsk. Whatever comes down."
He knew the arguments so well, he could do them to music. And in the really hard weeks, before Christmas, he had needed that reassurance. But now it was different. Sure, he felt okay--A-1 fit, no problems--but that wasn't going to snow the Board. Nor did he honestly want it to. If he wasn't fit to go back on the street, then that was it. Finis. Wouldn't want Hutch to take the risk, the chance that he might be too slow, too cautious, once too often. Well, in four weeks he'd know, one way or the other.
And if it was the other, he had two problems on his hands. What could he do apart from police work; and how could he convince Hutch to stay on the force...
"Contemplating Armageddon?" Hutch's voice broke in on his thoughts. He opened his eyes, smiled up at him.
"Something like that."
"Lighten up. It may never happen." Hutch, barefoot and clad in his bathrobe, joined him on the couch, picking up his glass. "Nothing on TV?"
"Not unless you can face the Waltons."
"Not when I've just eaten, no."
The level in the bottle dropped steadily, and the silence was without stress, companionable. The daylight dimmed, darkened swiftly into twilight--gold turning to rose, to purple, to cobweb grey. Hutch reached up and clicked the lamp onto its lowest setting, suddenly realizing that Starsky was not just being quiet but had fallen asleep.
Why wake him? It had been a long day, and a tiring one, for Starsky in particular. Hutch looked at him, carefully. Weeks of hospitalization, months of convalescence, had left their inevitable mark, and not only in the too easily-tired muscles. The sleeping face was still thin, almost gaunt, though thanks to days spent swimming and lazing in the sun, he was no longer invalid-pale.
Hutch leaned closer, searching for signs of strain, shadows of pain, but there were none. Starsky slept with a tranquility that was childlike in its trust. Despite the pain and grief of the last few weeks, Nick, it seemed, had no power to trouble him here.
Satisfied, Hutch relaxed back against the cushions, unable to shift his position too much without disturbing the sleeper--not wanting to move, anyway. He was comfortable, and though not tired, he found the dimness of the room peaceful. There had been little enough opportunity to unwind recently. To sit quietly and just--be.
Be together. Be where he was needed, too. Starsky needed him near, needed their closeness, the companionship born of shared respect, shared dangers. It had been there from their first meeting--how many years ago now?--and had been forged by time into something so strong, so integral to their lives, that to be deprived of it was unthinkable.
But he had thought of it. Infrequently in the past, more often since that burst of automatic fire had stitched death across Starsky's body. The terrible barren agony of having half of his being torn away.
Frowning, he gave himself a mental shake. That was sheer melodrama. Besides, he'd come to terms with the fear months ago, when Starsky had announced his intention to get back to active duty as fast as possible. Part of him wanted to object, to insist that the life more precious than his own be sheltered, protected--but he'd squashed that impulse and set about giving Starsky all the help and encouragement and support he needed. It was a purely selfish reaction; it was because he didn't want to suffer that emotional holocaust again. Because, once they got back on the streets, it would come. Inevitable as night following day. And he would lose Starsky for good. It was a choice not easily made, nor easily held, but one he remade every time.
Whatever comes down. They were a team, and that was the way it was going to stay.
There was no doubt in his mind that Starsky would pass the Medical Review Board. He'd make it, no sweat. Of course, he wouldn't be back to the peak of last year, and they'd both have to cut out the risks they were used to taking, but a little more caution wouldn't be amiss anyhow. Somehow, though, he couldn't see Starsky changing that much. And he would hate to see him forced to change.
He felt a smile creep over his face, beginning rueful, becoming infinitely tender. Hate it or not, Starsky had already changed. A man cannot walk into the Valley of the Shadow and return without some token of the experience. Starsky hadn't talked much about it, but those one hundred and seventy-four seconds of cardiac arrest, and the countless days of long and painful convalescence, had brought about a subtle transmutation--no, he corrected himself, transmutation is base metal to gold. What had happened to Starsky was different. The gold was always there, under the cocky, abrasive veneer, and few people had been let close enough to see it. Now it was closer to the surface, more easily glimpsed. He'd always known that rich vibrant vein of personality, but its more frequent emergence now was no less a delight. The brashness had mellowed, and the result was a quieter Starsky, his basic depth and strength more obvious to the casual eye. Fine, true metal.
