Author's note: Crystal Blue Persuasion was the first Starsky & Hutch story I ever wrote. I'd come from another fandom, and wasn't used to all the conventions in SH. I was never convinced that I had the characters down well enough, however, regardless of my feelings, the story won a Huggy at Zcon 1997.  The story was inspired by the beautiful illo "Crystal Blue Persuasion" by Suzan Lovett. I saw it at a friend's house and asked Suzan where the story was that inspired it. She told me there was no story...yet. The illo became the cover of the zine by the same name. That zine, Crystal Blue Persuasion, was put out by Asbestos Press.

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Look over yonder, what do you see
The sun is a'risin' most definitely
A new day is coming; people are changing
Ain't it good to find--Crystal Blue Persuasion?
        Crystal Blue Persuasion--Tommy James and the Shondells

   "Starsky, I don't believe you," Hutch muttered in a low, deadly tone. He turned away from the view outside the Torino window to glare at his partner. "I really don't believe you. You think for one solid minute I'm eating in there?"

   "Calm down, Hutch," Starsky said quietly from the driver's seat. "After a half hour argument, you finally agreed we'd have Italian food for dinner, so I thought--"

   "You didn't think," Hutch snapped. "You couldn't have and brought me here." His temper climbed, especially when Starsky had to work to hide one of those "gotcha" smirks he always wore when he put one over on Hutch.

   "That's not true," Starsky insisted, with that infuriating "let's-calm-down-my-needlessly-overwrought-buddy" voice that was guaranteed to spiral Hutch's blood pressure up another notch. "Actually, I've thought about it a lot. A whole lot. Tonight's an important night. An anniversary, sorta. I picked this place special."

   Hutch bit back an angry reply and looked back out the window. Little had changed about the restaurant since they had last been here. It was a small, homey place. Inconspicuous, really. And at this hour--eleven thirty p.m.--it looked less flashy than it might during the day. Even the neon sign spelling out Giovanni's seemed dim.

   And it's raining again, Hutch thought miserably. I can't do this. Can't even get out of the car. Starsky, why? He muttered softly, "Let's get out of here, partner." Then, as an afterthought, whispered, "Please?"

   "Hutch," his friend replied in a low tone, "it's been three months. Three months to the day. We need to do this."

   He turned back to Starsky, eyes framing a question.

   "You need to do it," Starsky clarified. "I've been here without you two or three times. I tried to get you over here a month ago, but we had to deal with that robbery instead. So, we're gonna eat here tonight."

   "I'm not hungry," Hutch insisted, and that was the plain truth.

   "You were starved a half hour ago," Starsky reminded him. "Come on! We gotta do this. For you. I'm over it, been over it. Time to move on. Like a new start."

   Hutch stared at his knees and didn't respond. I'm not going in there, he decided, but said nothing.

   "You realize you haven't even eaten Italian food since it happened?" Starsky asked gently. "That night I made spaghetti at my place, you stared at it like it landed from Mars and never touched a bite."

   "You'd promised me a steak. And I ate the salad," Hutch grumbled, but even he heard how truculent he sounded.

   "Without the dressing," Starsky pointed out. "Which was Italian. You're workin' on a full-fledged phobia about this. It's gettin' weird. Time to get back on the horse, buddy. We're eatin' here. And you're really gonna eat, too. Haven't had a bite since breakfast, crazy as the day's been. I'm the one who got shot, but you're the one who's lost weight--the one who hasn't healed yet."

   "You said," Hutch argued, then had to stop to swallow before his voice cracked, "you said we were gonna talk, that this was the start of a special weekend, just the two of us. You said it was time to resolve some issues. Just you and me." And I jumped to all the wrong conclusions, he thought miserably.

   "I meant that, too," Starsky insisted. "This is the first one. Not the most important, but important enough."

   Suddenly, Starsky reached out and clasped Hutch's upper arm, and he jumped as if that were something they never did. The hand resting on his brown leather jacket--the same one he'd been wearing that night, he realized with some chagrin--didn't budge, just held on, firm, warm, strong. Hutch had to swallow a knot of tension.

   "It's who-do-you-trust time, Hutch."

   He stared wide-eyed as if they were about to face a whole town armed against them instead of just the front door of an innocuous restaurant. Starsky looked back at him intently, his darkly-lashed cobalt eyes narrowed, slitted like a cat's. It was the kind of expression he wore whenever they were about to go up against the bad guys, especially when they were outnumbered. It was a predator's expression, cold, knowledgeable, deadly, and it rattled Hutch to have it turned on him. You're scary when you're angry, Hutch had said to him that night, before it happened, while they were still at the precinct doing their good-cop-bad-cop tap dance on a suspect. He'd meant it, too, but he realized now that Starsky angry was not at his scariest. This was his scariest. This cool, premeditated hunter. Starsky had planned this, planned it to the minute, and the smug, calculated expression on his face made Hutch think there was a lot more planned for him this night. He wasn't sure he would like the rest of it any better, either.

