Originally published in the zine "Blue Eyes and Blue Jeans II", 1996, by The Idiot Triplets Press. This zine is still in print and available from LCabrillo@aol.com. Retyped by Kathy Windrain, proofed by SHaron. Comments on this story can be sent to flamingoslim@erols.com who will forward them to the author.

The Salt Point
Isabel Ortiz


In Upstate New York, the salt point is where the fresh water of the Hudson River turns salty, where it meets and commingles with the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It is an elusive place with constantly shifting parameters, a place whose boundaries are impossible to fix as fresh water and salt water merge, blending together in a unique and mutual redefinition

The oppressive heat wave had suddenly and miraculously broken, leaving the somber day gently washed with sunshine from a cloudless sky. A slight breeze rustled the leaves of the large eucalyptus and jacaranda trees that appropriately shadowed the grave site, allowing only bits of brilliance to dapple the lush grass underfoot and the nearby gray stones and markers.

The moving leaves cast dancing shadows upon the mourners gathered there. Although hundreds had been present at the funeral mass, and even more were expected to attend the memorial service the department was planning, Margaret Blaine had specifically requested that the actual interment of her husband's body be a more private, intimate event. Even so, the group was large and Hutch once again found himself marveling at the impact this one human life had on so many others to be so revered. He tried to concentrate on the words the priest was saying, but words of the Catholic rite seemed trite, nearly meaningless by comparison. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and sighed, hoping that his tingling right leg would not go completely asleep. Beside him, his partner turned, giving a quizzical look that broke through the sad, serious expression he'd been wearing all morning. Hutch responded to the unvoiced question with a shrug and a discreet whisper. "Leg's going to sleep." Starsky nodded and turned his attention back to the priest, who was now sprinkling holy water over the flag-draped casket.

Hutch kept one eye on the priest and the other on his friend. He took in the tense set of his shoulders, the slight trembling of his hands as they rested lightly on the back of the wood folding chair that Maggie occupied, reaching up now and again to touch her shoulder or stroke her arm, and wondered for perhaps the hundredth time that morning how Starsky was feeling, really. Hutch had lost a valued colleague and a good friend, and felt the loss keenly, but Starsky's own loss was of a much greater magnitude. John Blaine had been not only his mentor, but his second father, his steadying compass throughout the disorienting, tempestuous storm of his adolescence and young adulthood. Hutch knew that if it hadn't been for John Blaine, Starsky might not have even survived his troubled youth and most certainly would not be the police officer he was, standing here beside him, his partner and best friend. A wave of emotion overcame his at that moment as he realized, for the first time, that he owed Starsky's very presence in his life to the man they had gathered to bury.

He closed his eyes momentarily against the threat of tears and saw again in his mind's eye the photograph from Blaine's mantle of a young David Starsky hamming it up for the camera, bloody nose and all. Thanks, John ... he whispered mentally, unable to conceive of his own life without Starsky in it. It was then that he felt the familiar hand reach to squeeze his, offering silent comfort, understanding, and acceptance. He opened his still-bright eyes to find Starsky's looking at him with grave affection and returned the pressure, signaling acknowledgement and gratitude. Starsky's eyes, unlike his own, were always publicly dry, yet he never made Hutch feel that his demonstrativeness was any sort of weakness. Another wave of gratitude and love coursed through him and he gave Starsky's hand a final squeeze before letting go to surreptitiously wipe at his damp eyes. He regretted its loss even as he acknowledged wryly that, given the circumstances, it probably wasn't the time or place for such contact.

But why the hell not? He felt annoyance flare within. Jesus Christ, if you couldn't cry and reach out to touch your best friend at a funeral, then just when and where were you supposed to? But this funeral's different ...This is a homosexual's funeral ...For a moment he allowed himself to hate the department, IA, society, anyone and everyone who could ever consider this man's integrity and strength of character tarnished by the revelation of his sexual orientation. He'd heard more than once, "What a shame . . ." and "What a tragedy ...", and not spoken in reference to the simple fact of John's demise. As far as Hutch was concerned, the tragedy was that of potential unfulfilled, possibilities lost. The tragedy was that John had been forced to live a lie, to hide, denied the opportunity taken for granted by so many to have both the career and the lifestyle of his choosing. He simply couldn't have both, and he'd been forced to live with that knowledge, bear the weight of the consequences. Were you very unhappy, John?

Tragedy, too, for Maggie, who had probably loved her husband enough to have been able to let him go, if only ...If things had been different, could she, too, have been happier? Could she have found someone to complete her life in a way that John simply could not? Hutch watched her attempt a watery smile as she accepted Starsky's offer of a dry handkerchief. Her grief was deep and real no matter the circumstances, Hutch reflected, watching her return the damp and soiled hanky she'd been holding to a small black purse resting on her lap.

Hutch was suddenly aware that the priest had stopped speaking. He glanced around him, squinting against a ray of sunlight that had shifted to land directly in his eyes. He watched the uniformed officers take up their positions in a close rank, hefting their rifles to their shoulders at the appropriate command in order to discharge the tributary salute. Beside him Starsky drew up straight and tall, lifting his head and squaring his shoulders to better honor the man who had meant so much to him. Hutch felt unaccountably moved by the gesture, for some reason proud of the man next to him who had held himself up throughout the day with such respectful dignity. Hutch knew Starsky's own gentle heart to be quietly breaking, yet he had stood by Maggie, the only son she'd ever known, giving her the support and comfort that Hutch knew he needed himself, and wanted to provide for him.

An order was barked and the first round of sharp rifle fire reverberated through the air. Startled, a flock of sparrows rose up from a nearby tree, fleeing the unexpected noise. Hutch heard their squawks of protest, followed their flight as they sought different shelter, and as he watched them wondered if his own heart could ever feel as light. Another round of fire, then another, and then the flag was being crisply folded and Chief of Police Daniel Mulrooney was solemnly placing it in Maggie's small, steady hands. She calmly and graciously accepted his offering and his softly murmured words as the casket was lowered into the ground. It was over.

People began to disperse, some heading directly to their cars, others stopping to speak softly with one another in small groups, to express condolences and exchange embraces with each other, and with Maggie. Starsky remained at her side, a resolute presence, stalwart support, and Hutch remained at his. It was where they both belonged. Suddenly Starsky turned to face his partner and laid a hand briefly on his arm. "Stay with her," came the urgent request, and then his partner was gone, shouldering his way past a group of fellow officers and weaving around others, strangers, who were making their own way towards the group gathered around Maggie. He moved quickly, not quite jogging, towards the row of cars parked along the winding cemetery drive.

Hutch could hardly believe his eyes when he saw, finally, what had caught his friend's eye, commanded his attention. He had seen Peter Whitelaw at the funeral service, keeping a discreet and respectful distance from the main corps of mourners, but had not realized that he'd accompanied them to the cemetery as well. Keeping back, avoiding undue attention ...Understandable, out of respect for Maggie. Hutch didn't know many details about John's relationship with Peter, only that it had been a long-standing one, and that John had evidently been devastated by its loss. What was Peter feeling, to risk coming out here to pay his respects to a secret lover who in life could never have acknowledged his existence? The thought brought Hutch up short. Was that why you broke up? Was it because of John's closet? Hutch looked at Peter Whitelaw in a suddenly different light, and found himself admiring the man's courage to have come to the last place he would be wanted, as unwelcome as a pariah at a banquet. But how isolated, how lonely ...Everyone else here had others with whom to share the burden of their grief, but Peter stood apart, alone. Is that the way it was for you, too, John? So lonely? Peter had come accompanied by no one, had spoken to no one, had touched no one ...and if it weren't for Starsky hurrying to delay his departure, he would have left that way as well.

Hutch stayed close to Maggie as she spoke in quiet tones to both family and friends, but the lion's share of his attention was focused on the scene playing itself out not fifty feet away. He heard Starsky shout a name, saw Peter turn in surprise in front of his dark blue sedan, his countenance hardening as if preparing himself for a confrontation as Starsky drew near. What's Starsky doing? Hutch wondered. Starsky's back was turned towards him, so Hutch could neither see his face nor hear his words, but he could see Peter's expression metamorphose form blatant mistrust and defiance to obvious surprise. His stance relaxed visibly as he continued to exchange words with Starsky, at one point shaking his head, at another giving a seemingly rueful smile. Hutch saw him shrug his shoulders in a gesture of defeat and then slowly bow his head, and then Hutch was moved simultaneously to shock and gratitude, hope and despair, pride and envy; he watched Starsky reach out to grasp the man's shoulder, then carefully pull him into a brief but tight embrace that was, hesitantly, returned. Hutch had to blink and then double check to make sure that he was really seeing what he thought he was. They pulled out of the embrace, yet Starsky's hand remained resting on Peter's right shoulder and he was saying something to which Peter solemnly nodded as he pulled out his keys.

Hutch tried to sort through his mass of conflicting reactions to the sight. He still couldn't quite believe that he'd just seen Starsky openly and publicly embrace John's gay ex-lover. Starsky, who had been so shocked to discover that John had been gay, who had been so distant upon meeting his long-term lover for the first time, who had been so reluctant to talk about any of his feelings regarding the case in any depth ... Starsky, who couldn't see an injustice without wanting to right it, who couldn't bear to see pain without wanting to take it away, who always, always gave of the best of himself, who had never in all the time that Hutch had known him turned his back on someone who needed his help, who had championed the marginalized, the underdogs, the nobodies ... Starsky, who never ceased to surprise him, who, stubborn as he was, admitted error far more easily than Hutch himself, and had shown himself flexible and adaptable and resilient ... Starsky ...

Hutch was momentarily transported back in time to the nightmare of Lonnie Craig's death, to another gathering of mourners, remembering the quiet pride and admiration he'd felt watching Starsky determinedly take those difficult steps towards the Craig residence, towards the last place he'd been wanted, going forth to face the friends and family of the young boy whose life he had so reluctantly been forced to take. Hutch had watched him go, thinking in that moment that there was no one in the world with more strength and integrity than his partner, and no one he'd ever be more honored to call "friend". It occurred to Hutch that he felt much the same way this morning, watching him talk with Peter - - and also that maybe Starsk and Peter had something in common, at that. ... Each a Daniel in his own lion's den ...