Without conscious thought he reached out and traced the line of cheekbone and brow with a feather touch. If he were a sculptor, this would be the kind of face he'd--no, wrong again. If he were a sculptor, this one face, in all its many moods, would prove an endless challenge, a recurring inspiration. He knew it so well, better than his own, but the man's essential image had evaded his every attempt to get it onto canvas, let alone bring it out of the clay. Oh, he'd managed a fair likeness on occasion--the portrait Anna Starsky was so proud to display, the half-finished sketches abandoned and laid away years ago. But he'd never been able to satisfy himself that he'd caught that quicksilver spirit. Would he ever be able to? That was his partner--difficult. Enigmatic. Infuriating. And indispensable. How do you put that down in paint?
Even the structure of his face was a problem. All those mismatched features: no one in their right mind, he decided with clinical detachment, could call David Michael Starsky classically handsome. The eyebrows were too thick, nearly meeting over the strong nose. The jaw line was too heavy, to the point of being Neanderthal when belligerence and stubbornness added to its jut. But the eyes--closed now, hidden behind thick dark lashes--were that rare deep blue, and the mouth--
His fingers on Starsky's lips, Hutch froze, suddenly aware of his own quickened breathing, the warm, pulsing ache growing in his loins. Confused, he jerked his hand away, then held his breath in case the abrupt movement had awakened him. But Starsky didn't stir, and slowly he let the air out of his lungs, relief submerging arousal. You're imagining it. You're not feeling that.
But he hadn't imagined it. Honesty forced him to examine what he had felt in that instant of time. Which was a mistake, he discovered, because it returned, and he could find no excuse for it, unless it was the wine they'd drunk.
And he didn't think it had anything to do with the wine.
Swallowing, he reached up, switched off the lamp. This man, lying asleep beside him, his partner, his brother in all but birth, had suddenly become the focus of a desire so great it was choking him, blinding his eyes to all but the shadowed, sleeping face.
The hand he'd stretched out to touch Starsky's mouth again drew back as his mind struggled to retain some kind of sanity. Unbidden came the memory of John Blaine, of his death, and Starsky's shock and disbelief that his mentor had been homosexual. That was one label that didn't fit him, he was sure of that, regardless of the havoc his gonads were wreaking on his self-control, but --
He knew Starsky loved him. More than he had ever loved John Blaine, the father figure he had looked up to and respected. It had never been said, but Hutch had not needed the words to confirm what he knew was there. It was, though, a love that could be summed up in one word. Brother.
'The heart whose love is innocent...' Who said that? Byron?
What he was feeling was far from innocent. He wanted to kiss Starsky, feel that mouth open under his, the powerful body responding, lifting to his hands, until in the cataclysm of sexual climax he could give and receive a commitment that was far more than the act of love. Love...
He'd said it enough times, in one way or another, but always with a qualification; "Starsk, I love you, but your taste in cars/women is awful." And "I love you, and I love your caring, but --" Now he had another one. I love you. But I'm in love with you. What would you make of that?
His mouth lifted in a wry, one-sided smile. How about that, Starsk? And I'm drunk. I think. And if not on wine, then on this crazy, painful, incredible thing I've got inside me. Y'know something? I'm glad. Wouldn't be without it. Not that you'll ever know, because you won't. You felt betrayed by Blaine--I won't lay that on you. It won't matter; you not knowing. The giving's still there, and nothing can change that. Whatever you want, or need...
Gently he touched a fingertip to Starsky's mouth, then, with conscious and self-mocking indulgence, stroked a light caress through the dark tangled hair. He'd forgotten how silk-soft the untidy curls were, and the rediscovery was a sensual pleasure. But his touch remained light as a breath of air--he had no intention of waking Starsky up.
The transition from dream to waking was so indefinite that he wasn't sure he was awake--except that his dreams weren't usually quite this vivid. Someone was stroking his hair, the touch so light as to be insubstantial, so it couldn't be that that had woken him. Couldn't think what it was.
He opened his eyes. The dim shapes of the room, ghostly shadows of themselves, lit by the streetlights from outside, told him where he was. Hey, I must have been whipped. Crashed out on Hutch's couch. Don't even remember --
He became aware of other things. Like it was late. Or maybe early. Didn't know how long he'd been asleep. He lifted his wrist to check his watch, and a quiet voice said, "I didn't know you were awake."
The touch on his hair was gone. Maybe he'd imagined it. Left over from the dream. What had he been dreaming about anyway? Couldn't remember.
"What time is it?"
"Late. Why? You going somewhere?" The thread of laughter in the voice made him grin in answer.
"Don't think so." He tried to sound doubtful, and stretched himself from his curled-up position, discovering that Hutch was still sitting beside him, as he had been when he'd gone to sleep. He could make out the faint images of bottle and glasses on the side table. "Sorry. Didn't mean to cut out on you. You should have gone to bed."