   Hutch tried to turn his head away from the cobalt eyes pinning him in place, but Starsky's hand slid up his arm, over his shoulder, across the nape of his neck and into his hair. Gently, but firmly, Starsky grabbed a handful of blond strands and forced Hutch to turn back to him. A pulse point throbbed in his groin and he had to suppress a fight-or-flight response.

   "It's just a restaurant, Hutch," Starsky murmured, nearly nose-to-nose with him. "Just a place that serves food to people. That's all. Like the place my grandmother used to live over. An Italian restaurant. Nothing more."

   His vision wavered for a second; he didn't dare blink for fear he'd shed a tear. "You almost died in there," he hissed. "If the bullet that creased your head had hit one inch to the left--if the bullet that went through your shoulder hit a few inches to the right, or a little lower--"

   "But they didn't!" Starsky insisted, pulling his hair tighter.

   Hutch's balls tightened, and his cock stirred like a snake uncoiling in his well-worn gray cords. He wanted to scream, bolt, punch Starsky in the mouth, no, not punch-- Stop that! He's your partner. Your best friend. You can't afford to fuck this up! Get a grip!

   "I'm alive," Starsky continued, as Hutch examined the face he knew so well. "Alive, healthy, all in one piece--and hungry as hell. So, we're gonna eat. Here. You gotta do this, Hutch. Do it for me, if for no better reason."

   You bastard, Hutch thought at him, livid. You know just how to play me. It scared him that Starsky had that kind of leverage over him. It was worse since the shooting, too, and it had been bad enough before. Hutch wet his mouth, forced words out, whether they made sense or not. "Let's go back to my place. I can make us eggs. You said I shouldn't let you talk me out of making eggs for us the next time I wanted to." Too late he realized he didn't even have eggs at home.

   The hand in his hair loosened, released him, then stroked the back of his head tenderly. "You gotta trust me, Hutch. We need to do this."

   And just like always, Hutch fell into those bottomless blue eyes and gave up. He heard his mouth say, "Okay, Starsk. If that's what you want."

   What a sap! What a pushover! Hutch castigated himself. If he asked you to jump off a bridge, would you do it? He blinked, as Starsky favored him with a grin and realized, Probably. If he'd smile like that as I was going down.

   Starsky reached into the Torino's back seat, snagging something. "It's pourin' out, buddy. Wear your raincoat." He tossed the garment into Hutch's lap, making his stomach lurch.

   His raincoat? He hadn't seen this since that night. Didn't care if he'd ever see it again. He'd used it to cover Starsky as his partner lay shivering and bleeding from the two gunshot wounds inflicted on him by hired killers waiting to assassinate a crime lord scheduled to eat at the restaurant. Now he looked at the thing as if were some kind of repellent slime creature from one of Starsky's favorite horror movies. All cleaned and pressed. Not a trace of Starsky's blood on it anywhere. Had he only imagined the lining smeared red, sticky with Starsky's life essence? He'd had so much trouble getting the bleeding to stop--

   "The owner of the restaurant gave it to me last time I was here," Starsky explained matter-of-factly. "I had it cleaned. Thought you'd need it again sometime."

   I'll give it to the Salvation Army. At least someone will get some use out of it. I'll never wear it again. Throwing the coat in the back seat, he exited the car into the rain without a backward glance. Starsky pulled up the collar of his own worn bomber jacket and was out of the car and at Hutch's side in a second as they both dashed through the rain into the restaurant, much as they had that night.

   Starsky's right, Hutch told himself forcefully. It's just a restaurant. Just a simple restaurant. But as they jogged through the front door and shook some of the rain from their hair and hands, he knew that wasn't true.

   He looked around the place as they stepped inside. It was late, but it was a Friday and there were still a handful of patrons working on half-eaten meals. The rustic wooden tables and chairs were exactly the same as when he last was here, as was the old-fashioned mahogany bar, the octagonal, gold-trimmed clock that he'd watch tick valuable seconds away that night, the blue paint on the walls, the tablecloths--

   No, he thought in surprise, the tablecloths are different. They were classic red and white check patterns before, not blue like this. A dark indigo blue, with blue napkins. A blue crystal votive candle holder sat on each table--replacing the red ones that'd been here before. They cast a romantic glow over the rich-colored cloth. He decided to focus on the differences; maybe that would get him through the evening.

   Starsky took him by the elbow, cheerful, nearly bouncing in place, just like he had that night. "You're gonna thank me for this, Hutch. You'll see. A nice dinner, a quiet evening, just the two of us, it'll make you forget all about that night. We'll be able to put it behind us at last." Without an ounce of subtlety, Starsky led Hutch to the same table they'd sat at that night, before everything went so horribly wrong.

   Hutch just let him, his sense of foreboding screaming at him to grab his partner, get out, get out, get out! His feet felt like they were made of lead. He sank into the seat, glancing around warily, examining the face of the few diners who were paying them no mind at all. Then, remembering something, he turned too quickly and stared at the bar.

   "She's not here, Hutch, you know that," Starsky murmured.

