This story was originally printed in the S/H zine TURNED TO FIRE, published by Idiot Triplets Press in 1994. All of the Idiot Triplets Press zines are still in print and available from Special thanks to Daphne for preparing this story for the archive. Comments on this story can be sent to:


"Starsk, wait, please. We've gotta talk . . ."

The door slammed angrily in Starsky's wake. The picture hanging on the wall trembled almost as violently as the room's remaining occupant. A peal of thunder echoed outside, mirthless applause to a dismal finish.

The blond stared at the closed door, at the jacket forgotten in his partner's haste. Numbly, he moved to the wicker chair to await his companion's return.

* * * * * *

If things had been uncomfortable back at his apartment, they weren't any better in the Torino. The rain pounded the roof overhead, cascaded down the windshield in an obscuringly continuous deluge, and bounced off the car's hood in depressingly energetic leaps. Inside the car, saturated clothes and soggy Adidas tenaciously resisted the heater's efforts to warm their shivering owner.

An aimless walk through sunny California's most recent storm - a retake of Noah's flood in his disgruntled opinion - and an hour-long drive had done nothing to reduce his confusion. The "righteous" fury that had driven Starsky from his own apartment was gone now, and with it his certainty that he had done the right thing. Isolated in the grey world of the rain-battered Torino, he felt strangely lost.

He didn't understand how this could have happened. Everything had started out normally enough, he reflected.

Overcast morning, nothing much to do, he'd called Hutch, just like always. Since Gunther's hit last year, that seemed to be the norm. Starsky did it without thinking now. Bored or lonely - call his partner. It was as automatic as breathing.

Hutch had arrived at about the same time as the storm. They'd talked for a while - silly, inconsequential topics that Starsky couldn't even remember now, certainly nothing to foreshadow what had later happened - and then decided on a game of Monopoly. Lamps dimmed, candles lit, they'd started playing.

Hutch was quiet. At first Starsky figured that the storm's violence had subdued his sensitive partner, which Hutch's bad performance had seemed to confirm. After a while the mood had changed, a strained heaviness that had nothing to do with the storm's loudness upsetting the cozy atmosphere. Whenever he looked up, he found Hutch's gaze focused upon him. Reflected gold flames from the candles shimmered hypnotically across widely dilated pupils, making it harder each time for Starsky to return his attention to the board. Made increasingly uneasy by the unblinking stare, he shifted his position and nervously commented on the thunder. Hutch's noncommittal reply sounded vague and very far away, not in the least bit reassuring. Landing on CHANCE, Starsky reached for a card. Still not looking at the game, Hutch reached for the dice. Their hands brushed. Hutch's skin felt hot and feverish against his own. Worried, Starsky caught the hand as it tried to jerk away, felt the trembling. Hutch hadn't responded to his concerned questions about his health, just silently clasped his hand even tighter. When he didn't try to pull away, Hutch's grip relaxed, and then . . .

And then his partner had leaned forward and kissed him. Just like that.

Starsky could still feel those warm lips clinging to his own. He rubbed his fist hard against his chafed mouth, futilely trying to erase the incident. So far, such efforts had succeeded only in making his mouth sore. This attempt was no different. He let his hand fall free, jumping slightly as the horn blared.

The honk echoed unnaturally loud in the surrounding stillness. The whine of the wet wind and steady, heart-like beat of the falling rain were the only other sounds. Nothing human. Nothing warm. Only wind, rain and cold . . . all muted by the confines of his sheltering haven.

Starsky shivered again, unnerved by the emptiness around him. He'd needed a quiet place to think, but the edge of the deserted park had definitely been the wrong choice. He could go home, but Hutch was there, and he wasn't ready for that confrontation yet. Still undecided about his destination, Starsky turned the motor on and began to drive.

The Pits was nearly empty when he got there, the fierce storm and the early hour combining to keep all but the most desperate away.

"What you doin' here? Thought you 'n' your fair partner was livin' the life of leisure this week."

The unexpectedly loud question hit him like an icy wave. Starsky stopped a few feet from the bar, searching his clouded mind for an appropriate answer.

"Hey, Starsky, you all right? You don't look so hot."

A warm hand gripped his slick elbow, guiding him towards a barstool.

"You're all wet, man. Don't you cops got sense enough to come in outta the rain?"

"'M fine, Huggy," his throat finally managed. Starsky swayed slightly as he perched unsteadily on the high seat.

"Sure, sure you are." Huggy, now magically behind the bar again, looked worried. "Here, drink this."

He gulped down the drink, not asking the glass's contents. The bitter golden liquor burned as it went down, searing his throat as it passed, and landing as one large lump in his empty stomach. He gasped at its burning, afraid that it was going to come back up again. Slowly the comforting waves of warmth spread through him and he relaxed slightly.

"That's better," Huggy commented. "Now tell me what's wrong."

"Nothing's wrong," Starsky lied, tightening his hold on the empty glass.

"Then what're you doing here?"

"Can't a guy come in for a drink without gettin' the third degree?" Starsky demanded angrily.

Huggy Bear stiffened at the sharp words. "Drink away. What do I care what happens to you? I ain't nothin' but your friend; why should it matter to me?" Huggy poured another generous helping into the glass, then turned to move to the other end of the bar.

"Hug," Starsky called softly.


"Sorry. I'm just not myself today."

"We're all a little off. Ain't had more than five payin' customers in here all day."

"It should be pickin' up soon," Starsky consoled, trying to appear interested. He didn't know why he'd come here. Huggy couldn't help. What was he going to say to Huggy . . . "Well, you see, my partner made a pass at me and I wanna know what you think I should do."? The idea was ludicrous. His best bet was to keep the conversation focused on unimportant matters, and deal with Hutch later when - if - he got his head together.

"Where's your partner?" Huggy asked, obviously searching for a safe topic.

"Home, I guess." He didn't say whose home.

"A-hah. So what brings you to this part of town, other than my bartendin' expertise?" Huggy's voice was cautious, ready to drop the matter at the first sign of offence.

"Just driv . . ." He couldn't complete the lie this time. Huggy was just worried about him. With good reason, Starsky realized, catching sight of his reflection in the bar mirror. Beyond the disheveled, damp exterior there was a desperation in his pale expression that not even Starsky had expected.

He looked down at his glass and took a small sip. "Hug," Starsky began, choosing each word with extreme care, "what do you do when someone you always thought of as your . . ." He caught the word "brother" before it slipped out. ". . . friend wants somethin' from you, somethin' you're not sure you can give?"

Huggy sighed deeply. "What's the matter, Starsky? She short, dark and ugly?"

Starsky flinched at Huggy's choice of pronoun. He didn't correct him, replying with a nebulous, if truthful, "Just the opposite."

Huggy paused a moment, as if waiting for the inevitable tale of troubled romance. It didn't come. Starsky sat staring silently into his drink, torn apart by a private agony Huggy couldn't begin to guess at. "Since when has tall, blonde and beautiful been a problem for you?"

"I thought it was friendship," Starsky reiterated, as if that explained everything.

Huggy stared at him for a moment, as if trying to catch the elusive thought that promised to clarify everything. "Man, this looks serious. Last time you looked this upset, our blond centurion was . . ." The words died away, Huggy's gaunt frame stiffening as if in shock. Suddenly, the subject of absent partners seemed to take on a new significance for the Pits's proprietor as Huggy tentatively approached the delicate topic. "Maybe you read this . . . friend wrong. Maybe it ain't like you think."

Starsky's head shot up, detecting hidden meanings in Huggy's hopeful suggestion. One glance at the thin face assured him that they both knew what they were talking about now. "I ain't never read this . . . friend wrong yet," he firmly declared. Besides there was very little chance of misinterpreting what had happened.

"There's always a first time."

"Not for this kinda thing," Starsky said bitterly, consciously misapprehending Huggy's meaning.

"So, that's that then, isn't it?"

Starsky picked up on the suppressed anger in the steady voice and was confused by it. "Huh?"

"You don't need me if you've already made up your mind. What didja come runnin' to me for anyway? Absolution?"

"No. I just . . ." What could he say to Huggy when he didn't know what he wanted himself? "It's just so . . . so goddamned unexpected."

"Is it really?"

Huggy's question shook him. He seemed so calm about the whole thing. "What do you mean? You can't be sayin' that you think that I . . . that I asked for it?"

The hardness in the dark eyes seemed to soften, but the ghostly flicker of something indefinable that Starsky kept reading as disappointment didn't fade a bit. "No, of course I ain't sayin' that you asked for it. You wouldn't do that; would you?"

The challenge went unanswered, but deep down inside himself, Starsky felt as if he'd failed it. Huggy's point was well taken - had he felt that way, he never would have had the courage to ask for it, not the way Hutch had.

"What do you mean, Hug?"

"Just that you're actin' like it came outta the blue at you . . ."

"It did," Starsky insisted.

"Sure," Huggy agreed softly, concentrating his full attention on wiping the bar top.

"You don't believe me."

"You said it; I believe you."

"No, you don't. Why?" Huggy looked at him, his eyes seeming to ask if he really wanted to hear the answer. "Go ahead."

"You been actin' like it's all your friend's fault, is all. Can you honestly sit there and tell me that you ain't never done anything that mighta . . . made your friend think you felt that way?"

Starsky started to answer, but stopped as a drenched mailman plopped down on a stool three or four spaces down.

Huggy, visibly annoyed at the interruption, gave him a quick, encouraging smile. "Be back in a sec."

As he watched his friend relay the dripping postman's order to the kitchen and then stop to greet three arriving customers, Starsky felt the confidence which had backed the negative reply he'd been about to give Huggy slip away.

Could he really tell Huggy that he'd never done anything that might have made Hutch believe he could feel that way? The easy "yes" didn't come, strangled by the memory of the seemingly thousands of times one or the other of them had given the name love to what they felt for each other.

Disturbed by a sudden uneasiness, he took a sip of his drink, trying to recall the first time the word love had ever been spoken between Hutch and him . . .


Going undercover. Back in uniform, he'd dreamed about it constantly, his imagination twisting it, as it did almost everything, from its reality into the exciting life of a TV action-adventure show. Now, guiding his dusty Mustang along the sizzling, mountainous highways of Northern California, Starsky was beginning to feel his romantic ideals wear thin.