"Ken?" Maggie's voice at his elbow startled him and he turned to face her. He hadn't realized that people had been drifting away, leaving just himself and the Dobeys and Maggie's sister, Louise, standing by the now deserted grave site. "I think we should get going now, people will be expecting us at the restaurant. Have you seen David?"

He glanced backwards and saw Starsky walking back towards them, Peter's Chevrolet Impala receding into the distance. "He's coming right over. I, uh, think he was talking with someone." Hutch didn't think that it would be politic at the moment to be any more forthcoming.

Maggie nodded, clutched the flag tighter, and moved to stand next to the grave, staring into its depths. Hutch saw the workmen out of the corner of his eye, leaning against some nearby trees and smoking, talking - - the same men who, when they all finally left, would take their shovels and cover John's casket, filling the deep cavity with dirt. Dust to dust ...Hutch wished that they would have the decency to not be so obvious in their impatient presence.

He sensed rather than heard Starsky's quiet approach, and turned in greeting even as he felt the hand drop onto his shoulder, accompanied by a tired sigh. He desperately wanted to ask what had transpired between him and Peter, but knew that this was not the time nor place. The hand tightened and Starsky whispered, "I'll tell you later," before moving to stand beside Maggie.

Hutch let him go with a soft touch to his retreating arm and then watched as he put his arms around Maggie, who turned gratefully in his embrace and held on tight. The dark curly head bent over the one resting against his chest and whispered something. Maggie's hold grew even tighter. Everybody gets to hug him today except me ... The uncharacteristically petulant thought came rather quickly, unbidden, and he broke it off rather than pursue it any further. Then, reluctantly, "mother" and "son" turned away from the site for the final time.

The six of them made their way together to the last cars left parked on the drive. No one spoke, no one looked behind, and Hutch wondered if anyone else heard the sound of earth falling onto metal. Goodbye, John ...

With a final wave towards Maggie, standing next to Louise and waving goodbye from the doorway, Hutch pulled the LTD into the street and headed for Starsky's. Next to him his partner loosened his tie with a sigh of relief and closed his eyes, slouching in the seat and letting his head recline against the back. He looks exhausted . . .

"Helluva a day, huh, partner?"

Starsky responded without opening his eyes. "Yep."

They drove in silence for a while and Hutch allowed his thoughts to drift over the past few hours. The brunch at the restaurant hadn't been nearly as bad as he had thought it would be. His somber mood had slowly dispelled over the course of the meal as he found himself sharing memories and stories with others who had known John Blaine. Past cases, nights out, practical jokes ... Yeah, John had always loved a good setup. Even now he smiled to remember his and Blaine's shared laughter at the sight and sound of his ingenuous partner writhing on the ground, smothered and begging to be released from the burlap sock they'd captured him in at the end of the sack race. "Now if we were really cruel, Davey," Blaine had laughed, reaching down to slap the bag, "we'd start to tickle you in there!" "Don't you DARE!" had come the muffled reply between the curses and grunts, and the living burlap had twisted, rolling forcefully away from the threatening hand only to brush against Hutch's leg. Another surprised yelp and yet another blind twist. "I had enough of that years ago! C'mon, guys, lemme out!" They had, eventually, but not until everyone in attendance had had a chance to poke some fun - - literally - - at Starsky, to let the burlap sack know that it was definitely, but definitely, the highlight of the afternoon. Oh, boy, was that ever fun . . .. Starsky never had made good on his threat to "Get you guys for this . . ." And now you never will ... Damn. God, John, we're gonna miss you ...

Hutch knew that Starsky hadn't slept much or well for several days, and was beginning to wonder if he had dozed off when the figure beside him shifted and then stretched his arms out as far as the confines of the car would allow, cracking his knuckles as he brought them back. The breeze from the open window tousled his curls as he propped his head up on his fist, head cocked and a thoughtful expression on his face.

"Penny for 'em," Hutch prompted.

Starsky's brows drew together as he stared out the window, a sad and faraway look in his eyes. "It's pretty much the same, but it's really different, too, ya know?"

Hutch couldn't truthfully say he did. "What is?"

His friend turned to face him and answered with a question. "Y'ever been to a Jewish funeral?"

"Uh, no, I haven't." And I never, ever, want to be ...

"Well, like I was sayin', today it was sorta the same, but really different, too." He fell silent again, and Hutch suddenly understood the comparison being made in his friend's head, and wondered if he was talking about parallel rituals or feelings or both. He knew, too, that Starsky would continue in his own way and in his own time, and didn't press. When his partner spoke again, it was in a tone of voice that Hutch had never heard him use before, and the strange words seemed to come from a great distance.

"Formerly they used to bring out the deceased for burial, the rich on a slate bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets, the poor on a plain bier; and the poor felt ashamed. Therefore, a law was instituted that all should be brought out on a plain bier." Starsky met his partner's frankly uncomprehending stare and, surprisingly, chuckled richly. "It's from the Talmud," he explained, turning away and suddenly becoming serious once again.

"I didn't know you'd memorized that stuff," remarked Hutch.

"There's lots of stuff like that about me you don't know," replied Starsky. "I've got tons of it in my head from when I was a kid, stuff they'd make you memorize so you wouldn't forget why things were done in a certain way. See, for Jews, understandin' all the whys behind the rituals is even more important than the rituals themselves. Rabbis can go on an' on an' on arguin' till they're blue in the face about why ya gotta do what ya gotta do an' when ya gotta do it an' then when ya don't gotta do it an' then more about why an' then so on an' so forth. It's crazy."

"Judaism - - the perpetually evolving argument?"

"Somethin' like that. Anyway, when my Pop died ...." Starsky hesitated for a moment and when he was able to continue Hutch noticed that his voice had dropped at least an octave. "When my Pop died, I was really really ticked off when I saw the coffin that had been picked out. I mean, I'd been to a couple of funerals before, but I guess they'd all been goy, 'cause I just didn't expect that my dad was gonna get buried in this ...this wood box. I mean, I knew we weren't rich but we did O.K. an' I guess I just expected that my Pop was important enough to get buried in a nice big fancy casket like I'd seen before." He paused to glance at Hutch. "I don't actually know where all this stuff is comin' from. Does it sound dumb?" he wanted to know.

Hutch swallowed past the sudden lump in his throat and shook his head. Oh God, babe, how can you say that? Nothing about you opening up to me could ever be dumb ..."'Course not."

"O.K. So, anyway, that's how I started learnin' about it all. I told Katz - - Rabbi Katzenberg - - that I thought Pop deserved better, so he sat me down an' we talked for a long time. That's when I learned that part of the Talmud. He was really into memorizin' stuff like that, so you'd never forget an' be able to tell it to your kids a zillion years down the line." Starsky paused again, collecting his thoughts. "His point, ultimately, was that once you're dead . . ." He took a deep breath, holding it before letting it all out in a long whoosh. "Once you're dead, all the labels are meaningless."

He didn't expand on the thought any further, but the implication was so obvious that Hutch heard it as clearly as if he had.

The voice picked up again. "Everyone's the same, ultimately. Tall or short, skinny or fat, rich or poor ... So, since the idea is that everyone's supposed to be equal in the eyes of God, Jews all get buried in the same sorta simple pine box. I mean, if we ever had a Jewish president? He'd get buried in the same kinda coffin I would. It wouldn't matter about the T.V. cameras or the heads of State or what people would say or anythin' like that." A pause. "How did Katz put it? Oh, yeah, he called it 'the egalitarian nature of death'."

Hutch realized that Starsky wasn't trying to be morbid, but he still didn't like to hear him use himself as party of the analogy. I don't need to be thinking about your coffin right now, thank you very much ...

"Did he ever say anything about 'the egalitarian nature of life'?"

Starsky snorted. "Yeah. Something' along the lines of, 'It ain't'. Jews are also big into 'acceptin' God's will'. I never brought into that part of it, you may've noticed."

"On occasion, yeah."

Hutch waited for Starsky to continue going wherever he was going with his, but he'd fallen silent again. Hutch let him be. He prided himself on being the closest thing to an expert in terms of reading between Starsky's lines that there was, and he knew that this conversation was the most open his partner had been to date about how he was dealing with both John's death as well as the disclosure of his homosexuality. Since Starsky was not given to often engaging in deep protracted self-analysis or philosophical and psychological exploration, his approach, when he did, tended to be roundabout. Hutch understood that, and accepted it. He's really thinking a lot about this. Don't push. No matter how hard you want to - - don't. Tread softly Hutchinson, tread very, very softly ... He still wanted to know why he'd gone to talk to Peter, and what in God's name they'd said to each other, but he held his tongue. Starsky had promised to tell him later, and Starsky always kept his promises.

Hutch turned at the sound of another sigh. The man beside him looked so ...sad. He was overcome at that moment by a strong desire to reach out and gather him into his arms, but since he was driving he settled for reaching out and squeezing a tense shoulder. "Hey, buddy," he asked softly, "how ya holding up?"

His answer was a shakily indrawn breath, released as another sigh, then the shoulder under his hand shrugged up and down. "O.K., I guess. It's all still pretty unreal, ya know? Everythin' happenin' so fast ...I guess I just need some time to catch up."


Starsky again lapsed into silence, and Hutch wondered when the storm would break. He knew his partner well enough to know that it was only a matter of time until the real reaction to this day set in. It always happened that way .... Hutch let himself mentally count up the number of significant losses that his friend had experienced in his lifetime, so many of them recent. Oh, babe, if I could change the world for you, don't you know I would? He didn't know how Starsky had managed to hold up so well over the past few days, but figured that working on solving John's murder had allowed a lot to simmer on the back burner. But now that they'd solved it there was time for the more personal aspects of the tragedy to come to the forefront of Starsky's mind, to take up residence in his psyche. Hutch knew that they already had, knew that the periods of extended quiet now were more likely than not harbingers of a release of powerful proportions. It always took some time for the storm to break, and Hutch couldn't be sure when this one would, he only knew that he wanted to be there when it finally happened. I've seen how it is for you, babe, those times you've let me in and I know how it is, how much you hurt . . . .

The memories of those times of pain and comfort were bittersweet ones for Hutch - - bitter for the sorrow, for the deep wounds, for the painful circumstances that inevitably brought them on yet at the same time those very moments had been made poignantly sweet for the rare and beautiful feel of just holding on. I've been there for you before, babe, just like you've been there for me. And I'll be here for you now, hold you while you cry, hold you all night if that's what it takes just like when ... Hutch felt a tendril of guilt begin to weave its way up through his mind at that last dangerous thought, and with a savage mental kick refused to think about it any longer. Thankfully, they were almost home.