   Hutch nodded. No, of course not. Teresa was part of the FBI's witness protection program now. The waitress who had helped set up the gangland hit that had involved the two cops and the other innocent diners that night now had a new name, a new home, a new job. That night, she'd made amends for conspiring to commit murder with the help she'd given Hutch, both with the wounded Starsky, and with helping Hutch get a gun and some ammo. Distractedly, he wondered if the restaurant owner still kept a clip of bullets in the cash register and a pistol hidden in the napkins stored beneath it.

   "Detective Starsky!" a mature woman's voice exclaimed, making Hutch jump.

   Will you stop being so damned twitchy! he scolded himself, as he turned to see a matronly woman hovering over his partner. She was short, a bit stout, with a wide, friendly face and smiling eyes. She leaned down and planted a kiss on Starsky's cheek, and he grinned up at her happily, patting the plump hand that squeezed his shoulder.

   "Maria, how are you?" Starsky said, clearly delighted to see her. "I want you to meet--"

   "Oh, you don't have to tell me," Maria chided him. "This is your partner. Detective Hutchinson. I'm so pleased to meet you." She moved between the two men, patting Hutch's shoulder pleasantly. "No, don't get up," she insisted as he started to rise in greeting. "You're our guest here, Detective Hutchinson. And we couldn't be happier that Detective Starsky--"

   "Maria, please," Starsky insisted, "I told you. Call me Dave. And this is Hutch."

   "--finally brought you by to see us, Detective Hutchinson," Maria continued, ignoring Starsky. "It's an honor to have you here."

   To his surprise, he found he was touched by the woman's short declaration. She won't call us by anything but our honorifics, he realized. It wouldn't be respectful in her opinion. And she feels it's important to offer us that respect.

   "Maria's family owns this restaurant," Starsky explained to his partner. "Her father is the cook. Normally, she leaves around nine p.m."

   Hutch nodded. That's why she wasn't here that night. That's why they needed another waitress to handle the later hours.

   "But I stayed late tonight when Detective Starsky called and said you'd be in. I just wanted the chance to meet you. To thank you."

   Hutch blinked stupidly, wondering what she was talking about.

   "If you hadn't been here that night," Maria said to Hutch quietly, so her voice didn't carry to the other patrons, "if you hadn't been so quick thinking, they would've killed my father along with everyone else."

   Hutch realized with a start that he rarely thought about the other people whose lives he'd saved that night. It was incidental to him, really. He'd been so focused, so driven. It was his job to save those people, it wasn't something he expected to be thanked for. And besides--his only true motivation was saving Starsky, and that was the reality of it.

   "Whenever I think about it--" Maria suddenly blinked rapidly, drew in a harsh breath. "Well, let's not talk about that awful night. Tonight we celebrate. Isn't that right, Detective Starsky?"

   "That's right, Maria," he agreed as she leaned down to kiss his cheek again like an indulgent aunt fussing over her favorite nephew. People got that way over Starsky, treated him so much more familiarly than they ever would with the more reserved Hutchinson. Part of Hutch envied Starsky that aura of warmth he could exude almost at will.

   "And we're ready to celebrate," Starsky assured her. "We're both starved. Look at Hutch's eyes; they flash a beautiful blue when he's hungry!"

   "Wonderful!" Maria exclaimed, as Hutch shot his partner a warning glance. "You should know by now not to come here without your appetite! Just sit and enjoy yourselves." She beamed at Hutch again. "We're just so happy to be able to serve you, Detective."

   Before he could reply, she was gone, bustling her way back into the kitchen. Hutch raised an eyebrow in surprise. "She didn't bring us a menu."

   "No menus tonight, buddy," Starsky said, positively beaming at him. "Tonight's special. They've been waitin' to serve you for a long time. Hey--wanna play the juke box?"

   "Are you kidding me?" Hutch glared at him. One of the hired hit men had gotten the drop on him while he stood over the juke box picking selections as Starsky had availed himself of the men's room. "Look, I'm here, okay? And I'm dealing with it. But don't expect me to recreate every special moment, partner."

   Starsky shrugged and glanced over his shoulder toward the rest rooms, but as he started to scoot his chair back, Hutch hissed, "No, you don't. You used the men's room just before we left the precinct, so just plant your ass in that chair and stay put. I'm gettin' a little tired of all this amateur therapy!"

   "Okay, fine," Starsky said, grinning slyly, his eyes twinkling naughtily. "I'll ask permission to use the potty next time. You wanna come hold it for me and cover my back when I go?"

   Hutch felt himself blush violently from head to toe and his tongue suddenly felt like it belonged to someone else, someone who'd never learned to speak. Is he toying with me? Hutch thought wildly, then slapped himself mentally. Quit fantasizing, Hutchinson. This is your partner, Starsky. Macho, studly Starsky, slayer of hearts and lay-er of women.

