Comments about this novel can be sent to:


One More River
Terri Beckett and Chris Power


Chapter IV.

Starsky didn't allow himself to think until he was in the car and heading away from Venice. The direction didn't matter--he just needed the distance between him and--oh dear God Hutch...

He pulled off the road, cut the engine, leaned back in the seat and took a deep breath. Gotta keep control. Come on. Get it together, Starsky. His hands were shaking. He gripped the wheel tighter to steady them, and watched his knuckles whiten with the pressure.

Face it. The one person you trusted absolutely--life, liberty and sacred honor--the one you thought would never, could never betray you--

Betray? That's kinda heavy.

Call it any way you see it. You trusted him. The one person in the whole friggin' world you felt completely safe with--he used your trust and love and confidence and--

No! Goddammit, no! It's Hutch I'm thinking about. Hutch.

Isn't that worse? Hutch being what he is to you? Hutch doing what he did last night?

"No!" He spoke the denial aloud, vehemently. "It wasn't like that!"

So how was it? Think about it. What he did--

What we did.

I've had dreams like that, sure--doesn't everyone? Subconscious stuff. Had a real beaut while I was still in the hospital--the nurse woke me up early one morning and I'd had a real diamond-cutter of a hard-on. Embarrassed the hell out of me, but all she did was smile and say I must be feeling better. But it wasn't her I'd been dreaming about. Forgot all about it, until just now...

I was dreaming last night, too, there on the couch. Can't remember what it was about, except that it felt so--good. Warm and comfortable and safe. And then waking up. What did we say to each other? I can't remember. Just knew somehow that he was uptight, hurting, and I wanted to help. 'Any time you're ready, I'm here.'

Well, that was laying it on the line, okay. Though God knows I didn't mean it like that. But when he kissed me--

I could have pulled away. Asked him what the hell he thought he was doing. I didn't. I--enjoyed it. I wanted him to kiss me. And the rest, too. I could have called a halt any time I wanted, but I didn't.

So what am I laying all the blame on him for? I sure as hell wasn't fighting him off.

His mind, traitorous, supplied the memories. Hutch's weight, the strength of the arms around him. Bodies straining together as mouths clung. The unreality--no, not unreal, surreal, and not dreamlike, either. He was more intensely aware than at any time during his life, flying high on sweet sensation, so that the climax when it came was shattering in more ways than one. Cradled then, held close in loving arms, Hutch's voice murmuring...

What he did--what we did...God, how can anything so right be wrong? I've known since I was a kid what fruits do with each other. It's never turned me on. When I found out about Nicky, I felt sick to my stomach. And then Johnny Blaine. 'It doesn't change any of the other things he was.' But I still felt shocked. Only, with Hutch...

He didn't remember how he'd gotten to the bed. The only clear memory was Hutch. His hands caressing, stroking, exploring. Voice telling him over and over how beautiful he was, how much he was loved. And like a cat, he had lain there in a kind of languorous trance, surrounded by love, basking in it, accepting it as his due, relishing the intoxication of it. Hutch loved him, and that was all there was in the world--Hutch, the taste of his mouth, the sound of his voice and the adoration like velvet in it, the touch of the sensitive fingers that conjured him erect again, and the brush of silken hair on his thighs as Hutch's mouth enclosed him. The shock--it was an electric jolt--his own voice crying out--the quicksilver that had replaced his blood shimmering through him with every crest of pleasure--tension building to a pitch of white fire, destroying, and a riptide of orgasm sweeping him away, life was being washed out of him--

Oh, Hutch how did you learn to make it so good? Because it was good. Terrific. Didn't want it to end.

Gentle hands bringing him back, gentle lips touching his, gentle embrace enfolding his shaking body.

"I love you, David."

"Ahhh, Hutch..."

Sated, content, utterly weary, falling asleep, holding and being held...

"Hey, fella. You okay?"

He snapped back to the present, jerked out of his reverie by a suspicious-faced CHiP.

"Yeah...yeah, I'm fine. Thanks," he managed, the words hollow, without meaning. He was coming apart at the seams, and he was fine. Oh, God...

The patrolman gave him another searching glance before taking to the road again. Starsky decided not to risk another confrontation, and turned the Torino for home, resolutely corralling his thoughts until he was inside the half-finished apartment. There was food in the fridge, and some cans of beer, and the bedroom at least was habitable. He popped a can, kicked off his shoes, and stretched out on the bed, wedging a pillow behind his shoulders so that he didn't have to look at his reflection in the mirror.

Okay. So it was great. Maybe the best ever. So what spooked me?

He tried to analyze his feelings, remembering how he had awakened--head pillowed on Hutch's shoulder, one arm thrown across the broad chest, one leg over his, thigh to thigh, exactly as they'd fallen asleep. The feel of his own body, warm and pliant and relaxed--the scent of morning and sunlight and Hutch's clean smell of soap and that expensive shampoo he uses, and the faint tang of musk and sweat from their bodies. The look on Hutch's face as he slept--not quite a smile. Peaceful, and years younger somehow, the vertical furrow between his brows smoothed almost completely away. And the leaf-shadows tracing a pattern over his skin, and the way his hair gleamed where the sun touched it...

"David. Do you love me?"

Oh, Christ, if I didn't, none of it would have happened. I love you, Hutch. So much that it hurts. So much that I'm breaking up inside from loving you. But I can't take this. It's too much.

Yeah, so what did I do? I could have talked to him--explained--but instead I lay into him with the blame. 'You Always Hurt The One You Love.' Terrific. What kind of perversion is that? Whatever, it's the pits.

The train of thought, once started, refused to be halted. Echoes from the past, whispering:

--Don't cry down my back, baby, you'll rust my spurs--

--Four painkillers, feel no pain--

--Happy New Year, Hutch--You don't know how happy, babe--

--It takes a very special kind of strength and friendship to let him do what he's doing. I don't know that I could do it for him again.--

Hutch. Hurt. Feeling the pain empathetically, a phenomenon he no longer wondered at, because they were part of each other and if you share the good you have to share the bad.

We never thought of it from this angle. The question has always been can I cut it again, out on the street. He's backed me all the way, whatever it cost him--and it cost plenty. He's always been there. Always ready to give just a little bit more. And when there's something I can do for him in return--strike out.

I'm not making sense. Enough. This isn't getting us anywhere.

He rolled over and reached for the phone, thought for a minute, and punched out a number. A sleepy voice answered, brightening considerably when he said, "Hi, Toni. It's Dave."

"Dave! Hey, it's been weeks! How are you?"