When they arrived at Starsky's, Hutch killed the engine and sat back. He was pretty sure that he'd be asked up - - it was almost a given - - but he waited for the invitation, anyway. He wasn't disappointed.

"You should see Merle about that engine knock, ya know."

"Yeah, I know."

"Wanna beer?"


They climbed out of the LTD together and ascended the stairs. "God, I can't wait to get outta this stuff," declared Starsky as they entered the apartment, proving his point by shouldering out of the navy blue jacket he wore before Hutch had even finished closing the door. He disappeared into the bedroom while Hutch went straight into the kitchen, pulling out two beers from the fridge and making an executive decision against the use of glasses, mostly because he didn't fee like washing any out. By the time Starsky emerged from the bedroom looking terribly relieved to be out of the suit, Hutch had settled onto the sofa and was more than halfway through his beer. He hadn't realized how thirsty he'd been until the cold bitter liquid had hit his throat and he'd gulped it greedily, wondering distantly if John would find it rude or funny if he were to burp in front of Starsky on the day of his funeral. Funny, definitely very funny ...

Starsky accepted the proffered can of Coors with his left hand and with his right thumb indicated the bedroom. "You've got some stuff in the closet, you know, if you wanna change, too."

"Right." He looked more closely at his partner as he rose to go into the bedroom. "Isn't that shirt one of the ones I left here?" he demanded to know, indicating the white cotton button-down that hung loosely on his partner's slighter frame.

The dark-haired man smiled as he began rolling up the overlong sleeves. "Yeah, it's a nice one, isn't it?"

"You're incorrigible," remarked Hutch with no real rancor as he disappeared into the bedroom, admitting silently to himself that his friend really did look good in it.

The tall blond soon emerged wearing jeans and a blue and red striped polo shirt. "You're right, it does feel good to get out of those clothes."

"Tell me about it. Court dates, funerals, an' weddings are the only times I wear 'em, an' weddings are the only time they're any fun. 'Course that's only 'cause the minute the ceremony's over the reception starts, an' as soon as that happens you stop carin' about whatcha look like."

Starsky stopped talking long enough to finish his beer, then rose to get another. He indicated Hutch's and observed, "I'm gettin' ahead of you."

"I wasn't aware we were having a contest," said Hutch, settling down once again on the sofa and draining the beer anyway.

"We're not. I'm just tryin' to conserve energy by makin' only beer run insteada two." He returned with two beers which he set on the coffee table, but then instead of joining Hutch on the sofa he remained standing where he was, looking around as if suddenly lost.

Hutch immediately picked up on the mood shift. "Hey, what's the matter?" He patted the sofa invitingly. "Haven't you had enough standing around for one day? What's wrong, scared I'll bite?" He could have kicked himself for the last remark before it was even out of this mouth, but Starsky didn't seem to have noticed. Cool it, Hutchinson, just cool it ...

"Nah, nothin' like that. It's just another one of those things."

"Another one of what things?"

"Another one of those things that's pretty much the same, but different, too." Without further explanation, Starsky moved purposefully away and began to rummage around in a drawer. A few moments later he straightened, holding a tall off-white candle which he sniffed once before announcing, to nobody in particular, "Vanilla." He went to place it in one of the brass candlesticks from the set that Hutch had given him a couple of years ago. Hutch observed the proceedings with interest, watching closely as Starsky set the candle in the center of the coffee table and then lit it with a lighter produced seemingly from thin air. His hands cupped the nascent flame until he was sure that it would hold, and only then did he sit down, taking up a place on the sofa near Hutch but still looking only at the candle, as if mesmerized. Hutch felt much the same way as long moments passed with the two of them simply watching the dancing flame, until Starsky's voice broke the eerie silence.

"Like goin' to Angelo's after the funeral," he began, breaking the tab off a Coors and taking slow, thoughtful sips. His gaze was still fixed upon the candle, though Hutch's was now fixed on him. "O.K., so it's good to get together an' remember an' share an' all that. I mean, that's what we do, too. But it's sorta .... sorta impersonal, too, doncha think? And the time is so short. I mean, we go to the restaurant, we let our humanity show for a few hours, we laugh an' cry an' reminisce an' then everybody just goes home and sure, I'm not sayin' that everybody just goes about their business then an' doesn't give it a second thought or anything', but I mean Maggie didn't even expect us to spend time with her afterwards like we did, she just figured everybody'd go away an' that'd be that, an' the way it was when Pop died was just so different . . ." He paused to sip his beer, but did not continue.

"Did you light candles?" Hutch asked into the silence.

"Candle. Singular. An' we let it burn for the whole time we sat Shivah."

Hutch knew enough about Judaism to recognize the term for the week-long Jewish period of mourning, but he didn't know much about the specifics. He thought it interesting, but not unexpected, that all this should be surfacing now. He'd never known Starsky to be a particularly observant Jew, any more than he was an observant Lutheran, but still he knew that there was much that had been culturally ingrained in the man, and now and again he'd let it show, like the time he'd pulled a yarmulke from the Torino's glove box and had gone into a temple to say Kaddish for his father. That had been years ago, now, and Hutch had gotten the definite impression that there were some articles of faith and tradition that David Starsky held very, very, dear.

"What else did you do?"

His companion shrugged. "We didn't do much, that's the whole point. Friends an' relatives came outta the woodwork to take care of us. For seven whole days. That's what I meant by the restaurant bein' different. There we got together to share a few hours. During Shivah, you do the same thing, but for a solid week. I remember thinkin' it was a little strange at first, havin' all these people over all the time, an' I was pretty messed up in my head to begin with, but I remember that I knew that I had a whole week to get used to the idea of bein' the man of the house, an' that was a real good thing. I felt like a reprieve, sorta. I didn't hafta worry so much about Ma an' Nicky 'cause there were so many people takin' care of 'em already." Starsky fell silent for a long moment, and Hutch knew that he was long ago and far away, and didn't try to bring him back before he was ready to return on his own.

"I don't even remember all that happened, really," he finally continued. "That week's really just sort of a blur, ya know? But I do remember how much it seemed to help Ma. I mean, she really needed that support." He paused, cocking his head as if another thought had suddenly entered into it. "Ya know, I wonder if Shivah was sorta the same for her as for me. I mean, there I was all of twelve years old - - hell, I hadn't even become a Bar Mitzvah -- tellin' everybody I was the man of the house now, and all the while secretly thinkin', 'Boy, it's a good thing all you people are here, 'cause I'm not real sure how to start being' the man of the house yet', an' .... an' she was probably thinkin' that it was good that Nicky an' me were gettin' watched over so that she could get used to the idea of bein' a single parent. Huh. I wonder. I'll hafta ask him about that some time . . ." His voice trailed off and he sat quietly sipping his beer, his gaze fixed on the middle distance.

Starsky finally shook himself out of his reverie and turned to look right at the patient man beside him. Their gazes locked and a long, attenuated moment grew between them. "I'm glad you're here," he said simply, and Hutch tingled inside at the words, at the sincere emotion behind them.

"Wouldn't be anywhere else," he managed to get out.

Starsky nodded, accepting, took another long pull of his beer and then smiled. "'Course, I really broke from tradition when I found out that sheloshim is supposed to last for an entire year when you're mourning a parent."

"You've lost me."

"Sheloshim. See, after Shivah ends you can basically go back to your life - - work, go to school, whatever - - but sheloshim lasts for thirty days beyond Shivah, an', like I said, for an entire year if you're in mournin' for a parent. And sheloshim, as Nicky an' I used to say, is Hebrew for 'no fun whatsoever'. Basically, it mean you can't go to parties - - not even weddings or school dances. You can't attend any 'festive gathering'. Meanin' that I wasn't supposed to sneak out at night and go hang out tryin' to avoid gettin' caught raisin' hell." He laughed and shook his head. "It wasn't that bigga deal. I mean, Katz would always tell us what we were supposed to do and not to do, but we ignored a lot of it, anyway, even before Pop died. We didn't even keep strictly kosher, so not observin' sheloshim for the entire year didn't really faze anybody. I don't think anyone really expected us to, anyway."

Hutch nodded his understanding. "I certainly wouldn't've been able to that that age. Hell, a year to a twelve-year-old seems like forever. I remember how slowly time crawled when I was a kid." He paused to drain the last of his beer. "Funny how we waste that sense of slow time, isn't it? I mean, always in such a hurry to grow up, and it never happens and never happens and then all of a sudden you're all grown up and time's just zipping by, like there's never enough of it for anything anymore."

"Really. Who was it said somethin' about youth bein' wasted on the young?"

"George Bernard Shaw."

"Right, well, what he said?"

They laughed together, then, and Starsky went to clear the cans from the coffee table. "Hey, Hutch!" he called from the kitchen, voice raised over the running water.


"Want one more?"

"Is this kill-the-six-pack time?"

"That's the name of the game."

"Sure, then, why not?"

Starsky returned with the last two cans from the fridge in one hand and two freshly washed glasses in the other. Hutch took one of each from him with a questioning look and began to pour. Starsky sat down and did likewise, one side of his mouth quirked up in what could almost have been a smile had it not looked so pained. "Here we've been sittin' downin' liquid manna," he began poetically, "just sittin' an' drinkin' and shootin' the bull ..."

Hutch finished the sentence for him as his voice trailed off. "And we haven't once made a proper toast."

"You got it, partner."

Starsky stared into his glass, watched the foaming liquid reach the top without - - quite - - spilling over. He continued to stare at it for several minutes, until the bubbles had ceased to rise from the bottom and the glass itself had begun to break out in droplets of tear-like moisture. Hutch stared at Starsky, quietly observing the man who once again seemed lost in a past that he could only share by proxy. When Starsky lifted his eyes to meet his friend's there was a naked pain in their depths that had been concealed until now, and Hutch's own heart lurched in sympathetic reaction. He probed the dark blue gaze, searching beyond the pain, and found a plea as well. 'Help me,' it seemed to say, 'I don't have the words.'

Hutch nodded slowly and raised his glass, his movements mirrored by his still-silent friend's. They paused, brimming glasses suspended, as the blond sought the requested words, hoping for divine inspiration. He realized that whatever he came up with could never come close to expressing all there was to say, so in the face of inevitable failure he opted for simplicity, his gaze never leaving Starsky's.