   Then Maria bustled back out of the kitchen with a huge tray, sparing him the need to respond. Expertly, she opened a tray platform and settled the tray beside them. "Your first course, gentlemen," she announced, deftly delivering warm, fragrant bread, tidy salads of mixed greens with a light dressing, and a dish of crudités for them to share. She presented them with clear crystal wine glasses, then uncorked a dark bottle.

   "This is our finest vina de casa," she told the men. "It's not usually available to our customers. We make it just for our family."

   She presented the cork to Hutch, and he sniffed it, surprised at its heady bouquet. Then she poured a sample into his glass. He took it, swirled it for a moment, then sniffed and tasted it. The flavor bloomed in his mouth, delighting his taste buds, making him salivate. For the first time since they'd pulled up in front of the restaurant, he felt truly hungry. Maria hovered over him, expectantly.

   "This is wonderful!" he assured her honestly. He held his glass out and she filled it, beaming, then filled Starsky's. His partner looked as pleased as if he'd stomped the grapes himself.

   "My brothers make the wine," she told them as they both drank some more. "The recipe has been in our family for generations. We'll send a bottle home with you. As far as we're concerned, you're part of the family."

   Then she was gone, leaving them with their food and the fine wine.

   "Good stuff, huh, partner?" Starsky prodded, nearly gloating.

   Hutch nodded, smiling wryly. "Great stuff. And she's a nice lady."

   "They're good people, Hutch," Starsky told him, tearing off a hunk of bread. "And they think you're a saint for what you did that night. 'Course, I tried to disavow them of that notion. I mean, you would'a never pulled it off without me throwin' that water pitcher an' stuff, but there's no reasonin' with 'em. Hutch, Hutch, Hutch. That's all I ever hear."

   "Oh, shut up and eat, clown," Hutch grumbled, but Starsky would know he was pleased. He found himself relaxing in spite of his misgivings, and started on his food.

   "Glad to see you've got your appetite back," Starsky muttered around a mouthful of salad.

   "I couldn't insult these people by not eating their food," Hutch insisted, as if that were the only reason he was filling his face. "Not when it clearly means so much to them."

   "Yeah," Starsky said, grinning. "My partner, the saint."

   The salad was followed by a small portion of the lightest, most delicately flavored fetticine Alfredo Hutch had ever eaten. Then the main course came out--veal picata for Hutch and linguine with clams for Starsky. The meals they'd ordered from Teresa that night that they'd never gotten to eat.

   Maria was in and out of the kitchen to serve them, making sure there was nothing they might want that she didn't provide, yet allowing them the time to interact privately. Hutch was amazed, but as the time slipped away with good food, good wine, and the good company of the one human being he trusted implicitly, he found himself really grateful that Starsky had insisted they come here. The only thing that still galled him was that Starsky clearly knew it. He wore that damned smug expression all through the meal and kept up a constant commentary on how wonderful the food was, how great the atmosphere was, how sweet Maria and her family were and how nice they'd been to him when he'd come here without Hutch.

   And any time Hutch's attention would wander--like when his eyes would stray toward the door of the office where Starsky had lain, wounded, bleeding, possibly dying--Starsky would touch Hutch's foot with his sneakered toe, or brush his hand against Hutch to remove some imaginary lint from his navy blue knit shirt, or deliberately mangle a word so Hutch would have to correct him. Almost as if he can't stand to have me pay attention to anything but him.

   At one point, when the meal was drawing to a close, and Hutch's attention had once again wandered, Starsky recaptured it with the provocative statement, "You know your eyes really do flash."

   Hutch glanced back at him immediately, and then was annoyed that he had, since that was simply what his friend had wanted.

   The toying Starsky smirk was firmly in place. "M'not kiddin'. When you're pissed--'specially at me--when you're worried, stressed out--they flash like two blue crystals. Been flashing so much since we got in here, they look like two blue Mars lights. Or maybe the reflection of the tablecloth and the blue glass candle just makes them seem more sparkly. Or something."

   Hutch was dumbfounded. What was this--Starsky's idea of romantic banter? Or was he mocking Hutch's feelings? He was just about to snap back an irritable retort when Starsky cut him off.

   "Uh-oh. I guess I really did it now. They're flashin' like pinwheels, partner. You really oughta wear shades more often." Starsky sopped up tomato sauce with a piece of bread and watched Hutch struggle with a response that would not come. "I'm just razzing you for fun, Hutch. Don't get mad. You really do have beautiful eyes."

   Hutch clamped his mouth shut then forced his mind back to reality, the reality of who Starsky was, what he was, how things really were. Detective Sergeant David Starsky. Who can bounce a bullet off his skull and still make jokes. Macho cop. Man's man. Lay-er of beautiful women. Slayer of hearts. Including mine.

   Hutch stared at his plate and the remains of his demolished food and tried to get a grip on his erratic emotions.

   "Can I go to the bathroom now, Daddy?" Starsky said softly, so only Hutch could hear. "Or would you like to come with me and give me a helping hand?"