"Yeah." A pause. "I was thinking. Guess I didn't notice the time either."
"Thinking, huh?" Starsky contemplated checking whether they'd killed the bottle, but was too comfortable to move. "What were you thinking about?"
He felt rather than saw the shrug, sensed the movement as Hutch turned towards him, heard him draw breath. "A lot of things. Us." The words came slowly, reluctantly.
Well, that explained why he'd woken up. Empathy. Picking up on the vibes. He put his head back against the couch and relaxed. "Want to talk it out?" he offered. Wasn't the first rap-session they'd had in the middle of the night. There was a hesitation.
"I don't know."
"You could say that."
"In that case--maybe you should talk about it." Another pause, lengthening into a silence that was somehow different to any other silence they had shared. Empathy picked up impressions of pain, uncertainty. That hurt. "Hey, c'mon," he said gently, reaching out in the darkness for Hutch's shoulder. "Whatever it is, you can tell me. We're buddies, aren't we?"
"Huh?" The denial jolted him. He turned his head, trying to make out his partner's face. Impressions of shadowed eyes, pale glinting hair, but no expression. Only the guarded set of his mouth that could be covering--anything. "No we're not buddies, or what?"
"Oh, Christ." A small, flinching expletive. "I didn't mean that."
Starsky frowned, pushing up onto his elbow. "Okay. Whatever's bugging you, it's not healthy locking it up inside yourself, right? Isn't that what you're always telling me?" He tried to put a smile in his voice, and tightened his grip on Hutch's shoulder. "Well... Anytime you're ready, I'm here, don't forget that."
He heard a half-swallowed mumble from Hutch, asked, "What did you say?"
"I said, I guess I'm a little uptight these days, is all."
"About what?" Starsky prompted. "About us?"
A slight nod from Hutch.
Puzzled, Starsky looked at him, straining to see clearly through the gloom. "Yeah, me too, sometimes. Lately--hell, you know all that. Listen, can we talk about it? Would it help?"
"No. I don't know. Maybe." The soft voice paused, and the silence stretched again. "I want to tell you something, but I'm not sure about it myself--and I don't want to hurt you or get you mad at me."
"Yeah?" Warmth flooded through Starsky, and he moved his hand up from Hutch's shoulder to the nape of his neck, fingers curling in the pale hair. "Hey, you're my partner. My best friend. So tell it." Hutch remained silent. Somehow the silence hurt. "C'mon, babe," Starsky pleaded. "Don't lock me out. Please."
Hutch's hand touched his cheek, palm hard with calluses but so gentle it took his breath away, then his head was tilting back, and he was being kissed--and suddenly nothing was the way it had been and a lot of things made sense that hadn't made sense before. Light, uncertain, the mouth on his told the secret without words, asked a soundless question--and, almost laughing with his own sudden delight, Starsky found that he could answer. A fierce joy welled up inside him, and he let his lips part, accepting the kiss, deepening it, slipping both hands around Hutch and drawing him closer.
Breathing ragged, Hutch lifted his head slightly, breaking the kiss. But he did not move away, and his cheek where it brushed against Starsky's was wet.
"I love you," said the mouth against Starsky's skin. Words said before, but now taking on a new meaning and a new intensity.
"I know," Starsky murmured. And it came to him that, in a way, he had always known it. So now what? Who cares? This--whatever happens is how it has to be. Natural progression. Is that my heart beating so fast? Or yours? I love you, babe, so much--can't tell you how much --
He pulled Hutch down on top of him, tugging aside the bathrobe, pressed by the lean, powerful body into the cushions, into the silken pleasure of flesh on flesh, and surrendered to the upsurge of needing, wanting, until all thought was drowned in pure sensation.
The leaves of the spider-plant hanging in the window cast jungle-shadows over Hutch's face as he woke to warm golden brightness splashed over the bed, its rucked yellow blanket and tangled sheets, the pillows all awry. He blinked sleepily, aware of some change but not yet awake enough to be sure what it was. Except that he felt completed, without knowing what had been missing. A movement beside him, a slight give in the mattress, and it came back to him then, with a sense of startled wonder.
"Starsk..." he whispered, rolling over. But Starsky was sitting up, knees drawn up, his arms folded across them, head bent, turned away. The strong curve of his back showed the clear definition of muscle and bone beneath the tanned skin.
"Anything I say is gonna sound like shit," Starsky said, his voice controlled, almost toneless. Hutch leaned on one elbow and looked at him seeing the tension.
"Why?" he asked quietly. Something was very wrong, and a knot of apprehension twisted his stomach.