"To John - - for all he was, for everything he gave us."

They solemnly clinked their glasses and drank. Starsky seemed unable to speak, his eyes, like the drink he'd poured, not - - quite - - brimming over with reaction to his partner's words. Hutch felt so attuned to his partner in that moment that he could almost share the images of John Blaine that he knew must be playing before Starsky's mind's eye, images of memories of all that John had been to him: friend, father, teacher, coach, protector, mentor, colleague .... All that John was to you, everything he gave you ...

Hutch watched the play of emotions across the other's face, saw the glint of tears upon the long lashes. Oh, John, do you know how much he loved you? He wondered briefly then if the storm was upon them and was just about to reach out for him when he decided that it probably wasn't as Starsky quickly drained his beer and stood up, nervously tossing the empty glass from hand to hand, then clutching it tightly. He's still controlling it. Even now, he's not letting go .... Such was Starsky's death grip upon the glass that Hutch could see the tendons standing out from his wrist, could trace the pattern of his veins along his forearm, dark up to the elbow in contrast to the white of the shirt he wore. Such strong, beautiful arms ...

"Ya know, Hutch, what I really feel like doin' right now is smashin' this glass into little tiny pieces ... but for some bizarre reason that's somethin' we do at weddings, not funerals." He started to pace, then turned abruptly on his heel. "I'm gonna take a shower," he announced, heading towards the bathroom. Just as abruptly, though, he paused in mid-stride, turning back to face Hutch, who was still sitting on the couch. "Um ...will you stay? I mean, d'ya mind waitin'?"

Hutch wanted to tell him what a stupid question that was, but there was such a vulnerable air about his partner at the moment that he didn't think he could risk it. Instead he just shook his head and smiled. "'Course not. In fact, I'm getting a little hungry again. Are you? No, don't answer that. Dumb question. Look, why don't I make myself useful and scramble us up some eggs, huh?"

Starsky didn't answer for a moment, and Hutch wondered if he had heard. "Starsk? How about it, huh?"

"This is gonna sound really weird, but d'ya think you could hard boil mine?"

"Hard boiled eggs? Is that really what you want?"

"Yeah," come the uncertain reply, and then more forcefully, "Yeah. Yeah, I do!" He must have suddenly realized how strange his request sounded, because in another lightning-quick mood shift he began to laugh.

"You gonna let me in on this one, partner?" Hutch probed gently.

"Seudat Havraah," explained his still-laughing partner, as if that would clear up everything.

"Oh, oh course," smiled Hutch. He loved the sound of Starsky's laughter. "Like I said, you gonna let me in on this one? Partner?"

Starsky's laughter slowly subsided and he wiped at this eyes before speaking. "It's nothin', really. It's just that I remembered another thing about our Shivah." Hutch wondered what could possibly be so funny about that, but as Starsky broke out laughing again, helplessly, he joined him without even knowing why.

"O.K., c'mon, what gives?" he finally managed, when he saw that Starsky was beginning to calm down enough to make another attempt at coherent speech.

"O.K., O.K., but I'm warnin' ya, you pretty much had to be there. See, remember I told you that we had all these people over cookin' and' takin' care of us an' all? Well, the first meal traditionally prepared for the family in mournin' is called Seudat Havraah - - the meal of consolation. You eat it right when ya get back from the cemetery, first thing, and it's a very simple meal."

"Let me guess . . ."

"You got it . . ." chuckled Starsky as he continued his narrative. "The thing is, my Hebrew wasn't all that it should've been, so when Katz was explainin' I sorta misunderstood an' for awhile there thought that all we'd be eatin' for the entire week was hard boiled eggs!"

Hutch recoiled in mock horror.

"C'mon, I was twelve! An' in spite of everythin', I was hungry!"

"Ah, Starsk, you haven't changed a bit. I'm assuming you got it all straightened out eventually?"

"Yeah, sure."

"So what did the Rabbi have to say?"

Starsky assumed his best Rabbi Katzenberg pose and voice and began to recite. "'In ancient time, the egg was regarded as a symbol of fertility and life - - the mourners' return from the cemetery marks their return to life after a direct confrontation with death. The egg is also a symbol of the round wheel of fate; we must all die. We eat these eggs to recognize both our joy in the celebration of the continuity of life and our acknowledgement of the inevitability of death.'"

Somewhere in the middle of his speech Starsky had begun to listen to the words, so that when he finished there was no longer any laughter in either of them. They looked at one another wordlessly, then Starsky cleared his throat.

"So, uh, I'm gonna take my shower now. Will ya hard boil mine?"


"Whaddya mean, 'Nope'?!" Starsky sounded slightly incredulous.

"I'll hard boil ours. Partner."

"Oh." His smile turned sheepish as he turned away and continued walking towards the bathroom. "I should've seen that comin', huh?"

"Yeah, but you're forgiven."

"Gee, thanks . . ."

Something indefinable in his tone gave Hutch pause. "Hey!"

Starsky paused at the door, leaning his weight carelessly against the frame, arms crossed over his chest. He didn't answer, and Hutch, clearly reading his body language, didn't draw near. Red light ... But he wasn't on the other side of the door yet, either. Yellow light: approach with caution ...

"Starsk? You O.K.?" Dumb question ... "What's wrong?"

Hutch wished that he could see his friend's face, look into his eyes, but his head was bowed. Starsky contemplated his bare feet for a moment longer, then lifted his gaze to the ceiling, affording Hutch a mere glimpse of his countenance. Devastated ...When at last he spoke, his tone was a strange combination of despondent and angry, his voice trembling, as if on the edge of tears. "I'm really fuckin' tired of havin' people die on me all the time."

Before Hutch could reply he was gone, the slam of the closing door effectively ending the conversation before it had even begun, leaving Hutch to contemplate on his own the manifold implications of the bleak words. He needs time. Give it to him.

Hutch moved into the kitchen, glancing at the clock and noting absently that it was just past eight p.m.. How time flies ... Since he knew this kitchen as well as his own he went about the preparation of their own version of Seudat Havraah smoothly, the movements of his hands thoroughly independent of his mental processes. Shaking slightly, they went through the motions of gathering up utensils and preparing food while his thoughts began to traverse a familiar, meandering path that would lead him somewhere else entirely.

In a guilty way, Hutch wished that this day might never end. John Blaine was dead - - murdered - - and the thought, wherever it occurred to him, was still sharply painful. But there was something about sharing that pain with Starsky - - beautiful, vulnerable David Starsky - - that made it bearable, and in a way, if he were honest with himself, almost pleasurable. Their closeness, their bond, was never more clearly defined or as keenly felt as when they were together like this, sharing these bittersweet out-of-time moments, and as much as he might hate the circumstances, whenever he felt this close to Starsky his mind would whirl, trying desperately to find a way to prolong it, to make it last. Not the pain, never the pain, but the closeness ... Oh, yes, please, this closeness . . .

He set the eggs gently into the boiling water on the stove and lowered the heat before moving to rinse out the empty beer cans in the sink. Death and mourning and beer and tears and loving Starsky ... Just like before ... Except then there was a lot more beer, and we were drinking from bottles instead of cans, and we were a lot drunker ... But we were so close, closer than we'd ever been, and even the pain seemed worth it to me ... The inevitable comparisons between this evening and that other one directed his train of thought as he turned on the tap, the warm water flowing as smoothly as the too-familiar memories . . .

Starsky had gone a little crazy that night ... He'd tried so hard to be brave and strong, but in the end he could hold back no longer, and Hutch knew that the impending storm was upon them. Hutch had been expecting it, dreading it, waiting for it, but even so had found himself unprepared for its force, its epic proportions. It had started as a gentle rain of tears and Hutch had known that he was needed. He reached out across the space separating them but Starsky was already there. Then the clouds burst, the floodgates opened, and the driving primal force of Starsky's anguish swiftly scattered Monopoly markers and money and empty beer bottles across the kitchen floor as Hutch struggled to hold on to the body convulsed by wrenching paroxysms of grief. Hutch knew that he was crying, too, for he felt the curls under his cheek grow as damp as the shirt he words, but it didn't matter, nothing mattered, nothing at all save the hurting man clasped tightly in his arms. It went on and on and on ... Hutch lost track of himself, lost track of his whispered words, willingly surrendered his sense of time and space until nothing existed outside of the two of them, locked together, holding on. The tides of grief ebbed and flowed between them, Starsky's sobs receding for a moment or two, then crashing back, stronger than ever. At one point he was saying something ... Hutch couldn't discern the broken words muffled against his chest, but he responded to them regardless with soft crooning noises, murmurs of reassurance, guarantees of safety, promises of love ... Long after the body in his arms had quieted and gone lax Hutch had continued his tender ministrations, stroking and petting, unwilling to let go ...

Sometime later Starsky stirred in his arms and Hutch helped him into the bedroom, settled him onto the mattress, drew the coverlet over the deeply sleeping form ... He sat on the edge of the bed, stroking dark curls away from the flushed, tearstained face with one gentle hand, holding one of the Starsky's own hands in the other. He would have been content to remain there for the rest of the night, standing guard, keeping watch, but he was suddenly so very tired himself ... He must have fallen asleep, because he didn't remember later how he'd ended up lying down next to Starsky and then he'd thought he'd been dreaming and had willed the dream to continue, to keep him awash in the sensations, the feelings of tenderness beyond tender ... Connection ... completion ... love ... Hutch, briefly opening his eyes, noted the fingers of early dawn stroking gentle chords across the sky, and he wondered in that moment if perhaps it had been no dream, if perhaps the oneiric sensation of being rocked and held and loved really had been, perhaps, Starsky slowly and gently stroking his fine blond hair over and over and over and over again, as he'd imagined, and then he sighed and drifted once more into sleep ... and then he was curled up close besides him, reluctant to awaken fully, luxuriating in the warmth of the contact, floating, drifting on the swell of the incredible feelings that suffused him, his half-opened eyes dimly making out in the pale light the sight of Starsky's face mere inches from his own, and he snuggled infinitesimally closer, resting his head against the dark chest, listening to his friend's steady heartbeat for a moment, nearly forgetting to breath for the sheer beauty of the sound ... then his breath did catch in a soft half sigh-half sob, and he inhaled deeply ...