   Hutch's eyes snapped up guiltily and he flushed as if Starsky had read his mind. His indigo eyes twinkled with amusement as Hutch squirmed under the pressure of his own traitorous thoughts. He almost blurted that Starsky was a big boy and could handle himself without help, but then thought better of saying anything that could be taken more than one way.

   "You're on your own, Starsk," he finally managed to say. "I've had the 'pleasure' of sharing bathrooms with you often enough to know it's a delight better relished in the missing of it."

   "Is that a 'no'?" Starsky asked, pretending, as he liked to do, that he didn't understand the complicated sentence.

   "That's a no," Hutch said simply, and smiled.

   Starsky cocked his head to one side, looking almost flirtatious. "Gee, Hutch, I think I'm disappointed." Then he was out of the chair and off to the rest room before Hutch could frame a thought.

   He is toying with me, he thought, sweat breaking on his brow.

   No, that was crazy. It was just Starsky's usual banter. He'd always been like that with Hutch, making flirtatious remarks, like telling him how his eyes flashed beautifully when he was angry, or referring to his blondness, his good looks, calling him "big boy" in a Mae West imitation that was every bit as bad as his Bogart. He'd been doing it for years, ever since they met at the Academy. Hutch realized that Starsky had to be the most confident man he knew, making remarks to his good-looking partner that would appall most men--men not nearly as secure in their masculinity. After all these years, Hutch would have to be crazy to start attributing meanings to those remarks that had never been there before.

   But, probably because of where he was right now, he couldn't help but remember back to that terrible night when so much changed--at least for Hutch.

   Starsky came out of the men's room and realized instantly what was going down as Hutch stood helpless, already disarmed, with one hit man covering him, and the other ready to deal with Starsky. Hutch had hoped that Starsky could get the drop on the one facing him. He was fast enough with his gun and his reaction time was better than any cop Hutch knew. But at the one single moment that Starsky might've pulled his weapon and feinted to the side to get in a clear shot, Teresa had come out of the kitchen with food, and like the good cop he was, Starsky moved to get her out of the line of fire. Shoving her back into the kitchen, Starsky had been creased across the head by the hit man's first shot, while the second bullet went through his left shoulder. Hutch could still see him spinning as the shots slammed him around and tossed him onto an empty food tray; he could hear the clatter of the tray as it and Starsky landed hard on the floor. Hutch had moved instantly to go to Starsky's side, as both hit man turned on him, ready to kill him if he budged. He hadn't backed down, couldn't back down, and argued them into letting him tend to his partner.

   Thinking back on it, he realized now how lucky he was. They could've just killed him and tossed him out the back door instead of letting him help Starsky. Instead, they allowed him to carry his friend into the back office, where Hutch had settled his severely wounded friend on the couch and tried to take care of him. He could still feel Starsky's nearly dead weight in his arms, the sickening panic he felt as he realized just how bad Starsky was hurt, how he had to keep his act together to get them out of the mess they were in. And he could still feel Starsky grabbing him, almost compulsively wanting to maintain a physical contact with him, as though by touching Hutch he could cling to life, to the now, and keep breathing, keep living. Hutch had found himself with the same craving to touch and hold and embrace this man who meant so much to him.

   Hutch stared at his plate, remembering.

   And every time Starsky had touched him--stroking his face, rubbing his thigh, pulling him close, once even accidentally bumping his groin with a hand that couldn't really feel anything--Hutch felt his body respond wildly, as if he were being hit with a cattle prod. He kept telling himself it was just the adrenaline rush of the moment, the pressure of combat conditions as Starsky sometimes referred to moments like that when they were facing down the heart of darkness together.

   But finally, it was all over. Many hours later, Hutch sat in the dimly lit recovery room with his unconscious partner. The doctors had cleaned and debrided the bullet wound and inserted drains and who-knows-what-all into his partner's shoulder. It was nearly dawn, and Dobey and the other cops had all finally gone home. All those hours after the shooting, when it was just the two of them, Hutch had walked silently to his friend's bedside and let the relief crash over him like a tsunami of feeling. He touched Starsky's face as gently as if caressing a sleeping baby, running fingertips over the bandaged head wound, then over his stubbled cheeks, his strong jaw, his chin, the familiar moles, and finally his full mouth partially opened in sleep. He felt as guilty about it as if he'd been touching him sexually, but he couldn't stop. He talked softly to his sleeping partner, and finally just let his tears fall unheeded, confessing his terrible truth.

   Life, work, it all would've meant nothing without you partner, he'd told the unconscious Starsky that night. Not a fucking thing. It would've been empty, just a big void, a giant, fat nothing without you. Without you. Oh, god, Starsky, don't you ever dare die on me. Not now, not ever. I love you. I'm in love with you. I don't know when it happened, or how, and I can't believe it myself, but it's true. I love you, partner.

   And he'd leaned down and, as gently as he could, kissed Starsky's parted lips, feeling his heart, his body drowning in a hunger, a passion the likes of which he'd never experienced before. Then he finally pulled himself together and sat beside the bed, holding onto Starsky's right hand, since his left side was the injured one, and waited for his partner to wake up and tried to figure out how he would feign normalcy when he did.