He looked over at this partner, hoping Hutch would distract him from his gloomy thoughts. The blond was slumped down in his seat, absentmindedly toying with the water-logged paper straw sticking out of his empty Coke can. The smile caused by the picture of his preppyish, annoyingly perfect partner caught playing like a kid faded when he noticed the tightness around the blond's mouth and eyes. Something was bothering Hutch.

"You know, when we get back I think I'm gonna buy a new car."


"I'm gonna get a new car," Starsky explained, warming to the idea.

"What's wrong with this one?" Hutch didn't sound overly interested.

Starsky grinned as the last twists of his strategy worked themselves out in his mind. He'd learned that the best way to get through to his still-new partner was through diversionary tactics. Hutch liked to keep to himself, but if asked at the right moment - when he was entirely unsuspecting - Starsky could usually find out what was bothering him or at least distract him. During their first two argumentative months together Starsky had seen Hutch's reserve as the insulting snobbery of a stuck-up rich boy and responded to it in kind, but now after almost a year of hard teamwork Starsky was beginning to view that defensive screen as a challenge of sorts. Their two-week undercover assignment had been good for their relationship, if nothing else. They had talked some, and Starsky felt that he was finally beginning to understand his partner.

"It's too bland," Starsky explained his semi-fictitious desire for a new set of wheels.

"Police cars are supposed to be bland."

"Who says so?"

"I don't know. They just are."


"You sound like a three-year-old, for god's sake. How do I know why; they just are."

"Then there ain't any rule against paintin' them a cheerful color?"

"No, but they probably paint them bland colors so the bad guys won't know when the good guys are after them."

"They always know anyway."

"Yeah, but . . . oh, forget it."

"Gonna get somethin' quick, maybe have 'em paint her two-toned."

Hutch's patience snapped then. "Look, Starsky, I don't care if you have them paint your new car the colors of this damned soda can, so long as you shut up about it."

"Hey, what's buggin' you? What'd I say?" He tried to sound hurt by his partner's anger, but was secretly pleased to have gotten through to him.

The pale blue eyes flashed fire that not even the numerous sweat droplets running down Hutch's face were able to cool. "Nothing's wrong. It's hot as hell in this steam oven of yours and you're . . . you're . . ." Hutch paused, the angry flush fading from his cheeks. ". . . not nearly as transparent as you'd like the world to believe."

Starsky's jaw dropped in surprise. What did a person say to a line like that? Obviously, he wasn't the only one who'd viewed the last two weeks as a learning experience. During the last year he'd learned to respect Hutch's abilities and to like the person hiding behind the cold front, but it had taken them two weeks of practically living in each other's pockets for him to even begin to understand what made Hutch tick. He wondered what the blond had found out about him during that time.

"You don't really want to talk about new cars, do you, Starsk?"

Starsky shook his head, unnerved at being so easily read. But his partner's use of his shortened last name relaxed some of his apprehensions. Nobody but Hutch called him Starsk.

"What do you want to talk about?"

"A few minutes ago you looked . . ." Scared? Worried? Anxious? Without understanding how he knew, Starsky realized that his partner wouldn't respond well to any of those words. ". . . upset. I was just wondering what was troubling you."

Hutch's eyes widened, as if startled by the observation. Starsky waited for them to turn to ice as they usually did whenever he tried to pry into Hutch's personal life. No change occurred. They stared at him levelly, as if evaluating. Then Hutch slowly answered, "I was just thinking about getting back to L.A."

"Don't worry. The captain'll understand that it was our first undercover assignment. Besides, we did a good job."

Hutch's gaze dropped back to the Coke can. When Starsky saw those perfect teeth softly bite the bottom lip, he realized that his response to Hutch's admission had been the wrong one. It wasn't just the job that his partner was worried about.

"Good? We spent two weeks sitting in that stinking town just to bust a runner."

"That came too easy. It ain't the big fish gettin' away that's bugging you, Hutch."

"No, you're right. It's not."

Starsky waited, watching the road, feeling Hutch's gaze searching his face.

"Do you remember what I told you Saturday?"

Hutch's marriage. He wasn't likely to forget that drinking session. "Uh-huh." Starsky still couldn't understand how that kind of woman had hooked his sensitive partner. He'd met Vanessa. She was beautiful, but it was a cold, plastic perfection, not at all what he'd expected this down-to-earth man to prefer.

"I thought you mightn't remember. You haven't mentioned it."

"You wouldn't'a told me if you hadn't been drunk, Hutch. I figured you wanted me to forget."

It wasn't that unusual a story - just another marriage that had hit the rocks years ago and was a long time in sinking. Starsky had heard hundreds of tales like it, but this "story" was tearing his partner to shreds. "Did you forget what I told you?"

"What? That 'partners gotta trust and take care of each other'? It's good advice, Starsk, but it's got to go both ways for it to work. Van would never . . . Wait a second, you weren't talking about me and Van, were you?" Hutch asked, finally understanding his meaning.

"Nope, but it'd work there too." His voice was carefully casual. He hoped it betrayed none of the vulnerability he felt at speaking so openly with this habitually reserved man. His "advice" had been an offer of sorts that his classy partner might choose to reject; unless Hutch ignored it altogether, as Starsky had believed he'd done the last time they'd discussed the subject.

"Starsk . . ." Hutch's voice sounded funny.

"Yeah?" he asked, worried that the reticent blond was going to tell him what he could do with his trust.


The gravelly acknowledgment made him look over, but Hutch was staring out the window. Despite the awkwardness, Starsky was glad he had spoken.

They drove in silence until the car bumped over an especially jarring pothole.

"Maybe you should get a new car, Starsk. The suspension's shot on this one."

Starsky's smile dropped as he realized the foot he was easing down on the brake to slow their speed wasn't having any effect.

"What's the matter?"

"The brakes."

"What's wrong with them?"

"They ain't workin'." He pressed down harder, until the pedal was flat against the floor. Starsky noticed the number of telephone poles shooting by outside the window. They were beginning to blur. The car was moving too fast to even suggest jumping.

Starsky struggled with the wheel and gearshift, desperately trying to regain control. Nothing was working. At the speed they were doing, the solid wall of stone at their left would kill them. The right wasn't a much more attractive alternative, offering a drop of at least two hundred feet.

"Starsk . . ." A panicked exclamation to warn him they were veering to the right.

It was the last thing Starsky heard as the Mustang ripped through the metal dividing rail and plummeted over the edge. The dried brown grass of the California countryside disappeared, momentarily replaced by an almost tropical blue sky. It, too, blurred and then all he was aware of was falling in a clamorous descent to an agonizing crash.

"Wake up, Starsky . . . come on, wake up . . . We've got to get out of here." Something tugged painfully at his shoulders. Slowly, Starsky opened his eyes. It hurt. All he could see was blue sky, occasionally obscured by a wisp of black smoke. Maybe he was dead and the smoke . . . No, his head hurt too much and that insistent voice that kept disturbing him was annoyingly familiar.


"Thank God. Are you all right? Can you move?"

Starsky propped his elbows under him and tried to sit up. He was partially successful. At least it raised him to a point where he could see what was going on around him. Once he had, he immediately regretted the impulse. His lower body was wedged between the car and a rather large boulder that was preventing the weight of the overturned Mustang from crushing him. He wasn't hurt down there, but he was definitely stuck.

"Can you move?"

"I thought we were dead for sure," he mumbled, experimentally trying to wiggle his toes. They were still operating, all ten of them.

"Starsky, can you get out from under that thing?" Hutch sounded scared.

"Don't worry. I'm fine, just stuck."

"Well, get unstuck."

"I'm tryin' to."

"Well, try harder."

"Cut that out," Starsky yelped as Hutch tugged at him again. "You're hurtin' me."

"Starsky, please . . ." Hutch's urgency struck him then. ". . . hurry."

"What's the matter now?" Starsky's eyes followed the direction that Hutch's glance kept shifting to, the direction from which all that black smoke was billowing. "Oh, shit."

The dry grass, or more specifically, the dry grass near the gas tank, was aflame and spreading quickly. "Hutch, get outta here. This whole thing's gonna blow."

"Will you get out from under that thing?" Hutch was pulling at him again, only this time Starsky helped.

"It's not working, Hutch. Get outta here before you get killed."

"Not without you," Hutch stubbornly insisted.

"Damn it, you're a married man. Would you get away from this car? I'll get free, you'll see; but if it goes up in the meantime . . ."

"We'll be sitting here fighting."

"Not if you're up on the highway flaggin' down help," Starsky suggested.

"Not without you," Hutch repeated. His face was set like steel, grimy steel with shockingly pale sweat streaks.

"Hutch, please . . ."

"I'm not leaving my partner."

"But . . ."

"Would you?" The angry glare pinned him as effectively as the car.

Starsky shut his mouth and tried again.

"It's not workin', Hutch. Please, you gotta get . . ."

"Look, either you get out of there or we're both going out in a very un-bland Mustang . . . Just shut up and let me think a minute."

Starsky refrained from pointing out that they probably didn't have that long.

"I got an idea. Can you sit up a little more?"

Starsky raised himself a few more inches. "What're you doin'?" he asked as Hutch's arms clamped around him from behind and the long, corduroy-clad legs settled beside his own, bent at the knee and braced against the car. He felt Hutch's heart pounding against his back, felt his partner's fear echo with each raspy, chilling breath. "Hutch?"


The arm muscles against his stomach tightened, each ripple increasing the pressure of the crushing grip Hutch had on him. For a moment Starsky thought the opposing stresses would rip him in two, but then the obstinate car seemed to bow to a greater force, and Starsky felt himself flung back against his partner's body.

They tumbled in a sweaty heap a few yards before either of them realized that Starsky was free.

"Run," Hutch ordered.

Starsky didn't think to argue the point as he chased the tall blond behind some sheltering rocks. A loud explosion resounded almost as soon as they dropped behind the welcome grey stone.

"That was close," Hutch commented, standing up to dust off his pants. "I guess Robbins wasn't as small a fish as we thought."

"Huh?" Starsky was still too stunned to think beyond the blast they'd just escaped.

"The runner. Maybe he isn't just small fry."

"Oh, yeah." Starsky peeked over the rocks at what was left of his car. "Looks like we'll have to walk back."

They started climbing the hill carefully.

Halfway up, Hutch paused to look back down at the smoking heap. "Starsk, maybe it's time you thought about getting yourself a new car."

Starsky looked up, read the relieved mischief behind the straight face. "Could be I'll take you up on the suggestion."

"Which one is that?"

Hutch seemed to be waiting for a punchline of some kind, but Starsky just smiled up sweetly. "You'll see."

