Originally published in the zine "No Pants, No Badge, No Gun.", 1985, published by Amapola Press. Comments from this story can be sent to flamingoslim@erols.com and will be forwarded to the author. This story has been digitized and proofed by SHaron. Special thanks for all you do!



Billie Phillips

The room was filled with odors -- the scent of her perfume, the slightly acrid tang of his own sweat, the pervasive musk of sex -- but more than all that was the smell of Hutch. It seemed to blanket the room, leaving nothing for him to breathe or sense... but Hutch. Suddenly his heart was pounding in a fast, fierce beat very akin to the excitement that had shaken him at the instant of orgasm, moments ago. Before he realized what he was doing, he was up and dressing, ignoring the two bodies still loosely entangled on the bed.

Then Hutch was up, too, unselfconsciously pulling on his pants. Starsky could hear them talking, still sharing the closeness; yet he was an outsider now, separate from them and the all-or-nothing challenge that had bedded them down together. All he wanted now was to leave, but his fingers were slow and clumsy, as though he had never dressed himself.

When the silence began, he ignored it as completely as he had ignored the earlier conversation until he finally understood that the silence was directed at him. He shrugged into his jacket and looked up to find them both watching him.

Hutch was almost too painful to look at -- shirt open, shoes in hand, he was a repeat of the last time they had all been together in this house, right up to the worried/smug expression he was wearing.

Looking at Kira was not much better. Head propped on a mound of pillows, body half-covered by the pale-yellow sheet, she was smiling quietly at some private joke. Starsky tried to come up with the proper remark for such an occasion, some comment that would display the easy acceptance Kira and Hutch had, but all he could think about was leaving.

"We're not finished, yet, are we?" Kira asked, still smiling; then she laughed at his wince. "Oh, the three of us are finished, although I wouldn't mind a repeat performance some day. But, now that I've played the game your way, I'd like to see you guys kiss and make up."

"Starsky and I have settled our differences, dear heart," Hutch intervened smoothly. "That's how we wound up here."

Kira sat up and shook her head, fluffing up her flattened curls. "That's not what I said. I'd like to see you big-time swingers kiss, or is that too grown up for you?"

Hutch glanced over the rumpled bed, then grinned at Starsky, a response that answered the hard light in Kira's eyes with his own special brand of stubbornness. "It's no big deal. Whaddya say, Starsk?"

I say it's a damn big deal. I say this is crazy; but Hutch was looking at him and laughing at Kira. He and Hutch had promised to back each other all the way in this. For the first time they had had to promise to back each other, and escape was just one kiss away.

Starsky nodded abruptly and walked toward Hutch, meeting his partner at the foot of the bed. For a moment, it was all tentative awkwardness as they tried to figure out what to do with arms and heads, but then his hands were on Hutch's shoulders, Hutch's arms were around his waist, and Hutch was leaning toward his mouth. Their lips clung briefly, shyly.

He could hear Kira goading them on, calling for a real kiss. Hutch kissed him again, pressing harder against his mouth, and his lips parted involuntarily. There was nothing but the taste of Hutch, the rich warmth of Hutch's lips, the rough/smooth texture of Hutch's tongue twining around his. Then, drifting through the powerful sensations like a whiff of corruption on the wing, came the smell of Kira.

His stomach heaved, and he pulled away, knowing that he was going to be sick.

"Okay?" he mumbled, and hurried out, not really caring whether she was satisfied or not. Once outside, he ran to the Torino and viciously spun the car away from the curb. He refused to think, didn't want to know what or why. All he wanted to do was get home and shower. Even the fast-moving air blowing through the open windows wasn't enough to kill the smell of Hutch and Kira.

They were caught in his nostrils, stuck in his throat, seeping into his pores. Halfway home, he stopped the car and threw up in the privacy of a clump of bushes. He wasn't sure how long he sat in the small park before he could get back in the car. It didn't matter. In those minutes or hours, all he could do was wait for the spasms to pass so he could drive home.


The roar of the Torino's engine was a distant moan before Hutch quite realized that Starsky was gone.

The kiss had moved him fiercely. Enough so that in this night's passion, in his life's passion, it was the kiss. Until Starsky had been in his arms, it had never occurred to him that he needed him there... wanted him there. Then Starsky had run out the door, and he could have cried with the loss. Yet Kira was still there, stil1 jerking them around like mindless puppets. He shivered, goosebumps marching across his bare skin, and turned to face her gentle malice.

Instead, she was watching him with a muted wistfulness that frightened him even more.

She was too damn dangerous. How could he have come up with such a stupid plan? The idea that he could defeat her was ridiculous, and worse yet, now Starsky was disgusted with him... probably thought he got off on kinky scenes. Anyone with common sense would get out faster than Starsky had, but....

"I'm sorry, Ken." Kira pulled the sheet high enough to cover her breasts.

"Wasn't your idea," he replied coolly, wondering if his sudden hatred for her and for himself showed.

She flinched, but answered readily, "That kiss was."

"No big deal," he said, this time knowing that he lied. He bent to tie his shoes.

"Of course it was," she snapped. She tugged the sheet free, wrapping herself in the pale yellow, and stood -- a clear seeing imitation of Justice.

"That's the trouble with you two... you run your 'cool' into the ground. Do you think I would have deliberately hurt -- You stupid bastards! I thought you were playing with me... using me as a cover for the great romance of the century! I just wanted you to know that I could see through your little games, to make you spend a few seconds out of your macho closets.

"You've got these acts -- both of you... not just you -- like let's not ever forget that Dave Starsky and Ken Hutchinson are the best things that've happened to women since the pill. And all the while, you're all wrapped up in each other! There's no room for anybody else. You spend all your time challenging each other, protecting each other, hurting each other. How was I to know you didn't know you were in love?"

Hutch's mouth fell open, but his astonishment only seemed to fuel her angry resentment.

"You idiots had a field day with my head, and I'm supposed to be the harlot who destroyed the world's greatest friendship? I'm not buying. You can lie to each other. You can lie to me. When you lie to yourselves, expect to get hurt." She folded her arms and glared at him.

"In love," Hutch echoed weakly. "Me and Starsky?"

His first impulse had been to deny, but he couldn't forget the way he had felt when they had kissed, when he had held Starsky pressed tight against his body. "Are we wearing signs?"

"No," Kira admitted. "But I know you both intimately... in and out of bed," she quickly added. "Under the circumstances -- which I believe are somewhat unusual for you two -- "

"Absolutely unique!"

" -- I had an advantage over most people. You're... you're not saying I'm wrong, are you?"

The idea was so new to him he couldn't approach it head on. Instead, he kept bouncing it through his mind like a blip on a radar screen, simply enjoying the rush of emotion that accompanied each passage.

"Are you?" she insisted.

Hutch looked at and straight through her. The allure was gone. She was just another woman. Beautiful, yes; but she meant nothing to him.

"I think," he hedged, "I'll take a pass on that question."

"Right." She dimpled at him confidently; then her smile faded. "Dave. He's not... not as sophisticated as we are. He -- "

"You mean, not as surface as we are," Hutch corrected. He pushed the thought away, not wanting to remember his partner's bewildered expression as he left. Starsky had been wounded, crying inside like a child suffering punishment, determined not to let a tear spill over. That punishment had been inflicted by his best friend.

Supposed best friend, Hutch chastised himself. Was that what this whole performance was all about? Was I trying to take Kira away from Starsky... or was I really trying to take Starsky away from Kira? He felt so... right in my arms, like... like I had wanted him there for a long time. Yeah... like that.

So where do we go from here? What if Starsky didn't --? But he did. He had to feel it just as much as I did. Had to! Because if he didn't, I won't make it.

He zipped his jacket part way up, and turned to go.

"Is that it? No, 'I had a good time; let's do it again'?" Kira mocked.

Hutch swung his head around, but kept his hand on the doorknob.

"I may have inconvenienced you a bit," he said softly, "but I don't think Starsky or I was anything more to you than a hunting ground. Frankly, I don't know what you were to me... and I don't care. But, you meant something to Starsky. So did I." He shook his head and stared past her to the bed. "We hurt him... and then I hurt him some more. Whatever happens, lovely lady, I can tell you this, you and I will never do it again. That's a good line you talk, but I don't believe for a minute that you thought Starsky was playing games with you. I'm beginning not to like you, Kira."