"Wanta come around and find out?" he suggested. "I'm--uh--redecorating, but--"

"Oh, I see! Had to be an ulterior motive. You need someone to hold the ladder." A chuckle, and he grinned in spite of himself.

"That, too, maybe."

"You talked me into it," she said. "Half an hour?"

"Great. See you."

She was auburn and petite and vivacious, fun to be with. She was willing to pitch in and help with the last of the repainting. She could also cook, and worked a miracle with Starsky's barren refrigerator. They drank a bottle of wine and got slightly giggly over dessert and went to bed. She was talented there, too. But for once he couldn't hold himself back. Something fiercer, harder, almost violent in him raged out of his control.

"Dave, darling--take it easy--" She dug fingernails into his shoulders and he gasped, shuddering on the brink, eyes blind. "You tryin' to knock a hole in me or what?" Skillfully, she shifted her hips, tilting her pelvis, and checked his movements by locking her legs around him. "Take it slow, love...please? Slower?"

But he gasped only seconds later and collapsed across her, trembling, his face buried in her hair. "God, Toni--I'm sorry..."

She stroked his sweat-slick back and shoulders. "Shh. Everything's fine..."

At least for a while he could forget another loving embrace, another voice murmuring his name, another body thrusting against him, and his own response.


Monday dawned cold, bleak and empty. He woke alone in the apartment, and the dream of a warm, caring presence became ashes as illogical hope died. Because dreams do not become reality, even when they are based on what once had been.

Hutch squinted at the bedside clock, and laboriously climbed out of the rumpled bed. Sunlight and leaf-shade across the linen twisted the pain a little deeper into his gut. Yesterday at this time he'd been asleep, Starsky beside him, the companion of his dreaming, and, for a brief space of hours, his lover. Until they'd woken up.

He had tried to erase Starsky from his memory after he'd left, but failed. He didn't know how much he'd drunk, and didn't care, because eventually it had had the effect of numbing mind and body and dropping him into oblivion.

But today was Monday, and he had to face the world as if nothing had happened, nothing was wrong, with a hangover of monstrous proportions rooted in his skull, and a desolation in heart and mind.

No matter how he tried, he could not shut out Sunday morning: Starsky's face and voice, bewildered, hurting, accusing; Starsky stepping back, walking away, opening up a gulf between them that mere words could not bridge.

He stumbled to the shower, turned it on, and stood there cringing as the spray beat down on his aching head.


Why, when he had gotten over the shock of discovering the new direction his love for Starsky had taken, had accepted it, and had decided to keep it to himself, why had he let it out?

More to the point, instead of saying, "Hey, Starsk, I love you, you turn me on, how d'you feel about me?" why had he resorted to actions rather than words? Touching him, gentle slide of fingers across cheek and into dark, thick hair, the incandescent shock of his mouth on Starsky's--

"I wasn't going to tell you--" He didn't realize he'd said it aloud until he heard his own voice. Wasn't going to show you, either. But I couldn't help it, Starsk. You sat there, so damned close, your hand on the back of my neck, your face wide open with concern, caring, and your eyes locked on mine. It was as if I was drowning. I couldn't get my breath, all I could see was your eyes, and your mouth, hearing your voice, quiet and warm and--and--I needed you so much. Oh, God, I wish I could tell you how precious you are to me, but there just aren't words enough in any language. If I'd been able to, maybe you'd understand, and not feel hurt, betrayed, by what I did.

Wishful thinking.

You blew it, Hutchinson. Bombed out. Now you've got to live with it, so pull yourself together, and start thinking with your head, not your gonads.

He turned off the shower, and with self-punishing briskness toweled himself dry, resolutely herding his maverick thoughts back to the day's work. They would have to interview the old lady, Mrs. Ferengo, again, bring her in for the ID parade. Young Duplessis had handled her quite well last week. The kid obviously had a knack with frightened elderly women.

A small grin twisted his mouth, and he began to shave. Duplessis was more promising than the rookies Dobey had put in his charge since the hit on Starsky. Of course, Duplessis was not quite as wet-eared as they had been. Or maybe, he acknowledged wryly, Duplessis was the only one he'd given half a chance. Hutch assumed he was taking it all in. At least his questions never stopped coming, and they were usually to the point. Moreover, he could cope with words longer than two syllables. And could charm little old ladies.

Hutch snorted and reached for his aftershave. The bottle, new-bought last week, held only a dribble of liquid. The culprit was obvious.

"Stars--" But Starsky was gone. For a while, maybe for good. Pain cut into him again.

Starsky was not there, but the signs of his late presence were scattered around the apartment. Even the clothes he had been wearing when he left had been Hutch's, all except the jeans and sneakers. All his belongings were still here, as if he'd just snuck out to buy a pizza from the delicatessen down the street--Hutch gave himself a savage mental kick, and fixed his mind on getting dressed.

He headed for the closet, spent five minutes looking for a particular shirt and pair of socks before remembering with a second jolt of pain that they had walked out with Starsky.

Momentarily disoriented, off-balance, he stood by the bed, trying to get to a safe mental topic. Duplessis. Good kid. Someday a good city cop. He'd shown a lot of patience and compassion with the old girl; useful attributes, both of them. He finished dressing and headed for the kitchen, concentrating on food and breakfast. He was brought up short by the untouched remnants of Sunday's abortive breakfast-for-two.

How can you be haunted by someone who isn't there? By an aching absence, by a hole in your life which something--someone--had suddenly filled completely and you never realized how completely until he was gone?

He seized the bread knife and started slicing at the rye loaf. "Damn!" The knife and his carelessness together did a good job of slicing his index finger to the bone. He sucked on the cut, fumbled in the cupboard for a Band-Aid. He was ham-fisted sticking it in place, but there was no one there to do it for him. No tolerant, affectionate, chuckling voice chiding his clumsiness-- "Damn you, Starsky."

No, not Starsky. Damn his own stupidity, his own haste. Oh, Christ, I've been through this already, yesterday and this morning. And I'll probably go through it again in the next few days. Or however long it takes Starsky to make up his mind.

Which way would it go? A coldness slid into his stomach, remembering how Starsky had fled from him.

Gritting his teeth, Hutch carried on the breakfast preparations. What was the point of letting it get to him? If he kept this up, he'd be a wreck by the weekend. Please, God, don't let it take that long. One day, and it seemed like he was already going out of his skull.

One single day. A day that had dragged by leaden-footed, and yet when he looked back, it was nothing more than a handful of hours separating the zenith of his life from the nadir.

