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Part Seven

Charlotte Frost

From where he lay in bed, Starsky stared out the window of Hutch's apartment, into darkness. He'd woken up a little while ago and found his mind too alert to go back to sleep. Hutch was sleeping deeply beside him.

He wanted so much to please Hutch, wanted so much for everything to be as close to perfect as possible between them. He was glad to have behind them what they had done earlier tonight. It would get better with practice. They wouldn't have to be so cautious, and then they could let their passions rule....

It had been a surprisingly productive ending to an evening that had had a shaky beginning. Hutch had called him with a calm voice, but with words that had sounded an alarm in Starsky's mind. He'd come over to find his partner with flushed skin and trembling hands, but otherwise lacking in complaint. In fact, Hutch had said very little. Starsky would have been tempted to say that Hutch was depressed, but his partner seemed to have worked through his problem in a matter of hours...without being treated with anything more than patience and tender loving care.

Starsky fought back a snort of amusement. TLC worked magic on his partner. Unlike himself, who rejected sentiment when feeling responsible for some tragedy or loss of life, Hutch seemed to be drawn toward love and affection like a beacon. Or, more accurately, maybe he just couldn't bring himself to reject it when it was offered.

Almost as though he's had so little of it that he'll take all he can get, regardless of whether he feels he deserves it or not.

Marianne's quotation drifted across Starsky's mind. "This is me. And I like it. You've gotta know you're worth it. You've got to own that."

Starsky glanced at the peaceful form beside him. When did you ever feel you didn't "own" your worth, Hutch? He thought he'd talked to Hutch about that at one point in the past, but didn't remember there being any kind of answer. You probably changed the subject on me, Starsky mentally scolded.

And how are you feeling now? he wondered. When you've got all this funny stuff going on inside you?

Starsky swallowed, not liking the next thought that entered his mind. And probably us sleepin' together is just confusing everything even more. Time out to love each other, and then you don't have to deal with the cobwebs in your head, right?

Starsky turned away from the window and buried his face in his pillow. Adding sex to their relationship may not have been the best least not until Hutch got himself straightened out.

But he couldn't regret that it had happened.

* * *

Hutch had told himself he wasn't going to do it. But he couldn't seem to help himself. The poster was in the window. The club was on the block between the bookstore and the sporting goods store. He had reasons to be at both. He'd ignored the club while walking from one to the other. But when he walked back, he went inside, and refused to ask himself why.

It was the middle of a Sunday afternoon and there were only a few customers. Hutch went up to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender had a reasonably friendly expression, and Hutch asked, "Is Marianne Owens around?"

The bartender gestured to a man a few stools down. "Ask him. He's in her band."

Hutch turned and recognized the man as the drummer from the last club at where he'd visited Marianne. The man looked up, having obviously overhead the conversation. "Who's askin'?"

"A friend." Even as he said the words, he could imagine her reprimand, "My friends have to earn the title."

"She expectin' you?"

"No," Hutch said. "But I'm sure she wouldn't be too happy about finding out I was here, and that I left without seeing her." He wondered if there was any truth to his statement. But Marianne had come to Parker Center when she knew he would be there....

The man nodded toward a blocked-off hall to the right of a pay phone. "Past that curtain. She was in her room twenty minutes ago, working on a song."

"Thank you." Hutch gulped his beer, left some change on the counter, and started toward the hall.

He could hear her voice even as he pulled back the curtain. He passed by the open door of an office, then came to another open door where she was humming as she applied an eraser to a sheet of music. She was facing the doorway at an angle, and stopped abruptly when Hutch appeared.

"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to startle you."

She sat down abruptly. Then, with a brisk motion, she grabbed her cigarettes and pulled one from the pack.

Hutch stepped forward and took the lighter from the dresser, holding it for her.

After taking her first puff, she said, "If you want more information on Rodney, I don't have anything else to tell you." Her eyes were wary.

Hutch shook his head. "I'm not here for that. The case is in the hands of the DA's office now. Starsky and I will probably just have to give a few minutes of testimony."

Her voice was short. "Then what are you here for?"

Hutch opened his mouth, then realized it was a very good question. His mouth brought forth his answer before he had a chance to snatch it back. "Do you love him?"


"Brandon Jenkins."

"I don't see that it's any business of yours," she said mildly.

"No." Hutch stared down at the edge of the throw rug that decorated the floor. "Of course, it isn't." Still, he muttered, "Just hard to figure." He looked up. "You and him."

She gazed at him a long time. Then she tapped the ashes from her cigarette. "I suppose you consider yourself a more worthy prize."

Always, it seemed to come to this. Words that were like pulling teeth. That were honest, but which only seemed to hurt. "I'm not talking about that," he muttered.

"You told me that once before," she reminded. "Yet, you keep coming back." She tilted her head curiously, waiting for a reply.

He realized, with some degree of embarrassment, that he didn't have one.

She shook her head in amazement. "You have him. That's more than most of us will ever have."

Hutch furrowed his brow, gaze seeking the floor again. She couldn't know how close to the truth her words were.

When he glanced up again, her expression had softened. "He sees things in you that I don't," she said with admiration. "He said that you were the bravest man he's ever known."

Hutch felt his mouth drop open.

"Let him have his 'brave man'. And forget about me." She waited, then her expression hardened. "Brandon is, truly, my type."

He didn't understand what she meant by the last line. He just knew that it made him sad, and not for any reasons of jealousy.

And he knew he didn't belong here. He turned away. "See you."

* * *

They parted early in the afternoon, because Starsky had made an appointment with his tax accountant. Afterwards, he went to the grocery store. Shortly after he had the groceries put away, he heard a knock at the door.

Starsky grinned as he went to it, certain who it was. They hadn't made any plans, which made it all the better.

He opened the door without checking the peep window first. And, sure enough, his big blond stood there, leaning against the doorway, as dashing as ever.

"Come in," he said while stepping back and grinning widely.

"What's the bad news?" Hutch asked.

"Huh?" Starsky said, closing the door behind his partner.

"On your taxes."

"Oh. Not too bad. Should get a little refund even." He'd no sooner stopped speaking than warm hands had gripped his cheeks. And then the firm hairs of that mustache were tickling his upper lip while that full, so-soft mouth settled upon his own.

It was an aggressive, passionate kiss, sucking the breath right out of him.

Starsky gasped when Hutch finally pulled back. "Where have you been this afternoon?" he grinned at him.

Hutch didn't answer. Instead, he pasted his lips onto Starsky's once again, the grip of his hands increasing on Starsky's face. When they parted, it was Hutch who spoke first. "Guess what you're going to get to do?" he whispered in an enticing voice.

Starsky gulped. "Don't have a clue." But he did.

Hutch made a noise of amusement, obviously not believing him. Then he took Starsky by the hand. "Come on, my love." He led the way to the bedroom.