At last they gained the top. Hutch's eyes scanned the depressingly empty highway. "You were right. We'll have to walk."

"Hutch . . ." The name caught in Starsky's throat. He hadn't been able to resist a last look at his car's charred remains.



"Partners are supposed to take care of each other, remember?" Hutch's words were hesitant, uncertain.

Starsky nodded. "I remember."

The delighted smile that broke out on Hutch's face made him look incredibly young. Starsky chuckled at the transformation and flung his arm across his partner's shoulders as they started down the highway. "You know, I think this partnership's gonna work out great. I really love ya, man."

Hutch froze, his face blanching under the grime. The muscles beneath Starsky's arm stiffened in shock.

"Hey," Starsky assured, reading the distress and suddenly realizing what his words must have sounded like. "That wasn't a pass or nothin'. I just care about you - like a brother. D'ya understand?"

"Yeah. Sorry, didn't think you meant . . ."

Starsky interrupted his embarrassed friend. "Yes, you did, but that's okay."

"You mad?"

"Nah, it ain't your fault I didn't say it the way I wanted . . ."


The words had been spoken for the first time, by Starsky himself, and less than six months later Hutch's marriage had broken up. Never before had those two events connected in his mind. After that car crash their partnership had been different - stronger, seemingly more important to them both. And his partner's marriage? Hutch had seemed less . . . tormented wasn't the right word; the wounds Vanessa had given his friend were still raw, but once their partnership solidified into something more than a working relationship, Hutch had seemed less destroyed by the thought of divorce. When Van had finally walked out on him, it had come as no big surprise, maybe even a relief, for Hutch had spoken to him of doing it himself before. Yet he'd waited for his wife to do the walking. In fact, now that Starsky thought about it, he realized that Hutch always seemed to wait for the other person to do the dumping.

Like Starsky had just done?

He took another sip of the whiskey and tried not to think about it. He knew Hutch would be back at his place waiting for whatever decision he made, knew as he remembered the frightened look on his partner's face as he'd stormed out that their entire future was being left up to him.

All on account of one kiss.

Did it really matter that much? Was one little kiss worth their partnership, worth the hurt he'd put in his friend's eyes? After all Hutch had been to him, all the times they'd taken care of each other . . .

"Come to bed, babe."

His head snapped up, memory jarring at the soft request. Starsky turned in time to see Misty, Huggy's neighbor, trying to urge her more than slightly drunk husband off his barstool. Since he'd been laid off, Misty's husband had been spending most of his time here. His eyes followed the stumbling couple's progress to the door, not really seeing them.

Taking care of each other. Since the Mustang blew up that was what he and Hutch had been doing. His partner has taken his suggestion far more literally than Starsky had intended, going so far as to spend five nights on Starsky's couch making sure he took his medicine when the flu struck a few months after their first undercover assignment. Vanessa had loved that little arrangement, Starsky recalled, not without some satisfaction. Once the divorce had been finalized, Hutch had simply started taking him home with him whenever Starsky got sick.

That had never struck him as strange before. In fact, Starsky had always liked the attention, Hutch's nursemaiding reminding him of the gentle care he used to receive at home when ill. The natural, spontaneous concern his partner displayed had always made him feel better, safe. But now that he thought about it, Starsky realized how unusual the arrangement really was. How many other cops brought their partners home with them when they were sick?

"Come to bed, babe."

It didn't take him long to remember the first time he'd shared a bed with Hutch. He hadn't been sick that time, but he'd needed Hutch's comfort all the same . . .


Eventually, Starsky had to let go of his partner so they could pry Gail loose from his waist. He'd watched them lead the sobbing redhead to the squad car, half-listening to the verbal report Hutch was giving Dobey.

Being safe didn't seem real to Starsky yet. His skin could still feel the cool whoosh of air as the shining meat cleaver was raised above his head. A single second more and . . .

Starsky shivered, almost doubling over at the pain that followed it. Whatever those creeps had given him was still working, only this time an embarrassingly familiar pressure accompanied the hurt. He scanned his surroundings for privacy. "Be back in a minute," he muttered to Hutch, slipping free of the hand that still clutched his shoulder.

His "minute" turned out to be over a half-hour spent squatting in the thick underbrush behind the dais on which Simon Marcus's followers had tried to murder him. The piercing, diarrhetic cramps continued to shred his innards long after they'd been emptied.

Starsky's lowered head shot up at a clumsy thrashing in the bushes beside him, a picture of that huge grizzly bear flashing through his mind.


He both relaxed and tensed as his partner stumbled through the concealing branches. "Are you okay? When you disappeared like that I thought . . ."

The haunted fear in the purple-bagged eyes told Starsky exactly what his partner had thought. He waited for relief to clear it away, but the worry only seemed to deepen as the silent blond took in his odd position.

"I'm all right," he insisted, rising to his feet, glad that his partner's noisy searching had given him a chance to clean up before he had company. This was already embarrassing enough.

"What happened?"

"Nothin'. I'm okay now. It was just . . . some stuff they gave me."

"Gave you?" Hutch echoed, panic barely controlled in the tight features.

"Somethin' they made me drink, like castor oil or somethin'. I'm all right now."

Hutch didn't seem at all reassured by his words. "Can you make it back to the car?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"Come on then." Hutch grabbed hold of his arm, almost dragging him through the trees.

"Hutchinson," Dobey's voice barked as Hutch slapped the Mars light on the Torino's roof, "where are you going?"

"Hospital," Hutch shouted back over his shoulder, nearly mowing down two uniformed officers as the car squealed away from the deserted zoo.

"Hospital?" Starsky squeaked in dismay. "Hutch, I don't need . . ."

But the blond ignored him, delivering him to the emergency room and waiting until the doctor had cleared him. As Starsky had suspected, the potion had been nothing more than a potent laxative, meant to purify his system, no doubt. The doctor had given him something to ease the cramps, after which he'd felt much better.

Hutch's eyes hadn't changed, however. Even after the hospital cleared him those blue eyes were still sharp with worry, the strong-boned face lined with tension.

"How are you feeling, partner?" Hutch asked with forced lightness as he navigated Starsky's Torino through traffic.

"Shaky, but better," Starsky replied drowsily. For the first time in what seemed centuries he felt unconditionally safe. "Where we headed?" he thought to ask as they passed the exit for his own home, not really concerned about their destination. It felt good just to be with Hutch, to relax and allow someone else to take care of things for a while.

"My place. I thought you might . . ."

Catching the hesitation and noticing for the first time how tired Hutch appeared, Starsky cut short the explanation. "You thought right. I don't think I want to be alone just yet."

"Me, either," Hutch confessed, venting a heart-felt sigh of relief.

Studying his partner as surreptitiously as possible, Starsky began to realize that he wasn't the only one who had been through an ordeal. Hutch looked drained, as if he'd been subjected to so much trauma in his partner's absence that nothing more could faze him. The terror was still there, though, etched into every line of the tense-set profile.

"It was bad, huh?" he asked quietly.

Hutch glanced at him and returned his attention to the road. "It had nothing on what you were going through."

"Why don't you let me be the judge of that? What went down?"

Hutch gave him a concise encapsulation of the cat-and-mouse game Simon Marcus had orchestrated. His partner's fury, frustration and fear didn't break through the emotionless recitation until the very end when Hutch's control broke, his voice going very hoarse. "The clues were all in code, Starsk, like the predictions of some modern day Delphian oracle. Marcus was playing with us while you were . . . all I could think of was how those corpses had looked when those freaks got through with them."

Starsky shivered, remembering all too vividly himself the atrocities committed upon Marcus's hapless victims. Feeling a similar shudder convulse the tense figure at his side, Starsky laid his hand on the leather-clad shoulder. "You figured it out in time."

"Just. Another hour, hell, another ten minutes and we would have been too late to . . ."

"Hey, we made it through. That's the bottom line, the only thing that matters. You saved the day, partner."

"The White Knight rides again," Hutch commented bitterly.

"Huh?" Starsky asked, not understanding the reference.

"That was Marcus's code name for me," Hutch explained, his cheeks flushing a little.

Starsky started. How often had he himself envisioned Hutch as an idealistic crusader? In his more whimsical daydreams he had imagined the world-weary blond in shining armor, sitting atop a snowy steed. How could a pervert like Marcus share one of his most private fantasies?

"It suits you," Starsky said at last.

Hutch snorted. "You were Heavenly Polaris."

"What's that mean?"

"Polaris is the North Star. Heaven's the sky. STAR-SKY."

"Were the rest of his clues that cryptic?" Starsky asked, beginning to understand the stress.

"Worse. Any harder and . . ."

The horror of what almost had been was plainly visible in Hutch's face.

"Let it go, babe. It's all over now," Starsky soothed, tightening his grip on the shoulder.

A weak smile tugged at the set mouth. "I should be telling you that."

Starsky shrugged, not seeing how it made a difference who comforted whom.

At last they reached Hutch's apartment. Cheerful, midmorning sun glimmered off the restaurant's windows, sharp and piercing as off a mirror. Joggers rushed by, a mother with a laughing toddler gave them a smile as her curious charge raced toward the colorful Torino. The gulls Hutch sometimes fed were making their usual racket from the tops of the telephone poles and roof overhead. The scene was so full of life that Starsky found himself pausing as he made his exhausted way inside, just stopping to soak in the familiar sights that were suddenly so dear. Enraptured, he watched one of the seagulls soar by, majestic as any eagle.

"You all right, Starsk?"

Starsky jerked himself back to reality and the worry in his partner's voice. "Fine, just countin' my blessings."

Hutch grinned and ushered him inside.

The three-room apartment felt cozier than usual as the door closed behind them. From the driftwood scaling the entrance hall to the health food stocking the cupboards, Hutch's presence permeated the place. Numbed from the stress of the last few days Starsky soaked up the warm feelings vibrating through the familiar rooms.

"Are you hungry, Starsk?" Once again, Hutch's voice drew him out of his reverie.

He blinked at the tired man before him. Hutch didn't appear to be in a much better state than himself, but the willingness to do for him was apparent in the concerned expression.

"No, think I'll wait until my insides settle down a bit before risking food."

"You sure?"

"Positive. Let's get some sleep. Looks like we could both use it."

"You take the bed. I'll . . ."

"You'll get that big, blond bod of yours where it belongs. I'm not putting you outta your bed. The couch is fine, same as usual."