The coffee was ready, and he stared at the two cups he'd poured as if they were twin vipers. Amazing how quickly a habit is formed, how you get used to having someone around, sharing your space--invading it, getting under your feet, in your hair, on your back--filling your life to the brim. Uncapped toothpaste tubes. Never a dry towel. Aftershave, his, spilled or swiped. Nothing back in its proper place. Litter of living, his presence spread around warm and vital.

One day. How much more of this can I take?

Question unanswerable.

Other questions: Where is he? Where did he go? Can't call his apartment to see if he's okay, not under the circumstances--he'd think I was hounding him. Is he okay? I could call. He doesn't have to know it's me.

The phone answered on the third buzz, and a sleepy voice mumbled "H'llo?" Hutch replaced the receiver. He's there. And he's all right. That's all I wanted to know.

Sure it was. Except that the sound of his voice, just the one word, had revived the longing. He wanted to hear him say "Hutch" again, whisper it the way he did that night, just before he fell asleep, with wonder and drowsy delight and love. He wanted the weight of that head on his shoulder, curls tickling his neck, the supple strength of him sated and slack with loving. Ah God, the way he held on to me...

He had never felt like this about a woman. And there had been enough of them, all sizes, colors. But they were all the same in the night, even Jaqi. They came back for more, so he guessed he did something right. But with Starsky he didn't need to guess. He'd known. Known what Starsky needed and liked with the same certainty of his own needs and likes, a mirror-image of each other--completing--

He didn't have time to reflect further, because there was a knock on the door, pounding into his hangover and startling him out of his reverie. He opened the door on Dave Duplessis' well-scrubbed early-morning face, and stood back. The young cop came in with a bouncy swagger, clearly relishing his unexpected arrival.

"Hi, Hutch."

"Hi, yourself," he grunted. "Your coffee's getting cold."

Duplessis stared at him in slack-jawed amazement. "Hey, ESP? You knew I was gonna drop by?"

"Call it a hunch," Hutch said shortly.

"That's weird." Duplessis gazed around the untidy apartment. "I heard you and Starsky were tuned in on a wavelength, but I never figured it'd work with me--"

"Hunches are indiscriminate," Hutch cut in. "How come you're in this neck of the woods?"

"Sally's parents live in Santa Monica, and she's spending a few days with them. Just dropped her and Marie off there, and, well, I figured I could stop by and save us taking two cars in."

"Yeah. Thanks. Want some breakfast?"

"Sure." If Duplessis deduced anything from the bloodstained countertop, bread knife, and bandaged finger, he didn't mention it. "Want a hand?" he offered, and didn't wait for an answer. He sliced bread with speed and efficiency, dropped slices into the toaster, and spooned extra sugar into his coffee. "Starsky working on his place already?"

"Yes," Hutch said flatly.

Duplessis struggled to hide a grin. Something told him that Hutch had finally reached breaking point and evicted his houseguest, and was now feeling extremely lousy about it. Like the guy who kept banging his head against the wall--it felt real good when he stopped, but he missed the pretty colored lights.

Hutch's temper continued to smolder as they walked Mrs. Ferengo through a successful identification of her attacker, but once out on patrol he seemed to make a conscious effort to lighten up. Probably the black coffee and aspirin finally cracking the hangover, Duplessis thought.

"Hey," Hutch asked suddenly, "didn't you have a moustache before I went on vacation?"

Duplessis started, and felt his color rise. He had grown one but had shaved it off when Hutch came back from New York without his. He'd thought it had escaped notice. Luckily any answer he might have made was interrupted by the radio. "All units in the vicinity, a 1-87 at 7th Street Bridge, west side of the river."

"That's for us," Hutch said crisply. "We can be there in two minutes."

"Zebra Three responding," Duplessis said into the mike, reaching up with his free hand to slap the mars light on the roof.

When they got there, they saw the body behind one pillar of the bridge, a huddle of blood-stained clothing half-covered by black plastic sheeting. Two youngsters, their faces greenly pale, were talking both at once to a Highway Patrol officer, their backs resolutely turned to the bridge. "Coroner's wagon on the way," Hutch said as they passed, and got a nod of acknowledgement from the patrolman.

"Did he jump or was he pushed?" Duplessis said lightly, to disguise the uneasy feeling in his gut. So far in his police career, dead bodies had been few, excluding the one obligatory autopsy during training. Sierra County had seen very few homicides.

"Neither, if he hasn't been moved," Hutch pointed out. "If he'd fallen or been pushed, he'd've landed some way this side of the bridge support. He was put there. Someone's also made an attempt to cover him up."

"Maybe the kids?"


But they hadn't. Closer inspection showed that the sheet was a garbage bag, and most of the body was inside it. The kids couldn't have done that without getting plenty of blood on them, and they looked clean. The body was a young man in his early twenties, sun-streaked brown hair, dime-a-dozen beach-boy good looks. He was wearing an open-necked T-shirt and levis, and most of the fabric was soaked with drying blood. The stink of it was heavy in the still air under the bridge, and Duplessis swallowed back a knot of nausea.

The source of the blood was obvious. Across the boy's face were two open welts, angling left and right, as if he'd been lashed with a whip, splitting flesh to the bone. More welts were visible, disappearing under the shirt, but there were no tears in the cloth.

"Killed somewhere else and dumped," Hutch said, standing up and dusting off his knees. "Careful, Dave, you don't want to louse things up for Forensic. Seen him before?"

"No, I'm pretty sure not."

"Me neither. The motive wasn't robbery, looks like a gold chain around his neck, under the blood. Don't like the way his face has been marked--too damn deliberate." He reached down and tried to lift the flexed elbow. "Still stiff, and by the way he's curled, he wasn't when he was sacked up. Come on, you go hear what the kids have to say, I'll go talk to the cop." He walked a little way off with the patrolman as Duplessis gulped again and turned to the two boys.

"You guys live around here?" he said, taking out his notebook.

"Aw, man, we just got through talkin' to the chippie there," the red-headed one said, protestingly. "You gonna let us go, huh? We sure didn't kill him."

"Just give me your names and addresses, right?"

"G'wan, Phil," muttered the other.

"Yeah, okay. I'm Phil Sernick, and this is Gordo Geleah." He gave an address in Long Beach that Duplessis recognized as a coffee shop. Sernick backpedaled when he pointed this out. "We hang out there a lot. You can find us there, honest."

"I'll bet," said Duplessis, but he motioned them away, and they sprinted off.

Forensic and the Coroner's wagon arrived as Duplessis rejoined Hutch, putting away his own notebook. "Do you think we'll get this case?" he asked, feeling hopeful and reluctant at the same time. It was a particularly nasty murder.