Starsky wasn't sure if he should laugh or melt at the sentiment. One thing was for sure; this promised to be more passionate than their earlier encounters.

Got to be careful, Starsky reminded himself. Be as patient and gentle with him as he was with me.

Hutch turned to him when they were beside the bed. "You won't be needing this," he said as his hands ran down the buttons of Starsky's shirt.

"Then you won't be needing this, either," Starsky said, mirroring his partner's action.

They pulled their shirts from each other's shoulders. Starsky bent to unsnap Hutch's fly, then knelt as he pulled the jeans down the long legs. He paused long enough to remove his partner's shoes and socks, and then he held the pooled denim while Hutch stepped out of them.

Starsky straightened and found himself face to face with a pale, 45-degree salute. He put his mouth on it, wanting to please. The smoothness of the skin was gentle to his tongue, and the salty tip provocative to his taste buds.

But his shoulder was tugged, and a firm voice said, "To bed."

Starsky shook his head. "Uh-uh," he muttered around the thick cylinder filling his mouth.

Hutch pulled harder. "Don't want to come."

Starsky didn't understand his partner's reluctance. But he sucked it in to the back of his throat as a farewell gesture, then released it and stood.

Hutch was rearranging the pillows. Starsky took a moment to remove the rest of his clothing. He then reached to the dresser, where there was a new tube of lubricant that he had placed there just a few minutes before when putting the groceries away.

Hutch was settled on his back on top of the pillows, his legs apart. Something about the deliberateness of his partner's intent made Starsky uncomfortable, but he tried to push that feeling aside...and think about the sensations that awaited.

He knelt on the bed between the widespread legs. He'd already removed the cap from the tube, and now he squeezed some onto his fingers. All was silent between them as he reached to the dark crevice separating the white hemispheres. He watched his partner's expression as he felt along the darkness and found the recess. He gently pushed in.

Hutch's eyes were on him. "Don't worry about going easy. I want it, buddy. I'm all ready for what you've got."

The eager passion of a few minutes ago was gone. Hutch's expression wasn't as soft. And his erection had deflated somewhat.

"Just let me stretch it out some," Starsky said, puzzled by the change in Hutch.

Hutch was now looking at the ceiling, showing no reaction as Starsky pushed in a little farther.

Starsky had done it with women a few times. Hutch felt hard and rigid compared to what Starsky was used to feeling. He supposed that was how he had felt at first, too. He worked now at circling his finger about, trying to stretch that taut, stubborn muscle.

Hutch bent and grabbed Starsky's erection, stroking it firmly. "Come on, buddy, I'm waiting."

Starsky loved the feel of that hand on him. But he protested, "You feel real tight." Nevertheless, he applied the grease to his phallus.

Hutch lay back. "It's okay. Go ahead."

Starsky still felt hesitant, but couldn't believe that Hutch would be willing if he wasn't ready. He leaned over his partner, positioning himself. Tenderly, he pleaded, "Say stop when it gets to be too much."

Hutch nodded impatiently.

Starsky nudged against the tightness, but the opening closed even tighter, disallowing entry.

Hutch was very still, staring at the ceiling.

Starsky sat back again. "We need more grease." His partner didn't respond, and he placed the tube against the recess and squeezed. He used a pair of fingers to try to spread it inside. His concern increased when he was barely able to get his fingertips in. He looked up. "Can you try to relax, at least?"

Hutch didn't move, other than his stomach moving with an exhalation. It helped a little, but Starsky still didn't see how he was supposed to fit himself in there when his fingers barely made it to the second knuckle.

Starsky took a deep breath of his own, accepting his disappointment. Then he leaned forward and kissed the tip of Hutch's hesitant phallus. He saw the other look down in surprise. Starsky grinned at him, then kissed his belly button. Then up Hutch's stomach to his sternum. He said, "Let's try it another time."

"No, come on," Hutch insisted. "I want it. Trust me."

"Hutch, your mouth says yes but your body says no."

The blond head shook. "Doesn't matter. Do it."

Starsky sighed again, this time with dual frustration. He positioned himself once more, not knowing whether to be glad or mad that Hutch was insisting. He nudged at the opening, felt the muscle contract at the threatened invasion. Starsky pushed more firmly, trying to encourage it to open.

"Shove it in there," Hutch said, eyes still on the ceiling.

Starsky pulled away. Enough was enough. "No way. Making love is for loving someone, not ripping them to pieces."

His partner wouldn't look at him, but stubbornly countered, "It's also for giving the person you love what they want, even when it doesn't make sense to you." Finally, those blue, troubled eyes fell on him, and the blond's voice softened. "Please, give me what I need."

That last statement was even more puzzling, but Starsky couldn't deny those pleading eyes. He stroked himself a few times to bring himself back to full erection, then leaned over Hutch once again. Being gentle was getting them nowhere. He closed his eyes, concentrated, then shoved as hard as he could.

Hutch cried out.

"Dammit!" Starsky swore tightly, pulling back. He hadn't gotten in very far, and the tightness had strangled him so much that it literally hurt. His erection was already deflating.

"DO IT!" Hutch shouted at him.

"WHY?" Starsky shouted back, his heart aching.

Hutch raised up on an elbow, watery eyes glaring at Starsky. "Because it's what I DESERVE!"

Starsky's mouth fell open. "Whaa...?" he trailed off in a whisper, wondering what phantoms were in the room with them.

Abruptly, Hutch was off the pillows. He sat on the edge of the mattress, back rigid, jaw clenched.

Starsky was at the foot of the bed, and he let himself slump to the floor, wishing he were wiser so he could understand his partner better. Gulping, he asked, "How can you possibly think you deserve to be hurt like that?"

The bare chest heaved, and then Hutch turned his head so they could look at each other. "I was willing to let Milford do it." The tone was blunt and harsh.

Milford again. Starsky swallowed, trying to think of the connection that tormented his partner. But all he could come up with was rationale. "But Milford didn't love you, Hutch. He wouldn't have cared if he hurt you, but I do."

The blond was staring at the wall, his back still rigid. "He chose me," he said. Then, more softly, "He could have had just about anybody he wanted, male or female. What does it say about me that a creep like him was so interested?"

Starsky felt his heart twist. "Hutch," he said, trying to keep his voice from trembling. "All it says is that you were right there, where he could see you, and where he had easy access to you. Do you think he gave a damn about what kind of person you were? All he cared about was that you were good-looking. That's all he talked damn gorgeous you were. He didn't give a rat's ass about what was in your head or in your heart. It was misplaced lust, plain and simple."

For a long time there was silence. Then Hutch said, "He wanted me. Gillian wanted me. Diana Harmon wanted me." Slowly, he turned to look at Starsky again, his eyes bright. "Those are the kind of people who want me."