"But . . ."

"Hey, I ain't even sick. We both know we won't be able to say the same for your back if you cram yourself onto that thing."

"All right," Hutch conceded with a small smile. "But if you change your mind . . ."

"You'll hear from me," Starsky promised.

He kept his word, although not precisely as either of them had intended.

Hutch's couch was the most welcome luxury he could recall. After spending the previous night on the rocky, cold ground of a bear pen, he didn't feel at all constricted by its somewhat narrow confines. He indulged in the softness of the cushions, allowing the tension to seep out of his strained muscles as he relaxed. Within moments of resting his head upon the borrowed spare pillows that smelt of Hutch, Starsky was deeply asleep.

Exhaustion worked wonders. Hours passed before his rest was disturbed. When the dream came with all its inevitable horror, the apartment was veiled in blackness.

Starsky was on the platform again, hands bound over his head, Gail a whimpering wreck at his feet. The first rays of the dawning sun glinted chillingly off Marcus's followers' blades as they circled him, reciting that maddening chant of "Simon, Simon, Simon . . ."

The drone penetrated his skull, matched the drumming of his blood. As Starsky's fear increased, so did the volume of the chant, rising until it was frenzied shouting.

Starsky watched in horror as the leader of this merry band of psychopaths, the truly ugly one with the lean, rodent face and wild black eyes, lifted the meat cleaver up over his head. The weapon shone pure as silver in the early morning light.

This is where Hutch is supposed to make his appearance, Starsky thought with fleeting lucidity. But like an inattentive actor's, Hutch's cue came and went. There was a pause in the proceedings, as if even his loony captors were willing to give Starsky's partner those extra, unaffordable moments to save the day.

Still no Hutch.

The show must go on. The tradition was almost as ancient as the one his captors were now enacting.

The suspended cleaver and knives fell. He felt the butcher's instrument go deep into his chest cavity, the knives of the others picking out equally vital and sensitive targets. Starsky felt each of the blows, knew from their severity that he should be dead. But somehow he was not.

Enraged by his victim's stubborn hold on life, old rat face withdrew the cleaver, an arterial spray of blood deluging the hideous features. The cleaver was aimed at Starsky's head, but in his haste the man miscalculated. His wild swing severed not Starsky's head, but his bonds, crashing the captured cop to his knees.

Bleeding from every pore, Starsky rolled clear of Gail's clinging body. The tumble from the platform hurt, but he was immediately up and running, his captors hot in pursuit.

Running blind. Blood, sweat and tears obscured his vision. He crashed into several trees he didn't see until too late. Each mishap slowed him down, gave his captors that much more ground. Mindless with the need to escape, he raced on. Running, running, running . . . until the rocky ground ended and he was shooting out over an unseen drop. Clawing empty air, he fought to slow his descent. It seemed to take forever to hit the rocks below.

Starsky heard a brittle snap as his back hit the uneven boulders. All pain ceased at that point. Paralyzed, he lay staring fixedly up at the patch of blue so high above.

Lulled by the cessation of pain, Starsky drifted in a numb daze until an uneven shuffling nearby tickled his ears. The noise was followed immediately by an angry, inhuman growl.

The bear. God, no, not that, not now.

Oddly graceful, the huge grizzly minced forward. Rising on its hind legs, it towered over his frozen body, bigger and meaner than any human, even those degenerates he'd so recently escaped. All he could see were fangs and claws. Starsky gasped in the fierce, musky smell of the beast, his scream emerging as nothing more than a choked whimper. It was only as the monster descended for his exposed throat that he found his voice to shriek.

"Noooooo . . ."

Starsky shot up in the dark, right into the bear's grip. He struggled frantically, futilely. But it was no use. The bear had him. He was lost.

"Starsky!" Amazingly, the bear was only shaking him. "Starsky, wake up. Come on. Open those eyes."

He gasped as a flood of light nearly blinded him. Blinking around the blurry veil of tears, he could just make out his partner's sleepy features.


Starsky fell into the supporting embrace, burying his wet face against the smooth, bare chest. Hutch's arms closed protectively around him, that fierce hold letting him know at last that the horror was truly past.

"Shhh. It's all right. You're safe now, babe. I've got you. Relax."

Slowly, he took the advice and calmed, but he didn't give up his hold on Hutch.

It was his partner who finally pulled back far enough to stare down into his face. "Bad, huh?"

"The worst." Starsky studied the understanding features so close to his own, realized that Hutch didn't look any more rested than he had when they'd gone to bed. "You get any sleep?"

"Some." Hutch glanced away self-consciously. "I kept dreaming we didn't make it in time. It finally got so bad I had to get up and make sure you were really here."

Starsky took in the lighted lamp. The nearby easy chair with its deserted, crumpled blanket had the look of long use. "You been watching me sleep?"

"Yeah." Reluctant confession. "Pretty dumb, huh?"

Starsky thought about it. Anyone else and he would have been annoyed at the invasion of his privacy, but with Hutch . . . He shrugged off the relevancy of the issue. "You shoulda woke me."

"I tried. The dream was too . . ."

"I mean before, when you first woke up. Were you gonna sit there all night?"

Hutch's cheeks flushed hot with color, but he didn't dissemble despite his obvious discomfort. "Probably. Does it bother you?"

"Nah. Feels sorta nice, but . . . you need some sleep."

"It's all right. I was drowsing over there."

Abruptly Starsky realized that his partner was even more shaken by this experience than he had been. Understandable. They both knew what depravities Marcus was capable of. Starsky could imagine how he would have felt if it were Hutch who'd been grabbed. At least he'd known the worst of what was happening. Hutch could only imagine what was being done to him.

"Come on." He smiled, pulling his knees up to a sitting position and tossing aside his covers.

"Where?" Hutch asked groggily.

"Back to bed, babe."

"But . . ."

"I'm comin' with you," Starsky assured. "Neither one of us is gonna get any rest this way."

Taking his pillow, Starsky led the way back to the barely disturbed bed.

Hutch waited until his partner had settled himself in the unfamiliar surroundings before turning off the lamp.

Starsky grinned at the inevitable stumble. He'd never met anyone quite like his partner. He'd seen the man balance on ledges that would give an acrobat pause or stalk a felon with the silent grace and stealth of a hunting puma, but take him out of a life and death crisis situation and Hutch turned into a klutz.

"You all right?"


A moment later he felt the bed dip, Hutch claiming the empty side with a gusty sigh. "'Night, Starsk."

"Sweet dreams."

"I hope."

Once again the seductive security of the place seeped through him. With Hutch so close he felt as protected as in a mountain fortress. Still, intuition told him that the source of his solace was notably unaffected; the taut body at his side had yet to relax.

Starsky rolled onto his side, facing his friend. Casually, he let his left hand fall onto a tension-gripped bicep. "Talk to me."

"Huh?" Hutch started, sounding guilty.

"Come on, babe. They can't be any worse than my demons."

"Wanna bet?" Hutch asked, much more himself.

Starsky could almost feel the frantic thoughts racing through his partner's overactive mind. At last, Hutch released a deep breath and whispered, "I keep remembering Marcus's other victims, what they went through before . . . Starsk, you never said what happened. They didn't . . ."

Then he too recalled the young bodies, boys and girls alike, repeatedly raped before they were sacrificed.

"I'm too old to be a vestal virgin, Hutch. Wouldn't make a decent sacrifice. They were heavy into scare tactics. Kept me blindfolded while they chanted around me, tossed me in with the bear for kicks, but . . ."

"What?" Hutch shot up in bed.

Starsky could just make out the whites of his partner's overlarge eyes in the darkness. "They had a bear there. You heard Dobey trying to arrange its removal." Not liking the sudden stillness in the form beside him, Starsky asked, "Hutch, what is it?"

"You jump at ground squirrels." From the choked whisper, Starsky would have thought the bear worse than the previous nightmare scenario Hutch had so reluctantly confided.

He could hardly deny the observation, though, not after their last camping incident. "Yeah, well . . ."

Starsky was not expecting the embrace when it came. Powerful arms locked around him, drawing him in tight for a comfort he hadn't been conscious of needing. He clung to the sturdy form, absurdly glad that he hadn't had to ask. Hutch knew his fears better than himself most times.

"When you were missing Marcus tried to goad me into hitting him. I know it's wrong, but . . . I could kill him right now, Starsk," Hutch quietly confessed.

"Had a few fantasies like that myself these past few days, but . . . the creep's where he belongs. Prison is much harder on a flake like that than killing him would be. At least this way we haven't made him into a martyr."

"He's already a god to them, but you're right. Not that it makes it any easier to accept."

"This does, though." Starsky emphasized his point by tightening his hug.

"Yeah," Hutch grunted as the wind was knocked out of him.

After a few minutes Starsky maneuvered the taller blond back onto the pillows. "You comfortable?"

"Yeah. You?"

"Just fine."

It took a while, but Starsky eventually felt his companion relax, his partner's breathing regulating to the deep, even cadence of sleep. They passed the night that way, clinging to each other like frightened children. By morning Marcus's shadow had been exorcised, even Hutch having recovered to the point where he could chase Starsky around Merle's car lot with murder in his eye when he saw what the Earl had done to immortalize Hutch's precious LTD.


"Starsky, Starsky, hey, man, anyone home in there?"

Starsky blinked at the dark fingers snapping in front of his eyes, finding Huggy's face with difficulty. His nostrils twitched, mouth watering as his senses registered the fragrant steam wafting his way.

"Hi, Hug."

"That's better. Here, get this inside you," Huggy ordered, pushing a huge bowl of thick soup his way. A mug of coffee and a bread plate soon followed.

"Think chicken soup will help?" Starsky asked, lifting his spoon.

"Couldn't hurt." Huggy gave a wry grin.

Moving like an automaton, Starsky took a taste. He was uncomfortably aware of the dark gaze studying him. At least Huggy didn't seem mad at him anymore. "So say it already."

"Ain't nothin' to say if you made your mind up."

Starsky took a deep breath and met the level gaze. "You were right before. It ain't all . . . my friend's fault."

In fact, the more he thought about it, the more it seemed that he himself was ultimately responsible. When they'd met, Hutch had been hiding behind a reserve cold enough to freeze a wooly mammoth, protected by layer upon layer of defensive shields. Starsky had made a conscious effort to work his way through those barriers, delighted by each unveiling. Hutch was so fundamentally good, the further he'd dug, the more he'd liked the man. Always, Starsky had pushed for more intimacy - his fault, then.