Hutch jerked into precipitous awareness, not quite sure what had caused him to jolt so very awake so very suddenly. He straightened up on an elbow, registered his surroundings, recalled why he was there, and then regarded his partner's face intently for a long moment. He appeared to be sleeping soundly, his body relaxed, his breathing deep and regular. He knew that he should get up, but he was suddenly and helplessly incapable of movement away from his friend. The tangible pull was magnetic in nature and all he wanted was to keep looking at him, to touch him, to protect him, to heal him, and as he leaned even closer he was overwhelmed by a sudden, fierce wave of love and tenderness. Taking care to not disturb the sleeping form, he bent to rest his forehead lightly against the curly hair so unlike mine, so thick and dark and soft and all of these crazy gorgeous curls and knew with a sigh that he could lose himself swimming among them. Passion flooded his sense and his mouth instinctively opened to caress the salty sweet strands and as he savored his first taste of Starsky on his tongue he knew he wanted to taste even more, touch even more, feel even more, do even more ... I want to love him ...

Shock and guilt and shame and fear invaded his consciousness, converging explosively, violently within. Hutch pulled back as if he'd just received 80-odd volts, staring at his friend, miraculously still asleep. Thank God. A soft voice like a siren's song whispered to him, urged him to reach out, to stroke the peaceful face before him, to touch his lips to Starsky's, to seek the taste of his mouth, but the movement was halted, the flicker of desire extinguished by other, more insistent, voice. Oh my God, what am I doing? Paralyzed. Afraid. Fight or flight. He rose quickly from the bed and left the room without a backwards glance. When Starsky awoke a couple of hours later, it was to find Hutch already showered and preparing breakfast in a spotless kitchen, a welcoming smile on his face and a white lie on his lips . . .

"Whatcha doin'?"

"Huh?" It came out as an involuntary gasp of surprise as Starsky's voice yanked him violently back into the present.

"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you. I thought you'd heard me." The dark blue eyes narrowed. "Hey, are you O.K.?"

"Yeah, sure, just cleaning up a bit." The lie came easily to Hutch's lips as he turned off the tap and shook the cans to dry them. Practice makes perfect. "The eggs should be just about ready. Do you want a salad or something to go with them?"

"I don't think there's anything edible in the vegetable department," replied Starsky, entering the kitchen area and opening a cabinet. "How 'bout some soup, instead? I think I got a coupla cans of minestrone in here somewhere, and a box of crackers."

"Sounds good to me."

Starsky located the items in question and placed them on the counter. "Excuse me," he said, indicating that he wanted to open the drawer that Hutch was blocking. Hutch moved away, as much to allow Starsky access to the drawer as to put some space between them. The clean, inimitable Starsky-scent of soap and freshly washed hair was intoxicating and, at that precise moment, totally unbearable.

When Starsky turned, can opener in hand, his face wore a slightly embarrassed expression. "About before . . ." he began.

Hutch held up his hands. "Hey, if you're going to apologize - - don't."

Starsky shrugged and started to open the cans of Campbell's Minestrone. "It just sorta came out. I mean, it's true, but I know how it must've sounded, an' I shouldn't've slammed the door on you. Sorry. I don't want you to worry, or anythin'. I'll be O.K. It's just . . ." He poured the contents of both cans into a pan nabbed from the drainer and added water. "It's just all still kinda hard to accept, an' I guess I was sorta beginnin' to feel sorry for myself." He put the pan to heat and stood at the stove, absently stirring the contents with an old wooden spoon.

Green light? "Starsk, if anyone's entitled, it's you." Hutch searched for words to communicate his understanding, his empathy, but came up momentarily short. He gathered his wits about him and waged a brief but effective internal struggle to become merely the friend that Starsky needed him to be at the moment. He drew near and placed his large hands on Starsky's shoulders, feeling the tension gathered there beneath the warmth. He began a gentle massage as he spoke the words he hoped would soothe. "Look, try to cut yourself some slack, huh? You're David Starsky, human being, you know? It's been a shit year, and you've been through a hell of a lot, especially in the last few days. Yeah, I know you'll be O.K.. But that doesn't mean it's not hard."

Starsky abandoned the spoon in the pan and turned to face Hutch, whose hands never left his shoulders. He looked very tired, and very sad, but although his eyes were bright with emotion he did not look as if he were about to burst into tears. Mostly he looked very much in need of a hug. I can do that for you, babe. I'd do anything for you ... I'll always be here for you ... It's where I want to be ... "C'mere," he said as he gathered Starsky close. The smaller man leaned into Hutch with a sigh and wrapped his arms tightly around him in a wordless gesture of trust. This is heaven. This is hell.

Starsky held on tightly for the space of several heartbeats, then slowly loosened his grip. He gave Hutch one final squeeze before turning back to his soup, a shy smile tentative on his lips.

"How d'ya do that?" he asked softly, checking the soup and deciding it was hot enough.

"How do I do what?" Hutch opened a cabinet, reaching towards the top shelf.

Starsky started spooning the soup into the large bowls that Hutch had handed to him. "What you just did."

"What do you mean?" Uh-oh ...

Starsky didn't answer right away, leaving the kitchen to set the bowls on the table, the box of crackers tucked beneath an elbow. Hutch followed him with the bowl of eggs in one hand, salt and pepper shakers and a bottle of Tabasco in the other. He looked at Starsky, obviously expecting an answer.

"You ... you always do just what I need ya to do, just when I need ya to do it." Starsky finally met his eyes as he sat down at the table, Hutch following suit. "You're always ...just what I need ya to be. You hang in there with me, no matter what. You're ... you're terrific." Starsky's face flushed with embarrassment and he turned away, busying himself with crushing crackers and sprinkling them onto his minestrone.

Hutch allowed himself a moment of indulgence to soak up the words. Though he'd never admit it, not even to himself, deep down he basked in Starsky's opinion of him like a plant turning towards the sun, and though Starsky told him in little ways every single day he important Hutch was to him, hearing the words was a treat to savor. He glanced at Starsky, intending to say something equally sincere, but on look at his partner's face was enough to change his mind fast. No soapy scenes ... O.K., partner, we'll play it your way ...

"Mega-does of certain vitamins and minerals. They've been scientifically proven to substantially increase one's naturally occurring powers of mental telepathy." He lifted a spoonful of soup, blowing on it out of habit before realizing that it wasn't burning hot to begin with. "That's how I do it," he added before bringing the spoon to his lips. The reply was met with a noncommittal grunt that carried an undertone of gratitude. Bingo ... "Now," Hutch continued, "will you please pass the pepper?"

Dinner was an interesting, companionable affair. Starsky tried to teach Hutch a few traditional prayers in Hebrew, but the latter's much-touted gift for languages seemed to fail him when it came to the difficult, guttural sounds of the ancient tongue.

"It sounds beautiful when you say it, though, Starsk, really," he commented, meaning every word.

"Yeah, well, I had a lot of practice as a kid, readin' aloud an' stuff at Hebrew school. I didn't study as much as I should've, so half the time I didn't even know what I was sayin', but I could fake it pretty well. It was sorta fun."

"Didn't you mind having to go to more school?"

"Well, sorta, but not really, too. See, it was more like . . ."

As Starsky continued his talk, Hutch found himself fascinated by the new and different perspectives on his partner he was gleaning. Starsky had always been full of stories and tales of his childhood, and never seemed to keep track of which ones he'd already told. By now, whenever Hutch heard the telltale words, "Ya' know, this reminds me of when . . .", he figured he ran a better than 50-50 chance of being able to recite the story line by line along with Starsky, inflections and all, much to the latter's dismay. But tonight's stories were brand new to Hutch, and he sat back, loving the way he talked with his hands, the way he made the past come alive, making Hutch feel as if he were really there, sharing it with him. The religious slant of the stories shed new light on his partner's past. It was territory they'd never traversed before now, and he was surprised to discover just how intertwined Starsky's brand of religiosity was with memories of his father, evidently the more orthodox of his two parents. That's a little odd, isn't it? It was the opposite with my folks.

Hutch loved listening to his friend speak so openly and unguardedly like this to him, for he knew that Starsky was not this forthcoming about his life with just anyone. He trusts me enough to let me in, and that feels so incredibly good ... He listened intently and with sincere interest, asking questions and interjecting comments along the way, but never really interrupting the flow of words and memories emanating from his partner's mouth. Starsky's obvious need to talk at length was not surprising on this strange, sad day, for Hutch knew that nonstop speech interspersed with long, thoughtful silences was the way his partner tended to reach to emotional upheaval. Makes sense ... words flowing like tears ...it's just another way of getting it all out, isn't it, babe?

They'd been talking over empty plates for nearly an hour when the mutual decision to clear the table was made, Hutch gathering up the dishes to put in the sink while Starsky dealt with the condiments.

"Would you like some coffee, Starsk?"

Starsky didn't answer right away, considering, but as he stashed the Tabasco finally shook his head. "I got a better idea," he said, moving to poke about in a low cabinet. He emerged with a bottle of very expensive cognac in his hands.

"Couvousier, Starsk?" Hutch gave a low whistle of appreciation. "I see prolonged exposure to my refined tastes has begun to have its desired effect here."

Starsky snorted in reply. "Not exposure to your refined tastes, blintz," he informed him archly. "Exposure to John's. Wanna join me?"

"With pleasure."

Starsky hunted up a couple of snifters, found them a little dusty, and went to rinse them out. "It was my birthday gift, actually," he explained. "Hey, toss me a dry towel, will ya?" He caught it and continued. "I'd been savin' it for a special occasion. Then, after it happened, I considered just savin' it, period. " He paused to check for spots, holding the elegant glasses up to the light. "Then I thought, 'Wait a minute, that's dumb. John'd want you to enjoy it.' So that's why I intend to do."

They moved back into the living room and Starsky headed for his record collection, flicking on a lamp as he passed it, adding its soft illumination to the wavering light of the still-burning candle in the evening-darkened room. He selected a disc and placed it on the turntable.

"What's that?" Hutch wanted to know, pouring their drinks.

"You'll see. It's somethin' else John gave me. Hmmm ... I don't remember if it was for Christmas or a birthday. It was a few years ago."

The needle lowered and as Starsky adjusted the volume the signature strains of Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" filled the room. Hutch smiled, remembering the first night he'd been to dinner at the Blaines', years ago, not long after meeting Starsky at the Academy. As he was wont to do, he'd spent leisurely minutes perusing their music collection, finding it comprised of mostly classical selections with a generous sampling of older jazz and musical soundtracks - - very similar to the offerings of his own parents' home. Now Hutch found himself swaying unconsciously to the music - - it was a good choice, he had to admit.