"Because I don't know what to say."
"Do you have to say anything?" Hutch asked with a casualness he was far from feeling. Keep it light, he hasn't adjusted to this yet. Have I?
Starsky gave a small, one-shoulder shrug, inarticulate, and did not turn. The room was silent; Hutch could hear his own heartbeat. Starsky's unease was tangible, but he had to wait, couldn't move to touch him. Not yet.
"I'm not gay!" It was blurted out, harsh with pain, and went into Hutch like a saw-edged knife.
"Do you think I am?" he countered, keeping the edge out of his own voice. Starsky's head was bent on his arms, his face hidden, his breathing disordered. "Starsk? Is that what you think?" No answer. "Starsk?"
"I know you're not. Weren't. You'd have told me if it was like that." He lifted his head at last, and turned to look at Hutch. "So what happened?"
It was a question Hutch wasn't sure he could answer, but he had to say something to the look of--what? Guilt? Oh God--accusation--in the dark blue eyes. Off-balance, he grabbed for the last thing. "Does there have to be an explanation?"
"Yes, dammit!" The savagery startled them both, but Starsky's control was back. "If we're neither of us gay, then what the hell is all this? And how the hell did it happen? Huh?"
"I don't know."
"Well, I sure as shit don't!"
Hutch sat up, pushed one hand through his hair. It shouldn't be like this, he thought, dazed and miserable. What can I say? I didn't mean to fall in love with you, but I have and let's make the best of it? Oh, Christ --
"What do you want me to tell you?" he demanded. "That I was drunk last night? That we were both smashed out of our skulls? I wasn't that drunk, Starsk. You want me to pretend I can't remember what happened? Sorry, but my memory isn't that bad." He tried to hold down his own anger and disappointment and the insidious fear.
It shouldn't be like this. It should have been a gentle waking, together, peaceful and slow--cherishing, beginning to explore this new and tender aspect of their relationship, coming to understand the meanings, to discover the many different pathways of shared pleasure. The last thing he felt like doing was having his morals dissected. But he held both temper and desire in check. "Okay. It took me by surprise, too. You were asleep, and I was sitting there watching you--and it hit so sudden I was knocked for a loop." Put like that, it sounded lame to his own ears. "I--I didn't know what to do--didn't intend to do anything. I sat there and worked it all out. Knew I couldn't tell you the way I felt. Wouldn't be fair to you. So I wasn't going to tell you. Not knowing wouldn't have hurt you. But you woke up..."
He said no more for a moment, recalling the memory. It had seemed so right, and Starsky's response had been immediate, meeting his hesitation with a joyous acceptance--"Starsky, you know how it's been for us, ever since we met in Academy. We've been friends, partners, closer than most brothers. We loved each other before this. So what's changed?"
"What's changed?" Starsky repeated. "Everything!"
"No. One thing's added. We're lovers." And he smiled, liking the sound of the word. "But everything else is the same."
"No. It can't be. We had something great going, the way we were. We've lost that--can't go back to it. And I don't know yet what we've got instead. If anything. It can't be worth the price. I'm scared, Hutch." His voice shook on the name. "I don't know what's going to happen to us. I'm scared."
So was Hutch, but he had to move then, couldn't stop himself from responding to the distress in his friend's voice. He put an arm across the bowed shoulders, and Starsky didn't pull away as he had half-expected, but accepted the gesture in the spirit in which it was made.
"It's new to me, too," he said quietly. "But we can take it as it comes, babe. The way we always have." Dear God, just being near to you--holding you-- His arm tightened a fraction, his hand moving to caress the taut shoulder. "I never realized before how much you mean to me. That I loved you like this, I mean. That I--wanted you--"
In a sudden flare of movement, Starsky was off the bed, standing there, indecisive, the hurt confusion in his face making Hutch flinch.
"Starsky. I didn't seduce you." The words were out before he could reconsider.
"What the hell do you call it, then?" Starsky snarled, and Hutch bit back the answering anger. If they started tearing at each other this way, there'd be nothing left. Kilkenny cats.
"Listen. You want to talk this out, we'll do it over breakfast. Go get dressed, okay?" Because if you don't, looking the way you do, I'm gonna haul you right back in here with me and show you exactly how I didn't have to seduce you.
Starsky paused, caught off-balance by the mundaneness of breakfast at such a crisis-point. Then clutched at the refuge of normality.