   About a half an hour later, Starsky had stirred, squeezed his hand, smiled, then muttered, half-drugged, "I love you, too, Hutch." It had chilled the blood in his veins. Starsky went back to sleep almost instantly, while Hutch sat there staring, too terrified to move.

   He'd asked one of the doctors later if people under anesthesia could hear people talking to them, and the doctor had been vague enough to rattle Hutch thoroughly. But finally, when Starsky really came around, he'd seemed his old self, and said nothing about Hutch's open-hearted confession. And life went back to normal. As normal as it had ever been, or could ever be after what they'd been through.

   Except it seemed to Hutch at times that Starsky's flirtatious innuendoes had tripled in frequency and pointedness. That he touched him more often. That he wanted them to spend even more time together if that was even possible.

   Unless the whole thing is in my imagination, that I'm seeing what I want to see. Unless all it's been is Starsky's version of "therapy"--his way of getting me over the trauma of the shooting. Unless--unless he really heard me that night. Unless he feels the same way--

   He closed his eyes. Without intending to, he fell into the fantasy that haunted half of his waking hours and most of his sleeping ones. The fantasy of what it would be like between them--

   --their touching as smooth, as coordinated, as their work on the street, each knowing what the other wanted, what the other needed, without having to speak, without having to negotiate. Hutch loving Starsky with gentleness and a man's strength, and Starsky permitting it. And always, in the fantasy, was the tantalizing image of Starsky on his stomach, looking over his shoulder, his deep blue eyes liquid with wanting, with anticipation, as Hutch slid onto his back--

   That was impossible. Impossible.

   He repeated that word slowly to himself over and over. Until he sensed the presence of someone standing by his shoulder and looked up into the face of a man he recognized instantly and wished he didn't.

   The gangland boss Vic Monte stood silently beside Hutch, two huge men standing slightly beside and behind him, hands surreptitiously hovering close enough to their weapons to keep Hutch from going for his. Hutch realized with a sickening rush that the rest of the restaurant was empty.

   Without moving his head, or revealing his own panicked inner state, Hutch spied the time on the octagonal clock. Midnight. When Vic Monte comes to dine. And then he glanced towards the rest room from where his partner would soon exit.

   No, he thought desperately, this can't be happening. Not again.

   "Good evening, Detective Hutchinson," Monte's gravelly voice greeted him. "Please, don't get up." It was an order, not a request. The short, balding Italian man who was the head of one of the largest crime families in the country slid into an empty seat at the table for four. Hutch struggled to keep his face calm even as he counted the seconds to his partner's entrance. A drop of sweat slid down his side creating an unbearable itch, but he didn't dare react. "Try to relax, Detective. This is a business call. As they say on Star Trek, we come in peace."

   "It won't look that way to my partner," Hutch murmured.

   "He's your partner," Monte said reasonably. "I expect you to reassure him. My men are here to protect me, nothing else."

   "Then tell them to back off," Hutch insisted. "Starsky sees them hovering over me, especially in this place--"

   He didn't have to finish the sentence. Monte said something clipped in Italian and the two beeves moved away, sitting at a corner table, where they could still do their jobs, but didn't appear nearly so threatening. Almost like normal diners, Hutch thought, fighting the urge to laugh hysterically. Normal diners topping six foot five, weighing in at two sixty and packing enough heat to wage a small scale war.

   No sooner had the two guardians been seated than Starsky entered the scene. He froze instantly, his hand moving imperceptibly towards his weapon.

   Hutch stood, held up his hand, called, "It's okay! Starsk, wait!" He knew everything about his face, his body would tell his partner nothing was all right, but he prayed Starsky would listen and not react instinctively.

   "Detective Starsky," Monte said clearly, "please come join us. I wish to discuss business with you and your partner."

   Hutch watched as Starsky's body showed conflicting reactions--he clearly wanted to move to Hutch's side at the same time he wanted to get into a position to draw his weapon and protect himself. Hutch knew the feeling. It was the same reaction he'd had as he'd watched Starsky get shot.

   And for the second time I let them just walk right up to me, Hutch thought disgustedly.

   Then Starsky's body collected itself, as Hutch had watched it do countless times before. Holding his arms away from his sides so that no one could misinterpret his actions, Starsky moved toward them on the balls of his feet, using that same, tense, cat-like glide he always did when sneaking up on his prey. His eyes were narrowed. But this time he wasn't smiling.

   "Have a seat, Detective," Monte bid graciously. "We need to talk."

   Starsky slid into his chair, keeping his hands in sight. As soon as he did, he pressed his sneakered foot over Hutch's booted one. For Hutch, the contact was electric, and he suddenly felt transformed. It was as if Starsky had suddenly murmured to him, Take it easy, partner. We got work to do.

   Their eyes met for the briefest contact, then slid back to the criminal sitting between them.