Starsky returned to join Hutch on the couch and picked up his drink. He spent a quiet minute or so absently swirling the amber liquid in his glass, holding it up to the flickering candle, evidently fascinated by the play of light in its amber depths. Every now and again he'd take a long, appreciative sniff, closing his eyes, exhaling slowly and with obvious pleasure. At least he turned to Hutch and raised his snifter in a heartfelt toast.

"To my fathers."

"To your fathers," Hutch echoed as they clinked and drank. It was Hutch's soft voice that eventually broke the ensuing silence between them. "You've done them proud," he quietly observed.

Starsky smiled, then shrugged. "I turned out O.K., I guess." The statement held none of his usual cocky bravado, and Hutch wondered just how many people knew that the real David Starsky was so modest, so down to earth and unassuming. He can act so vain sometimes ... Such a mass of contradictions, he is ...

Starsky took a slow sip of the fiery liquid, obviously savoring its delicate, complex flavor. "I could get used to this," he commented. "You and John always did have a lot in common. Real good taste, for starters." He took another small sip. "Yeah, this is good stuff. He always appreciated quality. You know, I was wrong about Peter Whitelaw."

The unexpected segue threw Hutch for a second, so much so that he nearly choked on his drink. Starsky merely chuckled. Hutch felt a not-quite-comfortable warmth spreading throughout his body, and wondered if he could possibly attribute it to the Couvousier.

"I've been real proud of you today, blintz."

"Oh, yeah? How come?"

"Oh, no special reason, just that I know that your curiosity's been killin' you since this mornin', yet you haven't once come out an' asked me what we were talkin' about."

Hutch shrugged. "I figured you'd get around to it eventually." He made a conscious effort not to sound too eager. "So, what did you mean by that, about being wrong about him?"

Starsky contemplated amber liquid as he answered. "Well, lotsa things, really. Like, for example, that stuff I was sayin' before about him runnin' for office on the platform of his personal life, an' how it wasn't necessary an' all."

"What, now you've changed your mind?"

"No, he did." Starsky paused for another thoughtful sip of cognac before he continued. "Changed my mind, I mean. It was real interestin' talkin' with him today. I mean, we didn't even talk for very long, but I think I understand some things a lot better."

"Like what?"

"Like why John Blaine is dead." Starsky's voice had suddenly taken on a cold, hard edge that sounded incongruous against the lilting melody of "String of Pearls".

"Whoa, babe, back up. You've lost me."

Starsky leaned forward then, elbows on knees and hands clasped between them, dark brows drawn tight, and Hutch could almost hear the gears of his brain clicking, shifting, moving into overdrive.

"He was so many things to so many different people. In the end, who really knew him?" Starsky was speaking softly, now, reflectively, as if to himself, and Hutch wasn't even sure the words had been meant for his ears. What's going on in there? Whatever it was sounded important. There was a time to hold back, and a time to press, and Hutch was convinced that, for Starsky's sake, he couldn't afford to miss the connections that this friend's unique mental processes were making here. He decided to press.

"Starsk? C'mon, partner, talk to me."

Starsky met his eyes, and the expression on his face was for once unfathomable. "It didn't hafta go down like it did, Hutch. Doncha see? John shouldn't be dead. He shouldn't be dead, but he is."

"Starsk ... Starsk, c'mon, listen to me. He was a cop in the wrong place at the wrong time. What happened ... what happened was a tragedy, and if I could strangle Corday with my bare hands I think I would. But you know, I think if John were here he'd be reminding you that ... that it goes with the territory. We both know that."

"Not like this!" Starsky exploded. "This is different!"

Hutch was taken aback by the forceful outburst, but didn't let it show. He's on edge ... has been all day ... take it easy ... Injected a calm he didn't quite feel into his voice he responded soothingly, "O.K., buddy, explain it to me. What's going on in that head of yours?"

Starsky took a large swallow of his drink before continuing. "You know what galls me, Hutch? What really galls me?"


"The fact that if John hadn't been locked up so tight in his goddamn closet he'd probably still be alive?"

This was something that Hutch had never considered. "How do you figure that?"

"Because he wouldn't have been alone."

In one swift movement Starsky was on his feet, pacing back and forth as he spoke. He talked rapidly, animatedly, as much with his hands as with his voice, telling the story with his entire body as the words tumbled out.

"Ya know, I don't even know why I felt it was so important to talk to Peter this morning. But I saw him there, an' the next thing I knew I was just. . . just overwhelmed by this need to ... to see him to look him in the eye, to talk with him. I don't know why, I just was. So I call to him an' he turns around an' he looks at me an' all I can think about is how angry he looks, how defensive, like he thought I was gonna hit him or somthin'. Yet, up close, in his eyes? Oh, man, Hutch, the man was hurtin'. Hurtin' bad. I could just tell. An' then it hit me, 'Oh, my God, he really musta loved John a lot,' an' then I thought, "an he's here, an' he's all alone,' an' then ... An' then I don't know what I was thinkin', I just heard myself tellin' him how glad I was that he'd come, how much I thought it woulda meant to John. I was just talkin' off the top of my head, but at the same time I knew it was the truth. So he sorta seemed to calm down a little after that, an' then I told him I was sorry if I'd come off lookin' like a jerk that first time we met, that it was just that I'd been havin' a real hard time dealin' with John's death an' all, and then all of a sudden for some reason I was tellin' him that John'd been like a father to me, explainin' how he'd just about raised me when I was a teenager, tellin' him that we'd been really close ... I dunno, I guess I wanted to explain, to make him understand that I wasn't just another cop with an ax to grind at gays, that John had really meant somethin' very special to me."

He paused to catch his breath, looking closer to tears in that instant than Hutch had seen him all day. "D'ya know what he said?"

Hutch shook his head. "Tell me," came the gentle directive.

"He said ..." Starsky's eyes filled with tears then, and his voice finally cracked, so that Hutch could barely understand the next words he managed to choke out. "He said, "Yeah, I know that, David. I know all about you. John used to talk about you all the time."

Hutch went to him then, unable to bear the naked hurt crying out, evident in every aspect of Starsky's being. He put an arm around his friend's shoulders and led him back to the sofa where he proceeded to hold him securely, nestling him in to the crook of one arm, tight against his side, the other reaching up to thread through the thick curls, stroking them in the way he knew Starsky liked, pressing his head against his shoulder, offering shelter and comfort against the storm that had finally broken.

But it wasn't like before, this storm. The night of the Monopoly game Starsky had been shaking and sobbing uncontrollably, as if on the verge of a literal explosion, as if his very skin might not have been sufficient to contain the violent emotions seeking their release. Tonight he was crying, but his wasn't an expression of crazed anguish, rather of deeply felt but somehow muted pain, and Starsky continued to speak through his tears as Hutch held him, words muffled against Hutch's side.

"It really hurts, Hutch," he choked. "It really fuckin' hurts."

"I know, babe, I know," Hutch crooned. "I've got you. It's O.K., I'm here, let it out. I'm here. I'm here." How many times had he spoken the familiar words? For long minutes Hutch simply held him as he cried, wishing that he could do something more to take the pain away, all the while knowing that he couldn't. I'll be here as long as you need me, babe ... I'll wait with you till you're all cried out and then ...

"Ya know what I wish, Hutch?" The words were pushed past hiccups. "I wish ... I wish that John were here. I wish that ... that I could tell him it would've been O.K. to let me in, that it wouldn't've mattered, that I loved him, that ... that he could've trusted me, that it all would've been O.K. I . . I wish the wouldn't've felt like he had to lie and hide all the time an' never tell anybody what was really goin' on ..." He drew a long shaky breath and slowly let it out, warmth against Hutch's chest. He was beginning to calm, but made no move to withdraw from Hutch's secure embrace. "I can't believe he was lyin' to me all that time, about his life, about who he was ... To me, to Maggie, hell, to everybody. I ... I can't believe he didn't think we'd understand ..."

Hutch could do nothing but hold on tighter to his friend as the full impact of Starsky's word hit him with the force of a tidal wave. Oh, my God ... He might as well be talking about me here ... I could be as much a part of this pain as John is, only he doesn't know it ... Oh, God, Starsk, I'm sorry ... The shocking realization that the words were much unknowing accusation as heartfelt confession brought waves of guilt and fear crashing into Hutch. Oh, my God ... What's happening here?

Starsky continued, oblivious to the reaction his earnest words were causing in his partner. "I wish ... Oh, God, Hutch, I wish it'd all been so different. I wish ... I wish so much that he could've been happier than he was." With these last words came fresh tears, and Hutch tightened his hold even more, fighting to maintain his own tenuous control. Later for this. You can't think about this now. If you think about this you might go crazy, and Starsky needs you sane. He's not talking about you, he's not hurting because of you. Not yet. NO!! This isn't about you, it's about John. Don't think about it. Not now. You can't. Not now. Not now.

If Hutch had spared another thought for himself at that moment, it would have been to be grateful for the inner mechanism he possessed that made such techniques so effective, at least in the short run. As it was, he concentrated on focusing all his energy - - mental and emotional - - on the figure he held wrapped in his arms. It was easy to be close, easy to comfort, easy, now, to be strong ...

Eventually the flow of tears slowed to an intermittent trickle, and Starsky caught his breath in a series of soft hiccups before continuing, albeit somewhat shakily. "When I was younger, Hutch, John was the strongest man on earth to me. He was big an' strong and' good an' he could fight an' he taught me so many things ... He even gave me Christmas." Hutch was gently stroking his upturned cheek, drying it, and he felt the ghost of a smile beneath his hand. Only Starsk ...

"And he ... he believed in me, messed up as I was. I came out here so angry, so hurt, so determined to not let anyone in. But there he was, Big John Blaine, a cop just like my father, and he reminded me so much of him, Hutch ... He was so much like my Pop, an' deep down I wanted so much for him to like me. An'. . . an' he did. He'd talk to me, like he really wanted to know me, like it really mattered to him who this snot-nosed kid from Brooklyn was, this angry kid with the funny accent an' the chip on his shoulder as big as the state of California. He took time for me. An' he saw things in me that nobody else saw." Starsky finally drew back, and Hutch reluctantly let him go. "Did'ya know he gave me my first camera?"