She shrugged, tossed him a nod, and headed for the bathroom. "Oh, well, you must admit it was a good try. I transfer to the 15th next week, so... see you around."

"Not in this life," Hutch muttered at her retreating back, and headed for his car.


He sighted the Torino nestled snug against the curb when he turned the corner on to Starsky's block. He also saw its owner slowly walking up the front stairs. There was a dejected slump to Starsky's shoulders -- a physical letting go that Hutch knew would disappear the minute Starsky knew someone was watching, including his own partner.

Starsky. Generous with his happiness, open with his anger, but secretive with his hurts, hiding them away as though he were ashamed that he could feel emotional pain.

Easy, simple, basic Starsky. As clear as glass. You could read him like a book, if "War and Peace" were just a book. If the rose window at Rheims were just glass.

Hutch maneuvered his car between the tomato and a disreputable '67 Chevy more in keeping with his own taste in cars and cut the engine. He relaxed, folding his arms atop the steering wheel and resting his chin on one wrist. Before he went racing in with his, more honestly, Kira's great discovery, he had to decide on an approach.

Starsky's temper could nova in seconds, and his own would chain react under very little provocation. No one else could make him as angry as Starsky -- even Vanessa, for all her ability to wound and scratch at the sore spots, had never managed to completely pierce the layers on layers of ingrained civilized behavior that was the hallmark of being a Hutchinson.

Even when he raged or turned to ice while Van screamed and cursed, deep within there was the Watcher, the place that was untouched, indeed somewhat amused, by all the childish behavior -- hers and his own. Those were the days when he was caught up in the cheap-shot analyzing of self and everyone else. Reading the books and talking the talk and skipping over the learned cautions about blithely applying the case study to the individual. Well-trained stupidity had been his creed -- along with the blind, instilled gentility that had molded his life.

No silver spoon for him -- of course not. He'd had the whole place setting and in gold. The golden boy, bred and raised to be a golden man. He went to the right schools, wore the right clothes, did all the right things.

He wasn't loved by all -- by most, but not by all. That didn't matter. More important was that he was never ignored. One of the best; definitely one of the brightest... and he had never cared. Not where it counted. Not deep inside where all of him would hurt and laugh and cry, too.

Not until Starsky.

The shock of David Michael Starsky had not been felt immediately. His first sight of the scruffy wisecracker had produced nothing more than a horror story for Van. She had managed, from his outraged description, to do an instant imitation of Starsky that had kept them giggling through dinner and several bottles of wine. His last night before moving into Academy quarters made special by a joke from some East Coast slum.

The next day, when everyone's differences, all one hundred thirty of his classmates, were instantly wiped out by the unrelieved blue all trainees had to wear, he had dismissed the dark-haired jerk from his mind.

His roommate was John Hanson, a thin, cafe-au-lait, nose to the grindstone southerner who suited him perfectly. In the classroom, Hanson sat in front of him, Joe Huzzaro sat behind. The guy who chose to sit across from him at meals was John Colby, who had flashed a charming smile and promptly introduced himself.

"Name's Colby, John. Or, if you prefer, J.C."

Three seconds later, it was: "Hutchinson's a mouthful. They call you Hutch, right?"

Hutch had asked J.C. where his boys were, anxiously wondering whether his attempt at humor would be accepted without being enhanced by the Hutchinson money, but Colby had laughed at the hoary remark. Any worry Hutch had had about belonging at the Academy was instantly gone.

He and Colby had worked out together, studied together, and played together. For two weeks, he and his new-found friend had led the class -- Hutch with the books; Colby on the mats. The curly-headed clown who always came in third meant nothing to either of them.

That was before the pistol range, before the driving skills training, and well before they had to work the street mock-up. Then, suddenly the line-up was Starsky and, alternately, Colby and Hutchinson.

Colby had turned Hutch on to Starsky. Dangerous, pathetic Colby, who even then had looked for the main chance, sought the easy routes. Starsky had something to teach Colby, so J.C. had cultivated Starsky.

Hutch had often wondered whether Starsky had ever realized that he was being used... or whether Starsky had always known. They didn't talk about Colby much... and after Colby's arrest, they had never talked about him again. Hutch had, but Starsky hadn't.

Starsky wasn't into discussing the whys and wherefores of things -- to him life seemed to be a given. It was so seldom that he delved into the questions of life that Hutch invariably responded as though his partner was doing his usual smart-ass inanities. Yet, Hutch could sit for hours musing about this one's motivations or that one's rationale, and Starsky would listen. Why?

Hutch finally gave in to the nagging pain in the hand pressed against the steering wheel and shifted his chin, focusing his gaze on the darkened windows of Starsky's apartment.

How much did he actually know about the way Starsky thought, about why the man could feel so hard about one thing and not care about another that was so very similar?

Starsky had a thing about his "own", those special people he chose to care about; but, how did he choose them? How did Kenneth Hutchinson, who started out with a superiority complex laid on thick to cover up a sense of worthlessness so deep he didn't even recognize it, become one of Starsky's special people?

Starsky didn't like the button-down boys, said they had button-down minds, but Hutch knew that he had once been part of that group, those who were so cheerfully unaware of the difference between the sociological treatises and stinking reality. He had learned fast though. There was nothing like a hard-core wino barfing all over the back seat of the patrol car to open the eyes and clean out the cobwebs.

He'd tried to 'rehabilitate' Old Clint for three weeks, and Starsky had watched in silence. Never said a word about the many, many stops "just to see how Clint's doing" and the obvious fact that Clint wasn't doing at all. Starsky had even helped clean up that last mess -- on the condition that they let Clint go back to his alley.

"You're wanting him to go through the agonies of the drunk tank for no reason. When he gets out, he's just gonna get drunk again. And why are you doin' this? So you can feel better?

"You want to help? Help those who still have a chance -- and leave them that don't some peace. He's not hurting you, Hutch. He's not hurting anybody. In this neighborhood, he'd not even an eyesore. Leave 'im alone."

It had taken a while for the sense of Starsky's advice to finally sink in, but... finally it had. And, as usual, they had never really talked about it. Starsky wouldn't. Any time the subject came up, he'd just slide away from it. He and Starsky had been in plainclothes before he had understood that his partner had cared about Old Clint every day of that miserable three weeks, that Starsky had always cared about Clint.

Hutch roused himself from his thoughts and glanced up at the window again. This late-night visit was a mistake. He would go in and do just what he was doing -- intellectualizing without feeling. Starsky would listen or get mad so he wouldn't have to listen but... but nothing would be resolved.

Starsky was upset.

He could go in and say, 'Why are you so upset?', but Starsky wouldn't answer. He could go in and say, 'I love you... I think,' but that 'I think' would kill everything. He could go in and dither around about other things -- he was very good at that -- but, then he'd never know. And if he went in and laid it all on the line? Starsky was perfectly capable of hopping into the sack with him out of a pure and simple response to a need. His partner's need.

'Starsky, I need all your money.' 'Okay.' 'Starsk, I'd like to love you for a while.' 'Okay.' 'Starsk, I'd like to have your car -- ' Hutch's depression lifted a bit as he thought about how Starsky would react to that request. There was no way in this world or any other that Starsky would ever let him keep the precious Torino for more than --

"Come on up; it's gettin' chilly out here."

Hutch jerked around, catching his arm in the steering wheel, straining a muscle in his neck.

"Wha -- "

Starsky stepped back from the car, a bit of solid darkness in the night.

"I've been waiting for you to come on in. Thought somethin' was wrong."

Something is wrong. Hutch climbed out of the car, wildly contemplating his next words. All he came up with was: "No, I'm okay."

As he trailed Starsky up the stairs, he couldn't help asking the silly questions that had been nagging at him since he had first heard Starsky's voice at the car. "Weren't you asleep? Why are you wet? What were you doing all this time in the dark?" He couldn't help himself. Once a cop, always a cop. And once a bullshitter, always a bullshitter! What do you say when you can't say what you want to say? Don't know what you want to say?

"I was in the shower."

For over an hour? Hutch didn't ask.

Once inside, he had more important things to say.

"I thought we should talk." The questioning eyebrow made him continue, even though he knew damn well that Starsky had understood him. "About what happened at Kira's."

"There's nothing to talk about," Starsky said indifferently. He picked up the red towel slung over the wicker chair back and draped it over his dripping head.

Long minutes passed while Hutch watched the slender fingers burrow in the thick toweling, but Starsky didn't emerge from his makeshift hiding place.