Before Starsky could speak, Hutch went on. "Vanessa didn't want me. Abby didn't want me. Anna didn't want me bad enough to try to stay." His voice softened. "Marianne doesn't want me." A thick swallow, then Hutch dryly whispered, "The people I want don't want me. And the people I don't want do."

"H-Hutch," Starsky stuttered, scooting across the floor until he was sitting at his partner's feet, "you have no control over what other people want and don't want. Understand me, babe? I've wanted lots of women in my life who didn't want me. You aren't the only person in the world who's ever experienced that."

Harshly, Hutch whispered, "Did you ever give yourself freely to someone you didn't want?"

Starsky meant to make a negative sound, but it stuck in his throat.

"I gave myself to that creep." Hutch was staring at the floor.

"Only verbally," Starsky reminded, knowing it wasn't the strong argument Hutch needed. He added, "You did it for me, Hutch. To save my life. Are you sayin' that wasn't reason enough?"

The hard gaze was still lowered. "Once you were safely away, I could have refused. I could have fought."

"And gotten yourself killed," Starsky reminded. "I didn't deserve that, either...finding you dead. H-Hutch," he swallowed thickly, "everything you were willing to do was for me. Wasn't it worth it, babe?" he pleaded. "I can forgive myself for what I did, leaving you there. Why can't you forgive yourself for what you did?"

Hutch sat still for a long time. Starsky wanted to move up and enclose Hutch in his arms, press the other against himself, love and pet him in the way that Hutch always responded to so well. But if he did, it would be too easy to forget all this for now...and whatever demons were inside Hutch would be free to raise their talons later.

He waited.

As more time passed, Hutch's expression softened, but his gaze was still rooted to the ground. Finally, he whispered, "I was scared."

It took a tremendous willpower to not move closer. "I know that," Starsky said simply.

"B-but," Hutch stammered, "th-there was a part of me...a part of me...a small part of me...that wanted to like it." The last was so soft Starsky almost didn't catch it.

It surprised him, and Starsky wanted badly to understand. He ventured, "So it wouldn't hurt so much then?"

"I think because...b-because I wanted to believe if-if I liked it, there might be some way...after it was all over...some way of dealing with that look of betrayal on your face."

The guilt in the soft words was so powerful. Starsky wished simply pointing out the fact that all the things Hutch wanted to happen/didn't want to happen didn't happen should be enough. But, instead, he said, "I love you, Hutch."

Slowly, the blond head turned so that their eyes could meet in the semi-darkness.

"Love you, Hutch," Starsky said again. He slowly shook his head. "Nothing you say is ever going to change that fact."

Hutch's gaze lowered again.

"I don't hold it against you for wanting to make something positive out of an impossible situation." But Starsky knew that words only went so far. They obviously hadn't been enough before now. "What do you need from me?" he whispered. "What can I do that'll make the hurt start to heal?"

There was a long moment of silence. Then, "I want validation."

"Validation for what?" Starsky whispered.

The other visibly swallowed. "F-f-for the fact that I would have let him do it."

Starsky's tone was equally soft, but also incredulous. "You want me to treat you the way he would have treated you? If he'd wanted to do that to you? As...As some sort of punishment? Or in...the fact that you were willing to means it should have happened?" The words didn't make sense to his own ears.

Another extended silence. Then, "That was the price I was willing to pay for your life. But I never had to pay it. I...I-I need to pay it."

Starsky's teeth gritted, and he wasn't sure if he were angry or just extremely sorry for Hutch's mixed-up feelings. "What happened to you out there wasn't payment enough?" He didn't wait for a reply. Instead, he demanded, "And since when is a person's life something that has to be bought?" His voice was rising. "Milford had no right to expect anything from you for my life. He was the one on the wrong side of the law. You should never have even had to bargain for me. Milford wasn't owed a damn thing. By either of us."

Hutch was now staring at the wall, his jaw still hard. But he didn't speak.

Starsky felt the disbelief leave him. Hutch was so amazingly complex at times. But the blond was trying to communicate with him. Yelling wasn't going to help. Starsky tried switching to reason, and amiably whispered, "We've made fantastic love to each other, Hutch. Why...why would you want nothing but pain now?" Then, more gently, "What is it supposed to prove, babe?"

Hutch's head bowed again, but this time in a manner that was sheepish. The answer that emerged from the hard mouth was low in the semi-darkness. "Prove what I was willing to do to save your life."

"You've saved my life a hundred times over, Hutch. How is now dif--"

"I paid the price a hundred times over," Hutch agreed, then insisted, "but not this time."

Starsky snorted in disbelief. "Getting shot and tangled up and beaten up and being taken out for a mid-morning execution wasn't payment?" He suddenly realized what needed to be asked. Earnestly, he whispered, "Why is paying the price with sex so much different to you than any other way?"

Hutch was silent again, and Starsky could see that he was trying to work it through, to figure it out, to find the right answer.

The blond's upper body moved with a deep inhalation, and the expelled breath sounded loud in the quiet of the room. "Because that should have been something that was only for me and you." Distantly, Hutch added, "Being willing to give it away was...a betrayal."

"But, Hutch, what else could you have done?" Starsky implored.

"Nothing. But," Hutch finally looked at him, his eyes pleading for understanding, "sometimes all the explanations don't matter. Just like when you accidentally wounded that girl, Emily, and temporarily blinded her. It didn't matter to you that it was in the line of duty, and that she accidentally got in the way. Didn't matter at all."

Starsky took a breath himself. The analogy was too powerful for him to protest. He now understood too well. "Okay," he admitted softly. What had made it better when that unfortunate incident with Emily had happened? When she recovered, he answered himself. Hutch had tried, so hard, to help, but Starsky wouldn't let him. It wasn't until everything turned out all right that he could stop feeling guilty.

Everything had turned out all right concerning Milford. But, for some twisted reason within Hutch, it wasn't enough.

But then, Hutch wasn't like Starsky when it came to guilt. Hutch couldn't turn down sympathy. Couldn't turn down love. Couldn't turn down understanding. It didn't take much to push him into melancholy when he had a reason to worry or feel bad or feel guilty; but it also didn't it take much to pull him out.

It would have taken so little, during the Fitch case, when he was sitting on the steps, all by himself. All I woulda had to do was reach out to him, show him sympathy and understanding, and we could have behaved like a team the rest of the case, instead of pussyfooting around each other. But I was scared for him, so I took it out on him, and berated him instead. And he walked away, because what I'd given him was the opposite of what he'd needed.

Now he's both wanting me and pushing me away. Wanting me to love him, but insisting it has to be by force--that I have to hurt him to somehow 'validate' the fact that he would have been willing to do it with someone else to save my life.

He thinks it's what he needs. But it isn't. I know that--I know him...better than he knows himself.

Starsky looked around and located a robe. He picked it up while rising to his feet, then approached the bowed head.