Huggy nodded, Starsky's admission taking some of the hardness out of his expression. "Maybe you're lookin' at this from the wrong angle."

"Huh?" Starsky took another spoon of soup, its warmth far more efficacious then the whiskey.

"Fault, blame . . . that's police talk, like a crime's been committed."

"What're you tryin' to say, Hug?" Starsky questioned, no longer quite so defensive.

Huggy leaned his thin frame over the bar, speaking in a voice so low that it carried no further than the soggy detective. "What I'm sayin' is it ain't like some hustler working the Green Parrot put the make on you, is it?"

"That'd be easier. This is . . . this is Hutch, Huggy."

His torment must have been obvious because Huggy's oddly mismatched features softened in understanding. "Yeah, everything's on the line this time."

"That ain't helpin', Hug."

"Maybe not, but leastways now you're usin' your head."

Starsky regarded the man before him, coming to a realization that would have been earth shaking before this afternoon's shock. "None of this is any surprise to you. Is it?"

Huggy shook his head, a careful expression in his eyes.

"You knew? Why didn't you tell me?" Starsky demanded, finding it almost impossible to accept.

"Tell you what? Like you said, it ain't just your friend and there wasn't anything that hasn't been there for a mighty long time."

Starsky studied his soup, as if looking for an answer in the golden broth. Its color only reminded him of his partner. "What am I gonna do, Huggy?"

"Finish your soup."

The prosaic response was not what he wanted. "But . . ."

Huggy sighed. "The way I see it, my friend, you got three choices. You can keep goin' the way you were when you walked in here and write off the last eight years."

"That ain't possible," Starsky refused. Too much of his life was invested in the complex man he'd left waiting at home to blow everything because of one surprise. "What else, Hug?"

"Look at it as an accident. We both know our absent centurion's been under a lotta stress since Gunther tried to take you out last year."

Stung by the truth of that, Starsky nodded. Things were only now beginning to fall back into place. Huggy's explanation was perfectly plausible, only . . . He could tell that Huggy didn't really believe what had happened was a symptom of stress. Nor did he.


Huggy grinned. "That one's for you to figure out."

Starsky could feel the color draining from his cheeks at the unvoiced suggestion.

"It was only a thought." Huggy shrugged. "It's up to you. Don't seem to me like it'd be that unpleasant a task."

"Are you suggestin' . . .?"

"Only that you stay cool and use your head. Don't hurt him any more than you haveta, huh?"

The way Huggy spoke, it sounded like a foregone conclusion. "I don't . . ."

"Hey, Huggy Bear, what's a girl gotta do to get a drink in this place?" an attractive working girl called from the other end of the bar.

"Coming, my lady fair," Huggy assured. "Finish your soup, man. I'll be right back."

Considering the unthinkable, he watched Huggy walk away.

Some choices. Kiss an eight, no, nine-year partnership goodbye, live a lie, or . . . "Don't seem to me like it'd be that unpleasant a task."

Would it? Would it really be that hard to step beyond the conditioning of a lifetime? Hutch had. As Huggy had pointed out, his partner was no fruit. Although Starsky was certain that today's encounter had not been planned, it must have been something Hutch wanted very badly for his controls to slip like that.

But what to do about it? The first two choices stank. The last . . .

Starsky shivered at the thought.

That's what it came down to - could he make it with his partner?

He envied the tall blond, tried to think of Hutch that way, concentrating on his own body's response to the mental image.

There was no denying that his friend was easy on the eyes. Hutch's hair was like a rising sun or the purest gold. The crystal blue eyes that could express a million and one shades of emotion - all with a single glance - shining out of a face that reflected both Hutch's inner innocence and the weary weight of experience their job had inflicted upon him . . . all of these Starsky cherished.

But it wasn't the same as desire, or was it?

Abruptly, Starsky found himself drowning in memory again, this one no more than a month or so old.


Hutch was late. Very late. Suzie and Linda had called twice to know what was keeping them. The third time had been to tell them not to bother to show.

That should have bothered him, but all he could think about was his partner. There was no answer at Hutch's. His friend was late often enough that it wasn't an instant sign of disaster, but an hour and a half was a bit much even for him. Starsky's concern was beginning to be overshadowed by fear.

He'd just about decided to phone the station when the unmistakable groan of his partner's latest junk heap's dying engine could be heard over the sound of the falling rain outside. At last.

He hurried to the door, staring in disbelief at the water-logged figure that made its slow path up his stairs.

Hutch looked as if he'd been dragged through a swamp. From head to toe, the blond was drenched. Hutch's hair hung in stringy, discolored tangles down the sides of his face. The tan jacket was soaked through, with a dark stain on one elbow. The pale blue shirt below was no drier, and certainly no cleaner what with the livid black grease stains crisscrossing it. Hutch's fawn brown cords were ruined as well, mud patches marring both knees. Not even the fancy cowboy boots escaped unscathed, looking now as if they were made of fish- rather than snake-skin.

"You're a sight for sore eyes. Where you been?" Starsky greeted with a smile.

"Just get me a towel," Hutch grumbled, dripping past him. "I've got to call Linda and . . ."

"Don't bother. We've been dumped again." Normally, he would not have been this cheerful over that fact, but seeing his partner safe, if miserable, did wonders for improving Starsky's outlook on life.


"You remember the ultimatum, 'Stand us up once more and you're history.' Well, we're history."

"Great." Hutch looked around for a place to hang his dripping jacket.

Starsky took it from him, asking casually, "So where you been?"

"First the tire blew. Two miles later the engine conked out. I'm not in the mood for it right now, Starsky, so don't start on my car," Hutch warned, wincing as he bent to remove a boot.

"What's the matter?"

"I pulled a muscle changing the tire."

Noticing where Hutch's hand was rubbing, all of Starsky's humor disappeared. "In your back?"

"Yeah. What a lousy night."

Sensing the genuine discomfort beneath the outer disgruntlement, Starsky's concern deepened. "Look, why don't you get outta those wet clothes and take a hot bath. Then I'll give you a massage."

"A massage?" Hutch echoed, as if it were a word in a foreign tongue and not something he'd been administering himself for the last year.

"Yeah, you remember, one of those wonderful rubdowns you've been giving me these last ten months." He was still convinced that Hutch's hands were the major factor in his swift recovery.

The blond wavered, visibly caught between temptation and something indecipherable which Starsky chose to interpret as reticence. "You don't have to do that, Starsky."

"I want to," Starsky assured. "Now take your bath."

A half-hour later Hutch emerged from the bathroom wrapped in a couple of voluminous blue towels - one secured tightly around his waist, the second draping sturdy shoulders. Freshly washed, Hutch's hair framed his face in baby-fine tufts, shimmering like the spun gold from a magic spinning wheel in a fairy tale.

Uneasy blue eyes flickered from the bed to the plastic bottle of baby oil in Starsky's hand hesitantly, as if what was to follow were a torture session rather than a relaxing massage.

"Any better?" Starsky asked.


"Down you go then." Starsky swiped the towel from Hutch's shoulders as his partner moved reluctantly to the bed.

"Ahh, which . . ."

"Face down," Starsky instructed.

Hutch settled himself on his stomach, his hands clasped under his chin, the rest of his body as stiff as a felled oak.

Starsky sympathized with his companion's awkwardness, remembering himself how weird it had felt the first time Hutch had given him a therapeutic massage. Once Hutch had actually touched him, everything had been all right. It was the moments leading up to the massage that had been uncomfortable for him, the unusual intimacy of the anticipated act leaving him restive and inexplicably nervous. That it was the same for his partner, Starsky didn't doubt, Hutch having the added distraction of being accustomed to being on the other end of this.

Starsky spread the sweet-smelling oil over his palms and perched at the bottom of the bed.

"Hey, what're you doing?" Hutch demanded with a laugh as Starsky began to work on his left foot. "It's my back that hurts."

"Shush up. This is my show."

"That tickles."

"Does not," Starsky denied, suspecting that it was the novelty of the sensation disturbing his friend. There was nothing teasing or irritating in the pressure of his fingers.

After a few minutes, Hutch relaxed with a sigh. "That feels good," the blond generously admitted.

"Thought it might."

Starsky moved from foot to ankle, then on to the thick calf muscle. He'd always thought his partner was virtually hairless. Surprised, Starsky found that Hutch's legs were downed with hair. Although thick, the strands were so lightly colored as to be near invisible to the eye. Starsky's fingers perceived its presence as a slick, silken glide beneath the baby oil.

From calf onto the thigh, he worked in silence, concentrating on the untensing flesh beneath his fingers.

The towel at Hutch's waist soon became an impediment, falling as it did halfway down his partner's thighs. When it got in the way, Starsky tugged it off.

Hutch tensed once again. Even the unveiled flat buttocks clenched together in reaction.

Starsky returned to the thigh. His fingers soon soothed his friend back to the floating lull with which Starsky was so familiar. After a few more minutes the taut, pale globes above his work area relaxed. As his probes moved higher that white expanse of skin became even more languid. Then, as he worked towards the inner thigh, Hutch's legs splayed even further apart, the instinctive move widening the cleft between his cheeks while defining the curve of each lean hemisphere.

Unexpectedly, Starsky's breath caught in his chest as Hutch opened his legs to him. A tingling flutter stirred deep within, his heart running wild, his mouth running dry. His gaze was frozen on that stark white stretch of flesh in the center of his partner's tanned body.

With an effort, Starsky shook himself free of its allure, moving with enforced slowness to the right foot to repeat the procedure.

His mind was astorm with confusion over his body's blazing response to that innocent, natural reaction. What the hell was he thinking? This was his partner, Hutch, not Suzie. Had anything the giggling Suzie ever done moved him the way the oblivious blond had just done? a perverse part of his mind persisted.

No, but . . .

But what? What kind of excuse could there possibly be for the . . . urge that had snuck up on him?

None at all, except perhaps that he was bound to his partner as he was to no other being. They communicated on levels Starsky had never understood. He could tell straight off when Hutch was troubled, knew without having to ask when it was physical pain and when it was emotional hurt. Why should it be any different with pleasure?

Starsky knew how good this felt from the times Hutch had worked on him. His own body had no doubt responded to Hutch's pleasure. Simple enough. He'd merely misinterpreted the signal, the wrong nervous circuits kicking into gear, like when you tuned the wrong station in by accident when programming a specific channel into a new VCR.