"I think it's dry by now," Hutch stated flatly, settling one hip on the back of the couch, right foot dangling while the left was firmly planted for balance.

"Doesn't dry that fast," was the muffled response.

"No matter." Voice nothing but sweet reason. "I'll wait till you finish --"I'll wait forever if necessary!"-- unless you want me to help you?"

The towel was instantly pushed back. "I'm not much for sexual postmortems. Why doncha talk to Kira... the two of you could have a great conversation."

"The two of us could have a great conversation," Hutch snapped. "Why can't we just talk to each other for a change? Why don't we play grown up?"

"Don't you ever get tired of playin'?" Starsky shrugged. "Fuck it. I'll play. I'll talk... tomorrow. Not tonight; I'm bushed."

"You're just buying time," Hutch retorted. He crossed to his partner, only to be presented with flattened black curls as Starsky dropped his head. "I don't care if we just stand here all night; I'm not leavin' until we talk." Irritated, he moved closer.

Starsky backed away, head snapping up, eyes blue/black with anger. He right-angled around Hutch and stomped into the kitchen.

"Shit!" Hutch flung himself on the couch, limbs akimbo in an ungainly sprawl. He barely managed to catch the beer can launched from the kitchen alcove, arm springing upward to intercept the high-flying signal that Starsky was going to talk.

"Hey, take it easy. You want your place to start smelling like a brewery?"

Starsky's mouth set, a taut white streak almost invisible in the paleness of his face. He gulped a glass of milk, swallowed heavily, and muttered words that were too low for Hutch to hear, but the tone was clearly sarcastic.

"I didn't catch that." He swung his feet on to the coffee table, fully expecting some familiar comment on what a slob he was, but Starsky silently retreated to the bookcase, still sucking at the milk.

Hutch found tension in the slim body unnerving. Too much control... too finely drawn. Reach out a hand, and Starsky would begin to vibrate; both hands and he would snap in two. The pliant, melting body that had seemed to merge with his own was gone. The softly insistent, so innocently sensual mouth had disappeared into an almost unrecognizable, macabre gash.

"Shit!" Starsky seemed to quiver and bend a little, but before Hutch could be sure, his partner was rigid again, quickly finishing his milk. "I'm gettin' some more," he said brusquely. "Can you think of something to say before I get back? I told ya... I'm tired."

Hutch sat his beer on the coffee table, very, very carefully. He vaguely considered what Starsky would have to say about the inevitable moisture ring, whose car they would patrol in tomorrow, whether he had any clean shirts... anything but what he had come to talk about.

Starsky came back in the room, and Hutch stood up, covering his planned movements with a hastily faked stretch. Swinging his arms in relaxing circles, he aimlessly moved around the room, coming ever nearer to his goal, but whenever he came too close, Starsky would move away.

"Why don't you light somewhere? You're chasing me all over the room," Starsky said from his place of safety behind the sofa.


"So I can pretend you're a person, and not a moth!"

"No, not that why," Hutch said reasonably. "Why am I chasing you? Why suddenly can't I get within two feet of you? Do I smell bad?"

"Yeah." Starsky glanced up, adamantine brilliance gleaming beneath half-lowered lashes. A silent gulp, betrayed by a swift movement in the long throat, and he continued. "Yes. No. Hell! No, you don't, but you do to me. You stink of her... of us -- and I don't like it."

"I don't believe you," Hutch responded automatically, but he did. Knew that Starsky wasn't lying, and instantly knew that the usually detested milk was to settle a no longer cast-iron stomach. God. What they had done was different... unusual, maybe, but it hadn't been disgusting... not sickening.

Leave it to Starsky. A big-city cop with the moral strictures of a seventeenth-century Puritan. Probably saw them all burning in hell fire.

"Don't look like that." The words were gently spoken, but they were oddly comfortless. "I've pulled triples before, and I haven't had a sudden attack of moral turpitude." Starsky seemed fascinated by his empty glass, but there was a high blush on his cheeks.

Has it come to that? Hutch was conducting an equally fascinated examination of the rug. The way things are going we may never look each other in the eye again. I have no desire to hear how often you've gotten off on group play... or with whom; and I for damn sure have no intention of listening while you tell all. He actively sought the Watcher, ready to fall into that unfeeling, uncaring solace, but no matter where he searched, he found only pain. Pure, bull-headed stubbornness was the only thing that kept him from bolting out the door.

"I guess you're telling me that this was a particularly gross combination, huh, Starsk? Or are you saying that... that -- " Why couldn't he get the words out? They were clear enough in his mind: That everything was okay until you had to kiss me? Stupid, really stupid. He wanted... desperately needed... the answer. Why couldn't he ask the question? "No matter how it goes down, I still think we need to talk about it."

"Talk," Starsky echoed with a shrug, a strange hiccup in his voice. "Talk's how I got into this mess in the first place. I can't believe I let you talk me into doing it." He turned to one side, hiding his face. His next words were just a whisper. "I can't believe I did it."

"It was no big thing." Hutch offered awkward comfort, all too aware of just what a big thing it had become, but he still wasn't sure why.

"That's your answer for everything," Starsky said, openly bitter. "No matter what happens, it's no big deal."

Hutch flung himself back down on the couch, suddenly too weary to continue the chase, leaving Starsky free to return to the shelter of the bookcase. He didn't ever want to see his partner back away from him again.

"Okay, it's a big deal. It's the biggest deal that's ever happened to me," he admitted, wondering whether he had taken leave of his senses. "I didn't expect things to turn out that way."

He was pinned by an icy stare. "Did you ever think about thinking first? Thinking about what you're doing. About what you're doing to other people."

Someone in the room was a raving madman -- Starsky, I need all your money -- and Hutch knew who it was. But it was too late. Maybe it was too late years ago.

"No, fool, I parked in front of your house for an hour and took a nap!"

Starsky froze at the words, dark eyes clearly evaluating. Then, he was crouching by the sofa, looking at Hutch with an intensity that made the blond long for the safety of his car. Should have gone home; should have forgotten the whole thing. He couldn't move.

He braced himself, not sure of what was coming, but Starsky's voice was familiar, questing innocence.

"Hutch, what was the worst thing about Kira?"

"You mean her personality?" Automatic evasion, while he tried to figure out where the attack was hidden.

"No, not that." Response pure patience, but the eyes said, 'don't play games'. "I mean about this whole mess."

Heat climbed in Hutch's cheeks as he remembered what he had done, his burning need to keep Kira and Starsky apart. Not as much shame in that as in knowing that he would do it again... and again. Lips trembled with the easy meaningless apology, but he told the truth.

"I... I hurt you." He desperately wanted to touch the tangled curls so close to his hand, not for Starsky's sake, but for his own. He couldn't.

Starsky sighed, a breathy little noise that seemed small and forlorn, but his face was closed maturity, eyes still looking for... something. "We hurt each other," he said finally, "and when we're hurting each other, we walk over, dump on... use anybody who gets in the way."

It didn't fit with the Hutchinson image, and the first line of defense escaped. "I didn't mean to." He regretted the words as soon as they passed his lips. They echoed in his mind, damning for a well-bred phony. "That's a lie. I did mean to."

This time he did touch, covered the hand resting next to his legs with his own shaking fingers, asking, please don't hate me. "Couldn't stand to see her with you. Couldn't stand to wonder where you were; were you together."

Starsky stood up, leaving Hutch's hand to the comfort of the sofa cushion.

"Yeah." A hand trailed over Hutch's shoulder and squeezed the back of his neck. "You want another beer?"

"Uh... no thanks." Whatever he had said must have been what Starsky wanted to hear, and his constricting fear eased somewhat. .

He twisted his head around and looked up at his partner, only to find himself mesmerized by the sleek patterns of hair that misted over the bronze chest and thinned and gathered into a tempting line that began to thicken out just above the hip-slung jeans. Hidden beneath the faded denim was a forest of curls, thick, springy curls he had only brushed against while they were all in Kira's bed, but their texture had been different. Rougher. Prickly contrast to the unbelievably smooth cock. A strong, thick cock. That cock stirred, bulking against the material to clearly outline desire.

Hutch jerked his eyes up, staring at Starsky's bright red face as his partner edged away, trying to hide his burgeoning erection. Hutch caught at his wrist, hand easily encircling the smaller man's forearm. "You want me." Impossible to mute the triumphant wonder in his voice, and he didn't try.