Hutch looked up at him, his expression open. "I should be over it, shouldn't I?" he asked simply. "Everything that happened...that I should all be behind me by now."

Perhaps Hutch had a point. Starsky held the robe open and draped it over the blond's shoulders. He lifted an arm, and Hutch obediently placed it inside the sleeve. On his own, he inserted the other arm.

Starsky pulled the robe snug around his partner. Then he moved to a chest of drawers while wrapping a towel around his lubricated phallus. After tossing the towel aside, he took out pajama bottoms and slipped them on. As it did so, he considered what Hutch had said about being over Milford. And then it occurred to him that it wasn't coincidental that the Fitch case had popped into his mind a few moments ago.

Hutch was still sitting on the edge of the mattress. Starsky went to the same side of the bed and switched on the lamp. He tugged at Hutch's arm. "Come 'ere," he whispered. To enforce his words, he picked up Hutch's hand. The fingers felt cold.

Hutch looked up, then without expression he tucked his legs beneath himself. Starsky pulled harder until his big blond curled up in his arms, while he himself relaxed back against the headboard.

He spent a moment running his hand briskly up and down a robe-covered arm. Then he said, "I think you're right, Hutch. I think you are over what happened at Milford's."

Hutch looked up at him in puzzlement, the light from the lamp shining on his face.

"Where were you this afternoon while I was at the accountant's?" Starsky asked. He watched his partner's mouth open, his eyes showing surprise at the direction the conversation had taken. Starsky took pity on him. "Never mind, you don't have to answer. Because I already know."

The blue eyes widened in surprise at that statement.

Starsky wanted to push his advantage. "You wanna know how I know? It's simple really. See, Hutch, whenever you see her, not-nice things tend to happen to your insides. So, for you to have been behavin' the way you were tonight, it has to be because you saw her." He made an effort to not sound like he was scolding, though it was what he felt like doing. "All this unease you've been feeling the last few months...I don't think it has a damn thing to do with Milford. That's behind you, Hutch. But Marianne isn't." Now he dropped the confident poise and leaned close to his partner's ear. "Why, Hutch? Why do you keep going back to her and punishing yourself?"

"I--I don't ever mean to," Hutch replied after a moment. "I just...feel...compelled." He hesitated, then, "I want her to forgive me."

Starsky swallowed thickly, hating it that Hutch was wanting something Starsky himself couldn't give. Gently, he noted, "I don't think that's possible, Hutch. At least not for a long, long time. You're going to have to go on without her forgiveness. It's her problem, anyway. Not yours." He wished they had talked about this a long time ago, when they'd made such an effort to close the distance between them after the Fitch case. But those conversations had focused on the relationship between him and Hutch, not on the relationship between Hutch and Marianne.

Hutch was silent a long time. Then he said, "I want her to know that I'm really not a bad guy." He tilted his head to look up at Starsky. "I know it doesn't make sense. But I need her to know that."

Starsky digested that. While doing so, he brought his hand up to his partner's face, and ran his finger tips along his cheek. Then he decided to be straightforward. "What is it," he asked, "about her that gets to you? And don't," he warned, "tell me it's because she's 'mysterious', because I'm not gonna buy it." He dropped his hand. "I asked you once before about the things you said to her before Fitch's men got to you, and you never really answered. This time," he said with affection, "you're not gettin' off so easy."

Hutch snorted, "Starsky, it was just the passion of the moment."

"Uh-uh." Starsky was shaking his head. "Doesn't wash. There's something about her that made you say those things about believing you're worth it and stuff like that. And the reason you could say them was because you've been somewhere in your past similar to where she was when you told her those things. I want you to tell me about it."

Hutch's brow was furrowed. "Starsky, they were just words," he insisted again. "They just seemed appropriate at the time. It's not like--"

"Hutch," Starsky interrupted, "whatever's behind those 'just words' has some connection to all the crazy stuff you've been feeling the past few months. Marianne taps into something inside you that brings out a lot of unpleasant stuff. Like when you had the anxiety attack or whatever was right after you saw her at the station. And when you called me that one night--after you'd had a bad dream--it was after you'd seen her. And you getting all crazy tonight was because of what happened with her. Maybe some of the stuff that happened at Milford's intensified it or whatever, but it's seeing Marianne again that's brought all the bad stuff--whatever it is--to the surface. I don't think it has a damn thing to do with that PTA--"

"PTSD," Hutch corrected.

"Yeah, PTSD syndrome--"


"--Yeah, disorder--that we've been talking about." Starsky pinched the nearest cheek and scolded, "Don't try changing the subject on me, because it isn't gonna work."

"I'm not trying to change it."

"Good. So, look deep inside yourself and tell me what it is about Marianne that draws you." In the worst way, he concluded silently. "I'll wait."

Hutch's gaze dropped away to seek the wall again as he obeyed, looking thoughtful.

While Starsky waited, he thought through the past months, and felt more certain than ever that it wasn't Milford's ghost that was following Hutch around, but Marianne's. The Fitch case had been frustrating: Hutch's blown cover, feelings that the blond shouldn't have allowed to exist but which had. But stuff like that happened in a cop's life. Hutch had seemed fine during the Fitch trial, especially after they had made a conscious effort to get their partnership back on track. But when the Milford case happened, the emotional consequences left Hutch vulnerable, and being in Marianne's presence had take such a strong hold on Hutch that he hadn't been able to shake it free, even after the Milford trauma was well behind them.

And their developing physical relationship had only added to the emotional confusion.

We're going to work it out, Starsky thought determinedly, and beat this thing, whatever it is. His hand squeezed Hutch's robed shoulder.

Hutch must have misunderstood the gesture as one of impatience, for he said, "It's not that easy, Starsk. It just isn't that black and white."

Of course, it wasn't; and Starsky felt just a little bit guilty that he'd made such an impossible demand. Gently, he said, "Would it help if I ask questions?"

Hutch shrugged against his chest and shoulder.

"Okay," Starsky said, shifting to rest more comfortably against the headboard. "Start with telling me where you and she were...before Fitch's goons got to you."

After a thoughtful pause, Hutch replied, "It was the day after my cover was blown...after I walked away from you."

Starsky didn't like thinking about that time, since he'd botched it so badly. But he nodded encouragingly, and rested his chin against Hutch's hair.

"I went to the see her." In a tone of confession, Hutch said, "Not to talk about the case. But because I couldn't stand how we'd parted the day before after...after we...."

Starsky squeezed his shoulder again, wanting him to know that he didn't have to say what Starsky already knew.

Hutch let out a breath. "I guided her out to a back alley. She didn't seem all that surprised to see me, and she didn't try to avoid me. But she was..." a heavy swallow, "trying to cover her pain with a lot of sarcasm. And I couldn't stand it that...." He stopped abruptly.

Starsky hugged him against himself. "That what?" he prompted tenderly.