Hutch smiled wryly. "Maybe. If we do, I hope to God we can get it wrapped up by this Friday, before I leave for our--my break. Back to the street, Dave. We can't do anything until the reports come through from the lab, anyway."

Duplessis got his wish. At four-thirty Zebra Three was called in to Metro with orders to see Captain Dobey, and they found him leafing grimly through the autopsy report. "This John Doe of yours isn't going to be the cleanest of cases," he said without preamble. "Sit down."

"Ours?" Hutch said, perching on a corner of the desk. Duplessis parked himself in the chair by the door.

"As of now, yes. You can read the report later, but I'll give you the highlights now. The kid had a $200 gold chain around his neck and an expensive digital watch on his wrist. The watch has a serial number inside the casing, and we're checking on that. He'd been beaten up with fists, feet, and a metal whip, sexually assaulted by more than one man, and there were traces of drugs in his blood--sedative and some hallucinogens. He died of loss of blood from multiple injuries between about nine o'clock and midnight last night. He was dressed but had no underwear on--probably dressed after he was dead."

"Gay rape?" Duplessis asked.

"It's a possibility," Dobey conceded, and pushed two copies of a photograph at them, a mug shot supplied by the morgue. John Doe's face had been cleaned up, the gashes closed and almost invisible under cosmetic camouflage. "Babcock and Simmons are checking gay bars, so are Hendricks, Lewis, and Tuchman. You two take the porn studios, the ones who cater to the S-M trade. I want an ID, and I want it fast. It could take forever for the dental records or the watch's serial number to come up with it."

"There might be more like him?" Hutch put in quietly.

"It's a possibility," Dobey said again. "Out. Oh, yeah, Hutchinson. How's Starsky getting on?"

"Okay," Hutch said, voice noncommittal. "He's moved back in to his place."

"He has? Didn't know it was ready yet."

"It is. Near enough to live in, anyhow. Come on, Dave. Let's go, huh?"


Investigating the porn studios was not a job that could be done in an afternoon, and the list was not dented much by the time they logged off. Hutch was not sorry. Duplessis dropped him off at Venice Place, and Hutch barely noticed him drive off with a fanfare on the horn as he hurried up his stairs. It was six o'clock. Starsky could phone any time.

Starsky hadn't contacted him during work--that was okay, of course he knew Hutch would be busy, and something like this would take time to sort out over the phone. Starsky would undoubtedly be calling him this evening, with his mind made up. Eight, nine years of close friendship, empathetic teamwork, would not be thrown away, Hutch was sure. Even if Starsky did not want the new aspect of their relationship, it would not affect their old camaraderie. He was making a mountain out of a molehill with his worrying, and when Starsky finally called, he'd see just how much he'd twisted the perspective. Everything would come out right. It had to. Of course it would. A few hours from now he'd be wondering what all the mental anguish was about.

But Starsky didn't call, and by midnight Hutch knew he wasn't going to. By then he'd lowered the level in the whisky bottle considerably, sitting where he was, sprawled on the couch, staring at the silent telephone waiting for a call he knew would not be coming.

He fell asleep there, and woke at the usual time, roused by the strident alarm clock across the room. It was not going to be a good day.

Nor was it. His headache would not go away, settling firmly between his eyes, hindering concentration and shortening temper. A dinner invitation passed on from Duplessis' wife was refused with a curtness that surprised the young officer and shamed Hutch into a clumsy apology that left Duplessis seething between exasperation and anger. The tension in the car was not lessened by their lack of success in finding leads on their John Doe.

By the end of that Tuesday, Hutch's apartment seemed like Arcadia to him. He shut the door on the clamoring world, took a shower, and climbed into clean clothes. Then switched on the radio, because the place was too quiet.

His headache was still there, and instead of aspirin he took a shot of whisky. It didn't help, but he had another one anyway. The alcohol burned down his throat and into his empty stomach, reminding him of other mornings and evenings, months ago, when the other half of him was shut away in a soul-less private room in the hospital. Then, as now, he hadn't known if he would be getting his partner back.

"Dumb bastard," he said to the drawn-faced reflection in the grimy window-pane. "You gonna walk that road again?" At least he knew this time that Starsky was in no danger of dying, would almost certainly be found fit for active duty. But--he slammed the bottle back in its place, and pressed his hands over his aching eyes.

My God, what a day. Face the world as if nothing had happened, huh? Big deal. Hutchinson, you're a lousy actor, and you better make sure you get it right pretty damn fast. God knows what Dave thought--and why the shit did he have to have that name? Every time, it twisted the knife a little deeper. Suppose he guessed I was hungover. I was, all right. How the hell did I get through yesterday? And today? Hutchinson, Man of Steel. He laughed, bitterly. "You're not going to call, are you babe?" he said to the phone. "S'okay, you know. You don't want it, I can live without it. If you don't want the team either, I guess I can live without that, as well. Can't say I blame you."

He fixed himself coffee, threw together a meal of sorts, and put his mind to work on the John Doe. He was, after all, still a cop, and it was about time he started thinking like one, instead of a one-man Greek tragedy. He got out a pad of paper, and started listing down random possibilities. The meal sat on its plate at his elbow, congealing and untouched.

At eight o'clock the phone rang. After the initial lurch of his heart, he knew it wasn't Starsky. He scooped it up. "Yes?" pushing the word past the tightness in his throat.

"Ken? Remember me?" demanded a gentle, ironic voice. "More to the point, you forgot my phone number?"

"Jaqi, I'm sorry," he said guiltily. "I--guess I had too much on my mind--uh--I mean--"

"Don't bother with the excuses, Hotshot," she chuckled. "If I'm crazy enough to date an overworked detective, I'm crazy enough to accept his faulty memory. Bad case, honey?"

"Yeah. A John Doe. Right now we need all the--sorry, shouldn't be talking shop."

"You go ahead and talk all you need to, lover," she said. "Ken, you sound really down. Where's that partner of yours? Can't you hammer the angles out between you? I know he's not back on duty yet, but--"

"Starsk's back in his pad," he interrupted.

"Oh. Ken, have you two had a difference of opinion?"

"No, not exactly," he muttered.

"Okay, I won't tease. On your own tonight, honey?"


"So am I," she said demurely. "At the risk of being thought a fast broad, what do you suggest we do about it?"

A sudden need for the warmth and comfort of her company grew in him.

"Where's Emma?" he asked.

"With doting grandparents. Mom has her for a few days. So--?"

"So why don't you come up and see me?" he drawled. "I'd come over, but I might get a phone call." Unlikely, but--

"I'm on my way."