He was up, stumbling around the couch in his haste, and had the warm body clutched to his, seeking and finding lips that opened to him.

"You went me. You want me." Laughter trimmed with tears, and it was ever so easy, so infinitely good. He pushed at Starsky, thrusting his hips against the warm welcome, ignoring cloth, zippers, anything between him and his goal.

Starsky arched and ebbed against him, a pathetic travesty of desire, for Hutch could feel the deep, internal heaving. His arms loosened. Starsky spun away, one hand to his mouth and the other pulling his arm tight against his stomach. A thin sheen of sweat sprang up on his skin.

Hutch watched blankly. Wrong again. Starsky didn't want him, couldn't want him when a kiss, a touch, made him ill. Pride, backed up by jangled nerves, screamed at him to get out, but his feet carried him back to the couch.

He reached for his beer, needing something with which to busy himself. Something that might mute the half-smothered sounds of retching coming from the bathroom. There was nothing on the table to play with, not in this ordered house. He squirmed at the sounds, silently cursing healthy living, because now he craved a cigarette. Could almost taste the harsh smoke filling his lungs.

Smokescreen seven years gone and suddenly needed again. It had been hell on earth to quit, the sure sign of an addictive personality. He could never give up easily. Look how long it had taken him to stop believing that Van was coming back.

He heard Starsky return to the living room, perhaps more sensed his presence than heard the bare feet moving so quietly on the carpet.

"You okay?"

"Yeah. One of my more interesting lunch combinations just caught up with me." Starsky wasn't a good liar, and he was too wiped to put much effort into that one, but Hutch appreciated the attempt. It meant that Starsky still wanted the partnership, even though he didn't want anything more.

"Well, I'd better get going. See you tomorrow?" It came out as a question, not the statement he had intended. "What I mean is -- "

"I know what you mean." Starsky shivered, goosebumps creeping his skin. "You'd better stay. Lemme get a shirt or somethin'. It's freezing in here." His voice changed, as though he were preparing for an all-nighter. "There's some other things going on here you should know about."

"I think I've got the answers," Hutch said bleakly. "Why don't we just forget that this -- "

"S'not that simple, Hutch." Starsky disappeared into the bedroom and returned, struggling to pull a bulky, rust-colored sweater over his head. "It's not what you think."

"You don't know what I think," he blustered, and then calmed. "Sorry. It's -- I... I... I've got nothing more to say."

"Do... did you love her?" Starsky's head finally popped out of the enveloping material, like a ground hog checking the weather, a slight smile on his lips.

"No," Hutch said, waiting for the justified explosion.

"Neither did I." Starsky folded himself up in the armchair, feet neatly tucked under thighs, his favorite position for bullshit conversation. His eyes were open wide, as if to be sure that he could see Hutch, but his gaze was focused on the nothingness behind Hutch's place on the couch.

"I wanted to," he continued hesitantly, voice soft enough that Hutch had to strain to hear. "I needed someone to love and she was there, helpin' to fill up the empty spaces, but not needing... lettin' me breathe." His eyes closed for a moment, a tell-tale embarrassment tinting his skin, but reopened to the same pain-filled honesty. "I tried so hard to love her. Even told you, 'cause somehow I thought that could make it true."

"I don't believe you." Couldn't believe him. How could Starsky have run that big a lie? He had wanted to marry her... hadn't he? "You expect me to believe that that was all an act? A twenty-four hour role play?"

"I can do that, Hutch." Quiet insistence somehow more convincing than the usual bombastic posturing. "You know I can do that. It's just like going undercover. You live it, breathe it... do it long enough and it's you."

"But... but, what you're saying... it's like, I don't even know my own partner." Hutch felt a bewildered resentment. He should be grateful that Starsky hadn't cared enough about Kira to be really hurt, but he just couldn't accept the fact that their clash had been meaningless... a major put on. "You... you hit me!" The whys of Kira were almost forgotten in the sudden flood of so many uncertainties.

"Not because of Kira," Starsky said carefully. "Because of you... because you did that to me."

"I don't think I can fill in the blanks anymore. You'd better explain it to me, crossing the 't's and dotting the 'i's." The coldness of his voice seemed to have very little effect on his partner, so why did he feel like his very skin had been ripped off? Why couldn't Starsky see that he was raw and bleeding? Or didn't he care?

"Remember when you faked losing your memory?"

Hutch's skin crawled. Nothing good had come out of that particular piece of insanity and, although he couldn't see the connection, he knew that nothing good was going to come out of it now.

"Shit. I've apologized for that 'til I'm blue in the face. It was a damn fool thing to do, but it's done. I don't see why you can't forget it.

"I've forgotten most of your stupid-assed stunts." He began righteously enough, but the stolid patience that stared back at him told him he couldn't evade with anger. There was no push, no demand, but he knew that Starsky would sit on his feet 'til time itself came to an end, waiting for him to shut up. Hutch stopped the futile justification, shook his head. "Sorry. I just don't know what that's got to do with this. I don't even know why I did it then."

"Me neither." The lop-sided grin held more than a touch of wistfulness. "I couldn't stop thinking about it. Never knew you to do anything that... that elaborate, you know? Always had the impression you only did practical jokes 'cause it was something you were s'posed to do. And then you do somethin' so weird." He frowned at the memory, earnestly repeating himself. "It was so weird."

Hutch smiled involuntarily. Curled up like a swami, drowning in the over-sized sweater, Starsky looked for all the world like a child explaining the wonders of his universe. The violent headshake he had used to punctuate his absolute incomprehension of Hutch's 'joke' just made him look adorable. Hutch tucked that word well away, knowing what his partner's reaction to that description would be. For a moment, it didn't matter what Starsky was saying, all Hutch wanted to do was watch him talk.

"Finally decided you needed to hurt me."

At first the words didn't register; he was lost in a world of long-lashed eyes, silky black curls, and bronze skin. When the statement sank in, it was like being hit with a crowd control prod. It wiped the smile off his face and the gentle longing out of his heart, leaving nothing but a feeling of deserved humiliation. He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees, and covered his face with his hands. Now you can't see me so you can't hurt me. It was unbelievably childish, but he couldn't give up his makeshift hiding place.

"I know it's not a very nice thing to say --" Starsky's voice was apologetic, but the inexorable detailing of shame didn't stop. "-- took me a while to understand that hurting is a part of loving... sometimes. But, by then it was too late."

"Too late for what?" The accompanying sniff sounded terribly loud in the silence, and Hutch thought about various hayfever or allergy excuses, sniffed again and opted for silence. The interesting mixture of embarrassment and pain he was experiencing was enough to make anyone a little teary-eyed.

"Too late to stop questioning. Everything you did; everything you said. Musta been like livin' under a microscope. I didn't even notice it that much myself until Dobey asked me if I thought you were about to sprout wings."

Hutch's head jerked up. Starsky watching him? Dobey making jibes about it? Where had he been while all this was going on? "When?" he demanded.

"Last summer. Didn't go on for long, 'bout a month; but it was enough to make me understand that something had to give. That we were too close." Starsky blinked, shoved the curls off his forehead with the back of his wrist, then pulled them back down with a familiar, nervous gesture. "I... I tried to put a little space between us, just so we could get back to the way we were. You seemed more than willing.

"Just seemed like we weren't right all of a sudden. It made me wonder... and there was suddenly so much to wonder about. You were the... the other half of me, the other side of my soul...."

The solemn, beautiful words didn't seem to be for him, weren't said to tear down the wall between them. And the wall was there. Had been there for a long time, Hutch realized. Starsky's side built with grim determination; his through sheer carelessness.

"Excuse the hearts 'n flowers." A slight grin eased the tension from Starsky's face. Hutch smiled back tentatively, not wanting to do anything that would interfere with the sharing of Starsky's thoughts. It had been, he admitted to himself, a long time since they had really shared anything. He just hadn't noticed, but they could get it back.

"I wasn't getting anywhere until I thought about my brother."

Nick's best, perhaps his only, asset was distance. Where could his partner have found a comparison? Hutch's face collapsed, bringing a genuine bark of laughter from Starsky.

"No, babe," Starsky giggled. "Nicky's got nothing in common with you. I just meant that... that -- You wanted my attention, too, Hutch. Since you already had it, I started to think that maybe you were trying to tell me that it wasn't enough. That maybe I'd let you down."