"That she was letting herself be such a pawn. Used not just by Fitch. Not just by her brother. But me." Hutch's voice was very soft. "She didn't deserve that. No human being does. And I wanted her to see that." He closed his eyes, jaw firm. "I wanted her to see that, so much. That she was as worth it--to have her own life--just like any other human being."

After a prolonged pause, Starsky whispered, "So, while you're there in that alley, telling her that stuff that was so important to you, what was going through you, Hutch? What had such a hold on your gut, deep down inside? What were you remembering from your own life?"

Hutch turned to look up at him. "I wasn't remembering anything specifically." His tone indicated surprise that his partner thought such.

But Starsky wasn't deterred. "Okay, not specifically. But don't you see what I'm getting at? Those things you were saying to her had to come from somewhere." Marianne knew it, too, Starsky thought, remembering what she'd said at the house. "There's a reason why you felt so strongly about it. I mean, there must have been some time in your own life when you felt like Marianne felt."

Suddenly, a snort. "A time in my life?" Hutch challenged. "I don't think so, buddy." Then, with a hint of anger, "More like nearly my whole life."

Starsky felt a sense of relief that Hutch was talking. He prompted, "When you were little?"

"Little?" Hutch looked at him again, eyes glaring. "Yes, when I was little. When I was older. When I was a teenager. When I was in college." He abruptly looked away and the anger deflated. "When I was married to Van."

"Tell me," Starsky whispered, hugging him tighter. There had definitely been hurt behind the anger.

"It's a common story," Hutch said dismissively. Then went on. "I was born into an upper middle class family that had made its wealth in the banking industry and legal professions. I was expected to be the good little son that was going to carry on the family tradition. It never occurred to my parents that my yearnings might run in another direction. And, at school, I was expected to do well because I came from a well-to-do-family. I wasn't allowed to have weaknesses. As a teenager, it was just assumed I was a ladies' man because I had blond hair and blue eyes. But what I wanted, more than anything, was to do something with my life that meant something to me."

He paused a moment. "Then along came Van. And I saw her as a way out. A way to have a life independent from all the expectations, while still keeping everyone happy, because we were thought to be a good match. I tried, so hard, to make her happy, Starsk. To please her."

Starsky cupped his partner's chin, patting it. "I know that," he said with sympathy, remembering how it had been before Vanessa divorced Hutch. They'd been partnered two years before it happened, and Starsky had had to stand back and watch Hutch try to cater to Vanessa's every need. Even with his relative objectivity back then, Starsky had seen how terribly one-sided the marriage was. The whole focus was on keeping Vanessa happy; Hutch's contentment was irrelevant.

"After a time," Hutch went on, "it became obvious that I'd traded one set of shackles for another. Vanessa had her own agenda about what I was supposed to be--both as a man and as a husband." He took a deep breath and distantly noted, "I was twenty-eight years old when we got divorced. That's how many years of my life I've spent trying to be someone else."

"But you're yourself now," Starsky said, needing to point out the positive. "It may have taken a long time, but the longest and hardest battles make the victory all the more rewarding."

Hutch seemed to think about that. Then, "I didn't want to see Marianne go through what I went through. She'd already gone through it long enough. She'd been used for so many years by her brother, and then also by Fitch. I wanted to help her break free, to see herself for the worthwhile person she was." He tilted his head back so his and Starsky's eyes could meet again. "That's what I was feeling in my gut when I was talking to her in that alley. I wanted to help her, as I had been helped."

Starsky blinked at the last. "Helped by whom?"

A smile ran across Hutch's lips and his eyes were bright. He reached up and ran a finger along Starsky's nose. "You don't know?"

Starsky shook his head.

"Silly goof." Hutch squeezed his nose. "By you."

Starsky felt his mouth fall open. Hutch was granting him an enormous honor, but he didn't understand.... "How?" he asked. "When?"

"When?" Hutch took his hand away, and instead rested it on top of his partner's arm. "From the moment we first met. You were so much yourself. So comfortable with who you were. So free of anyone else's agenda. God, buddy, I'd never met anyone like you. It gave me hope. That I could find a me inside myself. And...maybe..." his voice softened, "...that person was worth something. Was worth being."

Starsky felt a softness work its way through his body. He shifted so he could hug Hutch closer. "Ah, Hutch, I never knew it was like that for you." He bent and kissed the broad forehead.

"It was a subtle thing, buddy. It wasn't like I was consciously thinking those things. But I do know," his eyes sought his partner's again, "that it was because of you that I was able to feel that I was worth it. The real person inside me had a reason to come out of hiding, because you were so accepting of the little bits of him that I'd shown you. Being your partner has changed everything. For the better." He let out a heavy breath. "I wanted to be for someone else what you were for me."

Starsky closed his eyes, not able to put into words what it meant to him that he had done so much for Hutch--to help him be the man he had become--so he did not try. But there was something else that he still did not understand. "But why do you keep going back to Marianne? You've done all you can to help her, and she's seemed to have done better for herself since being free of Fitch and her brother. So what do you want from her?"

Hutch's eyes closed and he was silent for a long time. Finally, he said in a small voice, "Like I said before, I keep hoping she'll forgive me."

Starsky released a sigh. "I'm sure she will eventually, Hutch. But you can't put your life on hold until it happens. Besides, what you really need to do is forgive yourself."

Hutch looked up anxiously at Starsky. "She was trapped the way I felt I used to be trapped. And what did I do in the name of helping her? I used her. It was wrong."

"It was a job," Starsky said simply. "I know," he quickly held up his hand to stop what Hutch was going to say. "that knowing that doesn't help. Just like it didn't help me when I blinded Emily. Or when I was using Rosie to get to her father. But still," his voice softened, "it is a fact. We can't be worthwhile cops and bleed for everyone who crosses our paths, especially when being in the situation they're in is some of their own doing. Marianne didn't have to let herself be a pawn for Fitch and her brother. She chose it. It may have been for noble reasons, but she did have a choice." He patted Hutch's cheek. "You've got to learn to accept that. You can't control what other people do. Just like your parents and Vanessa couldn't control what you wanted to do and be." Gently, he concluded, "You can't have it both ways, Hutch."

Hutch closed his eyes, this time wearily. After a long moment, he said, "I'm sorry about tonight."

"S'okay," Starsky whispered. He waited until the blue eyes opened again, then asked, "What was that all about, anyway?"

Hutch looked away, as though ashamed. "I don't know."

"Then we're gonna figure it out," Starsky said decisively. He waited until Hutch looked back at him. "We know that you get a little crazy whenever you see Marianne, right? Because you want her to forgive you and she won't. So it--what?--brings all your guilt about her back to the surface? Because it never quite had a chance to heal, since you keep seeing her." Scolding, Starsky said, "It's no wonder you haven't been able to forgive yourself."

Hutch was silent, his expression resigned.