Hutch shook his head as his friend wiped his eyes and nose with the back of his hand, snuffling.

"I'm O.K.," Starsky replied to Hutch's inquiring look. "Really," he insisted, assaying another smile. "But I need to get some Kleenex. Be right back." He heaved himself up from the couch and Hutch kept his own mind blessedly blank until he returned a minute later looking fairly composed, faced freshly washing and wearing a slight smile that soon turned wistful as his thoughts evidently returned to John, if indeed they'd ever left.

He settled back onto the couch and faced Hutch. "He was ... He was everythin' I needed back then, Hutch. Him an' Maggie. An' Beth and Julie, too. They were like the sisters I'd never had. I mean, when I came out here I thought I'd lost everythin' ... everythin'! But ... there was John, ready an' willin' to give it all back to me. An' he did. He did."

Starsky poured a little more Couvousier into his snifter but didn't drink it. He kept it warming in his hand as he reclined against the sofa back, eyes closed, and Hutch returned to sipping his own drink as Starsky talked. "I was in 'Nam when Beth an' Julie died, ya know. At the time I felt so guilty, like I really shoulda been there for John an' Maggie, but I was so far away an' couldn't do a damn thing about it. When I got back a little over a year later, neither of them seemed much inclined to talk about it. We never really ever did. But they were different when I got back. More reserved. Quieter. Less ... somethin'. At first I thought it was just me, but then I figured it must've been the accident, losin' Beth and Julie like they had. I wanted to ... I dunno, make it up to them, somehow? Not that I thought I ever really could, but I really wanted to try. In a way I felt ... like I really owed it to them to make somethin' of myself, like I had a responsibility to them, bein' sorta the only kid they had left ..." He suddenly opened his eyes and sat up, remembering. "I wonder ... I wonder if that was when ..." Starsky's voice trailed off and an odd expression crossed his face.

"When what, Starsk?"

"I wonder if maybe that was when John ... you know ..."

"What, started sleeping with men?" Hutch finished the sentence for him somewhat harshly, and immediately regretted his tone, but Starsky didn't seem to take offense.

"Well, no, not exactly. I mean ..."

Hutch waited.

"Oh, hell," Starsky sighed. "I really don't know what I mean," he admitted, stalling for thinking time by taking a sip of cognac. "No, wait, that's not right, either. You got it all wrong, Hutch. What, you think I think that John just suddenly went crazy, 'cause he'd lost his daughters and turned gay? I don't think that, no way. That doesn't make any sense." His tone turned questioning the, as if he were both thinking aloud and testing his hypotheses at the same time. "I mean ... I don't know exactly what happened, an' I don't think anyone ever will. But I think that maybe ... maybe it took somethin' really big like that to shake him up a little, to the point where he'd hafta ... hafta stop lyin' to himself? Or was it maybe that once it was just him an' Maggie alone together, without the kids, he figured it out? Wait. Stop. Does this make any sense to you?" His eyes locked with Hutch's in a plea for understanding.

"Not really."

"Terrific." Starsky sighed and tried again. "What I'm tryin' to say here is that maybe he didn't even know about himself until it was too late. Or maybe if he did, he denied it. Look, I don't even know why I'm thinkin' this, but ya know what I think happened? What I think his big mistake was? I think that John's big mistake was maybe ... maybe not listenin' to his heart soon enough."

Hutch felt a chill go through him. "What do you mean?"

Starsky leaned forward, assuming his thinking position again, twirling the snifter absently between his hands. "I mean ... I think he an' Peter really loved each other. Talkin' to Peter this morning, the way he was, the stuff he was sayin', the way he was sayin' it ... I just knew, it was so obvious all of a sudden. An' he was tellin' me, too, about why they'd broken up, tellin' me that when he got kicked out of his school he really started thinkin' about the kinda life he'd been leadin' an' decidin' that he was really sick an' tired of all their sneakin' around, never bein' able to really have the kinda relationship that he ... that I guess they both wanted." Hutch waited for him to continue, but Starsky was just staring into space.


"It really musta been hell for him, ya know?" Starsky said quietly. "Havin' this person in his life, this person he loved, who loved him, and not bein' able to tell anyone about it, to share it with anyone ... Havin' to hide it all away, tell lies all the time ... So, like I was sayin', when Peter had to quit teachin', when he got pretty much forced outta the closet, he decided that he really wanted to get all the way out, but John ..."

"But John what? Wouldn't come out with him?"

Starsky was quiet for such a long time that Hutch wondered if he was even aware that he'd asked a question. "I guess he felt he couldn't," came the eventual rejoinder, but it sounded neither convincing nor convinced. "I mean, look at his situation - - a fifty-five-year-old married police lieutenant suddenly comin' out? Still ..."

"Still, what?"

"I wish he had." Starsky paused, glancing at Hutch. "What, don't you believe me?"

This entire conversation is completely and utterly surreal . . .

"C'mon, Hutch, stop lookin' at me like that! Do you really think I'm that closed-minded."

"No, Starsk, of course not! It's just that ..."

"It's just that what?" Starsky demanded. He looked like he was getting mad.

"Well, when we were talking about this before you said that you would've reacted badly to John's coming out. And you agreed with me that that's why he probably stayed in the closet. And now you're saying you wouldn't have?"

"Wait a minute, Hutchinson, I think your memory's gettin' selective here." Starsky punctuated his words with a pointing finger. "What I said was that I didn't know how I'd've reacted. And that's still true. At first? Sure, it would've been a shock, no doubt about it. It was a shock! I mean, you think you know everythin' about someone, an' then you find out that you don't, in a big way. I think that'd give anyone pause." Another thought seemed to occur to him then. "By the way, buddy, I wouldn't call your first reaction exactly nonchalant, either!"

One look silenced Hutch's instinctive denial, which died stillborn on his lips. Starsky was right, anyway - - it had been a surprise.

"But gimme some credit here! I'd've gotten over it." He finally took another sip of the cognac that he'd been holding, evidently forgotten, in his hand. "Who knows, maybe I could've even helped? Somehow?" His eyes had taken on that far-off look again, and Hutch was quick to intercede.

"Hey, Starsk, don't do this to yourself. You couldn't have done anything to change what happened. John made his own decisions, you know?"

"Yeah, I know. I just wish ... You realize, of course, that he was prob'ly mostly trying' to protect Maggie." He shook his head slowly, sadly, rubbed at his eyes. "Poor Maggie. Remember what she said when we were over at her house the other day? She tried to deny it at first, sure, but then she even admitted to us straight out that she'd known for years. I mean, think about it from her point of view. Married to a man that she deep down knew can't love her with everythin' he's got to give? I mean, John loved Maggie, an' Maggie loved John. But it couldn't've have been the picture perfect marriage they'd pretended it was! Sure, they fooled everyone else, me included, but d'ya really think they fooled themselves? O.K., maybe at first, but later? God, think about it - - it musta been years and years that they'd lived with this between them!" Starsky paused thoughtfully. "An' if maybe John deserved the chance to get what he really wanted out of life, doncha thing that Maggie might've deserved the chance to find someone who could've loved her in a way that John couldn't?" In a gesture that smacked of unadulterated frustration, Starsky brought the snifter to his lips and downed its contents in one gulp.

"Oh, hell, how knows?" he asked after the burning had subsided and he could speak again. "I don't know what I'm even talkin' about. I just ... I just wish I'd've known." He looked at Hutch with eyes that reflected love and compassion as he spoke of the man they'd buried that day. "Like you said, Hutch, it doesn't change any of the other things he was. Except ... he really wasn't very happy, was he? I ... I just wish he could've been happy. That's the bottom line. An' if his shot at bein' happy was bein' with Peter ... then I wish he could've been with Peter. Maggie ... Maggie would've dealt with it, they could've worked it out. I mean, she's dealin' with it now. D'ya really think it's any easier on her now that he's dead?"

Hutch knew that the question was rhetorical and found himself with nothing to say, wishing that there were some way to turn back the clock, to change history, somehow, to give Starsky back some of what he'd lost, to reconfigure the landscape of his life, giving him verdant rolling hills and meadows instead of treacherous mountains and stormy back seas ...



"Whatcha thinkin' about?"

"Nothing, really. You. About how I wish . . .how I wish that this all weren't so hard on you."

Starsky smiled and reached to lay a hand on Hutch's knee, giving it a small squeeze and a pat before releasing it. "Yeah, I know. You've been great, Hutch. Ya know, it'd all be a lot harder if you weren't here. You ... you let me spew, sort things out ...It really means a lot to me to have you here, to have you listen to all this stuff. Helps me to ...I dunno, clear my head a little?" He shrugged. "I know how you feel. Whenever you're down, I always wish there was more I could do for you, too. But we do what we can. And now, there's not a whole lot that anyone can do, 'cept maybe pick up the pieces. I mean, we can sit here an' bitch an' moan an' hash out the 'what ifs' till we're blue in the face an' none of it'll ever make a damn bit of difference." A strange look crossed Starsky's face then.


"'Cept maybe Peter."


"It's funny, just when I said that talkin' about it couldn't make a difference, I thought about Peter. I never did finish tellin' you about what I was sayin' before, about him runnin' for office an' all."

"No, you didn't. You said he'd changed your mind about his running on the platform of his homosexuality, but you never did get around to how."

"Well, at first I did think it was sorta dumb, but I didn't realize why he was doin' it in the first place. Peter's not in politics to win an office, ya know. He doesn't expect to win, in fact he says he knows he won't, but that's not the point at all. He got into the whole thing in the first place because of how broken up he was about what was goin' down with John."

Starsky hefted the bottle of Couvousier, apparently deciding to have just a little more. He offered some to Hutch, who shook his head. "I gather that he was real frustrated what John wouldn't leave Maggie, leave the force, make a new life for himself with him. I think he understood that John had made promises he felt that he had to keep, though. I mean, he knew John, he loved John, and that was John, all the way. Always true to his word, even if it meant a lot of sacrifice. But Peter's response to the whole thing was really different from John's. I mean, John, from what I can tell, just got morose an' depressed an' started drownin' his sorrows, tryin' to figure out how to get himself out from between a rock and a hard place, an' that's how he ended up alone and too damn drunk to just go home that night at that Green Parrot like he shoulda done ... But Peter, when it finally hit him that things weren't goin' to be the way he wanted 'em to be with him and John, Peter got mad. Mad at John, sure, but mostly mad at the force, mad at an ignorant, narrow-minded society in general. Mad enough to decide he wanted to try to do somethin' to change it."