"Thanks, sweetness. I don't think I'm going to be very good company, though."

"I've had off-days, too, lover." He could hear the smile in her voice. "See you soon."

Jaqi brought a casserole with her, guessing correctly that Hutch's cupboards and freezer would be under stocked. It was a good move on her part, she discovered, taking one look at his face and another at the mess on the plate beside the paper littering the table.

"Okay, lover," she said cheerfully. "You can go down the block and get some French bread, I'll get this started."

"Little Red Riding Hood," he smiled, taking the covered basket from her and folding her into his arms.

"Not with hair like mine," she chuckled, lifting her face for his kiss. "That's one color I can't wear. Mmm, that's nice. Emma sends her love, by the way."

"You can take mine back to her."

"I already told her that. You two have got quite a mutual admiration society going, haven't you?"

"Yes," he said, and kissed her again. "Thanks for coming over."

"It's Be Kind To A Cop Week. Bread, honey. And wine, if you haven't any."

"Okay." He let her go, reached for his jacket, and started for the door.

"What about your phone call? Shall I take a message, or get the number for you to call back?"

"Uh--tell 'em I'll call back, but it's only a chance it might come." Before she could ask more, he was gone.

Jaqi put the casserole in the oven, and turned her attention to the rest of the apartment. The place was a mess, from the kitchen to the bedroom alcove. Though the bed had been stripped of its linen, the clean sheets were left folded on the back of a chair, waiting. She made up the bed, whisked the clothes away, then returned to the kitchen and the several days of washing-up left in and around the sink.

Even over a few days, one man can't make too much dirty crockery, and by the time Hutch returned, she had found and was reading through the notes on the table, knives and forks and placemats forgotten at her side.

"Poor boy," she said softly. "What kind of animal would do that?" She picked up the photograph. "He's a handsome kid."

"Was," he said shortly. "You've read the autopsy?"

"Yes." She grimaced. "Guess I shouldn't pry--but I always did have too much curiosity. Did I tell you I thought about becoming a cop, once, when I was in high school?"

"Yes," he smiled. "Because you fell for the poor devil on Traffic near the school crossing."

"That's it. There's something about a man in uniform..."

"You think? Remind me never to show you any shots of me before I made the plainclothes squad."

"Why not?" she protested. "You'd have looked gorgeous! Good enough to eat. In fact, if it had been you on Traffic near that crossing, you wouldn't have got away with your life--it was an all-girl High School, and we were carnivorous."

"Huh," he grunted, color rising. "That isn't funny."

"Cuts near the mark, does it, Hotshot?" she laughed, and hugged him. "You never have told me much about your early career, y'know."

"Nothing to tell." He rested his cheek on her hair.

"Ken," she whispered. "What's wrong? It's not just this poor child, is it? Has Starsky damaged himself doing his home-decorating? Has he had some kind of a relapse?"

"No. He's fine. It's just--young John here could be the start of a series, maybe there were others before him we haven't found yet. His injuries, the lash-marks, are too deliberate. Almost precisely placed--like they were measured with a slide-rule. We don't need a psychotic killer running loose." He moved away from her, all-too-visibly tired. "But it could be that's what we've got."

"A hunch, love?"

"Yeah. I've got an awfully bad feeling about it. Oh, hell, this is no subject for conversation when there's a gourmet meal in the oven," he said suddenly. "Come here and tell me how the real estate business is going, and what Emma's done to your neighbor's ornamental pond since I saw you last."

"Oh, it's fine, and she's fine, and he's fine," Jaqi said and chuckled, leaning closer and sliding her hand between the buttons on his shirt. "And this is fine, and we're fine, and you are definitely fine..."


When Duplessis arrived at Hutch's apartment the next morning, his wary reserve disappeared at lightning speed when he discovered a pleasant, smiling Hutchinson, and the probable cause of this sea-change, the very foxy redhead he was sharing breakfast with. "Wow. Good morning, sunshine."

Hutch did a fast introduction while shrugging into his jacket, and kissed Jaqi. "I'll call you at the office, at lunchtime," he promised.

"See you tonight?" she asked.

"I'll see what I can arrange," he smiled, kissed her again, and ushered Duplessis through the door.

Once out on the street, the young man was somewhat surprised to watch the cheerfulness go out as if a switch had been pulled, and in its place flickered a strange bleak kind of loneliness. Then that too was switched off, replaced by brisk efficiency.

"Log us in and make for the morgue," he said. "I want to take a look at the kid."

"Huh? Okay, sure...but why?"

"Because sometimes the autopsy details are too factual. They concentrate on little details, sometimes hide the whole picture."


"Could be we're wasting our time checking the S-M studios," Hutch went on as they entered the morgue room. He pulled out the drawer to its full extent. "Look at him. Good face, good body, all-over tan. He wouldn't risk all that for a few lousy bucks, letting a couple of flakes get their rocks off beating up on him. Not when he was wearing over four hundred bucks in jewelry. What kind of area would he work, if he was a hustler?"

"Not downtown," Duplessis said immediately. He had been doing some heavy thinking on the case as well. "He looks to have been pretty high-priced merchandise. I'd put my money on the better bars or discos."

"Or the beaches. If he was a hustler. There's no mention of old scar tissue in the report, externally or internally, and no evidence of VD. Could be he wasn't a working boy. He may not even have been gay."

"That doesn't exactly narrow down our hunting field," Duplessis said, exasperated.

"Maybe not. But it could make it more likely that he'll be reported missing." He pushed the drawer shut, and it glided silently in on its runners. "Let's get out of here. You take the car, start checking the beaches--all the beaches, not just the gay ones. Then start on the campuses. I'll make a start on the discos and health-clubs."

"Right. What do I check when I've run out of beaches and campuses?" Duplessis asked sourly. Hutch grinned at him.

"The baths, partner. The saunas and pools. Then there are the nightclubs and--"

"I get the message," Duplessis grinned back. "Yes, sir, Sergeant Hutchinson, sir."

By ten o'clock that evening, Hutch's eyes ached from strobe lights, his eardrums felt deadened by excess decibels, and he had only two vague leads. Huggy, when he called to check, had nothing more to tell him.

Back at Venice Place, he took aspirin for the headache, and went through the notes he'd made the previous evening. Some he discarded, others he could add to. Only half his mind was on it, though. Part of him still waited for the phone to ring, and the tentative date with Jaqi had dropped completely out of his head.

Come Thursday, and he no longer waited, knowing without a doubt what Starsky would have to say. The intuition born on Tuesday had become a certainty.