Starsky went on as the memory from an hour ago danced across his mind. "But for some reason, tonight, you specifically wanted me to hurt you."

"No, not hurt," Hutch corrected. Then gruffly, "I wanted you to take what I couldn't give."

Couldn't give? Starsky repeated to himself. With puzzlement, he said, "But you wanted me to do it. You were enthusiastic about it. And then you...clammed up...." Starsky trailed off as he felt the sensation of a puzzle piece falling into place.

Hutch had never had a problem with giving to Starsky during sex. But this particular act--with Hutch in the submissive position--was new to them. Except that Hutch had almost experienced it. Or, at least, he'd thought he was going to be subjected to it...when he'd offered himself to Milford.

Starsky's mind raced ahead, anxious for the hunt for understanding to reach its conclusion. To do the brave thing he'd done at Milford's, Hutch had to have been ready to accept the consequences, physically and emotionally, in order to go through with what was essentially an act of rape. Physically, the event had never taken place. But Hutch had already been emotionally resigned to being a victim.

The rape never happened, Starsky thought, but, in Hutch's mind, it may as well have. That's how committed Hutch was to keeping to his end of the bargain with Milford, so I'd be allowed to leave...alive. But, like a lot of rape victims, he feels he's to blame for what happened.

And, now, he can't give of himself to me, like that, because he's traumatized by the event--the event that never really happened. But he wants me to have him--"claim my rights" is a phrase he's used before--and since he can't give it, he wants me to take it.

And, by taking it, it'll show him that I love him. Show him that I love, in particular, that precious me inside his precious self, despite the horrible thing that 'happened', that he was willing to do.

I guess Milford's ghost is still with us, after all.

Hutch squeezed him arm. "Tell me what you're thinking," he demanded softly.

"I'm thinking that I want to make love to you." Give you the validation that you need.

Hutch's fingers squeezed harder on Starsky's arm. "Do." Then, "It won't be like before. I promise."

Starsky looked at him, gazing into those soft blue eyes, feeling a flush of tenderness and concern spread through him, even as he felt himself warming up in anticipation. He knew it wouldn't be like before, for their conversation had taken all the fight out of Hutch. But since Hutch wouldn't be able to give of himself that way, Starsky was going to have to take it from him. But he was determined that it would be the most gentle of conquerings. A conquering which, for Hutch, would hopefully be a release from Milford's ghost.

But even as Starsky thought about freeing Hutch, he wondered if making love to him in and of itself would be enough; if replacing the phantom of Milford with the reality of Starsky would allow Hutch to feel himself worthy of Starsky.

Maybe if there was something to be proven tonight, it was simply that Hutch was loved to the very core of his being. That fact needed to be proven in such a way that the big blond himself couldn't question it, despite the fact that he'd used Marianne, despite the fact that he was willing to allow himself to be used for Milford's pleasure. Maybe Marianne would never feel for him the way Hutch wanted her to; and there was no way the deceased Milford could ever take back the lust he had felt. So, that left it to Starsky to fill up those dark spaces left by others.

He wondered if it were possible to love Hutch in a way that would be uniquely theirs; love him in a more intimate way than Starsky had ever loved anybody else.

Starsky shifted again. "I know it won't be like before," he said in reply to Hutch's comment. "But let's start over, anyway. Why don't you go and clean up?"

That brought puzzlement to the pale features.

"Go on." Starsky urged. "Take a nice hot shower, and in the meantime Excalibur will have a chance to get warmed up again."

Hutch rolled his eyes but didn't comment on the name. Instead, he asked, "What are you going to be doing?"

"None of your business."

That produced more puzzlement. Starsky shifted to one side. "Go on," he insisted. "Shower good and dry off good."

Hutch left the bed.

When the bathroom door closed, Starsky went into the kitchen. He found a bottle of wine in the cupboard and filled a couple of glasses, one full and one part way. He carried them into the bedroom, turning off lights as he went. He placed the glasses on the nightstand near the bathroom. Then he straightened the covers and turned off the bedroom light.

A few moments later Hutch emerged from the bathroom, still using a towel on his hair. He seemed surprised at the darkness, interrupted only by the bathroom light, but didn't comment. As soon as he tossed the towel aside, Starsky picked up both glasses and handed his partner the full one.

"To us," he said, "and all we've been together and all we've yet to be."

Hutch's face softened at that. He watched Starsky drink first, and then followed.

"All of it," Starsky ordered, tipping his own glass.

Hutch obeyed.

Starsky placed both glasses back on the nightstand. Then he reached inside the bathroom and turned off the light.

All was dark.

He slipped out of his pajamas. Then he went to the pale shape that stood next to the bed, moving up close behind him. The other smelled fresh and clean. Starsky reached around and slowly ran his hands across the bare chest. "You know," he whispered in the darkness, "you were talking before about how it's always the people you don't want who want you." He paused deliberately. When his hands moved again, he said, "You left one very important person off your list, Hutch." He squeezed with his arms, embracing the other man's back against his chest, his cheek resting on a shoulder. "But none of that matters anymore. Because, from now on, it's just me and you. Whether other people want or don't want you doesn't mean a damn thing."

There was no response, only the sound of the other's breathing.

Starsky eased his grip and stepped back so that he could place his hands on Hutch's shoulders. He rubbed across the smooth, warm skin. Finally, he whispered, "I want you on the bed. On your stomach. And the only thing you're allowed to do is relax."

His fingers let go and Hutch climbed onto the mattress. Starsky waited until there was no longer any sound or movement, and then got on the bed himself. He reached out, touching a hip. He ran his hand along it, up to Hutch's back, straddling his partner as he did so.

When Starsky was settled on top of Hutch, his erection was resting between the other man's buttocks, his cheek just below his partner's neck. He rubbed his hands along Hutch's arms, relishing how relaxed the muscles were beneath the skin.

Starsky kissed the back of Hutch's neck. As he had predicted, Hutch was being very compliant. Starsky hoped he was right and that this was what Hutch be covered by the person who loved him most, who would nurture and protect and love him unconditionally. He would take on all the responsibility of Hutch's pleasure so that Hutch didn't have to work for it himself.

The kisses started down his partner's spine, Starsky moving back along the other man's body. His erection had to yield its snug place, so that the kisses could keep moving lower. While his mouth worked, Starsky kept his hands busy, massaging in slow circles along his partner's sides, enjoying the gentle friction created.

He reached Hutch's tailbone and kissed it deliberately. Then he shifted and planted a wet mark on the cushion of the left buttock. Then the right.

"Spread your legs more," he commanded in a whisper.

His hands were on the backs of the slender thighs, and Starsky felt them move farther apart. He settled his body between them, getting comfortable. Then he dipped his head and licked along fur, caressing the delicate skin of the testicles.

He could hear his partner breathing.