"Wasn't you." Hutch blinked rapidly, trying to clear his eyes. "I -- Wasn't anybody. The great American dream walking, and I can't seem to have anybody." It wasn't so hard to say, sort of like squeezing through the long thin neck of a sandpaper bottle. It was abrasive, but it would feel good when he finally pushed his way into the real world. Wouldn't it?

He shoved up from the confines of the couch, kicked at the edge of the rug 'til the toe of his shoe caught. Then, he was at Starsky's desk, playing with the paperclips and rubber-bands, all the while conscious of the man... of his friend... waiting for him to explain himself.

"It's not that I didn't... don't... care. You're the best friend I ever had. You may be the only real friend I've ever had, and I don't want to lose you. I certainly never meant to make you feel... inadequate."

He returned to the couch, concentrating on the tiny tremors shaking his fingers, the thin trickle of sweat itching down his arm. He was afraid to look at Starsky and see the pity or worse yet, unconcern. When he finally met his partner's gaze, the clear eyes held nothing but understanding, and they gave him courage.

"I am sorry." Hutch scooted over, reached out to touch, and snatched his hand back at the instant, Don't. Shocked, he curled up within himself, spiraling away from the refusal into a secretive, unfamiliar place... probably the Watcher's place, vacant for the first time in memory.

"Mustn't touch, huh, Starsk?" Lips so stiff he could barely form the words, training was the source of his easy rejoinder. He playfully slapped at his own wrist and, surprised, winced at the unexpected sense of real hurt.

"S'okay, Hutch." Starsky murmured the tender, meaningless phrases that meant to soothe, but made no move to give the physical healing that would make them real. It was comfort with distance, the all-American way to reach out and touch someone.

The betraying mist finally cleared. Not one tear spilled over, and for that Hutch was grateful. Bad enough to be burdened with an emotional over-load, but to fall apart when comfort was two feet and too many feelings away....

He tried again. "I can't bear for people to leave me. Never wanted to care enough to let it matter. For a long time..." maybe maybe until I met you? "...I wasn't sure I was capable of letting it matter. It...hurt...when Van walked --" Growing ache made it impossible to call on the veneer of sophistication. "-- but you were still there for me."

"I told you. You've always been there for me. That wasn't the problem. It...." Starsky looked away again. "Things are always changing. . . ."

"No shit!" Sudden, brisk, unfeeling impatience. Exasperated with dancing around the real subject. Tell me something I don't know, Starsk! "Things always change."

"We don't." The brilliant smile backed up by mulish insistence. "We're always the same. I itch; you scratch. My pain; your tears. We were meant to be a Starkinson or a Husky."

"We're partners, for God's sake," Hutch shouted, and then was appalled by the loudness of his voice in the quiet room. He tugged at the collar of his shirt, throat constricted, but the open vee of the soft cotton wasn't stealing his air. "Or are you telling me that you don't want that anymore?"

"No, that isn't what I meant." The tone was still calm... almost placid, but Starsky was sheet white, cramping his hands together in a twisted, agonized fist. "I want that more than anything. I'm -- I've lost that, and I can't find my way back. I want that place, Hutch. Where we were partners, best friends." Starsky lifted his hands, still entwined in that tension-warped mass as though he couldn't find a way to free himself.

"I didn't get sick... throw up... because of the smell. I'm sick because I'm so scared. We're changing and I can't seem to stop it."

"You can't stop time."

"I could." Quiet determination, but the eyes were pleading with him. "I could if you would just help me." There was something else behind the begging; something ran and whimpered in the eyes, and behind that there was -- "We've got something that's damn close to being perfect; why can't we just stop there?"

"Starsk --" but his partner wasn't listening.

"I tried so hard, but you just wouldn't stop. Kept changing and changing. Always searching for something... never content any more. Why couldn't you just leave things the way they were?"

"I wasn't happy." It came from nowhere, but it was true. How long had it been since he had been happy? Had he ever been happy? "I don't know what I want, but I've got the right to keep looking for it until I find it." A worrisome, unbelievable thought, and the question had to be asked. "Don't you care whether or not I'm happy?"

"Of course I care." It was the correct response, but Starsky didn't lose his beaten expression; if anything he looked more distressed than before, shrinking into the gigantic sweater as though he could hide in its folds. "I care." The emphasis was wrong, and Hutch felt a prickling along his spine. Not a lie but an evasion. Starsky was holding something back, something about him.

"That was some kiss." Hutch deliberately licked his lips, slowly moving his tongue from one corner of his mouth to the other in a blatantly sensual gesture.

"Hot stuff, huh? Never thought I'd be your idea of a sex symbol." The Starsky of the streets, belligerent chin jutted outward, hands clenched into individual fists.

Hutch shrugged, refocusing his now embarrassing leer on Starsky's knees. Is that all I want from him? A quick tumble... a slap and tickle and then "I'll call you" as I race on to the next one.


The answer came from deep within, with a rightness that immediately eased his fears. "I never slept with a woman I didn't care for." Well, that was a lie; but whatever else he did or was, he cared for Starsky. Why he cared for him was the one thing in his life he had learned not to question. Starsky wasn't for public wonderings or private dissections. Starsky was for laughter and for tears. Starsky was for ever.

He looked at his partner. Shadows pooled in the hollows of his throat, fighting for ascendancy over the upward curling tendrils of chest hair peeking over the open neck of the sweater. The shadows won, and gently thinned up the neck only to mesh with the emerging blue-black stubble. Lips eased softly outward from skin, so delicately molded that the entire mouth could be hidden by one of his fingers. And the eyes -- those impossibly beautiful eyes -- staring directly into his own.

A soft gasp and the dark lashes instantly swept down, but it was too late. Hutch was in love. His tiny, muffled hiss of surprise shouldn't have been heard more than an inch away, but Starsky looked up again, shook his head sadly.

"Well, so much for pure lust," he said, compressing his lips into a bloodless line.

"That's right," Hutch replied bleakly. "I'm in love. I'm in love with you --" mirthless imitation of a smile. "I guess flinging myself to my knees and making a declaration of undying devotion isn't what you want."

"I don't want any of it. I don't want an affair and --"

"Oh, David." The name belonged. It fit. "Do you think that's all we could have? Davey!" Total relief and he reached for the elusive hand.

"You didn't let me finish." Starsky stared at their entwined fingers, not holding on, just not pulling free.

"I don't want a relationship either, Hutch. I -- It's silly." He bit his lower lip, worriedly looking at his partner as though expecting Hutch to either laugh at him or lash out in fury. "I don't want to deal with all the shit. In the closet or out, there's nothing waitin' for us but hassle and I can't handle that." The declaration was curiously devoid of any feeling. "You're the best friend I ever had." Starsky reached out to trace Hutch's features, shaking fingers unconsciously detailing with a lover's touch.

Desire exploded, burning up and through Hutch. He didn't move. Starsky might need him, but need wasn't want. Starsky didn't want him.

Two for love, two for marriage, but only one to say no. Cool, slender fingers brushed over his flesh as though they could read his heart, and warm, sensuous lips formed words that said his heart didn't matter. Painfully honest eyes told of a long known truth that he had just learned.

"How long?" Strange question, but Starsky would know what he meant. How long have you known that I loved you? How long have you known that you loved me?

"Six months... maybe eight." Starsky continued his gentle tracing. "Forever."

"And you didn't say anything?" Impossible to be angry in the face of that loving touch, but the words skittered through his mind. How long would you have let me burn in silence?

The fingers paused, pressed into his skin, and then moved away, leaving him with nothing.

"I couldn't," Starsky grimaced. "Wouldn't. I was hoping --" each word punctuated by shallow, rapid breathing, "-- that you'd find somebody... that I could find somebody... that I was wrong." His lips trembled and his eyes filled. "I want my friend back."

Hutch reached out for him, fully expecting the struggle to escape.

"Don't," he asked, standing up and pulling Starsky to him. "Even friends hold each other... remember?" He wrapped his partner in his arms, cradling the stiff body. After a moment, Starsky relaxed, let his head rest heavily on Hutch's shoulder.

"Feels good," Starsky said, watery chuckle in his voice.

"It should," Hutch murmured into the thick curls. "It always did before." Maybe Starsky was right. Maybe this was more important than anything else -- the sheer ability to hold on to each other. How long had it been? Not that long, he thought, until Starsky's arms came up around him and he realized how long, not counting the kiss, it had been since they had actually held on to each other. Their bodies fitted together in the old, familiar way, a sexless embrace that conveyed nothing but love.