To his bewildered mind, that seemed as plausible an explanation as any.

The real test came when he finished the right thigh. Starsky squeezed a glistening trail of baby oil across Hutch's butt, then continued the massage. The skin beneath his fingers was softer than velvet, with hard muscle underlying it. Unlike his own well-cushioned fundament, there was no spare flesh on his partner.

Starsky absorbed the sensations rising through his fingertips, finding them undeniably sensual, but not alarmingly sexual.

Just a fluke then. Nothing to be concerned about.

Unaware of how worried he'd been until he felt his muscles relax, Starsky was able to continue the massage without further incident. Within hours the episode had been relegated to memory.


Relegated to memory? Considering the current situation, Starsky admitted that it went a bit further than that. He'd buried the memory deeper than Troy, forgetting it as completely as if he'd pressed the DELETE button on a computer keyboard.

Feeling an utter hypocrite, Starsky drained off the last of his soup.

So, he'd felt it, too; but unlike his partner, he'd lacked the courage to deal with the emotion.

Starsky once again relived that moment of wild desire and wondered. If it had been Hutch's gaze and not his body that had hypnotized him, would he have had the control to turn away?

Hutch had been administering massages to him on a regular basis for over a year now. Maybe the feeling had crept up on his partner the same way, and been brushed aside for the same reasons. But if it had happened to Hutch more than once, there was bound to be a lingering doubt. Starsky knew his analytical partner would never have been able to let something like that rest. Hutch would have resisted the feeling until acceptance was forced upon him.

What happened this afternoon wasn't planned. Hutch had merely been the victim of the candlelight, storm, moody atmosphere and his own forbidden desires.

Starsky thought about the way he'd just run out on Hutch, left him alone with nothing settled and that bottomless void gaping between them. It didn't take much to imagine how abandoned his partner had to be feeling right now. Every step of the way he'd coaxed Hutch into opening up to him and when the rejection-scarred blond had made that ultimate, unanticipated leap, Starsky had turned tail and run, leaving his partner to perish in that lonely void.

Me and Thee. Who Do We Trust Time . . .

Even if he hadn't understood his partner's motivations, he'd owed it to his friend to at least be there to work out their differences.

Pushing his empty bowl away, Starsky carefully lowered himself from the high barstool. He had no idea what he was going to say to Hutch. All that he knew was that he had to get back to him. Now.

Still dazed, he moved towards the door.

"Starsky, hey, man, where you goin'?" Huggy caught hold of his sleeve, practically blocking his exit.

Looking into the worried gaze, Starsky resisted the impulse to push past. "Home. Hutch and me got some talkin' to do."

"Yeah?" Huggy Bear did not seem at all reassured by the response.

Starsky found himself touched by how protective their friend was of his partner. They were fortunate in more ways than he'd ever realized. "I'm not gonna hurt him, Hug," Starsky promised. "Done enough of that today."

Surprise gave way to relief before the dark eyes sparked with curiosity. Huggy had the grace not to ask, however. "Good. Enjoy the night. Both of you."

Starsky did not give voice to the denial that leapt to his lips, offering a sheepish smile instead. "Yeah, and, Huggy . . . thanks."

"Don't mention it."

"I won't if you won't."

"Deal." Huggy grinned.

If real life were a novel, Starsky thought as he left the Pits, the weather would have reflected the brightening of his perspective. Real life being what it was, however, he found the rain still pouring down. Smiling at nothing in particular, he sloshed his way to his Torino out back. He wanted to race back to Hutch's side, but the road conditions kept him at an excruciating crawl.

Forty minutes later Starsky stared in dismay up his water-logged street. He'd been so sure his partner would be waiting here for him, but Hutch's car was gone from out front.

Well, what did he expect? He had to have been gone for over three hours. Hutch had probably figured he wasn't coming back. So where would his partner go?

Reversing direction, he headed back toward the city. Venice Place was as good a place to start as any.

Relieved, he saw his partner's heap parked in its traditional space outside the restaurant. By the time he reached his partner's the cloud-obscured sun had sunk below the horizon, leaving the street in a miserable, unrelieved shade of slate grey. A single light shone in the windows above the restaurant, its feeble illumination a dull glow in the darkling street.

Starsky jogged through the downpour to Hutch's front door, squelching up the narrow stairs beyond. Abruptly uneasy, he paused on the landing, listening. Beneath the rumble of thunder outside, he could hear the crystalline ring of music, a solitary guitar being picked, the mournful melody a fitting counterpoint to the storm.

Loath to intrude, Starsky waited a moment more before knocking. After his earlier faux pas he would take no liberties. "Hutch, can I come in?"

The playing didn't so much stop as falter, the last note twanging painfully off-key.

There was a long hesitation before the door finally opened. "What do you want, Starsky?" There was no welcome in the weary features.

"We need to talk."

Hutch wordlessly stepped aside, allowing his entry. It was only with reluctance that the pale blue gaze strayed his way. "You're wet."

"It's raining. Hutch . . ."

The blond looked away, staring in the direction of the bookshelf on the front wall. "If an apology will make a difference, I didn't intend what happened today."

Starsky gulped. That was his partner, brave to the very last. He could feel the regret, the raw fear reverberating through the tense figure, all of it held firmly in check . . . so that it wouldn't influence Starsky. Above all, Hutch was a proud individual.

His partner had changed clothes from this afternoon. Wearing a pair of old faded blue jeans, and a baggy shirt that seemed yards too big for him, his partner looked like the last flower child. Especially with the overlong blond hair and light mustache. It was such a transformation from the clean-cut country boy Starsky had been partnered with eight, nine years back. They'd both come a long way in that time, changing each other in ways that neither could imagine all those years ago.

Certainly Starsky could never have foreseen what would bring him here tonight.

"I'm the one that ought to be apologizing. I shouldn't've run out on you."

Hutch started, this obviously not at all what he'd expected. Starsky could see how he'd unbalanced his companion, who'd apparently been prepared for a blaze of anger. "It was . . . understandable under the circumstances."

"Was it? Only if you've a forgiving nature."

If anything, Hutch's wariness seemed to increase. "Are you teasing me?"

"I wouldn't do that." Relieved, Starsky saw that that much at least was accepted. "What happened this afternoon . . ."

"Was a mistake," Hutch cut him off, his expression almost desperate. "It won't happen again. Ever."

How often had he seen that look on Hutch's face these last few years? Backed to the wall, no place to turn. Even before Gunther it had been a familiar sight. As if Hutch felt himself trapped, beyond hope. And Starsky had done it to him. "Maybe we should talk about it all the same," he suggested calmly.

"Why?" Though low, the word was filled with defensive denial.

"'Cause somethin' like that doesn't come out of no place, does it?" Starsky reasoned, on shaky ground himself.

Hutch gave him no help. "What are you trying to say?"

"I'm tryin' to figure out why. You say it was an accident, that you didn't plan it . . ."

"It just . . . happened, Starsk. I swear."

"I believe you. Only . . ."

"Only?" Hutch appeared to brace for the worst.

"Was today the first time you felt that way? The truth, babe."

"No." Hutch's gaze dropped, then glared blue fire down at him. "That wasn't what you wanted to hear, was it, partner?" The tone was uncharacteristically mocking.

"Don't," Starsky pleaded. "Don't push me away."

"I didn't push you. You ran. Remember?"

"Damn it, Hutch, would you just . . ." Starsky closed his mouth on the angry retort, took a deep breath and consciously unclenched his balled fists. They knew each other too well. After all these years Hutch knew precisely which buttons to press to set him off. "Didn't you run from it when you realized what was happening to you?" Starsky asked softly, genuinely confused.

The hard-set features gentled as Hutch stared at him, most of the aggression melting away like spring snow. "Feels like I've been running for years, Starsk."

"Years?" he echoed blankly.

Hutch gave a soft, humorless laugh and sank down onto the nearby couch as if his legs would no longer support him. "Too much truth, huh?"

"Hutch?" He perched on the cushion beside the forgotten guitar.

"Do you remember the night Van got shot, when we were hidin' out at Huggy's?"

Even after death that bitch had tried to destroy his partner. Starsky nodded. "That was a close call."

"You held me that night till I finally got to sleep. The next morning your arms were still around me. I felt . . . well, that was when things changed for me, Starsk."

"That . . . that was over three years ago." He couldn't keep the shock out of his voice.

Hutch ran a hand through his orderly hair, the gesture a sure sign of weariness. "I never meant for you to know. Today just happened. I'm sorry, Starsk."

And Hutch truly was. Starsky could see the regret etched in every line of the beautiful - (?) yes, beautiful - face. "It's not your fault. I'm responsible."

"How's that?" Hutch asked with a small smile that told Starsky he was not being taken seriously.

"I - I made you want me."

"Right." Hutch laughed softly, nothing derisive in the sound.

"Or I made it so's you couldn't want anyone else."

Hutch's laughter died at that, the shadow in the light eyes revealing how close Starsky had come to the truth. "What are you talking about, Starsky?"

"Not on purpose. There was just never any room for anyone else, for either of us. We got so close, babe, closer than brothers. The only thing we ever looked outside of each other for was sex, wasn't it?"

Hutch nodded numbly.

"Only sex isn't enough, is it?" Starsky whispered hoarsely. "Not when you're lookin' for the other half of your soul."

Hutch's eyes clenched shut, a deep quiver running the length of his lean form. "Stop, Starsk, please, I can't . . ."

How cruel did Hutch think him?

Starsky gathered his partner close, burying his lips in the fragrant blond hair. The body in his arms was so warm that even the top of Hutch's head burnt like fire. "You don't haveta, babe. Never again . . ." he promised.

Hutch clung to him a moment before forcing himself away. "Starsk?"

The questioning gaze searched his face, Hutch seeming almost too disillusioned for hope. But beneath the doubtful demeanor, Starsky sensed a change. It was fragile, no more than a tender sprout. A single thoughtless rejection would crush it as surely as a heavy boot heel would a delicate bloom.

Starsky reached out to brush the golden fall from Hutch's cheek, playing with the soft strands between his fingers while trying to find a way to reassure the vulnerability so visible in the open gaze without being too obvious about it. "I spent the day thinking about us, Hutch. I realized that most of my life is made up of fragments of you. Know that I hurt you this afternoon, partner. Don't really deserve a second chance, but . . . I won't run from you again, ever."

"Are you saying you'll sleep with me?" Hutch asked, sounding even more remote than before.