   As they did, Maria exited the kitchen. Hutch tensed, remembering how disastrous Teresa's appearance had been for Starsky. But Maria barely hesitated as she spied Monte at their table. Carrying a tray, she approached and with business-like efficiency began clearing away the dirty dishes.

   "Mr. Monte," she said, her voice disapproving, "you promised you wouldn't do this."

   "Maria," Monte said softly, clearly wanting to mollify the woman, which surprised Hutch, "I have always kept my word to you before. But the situation has changed since I discussed this with you last. I must speak to these men, tonight. I'm sorry to use your restaurant, but approaching them on the street seemed--unwise."

   She muttered something in Italian, and Hutch thought it involved something like "using a telephone," but he wasn't sure.

   "We won't be here long, Maria," Monte assured her. "You can serve dessert after we're gone." He was dismissing her, and she took the hint and left, but not before glancing at both cops, her face full of apology. Hutch touched her hand lightly to reassure her, then she went back into the kitchen.

   "So, what's the business?" Starsky said in a low tone when the woman was gone.

   "Three months ago," Monte said without preamble, "you were both nearly killed in this restaurant by contract killers who had come to hit me. You saved my life that night."

   "That wasn't our concern, Mr. Monte," Hutch told him.

   "I'm sure it wasn't, Detective," Monte agreed, "but still, that is what happened. It puts me in your debt. And I'm not comfortable being in debt to two cops."

   There was no point, Hutch knew, in telling the gangster that they didn't recognize the debt. It was a point of honor with the man, who, like most of the underworld, followed his own exacting code of behavior. If Monte felt the debt, then so would his peers.

   "So, I've come to make you an offer to even the ledger," Monte offered.

   "Maybe you ain't heard about me and Hutch," Starsky said quietly. "We don't make deals."

   "Who don't know that?" Monte said with a short laugh. "You two are notorious. No deals. No kickbacks. Two little choir boys. Yeah, I know all about you. The only pockets you're in are each other's."

   Hutch froze and didn't dare look at his partner.

   "It's not a deal, Detective Starsky," Monte assured him. "Not a payoff. It's a trade. The little waitress you guys spirited out of here, that Teresa, the one my enemies used to set me up--her brother had been killed, remember?"

   They nodded.

   "They told Teresa I'd ordered that hit. That was why she was willing to set me up."

   "That," Hutch agreed, "and the fact that they threatened to kill her mother if she didn't."

   "Exactly," Monte said. "Men like that, who would kill a young girl's mother to force her hand, those men have no honor. Men who would do such a thing would not hesitate to kill someone working for me and put the blame on me."

   Yes, thought Hutch, that makes sense. The whole thing had been a huge power play anyway, to wrest Vic Monte's kingdom away from him.

   "In the old days," Monte went on, "there would be war over what happened in this restaurant, but because you were here that night, because you saved my life, and I owe you a debt of honor, I have decided to handle this matter a different way."

   Then Monte looked Starsky in the eye and said, "I am unarmed, Detective. Allow me to reach for something in my pocket."

   Without blinking, Starsky nodded his head once. It surprised Hutch that Monte knew enough about them to know Starsky had the faster reaction time of the two. Monte reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a small notebook. He opened the book and slid it in front of Hutch.

   Okay. Monte's decided Starsky's the gun; I'm the brains. Hutch glanced over the book without touching it. It had names, dates, addresses, phone numbers, cryptic notes. Hutch blinked. It was valuable information, incredibly valuable, all about Monte's enemies, the men who'd forced Teresa to do their bidding. There was information about illegal gambling operations, prostitution rings--but more importantly, there was information on contracted hits, murders that had been committed that were impossible to solve. Hutch felt his mouth water. Still, he didn't touch the book. He looked up, caught Starsky's glance, then sat back.

   "By itself," Monte went on, "the book has limited value. Therefore, I'm offering you the services of a translator." He flipped the book to the back. In what Hutch assumed was Monte's own scrawl was the name of a man, an address, and a phone number. "This is one of my lieutenants. He has been instructed to cooperate with you regarding the contents of this book. He will not answer any questions involving any aspect of my businesses, only in regards to this book. But the information he will give you will be sufficient. He will testify in court. He is a lawyer, and is a respected, reputable man."

   "Mr. Monte," Hutch said, looking for the worm in the apple, "this is an interesting offer, but--a rather odd one. In the old days, what you are offering us would be considered a betrayal of your own honor system. It would have left you open to action by your peers. How can you violate your own code to offer us this?"

   "The old days are dead," Monte said, disgustedly. "Men today know nothing of honor, of respect, of hard work, of loyalty. You men know of these things. Honest cops whose loyalty to each other is known on the streets. The men I am giving you are parasites. I've consulted with other family members and have the support of my people. This will avoid war, yet dispose of these men, and pay off my debt to you. Once you accept the book, the slate is clean. And we can go back to our respective corners as honorable adversaries once more."

   "The balance will be restored," Starsky said simply.

   "Exactly," Monte told him.