Hutch closed his eyes and just floated in the feeling, knowing that he was content. Maybe it was enough. But, in his visual prison, there was the feel and the scent of Starsky. Warming his senses, calling to his emotions.

No. Starsky wasn't right... couldn't be right. How could he be willing to settle for less when they could have so much more?

"Tell me why you're scared," he whispered.

Starsky's head started to leave its resting place, and Hutch pressed it down again, tangling his fingers in the silky strands. "No. Don't move. Tell me while I've got you, while you're safe with me. Tell me why."

Stubborn silence, but Starsky seemed to cling a little harder.

Hutch tried again. "Is it because of John Blaine?"

"Yes. No. I --" Starsky shuddered.

"Hey... hey, it's okay. I've got you. Not gonna let go. You can tell me."

"I don't know Hutch. It's that. It's other things."

"Like?" Hutch asked, curious.

"The... Crisco," Starsky muttered. "You know... all that stuff."

"Oh, yeah." Hutch smiled to himself. It would be... different, but different was no reason not to love. "Is that it?"

"No. It's the sneaking around -- never being able to let anyone know. Can see myself goin' to Dobey someday and sayin' 'Hutch and I are engaged!'" A huge sigh and an exhalation of breath against his neck as Starsky yawned and nestled closer, tension suddenly draining from his body. "I... it's all bollixed up in my mind."

"Maybe because you've been trying to work it out by yourself," Hutch offered, daringly beginning to rock the body in his arms. He let his lips drift very close to the ear half-hidden in the curls. "We could try to work it out together. Like partners do... huh, partner?"

"Yeah." Again a huge yawn. "'m tired."

"It's been a long day. I'm gonna go home now. We'll talk some more tomorrow... or whenever you want." Surprising himself with the honest willingness to play it Starsky's way. Maybe that was what love was really all about. "I'll do whatever you want... starting tomorrow. Okay?"

Starsky nodded. Judging by the amount of his weight Hutch was holding up, he was already half asleep.

"Before I go, I want to kiss you again."

"Not a good idea," Starsky protested drowsily.

"Once more," he insisted, already tasting the warm sweetness of Starsky's mouth under his. His muscles bunched, taut with the need to crush the slender body against him.

"For the road?" Starsky shivered despite the heavy sweater, and Hutch knew that seduction would work. First the kiss, cupping the mounds of Starsky's ass in his hands, parting his legs and pulling Starsky up between them, fitting them together. He could hold that kiss until gentleness turned to flame, 'til talk was as meaningless as Starsky's fears.

His partner stepped back noiselessly, bare toes peeping through the carpet, tangled, uncombed hair stirring gently with his movements. Face full of love and trust, he tilted his head up, then closed his eyes.

How can you deceive your heart?

Hutch sighed and jammed his hands in his pockets, not allowing them the freedom of touch. Passion gone, he bent his head and brushed his lips against his partner's, gossamer kiss, whisper-light denial.

Starsky's eyes flew open and Hutch turned away, hiding the laughter that had come with the sudden renewal of hope.

"See you tomorrow, Starsk."

"Uh... uh... yeah," Starsky stammered, voice high-pitched in surprise.

He had to turn back, had to see that the love was still there. It was. It was real, and it was all up to him now. This could be the end of a very long night or the start of a new day.

And the golden boy is scared. You hear that, Watcher; I'm scared and you cut out on me. Can't stand to play the game when it's real, huh? This time I know what I want, and I can't buy it or turn on the charm for it. All I can do is wait.

He nudged Starsky's chin up with his fist, knowing that he would never again be able to look at the man without acknowledging his beauty.

"Listen to me, David Michael. I'm going to do it your way, but I'll always be here... waiting. I'm never going to stop loving you... always be in love with you. So you just take your time. Tomorrow... the day after tomorrow... ten years from tomorrow. You got that... schweetheart?"

He spun and bounded down the stairs, whistling tunelessly as he started the car. When he turned the corner, he could see Starsky in his rear-view mirror, still standing in the doorway.


Six weeks from the other side of the grave, and he was having fun. Lord, it was fun. Ridiculous... inane... yeah, but more fun than he'd had in a long time. Dobey and Huggy hunched over the bed, doing their imitation of Laurel and Hardy... street style; a sunshiny Hutch in the bed with him, giggling madly like he'd been goosed with a feather. It was great.

Hutch had bounced into the room and leaned over him, smiling yesteryear's smile... that beautiful, impossible smile that lit up any room, any place. The smile had made up for Hutch's not noticing that he had managed to get his arms behind his head for the first time since the shooting. Didn't matter. Another physical plateau conquered meant nothing when balanced against the return of that smile.

For a moment, it was as though time had turned on itself -- no scraggly moustache, no extra weight on the slender waist covered by tacky clothes, just Hutch, the golden innocent who smiled because he loved the world, not caring that the world didn't have the good sense to appreciate it.

Hutch had instantly scrambled into bed with him, and when Dobey and Huggy arrived, they had taken positions at bedside. Just like it had been planned. No comments, not even one raised eyebrow at how the bed was occupied. As though they knew Hutch belonged there. Definitely less interested in the implications of Hutch's location than he was.

He let the thought go. Good friends... good food. A silent l'chaim to life and a real toast, but before they could drink, Hutch was staring at the spoked ceiling fixture adorned with the lantern Huggy had smuggled in. Despite the subdued lighting already illuminating the room, the lantern was welcome, bathing them in a warm, friendly glow that blunted the hospital room's functionalism.

"Oh, I don't know --"

"Looks like --"

"One of those --"

"Fire-sensitive sprinklers."

Hutch's words were like an unintentional cue, and the room was drenched in water, an icy spray that should have encouraged instant sobriety. It didn't, thank God.

Dobey's bulk moved first, as the Captain flung himself over the antipasto. "Turn it off," he barked. "Somebody shut it down!"

"Holy shit!" Huggy leapt up onto his chair and began jumping at the ceiling in a futile attempt to reach the valve so stupidly, inaccessibly centered over the bed, protecting his face from the stinging spray with one sodden, jacketed arm. That contribution to the pandemonium was as useless as Hutch's renewed giggling as the blond flung his arms wide open, welcoming the deluge.

It was crazy, and Starsky didn't care. What had to be at least three hundred pounds draped over his legs, a maniac in bed with and crawling all over him, and a very good imitation of Jiminy Cricket hopping on the furniture all seemed logical. Alice had her wonderland, and he had his... only his was the other side of the shadowed valley. After death, wasn't life supposed to be full of silly, crazy... wonderful moments

"You're breaking my legs, Cap," he groaned dramatically, trying to stifle the teeth-gleaming grin he could feel spreading across his face. Unfortunately, wiping off that grin would be like trying to dry the water-flooded room with a paper towel, and that smile was a totally inadequate reflection of the happiness that was buoying him up, filling him up, bursting from every pore.

"Took me three hours to find this antipasto," Dobey replied in the tremulous rumble that was as close as he could get to a whisper. "I'm not gonna give it up!"

"But, Cap ," Starsky carefully pointed out, his attempt at concerned seriousness a complete failure, "the sprinker's already shut itself off."

It had, leaving Hug balanced on one crane-like leg, a guardian of liberty clutching his well-soaked torch.

The unexpected shriek of the fire alarm sent Dobey bolt upright and Huggy ass over teakettle onto the floor -- both sets of brown eyes darting frantically around the room searching for the source of the noise.

Starsky felt his face twitch once... and yet again. It was too much. He roared with laughter, terrified of pulling at the partially dissolved stitches still holding him together, but unable to stop. He curled into a ball, one arm feebly clutching his aching body while the other waved breathless encouragement at the visitors-cum-comedy team decorating his room.


The voice was Hutch's, but it was barely recognizable with its icy menace. That voice was reserved for danger...for the streets. What....

A heavy, protective weight instantly settled over him, pushing him deep into the sodden mattress, half-burying his face in the pillow. He could barely see out of his uncovered eye, but it was enough.

The weight was Hutch. Dobey and Huggy were wide-eyed, ashy-brown statues, shocked immobility. Between the three, held in a trembling, white-knuckled hand was Hutch's Magnum, gun-metal death suddenly returned from defeat.