"Okay," he said, and disappeared into the bathroom, gathering up the scattered trail of his clothing. Hutch heard the latch click, let out a long, shaken sigh and climbed slowly out of bed, reaching for his cords and pulling them on, easing the zipper carefully over the swollen flesh of his erection. Thank God he didn't see that. His smile was bitter, self-mocking.
Breakfast. Do something. Occupy the mind. He heard the hiss of the shower, the buzz of his electric razor, busied himself making coffee and slicing bread for toast. He poured a glass of orange-juice and drank it down, the tartness cutting through the morning-stale taste in his mouth.
He turned, to see Starsky standing sheepishly on the threshold. "Hutch, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have sounded off at you like that. I --well--I'm sorry, okay?"
"No big deal," Hutch heard himself say, and turned to the sink to rinse out his glass. "Sit down. Help yourself to coffee." A conversation between two strangers.
"No. Really. I am sorry. It's just that I didn't expect--I never expected anything like this to happen."
"And you'd rather it hadn't happened at all." There was an edge of bitterness he couldn't quite keep out of his voice. You enjoyed it, damn you. Don't pretend you didn't, to me or to yourself. I didn't rape you, David Starsky. You were as crazy for me as I was for you.
"I didn't say that." It was almost inaudible. "Hutch, I don't know how to put this--you're the best friend I've got. Ever had. That means a lot to me. I don't want it to end."
"It won't. Unless you end it."
Starsky shook his head mutely, eyes on the slice of toast that lay on his plate. "I don't know," he said softly, and that knot started twisting again in Hutch's belly. "I just--don't know..."
Hutch sat down opposite him, automatically taking a piece of toast and buttering it. He wasn't hungry; if he had to take a bite of it, he'd probably choke, but his hands needed something to do. "Be honest with me, Starsk," he said, keeping the even tones with an effort. "Haven't you ever thought about it? How it might be--me and you? Haven't you ever had that kind of dream?"
"No! Well, once, maybe. Or twice," Starsky added reluctantly, still not looking at him.
"And you wondered, sometimes, what it would be like? You and me, together?"
"What is this? Some fuckin'--I mean, some kinda third degree? Okay! Sure, I've thought about it, dreamed about it, maybe once or twice. Doesn't mean I ever expected it to happen--or wanted it to happen!" Again the accusation, and Hutch gritted his teeth.
"David," he said deliberately. "Do you love me?"
The use of his given name startled Starsky into looking up, the same as last night, when Hutch had called him "David" during their loving. Starsky's eyes were caught, and he couldn't turn away.
"Yes," he said, voice shaking. "Yes, I do, but--like that? Oh, Jesus, Hutch, I can't get used to the idea! I need to think--to figure it out --"
"Sure." Hutch put all his compassion into his words. "Take all the time you need, Starsk. But whatever you decide, I'm going to be there. You know that."
Starsky got to his feet precipitously, catching the chair as it tipped and putting it straight. "I gotta go," he said desperately, and headed for the door, snatching up his jacket and keys in passing.
Hutch didn't move to stop him. "Starsk."
He halted by the door. "Yeah?"
"Careful how you go, huh?"
"Yeah." And, "I'll call you. Okay?"
Then the door slammed and Hutch was alone. He sat for a few minutes, eyes closed, before getting up and tipping the untasted coffee down the sink, taking out a bottle of J&B, and pouring a shot. It tasted raw and sour, but he swallowed it and went to stand by the window. The sunlit tangle of plants blurred into a green mass. You blew it, Hutchinson. You had your chance and you blew it. Bombed out. Again.
Looking back, he could see every one of his mistakes, catalogue them. What happened to self-control? Deciding not to tell him, then as soon as he makes a normal friendly move, you throw caution to the winds and-- Oh, Christ. Strike One.
You could have played it cool, talked a bit about it, how you felt--tried to find out if he felt the same way. But you can't wait. Knowing him so well, you know all the right buttons to push, and you push 'em. Strike Two.
You knew how he felt this morning. Guilt, shame, fear--mixed up as a kid. You could have helped him, talked with him. Playing it cool. Instead you lose your temper, let your own hurt show, and your need. And him with Nick's Vegas set-up churning round in his head. Strike Three.
It was so right, so good. Like nothing I've ever had before. It was good for him, too, he couldn't fake that. Correction. It was fantastic. For both of us.
What if he never comes back?
The question caught at his throat and made his eyes burn.
What if I've blown the whole thing, our friendship and the team as well as this? If I've lost that as well--what have I got left?
He realized he was shaking. The deepest agony was that the missing part of him that had been filled in to make him so blessedly whole, had been torn out again. He slumped over the sill, head in hands. Dear God, what have I done to us?