"You make it sound like a giant sacrifice or somethin'."

"You don't go that route, Starsk. I've heard you say that a thousand times. I don't want you to fuck me out of pity."

The intentional crudity, coming as it did from his normally articulate partner, was jarring. "This ain't about fucking. This is about Me and Thee," he sternly corrected.

"Starsk, I know you love me, but . . . it's . . . not enough."

Only Hutch's apparent despair stemmed his anger. "Since when is love not enough, partner?"

Hutch's gaze flicked away, his cheeks coloring. "I need to be wanted, Starsk, desired. You - you make me burn like the desert sun. It's as if every cell in my body were on fire. I couldn't bear cool indulgence from you. From Van, yes, but never from you."

The bottom of his world dropped out at the ragged confession. Blinking stinging tears back from his eyes, Starsky attempted to find his voice. To be so loved . . .

Part of him wanted to frame both sides of Hutch's face and bear him down with the sheer force of his will, but deep down he knew that would be wrong. He was resolved never to play on Hutch's feelings for him that way. He loved this man. He just had to find the right approach to prove it to his wary partner.

"Hey, when have I ever been cool where you're concerned?" Starsky challenged. He took hold of Hutch's hand, gently unballing the clenched fist. Lightly, he skimmed his fingertips across the sweaty palm. "You make me madder, happier and everything in between than anyone else, partner." Starsky lowered his mouth to the open palm, let his tongue dip down to absorb some of the moisture.

Hutch groaned, rasping out, "You never wanted me."

"I never let myself want you. There's a difference," Starsky stressed, his own breathing erratic. "If we take our clothes off . . . lay down on that big bed in there and press our naked bodies close together, you'll feel the difference, babe. I promise."

Hutch visibly wavered. Battling his own impulses, it was hardly unexpected. "You're not just doing it for me."

Starsky guided the captured hand down to the front of his still-damp jeans. "That isn't altruism, Hutch. It's arousal and it's all for you, every inch of it."

Who moved first, Starsky didn't know. Their mouths just suddenly seemed fastened together. He felt himself drowning under the kiss, his senses overwhelmed by his partner's physical presence.

The strength of the grip holding him was the first difference to register. Hutch was stronger than he was. It wasn't something Starsky thought about very often, but the raw power he sensed being held so firmly in check on his behalf brought the fact to his conscious attention. There was something slightly unnerving about knowing oneself out-muscled, but something exhilarating as well.

Contour was the next most discernible difference. Hutch was hard and flat where a girl was soft and curved . . . and hard and bulging where a girl would be soft and yielding, Starsky amended with a mental grin. Like the strength, it took some getting used to, but Starsky couldn't deny that he liked the feel of the growing bulge pressing his thigh.

Hutch's scent was also unique. When he breathed his partner in, there was no sinus-tickling barrage of artificial perfumes. Just the clean smell of herbal soap and Hutch himself.

"You don't make me sneeze," Starsky remarked as they drew apart for air.

"Huh?" Hutch smiled, a warm, bewitching sight.

"No perfume or hair spray or . . ."

"Is this your idea of romance, Starsk?" Hutch laughed.

"Yeah," Starsky replied in perfect candor. "I believe it is."

Hutch sobered. "Do you still want to move into the bedroom?"

"I'd move into your skin if you gave me half a chance." Starsky let his fingers trail down the exposed throat. "You're like silk, Hutch. Can't wait to feel you all over."

Hutch's Adam's apple bobbed beneath Starsky's hand. "Yeah?" Shy and uncertain, Hutch studied him thoughtfully a moment before continuing. "I used to . . . daydream about being free to touch you."

Starsky started. Considering what Hutch had told him about how long he'd wanted this, it shouldn't have come as any surprise. But somehow he'd just never thought of himself as the thing of which dreams were made, especially for so sophisticated an individual as his partner. "You . . . fantasize about me?"

Hutch was watching him closely now, as if trying to judge how he was taking his disclosure. At last the fair head nodded, Hutch admitting, "All the time."

"What do you dream about?" Starsky asked, intrigued.

Hutch's cheeks flushed pink as spring buds. "Different things."

"How different?" Starsky grinned, putting a world of meaning on the last word. Despite his light approach, he was genuinely concerned. He was less than sanguine about quite a bit of what they would probably soon be doing together.

Hutch chuckled, his eyes warming with affection. "Nothing too esoteric. Mostly simple stuff."


The broad shoulders shrugged. "Like not having to stop at just a hug when you're hurting. So many times I thought I could make it better for you if only . . . You get the idea."

Reading the embarrassment, Starsky drew his partner close. "Sounds real nice." He rubbed his finger down the smooth cheek, watching Hutch's eyes close, his chin arching up at him in almost feline appreciation. "What do I do to make you feel good in these daydreams?"

Starsky knew this man better than he knew himself, yet he had absolutely no knowledge of what excited his partner, what turned Hutch on.

His intent wasn't as subtle as he'd thought. Hutch's eyes opened slowly, the calm gaze meeting his own. "The mechanics aren't important, Starsk. Anything you feel comfortable with is fine."

"Anything?" he repeated, rippling inside at the free license Hutch seemed to be offering him.

He'd never seen Hutch smile quite the way he did then. It was a small gesture, full of mystery, utterly provocative. "Use your imagination if you want, or keep it simple. It's up to you."

"Maybe we'd better move this inside, huh?" Starsky suggested through a tight throat, his erection throbbing in suddenly constricting jeans. He didn't remember getting to his feet, but he was standing over Hutch offering both his hands.

Hutch allowed him to guide him up from the couch, snuggling into the offered embrace.

Starsky felt as if they were entering an unexplored continent as they moved to the bed. So many unknowns, so many pitfalls . . . the one thing he was sure of was his feeling for the man in his arms.

Hutch's familiar gaze was a mirror of his own as they stopped by the quilt-covered bed, all doubts and desires so plainly visible.

"I was hoping one of us knew what he was doing," Starsky said, Hutch's earlier permissiveness having given him some thoughts in that direction.

"Sorry to disappoint you."

"It doesn't," Starsky assured, all the more impressed by his friend's courage. Hutch was as much a virgin to this as himself, yet his partner had still offered himself unconditionally to him. "Makes me want you all the more."

Hutch gulped and began to unbutton the billowing shirt.

"Can I do that?" Starsky asked, reaching for the fastening.

"If you like," Hutch agreed, staring at him out of enormous eyes that made the blond look all of sixteen.

"I like. I like everything I see," Starsky assured, eyeing the chest he was unveiling with growing appreciation.

Hutch's fingers gripped the bottom of Starsky's blue sweat shirt, a question in his face.

Starsky bent his head, allowing the blond to pull the garment off. He looked down at his revealed chest, aware that he wasn't seeing the same thing in the expanse of pink scar tissue and body hair that Hutch did. From the avid expression on his partner's face, Starsky would have thought that Loni Anderson had just jiggled in topless.

"Can I?" Hutch asked eagerly.

"Touch away." Starsky grinned, unable to hide his bemusement.

Hutch's flat palms settled on his shoulders, making their way slowly down his chest in wide circles. The touch was exciting, stimulating in a way he'd never thought another man's could be.

Starsky lowered his head over the nearby sternum, resting his lips on the hairless chest. Experimentally, he let his tongue flick onto the silken surface.

Hutch gasped, his hands tightening on Starsky's ribs. "God, yesss . . ."

A little awed by the overwhelming response, Starsky did as was so obviously desired, kissing and licking his way from one budding nipple to the other. Hutch's head was thrown back, strangled groans escaping despite his obvious attempts at self-control. Stunned by the transformation in his reserved partner, Starsky continued until Hutch caught his head and forced him away.

"You - you're gonna kill me, Starsk, if you keep that up," Hutch panted, the glazed eyes looking almost drugged.

Feeling strangely intoxicated himself, Starsky ran his hand through Hutch's hair, allowing the sable-soft length to fluff down in slow, sensuous sweeps.

Hutch trembled against him, clutching his shoulders for support.

"You taste good, partner. Kinda salty. What's the rest of you like?"

"Like Jell-O at the moment," Hutch chuckled.

"Yeah?" Starsky lowered the tall blond onto the bed, flat on his back. The open anticipation in the watching gaze set his nerves tingling. "That better?"


He bent over Hutch for another kiss. Each time it seemed easier, less awkward. The bristly mustache didn't even feel weird now.

Starsky felt himself lost in this sharing. He could feel their barriers crumbling like inadequate dams before the flood waters of tenderness. His tongue slipped out, was instantly sucked deep into Hutch's mouth, the other man feeding on it like a suckling lamb.

Starsky had the vivid image of Hutch taking another part of him in. He could almost feel the feather-light fall of golden hair against his belly and thighs, see Hutch's cheeks hollow out as he sucked him in, the fair head bobbing rhythmically over him.

Would Hutch be willing to do that for him? Could he do it for Hutch?

Starsky broke free of the kiss for air, bending immediately to nuzzle the long neck. Like an addict returning to source, he found himself back at Hutch's chest again, delighting in every squirm and moan he elicited. Unanticipated as it was, Starsky realized that watching the contained blond lose his cool was one of the hottest turn-ons he'd encountered.

"Staarsssk . . ." Hutch groaned as his partner's tongue dipped into his belly button.

Starsky eyed the writhing figure with satisfaction. At that moment, his partner was without exception the most stunningly beautiful sight he'd ever seen. Hutch's eyes were a brilliant, fiery blue, almost incandescent in their arousal. Cheeks flushed with excitement, the pale gold hair a wild tangle, chest heaving . . . Starsky had never expected anything this gloriously uninhibited.

His hands moved to the clasp of Hutch's jeans. Just to be certain, he checked Hutch's face for permission. So far his partner had seemed content to allow him to take the lead, but Starsky was taking nothing for granted. "Okay, babe?"

Hutch blinked in incomprehension. "Huh? Oh, yeah . . . Anything, please . . ."

Starsky fumbled the pants open, sliding jeans and briefs down over Hutch's hips and endless legs in one smooth motion. Starsky was absurdly grateful his partner was barefoot. He hadn't been thinking clearly enough to remove footwear first.

His own Adidas, socks, jeans, and briefs were tugged off far more impatiently. Starsky stared down at his straining erection in something like amazement. He was ready now and Hutch hadn't even touched him there.

He looked back at his partner, observing the nakedness from a different perspective. Hutch was longer and thinner than he was, the blond's cock appearing as streamlined as the rest of his friend's body. The golden fluff at the base of the straining organ captivated Starsky.