"S'not funny, Hutch." Starsky squirmed beneath the weight, trying to free himself enough to see what Hutch could see. Something strange had to be happening... maybe another one of Gunther's killers had just walked through the wall. Hutch didn't budge, thrust out a hand and pushed Starsky back down, forcing his half-healed body into an unnatural, painful position.

"Stay down. Don't --"

"Hutch!" The knifing pain along his side left him dizzy and nauseous, unable to raise his voice above a whisper, but his own pain was forgotten when the pale, frightened... panicked face turned to him. "I'm okay, Hutch. Give me the gun."

The soft, coaxing tones didn't seem to register on his partner. Hutch was again facing Dobey and Hug, staring at the two men as though he had never seen either one before. But the gun never wavered from its targets.

Starsky spoke to him again, desperately trying to smother the fear in his voice. "Hutch... babe, give me the gun." The calm soothing was weird, out of place in the siren-filled room, yet he couldn't rush it. He knew that neither Dobey nor Huggy would move until the gun was safely put away, but he didn't know what Hutch would do. Time itself seemed to stop as the long, slender finger tightened on the trigger, and Starsky realized that he might not be able to find the words to call Hutch back from whatever nightmare had trapped him.

He briefly stroked the water-darkened hair plastered to Hutch's skull, not quite understanding why his partner had suddenly gone insane but knowing, somehow, that it was for him. Wanting to love the man out of his terrors. But he firmed his voice, reaching for his own street tones, the low, clear crackling that purchased obedience for him.

"Hutch, give me your gun."

Pale blue eyes worried back and forth until finally the muzzle lowered. Starsky didn't know which was colder, the gun or the hand that had given it to him. Huggy's barely audible sigh of relief as he melted down, looking thinner than normal, seemed to trigger Dobey's head-shaking, sweat-wiping vigor. Starsky had no time for them; Hutch was shaking his own head in disbelief, fast-drying gold strands whipping outward in denial.

"I... I... what... uh... I -- " The whispered, choked attempt to speak was lost in the influx of concerned saviors -- doctors, nurses, orderlies with foam dispensers -- crowding into the room, and the ensuing flood of meaningless explanation from Dobey and Huggy. In any other circumstances, Starsky would have found the turmoil, with its justified accusations and totally unjustified lying responses funny, but not now. Not with his too-pale, trembling Hutch trying to apologize to everyone in the room, including the clean-up crew.

It was a relief when it was all over. Dobey and Huggy had been tossed out with the fire department and all the busybodies attracted by the excitement. Hutch had tried to leave with everyone else, but Dobey's few comments, quietly addressed to Dr. Dunham, had kept him there. The only thing of Hutch's leaving tonight was that damn gun.

Nurse Sanchez, his own favored mixture of drill sergeant and mother hen, bundled him and Hutch down the hall to a new room, somehow getting them stripped and into dry pajamas faster than he'd ever managed to dress himself.

Once she was gone, he couldn't think of anything to do. Just sat on the edge of Hutch's bed, holding his hand, stroking the limp fingers. He tried to talk to Hutch, to get those sightless eyes to focus on him, but Hutch was gone again. No violence this time; the blond was motionless, hadn't moved of his own volition since he'd been prevented from leaving the hospital. It was frightening to see him so much like a lifeless wooden puppet, blank empty eyes staring at nothing.

Starsky wanted to call him back, promise Hutch the world if only he'd return; but he was terrified of doing the wrong thing... of saying the wrong thing. The more he struggled to find an answer, the more scared he got until all he had to offer was a dry, aching throat and his insistent grasp of Hutch's hand. Minutes went by before he noticed that Dunham had entered and was doing a thorough examination of him.

"David? David? Officer Starsky, are you all right?" Dunham's face swam in front of him, as always the thick, black-rimmed glasses slipping down on the flattened nose.

"Yeah, I'm okay." Grudging response for breaking his concentration on Hutch, but Dunham had been the one to stitch him back together when the rest of the emergency room team was ready to let him go. Dunham had also been the one to bring him back from the dead. Of course, he was interested in his Frankenstein's well-being.

"Do you feel any pain... any unusual tightness around the sutures?" Dunham was at him again, pushing for answers when all he wanted... all he could think about was Hutch.

"No, I'm fine. Believe me."

"Then, let me get at your partner. He's not so fine... and you can believe me." The words were harsh, but the hands were gentle. Starsky was off the bed instantly, ready to do anything the man asked. He was looking after Hutch.

"What's wrong with him, Doc?" The words gabbled out quickly, too frantic, as the fear created dam burst, and Dunham's eyes locked with his, clearly evaluating. Whatever he saw must have been reassuring, because he turned back to his examination of the body sprawled far too loosely on the bed.

"Pulse rate is up, so is respiration, but I don't think it's anything more than stress reaction. How much has he had to drink tonight?"

"I don't -- " Then he remembered... four painkillers... feeling no pain... Then we're even. "Four, maybe five drinks... would have been hard liquor. But that was a while ago."

"Well, I'm not going to play around since I don't know how long ago 'a while' was, but I am going to give your partner a little sedative. Not much, but between the alcohol and all the... activity, it shouldn't take much to put him out." Dunham administered the shot while he was talking, slipping the needle in with professionalism. Dunham was good, but nobody was that good, and Hutch didn't even react to the sting. It was... scary.

"Is... is he gonna be all right?" He sounded like a little kid, but he didn't care. In this place, doctors were next to God, and right now, prayer to Dunham was a definite option.

The doctor stood up, massaging his own neck with capable hands, and gave a spine-cracking stretch.

"Ummm -- honestly, David, I can't answer that. He's in absolutely no physical danger, but whatever set him off tonight is still there. I can't cure it with a shot." His eyes, colorless behind the thick glass, sharpened, focused on some spot behind Starsky's head, and then cleared to their usual placidity. "Why don't you keep holding his hand until he falls asleep. Touch can be a great comfort... for all kinds of injuries. Just don't sit up too long; you're not exactly in the best of health, remember?"

Slipping the stethoscope into an oversized jacket pocket, he was gone. Starsky didn't even have a chance to say thank you. He was too busy trying to figure out why he hadn't noticed that he had held Hutch's hand through the entire conversation, and why, once again, no one had cared.

Good thing, too, because there was no way he was gonna let go until Hutch didn't need it any more. Or until he didn't need it any more - Hutch didn't seem to need anything... or feel anything. He carefully wrapped both hands around the ice-cold fingers, giving himself the illusion that Hutch was returning the pressure, that Hutch could at least sense his presence, but the long body never stirred.

After a while, the empty eyes closed. Maybe the sedative was working, but Hutch couldn't get any limper. Finally he crawled into bed.

It was cold, freezing even under the mound of blankets they had piled on his bed. Too cold for it to be anything but an internal chill. He wanted to get up, move around a little, but it sounded as though Hutch might finally be going to sleep. The breathing from the other bed was taking on a deeper, more regular tempo. He waited patiently, silencing the teeth-chattering chills by clenching his jaw. After a while, he stealthily climbed out of bed. He rubbed his shoulder, wishing he could run... no, make that walk, up to PT and spend an hour in the Jacuzzi. Couldn't do that. Not at five in the morning. The only thing to do at five in the morning was sleep, screw or think. He couldn't do the first, was terrified of the potential for the second, and didn't want to do the third.

Hell of a way to end the night. First night he and Hutch had had together since Kira. Ended the same way, too. We were in bed together, and we wound up in separate places.

Yet, this time some things were different. There were still odors, but the scents were those of suffering and death -- the pungent smell of long-named antiseptics and ethers.

Goosebumps prickled his arms, a flesh creep that belonged in urine-bathed back alleys or in the spore-musted jungles of Nam. Not here in this quiet, safe room, in the tranquility of his personal night, but the fear remained. It had burned from his veins with the antidote to Bellamy's poison, lifted from his shoulders with the raising of a battered brown Ford -- why was it still here?

He shivered, involuntarily nesting deeper into the skimpy hospital robe, impossibly trying to curl into the unyielding stiff-backed chair. Too much trouble to go pull one of the blankets off the bed.

Hutch moaned an unintelligible something, and shifted, leaving his partner frozen in shallow-breathed stillness 'til the restless body again quieted.

His own body smelled, no longer of the stench of death, but surviving carried its own odor -- the subtle taint of a body that was slowly finding its way back to health.

But some things were the same.