   "If your lieutenant testifies for us," Hutch said, wanting to be sure of every issue, "then he'll become useless to you. He'll have to go into protective custody."

   "I understand that," Monte assured him. "He understands that as well. It is part of the price of the debt. My life is very valuable to me."

   They exchanged a glance. Starsky gave him a nearly imperceptible nod. "I'll take the book," Hutch agreed, placing his hand upon it finally, "but I won't consider it as anything valuable until I talk to your lieutenant."

   "He's waiting," Monte told him. "He's ready to go with you." Monte stood, and his muscle stood with him. "Good luck to you, gentlemen. You've got your work cut out for you."

   They watched the gangster leave the restaurant with his escorts, and watched as he stepped into his limousine and was driven away. The minute the car was out of sight, the two partners scooted next to each other and started flipping through the book.

   "So, who'd'ya think he bumped to get his hands on this book?" Starsky wondered, as they examined the pages.

   "Probably the counterpart to the lieutenant who's waiting for us," Hutch decided as he scanned the wealth of information in their hand. "This stuff is incredible, Starsk. Look at the stuff on Joe Calabrisi. Names. Dates. Places."

   "I'm gettin' a hard-on over it, Hutch," Starsky muttered, grinning. Then he paused and stared at his partner.

   "What?" Hutch asked, puzzled by his rapid change in expression.

   "There goes our weekend," Starsky said regretfully. "This thing's gonna keep us busy for days."

   Hutch felt the same regret. When Monte had first walked in and Hutch had anticipated a horrible replay of their last shoot-out in this restaurant, he realized just how much he would lose if anything happened to either him or Starsky before he'd had a chance to discuss his chaotic feelings with his partner. It might be disastrous he knew, it risked their very partnership, but if anything had happened tonight to either of them, Hutch would've regretted his silence for the rest of his life--or eternity, if that were what he'd been left with.

   "Or maybe not," Starsky muttered suddenly.

   "What?" Hutch asked, not following his partner's often rambling thought processes.

   "Look," Starsky said, "It's twelve-thirty. We could call Dobey from the car, give him the lowdown, then go pick up this guy. Dobey can call the feds, arrange to get the lieutenant transferred to a secure facility, and let them start the ball rolling. There gonna have to secure arrest and search warrants, get hold of judges and stuff--all of which is hard to do on weekends. Let them slog through the system. We can take a few days, come back fresh on Monday, and start workin' on the busts."

   Hutch stared into his darkened eyes. This wasn't like Starsky, willing to hand a coup like this over to the feds and other cops. Usually he preferred they do all the dirty work themselves. "You really wanna do that?"

   "We need this time, Hutch, you and me," Starsky said seriously. "We got some stuff to resolve. It's important. It's important that this book gets processed, that these scumbags get what's comin' to 'em. Still, this time for us is just as important. But you get a vote, too, partner. You wanna deal with this all the way through, I'll go along with it. But I'd rather try and carve out a few hours for us, too."

   Hutch swallowed, suddenly feeling more panicky than he had when he realized that Vic Monte had taken him by surprise. Even though moments before he'd longed for just this kind on confrontation with Starsky, that was when he'd believed it would not come to pass. Now that Starsky had found the solution to their time crunch, the true import of what they might be preparing to discuss hit Hutch hard.

   Then Starsky rattled his cage even more by asking, "Don't get mad, Hutch, but you've been so jumpy all night--how the hell did Monte just come up on you like that?"

   He felt the blood drain from his face and realized with sickening clarity that he was no where near ready to confront Starsky with his honest feelings, never mind the raw desire that ate at him. He came up on me when I was day-dreaming about an impossible dream--a future with you that can never be.

   Before he could say anything, Maria came out of the kitchen. This time, her father was with her.

   "I'm so sorry," she said, placing a cannoli in front of both men. "My father is beside himself with worry. He's afraid you will never return to our restaurant because of Vic Monte."

   Hutch remembered that the old man had limited English skills. "Tell your father not to worry about that. I promise we'll return and soon. Tell him the food was the best I've ever had."

   She repeated the information to the old man in Italian and he beamed, grasping Hutch's hand and pumping it furiously.

   "Maria," Starsky interjected, "your cannoli's are to die for, but we gotta get back to work. Can you wrap them for us, and bring us the check?"

   "What check?" she said sharply. "Don't insult us! Of course, I'll wrap the cannoli's--if you promise to eat them tonight. Cannoli's don't keep. And I'll bring you a bottle of wine."

   Starsky kissed her cheek as she scooped up the deserts to take away. "We'll be back next week, Maria. Cross my heart."

   "Only the devil crosses his heart," she chided playfully. "But I see him dancing in your eyes, Detective Starsky, so I'm not surprised."

   She and her father returned to the kitchen as the two detectives collected the book and prepared to leave. The waitress returned shortly with their food packaged, and the wine bottle wrapped in brown paper. She gave Starsky a hug and a kiss, then did the same for Hutch. He wondered briefly if he'd be seeing her again or if things would change so drastically between them that Starsky would be coming back alone.