Chapter V

Toni was the first of the harem--the Starsky seraglio, Hutch had once joked--to help out with the decorating, to cook him a meal, to share his bed. Toni, and Kathy, and Linda, and Susie--they were willing, good-natured, and if they noticed that he was not quite himself, they never mentioned it. For a while he could hide his fears behind the old macho stud image, losing himself in their softness and sweetness, turning his mind from the knowledge that although this had once been enough, now it was not.

But the strategy worked until Thursday. He drove Linda to her job in the morning, and returned home to work straight through the day until evening and on into the night.

Total exhaustion set in at about eleven o'clock. He took a sketchy shower and crawled into bed still damp, convinced he'd zonk out as soon as his head hit the pillow. He didn't. And midnight came and went.

Starsky shifted restlessly in the darkness, feeling the ache of tiredness in his muscles. He still got tired too easily, even after all this time. Guess I'm never going to get it all back. The Doc said I was lucky to pull through, but--I don't know. If it means I'm slowed up, if I can't take the pace-- What am I bitching about? I'm alive. From what they tell me, and the bits I remember, it was a pretty close thing. I nearly didn't make it. Christ, I died. I was dead. And that's really weird, but I can remember that suddenly I didn't hurt, and it was so easy just to drift...If that's death, it's not so bad, I guess. They brought me back, and it hurt again, but seeing his face when I woke up--that was worth it. He looks at me sometimes, when he thinks I don't notice, like I was a walkin'-around miracle.

It's been a week. I'll have to call him tomorrow.

The smell of fresh paint still lingered in the air, as if to remind him how much there was still to be done. The place was at least livable now. Just. He got up, crossed to open the window. The night air washed in cool on his skin, and he slipped back under the single sheet, determinedly closing his eyes. The expanse of the bed was all his. Like a desert, a barren wasteland. I should have called Linda. We had fun last night--it was great. She's one foxy chick. Made it clear she was available tonight, too, so why didn't I?

In the darkness there were no distractions for the path his thoughts were taking. It was what he'd wanted, a time to himself, to get things straight in his head. "Take all the time you need, Starsk." Hutch, understanding. He always understands me, better than I do myself. "Take all the time you need--whatever you decide, I'm going to be there." And he would be, no doubt of that. Always had been. Solid and dependable. My rock, my anchor, my shield--my lover.

Well, that isn't the point in question. He loves me. There's nothin' new in that. I love him. What happened was--great. No denyin' it. Fantastic. So what's the sweat? It was unexpected, sure, for both of us, and at the time it felt--right. It was never there before, I know that. Hit us both like a freight-train--no, like an avalanche, a tidal wave. It could happen again. All I've got to do is say 'yes'.

I want to.

That discovery brought a small jolt of mingled shock and pleasure, a response to the memory of that night, a flicker of desire waking in his groin. He tried to ignore it. Sure, I want to say 'yes' to him. To give him that, knowing that he'll never abuse the gift or reject it or waste it, but cherish and honor gift and giver both. It wouldn't even be difficult--God, it'd be the easiest thing in the world!

So what's your problem, Starsky? You can make him--and yourself--happy.

Except for one thing. The price-tag. The price of our friendship is high enough. The price of being lovers--I don't think I've got it in me to pay that price. Not ever.

It's not the first time I've loved anyone this much. I loved Helen. And Kira, too. And Terry. Ah, God, I loved Terry...

It still hurt, remembering that lost love. Just getting through the days, after her death, had been almost more than he had strength to handle. Without Hutch he wouldn't have made it. Hutch had been there all along, ready to shelter or support. A shoulder to cry on, comfort to cling to in the dark grieving nights. Holding him together until the worst was over, and he could stand on his own.

It was hell for a while, Terry, just living, without you. I wouldn't have come through, but for Hutch.

He could remember her voice, weak, not quite steady, as he sat beside her bed and watched helpless as she slipped out of his life. "I'll always be there," she had said. "Always be there when you need me--when you're scared, or the world looks like it's falling apart--some dark night when you're all alone--I'll be there...."

I guess you believed it, too. At the time, so did I, because I needed to believe it. But it wasn't true, honey. I can close my eyes and try to remember you--I can see your face, hear your laughter, taste your tears. But it's only memory. You're not there. You're dead, Terry.

I can't pay that price again.

Besides, it would be worse, so much worse. He's more than a friend, more than a partner. He's the brother I never had, the brother I wanted, the brother Nicky should have been--he's the other half of my soul. We've risked the loss of that often enough--once or twice it's almost come to an end. We've come through, sure, but I've felt a kind of echo from a future when he isn't there, and I didn't like it. Don't like it. Can't take it.

I guess that's the bottom line. It's gonna be hard enough as it is, without added complications. I love you, Hutch--more than I've ever loved anyone--and in every way, though until the other night I didn't know it. And there isn't going to be anyone else as special to me as you are, not ever. But I can't take the risk.

So--sorry, babe. I don't want to hurt you, but let's go back to the way we were, huh? It was great, but it was just one of those things.

Christ. Now I'm thinking in song titles!

His eyes were stinging. A tear escaped the thick lashes, ran down to lose itself in the hair over his ears. He bit his lip to stop a sob, and rolled belly-down to bury his face in the pillow, hugging it to him fiercely. It isn't fair, he thought childishly. I've got to tell him, and how can I tell him that?

I love you, Hutch, and I want you--but never again.

Never again that indescribable wonder of empathy linking minds as well as bodies, a consuming flame enveloping both, a total sharing: mutual love and desire and pleasure. Never again.

Memories, pouring in as if a floodgate had been opened. The taste, feel, scent, sounds. Hutch's voice saying his name, David. But he's never called me David before, it's always been Starsky, or Starsk. When he said it, spoke my name, it was like I never heard it before. Never again.

The taste of his mouth, the warmth and strength of him--never again.

He could hear his own pulse-beat in his ears, his breathing strained, his throat thick. He was hard and erect, enfolded by the softness of the pillow as he thrust into it. Oh God I'm too old for this game--I should stop now but I can't--can't--oh Hutch oh shit I can't --

He lay spent and gasping, shaking a little, the sheet clammy with his sweat, feeling empty and slightly sick. But the tension was gone out of him. He pushed the pillow away, turned on his side.

Tomorrow I'll call him. We'll have a few drinks, and I'll tell him. Can't leave it any longer.

The decision was made, and he did feel better for it. The hard part was yet to come, but that would be all right too. Wouldn't it?

G'night, Hutch.

He slept at last, and tears dried salt on his lashes.


Hutch and Duplessis had just logged off when a phone call was patched through to the car.