He could feel Hutch's gaze doing a similar inventory. Starsky wondered if he came up to expectation. Three years, Hutch had said he'd wanted him that long, desire kept alive with imagination. Fantasy could be stiff competition, especially when the reality was a battle-scarred street cop.

His concern was unanticipated. Normally he was almost completely unself-conscious of his appearance, certain of his ability to please. But with Hutch . . . He'd known he could feel tenderness for the man, was not unduly shocked to find himself wanting his partner, but he'd never thought it would be vital to him that Hutch find him physically appealing.

"You should've been a cat," Hutch gruffly whispered.

"Huh?" Starsky questioned, thinking he'd misheard.

"You're like a blue-eyed panther - sleek and powerful."

"You need your eyes checked," Starsky laughed, delighted all the same. After snatching another quick kiss, he picked up where he had left off. "How do you always know what I need to hear, partner?" he asked curiously as he nuzzled Hutch's navel.

"Wha . . .?"

"Was thinkin' maybe you'd be disappointed a minute ago, then you go and make me feel warm all over, like you read my mind or somethin'."

"Disa-p-pointed?" Hutch gasped out, making a valiant effort at coherency.

"Forget it, babe," Starsky soothed. The hot, unfocussed gaze would have been reassurance enough.

His hands skimmed down Hutch's sides to his hips, his partner bucking up at him in reaction. The musky cock grazed his chin, as if desperate for attention.

Feeling particularly bold, Starsky took hold of the nearby organ. He liked the feel of the springy tissue in his hand, was excited by Hutch's aroused scent.

A strangled moan reminded Starsky of just what he was holding. Hutch didn't need stillness now. Friction was what was required. He firmed his grasp, beginning to tentatively pump. The small sounds Hutch was making spurred him on, inciting his own fires.

Regarding his writhing partner, Starsky was struck by a sudden remorse. After a three-year wait, Hutch deserved something more than a hand job.

Mouth suddenly dry, his licked his lips, considering. The inhibitions of a lifetime weighed against his partner's pleasure.

COCKSUCKER. It was a curse word, a vile one at that. Starsky couldn't count the occasions that particular expletive had propelled him into violent fights in his teens. Even now it wasn't an insult he was likely to let pass.

But . . . what was so god-awful about it? He liked to have his cock sucked. Yet somehow it was different if you did the sucking. Demeaning.

Yeah? In whose book?

Starsky cursed the cold reason that wouldn't allow him to cower in convention.

He didn't think any less of the girls who'd pleasured him in that way. In fact, he was grateful to them, and had always been happy to reciprocate. How was going down on a girl okay, while pleasuring the person closest to his heart wrong simply on the grounds that Hutch had a penis? Not only didn't it make sense, it was fundamentally hypocritical.

Of course, there were those who would say that touching Hutch at all was a sin. Just as there were those who would determine any type of oral sex equally unnatural. But who was to judge? The Moral Majority in their self-righteous shrouds? What did those closed-minded bigots know of his love for Hutch? What was he going to do, start picking and choosing what he did in his bedroom by what was currently socially acceptable?

He'd freely chosen to take Hutch to bed. It was now his responsibility to live up to the promise inherent in that choice, to be a compassionate lover. He would not shortchange his friend. Hutch deserved the best.

Garnering his courage, he lowered his head. His tongue darted out to sample the shiny fluid leaking from the tip of the long shaft. Salt and Hutch, a potent combination.

The blond jerked as if jolted by an electric current as Starsky's tongue rimmed the delicate head. "Starsk . . ." Hutch protested, lifting his knees to block his partner. "You don't have to . . ."

The strain of denial was readily shown by the sweat dripping down the strong-boned face. Hutch wanted it; Starsky could see the yearning in the glazed eyes that even now tried to dissuade him.

"Hey, you said anything I want, before. I wanna do this for you. Please, Hutch?"

Doubt was visible, but the long legs lowered. "If you're surrrre . . ." Hutch gasped as Starsky's mouth touched him again.

Frantic fingers clutched his curls, holding him in place as Hutch's body rose to meet him. The experience was . . . strange. His jaw ached from the stretch, his mouth and throat blocked to the point where he feared he'd gag, but there was an intimacy about it that Starsky couldn't help but respond to.

Hutch was wild beneath him, bucking in the throes of ecstasy . . . and it was all his doing. Starsky gripped the sleek hips, helped guide the thrusts. His fingers splayed wide across the velvet-soft, tight buttocks. Abruptly, Hutch stilled, convulsed by a deep, subtle spasm. Starsky felt it ripple through the muscles in the butt even as his throat was being showered with the hot outpouring. Almost choking, he gulped down the bitter, salty liquid, finding the flavor fully as unique as the sensation. When he felt Hutch go limp he released him, crawling slowly up to his partner's side.

Hutch's eyes were scrunched tightly shut, his breathing still erratic.

"Hey, anyone in there?" Starsky smiled, his body shaking with need.

The fair lids parted, wetness seeping from the corners of Hutch's eyes.

"Hey, what's all this?" Now genuinely concerned, he gathered the taller man to him, careful to keep some space between Hutch and his lower body. On their sides facing each other, it was managed easily enough.

"You . . ." That was all Hutch seemed able to say.

"I didn't hurt you." It wasn't really a question. Starsky knew his partner had enjoyed what he'd done.

When a shake of his head tossed Hutch's hair across a wet cheek, Starsky gently brushed it free. Captured by the mystifying vulnerability in the too-bright eyes, he kissed Hutch's lips. They tasted of salt and clung to his own with a desperation that was totally bewildering.

The tears were still seeping from Hutch's eyes when they parted, but his partner seemed unaware of them, Hutch more in control of himself. The wet gaze roamed over Starsky's body, the expression softening as they took in his unfulfilled state.

"Don't," Starsky pleaded, catching the hand that reached for him. "Not unless you want me to come right off. One touch'll do it."

His breathing ragged, Starsky clung to the warm hand as a mountain climber to his lead rope, his grip so tight he knew it had to be painful. Hutch's captured hand twisted in his grip until their fingers were interlaced.

A quick, reassuring squeeze and Starsky felt his hand being drawn to Hutch's body. As that was precisely what he was aching to hold again, he didn't resist. Where Hutch placed it was a little surprising. The skin on the smooth backside was plush as thick velvet, seductively addictive.


Hutch slipped wordlessly to his stomach, the muscular thighs spreading to their widest possible extension.

Starsky's throat tightened, his cock twitching excitedly as he surveyed the pale, beautifully formed ass. Through the blood roaring in his ears and the savage lust suborning his will, Starsky tried to make sense of this. Surely, Hutch could not mean him to . . . But what the hell else could such a gesture mean?

"H-Hutch?" he rasped, barely able to hold back. The compulsion to bury himself in that tight, hot body was nearly irresistible. His partner was, in effect, dangling dripping meat in front of a ravenous lion. Starsky was terrified that he would have even less control than the wild cat.

"Do it, Starsk. Make me yours," Hutch commanded in a tight whisper.

That sounded so close to tears that Starsky wouldn't have been able to follow through even if he'd had the self-control to risk it.

"Can't, too . . . hot . . . it'll . . . hurt you . . ."

"Doesn't matter; just do it, please."

"No, ahh . . . Hutch . . ." He fell upon the body beneath him. His nose buried in the sweaty blond hair at Hutch's neck, he humped at the soft buttocks. His hard cock cleaved between the sweat-dampened cleft, grazing past the provocative bud of muscle without violating its perimeters. This was so close to what he needed, such sweet torment, that Starsky barely registered the difference. He imagined what it would be like to pierce that tiny opening, how it would feel to have Hutch's virgin-tight channel squeezing every inch of him. The image was so vivid, so graphically tangible with the stimuli of the hot length beneath him, that he felt himself erupting, spewing his seed into the hot press of his partner's cheeks like a volcano loosing its lava. "HUTCH!" His scream rang through the quiet room, startling them both.

Completely spent, Starsky crumpled onto his partner.

"Hutch?" he questioned in a far more moderate tone once his heart approached a normal rhythm. Nevertheless, there was still a trace of awe in his voice. Carefully, he turned his long-limbed companion over. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

Puzzled, he stared at the troubled face. Hutch looked bereft, worse than he had when Starsky had first arrived tonight. "Hey, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," Hutch denied, averting the telling gaze.

Starsky felt his elation deflate. "Come on, babe, this is me - Starsky. You can't con me, partner. What is it?"

"It's just . . . I would've liked to have felt you inside me."

Starsky's newly regained breath caught at the suggestion, his heart twisting at the stark longing in the suddenly beautiful, familiar features. "We don't have to do it all in one night, do we, Hutch? There ain't no rush."

Hutch's body went incredibly still. "You want to do this again?" the blond asked in a small, vulnerable voice.

Every assumption he'd made shaken, Starsky decided to check the rest of his givens. "I didn't think this was a one-shot deal. Or did I read you wrong?" His voice was harsh even to his own ears. Shocked, Starsky recognized his own fear and how very important Hutch's reply was.

"No, I . . ." Hutch actually stuttered. "You read me right."

"Well, I ain't readin' you at all right now. What the hell made you ask such a stupid question?"

"I thought tonight was all there was," Hutch explained, painfully self-conscious.

Starsky digested that, asking quietly after a long moment, "Was that why you were cryin' before?"

Hutch's cheeks warmed with color. "That . . . and it was so perfect. It hurt to think of losing it."

Starsky swallowed past the constriction in his throat. Where Hutch had gotten the idea he'd meant only tonight, Starsky didn't ask. He could see how uncomfortable his friend was with the topic. Still, he decided that now was the time to set things straight, before there were any further misunderstandings. "I told you this earlier, but I don't think you heard me. My life is made up of little pieces of you. I don't want fragments anymore, Hutch. I want the whole thing. You're my partner, not a one-night stand. I love you - in any sense you wanta take the word."

Hutch's eyes closed, reopening slowly. "I never thought you could, not like this."

"Neither did I till today. But while I was out I kept thinking about how we got close. We filled all the missing pieces of each other except this one." Starsky grinned. "I think this is gonna be the best piece of all."

Hutch gulped loudly. "You could be right, Starsk. You could be right."

Starsky opened his arms and cradled his newfound, oldest love to his chest. "'Night, partner. Gonna hold you like this forever."

It had a ring of finality to it.