Through it all was the smell of Hutch -- funny, laughing, inebriated Hutch who had crept into his room and into his bed with all the finesse of a baby elephant at play.

Starsky sighed and shifted in the narrow chair, uncomfortably aware of stiffening, over-abused muscles, muscles that would no longer do what he wanted, that made the simplest movement require a game plan. Those same tacked-together muscles meant he'd never work the streets again, and he couldn't believe how much he didn't care. It was a small price to pay for breathing... for being alive.

He rubbed his shoulder again.

It was his birthday -- his new birthday. Less than two months ago, he'd been thirty-six years old and very careless with the passing time. Life was given to a series of people and places sandwiched between the many hours of the job, but the job had been all. Now he was thirty-six days old, reborn with a desperate need for living that made him greet each day with heartfelt thanks for existing. Even the constant, nagging pain was welcome, a reminder that he was alive.

Thirty-six days. Not much time to grow up, but he was doing his damnedest. Childish fears of what this one will think or what that one will say get old fast when you've met death and the only thing you deserve for an epitaph is, HE WAS SCARED TO LIVE.

Should be, HE WAS SCARED TO LOVE, Starsky corrected himself, and hastily smothered his brittle laughter. He didn't want to wake Hutch. That might lead to one of those tell-the-truth-in-the-middle-of-the-night talks, and he wasn't ready for that... not yet.

He was still afraid... afraid of his own partner. Afraid for him.

Hutch had been crazy all evening, but at first it had been a familiar kind of craziness. A wild, sweet celebration of survival that had been put off again and again while Starsky struggled to recover from his wounds, but the promise of celebration had always been there.

Just like Hutch.

Every day, Hutch had been there. Twice a day when he could. Listening when Starsky wanted to talk, bullying him into following the doctor's orders, holding on when the pain flared suddenly... just being there.

That was the real reason for their celebration. Never simply for the life of one or the other, but because they had survived. It was their time to flip the finger at the world and at whatever gods were paying attention. And so they had... until the sprinklers had gone off.

No. Even after that.

The torrent of water indiscriminately soaking them and their clandestine feast had caused nothing more than group cursing and then gales of laughter at Dobey's losing battle with the saran wrap as he tried to save his precious antipasto. Seconds later, the fire alarms had gone off, startling scream of fear in the night.

Then. Then it had happened.

Hutch had immediately slid forward, half covering Starsky, and pulled his gun... not to cover the door, but to threaten their two best friends. After that, there was nothing anyone could say. Not even Huggy, with his motor mouth, had been able to come up with one of his all-purpose tension-deflating comments. They were frozen there -- Hutch horrified at what he had done, and the rest of them all too understanding of why he had done it.

The fire department had finally come and gone, leaving behind a few well-chosen words for assholes who didn't know what fire-sensitive sprinklers were sensitive to.

Mrs. Sanchez and her rather understanding night staff had bustled about and settled everything. Starsky had gotten a new room, new but hospital version pajamas, and tons of heated blankets. Huggy dressed in an orderly's uniform, and Dobey went home in sterile greens, thanks to some very plump anesthesiologist. It had not been so simple to take care of Hutch.

One minute Hutch had been a giggling nut, cracking up over the antics of Dobey and Huggy; the next, he was a white-faced, raging defender, gun drawn, ready to kill.

Maybe 'cracking up' wasn't too far off the mark. Sincere acceptance of his abject, stammering apologies had seemed to do nothing for the almost hysterical blond. His disjointed, babbling explanations had gone on and on until even the strangers in the room had pitied him. That wasn't Hutch. That was cosmic sick humor; another way to jerk the rug out from under after all the excitement. Starsky had come to terms with the shooting, had easily accepted that his life would have to change, but when Hutch had fallen apart, enough apart that the professionals considered him worthy of sedation, all bets were off.

Hutch was supposed to be the strong one. That role shifted with need, but they both couldn't, wouldn't be weak at the same time. That was a given of life -- when Starsky hurt, Hutch took care. When Hutch was being difficult, Starsky understood. This time it was Hutch's turn. And Hutch had been strong for him. Had let Starsky steal from his strength as though it were endless.

Forever constant -- Hutch. He had always known that, but thirty-six days ago, he couldn't admit it. Couldn't accept the place Hutch had in his heart, wouldn't accept the hold Hutch had on his heart. They were partners... pals. Best friends. Nothing less, but definitely nothing more. That's the way life went down.

But there are very few rules, Davey. Most rules are nothing more than other people's standards. If you like them, use them. Just remember, you don't have to. The dry, whisper voice rustled in his mind. That was Uncle Max -- skinny, bespectacled, and balding. Almost forgotten beside the broad-beamed, bustling personality of his Aunt Rosie. But Uncle Max had been there for the shock of adolescence when man-sized hands and feet had appeared overnight on scrawny wrists and ankles, when the voice could wobble down to the depths of the chest and screech upward in one sentence. And when it seemed like every night ended in messy-sheeted shame.

Other people's standards. But there were rules. Deviation was just that... deviation. A perversion of living. John Blaine had opted for perversion, and Maggie had lived in the shadows of his secrets -- their lives camouflaged by the pretence of normalcy, and finally and forever defined by sexual preference. A simple question of for whom you dropped your pants and instant stigma.

He couldn't take that chance, wouldn't be defined in that way... then.

Yet, he had wanted. Dear God, how he had wanted and denied that wanting, until thirty-six days ago when he had died. He couldn't prove that he had died, wasn't even sure he remembered it, unless moments of pain-free existence were remembrance. But the hospital records noted his demise. Hutch's traumatized demeanor confirmed it, but he couldn't prove it, not from his own experience.

A "what if" had brought him back. While he wandered in some faraway land, finally at peace, a voice thickened by loss had called him back to "what if". To his birthday -- thirty-six days old and still scared.

Starsky cast a guilty glance at the unconscious figure across the room. Hutch hadn't moved; Starsky could barely see the rise and fall of his chest, but it had seemed for a moment that Hutch could hear his thoughts.

He had lied to his partner. Not about much, but he had lied. Afraid of the mechanics of gay sex -- hah. He would have willingly rubbed his entire body with Crisco and KY jelly on a daily basis if it meant he could have Hutch. He would have done anything.


Was he really so worried about what the world would think of them if they lived together, loved together? Was he really that stupid?

"Made a fool out of myself, didn't I?"

The words were such an echo of his own thoughts that for a moment he actually thought he had spoken. Then he turned to face the speaker, but Hutch's face was hidden in shadow.

"Nah, you just had a little too much." Swift, unthinking, inane protest that Hutch immediately rebutted.

"I wasn't that drunk." Hutch sat up gingerly, propping his obviously aching head against the wall. "But you're right about one thing -- I've had too much. Too much pain, too much death."

He peered through the darkness, straining to see the solid bulk of Hutch within the huge shadow shape dominating the wal1. It all seemed to be Hutch, more substance than any one man should possess.

The quiet voice went on. "I'm finished, Starsk. I'm gonna go raise Christmas trees in Oregon."

"What... what about... us?" He could hardly make himself ask the question. Of his own insistence there was no 'us' -- not outside the partnership. The foolish thoughts of the last months and hours disappeared with the thought of Hutch leaving him.

There was nothing for him to say until Hutch answered the question, but the silence was deafening and had to be filled.

"I thought you said you'd wait."

"Oh, I'll wait, my dearest and last love... but I don't have to wait here and panic every time someone drops a tray around you." Hutch shifted, flattening into the heavy shadows against the wall, totally lost in the darkness. "The next time I pull a gun on someone, I want a flag to drop from it. The next time I hear a bang, I want it to be from a firecracker."

Silence again, leaving him with sudden decision and no answers... leaving him alone. Responses tore through his mind -- I'm scared... I'm not sure I can live with this... I do want you... I do love you... you didn't give me enough time... you gave me too much time -- but not one was good enough for the man who would wait so patiently.

Finally --

"I don't like trees."

"And I don't like big cities." The implacable-sounding response was betrayed by the faint hint of shaky laughter.

"I'll move anywhere between here and Laguna Beach," Starsky compromised, struggling to rise, to get closer to the warmth that he could now reach for. Instead Hutch came to him, crouching beside him in the night, smiling shyly and crushing his fingers in an almost painful grip.

"Are those your limits?" The question could have been geographical, but Starsky understood.

"No, babe. No limits." He bent and kissed the fingers wrapped so tightly around his own. "No more limits."