"See you at seven, Hug's place," Starsky said. His voice sounded flat, reluctant, as if he would rather not speak at all.

"Okay," Hutch said quietly. And the line went dead. Slowly he replaced the mike on its hook, momentarily anchorless even though he had known what was coming. What he hadn't expected was the surge of love and pain that voice had started. He saw Duplessis watching him, and pulled himself together grimly. He could live with it. No matter what Starsky had decided, he could live with it. Already the previous Saturday night had taken on an aura of unreality, a mirage cut off from the mundane world.

The Pits. Neutral territory, Hutch realized as he walked in, saw Starsky at one of the tables and went over to join him. "Hi. Been waiting long?" he asked casually, pulling out a chair and sitting down, and at the same time trying to keep the shock out of his face and voice. Starsky was hollow-eyed and unshaven, slumped over the table. Christ, what have you been doing to yourself? You look worse than you have for months.

"Oh, a little while." Starsky made a vague gesture, refusing to meet his eyes. Quite plainly he was far from sober. "H'v'a drink. Hug, bring m'buddy a drink."

"I'll have a beer," Hutch said, as Huggy looked his way.

"Same again here, Hug," Starsky said.

Huggy wandered across, his angular face bemused, carrying beer and a shot-glass. "You reckon you ought to be drinkin' this stuff?" he asked, as Starsky took the glass from him.

"Turnin' away payin' customers, Hug? Shame on you. Never get rich like that, man."

"Never get rich anyway," Huggy snorted. "How y'doin', Hutch?"

"Okay," he said, accepting his beer and handing over coins. "Any word?"

"Nary a thing--but don't let it get you down, my man. Huggerino always comes through."

"Yeah. Thanks." The beer was frosty with condensation, deliciously cold. He didn't taste it, his eyes on the gaunt face across the table. Starsky emptied the shot-glass. "Starsk? What is that stuff?"

"Stolichnaya," Starsky said, enunciating clearly and carefully. "Vodka."

"That's not your usual."


Stop doing this to yourself, Hutch wanted to say. You don't need to. You have to tell me, I know. He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and concentrated on keeping his voice light and even. "You haven't eaten yet?"

"Waitin' f'you."

"Thoughtful of you." Better get some food into him and fast. Vodka on an empty stomach--no wonder he's flying high. "You want to order now?"

"Sure. Hug!"

**"You,**" said Huggy, caroling it. "An' what can I get for you now, Starsky? I mean, I ain't got nothin' better to do than run around after you, right?"

As sarcasm, it was lost on Starsky. "That's nice," he said. "Coupla steaks, Hug, an' salad. An' french fries."

"You got it." Huggy relayed the order, returned to serving behind the bar.

"So what have you been doing with yourself?" Hutch asked casually into the silence. He got a shrug.

"Not much. I jus 'bout got the place straight. Stinks of paint, though." Starsky wrinkled his nose as if the insidious aroma still hung around, and gave a shadow of his lop-sided grin. "Got th' TV back today. S'funny, I hardly noticed it wasn't there, y'know?"

"Guess you were too busy to notice," Hutch said. There was a pain under his ribs, constricting his lungs, and he knew without being told that Starsky was hurting the same way. You don't need to. It doesn't matter--I can make it easier for you, maybe. "You've got things back the way they were?" How's that for a double-edged meaning?

"Yeah, I guess." Dark blue eyes, not completely focused, finally gazed up at him. "You're a good friend, Hutch," he said abruptly. "Puttin' up with me an' all, the way you did."

"Any time," Hutch said quietly. "You know that."

"What are partners for?" Starsky tried for the grin again and didn't make it, his eyes sliding away from Hutch's face. He reached for his glass, finding it empty. "Oh, shit--Hug?"

"It's on its way, man! Have a little patience, willya?"

"I wan'nother --"

"No, you don't," Hutch said, making the decision for him. "You've had enough, Starsk."

He expected some objection, some argument. He got none. In fact, he got very little more out of Starsky at all, in the way of conversation, either then or over the meal. It was easy to fall into the pattern of the past months--those day-in-the-life-of-a-cop chats that Starsky hated and needed and bitched about even while he was demanding them. So he talked about the wind-up of Mrs. Ferengo's case, about the John Doe, about Duplessis' reactions to an afternoon spent checking out porn and SM studios, went on to what Dobey said to Babcock, Minnie's latest complaint, and the new girl in Communications. He got monosyllables in response.

The food was good, as Huggy's usually was, but Starsky only picked at it. Hutch hadn't much appetite to begin with, and Starsky's deepening depression killed it altogether. "Let's get out of here," he suggested.

"Okay." Starsky made an elaborate shrug.

"You want to come back to my place, pick up the rest of your things? Or shall I drop them by tomorrow?" How clearly do I have to put it, for Christ's sake?


"Okay which?"

"--uh, I'll pick 'em up," he muttered, fumbling out a handful of dollar bills to settle the check. Hutch added his own share before leading the way out.

The Torino was parked a little way down from the Dodge, and Starsky headed for it automatically. "Uh-uh," said Hutch, catching hold of his arm. "I think I better drive." The muscles under his hand were tensed, but Starsky let himself be steered to the other car. He was none too steady on his feet, and in the early evening light, was distinctly pale. Hutch wondered how much Starsky had managed to put away before he'd turned up. Too much, that was for sure.

Starsky subsided into the passenger-seat, put his head back, and closed his eyes. If he felt the way he looked, Hutch reflected, he must be feeling lousy. Like a six-weeks corpse, revived.

He made the ride a fast one, and didn't bother his passenger with talk. When they reached Venice Place, he just sat him down on the couch, and made coffee. "Here," he said, putting the mug into Starsky's hands. "Get that into you. You'll feel better."

Starsky sipped it obediently. Hutch knew it was stronger than he liked, and blacker, but he drank it anyway. It seemed to do very little for him, physically or mentally. He didn't seem to be altogether there, as if his mind was switched off, or on some other track entirely, a thousand miles away. Hutch let him be, and moved quietly around the open apartment, putting together the bits and pieces that belonged to Starsky, stowing them away in Starsky's battered carry-all. Each article was like another blade in his flesh, another brick in the wall between them.

He zipped the bag shut and came back to the couch. Starsky looked worse, if anything. His skin had a sallow, yellowish tinge to it, and he looked not so much drunk as ill. And hurting, both in mind and body.

"You better not go home tonight," Hutch said gently, without thinking. He cursed himself--how would that sound to Starsky? If he took it in. "You can crash out on the couch, okay?" And walked away, leaving him there, because Starsky's misery was tangible and seeing it brought a deep pain. He did not dare offer comfort, not even the passionless touch of friendship that once he would have given without thought, knowing it would not be accepted as such tonight.