He kissed them, each one, and them moved his tongue upward, its motion slow and deliberate. It danced past the perineum between Hutch's scrotum and anus. And then Starsky pulling the buttocks apart with his hands.

His tongue touched the wrinkled opening, and then he lapped at it. Hutch gasped as a jolt went through him.

Starsky licked more purposely, stabbing at the opening, loving it when the hips beneath squirmed. He grabbed them to hold them reasonably still, so he wouldn't lose his place. A moment later, he reached up to run a hand along Hutch's back, and he felt a row of goosebumps.

A sharp "God" was emitted into the darkness.

Starsky now shifted and lapped the length of his tongue against the opening. He felt all the muscles in Hutch's body stiffen.

He raised his head. "Hey," he scolded breathlessly, "if you don't lie nice and relaxed I'm gonna stop. And then we'll never get to the main event."

Blackmail. But he didn't feel guilty about using it. A moment later and the flesh beneath him relaxed back against the mattress.

"That's my boy," Starsky approved. "Accept your medicine and don't fight me."

He squeezed a buttock lovingly, then dipped his head again. He took a moment to moisten the crevice with saliva, then stiffened his tongue and tried to push it inside.

Hutch made a noise, but he remained obedient and stayed pressed against the mattress. As Starsky continued to probe, Hutch's vocalizations became more pronounced. None of the sounds were coherent...but alternated between groans and high-pitched whimpers.

Starsky resisted the urge to undulate against the mattress, even though his erection was close to bursting. He now switched his rhythm, licking slowly around the wrinkled skin, lapping with his tongue, trying to brand Hutch with this exotic form of pleasure, to show a desire to please that went beyond the warmth in his heart, but which was more a soul-deep passion that desperately needed expression.

The room hadn't been silent for a long time. Hutch was emitting a continuous groan. He did move, but it was only to spread his legs even farther.

Starsky accommodated, inching forward and stabbing more purposely. He knew he'd have to stop soon, for his tongue was numb and his erection was aching with neglect. But it was difficult to decide which lap of his tongue should be the last. Finally, he snaked it up past the opening, into the shallower crevice, then up to Hutch's tailbone.

Starsky rested his cheek on the cushiony rump, catching his breath, listening to the new sound from the darkness, which was his partner also panting for air.

Starsky struggled into a sitting position. He felt around the mattress and found the tube of lubricant. He squirted some onto his fingers, then reached down to the moistened opening. He inserted his middle finger into the heat. The texture was so completely different than when he'd tried this earlier. The muscle was willing to stretch. He worked in a second finger. With his free hand, Starsky rubbed along his partner's lower back, loving the pliant feel of the muscles beneath the skin.

His hands reluctantly left so he could apply the ointment to himself. As he worked with it, he said, "The same rules apply as when you did me. You want me to take it out, I take it out."

He thought the panting had increased slightly, illustrating his partner's anticipation.

Starsky tossed the tube aside. All ready now. With one hand, he felt for the slick opening. With the other, he guided his straining maleness up to it. He stretched out his legs behind him, for there wasn't a pillow beneath Hutch. But though it made the angle a little difficult, this was exactly how Starsky wanted him.

Starsky pushed with his hips and the head of his erection slipped into the snug warmth that welcomed him.

He listened, but heard nothing except his own heavy breaths. Puzzled, he pushed more, relieved that the tight network of bone and muscle was parting for his determined spear, while still nicely snug, teasing his nerves.

Starsky rested a moment, taking a deep breath, trying to maintain control, despite the tantalizing sensations. He was well enough on the way now that he let go of himself and reached to place his hands on Hutch's shoulders. Bracing against them, he pushed in another inch.

Hutch made a gasp of pain.

Starsky swallowed thickly. "Just a little more," he whispered soothingly. Then he stroked at Hutch's shoulder blade, wanting to praise him for having taken all that he'd offered thus far.

He shifted his legs, trying to find the best leverage to insert the final two inches. He had to brace against Hutch's body again, using it to press himself in.

And then he was all the way inside. Starsky rested against Hutch's back, breathing heavily, his arms draped across the smooth-skinned shoulders. He wanted to stay like this, stay like this forever. For this was nirvana that nothing else could touch. Lying protectively on top of the person he loved most in this world--the person who gave his life meaning. And having the most physical part of himself inside that person, resting there, joining them.

But here, in the darkness, and the relative silence, he didn't know what Hutch was thinking. Needing to communicate, Starsky reached up with one hand until he felt a mouth corner. He stroked along the side of Hutch's face, feeling smooth skin around each feature, which indicated Hutch was resting peacefully, as well.

They were still for such a long time, sharing the heat and darkness and space where they joined, that Starsky felt himself threaten to shrink. He undulated slightly, to keep Excalibur interested, but realized too late that even that small movement was a mistake. His over-sensitized flesh responded too enthusiastically to the brief friction, and a wave of release was upon him. Starsky knew he could not fight it, and he simply let himself rest where he was as his life fluid released itself.

He groaned softly as the exquisite feeling flushed through his body, leaving him resting even more heavily upon his partner's back.

A curious whisper penetrated the darkness. "Did you come?"

Starsky made a soft snort, for he was feeling very lazy in the wake of the orgasm. "Yeah. Didn't mean to."

He felt a motion beneath him, and then a hand was petting against his rump. He knew he had to be feeling very heavy. Reluctantly, Starsky shifted enough to collapse on the bed beside Hutch. He wanted nothing more than to drift lazily, but the darkness now seemed oppressive. He rolled over so he could reach for the lamp. He turned it on, anxious to see what was in his lover's eyes.

Hutch squinted at the rude intrusion. Starsky waited until the other had adjusted.

The pale countenance smoothed out, and Hutch was gazing at him with a contemplative expression. And then the blond closed the gap between them and leaned down....

The full lips were upon his, and Starsky was taken back by the force of the kiss, for it was so rich and powerful.

"Wow," he breathed deeply when he was finally released.

There was that intense gaze again. And then it broke, Hutch shifting to sit up next to Starsky, the blond's arms coming around him and holding him close.

Starsky had meant to hold Hutch when he got his strength back, but he quickly decided that he liked this at least as much.

His hair was kissed, and then Hutch said, "Thank you me what I needed."

Starsky tilted his head to look up at him. "Was it enough?" he asked hopefully.

A tender smile filled the soft features. Hutch ran a finger along Starsky's lips. "I don't think there's any such thing as having enough of you."

Starsky had been looking for a more affirmative answer, but decided he liked that one better. He snuggled more closely against the lean, warm body. They were quiet for a while, and Starsky realized he was drifting. "Turn out the light," he whispered. "'M sleepin.'"

Limbs shifted beneath him. "I can't get to it with you on top of me."

"Oh." Starsky sat up a little, and Hutch reached to the lamp. The room went dark.

"Goodnight," Hutch said, getting beneath the covers.