"So he decided to run for City Council. Interesting."

"I think it was just dumb luck that all this came down in an election year, actually. I mean, think about it."

"Hmmm ...But don't you think it's funny that after hiding for so long he suddenly decided to advertise?"

"At first, maybe, but remember, he was forced out. After all that'd happened to him, I think he really wanted to take that next step and go totally public. The issue was already out there, an' it was already wreakin' havoc with his life, so maybe he thought it was important enough to force. You know, Peter doesn't want to be elected to anythin' or get anythin' special just 'cause he's gay."

"But he does want people to see him as an intelligent and articulate man who happens to be gay so they'll ... what, challenge their assumptions? Reconsider their prejudices?"

"Exactly. And what better way to do it than to launch a campaign for public office? People always wanna know all about the people who're running for office; it's all they talk about in an election year."

"Well, yeah, I can see that. If he really wants people to sit up and take notice and maybe think a little instead of just reacting, then I've got to hand it to him, he did pick a pretty effective way."

"I think there's more to it, too. Peter's a teacher, an' I get the feelin' that that's sorta like being a cop."

"How's that?"

"You know, once a cop, always a cop, that sorta thing. An' just 'cause he couldn't teach in the high school anymore didn't mean he didn't wanna teach. He even said that he considers campaignin' just another kind of education. He wanted to teach, so now he'd just teachin' a different kinda lesson in a different kinda way, or tryin' to, anyway."

"That makes sense. An if he's out to change the world, well, educating the masses tends to be an historically sound place to start."

"It works for me. He's pretty idealistic, though. I think he's hopin' to make the world into the kinda place where people like him and John don't hafta live in fear all the time, where they can live as they please and have the chance to be happy without fear of losin' their jobs. He called it 'raising consciousness'. Maybe ... maybe he hoped that he could change the world so that he and John could have a place in it together someday. Now ... who knows? The point is, he's tryin' to do somethin'. I don't know how effective it'll be, but ya never know. It's somethin', at least. And it's how he's dealin' with it. Better than drinkin' himself to death. Maybe after the election's over he'll do somethin' else along the same lines, like become an activist or somethin'. Or maybe he'll write. That'd be up his alley, sorta, bein' an English teacher an' all."

"Well, it'll be interesting to see what comes of it."


"Well," smiled Hutch, "as a teacher he's probably gratified to know that he got through to you the way he did. You're a quick learner."

"Yeah, well, not nearly quick enough. Ya know, I think we might get together at some point."

"What - - you and Peter?"

"Yeah, me an' Peter. What, you think that's so strange?"

"Uh ... no, I just never thought about it before ..."

"Yeah, it was the last thing I said to him this mornin'. I felt him so alone, ya know? So much missin' John, so hurtin', so fulla second thoughts and what ifs, and really, so was I ... an' I figured that maybe we had some things in common. John, at least. So I told him I had some pretty good stories about John if he'd ever like to hear 'em, and he said that he did, too, so we left it that maybe we'd get together sometime." Starsky's voice grew soft, then, very soft, and Hutch strained to catch the words. "There's a lot about John that I'd like to know, truth be told."

With a drawn out sigh Starsky lapsed again into silence, and Hutch became aware that the room was very quiet. The tapered candle that Starsky had lit hours ago still burned, though it stood now perhaps only a third of its original height. Hutch leaned in close, watching the flame, and consciously inhaled, seeking and finding the subtle aroma, knowing that the scent of vanilla would now forever remind him of Starsky, of this night. Funny how memory works. Vanilla and Couvousier and Glenn Miller. He didn't know how long the music had been off, he couldn't remember the record ending, but the music, too, had been imprinted on his senses.

Starsky might have read his mind at that moment, or perhaps he'd just noticed the profound silence as well, for he rose and went over to the turntable. Hutch watched him as he walked, every movement familiar, known and anticipated. Coveted. Starsky looked for a moment as if he would turn the record over, but he ended up simply returning it to its slipcover and switching the stereo off. When he turned back to Hutch he seemed to suddenly remember he wasn't alone, and had the graciousness to ask, "D'ya mind not hearin' the rest?"

"No, not at all. Whatever you want."

Starsky nodded and remained standing where he was.

"Hey, Starsk, you O.K.?"

"Yeah, sure," he replied after a beat. "I'm just really tired." He busied himself with replacing the record on the shelf and reordering a few others that had been left out, then glanced at his watch. "Damn, we've missed most of the news." Starsky's viewing of the evening newscast was an almost religious observance.

"Guess we lost track of the time."

"Really. Well, let's see what's left." He turned on the television set just in time for them to catch the weather report, which predicted a low front moving in over the mountains from the northwest, leaving the Los Angeles area slightly cooler and cloudy the next day with an eighty percent chance of rain. "Will wonders never cease?" was Starsky's only comment.

By silent, mutual consent they settled down to watch Saturday Night Live. It was one of their favorite shows, one of a mere handful they both truly enjoyed, and viewing it usually left them hysterical with shared laughter, but tonight a lingering depression permeated the atmosphere and they watched more out of a need to reestablish a modicum of normality to their lives than any desire to be entertained. Even so, Starsky chuckled aloud once or twice, and Hutch found himself enjoying the zany show in a subdued sort of way. During a commercial break Starsky rose and cleared away the empty snifters, carrying them and the rest of the Couvousier back into the kitchen, signaling that the night was, for him, drawing to a close. As he returned he asked, "Say, you got any plans for tomorrow?"

"Nothing more pressing than watering my plants. Why?"

"Merle said he'd have my car ready by late afternoon. I was thinkin' maybe if you picked me up you could leave yours over there and get that knock taken care of. It'd save us both a trip."

Hutch considered the logic, found it faultless. "Sure, sounds good. I've been meaning to, anyway. What time?"

"Say four-ish?"

"Consider it said."

The cast was now gathering on-stage and Lily Tomlin was thanking the musical guest, a young singer-songwriter whose name Hutch had already forgotten. He regretted that this day with Starsky was coming to an end. Tonight his friend would not need a guardian angel to spend the night; tonight Hutch would leave him and return to an empty apartment. He felt a tangible loneliness creep into his consciousness at the thought, heightened by his awareness of the other's presence, close enough to touch yet miles away. I just want to be with you .... But he knew his partner's signals, knew that it was almost time to take his leave.

As if on cue Starsky stood, stretched his arms high into the air and yawned, moving to silence the television set even before the credits had started rolling. He turned back to his friend, saying simply, "It's been a long day."

"Yeah," Hutch replied evenly. "I'd better be getting home." He gave Starsky a long, assessing look. "Will you be O.K.?"

"Yeah, sure." He contemplated a spot on the wall beyond Hutch's left shoulder. "Life goes on, right?"

And on and on and on ... Hutch thought as he lifted himself from the comfort of the couch. Starsky was standing quietly in the middle of the room, and though Hutch knew that he was doing all right in a relative sort of way he still looked mightily depressed. What did you expect?

"Listen, Starsk, if ... if you need anything, just call, O.K.?"

Starsky nodded. "Count on it."

He followed Hutch to the door, but before the latter could turn the knob to let himself out a hand on his shoulder and a soft voice stopped him. "Hey ..."

Hutch turned, for some inexplicable reason suddenly dreading the moment about to occur. He knew that look in Starsky's eyes, knew that shy smile. He didn't want to be thanked, didn't want to be reminded of how little he really deserved it. "Is for horses," he said absurdly, not smiling.

"That, too." Starsky held his gaze for a long time, staring at him with dark, serious eyes. Hutch resisted interpreting their expression and found himself wanting to break the gaze before he drowned in it, yet altogether incapable of looking away. Damn those eyes ... Starsky reached out for him then and Hutch had no choice but to respond, wrapping his arms around his friend, leaning his cheek into the thicket of curls. Damn the way this makes me feel ... Hutch deliberately blanked his mind but he knew that his body would later recall in detail the precious sensations of holding on, of being held. It always did. Starsky's voice broke through Hutch's mental haze and he distantly noted the way his breath warmed the shirt he wore.

"I know you don't wanna hear it, but I wanna say it. Thank you. For bein' here with me. For listenin'. For hard boilin' the eggs. For ... for just bein' who you are an' for always bein' honest with me." Hutch's chest constricted, making it a little harder to breathe. It had nothing to do at the moment with Starsky's arms around him.

"Starsk ..."

"No, I mean it," Starsky insisted, shaking his head into Hutch's shoulder, causing uncomfortable ripples of awareness. "You really can't know how much it means to me. After Pop died, I sorta stopped trustin' people. It was a long time before I learned how to do it again. John was a big part of that, but you ..." He drew back to look into Hutch's eyes. "Man, you wrote the fuckin' book, an' there ain't no way I can ever thank you enough for that." Starsky's arms gathered Hutch closer, even tighter than before, and when he finally let go Hutch thought fleetingly that it was perhaps in the nick of time ...

"What about your clothes?"


"Your suit an' stuff. You wanna just get 'em tomorrow?"

"Uh, yeah, sure." My insides are going haywire, and you're talking about my clothing?

A hand reached out and touched his cheek, patted it, and was gone. Oh, God, Starsk, please no ...

"You're really pretty special, ya know that? I don't think I could've gotten through today like I did if you hadn't been here. So .... so there," he finished, seemingly satisfied that he'd said his piece.

Hutch heard his own voice answer as if from a distance. "Hey, what are friends for, anyway, huh? Don't sweat it, O.K.? L-look, I should really go. It's late. We're tired. Uh ... see you tomorrow around four?" Hutch didn't even know what he was saying as he bent to ostensibly brush fuzz off of his jeans, a quick glance at his crotch confirming his impression that the uncontrollable reaction of a certain part of his anatomy to Starsky's close, full-body embrace was not yet fully evident. I've got to get out of here ...

"Be here with bells on ..."

"Count on it," Hutch replied as he let himself out, deliberately using Starsky's own trademark words, feeling them strangely comfortable upon his lips. He didn't need to turn around to know that Starsky's gaze followed him as he hurried down the steps and into his car, didn't once need to look behind to know that Starsky remained just inside the door, leaning against the frame, watching until the brown LTD was out of sight. It wasn't until Hutch was well on his way that it occurred to him that he hadn't even paused long enough to wish Starsky a good night.