Come on, Starsk. Why won't you say it? It can't be that hard, can it? Or why else are you this drunk--it's supposed to make it easier, isn't it? Unless--and the thought chilled to the bone--the choice Starsky had made wasn't just the rejection of intimacy, but also of the team. Hutch wanted to ask, to plead, to demand a clear statement on where he stood, but could not speak. He wanted to reach out, to soothe away the pain and stress, to comfort, cherish--love--and couldn't move nearer, did not dare. But if he stayed in the same room with Starsky, resolution and fear would be overborne and he would compound his original error.

So he retreated, made much of rinsing out the coffee mugs, then ran a shower, wanting to lose some of the wound-up tension and worries of the day in the hot water, hoping to sluice away more than just the sweat and city grime. He took his time. There was no need to hurry, and Starsky might well be glad of an unobserved exit. A note or phone call could pass on the same message.

When he came out, the couch was empty.

"Starsk?" he said quietly, not expecting a reply. Nor did he get one. But neither did he expect to find him sprawled across the bed, sound asleep. Oh, God, Starsk. That's not playing fair. "Hey," he said through the tight agony in his chest. "Guests crash out on the couch, buddy."

Again, no answer. Well, why wake him? He could easily have carried the sleeping man to the couch, but there didn't seem any point. Starsky looked like he needed all the rest he could get.

Moving quietly, Hutch finished up his chores, saw to the plants, and finally cut all the lights but the lamp by the couch. He returned to the bed, touched his fingers to the tangled hair, to the sleeping, unhappy mouth.

"Good night, David," he murmured. The idiot's so deep asleep, an earthquake wouldn't wake him. Didn't you get any sleep last night? No, you didn't. Lay there all night trying to find the kindest way to tell me. But it doesn't matter. I already guessed. No matter what you decided, I'll always be there for you, if you need me.

Good night, babe. Sleep tight.

He went back to the couch, collecting blankets on the way. And he was more than half asleep when Starsky muttered something incomprehensible, stirring out of the heavy stupor. Hutch heard his own name in the jumble of incoherent words, and the distress was painful. It jolted him out of his drowse, bringing him to his feet, and he couldn't help responding to it.

He didn't bother with lights, but felt his way through the familiar darkness to the bed. Starsky was huddled in the middle of it, a shadowy form that shuddered and twitched like a dreaming animal. Hutch hesitated, torn by instinct and wariness, and the sleeper turned, flinging out an arm, and choked out his name again. If you need me--

"I'm here." He eased himself onto the bed, drew his friend into his arms. "'S okay, babe. I'm here."

Starsky didn't wake. He gave a long sigh and relaxed, his head turning to nestle blindly into Hutch's shoulder. Whatever the dream-crisis, it was past.


Left alone, Starsky had sat and stared at the blank screen of the TV, finally getting unsteadily to his feet and switching it on. The sounds drowned out those from the bathroom, and he could almost convince himself that he was alone.


Restless but uncoordinated, he wandered around the large room, avoiding most of the furniture and resolutely keeping away from the couch. He still hadn't told Hutch his decision. Still had to say the words, had to watch the blue eyes darken with pain and loss, the mobile mouth set determinedly into a smile of understanding and acceptance. His partner, his friend. Nothing more, and thank God, nothing less. But nothing more.

"Oh, shit," he whispered. "Hutch, c'mon outta there--I gotta talk t'ya. Please? Gotta tell ya --" The room dipped sharply to starboard and he lurched with the tilt, arms flailing to maintain a precarious balance. Something soft caught him behind the knees and he sprawled on his back across it, eyes squeezed shut so that he wouldn't have to watch the way the ceiling whirled. Then discovered that he was comfortable.

Wherever it was, it wasn't the couch where he and Hutch had--he blanked off the thought and let go of awareness, sliding into sleep like a seal into deep water. Later. He'd tell him later...

Some nightmares are worse than others. Simon Marcos had dreamed this nightmare for him, open-eyed, and it haunted him still: the twenty-four hours of terror, helpless in the hands of Marcos's crazy followers. He knew they were going to kill him eventually, and there was nothing he could do about it, because every way he turned, his executioners were waiting, their eyes hungry in their hate-twisted faces, the whispered chant 'si-mon si-mon si-mon' rising in a fevered crescendo.

"No--please --"

He knew it was a dream, even while he relived those last horrific moments.

"Simon dreamed you would be weak."

"Gail--don't listen to them--don't do it--please --"

"si-mon si-MON SI-MON SI-MON --"

-- HUTCH --

He was being held, the strong arms wrapping him now as then in an embrace that was reassurance and haven, all fear driven back. Now as then he burrowed closer, and was held safe and secure and no dream had the power to reach him.

It was hardly a full wakening. Starsky knew the feeling of peace and security folding him round in the warm dark, the steady even breathing of his companion, the blissful sense of ease when thoughts and problems are nonexistent. Under his cheek, he could feel the slow rhythm of Hutch's pulse. He turned his head a little to touch his lips to the beating life beneath the smooth skin, a mindless gesture prompted by impulse--and then he was fully awake and aware as the kiss was answered in the changed rhythm of Hutch's heartbeat and breathing.

-- I didn't mean --

He couldn't move, couldn't pull away, but couldn't respond either. His stillness seemed to unnerve the gentle man who held him. He felt Hutch move away, felt the warmth where they had touched leach away from him.

"I'm sorry," Hutch's voice, a shaken whisper. The mattress gave as he shifted away from Starsky.

He's leaving me. No--I need you, Hutch. The hell with fear. Problems are for tomorrow. Love is now.

"I'm afraid," he said simply, and reached out to discover the beloved face, invisible in the darkness, his tactile sense making sight unnecessary. Can't fight it. Don't want to fight it. It scares hell outta me but I love you.

His fingers traced the contours of brow and cheek and mouth and his lips followed his touch. I can't give you up. I love you. Love is now.

A hesitation, a sharp intake of breath, and still Hutch had not moved to return his caresses. Are you sure? he asked by his posture, his wary holding-back.

Starsky answered that question in the best way he knew.

It is another country, and they had glimpsed it before, when they had been carried unprepared across the threshold to find the light too dazzling to be borne, the air too rarefied to breathe, a country where they were the aliens, uncertain and afraid. Now they stepped across of their own free will, consenting--and the brightness did not blind, nor the air sear the throat, and they had come where they belonged at last.

Oh my America, my new-found land.