When the other was still, Starsky realized he was inside the curve of Hutch's body. One hand was on his hip; he didn't know where the other one was. "What happened to my cuddle?" he complained.

"Big baby," Hutch said. He put his arm around Starsky's chest and pressed him back against himself.

"Mm," Starsky approved, just before falling asleep.



"This court is recessed until ten o'clock tomorrow morning." The judge pounded his gavel. He rose, and everyone else also stood.

Hutch sighed. His testimony had begun today, but now that a recess was called before he finished, he would have to come back tomorrow. Starsky's testimony would follow. He rubbed at his eyes and was aware of Starsky talking to the DA. Hutch looked up to see that most of the spectators had filed out of the courtroom. Just now exiting were Brandon Jenkins...and Marianne.

Hutch darted toward them. "Marianne."

She and Jenkins had already passed through the double doors. Hutch followed them out. They stopped as he came next to them, Jenkins looking impatient.

She looked up at her boyfriend. "Will you excuse us?"

"Certainly." He moved away.

Hutch smiled at her. "I think it's going well."

She shrugged. "One never knows until the verdict is in."

"Rodney is doing the right thing."

"I would have liked it better if he wouldn't have had to make a deal with the DA to tell the truth. He should have done that the first time...and taken his lumps."

Hutch agreed. It turned out that Rodney had driven the getaway car, in what he thought was only going to be a robbery. He was confessing all in exchange for a lesser charge. "Hopefully," Hutch said, "this incident happened early enough in his life to have a lasting impression, and he'll stay out of trouble from here on out."

"I hope you're right."

They were silent, each unsure of what else to say. Finally, she noted, "After this is all over, Brandon and I are moving to Chicago."

That surprised him. "Oh."

"Yes, we'll be getting married before then. We don't want to set a date until we know the trial is over."

"I'm sure you'll do great in Chicago."

"It depends on how it goes with Brandon's job. It sounds like he may need a full-time social secretary, so..." she trailed off.

Hutch felt something heavy press on his chest. With disapproval, he said, "You'll give up your career for him?" Even as he said the words, he knew Starsky had been right: no one could control another's life, and he should stop trying.

"If necessary," she replied.

It was like they had come full circle. "Just like that?" he challenged in disbelief.

Her gaze met his squarely. "Yes, just like that."

Hutch started to speak, but there was nothing to say. Except goodbye.

She smiled at him briefly, then nodded past his shoulder. "He's here. I'd better go." She turned away.

Hutch watched her. And wondered why he had ever been in love with her.

Starsky appeared at his shoulder. "What's up?"

"She and Jenkins are leaving town once the trial is over." He was still watching her disappear down the hall.

"Oh. You okay?"

Hutch looked at him. Finding a smile was easy. "Yeah."

* * *

"I don't get it," Hutch said while sifting through his mail. "The past few weeks, I've been getting all these strange magazines. I've never ordered Field and Stream," he held it up, "or Science Digest."

"Of course, you didn't," Starsky told him. "I did."

Hutch glared at him. "What? I don't want all this junk."

"It's not junk," the other protested. "Those magazine orders are what made sure your Publisher's Clearing House entry got put in the YES pile."

Hutch felt his jaw tighten. "Starsky, so help me..." he began, then demanded, "How many did you order?"

"I dunno," Starsky shrugged. "I just wanted to make sure your entry got serious attention. Maybe a dozen or so. You'll probably be getting your first bill any day."

"What?" Hutch asked indignantly. "You mean I have to pay for this stuff, when you're the one who ordered it?"

"Yeah, but if you win, it'll all be your money," Starsky pointed out reasonably "I don't expect you to split it with me."

"Starsky, I am not going to win. It's all a scam."

"I'll remind you of that when Ed McMahon comes knocking at your door." Starsky grabbed the Field and Stream from Hutch's hands and plopped down on the couch. He grumbled, "I don't know how you can expect to win at all with a negative attitude like that."

Hutch furrowed his brow while watching Starsky leaf through the magazine. The phrase 'negative attitude' pulled at his memory. Negative. Positive. Positive attitude. Getting a home improvement loan because of his positive attitude. Telling Starsky about it many months ago, when Starsky was grumbling about what an awful world they lived in if a woman and her small child could be devoured by wild monkeys.

That conversation had taken place a few weeks after Marianne's brother was killed.

Hutch pulled a beer from the refrigerator and popped the lid. "Starsk?" he said as he approached the sofa.

"Huh?" Starsky looked up, closing the magazine.

Hutch sat down next to him. "How come you haven't said anything about me seeing Marianne today?"

"Why would I say anything? It's only natural that we'd bump into her at the trial."

"Aren't you afraid I'll get crazy again?" He was genuinely interested in the answer.

Starsky shook his head. "No," he replied cheerfully. "You're all better now. You didn't look like a whipped pup when you were talking to her, which is how you've behaved before around her."

Hutch liked Starsky's confidence in him. And the fact that what Starsky said was true.

"What's wrong?"

Hutch realized he'd been staring at the coffee table. He shook his head at the irony. "She's going right back into the same situation I had wanted to help her get out of before."

Starsky slid closer. "What do you mean?"

Hutch looked at him. "She's going to give up her singing career for Brandon. Be his," he curled his lip in disapproval, "social secretary."

Starsky shrugged. "If that's what she wants...."

"No," Hutch corrected. "What she wants is someone else to control her life. She needs that, Starsky." He bowed his head, feelings of sadness washing over him. "I-I didn't understand that before. I thought if I could help her get free of Joe Fitch's imprisonment, she'd have a better life. But she's running right back to that same situation, except this time there isn't anything illegal about it." He snorted. "Now I understand what she meant before when she told me that Brandon was her kind of man." He swallowed now, hearing the sorrow in his voice. "I wasted all that time, caring about her...worrying about her...feeling guilty about that whole situation." He shook his head again. "It was all for nothing. Because she never wanted to be free of someone else's control." More sadly, he said, "I guess some people can't handle being free."

"Everyone has different needs," Starsky pointed out. "And thank God for it. Because I need you...a whole bunch. And I'm glad no one else has ever needed you as badly as I do, so you weren't already taken by someone else."

Hutch kissed him for that. It felt so nice that as soon as they parted, he pressed against Starsky once again.

When Starsky was able to pull back, he said, "I'm glad you realized that about her. Even if it hurts. Sometimes, a person gets mixed up in all the wrong causes. Just have to believe that, somehow, we're all the better for it afterwards, for what we learned."

Hutch rested his head back against the sofa. "What I've learned is that you're the only person I want to give myself to. Forever."

Starsky grinned lovingly. "Sounds like a vow."

"It is."

"Ah, Hutch." Starsky wrapped his arms around his big blond. "I wanna spend all night loving you. Take our time."

Hutch stood and took Starsky's hand. "Let's go."

Starsky followed.

The End

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